Metroid: Zero Mission

This holds up pretty well. The cutscene art and music seem a little crude on the GBA, though I’m not sure if the hardware’s any excuse. I always thought from games like Circle of the Moon, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and Mother 3 that the GBA really hits a sweet spot in terms of the instrument fidelity and enforced constraint. Super Metroid‘s soundtrack on the SNES is a minimalist masterpiece, but I didn’t really feel like the music here was anything special.

There’s still quite a bit of content after the point where the original NES game ends, and the additions are interesting. They take away your suit and make you do stealth segments, which is kind of a hard sell, but it kind of works. Getting chased between rooms by space pirates who can kick your ass, and still being able to do wall-kicks and find your own way around, doesn’t make for a bad approach to stealth. Nor is it incompatible with what the series is all about, as far as I’m concerned. I had already been thinking about what else could be done in the Metroid series without just repeating the same formula–the last three Metroid games I’ve played now have been direct remakes (of Metroid 2, 2 again, and 1, respectively), and at times it felt formulaic to the point that I didn’t know what the point was, especially with Samus Returns, which stretched this out over a much larger world map. What is Metroid, really? Am I playing all these because I think it’s important to use 99-unit energy tanks for player health? Of course not. As long as a Metroid game allows me to find my way around for myself, at my own pace, and is open enough to allow for some pretty deep advanced techniques to get some upgrades and abilities early on (while not ultimately skipping whole areas), I think I’m good. I overlooked this in talking about Samus Returns: you tend to have to do things when it wants you to do them, and it was a little joyless by comparison.

Zero Mission‘s design can be a little obtuse, though. Usually you have some indication of what area you’re supposed to be in, but even on the primary path you might need to bomb some subtly-different ground tile to progress onward. I got stuck for a while because of this. Mind you, because it was early in the game when I didn’t have too many other places to be, I was bound to find that tile sooner or later. And on the bright side, it got me to adjust to how Zero Mission likes to hide things. But it was far from the only time I got stuck. In Ridley’s area I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do until I gave up and turned around, only to find out that backtracking was the way to progress: a defeated boss moved away from its arena after I’d left its room, creating a new path for me. It’s as if some designer said, “Let’s have it so in this area, players have to butt their heads against a wall and then give up in order to find the way forward.” It’s a minor thing, I suppose — every player would eventually turn around, even if they could think of no other new place to visit with their current gear — but I can’t imagine a world in which that was the ideal way to have the player’s path through the level flow.

But that’s only regarding the main path. When it comes to optional ammo pickups, the missile caches, finding those gets far less intuitive. There are clever sequence-breaking tricks that the game never teaches you, but which the faithful Metroid players would already know about going in, like wall-kicking up a single wall or doing infinite bomb-jumps. I found it thrilling to use these to get up to hard-to-reach areas early on, assuming I’d otherwise be forced to wait until I had the space-jump to do them. But you don’t get to use the space-jump at all during the original NES stretch of the game. At some point these advanced tricks seemed to stop being the quick-and-dirty way to do get these pickups, but the only way. Many secrets I couldn’t find at all: I was convinced I’d be able to keep exploring Crateria after blowing up Mother Brain, despite anticipating the self-destruct timer, because there were power-bomb-yellow doors on the map, and I hadn’t found power bombs yet. Oh, I hadn’t entirely been wrong: you aren’t normally introduced to power bombs until after Mother Brain, in the new Zero Mission content. But you don’t get to keep exploring Zebes after it blows up, either — at least, not without loading up Super Metroid. So what gives? Well, if you see something to power-bomb on Zebes, the only way to do it is by using some esoteric diagonal ballspark move I never would’ve thought of, to get a different power-bomb pickup early. You know how in Super Metroid, you could use the mockball trick to get super missiles early? Imagine needing to approach that same level of esoteric nonsense for 100% completion: that was roughly how this felt. It also explains none of it. Super Metroid actually had animals that showed you the wall-kick, assuming you were willing to stop and watch. But there’s nothing like that here. I find that a little strange, given it’s a remake of the original game. Where else should a player expect a fresh start, with no foreknowledge of how things work?

To some extent I think it’s kind of cool and old-school to have secrets I’m not going to find, but I would’ve only really gone in for that if I could reload a save after the credits or something and get to return to before Mother Brain died, letting me do it at my own pace. I also resented the use of the shinespark for these. There were multiple occasions where the levels felt too cramped for it, and I had some trouble with the controls, at least in using the 3DS D-pad. (The GBA, unlike the SNES or the sort of controller you’d use playing AM2R on PC, also lacks X and Y buttons, and has to cram more functionality into what’s left.) Shinesparking is also used in more complicated ways than before, often requiring you to chain them by using a new mechanic where your launch gets interrupted on slopes, while retaining momentum. You tend to have to do things in a very specific and calculated way, hitting precise but ambiguously-textured blocks.

Even when you found the secrets, collecting powerups gets pretty challenging sometimes, but this was the kind of challenge I happened to appreciate. One room I just barely noticed near Ridley, with two missile packs in it, required basically all the skill I felt I had, even after I figured out how I was supposed to do it. I had to manage rolling into a shaft, clearing away blocks with my beam, and shooting missiles upward, before the blocks at my feet crumbled away. It was getting frustrating, but I felt extremely gratified when I pulled it off. This was ten times harder than any of the Zero Mission bosses, and ten times harder than the skill level needed for obtaining any pickups in Samus Returns: there’s no time-slowing power here to make a joke out of the crumbling floor tiles. And yet at the same time, Samus Returns had bosses that required extreme precision, being hard as hell and the highest-quality aspect of the game. Strange.

Having complained that Samus Returns’ map-revealing ability was too much, it might seem a little silly to be making a strong complaint in the other direction here, but Zero Mission has classic map stations, and they just don’t reveal enough to really matter. The desired middle-ground should be obvious, though: add map stations that take some effort to reach, but which actually reveal gaps on the map tiles where there are entrances to rooms you’ve never been in. It’s odd to me that Samus Returns did away with the map stations and just let you see everything around you in a giant radius when this other option is here. Starting blind in an area, and having the map room as an objective in itself, has always been a great way to design the levels.

