Thursday, September 25, 2008

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Since “Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” concluded George Lucas’ film saga, a 20-year gulf between the original trilogy and its three prequels remained ripe for exploration.

“The Force Unleashed” bridges that gulf with a wholly original story centered around Starkiller, the secret Sith apprentice of Darth Vader. Under Vader’s tutelage, Starkiller ventures to the far reaches of the galaxy to finish off the last vestiges of the Jedi order decimated by the Emperor. But because of the Sith edict that only two may exist at a given time, Starkiller must keep himself a secret and destroy anyone — even Stormtroopers — who discovers him.

The canonical cut scenes benefit from a lifelike look and the absence of the recent three “Star Wars” films’ all-around hokeyness. The scenes are the highlight of an otherwise mediocre action-adventure game that gives players access to Force powers far beyond any Jedi mind trick. One of the highest points of hype for the game was a set piece in which Starkiller pulls a Star Destroyer out of the sky. In theory, there’s no way such an awesome act of near-omnipotence couldn’t be fun. But wielding that power doesn’t equate to enjoyable game play.

Players inhabit the walking iron lung that is Darth Vader in “The Force Unleashed’s” first level. As the Dark Lord of the Sith, they are free to Force choke Wookies, slay them with a single lightsaber slash or fling them off the high bridges over Kashyyyk’s forests. This experience forecasts Starkiller’s progression as he passes through each level and accumulates Force powers and combos.

But the game can’t steer clear of overpowering Starkiller with those powers and, in turn, demystifying them. The bulk of the game’s enemies can be defeated by whisking them into the nearest abyss with a touch of the “R2” button and an analog stick. If “A New Hope” shared this approach, Obi-Wan Kenobi would have dropped every Stormtrooper in the Death Star down a bottomless pit. Where’s the fun in that?

Players are free to make their own fun by creatively wiping out scores of Stormtroopers and other planetary natives. But they’re discouraged by leaden lightsaber controls that slow the pace of the battles and clunky dual-analog stick Force gripping that sucks the joy out of hurling droids and cargo containers at foes. Because of the poor targeting system, players may spend half their Force bar electrocuting an inanimate object instead of an attacking enemy.

The game’s faulty mechanics extend to the double jump, which sometimes staggers Starkiller in midair to mar any attempt at a precise leap across platforms. But he stops completely dead in the air if the player tries to attack, so any sort of diving strikes are out of the apprentice’s arsenal as well. Maneuvering Starkiller is further plagued by an inert camera that demands frequent manipulation.

The combat is slightly redeemed by the diversity of foes — some of whom can only be killed by a single attack style — and the inclusion of a dash button. The latter technique can lend battles a hyperkinetic feeling when Starkiller rushes through blaster fire in starship hallways or hurdles down a cavern chased by foes native to the fungal planet of Felucia. Hulking enemies like AT-STs and rancors can be finished off with fun quick-time events, as can the boss battles, which sometimes turn into technically lacking wars of attrition with fellow Jedi.

Hosting the action are a series of masterfully presented levels. The game’s oft-discussed three physics engines are evident in each swaying mushroom stalk on Felucia, each dangling tube of carbonite on Nar Shaddaa and each railway bent by the body of a flung Stormtrooper. “The Force Unleashed” boasts only a few skillful feats of level design — namely the vibrant passages through Felucia’s vegetation and the towering infrastructure of the game’s final level, which I’ll keep secret. But each environment is rendered in stunning detail and John Williams’ unmistakable score seals their magical aura.

Most fans of the films will find other small facets of “The Force Unleashed” to savor. In my case, it was the chance to stack AT-ST heads to reach high ledges and battle a few familiar faces in familiar locations.

But almost no “Star Wars” devotees will enjoy the downing of the Star Destroyer, which went from the game’s ultimate “wow” moment in previews to a nightmare of faulty prompts and annoying difficulty in reality. I found the lack of fun disturbing.

