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March 8, 2013

Let’s discuss Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (Part 1).

It’s great.  Go play it.

What, you want more delicious words?  All right.  If you say so...

If you’ve been visiting my blog for a while (and I thank you for that), then you’ll know I’ve been consistently burned by video games over the past few months.  Probably longer.  The most obvious ones are Final Fantasy 13-2 and DmC, but there have been plenty of others.  Resident Evil 6, of course.  Halo 4, if you’ll recall.  Borderlands 2 -- and the original, by extension -- no matter what anyone says.  Assassin’s Creed III, whose prologue I couldn’t even finish.  Darksiders II, with its potentially-intriguing world hamstrung by its loathsome “hero”.  Max Payne 3, a vortex of over-gritty grief.  I could go back a bit further, but I don’t want to dredge up memories of Gears of War 3, the original Final Fantasy 13, and any number of repressed memories.

Now, I’m not going to say that “the video game industry is DOOMED!” (yet) because even if there’s a lot to complain about…a whole lot to complain about…there will always be gems.  There will always be games that excel, and succeed, and offer more than just “par for the course” while the actual score required for par gets lower and lower.   What I’m getting at here is that there are games that still appeal to me.  There are problems with the industry as it is, but all it takes is one sparkling gem to put my mind at ease.

Which brings me to Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

Imagine -- if you will -- a volcano.  That volcano erupts.  The combination of ash and lava spewing from its seared crown creates a chain reaction in the atmosphere, producing terawatts of lightning within its obsidian clouds, further darkening the already-crimson sky.  But this is no normal natural disaster; as the volcano’s rumble sunders and splits the earth, denizens of Pandemonium erupt en masse, swarmed by the pulsing rays of Lucifer’s abode.  With guttural yells that tear the throats of all but the hardiest of hellspawn, they begin their harrowing march to plunder and seize our realm as their own.  But the heavens have foreseen this nightmarish charge; with golden beams breaking through the sky-shearing maelstrom and shining down on the scorching earth, a septet of holy warriors stands primed to repel the assault.  As they ready their gleaming swords, they remember the loved ones awaiting their return, and the irreparable costs should they fail to stand as the last bastion of humanity.  But they have long since found their resolve, and in perfect tandem they begin the battle in earnest, all to the sound of a roaring chorus.

That’s this game.  It’s so fuckin’ metal, and I love it for it.

Now, before I get too ahead of myself, I want to make a few things clear.  First off, no, Revengeance is not a perfect game.  No such thing exists.  I’ll gladly admit that it’s a great game, and that it has many, many, many elements that make it a great game.  But is it really the revelation that the game industry needs?  Is it a miracle in its own right, capable of dispelling all cynicism and feelings of betrayal?  Well…that’s debatable.  There are plenty of takeaways from this game, but whether or not it’s The Second Coming is arguable (and probably just hyperbole on my part).  But I don’t think I can stress enough how good of a game this is.

Quality issues -- or lack thereof -- aside, the reason I keep saying things like “get this game” and “go play it” is because I believe in something called “the gamer’s duty.”  There are just some games that have to be bought and played, and (preferably) enjoyed, because they’re very important -- not just for player satisfaction or sending a message to the industry, although those things help.  No, I feel as if certain games can help further everyone on every level of the ladder, just by virtue of offering something…well, let’s call it “special.”  Simply put, a game required for play by the gamer’s duty is one that furthers the idea of what a game can be…or in some cases, SHOULD be.  (Or in the end, it just sends a message to the industry bigwigs.  That’s probably something worth doing nowadays.)

I’m sure a lot of you have your own examples in mind of what games are a part of your gamer’s duty.  I do too.  Catherine is one of my most notable examples -- stylish, different, difficult, and an Atlus game, it was pretty much a requirement.  I was rewarded justly…though I pretty much saw that one coming months beforehand.  In any case, I wanted to reward Atlus for a job well done, and do my part in proving something to the gaming world.  And thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who felt that way.  Catherine went on to become one of Atlus’ best-selling games to date, and has gotten no shortage of praise.  Score one for the good guys, yeah?

We could sit in a circle and argue which developers have been doing the best job for ages, and who deserves the most accolades.  But if you’ll let me be a bit bold, I’d argue that one of the biggest losses -- one of the most hard-hitting casualties of this or any generation -- is the end of Clover Studios.  Viewtiful Joe, God Hand, and Okami (with Okami being another game eligible for the gamer’s duty) were some of the most stylish games around, each one offering something new, different, and/or just plain crazy.  So of course, Capcom decided to shut down Clover and keep the properties for themselves.  Now Joe’s lucky to get invited into Marvel vs. Capcom.  And where the hell is Gene?