I liked this one a bit more than Samus Returns. It had its own strengths, but where it didn’t offer enough to justify its longer playtime, Zero Mission tried new things that worked, and has stronger fundamentals. The openness with which you could use tricks to get over ledges early or do a sequence of rooms in reverse — without doing some directionless amorphous design where you have no sense of where you’re going at all — is top-tier among the other games in the series. But I’d have loved it if it were ported into AM2R with some changes here and there, like adjusting the shinesparking a little and benefiting from a more informative map screen. Mainly, I have some regrets that the game’s post-Mother Brain sequence got in the way of me finding everything for myself. It’s not a long game, but I’d rather not start over anytime soon. I’ve never been a Metroid speedrunner, and I think doing things slowly, in one go, at my own pace, should remain a core part of the Metroid series, too.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

 

Advertisements

Metroid: Samus Returns

There was an unofficial Metroid 2: Return of Samus remake last year; a fangame. It was actually pretty incredible. Nintendo sent the guy a DMCA request and, surprisingly, announced their own Metroid 2 remake shortly after: Samus Returns, for the 3DS. Funny how that works; Metroid 2 came out in 1991, and then few people cared about it for like 25 years. Now we have two new versions. It gives us a pretty interesting way to compare and contrast.

Being on the 3DS hasn’t worked in the favor of the official game: the 3D graphics perform sluggishly at times (at least on my old XL), and the controls are brutal on my hands: Samus Returns has to be quite forgiving for anyone aiming with a circle pad, but AM2R felt extremely tight without bothering with the new free-aim stuff (which actually would’ve worked better with the real control stick I used to play it, or, say, in an official title on the Switch). And it’s no shock which of the two games has more profit-seeking junk getting in the way: I don’t want to buy plastic toys, not to mention the actual plug-in amiibo reader, to unlock all the modes and get all the energy tanks. And I won’t. (Besides, the old Castlevania games always had awesome postgame modes where you played as new characters with new moves, but here? Fusion Suit mode is just regular mode, but you take four times the damage. With these controls? Nah.)

I also noticed some slowdown in a few areas. No doubt this is less of a problem on a new 3DS or 2DS. On my old XL, it’s normally fine, except in cutscenes. In some areas deeper into the game, it gets worse. There’s one boss with two big grinders for arms — it’s actually kind of a neat fight, except for a badly communicated weak point and the 3D effects that drag the framerate down to a basically unplayable state. I don’t think the 3D graphics look very good anyway: if they had just done another sprite game with slightly retouched Zero Mission assets — as I assume AM2R did — I think it would’ve looked great and performed better. It’s a sad state of affairs when Nintendo’s releasing titles for their flagship series which barely run on the systems they are, officially, still coming out on. It’s not like I’m trying to play Xenoblade Chronicles here: this is not a New 3DS exclusive. As I already alluded to, it’s not like they can’t do Metroid sidescrollers on the Switch too, you know? Save the 3D for there, and give us some more pixel art.

I actually saved myself some thumb pain by using a homebrew app that sends control stick input from an xbox controller over wifi. This was really cool, and mostly worked well, but sometimes the wifi link would get spotty for a while — it seemed to get laggy whenever I needed it most. And once I got super missiles and found out I had to use the touch screen to switch to them, that made using an xbox controller a little more of a hassle. Still, whenever the going got tough (like with the aforementioned Big Grinder Arms guy) it helped a lot that I could change to a real controller for ten or fifteen minutes.

Samus Returns definitely isn’t afraid to break from convention, which is nice, because Metroid 2 was kind of crude; an almost blank slate to build upon. If you first look at the gameboy version’s map, and AM2R’s, they’re very close to the same size, but with three entirely new areas added in AM2R. These are probably the coolest parts of the game, but for the most part, as one would expect from a fangame, your path through SR-388 stays pretty faithful to the source material. Though I hardly remember much of my original Metroid 2 playthrough, I think AM2R just made some occasional adjustments to the maps to let you use Super Metroid power-ups that weren’t originally there: the general flow and shape of passageways remained unchanged. The map in Samus Returns, though, seems to completely do its own thing. It’s several times bigger. The designers did whatever they wanted.

Some of these changes are nice. Some are problematic, though, like the fast-travel stations. Teleportation points aren’t worth crying about, but it’s better to have an interconnecting map; when you can just warp to earlier areas, it feels like cutting corners. AM2R’s means of getting back to old areas later — by getting shot through cannons into directly vertically or horizontally aligned rooms far away — was much more clever. I feel the same way about the scan pulse: while it sucks when a game hides things in random tiles and you have little chance of finding everything unless you play with a guide open, I think most Metroid games have already been smart enough about showing the connections to unvisited rooms, and marking which ones still hold power-ups you haven’t collected. As long as the game is straightforward enough about which tiles can be blown up, something like a scan pulse should be unnecessary, and I think putting it in there takes some of the responsibility off the level designer to keep puzzles sensible.

Even with this “corner-cutting” designer handicap, though, I had to look up how to get past one type of obstacle: the ones you propel yourself past with power bombs. The idea that you’ll only get launched if you’re using the spider ball to secure yourself just never occurred to me after realizing it did nothing in non-spider form; it’s the kind of thing that they should’ve tutorialized by locking you into a room right after you get the power bomb, making you use it (both horizontally and vertically) to get out. AM2R had some head-scratchers, but everything was communicated clearly. I don’t like looking things up in a Metroid game.

It’s a tough game, even with changes that can make it feel casualized. Power-ups even get sucked in when you’re not holding a charge beam now, which is a little sad. More to the point, though, you can continue from outside of a boss door when you die now. In exchange, though, those bosses tend to be more than you can possibly take without several practice runs, and even then will test your limits, mainly because getting hit by the wrong attack can empty three energy tanks when you have maybe seven total. Blame the framerate and thumb pad if you want, I certainly will, but either way some of those encounters (like Big Grinder Arms guy) took me half a dozen tries. These fights can last several minutes, too.

