Thomas Was Alone
As described by itself, Thomas Was Alone is about seven rectangles with very different relationships to gravity. The game, developed by British designer Mike Bithell, features a collection of 2D shapes jumping and falling their way through increasingly complex levels. They are given personality through exceptional narration from humorist Danny Wallace, and the tightly constructed levels and mechanics make Thomas Was Alone a joy to play.
Thomas Was Alone is a master-class in platformer level design. Stages are meticulously constructed around characters jump heights and fall distances, but still allow for multiple approaches to each situation. You can trust the game, knowing it won’t let you fail unfairly, or put you in a position in which you can’t progress. Like Super Meat Boy, the simplicity of the mechanics allows for a direct line between your thoughts and the on-screen action, making navigating through the games levels immediate, and satisfying. Switching between characters usually works too, but can be fiddly, especially when you have seven characters to cycle through. Using the keypad is slightly better, but positioned awkwardly in relationship to the rest of the control keys.
With so few mechanics, Thomas Was Alone uses every element to it’s fullest extent. The camera glides over each of the levels as they begin, and always shows you exactly what you need to see at exactly the right time. The game also pushes its mechanics as far as they can go, with the smallest of interactions becoming central in later levels. Nothing becomes stale however, as Bithell knows just how much of an element is enough before moving onto something new. The levels soon feel like something to be assembled; like a jigsaw puzzle, you can see all the pieces, you just need to figure out how they fit together.
New dynamics continue to form across the games length, and peak in a series of levels that will have you platforming like never before, in a Portal-like “wow” moment. Everything is built on top of an established logic, and it’s this philosophy that carries you through a game that goes on slightly longer than it should. New characters are introduced quite late into the game, and participate in a plot separate to the main one. It doesn’t destroy the overall experience, but it does feel like a slightly unnecessary epilogue.
The game isn’t particularily difficult, but this is more due to a well-constructed pace and learning curve than a lack of challenge. Hints are provided by the games narrator, which also injects the characters with personalities, hopes, dreams and insecurities. This implied narrative is much more satisfying than the front-end plot of rogue AI’s and computer networks, which may be inaccessible, or at least less interesting, to those unfamiliar with those kind of terms and ideas. The marriage of narration and mechanics creates a story of acceptance, where everyone has a place, and everyone is useful. Themes of self-esteem, relationships and body image also emerge, and just enough visual feedback, such as a slight squish when jumping, is given to make these rectangles more than just moving shapes.
The backgrounds too are given just enough detail to remain interesting, without being distracting. Bithell gets as much out of his visuals as he does his mechanics, with every jump creating a charming play between light and shadow. David Housden’s music score begins as haunting and lonely, but soon provides an aesthetic of wonder and joy, especially when new characters are introduced. A central theme also persists, and new elements like piano and drums arise to punctuate important moments. It’s a fitting soundtrack, and resonates in your mind as much as it does with the mechanics and visuals.
As described by it’s creator, Thomas Was Alone is about friendship and jumping. The description is minimal sure, but that’s what the game is. It’s about getting as much as you can out of what you have. Thomas Was Alone doesn’t aspire to be anything other than what it is, and it doesn’t need to be. It’s a small game with a big heart, and it deserves to be played.
It’s hard not to feel at least somewhat alone, in The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home. Playing as Katie, a young woman returning from a yearlong overseas trip, you find your families new home empty, and start investigating the rooms and hallways to find out what’s happened. With very few mechanics, puzzles or even challenges to get in the way, you soon uncover one of the most heartfelt and unique narratives to be found in video games today.
Gone Home is unique in that the player and protagonist are not necessarily the same person. Although seen through the eyes of Katie, the narrative focus is undoubtedly on Samantha, her younger sister, who’s disembodied voice speaks to you as you pick up secret letters, school reports and homemade comic books. Sam and Katie’s parents also feature quite predominately, but these stories require a little more piecing together; a weekly planner might reveal the state of their marriage, for instance. It’s a fantastic exercise in non-traditional narrative, where the personalities, anxieties and lives of people can be determined by how messy their rooms are, what music they were last listening to, and what they try to hide from others. The game allows some of Katie’s personality to poke through as well, playing with it’s form by providing alternative textual descriptions of objects.
Sam’s narrative arc traces her journey of identity, as she discovers who she is and what impact this will have on the rest of her life. Other themes like alcoholism, love and redemption also persist, and it’s quite incredible to experience these ideas not through direct interaction with the characters, but with what they leave behind. As you sift through the lives of your family, much of the storytelling occurs in your mind, as you imagine the scenarios that the letters and objects describe. A good deal of the emotional weight of the game comes from having been in these situations yourself, and as such, younger players might not enjoy Gone Home as much as older ones. It can be hard to engage with nostalgia if you’re not dealing with an adolescence that is rapidly slipping away, just as it can be hard to empathise with themes of identity if you’re yet to go through that process yourself.
The game leverages nostalgia not only in it’s obsessive display of X-Files tapes and Street Fighter 2 references, but also in it’s dynamics, such as looking for a key code to open a safe, a task often asked of players in older games like Deus Ex or System Shock. It expands on the ideas of other games such asDear Esther, by featuring very few traditional mechanics; the game largely consists of walking and examining objects. Reinforcing the narrative, these actions enable the player to uncover the secrets of both the house, and Katie’s family, as she does. The relatively slow movement speed and clever use of lighting and detail allow Fullbright to direct the player to certain areas of the house, and shortcuts open up over the course of the game which re-contextualises certain rooms and objects.
By setting the game in an abandoned house on a dark, stormy night, Fullbright uses horror tropes to make you feel like a teenager again. With dark rooms and hallways around every corner, the game returns you to that time between childhood and adulthood where you know, logically, that there’s no such thing as ghosts, but that doesn’t stop you from leaving every light in the house on, just in case. Gone Home exacerbates this behaviour by planting ideas in your head, just as you dismiss them as ridiculous. In fact the game is so good at this that is seems to be reading your mind at times, and this tension eventually builds to a point where walking into a darkened basement becomes unbearable.
Gone Home is an important game. Like Dear Esther and similar games before it, it suggests that perhaps what we do with our hands in video games doesn’t have to involve violence. Maybe ‘realistic’ can mean issues that we all have to deal with, issues that maybe don’t involve life or death, but are important nonetheless. Every house, every family and every game has a story; this is one that’s worth experiencing.
Heavily inspired by crime films like Drive, Hotline Miami is a fast, fierce, and surreal top-down shooter from Dennaton Games. The game consists of shooting, stabbing and beating your way across 1980’s Miami, and plays as both a fluid action title and a meditation on the current state of video games.
Hotline Miami is a hard game. Like, really hard. It only takes one shot to die, which means that by the fourth level, you might find yourself failing quite often- almost to the point of putting down the game altogether. Enemy reactions are lightning fast, but this is balanced with the players’ movement, turn and attack speeds, which are also extremely precise. The various firearms and melee weapons are tightly constructed as well, with seemingly minute differences rippling out to change the larger systems of gameplay in bigger ways.
