Sunday, January 10, 2016

A ranked list of every 2015 release that I played

Fun fact: I do actually keep an active log of the games I play in a given year (as well as a constantly-changing to-do list), so I thought it'd be fun, as I've done before, to rank every 2015 release that I've played. First note is that I generally try to occupy my time with good games, which is why there are few outright bad titles on this list; most of what's here is at least passable. Secondly, bear in mind that remasters of games released prior to 2015 weren't in the running for my GOTY list, hence why stuff like Majora's Mask 3D and Rare Replay weren't on my top ten despite placing higher than some of the games that were.

* re-releases or remasters of older games
^ games that I admittedly didn't spend much time with

74. Godzilla
73. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5
72. #IDARB
71. Tower of Guns ^
70. Submerged
69. Mario Tennis: Ultra Smash ^
68. Drizzlepath
67. Evolve
66. The Order: 1886
65. Star Wars Battlefront
64. Until Dawn
63. Just Cause 3 ^
62. Apotheon ^
61. 404Sight ^
60. Dying Light ^
59. La-Mulana EX *
58. Spectra ^
57. Kick & Fennick ^
56. Xeodrifter *
55. Batman: Arkham Knight ^
54. Cosmophony ^
53. The Static Speaks My Name
52. Halo 5: Guardians
51. Oblitus
50. Mushroom 11
49. Pokémon Shuffle
48. God of War III Remastered *
47. Broken Age ^
46. The Old Tree
45. Final Fantasy Type-0 HD *
44. Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin *^
43. Project CARS
42. MonsterBag ^
41. Game of Thrones: A Telltale Games Series
40. Rise of the Tomb Raider
39. Castle in the Darkness
38. Disorder
37. Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX *
36. Zero Punctuation: Hatfall - Hatters Gonna Hat Edition
35. 0RBITALIS
34. Her Story
33. Yoshi's Woolly World
32. Rebel Galaxy
31. Pillars of Eternity
30. The Mammoth: A Cave Painting
29. Cubot *
28. King's Quest
27. Hook
26. Mad Max
25. I Am Bread
24. Fallout 4
23. Titan Souls
22. Kirby and the Rainbow Curse
21. Splatoon
20. Transformers: Devastation
19. Helldivers
18. Downwell
17. Tales from the Borderlands
16. Axiom Verge
15. Undertale
14. Environmental Station Alpha
13. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
12. Jotun
11. Rare Replay *
10. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate
9. Hand of Fate
8. The Beginner's Guide
7. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
6. Ori and the Blind Forest
5. Grow Home
4. Rocket League
3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3D *
2. SOMA
1. Bloodborne


Wednesday, January 6, 2016

These are the ten best games of 2015 and I'm not wrong unless I am

Before you ask, yes, that's Mad Max, and no, that's not on my list. That just happens to be the game that I've been playing lately (acting as my Just Cause 3 refugee camp of sorts) and I like that particular screenshot. Perhaps there'd be some iconography in a burning wasteland had this been a worse year for games, but eh, 2015 wasn't bad. Unless we're talking about endings, in which case, yeah, 2015 sucked.

This abundance of games unable to stick their landings has ultimately made me too paranoid to award top ten honors to two particular standout titles that, for one reason or another, I haven't finished yet. So I'll just hand out a couple of honorable mentions and then dive into the best releases of the year that I actually played all the way through.

The first is Undertale, which might just be the best-written video game in years, and I'm certainly not alone in that sentiment; as I write this, it's one of the two finalists for GameFAQs' Best Game Ever poll, the other being freaking Ocarina of Time. And it's winning... by about two to one. It'd be a funny, delightful game even without the hook wherein players are encouraged to find nonviolent solutions to combat situations, but even the subversive humor couldn't quite pull this thing out of the random-encounter, turn-based JRPG fire pit without a few burns. It's absolutely worth playing, but I can't back that up with a complete image of the game yet.

The other is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which I haven't finished because it's so goddamn enormous. This is the rare instance of a game perhaps providing too much worthwhile content, with a world virtually unrivaled in scope for a single-player RPG, and in which even the throwaway missions have purpose and context both mechanically and within the story. I stopped not because I got sick of it, but because even after dumping a hundred hours into this monster, I'm intimidated by how much more of it I still have to see.

I can't personally say where this ranks among 2015's best until I've seen the whole thing myself, but against near-unanimous praise and a seemingly endless bombardment of awards, I'm sure CD Projekt won't lose much sleep over one no-name critic omitting it from his top ten. Besides, I have no issue with this being the GOTY favorite across the board, not when The Witcher 3 so clearly raises the bar for the attention to detail we should be expecting from open-world RPGs.

So with that out of the way, here are my ten favorite games of 2015. In a rare showing of efficiency, I've actually reviewed all of them, so links aplenty.