But to speak some more on departures from the traditional mechanics, let’s get to the obvious one: they gave Samus a melee bash that parries enemies, which is about as out-there as it gets. It’s neat, but you have to play a little too reactively, and I’m not sure that’s the right fit for Metroid. When you’re up close already and need some breathing room, it makes sense to have it, but enemies take far too many hits to die when you’re not killing them with a parry and counter-blast. If you’re not already in a position the enemy will attack from, you have to go out of your way to line one up, making yourself unnecessarily vulnerable, so I found myself resenting the addition at times. It may have been smarter to simply avoid those enemies, but I find you’re usually hungry for at least one kind of ammo or health pickup, or you’re still checking out the room and don’t want to leave the threat there, so it’s best to kill everything outside of a speedrun.

It’s admirable that the game doesn’t try to sell itself purely by repackaging the old, though as I say this I actually feel contradicted by the use of the Lower Norfair music used in the lava areas, which wasn’t actually part of the series until the third game. It seems to have been thrown into Metroid 2 retroactively, for a kind of backwards application of nostalgia. Of course this is a nerdy thing to get mad about, but what better time to actually expand the repertoire of Metroid themes than when you’re going back to a time when there was so little to build from? Like Super Metroid itself did, with such incredible results? (I’ll make an exception for Ridley’s fight music, though a new version of his NES lair theme could’ve been cool too.)

It seems that the only place where Samus Returns and AM2R both really stick to the Metroid 2 gameplay is in throwing in dozens of repeat fights against the same metroid minibosses; first the alpha, then the gamma, zeta, and omega life stages. Both remakes added several of their own completely new bosses, and both got pretty creative there, though Samus Returns definitely goes the extra mile in boss complexity — it probably says something about my preferences as a whole that during a few boss fights in the 3DS game, I found myself thinking about how cool it would be if someone added them to AM2R in a patch. But the miniboss repetition doesn’t seem like something that really needed to be preserved, and we could’ve tried fighting just one metroid at each stage of life — maybe then throwing in a gauntlet of each in a row near the end? — and just getting to kill some more metroids scattered around in their iconic larval state elsewhere — especially in Samus Returns, with its deeper interest in change.

Super Metroid is my favorite Metroid; I think the series only had the barest inkling of what it was supposed to be before then, and it’s lost that inkling numerous times since. I still haven’t played Zero Mission, but it’s safe to say that for players with no existing associations or attachments, AM2R was up there with the best of them, doing what the series has always been praised for, and for bonus points it did it on the best possible hardware, which is to say PC. But this isn’t a review of AM2R. Samus Returns fluctuates between bold and formulaic, but in both the old and the new, it’s a mixed bag. On better hardware, I might have called it a very good game.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

MGSV has the best mechanics I’ve seen in any game to come out in the past couple years. They’re so robust and varied that I don’t even really mind invading the same outposts several dozen times each — which I am expected to do — given that I can have an entirely new experience by changing a few items in my loadout, or by bringing a different buddy along. Still, this is a big part of the game’s weakness: its failure at times to build a larger package around its better qualities. It particularly falls short when these core mechanics aren’t in play at all, such as when you’re forced to fight a gunship or a giant robot, when suddenly there’s no stealth, no fulton extraction; just a rocket launcher and a demand.

Those annoying parts aside, it’s staggering how much work this game puts into your toolkit. I suspect the cardboard box is more sophisticated than the mechanics of certain other stealth games in their entirety. You can slip out of the box and leave it behind as a decoy, you can pop out like a jack-in-the-box, slide down hills, add camo patterns to match your environment. You can slap posters on it, some of which are oriented for when you’re standing vertically, while others are horizontal, meaning they continue to work after you leave the box behind. These can also change the behaviors of guards, who can actually try to open the box instead of shooting it once they’re a couple meters away, or stop and turn around because they hilariously mistake the poster on the box for another guard. The results might change based on the time of day and the distance you attempt this from. The box has durability, and might lose one of its cover flaps, compromising the camouflage from some angles. There are waterproof boxes and ones that release smoke. Depending on the level of alertness in the base, the Command Post might laugh off reports of a moving cardboard box, or you might be shot on sight. It’s a complex system.

Again: that’s just the cardboard box! Something you can play the whole game without using! This is to say nothing about D-Walker’s drift mechanics or how you can pair him with a shield on your back slot. I could talk about the crazy stuff you can do with decoys or fulton devices, too, but frankly, it’s unnecessary.

As ridiculously deep as the mechanics can be, the game is not commensurately good at explaining itself, leaving players perhaps never finding out that they can ride a shipping container back to base, or keep a guard on the ground with their hands behind their head indefinitely, or add your own MP3s to Snake’s cassette tape collection and set them to be blasted from your helicopter’s loudspeakers, so all your foes know that the Vengabus is coming when the chopper arrives to extract you.

Not only is MGSV so open as to allow you to break it — which any diehard Morrowind fan will tell you is your divine right in gaming — but it even sometimes anticipates this breakage and gives you a nod for it. In missions where you’re told to tail somebody until they lead you to some commanding officer or prisoner, there’s really nothing stopping you from going off-road at the start of the level and taking a straight line to their ultimate destination. The adviser talking to Snake on comms will say something like “How did you know he’d be there? Do you have psychic powers or something?” but the game does absolutely nothing to stop you and even rewards you with an S-rank for beating the level so fast. (It’s rare to see Japanese devs tackle this kind of Assassin’s Creed sandbox gameplay, and here it’s exactly the opposite of what I remember being forced to do in Assassin’s Creed 2, the last one I played.) S-ranks tend to always be pretty easy to get: apart from cloaking devices and other things that always automatically disqualify you from an S-rank, missions do not restrict you by the level of gear available to the player at the time, which means you can rescue prisoners with wormholes and insta-kill bosses with the upgraded rocket launcher. I wouldn’t have thought it unfair if they had limited you further by gear level — and the fact that all items come with a numerical rank in the first place might mean this was originally intended — but I quite like just being able to do what I want, and letting hardcore players self-police themselves if they want a greater challenge.

