Sigy Says – Life is Strange Review

The narrative driven, choice based adventure game has been a pretty big hit ever since Telltale made The Walking Dead. Lots of other studios have taken a crack at creating uncomfortable and trying scenarios for gamers to rack their minds with. Those studios usually forget to make choices have deeper meaning or create decisions that exist within a binary function of “right” and “wrong.”

Life is Strange attempts to tackle the problems these games typically face. It doesn’t quite nail the impact of decisions (deciding to go with an all or nothing type ending), but it certainly sidesteps the issue of viewing the world in terms of black and white.

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Life is Strange (PC [reviewed], Linux, OSX, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360)
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Publisher: Square Enix
Released: Between January and October 2015
MSRP: $19.99

The main plot follows a week in the life of Max Caulfield, an 18 year old art student studying at a prestigious school in a fictional Oregonian town. She witnesses the death of a punk rock girl and, in a moment of desperation, turns back time. She doesn’t know what happened or how she did it, but manipulation of the very fabric of space and time is within her control.

The tale then follows her path to uncover the source of her powers, the reason behind the murder she originally witnessed and the problems facing Blackwell Academy. Lots of the story deals with a coming of age type narrative arc, before giving way to a murder mystery straight out of Law & Order.

The real meat and potatoes comes from all the different branching choices you’re given. Life is Strange deftly handles choices without falling back on “right” and “wrong.” Most decisions will never seem better or particularly easy. It’s all about figuring out how you would react or what causes the least amount of harm.

Max’s power of time control is also wonderfully worked into the gameplay. Once you make a choice and see the impact play out, you can immediately rewind to attempt the alternate option or just to tinker around with different outcomes. Instead of relying on the player to keep different save files or playthrough a second time, you can see basically all of the decisions first-hand.

There is one key part of the story that rips control away from Max and creates a heartbreaking encounter that can potentially end in tragedy. There are also story arcs that tackle the implications of getting a “do-over” and changing “destiny.” It’s not entirely original, but its application is very well done.

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What’s not so great is the dialog in the earlier episodes. Until around the mid-point of Episode 2, the writing is a bit wonky. Things like, “hella amazeballs” and “for cereal” are uttered without a hint of irony. It feels like an adult was trying to remember what being a teen was and mixed up some memes online.

The acting is also stilted, at first. I’m guessing no one was exactly sure how the game was going to pan out during the development of the first episode, but it just feels like a lack of direction was going on. Some of the lines are either a bit too soft or lack any dramatic weight. This does eventually pick up and turn into genuinely great performances (save for the final episode fizzling out), but it’s not thoroughly mesmerizing.

There are also some uncanny valley moments with the presentation. While this runs on the Unreal 3 engine, the characters are stiff and the environments feel detached. There is a very touching scene in a pool, but it looks like two dead mannequins floating in nothingness. I couldn’t get around that image, either.

What I did truly love was how gameplay elements were organically woven into the story. There are a lot of puzzles sprinkled throughout Max’s adventure and it’s awesome to not feel like you’re simply a spectator. You have to use critical thinking to figure out solutions based on the powers you’ve been given.

One scene has you gather chemicals to create an IED, blow open a door and then rewind so you end up on the other side. It’s a really awesome accomplishment. It truly feels like you came up with the answer on your own.

Chapter 4 is where this really shines. You have multiple pieces of information you’ve gathered over the course of the game that you’re required to piece together. You have to take a long look at any correlation and connect the dots. Even if you fail, the game has a few work-arounds to get you back on track (excluding your rewind).

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The final chapter drops the damn ball, however. There is a stealth section that is entirely pointless. Since you can rewind and remain in place, there is literally no reason to have characters searching for you. You cannot fail and pressing forward serves no repercussion. I understand it was a narrative device, but it utterly fails as a piece of gaming.

Honestly, the game was building up to a crescendo that Episode 5 never delivers. The definitive ending is certainly gut-wrenching, but the 2 hours leading up to it feel like a cop-out. It seems like DONTNOD had no idea how to really make your actions take affect or just wanted to impose their own will on the story. Regardless, Episode 5 does away with all of the good that the rest of the game exhibits.

There are some light puzzles, but everything is a forced, linear path and the dialog amounts to nothing more than expository exchanges with main characters. Some beats will tug at the heart strings, but most will just bore you (do I need to see that damn picture changing cutscene each time?).

That doesn’t destroy all the good that Episode 3 and 4 bring, but it does bookend the game with average scenarios. It starts slow and ends with a whimper. If you chopped out a little bit of the first episode, you could honestly combine it with the second and get the same result.

In all honesty, a lot of these games seem to crumble under marketing hype. Developers never know when to chill out with how cool their games are (or publishers pressure them into overselling their creations). Life is Strange is more about the relationship between two friends and how choices aren’t the end of the world (until they literally are).

I hate to be so harsh to a game that tackles such dark, dramatic and realistic topics like sexual abuse, stalkers, suicide and bullying, but most of the elements drag down the experience. The ridiculous twist of the real villain is also completely out of left field.

The game creates characters that feel like 3 dimensional beings and demands you look at them as more than caricatures, then the final chapter ends up labeling you a hero and the main bad-guy a psychopath. Dammit.

Still, Life is Strange is absolutely worth a playthrough. It’s not the best thing around, but it has an excellent mixture of gameplay and narrative heft to feel like a really important piece of gaming history. It will also resonate deeply with people who have suffered through similar tragedies in life.

I just wish DONTNOD nailed every aspect. This could have been a stone cold masterpiece.

6.5

All Right

Slightly above average or simply inoffensive. Fans of the genre should enjoy this game, but a fair few will be left unfulfilled.

A More “Real” VR Experience

“We hope as more people get to see VR, the experience will become more normal. People will then come into the VR experience and just see another game instead of a toy.” – Cindy Miller, Lead Designer at Culture Shock Games.

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I spent my past weekend at PAX East looking at a bunch of “new” games. While I wasn’t entirely impressed with most of the showcase, I did manage to find a few interesting things. One of the more intriguing displays was for an indie game called We Are Chicago.

