Metal Gear Madness - Episode .06

May may have ended a couple of weeks ago, but one thing that's soldiered on undeterred is my Metal Gear Madness challenge. Formerly dubbed Metal Gear May Madness, the original aim was to beat all eight canonical stealth games in the Metal Gear series within the month of May. I didn't succeed, only managing to make it through the first five games, but I decided that time constraints be damned, I'd come too far through the franchise to put it down now. A quick name change and a renewed sense of purpose later, and here we are, pressing on through the remaining three games in the series.

If you want more details about how the challenge came about and which games it encompasses, then check out the inaugural entry, which should answer any questions you may have. If you've missed a specific game in the series, I've laid them out in a handy-dandy table below:

The Episode Roster
Episode .01 - Metal GearEpisode .02 - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
Episode .03 - Metal Gear SolidEpisode .04 - Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Episode .05 - Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

All caught up? Good stuff. Now let's press on, shall we? Roll hastily-doctored title card!

Episode .06 - Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops

It's all about building an army of recruits in Portable Ops

It took me a while to get around to playing Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops after wrapping up Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater at the end of May. Admittedly, that was partly because I had problems locating my oft-neglected PSP's mains charger, but it was also because I felt like I was starting to get burned out on the series. After about a week of procrastinating and making excuses, I plunged into Portable Ops proper, and the result was a largely pleasant one. It's a solid stealth game that tells a pretty interesting story sandwiched between Snake Eater and Peace Walker. It does some new things with the series' gameplay, debuts some cool unit management subsystems that serve as the foundation for the Mother Base stuff in Peace Walker, and successfully migrates it all to an episodic format that's conducive to short bursts of play.

Let's start with the new stuff, shall we? The first obvious change is that rather than presenting one continuous mission, Portable Ops is broken up into smaller bite-sized missions. There's still an over-arching story tying all these missions together, but it's presented in something much closer to an episodic fashion this time around. This small change does wonders for making the Metal Gear formula work on a handheld platform because it makes it much easier to drop in and out of play on the move. It also adds a bit of variety to proceedings, with several different kinds of missions available including gathering intel, rescuing captive soldiers, sabotaging enemy strongholds and hunting down useful items.

The game's hand-drawn cut-scenes are a big departure from the series norm, but they fit in surprisingly well and look great

The other big change is in the game's focus on soldier recruitment and unit management. It's possible for Naked Snake to recruit any enemy soldiers he encounters on missions, and once these recruits have been talked round to your way of thinking, you can take them out on missions with you or station them in a number of dedicated off-field units. Recruits with high senses make great spies, while those with strong tech and medic skills flourish in your R&D and Medical units respectively. Building strong units has positive ramifications on gameplay - the Medical unit will create medical supplies, the R&D unit will develop new gadgets and weapons, and effective Spy units will report back with info on side-quests and provide more detailed maps for the game's many environments. Each recruit also has their own proficiency with different kinds of weapons, as well as unique traits that make them suited to specific jobs such as dragging recruits back to the truck, or returning items back to base. It may not sound much like Metal Gear on the surface, and it's not as easy to lose hours in the menus as it is in the subsequent Peace Walker, but it's a cool system with a surprising amount of depth and reward.

Portable Ops's biggest strength, though, is without a doubt how successfully it manages to migrate the gameplay mechanics and depth of the last couple of Metal Gear Solid games onto a handheld system. The gameplay is fundamentally identical to that of Metal Gear Solids 2 and 3, which means most of the nuances from those games are present here. Crawling, sneaking, wall-pressing, dragging bodies out of sight, popping out of cover to shoot, CQC... In short - if you could do it in Sons of Liberty or Snake Eater, you can probably do it here, too. Considering the limitations of the PSP, I think the fact they've squeezed so much depth into playing Portable Ops is seriously impressive. The fact they subsequently managed to go even deeper with Peace Walker verges on mind-blowing.

Something I failed to mention in the bulk of the blog is that Portable Ops's few boss battles are pretty lacklustre

Unfortunately, that level of depth comes with a trade-off, and it's in the control department that Portable Ops's most telling sacrifices have been made. The PSP's reduced button count and single analog nub means that most of the functionality feels a bit shoe-horned in, with a lot of buttons serving more than one purpose. The control system also doesn't really account for one important thing in a stealth game - finesse. These two frustrations combine to cause my personal biggest frustration with Portable Ops - namely, the fact that it's far too easy to make clumsy (but costly) mistakes, and often through no fault of one's own. This is amplified by the game's dependence on soldier recruitment, which means you'll often have to get close to a soldier and use CQC to incapacitate them before they see you and raise the alarm - not an easy task with such a fiddly control scheme.

There's also no denying the constant feeling that Portable Ops wants to be something bigger than it actually is. Its seemingly throw-away title belies a fairly important and well-developed canonical story that serves to bridge a few gaps between Operation Snake Eater and the remainder of the series. People refer to Peace Walker as the bona-fide missing link, but the story of Portable Ops explicitly sows the seeds of Outer Heaven in its own right. Without wanting to spoil too much, I particularly appreciated the stuff they did with the Null character, even if it was playing pretty fast-and-loose with the already-established canon. It's a shame that this bridging of the gap happened exclusively on PSP, under a moniker giving no indication of its relevance, and in a game that Kojima himself seems reluctant to acknowledge (the game's absence from any of the HD collections is telling). As it stands, it just feels like an episodic, squad-based Metal Gear spin-off with delusions of grandeur.

As has become customary for this series, I've taken a photo of my final game ranking to share with you on this blog. It certainly makes for less pretty reading than the one for Snake Eater, which I'm still fiercely proud of. It took me quite a while to get through the game, although I'll put that down to my commitment to exploring all the various spy reports that came in. The number of alert phases triggered in particular is just plain embarrassing, especially after I made it through the previous game with just two. Take a look for yourself below. Just try not to laugh too much, okay?

With Portable Ops out of the way, the challenge is now three-quarters through. Just two games remain - Metal Gear Solid 4, and Peace Walker. I actually double-dipped on Peace Walker earlier in the challenge and picked up the downloadable PS3 version from the PlayStation Store, so that's where I suspect I shall be playing it. Hopefully that will eliminate some of the fiddly control issues I encountered with Portable Ops. If I decide I'd rather experience it on a handheld further down the line, I guess I could always partake in a little Transfarring. Right now I'm ploughing through Metal Gear Solid 4, and am currently a fair way into Act Three. If all goes to plan, you can expect the seventh instalment of Metal Gear Madness before this week is out. Thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3)

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Metal Gear May Madness - Episode .05

We're back, baby! Nothing stops the Metal Gear May Madness train from rolling on to its next destination! If you're unsure what that destination is, you can find an outline of the journey here. If you think you may have missed your stop, please check the route planner below:

The Episode Roster
Episode .01 - Metal GearEpisode .02 - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
Episode .03 - Metal Gear SolidEpisode .04 - Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Right now we're pulling into the fifth station on this eight-stop line - Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Please mind the gap when boarding and alighting the blog.

Episode .05 - Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Is Naked Snake better than Solid? I certainly think so

It's no secret that Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is my favourite game in the Metal Gear franchise. Actually, it probably wouldn't be unreasonable to call it one of my favourite games of all time. Most of the praise I've heaped on the preceding games also holds true here - Snake Eater boasts a gripping, labyrinthine story punctuated by dramatic twists and cinematic showdowns, solid and surprisingly flexible stealth gameplay, and some of the greatest boss fights ever to grace the medium. Oh, and it's got the obligatory nuclear-capable tank as well (even if it isn't technically a Metal Gear). This is all well and good, but there are two problems with this succinct description. For a start, it doesn't differentiate Snake Eater from anything that came before it (or should that be after it?), and second, it doesn't justify why I love it considerably more than any other game in the series. I'll therefore try to spend the next few paragraphs doing exactly these things.