Along the way you'll collect animal masks which allow you to tweak your own gameplay experience, giving you the ability to walk faster, or see further, among other things. Enemies still remain incredibly tough though, so the masks don’t disrupt the main cycle of trial-and-error, which does carry a certain appeal.
As you get further into the game, it becomes necessary to employ your own strategies, such as baiting enemies, and using corners and walls to your advantage. Apprehension begins to melt away, until the games’ gratuitous violence becomes something really scary: it becomes fun. Each level begins with a telephone call, which tells you where to go, and who to kill. These instructions are disturbing and strange at first, but soon enough you know what to expect: you pick up the phone, you go kill people.
It’s the core loop of Grand Theft Auto boiled down to it’s most basic form, and this repetition permeates throughout the rest of the game as well, putting you into a haze of gruesome concentration.
Elements like the drifting menu text, repetitious enemy movements, and warm, lazy colour palette, also contribute to this feeling that you’re being hypnotised into committing these acts of violence. A fast-paced, energetic soundtrack pressures you to rush in, even if your instinct might be to hang back a bit. The pixel-art visual style and smooth gradients of the backgrounds clash to create an underlying feeling of discomfort, as if trying to break you out of your spree.
Although the visuals are busy, the techniques used to indicate depth, space and structure are impressively minimal; the game uses shadow, contrast and gradient quite effectively. The end-of-level screen is a great example of this simple yet effective aesthetic, where pixelated palm trees drift past as you reflect on your actions.
Hotline Miami follows a recent trend of self-critical games; games that help us question some of the more engrained aspects of video game design, convention and culture. While the difficulty curve may be too steep for some, Hotline Miami remains an exciting and challenging reflection on the treatment of violence in both video games, and entertainment in general.
Kentucky Route Zero
Film critic Joseph Jon Lanthier stated that Wim Wender’s film Paris, Texas, “evokes an America most Americans yearn to gaze upon”. The same could be said of Cardboard Computer’s point-and-click adventure, Kentucky Route Zero. The game is a love-letter to the gothic romanticism of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, and explores a part of America that fascinates many.
Kentucky Route Zero is first and foremost, a game of observation. You control lead character Conway by clicking the mouse to move, examine and talk...and not much else. There are almost no puzzles to solve and no enemies to kill, so you’ll spend most of your time in conversation or movement. This allows players to be absorbed in the characters, plot, and dialogue, and places emphasis on the visuals and sound design.
The game, of which the first two Acts have been released so far, follows truck driver Conway as he travels the titular highway and meets the lost, lonely souls along it’s length. Whom Conway is however, is largely up to you. Although the narrative arc remains mostly the same, you influence his personality, backstory and relationship with other characters through dialogue options, similar to an actor improvising lines during a play. The theatre comparison doesn’t end there either, as each scene of the game is carefully constructed and composed to guide you in the appropriate direction, both physically and emotionally.
Cardboard Computer are in very tight control of their camera, elegantly using their props, composition, and visual effects to hide and reveal sections of the scene as they see fit. The game’s sound design is also impressively constructed, as ambient sounds of crickets and highways combine with a ghostly, melancholic score. Kentucky Route Zero revels in it’s Southern aesthetic, as reflected in a bluegrass band that performs during the key scenes of both Acts. These moments help to drive home the key themes of debt, poverty and loneliness.
These themes are also reflected in the hard-lined visual style, Kentucky Route Zero’s most immediate feature. It lends the game a broken, retro charm, and pushes the use of magic realism by presenting the mystical and the mundane as equal. Like other recent works within the genre, such as Alan Wake,Welcome to Night Vale, and Twin Peaks, Kentucky Route Zero deals with the mysterious, often sinister undercurrent of small town life. It explores the people living in financial disparity, by manifesting their hopes, dreams, and fantasies alongside their foreclosed homes and abandoned workplaces.
Jake Elliott & Tamas Kemenczy, the duo behind Cardboard Computer, have stated that, “at the core of it, the game is about the different ways that people deal with hard times, and the different ways that economic downturns affect people who live at the margins”. These ideas are reflected in the dynamics of the game, as well as in the ghostly figures that inhabit the game’s farmhouses, mines and museums. These haunting imprints on places and objects appear and disappear with alarming frequency, reminding us to appreciate what we have, because it might not be there for long. This idea of ghosts and imprints is further explored through the game’s constant references to television and computer screens.
Through these references, as well as it’s staging as a theatre production, Kentucky Route Zero constantly reminds you it is a game, that you’re not interacting with real people. By separating you from it’s characters and world, the game highlights how we separate ourselves from the poor and desperate people that the game deals with. The game’s road map-like overworld features a host of small stories just waiting to be uncovered- almost all of them deal with struggle and change. These mini-narratives help to flesh out the world, and reinforce its themes, and are intriguing almost with exception; a testament to Cardboard Computer’s writing.
Although framed as a ghost story, Kentucky Route Zero deals with very serious, relevant issues. While it’s interpretation of point-and-click mechanics and Southern aesthetics are impressive in their own right, what I like most about the game is that it has something to say. Kentucky Route Zero uses it’s setting to explore a story that deserves to be told. And, with three more acts on the way, I am more than willing to listen.
L.A. Game Space
The L.A. Game Space is a proposed non-profit center for video game play, creation, study and exhibition. To help get the space up and running, its directors Daniel Rehn and Adam Robezzoli produced an experimental game pack with over 30 independent game developers, and offered it to backers of their Kickstarter campaign. Of the fifteen plus quality games, three stand out as highlights; Perfect Stride, from The Arcane Kids, Depth, from Vince McKelvie, and Alphabet, from Keita Takahashi and Adam Saltsman.
Alphabet only takes around 10 to 15 minutes to race through, across ten obstacle courses. You control the alphabet soup-like characters by holding down the corresponding key on the keyboard, and releasing it to jump. The mechanics are incredibly simple, which leaves room for dynamics that become more and more complicated as more letters and obstacles are thrown into the mix.
While fun alone, Alphabet is best enjoyed with another player. Frantically trying to find and hit the appropriate keys becomes hilariously hectic, as the music childishly recites the letters of the alphabet, confusing your attempts to communicate with your partner. The entire game is unified by this silliness, with a bright, pastel colour palette, jumping, cheering characters and a core experience of mashing buttons while yelling at someone else. If you’re looking for a fun, frantic letter-racer, look no further than Alphabet.
If you’re after something more cerebral however, take a look at Depth. The game immediately drops you into a pseudo-title screen that brilliantly introduces you to what is easily the most innovative mechanic of the past few years. Puzzles are solved using your own depth perception, and as such often requires foresight and a bit of trial-and-error. The game is really good at introducing and teaching you new mechanics, and shares more than a passing similarity to Valve’s Portal, in both setting and structure. Like that game, or more recently A Link Between Worlds on 3DS, Depth forces you to view environments in a new light, so you’re always looking for a gap to bridge or platform to create.