If you play
Game: "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed"
Score: C+
Parental rating: T for violence
Publisher: LucasArts
Developer: LucasArts
Platform: PlayStation 3, PlayStation 2, PSP, Xbox 360, Wii, Nintendo DS, iPhone, N-Gage
Price: $59.99
Play: Single
The final boss: "Star Wars" fans should flock to "The Force Unleashed" for its impressive story, but watching every cut scene requires them to play through some rough stretches of Force-powered melee combat.

(Published Sept. 25, 2008 in The Citizen)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

PixelJunk Eden

Ask any video game console owner when downloadable games earned their respect. You'll get several different answers.

Some may say it happened when “Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved” was released through Xbox Live Arcade. Others may claim it was the success of Nintendo's Virtual Console on the Wii that sold them on the concept.

There is no right answer. But saying the arrival of “PixelJunk Eden” on the PlayStation Network certainly isn't wrong.

This stylized platform game places players in gardens as a tiny creature called a Grimp. Players control the Grimp's trajectory with the left analog stick and propel it in that direction - like a jump. This action is the crux of the Grimp's ascent up the plants of the gardens in order to obtain Spectra, which signal the completion of a garden stage.

As the Grimp jumps into plants, it sticks to them regardless of the angle at which it hits the curvaceous structures. From there, the Grimp can either jump toward another plant, or swing in a circular motion at the end of a short-lived strand fixed to a point on the plant. It is with this swing action that the player can collide with aimlessly floating foes, who are turned to pollen upon impact. Nearby seeds absorb the pollen and, once filled, blossom into additional stalks along which the Grimp can climb.

As these plants waver in the air, they steadily complicate the platforming with exacting physics friendly only to the most well-timed jumps. In later stages, the Grimp encounters floating enemies that actually attack it by bouncing it across the screen or severing its swinging strands.

Speeding the pace of the action is the game's synchronization meter, a life meter that automatically counts down as the Grimp swings and jumps through the garden. The meter can be replenished by collecting crystals in the same swinging manner as the Grimp collides with enemies. Though the meter can frustrate in a player's first few “Eden” go-rounds by cutting the action short, learning to manage it comes naturally. Without that obstacle, the game would simply be too easy and, as a result, rather fruitless.

Once players master the deceptively simple controls, there is a kinetic grace to behold in the Grimp's movements. With well-timed swings and jumps, the Grimp can weave its way through the baroque garden landscapes in a balletic manner reminiscent of Spider-Man. The action's balance of accessible controls with a deep play dynamic will likely addict many a player.

Accentuating the spectacle are the flourishes of light and color that accompany collisions with foes and the filling of the air with pollen. The game's whole aesthetic is a breathtaking collage of layered patterns, ornate plants and intensely warm and cool shades. Drawing players in further is a trance music soundtrack so organic to the pace and look of the action, it's faintly noticeable.

Some players may feel tedium as they revisit gardens to collect all five of their Spectra. But with cooperative play and a point system contingent on completion time, seed pollination count and other factors, “Eden's” replay value fades little. Players not content to compete against themselves can compare their scores to the game's online leader boards, and the PlayStation Network's new trophy system provides another batch of challenges.

There are more than enough apples in “PixelJunk Eden” to not only delight players, but convince any remaining doubters that downloadable games will compete with their pricier physical counterparts in quality.

If you play
Game: PixelJunk Eden
Score: A
Parental rating: E for everyone
Publisher: Sony Computer Entertainment of America
Developer: Q-Games
Platform: PlayStation 3 (PlayStation Network)
Price: $9.99
Features: 1 player, multiplayer
The final boss: With its vibrant and addictive platform play, “PixelJunk Eden” may ultimately prove a key moment in the popular acceptance of downloadable games as a legitimate delivery system for the medium.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Gazing gamers

RagingbeautyThe cinematic scale of "Metal Gear Solid 4" shames previous attempts to merge movies with games - even Director Hideo Kojima's own. The sharp script is realized by Hollywood-caliber voice acting, particularly from Christopher Randolph as Hal and Khari Payton as Drebin. The facial animations and body language of characters like Snake and Meryl convey emotions with amazing subtlety. Images of the scenes Kojima conceives - namely the boat showdown in Eastern Europe and the balletic fight between Raiden and Vamp - overwhelm with their scale and linger long past the game's conclusion.

