- Category: Game On
- Created on Wednesday, 27 March 2013 22:51
- Written by John Oliver Go
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There is a powerful sequence in Hideo Kojima's sprawling masterpiece Metal Gear Solid 4 (2008) where we guide our aging and dying hero, Solid Snake, as he fights through a harsh blizzard in Alaska in what is to be one of his final moments in the video game space. As we emerge from the jagged, mysterious wilderness and the snow has gradually subsided, we finally see that we are back to where it all began: Into the now-legendary helipad entrance to the Shadow Moses Base from the original Metal Gear Solid (1998); as the sound of the howling wind transitions to Rika Muranaka's "The Best is Yet to Come", the original game's theme song. This subtle, beautiful ode is a reflection of the widely revered series, with a recurring theme of sombre optimism in a militarized world where, quite frankly, anything can and will happen.
"Our feelings grew faint
What caused our grief and fighting?
Can there be beauty in life?
If you seek it out.
Can there be happiness in life?
Let's seek it."
In seeking happiness: We can assume that Kojima, sadly, never has. How apt has this song come to define Metal Gear Solid, as it also reflects Kojima's greatest strength and weakness: his almost self-destructive thirst to seek out and weave more and more socio-political themes and issues into an increasingly poignant yet grandiosely unwieldy video game franchise (he was, after all, once nominated into Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World). Apparently, he was never satisfied, never happy with his work after promising to leave it behind after the first sequel. Appropriate, then, that "The Best is Yet to Come" is the series' theme song. As Solid Snake huffs and puffs with his dying breath, we can all ask Mr. Kojima, will 'Your Best' ever arrive?
If Kojima has boundless vision, he ultimately compensated with a severe lack in foresight. Metal Gear Solid 4, for all its statutory (or portentous?) relevance both in video games and in wartime politics, sometimes felt like a juggling act wherein Kojima was slave to his previous stories, simultaneously tying up all of the series' scattered plot twists and offering new ones of his own. This is not a complete criticism, as each and every video game he created are complete and satisfying stories in themselves; the problem here is that every entry is more audacious and difficult to follow than the last, to the point that people are still debating whether or not Metal Gear Solid 2 was merely a virtual reality simulation in a bid to... allude to military desensitization from the 4th game. These are bizarre yet irresistible stories, I kid you not.
What we are seeing here is that every single Metal Gear Solid game seems more of a spin-off of the series than actual sequels by themselves. After all, each of the five main Metal Gear Solid games (including the critically-acclaimed PSP game Peace Walker) featured its leading man Solid Snake only twice in a leading role - one of these two even cast him as a dying old man. That's a total 20% batting average for a game series with the moniker "Solid" featuring the legendary hero in his prime. The latest Metal Gear game, however, is one that can be reasonably called a spin-off in a more traditional sense. Released just a month ago, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, leaves its stealth-genre roots behind in favor of an ultra-fast paced hack-n-slash game featuring the ninja Raiden, one of the series' most iconic supporting characters. Perhaps this is the refresh that Kojima has been looking for all these years, as this is the game that will finally break free from the gift and curse of his convoluted legacy.
This is a reboot, then, but not in the way we traditionally define it. Coincidentally, its new competitors in this niche video game space are also reinventing themselves. The new Devil May Cry game seeks to refresh itself with streamlined mechanics for a new generation of players less obsessed with technicality rather than spectacle, the new God of War with an invigorated look at how its mythical mass murderer should be sympathized with, and the new Ninja Gaiden trying desperately hard to make each and every single kill mean something. But what these games have in common is that they sought to reboot themselves for a new generation of players. Metal Gear Rising, however, seems more intent on rebooting the action genre itself for an old generation of Metal Gear players.