The puzzles increase in difficulty, eventually becoming truly devious, especially in the last quarter of the game, where the difficulty curve rises dramatically, deterring all but the most hardcore puzzle fans. The restricted colour palette and slow, thudding score ensure that your mental focus remains on puzzle solving, but the visuals overall are a bit on the rough side. Although its ideas and design are more than enough to carry it, a bit more visual feedback would be appreciated, such as an indication on which cubes will float or sink that doesn’t rely on similar shades of colour, as well as some kind of audio cue that lava or lasers are near. Overall though, Depth is an engaging, challenging, and fresh puzzle game.
The third game Perfect Stride, which begins in a darkened apartment with a simple question; “Where the eff are my effing cigarettes?” A door opens and you fall down; the screen explodes with static colour and sound, and thundering phrases invade your eyeballs. A series of quick tutorial stages introduce you to the unusual control scheme, where movement and speed are tied to camera movement. This can be confusing at first, but really adds to the sense of energy and speed once you get used to it. With this control scheme, your view of the world is as frantic and fragmented as the hard-edged polygon sculptures and vibrant, pixelated textures that inhabit it. The landscape seems to be a monument to early web and 3D design, where everything is loudly, obnoxiously trying to get your attention, until it all blurs together in a mess of over-saturation and trashy typefaces. Even the loud, electro soundtrack begins with the classic Windows start-up sound, and exists as an element of the game that lives beyond itself, as a Soundcloud playlist.
Perfect Stride shares a lot in common with The Arcane Kid’s breakout game, Zineth, the most important of which, is a ‘rewind’ mechanic, which allows you to reverse the game as you see fit. This comes in handy when you “eat it”, or in encouraging the collection of pyramids in dangerous or hard to reach places. The game is equal parts skateboarding and exploration; like exploit hunting in Quake and Counter Strike, it’s more about finding out how far you can push the game than doing kick-flips. Similar to games like Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, once you’ve mastered the controls, the sense of movement, speed and flow is unparalleled. This version of Perfect Stride is still in development, but I can’t wait to play the final game.
The L.A. Game Space is a truly exciting idea, not only because of it’s focus on collaboration and inclusion, but also for the kind of games that it will inevitably produce. You can purchase the experimental game pack that contains Alphabet, Depth and Perfect Stride, along with many, many others, from gamepacks.net, for fifteen dollars. If you do pick it up, be sure to also check out Inputting and Sunshine, but every one of the games has something interesting to offer. If you’re interested in the experimental, abstract, or unusual, I highly recommend checking it out.
Whenever a friend, colleague, or stranger at a party asks me why I love video games, I tell them to play The Chinese Room’s Dear Esther. Best described as a virtual environment, Dear Esther bridges literature and video games, and invites gamers and non-gamers alike into it’s world with an abstract narrative, stunning environments and non-demanding mechanics.
Dear Esther is divided into four chapters, and takes around one hour to complete overall. You begin your journey by a dilapidated lighthouse, and spend the game carving a path through rocky beaches, abandoned farmsteads and the cavernous innards of the island itself. Accompanying you are disembodied readings of letters to the eponymous Esther, blending accounts of the island’s history with the anguished musings of it’s former inhabitants.
Although it presents a somewhat cohesive narrative, Dear Esther is a largely abstract affair. I personally found a lot of enjoyment in forming my own interpretation of the game’s meaning, but I can certainly see why some may see it as pretentious. The writing is heavy on metaphor and contradiction, and for players less interested in digging through multiple playthroughs, Dear Esther is probably too ambiguous to be enjoyed. Essentially, if you enjoy this type of game, Dear Esther is a must-buy; if you can’t stand them though, it should probably be avoided at all costs.
If the former doesn’t phase you though, Dear Esther provides a satisfying, if a rather lonely experience. Evidence of human habitation is everywhere, but every site is long abandoned and creepy as all hell. More frightening are the ghostly silhouettes that can be spotted watching you from afar. They are never explained or even referenced by the game’s main plot, which only adds to their mystique. Although certainly a rendering shorthand, even the island’s plant life seems to watch you. This feeling of being watched is reinforced through a strong repetition of eye imagery, particularily in the game’s cave section.
This part of the island is astoundingly beautiful, and it’s almost worth picking up the game to play through alone. Thousands of stalactites reach down from the ceiling as you make your way through impressive rock formations and deep pools of clear water. The expert lighting stunningly illuminates the dark walls with bioluminescent moss and beams of moonlight penetrate from above. This attention to detail extends to the surface environments as well; in fact I would happily place them among the greatest I’ve ever seen in gaming. The island don’t feel like a video game level, it feels like a real place.
Although navigating the island does feel natural, Dear Esther is highly linear. You can still walk off cliffs and drown yourself, but for the most part you’ll be following a single path. Even the most basic actions, such as crouching and using a flashlight are automated, positioning you to simply walk and absorb. This can be enhanced with a dark room and headphones to allow yourself to fall fully into Dear Esther’s world.
A lot has been said of Dear Esther’s status as a piece of media. While some are hesitant to let it into the ‘video game club’, others argue that it doesn’t really matter; unless the only medium you can glean any enjoyment out of is video games, who cares what you want to call it, as long as you enjoy it. I find myself firmly in the second group. Dear Esther can be super restrictive sure, but I believe it pushes games in a more refined, interesting direction, and is more than worth checking out.
The Witcher Series
The Poland of today is very different to the Poland of 30 years ago. Under the communist rule that had gripped the country since World War II, food was scarce and travel was a fantasy. But then, in the late 1980's, something miraculous happened. After a wave of revolution, Poland held its first democratic election. Almost overnight, Poles could travel beyond eastern Europe, eat well, and a whole world of culture opened up before them, including, video games. The new free-market economy allowed many to start new businesses. Two such entrepreneurs, Marcin Iwinski and Mikhal Kicinski, formed a company called CD Projekt, or, CD Project. The pair sold pirated games in Warsaw marketplaces, taking advantage of Poland's lack of copyright law. When these were eventually introduced, the pair focused on localising and distributing Western games to small stores. They caught the attention of BioWare, who entrusted them with the PC port of Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance, after CD Projekt sold 18,000 copies of the original game, a massive number at the time. Unfortunately the primary developer, Interplay, went broke halfway through development. With a half-coded game and no IP to furnish it, CD Projekt began to look for an alternative licence to complete their game.
They approached Andree Sapowski, who had found massive success with his Wiedzmin novels during the 1980’s and 90’s. Wiedzmin was first submitted as a short story to a science fiction and fantasy magazine. Roughly translated to ‘The Hexer’, the books chronicled the adventures of Geralt, a white-haired monster slayer. He adventured through the Northern Kingdoms of Aedirn, Kaedwen, Rivia, Redania, and Temeria with his horse Roach and his lover, Yennefer. CD Projekt chose the licence for its modern, mature themes, and desired to introduce the beloved lore to Western audiences. On a more personal level, the developers saw a lot of their own nation’s history in The Hexer. The Northern Kingdoms are constantly beset by violence from neighbouring countries, much like Poland was for most of the 20th century.
