Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “September, 2015”

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

My feelings towards this game are fairly complicated. On one hand, it’s probably the most perfect stealth experience I’ve ever come across in gaming, refining open world gameplay in a way which puts other attempts to shame. It contains moments of power and profundity above almost anything else I’ve played this year. It’s also not finished and never will be.

The Phantom Pain picks up nine years after the end of Ground Zeroes and the attack on Mother Base by Skull Face and XOF. Naked Snake aka Big Boss awakens from a coma in a Cyprus hospital in 1985, scarred and weakened. The hospital is almost immediately brought under attack from a ruthless military force and supernatural threats. After making a narrow escape Big Boss meets up with Revolver Ocelot, who tasks him with rebuilding Mother Base as the mercenary company Diamond Dogs to take revenge on Skull Face. Big Boss takes on the new name of Venom Snake and undertakes a variety of missions in Afghanistan and Central Africa to discover the truth of Skull Face’s goals and how to stop him.

There are three moments from the plot of The Phantom Pain which I cannot get out of my head. They are powerful, moving and mindblowing scenes which I keep running over again and again and speak to just how good the plot of The Phantom Pain can be. It can also be almost embarrassingly bad. The Phantom Pain was quite clearly conceived as a three act game, but it fizzles out somewhere into its second act, with the first being the only part which approaches coherence. The plot of the first act about taking down Skull Face and discovering his plans is cool, but not necessarily exceptional. All of my favourite plot moments took place in the second half, but we get to this point towards the end where there is pretty much no connection between our actions and the story. We take random missions for a while and occasionally we’re summoned back to Mother Base for the next story beat. Massive plot strands are left utterly unresolved and major revelations are restrained to optional cassette tapes rather than fully fledged cutscenes. You can get glimpses of something excellent here and it’s amazing that the good bits work as well as they do, being held together by nothing much at all.

Despite all the story shortcomings, the actual stealth gameplay of The Phantom Pain may very well be flawless. I don’t say that lightly, but everything just works. That just doesn’t happen in open world games! Even The Witcher 3, a game that I loved, had some jankiness, but in The Phantom Pain there is none. The Phantom Pain differs from its predecessors in its open world design, containing two large areas, Afghanistan and Africa. Each area contains a dozen or so bases and some smaller outposts and most missions involve some sort of infiltration. What makes The Phantom Pain so special is that it follows through on the oft-made, rarely kept promise that you can play however you want. Guns blazing will work in many situations, but it’s way more fun to be sneaky. There are 50 missions (although not really, we’ll come back to that) and 150 ‘side ops.’ These missions involve a variety of tasks, some explodey and some sneaky. I’ve seen some people griping that these side missions generally return you to familiar areas, but even after visiting a base over five times I was still discovering new nooks and crannies and ways to approach the target. In this sense The Phantom Pain succeeds in expanding the high promise of Ground Zeroes’ Camp Omega.

You have a vast range of tools at your disposal and unlike in many games I actually used them! From simple weapon upgrades to more bizarre and ridiculous things later on I did not run out of new and exciting things to make. Developing new items is tied into the rather lovely Mother Base mechanic. Alongside the story you build up your base, recruiting new men and constructing new parts of the base. Building up these different areas will raise different department stats and the right levels will allow you to develop new tools and weapons to use in the field. The best part of this is that you recruit and gather resources by getting your hands dirty and using the ‘fulton’ balloon to extract them back to base. Later on you are able to identify the stats for individual soldiers and decide who you want to bring back with you. As you upgrade your fulton device you can eventually extract vehicles and advanced weaponry making the whole thing feel gloriously physical and hands-on. You can visit Mother Base between missions to boost staff morale, but it’s a bit sparse and soulless so I didn’t feel particularly attached to the physical location.

Another neat addition is the ‘buddy’ system, which lets Snake bring one of four allies with him into the field. There’s D-Horse, which is just a horse really, useful for getting around but with some amusing and surprisingly useful unlockable skills as well. There’s D-Dog, who reveals enemy locations for you and can rip out a guard’s throat. D-Walker is a mini Metal Gear which Snake can pilot, useful for more combat heavy missions and taking down vehicles. The best is Quiet, a sniper who can cover you and got me out of more than one dangerous situation. Quiet is also one of the most controversial parts of the game.