This is a game that has only left the Metal Gear Universe in gameplay mechanics only. The narrative is just as beautifully twisted: taking place a few years after the series (effectively?) wrapped itself up. Not taking no for an answer, the story this time includes themes of child trafficking on top of wartime politics, featuring cyborg samurai mercenary groups. In short, this is squarely in Kojima's ballpark. Conversations still happen via static codec scenes, and each section is interspersed with elegantly-directed cinematics - Metal Gear Solid's primary form of storytelling. But against all intents and purposes, this new Metal Gear is a superbly spectacular creative misfire that all action fans should experience. I will get to more on that later.
What we have failed to account for thus far is that this isn't Kojima's game. This is another developer's. Platinum Games is arguably Japan's top action developer (even going so far as being the self-proclaimed greatest action developers in the world), crafting the viscerally epic Bayonetta and Vanquish just a few years before and injecting the action genre with a new sense of flair, style, and grueling speed. What it brings to the table with Revengeance is a near-flawless action spectacle that, during its greatest moments, creates a downhill snowball effect that never lets on until it juggernauts its way from one epic set-piece to the next until you're literally cracking your neck at its intensity.
This is a ridiculous action game that entirely scraps the block button in favor of an audacious parry-counter move to continue your forward momentum. Once the enemy tries to attack, you merely direct your attack in the same direction and you continue your slicing combo with vicious, blood-letting glee. Weaves? Dodges? Evasive maneuvers? This game calls this collective bullshit and throws you an "offensive defense" move where Raiden slices forward with so much power that he propels himself backwards.The only time the game lets you slow down is when you literally slow it down with what is perhaps the most invigorating use of bullet time yet in video games: the Zandatsu Cut-and-Take mechanic. This is power-tripping at its finest, as you slow time down enough to slice and dice your enemies with wild abandon until they're - with help from an in-game counter - butchered into hundreds upon hundreds of pieces. You can do this to all of your enemies, and the game's greatest conceit is that you're going to need it. Because once you've sliced through their chest, you could take your cyborg enemy's spinal chord and convert it into health. With Raiden taking hits left and right as much as you dish it out (a moribund effect of not getting blocks or dodges), the forward momentum is sustained with a life bar that oscillates as gracefully as you do.
The game, whilst cutting the trifecta fat of platforming-puzzles-exploration present in its competitors, runs through a deceptively short 5 hours. But what a steroidal 5-hour experience it is. With Japanese techno-pop thumping through your bass as you slice a ten-story bipedal robot in half, 0r as you sprint vertically through a bombarded skyscraper while deflecting bullets, or as you finish off a giant samurai into ribbons as you fly through a stormy hi-tech skyline, you will begin to wonder if this is the video game to finally eclipse the action film as our post-modern entertainment medium for visual viscera. Because at its best, Metal Gear Rising doesn't have ebbs and flows: It just flows and flows and flows all the way until the grueling, explosive, bloody finale.
But the thing about Metal Gear Rising is that it is perhaps let down by the political-cinematic ambitions of its creator. Because, if you let it, Revengeance, in all irony, also ebbs and ebbs and ebbs.
The Metal Gear Solid franchise was grounded in slow-burning stealth mechanics for a reason. And that is to pace each game quietly, stealthily, in order for you to take in its overarching authored narrative in overtly long cinematics and layered conversations about everything from government deception, nuclear deterrence, cloning, and most reverently, Japanese philosophy. That is what Kojima wants in his games: to have lasting pseudo-political relevance through his most preferred entertainment medium. This is why he expertly paced his games into short bursts of careful treading, subtle strategizing, and nuanced mechanics. But what if, after looking at the strengths of Revengeance, this isn't the medium that he should be looking at in the first place?
Platinum Games is equally as ambitious as Kojima, but for different reasons and approaches altogether. Theirs is one of glorious action and swagger, whilst Kojima's is thoughtful-provoking conversation. In mixing these two giants, perhaps they have created a game that is less than the sum of its parts. Maybe it can be considered great as an extravagant action game, but only at the expense of the story that Kojima Productions wants to tell within it. And I say this with earnestness. If Revengeance is about action and adrenaline-pumping pace, then why is the overtly long conversations and cinematic musings... about death and child trafficking in a technocratic world - scattered haphazardly in between the set-pieces? As Tom Bissell put it so aptly in his Skyrim article about all its characters being walking lore dumps: "Why is it there in the first place?"