10. Jotun (PC)

Comparing a game to Shadow of the Colossus is a slippery slope for anyone. Usually, it sets up unrealistic expectations against a wall that can never be scaled. It's an even trickier comparison for me to make, though, because (a) I don't like Shadow of the Colossus and (b) that's a viewpoint that the vast majority of gamers cannot relate to. When I compare something to Shadow, I'm referring to the hole that it left wide open.

So when I say that Jotun is a lot like Shadow of the Colossus, try not to read into that as a statement on the game's quality (though I do actually think it's better). It's more a matter of attitude and structure. This is a slow-paced, melancholy trek through a beautiful but threatening world, and yeah, maybe there are some boss battles against screen-filling monsters, but if that's all there was to the game, they'd just turn into white noise. (Speaking of 2015 releases, this is the crucial mistake that Titan Souls made.)

Instead, these grandiose run-ins with gods are merely the climactic components of a more downplayed audiovisual showcase. Jotun employs Norse mythology out of some noble desire to actually respect and adequately explore the subject material, going so far as to hire Icelandic voice actors for authenticity. The hand-drawn visuals are impossible not to compare to The Banner Saga (high praise), and the soundtrack is one of the year's best. This all underlines that Jotun is the rare god-killing game in which killing gods is a little beside the point. (Review.)


9. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate (3DS)

I'd made a prior attempt to get into the notoriously impenetrable Monster Hunter series, and truth be told, it may be a matter of circumstance that the fourth entry was finally the one to pull me over. I'd requested a review key just for the hell of it, and this just so happened to be the first game Capcom sent us in years, I'm told. So I was forced to finally figure Monster Hunter out under pressure of work ethic.

Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate is full of numbers, and the only real assurance that I can give new players now that I've stepped over is that, in time, the game will explain what all of these numbers mean. But don't worry about the numbers. Worry about the game's central and universal appeal: the satisfaction in slaying big, ugly monsters. I don't mean to undersell the game's astonishing depth, because people wouldn't be spending thousands of hours on these things if there wasn't some meat on the bone, but MH4U's largely story-free structure means that it's a game that lasts until you're satisfied with it. That could mean mastering one weapon or all of them.

In the couple of weeks I spent with MH4U leading up to the review embargo, I devoted nearly as much time to this game as I did my job, and it wasn't a struggle; the game is that engrossing, that rewarding, that high on content. The only reason it ranks so low on the list is the hardware limitations. An action-heavy game such as this is borderline unplayable without a second analog stick, which the 3DS inconveniently doesn't have. That means either importing a clunky peripheral or caving for the New 3DS, an upgrade that Nintendo has justified about as well as Game Boy Micro. Not an easy sell, but MH4U knows what it owes you and pays you back with interest. (Review.)


8. Hand of Fate (PC)

This game has presented me with a bit of a challenge as a critic, because nothing about Hand of Fate actually sounds good. It's a roguelite. It's card-based. Presentation is minimal. Combat is pure Arkham worship. Every screenshot makes the game look more boring than the last. Even the title sucks. Had I been offered the chance to review this pre-release, I'd likely have Googled it and turned it down. Then I'd have heard wonderful things about it, bought it with money, and felt silly. But not too silly, because that money would encourage the indie scene to produce more deceptively clever games such as this.

I've no doubt that Hand of Fate was made on a tiny budget, but once you've played it, it's hard to dismiss the game's simplistic look as anything less than a deliberate stylistic choice. It's mainly because the one source of personality that we do get, the Dealer himself, is one of my favorite concoctions to come out of any game this year. Funny and sinister in equal proportion, his abundant dialog is a counterbalance to the crude illustrations and text boxes that comprise every actual "scene." Because those are irrelevant. They're just cards, and it's all just an illusion. But the Dealer? His powers are real, as he frequently reminds you. The game is just a game, but Hand of Fate is still rife with intrigue elsewhere.

Beyond its presentational charm, Hand of Fate is both fun and highly approachable; its rules and mechanics are easily grasped, and rounds are short. While there is a "campaign," there almost didn't need to be; Hand of Fate perfectly lends itself to controlled, easily-digestible bursts, the sort of thing a player can consume at a pace of their choosing. I take issue with the game's final level (which piles on the handicaps to the point that finishing it feels like a matter of blind luck), but Hand of Fate is otherwise one of 2015's most pleasant surprises. Play it. There's no game on this list that I'm more sure you'll enjoy. (Review.)


7. The Beginner's Guide (PC)

Of the five people who discussed The Beginner's Guide on the GameCritics podcast a couple of months ago, two hated the game so much that they filed for refunds, the third expressed regret that he hadn't filed for a refund, and the fourth voiced his disgust that the game was even being dissected to the degree that its creator wanted. I was the fifth, and here The Beginner's Guide sits among my favorite releases of the year. A divisive game, this one.

