Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes (PS4, 2014)

There’s a decent argument that Hideo Kojima produces his best work when he’s working within tight constraints. Those can be technological ones, like Metal Gear Solid pushing the PlayStation to its limits or self-imposed design one, like P.T. iterating on a single looping corridor over and over. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes goes a long way towards proving that argument to be true.

Everything I’ve heard about Ground Zeroes‘ development indicates that it was borne of Konami getting antsy that Kojima Productions was taking too long with The Phantom Pain. To justify the ever-increasing budget, Kojima Productions needed to get something out the door in order to bolster numbers for Konami’s financial year 2014-15.

From this unpromising soil was born Ground Zeroes. Unfairly maligned as merely an overly short paid demo for The Phantom Pain, it’s not-so-secretly one of the best games Kojima has ever released. So how can a game featuring one smallish location that can be beaten in ten minutes (the speedrun record is 3 mins 43 seconds) be so good?

Well, first up it plays like a dream. This is about as good as stealth gameplay has gotten to date, with the enemies smart enough to pose a threat, but dumb enough to satisfyingly goof on. The limited selection of tools and ammo means you’re forced to be creative and take risks.

The small environment means that every inch of it has been tuned to perfection. Ground Zeroes is a bespoke gaming experience where every tuft of grass and spotlight has been carefully placed. Plus nearly six years on from its release it still looks incredible.

But where it really stands out amongst Kojima’s work is its focused political message. Granted, this is as simple as “Guantanamo Bay is a fucking nightmare and should be destroyed”, but hey, at least that’s coherent.

Cards on the table time. Despite spending a lot of time playing and thinking about the Metal Gear series I’ve never quite understood what Kojima is trying to say with the whole Big Boss/Outer Heaven thing. It’s a weird and incomprehensible mix of anti-state anarchism, military fetishism and free market economics – all wrapped in a revolutionary Communist bow.

Ground Zeroes zips past all that with a straightforward condemnation of the US military’s black sites and the abuses that take place within them, zeroing in on Guantanamo Bay. It can’t be over-stated that the game’s Camp Omega literally is Guantanamo Bay’s ‘Camp Delta’ with the numbers filed off. Kojima Productions has clearly taken visual inspiration from photos of the facility, down to the style of the fencing and the look of the guard towers.

Within this, Kojima shows an uncharacteristic amount of restraint when delivering his message. For a man who has a reputation for lengthy cutscenes didactically spelling everything out in exhaustive detail, Ground Zeroes shows rather than tells the player things like the psychological trauma of the prisoners, the fact that they’re kept in cages exposed to the elements, or the bolts shoved through their Achilles tendons.

It’s notable that the prisoners you find are never treated as anything less than victims, and you’re rewarded for rescuing as many as you can. And the deeper you delve into the cassette tapes hidden around the base, the more you learn about the nightmare they’re living through.

These tapes contain graphic torture and sexual humiliation and are by far the most disturbing thing in the entire franchise. There’s a compelling case they go too far, but this shit and worse is actually happening, right now, fully condoned by the governments we elect. Sure, the Ground Zeroes tapes are a hard listen, but sanitising the horrors that go on in these black sites would be a far worse crime. Basically, don’t shoot the messenger.

This is all especially valuable in an industry where just making a straightforward political statement – especially in a major multi-million dollar franchise – is anathema to almost every major publisher. After all, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney recently said: “we as companies need to divorce ourselves from politics and say that that is for individuals to engage in and we as platforms should be neutral”. What a load of cowardly shite.

Kojima himself described Ground Zeroes‘ development as being torn between wanting to make a political statement and knowing that this will likely alienate the large audience who just want play as the cool sneaky action hero. But, as he tells it, he decided that “prioritising creativity over sales” was the only way to proceed.

And he succeeded. Ground Zeroes makes it case against Guantanamo Bay in a way that an article or documentary never could – by making the player slowly infiltrate it and discover its horrors for themselves. That’s why it’s a great game. It’s focused, it’s succinct and it’s coherent. And maybe – just maybe – that’s why it might be better than it’s fully-formed big brother.