At first, my friend and I were simply lining up to try VR. We were glancing at the monitor and joking about almost everything in the game world. This older guy and his son were joining in with us as we kept pointing out some of the inconsistencies of the VR experience.

The demo consisted of a scripted conversation about inner-city life and a scene where the player is supposed to set the table. I wanted to get into the demo and start flinging plates around. I wondered how awesome it would be to teleport into a fridge or smack someone in the face. I was hell bent on breaking the game world.

Weird little glitches like disappearing doors and unshapely character models were just adding fuel to the fire. It was like some low budget B-movie with a more interactive twist. Who cares what the people are saying? The real joy is in tearing it apart.

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Just look at that!! How could you resist throwing it?!

As we kept waiting, though, I realized something about my behavior; I was being a real jackass. I won’t claim that every game should be treated as a masterpiece (or even with respect), but it’s hard to fault a small team for trying to break new ground.

The non VR experience of We Are Chicago is substantially better. It still has a way to go before being released, but its ability to convey a story through a slightly interactive medium looks to be taking an already tired genre in some new directions.

“We want people to empathize with how things are,” is what Cindy Miller told me. “We like the fact that we are touching on these topics and we are going to be giving some proceeds from the game to help non-profit organizations.”

That really hit me in the gut. Here I was, joking about how goofy the VR demo looked. When my friend asked the lead programmer, Michael Block, about the intended plotline for the game, I jokingly said, “It’s about a teleporting man who is tasked with setting the dinner table and refuses to.”

I suppose that is the downside to an expo dedicated to “new” things. People want to experience VR, but the show floor is so crowded that dedicating yourself to any one thing is a monumental task. When some indie developer has a quick, accessible demonstration out, you mainly want to fuck around with it to experience the technology.

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Which way did he go, George?

“We like the fact that a lot of people come for the VR and stay for the game. We’re happy that people get to experience it,” Cindy said to me with a bright smile. It doesn’t matter if people think her game is bogus; she is mostly happy to present the idea to the masses.

Thankfully, I’m not the kind of person to shut my mind off. I tinkered with the VR experience on the first day of PAX, but I returned to that booth every other day. The second day was to take another friend over and the third day was to grab some photos and quotes. I wanted to challenge myself with bringing out the better side of this game.

I don’t know if I should explain its plot details or any of the controls. At its best, the game feels like a Telltale adventure game before they began sucking up every contract possible. We Are Chicago is taking the idea of an interactive narrative to its logical conclusion.

We’ve seen games built on making us empathize with protagonists or thrusting us into difficult scenarios, but none of them have truly dealt with real life problems. The abundance of World War II shooters may have all been based on true stories, but none of those felt real.

Most gamers also don’t have to live in a shitty slum. A lot of us have a comfortable life. The worst problem we will ever face is pissing our boss off. None of us know the emotional toll that constantly living in fear brings. None of us need to worry about stray bullets flying through our walls and killing our families.

Cindy and Michael both told me, “Everything that happens in the game is based on real events.” Cindy then added, “Our writer came from Englewood and is bringing his personal experience into the game.” Well, damn. Safe, secure, blissfully happy me gets to go home to white suburbia while these developers have grown up in a crappy reality.

Did the rest of the attendees connect with this game on the same level? I honestly don’t think so. People were so happy to get into a VR headset that the conversations might as well of not happened. You could have put stickmen in place of the character models and no one would bat an eye.

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Half of these people probably never even saw the game. I know Jed didn’t!

I didn’t want to leave the expo and have this game become a distant memory. I didn’t want others to see the low budget and think this game was a joke. VR may be the future, but if it robs a game like this of its narrative punch, then it doesn’t deserve to survive on the market. VR should be opening people to new realities; it shouldn’t be relegated to a simple plaything.

Thankfully, We Are Chicago will be releasing as a standard game first. The VR experience was mostly made for PAX (and was finished in a week), but will become available at an unspecified time after the game is finally out.

I feel that is for the best. I’d rather the discussion start with how dramatic the game is rather than how ridiculous a flying plate looks in VR.

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Cindy Miller (Left), Michael Tisdale (Center), Michael Block (Right)

Not Every Game is For You


Hyper Light Drifter was just released this week. Word on the street is that the game is quite challenging. There has been a lot of hype surrounding the release of the title; people have fallen in love with the visual style and were waiting to dig their claws into the game.

Gaming Blog “Rock, Paper, Shotgun,” posted an impressions piece in which the author, John Walker, claimed the game was just too hard for him to finish. While I can respect him leveling with his audience about his personal experience with the game, I’d like to make a counter-point to his stance on difficulty.

The closing few paragraphs of the article mention that gaming shouldn’t cater to one specific group of people. I completely agree with that, but not in the way Mr. Walker claims. He said that every game should be made accessible with different options to allow less experienced players to see the game.

That doesn’t make sense to me. Certain games are built around their difficulty. If you changed Dark Souls, for instance, to have an easy mode, its atmosphere wouldn’t feel as foreboding. It’s similar to the problem Resident Evil 6 has with its fundamental design; Capcom wanted to make an action shooter, but shackled the end product to Resident Evil’s past as a survival horror game. You got a pathetic attempt at modernizing a franchise and a really unfrightening horror vehicle.

Some games can withstand different options for various skill levels. Things like Ninja Gaiden and God of War are focused more on empowering the player than berating them. You get to execute enemies in a glorious, bloody hurricane of destruction. The option exists to make the games challenging (and Ninja Gaiden is pretty unforgiving on any difficulty level), but the design wasn’t based around an uphill battle.

You can be this awesome and suck. It’s crazy!

I can understand Mr. Walker’s frustration in being engaged with the game until the first boss. It is truly aggravating to be sinking into a game’s atmosphere and have it pull out the rug from underneath you. We do live in 2016, though, where the amount of available games is staggering. A quick run through Steam, GOG or Green Man Gaming can let you find something else you’re interested in.

There are also a tremendous amount of games built on being a more spectator driven experience or even just a plain easy one. It might suck that you can’t play this one specific game, but just look at how much else you can find online. It’s similar to being rejected by someone you like; don’t fight it, just move on and go your separate ways.