But the game is not wont for lack of trying. There is an almost revelatory scene in the middle of the game, where your character Raiden is coaxed into thinking that he is but the same as the mercenary group he is chasing: that perhaps his intentions in being a hero is ultimately muddled by the genocidal journey he went through to get there. The main villain then links Raiden's mind with that of the police he is about to cut to shreds, and we realize that they are human beings too, not merely cyborg husks: people with their own family, with their own fears. A cinematic shows Raiden unable to kill them and consciously gets himself beaten up instead. Immediately afterward, the game reverts back to your control. I was excited at the fact that perhaps there would be a cathartic choice that I would have to make, that I would be able to spare their lives or have the story take a different direction. But alas, this didn't happen. I was still the same merciless killer, as I would be for the rest of the game. The only way to get through this section is by way of gleeful butchering. The succeeding cinematic attempts to explain this now-jarring situation through an awkward plot point of how Raiden was bonkers to begin with. Overall, this ultimately feels like the medium's boundaries: serving only to magnify the dichotomy between telling a relevant story through the lens of film versus actually playing an action game.
Kojima's overarching tale of wartime capitalism and moralitywas perhaps cornered into a wall with nowhere else to go. How do you reconcile such intricate political and philosophical themes into a game equally as passionate in its steroidal kinetics? In an action game as elegant as this, the player would be too engrossed in the slashing and dicing that it is literally impossible to coax any sort of nuanced, intelligent, or thoughtful insight into the already convoluted narrative that the game simultaneously tries to tell. Perhaps a seasoned Metal Gear fan could tune down for a moment to reflect on what he has done; but is that really the game's intention? In doing so, perhaps Revengeance implodes upon itself; leaving behind a game that is just... fun. But fun is not what we're after. Not with a game that holds so much thematic depth but mechanically grasps little of its water.
There is a popular analogy of the Metal Gear Solid universe coined by the astute video game critic Leigh Alexander. In it, she states that Metal Gear is a subtle parable of the video game console war. The first three games heralded the rise of the PlayStation and Japanese game development at their most visually and thematically creative. By the time Metal Gear Solid 4 came along, however, Solid Snake was reduced to a withering husk of his former self, ultimately bettered by two young blondes, brave and heroic in their naivete.
The first blonde is the clumsy and stupid soldier Johnny Sasaki, and his story concludes with his marriage to Meryl Silverburgh, Solid Snake's very own love interest in the first game. Perhaps this is Kojima acknowledging the industry's leadership to the dumb kid on the other side of the world. Who is this kid, you may ask? Why, it's the American kid who attached a chainsaw to a machine gun and became the pinnacle of modern gaming. All kidding aside, Western developers are now considered more daring in moving game narratives forward in general, while Japanese developers got stuck in the hole they dug for themselves since they decided to stick to theFinal Fantasy cut scene-driven narrative devices they invented over a decade ago.
The second blonde we're talking about, however, is the reinvented supporting character Raiden who has undergone training in traditional Japanese martial arts and went a step further to sharpen his body with modern technological implants. Is this yet another allusion to Japanese games development? Most likely. What is dead true, however, is that throughout the narrative of Metal Gear Solid 4, Raiden functions - and ultimately succeeds - to be the hero that Solid Snake once was. Perhaps this is Kojima wanting to pass on the torch to his peers over in Japan, nudging them to strive for as much ambition in pushing video games forward as he had before. Maybe he found such proteges in Platinum Games, and by far and large he is wise to choose them for Revengeance in this regard. But if this game's double-edged ambitions (no matter how ambitious they are) is of any indication, perhaps it is safe for us to assume that the best, as has always been the case with Mr. Kojima, is yet to come.