I’ll decide in March, when I replay Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain for the first time since its 2015 release.

Blood & Truth (PSVR, 2019)

VR is still in its infancy, but as graphical fidelity improves there’s a big hurdle that developers are going to have to get over: how do you shoot realistic looking human characters without feeling gross?

It’s a problem that may be unique to VR: when you’re blowing away human enemies in an Uncharted or Call of Duty games you unthinkingly accept that they’re not real. But when you’re wearing a headset and wielding motion-tracked weapons the combat becomes orders of magnitude more visceral. From your perspective your enemies are life-size humans, you are firing a gun at them and they react with cries of pain and spurts of blood.

Most developers try for some level of abstraction when it comes to shooting VR enemies. Superhot VR uses crystalline red figures, Robo Recall has robots and many others use zombies or monsters. So where does this leave London Studio’s Blood & Truth?

The game’s goal is to allow the player to live out their action movie fantasies, providing a London-set story that crossbreeds an East End gangster caper with James Bond. The gameplay is essentially a VR take on Virtua Cop or Time Crisis, you move on rails through environments and enemies pop up to take shots at you. The graphics are as high-quality as technically possible, and though there’s the usual PSVR rough edges to maintain 60fps, the target is realism.

All that means you’re going to be blasting your way through hundreds of lifelike enemies. For the vast majority of the game, Blood & Truth manages this without making you feel too bad: many enemies wear face-concealing helmets and the ones that aren’t don’t look particularly realistic.

But Blood & Truth runs head-first into trouble mid-way through the game in mission 10. Here you must blast your way through a disused council estate, blowing away a small town’s worth of young men. They’re listening to grime music, call each other fam and are strongly coded as working class. I’m a Londoner and these enemies are basically the kids I work with. There came a point where I stopped blasting, stopped, looked down at a room of dead bodies and felt very queasy.

Suddenly the power fantasy the game provides crumbled. Why exactly do I want to simulate being a square-jawed special forces soldier blowing apart uncomfortably plausible young people from deprived backgrounds? Do I really want to spend my leisure time living out a Daily Mail reader’s wet dream?

It’s not that Blood & Truth is intentionally trying for any of this, but VR is such a powerful medium that elements you wouldn’t bat an eye at in other games affect you in unexpected ways. If this still-very-far-from-photorealistic depiction of gun violence turns my stomach now, god knows what VR tech will be able to depict 5 or 10 years from now.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Blood & Truth. Most of the game is a lighthearted action movie romp that makes you feel cool. But when I look back on it in years to come I won’t remember the explosions and car chases, I’ll remember the guilty feeling that came over me when I looked down at those bodies.

Resident Evil – Code: Veronica X (Dreamcast, 2000)

Resident Evil – Code: Veronica X proves that developing a game is a lot like cooking from a recipe. Two different people can try for the same thing with the same ingredients and produce two similar dishes. But whereas one might be scrumptiously delicious, the other is basically inedible.

Code Veronica is the latter. I had this back on its original Dreamcast release in 2000 and remember my sister playing it through it, only to become stuck on an unwinnable mid-game boss fight.

This will effectively be the ending of the game if you’re not prepared.

I gave it a crack a few months later, only to find myself in a similarly hopeless state after an unexpected change of characters meant I no longer had access to my best weapons. I gave up and wrote the game off. Now, 20 years later, I have finally seen the credits (via the Xbox 360 2011 remaster). Was it worth the wait? No, it was not.

Back to the recipe analogy. If the ingredients of the classic Resident Evil gameplay are ammo and health conservation, item management, mild logic puzzles and avoiding as many enemies as you can, then they’re all present in Code Veronica. But whereas Resident Evil 2 and Resident Evil 3: Nemesis get it just right, in Code Veronica the metaphorical seasoning is completely out of whack.