I can’t disagree with Mr. Walker’s assessment that gamers with the mentality of difficult games being only for them is selfish. That is true; I just feel he misses a key point. Not every game is going to be built for your own skill level. If life had an easy option, we would all be sitting on our asses and getting nothing done.

So honestly, I feel Mr. Walker just needs to accept that not everything will be his cup of tea. It’s pointless to change a game’s core design just because you find yourself at an impasse. If your life is so full of other distractions or obligations that you can’t put the time in to learn a game, maybe it’s time you started looking for different games.

The options are staggering.

Games As a Service

Man, Street Fighter V is certainly great. It’s got ranked matches and player matches and…replays and…some short story bits and…um…not a whole lot else. I mean, comparatively speaking, this isn’t much different than Super Street Fighter II on SNES, but that also released in 1994.

A lot of developers like to look at their games as “services”. When DLC is factored into the development cycle, one is constantly thinking about what is coming next. Does the base game end at going gold, or do you continue to release things steadily throughout the year?

Most of us gamers grew up in an era where ceasing development was the end point of any changes to the game. There are always going to be last minute changes, but for the most part, calling a project finished meant just that.

More recently, however, games have continued to grow and expand. Killer Instinct launched on Xbox One as a free-to-play game with multiple seasons. Hell, that game is prepping for a third season and PC release; it is far from being finished.

Not finished? The hell, you say?

For that matter, Sony has molded Driveclub into a pretty respectable racing sim. That game launched with a laundry list of issues, but those barely remain. The constant stream of extra campaigns and new courses has also kept the game from becoming stale.

If you look at the history of Street Fighter, you almost see the same thing. Capcom had listened to fan feedback and kept tweaking the foundation that Street Fighter II was built on. When the game’s initial run was complete, we ended up having six official versions of it; if you want to count the HD Remix, that makes seven.

For that matter, both Street Fighter Alpha and Street Fighter III saw three different versions (and Alpha had some console ports with different things). Capcom has never been one to release a fighter and call it a day. Their previous efforts without the internet lead them to creating multiple SKUs.

Street Fighter V is just the natural progression of their developmental mindset. They are no longer shackled to brick and mortar releases or physical distribution. The internet has changed the way which they can tweak their titles.

That doesn’t excuse the lack of features in the current version. For $60, it is insane to expect people to be okay with waiting for content that is available in other games. A story mode is coming, but what is included just seems insultingly bare.

And this is insultingly not bare (in the final game).

For that matter, why are most of the online features not present? You would think with all of the work done onStreet Fighter IV that Capcom would have some grasp of what their community wants. Basic multiplayer lobbies and better replay features should be present.

This is all putting aside the fact that Capcom rushed the game out for tournament players. The deadlines for making EVO qualification were at the end of February, so Capcom needed this released to allow hardcore players to get in the competition.

That doesn’t do much for the more casual gamer. I’m of the mind that a company as big as Capcom could have spent more resources to finish all of the features for launch. There is no compelling reason that anything should be absent, apart from planned DLC.

If EVO were such a big concern, why not release a cheaper, digital only release with an upgrade option? We do live in the age of the internet, which is something Capcom is clearly banking on. My main concern becomes when any kind of server support for Street Fighter V is ceased; people will have a game on disc that is basically nothing.

Then again, we are in the year 2016 and there are still Street Fighter II tournaments being held. Capcom has created a legacy with this series that will not burn out. Even if the genre of games saw a hiatus between Street Fighter III and Street Fighter IV, the rise of social media and blogging has given niches a voice.

I know, Ryu; it is really stupid.

Those voices wanted a return to the glory days of 16-bit fighters. Since 2009, I can’t even recall the amount of fighting games that have appeared. BlazBlue, Mortal Kombat, Persona 4: Arena, Guilty Gear Xrd; I could be here for a while mentioning them all. There was always an audience for this genre, but developers just assumed no one wanted to play them.

As it stands, though, Street Fighter V is a bit disappointing. The game may be solid and have legs, but the amount of content present is unjustifiable. Anyone whom drops $60 on that and is happy is either blinded with nostalgia or just plain easy-going.

Hopefully Capcom doesn’t go back on their word. They stated that Street Fighter IV would be a service, yet we’ve seen four different retail releases of the game. For what is planned, I have hopes for Street Fighter V. I like that playing the game will earn me new characters, which just plain makes sense.

It’s almost like an old-school game; almost.

Goodbye, Goodbye, Goodbye

For youth growing up in the 2000’s, AOL Instant Messenger was basically a way of life. Not having a screen name meant you didn’t talk to anyone, apart from meeting at school. Gone were the days of clogging up phone lines or leaving your baggage at school; now you could continue the conversation at any moment.

It allowed kids to express themselves freely while also giving others the time to calculate their responses. Talking face to face can be intimidating and difficult, but an instant messenger gives you lots of free time to contemplate just what you will say.

That doesn’t mean everything you type will be perfect. Far from it, actually. Emily Is Away shows just how mixed any seemingly innocent response can be. When two people are not ready to express how they feel about each other, it doesn’t matter what medium of communication they are using.

While this game may not resonant so much for younger gamers, anyone who actually used AIM will get struck right to the core. We’ve all had that one person we wished we could be 100% honest with. We’ve all wanted to speak our minds completely, but fear that saying the wrong thing will ruin everything.

It’s hard to see that come rushing back, especially when the entire look and feel of AIM is recreated down to a tee. It’s neat to be taken back to a desktop from my youth and have it function basically the same way. I’ve also come to hate that damn message noise, for all the awkward things I said in my past.

What the game reveals, though, is that both parties are in the same situation. A lot of men like to believe that women are manipulative bitches, but that isn’t the case. Emily does care for you (well, the you from this game), but she doesn’t know how to say it. She’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Life has no single answer and she is just trying to figure everything out. She was always a friend, but possibly could have been more. If both parties had just said what they wanted, then maybe this romance could work. The great thing about this game (much like Depression Quest) is that the correct response will come up, only your character will erase it.

Sometimes it’s easy to type things in a furry of rage and adrenaline, but then you begin to second guess yourself. I remember moments like that, even if I tended to just speak my mind without caring. Still, Emily Is Away definitely captures all those awkward transitional phases of life.

