Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Not-Review of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

This is not a review.

I need to say that in no uncertain terms: this is not a review.

There's a fair amount of debate on the subject of whether it's necessary to finish a game before you "review" it. Both sides have good points and, this may surprise you, but I actually come down on the side of those that believe it's not essential. Since games are a combination of both art and product there has to be a different way of thinking about how to criticize them. If a game is broken control-wise, for example, or glitches out to a absurd degree, then one of the most inherent functions of the game is subpar and renders the entire thing, art side included, unusable.

I hesitate to apply this logic here, however, because Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is an excellent game by objective standards. By that I mean it controls well, plays beautiful, and keeps you on the edge of your seat for its entire duration. By most standards it is an excellent game. But I do not feel comfortable saying that I'm reviewing it for that one simple reason: despite its objectively high value, I did not finish the game.

So this is not a review. Rather its a somewhat randomized collection of thoughts on this game and the series canon of which it is ostensibly a part.

I. The Pretty Boy
PICTURED: Seriously. I mean...seriously.
Our friend Raiden's come quite a ways since Metal Gear Solid 2, hasn't he? Remember when he was this poncy long-haired loser that everyone hated because he dared usurp the playable character demigod of Solid Snake and took over the latter 90% of that game? Well, most people still think that way about him. But you have to hand it to Kojima: the guy can make one of the most disliked characters in the franchise into an effective threat.

The funny thing about Raiden's entire existence is that he basically performed his function in the story of Metal Gear Solid 2 to perfection: to make the player feel weak and practically worthless, and the fan outcry about his promotion to main character only served to legitimize Kojima's position. Kojima basically pulled one over on the whole gaming world, and unfortunately it wasn't until many years later that everyone started figuring it out. And by everyone I mean barely anyone. 

Kojima had been harried and harassed for years after Metal Gear Solid to make another game, and while I can't state this for certain I can't help but wonder if the man wasn't a bit appalled at the hero-worship for the broken, emotional damaged player character that he had meant to create, in the same way Alan Moore didn't intend for Rorschach to become a folk hero. When people bang on and on about how awesome Snake is and how they can't wait for the next game please, when is the next game - especially when Snake was specifically designed to be someone you did not want to be - well, it leads men to go off in postmodern directions.

Meaning fans that popped in Metal Gear Solid 2 were expecting two things: long cutscenes, and the ability to play as a broken, traumatized, emotionally stunted super-soldier whom they had come to idolize...whom they had come, as it were, to see as a projection of whom they wanted to be.

Instead, Kojima gave them something far more horrifying: a projection of themselves as they actually were.

Because let's face it, no matter whether you like Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2 or not, he's anything but a badass. Sure, he's got the child-soldier past. But that's mere lip service. Let's look at the game itself. He has vaguely effeminate features, looks like he's wearing eyeliner, sports the emo-est haircut seen this side of a secondary magnet school. He masturbates in women's restrooms. He's constantly pwned by his betters, slips down in bird crap, is treated with disdain by pretty much everyone he comes in contact short, he's a digital manifestation of the emasculation that many players who worship Snake feel. We're talking about a guy so rudimentarily "girly" that the President of the United States has to grab his crotch to make sure he's a guy. 

Raiden's a wuss. And people didn't play Metal Gear Solid 2 to play as a wuss. The came to play as a combat juggernaut, kicking butt and taking names and answering every question in a PTSD-laced growl. 

I might be reaching here, certainly, but anyone around at the time of the game's release could at least see the point; I just can't shake the notion that part of the Raiden-hate stems from the fact that the haters see something of themselves in him. Although I'm no psychologist. What can't be argued was Kojima's intentional design to subvert the player's expectations and put him not in the body of the wily veteran but in a young man completely out of his element, but who managed along the course of the narrative to become a fully realized person, despite efforts by the antagonists to turn him into their own creation, built for war and death.

Of course, most people missed this as well. But that's for the Metal Gear Solid 2 Retrospective.

Suffice it to say that Raiden's had a pretty unenviable existence since then. He rescues Olga's daughter from the Patriots, but is under the impression that Rose had a miscarriage and then is somehow outfitted by the Patriots with a cybernetic exoskeleton that fires lightnings and weeps a mysterious white liquid that is more than reminiscent of artificial beings a certain sci-fi film series:

PICTURED: God, the nightmares....
Now I'm still not sure how exactly this beast interfaces with Raiden:

Because at first glance it looks like it's more or less welded to him - you can see where the entirety of his lower jaw appears to be artificial. But then we see him at the end of MGS 4 and he still has regular human skin, although with odd little lines on it.

