Friday, June 27, 2014

Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (Kojima, 2010)



Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker is the fifth entry in the storied Metal Gear Solid franchise (and the umpteenth entry in the entire Metal Gear franchise). Whereas the previous entry Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots featured series protagonist Solid Snake as an aging war veteran grappling with his purpose as a soldier in a near future world overrun by private military contractors, MGS: Peace Walker goes back to the past. If you'll recall, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater took place against the backdrop of the 1960s Cold War between the USA and USSR. In an ambitious piece of storytelling MGS3 told the story not of Solid Snake, but of his father, Naked Snake. MGS3 used the backdrop of the Cold War to tell the story of how Naked Snake would become the series antagonist Big Boss, in a move somewhat similar to how the Star Wars prequels told the story (however poorly) of Anakin becoming Darth Vader. It's just that MGS3 did it much, much better and is widely considered the best entry in the series.

Taking place in 1974, Peace Walker details how Big Boss and his band of mercenaries set out to create their perfect little haven from the world, known in later games as "Outer Heaven". The location for this outing is a unique one in videogames, taking place in the jungles of Costa Rica. Series director and mastermind Hideo Kojima uses this setting as a place to further elaborate on the machinations of the Cold War powers, with the Soviets and Americans vying for control of the Central America region in a bid for geographic supremacy.

The use of Costa Rica isn't just window dressing either. There's a certain character in the game who will go into exhaustive detail of the history of the country, its geography, its inhabitants, its flora and fauna, even why its coffee tastes so good. It's all rather excessive and rather unnecessary, and it doesn't help that the character relating all this info is rather precocious. It's really just another sign of Kojima's typical penchant for excessive detail.

What's also on display here is Kojima's usual blending of the hyper real with the hyper absurd. A perfect example: during the mission briefings a character will go into great detail on the grim implications of Cold War strategies and maneuvers, but while the mission is underway the enemy's state of mind is conveyed using Looney Tunes like "zzz's" hovering over a soldier's head to indicate that he's sleepy. This is such a well known aspect of the MGS series that the "!" mark appearing over an alerted soldier's head and the accompanying sound effect are absolutely iconic among gamers.

This leads to Kojima's unabashedness for breaking the fourth wall. Many modern games try to keep hidden that they are actually games that you're playing, often with tutorial sections given in-game reasons for existing (such as the tutorial stage being a boot camp where the player is being trained). Kojima dispenses with this notion - he wants to remind you that what you are playing is a game. This is quite noticeable in the often diegetic way that characters talk about functions in the game. A character might say something like "Remember Snake, hit the X button to reload your weapon!", with no attempt made to hide this mechanic behind some in-game veil.

Speaking of absurd, this character's name is 'Hot Coldman'

The game structure of Peace Walker is noticeably different than previous franchise entries. The game uses a mission structure where the player can choose which mission to undertake and the order in which to undertake them. I found this to be a refreshing approach to the standard MGS game, and I enjoyed that many of the missions were much shorter than in previous games. The player can even repeat the same mission again and again. This gives the game a stripped down approach, with many of the more advanced tactics of previous entries having been removed. This change in game structure is most likely due to the fact that Peace Walker was initially released as a game for the Playstation Portable, Sony's answer to Nintendo's Game Boy. Peace Walker was made available in the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection on the Playstation 3, where the first three entries in the series, along with Peace Walker, were given the high definition treatment to bring them up to modern graphical standards (this was the version I played).


Overall I greatly enjoyed Peace Walker. The stripped down approach to the gameplay and mission structure kept things feeling fresh, and the plot moved Big Boss's story forward in a big way. The game also makes great use of a comic book-like art style. This was initially seen very briefly back in Metal Gear Solid 2 when pictures of the Illuminati-like "Patriots" were shown in a hand drawn sketch style. In Peace Walker it's been expanded so that nearly all of the cutscenes are done in this style. It looks great.