There’s not much to say about the character of Quiet that hasn’t already been said, but I’ll give it a go. My ambivalence about Quiet matches pretty nicely my feelings about the game overall. Quiet is a fascinating character, a sniper with one of the most interesting back stories I’ve encountered, an incredible presence with some absolutely wonderful scenes. She also wears pretty much nothing, with humongous breasts swaying every time she moves so much as an inch. She cavorts in the rain, loves nothing more than showing off her thong to Snake on the helicopter and will even give you a sexy sponge bath. There was an initial backlash when the character was first revealed and Kojima defended himself, saying that when we learnt the reason for her design we would be ‘ashamed of our words and deeds.’ Well, I do know the reason now and I don’t feel ashamed. A bit embarrassed for Kojima maybe. The justification for Quiet is honestly one of the dumbest things I have ever heard in all my years of gaming. I know that people saying ridiculous things in an entirely straight faced manner is a grand Metal Gear tradition, but in this sense all it does is undermine a character who, despite everything, I loved. Quiet has the potential to be a legendary character, a series best, but all anyone will remember is her character design which is genuinely awful.

The first 40 or so hours of The Phantom Pain are truly exceptional and it feels churlish to complain when you’re given 40 hours of such high quality entertainment. The dip in quality in Part 2 is noticeable almost immediately and explains rather nicely why Konami were so keen on boot camp reviews which capped the play time at…oh yes, 40 hours! It’s odd, if we’d just been given a slightly more fleshed out Part 1 I don’t think anyone would have minded and it’s not as if Part 2 is actively horrible. A lot of the missions are old ones with new challenges imposed, but they’re actually quite fun. It just can’t live up to Part 1 and we can clearly see that far more was intended for the final release.

Unfinished games are usually something like Assassin’s Creed: Unity, where the whole experience is there but plagued with glitches and irritations. The Phantom Pain is different; it just ends. While it’s there though, we have a gloriously slick experience. If Konami do leave AAA development forever it’ll be a shame as the FOX Engine would have had a wonderful future. The Phantom Pain is a marvel, looking absolutely wonderful and running at a luxurious 60 FPS. The fundamentals are treated exactly as they should be but usually aren’t; fundamentals. The voice acting is a bit more inconsistent, with some fairly hammy performances in some quite major characters. Obviously hamminess is very Metal Gear, but it doesn’t really suit the story that they’re going for here. The originally composed music is pretty forgetful, but you can’t fault the licensed 80s classics in the soundtrack. David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ is used particularly well and there is a lovely original sung track too, but there isn’t anything that can match the theme music for Metal Gear Solid 2.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a maddening game to review because I just don’t know how to approach it. What we have is truly excellent, one of the best games of the year and an experience which has raised the bar for open world stealth. It’s all too easy to focus on what is missing and the outline for one of the best games of all time is there to see. I can’t think of another game like this, which offers 40 superlative hours yet still comes up feeling slightly unsatisfying. I doubt we’ll ever get the full story about what went down between Konami and Kojima, but I think that the best thing to do will be to let go of our dream of what this game could have been and celebrate the game that we do have.

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Until Dawn for PS4

I’m a big fan of interactive stories. My fiance isn’t much of a gamer, but gets really into game stories. She loved BioShock: Infinite and The Last of Us for example, but games like that can get pretty dull for her to watch because of all the…well, gameplay. Games like Until Dawn are a brilliant way to spend time with another person and I would almost describe it as a perfect ‘date game.’ There may not be any mechanical complexity, but that means we have a more purely narrative experience that’s perfect for sharing.

Until Dawn is, at it’s core, a fairly loving homage to that most classic for horror movie set ups; a bunch of horny dumb teenagers in a cabin on a mountain. A year prior to the events of the game, a cruel prank at the cabin had indirectly led to the death of sisters Beth and Hannah, with the bodies never discovered. A year later their brother Josh invites his friends back to the cabin in an attempt to move on from what happened, but it soon becomes clear that dark forces are at play on the mountain and that there will be no safety until dawn (geddit?). Intermittently in the story, a strange man analyses your decisions and probes into your motivations.