As a game successfully woven within a grander movie, "MGS4" ripens for criticisms geared at both mediums, including the rich body of theory birthed by film studies over the last century. I couldn't help applying one of those theories to one of the game's most lasting images: The female body.

Kojima's camera captures a lot of it: Naomi and Big Mama's wide cleavage, the Beauties' skin-tight camo suits and even Mei Ling's shapely Navy uniform. But the game derives its sexuality from more than just the female character design; it also stems from the prominence these characters' enticing features enjoy on screen. Several shots leave the females' heads out of the frame to focus on their curvy figures. Others, especially the post-boss battle Beauty shots, take stylized angles to accentuate the women's contours. Often the characters are animated in such a way that flaunts their bodies, even at the expense of the internal logic of the script. Mei Ling bends over to pick up her pointer, but then, for no apparent reason, she remains in that position - on all fours, her butt arched up - and continues briefing her crew as they stare.

Then there are the moments when Kojima enables the players' lascivious eyes. He gives them the options of leafing through the Playboys Snake uses to bait enemies and shaking the Sixaxis controller to jiggle Rose's breasts during codec conversations. In fact, the chests of almost all the females in the game improbably bounce at least once.

Kojima seems to go out of his way to ensure that his mostly male players will gorge themselves on sexual eye candy. Whether he intended to or not, this aspect of his authorship presents a striking example of the male gaze, a concept introduced by Laura Mulvey in her 1973 essay, "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Mulvey suggested that film narratives often frame the action from the (heterosexual) male point of view and focus on them as the causative forces of that action, while females are traditionally pleasure objects relegated to the fringes of it. And perhaps the most noticeable visual trace of this cinematic trend is the camera's emphasis on the female body.

Whether "Metal Gear Solid 4" falls in line with the other tenets of Mulvey's theory is certainly worthy of debate - but another debate. For now, let's limit the discussion to the B-movie-degree prominence of female curves in Kojima's camera. There is precedent for this symptom of the male gaze in video games, both in Kojima's own series (Big Mama in "Snake Eater") and as far back as the NES days (when players could speed-run "Metroid" for a glimpse at Samus in a bikini). You could stick to the surface explanation that gamers are mostly male, like to look at females, and game designers know this. But what else does this persistent trait of video games say about the medium?

- From, a new video game blog I'm co-authoring with some friends.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

“War has changed,” warns Solid Snake.

But in Snake's swan song, “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots,” change is good - almost flawlessly good.

With wary eyes the game imagines nations waging proxy wars through private mercenary companies in the not-too-distant future. As battles rage, businesses reap the rewards of this “war economy” like players in a slaughterous stock market.

The (supposedly) last chapter of Hideo Kojima's mythic stealth action series places an older Snake on battlefields across the globe in this grim future. With little time left until his weakening body fails him, Snake sets out to eliminate the boss of these war-mongering businesses: Liquid, Snake's fellow clone and arch-foe of “Metal Gear Solid,” who plots to topple the U.S. government.

Tracking Liquid across the Middle East, South America and other diverse war-torn locales takes Snake to their front lines, where Liquid's forces face off with rebel troops in chaotic scenes of explosions and dying screams. As a third party passing through the combat, Snake can complete his missions in myriad ways. “Patriots,” like previous “Metal Gear” titles, lets the player choose how badly they bloody their path.

