A farewell to arms

The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PlayStation 3)

OldboyMuch of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has an air of finality about it, as far as I’m concerned. Not only because it marks the chronological endpoint of Snake’s story, but also because it turned out to be the last MGS game I ever played. On a technical and gameplay level, it’s functional: nothing spectacular, but also nothing abysmally wrong (apart from long loading times), and if combat is what interests you, then you probably won’t find much to complain about here. The graphics still look good today, the soundtrack is decent, and there are some interesting narrative choices. But I’ve also never really felt the urge to pick up another MGS game after this one, nor the urge to actually replay it, which may sound surprising, considering the hyperbolic praise this game received upon release. Maybe I just got tired of the nonsense, which stopped being epic and just became nonsense. Maybe because all they can do now is prequels, unless they want to continue with Raiden. Maybe because I don’t actually like what they’ve decided to do with Raiden’s story in Metal Gear Rising. Maybe because I hit my cutscene saturation point. Maybe because the game finally went overboard from “puerile” to “offensive” in some of its characterisations. Or maybe all of this at once.

KnockoutLet’s start with some positives though. Combat now takes place with an over-the-shoulder camera, which you can actually switch sides for an easier time looking around corners, as well as switching to first-person mode. Camouflage makes a return from MGS3, as Snake wears an enhanced bodysuit with camouflage properties, which he can further supplement with face camo after a specific boss fight. He’s also equipped with a “Solid Eye”, which looks like an eyepatch (to further enhance the similarities with Big Boss) and functions as binoculars or night-vision goggles, as well as informing Snake of things like what weapons the soldiers use or footprints that wouldn’t be visible to the naked eye, and providing a mini-map. As MGS4 was one of the first games developed for the PlayStation 3, the rumble feature was only implemented late into the game’s development cycle, meaning that it uses a system called the Threat Ring, which appears around Snake himself and becomes visibly distorted when an enemy is detected nearby, indicating which direction they’re coming from.

Butt zap!Two other additions are the Psyche Gauge and the Metal Gear Mk. II.  The former indicates Snake’s stress level, which affects things like aim or the likelihood of passing out after being wounded, and serves to humanise him a bit and make him more relatable. He can stress out from stuff like extreme temperatures or bad smells, while having a smoke, eating something or looking at a naughty magazine will help him relax. The Metal Gear Mk. II is a small robot on wheels designed by Otacon to serve as a mini-reconnaissance unit. It functions as a mobile codec to communicate with other characters, can scout for Snake, but also deliver electric shocks to enemies to temporarily stun them. All in all, the fact that I can’t really remember much about the combat is probably a positive point, since it means that it flowed seamlessly enough for me not to notice it.

If only saluting would end this gameThe problem is that the game often prevents you from actually playing. The series’ trademark cutscene bloat reached an all-time high in this particular opus. In fact, I have the sneaking suspicion that Hideo Kojima’s career has been one long, arduous battle against his hardwired desire to make films rather than games. By all accounts, he has managed to get it under control for MGS5, but this is probably as a direct result of what happened with MGS4. As of 2015 (I don’t know if this is still true today, but it very well might be), it held Guinness World Records for the longest single cutscene (27 mins) and longest cutscene sequence (71 mins…) in a videogame, the former being included within the latter as part of the game’s ending. Someone did some number crunching on this and came up with a staggering 44% cutscene-to-gameplay proportion. By comparison, MGS2, in second place, had a 41% ratio, but its longest cutscene was only 20 mins long.  

Could've saved you a lot of troubleCombine this with what is possibly the most convoluted and poorly-written storyline in the series and, by the end of it, I was basically in a cutscene-induced stupor. There are just too many twists-that-aren’t-really-twists, red herrings and overly-convenient (or nonsensical) explanations, and once the game is done, and you think back on what’s happened, you may well be forgiven for wondering whether all of that was really necessary. The key facts, though, are that it’s 2014 and that “war…has changed”, as Snake’s voiceover takes pains to remind you over and over again in the intro sequence. The world economy is now somehow fully dependent on war, resulting in a constant global conflict where private military companies fight each other for…reasons. As a result of the events of MGS2, Liquid Snake’s consciousness has taken over Revolver Ocelot’s body (well…it’s complicated) and basically established a single mega-mercenary company, fuelling the chaos. Colonel Campbell has asked Solid Snake to off him, and that’s where the game begins.

For old times' sakeSnake has been ageing rapidly, due to being a clone, and is now an old man, which makes for an interesting take on the traditional hero persona. Instead of your usual battle-hardened muscle-head, you have to deal with an elderly, disillusioned, often bitter man whose only real prospect in life is impending decrepitude and death. This only has minimal impact on the gameplay, as Snake’s bodysuit also compensates for his physical deterioration (he still gets back pains though), but it does impact the storyline, especially when he inevitably bumps into Meryl again (and I still can’t quite believe that they decided to end her character arc as they did). EVA also resurfaces, and it’s disconcerting to see her son looking the same age as her. Although I have to take exception to the fact that, at 78, she’s still rockin’ that damn cleavage…Was there really no way to tastefully depict a woman of her age? Also, her introduction, verbatim: “Call me Mama…*dramatic pause* Big Mama”. I’m sorry, I just can’t. Yes, the MGS series is notorious for mixing up the serious and the silly, but this is an example where it doesn’t work. 