Hideo Kojima has pretty abandoned the notion that MGS 4 would be the last entry in the franchise, having recently released MGS: Ground Zeroes as a sort of prequel to the upcoming Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, which looks to continue the story of Big Boss and how he ultimately becomes a symbol of evil (watch the trailer here). In a bit of a controversial move, Kojima dumped long time Snake voice actor David Hayter for... Keifer Sutherland. From the previews I've watched, it's just plain weird to hear Sutherland's voice coming out the mouth of Snake, even if  both actors share a similarly gravelly voice. Well, I suppose I better start playing Ground Zeroes, until next time.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Play it Again, Zrbo: On Pacing

There's many aspects to what can make a videogame great. These can include aspects like solid core mechanics, such as those found in Tetris, or great level design, like in the Super Mario series. One aspect often overlooked is the pacing of a game. A well paced game, one that ratchets up the stakes just right, must balance a rising sense of difficulty with a satisfying level of accomplishment. Many modern games often lean to hard on the latter, patting you on the back for the most mundane of things (which last year's Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon parodied to the extreme during it's tutorial). Games on the other end feel too hard or punishing without the feeling of much gain. But sometimes a game gets it just right, finding that equilibrium between success and tension.

I recently replayed Resident Evil 4 and Portal 2, and I walked away from both games with an admiration of their exquisite pacing.


I've already written before about the opening of Resident Evil 4. Arriving in a remote Spanish village, hero Leon Kennedy must rescue the president's daughter. It couldn't possibly be a stupider premise (to begin with, why would the government send just one man?). But that's beside the point. The game is paced marvelously well.

In my previous post on the game I wrote about the opening level and how not 10 minutes into the game, when the player has just gotten used to the basic mechanics, the game throws a huge angry mob at the player in a nailbiting sequence. While this sequence is most definitely a difficulty spike, it sets the player up for the rest of the game. Once you've gotten past this initial encounter, arguably the game's most difficult, the player feels that they're able to accomplish what's to come. Leon will plow through dozens of zombie-like townsfolk, work his way through an old castle filled with occultist zombified monks, and finally traverse an island military base. The difficulty comes on so smooth you'd think this might be the videogame incarnation of the Alan Parsons Project (though you won't doze off, I can guarantee that much). The frequency with which upgrades are doled out, the increasingly difficult scenarios the player is placed in, and the way the game moves you from one set piece to the next all conspire to make Resident Evil 4 an expertly paced game.


Portal 2, one of my favorite games of 2011, is another game I had the pleasure of replaying recently. It too is paced remarkably well. The zany opening gives way to calm exploration as your character is thrust back into this science-facility-gone-wrong. Time has passed from the first game and mother nature has taken her toll on the facility, with plants and roots having overrun many of the opening puzzle rooms. If you're paying attention you'll even notice that the first few rooms are actually the opening puzzles from the original game. While Portal 2 is much longer than the original, the momentum of the game never lets up as the designers at Valve have made the difficulty curve so smooth that you'll be accomplishing mind-bending puzzles before you know it. The storytelling is also quite good, as over the course of the game you'll come to know the origins of the murderous HAL-like GLaDOS as well as the history of the Aperture Science facility itself. Just like they did with Half Life 2, Valve know how to craft a well paced videogame adventure.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Play it Again, Zrbo: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots


You may recall that back in 2009 I wrote a fairly long review of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Recently I played through the game again and after re-reading my review I still have many of the same thoughts. It's still a masterpiece - I would go ahead and call it the most ambitious game ever made - but that doesn't mean it's the best or even most enjoyable game. I'd describe it more as really interesting.

Game director/producer/writer Hideo Kojima is still in desperate need of an editor. I spoke in my review of the outrageously long cinematic cutscenes that the player has the... um.. delight of getting to watch. It's true that part of watching these scenes are what gives the game it's charm, and yes, Kojima at least occasionally gives you something to do during these cinematic sequences (such as being able to view a flashback from a previous MGS game, or being able to take over a video camera), but it doesn't stop them from being occasionally interminable. I realized how quickly I got tired of Drebin, the arms dealer who acts somewhat like the Cheshire Cat (and who looks suspiciously like Wesley Snipes). Each time you defeat one of the game's bosses, Drebin calls up to deliver some overly long monologue on how the boss got the way she was and what she represented. Each story is overly detailed and long winded. They're a total bore and the explanations are frankly, just kind of silly. Here's one if you really feel like watching.