I'll start by waxing lyrical about the gameplay changes, because they're easily one of my favourite aspects of Snake Eater. There's an increased emphasis on survival in Metal Gear Solid 3, a fact best illustrated by the new camouflage, hunting and healing systems, all of which are well integrated into the established sneaking experience. Changing uniforms to blend in with Naked Snake's surroundings, capturing and eating animals to maintain stamina levels, and using supplies to treat serious wounds all add extra layers of depth to the otherwise fairly simple stealth mechanics of the Metal Gear franchise, giving the player more things to micro-manage and maintain without ever overwhelming them.

CQC keeps the player's combat options more flexible

Combat is augmented by the CQC system, a much-needed overhaul to the series' melee encounters that allows Snake to grapple, throw and choke without having to un-equip his firearm. It's a simple change that's hugely appreciated in tight spots, although the controls can be a bit fiddly and awkward, sometimes resulting in a feeble choke instead of the knock-out throw you originally intended. Finally, there's the fully-3D camera. Debuted in the Subsistence release of the game and now included as standard in the HD re-release, it makes surveying Snake's surroundings much slicker than the previous top-down perspective. Individually, all of these additions serve to improve the experience of playing Snake Eater. Together, they transform it into something that's leagues above its predecessors.

All these adjustments to the series' core gameplay are supported by Snake Eater's setting - the forests, rivers, mountains and research facilities of Cold War-era Russia. Snake Eater's environments are completely unlike anything else in the Metal Gear series. They're wildly varied, beautifully detailed, and surprisingly interactive. They complement the new gameplay mechanics perfectly, the natural outdoor environments providing a perfect backdrop for Snake's reliance on camouflage and survival techniques. Snake Eater's maps are also much more open than those of previous Metal Gear games, giving the player more choice in how they navigate them. Put simply, if Metal Gear Solid 2 gave the player a bigger arsenal of moves at their disposal, then Metal Gear Solid 3 gives them the space in which to use those moves to their fullest. This added freedom and the way it encourages the player to experiment is another reason why I've long favoured Snake Eater over its brethren.

See that wood? You can shoot through that. Just another example of Snake Eater's commitment to attention-to-detail

Ultimately though, it's the little touches that have resulted in Snake Eater holding a special place in my heart. The Metal Gear series as a whole is famed for its attention to detail - a fact I've largely glossed over in previous entries in this blog series, but which it's pretty much impossible to ignore in Snake Eater's case. The game is full of these small design choices that go a long way towards making the game an unforgettable experience. Things like the way food you've caught will rot in real time according to the PS2's internal clock, or how sabotaging enemy camps will have subtle effects on guards in the vicinity (destroy a food store and they'll become hungrier, for example). Perhaps the most impacting of these touches for me personally was the revelation that you can defeat The End simply by saving the game during the battle and waiting for eight real days, after which he'd die of old age. Metal Gear Solid 3 is a ten-hour experience at its core, but could easily be stretched to several times that by a player diligent and curious enough to seek out its subtleties.

It's difficult for me to pick fault with Snake Eater, largely because the game itself sits so well with me. If I had to offer up one piece of criticism, it would probably be directed at the game's lacklustre frame-rate, which is a pretty bitter pill to swallow immediately after the crisp, clean aesthetics of Metal Gear Solid 2. It's been a while since my last foray into the Russian jungle, so I can't say for certain whether the exceedingly choppy frame-rate is down to the game itself or simply a by-product of (or worsened by) the PS3's emulation. Either way, it's definitely detrimental to the experience in places. It's a real shame, especially because the game is so gorgeous otherwise. Thankfully, it's my understanding that the HD version (which I'd imagine is now the most readily available version) runs at a flawlessly crisp sixty frames per second, effectively eliminating the game's biggest fault for a modern audience. Seriously though, when a janky frame-rate is my biggest criticism of a game, I really have to be clutching at straws.

As with all the other games, here are my final rankings for Snake Eater. I'm pretty happy with all of them - it's arguable I took too long playing through the game, given the constraints of the challenge, but I found myself really wanting to savour the experience of returning to my favourite instalment in the series.

Now, I realise I said above that nothing stops the Metal Gear May Madness train. However, one pretty big obstacle is sitting on the tracks in the form of the end of this month. Right now there are only two full days left in May - two days in which I've given myself the mammoth task of finishing three more Metal Gear games. I think that's a challenge that even Solid Snake himself would struggle with. For that reason, I'm declaring here and now that the Metal Gear May Madness challenge is all but a failure. Or, to keep rolling with the train metaphor, I think it's pretty safe to say at this point that Metal Gear May Madness is on course for a spectacular derailment.

But that won't be the end of this absurd challenge, which was always just as much about re-experiencing this incredible franchise of games as it was about ridiculously unfair time constraints. I still have Portable Ops, Guns of the Patriots and Peace Walker left to play, and I have no intention of simply dropping tools and not experiencing those segments of the series' story. Metal Gear May Madness will be going off-road and continuing into June - a challenge failed, but not forgotten. I'm planning to pick up Portable Ops tonight, and start sneaking my way through its campaign, May be damned. You can still expect blog updates on the remaining games, probably under a slightly revised title, as and when I beat them. In the meantime, thanks very much for reading guys, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops (PSP)

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Metal Gear May Madness - Episode .04

It's a little later than planned, but at last, here's the continuation of Metal Gear May Madness - an attempt on my part to play every single game in the core Metal Gear canon within the month of May. If you're not sure what's going on here, I'd advise you to stop and read the inaugural entry for the series here - it'll explain what I'm up to, and how I'm doing it. If you've missed any of the episodes concerning individual games, you can find them presented in the table below:

The Episode Roster
Episode .01 - Metal GearEpisode .02 - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake
Episode .03 - Metal Gear Solid

This fourth episode in the series is all about Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. As well as being the franchise's first instalment on the PlayStation 2, it was also my own initiation to the Metal Gear saga, so it's sure to be a pretty nostalgic journey at the very least. Read on to find out how I got on with Kojima's original mind-fuck...

Episode .04 - Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

The PS2's increased graphical horsepower brings Kojima's vision to life like never before

The first thing that crossed my mind booting up Metal Gear Solid 2 for the first time in about six or seven years was simply, "Damn, this looks good". I want to clarify that I'm not playing the HD re-release here, just the Substance expansion of the original Sons of Liberty that came out just over ten years ago. Sure, the textures may be a little blurry and the animation isn't realistic to a fault, but there's a consistency to MGS2's visual package that makes the whole thing a joy to look at. Coming into the game straight off the back of the original Metal Gear Solid, there's something marvellous about seeing the likes of Solid Snake, Otacon and Revolver Ocelot appearing fully realised this time around, their in-game appearances no longer as restricted by limiting hardware. Similarly, the extra graphical punch means that the sense of scale debuted in MGS is amplified ten-fold here, perhaps best illustrated by the outdoor moments on the Big Shell and that epic boss fight against multiple Metal Gear RAYs near the game's end.