In 2002, CD Projekt RED was founded as a subsidiary of CD Projekt, to facilitate the development of their first independent project. This however, was not the first attempt at a Hexer game. A company called Metropolis, now-defunct, worked on an adaptation of the books over 1996 and ’97. With two other games in development, Metropolis simply couldn’t keep up, and the project was cancelled a few years later. Although there are similarities between this prototype and the series we know today, the main contribution from Metropolis was the name. With free-reign over the English translation, Metropolis decided to call their game, The Witcher. 11 years, 100 developers, and just over 5 million dollars later, CD Projekt RED finally released The Witcher to the world.
Rather than re-adapting the books, CD Projekt RED decided to instead build on the existing lore to tell their own original story. This is where I come in. I first saw The Witcher in a PC gaming magazine a year or so after it was released. I remember it looking so different at the time- before Game of Thrones, dark, gritty fantasy was a real novelty. The game began near the winter stronghold of Kaer Mohren. Geralt wakes up in a nearby field, stripped of his memories, and is found and carried to the castle. Here we are introduced to the witchers: genetically modified warriors who hunt monsters, brew potions, and never seem to sleep. These narrative considerations found their way into the gameplay. Players could collect ingredients along their journey, and use them to brew potions that would give enhanced gameplay abilities. Geralt is also a master swordsman, which meant balancing strong, fast, and group fighting styles. Just like in the books, he carries both a steel and silver sword, to combat humans and monsters respectively. Most combat encounters in the game required both careful planning and sharp reflexes, jumping between different fighting stances for each enemy. The combat mechanics were deceptively simple; the player simply clicked when prompted to instigate a combo. But because of the difficulty, players had to carefully consider alchemy, swordplay, and magic to succeed.
The game was set in and around the city of Vizima, capital of Temeria. Environment designs ranged from drab, muddy cities, to wide golden fields, to calm lakes. Geralt met a series of charming characters in his journey, including two old friends; the hardened dwarf Zoltan, and Dandelion, the bard with a habit of getting in trouble. The game also introduced Triss Merigold, a sorcerous with wide-ranging political influence. Two factions, the Scoia'Tael and Order of the Flaming Rose, clashed throughout the narrative. Geralt eventually had to pick a side, using a moral choice system that relied on the player's political and personal ideologies, rather than a binary good and evil system.
Lifting themes from the novels, The Witcher featured a unique take on a fantasy world. It subverted traditional fantasy tropes, and much like the graphic novel Watchmen, traced the impact of the mystical in an otherwise mundane setting. More grounded themes were present as well: elves and dwarves were the victims of racial abuse and violence, and diplomacy played a large role in the narrative and dialogue. Geralt had to navigate the murky world of Viziman politics, trying to avoid offending the wrong person at the wrong time. He also met some highly influential characters, and at the end of his journey, was personally rewarded by King Foltest himself. As Geralt turned his back however, an assassination attempt takes place. With lightning reflexes, Geralt slays the would-be assassin, and pulls down his mask, revealing the eyes of witcher.
Despite a troubled development cycle, The Witcher was well received and has sold over 6 million copies to date. A year after launch, CD Projekt RED released an enhanced edition, which polished the original and added two short adventures. This attitude would establish a business model that persists to this day- content patches and fixes for all CD Projekt RED’s games have been free since, and the company maintains a fierce anti-DRM policy. Fans, although grateful for the update, were keen to see where Geralt’s adventures would take them next. After years of rumors and gameplay leaks, all was revealed in September of 2009, when CD Project RED announced The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings.
Abandoning the Aurora engine that powered the first game, the sequel instead utilized the all-new REDengine. The difference was immediately noticeable. Character models were more emotive, combat animations more varied and fluid, and the environments were full of detail and colour. The engine afforded a completely different game structure as well, with dramatically divergent paths throughout the games main quest.
Gameplay was also completely revamped. The developers replaced the rhythmic combat of the first game with a more natural system that emphasised light and heavy attacks, dodging, parrying, and magic. Small ranged weapons and traps were also thrown into the mix, and meditation was no longer restricted to fire-pits. Finally, sections of the game enabled Geralt to sneak past enemies, or take them out in silence.
The plot of the Witcher 2 picked up a few months after the first game. Geralt, now Foltest’s personal guard, escorted the king through an assault on a rebel-held castle. Just when things seem to be going smoothly, a wild dragon appears out of nowhere, causing the group to desperately seek safety. In the chaos, the king is murdered by a mysterious witcher, and Geralt is arrested for the murder. After a detailed explanation, he is freed from prison by the leader of the King’s special guard, Vernon Roche, and sets out to find and capture the real assassin. Along the way, he reunites with Triss, Zoltan, and Dandelion, and continues to uncover more of his memories.
Geralt’s quest takes him along the Pontar river, which borders the kingdoms of Temeria, Kaedwyn and Aedern. He explores three key locations: the forested town of Flotsam, the dwarven city of Vergen, and the half-ruined Loc Muinne. Environments were much more open than before, and featured plenty of interesting side-quests. The art direction in particular was stunning, and really, there’s nothing else like it. The Witcher 2 also featured great boss fights that required not only careful planning, but sharp concentration. The moral choices of the first game returned, forcing players to think on their feet, and make decisions that affected the shape of the narrative from that point on, leading to 16 distinct endings.
As well as its own self-contained plot, The Witcher 2 answered some long-held questions fans had since the beginning of the trilogy. It was revealed the Geralt lost his memories in the presence of the Wild Hunt, a group of extra-dimensional hunters. His lover, Yennefer, had been kidnapped by them shortly after Geralt has been killed and revived by his adopted daughter Ciri. He was slaughtered protecting non-humans from an angry mob in the city of Rivia. Geralt managed to escape soon after catching up with the Wild Hunt, collapsing in a field near Kaer Morhen, leading to the events of the first game. The Witcher 2 ends just as an army from the nearby nation of Nilfgaard begins to invade the Northern Kingdoms, and Geralt sets out to find Yennefer.
The Witcher 2 was also met with high praise, and was re-released in an enhanced edition on the Xbox 360 a year later. It was avaliable both through Steam and CD Projekt RED’s other major contribution to the industry- GOG.com. It’s hard to overstate just how influential both the series and its developer have had both on the Polish gaming industry. Where young Poles once saved up all their pocket money to buy a pirated floppy disk, they now aspire to work with one of the world’s leading developers. For me, The Witcher has always had a special place on my gaming shelf. With strong art direction, narrative design, and respect for its lore, I can’t help but admire the journey of both Geralt, and CD Projekt RED. The games are dark, dense, and satisfying, and with The Witcher 3 on the horizon, it looks like things are only going to get better.
These days, many games build their narratives upon an existing lore. Titles like The Elder Scrolls present a fictional history through in-game books and dialogue, and something like World of Warcraft intertwines its quest design with an ever-evolving continuity of events. What's less common though, is a game built upon real-world folklore. This simple fact is what makes Upper One Games' Never Alone so immediately special.