 They still haven't figured this out in Rising. Limbs are hacked off with nary a comment, but there's still bone and blood inside, so is the exoskeleton purely just that, and doesn't intercede on any of Raiden's internal fuctions? But if that's so then how in the name of science can you manage to get natural arms chopped off with the regularity he does and still have two of them if they're not entirely robotic or cybernetic?

I don't know. It doesn't really matter. The important issue here is that Raiden's character has come full circle. He is now the badass that you want to play as, and the only people that don't are those with residual sour tastes from twelve-odd years ago. The guy is a freaking superhero, leaping tall buildings in a single bound and cleaving cyborg schlubs into thirty pieces before they even had a chance to fall to the ground. It says quite a lot about Kojima, I think: he's a character almost universally panned upon his introduction in 2001, creating great rifts in a rabid fandom; it would tempt any creator to pull the plug or pretend the whole "Raiden fiasco" never occurred. Instead, while Kojima acknowledges the popular opinion of his bleach-blond protagonist - as seen in Metal Gear Solid 3 - he never crosses the line into participating in the mockery and disdain, managing to treat Raiden as a fully-fledged character and giving him a rather compelling arc over the course of games two and four. The Raiden we see in Metal Gear Solid 2 and the Raiden we play as in Metal Gear Rising looks the same, talk the same, even act the same - but one is a naive young boy playing a part at the whims of forces greater than he, while the other would just chop said forces into kibble. 

II. The Gameplay

Isn't it odd with video games how you can heap praise on one that you didn't even finish? Really, there's no other artistic medium where this is possible, and it once again comes down to the nature of games as a whole. They are both art and commodity. They can function perfectly and be emotionally underwhelming. We'll get to the underwhelming part in a second, but allow me to indulge what the game does right.

As is well-known in the Metal Gear fandom, Metal Gear Rising went under a tortuous publication history. I won't rehash the whole saga here, especially since any quick search on Wikipedia will bring up vast oceans of information on the subject, but suffice it to say that Kojima and Co. were unequipped to handle what the game was becoming, and thus farmed the mechanics out to Platinum Games, who apparently have a reputation for well-functioning, high velocity, over the top hack and slashers. That affinity is expressed well in Metal Gear Rising. Gameplay is fun, visceral, high-impact, heart-pounding, controller-throwing chaos. You run up collapsing buildings, parry blows from 200 ton battle tanks, and hack at a pair of legs that have detached themselves from a boss. 

The battle system is creative, the gore unceasing. The most lauded - and rightfully so - aspect of the combat is the "blade mode" system, wherein at the press of a button Raiden can slow down time (or, in game, your super-cyborg reflexes kick in) and hack and dice a foe into kindling in slow motion, or use the the right and left analog sticks to angle the blade to cut in the manner of your choosing. This really makes you feel like you have control of Raiden's sword and aren't just giving commands for him to execute, and most importantly, it doesn't feel like a gimmick: in an intelligent move on Platinum's part, the blade mode and the ability to direct your slices figures intrinsically into the combat: when an enemy is weakened enough, entering blade mode will allow you to slice at a targeted area on the body, revealing the cyborg's power supply...or something...that, if cut, will regenerate Raiden's health. So not only does the blade mode mechanic serve an important function, but you basically can't defeat a couple of the boss without mastering it. A really, really well executed move by Platinum.

Boss fights are creative and difficult without being overwhelming - although I did cry and beat the arms of the sofa on one of them. The battles remind me of  the arcade, especially shoot-em-ups like Metal Slug, except of course you have a blade instead of a gun.

On the flip side there are a variety of weapons to use, rocket launchers and the like. Their handling is clumsier and not near as fleshed out for obvious reasons, but they do come in handy more than once.

Basically, if you like a challenge Metal Gear Rising is the game for you. It ramps up the difficulty but never beats up the player, and the physics that go into slicing off the limbs of a cyborg while he stands there helplessly are glorious. On a pure gameplay side of things, Metal Gear Rising is nigh impeccable.