Luckily, from the ashes of Clover Studios came Platinum Games, rising like a majestic phoenix decked out with turbo thrusters and a grizzled beard, ready to deliver the stylish games that Capcom suddenly seems adverse to these days.  I won’t say that any of the games it’s released are perfect either, but the common thread between titles like Bayonetta, MadWorld, Vanquish, Anarchy Reigns, Revengeance, and others I’m probably missing is that they’re all inherently game-ass games -- inherently simple and natural titles that put the forefront of effort (and excellence) on creating a unique but unduly satisfying treat for the player.  No excess, no bandwagon-jumping, no high-and-mighty attitude.  Just you and the game.

But enough prattle.  Let’s get stuck in.

Part 1: Gameplay
(Or: Cyber-Gorillas are Always a Smart Investment)

Let’s start with a bit of context.  If you haven’t heard, MGR puts players in control of everyone’s favorite cartwheeling nudist cyborg soldier Raiden, who’s out to get his vengeance (sort of) against the bad guys (sort of).  We’ll save the story stuff for another time, so let’s focus on the gameplay for now.  Like most action games, you’ll pretty much be progressing from one arena to the next -- barring a few sequences -- fighting your way towards a boss fight or the next sequence in the story.  Basic stuff, really.

Where things get interesting is in the actual combat system.  Square and Triangle give you access to light and heavy attacks, as usual.  X is to jump (though it’s worth noting that Raiden doesn’t have a double-jump).  Circle is used for context-sensitive actions.  Pretty standard.  But R1 gives you access to the Ninja Run, letting you move extremely quickly through a stage, often with acrobatic flair.  It’s been compared to the style of movement in Assassin’s Creed, and I see the similarities; as long as you’re holding the button you can not only scale buildings and platforms quickly, but slide under and leap through certain obstacles.  It’s a tool that has its uses for getting around -- and automatically lets you deflect bullets -- but also has some combat applications.  Sometimes you just need to get the hell out of the way of something (or run like a coward); that said, you can use it offensively as well.  Hitting Square repeatedly during the Ninja Run lets you get a little slash-happy, letting you circle around and slice into enemies.  Hitting Triangle will send you into a low slide, knocking some enemies off their feet, and of course letting you start mounting your offense against heavier dudes.  

Where things get REALLY interesting is Blade Mode, the defining tool of MGR.  Hold down the L1 button, and you’ll be able to manually control the swipes of Raiden’s sword.  Square does horizontal swipes, Triangle does vertical, and using a combination of the left and right stick you control the position, direction, and execution of your slashes.  This is more than just a way to introduce extreme levels of violence into the game.  Outside of the occasional item (that’ll activate automatically when your CHEEKS OF JUSTICE are getting served to you on a platter), the only way for Raiden to regain health -- the ONLY WAY -- is to use Blade Mode to cut an enemy’s weak point, hit Circle, and harvest their spines.  Or sacks of electrolytes and nanopaste.  Or glowy bits.  Cyber-biology is weird.

In any case, Blade Mode (and the spine-reaping Zandatsu mechanic therein) is a defining mechanic.  But even so, it’s not a broken one.  You can’t just rush in, hold R1, and mash buttons to cut your enemies in slow motion.  That might let you kill one enemy, maybe, but thinking to yourself “imma go boosh-boosh-boosh all over these goofs” is a surefire way to have your CHEEKS OF JUSTICE torn apart.  You only get the slow-mo version of Blade Mode if your meter is sufficiently-charged; even then, you can still take hits.  You still have to position yourself accordingly, or you’ll just end up swiping at thin air and leaving yourself open to counterattack.  You’re taught very quickly that Blade mode is not the be-all, end-all weapon, because some enemies -- bosses chief among them -- will either shrug off your blows, or dodge them entirely.  (Still doesn't make it any less cool, though.)

Okay, so what can you do, then?  The answer, I think, is what makes MGR such a remarkable game, and even feeds into the story’s themes a bit. 

You do whatever you have to in order to survive.

Offense is a very important part of MGR, as it should be.  But unlike other games where defense is marginalized, this game demands that you know when and how to use your defensive moves as needed.  If you don’t, you WILL die.  And it’s not just a matter of knowing which buttons do what, either; you have to pay attention to what enemies are doing or will do, and act accordingly.  Sometimes it’s better to parry, deflecting enemy hits to give yourself a chance to strike.  Other times, it’s better to use the dodge move Defensive Offense (which I’m pretty sure is a required upgrade, because otherwise the game is probably unbeatable); with it, you can put some space between you and an attacker, have a shot at slashing their back, or just cancel your attack when you see a baddie winding up.  And of course, there’s the Ninja Run.  Sometimes cowardice can be rewarded.