Unlike the graphical leap from Metal Gear 2 to Metal Gear Solid, this time around the aesthetic advancements are backed up with some seriously meaty additions on the gameplay side of things as well. The protagonists of Metal Gear Solid 2 have a huge array of new skills and manoeuvres at their disposal too, such as hanging from railings, peeking round corners, and being able to fire any weapon from a first-person perspective. This last enhancement is definitely the biggest, because it imparts a whole new tactical approach to combat for the series. Being able to pop out of cover and squeeze off a headshot with any weapon actually goes a long way to amalgamating the series' previously distinct combat and stealth mechanics. This new-found mechanical symbiosis is further aided by the introduction of non-lethal, tranquilising weaponry for the first time in the series. It doesn't turn the game into a run-and-gun shoot-'em-up, but it does even the odds somewhat. Thankfully there are a host of improvements to the enemy AI as well - guards are smarter than ever in MGS2, and interact with each other in much more sophisticated ways that make the dreaded Alert Phase even more of a threat. These enhancements render the increased move-set and new gadgets not only useful, but necessary.

I'm pretty sure we'll never see anything quite like the reveal of Raiden in gaming again

And then there's the story. It's something I've grown to appreciate about the game more and more as I've become more enveloped in the series as a whole, because it's only by knowing the franchise that it's possible to realise just how much of a gamble Kojima took with this one. The decision to ditch Snake as the protagonist in favour of Raiden wasn't met with approval when the game was originally released, but I personally think it's one of Kojima's bravest and most brilliant narrative decisions through the whole franchise. It's a bait-and-switch that I simply couldn't see happening in the leak-prone environment of the modern games industry, and we're unlikely to see anything like it ever again. The plot itself is well crafted too, for the most part, mirroring the events of the Shadow Moses incident while still managing to feel original, and packing twists so tight they make the narrative of Metal Gear Solid look like a Roman road by comparison. It's definitely a thrilling plot to follow.

For every occasion that the story of Metal Gear Solid 2 hits the right mark, though, there's another moment not too far off where it overshoots the mark and simply refuses to turn around. Nowhere is this more true than in the game's closing ninety minutes or so, which piles a series of revelations onto the player with so little breathing time that it's easy to lose track of what is actually going on. Hell, I've played the game multiple times in the last ten years and I'm still not completely sure what the S3 Plan really is. MGS2 is also the first game in the series where Kojima's propensity for cutscene-driven storytelling starts to win out over the actual gameplay. In simpler terms, it often feels like you're watching Metal Gear Solid 2 more than you're playing it. That's not an inherently bad thing - I personally enjoy the way Kojima chooses to tell his stories, and I love watching the plots of the Metal Gear games unfold just as much as I love playing them - but the cutscene-to-gameplay ratio of MGS2 is much closer to 1:1 than those of its predecessors.

This time around I've had to snag two photos of my end-game statistics - one for the actual statistical side of things, and another for my final ranking. Interesting story - this is actually the first time I've ever played the Substance version of the game, having previously only owned the original Sons of Liberty. As a result, I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've actually received a codename while playing MGS2 (I seem to remember Sons of Liberty tied all that stuff up with the now-defunct clear codes, so you had to go online to find out your ranking, a luxury I didn't have back then). I'm fairly happy with the statistical side of things, although once again I think there were a few too many enemy deaths, especially considering I had the luxury of knock-out weaponry this time around. I'm pretty sure most of those deaths came about in the game's boss battles and mandatory alert stages, but that's still a figure I'll definitely be trying to reduce in the next game.

These are my end-game statistics...
...and this is my codename and now-obsolete clear code.

The completion of Metal Gear Solid 2 means I'm now at the halfway point of the May Madness challenge - four games down, four games to go. Unfortunately, the timescale for the challenge doesn't stand quite so favourably - due to work and other commitments keeping me from my gaming time, it took me a crippling eight days to reach the end of MGS2. Including the remainder of today, that means I have just twelve days left to clear the four remaining games. So it's not looking great for the challenge, but I'm determined to keep pressing on. Next up is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, by far my favourite instalment in the whole franchise, and one I'm really looking forward to revisiting. Hopefully you won't have to wait another eight days for the next instalment. Until then, thanks for reading and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence (PS2)

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Metal Gear May Madness - Episode .03

As May moves on apace, so too does the Metal Gear May Madness challenge. If you've managed to miss my entries from the last couple of weeks, then have no fear, because I've got you covered. If you're still unsure what the hell is going on here, I'd recommend reading the introductory episode to this series, which you can find here. If you've missed my thoughts on a specific game, you can find them by clicking the links in the table below:

The Episode Roster
Episode .01 - Metal GearEpisode .02 - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake

With all that out of the way, I do believe it's time to look at my most recent Metal Gear conquest - the series' first three-dimensional entry, Metal Gear Solid.

Episode .03 - Metal Gear Solid

The addition of a third dimension turns Metal Gear into the cinematic experience it always wanted to be

The most noticeable thing going from Metal Gear 2 to Metal Gear Solid is the graphical leap. To be fair, there are eight years and a lot of hardware advancements between the two titles, but that doesn't dull the impact of going from 8-bit 2D sprites to full-blown polygonal 3D. Judging it by the standard of its PlayStation contemporaries, Metal Gear Solid is one damn good-looking game. The level of detail in the environments and character models is extraordinary in light of the PS1's limitations. The third dimension also grants everything a greater sense of scale, something missing from the two MSX games and most apparent in the face-offs against the Hind D and Metal Gear REX, where Snake really does seem minuscule.

Moving away from the visual side of things, the next obvious thing to praise is the game's voice work. Sure, it's not the best voice acting ever, but it provides a lot of the game's defining personality, not to mention the depth it adds to the game's cast of characters. David Hayter's performance as Solid Snake totally defines that character, to the point where even in the two MSX games I was mentally reading his dialogue in that unmistakeable voice. Also worth mentioning is the game's narrative, which is practically labyrinthine in its intriguing twists and turns, and does a much better job than either of the MSX games at keeping the player on the right track as they infiltrate Shadow Moses Island. The further expanded Codec system is also responsible for this improved sense of direction, its huge bank of conversations ensuring the player is never stuck without advice.

With the benefit of hindsight, it's a shame the gameplay didn't make the same leap. Having played Metal Gear Solid immediately after Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, it's apparent just how little the act of playing the game has changed in spite of the huge leap in hardware. Snake has very few new tricks at his disposal in his first 3D outing, especially when considering the wealth of new tricks he picked up between the first two MSX games. The same can be said for a lot of Metal Gear Solid's "unique" gameplay elements, things that I didn't realise were lifted almost verbatim out of Metal Gear 2 until I finally played it last week. Things like having to recover a Codec frequency from the game's packaging, thinking outside the box to identify a woman disguised as a soldier, and the temperature-sensitive shape-shifting key - these were things that I originally found incredibly impressive about Metal Gear Solid, but my appreciation of them has been greatly cheapened by learning they're actually just rehashes of gameplay beats from its predecessor.

The first-person view mode makes for some pretty memorable moments

I don't want to give the impression that the game didn't make any gameplay advancements at all, though. By far the most telling enhancement is the inclusion of a first-person view function, which makes it possible to carry out much more detailed surveillance than in previous games. It also allows for the inclusion of a sniper rifle and a more sophisticated Stinger missile launcher, which in turn contribute to some of the game's (and indeed the series') most memorable boss battles. In fact, the boss battles are among the game's highest points, challenging the player in just about every possible area of skill (including mentally - who could forget that showdown with Psycho Mantis?). There are a ton of other improvements, but most of them are minor - things like the simplification of the card key system, or the introduction of chaff grenades to jam enemy electronics. They all contribute to a slightly deeper stealth experience, but stacked up against the differences between Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, they don't seems anywhere near as revolutionary.