Sneaking past soldiers and leaving them alive demands patience and alertness, but the inherent thrill of successful stealth in “Patriots” rewards every second spent lying in wait for the coast to clear. This tactic is aided by a few new toys, such as Snake's OctoCamo suit, which can automatically adopt the colors and patterns of its surroundings. It does so when Snake presses up against a surface, an action that was cleverly mapped to its own button. This control removes a small trouble of previous “Solid” games, where trying to perform context-sensitive actions like climbing and hanging off ledges would sometimes line Snake's back against a surface instead.

While playing dead - another fun new trick - players can sprawl on the ground, faintly visible, and stick up a patrolling soldier as he approaches. The Close-Quarter Combat controls are tweaked with tremendous success. Manipulating a captured enemy - sticking him up, interrogating him, knocking him out or killing him - is far more manageable than in previous “Solid” games. Foes lying in wait around a corner are also susceptible to the Metal Gear Mk. II, a tiny wheeled scout robot that can not only electrocute enemies but also provide Snake a helpful picture of the path before him. The last of these welcome stealth upgrades is the Solid Eye, a mechanized eye patch that empowers the player with night vision and binocular views to ease Snake's scouting. This tool also strengthens the parallels between the older Solid Snake and his father, Naked Snake, the one-eyed protagonist of “Metal Gear Solid 3” who would become “Metal Gear” foe Big Boss.

Other new game play facets include Drebin Points, a deep but slightly superfluous form of currency for purchasing and customizing firearms, and the psyche meter, a measure of Snake's mental well-being. When exhaustion, discomfort or depression siphon this bar, the player experiences the effects in the form of slowed movement and unsteadied aim. This elegiac substitute for the hunger system of “Metal Gear Solid 3” expresses the deterioration of the elderly Snake even during game play to heighten his pathos with the player.

The other strategic option players face in “Patriots” is mowing down the soldiers who would do the same to Snake if they spot him. Pushing up the body count poses a more direct risk to the hero's health, but it spares the player the time-consuming process of careful sneaking. With a new first-person perspective that allows movement while aiming, the gun play of “Patriots” achieves remarkable smoothness that mirrors the vast improvements to its stealth play. Finding parity between these two tactical approaches to the game in terms of both accessibility and pure fun is an astonishing feat on Kojima's part.

His masterful design of “Patriots” widens the player's range of possible ways to advance through it. The maps - particularly those in the Middle East, South America and Prague - are much larger in scale than those of previous “Solid” games. In countless patterns players can weave themselves within their brilliantly varied topography, whether it's the tiered cliffs and sinuous streams of South America or the roofless maze of homes in the Middle East. Snake may ignore about 80 percent of an area in a single play-through, even though these environments invite players to savor every splendorous detail. Kojima thus uses the beauty of the game against the player, as lingering to look exposes Snake to enemy eyes.

Another new wild card in the game play is the battling armies occupying Snake's surroundings. He may ally himself with the rebel soldiers by killing their mercenary foes, and in doing so free himself of danger in the native forces' presence. The firefights between the sides have their advantages, such as the muffling of Snake's footsteps and the plentiful items left on fallen soldiers. But the action can also disrupt the play. A player may take time carefully positioning themselves to pounce on an enemy when the soldier is suddenly cut down by gunfire. In addition to its frustration, this dynamic of “Patriots” can rob Snake of his agency and almost cast him in a supporting role in his own game. In the midst of the Middle East chapter's undeniable resonance with an at-war American public, this particular aspect of the game echoes the absence of control the playing audience may feel for its soldiers abroad.

When players aren't engaged in the trademark tactical espionage action of “Patriots,” they're placed in wonderfully imagined action set pieces that range from third-person shooting in an abandoned and blown-apart Middle Eastern hotel to a rail shooter aboard a motorcycle in Prague. Even the stealth creatively shifts in tone when Snake tracks a kidnapped ally through the labyrinthine South American hills, and later trails a fellow trench coat-wearing gentleman through the misty streets of Prague in a scene strikingly reminiscent of film noir classic “The Third Man.”

