Monday, 30 November 2015

Metal Gear Solid V : The Phantom Pain - Review

Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami 
Platforms: PS4 (version played), Xbox One, PC, PS3, 360 

There’s moments, quite a few, actually, when The Phantom Pain feels like the best game you’ll play all year. It’s fun, responsive, and as deep as the series has ever managed to be and does so without barely a stumble. Yet, at the same time, it’s the most bizarre, often frustrating mess of contradictions. It sprints up to the finish line, waits for the crowd to cheer, and then backpedals back five steps.

In other words, it’s also the most frustrating game to have been released all year.

Not in terms of its gameplay though. No, the core loop that beats at the heart of The Phantom Pain is some of the best slices of Metal Gear Solid you’ll ever have the chance to play. Remember, Ground Zeroes? Well, now you get that on an epic scale.

Whether it be Afghanistan or Central Africa, The Phantom Pain simply gives you a bunch of toys and asks you to go about your mission as you wish. You want to take the rocket launcher? Go right ahead. How about the sniper rifle? Well, take that as well. There’s an absurd amount of variation to even the most simple of the game’s missions.

There’s the buddy system, which allows you to kit out four different characters; a horse, a dog, a robot walker and fellow soldier Quiet, with a variety of different equipment. It’s a great addition to the series and each buddy is genuinely different from the others, expanding your strategic options in different ways. 

Quiet, as a trained sniper, can provide you with cover fire from a distance. The dog meanwhile, helps scout out enemy units and marking them on your map. The robot walker you get is by far the most interesting in terms of customization, giving you a stealthy sidekick should you choose, or building it into a flamethrower-spouting war mech if sneaking around is not your thing.

At its core, this is Peace Walker finally expanded to the scope that Kojima and the development team clearly envisioned. Gone are the bite-sized screens of action, the fiddly control scheme (at least for the PSP release), and the over-reliance on dull boss fights. In their place is miles and miles of map just waiting for you to explore.

As the first truly open world Metal Gear Solid a lot of responsibility is placed on you the player; you get as much out of the game and its constructed encounters as you put in. Reach a Russian encampment where you’re tasked with extracting a prisoner and you can go about it however way you choose. Hit the button for your scope and you’ll handily tag enemies, making stealth easier but at the same time making you actually work for it. 

The Phantom Pain is a game that rewards the patient. The untold number of little hidden elements and “oh I didn’t know I could that” moments is ridiculously high. After over twenty hours of play I only just realized that there was a cardboard box system that’ll have different enemy bases cart you around to various locations if you hide in a box near a base’s supply point. It’s like that whole secret route/Easter egg in Sons of Liberty where you could pack yourself away in the Parcel Room of the oil plant and be taken to practically any strut, only this time it’s on a much bigger scale.

Each action comes with consequences. Shoot up a base and the guards will call in extra units the next time you turn up there. Keep going for head shots and you’re likely to find men touting helmets pretty soon. There’s no “right” answer in The Phantom Pain, no correct way to play, and the focus on creating a game space that treats stealth as a tactical option, rather than the “right” way to play, is commendable.  

There’s even been some effort to force conservative players from their predictable ways. Just as aggressive players will find guards getting stronger and more resilient, there’s been an attempt to water down the, frankly, overpowered nature of the tranquilizer gun. It’s still there, and it’s still one of the best guns in the entire game, and a must have for when it comes to expanding your team back at base, but it’s been weakened somewhat. The suppressor breaks more easily this time around, especially during those first few hours before it gets an upgrade, meaning you either risked being heard, or spend time calling in a replacement.

There’s an attempt to force players to think a little more creatively and interact with the abundance of systems that are on offer, reducing the reliance on the “sleep and creep” mentality. 

The base mechanics have undergone a subtle change, and, on the surface, are not radically different from the system that was in place in Peace Walker. Enemy guards can be “Fultoned” back to base and placed into a variety of different positions depending on their skills. There’s a small, and somewhat tedious addition, where certain troops you’ve captured may cause trouble and lead to fighting breaking out on Mother Base. To be honest, it’s an unnecessary addition to a game system that works best when it’s left behind the scenes.

There’s an oddly moreish aspect to slowly levelling up your crew and unlocking new weapons. Just getting one more level up in the R&D Department so you can stick a suppressor on your sniper rifle is oddly compelling. Yet, the constant need to screen units for unhelpful “abilities” like being unsanitary or aggressive doesn’t especially add to any tactical decisions, and just leads to menu-clicking busy work. I never want to stop my sneaking around to enter a menu and order the guy who can’t wash his hands after taking a shit to leave Mother Base. That should be Miller’s job, not Big Boss’.