You can replay chapters, but all of the choices in place do not allow you to game the system. The outcome is fixed, even if your personality can be manipulated. It doesn’t allow you to have the happy ending you want, which is a bit of a bummer, but also partially realistic.

Instant messengers were a very impersonal way to chat with friends. You had anonymity and never needed to look someone in the eye. You didn’t even need them to be present; you could type up a literal dissertation and plant it at their virtual doorstep. It had all the convenience of the modern era with just enough of a margin of error to make mistakes.

It just made things weird. I remember my last year of high school and constantly talking to the one girl I fell for. She would blurt out her exploits and I’d be filled with rage, but I internalized everything. Since she couldn’t see my face, she never knew there was an issue.

I also got into some sociopathic practices and made dummy accounts to try and catch her in lies. It was a really troubling part of my life that I’ve done everything to forget. While I will never be cleansed of the nightmare, at least I acknowledge how wrong it was and never practice it.

Emily Is Away doesn’t get that dark with it’s narrative, but it does make one wonder about how things could be different. If you said something else or badgered Emily a little more, maybe your future could come true.

While it’s mostly just a different way to experience a story, Emily Is Away does end up being a really cool little game. Essentially a choose your own adventure style game, Emily Is Away can shed some real insight on how you live and love. It also allows you to not hurt anyone in the process.

Survivor’s Guilt

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an exceptional game with a shockingly awful story. Fans of the series are disappointed that many questions are not answered (or even brought up) and that the conclusion doesn’t really mesh with the Metal Gear canon. It seems that Kojima’s shift to open-world has put the plot on the backburner in favor of making an expansive and rewarding gameplay system.

That being said, there are a lot of individual moments that I truly enjoyed in the Phantom Pain. I like what the ending stands for and I’m really fond of the exploration of child soldiers in the modern world, but the side plot that focuses on Paz is probably the best of the bunch.

While Snake feeling remorse over the loss of Paz doesn’t make much sense for his character, it’s only after beating the game do you begin to understand the majesty of this side story. Since Venom Snake is actually the medic from Ground Zeroes, his guilt over being unable to save Paz makes sense.

Venom Snake may barely remember he is the medic, but his true identity can never be erased. He was there, staring at Paz as she blew up in his face. He even shielded Big Boss from the explosion and nearly died in the process.

You can’t even tell he had a different face!

Having lost his arm and identity, Venom Snake is left confused and alone. He doesn’t say much, constantly has people trying to kill him and bonds with a quiet woman who then leaves him. Worrying about Paz seems too minuscule in his life, but it’s very touching.

Throughout the course of the game, you can undertake side-ops missions that have you rounding up some of your soldiers from the MSF days. These guys were with you when Big Boss was taking on all the AI pods and saving the world from Paz and ZEKE.

The medic may not truly know that Paz was a traitor, but his mission with Big Boss to Camp Omega had one clear goal; bring Paz and Chico home. Even if Kaz and Boss’ intention were to extract information from them, they weren’t supposed to die in that plane.

The final revelation of Ground Zeroes turns out to be that Paz had a bomb implanted in her. Venom makes the call to extract it fast and proceeds to cut her open without anesthetic. It’s a tortuous scene that doesn’t make sense at first, but comes full circle with this side plot in the Phantom Pain.

The medic is guilty that, not only did he inflict more pain on Paz, but that he lived through the terrible ordeal. She was blown to pieces, but he is still alive and well. He cannot deal with the fact that he lost a patient that was so crucial to Big Boss’ plan.

It wasn’t for a lack of trying, though.

As such, when you gather up your soldiers from MSF, you are given memento photographs that showcase some of the best moments of Paz’s time with MSF. Things like her sun bathing, throwing a birthday party and singing with Kaz and Professor Galvez; it’s all really touching and helps to detail the internal struggle she suffered by being forced into hijacking ZEKE.

When you reach chapter 2 of the Phantom Pain, Ocelot informs you that a very important patient is waiting on the medical platform. When you go to inspect, you are dumbstruck to find Paz sitting on the bed. You saw her die with your own eyes; how is she still there?

At first, even the player is at a loss for answers. There is no conceivable way she lived through that incident. Unlike her falling into the water at the end of Peace Walker, Paz was torn asunder by a bomb. There is really no other definitive way someone could die.

As you bring the photographs back to Paz, it starts to become clear; this is an illusion in Venom’s mind that is materializing from his guilt. He has a classic case of survivor’s syndrome; he feels that he should have died in that explosion those 9 years ago.

The ending also has him relive the moments that ripped Paz out of this world. He sees her extract the bomb from her stomach and throw it on the bed. He tries his best to run for her and shield her from the blast. Nothing he can do changes the outcome; Paz is gone and Venom’s past life is over.

When he awakes from his delusion, Venom looks to the sky and realizes that life goes on. While he might have been able to do more, what happened is over. Paz understands that he tried his best, just as she did with Skull Face and Cipher.

More so, the medic comes to terms with the fact that he is now Big Boss. Though he never asked for the responsibility or the notoriety, the medic is Venom Snake. He is the Big Boss that the world will get to see. He will exist to increase the legacy of the hero he pledged allegiance too all those years ago.

With that revelation comes the image of a floating morpho butterfly (Morpho being the name of the pilot from Ground Zeroes). As Venom looks at it, he sees that Peace is written on the exterior of Mother Base. That was truly what Paz wanted and it is precisely what Venom will fight to give the world.

In a game whose story moments are so scattered and disconnected, this side plot does more to elicit emotion and understanding then anything else the game throws at the player. Not only that, but in a title dedicated to absolute player freedom, this quest has no alternate outcome; you have to face the fact that a character you may have bonded with is gone.

Much like life, shit happens. What defines a human is how they deal with the aftermath of a tragedy. What they give to life in their worst hour is how they will be remembered. Venom isn’t going to let anymore of his men die, not without a fight.

MGS V: Our Story

There are going to be MASSIVE spoilers in this blog. If you have not finished Metal Gear Solid V or are only part way through it, come back when you beat it. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

Lots of discussion has been going on since the release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. People seem to be pretty upset with the ending. An entire Kotaku article was written about how disappointing the whole affair was. (Then again, it is Kotaku)

I think people have the entire plot wrong. It may not be well written (in fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s outright bad), but it has a bigger symbolic meaning then we realize. For the first time in any games plotline, you (the player) are the most important figure in it.

