Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4, 2015)

I was as excited for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain as I ever have been for a game. With Hideo Kojima’s relationship with Konami disintegrating, this was his last Metal Gear… for real this time! Then, in the weeks running up to the game’s September 1st release, my girlfriend surprised me with a trip to Italy on the 5th of September.

This gave me four days to play through The Phantom Pain. That’s doable, right? I picked it up at the stroke of midnight on release day in Camden and the next few days are a blur. Falling into a stealthy, sneaking fugue state I completed every one of the 50 missions and 157 side ops. I ate, slept and shat Metal Gear Solid, hopping on that flight to Italy muttering incoherently about vocal cord parasites.

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I had a whale of a time. As the game closed the timeline by looping back to the 1987 original I was sleep-deprived but satisfied. Sure, some things were a bit confusing, but Hideo Kojima had done it again… right?

Since then, that initial glow has substantially dimmed. In retrospect I couldn’t deny that the story is objectively unfinished, that the second half of the game was full of repeated filler missions and that the open-world lacks personality and focus. And then there’s Quiet, the tits sniper…

So I was nervous returning to it as part of my chronological Metal Gear series playthrough. Would its flaws would suddenly become glaringly obvious? Would I suddenly see The Phantom Pain for the game it was, rather than what I hoped it’d be? Would it lose its lustre altogether?

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Well, the credits have just rolled on my second playthrough and I’m pleased to say that The Phantom Pain is still a damn good game – and a damn good Metal Gear Solid game to boot. Even five years after its release the stealth gameplay is still unmatched. Experimenting with the game’s huge array of weird gadgets (inflatable decoys, warp portals, rocket arms, smoke grenades, cardboard boxes with anime girls on the side, knife-wielding dogs) gives you a basically infinite amount of ways to sneak, infiltrate and sabotage.

And if your carefully laid plans fail, going loud and lethal is also great fun. My sniper buddy is going nuts with the headshots, I’m tossing grenades like they’re going out of style and my attack helicopter buddy is firing missiles while blaring Ram Jam’s Black Betty over the battlefield. It’s a good time.

On this playthrough I clocked about 60 hours in the game, and not once during the actual sneaking was I bored. It’s tense, it invites creativity and the enemy AI lands perfectly between realistic and fun.

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But I kinda knew all that going into it again. What I was really worried about was the story. Here’s where the cracks began to show, as on my first playthrough I was simply caught up in the mystery of what was going on.

This time it became apparent early on that Skullface simply isn’t a very interesting bad guy, that the vast majority of the supporting cast have truncated and confusing story arcs, and that the game has nowhere near as much interesting stuff to say as the rest of the series.

Best I can do is latch onto the game’s fixation with parasites (which stand in for nanomachines as the source of the all the supernatural elements). About two-thirds of the way through the game we see one of the parasites, which bears a resemblance to the layout of your mercenary headquarters. An in-game cassette tape spells things out more explicitly: Diamond Dogs, your military cult, is a parasite attached to a world that relies on war to survive.

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The characters continually lie to themselves that they’re free of ideology, selling their military services to whoever wants theme. By the time you’re blowing up a convoy of tanks in the tellingly named late-game mission ‘Proxy War without End’, you don’t know who you’re fighting for or why. In a world where there are only enemy soldiers (and the occasional prisoner to be rescued) why think too hard about what you’re doing? You are merely a parasite on human misery, acting on instinct rather than on morality.

It’s interesting enough, but as someone who doesn’t currently lead a mercenary unit it doesn’t give me much to apply to my life.

Overlaid on that is a confusing but mostly interesting examination of language and cultural identity, with the spread of the English language positioned as an insidious method of thought control and… in a development that I still can’t work out if I like or not, the revelations about who you play as in the game.

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For 99% of the game you assume you’re playing series hero/villain Big Boss. You look like him, talk like him, people treat you like you are him etc etc. In the final chapter, there’s a twist that Big Boss is actually off doing something else and you’re effectively playing as yourself. The moral is that anyone can be Big Boss with the right encouragement and it was actually me that did all those brave feats.