Developed in collaboration with a Native Alaskan support group, Never Alone re-tells a traditional folktale from the region. The game is a co-operative platformer structured around navigation and environmental puzzles. You play as Nuna, a young native Alaskan girl who sets out to uncover the source of an endless blizzard, which rages through the icy fields and villages of her homeland. Nuna, along with her arctic fox companion, is considerably weaker compared to the various enemies and obstacles she'll face, which means adapting to the games hazards, rather than mastering them. This makes for some rather novel level and encounter design, which requires you to outsmart and ou-trun enemies. In such a harsh environment, the only way to survive is to co-operate.
Like most co-operative game design, Nuna and The Fox each have their own set of unique abilities, which they must use in conjunction with one another, in order to move forward. Nuna can swing on ropes, push and pull objects, and clear the way forward with a slingshot-like weapon. The Fox can fit into tight spaces, scamper up vertical surfaces and wall jump, and guide friendly spirits to create platforms. Another element you'll have to co-operate with is the blizzard itself. By carefully timing jumps, you can use gusts of wind to launch yourself across otherwise impossible gaps. However, that same wind can send you flying backwards, potentially to your doom, if you're not careful. Although the game is clearly designed for two players, it can be completed solo, as many of the A.I. issues found immediately after release appear to have been cleared up. Although the puzzles are quite simple and the movement a bit slow and heavy, Never Alone remains an enjoyable experience; especially for parents and young children. Older players will still be able to appreciate the atmosphere and craftsmanship, with an attention to detail that reflects the game's narrative and thematic heritage at every level.
The game is set in rugged Alaska, with its majestic tundras, misty forests, and floating ice caps. The environments are both dangerous and stunning, an aesthetic which is strengthened by fantastic sound and music design. Gusts of wind for example just feel so powerful, and the musical score pairs well with the spectacle of the visual elements. Character design is also extremely strong, especially through animation. Nuna's facial expressions are particularly impressive, and the way she turns her head to gaze at elements in the foreground and background really sell her character. The animation also serves to establish the bond between the two main characters, which is playful in cutscenes and powerful during gameplay. The strong art direction extends to exposition sequences, which use traditional Alaskan art to present important sections of the original folktale.
Overall, this is quite a dramatic departure from the typical fantasy tropes which dominate video game storytelling. As well as having a direct influence on the setting and plot, cultural insight videos can be collected, which discuss everything from the importance of stories, to the characters and folklore in the game, to interviews with people who have had similar experiences to Nuna, to the effect of global warming on their culture and way of life. These are completely optional, but really worth watching. Not only are they fascinating and well-produced, but they deepen your understanding of the game itself. The way the developers have approach this tale is similar to something like The X-Files, which crafted entertaining stories around American folktales and urban legends, but also sought to preserve certain cultural ideas which might have otherwise disappeared from the world. You can tell the developers deeply respect this culture and story they have been tasked with preserving. The Native title of the game is displayed before the English title on the main menu, for example. The game was written and narrated by genuine community members, and the cultural insight videos feature those same people telling their own stories. It all points to a game which was made to share first, make money second. This same concept of sharing envelopes the mechanics as well, for you are not better than or entitled to anything else in the environments. You are one part of a much larger whole, which means you must co-operate to survive, let alone succeed.
I can't stress enough how important it is that this game lets the people speak for themselves. This spirit of sharing and co-operation is really where Never Alone shines, not only in its mechanics and narrative, but also in the collaboration that has occurred between storyteller, developer, and us, as players. It really is an exciting idea, and I hope to see more of it soon.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
The Witcher 3 is a hard game to review. First of all, it's absolutely gigantic: even rushing through the main story essentially amounts to a short guided tour of the Northern Kingdoms; a light introduction to each region, but not much else. It's important for me to mention this, because there really is so much here that it's hard to discuss everything this game has to offer in the time I've been given to play it. Furthermore, I'm almost as passionate about these games as the developers themselves; a passion which that shines through the technical shortcomings and near-impenetrable lore of the first two games. But that's all in past: The Witcher 3 has arrived as the flagship open-world whatever-other-buzzwords-you like next-gen title. Impressively, this passion and attention to detail have now been paired with an accessible plot, nuanced crafting, levelling, and upgrade systems, and one of the more stunning virtual worlds I've had the pleasure of exploring.
And what a massive world it is. Like any open-world game, the explorable regions of Velen, Novigrad, and the Skellige Isles really are the stars of The Witcher 3. Despite the marketing hype, the game is more structurally similar to the first two Witcher games than a traditional open-world, as the map is divided into several distinct sub-zones, each with their own storylines, politics and characters. So although the world isn't completely open, what is there has been lovingly crafted and considered. The Northern Kingdoms have been conquered, and now fall under the banner of the Southern land of Nilfgaard. The rich and poor alike desperately try to align themselves in the new political landscape, and bloodthirsty monsters creep onto the smouldering battlefields from their mountains, caves and forests. As soon as you set foot in the gentle groves of White Orchard, you'll get a real sense of these conflicts, and the politics that have shaped this world, even if you're completely new to the series. Children are chastised for singing simple songs which discredit the new emperor, and resistance to the Nilfgaardian regime can be found in everything from community noticeboards to the decor of country inn. CD Projekt have put a great deal of love and attention into the natural environments as well; trees and grass constantly shift and bend in the wind, which can range from a gentle breeze to powerful gusts. The lighting in particular is outstanding; easily the best I've ever seen in a video game. From the dramatic sunbeams of a setting sun, to the soft moonlight illuminating the forests and fields by night, the way it paints and sculpts the world is quite incredible. Combined with the wind and weather effects, the world feels wild, dynamic, and dangerous. It's a thrilling world to explore as well, due to a strong art direction that makes for some really clever set dressing; like an old ruin in the middle of a lake, or a mysterious forest trail. This sense of composition and narrative have always been a key part of CD Projekt's environment design, and it's great to see that philosophy return here. Although most of the game shares environments with the first Witcher title, the Skillege Isles are as different to the previous spaces as they could be, and are some of the most delightfully subtle and restrained virtual landspaces I've visited.
Of course, even the most stunning open world isn't going to be much without something to fill it, and throughout your playthrough, you'll find yourself doing side-quests, crafting gear, experimenting with potions, hunting for treasure, playing card games, navigating dialogue options and of course, hunting monsters. The design, animation, and sound effects these creatures exhibit totally grounds them in the world they inhabit; as pests, wild beasts, and even as the subject of local fairy tales. More often than not you'll find yourself having to sift through local superstitions, rumors and hearsay to determine which species of monster you'll be dealing with; or even if there's one involved at all. A jealous lover is just as likely to be the culprit as a Wraith or Drowner. Your investigation will usually lead you to the site of a recent attack, where you hunt around for clues using your 'Witcher senses'; a kind of detective mode, eagle vision mechanic which highlights pertinent clues in the environment. These sections of the game are relatively open compared to the aforementioned examples, but are still a little artificial, as Geralt can only 'see' certain clues when the designer wants you to.