But that’s the key to MGR: you’re not only given tools to play with, but you have to learn how and when to use those tools.  The difficulty doesn’t (usually) come from cheap shots or contrivances, but because you, the player, didn’t act accordingly.  And that’s the way it should be.  It adds pressure.  It keeps you on your toes.  It drives you to learn not just a bunch of combos, but the flow and applications of battle.  It reinforces the idea that, while you are a badass, you’re also vulnerable.  You won’t be able to remain invincible and do infinite air combos from the start of a battle to its finish; just launching an opponent is a privilege in this game, not a right.  No, you have to develop a keener sense of awareness and strategy, learning enemy attack patterns so you can use just the right move at just the right time, exposing them to your counterattack -- and more than likely, the killing blow.

In a way, you can almost think of MGR as a puzzle game as much as an action game.  This was something I’d been thinking about since playing the demo: “If I can hack off enemy limbs with Blade Mode, then what else can I do with it?  Maybe disarm opponents?  Cut off their legs so they can’t charge at me?”  And to my surprise, it actually ends up getting carried through to the finished product.

You’ll start encountering cyber-gorillas in the sewer level (yeah, there’s a sewer level, though it’s mercifully brief), and just as you’d expect they can do loads of damage to you if you’re not careful.  They’ve got a load of attacks, like climbing on walls and launching themselves toward you, ground pounds, and their favorite tactic, rushing at you to seize you in a grab, Zangief-style.  But here’s the thing: there’s a commonality between all those attacks.  They all require the use of arms.  So what you can do is dodge left or right to escape the grab, start attacking, and when the gorilla tries to attack you with a spinning back fist, you parry.  That should leave it wide open for attacks, but if you go into Blade Mode it’ll try to defend.  Big mistake; it leaves its arms vulnerable to your high-frequency blade, and with a few horizontal slashes you can chop them right off.  Now the gorilla only has one possible attack -- a devil-may-care drop kick -- instead of several, making it phenomenally easier to fight and counterattack.

It’s that level of application that makes Blade Mode more than just a gimmick, and more than just a get-out-of-jail-free card.  It’s a tool to be used as needed, requiring a level of savvy and adaption -- or learning, if you prefer -- to have you turn battles into both a tactical as well as visceral affair.  Parrying isn’t a one-and-done affair; there are plenty of enemies, even basic grunts, who’ll keep attacking with their combo strings…and if you don’t parry those, you’re guaranteed to take a hammer to the face.  If you don’t learn how to deal with a Gekko’s attacks, you’ll get stomped, roundhouse-kicked, and lashed about.  You need to figure out how to bring a helicopter down, how to save yourself from aerial combos, how to parry both fast AND slow attacks, and even when it’s a good idea to spring into a fight or use stealth.  The skirmishes are problems to be solved; you have all the tools you need.  It’s just a matter of using them as you see fit, in accordance with your ever-increasing skill and savvy.

There’s some intelligent design on display here, and it’s what lets me believe that MGR is one of the best action games to come out in a good while.  But even so, I feel as if the combat is kind of messy…a good kind of messy, if you can believe that. 

First off, there is a move list in the game, but in the heat of battle it’s way too easy to get swept into a button-mashing frenzy.  You can use some finesse, and the game certainly allows for some beautiful combos, but you can’t help but get into that wild fever.  (And as my brother noted in the demo, rapidly tapping Square will make Raiden do a sort of infinite combo where he cuts his way from one end of the street to another; whether or not that’s still in the full game, I’ve yet to see.)  In theory, this is the kind of thing that would make the game worse; in practice, it’s just a facet of the game that does no harm. 

Like I said, this game puts a heavy emphasis on defense -- and that’s especially true, given the inputs for your defensive options.  Parrying is done not with a dedicated button, but by pressing the stick toward an enemy and Square as they attack.  It takes some getting used to at first, but there’s a hidden benefit to it: go into a parry stance, and you’re unable to attack unless the parry’s successful or you mistimed and get walloped.  It’s a sneaky way of forcing the player to stop what they’re doing and pay attention to the action, while keeping the focus on a smart but simple offense.  (On that note, I feel like you’re more likely to score a successful Zandatsu if you aim and use a single strike, instead of mashing and waiting for some queue.) 