It's framed as a collection of unfinished design projects by a person named Coda, compiled and sold by his acquaintance, Davey Wreden, who stumbled upon the cursed blessing of success a couple of years ago with The Stanley Parable. It's a ruse, of course, and that's common knowledge by now, if only via the understanding that there'd be some severe legal ramifications of this guy releasing another person's work for profit, explicitly without said person's approval. But when I first played The Beginner's Guide knowing nothing about it, I had no reason, at least initially, to spot the bluff. I believed I was playing witness to nonfiction, which made me personally invested in the game's highly fictional story without even realizing it.

The Beginner's Guide is the sort of thing that always excites me in the video game medium: a narrative told in a manner that I've never seen before. Wreden's plea here is simply not to be a selfish friend, and while it's not a complicated message, it's conveyed here with one of the craftiest uses of the unreliable narrator device that I've yet seen in a game, as Wreden himself directly lies about what it is that we're even playing. And yeah, the power of something like that can only last so long in the spoiler-frenzy Twitter age, but while the window for experiencing The Beginner's Guide fresh has passed, I'll be in admiration of Wreden's push to expand the boundaries of interactive storytelling long after the shock isn't so shocking. (Review.)


6. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC)

Can a game be one of the year's biggest standouts and most volatile disappointments simultaneously? Konami certainly tested that theory, and yes, I'm putting the blame on them rather than Kojima himself. We may never know what the hell is going on between those two, but the abundant unresolved threads left dangling in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain's disaster of a plot paints an unmistakable image of an incomplete product. And now that Kojima has cut ties with the company and Konami has expressed intent to move on with the franchise without him, there's heartbreak in the likelihood that we will never get to see the auteur's complete vision of this saga. After three decades, it's an anticlimax.

But none of this stops The Phantom Pain from inevitably ruining every stealth game that releases after it. They'll all feel incomplete without Reflex Mode, and they'll all feel laughably behind the times without sprawling sandbox maps in which enemy alertness changes organically, convincingly and persistently. I'd have thought that we were largely past the point of technology being used to innovate, that new generations of hardware are more and more coming to mean prettier graphics and not much else. But The Phantom Pain's depth and scope are the sort of thing we wouldn't have seen five or ten years ago.

The Phantom Pain may be "about" vocal cord parasites and a woman who wears a skimpy bikini because she breathes through her skin (ugh), but really, it's about strapping hot air balloons to bears. It's about gold-plating your attack helicopter and calling in air raids soundtracked by "The Final Countdown." It's about bases with countless routes, full of enemies who become alerted to your presence and actually stay that way. I accidentally deleted my save file for The Phantom Pain, and while it was an anticlimax in a game full of them, it also proved that even with well over a hundred hours logged, the only way to pull myself away from this thing was to go cold turkey. (Review.) (Silly spoiler piece.)


5. Ori and the Blind Forest (PC)

This comparison may seem a little out of left field, but Ori and the Blind Forest reminds me just a hair of Pixar's Up. Not because the animation is incredible (though, by god, is it ever), but because, if you'll recall, Up had a brief introductory sequence that could very easily have functioned as a beautiful, devastating, self-contained story in its own right. That's how I feel about Ori's opening chapter. Before the game proper even begins, developer Moon Studios subjects us to more warmth, despair and heartbreak in ten minutes than most 50-hour games could match.

Of course, Ori is an excellent Metroidvania in and of itself, the standout in a subgenre that's not exactly had a sparse showing. Part of the reason I'm not terribly bummed out by the Metroid series being so missing-in-action lately is that my thirst for games like these is regularly quenched by the indie scene. We got some great Metroid lookalikes this year (Axiom Verge is the obvious example, and I've recently been getting furiously invested in the terrific Environmental Station Alpha), but I'll always lean slightly in favor of releases like Ori that complement the overlapping, constantly-expanding design principles with their own unique worlds and the mechanics that correspond. You do things in the titular blind forest that you'll certainly never do on Planet Zebes or its countless derivatives.

But while I don't want to discount how much fun Ori is, there's no escaping that its audiovisual splendor is its biggest and most immediate appeal. This is the most beautiful 2D game I've ever played, and it's got the music to match it. (If I do a blog entry on the year's best soundtracks, Gareth Coker's work here will be an easy #1. Nothing else even comes close.) Ori really feels in line with a Studio Ghibli production, and not just on a superficial level. It's cute, it's simple, and it's got very little dialog; anyone can follow this. But it's also dark, mature and deeply moving, tackling the complications of life that kid-friendly content such as this often forgets that it's still allowed to address. What a magnificent game. (Review.)


4. Grow Home (PC)

When this released completely under everyone's radar early in the year, I expressed my bafflement that a game so charming, creative and innocuous could come from Ubisoft. Consider, though, how much lip we give Ubisoft games for always doing the tower-climbing routine. Then consider that Grow Home is essentially a game singularly about climbing a massive tower. The tower in question is actually a beanstalk, but you get my point. Maybe Grow Home isn't quite as out-of-character as we'd once assumed.