Except I obviously didn’t. I didn’t blow up a giant bipedal nuclear robot with a missile launcher. I certainly didn’t lead a daring helicopter escape to save a mine full of exploited African children. Nor did I engage in a daring sniper battle in the ancient ruins of Afghanistan. I was being carefully ushered through a choreographed video-game in which real achievement is inherently illusory.

Usually Kojima is in his element when reaching through the videogame fourth wall to the player, but this is a twist too far. Knowing The Truth shouldn’t matter – if it quacks like Big Boss it may as well be Big Boss – but, as much as I’d like to claim otherwise, it does matter. After all, if I want to ‘play as myself’ I’ll put the controller down and head outside.

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With The Phantom Pain Kojima came to the end of almost thirty years of storytelling. That he chose to effectively abandon his story at the final hurdle in order to impress upon players that they should focus on subtext rather than the technical specs of giant robots and the hows of cloned supersoldiers is laudable. On paper it’s very much my jam. In practise… not so much.

It means The Phantom Pain (and Metal Gear Solid as a whole) is and will forever be incomplete, with the true finale of the game relegated to a half-finished cutscene on YouTube.

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But I suppose the most important thing is whether the game is fun. And it’s difficult to truly dislike a game where you can fire your arm into the air, circle it back and rocket punch yourself in the dick.

Going from this to 1987’s Metal Gear on the MSX next month is going to be quite the contrast.

Panzer Dragoon: Remake (Switch, 2020)

Team Andromeda’s Panzer Dragoon series deserves its cult status. The games have an air of mystery to it them, and the Moebius-influenced design and amazing soundtrack means the games have aged far better than most Sega Saturn games.

So the 2018 announcement that MegaPixel Studio S.A. were developing Panzer Dragoon: Remake, a complete reworking of the 1995 original, I was very happy. This is the first Panzer Dragoon release in 17 years, and I was dearly hoping that this could be a rebirth for the series.

Now I’ve got my hands on it, played it a bunch, beaten it and… oh man. I wish I had more positive things to say.

I’ve played the Saturn original, so knew going in that the game was extremely short. But I still forked out the £22 asking price. After all, so what if it’s short? Length does not equal quality.

Anyway, I’m happy to pay for what could be the definitive version of a classic. I mean, I’ve paid multiple times for various versions of Rez, which has the same gameplay and is of similar length. Anyway, I want to show Sega that there is an audience out there for Panzer Dragoon.

But as the credits rolled (after just forty minutes) I felt like I’d been short-changed. Let’s start with the stuff that could feasibly be fixed in a patch.

The controls are terrible, with neither classic or modern options particularly easy to use. The 3D aiming reticule is a nightmare to lock onto enemies and even with adjustments to sensitivity precise targeting is practically impossible. Beyond that, the dragon seems to take up much more space on screen than in the original, making it a matter of luck whether you can dodge projectiles or not. This leads to a lot of frustrating deaths.

Secondly, the frame-rate is all over the shop. I believe the game was billed at running at 60fps but obviously this has been abandoned. I would have been happy with a locked 30fps, but what we get is a jerky mess that’s occasionally nauseating to watch. Frames are dropped all over the place and the final boss fight (which takes place in a rain storm) feels like its dropping into the low 20s.

It’s not quite game-ruining, but takes a lot of the shine off the product and makes it feel amateurish. I get that the Switch isn’t a powerhouse, but it should be able to deal with a rail-shooter that effectively aims for PS3/Xbox 360 quality visuals.

Then there’s the terrible sound. The sound effects are of low quality, and the score (which I believe is straight ripped from the Saturn original) is flat and a bit trebly. I played the game through a decent sound system and I had to turn down the volume as it was physically painful to listen to.

But all of that can be fixed (and is apparently being worked on).

Some problems are more intrinsic though. Specifically, the crucial aesthetics have gone awry. It appears that the design philosophy was to translate the visuals of the Saturn game as faithfully as possible, and where things were extremely low-res (i.e. Stage 5) to bring them into line with what Team Andromeda may have been trying to achieve.