There isn’t a huge amount of gameplay  in Until Dawn, with the core mechanics being your basic wander around and input QTEs type of deal. One of the most interesting things about Until Dawn is that there is no failure state, if you mess up a QTE you just have to deal with it and roll with the punches. There are a few types of event, such as standard button presses and targets to hit. Sometimes the best thing is to not take an action and an itchy trigger finger could spell trouble in Until Dawn. The coolest mechanic is that sometimes you just have to stay perfectly still, with the motion sensor in the controller picking up any movement. If you’re a wuss like me this is terrifying and such a good idea I can’t believe nobody else thought of it sooner. The only real irritation is that it can be very easy to miss clues and totems, which give you a vision of the future and unlock a clip detailing the backstory. It would be nice to have a way to avoid stumbling onto the next story beat, but I do appreciate that this may have been a bit immersion breaking. Until Dawn is split into episodes which vary from about 45 to 90 minutes, which chunks things up very nicely.

The plot of Until Dawn won’t be winning any prizes for originality, but the element of player choice manages to make what would feel cliché in a film genuinely terrifying as a game. The plot starts out intriguing, but as is often the case with horror, as we come to understand what’s going on the tension drops and the final few twists lack the impact of those earlier on. It never stops being enthralling however, as Until Dawn follows through on the idea of player impact in a way that Telltale doesn’t. With Telltale it’s all smoke and mirrors and your choices never matter as much as they may seem, but your decisions can either have everyone survive or turn Until Dawn into a bloodbath. In many ways I didn’t feel like I was actually controlling the characters, but instead playing the role of a director.

Until Dawn looks very nice, with an atmospheric environment and excellent character and facial animations. A higher frame rate would have been nice, but this is a rare experience where the ‘cinematic’ justification holds a fair bit of water. The voice acting is excellent, with a cast including such actors as Claire from Heroes and Ward from Agents of SHIELD, who all do an admirable job inhabiting their respective horror tropes. It’s interesting seeing a larger budget go towards this kind of experience and something which I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more of.

Until Dawn is a cool game which likely won’t be for everyone. As a shared experience with one or more friends it really shines. I hope we get more games like this in a variety of genres.

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Half a War by Joe Abercrombie

Well, I devoured that trilogy pretty quickly! Half a War is the final installment in the Shattered Sea series and wraps up the story nicely, if without too many major surprises. After truly loving the first book, Half a King, neither of the sequels quite grabbed me the same way, but I’ve enjoyed this series a whole lot regardless.

Half a War concludes the conflict begun in Half the World, with ancient foes Gettland and Vansterland now united to take down the High King and Grandmother Wexen. Trapped in the middle is Throvenland, which is betrayed by Grandmother Wexen and torn asunder by the famed warrior Bright Yilling, leaving the young Princess Skara to flee to Gettland to regroup and rebuild her home. Meanwhile, Koll, last seen as a child in Half the World, is training with Father Yarvi to become a minister, but feels trapped between two worlds. Raith is a shield bearer and manservant to Grom-Gil-Gorm, King of Vansterland and loves nothing more than violence and death, but when he is assigned to guard the newly risen Princess Skara he begins to adjust his priorities. The conflict between these mighty nations shakes the Shattered Sea, but the motivation which underpins it is much more personal.

Half a War has some outstanding moments, moments which build upon truths about this world hinted at since Half a King. The increased scale comes at the cost of characterisation, with the larger conflict not distinguishing itself particularly from other epic fantasy battles seen elsewhere. Half a War winds up feeling a little rushed and I must admit that I missed the intimate crews seen in Half a King and Half the World; they were possibly the greatest pleasure in those books. The quality of actual prose has not dipped at all however with Abercrombie once again balancing action, humour and pathos pretty much perfectly.

Although I missed Yarvi is Half the World, Thorn and Brand were worthy replacements as protagonists. I’m not sure if Skara, Raith and Koll are as successful. Skara is a strong figure, but her struggle towards royalty and respect never feels as visceral as Yarvi’s. Koll’s rejection of violence and inherent gentleness never quite felt as profound as Brand’s. Raith’s transformation is the most intriguing, but he is too close to Thorn Bathu to feel too interesting. I’m sure these parallels are intentional, but I wound up simply more interested in seeing the old characters, rather than embracing the new as I felt able to do in Half the World. Yarvi is the impetus behind the entire series and although he is only the protagonist of the first, he remains probably the most interesting character, up there with Abercrombie’s best.

Half a War doesn’t hold many surprises, but it’s a solid end to a good series. I’m looking forward to Abercrombie’s return to the First Law world, but I’m all in now. There aren’t many authors where I’ll pick up every single book they write, but Abercrombie is one of them.

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