But I'm not down on climbing things in video games. I enjoy it, even. I enjoyed it in the original Assassin's Creed way back in 2007, and I still enjoy it today, however much that series has run the mechanic into the ground. If the immediate reward for slaying a massive boss is to watch an overelaborate death animation and then stand triumphantly over its corpse, then the immediate reward for a tricky platforming section should to be to gaze down on the land from which you were once looking up. Grow Home is all about that, set in one persistent level, where at any point the game's draw distance tells the full story of your journey up until that moment. By the time the game ends, you're miles into the sky and it shows.

The game certainly isn't light on smaller charms, either. There's the way your robot is procedurally animated, or the way climbing makes good use of the physics engine and actually takes work and focus. There's the low-poly-count simplicity of the game's visual style, or the delightful chirps and hums that comprise its audio component. There's the fact that Grow Home is rife with collectibles that are totally optional, only there if you're into that sort of thing, like I am. It all works so well, and with such a simple formula, that you have to wonder why it's so unique, or why it took Ubisoft to make it. A few more games and I might consider forgiving them for Assassin's Creed: Unity. Well, okay... a lot more games like this. (Review.)


3. Rocket League (PC)

If there's one game this year that's even more difficult to sell than Hand of Fate, it's probably Rocket League (though they're pretty evenly matched for bland, nondescript titles). In this case, though, it's less about the game being composed of unappealing elements and more about the setup being so simple. It really is just soccer with cars. It's really no more complicated than that.

Is it, though? I don't play sports games, nor do I play sports in real life, nor do I even really watch sports in real life aside from American football. So why does throwing RC cars into the mix make this so much more appealing? I think it's because it translates athleticism into a language I understand. I mean, let's not beat around the bush here: I don't play sports because I'm crap at them. I'm not fit, I'm not in shape, and I have poor reflexes. But driving a car with an Xbox 360 controller? That I can do. I've got plenty of experience with that.

It's rare for me to get terribly invested in multiplayer games, so it's probably not a coincidence that the one multiplayer game this year that I spent a lot of time with is one I'm actually kind of good at. Suddenly, all of the adrenaline rushes usually reserved for actual athletes I'm experiencing in my pajamas, at my desk, at three in the morning while snacking on Cheez-Its. Of the hundreds of Rocket League matches I've played, not a single one didn't, at least for a split second, make me feel like I belong on a varsity team. Credit to the game for also sticking to its strengths. There's no campaign, no story, no extraneous bonus modes, nothing beside the point. Just a terrific concept executed as perfectly as it can be. (Review.)


2. SOMA (PC)

Here's your proof that scores don't mean anything. I awarded SOMA four stars out of five, citing some disparity between its horror elements and overarching plot, and yet I honestly considered giving this the top spot, well above a number of higher-scoring releases. The plot really just got to me that much.

SOMA hasn't been getting much attention on year-end lists, and the optimist in me believes that this only means that more people need to play it (or finish it). If that's the case, I'm still staying quiet on where SOMA goes in its final act, and will simply say that this is the ballsiest, most affecting ending to a game that I've seen in years. Frictional Games' vision of the future is oppressively bleak, perhaps hopelessly so, and SOMA's conclusion inspires some very important questions about holding on when all is lost, and what we even define as "lost." Many sci-fi stories have pondered over whether or not machines can have souls, but few have so poignantly linked that question to humanity's own survival as a species.

This is the annual entry for games that I wouldn't call traditionally "entertaining" so much as depressing and introspectively exhausting (an honor previously bestowed to Spec Ops: The Line, Papers Please and The Banner Saga), but if you have a soft spot for imaginative, thought-provoking and ultimately uncompromising science fiction, I beg you to play SOMA while the statute of limitations on spoilers is still active. If you're at all like me, the ending will leave you staring at the credits with your mouth agape. (Review.) (Spoiler piece discussing the game's message.)


1. Bloodborne (PS4)

Some may call this choice a predictable one, but since I failed to recognize the brilliance of Dark Souls back when it was initially released (and since I wasn't doing GOTY articles back then anyway), this may be my first, last and only chance to acknowledge Hidetaka Miyazaki's work in such a manner. Even if From Software re-emerges from the rut of dark medieval fantasy after the release of Dark Souls III in a few months, it's unlikely that they'll even stumble upon a pairing as perfect as "Souls meets Lovecraft" again.

Seriously, how cool was it that they completely kept this angle out of the marketing? And how in keeping is it with the correlation between expanding knowledge and creeping dread found in the best works of cosmic horror? The Souls series' cryptic storytelling methods have become one of its defining characteristics; we enter one of these things anticipating a search for answers, and we know that From won't make it easy on us. But just as the characters at the heart of any great Lovecraftian tale come to realize that ignorance is bliss, the answers we find at the root of Bloodborne's mysteries prove infinitely more terrifying than a simple werewolf plague. It's a wondrous, dizzying downward spiral into madness.