This time around, you'll find your journal will be an invaluable monster-hunting tool. With it, you'll soon be able to 'read' the landscape, assessing danger and spotting useful alchemy ingredients. Not to sound too much like a marketing hook, but it really does add to the feeling of being a witcher, which is enhanced by engaging wholeheartedly with the various systems the game throws at you. Nothing beats the careful research, planning, skill and ultimate rush of defeating a particularly tough monster. This is never as easy as simply swinging your sword either; each monster has specific strengths and weaknesses detailed in their bestiary entry. This section of the journal not only tells you which spells, potions, bombs and oils are effective against a particular monster, but the written description will often give you clues as to what time of day you're most likely to spot one, or a useful strategy for defeating it. It's worth bumping up the difficulty if you don't plan on rushing through the game as well, as it will often force you to make some inspired strategic choices, such as making wide attack sweeps on horseback or depleting an enemies stamina bar to make their dodging and blocking less effective. This is a rare game where a high difficulty adds to the experience, rather than pads it.
The Witcher 3 is balanced well even if you don't make the jump to the higher difficulties, and can still provide a meaningful challenge. Combat requires careful preparation through both alchemy and crafting, as well as sharp timing, blocking, and dodging during a fight. There are some neat tweaks here to make combat more enjoyable as well, such as the way Geralt will rotate around an enemy, or how he will automatically draw the correct sword for the type of enemy he's facing. Each monster has also been carefully designed with a separate strategy in mind. Like previous games, Geralt's combat prowess can be improved by levelling up, applying mutagens, and upgrading your weapons through blacksmithing and collecting glyphs. It's in these upgrade systems that the game's longevity really becomes apparent. It's just as easy to get gleefully lost gathering ingredients, crafting armour and finding that one perfect levelling path, as it is exploring the world or hunting monsters. As enjoyable as the game is though, there are some issues. I encountered a couple of cutscenes without sound, one of them pretty important, as well as jittery doors and objects, and some broken escort quests. A lot of these problems are slowly being cleaned up by CD Projekt's excellent post-launch support though, so don't agonise over it too much. There are also some tired fantasy tropes that the game stubbornly holds on to though, including an abundance of cockney accents and Caucasian faces. If this is a problem for you, it is something to be aware of. Just before released, the game was slammed for the way it treats women; accusations which are mostly unfounded in my opinion. There are no quota-filling 'strong' women in The Witcher 3; there are complicated, messy, brave, manipulative, cherry, grim, noble people. There are victims andaggressors. From day one, The Witcher has depicted a world which is anything but black-and-white, and it's a mistake to try to force it into that binary. The lack of people of colour is a problem, but there are some really respectful, mature moments peppered throughout, dealing with homosexuality, gender fluidity, and race relations. As one of the few mainstream games actually engaging with these issues, The Witcher 3 should be commended, not condemned.
I'll admit, I so feel slightly uncomfortable just shovelling praise on a video game like this, but I really do believe that The Witcher 3 deserves most of it. It's a complicated, dangerous, and massive experience. Despite a few technical issues, it remains a world you can completely lose yourself in, whether it's in the plot, quest design, spectacular environments and lighting, or its various combat and upgrade systems. Just when you think you've got a handle on The Witcher 3, it shows you something or somewhere totally new, opening up even more than you thought it could, and showing you just how little you actually know about it. It draws you completely into it's world; one that you'll be more than happy to get lost in.
In a dimly-lit police station, a young woman joyfully sings about drowning her sister. Lines of static cross the screen as she strums her guitar. Suddenly, you spot something. Right as she says the word "sister", she smiles. It could be something, it could be nothing. You type the word "sister" into the search bar, and a few new videos show up. You're getting closer, you can feel it. The story before you is starting to make sense. But this isn't your story. This is Her Story.
Released earlier this year for PC, Mac, and iOS, Her Story is an interactive detective game from the designer of Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, easily one of the most under-appreciated games of recent memory. It's a unique interpretation of point-and click puzzle games, where you play as an anonymous user working their way through an archaic police video database, wading through the events that led up to a mid-90s murder. You do this by putting key words and phrases into a search engine, which brings up a series of police interview tapes, which contain that word or phrase. As you watch through them, you'll start to form a picture in your mind of the preceding events, suspects, and motives of the people involved. It's like a large, intricate jigsaw puzzle; you slowly put it together piece by piece, illuminating the larger picture as you go.
At first it's disorienting, jumping between sombre confessions and happy recollections, but there are a few basic features which make piecing together the central mystery a little easier, including the ability to tag clips and save them to a personal library. The interface overall is still clunky and a little frustrating, but this can be attributed to the time period, which puts an emotional barrier between you and the woman in the videos. Without direct interaction, it's hard to empathise with her, and therefore easier to take a colder, more analytical stance on her statements. It's a pretty unique experience, and it's this novelty that is Her Story's strongest suite. As a video game, trawling through clunky technology and static videos can hardly be called fun, but the experience of sorting through this mystery, especially when bringing in elements outside of the game itself, positions it as a fairly interesting experiment.
If I were to be reductionist, this is essentially a hypertext novel in the guise of an interactive film, in that there is a continuous plot in which each part of the narrative is accessible from any other part of that narrative, as long as you know the proper navigation protocols. In this instance, those protocols are the names and events which are causally mentioned during the interviews, which allow you to being to form your own personal timeline of the events presented to you. There is a lot to keep track of, so it's actually quite useful to keep a physical pen and paper handy, so you can keep track of the various relationships, events, and pieces of information involved in this tale. This intersection of physical note-taking and virtual video investigation really is a unique dynamic, and gives the whole experience a really novel 'amateur detective' vibe. Although it's set over 20 years ago, Her Story also utilises modern internet culture in some really interesting ways, by encouraging message board discussion and theorising between friends to help solve the central mystery. By doing this, Her Story builds an experience outside of itself, which really adds to its longevity and engagement.
The way the game presents itself also builds on this idea. Aside from a brief title menu, every element of the game is contained within the virtual space itself. Tutorials are Notepad files, and the options menu is presented as a system preferences application, for example. Essentially, you're using a computer, to play a game, about someone using a computer. This allows for a lot of one-to-one interactions which just feel really satisfying, in the same way that hacking into email accounts in the original Deus Ex did. While its Triple-A contemporaries continue to struggle from this illusory notion of 'realism', Her Story has no trouble making you feel like the character you're playing, at least mechanically. This also means that Her Story's narrative is directly tied to your in-game actions. Plot twists are dished out at your own pace, in the form of new information about the couple, their relationships, and their lives. One simple statement is enough to blow the case wide open, or it could be missed entirely, and this is essentially Her Story's divisive point. You have to workfor the story here. There are no big cutscene reveals or easy answers, and the story is really all Her Story has to offer. This reliance on player involvement will draw some players in, but it will also turn plenty away. There's not even a definitive ending; the game simply asks you if you're done, and then the credits roll. But that's kind of the point. The plot you form in your head isn't necessarily the correct one. Just like in life, it's one subjective possibility in a messy collection of conflicting motivations, relationships, events, and people.