III. The Story, and a Bit about Canon

Wow, Mr. E! I hear the one social maladjust reading this blog say. You really heaped praise on the game in that last section, why on Earth didn't you finish it?

There are two times of game players in this world, my friends. People who play games for interactive feed back and people who play games for interactive narrative. The first kind of people rabidly foam at the mouth about Mass Effect 3's story mode. The second kind would almost rather be watching a movie anyway.

That's a gross exaggeration of course, but fact is I'm highly unlikely to play a game if the narrative doesn't sweep me up in it. That's not saying game play isn't important - it's very important - but I can forgive weak gameplay for a solid story, and while it'll be harder for me to play great gameplay with a story that doesn't involve me. 

That being said, I would have finished the game, if not for one reason: I rented it from Blockbuster (yes, they still exist), and if I didn't return it I would have had to pay a dollar more. That the prospect of paying a whole dollar more dissuaded me from finishing the game is a tidbit that, I think, speaks for itself.

So this game is supposedly set in the Metal Gear universe, a universe which now included cybernetic domestic police force, a cornucopia of robots in all manners, shapes, sizes and abilities, and (spoiler alert), the technology to remove the brains from kids and keep them alive until they can be made into mindless super soldiers in cybernetic bodies.


Let's burn the bridge behind us, people: Metal Gear Rising's story is completely ridiculous.

Now I know it's odd for someone to call out a Metal Gear game's story for being ridiculous. This is a series that regular features walking battle tanks, 100-year-old boss snipers, former Presidents with Doctor Octopus arms, psychics, vampires, nanomachines that might as well be magic potions, and a main character who has a fetish for cardboard boxes. 

PICTURED: There was also this.
And even with all that, even with all that, Metal Gear Rising makes the other Metal Gear Solid games look like hard-hitting war documentaries. 

See, there was always this level of self-irony in the Metal Gear games. But that irony, and even the impossibilities, somehow managed to seem realistic in the world. I honestly don't know how Kojima managed to do this. Take "The End," for instance - the 100-year-old expert sniper mentioned in the previous paragraph. The man is not alive - like he has to be pushed around in a wheelchair because he's literally sleeping to preserve his time left on Earth. Then you fight him and suddenly he's nailing you with pinpoint accuracy over two or three miles and skittering about like a hamster on caffeine (this, by the way, is one of the great boss fights in the history of the medium). Finally, at the end of the fight, like the rest of his comrades, he explodes into a million pieces. I mean he literally explodes.

Yet somehow this seems plausible. Like of course the Boss' team is going to be a bunch of freaks with literally impossible abilities. Of course the main bad guy is going to have a suit welded to his skin that gives him the power to control electricity. Of course the Boss' scar turns into a snake.

If I really had to pin this down, I'd say it's a couple of things: one, the ancillary stuff in Metal Gear was so in depth that it allowed us to accept the madness as part of the world. The names of the guns, the histories of the characters, the gritty feel of the locations, the role the politics play. No matter what happened, no matter how often Snake snuck around in a cardboard box, no matter how many boss fights involved a fat man on roller skates, there was this sense of grounded realism that pervaded the scenery. You knew simultaneously that you were playing a video game and participating in a sinuous political thriller. Heck, Metal Gear Solid 3 is almost fetishistic in its adherence to history. It maintains that grasp of a Cold War spy novel while having a character that can control bees. The very fact that Kojima's able to pull this off, no matter his other flaws, making him worthy of admiration. 

And Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance makes it clear that Kojima alone can do this. Or at the very least, Platinum Games cannot. There are a few moments of classic Metal Gear absurdity in the game - the fact that you gain a sidekick that's essentially a robot dog is one of them. There's also a bit where Raiden tries to blend in in Mexico by wearing a sarape and a sombrero, and that's it, giving everyone a full view of the rest of his metal exoskeleton. But the attempts are awkward, and forced, the very definition of unworthy imitation. Platinum Games are trying to put Kojima's affectations on the board and generally fail at it. 

Not to mention the question this brings up about the Metal Gear canon.

Now canon discussions can be frustrating, confusing, and unproductive. Just ask any consumer of comic books. Or ask a Star Wars fan that hates or loves the prequels. Parts of canon can be ignored by large parts of a consumer base, there are always disagreements even in the highest realms of literature - the "Westen Canon," for example, is constantly under fire about something, because it's too white, too Anglophone, what have you - so from that viewpoint, it'd be pretty easy to just ignore Revengeance's contributions to the canon of this series entirely.

