Archive for August, 2010

Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker – “Redacted”

Hideo Kojima lacks boundaries. His creativity, japanimation roots and desire to please crowds run wild and he always ends up going overboard. “Peace Walker” bears that burden from the get go, for after swearing and promising and vowing never to lay his delicate hands on Snake ever again, Kojima goes on to design yet another “Metal Gear Solid”. Just what everyone needed! Not content with his succumbing, he doubles the folly, and for the first time, creates a game for a portable console. However, in theory, “Peace Walker” could have been the right opportunity for Kojima’s redemption. Here was, by necessity, a technologically constrained videogame, released in a secondary platform, which meant a smaller budget and also less commercial and fan pressure. All would appear to in favor of more creative leeway for Kojima to suck some life into the decrepit halls of the Big Boss lining… but do we get anything more than a half-living recollection of past “Metal Gear Solids”?

Initial impressions are misleading. The return to the time-period and setting of “Snake Eater”, allowed Kojima to remain in familiar territory and to revisit his team’s greatest aesthetic accomplishments. In a technical tour-de-force, the natural environments of  the third “Metal Gear” return once again and are made a delight to simply inhabit in, just sinking in the glorious atmosphere of those opressive hot jungles, barren mountain-tops and eerie dense forests. Exploring them has also become more accessible this time around, for after previous “Metal Gear” debacles, Kojima adopted a very slick control scheme which is only hindered by the lack of a second analog. These were small signs that platform limitations were actually pushing Kojima in the right way – focusing on a more immersive, relaxed, aesthetically evocative experience.

However, past the initial moments, imposed limitations start to push the game to new territories which we simply cannot abide with. It starts when it dawns on you that “Peace Walker” is less of a stealth game as much as it is an action game. Looking to ease in the game design for new players and make it more accessible for byte-sized, on the go gaming, the difficulty level was diminished to the point in which you can fly by the game’s levels by simply crouching and shooting tranquilizers left and right, barely pulling a sweat or employing any degree of tactical reasoning. There are very few penalties for not being stealthy, thanks to the game’s AI’s being as near-sighted as incompetent. Further underlining this contemporary action vibe are the only remnants of a challenge, the game’s bosses: massive beast-like gears, whose gameplay segments feel like grinding battles with mechanical replicas of “Monster Hunter”. “Monster Hunter”. “Metal Gear Solid”. We refrain from further comments. The final blow in this exercise is directed towards Kojima’s remaining saving grace: his narrative antics. For “Peace Walker” all the chit-chat about political intrigue, conspiracy theories, eccentric characters, etc. has been completely stripped of context and side-lined to a generic batch of audio files which you can listen in between missions. People always said they hated codec talk! Even Kojima team’s glorious real-time cutscenes are replaced by Ashley Wood’s handrawn vignettes, which though impressive and worthy of merit on their own right, still feel displaced in a “Metal Gear Solid” game.

Alas, once again Kojima bows down to the mob, and offers everything the masses pray (and prey) for: more action, more combat, less stealth, less talk. If any more proof needs to be put forth of this populist stance, let us end with a mention of the asinine addition of a casual Facebook-like meta-management game, in which you click, click, coins drop, drop and experience blows up, up, with players coming a-back, back for another fix of endless bars filling, filling and numbing pleasure rising, rising. Sure, everybody rants about Facebook and Farmville, but when something like this comes along in a “Metal Gear”,  suddenly it becomes not only acceptable as it is applauded with big cheers by reviewers, for being extremely addicting and fun. This free reward based gameplay – zero-gameplay, as we would coin it – has zero-substance, zero-challenge, zero-narrative, and despite this, it is slowly becoming the new icon for the current state of videogames. Hideo Kojima, who should know better, didn’t fight this new paradigm one bit. He knelt,  begged, and then apologized for ever having wanted to make decent videogames in the first place.  He is defeated, without vision, without ideas, without soul, and above all, without courage, even in the one fleeting moment of his god-forsaken career in which he was awarded a tiny bit of freedom. He is a prisoner of his past and he will never be free.

score: 1/5

Yakuza 3 – “Fine Sushi”

In these times of rampaging production costs and economic recession, videogames have become the unsavory product of a well-oiled factory. Somewhere in nameless tall towers, in cool air-conditioned rooms, power-point presentations show rows and rows of graphs with market tendencies, economic growth figures, investment costs, revenues and sales numbers, and it is in such places where game designers are told which market to pursue, which audience to cater and which genre and buzz words to incorporate in “their” game design. As any marketing director will tell you: marketing starts the day the product is idealized. Make no mistake, these games are prepared specifically for consumption of the world masses; they are media’s equivalent of McDonald’s hamburgers. All creative authorship is rebuked in favor of bland, shallow, sanitized pieces of fiction, lifeless products devised under the surgical helm of cold-hearted marketeers, created in such a way so as to appeal to the largest body of people, nevermind their culture, creed or nationality. Any underlying ideas, themes and narratives have to be consensual, harmless, easy to understand and still feel familiar to their recipients, so as not to risk being alienating, offensive, challenging or boring in the least.