I’m not a fan of the checkpoint system. The game doesn’t restrict you from walking back out to the outskirts of an enemy outpost to give yourself a checkpoint after silently taking out five or ten of the twenty guards posted there, and it doesn’t keep you from screwing yourself if you cross that threshold a split-second before a mission-critical target leaves the area or before a prisoner is executed, either. And if you had to use a toilet or something for a checkpoint, it’d be one thing, but the weird way checkpoints occur at a semi-random radius around outposts incentivizes weird player behaviors. If you’re not near a guard post and you’ve just extracted some S-rank guard you really like, you might run around for five minutes looking for a checkpoint, all the while hoping you don’t walk over a landmine or fall to your death or something, losing him.

And there are too many arbitrary rules involved with when things are saved, whether it’s events at Mother Base (which exists in a sort of non-linear time), mission tasks (which can be saved without a checkpoint by opening certain menus and then aborting the mission, but aren’t if you die without a checkpoint), or your ammunition (D-Walker gets its equipment refreshed, but the state of your own equipment is preserved). Extracted guards are sent to your base at a checkpoint, but reloading the checkpoint respawns the guards if (and only if) they’re mission-critical, which means that every player learns how to clone tanks and reroll the stats of human beings, once they grasp the weird logic of the game. It’s quite strange already that if you take out 8/9 side-op targets and go hit a checkpoint, all 9 targets will be back on the field again, forcing you to take them all out in one stretch, which doesn’t seem to happen in main missions. But it’s even stranger that you can repeatedly extract 8 of them, as long as you never turn in the last one and finish. Some of this feels like oversights that there wasn’t enough development time to straighten out, especially D-Walker, which can also be deployed at the start of a mission for 5,000 GMP and then swapped on the field to its 50,000 GMP loadout for free.

The game’s story has a lot of interesting ideas that are executed a bit poorly. Everything’s insanely convoluted, and while there tends to be an explanation hammered out for why every situation has to be so outlandish, the explanations themselves are unconvincing or silly. I thought that the game’s convoluted central twist was entirely pointless and unnecessary in terms of what it actually accomplishes for people who reexamine the entire narrative through that lens. You find out that Bruce Willis is a ghost in The Sixth Sense, and while maybe this forces some contrivances along the way, these are justified because the payoff is big, and changes the viewer’s perception of everything else that happened in the movie, right? Now, I’m not saying Snake is a ghost, but I am saying I saw no payoff, and nothing really changed.

I have to note: I since talked to a friend of mine who knows more about the series, and he told me that the twist explains something that happened in the original NES game. So as it turns out, there is a payoff, but it’s like having to watch five other Shyamalan movies to appreciate The Sixth Sense. Isn’t that something?

The character called Quiet, a woman who reveals a lot of skin and doesn’t talk, got a ton of pushback, and most of it was deserved. Quiet was unmistakably an object, whose primary character trait and motive was loving Snake, but her storyline was probably one of the more effective parts of the narrative — she doesn’t entirely need to speak when she can communicate with her actions, which is refreshing in an otherwise-overwritten (read: Japanese) game where everyone else talks in cutscenes and on audio tapes for ten hours about Weapons To Surpass Metal Gear. But there’s also very little justification for some of Quiet’s plot points, like her not getting the Wolbachia treatment, or even being forced into it back at Mother Base. It mainly serves to keep the gimmick going.

Quiet also has one of the most memorable parts of the game: the boss fight against her. It’s not good in the Dark Souls sense of what makes a good boss fight, where everything is really tight and you gradually gain intimate knowledge of what can and can’t be done in your situation. In fact, the cover system is kind of shit, and I constantly had trouble attaching myself to walls and looking over them to scope out Quiet’s location. But it comes as such a surprise and is so different even from the other forced boss fights. My first time doing it, I was nervously belly-crawling large distances and taking forever; the sun went down and came up again before I finally took her down. But that adds to the drama of it; no music playing in the background, just two snipers playing out this long-range duel, patching up wounds behind cover and trying to find the other by the sounds they make. I thought it was brilliant… although I also never thought to just air-drop an armored personnel carrier on her head.

What probably worked best about the story was a more ludonarrative performance involving the training of soldiers back at Mother Base and their expendability. When my soldiers were being made to die off, I felt a real anguish and discomfort that was successfully tied into the story the game was intending to tell. But this is all tied into a base management mechanic that plays a huge role in your ability to research new gear, quickly request supplies on the field, gain intel about unseen enemies on your map, make money, and several other things. I’ve seen other sandbox games do base and resource management, but never to such good effect.

A game like The Witcher 3 tells a profoundly better story overall, in a much cleaner package; the ending of Blood & Wine still has its hooks in me. But that was also an incredibly by-the-book sandbox by many other respects, to the point of sometimes feeling boring. And remarkably, the point-of-interest checklist stuff that I found tedious in The Witcher 3 actually tended to feel rewarding in MGSV. For one thing, you always want fifty times more money and resources than you have. You incur so many operating costs just getting around on your helicopter, keeping weapons stocked and maintained, presumably feeding your dog, and so on. You don’t get your grenade budget refunded if you don’t use up the ones you bring, which is the perfect incentive design both when it’s time to decide whether to bring those grenades, and when you feel like being thrifty about actually throwing them.

On the other hand, there’s not a lot of incentive to ever use more than a couple of the guns you have, even after spending 800 billion dollars researching hundreds of them. Some of this research leads to good weaponsmithing parts for the gun you will use, but most doesn’t.

Many ideas were cooler in theory than in execution, like the way 90% of your cash is stored online, where it’s vulnerable to theft by other players. But it doesn’t sync nearly often enough, and you can find yourself running your offline reserves into the red while still having millions online, risking morale drops and not being able to buy anything else. The servers or netcode or both are terrible, as you can get locked in menus for minutes just waiting for some online communication.

Despite so many systems being executed well, the package is unfinished. The story isn’t fully resolved — there are bits on youtube of cut content from Mission 51 — and it goes on long enough to have justified a third sandbox region, but instead you’re asked to endlessly repeat the same rescue and elimination side-ops in only slightly different configurations. And while the game is fun broken, there are some areas where the game feels so crude that even a bastard like me felt a need to police myself, like when driving tanks around in side-ops and finding that guards had no idea what to do when I drove right into the middle of their base and started opening fire on everything. I don’t mean that they weren’t equipped to fight a tank. I mean they literally could not conceive of the tank. They ran around in circles, wondering how their radar dishes were being destroyed, as if I’d planted C4 on each of them earlier, and was blowing them up from far away.