On paper that’s laudable, but in practice just bringing stuff into HD drains away a lot of the atmosphere. There’s a sense of isolation and austerity to the original games that’s lost in these saturated colours and busy backgrounds. More detail and clarity does not necessarily equal better, especially when (in many cases) the new graphics make the game look pretty generic. And without its idiosyncratic aesthetic Panzer Dragoon becomes just a short, mechanically simple rail-shooter.

Like I said, I wish I had more positive things to say. Hopefully a patch will fix some of this. Whatever happens with this release, I hope lessons are learned in time for their remake of Panzer Dragoon Zwei.

Control: The Foundation DLC (PS4, 2020)

There’s two financial rules I live by when it comes to gaming. The first is to never preorder a videogame. Even if I’m desperate to play something, I’ll wait for the reviews to come in (and maybe a patch if it’s got technical issues). The second is to never, ever buy a Season Pass. Whatever’s contained in them is generally available on sale pretty quickly, and what isn’t is pointless cosmetic rubbish.

But I broke my Season Pass rule for Control. I absolutely adored the game and even after getting the platinum trophy I still wanted more. That the season pass included a bonus mission narrated by Hideo Kojima was just the particularly succulent cherry on top.

Now the first DLC pack, The Foundation, is here. And in a way I got what I wanted. It certainly is more Control.

The expansion gives you a peek into this week’s extra-dimensional disaster that threatens to shatter reality as we know it. Here Jesse must venture deep into the caves underneath The Old House to repair the ‘Nail’, which seems to hold the place together. There’s a couple of new enemies, two new (situational-only) powers and a couple of quality-of-life tweaks.

The Foundation is fine. The only genuine downsides are the frustrating final boss, and the occasional bit of wonky checkpointing. But I was hoping for something a bit more than fine. Throughout the main game, Remedy pushed the boat out in creating unexpected and imaginative stuff to do and environments to be in – the pinnacle being the amazing Ashtray Maze. There’s not that much of that here: this DLC is essentially a gauntlet of battles in samey cave environments.

There is one glimmer of light in all this: an awesome 80s VHS action side mission set to synth music and flickering neon. The aesthetic feels fresh after the austere brutalism of the rest of the game and I wish they’d expanded on this a bit more. But it’s short, easy and mechanically pretty simple. Oh well.

The Foundation scratches that Control itch, but I’m hoping the final expansion AWE really pushes the boat out.

CSI: Fatal Conspiracy (Xbox 360, 2010)

A couple of months back I played CSI: Deadly Intent. It was rubbish, but rubbish in an enjoyable sort of way. As a pre-The Walking Dead Telltale game, it was plagued by weird animation, ugly graphics and iffy writing. But it was pleasantly goofy and I giggled along with a friend at the unlikely twists and odd murders. And so to its sequel, CSI: Fatal Conspiracy. This isn’t enjoyably bad. It’s just bad. Let’s examine the evidence.

Deadly Intent was no oil painting, but Fatal Conspiracy is somehow much uglier. The game takes place in a series of small, enclosed environments that you scan for clues. Something like this really shouldn’t tax an Xbox 360, yet rooms that a PS2 could render with ease display with a frame-rate somewhere in the mid-teens.

the cold dead eyes of the pathologist

It’s compounded by nightmarish character models that jerk and stutter their way through limited animation, faces that look like animated corpses and control system that’s obviously intended for a mouse transplanted onto a controller with zero effort.Worst of all, the murders are dull! There are just two or three suspects per case, no red herrings, no crazy twists and no crazy and surreal deaths.

these faces haunt me in my dreams

But here’s the rancid cherry on top. The first time you use a forensic computer during a case it displays an antivirus pop-up that scans the computer. It looks extremely suspicious and set me up for a twist – or dare I say, a fatal conspiracy – in which my trusted CSI computers had been compromised.

Exciting huh? Sadly not. This is just product placement for a decade old obsolete antivirus. Ugh. Get this shit out of my console.

Perhaps playing through a decade-old CSI game wasn’t that great of an idea, so that’s on me. I won’t make the same mistake again.