All in all, I still think Metal Gear Solid is a fantastic game. It may not have innovated as much as I once thought it did, but there's no denying the game still holds up. I think it says a lot that my biggest complaint about the game is a retrospective one, one that up until playing Metal Gear 2 last week I didn't even have. I know a lot of people take issue with the game's control system, but that's something that's never bothered me personally. Sure, it may be clumsy compared to a third-person shooter, but in the context of the series' gameplay mechanics I think it works just fine. Once again, I've grabbed a badly-lit photo of my end-game statistics for your perusal. I was surprised by how much time I'd actually put into the game - it certainly didn't feel like a nine-hour journey. I'm also mighty happy with the Continue and Found statistics both being in single figures, although that's most likely due to me being much more familiar with this game than I was with the first two.

So that's three games in twelve days - spot on my projected pace of getting through a game every four days. Next up is Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the game that served as my original introduction to the franchise around a decade ago. Mid-week playing is a difficult thing to squeeze in for me (a fact hammered home by last week's arduous slog through Metal Gear 2), but I'll do my best to get into a position where I can share the next blog entry with you next weekend. I've already made it through the Tanker chapter, and with a personal best time to boot, so here's hoping I can keep up this momentum. Until next time, thanks for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance (PS2)

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Metal Gear May Madness - Episode .02

Before I get this episode properly underway, I want to do something I should have done at the start of the last episode and draw your attention to @demoskinos' blog 'Metal Gear March'. It's a challenge with an almost identical concept to this one, but it pre-dates my blogs by a couple of months, and is therefore much better. I highly recommend you read it - it's well written, and clearly demonstrates a deep passion for Hideo Kojima's flagship series. Check it out, I promise you won't be disappointed.

Now on to the main point of this blog - the continuation of Metal Gear May Madness! If you're still not aware of what I'm doing, I'll point you in the direction of the introductory blog I wrote for this little series, which you can find here. That should clear up any questions you might have about the mad endeavour I'm currently caught up in. When I posted my last blog, I'd just beaten the original Metal Gear. Next on my agenda was its sequel - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. How did I fare with it? And more importantly, how does it fare against my harsh critical judgement? Read on, dear reader, and ye shall find out.

Episode .02 - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake

When I played through the first Metal Gear last week, I genuinely felt like I was playing something truly innovative and special. After playing through Metal Gear 2, I feel almost foolish for considering its predecessor to be anything more than marginally ahead of its time. Metal Gear 2 takes pretty much every innovation made by its older brother and runs with them until it can't run any further. It addresses most of my criticisms with the first game, while also making a ton of advances in ways I didn't even expect. Metal Gear may be the most prominent symbol of the birth of the stealth genre, but Metal Gear 2 is without a doubt the origin of the Metal Gear franchise as we know it.

I guess I'll start where I started with Metal Gear last time - the mechanics. Structurally Metal Gear 2 is a very similar game to its predecessor - it takes place across a large base the player must sneak through without being seen, completing objectives and defeating mercenaries along the way. Some areas are locked off and require certain card keys to get into, which invariably means a bit of back-tracking at various points in the campaign. Where Metal Gear 2 differs from the original is in its refinement of the gameplay mechanics that exist within this structural framework. Take the stealth, for instance, which is hugely expanded on and improved here. For a start, Snake can actually crawl this time around! Being able to hide under things might not sound like a big deal, but it opens up a whole new avenue of possibilities that weren't available to the player in the first game. Enemy AI has been improved as well, making enemy soldiers harder to get around - as well as being able to turn their heads for different lines of vision, enemies also now respond to sounds made by the player, giving players much more flexibility in how they deal with and distract the occupants of Zanzibar Land. Even the card key system is refined and improved upon, allowing the player to collect 'all-in-one' cards that will open up multiple levels of door and minimising the frustration borne from the trial and error of trying to find the right card to open any given door.

Probably the biggest leap made by Metal Gear 2 is in its narrative, though. While its story isn't all that far removed from the original Metal Gear, the way Metal Gear 2 tells that story puts its predecessor (and pretty much every other 8-bit game I've ever played) to shame. There's a clear narrative flow here that guides the player from objective to objective, something we've come to expect from the series but which was notably missing from the very stop-start Metal Gear. Characters are given real personalities and back-stories, and time in which they can be seen to develop, a fact that's even true of the game's boss characters. The Codec (or Radio, as it's simply called this time around) is much more fleshed out as well, with most of the contactable characters having something to say in most of the game's many situations. It's no doubt benefited from an updated translation (I was playing the version packaged with Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence), but given that's the way most people playing it today will experience it, I think it's fair praise. The level of depth and scope to the game's narrative is consistently astounding, and definitely one of the game's strongest suits.

I find myself much less ready to throw criticism at Metal Gear 2 than I was at its predecessor, probably because it addresses so many of the complaints I had after finishing the first Metal Gear. I guess the game still leans a little too much on the crutch of trial-and-error for me, as even in spite of the better narrative flow and improved card key system, I still found myself at a loss for ideas to progress in quite a few situations. The fact the game's final boss battle actually encourages the card key trial-and-error situation was pretty disappointing, and kind of killed the impact of the previous two boss fights, both of which were awesome. Also, while my criticism of it being easy to escape enemy alerts is no longer relevant in Metal Gear 2, it did occasionally feel like it had gone too far the other way, with it being incredibly difficult to get out of the enemy's line of sight long enough to find a hiding place. This is a minor complaint though, verging on nit-picking, so I shan't labour it any further.

If you're a fan of the Metal Gear franchise and have yet to play either of these early 2D instalments, I'd advise you to take the plunge and check them out. The original Metal Gear doesn't really hold up, and is more worth playing as an interest piece, to experience the genesis of the series. Metal Gear 2, on the other hand, is still a legitimately fun and interesting game to play, with a story that's still well worth experiencing first-hand. As with the original Metal Gear, I've captured my end-game statistics in the photo below. I'm definitely a little happier with them this time around, especially considering I had no previous experience with the game before now. There are still a few too many kills on record for my liking, but hey, 87 is a vast improvement on 339.

That's now two games under my belt, with six to go. I actually finished Metal Gear 2 on Thursday night, so my current progress record is two games in nine days - slightly over par, but I should be able to claw some of that time back. I'm already a fair way through the next game in the series, Metal Gear Solid, which I should be able to finish by Monday, if not tomorrow. As soon as that's done and dusted, you can expect the third episode of Metal Gear May Madness. In the meantime, I'd like to thank you all for reading, and I'm sure I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Metal Gear Solid (PS1)

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Metal Gear May Madness - Episode .01

Kept you waiting, huh? (That's the last time I'll do that joke, I promise.)

Welcome to the first proper episode of Metal Gear May Madness, a serial blog in which I'm chronicling my efforts to make it through eight core titles in the Metal Gear franchise before the end of this month. If you missed my first post and aren't entirely sure what's going on here, I'd recommend checking out Episode .00 for the finer details on what I'm up to. First up is the game that started it all - 1987's Metal Gear.

Episode .01 - Metal Gear

Metal Gear's stealth gameplay must have been groundbreaking in 1987

One of the most persistent thoughts I kept revisiting throughout my playthrough of Metal Gear was, "This must have been revolutionary to play when it came out". If ever a game has epitomised the phrase 'ahead of its time', it's Metal Gear. Released in 1987, Metal Gear boasts a surprisingly sophisticated story, and gameplay systems that must have seemed mind-blowingly innovative twenty-five years ago. Take the stealth mechanics, for example - it's possible to sneak around enemies and dispatch them silently, an approach that can't have been common in a world where action equated to the likes of the Rambo-esque Contra and Commando. Or the Codec (dubbed a 'Transceiver' here), the in-game communications device that provides both gameplay hints and story exposition. While both are fairly rudimentary early incarnations of their respective concepts, they represent a completely different way to make the player feel like a one-man infiltration machine. These innovations are layered over a more conventional Metroidvania game structure that's punctuated with keycards, cardboard boxes and RC missiles, making Metal Gear feel like a solid blueprint for all the games that followed. I also can't speak positively about this game without mentioning the boss fights, which are easily among the strongest portions of gameplay - a trend that later games in the franchise continued.

