Archive for July, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots – “This is the end…”

And so it ends. Exactly 10 years after “Metal Gear Solid” debuted on the Playstation, Kojima puts an end to his most beloved saga with “MGS4: Guns of The Patriots”. What to expect from the final chapter on such a riveting saga: a glorious goodbye or a cynic “see you soon”?

The game splits in 5 acts (plus prologue and epilogue); 5 acts, as defined in classical drama: each posing as a logical narrative unit, with beginning and end, occurring in different places in time and space, and in this case, with a different art and gameplay style. Each act tends to echo a different MGS, which adds a sense of closure and nostalgia to the saga, placing the player in different emotional states that connect with past experiences. Overall, the game plays like an evolved MGS3, with smoother controls, a decent camera angle that facilitates both combat and stealth, and with a lot more action sequences. Stealth is still key, and the game entices you to use it, while at the same time, refrains from penalizing you when you don’t. The first 2 acts are the most interesting gameplay-wise, as they put the player in the midst of a war, allowing you to either take advantage of it, sneaking by unseen and unheard while the 2 sides fight each other, or to simply join a side and start waging combat with your newly found war buddies. Everything works well, adding to the sense of a real war, and the levels are designed in a more streamlined way, that favors of a more slick and linear experience, thus simplifying the somewhat cumbersome nature of MGS3’s mechanics. The only letdown lies in the game’s bosses, that mirror almost precisely those of the first MGS. They’re uninteresting, shallow replicas that are never embodied as fully developed characters and their battles rely too much on straight forward shooting, lacking the brilliant, twisted mechanics of MGS1and 3’s bosses (Psycho Mantis, The End, etc…).

But let’s face it, the only reason for playing “MGS” is the story, all else falls secondary. It’s what has guaranteed the saga’s place in the hall of greatest videogames in history. This is thanks to its unique blend of traditional Hollywood action blockbusters’ spirit, ripe with plot twists and over the top cinematics, with its anime-like aesthethic (courtesy of Yoji Shinkawa), and a lot of philosophical/socio-political ramblings to please the more intellectual players. Still, the premise in MGS4, to wrap things up once and for all, ending the gigantic plot conundrum of “Sons of Liberty”, always sounded overly ambitious and very hard to achieve. There was just so much left to unveil: the true identity of the patriots, their relationship with Liquid, Solidus and Ocelot, the meaning behind the whole back story of MGS3, and even the ultimate purpose of the actions of the player throughout the series – what was Solid Snake really fighting for? Let me reassure you that Hideo Kojima answers this questions with the style and grace we’ve come to know him for. Yet, he does this in subservient fashion, as a slave to a greedy mob, trying at all costs to wrap things up in a tidy, simple, pleasant way that won’t upset any fans. Every character, regardless of its importance (or lack thereof), makes a comeback, all with their complete storyarchs, but zero risks are taken, and every petty, insignificant detail is fleshed out explicitly; a remembrance of what George Lucas tried to accomplish in the second “Star Wars” trilogy. It’s a shame, because players have imagination and intellect to fill in gaps, and should be more often greeted to do so, specially when it’s obvious that Kojima has the ability to make you think about important matters in subtler, nuanced ways. In the end, the pleasing fan-game ends up shattering most of the mystery in Kojima’s insanely mad world, in similar fashion to a magician who reveals his tricks in the end of his act, transforming wondrous, mystical magic into a form of elegant trickery. Because that’s what remains in the end, a sense of deceit, as you learn that Kojima, as a lying Hitchcock, has tricked you once again into believing a strain of lies which he now unveils. But if some are riveting and change the way you view certain characters and even past events (begging you to play previous entries one last time), some just feel cheap and idiotic, showing lack of premeditated thought. Of course, all these twists result in a series of plot holes, that range from the insignificant to the blatantly obvious, adding to the unwelcome sense of malicious deceit that settles in. In “Guns of the Patriots”, even dead characters make a comeback from the dead to please the fans… Sure, if you’re a big fan of “Metal Gear”, you’ll probably dismiss this, as you’ll be engrossed in the narrative weaving, adoring every fan tailored reference, but if you’re really interested in narrative depth, you’ll be left somewhat disappointed that the series ends (?) in such a hasty, incongruous way.