The exciting pace of the action sustains itself with excellent boss battles, most of which pit Snake against the thunder-voiced shellshock victims of the Beauty and the Beast Brigade. Their animalistic metal exoskeletons encase females whose sex appeal is eclipsed only by their madness. All four fights achieve a mixture of frenetic strategizing and modest terror, but puppeteer psychic Screaming Mantis ably tops her cohorts in both of these areas.

Like previous “Solid” tales, the story of “Patriots” unfolds between bouts of game play in several lengthy (some top an hour) cut scenes chronicling a dizzying amount of double-crosses and secret agendas. Despite the indigestibility of all its details about nanomachines and artificial intelligence, “Patriots” succeeds at building sympathetic characters whose relationships form a weighty emotional touchstone in the story. By the time Snake lifelessly crawls toward the game's climax in a beautifully desperate moment, players will surely rally him on as they beat on the triangle button to continue his advance.

To much delight, “Patriots” reintroduces major players from previous “Metal Gear” games like a reunion TV special. But their roles feel organic to the plot, not indulgent or superfluous. At least one gasp or cheer at the sight of a character is likely to sound from the living room of “Solid” fans during their first time through “Patriots.” Players new to the series may find themselves less swept up in the mythos, but the skillfully directed scenes should leash their attention while they wait to continue.

“Patriots” also leaps far beyond its predecessors in the pure cinematic quality of its cut scenes. A fight between “Metal Gear Solid 2” foes Raiden and Vamp shames any big-screen showdown in the ingenuity and kinetic beauty of its choreography. A shootout between “Metal Gear Solid” characters Meryl Silverburg, Johnny Sasaki and hordes of enemy soldiers harkens back to the screwball comedies of Tracy and Hepburn with their sharp repartee in the face of mortal danger.

Such filmic moments are helped by facial animations that betray the subtlest of emotions, be they Dr. Naomi Campbell's ambivalence about her dashed alliances or Otacon's sorrow at seeing his friend Snake age away. The Hollywood caliber voice acting finds its finest example in the nomadic arms dealer Drebin, who speaks with a salesman's relaxed charisma in a role that could easily have been sunken by overacting.

Gorgeously next-generation graphics and a score of epic scale - highlighted by Snake's poignant stringed theme - polish off the overall package of “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.” “Metal Gear Online” extends the game's endurance with its robust shooting play. As arguably the first major exclusive title for the PlayStation 3, “Patriots” provides the mightiest of anchors and should weigh heavily on the minds of any prospective system buyers. Kojima's brilliant design and direction ensures that Solid Snake doesn't merely sneak into video game history, he passes on with all the glory befitting his iconic place in that history. His exit is the one change in “Patriots” players may not be quick to embrace.

If you play Game: “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots”
Score: 98 out of 100
Parental rating: Mature for blood, crude humor, strong language, suggestive themes and violence
Publisher: Konami
Director: Hideo Kojima
Platform: PlayStation 3
Price: $59.99
Features: 1 player, online
Life span: 20 hours
The final boss: “Guns of the Patriots” lands “Metal Gear Solid” on the next console generation with numerous improvements to its well-imagined stealth and shooting game play, as well as a spectacle of a story laden with rich characters and stunning action.

(photo courtesy of Kotaku)

(published June 19, 2008 in The Citizen)

Thursday, May 08, 2008


When Capcom ported "Resident Evil 4" to the Wii, it seemed likely that "Okami" was next in the publisher's line of last-generation games to find new life on the Nintendo system.

The highly praised PlayStation 2 game met with meager sales due to its arrival during the system's twilight years. On the Wii, a new and more attentive audience could discover "Okami" and give the game a rightfully warm reception.

But what really beckoned "Okami" to the Wii was the game's unique style of play. Fewer game play elements are better suited to the Wiimote than the game's Celestial Brush - a directionally controlled ink brush with which players can slash at enemies, turn night into day or plant bombs simply by drawing on screen. On the PS2, these actions were accomplished by pushing an analog stick with one's thumb. So one would suspect that miming these strokes with a Wiimote would be much more fun.