Drebin's back... sigh

Kojima's tendency for overly long and unnecessary explanations was most notable to me during the final movie-length cinematic that follows after you beat the game. For the entire game your character, Solid Snake, has been trying to figure out what the villain's big plan is. It's a completely over-complicated, overwrought mess that I won't go into here. By the end Snake's figured it all out, you watch about a full hour long cinematic that includes all the various characters, with each character given plenty of time to have their piece and say goodbye and then the credits finally appear to roll... Then the game drops a surprise by cutting to yet another cinematic, and brings back a character who at this point should be completely, irrevocably dead, who then proceeds to explain to you yet a whole other very different explanation of the events that just transpired during the game. My mind was so fatigued with explanations by that point that I barely followed anything this character was saying, I just wanted the game to be over. Someone has uploaded the entire shebang to Youtube, which you can watch here (skip to minute 57 to get to the fake credits).

I think part of the problem here lies with the fact that for all intents and purposes, Metal Gear Solid 4 was supposed to be the grand finale to the series, and since Kojima didn't plan on coming back to these characters, he wanted to make sure that each one of them got to say something and that anything that needed to be said was said.

And, inevitably, for whatever reason (money? fame? boredom?) Kojima has now gone ahead and announced Metal Gear Solid 5. Of interest is that instead of keeping long time voice actor David Hayter as the voice of Snake, Kojima has brought on board Keifer Sutherlund as the new voice. Now, Kojima is notorious with playing mind games with his fan base (MGS 2 is basically just one big mind fuck), and I know myself and a few others believe that this is essentially all a long con and that David Hayter will be there in some form or another.

So that's it. Metal Gear Solid 4 is an extraordinary game. The cutting edge graphics have been surpassed by this point, it's funny how they actually look a little dated to me now. The soundtrack is still phenomenal, but I went through that in my original review. I'll leave you with the opening cinematic of the game, with Snake's now infamous monologue (at least among gamers) on how war has changed, set to the beautiful "Love Theme":

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Play It Again, Zrbo: Half Life 2


There's very few other games I would want to kick off this new series with other than Half Life 2. The game is not only widely considered one of the greatest games of the past decade, it's absolutely a contender for the best first person shooter of all time. I recently picked it up again after playing through other, lesser shooters (Bioshock Infinite *cough*) because I was yearning for a well constructed game. It did not disappoint.

Playing through Half Life 2 again I was reminded of just how much game-makers Valve got things just right. Nearly every single aspect of the game is top notch. The graphics, while far from cutting edge, are more than serviceable and hold up well for a nearly nine year old game. The level design and pacing couldn't be much better (though the final quarter drags just ever so slightly), and the character development, in a game in which the main protagonist is completely silent, is extremely well done. This playthrough I was especially impressed with the quality of the voice acting, something even most AAA titles don't get right.

If you'll recall from my old post on the opening of Half Life 2, the game finds you once again in the shoes of MIT physicist Gordon Freeman. Just like in the original Half Life, the game takes place entirely in the first person perspective, never cutting to a cinematic or pulling control away from the player. While the concept of the silent protagonist has become a conceit in modern gaming, supposedly making the player feel more "immersed" in the game world, Valve not only nails it here, but essentially sets the bar, something no other first person shooter I've played has yet to surpass.

As I mentioned, I was really taken away with the voice acting this time around. Everybody just nails it, from the suited G-Man in his completely bizarre stilted intonation (reminding me a bit of the backwards talking segments from Twin Peaks), to Doctor Kleiner's bumbling scientist in a lab coat. But I was especially impressed this go around with two voices in particular.