The big twist at the end of MGS V is that you were never actually playing as Big Boss. At the end of Ground Zeroes and leading up to the opening of Phantom Pain, Zero and Ocelot concoct a plan to fool the world and keep Big Boss’ enemies off him.

This leads to you getting a face lift and becoming “Big Boss”. In actuality, you are Punished “Venom” Snake, who was once a field medic and the best soldier of MSF. He had such a dedication to Big Boss’ philosophy that, when in the coma, his mind was easy to trick in believing he was Big Boss.

Thus kicks off a game where, without the twist, nothing big really happens. You get revenge on the man who destroyed Mother Base and the plotline just kind of peters out of existence. The credits roll, you lose a buddy and that’s really it.

It’s when you consider the twist that things start to get interesting. I won’t defend it’s place in the Metal Gear canon (as I think it makes no damn sense), but as a standalone game, Phantom Pain’s plot is pretty emotional.

For starters, it’s basically a gigantic thank you to every Kojima fan. Without us, he would never be the superstar developer he is today. By making us Big Boss, he is saying that no Metal Gear would be possible without our love of the series.

Or without *sob* David Hayter!

The shift in gameplay to an open-world also echoes this. Since we are now the most pivotal character in the plot, our choices are what Venom Snake goes with. There are multiple ways to accomplish any task, so the story is dependent on the player.

There are obviously some bits from Ground Zeroes thrown in to make some kind of connecting thread, but you could skip that game and not miss much. The ending might make less sense, but you wouldn’t initially feel shocked at how you were deceived.

In the aforementioned Kotaku article, the writer goes on about how Mission 43 becomes mess gripping once you learn you aren’t Big Boss. I actually think the opposite effect occurs; once you learn you’re not actually Big Boss, you begin to realize that you are the one making all the shots.

You walked into the quarantine zone on Mother Base and shot the soldiers that you extracted. Everything was done by you and has to be undone by you. If your character were Big Boss, it would be an emotional moment for him. Since it’s actually you, the impact becomes two-fold.

I probably would have cried more than strike a dramatic pose.

The Phantom Pain works wonders when it comes to player involvement. I do wish the narrative were stronger (or that Konami didn’t cut out the damn real ending), but I can’t think of how else to really get a player invested in an open-world style game.

A lot of sandbox adventures suffer from unfocused plotlines. Grand Theft Auto IV and V have really bad stories. Each one starts with an intriguing premise before falling into rote execution and repetition. In both of those games, the actions done are by your characters, first, and then you.

Assassin’s Creed III is another perfect example. The whole game is built around the growth and struggles of Connor, not you. Not only do I not care to see his story unfold, but the game takes so damn long to even do so that the gameplay simply acts as a distraction more then anything.

With the Phantom Pain, every bit of gameplay is story. Regardless of what you’re doing, those moments are a part of Venom Snake’s history. You decided to make it happen and it will be your own personal conclusion to Metal Gear’s legacy.

The previous entries in the Metal Gear series were all about how much of a bad ass Solid Snake was. Even with Metal Gear Solid 3, it was less you and more Naked Snake doing things. He was the one who got the glory and who had to put that final bullet into The Boss.

I just can’t help but think people missed that with the Phantom Pain. We were so used to games giving us a clear narrative and actual purpose that we were left disappointed. That’s not to say that every story beat is good (because that isn’t even close to true), but the whole of the Phantom Pain is bigger then it’s individual pieces.

Kojima has stated that the amount of player freedom in Grand Theft Auto V had made him depressed. He was positive that the Phantom Pain couldn’t reach the same heights as Rockstars latest blockbuster.

In all honesty, I feel that MGS V has the most freedom of any game I’ve played this year. It’s also more open ended then a lot of sandbox games claim to be. You’re given tools, a general location and then told to get at it. If anything, it echoes more of Far Cry 2 then it does Grand Theft Auto.

I truly think that Kojima was inspired by what FromSoftware have done with the Souls games. While those are a bit more linear then the Phantom Pain, they don’t beat the player over the head with exposition or cutscenes. You enter a world and rarely (if ever) lose control.

But I can’t control this! WHY?! WHHHOOOOOO?!

The cassette tapes were a decent idea with MGS V, just the execution of them didn’t truly work out. We may never know how much Konami’s decision to drop Kojima may have effected the game, but I do get the feeling that the story could have been grander if Konami just believed in their output.

Still, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is deeper then we all think. It probably won’t go down in history as a classic or even the best of the series, but it certainly deserves to be called a masterpiece. If nothing else, I believe we have a best new character of 2015; us.

Metal Gear and Me

Not many game franchises mean much to me. I blow through games quickly and tend to forget them. As I’ve grown older, my skill has gotten better and I just have a natural tendency to blitz through games.

Some games buck that trend. Zelda, Mario, Souls, Yakuza; these games are so well made and intriguing that I actively look for each facet of them. I want to experience every minute detail they contain.

Then, there is Metal Gear Solid. There hasn’t been many other games that have echoed different areas of my life. My first taste of MGS was with a PS1 demo disc, but I didn’t get into the games until the PS2 and MGS2.

I do still remember playing the living hell out of the MGS demo with my sister. We thought it was so expansive and daunting. We were scared to proceed, but interested in what the game held. The graphics were gorgeous and the atmosphere was second to none.

Still, I never did get MGS on PS1. I either was too disinterested in the PS1 (being raised a Nintendo kid) or just plain forgot about it. Whatever the case, when I entered middle school, I found myself without many a friend.

I’m Otacon in this picture. Dave was in love with Snake’s name being David.

I met a kid named Dave would introduced me to a lot of great games. Unreal Tournament, Neverwinter Nights and Metal Gear Solid. The first time I hung out with him, he beat MGS in an hour. He knew every inch of Shadow Moses and was able to show me exactly what was so special about the game.

It looked absolutely incredible. I didn’t realize that action games could be so in-depth and cinematic. While I didn’t actually catch any of the story (since he skipped every scene), I loved the way the bosses were set up and how the game focused on an espionage story.