Otogi: Myth of Demons (Xbox, 2003)

Since 2009’s Demon’s Souls, From Software has experienced a stratospheric rise from curator of medium quality oddities to critical darling. I’m a huge fan of the Souls games, having completed and adored Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2, Bloodborne and Sekiro (I am saving Dark Souls 3 for a rainy day).

But though Souls director Hidetaka Miyazaki didn’t join the company until 2004, the DNA of the Souls series has been running through the company for some time. The general thinking is that its antecedents are the King’s Field series combined with a smidge of Otogi: Myth of Demons.

This actually isn’t my first runaround with the game. I bought it on launch in 2003, gave up on it early and took it back to the shop. I always suspected that I might have missed out on something special. It’s also a difficult game to play in 2020: it’s not backwards compatible with Xbox 360 or Xbox One, is not available digitally and it is not playable in emulation. Well, now it’s beaten and, for the most part, it’s good stuff.

Once you’re looking out for it there’s lots of lots of Souls DNA in Otogi. You play a silent and undead hero, your quest is morally ambiguous, you’re fighting through a world that’s already in ruins and there’s a powerful sense of melancholy and loss. Beyond that, the voice-acting has that ethereal and sincere Souls quality, there’s a lot of information in weapon and enemy descriptions and the lock-on system feels pretty damn familiar.

But Otogi isn’t a lost Souls game, nor is it an easy recommend. At its best, the game provides a sense of off-kilter cool. There’s an amazing level where you have to beat nails through a demon god’s six hands to keep him bound, which layers azure walls over crimson chains and looks incredible. There’s also an amazing one-on-one duel in the snow with a demon with flowing red hair, which is as fun as the game’s combat gets.

And then there’s the shit stuff. As we get closer to the end of the 29 levels, the difficulty progresses past what’s reasonable for this combat system and control system. For example, in the penultimate level you’re tasked with killing harder versions four previous bosses in one go without checkpoints, each of which can murder you in a few attacks if you’re not careful. To beat this I had to grind out XP by playing a single level over and over – and nothing makes me feel annoyed more than feeling like I’m wasting my time grinding. Even with the level boost it was tough.

And then there’s the final boss, which was so frustrating I don’t want to talk about it.

Much of the frustration is down the floaty and imprecise controls. It’s not necessarily bad, just that it falls short when the game picks up the pace. For example, the crucial ‘uppercut’ move that raises you in the air is mapped to Right-trigger + B, which is easy to fluff in battle. Then there’s the awful camera, which you cannot invert and moves way too slowly to keep up with the action.

I’d probably be a lot more positive about Otogi if it wasn’t for the last two levels. It’s a cool, obscure game with a load of neat stuff tucked away in the corners. But definitely one for gaming historians rather than anyone seeking something actually fun.

Apparently Otogi 2 is a huge improvement, so I’ll get to that sooner or later.

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare (Xbox 360, 2010)

Another week, another game about an unstoppable pandemic and a society collapsing into paranoid terror. Ideally I’d be playing games for escapism right now, but lately it feels like everything I pick up has some kind of virological component to it…

Anyway, despite adoring Red Dead Redemption on its original release, I never quite got around to playing Undead Nightmare, its DLC side-story. I was and am a little suspicious of zombie games: apocalyptic fantasies where you’re in a solitary and violent battle against mindless hordes always have a whiff of fash wet dream. Also, even a decade ago zombies were kinda played out.

Timely!

But with Red Dead Redemption 2 cementing my love for the franchise I picked up a second-hand copy and finally got stuck in. And… sadly, this hasn’t aged well.

First up, my memories of Red Dead Redemption were much more rose-tinted than the reality. I know that ten years will inevitably rub off a game’s graphical lustre, but I wasn’t expecting the world to look this drab. Exacerbating things in Undead Nightmare is that the world is filtered to monochromatic grey: you’re racing through endless grey scrubland towards a grey town under a grey sky.

Grey.

On top of that, the frame-rate is also kinda wobbly, especially in situations with lots of fire (most settlements are on fire). This was particularly annoying when I managed to tame ‘War’, one of the four horses of the apocalypse. He’s a cool jet-black stallion who is perpetually on fire. Sadly the thrill of riding a kickass flaming horse around was tempered by the fact that he reduced the frame-rate to somewhere in the mid-teens.