Dr. Breen welcomes you to City 17

The first is the voice of the main antagonist, Dr. Breen. Looking somewhat like Dennis Hopper in a turtleneck, Breen delivers several monologues throughout the game that are just delivered brilliantly. A P├ętain-like figure urging you to sympathize with the occupying Combine, Dr. Breen can be heard several times throughout the game speaking on all sorts of matters. Upon arriving in the dystopic City 17, the player is greeted with a message from Dr. Breen welcoming them to the city. I love the ever so slight weariness to his words, as if you can tell that deep inside he wishes it didn't have to be this way either. Listen to the opening speech here (the first 45 seconds or so, though I urge you to stick around and listen to the second speech as well, which begins immediately after). He pulls it off perfectly, and I especially love that little pause he often gives before referring to the alien Combine as "our benefactors". Later on in the game, in an increasingly agitated set of speeches (beginning at 5:03), he chastises the Combine forces for being unable to capture Gordon Freeman. You can just hear the exasperated frustration in his voice as he refers to Freeman as "an ordinary man". Kudos to the late Robert Culp for such a terrific performance.

The other great voice is that of Ellen McLain. Known better as the voice of the HAL-like GlaDOS from the Portal games (and as a voice in the new Pacific Rim film), McLain voices what's generally referred to as the Overwatch Voice. A female voice heard over the radio of the masked "Civil Protection" units that Gordon Freeman regularly encounters, the Overwatch Voice is this eerie police radio dispatch voice mixed with words that describe human activities as if they were viral outbreaks, all delivered in a disjointed, completely flat, clinical tone. The Half Life wiki describes it as "medically-inspired Newspeak to describe resistance activity in the context of a bacterial infection and treatment". The Wiki also says the voice is inspired from various films such as an announcer in the film version of 1984 and Farenheit 451. Whatever the influence, it's really well done, you can listen to clips here.

The infamous bridge crossing

The game as a whole has a great sense of pacing and place. Short physics-based puzzles are often placed between enemy encounters, lending a sense of relief while giving the player something to do. Then there's all the great locations the game takes you to. Any of these places will be instantly recognizable to anyone who's played the game: the red barn, the horror-tinged Ravenholm, the bridge crossing (possibly my favorite sequence in the entire game), the invasion of Nova Prospekt on the beach during sunset, the interior of the Citadel. And those areas further highlight the brilliant structure of the entire game itself. For about two thirds of the game you are fleeing the Combine, trying to put distance between you and your pursuers, and then without ever drawing attention to it, you find yourself  invading them. It's really well done. I do have to say however that near the end when you're fighting through the streets of City 17 that I found the game to drag ever so slightly and was relieved when I finally made it to those Citadel walls.

Half Life 2 continues on in episodes 1 and 2, an attempt at "episodic gaming" that didn't quite work out as Valve planned. Both episodes continue the strong level design and character development, and the ending of episode 2 is so sudden and shocking that it leaves the player somewhat dazed (and terribly sad), but to this date we're still awaiting the resolution in a fabled Half Life 3 (which Valve won't acknowledge it's something they're even working on). We've had our Star Wars and our Empire Strikes Back, now we need the resolution.

Half Life 2 is a great game. It's definitely smart, well-paced, and has characters that you really care about. I would even recommend it those who aren't normally drawn to gaming. Now just give us Half Life 3, Valve... please??

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Just One More Time, Play It Again, Zrbo

Welcome to my new series. When playing videogames I often play through a game the first time to experience the game and get a feel for its mechanics. Sometime later, usually about a year or so, I like to go back to that game and play through it again. Just like with films, I find that often you can get more out of a game the second time through. You notice the foreshadowing, you see the hints, you admire the characters and story just a little more. You may notice some detail or utilize a game mechanic that you didn't get a chance to the first time around. I find that the second playthrough is important in solidifying an opinion.