Fortunately for us, there are exceptions, exceptions like the “Yakuza” series. In a rare struck of marketing irrationality, the third entry was actually brought by Sega to the west, hence becoming the first and only mainstream videogame from this generation that can be truly considered the product of a distinct cultural, sociological and historical view on reality… Japanese reality that is. This fact didn’t sprout as if by chance, Toshihiro Nagoshi (producer of the series) simply inherited his principles from his previous contribution with Yu Suzuki’s mandarin flavored  masterpiece, “Shenmue”. From it, “Yakuza” retained the heartfelt desire to meticulously characterize space and time so as to convey a sense of being and belonging, transporting players to a different setting and period, indeed, to a different cultural reality.

Beneath Tokyo’s cacophonous neon-lights and stark skyscrapers, a hectic populace runs amok in search of new delights and pleasures in bubbly strip joints, kitsch-chic hostess bars, fine restaurants, seedy karaoke joints, bars and fast food joints. As Kazuma Kiryu, you’re invited to mingle with the bliss-seeking crowd, to pleasurably enjoy the sights, smells and tastes of this heavenly paradise. However, as you roam Tokyo’s corrupt babel, you’ll become aware of a predatory mass of hoodlums, loan sharks, con-men, hitmen, perverts and pimps, all nervously awaiting their next victim. In “Yakuza” you play the man who can set things right, and in a delicious treat of irony, he himself a former yakuza. However, unlike those petty criminals, Kazuma Kiryu is an old-school yakuza, a ronin with high morals and sense of responsibility. This portrayal of eastern society may seem naive, cherishing yakuzas as modern-day samurai-heroes who defend the helpless and punish the wicked, but that is but one of the many delightful corollaries to one of the best qualities of the “Yakuza” series: personality. “Yakuza” portrays the Japanese mafia as being an integral part of their social hierarchy, only because that is representative of how the game’s authors chose to understand their own society. Players are, in a rare move, invited to see, hear and interact with that specific cultural point of view of Japan.

Naturally, authors’ expressive desire would be meaningless if not for the superb technical prowess and meticulous perfectionism of the Sega team behind the series. And in this western age of bloody grays, “Yakuza 3” introduces a new standard in visual quality for videogames. From the mellow blue skies of a beach resort in the Osaka district, to the bright polychromatic contrast of the Kamurochean red-light district nightscape, every space, object, character, animation and interaction has been granted detail beyond imagination. The atmosphere is so vivid, palpable and lifelike, you’ll actually feel as if part of a tourism trip across Japan’s most idiosyncratic avenues. And if, like Kazuma, you forfeit the life of crime of a yakuza, and slowly explore the scenery, you’ll be rewarded by some of the most intricate and culturally rich vistas available in any videogame. Because it’s in the really small things that “Yakuza” shows its mastery: in the detailed description of spirits given by a bartender, in the plethora of restaurant menus covering everything from Corean, Italian to traditional Japanese cuisine, the many side-activities that confer the world liveliness and consistency, etc, etc, etc. “Yakuza 3” is, to put it bluntly, one of the most coherently naturalistic representations in the medium. Add a well penned storyline with characters (you know, real characters), real-time cutscenes that rival Kojima’s in technical proficiency (though much more down-to-earth, thank goodness) and you have a masterpiece that is unrivaled in the west.

If there is a flaw to be mentioned in the “Yakuza” series, it lies in compromises that have been made with western game design dogmas, by imposing too focused an experience to afford players the chance to breathe and fully explore the game-world’s details. Though the brutal arcade brawler combat and open roleplaying structure are rewarding for the ludus oriented, they oft overstep their boundaries, excessively narrowing the game into endless stretches of grinding combat and numbing side-questing. See, you can’t just famishly chow away Yakuza’s fine plate of delicacies as if it were a thick ‘ludus’ hamburger, you have to eat it as a fine plate of sushi, indulge in a paced ritual, contemplate each piece’s presentation, admire its lavish colors, thank the chef for his superb work and only then savor it, as meditatively, quietly and slowly as possible… actually eating it the least important part. And if you are able to do just that, you’ll surely find in “Yakuza 3”  the finest videogame to come out in the west since… since, well, ever since the PS2 waned.

score: 5/5