The second point is that in terms of “feel”, this is one of the best games I’ve played in a while.  I’ve gone on a bit about the impact factor in games in the past, but if you’re looking for an abridged version you can think of it as feedback.  Audiovisual tricks can be used to create a sense of speed and weight, and make those flashy moves all the more meaningful.  When you parry an attack in this game, it’s not just a wimpy sparkle -- it’s this heaving, booming blow that’s accompanied by distortions and voltage.  A successful Zandatsu feels like a thunder strike, reinforcing the idea that you’ve done well (among other things, but I’ll get to that another day).  One of the moves you can unlock -- and easily, at that -- is a palm strike that is nothing short of a cannon blast…quite literally, considering that it was one of my go-to moves for sending foes, bosses included, flying.  Raiden may be a speedy one, but he’s packing huge amounts of power into that lean cyborg body.  And you feel it every step of the way.  If you’re not getting a sense of the impact factor in regular fights, then I guarantee you that when you get to one of the later bosses, you will…though that might be because you’re the one getting your CHEEKS OF JUSTICE pounded.

Now, I’ll admit that one of my worries for the game prior to release was that the environments would be kind of bland.  MGR is more or less competing with DmC for action game supremacy (though the former blows the latter out of the water with a depth charge the size of the moon).  DmC did its best to prove that current-gen games DON’T have to abandon colors besides brown and gray, and then here comes MGR with its war-torn environments that wouldn’t be too out of place in a Call of Duty game.  And having played it…well, yeah, that’s what they are.  Either that, or something out of Vanquish.

It’s not an entirely washed-out palate, and there is a bit of variation in the area types -- including a section that wouldn’t look out of place in Onimusha -- but if you’re looking for the over-the-top worlds of Limbo, you’d best look somewhere else.  Rather appropriately, it’s more along the lines of MGS4 than anything else, so if you hated that game’s style you won’t have much to change your mind here.  I will say that there is, relatively speaking, a cleanliness to the areas; it’s hard to nail down for sure, but the graphical style is decidedly Japanese, which helps freshen up the familiarity of Urban War Zone #652.  I suppose it helps that not every area looks dilapidated; you even visit a well-off city and office building.  (Whether or not they stay well-off, however, is up in the air.)

Still, I think that overall the game is an audiovisual success -- especially when the action reaches a hot tempo.  I’ve always had the theory -- based on Guilty Gear, at least -- that the two most metal elements ever are fire and lightning; entwining those two in any product immediately makes it more awesome.  So of course, this game is sure to include enough voltage to power a state and enough fire to melt Antarctica; both of them will come in full force as Raiden attacks and counterattacks, and the arenas around him are filled with bursting bodies and blazing buildings.  Generally speaking, it’s as if everything was geared toward the next high-octane fight…and on that note, I have to retroactively add another complaint to DmC.  As it turns out, moving at 60 frames per second DOES matter -- it’s what makes a game either a sword-swinging dismemberment-happy dynamo or a stroll through the park with birds WUB WUBing at you.

Okay, that’s a crap-ton of praise to heap on a game.  So what’s wrong with it?  Why isn’t it perfect?  Well, there are a few reasons -- and if you play this game for yourself (as you should), you’ll probably find your own.  But there are a couple of issues that I can think of.  Such as…

1) There is a lock-on function (thank God), but it’s not the be-all and end-all. 
It just makes so much of a difference having this thing in the game.  Seriously, Ninja Theory, what were you -- nope, nope, not gonna keep harping on that game.   I'll let others do it for me.

Anyway, targeting a single opponent is done with the push of a button, and you can cycle from one target to the next with the right stick.  Ideally, that should be the end of it, but I can’t shake the feeling that it’s not as good as it could be.  In the heat of battle, it’s very easy to forget that you even CAN cycle through targets, and the fact that you’ve got to take your thumb off the face buttons and toggle means that you might be setting yourself up for a fall.  To be fair, you can do well enough without it, and it WILL help you deal with flying enemies, but the lock-on function -- and the camera in general -- could have used a bit more tweaking so that I could switch from the bruiser in my face to the RPG-toting goon in the distance.  Then again, the camera is also an issue in Anarchy Reigns, so maybe there’s a crack in Platinum Games’ armor…

2) The special weapons’ usefulness is debatable.
Each time you beat a boss (well, one of the main ones), you’ll get to use their weapon as your own.  Of the three, I’d argue that the polearm is the best, because it’s essentially a longer version of Raiden’s sword.  The sai has its uses -- it makes fighting flying enemies a breeze -- but I’ve yet to find it useful in terms of combos.  The third weapon…well, let’s just call it “the big boy swords” and leave it at that.  Frankly, it’s so slow and unwieldy that I’m afraid to use it.  Though all three could have their extended uses on another playthrough. 