Dat smirkAnyway, Snake now lives with Otacon (platonically, although, by the end of the game, you gotta start wondering, because poor Hal’s disastrous track record with women unfortunately holds), and they have essentially adopted Olga Gurlukovich’s daughter, Sunny, whom Raiden managed to rescue from the Patriots with EVA’s help. However, he was later captured by them and, in a rather shocking development, turned into a cyborg. The only remaining organic part of him is his spine and head, minus the lower jaw (and yet, he’s somehow still sexy). His relationship with Rose has also broken down, and all of this basically turned him into a brooding badass–so much so that he fights an entire battle with his sword held between his teeth at one point, due to being unable to use his hands–, much to the surprise of those who complained about his whining in MGS2. His feud with Vamp is also alive and well (and practically drowning in innuendo), and results in two eye-catching duels. All in all, he was probably my favourite part of the game, and I appreciated the way his story ended. And then MGR happened. But I digress.

IncandescentAn MGS game wouldn’t be complete without a Foxhound-like villain squad, and, sure enough, there is one here, called the Beauty and the Beast unit, pushing the similarities to imitating the original Foxhound codenames mixed with emotion-based epithets, à la MGS3’s Cobra Unit, which doesn’t bode well for their originality. There’s a Laughing Octopus, a Raging Raven, a Crying Wolf and a Screaming Mantis. However, I have a real problem with their portrayal. You see, they’re all female and based on fashion models. Now, in itself, an all-female villain squad might’ve been a welcome novelty, and I can’t deny that they’re all beautiful, especially Raging Raven, who is nuclear levels of hot. But any characterisation they get comes after they’re dead, which never gives them the chance to establish themselves as anything but pretty faces. On top of that, they all suffer from extreme PTSD, to the extent that they can’t function normally when outside their robotic armour. Cue them writhing around in agony in skintight, glistening wet (for some reason) bodysuits when Snake inevitably destroys said armour, while the camera frantically shows off butts, boobs and cameltoes, like it’s being handled by an overeager horny teenager. Apparently, the original idea was for them to be naked during these sequences, but it proved unworkable due to rating reasons. But if Snake doesn’t damage them for a long enough time after they’re out of their armour, they’ll be transported to a white room where he can take pictures of them while they strike sexy poses. I mean, yes, MGS is known for its fanservice, but, in previous games, this was limited to psychologically functional ladies showing off cleavage or underwear (and balanced by the presence of shirtless gentlemen). This feels uncomfortably like exploitation, and the fact that the trend continued in MGS5 with Quiet is not a good sign at all. Raiden was completely naked in MGS2, you say? Yes, but the camera wasn’t staring up his bum as he was having a full-on nervous breakdown while crying, moaning and panting suggestively. And while he admittedly also has PTSD, it was never portrayed as anywhere near that level of debilitating.

I'm bustin' outta hereTo sum things up, my main feeling throughout this game was just that it had to end. And once it did, I felt that there was sufficient closure for all involved–for better or for worse–, so the decision to continue the franchise could only appear misguided to me, and nothing I have seen, heard or read about the topic has suggested otherwise. If you’re a full-fledged MGS fan, chances are you’ll disagree, and perhaps you think that MGS5 and/or MGR were brilliant. I, however, remain of the opinion that MGS3 was the best in the series and that it all should just have ended with MGS4. It’s been fun, guys. Wish you’d managed to not slip up until the end.

Out of this world

The culprit: Mass Effect (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC)

Ah, Mass Effect: the game that began the series that is arguably BioWare’s biggest success to date. PC veterans may prefer Baldur’s Gate, and more recent PC players may favour Dragon Age, but ME is what really brought the Canadian studio into the mainstream limelight. Some may argue that this is also what eventually caused its downfall, but that is a debate for another time and place. You may (unfortunately) also remember ME as the game that got Fox News’ panties in a twist in what was ultimately revealed to be a completely unfounded accusation of full-on nudity and graphic sex by people who hadn’t even played it. Nice one, guys.

Beginning of a long journeyBut controversy and fame aside, what are we really looking at here? ME is a futuristic space opera, and, unlike BW’s previous work, it’s a mix between an RPG and a TPS, which is probably one of the reasons for its success: the combination between immersive dialogue and storytelling on the one hand, and dynamic combat on the other. This isn’t BW’s first foray into sci-fi–they had already released a Star Wars game for PC by that time, followed by a sequel reprised by Obsidian–, but it is a completely original story, and, in my opinion, it’s far superior to the two Knights of the Old Republic games. It always felt a little odd to me to be playing games set in a preexisting universe created by someone else. Like wearing borrowed clothes, if you will. Not so with ME, which builds its own universe on its own premises and peoples it with original species, each with its own distinct culture and society, and not all of them anthropomorphic, which is a breath of fresh air. This is the main draw of the series for me, along with its characterisation, which, I think, is some of the best that BW has ever produced. Up until 2012, the series was in danger of dethroning Myst as my all-time favourite. ME3 made sure that didn’t happen, but, that massive fiasco aside, the first ME is still a great game. To give you an idea, after I finished my first playthrough, I immediately started another one, something which had never happened to me before. Granted, it was my first serious encounter with a WRPG and, coming after years of JRPGs, the freedom that characterises the genre may have boosted my enthusiasm. But even now, several years and WRPGs later, I still think it’s a great game, so it must have gotten something right.

At its core, the storyline is fairly run-of-the-mill: save the world from destruction by murderous villains. The nature of the villains, however, and some of the tangential questions the game raises are genuinely interesting. Of course, there are also gameplay and design flaws, such as reused environments, excessively tedious exploration sequences or a non-sortable inventory; but none of this is a major issue. Bottom line: if you like RPGs and sci-fi, you may just have struck gold.

Detailed review available! Read more here.