That there’s multiple ways to ruin your game and force you to start over from the very beginning is a big black mark against it (particularly on the original release where VMU memory constraints meant it was difficult to do rolling saves). But it was the little things that gradually ground me down.

For example, it wouldn’t be right for a classic Resident Evil to not feature slowly opening doors, but there’s so much backtracking built into this game that I reckon I have spent upwards of an hour staring at them.

Worse, you’re required to repeatedly use elevators in the game, which consists of you slowly watching the elevator doors open, then a non-interactive cutscene of your character standing still in the lift, then another scene where you watch the doors open again. And then, of course, you realise you’re not on the floor you’re supposed to be on…

The game is stuffed full of tiny little annoyances like this and about two thirds of the way through I was wishing the damn thing was over already. But nope, I still had another two hours of fiddly collect the jewels to open the secret passage to search for yet another completely different set of jewels to open the music boxes to swap the music box disc to… eesh.

You start to envy the zombies. At least they don’t have to use doors.

It’s not all bad. The 2011 remaster’s big selling point is a new lighting engine, which works pretty well in accentuating the character models while hiding some of the plain environments.

Plus, as I can never ever take a Resident Evil plot seriously, having no less than three hammy villains delivering supervillain monologues and ominously cackling at me is a real treat. I even enjoyed Steve Burnside, who is essentially what you would get if you crossbred Titanic-era Leonardo DiCaprio with a horny Pomeranian.

But for the most part Code Veronica was a repetitive grind. Worse, it’s temporarily killed off my desire to play any Resident Evil for a while to come. Fortunately next up is the 2002 remake of the first game, which I’ve never played before and is very highly regarded. Let’s hope that swills the taste of this away.

Tyrian 2000 (PC, 1999)

Scrolling shoot ’em ups have long been a big blind spot for me. I’ve read powerful and convincing articles about the purity gameplay and high skills ceiling, but have generally observed the classics like Radiant Silvergun, Ikaruga, Dodonpachi and so on from a distance. One day I’ll scale those peaks…

But for the moment, Tyrian 2000 scratches that itch. Released as plain old Tyrian on PC in 1995, Tyrian 2000 is the deluxe version released in 1999. It’s arguably the termination point of a long-line of Western scrolling shoot ’em ups, taking in chunkily-drawn games like Xenon II, Raptor: Call of the Shadows and Hybris.

Not quite a bullet hell (though it approaches it at times), Tyrian is effectively a shooter/RPG hybrid. During the levels you collect points that can be cashed in to upgrade your ship, power up your weapons and improve your equipment. It’s not too much effort to wind up with a satisfyingly ridiculous amount of bullets spewing in every direction from your craft.

But you might not want to do that, as your guns and shields draw from the same power source. If your shields take a whack then you should hold off on the offence to give them time to recharge. If your shield goes you start taking hull damage. And if your hull goes… Game over.

It’s an elegant balancing act that stops you mindlessly blasting your way through the game’s lengthy five episodes. I’ve been nibbling my way through the game for a month or two in five minute sessions on my lunch breaks. Sure, the later stages get pretty damn tricky, but as far as these types of games go I suspect it’s on the easy side.

Plus, I enjoyed the plot. The game doesn’t take itself too seriously, with the player character eventually despairing at a future of being hurled into battle against ever more ridiculous fleets of spaceships and deciding to make a break for it. The universe can fend for itself, I’ve done enough.

Plus plus. Alexander Brandon’s soundtrack kicks ass.

I mean, what more do you want?

Project Rub (Nintendo DS, 2004)

In 99.9% of cases, a game’s box art being a sexy lady in a bikini does not bode well for its content. So I probably wouldn’t have given Project Rub a second glance if I hadn’t come across it in a box of loose Nintendo DS games being sold in a charity shop for 20p each. Most of them were various flavors of Dr. Kawashima’s Brain Training and assorted licensed shovelware, but nonetheless I walked out with about 15 games I’d never heard of.