The game needed a deeper system for replaying missions with imposed restrictions and rewards, but instead, it just tacked on new instances of a handful of missions. As a consequence, if you’re trying to do all the mission tasks, you have to senselessly repeat even ones like listening to guard conversations again. It can take a few minutes just to skip through all the cutscenes at the end of a mission you were only replaying to knock off that one last task. One repeat mission even has you redo the shitty prologue, where you basically just limp around on the floor for twenty minutes while Kiefer Sutherland makes Moby Dick references, all for the reward of an extra cutscene at the end. Because I have no life, I played through this three times. It would’ve been four if I hadn’t looked up what the hidden tasks were in advance of playing the “Truth” version.

Naturally, spreading the objectives over more outposts or a third sandbox region would have made it feel less repetitive. Side-ops should have been at least as diverse as some of the objectives provided in bonus mission tasks, if not more so. And the animal-collection system should not have relied on RNG or had players waste time catching creatures that didn’t even have an in-game model. But these are useless criticisms, all solved with “more time” and “more money”. Maybe if they had tried to build a robust PC modding scene instead of creating Metal Gear Online, fans might have filled in the gaps. But most mods never go very far, and it’s not something I propose with any real conviction.

Apart from the need to have made Kojima subordinate to a no-nonsense editor who could also keep the game focused on its strengths, and maybe putting more thought into the checkpoint system and a couple other little things, there’s really very little that might have been done better with the resources they had. As it stands, it’s still pretty amazing.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

Shelter 2

This is a weird little art game, but it doesn’t make an impact, and in trying to be more (a skill-oriented survival game on top of the artistic narrative stuff), it flounders somewhat. You play as a mother lynx and are tasked with raising your spawn into adulthood. By the time you’ve caught your first rabbit and delivered it to your four mewling cubs, you’ve seen about all the game has to offer, mechanically, but you’re made to tediously keep doing this as they grow up and follow you around and eventually hunt for themselves. They seem to suck at this, though, which means that at no stage of your life do you get to take it easy. Very toilcore.

In ludonarrative terms I sometimes amused myself while thinking about the trade-off between wanting to eat my catches for myself to keep my irritating stamina meter as full as possible, and wanting to feed my cubs as much as I could in the hopes that it would advance the not-fun-at-all game to the next stage sooner. In some sense this is a very real exploration of “Do I feed my hungry kids in the short term, or do I feed myself so I can get the energy to work to bring in more food later?” Only, it’s approached on the most annoying terms possible. Just like real life!

At one point one of my cubs was eaten by a wolf. Getting into the primitive mindset, my only real thought about this was, “Welp, I guess that’s why I had four of them.” The game ended with me encountering a single phantom lynx, though, which I think was supposed to be my own end of life and reuniting with my dead child in the afterlife. “Art Games Gonna Art Game,” for sure, but considering how little of an emotional connection I had, it only seemed mawkish or maybe funny in an ironic sort of way.

Of course, I’m only assuming that’s what was going on there, and that there would’ve been two or three phantoms in that scene if I’d been an even shittier parent. But how should I know?

…Look, I’m not heartless or anything. They just didn’t pull it off.

The game allows you to play again as one of the surviving cubs as it in turn raises its children, and you can view the family tree from the main menu. You can keep doing this, and you also get to name each cub, ostensibly allowing you to branch out down the family tree a dozen generations with cubs named Goku and Hitler. But there’s no incentive to do this. Names only show up on the tree, not in-game, which means I wouldn’t really be able to tell you if the last cub to get eaten by a wolf had been Weedman, or Anime Dragon God. In any case, I don’t think naming them would get me to become more attached.

It’s not terrible. It’s not a huge studio game, it’s got a cute art style, and its ideas are interesting–they’re just not taken far enough to really work. If they wanted to focus on the mechanics they had, taking the generations thing further, they might have sped the game up and added some kind of choice in inherited traits or something–like, of my two cubs that made it to adulthood, do I want to continue to the next round with the stronger one, or the faster one? All the while with some clear endgame goal for however many generations down the line, like Massive Chalice. On the other hand, if they wanted an art game, they might have dropped all the open-ended hunting with its shallow mechanics and just set up a series of five or six pre-designed hunts instead, each with some kind of obstacle and narrative component to coincide with the different stages of life.

The reviewer believes this game stands above total mediocrity. It has something going for it, but ultimately few real merits. Most of the time, it isn’t fun, and doesn’t otherwise provide any sort of emotional payoff. Even though it does some cool things, you should play something else instead.

Dishonored

I’m really fond of Dishonored, even though, as a stealth game, it does a lot of the same things wrong that DXHR & DXMD did. Apparently I was fond enough to play it again in 2017, setting silly rules for myself, and picking up all the achievements I missed last time.

You can screw up a Dishonored no-kills run in the most baffling circumstances; maybe the physics engine decided to get creative, and an unconscious guard you left on a rooftop jittered off the edge and fell to his death when you had your back turned. Or maybe a swarm of rats came by and ate that guy you left in an alley. (From a rules-of-stealth point of view, rats are the most bullshit thing in the game.) Sometimes NPCs kill each other, or die in scripted events. These shouldn’t count, but do they? I can’t say I know for sure, because I had no way of figuring out where I went wrong. It would be incredible if the game could do a simple thing like flashing the words “FIRST KILL” on the screen, so you’d know when the time came to hit the quickload key.

A run in which you’re never fully detected by an enemy is harder to do, but usually comes with fewer uncertainties, given the loud musical sting that plays, and the red alert marks above a guard’s head. Usually. I still managed to surprise myself with failure by the end of a couple missions. I don’t think it’s a problem if bodies are spotted, but in one of the missions in the first expansion, if you linger around too long, enemies spawn in around a corpse and start talking about how they need to find whoever did it. Only thing is, I never left a corpse there. The corpse had been spawned in too, as part of the same event. There should be an understanding between the game and I, but if it narratively pretends I slipped up when I obviously didn’t? That’s the kind of thing people would replace their dungeon master over.