Continuing with the pretentious nature of the overarching plot of the series, there are a lot of interesting themes underlying MGS4’s depiction of the future, and most of them with a controversial nature: capitalism and its impact on state’s sovereignty and global power structures, war and its shadowy motivations, genetics and the ethics of science, cultural and family legacy and its impact in the world, just to name a few. As always, expect long dialogs, though fortunately, unlike previous works, the Codec medium is almost completely absent, relinquishing its seat to fully acted, technically stunning animation sequences. Yet, like in every magic act, substance can be of little importance, as style and form can often determine the impact a work has on its audience, and thus, its perception and efficacy. And this is where Kojima’s act vanishes in smoke: MGS4’s cinematic tone, instead of going back to the subtlety and seriousness of the first MGS, opts for the grand, operatic, flamboyant style of MGS2 and 3, completely in tune with modern wacky japanimations. Well, in reality, it surpasses his predecessors, as “Guns of the Patriots” tries to encompass even more styles, genres and tones than any other game/movie/book known to Man. You’ll get sad, dramatic scenes followed by cute monkeys burping from drinking coke and coughing from smoking tobacco; bittersweet, nurturing moments of bonding followed by the most outrageous action sequences with coreographies that make “Advent Children” and “Devil May Cry” look like slow ballets; you’ll get fart jokes in between “Private Ryan” war sets – if you can name a style, then most likely, “Guns of the Patriots” has it: from comedy to tragedy, drama to action; sci-fi to noir. The problem with this virtuoso fruit salad is that all of its elements lose their ability to attain their objectives, as the players’ mindset becomes too fragmented to sink in such a wide array of emotions. Eventually, this murders characters in the eye of the spectator, as you’ll never know if you’re supposed to take things seriously or not. It’ becomes hard to watch such multifaceted characters treated in such a dictatorial way, destroying their credibility and connection with the audience just for the sake of a few laughs or sentimental sighs.

Above all, the game fails when compared to its long legacy. Looking back at the first “Metal Gear Solid”, with its consistently dark aesthetic, and its wonderful cast of morally torn characters, it’s hard not to wish MGS4 would be different. Remember the sobriety of MGS’s tragic tale – a group of people forced to wage war with one another, played like human puppets, suffering at the hands of fate and powers they could never understand. The depth of its storytelling, the great use of sound and cutscenes, the revolutionary gameplay and AI.. Sure, there were some crazy anime elements (Mantis’ flying around comes to mind), but they were toned down, and usually served as ways of rendering character’s inner struggles and beliefs, a meaningful hyperbole of what passed inside them, if you will. In 4, every eccentricity is hollow and out of context. Balance and focus are what MGS4 lacks the most: its outrageous tone and fan pleasing desire just ruin the delicate narrative structure other Metal Gears’ possessed. It’s still a brilliant game, and certainly one of the best to have been released since “Bioshock”, but it poses as a mere shadow of its ancestors. In a way, it’s a good thing “MGS4” ends the saga, for it was becoming a titan larger than its own author; but on the other hand, it is a bittersweet farewell, as you look back and acknowledge the differences between this iteration and what “MGS” once meant for a small, artistically poor medium. Let’s just hope that Kojima can impress us with his magic in the future, as he breaks free from the shackles of Big Boss’ legacy.

Overall: 3/5

Panzer Dragoon Saga – “Rated M for Mature”

Because of my fondness for RPG’s in general, I was rather cautious in approaching “Panzer Dragoon Saga”, one of the last great works in the genre, released during the late nineties. It was the final chapter in Team Andromeda’s saga, lead by Yukio Futatsugi, and also coincided with the death of the Sega Saturn. Above all, I was curious in watching how the aesthetic and narrative elements of previous “Panzer Dragoons” would translate into a full blown RPG. For these were subtle and relatively simple elements, that relied mostly on two or three, generally mute, gorgeous FMV clips, as well as the unique audiovisual nature of the post-apocalyptic world described via in-game sequences.