Still, it’s worth mentioning that when you equip one of these, it takes the place of your Triangle attack.  I think it’s kind of odd that it’d be put on the same slot as one of your most vital offensive tools when it could have just as easily been mapped to Circle.  And you have to stop the action and enter a menu to equip it, so if you’re expecting real-time weapon change, you’ll be disappointed.  Even beyond that, I’m starting to wonder why you’d even try anything else when the sword does its job remarkably well -- not to mention the moves it lets you use.

3) Get ready for a bit of trial and error.
I still stand by the fact that you have to learn enemy attack patterns if you want to succeed, but there’s a catch.  Sometimes, the only way you learn what to do is after you’ve gotten your CHEEKS OF JUSTICE kicked.  So if you’re not the patient type, or someone who wants to succeed without ever getting hit, this is not the game for you.  You have to be willing to figure out how to handle each enemy -- solving the puzzle, if you will -- but doing so may often require you to take a boot to the face.  Thankfully your health items will activate automatically if you’re about to die, but you’d better be ready to go through a few of them until you’ve got their attack patterns down. 

It’s also worth noting that sometimes, there’s no telling whether fighting without stealth is a good idea or a bad idea.  More often than not, the stealth sections -- while more than competent -- are inconsequential, especially when you can slaughter plenty of foes.  But then there are some moments where you’ll get detected, and the next thing you know you’re getting bullied by three burly dudes and their three pet cyber-gorillas.  And then you realize that maybe you should try acting like a real ninja for once.

4) Hope you’re good at crowd control.
This ties in a bit with the lock-on, but outside of a couple of moves Raiden does almost all of his damage to a single target.  I guess it’s counterbalanced by being able to almost instantly kill a good number of enemies, but if you’re getting swarmed by dudes and they’re packed in close enough, you’re in for a rough time.  This is, admittedly, a part of the strategy -- you have to know how to handle each fight individually, or find ways to separate them -- but if you get pinned down by dudes, you’re dead meat.  (Dead meat?  Dead gears?  Dead sprockets?  Urgh, cyborg anatomy…)

There is always the possibility for you to use your other items -- rocket launchers, grenades, and the like -- but come on.  Are you really going to let that sword of yours gather dust?

5) Screwing up those set piece moments is annoyingly easy.             
Early in the game, there’s a sequence where Raiden gets flung onto a clock tower by a Metal Gear.  But that doesn’t stop him for long; he just starts running down it, charging fearlessly toward the mad machine as it fires it laser and -- whoops, game over.

I appreciate the injection of some variety and truly absurd moments into a game already full of absurd moments, but the coolness factor gets taken to the back shed if you take a hit and die instantly…sometimes because you don’t even know what you’re supposed to be doing or what to expect.  There’s a sequence later on where you get to fly on a bird-like enemy, but you’re going so fast that trying to move puts you at extreme risk of getting hit by fallen debris, dying instantly, and having to start over.  These sequences are fortunately few and far between, and they’re more than manageable.  I just wish success didn’t come down to a combination of not-blinking and vague clairvoyance.

And...well, that’s about it.  Those are all the issues I’ve got -- and even then, none of them are all that detrimental when you get down to it.  This is just a fantastic game, a three-course gourmet dinner packaged into about five hours’ time.  Many people have decried the length, but I dare you to play this game once and absolutely refuse to ever touch it again.  You won’t be able to.  You want to feel the pulse of battle, to test your wits and your skills against foes that would love to see you stamped underfoot.  You have to see what you’ll encounter next, and what powers you’ll harness to grasp victory.  You have to -- you just HAVE to make it to that final boss.

MGR is an important game.  Very important.  In this industry of homogenization, delusions of grandeur, pandering and proselytizing, and degrading standards, this game feels like a blast from the past.  It hearkens back to the days when boss fights used to mean something.  It puts a revived emphasis on challenge and thought.  It’s a rip-roaring adventure that’ll make you reel in shock, and then have you leaning forward at mach speed as you revel in the sheer absurdity of it all.  It functions.  It flows.  It even feels. 

This isn’t just a game.  It’s a game-ass game.

And I haven’t even gotten to the story yet.

But I’ll save that for next time.  Right now, I feel like I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack (yet another important facet of good but easily-forgotten game design).  It’s great, and part of the reason why the boss fights are an absolute delight.  Here’s my favorite of the bunch:

And that’ll do it for now.  See you guys soon; make sure you’re charged up for next time, because this discussion’s just getting started.  Keep the music in mind, though, because that might be a key point next time.  Just don’t do what I did and look for the other songs, unless you want to have the last boss spoiled.  And you don't.  Because then what would be left for me to spoil?

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