The painted art style is real cool, and I remember thinking at the time that we’d reached a point with video game graphics where we finally had enough power and could start to boldly experiment instead of just pushing for deeper, boring photorealism. After five years, though, the game does show its age: the visual style is still notable, but the character models aren’t the best. And after taking down around six guards, some of the bodies start to vanish. This limitation is probably a bigger setback than the shallow issue of Good Graphix. After all, half the fun I had in DXMD was putting 25 unconscious men in a big pile.

Most of the time, the game is delightful. The blink power–short range teleportation–was a revolution for stealth games. (I’m grateful that DXMD stole it.) There are only about 9 missions, and 6 more from the two expansions combined, and none of it is a drag to replay. You can do each mission in maybe five minutes each while blinking around like a maniac, even without exploiting glitches or being a speedrunning god. Or you can spend an hour choking out each guard from behind and dragging each of them to a big dumpster. Apart from the occasional unskippable bit of dialogue, the game doesn’t waste your time; you only elect to waste it yourself, as a part of your preferred play style.

Some of my favorite missions include infiltrating Lady Boyle’s masked ball and figuring out which of the masked sisters is your target, or the one in the first expansion where you target the City Barrister and can pop in and out of his four-story manor from various balcony doors. Partly I think the estates of nobles are more appealing locales for stealth and robbery than sewers and prisons and magical mazes–something that also really worked to Thief 2’s advantage–but these missions also have some interesting options and variations. The non-lethal approach to taking out Lady Boyle is quite creepy, insinuating that while you might be able to keep the blood literally off your hands, there’s no way to achieve your goals with purely moral behavior. And with the barrister pacing around between the floors of his house, one approach is to find a way to get close and swap the items in his pockets without him even figuring out that you exist. This is fun stuff; it’s more pure and (I think) to the point of why you’re playing than some of the pretentious nonsense you get up to in the Deus Ex games.

As with other games that give you the option of being non-lethal, or the option of remaining silent and undetected, a lot of the tools you’re given will never be used. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I suppose it would be better if you were given a mine casing and got to decide whether to make a lethal or nonlethal tool out of it, which is something DXMD handled pretty well, apart from the tradeoff of its irritating inventory management. Nonlethal mines and grenades didn’t even exist until Dishonored’s expansions, though, sort of like how DXMD revisited DXHR’s Typhoon augment by adding a nonlethal version. The expansions also add numerous passive runes that would have allowed for some cool gimmick play styles if not for the fact that you were basically done with the game by the time you obtained them. Without the ability to do a New Game Plus where you can play the original campaign again with the expansions’ choke grenades, or with the runes that took away your mana recovery but let you gain mana by drinking water and made you invisible while standing still, it’s really a lost opportunity.

Dishonored’s guards aren’t terribly bright, but at least they aren’t easily lured away into a dark corner, away from the eyes of the other guards. In truth, most of Dishonored’s guard innovations are in making them speak like magic 8-balls to each other. But they will sometimes wonder why another guard you’ve already dragged away isn’t patrolling where they’re supposed to be. At most they change their patrol route slightly when this happens, but in a more perfect game I think this should make them become a lot more panicky, especially when they finally notice that they seem to have become the only human being left in the entire complex. As always, I want to see stealth games become more difficult, but only in the fairest ways. (And I’d like to see the return of a Thief-style UI that communicates how well hidden I am, instead of dealing mostly in direct lines of sight.) I still haven’t played Dishonored 2 yet, and I have no reason to expect AI miracles from it. But I have heard that you can see how many people you’ve killed so far from the pause menu. For that alone, I’m itching to play it.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

2064: Read Only Memories

Here’s an interesting point-and-click investigation game. Ace Attorney isn’t a terrible thing to liken it to, but also stuff like Policenauts, given a couple clunky shooting segments. I liked it: the characters are endearing (the voice acting varies but it’s surprising work for such a small development team), there’s some good music, and the drama–while not totally gut-wrenching or unpredictable–managed to draw me in. But to be clear, this is not a challenge or a puzzle game. You have a path to follow.

There are quite a few funny throwaway lines, but you have to do some digging through the noise to find them. For any inventory object listed in an interaction with someone or something else, there are at minimum two lines of text in response to that interaction. That means that rather than a generic “I can’t use those things together!” when you try to use your ID card on a shrub in the park, they encourage you to use your ID card on that shrub twice–and then to use your carton of milk on the shrub, and then to use the ID card on the bench next to the shrub, and… well, suddenly the game takes twice as long to finish as it would have otherwise. Luckily–and this is something I’d like to see for all games in this genre, Ace Attorney included–if there’s nothing unique written about using an object in a certain situation, it won’t appear in the list when you try. Rather, the problem is that too much is written. It’s anyone’s choice not to participate in all these shrub interactions if they just want to move forward in the game, but I don’t want to miss something, y’know? I think in the end, much of it is a waste of both the writer’s and my own time. Especially the ones that just scold me for trying to use an item on something. You’re the ones who put the button there, man.

Since there are often more than two interactions when looking at or touching some object, it may have been helpful for completionists if buttons became greyed out once a player had cycled back around to the first response again. This is a nitpick, of course, but when you’re talking about UI and experience, a lot comes down to nitpicking. I also would have moved through the game with less frustration if, say, clicks were properly detected in times where my mouse was already over an icon before it appeared. A hold-and-release approach might have been better for this mode of interaction, too; I’ll say without complete certainty that Full Throttle worked like this. You tend to click a lot more in sequence than is honestly necessary. As a final design criticism, a dedicated text skip button would have been great.

I had a pretty annoying save bug where my game wasn’t overwriting an old save reliably, which is a pretty scary thing to get wrong. Once I discovered this problem, I just decided to beat the rest of the game in one stretch so I wouldn’t lose any more progress, but I also noticed that the devs have still been patching this game over a year and half after its initial release. I’m uncertain whether to be pleased that it’s still being given care, or to be disturbed that 2064 still can’t save reliably despite that care.