At that point, I did finally want the game. What prevented me from taking the plunge was the announcement of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. I was a bit of a graphics whore back in the day and that game was easily the best looking game on the market.

I was determined to get it. I tried buffering as many videos as I could online (I had dial-up!!!), but I mostly fell in love with the sound effects. I remember finding a theme for Windows 98 that augmented the task bar to look like MGS font and included every codec sound effect.

Anyway, this was around the time I started to get into reading reviews. I had found IGN64 when I was younger, but my internet access was so limited that I didn’t really frequent the site. In 2001, things were picking up a bit, speed-wise.

I favorited IGN and Gamespy and looked to them for coverage on every game. MGS 2 just happened to be the biggest damn thing in the world, so I was ingesting every bit of info I could. When it was announced that a demo would come with Zone of the Enders, I waited patiently to get that game.

While it wasn’t a bad game (not great, either), I spent more time with the MGS 2 demo then any human should. I had beaten every difficulty level and found every stupid little secret. I was so blown away by how detailed the “Tanker” was. I needed to know what came next.

At that age, I wasn’t ready for the bombshell Kojima would drop on us. I never had an issue with Raiden (seeing as how MGS 2 was my first Metal Gear), but I couldn’t understand what the plotline was about. I thought the ending was anti-climactic (it was written in the IGN review!!!) and I was angered that the plotline was mostly mumbo jumbo.

Still, I had enjoyed the gameplay enough to get interested in the series. While I still didn’t end up grabbing MGS on PS1, I did catch wind of Nintendo doing a remake of the first game. Since I liked the improved AI and mechanics from MGS 2, I figured getting the first game on the same engine would be for me.

You really didn’t mind me? Huh…

While it took a few years to come out, I had spent time online playing Unreal Tournament 2003 and meeting some nice people. The best of those were two younger girls named Mai and Kim. I grew attached to them, despite our distance, and I spent a lot of my time fantasizing about them.

Flash to when Twin Snakes was released and I was now in high school. During my biology class, we began to learn about the human Genome project. Much to my surprised, a lot of the plotline in Metal Gear Solid tackles ideas about how the human Genome can be manipulated.

There was also the curious case of a voice actress having the name Kim Mai Guest. I saw these things as fate giving me hints. There was no way this was purely coincidence. Metal Gear knew exactly who I was and what I was doing.

Hyperbole aside, I really fell in love with the characterization of Snake and his struggles against FOXHOUND. I loved the cutscenes as a child and my growing fascination with Japanese culture and Eastern philosophy seemed to hit a fever pitch.

After completing Twin Snakes, I was dedicated to the series. I didn’t want to miss anything else that came out. I wanted more Solid Snake. Learning that Metal Gear Solid 3 was just around the corner, I was ecstatic. How lucky was I to have 2 Metal Gear games in one year?

Oddly, though, that Winter didn’t go like I had originally thought. I had been a pretty bad kid in high school. I was falling in with a bad crowd and doing really idiotic things. I had become a thief and was constantly getting suspended. I was treating my own family like shit and manipulating teachers into letting me escape class.

So at the end of sophomore year (in 2004), I had changed schools. I had a growing depression that I was unaware of and ignored. I just felt miserable when I walked into this new school. I spent the first few months before winter break basically alone.

People were interested as hell on my first day and then quickly brushed me under the rug. It was hard to me to come to terms with being an “outcast” and not bonding with anyone. So when Christmas came along, I was gifted two games; Metal Gear Solid 3 and Metroid Prime 2.

Returning after New Years is where my life changed a bit. I had met my current best friend, Jim, at lunch. I’m not quite sure how we managed to get in touch, but our chance meeting was met with lots of discussion about games and music.

Jim’s favorite series of all time happened to be Metal Gear Solid. When I told him I had yet to play 3, despite owning it, he told me to immediately do it. He was so infatuated with the game that he didn’t understand how I let it slide past me.

Ch-chow!

I still tell him to this day that if he were a Metroid fan, I would have been more inclined to play that series. I didn’t want to let my new friend down, so I dove into MGS 3. At first, I hated the game damn. Kojima’s decision to stick with the old camera style didn’t mesh with how much more expanded the game was.

After breaking a controller in rage and screaming a lot, I kept playing. I forced myself through those opening hours. I wanted to make sure I had something to bond with this kid over. Sure enough, after about an hour and a half, I was enjoying myself.

I also found myself bonding immensely with Naked Snake. The story of the birth of Big Boss seemed to resonate more with me. While Solid Snake was cool, Big Boss had actual emotion. He had talent, skill and passion. He was also a bit of a klutz.

Instead of following in the footsteps of Solid Snake, Kojima decided to flesh Big Boss out more as a human. I understand, now, that this was all deliberate, but at that point, I had never seen a protagonist like this.

My own sadness and misery were paralleled by Big Boss. He had lost everything he ever loved in the world. Worse still, he was put in charge of ending it. The Boss was so brave in the face of absolute death; I wondered why I couldn’t be the same way.

After finishing MGS 3, I was in love. I loved the entire experience. It quickly became one of my favorite games ever. It also cemented a friendship that still exists. Metal Gear grew from being the cool, new, flashy series to something more personal for me.

I could just cry right now…

Ever since 2004, I began to take gaming more seriously. I was no longer playing solely for joy. Now I got into how reviewers processed information and what qualities of game design I enjoyed.

I dug deeper into why I played so much and why I felt more attached to Japanese style narratives then American ones. This brought about a new found interest in Martial Arts cinema. This also brought me closer to Jim, who was a bring proponent of kung fu.

While college would see us part for a few years, we stayed in touch and kept similar interested. Music, films and games were what we loved. Every time we hung out, we’d talk about one or all of those.

College sort of mirrored my high school life. While I wasn’t committing petty crimes, I was pretty alone. I had made some friends who seemed to bully me more then I liked, so after 2 years, I came back home.

This was in 2008 around the release of Grand Theft Auto IV. If anyone knows the history of Metal Gear, you should know that Metal Gear Solid 4 was on the horizon. Since I was back home and could hang out with Jim, I got to finally get a taste of what the PS3 had offered.