Finally, uncovering this plot is done through an interface which ties setting and mechanics together in a really interesting way. Working your way through the database, you can see subtle reflections on the screen, as well as hear the buzzing of fluorescent lights, the humming of the computer, the hum of some other machinery, and a tapping of the keyboard when you type. It's a really fascinating sound design, and pairs with the sounds of your own computer running, and keyboard tapping. The interface too justifies the jarring feel of video clips, moods, and outfits, but can be a little frustrating. There's just a few too many forced design decisions that restrict your navigation and uncovering of the story in some rather obvious ways, like the way that only five clips can be displayed at any one time. However, the game's attitude towards letting you find your own path really is quite admirable, as there's no Zelda-like 'puzzle-solved' chime when you find an important clip. It's presents a story, disjointed and broken, and allows you to make your own mistakes, and revel in your own victories.
They say history is determined by the victor. But the history behind Her Story won't be determined by anyone except you. It's central mystery has that rare quality of making you think about it outside of your play time, and provides a unique experience that is hard to find anywhere else. Finding out what happened in that dark period during 1994 is easy enough. The real challenge, as always, is finding out why it happened.
When programming a video games artificial intelligence, you typically work backwards. You start with an all-seeing, all-powerful being, which has no issue with locating, moving towards, and eliminating the player, where they may be. Then you start to program in stupidity; you give it a limited range of vision and hearing, and make it unable to see through walls or behind cover. The trick to a good stealth game is A.I. which is smart enough to be believable, dumb enough to be beatable. With his new game Volume, Mike Bithell digs deep into the genre, breaking it down to its most basic elements, and mixes in his trademark humour, and heart.
Like his previous effort, Thomas Was Alone, Volume starts basic, slowly drip-feeding you new abilities, enemies, obstacles, and gadgets, as you move through a series of increasingly difficult challenges. It worked great in Thomas, and not much has changed here. The obvious comparison, both structurally and visually, is Metal Gear Solids V.R. training missions. New ideas are introduced thick and fast, and this mechanical progression is fairly transparent, with the levels following a basic, repeating loop: a new mechanic is introduced, that mechanic is presented in conjunction with an already-introduced mechanic, and then your mastery of that new mechanic is tested, in a more challenging situation. It's a pretty cut-and-dry design philosophy; more like a puzzle game in its delivery of new ideas and dynamics than a traditional stealth game, despite its attempt at a grandiose plot. This design does lack a certain subtlety, and it feels like a less strict and predictable structure would have made for a more natural, and overall enjoyable game.
That being said, there are some genuinely well-designed levels sprinkled throughout the game, which are really fun to play through, forcing you to think in new ways about your abilities, toolset, and the behaviours of enemies. These make the rest of the game worth slogging through, even if they are few and far between. The core loop of Volume is pretty repetitive, as it basically just entails avoiding guards, collecting gems, and reaching a small square of light to complete the level. The guards are dumb, the gems are barely justified within the logic of the game, and the environments are blocky, jagged, and unnatural- and Bithell is well aware of this. There are plenty of jokes and the expense of the stealth genre, game design practices, and internet culture to be found here. In Thomas Was Alone, this was mostly enjoyable. Bithell was a fresh new voice, not afraid to joke fun at his peers. But Volume refuses to turn that humorous gaze on itself, and comes off as cynical, and a little holier-than-thou. If you're going to constantly crack jokes and the mechanics, clichés, and design motifs of an entire genre, you better make damn sure your own interpretation of those elements is air tight. Unfortunatley for Volume, it's far from it.
I understand that it's all meant to be harmless fun, but pointing out that a level designer has used a certain element of the environment to draw your attention isn't really the height of wit- it's just, part of level design. The problem is not that Volume makes all these jokes or observation, it's that it suffers from the exact same issues it makes fun of. You know what would be better than having shoddy guard A.I. just so you can make fun of shoddy guard A.I.? Not having shoddy guard A.I.! Thankfully, it's not all bad. On the whole, the mechanics are engaging, and the way that Bithell weaves the gadgets in with the rest of the experience makes for some really interesting and fun dynamics. There are some minor annoyances with these toys however, including a bizarre cool down which occurs whenever you pick on up, which totally breaks the flow of gameplay, but overall they add some much-needed spice to an otherwise rigid structure.
As well as new gadgets, abilities, and environmental obstacles, new enemy types are frequently thrown into the mix, which provides some neat variety. They don't really change the core gameplay loop in any major way, but they do make you re-think the way you approach situations, and how you utilise the environment. For instance, there are enemies which can spot you from far away but are slow to attack, which forces you to duck down as you move towards them, or enemies with a full circle of awareness, which force you to quickly move around them. These lines of sight, made bold and obvious, are a key part of Volume's aesthetic of clarity. They break down the stealth genre into what it really is: recognising patterns, exploiting the slow, deliberate nature of the enemies movement, and using the environment to your advantage. This game features stealth clichés both to make fun of them, and to encourage you to think about them in new ways. It doesn't quite reach the level of meta-gameplay you can tell the developers were hoping for, but there is room for mastery here. The more you engage with the relatively simple, repeating gameplay loops, the more you'll be distracting guards, using gadgets, and snapping up gems without skipping a beat.
The large bold sight lines and enemy movements also form a large part of Volume's visual appeal. The patterns and shapes that form when these lines of sight overlap and get blocked by the environment are fascinating, and form another rearranging of some long-established elements of the stealth genre. An unfortunate exception to this, is the shadows. What could have been another pleasing visual element becomes just some soft, blurry smudges on the ground, which subtly support the bold visual design, rather than form an important part of it. Overall though, Volume features a super-interesting aesthetic, with simple colours, shapes, and map layouts repeating across levels to highlight where a certain gadget or strategy might be useful. The way levels shift and form when you enter them, or break apart slightly when you make a sound, really gives this game a unique visual flavour, which goes beyond the bland, minimalist style many games choose to adopt. Unfortunatley, the same can't be said for the games audio.
David Housden returns to score the game after his excellent work on Thomas Was Alone, and that particular influence carries over to this project as a soft, contemplative ambience. However, when you get caught, the game absolutely blares this abrupt music at you, which is totally at odds with the rest of the score. It's just way too loud, and really takes you out of it. The other aspect of the audio, the voice acting, is also a bit under-par. Danny Wallace turns in another great performance as your A.I. companion, but YouTuber Charlie McDonnell, as lead character Rob, gives the minimum amount of emotion and charisma as he can get away with, and comes off as flat, bored, and disinterested. The conversations between Rob and the A.I. occur during general gameplay, and instead of keeping things moving, as the voice over did in Thomas Was Alone, they go on for so long that it's possible to beat the level before they finish yapping, especially when pausing the game, viewing a tip, and getting seen restarts the current line of dialogue all over. The story behind these pieces of dialogue is also a little lacklustre. I didn't really have any idea what was going on until quite late into the game. There's mission briefs before each level which out of context make little sense, as well as conversations between Rob and the games antagonist, Guy Gisborne, which deal with some rather undercooked references to wealth, power, class, and the internet era. It's still a compelling game, but more for its mechanics and gameplay systems than its attempt at a modern day Robin Hood fable.