The game starts, as its forbearers did, with a FMV. Once again filled with subtleties and elegance, portraying characters not only through voice acting in a strange language (purposefully created for the series), but also through body language and visual imagery, all of which very rare for a 1998 Japanese game. Sadly, the narrative starts off on a somewhat simplistic, clichéd manner, following the story of a boy named Edge, who seeks vengeance against the Empire who had his buddies killed. This was quite bothersome to someone like me, who enjoys plots that suck you in, and almost made me reconsider playing it.

Fortunately, “Saga” pays off on many levels, starting with its wonderful atmosphere. Flying through the game-world on a dragon is, still today, a marvel for the senses, as you delve into a Jean Giraud (aka Möebius) inspired canvas, brimming with alien landscapes and strange magical creatures. In “Saga”, you can actually explore these sets without restrictions (in opposition to the rail-shooting nature of previous “Panzers”), which allows you freedom to engulf all the aspects of such an engrossing world, as you listen to Saori Kobayashi’s score – a calm, soothing mixture of electronic beats and acoustic sounds. Not all exploration is as grand as the flying of Edge’s dragon, I’m afraid. The on-foot exploration is horrid, as it uses the same targeting mechanic as the flying portions, (which becomes rather cumbersome, since it was designed for shooter-driven sequences) and portrays sites with the same graphics engine, which was clearly suited for large, wide open areas, lacking detail and definition in rendering small spaces, like villages and houses, that end up looking ugly and bland.

The nature of combat also evolved, specifically, into a turn based manner, as the player is asked to commandeer the dragon through a series of simple inputs. But before thinking this is another of those slow, boring combat systems that RPG’s are known for, let me reassure you, the nature of “Saga’s” combat is highly dynamic and entertaining. All because it uses a system where you can, in real time, move your dragon, as you wait for an “Active Time Battle” like bar to fill up. This becomes crucial in employed tactics, as enemies have different attacks according to your spatial position, and different weaknesses as well. This, as well as other elements, adds to a strategic, engaging combat system, that privileges tactic maneuvering and enemy observation over mindless grinding or button smashing.

As soon as the atmosphere and combat were starting to lose interest, the story started twisting and turning, gaining a lot of momentum by fleshing out the wonderful lore that could be felt in its prequels. The final stages of the epic plot have some wonderfully written dialog, presenting morally ambiguous characters with conflicting ideals and philosophies, and revealing interesting interpretations on the human condition. The final sequence, a voyage to a higher plane of existence (in a clear homage to “2001”, already present in previous games) is as astonishing as a videogame finale can be, and instantly became one of my favorite endings for a videogame. Because “Saga” is, on many levels, a work of vision, an artistic construction that, to this today, soars highly above its competition in terms of tone and language. When compared to most of Square’s “Final Fantasy” titles, that boast their grand epic plots, filled with their silly j-pop characters and outrageous, over the line aesthetics, “Saga” comes out as a subtler, more adult work, that privileges character depth and expression over visual hyperboles. Only when you can discern this, will you understand why such care was given to the game world and the underlying script, through the consistent use of FMV and voice acting for nearly every scene. Though it is a relatively small game (and even there, Team Andromeda seems to have predicted a new, more interesting narrative paradigm), and one that is not without caveats, it remains as one of the finest examples of the genre’s potential for story development. It has masterpiece written all over it, you just have to use your mind to see it.

Overall: 5/5

P.S: A thank you is in order to Dieubussy, the Bernard Shaw of Videogames, for such a lovely recommendation. Hugh Grant.

Grand Theft Auto IV – “Hail the Revol… ups, sorry, Evolution”

I don’t know about you, but right after a couple of interesting titles in 2007, I’ve found it hard to keep interest in recent games; every thing’s the same! Same genres, same mechanics, same art styles, same, same, same. It’s attack of the clones all over again. In one word: BORING. Move ON, mr. Developer. Please? Pretty please??? The way I see it, “GTA IV” had everything to succeed and turn things around: a huge budget, the backing of a series’ brand that would sell the game whichever the case, a new numerical character (hey, if the Housers think it’s important to state that, why shouldn’t I?) and all the buzz in the community, that repeatedly hauled the game as “revolutionary”, “wonderful”, “brilliant”, blah, blah, blah. But is it really so? Does GTA live up to the hype?