In discussing where Bloodborne ranks among the other Souls games, I've heard plenty of arguments that I can't really disagree with -- that the RPG elements have been needlessly toned down, that farming for blood vials is a chore when you're stuck, that the visual style becomes a bit wearying after a while, that the Chalice Dungeons are awful, and so on. They're all valid points, but none of them can sully the fact that this is perhaps the best Lovecraftian story in a medium that also includes Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem. It's a one-two punch that I never realized I even wanted until I had it. What a thrill it is to truly discover a Souls game again. Time will tell if Miyazaki and his team will ever be able to replicate this feeling, but it seems unlikely. Bloodborne is too perfect a formula. (Review.) (Post-script.) (DLC review.)

Now, here's the other stuff...

Most overrated: Her Story
Most underrated: I Am Bread
Most overlooked: Jotun
Most visually striking: Ori and the Blind Forest
All-out best-looking game: Mad Max
Best story: SOMA
Best writing: Undertale
Best character: Loader Bot (Tales from the Borderlands)
Best original soundtrack: Ori and the Blind Forest
Best licensed soundtrack: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Biggest surprise: Hand of Fate
Biggest disappointment: Halo 5: Guardians
Most enjoyable bad game: Pokémon Shuffle
Least enjoyable good game: Undertale
Game that I spent the most time with: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Game that I spent the least time with before judging: Tower of Guns
Game that I most wanted to play, but didn't: Super Mario Maker
Game in my Steam library that I most want to play, but still haven't: Neoncube
Best game that I still haven't finished: The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
All-out worst game that I played: Godzilla
Best non-2014 release that I first played in 2014: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Best remake/re-release: Rare Replay

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Yeah, wow, Star Wars Battlefront is totally not my thing


I'm pretty relieved right now that I didn't agree to review Star Wars Battlefront for anyone. I did it purely because I never played the original Battlefront games, but I'm not sure if that would have colored my opinion in any questionable manner. Frankly, the longtime fans seem to dislike this thing even more than I do.

I dedicated a solid chunk of my day to playing Battlefront - not enough to form a thorough critical take on it, but enough to determine that this is pretty exemplary of what I don't like about modern online shooters: unbalanced progression systems. You know how Call of Duty isn't actually a bad series in and of itself, but kind of ruined games forever regardless? This is one of the ways. It popularized this competitive multiplayer model wherein success is determined less by skill and more on total play time.

To put it in simple terms, the more time you spend with Battlefront, the better your weapons are. You start with absolute garbage, and as you rank up and earn credits, more powerful equipment is made available. There must be appeal to this system, because it's worked wonders for Call of Duty on an annual basis, but I can't for the life of me see why. It creates an unnecessary blockade for newcomers, and there's no reward in overcoming that. If I'm doing well in a multiplayer game, it want it to be the result carefully honed skills, not free time blindly dumped into a progress bar.

While I wasn't fond of Halo 5: Guardians, something I've consistently liked about the Halo series is its level playing field. The progression system in those games (with the exception of the slightest chaste hint of unlockable loadouts in Halo 4, thankfully not something that threw the balance of that title off) is purely cosmetic. Unlocking new armor doesn't give you an unfair advantage; it's just a trophy.

If nothing else, it's not a bad idea to follow Titanfall's model, wherein most of the equipment unlocks don't make you more powerful so much as they change your strategy. Would you rather be able to deflect bullets for a limited amount of time or deploy smoke that kills mounting enemy pilots? Neither is provably better; they're just different. Blowing more time with the game expands your options, but it doesn't make you a better player by default. You've got to work on that yourself.

Speaking of which, I just booted up Titanfall, and it turns out that there are currently fewer than 400 people playing it worldwide. Worldwide. What the hell, people? I'm not exaggerating when I say that this is the most acutely balanced multiplayer shooter since Team Fortress 2. It's brilliant. Why didn't it stick? Why does no one care about it anymore while nonsense like Destiny is still making Game Informer cover stories? I know that another EA shooter just released, but Jesus.

Anyway, Battlefront takes this progression system to its logical extreme, where the starting weapons have zero range (in a game that's generally unfolding on a massive scale, where being able to take out enemies from a distance is kind of important) and even less power. I've been in situations where I've stood only a few meters away from an opponent, pumped nearly a dozen rounds into him, not killed him and then watched him down me in two shots. I can even the odds by putting more time into the game, I guess, but I'm not enjoying myself enough now to continue playing. I'd rather go and play something like Titanfall, but I can't, because y'all are playing this instead.

The presentation's solid, I guess. Very Star Wars-y. I'm not hugely into Battlefield, so I'm not the authoritative voice on whether or not Battlefront is simply the reskin that people are labeling it as. What I can say is that, despite EA's pleas, I will not be playing any more of it, not when there are so many games that provide more immediate thrills.

P.S. Yeah, whoever voices Vader in this game is really, really bad at it.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let's do that thing where we rank Halo campaigns


Yesterday, Halo 5: Guardians was released. Yesterday, I finished Halo 5: Guardians. My new job hasn't started yet, in case you're wondering.