It's unfortunate that all too often, that initial thought was immediately followed up by, "Geez, this really doesn't hold up that well, does it?". See, conceptually I love everything that makes up Metal Gear. I just didn't have any fun actually playing it. Paradoxically, some of that is actually down to the gameplay systems I've just praised. While the stealth mechanics must have been revolutionary back then, they feel positively draconian in 2013 - soldiers have linear rather than conical fields of vision and no apparent sense of hearing, a fact you can abuse to sneak round them at ridiculously close distances. The nature of the game's Alert Mode also means it's very easy to lose your pursuers, in most cases simply by moving onto another screen. While the structure of the game is a solid enough precursor to what the series later became, the lack of player direction and the obtuse methods of obtaining some items often reduce the act of playing Metal Gear to an exercise in trial and error, trying every keycard against every door until something finally gives.

The transceiver may be simplistic, but it's a clear indication of where the series was heading

I'm willing to admit that at least some of this criticism is probably borne by my decision to play through the game on Easy difficulty, a choice that I spent most of my subsequent time with the game deeply regretting. Easy difficulty makes Solid Snake much more resistant to enemy attacks, all but negating the impetus to avoid detection by the enemy. Knowing I wouldn't be in much danger if I was spotted made me play the game much more recklessly than I maybe should have done, a fact that's reflected in the number of alerts I triggered during my short time with the game - a whopping 133. When I originally played the game back in 2006, I did so on Original difficulty, and I don't recall being able to approach it in such a careless manner - quite the opposite actually, I remember Metal Gear being pretty unforgiving. It was a decision made in the interest of keeping this challenge viable, but one that's unfortunately sullied my memory of my initial experience with the game.

I've captured my end-game statistics and embedded them below, if that kind of thing interests you. I'm definitely less than happy with the number of alerts I triggered and the number of enemies I took out, figures that I hope to improve on in the other games.

That's the first game in the series under my belt, and we're only four days through the month, so even at this early stage I'm making steady progress in line with my prediction in Episode .00. Next up is Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, a game which currently holds the honour of being the only instalment in the core Metal Gear franchise that I haven't played before. I'll be hoping to change that in the next few days, so be sure to keep an eye out for another episode of Metal Gear May Madness coming soon. Until then, thanks for reading and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (PS2)

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Metal Gear May Madness - Episode .00

Oh Dan, will you ever learn that writing these serial blogs isn't good for your health? Don't you remember the gruelling, demanding task of both playing video games and writing creatively for several hours a day when you spent A Month in Skyrim? And what about the long-running, still unfinished blogging behemoth that is Enduring Final Fantasy VII? Haven't these exercises in episodic bloggery taught you that the whole experience is seldom more than a mentally draining endeavour that saps one's will and wrecks one's sleep pattern, all for ultimately very little pay-off?

Apparently not, readers. Yep, I've decided to once again grab the serial blogging bull by the horns and dive into another episodic project, with all the reckless abandon and personal disregard that usually entails. This time I won't be looking back on a divisive JRPG classic, or converting my adventures in Tamriel into a daily diary. Instead, I'm tackling another of one of my most-revered gaming franchises - the Metal Gear saga. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the inaugural instalment of...

Episode .00 - Kept You Waiting, Huh?

Well folks, here we are once again - at the start of yet another of my crazy blogging concepts. My aim for this one is simple - to play every core game in the Metal Gear franchise within the thirty-one days that make up the month of May. I'll try to outline some of the finer points and offer my reasons for pursuing the challenge below.

Why Am I Doing This?

To be honest, I'm not completely sure what's possessed me to embark on this crazy gaming quest. I'm fairly confident that a big factor in the decision was my acquisition of my own PlayStation 3 back in March, a purchase which finally rendered me able to play every core Metal Gear game within the comfort of my own home. I've been eager to revisit the series, whether in whole or in part, for some time now, so that desire to spend some more time with Solid Snake is probably an influential reason as well. Another possible reason is the recent confirmation of Metal Gear Solid V, an announcement which made me keen to revisit the previous games in the series as a story refresher. As for why I'm deliberately limiting myself to the next thirty-one days, I can only say that clearly the only thing I like more than a challenge is alliteration.

Which Games Will I Be Playing?

My plan is to try and make it through every game I own which is recognised as being part of the core Metal Gear canon. As far as I'm aware, that includes all the games below:

That's eight games in total, so I'll need to be working through them at an average of about one game every four days. This shouldn't be too much of a problem for the home console titles, which are pretty long but can be sped through with a few days' worth of committed playing. Where I'll most likely run into problems is with the handheld games, which are split into smaller bite-sized missions but ultimately add up to a longer playing experience due to all the sub-mechanics at work. I'll be playing them in order of release, rather than in the order of the series' timeline, mainly to avoid any hugely jarring mechanical discrepancies between the games (leaping from Peace Walker into the original Metal Gear doesn't seem like it would be much fun). In the games with selectable difficulties I'll be playing on the default Normal difficulty, so as to avoid any major delays to progress that harder difficulties can cause.

How Often Will I Be Blogging?

Anybody put off by the daily updates that constituted A Month in Skyrim won't have to worry about that this time around. I'll only be blogging about a game once I've finished it, so if I manage to stick to the plan of roughly one game every four days, then you can expect blogs to be posted on a similar time frame. Even then, the resulting blogs probably won't be too long, most likely topping out at a few paragraphs each (mainly because I'm going to need to devote as much of my free time as possible to actually playing the damn games). Entries will most likely offer some brief notes on what I enjoyed or didn't enjoy about each game, whether I think the older games in the franchise hold up, and perhaps even some jokey statistics and awards.

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In terms of other gaming, I've been a pretty busy boy since finishing up Telltale's The Walking Dead at the start of the month. I played BioShock Infinite, followed very closely by a return to Rapture with BioShock 2. I thoroughly enjoyed both games (Infinite more so than 2), and hope to write a blog shedding a bit more light on why in the coming days. Right now I'm caught tightly in the grip of Pokémon LeafGreen, a remake of the original Red and Blue games that's hitting all the nostalgic pleasure centres in my brain while being a little more bearable to look at than the crude monochromatic sprites on those old Game Boy carts. I've earned four of the game's eight badges so far, although I expect progress to slow a little in light of the initiation of Metal Gear May Madness. I've also invested in a copy of Pokémon SoulSilver, in the interest of continuing my adventures once I've mastered the Indigo League.

I hope you'll join me on this frankly insane quest to experience all of Kojima's crazy in as concentrated a form as possible. I'll be starting the original Metal Gear as soon as I get in from work tomorrow evening, so expect my first blog in the next few days, most likely this weekend. Thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Pokémon LeafGreen Version (GBA)

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Choice And Impact - Thoughts On The Walking Dead

Please be warned that this blog contains story spoilers pertaining to Telltale's 'The Walking Dead'. If you don't want the game spoiled for you, please move along.

Larry's had a heart attack.

His daughter Lilly is leaning over him, hands on his chest, administering CPR to her father in a manner so frantic that none of the other survivors sealed in this meat locker can be sure if she's desperate from determination or simply in denial. Kenny stands to one side, loudly voicing his fears that if Larry can't be roused, it won't be long before they're locked in the room with a newly-turned Walker. Lilly shouts back, panicked screams between compressions that seem as ineffective at convincing herself as they are everybody else. In the heat of the moment, everybody's eyes fall on you. Even Clementine, removed from the situation as she sits in the corner, seems to be looking at you as if she expects you to resolve the matter before a full-scale fight breaks out.