That being said, let's look at this for a moment: the game makes it clear that these events are occurring in the Metal Gear universe, and that it's at some point after Metal Gear Solid 4. All right, now that we have that settled, apparently in that span of time humanity has created a virtual host of super-complex robotics complete with fully-functional artificial intelligences in the forms of wolves, dinosaurs, and freaking gorillas, of all things:

PICTURED: Yes. That is a gorilla.
Again, the Metal Gear series has always had these leaps in logic, but there was enough to ground it in realism that you accepted it as a function in the "realistic" world being created. The Gecko are a good example of this. Yes, they're automatons with an apparently rudimentary intelligence. But at the end of they day they're very basic machines. Bipedal robots with one or two functions. And their design is not complex in the slightest. Triangular head on abdomen where legs are attached. It just looked like something that could actual come about in the next few years or so.

But gorilla robots? No.

Let's get into, as well, the nature of cyborgs in the series. Okay, so we have Frank Jaegar. 

Brutally tortured and kept alive in stasis while cruel experiments were performed upon him before he was shoved into a metal exoskeleton that constantly pumps anti-psychotics and stabilizers into his bloodstream in a rather painful way, apparently. Also gets a samurai sword and a particle beam weapon. 

Ridiculous? Yeah, but injected with enough technobabble and emotion to make it feel not only real, but something rare and terrible that was done to this man against his will. That is, there's no indication that there a mass-production facility cranking out these suits, nor that being inside said suit is a particularly awesome thing.

Then we have Olga Gurlukovich. 

She barely counts since there's no real indication that what she's wearing isn't just simple body armor, but she's playing Jaegar roles in Metal Gear Solid 2, so we'll add her in. Basically, same situation. She's basically a pawn of the Patriots, so to play her role she's given a very rare, expensive exoskeleton to facilitate the S3 project. 

Then we have Raiden himself in Metal Gear Solid 4.  

Once more: painful surgeries, pawn of the patriots, in supreme agony, looks to be one of a kind. The uniqueness of the exoskeletons and the implied weeks of work it took to create a Frank or a Raiden grounded the absurdity of the plot point into a more believable stratum that the audience could buy as a factual occurrence. 

So believe me when I say that when Metal Gear Rising jumps off the rails, it jumps hard. Suddenly everyone and their mother is not only a cybernetic organism, but a cybernetic organism with completely insane abilities and weapons. Here's a guy that can control magnetism, whose physical body is chop suey, and who can detach portions of his arms and legs and torso and throw them at you. Here's a girl who has rather agonizing-looking implants her back and can control those damned annoying little three-legged gecko that just had to come over for the ride from Metal Gear Solid 4. Of all the things they had to bring over from the previous game, God help me. Here's another dude with metallic plates on robotic arms that he can control as extra limbs which can bash me against walls or form a shield I can't break. Here's the entire police force of Denver spewing electronics and having blue power cells implanted in their guts. Here's Raiden vaulting up skyscraper walls in complete defiance of gravity. On and on and on....

This would be awesome stuff in an other over-the-top hack n' slash bloodbath, but remember: this is a game in the Metal Gear canon. And it's not just tangentially related either. We have the main character of the series, we have constant nods to the other games - Soliton Radar, Codecs and requisite noise - as well as multiple mentions of SOP and at least one nod to Rose. This means we somehow have to contort our minds to figure out how a grounded-if-postmodern militaristic war series suddenly, in four years, advances to a context that wouldn't be out of place in a cyberpunk film. 

It just doesn't mesh. Which forces you to divorce this game from the rest of the series anyway. Which makes one wonder why this wasn't an entirely different game to begin with. Now there are obvious answer to that, starting with name recognition, and the fact that the game, while sort of initiated by Kojima, eventually became Platinum Games' baby. What can't be denied, however, is that the game is in direct contradiction with everything else in the series whose name it - uh, at least partially - bears.

And that's what it comes down to, in the end. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a well made, challenging, awesome game with a terrible, out-of-place, absurd, canon defiling story. What you take from that statement is proportional to how much you'll enjoy the game.

Until next time, 

Mr. E



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