While I'm not even close to being finished with the game yet, given how much I'm enjoying its multiplayer modes, the simple truth is that I've been a Halo fan since long before I was playing console games online. Given that I've now played every campaign from beginning to end, I figured I'd put that expertise to use my doing that thing we always do whenever the latest entry in a long-running franchise is put on the market.


7. Halo 3: ODST

I'd call it unfair to hold this release up to the standards of mainline entries had Microsoft not charged $60 for it, an admission on their part that they believe ODST to be just as worthwhile a purchase as anything else on this list. Some seem to agree; I know people who were clamoring for this to be included in Master Chief Collection, disappointed when it initially wasn't and uplifted when it was later thrown in as DLC. I can see why, too, because this was Bungie's boldest experiment with the series, a sandbox game that dials back the space opera in favor of a more intimate, character-driven campaign exploring the aftermath of a major event earlier in Halo canon. (That the main characters were all voiced by Firefly cast members didn't hurt nerd cred.)

And yet this remains the only Halo game that I've never replayed (with the exception of Halo 5, which just came out yesterday, so give me a bit). In retrospect, I'm indifferent to ODST's open-world focus for the same reason I never took the bait with Destiny adding RPG elements and social play to the series' tight combat. The slower pace only gets in the way of what Halo does well, and still ODST has the distinction of being the shortest game of the franchise to date. It's a noble effort, but I'm not so enamored with these new characters that I'm happy chugging through a relatively inconsequential plot to get to know them better. This is the most forgettable title of the Halo series.


6. Halo 5: Guardians

My full review is on its way, but while I only just completed Halo 5 yesterday, I'm confident that no level of meditation on my part will push this latest release to a higher spot on this list. It's not just that Halo 5 disappoints in and of itself; it actually undoes much of the goodwill built upon in 343 Industries' previous game. In retrospect, the quasi-romance between Master Chief and Cortana in Halo 4, which was far more effective than it had any business being and established a level of narrative maturity that Bungie never showcased, now just feels like hollow setup for a bunch of schlocky, D-grade character twists that are only surprising in that they're irrational even by Halo standards. And the game has the nerve to end on a jarring cliffhanger, when the series should have learned the first time it did that.

Still, aside from some major lapses in judgment in the final two missions (the nadir being a battle against three overpowered bosses at once), Halo 5 can still claim to being generally fun to play. In fact, it's the first game in the series to natively run at 60fps, making this, to my mind, the best-playing first-person shooter on a controller to date. Seriously, I've become a PC fanatic since the last Halo game was released, and I'm still finding this thing silky smooth on thumbsticks. Unfortunately, while the polish is here, fresh ideas aren't; with Halo 5 somewhat lacking in new toys and new baddies to use them on, all we get is the same solid gunplay as always, in service of Halo's most disappointing story yet.



5. Halo 3

Typically in trilogies, the first entry establishes the basics, the sequel ups the ante, and the final chapter just sort of scratches its head and curses the previous entry for leaving the franchise with nowhere else to go. It's telling that after Bungie made us sit on such an infuriating cliffhanger for three years, the resolution itself was criminally uneventful. How is this situation resolved? Uh, through space magic, I guess. The gang gets together to essentially push a button that wipes out the Flood, ends the war and, sure, I guess strands Chief and Cortana in space just so things don't get too convenient.

I understand Bungie's desire to dial things back a bit after Halo 2 drew criticisms for collapsing under its own world-building weight, but Halo 3's nine-mission campaign essentially brought nothing new to the table while underlining some of the series' long-running issues and Bungie's refusal to address them. I'd often said that my ideal Halo game would be one in which the Flood never show up, and while that did eventually happen, that plot thread still dangles at the start of Halo 3, and the need to resolve it results in an endgame stage that very nearly rivals The Library for tedium. I'm glad that this wasn't the last we saw of Halo, partly because I just like the franchise, but also because this would have been a meager note to end on.



4. Halo: Combat Evolved

There is absolutely no getting around the fact that Halo, for all of the ways in which it revolutionized console FPSs, hasn't aged well. It's such a shame given how much the first half of the campaign is still exemplary of all of the things that Halo does well: the AI, the vehicles, and the massive outdoor battlefields. Had Bungie kept that momentum going, the game's status as a classic wouldn't constantly be second-guessed as it is today. But then the Flood shows up and everything goes to hell.

It's not just the Library, either. While that level is the series' most maligned moment, the entire latter half of Halo, with its repeated interiors and huge stretches recycled from earlier in the campaign, feels like the product of Bungie being pressured to get the game finished in time for the original Xbox's launch. And maybe that was a good thing, because who can say that whether the Xbox brand would still be around today had Master Chief been representing from day one? Regardless, we're left with a shooter that, despite all of its advances for the genre, feels frustratingly imperfect.