But "Okami's" controls don't work on the Wii quite as beautifully as the game's breathtaking art. Players can accomplish most brush commands with ease, but every so often an action takes half a dozen attempts to execute. The slash command in particular is sometimes a pain to achieve due to the difficulty of precisely waving the Wiimote in a straight lateral motion across a tree or an adversary. Most players will adjust to this problematic control within an hour of starting the 40-hour game, so it ultimately presents a minor hassle.

Another control downgrade arises during combat, when wolf deity Amaterasu must rid the Japanese countryside of the demonic beings that haunt it. The hero's attack and dodge actions have been mapped, respectively, to flicks of the Wiimote and nunchuk. This scheme slightly slows the pace of the game's frequent battles - sometimes to the point of mental and physical tedium - from the button-mashing frenzy they became in the PS2 edition.

These downsides to the Wii edition of "Okami" don't detract too heavily from what is otherwise a brilliantly inspired game. As the white wolf sun god Amaterasu, players must use the Celestial Brush to stop a plague of darkness that has beset feudal Japan. The muted Amaterasu travels the countryside with the motormouth Issun, a microscopic guide, to aid villagers and add new powers to the Celestial Brush in hopes of slowly repelling the curse of the eight-headed demon Orochi.

The story is advanced with occasionally boring cut scenes - namely the 10-minute-plus opening - but the playful dialogue and absorbing characters that occupy Amaterasu's adventure liven up the interludes.

"Okami's" Japan is presented in endlessly vibrant cel-shaded color that vivifies the setting to the point where players may feel content to simply run around as Amaterasu and take in all the graphic splendor. In this area "Okami" benefits from its adaptation to the more powerful Wii, which depicts the game's swirls and explosions of color and light in sharper graphic detail than the PS2. The wall of flame that encircles Amaterasu in battle is saturated with billowing textures and brilliant hues, while the water bodies and skies cool the screen with tranquil waves of blues.

Between the aesthetic and the mythic sweep of "Okami," players may feel like they're participating in an epic cartoon of the finest artistic quality. Though the PS2 edition offers a somewhat easier control system, the game's glory is preserved well enough on the Wii to warrant another play-through. And those entirely new to the game would greatly enjoy picking up the brush.

Score: 92 out of 100
Parental rating: Teen for blood and gore, crude humor, fantasy violence, suggestive themes, use of alcohol and use of tobacco
Publisher: Capcom
Designer: Hideki Kamiya
Platform: Wii
Price: $39.99
Features: 1 player
Life span: 40 hours
The final boss: The Wii incarnation of the PlayStation 2 masterpiece "Okami" deserves another play, despite trading smoother controls for more pristine graphics.

(photo courtesy of

(published May 8, 2008 in The Citizen)

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 3

Like its hero, Solid Snake, the "Metal Gear Solid" series appeared cornered after its second chapter. But, like Snake, it made a cunning escape with "Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater."

The 2004 installment of Hideo Kojima's landmark stealth series (revised in 2006 as "Subsistence") was a potent shot of adrenaline after "Substance" left players exhausted by puzzling storytelling. "Subsistence" not only reinvigorated the series with a more digestible and scaled back plot, it drastically refined its game play as well.

As Naked Snake - the genetic predecessor of long-time "Metal Gear" protagonist Solid Snake - players parachute into the Russian jungle in the early 1960s to rescue a nuclear researcher from the Soviets before he can complete a doomsday weapon for their army. From the time period to the soulful, if over-the-top opening song to the curvy charms of femme fatale EVA, the game has all the makings of a James Bond movie.

Many of the cutscenes are marred by the voice acting of David Hayter as Naked Snake, which sounds like he swallowed gasoline before he spat his lines. It's still somewhat tough to absorb the tale due to its abundance of secret agendas and double crosses between the U.S. and Soviet sides. But lacking the philosophical musings of "Substance" and their intolerable length, "Subsistence's" story plays out with much more intrigue.