For a game that the media gave revolution as a tagline, “GTA IV” sure takes time to bloom… Hours into the game you’ll watch the same mechanics, the same design, the same mission structure, the same city as in past titles… again: same, same, same. The visuals are striking, sure, but hardly anything we wouldn’t expect by now. There’s also an eclectic, culturally rich soundtrack, that’s definitely the best in the series, even if it’s probably destined to be the least popular. But besides that, what’s left? A physics engine that hardly adds anything to gameplay? The cellular phone gimmick, that instead of serving gameplay, upsets you with silly phonecalls about how lonely your friends feel? Maybe it’s the Gears of War” cover combat system, but… haven’t we seen that before, and with better results in a game called er… “Gears of War”? So where’s the Revolution? Dead in the trunk, me thinks. And sure, *journalists* are quick to deliver the 10/10 “facts”: in GTA you can eat, drink, have sex, play pool, darts and arcade games, take pictures, send text messages, call 911, drunk drive, listen to radio, watch TV, surf the Internet, attend variety shows, flirt with naked girls in strip clubs, use ATM’s, etc, etc, etc; you name it, GTA has it (well, you can’t pee, but hey, nothing is perfect). The thing is, though these elements add to the sense of believability and consistency of this virtual world, they fail on their most important goal: entertainment. On that regard, “GTA IV” fails in achieving anything new. The game has, essentially, the same design as “GTA III”, going to the extreme of maintaining the same mission templates. It also fails in updating some essential elements present in more recent videogame currents, like more streamlined design, simpler controls, or even mission check-pointing (which would be essential, considering missions are composed of several lengthy sequences, that usually involve a lot of traveling).

The story does glue everything together to try and save the show: Niko Bellic’s tragic saga is the first decent script of the series (finally they got one right!), with some wonderfully depicted, morally torn characters (even if the main character is still Liberty City) and a series of well thought up social themes. Thanks to the dry wit of Niko’s remarks concerning life in the States, and the ironic nature of radio shows and commercials, the satirical nature of GTA’s universe maintains its verve in depicting modern day America, with its social paradoxes, corrupt politics, and moral inconsistencies. And it’s made all the more interesting thanks to a couple of interesting moral choices, that eventually change the ending of the game (nothing revolutionary, but still…). Yet, once again, in keeping with the industry’s flow, it’s marred by the use of the same basic narrative model as “GTA III”, which makes no sense in such a character driven narrative. Basically, you meet character -> character bitches about something -> you deal with it -> gain money -> repeat this N times -> say buhbye to character -> a new character comes along -> everything repeats again. The result is a structure that ends up leaving many interesting characters undeveloped, and that forgets each character as soon as you finish their “missions”. The social networking strategy from “San Andreas” does make a comeback through the cellphone gimmick, in an attempt to develop said characters, but the cost of some really dull minigames ends up destroying that potentially interesting story vehicle.

So why is “GTA IV” getting the glorious reviews its predecessors never had? Hype? Maybe so. In the end, I just think everyone was too eager to acclaim the game for its rich detail, absurd amount of work and sheer polish. It’s the kind of game that’s filled with those small details that really shine: the gorgeous lighting effects that can transform Liberty City into a living, moving painting, the wide array of interesting cultural activities, or those precious little moments when the game behaves exactly as you’d expect in real life. In terms of execution, it truly stands out as the grandest of all new gen titles: there’s just so much waiting to be found in this virtual “Liberty City”, that even MMO’s can pale in comparison, and it all works bug free (almost, at least). And it actually makes sense that the way forward for the series should be on a basis of “more”, instead of “new”, GTA’s always thrived on their ability to make the player explore wide open worlds, where everything is possible: freedom to go anywhere, to do anything, to be anyone – and in that regard “GTA IV” maintains the tradition. But the thing you have to ask yourself is if that “more” policy actually translates into new and solid game design ideas, and I think they don’t; GTA may have a big baggage of seemingly good ideas, but there isn’t one that you can actually name revolutionary, or that you’d actually want to replicate in another videogame. So, even though the title has a new number, it does little its predecessors haven’t done before, albeit on a smaller scale. And if you ask me, that’s one roman numeral the Houser brothers just wasted for naught.

Overall: 3/5