Volume is about as video gamey as a video game can get. Guards stare blankly at walls without moving, floating gems litter the obstacle courses that make up the single player missions, and the levels are blocky, rigid, and exist purely to test and challenge your knowledge of the mechanics, nothing more. Taken as such, Volume is a fun stealth game that plays with its genre in some really interesting ways, and isn't afraid to crack a joke or two along the way. Taken as the epic tale of corruption, greed, and justice that the developers so obviously want it to be however, it does fall a little flat. While not quite reaching the heights of its predecessor, Volume nonetheless remains a vibrant and exciting stealth game, and is certainly worth a look.
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Metal Gear Solid V
Metal Gear Solid is a game of contradictions. Hyper-real military jargon is paired with campy dialogue, and incredibly linear levels allow for incredibly non-linear dynamics. It's a series which simultaneously explores and negates the interactive properties of video games, constantly pushing what is possible, and what is acceptable. Now, the latest, and possibly last entry in the Metal Gear Solid series, presents perhaps the greatest contradiction of all. As the final installment in a nearly thirty-year franchise, Metal Gear Solid V somehow feels like the beginning of a completely new one.
The game slots into the timeline between 2010's Peace Walker, and 1987's Metal Gear, and sees the legendary soldier Big Boss, father to future series protagonist Solid Snake, sent on a rescue mission to recover two of his soldiers from enemy hands. After doing a bunch of sneaking, ramen-eating, and human beehive, freaky lizard-man, elderly sniper, ghost, angry space man, former mentor, and giant robot-fighting, Big Boss is well on his way to becoming the 8-bit cartoon villain we saw in the original NES title. Being the final link in the Metal Gear Solid chain isn't an easy title to live up to, and unfortunatley this sequel baggage drags the game down a little. It's hard to imagine Kojima had this grand vision in mind while working on the original games back in the eighties, so it's forgivable that not every single plot thread is tied up nicely. But the plot here almost feels like a side story, rather than a vital chunk of the Metal Gear continuity. The tone has shifted as well; the plot takes itself very seriously and relegates much of the background information and exposition to optional cassette tapes. No doubt this will be a positive for the many people tired of sitting through hours of codec conversations, but it leaves the plot and characters without any personality or life. Kiefer Sutherland's performance as Snake is dry and minimal, which fits the state of the character, but it doesn't hold a candle to the range and charisma of David Hayter. It has some interesting things to say about colonialism, language, and as usual, war and nuclear weapons, but these themes are almost on the periphery, as the main plot is concerned with the destructive, all-consuming, and let's face it, a little overplayed, theme of revenge.
Fortunately, the game more than makes up for its disappointing plot in almost every other way. Ground Zeroes, sold separately, forms the first part of Metal Gear Solid V, and serves as an excellent introduction to the game. It's visually distinct from the rest of the missions, and provides you with just enough of a sandbox to experiment with the basic mechanics, without getting overwhelmed. It's a wise design choice, given how much of the basic control scheme has changed since Snake's last outing. He can now sprint and dive, and has access to a reflect mode which occurs when you're spotted, giving you a chance to eliminate the offending solider before they can raise the alarm. It's an incredibly well-realised mechanic, and keeps things challenging without slowing down the flow of gameplay by forcing you to hide and wait for an 'alert' timer to count down. Another important tool introduced in Ground Zeroes is the binoculars, which were an optional extra in previous games, but absolutely essential in this one. With them, you can survey the battlefield and mark enemies, resources, and vehicles, so they are visible even through walls and during storms. It makes hanging back and surveying the landscape a viable, even essential strategy. The non-lethal approach also becomes legitimate once more with the Fulton Recovery System, returning from Peace Walker. This device, avaliable in the second, main part of Metal Gear Solid V, subtitled The Phantom Pain, not only removes enemies from the area, preventing them from being discovered and raising an alarm, but also adds them to your growing personal army.
This Mother Base system is at the centre of what makes Metal Gear Solid V such a fascinating, dynamic, and unique gameplay experience. By bringing soldiers and resources from the field back to Mother Base, you can slowly upgrade its various sections to aid you during missions, whether it's through new weapons and tools, weather reports, or supply drops. Excitingly, and importantly, this system works both ways. Enemy soldiers will adapt to your strategies and weapons; wearing helmets if your rely on headshots too much, or equipping night-vision goggles if you attack at night too often. You can then invest money, or GMP, into sending out teams to disrupt their supply chains, giving you a temporary advantage for a few missions. There's a constant shift in power between you and the enemy, with neither having the upper hand for too long. You develop new weapons, tools, and strategies, they adapt, and you disrupt. It's a system that feeds back into itself, encouraging experimentation and ensuring that every action you take has a consequence. It also means that your approach to missions can be highly diverse, and despite the fact that your objectives simply rotate between assassinating targets and rescuing prisoners, the sheer amount of ways you can approach these tasks makes each experience rich, dynamic, and memorable.
An important element of this system are the buddies you can collect over the course of the game: A.I. controlled allies which can be outfitted to either a stealth or assault approach. My stealthy play style meant I usually focused on D-Dog's ability to spot and mark enemies, but after spending a few missions with Quiet, I was able to upgrade her enough to silently take out enemies, or provide a loud distraction. The sheer amount of freedom you have in interacting with and influencing this large mechanical system, is Metal Gear Solid V's greatest strength, even if the limited mission structures can be tiresome the further you get into the game.
As dynamic and freeing as this system is, pursuing the same objective over and over is inevitably going to get boring. While in previous Metal Gear games the core loop of avoiding and engaging enemies was broken up with boss fights, the encounters in this game are actually some of its most tedious sections. While in cutscenes these characters are presented as dangerous and intimidating, when it comes down to actually fighting them, your strategic options are essentially limited to an all-out assault, or running away from the fight completely. The mysterious Skulls Parasite Unit, as well as the terrifying Man on Fire and Third Child, are essentially indestructible, which means that fighting them breaks down to shooting them a lot until they're either incapacitated, or you have a chance to escape. There's no attack patterns, no special weaknesses, no strategy. Even the most interesting fight in the game, an early encounter with Quiet, is essentially an expanded version of fights with Sniper Wolf or The End. There's homage, and then there's uninspired. While they succeed in making these characters a force to be reckoned with, it's at the cost of struggle, strategy, and closure. These characters aren't defeated, they're postponed, and eventually just fizzle out in the plot with little explanation as to where they went or why they stopped trying to fight you. While the rest of the experience is constantly prodding and pushing you to experiment with new tools and strategies, these boss fights basically entail you bashing your head against a wall, hoping it will crack.
Metal Gear Solid V feels like the beginning of a new era. It's de-emphasis on plot is, for me, a step backwards, but its gameplay is without a doubt the pinnacle of the series, and full of potential. In the end, Metal Gear Solid V's weakness is the Metal Gear moniker. Without such a rich and long legacy to live up to, perhaps this would have been a bold new step for Kojima, an evolution in his design and production sensibilities. But it's clear that the developers made the game they wanted to make first, and then tried to force it into a Metal Gear-shaped mould. This isn't to say it's a bad video game. It's a fantastic video game. It's just a bad Metal Gear Solid game. Who knows; with a little more development time and support from Konami, this could have been a revolution for both Kojima and Metal Gear. It's just a shame that it all had to end here.