The game play receives a major refreshing due to the introduction of a camouflage system. In Snake's arsenal are several outfits and face paint color schemes with which he can blend into the game's assortment of environments, from the overgrown foliage of the jungle to the copper-colored mountainside.

Replacing the map players used to keep Snake out of his enemies' sights is a percentage index at the top of the screen indicating Snake's degree of invisibility. The result of this switch is a stealth dynamic that slows Snake's advance and requires more attention to his surroundings in order to discern the proper path through them.

Simply running through the minefields of patrolling guards is no longer possible, players must often lie in wait and survey the scene from a safe hiding place as soldiers loom inches away. Though this game play model may test one's patience at first, it ultimately rewards in heavier doses through its heightened realism and suspense.

The camouflage system of "Subsistence" is also to be credited for its most exciting boss battles. The first finds Snake in a sniper fight with an elderly master marksman simply named The End. Spanning three massively detailed forest maps, the battle can take more than an hour to complete as players scour that landscape for signs of their well-hidden foe. Snake, meanwhile, must cloak himself in the lush forest or fall under the fire of The End's tranquilizing darts.

The resourcefulness, calm and strategy demanded by this duel easily ranks it among the finest boss battles in video game history. As the fight ensues players may curse The End and the game itself, but they'll probably want to face off again they've conquered him.

The second standout boss battle is at the game's actual end, against Snake's mentor and paramour, The Boss. On a much smaller battlefield blanketed by white lilies, Snake must evade the hand-to-hand attacks of his more skilled enemy by hiding in the massive flower bed and catching her off guard. The remainder of the game's boss fights are a bit too easy and unimaginative, but mildly fun at a minimum.

Another plate to balance in the boss battles is Snake's health, which is handled in an entirely new way in "Subsistence." Players must remedy each wound with proper care through a medical interface. The game also adds a stamina meter, which Snake must replenish through food captured in the Russian wilderness or else face dizzied aim and coordination. The relentless doting on both life bars is another dose of realism that livens up "Subsistence" with its new difficulties.

By reinventing the "Metal Gear" series' stealth play and paring down the prominence of its story, "Subsistence" surpasses its immediate predecessor but still comes up a bit short of the ingenuity and brilliant design of "Metal Gear Solid." However, the third "Solid" leaves plenty of hope to subsist on prior to the June release of "Metal Gear Solid 4."

If you play
Game: "Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence" (part of "Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection")
Score: 93 out of 100
Parental rating: Mature for blood and gore, partial nudity and violence
Publisher: Konami
Director: Hideo Kojima
Platform: PlayStation 2
Price: $29.99 (collection also includes "Metal Gear Solid" and "Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance")
Features: 1 player
Life span: 15 hours
The final boss: "Subsistence" scales back the bloated storytelling tendencies of previous "Solid" titles and breathes new life into the series' stealth game play.

(photo courtesy of

(published May 1, 2008 in The Citizen)

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance

“Metal Gear Solid” merged movies with video games almost perfectly. Director Hideo Kojima balanced exciting stealth action with episodes of a grand story of government espionage that explored themes of identity, bondage and fate.

But in “Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance” for the PlayStation 2, that balance is lost. And the spill isn't too pretty.

Solid Snake returns in the game's prologue to infiltrate a ship transporting the newest model of Metal Gear, the walking nuclear tank with the power to wipe out nations. After that mission concludes in chaos, the player continues the remaining bulk of the game two years later as Raiden, an androgynous upstart spy for Snake's old unit, FOX-HOUND. Raiden provides a stubborn, emotive and - in the eyes of some players - girly complement to the grizzled resolve of Solid Snake.

But considering the overblown story surrounding him, Raiden's behavior is suitably bewildered. In “Substance,” he is plucked from virtual training missions and sent to Big Shell, a massive water purification plant, to rescue the president from another host of terrorists threatening to unleash a nuclear holocaust.