The futuristic setting is very Shadowrun, which is alright, but it’s that kind of sci-fi that assumes the word “otaku” will be used by more people in fifty years. (I would assume, optimistically, that there will be fewer.) There are parallels with DXMD, given the mistreatment of cyborgs and people with hybrid DNA by conservative groups, but I’m generally more aligned with 2064’s political slant: they reveal who this game is made for right away, when the destitute player character is getting email offers to do freelance writing “for exposure”. And while the game doesn’t really put Silicon Valley directly in its sights any more than DXMD does, there is a small element of dystopia in the world lore when it comes to the pretty scary privatization of public infrastructure. The social politics of gender identity, pro-choice, and so on are less subtle.

It’s probably better not to delve too deeply into the story, but I didn’t have a terribly hard time figuring where I stood with the characters, or otherwise tend to be wrong when going with my gut. For instance, I found it an awfully big coincidence that Fairlight was just put in the same hospital room as the player character by chance, although that hardly gives anyone the whole picture. While distrusting Fairlight was allowed in dialogue, it did feel a bit contrived that I was forced to continue to communicate with him as the story developed anyway. The scenario might’ve better accommodated this demand by making me feel more deeply in need of his help.

I probably liked what was done with Jess the most, although that’s not quite the same as liking her personality. Her help is needed at a few points in the story, but since she’s initially rude to the player, it’s normal to respond in kind, thus making her aid a little more awkward to come by. To me, her rudeness wasn’t so much my problem as her inability to dish it out but not take it, and it was only when she started treating me like a bigot that I actually felt we’d gotten off on the wrong foot. I thought it played out well in the chapters that followed.

There’s a little bit of reactivity in these character choices as well, as some characters decide to lend their support to you, or won’t, in your final objective. Few of these differences seem to affect the outcome beyond a few friends/not friends achievements, but there are some shallow plot forks for bad ends. I only played through once–and won’t likely do so again for a long time while there’s no means of skipping text quickly–but I failed to recruit Starfucker & Oli on the basis of calling for police backup in an earlier chapter, and it seemed apparent from their dialogue that it didn’t distinguish between doing that or just frequently being an asshole in conversation, which I never did. I suspect having their full friendship doesn’t terrifically affect things either.

On the other hand, I discovered some interesting variations in how to progress through a quest at one point when I reloaded a save: I could knock a security guard out with a stun gun, or talk my way past him. There’s still only one story, but you can definitely leave your fingerprints on it. It’s not a bad story, either.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

The gameplay of DXHR didn’t see a whole lot of change in DXMD. The XP system still incentivizes nonsense like hacking doors you have the codes for–if it were up to me, I’d only award XP for reaching new areas and finishing quests–and hacking is still the same RNG-heavy minigame that falls far short of its potential. I wanted more: a system where you give yourself wireless access to a building’s network after physically interacting with machines once, and gradually increase your privileges with a combination of both digital and physical intrusions. Maybe you knock out the security personnel to steal a phone, because there’s two-factor authentication on the turret system. Or maybe you can hack the phone itself from a few meters away, without touching anybody. I liked some of the new stuff where you used someone’s instant messenger app to try and casually ask their coworkers for a password, and I think that’s a start as far as digital intrusions go, but I still want to see more in the manner of Uplink.

The energy system is slightly different now, but I would argue it needed a deeper overhaul. Previously, any energy consumed above your minimum charge would not be returned at all; you’d always be refunded just enough to execute a melee takedown, and wouldn’t get any more energy than that until you used a consumable. In the sequel, your maximum charge is only lowered to a new slightly lower cap each time a skill is activated, which has the same result after several skills have been used, but before then it allows you to do things like keeping a cloak active until all your energy is drained, because you already paid the true cost as soon as you turned the cloak on.

But if anything really makes it less annoying than the older version of the system, it’s that you can lug around an absurd number of biocells, you can earn more money than you know what to do with in the first act, and you can always craft more biocells (or other consumables) on the fly with scrap metal. This makes the game far too easy, really, as you can completely cheese your way through any encounter if you’re willing to eat a few biocells and silent-cloak-sprint past literally anything, but assuming you still have an instinct to hoard those resources, you’ll still usually tend to scrimp on energy costs by sticking with the minimum bar. It’s still the most cost effect strategy to just throw a crate at the wall and then take out anybody who comes to investigate the sound, because the guards are still dumber than shit and will never notice that their friend who went to investigate a noise never came back. It feels patronizing when you’re this well-equipped and they’re unwilling to even send guards at you in pairs.

There are all kinds of things they might have dabbled with: individual skill cooldowns, for instance, or the reworking of skills. What if instead of having a silent-running aug you can turn on or off at will, it always only activates for 4 seconds, and then cannot be reactivated for another 10? What if you can’t cloak and move at the same time, unless you get a mod for the Icarus Dash, and only move with it? And while I couldn’t say for sure what would and wouldn’t work, I think there are possibilities with dynamic energy recharge rates, where you have to make do with a non-recharging bar until the player shuts down some kind of emitter or whatever. And it would be nice to have full energy with fast recharges when you aren’t trespassing and have no real reason to be delayed by a recharge.

The game still commits a cardinal stealth sin in not really being too clear about alarm levels. I pulled off no-kills without screwing up, but the dialogue sometimes made it sound like I killed some people when I put everyone in the level to sleep, and I always considered the terrible possibility that I had dropped a crate on some guard a little too hard and didn’t notice. And I did fail my no-alarms challenge without being too clear on where I went astray. Was it okay to be seen by those guys in the prologue? Otherwise, I was pretty sure I reloaded any time someone so much as fired their weapon. Was it when a camera saw a broken wall in a store, while I wasn’t in a story mission, and the store’s bodyguard came to investigate? It’s far too nebulous for my liking. I badly wanted a stats page in the pause menu to tell me how many times I’d been spotted in my current run, but there was nothing, and it sucked.

The game’s underlying systems felt too crude for stealth in a sandbox world where I’m not already plainly in a mission at all times. If you stand next to some civilian and throw a case of beer at the wall beside his head, he’ll do nothing, but if you slip through the door across from him into a restricted area, and throw the same beer case at the same spot, he’ll suddenly think the noise is something that needs to be investigated. Is this the best we can do in a 2016 game? Prague is a well-built city, not too big and with lots of stuff to meander around and climb over, but the shallow mechanics work against it. When you can build a Foolproof Mobile Stealth Unit by surrounding a cop with vending machines and kicking his ass five meters away from his partner without him finding out, the world feels emptier for it, although to be fair it’s also funny as hell.