In Play It Again, Zrbo I'll be doing just that. Playing a game a second (or even third or more) time, seeing if it holds up, and if I admire it any more or less. So put on a white jacket and bow tie, light a cigar, and join me as I play it again.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

Zrbo Reviews: BioShock Infinite (Levine, 2013)


Let's get it out of the way up front: BioShock Infinite is a flawed masterpiece. Arriving with enormous hype, the game was meant to be creative director Ken Levine's crowning achievement. Expanding and iterating on 2007's BioShock, BioShock Infinite was destined to tell a grand story. Set in 1912, Infinite promised to explore everything from American Exceptionalism to turn of the century Christian revivalism. Where BioShock showed the disaster in Ayn Rand Objectivism, Infinite promised it would have something to say about America's past. Booting up the game for the first time I was excited to see how these themes would play out, to see how Levine would use the BioShock template to explore issues rarely addressed in gaming. Instead I found a game that utilizes those issues as little more than window dressing, delivering serviceable game at best. At least he bothered to include an absolutely amazing ending.

Set in an alternate universe version of 1912, you play as Booker DeWitt. Deep in some gambling debts, he's enlisted to go to the flying city of Columbia to retrieve a certain girl. "Bring us the girl, and wipe away the debt" you are told over and over again.

Arriving in the secessionist flying city of Columbia, the player is treated to an idealized version of turn of the century American life. Columbia is obsessed with America to the extreme, with the founding fathers seen as saints, and George Washington as the second coming of Christ. The entire city is the plan of self proclaimed prophet Zachary Comstock. As you explore the city, and eventually find the girl, you come to witness that all is not as bright and cheerful as first appears. There's dark undercurrents to this white-washed version of America.


But back to the girl. Her name is Elizabeth, and curiously she's kept apart from the rest of the citizens of Columbia, locked in a tower. Ken Levine spent years developing her character, and Courtnee Draper gives a great performance. At times Elizabeth veers dangerously close to becoming a Disney Princess, but I'll at least give it to Levine that she never quite crosses that line. However, I feel there's a lot more they could have done with her. Though we get to know her fairly well, there's times where I just wanted Booker to ask her some basic questions, like, what are your feelings about being a locked in a tower for your entire life? Elizabeth is also gifted with a strange power, able to open rifts in space-time, often resulting in glimpses of a strange future, one where movie theaters are showing something called Revenge of the Jedi and where automobiles drive around playing strangely familiar music.

After finding Elizabeth most of the rest of the game involves Booker and her trying to escape Columbia. While the opening of the game is spectacular as you are introduced to this idealized America floating in the sky, the middle of the game suffers. Basically you end up running around Columbia, running into various characters and struggles, but all in all not much really seems to happen. All of these amazing ideas are right there for exploration, from America's treatment of Native Americans, to slavery, to Reconstruction, to religious zealotry... and the game does very little with it all. To tell the truth I was fairly bored. The entire middle 50% of the game almost feels like filler. It's not until about three quarters of the way through do things pick up again.
Almost a Disney Princess... almost.

But when they do, oh boy do things get interesting. I really don't want to ruin anything here because the ending is wonderfully executed. I didn't quite believe the game reviewers when they said the last 30 minutes were some of the most extraordinary they've experienced in modern gaming, but I will admit that my jaw hit the floor, accompanied by a huge grin on my face when I finally got there. When the credits rolled I had to rush to the Internet to discuss the ending with others. It's like the first time you saw Inception or the Sixth Sense where you leave the theater discussing with others all the different layers of dreams, whether Leo was still in a dream at the end, and wow, so I guess Bruce Willis was ghost the whole time! So at least there was some pretty good payoff at the end, but it was a bit of a slog to get there.

Ken Levine certainly drew upon a slew of popular influences when crafting Infinite. The opening scene at the lighthouse practically screams Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while the floating city of Columbia seems influenced in part by Jules Verne and cloud city from The Empire Strikes Back. Ken Levine has cited 1944's Meet Me in St. Louis as an inspiration, drawing upon it's classic Americana look.