3. Halo 2

While Halo 2's influence in online console gaming is irrefutable, its campaign tends to be the least popular of the series, and I can see why. It's overlong, the ending is a crash course in how not to write a cliffhanger, and it delves too deep into its own self-serious mythology, with around half of the campaign told from the Covenant's perspective. But it ranks among my favorites simply for correcting the big issue with the first Halo in that it's consistent. Even when the Flood shows up early on, its appearances are staggered in such a manner that it never becomes tiresome to the same degree that it drowned out the entire second half of Combat Evolved.

So while none of Halo 2's best moments quite feel as liberating as, say, taking to the beach of the Silent Cartographer in a Warthog for the first time, it moves swiftly and to many places, holding my attention more firmly than its predecessor despite being considerably longer. And I actually like the Arbiter; he's a far more fleshed-out character than Master Chief, and his timed invisibility trick lends his missions an additional layer of strategy, particularly on higher difficulties when you need every advantage you can get. That's another thing - if you're the sort who likes to play these games on Legendary, Halo 2 offers the toughest (and thus most satisfying) challenge of the entire franchise. It's a terrific and very replayable game, and if that puts me in the minority, well, more for me.



2. Halo: Reach

This was the Halo game that I always wanted, one in which we never fight the Flood and never set foot in a single piece of monotonous Forerunner architecture. It sounds weirdly non-progressive to say that Reach is great for removing more than it adds, but this was the game in which Bungie finally addressed longtime series issues and gave us the best, most consistent Halo experience of their decade-long run with the license. When we play Halo campaigns, we want sprawling battles against intelligent Covenant AI, and that's exactly what Reach gave us, no strings attached.

And while I certainly wouldn't call Reach's storytelling a masterstroke by any stretch of the imagination, it earns points for its straightforwardness while still feeling like a vital component of the Halo equation (compared to ODST, a story that didn't need to be told). Since the original game began with a single human ship fleeing after the invasion and destruction of Reach, we already know how this prequel will end - not happily - but Bungie still wrings some surprises out of the manner in which Noble Six's story is concluded, and the level of participation that players have in closing this chapter. This was Bungie's last Halo game, and in my mind, they went out on the highest note realistically possible.



1. Halo 4

But embarrassingly enough, whereas it took Bungie a full decade to truly grasp the strengths of their own franchise, 343 Industries got it right on their first try. In jump-starting a new trilogy, they've wisely kept the aggravating Flood out of the equation, opting for a new enemy faction in the Prometheans, who are utterly fearsome but also organized enough that their presence doesn't turn Halo into a mindless shootfest. Halo 4 stands as a terrific example of how to breathe new life into a series without robbing it of what made it popular to begin with. It has no real lulls. It's outstanding.

Most impressively, though, it's the first Halo game that makes Master Chief and Cortana out to be more than simply a player avatar and an exposition machine, respectfully. In fact, I'm convinced that the only reason Halo 4's emotional payoff doesn't quite stick the landing is that we're already so used to these two characters being so one-note; for them to suddenly experience conflicts and express feelings is almost hard to grasp. But that's Bungie's fault, not 343's. Despite the many wrongs committed by the next entry's plot, Halo 4 stands as an excellent standalone experience and the series' finest hour.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

SOMA is totally a metaphor for euthanasia

Note: This article contains spoilers for SOMA. If you haven't finished the game yet, it'll still be here when you do. And if it's not still here, you'll have no evidence that I promised otherwise.

So you've finished SOMA, then, have you? I know this because you would have heeded my warning if you hadn't. So how about that ending? Real gut punch, right? I really do think this'll rank as one of my favorite games of this generation, even if it's got a couple of pacing and narrative issues that I couldn't ignore in my review. Because despite my qualms, this is the sort of thing science fiction was invented for -- to explore important human themes in situations we have not (yet) been confronted with. And while SOMA leaves you with a lot to think about (which is why I love it), I want to talk about one thing that I briefly touched upon in my write-up, which is what I perceive to be the developers' stance on euthanasia, i.e. mercy killing.

Let's briefly recap the plot. In the early 22nd century, Earth's surface is destroyed by a comet, and the only survivors are the inhabitants of PATHOS-II, a research facility at the bottom of the ocean. Resigning to the futility of the situation, the scientists devise a plan to "preserve" the human race: by creating digital copies of the remaining citizens, compiling them onto a device called the Ark, and then launching it into space, allowing humanity to continue its existence in some form regardless of what happens to the survivors' physical bodies. The protagonist himself, Simon, was the first subject of such a brain scan, and nearly a century after his death, he's been reinstated in a mechanical body for initially unknown reasons.

This is an oppressively bleak game, in large part due to the hopelessness of this situation, and how well the developers sell it. It's bad enough that most of humanity has been wiped out, but the remaining members are stuck at the bottom of the ocean, completely removed from sunlight and under constant danger of being crushed under the tremendous pressure. To make matters worse, a rogue AI called "WAU" is using a biomechanical substance called structure gel to transform anyone it can find into half-human, half-machine abominations. Humanity is, in its physical form, completely screwed. The Ark really is the only thing we're clinging to.

