Friday, March 21, 2008

Metal Gear Solid 2 Substance

Metal Gear Solid 2 Substance
Stealth Action - XBox
HD Backup
1 player

From where I stand, MGS2 is the sole reason Sony dominated its rivals. At least from internet fandom, it seemed as if everyone wanted a PS2 simply because MGS2 was being made for it. It was one of the most hyped games ever in the history of gaming. I was never really taken in by Metal Gear Solid, unlike everyone else. Sure it was enjoyable, and for such a mainstream title, it did have interesting scenarios and gameplay mechanics. But I still felt it was too skim on game, and too much cinematic experience. So I was curious as to where MGS2 would go with the franchise.

True to its roots, Metal Gear Solid 2 follows a similar pattern of play to MGS. While you could simply shoot everyone you see, the relative scarcity of ammo and wealth of sneaking abilities would go to waste. Hiding, observing enemy patrol patterns, and sneaking up behind them to hold them up or snap their neck seems to be the more prudent route. But be careful. If you don't drag corpses away, that would tip the enemy off that there's an intruder on the premises and backup is called. The thing about this game is you can play the game however you want. You can go with guns blazing. You can evade all enemies. And you can do a little of both, and everything in between. You're given all the tools, and you can play it as you wish.

To that end, MGS2 feels more focused as a game than MGS. The game consists of two scenarios. One takes place on a Tanker ship. Another takes place 2 years later on a Waste Treatment Plant. Each location envelops you in its surroundings. You get a good sense of the scope of your missions. There's a lot of attention to detail. If you spend the time to study your surroundings in 1st Person view, you can see idol posters, secret passages, and even cockroaches :( Traversing through each situation is quite the task. The bosses put up a lot of fight too. Ultimately MGS2 is more refined, and much more challenging than its predecessor.

There is a lot of criticism leveled at MGS2 because of Raiden. The Tanker scenario plays out in usual fashion. But the Plant scenario features Raiden as the central character, instead of Solid Snake. But I don't really understand the criticisms, because you pretty much play him the same way. Raiden has all the abilities Snake has, except for one critical detail. Snake has an automatic radar so you always have a map and a guide to the enemy's patterns. With Raiden, you need to find computer terminals (Nodes) to download that building's schematics before you get radar. That means that up until you find the Nodes, you have to be more careful of where you go. I actually liked that aspect, because it made me more conscious of my surroundings. It forces you to look in 1st person for a longitudinal view that the camera obscures. It forces you to proceed slower and study what threats exist all around you. The other aspect I found interesting about playing as Raiden is the team dynamic. Although you face many obstacles and enemies along the way, you're not doing it alone. While you're at one task, other characters are at others. Although games have trained us to be the one-man hero, in MGS2, you are only PART of the solution. Tasks that other characters partake in affect you, and vice versa. The mission is bigger than you are.

But for all of that, the game is ... well... kinda boring. I really enjoyed the Tanker scenario, as it showcased all the strengths of this type of game. But the mechanics started to wear thin as I played on. First of all, the bulk of the game takes place in one location. That means there's little variety in the locales as you see the same type of structure over and over and over again. The amount of backtracking in the story ensures you'll be sick of it all. The other major thing is that MGS2 is nothing more than rehashed MGS. You can justify it all you want, but it just feels like Kojima and company said, "Hey, everyone liked our MGS game so let's just do the same thing again with better hardware!" So you have a sniper scene, torture scene, your guided missile through airducts scene... If I wanted to play MGS, I would have. MGS2 relies way too much on nostalgia.