He obviously bought the game and invited me over to play it. Even though he had already finished it, he watched while I played. Under such close supervision, I made a bunch of mistakes, but I was floored with the quality that Kojima had on display.

Quality like a guy taking a dump in a garbage can.

Never had a game looked so damn realistic. The cutscenes were so flashy and over the top and the action was more manageable then previous entries; Metal Gear Solid 4 was everything a fan could have hoped for.

While I don’t really care for the game, presently, that experience of playing it with Jim and seeing this whole new world of PS3 opened my mind to the possibilities of the next generation. I figured things could only get better from there.

In a lot of ways, they did. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker was the next major installment in the series. When I learned it had co-op, I nearly cried. Jim and I could finally play the game together. We both loved Metal Gear and to be able to help each other made me overjoyed

The only problem was that I didn’t own a PSP. Jim has a big problem with spending, so he actually had ended up with multiple PSPs after his trip to Japan. He also really loves collector’s edition consoles, so the unveiling of a camo-themed PSP piqued his interest.

In addition to getting the collector’s edition of the main game, Jim also got the camo-themed console. It came with Peace Walker, so we were set to play the game. I don’t think I ever had as much fun playing co-op with him or anyone.

You guys ready to limbo?

I loved the increased emphasis on gameplay over story. I liked the neat comic panels that took the place of full motion cutscenes. I also loved the ridiculous extras and Monster Hunter missions. Peace Walker was a great game.

When the HD version came out, we beat it a second time. We even made sure to S Rank every mission. Our love of Metal Gear needed to be reflected in that Platinum trophy. I didn’t want to stop until every small bit was vanquished.

Now we can skip ahead to the present. While Jim and I were super excited for Metal Gear Solid V, we didn’t really play into the idea of Konami splitting the game up. When Ground Zeroes was released last year, we both took a pass on it. While we wanted to play it, we figured it would be better to just wait and get the entire experience.

Neither of us owned a PS4, either. We weren’t about to shell out to get a single game (even if Ground Zeroes was on PS3), so we played the waiting game. This paid off as Konami announced a PC port for MGS V.

PC has always been our preferred platform, even if Metal Gear has had a terrible past on it. Seeing Ground Zeroes running on PC was incredibly tempting. We nearly plunged during the 2014 Steam Winter Sale, but the $20 price tag was still a bit high.

Earlier this year, a random sale saw Ground Zeroes dropped to $10. Without thinking, both of us quickly bought the game. We were both amazed at how many touches Kojima thought to add.

Games have had a huge problem escorting people and allowing you to shoot. MGS V not only lets you aim and crouch, but you can flat out sprint with hostages. You can lay on your back and fire any weapon you desire. There is a neat “reflex” mechanic that allows you to silence foes before an alarm goes off.

The control scheme is just so smooth. The scale of the island is massive. Ground Zeroes may not be long, but it is incredibly dense. It opens up so many possibilities that I can’t believe other developers didn’t tackle first.

In an industry going towards more linearity and scripted sequences, it’s refreshing to see a game with near limitless freedom. You are basically put in a map, given a target and told to go. It’s intimidating and exhilarating. It makes you feel like you are Big Boss.

Or like Solid Snake being Big Boss; either one.

Our memories or too fresh to really say if Ground Zeroes will stick with us, but we are both waiting with bated breath for Phantom Pain. Since this is going to be Kojima’s last Metal Gear, both of us need to experience it.

Jim has even gone overboard and purchased both the Japanese and English collector’s editions along with the Japanese themed console and a CE of Ground Zeroes. He is making sure that he does not miss the monumental conclusion to the Metal Gear saga.

And for me; I just want to know how the whole thing ends. What other facet of my current life will Metal Gear reflect? Each game has seen me create incredible friendships or strengthen my inner acceptance.

Without Metal Gear in my life, I wouldn’t be half as engaged with gaming as I am. I wouldn’t have found my best friend and I definitely wouldn’t be a better person. I have Kojima to thank for that.

It will be sad to know that a true Metal Gear won’t exist after V, but I’m ready to accept reality. All good things must come to an end and while I really hope MGS V doesn’t echo the end of my life, I can guarantee it will be the end of a certain chapter of my life.

Reviewing One’s Experience

So Batman: Arkham Knight is a flaming pile of excrement, right? Well, only if you’re playing the PC version. Otherwise, the game runs fine and looks great. Should those negative review scores be revised, then? When WB and Iron Galaxy squash all the bugs, should we demand critics re-evaluate the game?

With this weeks latest controversy over a game release, I began thinking about an old idea of mine. When does objective criticism and personal experience become a factor in a game review? A game cannot cater to every specific customer at once, but we see fans demanding such a thing from writers.

The constant stream of, “No way this game is a 5,” and “Too much batmobile. 7/10,” are just pathetic. At the same time, maybe we should be seeing more objective takes on current games.

While I used to be all about leaving personal experience out of the equation, I’ve shifted my viewpoint in more recent times. Unless a game has actual game breaking bugs (Which Arkham Knight does on PC), you can’t truly call it a bad game. If it makes even one person happy, then it has not failed.

Even made me question humanity. I’d call that a win.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of critically panned games. Binary Domain is a brilliant shooter, but most reviewers couldn’t be assed with it. Long Live the Queen is a charming text-based adventure, but critics didn’t find a lot to love. Goat Simulator is also quite shat on, but I love how hilariously stupid it can be.

My friend is also quite fond of WWE 2k15 on PS4. We both agree the game is a horrible, broken mess, but the glitches produce some of the most outrageous moments we’ve had in a long time. There isn’t another game out there where Sting can do a split in mid-air while Hogan gets stuck inside the ropes.

I’m getting tired of seeing people complain about review scores, as well. If someone personally feels that a game should be rated a 5, you don’t have any right to refute them. You don’t have to agree, but to shout that they are wrong is ludicrous.

The 10 point scale for reviewing has long been abused. Critics will give average games a 7 and that tilts the scale in a negative way. Now anything below a 7 isn’t worth looking at, which means that 7 is actually 5 and 5 then becomes something like a 3.

I believe that has more to do with how ingrained school grading has become in society, but it still leads to a misconception about the quality of a game. It also does nothing to inform a reader if the game is any fun.