You take a deep breath, and go with your gut instinct: "Stand back Lilly, I'll see if I can help him."

You kneel beside the unmoving body, place one hand on top of the other, and begin giving compressions in the hope of restarting Larry's ailing heart. One... two... three... four... five...

All the while you discern flickers of movement in the corner of your eye, but you're so focused on helping this old man that you ignore it. It's not until the heavy block of salt-lick comes down on Larry, obliterating his head and showering you and Lilly with the contents of his skull, that you realise what's happened.

You wanted to save the guy. Kenny wanted to end him. In the end, Kenny's will won out.

It's a moral choice, Jim, but not as we know it...

After spending ten hours so far with Telltale's The Walking Dead, the above moment is probably the one that's stuck with me the most. Part of that is no doubt because it's a shocking moment, a key narrative point that has a dramatic effect on character relationships for the remainder of the episode and beyond. It reveals a darker, more ruthless side to Kenny's character, and amplifies the ongoing rivalry between him and Lilly for control of the camp. But I think the main reason I still can't shake Larry's demise from my mind three days after witnessing it is because it completely subverted my expectations, and not just from a story perspective, but as a gamer too - I picked the good choice, but it didn't prevent me from getting the bad ending.

This isn't a situation we're presented with very often as players of video games. The Walking Dead's forebears, games that gave birth to the notions of player choice and moral decisions, have ingrained within us a certain expectation when it comes to how that stuff works in a video game. You make a choice, one way or the other, and depending on which side of the fence you come down on, you're rewarded with a different outcome. Choose the noble option and good things will happen. This truism doesn't apply to The Walking Dead, though. As demonstrated by the choice I made above, even taking the moral high ground doesn't guarantee a pleasant sugar-and-rainbows outcome.

Shepard's actions change the fate of the galaxy, but they're also vicarious wish fulfilment...

A lot of video games are power fantasies - means of escapism that allow the player to command strength and influence they don't have in the real world. In morality-driven games like the Mass Effect franchise, the player's choices play into that power fantasy archetype, and this is reflected in both the nature of the choices presented to the protagonist and their impact on the world around them. You, as Commander Shepard, are the most important human in the galaxy, so every single decision you make should reflect that by being both important and impacting on a potentially galactic level. Most crucially of all, though, your decisions should be the ones that matter, far more than those of the auxiliary NPCs you spend the majority of the game interacting with. For the most part in these games, whatever the player says goes. Even if other central characters disagree with you, they will usually grudgingly come around to your way of thinking long enough for you to get what you want. Why? Because the game is escapist wish fulfilment, and if Shepard gets what he wants, then by extension so does the player.

By contrast, The Walking Dead acknowledges the oft-overlooked harsh reality of personal choice in desperate situations - that not everybody is going to go along with your decision. You don't dictate to the NPCs, you merely opine. Sometimes you'll sway them a little, but most of the time you won't. Take the above situation as an example - no matter whether you choose to off him or help him, Larry dies. Should you choose to help him, Kenny doesn't tut under his breath and sulk in the corner while you play hero - he takes matters into his own hands and makes a decision of his own, a decision that overrides the one of the player and lets them know that this ain't no power fantasy. This is a world where other voices hold just as much weight as your own, if not more.

...whereas the impact of Lee's actions is much more believable, and serves the story brilliantly

As a consequence, the choices made by the player in The Walking Dead become less about what actually happens as a direct result, and more about what kind of man you want the other survivors to perceive Lee to be. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Lee's relationship with Clementine, easily the game's strongest story thread. Shortly after Larry's death, Lee confronts one of the St John brothers while armed with a pitchfork. Still reeling from what the guy had done to us, I chose to drive that fork straight through him. As I did, a high-pitched scream rang through the barn, and I knew I'd made a grave mistake. The knowledge that Clementine watched me kill a man has weighed heavily on me ever since, and from that moment forward I've done my utmost to avoid unnecessary violence while in her presence. Yep, I care more about what an opinionated AI masquerading as an eight-year-old girl thinks of me than I do about having an impact on who lives or dies. Feel free to call me crazy.

Judging by responses to Alex's review of the game here on Giant Bomb, and some of the comments on the game's trailers, there's a significant portion of the game's player base who didn't like the way Telltale dealt with the impact of the player's choices in The Walking Dead. Some clearly felt that the game didn't cater enough to the typical gamer's omnipotence-fuelled notions of moral decisions. Personally, I feel that the decision to avoid that approach elevates the quality of the writing on The Walking Dead to a level that all other video games of its type should aspire to. Telltale could have made Lee the bad-ass infallible leader of the survivors' camp, with his decisions entirely governing the way every event in the game plays out, but if they had, it would have made the whole game a much weaker piece of interactive storytelling. As things stand, Lee's position as the every-man caught in the middle, a man whose words don't dictate the actions of others, makes both him and the entire supporting cast feel more like real people, and therefore more relatable. It makes situations like Larry's heart attack feel more fraught and unpredictable. And when the pay-off of the situation doesn't go the way Lee hopes it will, it hits home with more impact than any authoritarian command ever could.

That's all I've got to say on the matter. As I said above, I've been carrying these feelings around for a few days now and just wanted to get them down in some form and put them out there, maybe even find out what other people think. At the time of writing this blog I'm still only four episodes through The Walking Dead, but If all goes to plan I should make it through the fifth and final instalment at some point tomorrow. In the meantime, I want to thank you for taking the time to read this blog. I'll see you around, I'm sure.

Dan

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Currently playing - The Walking Dead (PC)

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Tomb Raider - Thoughts From A Long-Term Fan

So this is how it feels to be relevant...

It was with a combination of excitement and trepidation that I approached playing the new Tomb Raider, Crystal Dynamics' long-awaited reboot of one of this industry's most recognisable franchises. See, I've been playing Tomb Raider games for a long time. My relationship with Lara Croft spans roughly fifteen years, through the good, the not-so-good, and the downright terrible. I'll spare you the details here for the sake of space, but anybody wanting a more comprehensive picture of my history with the series should check out this retrospective blog I wrote back in December. Suffice it to say, I've raided a lot of tombs in my time, and I'm very familiar with just how variable the quality of the games has been.

For the most part, the excitement has outweighed the worry. Crystal Dynamics had already proven themselves as developers worthy of handling the franchise with the release of Tomb Raider: Legend in 2006, in itself a series reboot that marked a sharp about-turn following the incredibly stale and buggy CORE-developed Angel of Darkness. With that kind of successful track record in terms of modernising the games, I was confident that they'd be able to do it again. A small amount of worry rose from the repeated delays (I can remember when this game was scheduled for a Winter 2011 release, guys), which brought back memories of the seemingly interminable wait for Angel of Darkness and the huge disappointment that instalment ended up being. But for the most part, I've been waiting calmly and patiently, quietly certain that once again the fine folks at Crystal Dynamics would deliver the goods.

And having played through the game at a pretty steady pace last week, I'm happy to say that for the most part they did. Tomb Raider feels like a logical progression from the foundations of the Legend/Anniversary/Underworld trilogy, refining the exploration, environment traversal and combat mechanics to a mirror sheen and augmenting them with all manner of modern gaming tropes like upgradeable gear and a persistent progress/reward model. Those things might sound at odds with what you'd expect from a Tomb Raider game, but everything is so well integrated into the experience of actually playing the game that they feel like sensible extensions of what's already there. It's by no means perfect, but if Tomb Raider is an indication of the direction Lara's heading in for the next generation of consoles, then I think it's safe to say there's plenty of life left in the ol' girl yet.