To offset the boredom, MGS2 also offers plenty of irritation. Like MGS, most of the communication in the game is done via codec, some nanotech radio thing. But unlike MGS, codec communication is far more frequent. So you'll be walking around and all of a sudden you'll get a radio buzzer going off. Finish that conversation and a few steps later, you may receive another one. In concept it sounds ok, but its ample execution here frustrates. The Plant scenario in particular doesn't know when to stop with the communication. It interrupts the flow of the game far too frequently for my tastes. Also off-putting is that the codec communication often reminds you that you're playing a game. It'll tell you to "Push the Action button" or "Get into First Person view". To top it off, they'll display video captures of Metal Gear, Metal Gear Solid, or MGS2 footage as a self-tribute. But in the end, all this does is patronize the player and shatter the illusion of immersion they tried to create. As far as gameplay flaws, whenever you are caught by the enemy and trigger a red alert, there's a set amount of time before all the alarms clear, and the enemy stops searching for you. Sometimes you can find a perfect hiding spot that's completely out of view, so the enemy can't spot you. But you still have to sit there for 2 minutes or whatever until the red & yellow alert clears. I know that from a consistency standpoint, they shouldn't reduce the wait time. But it's certainly a nuisance when you know you have your safe haven and yet have to just stand there, doing nothing but watching the seconds count down. Maybe I'm not really much into this stealth thing at all.

Finally, there's the cinematic story. There's a whole cast of characters that are each secretly working towards their own goals. There are conspiracies, betrayals, coverups, blackmail, the whole nine yards. It's all interesting enough, but the story's self-importance is its downfall. Just like the codec communication, there are a lot of cutscenes in the game. Each and every clip screams: "Lookit me! This game is full of awe and wonder!" But the only thing I'm wondering is why Kojima thinks his writing and directing is so amazing. I felt as if every cinematic sequence was pretentious, as if they wanted to be taken seriously... but tried way too hard. The latter parts of the game try to tackle philosophy, sociology and existentialism. Although the themes are decent, they've been done elsewhere, and executed far better.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Substance contains the original Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty, as well as a ton of extras. There's tons of VR missions, game scenarios, supporting storybooks, boss attack mode, etc. If you enjoyed the game, the extra content in Substance offers many additional hours of playtime. I appreciate the wealth of extras included in Substance. But for all its MGS rehashing, irritating design decisions, and contrived cinematics, I didn't enjoy playing Metal Gear Solid 2 very much.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raiders
Puzzle Platform - Sega Saturn
Battery Backup - 1 save
1 player

While I've always heard many good things about the original Tomb Raider, I never had a chance to play it. The Saturn version is reputably better of the two console ports, and the "s" in Tomb Raiders indicates the Japanese port. Aside from being disappointed that it's Jp dubbed, I was happy to bypass those humongous US cases.

Being a Saturn 3D title, I was immediately skeptical about its performance. Granted, TR would seem very dated by today's gamers no matter what. The textures are grainy, and pixellation is everywhere. But for its time, Saturn TR is one of the smoothest 3D titles on the system, with little framerate stutter. That leaves the game open to do its thing.

And Tomb Raider's thing is exploration. You play as Lara, searching ancient sites for treasures and artifacts. The locations are very mysterious and really lend themselves to puzzle-platformer mechanics. You get the impression that whoever built these sites did not want anyone to waltz into them and pillage. So there are puzzles to figure out, traps to avoid, and stretches & stretches of silence. The greatest asset to the game is its minimalism. Although the game has music, it is rarely used. There are also very few enemies in the game, and of these, most of them are what you would expect in an abandoned environment - bats and rodents are common occurances. What this means is that for most of the game, you are completely alone, with the sounds of just your footsteps and grunts accentuating that solitude. And it works. I found myself being overwhelmed by the vast unknown environments. I found myself being spooked when a tiger pounced on me after rushing into a new room. I found myself completely feeling what Lara was feeling. TR excels on a psychological level.

But all that would be moot if the game was lacking. Luckily, Tomb Raider has a really good mix of puzzles and platforming. The puzzles range anywhere from moving boxes around to flipping switches to figuring out how to traverse a field of traps without dying. There's quite a bit of variety to them, and the difficulty seems about right. Perhaps one aspect of the game that may not resonate well with people are its tank controls. That leaves Lara at a slight disadvantage in mobility, making combat and efficient movement a little bit cumbersome. But what is gained in the tank controls is its platform jumping precision. Each ledge is carefully designed to be a certain distance away from other ledges. The control scheme offers pinpoint accuracy in jumping distances, so being off by even one step could mean certain death. Every jump is calculated, and it's only achieveable by the tank controls. Loosey-goosey controls would not offer the same level of consistency. You get the impression that every single platform challenge in the game is a carefully crafted scenario.