And then there’s the gameplay, which is limited to shooting one of four types of zombie in the head as they shamble at you. They’re not at all dangerous and after the first ten minutes of fighting them you’ll have seen pretty much everything they’ll offer for the next 6-8 hours.

Mission design is your typical open-world go to point A, shoot things at point B, return to point A. That’s your bread and butter, but Undead Nightmare also tosses in a dreadful mandatory flower-picking mission. Man, I wasn’t exactly over-the-moon about slaughtering endless zombies, but I’d rather do that than scour the prairie for ten ‘desert lilies’.

Did I mention that you also have to engage in a plate-spinning exercise in which towns and settlements will periodically come under attack from the undead, and you have to rush there and save them or they’ll be permanently lost and you lose a save point?

My lovely but technologically impractical flaming horse…

I can see why Undead Nightmare picked up such good reviews on release. It’s built on the base of what was then one of the best open world games on the market. By the standards of 2010 DLC packs it’s brimming with content and was sold for a knock-down price. But from a 2020 perspective…?

Best to let Undead Nightmare rest in peace.

A Plague Tale: Innocence (PS4, 2019)

These last few weeks have been a pretty bad time to play Asobo Studio’s A Plague Tale: Innocence. The game is set in 14th century France, which we find in the grip by a mysterious plague. Throughout the game the fabric of society breaks down, paranoid citizens turn on one another and bodies begin to pile up in the streets. It is impossible not to draw some pretty damn gloomy parallels to what’s currently going in the headlines.

All of which makes A Plague Tale: Innocence a downright depressing game. You play the teenage Amicia de Rune, who by the end of the first level has seen her dog eaten by rats, her father executed, her mother impaled, her family servants slaughtered and her home destroyed by soldiers. She’s forced to go on the run and take care of her younger brother Hugo, who is gradually succumbing to a mysterious illness.

Together the pair must journey across a ruined landscape in search of a cure. Standing in their way are soldiers hunting for them and rats. An absolute fuckton of rats. These are the visual representation of the disease, swarming in their thousands around the characters and only able to be beaten back with flaming torches.

The rest of the game consists of moving through linear levels and solving stealth-based puzzles. Sometimes you’re dodging soldiers, sometimes you’re dodging rats and sometimes a combination of two. It’s effective but limited stealth, and while it’s not Medieval Gear Solid, it does the job.

What the A Plague Tale lacks in gameplay depth it makes up for in pretty environments. The game runs on a custom-designed bespoke engine – seriously impressive in this era of off-the-shelf middleware – and looks jaw-droppingly great. The environmental detail is astonishing, with the game smartly relying on photogrammetry libraries for its rich variety of textures.

While the game has its fair share of sundappled forests and warm sunsets, the vast majority of your time is spent wading through filth and corpses. Mangled bodies are piled high, ruined streets are filled with rotting flesh and the general environment is so putrid it makes you want to shower. The game is so damn grim that I didn’t really feel up to long play sessions, so parcelled it out at about a chapter a night.

Throughout the game I respected Asobo Studio’s ambition. This is a mid-budget game that reaches for the stars, and while its scope may be limited compared to, say, Assassin’s Creed, it punches well above its weight.

But, sadly, by the time the game moves into its final chapters I was ready for it to be over. The game opens with a broadly realistic tone and gradually becomes more and more supernatural as you progress. The magical elements gradually become more and more prominent, until you find yourself fighting a final boss that felt like it could have fallen out of Dark Souls.

By this point the situation the characters were in was effectively unrelatable and the core narrative about two siblings struggling through a broken society is abandoned for some guff about duelling rat messiahs. Every part of the game has clearly had a lot of hard work poured into it, but I wish Asobo had killed a little more of their darlings.

I don’t regret playing through A Plague Tale: Innocence, the first two thirds of the game is brilliant. But a bit more restraint and it could have been something truly special. Oh well, at least it’s pretty.