Yamatai is both a beautiful and a deadly place to explore

Without a doubt my favourite aspect of playing Tomb Raider was the actual exploration of the island of Yamatai. The various environments that make up the island are consistently gorgeous, and every area is a joy to move through and explore. The platforming is much the same as it was in the last three Crystal Dynamics games, which is fine by me - as far as I'm concerned, that's one aspect of the franchise that didn't need an overhaul. There's plenty of incentive to explore thoroughly, too, thanks to the many collectibles and challenges that the developers have filled each area with. Even now, a week after finishing the game's storyline, I'm finding myself dipping back into the game for an hour or so each day to hunt down more documents and relics. I'm grateful for the rudimentary fast travel mechanic too, which let me press on through the story at my own pace safe in the knowledge I'd be able to come back and hunt for collectibles later.

The gear aspect of the game was handled brilliantly, I thought. The gradual receipt of new and improved items is tied directly to Lara's ability to progress through the game and more thoroughly explore areas, so they serve as a brilliant pacing tool. This also made backtracking feel nowhere near as boring as it does in your average game, because Lara's expanded arsenal of gadgets opens up new ways to traverse old environments. The way it's all presented is reminiscent of the series' iconic inventory screens, but the impact on gameplay is much more analogous to the likes of Batman: Arkham Asylum. I was acutely aware of the comparisons drawn between Tomb Raider and Naughty Dog's Uncharted series in the run-up to release, but although I haven't experienced any of the Uncharted games (yet - more on that later), Arkham Asylum seems like the most fitting comparison to my mind due to both games adopting the same 'Metroidvania'-style approach to their overworld design.

I was initially very sceptical of Tomb Raider's implementation of weapon upgrades, experience points and character progression, but playing through the game has converted me. The fact that pretty much everything Lara can do carries some kind of experience reward, coupled with the nature of the perks you can spend that pool of experience on, supports the development of Lara's character from an inexperienced archaeologist to a bona fide survivor. The weapon upgrades feed into this notion of Lara's character arc too - she has to collect salvage (which in itself grants experience) and weapon parts from the environment, and then use those to apply upgrades, in a way which implies she's improvising in order to stay alive. To have a character's personal development reflected in the gameplay like that supports the story no end, and certainly made me feel more attached to Lara, and more empathetic towards her as a character than I might have been otherwise.

The reimagined Lara, and the story that unfolds around her, are two of the game's strongest selling points

Speaking of which, I should give some acknowledgement to Tomb Raider's story and characters, both of which are undoubtedly the strongest the franchise has seen in a long time, if not ever. Similar to another Tomb Raider game, The Last Revelation, the game's decision to dispense with globe-trotting in favour of a single location results in a more cohesive and clearly-presented story. True to form for the series, there are ancient artefact macguffins and a hint of the supernatural, but these things aren't overdone and serve to make the game feel like a Tomb Raider title without going overboard on the craziness. The biggest improvement is in the handling of Lara herself, though. Camilla Luddington does a brilliant job of breathing new life into the reincarnated heroine, making her seem more genuine than the sultry wise-cracking Lara of games past. The physical redesign also goes a long way towards making her more relatable. Yes, she's still gorgeous, but she's no longer the balloon-chested caricature she once was. Finally, it's incredibly refreshing to see Crystal Dynamics reinforce this new, more positive image of Lara by not including a wealth of skimpy unlockable costumes in the game like they did in the last three games. Thanks for not pandering to the lowest common denominator this time around, guys.

I mentioned above that despite being quite invested in the franchise, I'm by no means oblivious to its flaws, and there are certainly a few of those present in Tomb Raider. Contrary to what Brad said in his review, I didn't find the speed of Lara's transition from first-kill trauma to capable gunslinger particularly jarring in the context of the game. What I did take issue with was the nature of the combat itself - it's mechanically sound and fun from a gameplay standpoint, but the frequent shoot-outs don't really fit the vibe of the game. Given the game already takes so many cues from Arkham Asylum, I would have liked to see the developers extend that one step further and implement some more stealth-combat possibilities and opportunities, reducing the frequency of the gunfights (and by extension, probably making them feel much more like the last resort people like Brad seemed to want them to be).

Tomb Raider's puzzles are great. It's a real shame there aren't more of them

There's also the issue of puzzles, or more specifically the dearth thereof. Having spent a decade and a half desecrating the burial grounds of countless ancient civilisations in the guise of Miss Croft, it's difficult for me to cope with the concept of a Tomb Raider game that doesn't prominently feature environmental puzzle-solving on an epic scale. Yet Tomb Raider sees fit to tuck most of its puzzles away in optional areas, a decision that's frankly a little baffling given how excellent Crystal Dynamics have always been in terms of puzzle design. The campaign certainly isn't bad because of a lack of puzzles, but I think it definitely would have benefited from a couple more moments where the action receded and Lara was placed into a jam that required a little lateral thinking to get herself out of. What is there is great. It's just a shame there's not more of it, and that it's treated so incidentally.

Tomb Raider means different things to different people. To me personally, it carries the promise of a solid, satisfying combination of three core facets of gameplay - exploration, puzzle-solving and combat. All of the best Tomb Raider titles have delivered an engaging blend of these things, and while Tomb Raider redresses the balance of the trinity slightly, it definitely doesn't go so far as to tip the scales. It's an excellent game, more than worthy of carrying the name of the franchise in my humblest opinion, and has me very excited about where Crystal Dynamics are going to take Lara next.

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So there you have it - a few thoughts on the Tomb Raider reboot from someone who probably cares a little more about Lara Croft than he should do. As for what I'm playing now, I'm being pretty non-committal at the moment. I'm dabbling with Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, which my sister got me for my birthday last month, and so far it seems to be just as good as its predecessor. I'm also playing the occasional match of Pro Evolution Soccer 2013, another birthday present from my friend Duncan. I downloaded an online option file not long after receiving the game, which essentially replaces all the generic teams and kits with hyper-accurate edit files, and I have to say I'm hugely impressed by the quality of the edits. It all adds an extra layer of authenticity to the experience, making it that little bit more immersive and enjoyable to play. If, like me, the lack of licensed teams and kits in the Pro Evolution series bothers you, I highly recommend downloading this.

I'm finally rocking one of these beauties

The biggest development in personal gaming news, though, is my acquisition of a PlayStation 3, a purchase that's been several years coming. I'm now on the hunt for any great Sony exclusives I might've missed over the last half a decade or so - so far I've picked up the first two Uncharted games, Heavy Rain, inFamous, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Gran Turismo 5, but any recommendations you want to throw my way would be greatly appreciated. Those of you who've already sent me suggestions on Twitter, I thank you all and have put most (if not all) of your suggested games into the Saved For Later section of my Amazon basket. As always, thanks very much for reading, and I'll see you around.

Dan

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Currently playing - Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed (X360)

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The Great 2012 Catch-Up: Borderlands 2 Edition

It's been a little while since I last wrote one of these, hasn't it? I'm not sure if that's because of a lack of completed video games on my end, or because a few weeks on, I'm still not really feeling the revamped site. Don't get me wrong - it looks incredibly slick, the editorial content is still as great as it's ever been, and I'm more than happy to ride out the storm of bugs and errors that need to be ironed out before normal service can resume. Where the issue arises for me is how the new site leaves me feeling completely cut off from the actions of other users right now. The status updates and recent blog posts of followed users that were conveniently stacked up on the right side of my profile are now nowhere to be seen. In their place is a Facebook-style activity feed that's been turned off for weeks (and on my most recent check, removed from my profile altogether). My list of followed users doesn't allow me to click through to their profiles - instead, clicking their names simply refreshes the list. As someone who doesn't spend a lot of time on the Giant Bomb forums, I've gone from being closely connected to a handful of awesome users to feeling completely isolated. Hell, the chances are that most of the people who follow me won't even realise this has been written. I want to re-stress that aesthetically I'm loving the redesign, and I'm still visiting the site on an almost daily basis for editorial content. I just hope it's not going to be too much longer 'til the Top Men manage to reunite me with the small section of this community I've come to know and love like a little internet family.