I had a lot of fun with the game. It felt immersive. It felt challenging. It felt very detailed and meticulously designed. There's tons of secrets to explore and the environments are such that you want to explore. Every solved puzzle actually feels like an accomplishment, as you dig deeper and deeper into the sites. Strangely, the inclusion of other people in the game hampers its focus. It's as if the designers weren't sure if you'd be bored with natural predators and threw in people to fire back at you. The problem with that is it taints the overall feeling of solitude. Whereas stumbling upon a pack of alligators can be creepy, finding human opponents in these ruins come off as an annoyance. Still, the heart of the game is exploration and to that end, this is the best gaming effort I've played.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Ace Attorney Apollo Justice

Ace Attorney Apollo Justice
Adventure - Nintendo DS
Battery Backup - 1 save, 1 quicksave
1 player

The latest game in the series, Gyakuten Saiban 4 is the first entry to be made from the ground-up as a Nintendo DS game. I enjoyed the inclusion of DS features in the DS-exclusive case 5 of the first game, so I had high hopes for this one. Unfortunately GS4 not only has the worst gameplay of the entire series, but the plot is so full of holes that the entire game just felt messy.

The new main character that you control is Apollo Justice. Phoenix Wright is definitely still a part of the game, although he has a different role. The first case starts off with a much older Phoenix. Apparently somewhere down the line, he lost his attorney badge. With a promising start like that, you'd think there'd be more to back it up. Thankfully, none of the cases feel like filler. But perhaps that is part of the problem. The thing is, while the first case gives you a lot of questions, and the rest of the game fills in the gaps with answers, the outcome makes less and less sense. First of all, it almost seems like Capcom tried to tie everything together in the most ambitious, but contrived way. I felt the same way about the last case of GS3. But worse than that, when the revelations are made, behaviors are so contrary to the personalities that have been built up, you can't help but to think that the writers missed something.

One thing I'm glad they got rid of was the horrible mysticism of the first 3 games, where Mia would appear out of nowhere and give you the answer when you were stuck. In its stead is "Perceive". Apollo Justice has this power to sense when someone is nervous. Then he can activate "Perceive" and look for any strange habits - perhaps a witness will scratch their nose when they're unsure about something, or they'll look away when they lie. The perceive system, when activated, will analyze a witness' testimony in slow motion. You'll get to zoom in the witness to look for signs of nervousness during key phrases. Find the habit, and call them out on it.

Here's the problem though. It is purely guess and check. Every line of testimony dialog will have 3-4 phrases in it. Not only do you have to be looking at the right place for the nervous habit, but also the right time, when they speak the phrase they're lying about. There is no skill. There is no logic. It is simply a matter of pointing your field of vision at the right zoomed-in location, at the right time. At least with evidence, it's possible to think about and logically deduce testimony contradictions. But Perceive is purely guess and check. Another problem is that it isn't really realistic. If I were lying in a courtroom, and a lawyer said to me, "Wait... I saw you twiddling your fingers. You must be lying!!!", I certainly would not admit to it. Here, many of the witnesses will. There's just too much suspension of disbelief.

And then there's the DS-features. Ema Skye returns from the first game, and she seems to only exist as an opportunity to do stupid forensic tasks. When you need to get a fingerprint, you poke the screen a few times to spread powder, then you blow in the mic to blow the powder away. When you need to compare footprints, you poke the footprint a few times to inject a mold, slide the stylus back and forth to flatten it, then rub it with a stylus, acting as a blow dryer. While these segments are interactive and provide a break from typical j-adventure monotony, the tasks aren't all that enjoyable and just felt thrown-in just because. The only use of the touch screen I liked was a sound mixer you receive in Case 3. It allowed you to play around with equalizer settings to analyze music tracks. That was a creative use and definitely had a role to play in the case itself. But this is an exception rather than the rule.

All in all, Ace Attorney Apollo Justice was still very much like the other games in the series. It has similar humor and tone. Its characters are similarly memorable. It has the same pitfalls. But it adds some new problems as well, due to the gimmicky DS features and poor continuity in the writing. Fans of the series will still enjoy it, but it's still a sloppy Capcom effort.