Then there's the more curious influences. Throughout the game the player comes across moments where familiar yet out-of-place for the era songs can be heard, but all done in a very unusual style. Everything from a pipe organ version of Girls Just Want to Have Fun, REM's Shiny Happy People, to Fortunate Son. What makes these musical pieces all the more interesting is that they're not inserted into the game Baz Luhrmann style, unnecessarily crammed into the game to get us to smirk fondly. Instead the reasoning behind their placement is explained through plot and makes surprisingly sense once you understand what's going on. Upon completion of the game one realizes just how much the lyrics speak to the characters and the story. Girls Just Want to Have Fun takes on a tragic meaning, while The Beach Boys' God Only Knows becomes a summation of the entire game. It's actually rather ingenious once you've played through the entire game.



So here we are. What do I think of the game? I'm divided. One of the first pieces I read upon completion was this bit by Daniel Golding and I instantly connected. Where was the nuance, where was the moral dilemma? I'll just let Mr. Golding speak:
In taking the game seriously, I want to be as clear as possible: BioShock Infinite uses racism for no other reason than to make itself seem clever. Worse, it uses racism and real events in an incredibly superficial way—BioShock Infinite seeks not to make any meaningful statement about history or racism or America, but instead seeks to use an aesthetics of ‘racism’ and ‘history’ as a barrier to point to and claim importance. BioShock Infinite presents a veneer of intelligence—with wholly unexplored and mystifying asides to complicated concepts like Manifest Destiny and the New Eden—without ever following through. Without any deeper exploration of these ideas, BioShock Infinite’s use of American history and the Columbian Exposition is illusory, and already puts the lie to the claim that by engaging with these themes, BioShock Infinite is the place to find substance in mainstream videogames.
Over at the A.V. Club's Gameological Society, John Teti points out the false equivalence present in the game's message:
Levine sets up a conflict between American exceptionalism and rabble-rousing populism, but he punts by casting practically every prominent figure in Columbian politics as an irredeemable asshole... The takeaway is that anyone who seeks power is a scoundrel... The intellectual dodge of calling everyone a loser excuses Infinite from having a meaningful political point of view.
It's true, the game, like it's predecessor, promises to show us the danger in following a line of thinking too far, in the original BioShock it was Objectivism, here it's more or less American Exceptionalism, but unlike in that first game, the game leaves the player with nothing to takeaway except "they were all bad people". Levine seems unwilling to take a stand, and the game suffers for it.

However, I just can't get over that ending. It was fairly brilliant, and managed to wipe away most of the bad taste the rest of the game left in my mouth. If The Usual Suspects had been a poorly directed movie but still included the same twist ending, you'd probably think "damn that was a boring movie, but wow, who woulda thunk Kaiser Soze was him??" I was prepared to give the game a fairly low rating, but the ending actually turned me around somewhat. If anything, now that I know the twist, I'd like to play through it again so that I can enjoy all the hints and foreshadowing. Until then, I'll leave you with my score.

4/5 Zrbo points

Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Music of Bioshock Infinite

I recently completed playing Bioshock Infinite, the long awaited successor to 2007's Bioshock, regarded as one of this generation's gaming masterpieces. There's a lot to say about Bioshock Infinite, which I'll get to in a proper review. For now you just need to know that the game takes place in 1912, in the flying city of Columbia.

But everything's not quite what it seems in this turn of the century steampunk wonderland. As you make your way around Columbia you might overhear a little music playing in the background, perhaps in a shop, or coming from someone's record player in their home. If you stop and listen you'll notice there's something familiar about this music. That song playing as you stroll down a Coney Island-like boardwalk... is that? Yes, it is indeed my friend. Let's take a listen perhaps some of the most strangest renditions of songs you assuredly know.

Lou Albano playing the pipe organ?


Tears in the key of Fears?


It ain't me who turned this into a negro spiritual.


Ed Cobb in a skimmer hat?


And perhaps the most impressive...


I'll try to get my review up soon.