Sorry to have started this blog on a bit of a downer. I guess I just needed to get all that negativity off my chest, so as to be fully prepared to start gushing with praise for the latest edition of The Great 2012 Catch-Up! For those of you who might have missed the inaugural episode of this mini-series back in January, allow me to explain. Over the course of 2012, I missed out on a number of games that I was very eager to play, but didn't manage to find the time and/or money to indulge in. Now that 2013 is here, I've vowed to do my best to catch up with all those outstanding releases from last year. In January I played through Sleeping Dogs, a game that didn't register on my radar until late last year, but that I was glad to have finally given a shot. Through the back end of February I've been playing the second game on my catch-up list, Gearbox Software's Borderlands 2. How did it fare? Read on to find out...

Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2 was on my 'games-to-get' radar the second I knew of its announcement back in August 2011. I had a lot of fun with the original, playing through the entire game in single player as the Soldier class back in early 2010. I can't honestly remember what led to me missing out on Borderlands 2 back on its initial release last September, but for whatever reason I ended up skipping out on my return to Pandora until now. At the very end of last year, Borderlands 2 was one of the five 2012 releases I ended up buying in one fell swoop, with the intention of catching up on all the great titles I'd missed over the course of the year for whatever reason. I picked the game up about halfway through February, when it became apparent that I was once again getting burned out on Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and needed to play something a little different. I chose the Assassin class in the end, wanting a slightly different experience to the one I had with the original Borderlands three years ago, and jumped back into Pandora. Two weeks later I've seen most of what Borderlands 2's first playthrough has to offer, and I'm happy to report that most of it exceeded my expectations in ways that I wasn't even expecting it to.

The Good

  • I've heard a lot of people referring to this game as 'more Borderlands', but neglecting to mention it's also 'better Borderlands'. Perhaps the most apparent improvement over the original here is in its handling of the game's story and characters. These were things that fell disappointingly flat for me in the first Borderlands, with characters who felt like little more than animated quest-givers. The sequel addresses these issues by breathing a ton of life into almost every NPC you meet, be they returning characters like Dr. Zed or Scooter, or new faces like Sir Hammerlock and the antagonist Handsome Jack. These injections of personality go a long way towards making the story feel like it actually means something to the characters here, a far cry from the "we want ALL the treasure" motive driving the first game.
  • The questing is also vastly improved. I remember the first two thirds of the original Borderlands as an over-abundance of mundane fetch-quests dominating my character's mission log. This time around most of the quests have a much more complex, multi-layered structure that, when combined with the more prominent personalities of the quest-givers, makes the prospect of fulfilling your obligations much more enticing. Even the fetch-quests are better framed this time around, making the simple act of "go here and get this" feel more enjoyable than it was in the first game.
  • I thought the loot in the original Borderlands was wildly varied, but the stuff you come across in Borderlands 2 takes it to another level. This is especially true of Shields and Grenade Mods, both of which are now governed by a ton more variables. Shields can deal Nova damage when depleted, absorb bullets and add them to your own inventory, adapt resistance to the last elemental damage type you were hit by, boost your melee or gun damage with Roid and Amp properties respectively, offer an enormous shield boost at the expense of some of your health... the list seems to go on forever. Grenade Mods are no different - they can give your grenades elemental properties, cause them to absorb health and give it back to the player, draw nearby enemies closer before exploding, or even teleport to their destination. To see the level of variety already present in the game's arsenal of procedurally-generated weaponry extend its reach to other types of loot is great, and makes building your character feel even more of a personal thing.
  • Underneath these improvements, Borderlands 2 is running on the same engine that made the original so great to play. The shooting is satisfying, the role-playing elements are deep and set the game apart from other shooters without ever feeling overwhelming, and the art style is a refreshing change from the 'striving-for-realism' norm (especially when paired with the game's wider variety of environments than its predecessor). More Borderlands it may be, but I sure as hell ain't complaining.

The Bad

  • Given the game makes so many improvements on the original, it feels like a shame that my sole major complaint is one that's carried over from the original Borderlands - that the loot can be incredibly underwhelming. It was very rare in my journey through Borderlands 2 that I actually picked up a dropped weapon that was worth using. Most of the weapons I defaulted to were quest rewards that offered noticeable benefits over whatever I could pick up in the field or buy from a vending machine. Once you become familiar with all the weapon types (and the subcategories within those types), it's not even worth experimenting with new pick-ups because you can tell at a glance they're not worth it. This relegates most of the guns you pick up on your travels to junk status. Given they're one of the game's biggest selling points, I think that's a bit of a shame.
  • My last point is less a complaint about the game, and more an idea that I couldn't seem to shake while playing through it. I would love to see the next Borderlands game (and let's face it - after that ending, there's going to be another Borderlands) implement a crafting system of some kind. There were countless occasions during my playthrough where I looked at two weapons in my inventory and thought, "I wish I could combine the properties of these two guns, that would be awesome in X situation". Being able to craft new guns, shields and mods from existing equipment would also negate the problem I've mentioned above - weapons with no immediately apparent advantage would cease to be instant junk, instead becoming potential components for creating your next Skag-slayer. I realise it's a huge ask, but if the guys at Gearbox can implement procedurally generated weaponry into these games to such great effect, I'm confident they could successfully pull off crafting too.

The Verdict

Looking at Borderlands 2 in direct comparison to its predecessor, there's one stand-out factor which makes it clear to me that the second game is superior, at least in my eyes. Through most of my time playing the first game, I found myself being driven forward solely by the prospect of bigger and better guns. With Borderlands 2 the guns were certainly a factor, but the impetus to keep going was largely derived from wanting to know what was going to happen next in the exchange between Handsome Jack and the resistance mounted by the Crimson Raiders of Sanctuary. I was looking forward to meeting another character like Ellie, or taking down another boss like Wilhelm, or storming another Hyperion security complex in an epic multi-faceted mission. Next to that analysis, all the stuff I've outlined above starts to feel merely auxiliary. Borderlands 2 was a game I cared about playing, and that is reason enough for me to lament having waited five months to finally get around to checking it out. It's brilliant, and if you're a fan of the original but haven't played it yet, I implore you to as soon as possible.

So what's next for this gamer? For the next couple of days, not a great deal if truth be told. I've pre-ordered the new Tomb Raider, and that's set to drop through my letterbox on Tuesday. As a long-time fan of the series I'm incredibly eager to get to grips with Crystal Dynamics' latest re-imagining of Lara Croft, and have no intentions of putting it off like I did with so many of 2012's most appealing games. With that prospect only a few days away now, I'm reluctant to get deeply involved in anything game-wise. It was my birthday on Thursday and I was treated to a couple of new games then - Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed by my sister Zoe, and Pro Evolution Soccer 2013 by my good friend Duncan. Given neither of those demand a huge commitment on my part, I'll probably just familiarise myself with both of those until Tuesday rolls round. For now though, all that remains is for me to say thanks very much for reading, and I hope to see you around (site redesign permitting, of course).

Dan

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Currently playing - Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (X360)

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