Sega’s Project Rub has been the nicest surprise of them all. Known as Feel the Magic: XY/XX in the US and Kimi no Tame nara Shineru (“I would die for you”) in Japan, this is a collection of Wario Ware-esque minigames in which you attempt to win the heart of a lovely lady with the help of a ‘super performance group’ called the Rub Rabbits.

If you’re familiar with the territory there are probably alarm bells ringing right now. So yes, there are minigames where you rub the woman to clean dirt off her, and yes there is a bit where you unbutton her wet dress and… okay fine, if you prod her boobs with the DS stylus she slaps your hand away and blushes,

But come back! It’s somehow not completely awful! While on paper this might sound like your typical nightmarish ‘molest-an-anime waifu-who-looks-about-eight-em-up’, Project Rub sidesteps all this by being goofy, surreal and ultimately kinda sweet.

Developed by a predominantly female development team (including several Space Channel 5 veterans) they stick the tone of a slapstick romcom. All the characters are represented by silhouettes in a pop-art style, which both looks great and sidesteps the horniness factor. Plus, there’s a nice faux-60s psychedelic aesthetic and music throughout, which is a great fit for the subject matter.

Even better, the minigames are mostly great fun. This was a launch title for the DS in Japan and feels designed to show off the hardware. So, entire game is played with the stylus and you scribble, draw and tap your way through various scenarios (as well as blowing into the microphone). Over the course of the game you’ll tease goldfish out of a man’s stomach, face off against 100 rampaging bulls, fight a giant carnivorous plant and perform CPR while Death himself taunts you.

In perhaps the game’s most memorable moment, it invites you to yell “I LOVE YOU!” into the microphone over and over. I was playing this while on a plane, but wasn’t about to let a bit of social embarrassment prevent me from continuing, so I sucked up the odd looks and let fly into the DS mic. It was only later that I learned I could have simply blown onto the microphone.

There’s a couple of duds, but the game is peppy enough not to let them get in the way. And, to my surprise, despite the game being deeply weird and the characters silent abstract representations of people, I eventually cared whether they’d get together or not.

Not bad for 20p. I’ll keep an eye out for its sequel The Rub Rabbits next time I’m perusing the bargain bins.

Control (PS4, 2019)

Up until Control the last platinum trophy I got was way back in 2011 for Batman: Arkham City. As most trophy collections devolve into pointless busywork I try my best to ignore them. So why was I so compelled to get Control‘s platinum?

Like Arkham City, I simply wanted to spend as much time in its world as possible. At times Control feels like it was designed to specifically push my buttons. The setting is bureaucratic magical realism, the writing is oblique without disappearing up its own arse and hocking pieces of concrete at the enemies never stops being satisfying. Hell, there’s even a cameo by Hideo Kojima to complete my “this fucking rules” bingo card.

But it’s the environments that turned me on the most. I live just down the road from the Barbican Centre and spend a lot of time there, luxuriating in its beautiful unadorned geometric concrete blocks. I’ve been on the architecture tour of the complex twice, I’ve got a shelf of books about the interiors and have made paper models of the buildings. And Control frequently felt like the Barbican Centre: the Game.

Even better, while games often use brutalism purely for aesthetic reasons (large blocks of concrete are also cheap to render), Control neatly ties the architectural philosophy into its themes and story.

The game is set entirely within The Oldest House, headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Control, a government agency tasked with keeping a lid on weird shit. This manifests as ‘altered world objects’ and ‘objects of power’. For example, there’s postbox that paralyses people who approach it, a fridge that must be stared upon at all times and a pram that constantly emits smoke. The FBC studies, categorises and stores these objects, whose very existence bends the laws of reality.

These rebellious, deceptive and shifting objects are a perfect contrast to the permanence, authority and honesty of the brutalist architecture that surrounds them. But, in a very satisfying development, the architecture itself is subversive.

The Oldest House is a (possibly sentient) ‘place of power’ that rearranges its layout on the fly, with posters warning employees to mind their surroundings. Throughout the game you see geometric blocks sprouting from the walls and flowing into and around each other like a self-solving Rubik’s Cube. The building even becomes your primary source of ammunition as you tear lumps out of the floor and walls and psychically propel them at high speeds towards your hapless enemies. This ironic little combination of static permanence and kinetic movement tickled me pink.

