I've played a number of games over the past few months that I didn't feel opinionated enough (and well-versed enough) to write a proper single-topic piece on. I've decided to start writing up short(ish) weekly(ish) posts going over thoughts and impressions about such games, if just to keep myself in the habit of writing. Here's the first!
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
I played Metal Gear Solid earlier this year, and got around to playing the sequel recently. I find it hard to have particularly strong opinions about this game since it's so clearly a product of its time. There were things in this game I could look at and say "hey, that must have been mind-blowing in 2001", and there were things I could look at and say "well, I guess that was acceptable in 2001".
I'll give MGS 2 this: for a stealth game from 2001, it's remarkably forgiving. If I got into trouble, I could always leave the room, or just take a fall and restart at the entrance. Rations and ammo were generously doled out, and the way enemies would stay sleeping if I re-entered a room made getting around way easier. The boss battles were sometimes challenging, but never in a way that felt cheap or insurmountable. As with Metal Gear Solid, the way enemy sight cones are projected on the radar single-handedly avoids the recurring "will this guy be able to see me?" stealth game problem. This game's got issues, but if we're comparing contemporaries, I'd take Metal Gear Solid 2 over Splinter Cell any day.
While I can empathize with the people who didn't like the way Metal Gear Solid 2's story took a turn for the bizarre, goofy, and self-indulgent, I was way into it. And having played Metal Gear Solid very recently, I suspect many have forgotten how goofy a game it was. It was during this cutscene, and more specifically the moment the moment the Army General says the words "La Li Lu Le Lo", that I really got on board with what Kojima was doing. The mind control via transplanted arms, a boss battle with a guy wearing a diving suit and roller skates, that moment where Fortune discovers she has magic powers, and, well, this -- I loved almost all of it.
In a weird way, Metal Gear's surreal mix of pseudo-realistic scenarios and utter insanity is the source of its charm. To complain about the narrative being ridiculous is, in my mind, missing the point. I'm not clear on the extent of Hideo Kojima's self-awareness and self-seriousness, but I don't really care -- I'm just glad he's doing what he's doing.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf
I've been playing Animal Crossing on-and-off since its release. I haven't achieved all that much -- I've amassed a pretty good museum collection, built 3 bridges, and got my first house upgrade. I take solace in the idea that while others are playing this game like a sprint, I'm playing it like a marathon. They'll exploit weird beetle spawning glitches to amass huge fortunes, buy everything, min-max their Happy Home Academy scores, and lose interest by the fall, but I'm relatively confident I'll still be checking in come springtime.
I can't help but think the people blowing their way through New Leaf are playing it wrong. If they're enjoying it, all the power to them, but playing this game in a way that boils it down to its raw, often-lame mechanics strikes me as a great way to ruin it for oneself.
Compared to so much of what modern gaming is (for better and for worse), Animal Crossing is a breath of fresh air. It's a simple, happy world where everyone gets along, and everyone's motivations are simple. There's no monumental plot twists, no season passes, no moral choices, no death, and zero irony. I turned on the game yesterday and received a letter from my sporty cat neighbour explaining that my recent visit to his home inspired him to clean up his place. It's a thoroughly pleasant game.
Saints Row: The Third
Saints Row: The Third, like Animal Crossing, is a breath of fresh air compared to much of modern gaming, but in basically every way Animal Crossing isn't.
Yes, the side missions were sloppy, repetitive, and generally not particularly fun (which didn't stop my completionist self from finishing them all); some of this game's humour, especially of the dick/fart/prostitution joke variety, felt unnecessary and rote; and the PS3 framerate would sometimes chug, and occasionally completely fall apart. This game is far from perfect, but it does so much right that I was willing to forgive the wrong.
Almost every aspect of this game (aforementioned mediocre side missions aside) feels like it was designed in a way that thoroughly respects your time and prioritizes fun and choice over chores.
Carjacking epitomizes this. In GTA IV, carjacking was often a slow, sloppy, animation-heavy process; in Saints Row, you hold down L2, press △ anywhere near a car, and your character leaps through the window of the car, putting you in full control of the vehicle in about a second. It may not seem like a big deal, but it was one of many mechanics that kept the game from bogging down.
They kept the city small enough, and the driving nimble and rewarding enough, that the game doesn't suffer from the typical commuting doldrums that plague so many open world games. Sure, they also let you order VTOL jets and helicopters to your location, but getting around was so easy that they felt more fun than practical, especially since (and this illustrates just how much SR3 spoils you), the helicopter and VTOL aren't compatible with the running jump vehicle entry.
The combat design similarly values fun over realism, to a sometimes absurd degree. Saints Row 3 is a game that says "hey, if you want to use these awesome but completely impractical wrestling melee moves, don't sweat it -- we'll give you a bunch of recharging health and make you invulnerable during animations". Saints Row 3 is a game that lets you upgrade your starting pistol to be a dual-wielded, explosive-bullet-shooting, comically-overpowered menace fairly early on. Saints Row 3 is a game that gives you unlimited rockets in precisely the situations you'd want unlimited rockets in. In a lot of ways, I wish they'd gone further -- why not just give me unlimited ammo for all of the basic weapons from the get-go rather than asking me to stop by gun shops, and why enforce a cooldown on the VTOL ordering? As I said before, this game spoils you so much that the parts where it doesn't stand out even more.
I haven't talked about the memorable missions and moments because they've been talked up so much it feels unnecessary to belabour the point. Suffice it to say that the final mission is accompanied by Bonnie Tyler's "I Need a Hero", and it's fucking awesome.
One last thing: having played this game as the the controversy over the caricatured female characters in Dragon's Crown hit its predictable over-wrought hyperbolic climax, I can't help but wonder how Saints Row IV will be received. Because, at least from where I'm coming from, what Dragon's Crown does with respect to the depiction of women is positively tame compared to Saints Row: The Third.
Ridiculously-proportioned, scantily-clad female characters? Check. Human trafficked "hos" being treated as a resource to be stolen and exploited? Check. A "sex appeal" slider on the character selection screen that changes your character's breast size? Check. Strongholds designed and populated like strip clubs? Check. Mini-game where you drive a "ho" around avoiding news cameras while she pleasures a customer in the backseat? Check. Your character saying "oh, you!" after your pimp friend mentions he has sex with his "hos" every night? Check.
This stuff is far from the end of the world. I could do without it it, but I also respect that the game leans so hard into its ridiculousness and parody of "gangster" culture that it's obviously not endorsing everything it depicts. But if game critics are going to go out of their ways to shame and project motives on artists for making art they think someone else could be offended by, it's going to look awfully hypocritical if they turn a blind eye to a game that, taken on face value, probably has a lot more potential to offend and/or alienate. I have a suspicion some critics find it easier to criticize a faceless Japanese company making a relatively niche title than it is to criticize a well-known American company making a sequel to a critical darling nobody wants to feel guilty about having played.