That's the premise. But the plot that follows would require every page in this paper to recount. For every 10 minutes of game play, there seems to be another 15 of cut scenes and radio conversations chronicling enough double-crosses, hidden agendas and secret bloodlines to weary Tom Clancy. Raiden learns that the terrorists who kidnapped the president are targeting the Patriots, a shadow government with designs of world domination through digital censorship.

Keeping track of the allegiances of the president, mercenary Olga Gurlukovich and arch-villain Revolver Ocelot may prove the most puzzling challenge in the game. By the time of its finale, even the internal logic connecting its events is gone due to a Manhattan destruction scene's removal during the game's post-Sept. 11 completion.

Much of the dialogue is plainly boring and bloated by philosophical musings about the elusiveness of truth and the democratization of information - issues you may not be willing to pontificate on while parked in front of a TV. Snake and Raiden's frequent one-word question responses to others' ramblings are further signs of faulty writing.

When “Substance's” story isn't unraveling like an overcooked spy thriller, players can enjoy the refined stealth action of an otherwise pleasant game. Enemy soldiers, cameras and mines again dot the hostile territory Snake and Raiden must cross to complete their missions.

But the protagonists are aided by several new abilities. Through a new first-person aiming system, enemy soldiers can be held up at gun-point for ammunition and health items. When a soldier spots your character, you can snipe his radio to stop him from calling for backup. If you subdue the soldier, you must carry their carcass out of sight should more soldiers show up when their comrade doesn't check in.
The direct result of these new facets of game play is heightened realism and a more rewarding stealth dynamic. There are still moments when a soldier will stare in your direction from 20 yards away without detecting you, but they are otherwise more plausibly alert to your presence. The new skills of “Substance” - which also include leaping forward mid-sprint, climbing atop boxes and clinging to catwalks - challenge a player's resourcefulness while checking their patience like previous “Metal Gear” games.

The infiltration segments of the game do not balance with its boss battles as masterfully as in “Metal Gear Solid,” but the battles themselves are mostly well-imagined. There is another surface-to-air missile showdown with an aircraft, and another struggle against the mammoth Metal Gear - many of them.

Raiden must tend to ticking explosives while trying to stop the roller-skating mad bomber Fatman with precision shooting, then later provide cover fire in a sniper challenge that cleverly twists the duel with Sniper Wolf in “Solid.” But terrorist leader Solidus Snake is beaten too easily in the final battle through swordplay abruptly introduced late in the game.

No part of “Substance's” play tops the ingenuity of the clash with psychic Psycho Mantis in “Metal Gear Solid,” but the fourth wall collapses more often in the sequel. At one point, Raiden's superior tells the player to press the reset button. The “mission failed” screen is flashed mid-fight in a later set piece. Lacking the ingenuity and dark humor of Mantis' antics, as well as the context of an absorbing story, these moments instead feel gimmicky and frustrating.

Only a few other issues pop up in the play mechanics. The game's cameras, which usually pan along one axis in three-quarters bird's eye position, sometimes obstruct a critical view of Snake or Raiden as they prepare to pounce on or sneak past a foe. Climbing atop boards and leaping over railings may require a few attempts because the character tends to lean his back against the surfaces when close.

As part of “Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection,” “Substance” includes some throwaway bonus missions and skateboarding side quests onto the disc as distractions. With substantial story editing, the game itself could have earned its “Essential” status, instead of sneaking away with it.

If you play
Game: “Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance” (part of “Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection”)
Score: 85 out of 100
Parental rating: Mature for blood and gore, partial nudity and violence
Publisher: Konami
Director: Hideo Kojima
Platform: PlayStation 2
Price: $29.99
Features: 1 player
Life span: 10 hours
The final boss: “Substance” recaptures most of the excitement in its predecessor's stealth play while overstuffing its cinematic side to the point of ridiculousness.

(Published April 17, 2008 in The Citizen)

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