By the time the main story was over I wanted nothing more than have a cup of coffee in The Oldest House’s Central Research cafeteria. Just let me sit backm gaze up at the towering trees that contrast the unadorned walls and breathe in the airy spaces around me. But, unable to enjoy a coffee in-game, I had to settle for beating a series of tricky optional bosses while wearing a stylish/ridiculous golden suit.

I liked pretty much everything about Control. Most physical games I beat and promptly sell. But I don’t want to give up The Oldest House anytime soon, so this has earned a rare permanent spot in my collection. My only regret is that I didn’t play it sooner.

Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown (PS4, 2019)

You’d think a series often described as being ‘Metal Gear Solid with fighter planes’ would be my jam, but I’ve never gotten into the Ace Combat series. The only one I’d ever played before Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown was Ace Combat: Assault Horizon, which is reviled by fans for Call of Dutying up the series and messing with the dogfight mechanics.

I thought Assault Horizon was a decent but bland arcade shooter, but after a spate of reviews saying that Ace Combat 7 was back to the series’ best I decided to give it a whirl.

Set in the (awesomely named) fictional world of Strangereal, Ace Combat 7 is about a war between the nations of Osea and Erusea. It’s a conflict that’s been bubbling on throughout the series, but though this is a chapter in a historic conflict the game does a pretty good job of explaining itself to newbies.

First up, the jet-fighting is really fun. It’s got that classic mix of quick-to-grasp, difficult-to-master mechanics as you learn to whip your jet around, drop in behind enemies and fire a volley of missiles into their ass. At the core of the game is a complex dance between you and your enemies, figuring out the trajectories and angles you need to be at for your lock-on to function effectively. As the enemies get harder the window you can lock on to them shrinks until you’ve got be ultra-precise and fire with crackerjack timing.

Even though what you’re doing in the first mission is essentially the same as what you’re doing in the final one, the game continuously mixes things up. You might have to fight amidst an equipment-scrambling lightning storm, stay under the radar on a stealth mission or fight off ground troops threatening your base. Each mission brings fresh twists and, while the game could sometimes explain them a bit better, it keeps you on your toes right to the end.

What I particularly appreciated about Ace Combat 7 – and something that was totally missing from Assault Horizon – is that despite the military fetishism there’s a strong pacifist message running through it. First up the fictional setting sidesteps any latent nationalism in the player, but the game’s it’s neat how the game’s plot gradually deconstructs the war you’re fighting in.

There’s the frankly genius twist that you’re a fighter pilot who’s been framed, sent to fighter pilot jail and is sent out with your Dirty Dozen style crew on only the most dangerous missions. A lot of these types of games will butter you up as the big hero, so it’s refreshing to be treated like expendable scum for a bit (though by the end everyone is in awe of your skills).

Second, there’s a big triumph in Mission 15 of 20 in which you deliver a crushing blow to the enemy forces. Most games would end here, but Ace Combat 7 just switches up the atmosphere. Suddenly your trusty targeting computer can no longer distinguish ally from enemy and you begin to hear disturbing radio chatter about civilian casualities, the discovery of mass graves and the plight of refugees.

All too soon the fog of war is thicker than ever before and the hitherto clearly defined enemy becomes a confusing series of splintered groups. The final foe is the military industrial complex itself, represented as an AI programmed to lock the world into a forever war.

I mean, Ace Combat 7 is still about awesome explosions and cool military hardware, but like Metal Gear Solid at least it’s trying to be something more.

Leaving aside all that, the PSVR missions are probably worth the price of admission alone. I left them until I’d finished the main story and I’m really glad I did: the sense of immersion in your environment is so strong that I’d have spent the entire game wishing it was all in VR.

I don’t know if I’m into Ace Combat enough to track down previous games in the franchise, but consider me educated as to why this series is so highly regarded.