I remember when GamePro still existed. They used to grade games in 4 different fields; Graphics, Sound, Control and Fun Factor. A game could get low marks in the first three, but Fun Factor was ultimately what most people were curious about.

Ah, memories.

Even if you end up hating a game after grinding away at it, the fun you had when you first popped it in should be worth it. If you live your life regretting the decisions you make and looking to strangers online for confirmation, you’re doing something wrong with your life.

What truly tipped in into this line of thinking was the end of 2011. I was eagerly waiting for games like Uncharted 3, Saints Row: The Third and Duke Nukem Forever. Those all quickly became my least favorite from their respective franchises, but it also taught me a thing about believing in reviews online.

At the end of the day, the only person who will know you best is yourself. You cannot rely on someone’s opinion when making a purchase. You should obviously reference a review to gauge any glaring errors in playability, but some person who has never met you is not a good indicator of something you may like.

Why should I care if some random jerk thinks my favorite game is trash? Unless he is threatening game developers or personally assaulting my family, I don’t know why his thoughts should impact mine. I like the damn game and that is that.

This may be a bit sidetracked, but I just wish people would learn to use reviews for what they are; opinionated viewpoints. They are one person’s account of how they saw the game. If you typically agree with that person, then the review might just be for you.

Yeah; this guy.

So at the end of the day, I believe personal experience should weigh more in a review score. Instead of trying to remove any trace of humanity from a piece, inject more of your own belief into it.

As indie game writer Rob Marrow told me, “Of course I’m bias. I don’t like this specific type of game.” You can’t always get what you want. Learn to deal with that.

A So Called Legacy

With Capcom’s announcement of the Mega Man: Legacy Collection for next-gen consoles, I feel a bit torn. On the one hand, we have at least some kind of confirmation that Capcom actually cares about the blue bomber. On the other hand, they don’t care enough to make an entire compendium.

In an effort to not rant like a maniac for the next few paragraphs, I’ve decided to break this into a Top 5 list. I will go over 5 different ways that Capcom could improve the Legacy Collection that won’t ruin the idea they are shooting for.

5. Bonus Features

While not everything is known about the downloadable collection, one thing that should be included are bonus, DVD style features. When going back to the past, it’s nice to get a viewpoint from developers on what their creative process was.

More importantly, adding bonus features gives old fans a reason to actually pay attention to what is possibly the 5th time these games have been re-released. Nothing is cooler than beating a game and immediately re-starting it with director’s commentary.

The interactive museum feature is a start and I won’t dismiss photo galleries, but I will state that I don’t believe they are enough. Concept art always looks better on paper, so just throwing a bunch of images into the collection won’t really matter.

4. Extra Modes

Capcom has at least confirmed there will be a challenge mode for each game in the collection, but I’d like to see them take this further. Mega Man 9 and 10 had bonus characters as DLC that would be perfect to include in the older games.

Along with that, why not go ahead and make a Master Quest style version of each game? Fans have beaten these games an innumerable amount of times over the years, so giving them what might be the closest thing to a new Mega Man as possible wouldn’t be bad.

3. Updated Graphics

Graphics may not be the most important part of a game, but charging an umpteenth time for a 28 year old game is a little crazy. Instead of just wholesale porting a ROM over, why not go the distance and re-create the sprites in HD?

Capcom hired Udon to do such a thing for Super Street Fighter II: Turbo, so why not Mega Man? Many people consider the blue bomber to be a defining character of their childhoods, so they would appreciate updated art assets that pay homage to the original style.

For the sake of purists, though, do not make updated graphics the only option. I cannot stand when HD remakes update the past, but fail to respect it. LucasArts did great with their re-releases of the Monkey Island games, so give us something along the lines of that.

2. Release on “Legacy” Consoles

While the new generation of consoles is underway, there are people who have no interest in leaving their past consoles. For some, the PS3 and Xbox 360 are all they will ever need. Then there are the Nintendo faithful who have a Wii U and no possible way to experience this collection.

Instead of snuffing those customers, why not port the game to last-generation consoles? You can’t tell me that the collection wouldn’t run on previous gen hardware. Both PS3 and 360 have Mega Man 9 and 10, not to mention the Wii has a majority of the older Mega Man games on the eShop.

Wii U also has that, but when you’re charging $5 a pop, why are you going to leave Wii U owners out in the cold on this “Legacy” collection? Just having the games isn’t the only point of this re-release.

Sony has the perfect feature of “cross-buy” that would be great for their console family. Having Mega Man on PS3, PS4 and Vita would be enough to convince prospective players into dipping their toes.

1. Include Every Mega Man Game

This is probably the biggest concern of mine when it comes to the so called “Legacy” collection. You can’t claim something is a legacy if it doesn’t have every available game. Even though Konami has their heads firmly up their asses, their legacy collection of Metal Gear included every title (and the VR Missions!).

Capcom should take this chance to provide Mega Man 7, 8, 9 and 10 on next-gen hardware. Forget that some of those titles aren’t the best of Capcom’s classics (I actually think 9 is the best Mega Man game), but they are a crucial part of the blue bomber’s history.

The biggest disaster is that Mega Man 8 isn’t readily available on most consoles. While Sony recently released it as a PS1 classic, there isn’t a reason why this collection should be missing such a game.

Couple that with the fact that the previous Mega Man collection actually included 7 and 8, and I really don’t understand the reasoning to leave out the last four games in the Mega Man series. Hell, that same collection even had both arcade fighting games, so why not throw those in?

Even if it would move the relatively low price up a bit, I’d be willing to pay more for a collection that is complete. The NES era might be the best of our old friend, but he did have other ventures that most likely created some die-hard fans.

With this list, I really hope Capcom takes the time to notice some of my concerns. I do love Mega Man, but access to the back catalog of games isn’t the easiest thing to come by. You either have to own more than one console or be lucky and find the old Anniversary collection.

Capcom could even go out of their way and make a physical release that includes a Mega Man statue. That may be asking too much, but fans truly want some kind of acknowledgement that the blue bomber is worth a damn.

Either way, I probably will still end up with the Legacy collection. I love the little blue guy too much to withhold myself.