For all the tactical freedom and open world splendour, there’s this niggling feeling that Kojima and his team have somewhat “sold out” by morphing Metal Gear Solid into the Ubisoft school of game design. Bite-size missions and simple RPG elements are at the core of Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, and The Phantom Pain essentially builds upon that style of gameplay. Likewise, the game’s side missions, where you send troops to do various tasks across the world, blurs the line between clever world building and dull padding as you simply wait for a cooldown to be over and your reward to come in.

There’s a blandness to The Phantom Pain at times, and it almost begins to infect the gameplay. For all the tactical freedom given on missions there’s sense of repetitiveness that begins to rear its head during the game’s second half. Every mission begins to blur into one. “Go here and rescue this guy”, becomes “Go here and rescue these two guys…or kill them if you can’t be bothered to that”. 

By giving you more freedom The Phantom Pain also, naturally, has less structure, and by doing so it lacks the stand out moments that you remember from Snake Eater and Sons of Liberty.

Likewise, this isn’t helped by the poor excuse for bosses that show up. The Parasite Unit is a sorry attempt at a rogue’s gallery compared to the previous games. Even Metal Gear Solid 4, with all its dragging cut-scenes and convoluted plot, at least plumped up some interesting boss fights. Here you simply get an average attempt at recreating the infamous The End encounter from Snake Eater, and a few other fights that simply feel like cheap knock offs from previous instalments.

All of this, in an odd way, can probably be traced back to the game’s absurd plot. There’s no character to the cast in The Phantom Pain, no interesting people or exciting things happening. Instead its one portentous, dull conversation after another, and one where the bizarre tonal shifts begin to unsettle anything that the game sets out to achieve.

Granted, the previous games have had to try and marry the threat of nuclear war with a character that can shoot bees out of his mouth, yet here the tonal inconsistencies seem more pronounced and harder to just brush off. This is a game that wants you to think about the travesty of children being raised as soldiers but also has time to have what amounts to Johnny Storm chase after you on a unicorn. The Phantom Pain, more than the previous games, seems to highlight the problem between Kojima the game designer and Kojima the hack film director, and the end results aren’t particularly pretty. 

Replacing David Hayter with Keifer Sutherland hasn’t done the game any favours either. While Hayter’s grizzled tone might not be to everyone’s taste, it is Big Boss/Snake, and hearing Sutherland’s voice come out of the character’s mouth just doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t particularly help either, like a lot of writers and reviewers have mentioned, that Sutherland’s cadence is a lot similar to Robert Atkin Downes delivery for Miller, meaning it can initially be confusing whenever the two are having a conversation and you’re listening to it on audio cassette.

Mind you, there’s actually not a lot of times that Big Boss does actually talk, rendering the decision to have Sutherland voice the character even more odd. This is a much quieter and withdrawn Big Boss than the one we saw in any of the previous three games that he’s been in.

All these little flaws and niggling decisions drag The Phantom Pain down from what it tries to do. It’s a game bursting with frustrating internal contradictions. The vast open world is fun when you’re on a mission, and provides tactical depth, but step away from that and it comes across as nothing more than an empty game space, lacking the character and history of, say, Groznyj Grad, or Shadow Moses. It’s set in the 1980s but it might as well be set anywhere, there’s no context to where you are like there was in the previous games. Snake Eater bravely took away your soliton radar because it would have been impossible for Snake to have it, whilst Metal Gear Solid 4 gave you that sweet octocamo which felt like a natural progression of the previous games mechanics and fit with the world it was set in. The Phantom Pain simply gives you what amounts to a futuristic iPad and then doesn’t comment on it.

Now I know this is a series that’s not trying to be “realistic”, it’s named after giant walking nuclear tanks for crying out loud. That being said, there’s something lacking about the world of The Phantom Pain. It’s certainly not memorable, and won’t stick in my mind like previous series locations have. Ironically, it has more in common with those VR missions in Sons of Libertys “Substance” re-release; functional game spaces that offer no real world context.

I suppose, in its own bizarre way, it’s a perfect send off for Metal Gear Solid and Kojima’s relationship with the series. It manages to sum up the best and the worst that the series has to offer.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Danganronpa : Trigger Happy Havoc - Review

Developer: Spike Chunsoft
Publisher: NIS America
Platforms: PSP, PS Vita (version played), iOS, Android

Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc is one of the best games I’ve played this year. It’s that simple. I could have written this opening paragraph more eloquently, made you want to read on, but there’s very little point. It’s best to simply say that Danganronpa is incredibly good.