I was satisfied with the length of the game, but I felt that too much of that time was misspent in the sandbox parts, which felt padded. I mean, I dug through a lot of trash in vacant buildings in the hopes of finding a praxis kit, and buildings without people tend to be boring. Of course, guards who are dumber than cameras are a little boring, too. Their sandbox focus here reminds me of some of Thief 3’s missteps, but then I also remember the time a Thief 3 guard said “Maybe he’s hiding behind that chair,” before actually checking the chair out. In the intervening dozen years, we may have regressed, if anything.

Like most AAA games, the design is sloppy, but the things that can be made better just by throwing a lot of labor at them are very impressive: the people at Eidos who designed the architecture and decorated the apartments clearly weren’t phoning it in, and I’m sure that every time I walked past a cluttered office bulletin board without reading it, I was walking past a day’s work for somebody on the development team. But advanced decorating skills aren’t going to save a mediocre experience. I also gave up on reading all the ebooks and emails: it just wasn’t rewarding.

I think the game definitely made some strides over its predecessor when it comes to lethal firearms, ammunition types, modifications et cetera, and I suppose I’ll play with those some more if I ever convince myself to do another full playthrough, seeing as I already got the no-kills run out of the way. There were also a handful of new non-lethal options, which is always great to see, but I never really bothered with “loud” non-lethal options like the Typhoon or PEPS. I think the best thing for non-lethal variety is just that I think you now get as much XP by tranqing a guy in the head as you do with a melee takedown, which I don’t think was the case in DXHR. I didn’t watch nearly as many long, canned kung-fu moves this time around. But it would’ve been so much better to not have to deal with XP micromanagement at all.

The debate showdowns are still cool, but still stubbornly refuse to let you skip lines of text for people replaying the game, or just reloading to see what the other outcomes were. Luckily, I tended to get the result I wanted the first time around, although the CASIE aug felt a bit like one might when predicting the weather by tossing animal bones around. I have no idea if there’s still an element of RNG in terms of people accepting or rejecting your arguments. I totally missed out on Otar’s conversation though, ostensibly because I didn’t enter the room through the door I was supposed to, so I just hit him with a stun gun and missed out on his sidequests. This might be why, throughout the game, Radich Nikoladze never really seemed to amount to anything, but I don’t know.

The story was… well, once again I found the overall premise hamfisted and requiring frequent suspension of disbelief. People look at the Six Million Dollar Man with contempt, because augmentation is associated with a poor lower class–and when you consider that migrant worker slaves and prostitutes are sometimes forcibly augmented and then made to spend what little they earn on neuropozyne, this doesn’t come completely out of left field, but looking at the bigger picture, it’s still insane. People are also afraid that these cyborgs are vulnerable to security risks and might go on a killing spree at any given moment, which is justifiable, but strangely they don’t extend this same fear to the militarized police officers who walk around in powered exoskeletons. Nevermind that there’s no need for a robotic leg to be connected to the internet, or to otherwise have any component vulnerable to malware.

I don’t want to get carried away writing about the themes, but as with DXHR, I found its dystopian messaging and by extension its politics to be shallow and uninformed. It touched upon adversarial journalism and activist hacking in a very gormless, middle-of-the-road way, and portrayed collective action as inherently cultish or unpalatable. None of this is terribly surprising for a $70 million spectacle game.

I did come away appreciating a lot of people in the cast, and women stole the show in particular, including Alex Vega, Delara, and Daria, who would’ve felt right at home in an Ace Attorney game. I did find it unfortunate that Malik didn’t make a return appearance, as she was a favorite from the last game–we get Chikane shuttling us around instead, who can go fuck himself–but Eliza does return, which is cool.

Apart from the encore of some of DXHR’s most irritating design choices, my biggest problem was with gameplay bugs. On the DirectX 12 version, objects were constantly godtrashing, but when I switched to DirectX 11, I had my controls frequently locking up for 2 to 5 seconds at a time, a problem I learned to live with instead of actually fixing.

The game has eye-tracking support, and it went largely the way my experience with it in Watch Dogs 2 did. I enjoyed messing with it, although it was gimmicky and didn’t make me a better player. Getting the Icarus Dash to send you to the ledge or cover you were aiming at is hard enough when you do it with a mouse you have no trouble keeping still, so that particular functionality was quickly turned off in the eye-tracking menu. I left Aim At Gaze on, which probably would’ve frustrated me if I ever allowed myself to get into a firefight, and I also used it for the Tesla aug, which pretty much always had me starting my aim in the wrong place. That said, considering that you have to hold down the F4 key to aim the Tesla while still moving about with WASD and mouse controls, I think the game’s default control scheme was a bigger impediment than my eye-tracker ever was. Having UI elements go transparent when I wasn’t looking at them was probably the coolest trick the game had, and also probably the simplest one.

I haven’t played the expansions. I might pick them up down the road, at a discount, but to sell DLC without fixing some pretty rough bugs in your game doesn’t please me at all. Also, the way the DLC item packs are handled is staggeringly greedy: it pulls them off a server when you claim them, so you can never claim them again–if you erase your save file or start a fresh game, you’ll have to make do without them, unless you buy the damned things again with microtransactions. Frankly, this disgusts me, so it’s a good thing it has no bearing on the expansions, and their actual new mission content.

I haven’t messed around all that much with the Breach mode, and I didn’t download the useless-seeming mobile companion app. Breach might be an interesting way to expand the game with more pure challenge for those who want it, but with the game stripped of many of its assets–the characters and story and beautiful city environments–I doubt I could stay interested in sneaking around polygonal Tron-looking platforms for long. I wish they had invested the Breach development time into the main campaign instead.

The reviewer finds this game hard to get excited about, but still has a positive opinion of it. It may be somewhat fun, having good features or ideas counterbalanced by a few boring parts, bad design or other fundamentally irritating qualities that can’t easily be overlooked. Alternatively, it could be pleasant, but with nothing new to offer. Worth a little money if you’ve got the time for it.