Right, with that out of the way, let’s actually discuss what makes it so great.  

Danganronpa’s single greatest strength is its story. That, frankly, should be taken for granted. It’s a visual novel after all; placing narrative and story above gameplay conceits.

Yet, it’s the way the game manages to tell its absolutely bonkers story that makes it fascinating. You play as Mokoto Naegi, a young student whose been given the honour of enrolling at Hope’s Peak Academy; a school for the gifted. Naegi, though, has no gift, not one that he can think of anyway. In fact, his reason for being enrolled is because he’s been listed as the “Ultimate Lucky Student”. He only got a place at the school because he won a lottery. 

After arriving he’s greeted by all of the other new arrivals, all of whom are elites in one field or another. There’s the “Ultimate Baseball Star”, the “Ultimate Pop Sensation” and so on. 

Shortly after though, things take a turn for the worse. Makoto and the others find themselves trapped inside the school…with an evil robotic teddy bear. An evil robotic teddy bear that says that the only way to escape is for one of the fifteen students to kill another and get away with it. 

Cue a kind of bizarre, somewhat surreal take on the psychological thriller that’s common among visual novels. Story-wise I suppose the closest comparison would be Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors, with Danganronpa utilising a similar mystery within an enclosed environment; swapping the cramped confines of a cruise ship, for the twisting corridors of a high school.

In terms of the gameplay, it’s very much in the vein of an Ace Attorney game. Each chapter involves investigating another murder (which I’m going to try and talk about as little as possible for fear of spoilers) as you roam about the mysterious school in search of clues. Once everything has been found there’s then a dramatic courtroom battle, similar to what Phoenix Wright has to endure. 

The thing about Danganronpa is that it manages to balance everything just right. There’s some point-and-clicking to be done, but it’s never enough that it begins to slow down the plot. It’s not the kind of game where you have to conjure up fifteen different items only to have to use a paperclip lined with toothpaste, attached to a piece to string, to unlock a door or some other such nonsense. The parts that are deliberately “gamey”, in other words, are rather easy.

Yet, it’s clear they need to be. This is very much a narrative game, with all of its interactivity being in service to that.

Still, some gameplay elements creep into the murder investigations, and for the most part they’re handled really well. Clues take on the form of “truth bullets” which allow you to, quite literally, shoot down incorrect statements made by Makoto’s classmates during trials. Likewise, you’ll occasionally have to shoot floating letters in order to form a word or two that’s vital for the case. It’s all very simple stuff, at least on the standard difficulty, and, like I said earlier, it almost needs to be; you don’t want random janky bits of poorly implemented gameplay getting in the way of what’s happening. 

And it’s all there to serve a fascinating story, which, despite all the bizarre plot twists and wacky characters, is one that keeps its writing grounded with a solid focus on its characters. Monokuma, the evil robot teddy bear, brings in temptation after temptation, motive after motive, in order to drive the various students to attempt to kill one another. It’s genuinely disturbing in parts, and the strong characterization means that it’s a real emotional gut punch when one of the characters gets killed off, worse still when you realize that it’s one of your favourites that dealt the killing blow.

Danganronpa neatly sidesteps the predictable, cookie-cutter character designs that normally creep into a lot of these anime-styled games. Granted, some of the cast fit into typical moulds; there’s the snobby rich kid, the quiet girl with a nasty streak, but the writing avoids turning them into complete stereotypes and in many instances smartly plays around with your suspicions. The people you expect to make it through to the end aren’t likely the ones that actually do, it’s like watching a slasher movie but one where the roles are being constantly switched around to play with your expectations.

There’s a cute little game mechanic that lets you spend some spare time between investigations (people aren’t always killing each other) in order to get to know your classmates better. It amounts to little more than talking to whichever person you want and maybe giving them a gift or answering a question or two.

In effect, it’s like a really shallow version of Persona’s social link mechanic and it would have been nice to see it fleshed out a little more. “Level up” a friendship and you’ll get a new ability you can use during the courtroom sessions. The power-ups are all really minor though, and the whole mechanic is somewhat shallow and limited. The chance to get to know people better does at least lend the subsequent murders and trial verdicts a little more weight though, so it’s not a complete miss by any means. 

Danganronpa is that kind of game that’s really hard to define, and, the less you know about it going in the better. It’s utterly weird, and tonally straddles a very bizarre sweet spot that balances black comedy, horror and high school drama.

At its core Danganronpa is about maintaining hope in the face of overwhelming nihilism. The fact that it manages to tell such a story using a robot teddy bear with a penchant for murder and unbearable puns, that’s what makes it so darn special.