Near the end of the game, we meet a human named Sarah, who is untainted by structure gel but nevertheless in very poor health. She's in possession of the Ark, and she hands it over with one request: that we pull her life support, putting her out of her misery.

So, yeah, that scene obviously, unambiguously deals with euthanasia. But let's look at the broader picture here, and why I believe SOMA is also making a more nuanced statement. What makes this decision so complicated is that throughout the course of our entire journey, which spans the complete length of the PATHOS-II facility, Sarah is the only living, breathing human that we encounter. Which means, yes, she is literally the last human on Earth. She's already dying, and she wouldn't be able to reproduce and perpetuate the human life cycle by herself anyway, so we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the species is doomed. But to kill her is to make the human species extinct with our own, bare hands. It's a heavy, burdening moment.

Let's fast-forward to the ending. The Ark has been launched, and in a post-credits scene, Simon awakens in the simulation, portrayed as a lush, calming forested area. He reunites with Catherine, his companion, and expresses his relief that the plan came together and that the fate of humanity has been secured for potentially thousands of years. If you watched the scene out of context, you'd think it was a happy ending.

But it comes after the real conclusion, in which Simon successfully launches the Ark and watches in disbelief as it takes off without him. Catherine explains, as she had already done earlier in the game, that a human consciousness cannot be transferred from one location to another; it can only be copied. So while a new version of Simon is safely aboard the Ark, the one we've been controlling is stuck, left to wither away and die, alone at the bottom of the ocean.

Now, if you cater to the belief that machines can have souls and that a digital copy of a human can be human itself, this ending can be interpreted as, uh, not a complete loss, since we completed our mission and some form of Simon is indeed safe, sound and headed far away from this planet. To me, though, this ending punishes both Simon and the player for succumbing to a false sense of hope in a world where all hope is lost. Our failure to accept the fall of humanity leads to the hollowest of victories.

I mentioned in my review how vital SOMA's setting is to the effectiveness of its themes, and this is exactly what I'm talking about. We walk through unappetizing grey corridors. We hear the creak of metal as PATHOS-II bends under the pressure of the ocean. We see human corpses being reanimated into biomechanical monstrosities. We see the collapse of civilization. We watch the last human on Earth dying right in front of us. At a certain point, you have to ask yourself: What's the use? Why preserve this? We've lost the battle. It's over. If turning humans into machines is an acceptable compromise, then the ending should be a happy one. But I'm betting that for most people, it isn't.

SOMA is, at the end of the day, a game that asks us what we'd do if we were in the position to play Kevorkian with the entire human race. I think it's got a powerful message about prolonging the inevitable. Especially if you read the Ark as some sort of spiritual afterlife and, oh god, that's a completely different blog entry right there.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Not a review: The point when I stopped playing Until Dawn


Had I actually been tasked with reviewing Until Dawn, I most certainly would have found the wherewithal to complete it. But I have not been tasked with reviewing Until Dawn. It is in my house because GameFly sent it to my house. I'm going to send it back as soon as I'm done writing this. I haven't beaten it and I never will. I value broad critical perspectives, but this time I'm taking a shortcut. I hate Until Dawn, and I'm fairly certain that if I continue playing it, I'll hate it even more.

It is relevant to this discussion that I also hate Heavy Rain, adventure titles in general and virtually any game that treats interactivity as an obligation. The only exception is when the driving narrative happens to be really good; Telltale can get away with it because the first season of The Walking Dead is the only piece of entertainment to make me cry, and that's significant no matter how you look at it. The characters in Telltale games are also capable of opening drawers without chaperoning; they don't, in contrast to Until Dawn's cast, reach for said drawers and await further instructions whilst we hold a trigger and yank the analog stick about. Again: treating interactivity as an obligation. Can we not just assume that these people know how to open drawers?

Maybe not, because Until Dawn is a tribute to the slasher film, specifically the kind in which a group of insufferable teenagers travels to a cabin in a remote location on the one-year anniversary of a tragedy that resulted in the deaths of their friends and blah, blah, blah. I'd think the purpose of applying the David Cage formula to familiar cinema tropes would be to have a more personal stake in them, but I immediately wanted all of these smug, shallow, unfunny jerks dead. Maybe that's the point of a slasher movie, but then the David Cage formula dictates that we need to spend a couple of hours faffing about with no run button before we get to the juicy stuff.

By the way, this game is really high on itself for suggesting (repeatedly, through both an animated intro and abundant in-game dialog) that the choices you make will shape the narrative. Have you heard of the butterfly effect? It's the idea that something as insignificant as-- oh, you do know what the butterfly effect is, because of course you do? Sorry. The game really doesn't think you understand the concept, which is why it defines "butterfly effect" on no less than three separate occasions and uses butterflies as an indicator of whenever you've made a choice that will affect the narrative. One character even says, "Boom! Butterfly effect." The game replays this line later during a recap. I hate Until Dawn.

I made it as far as my first major encounter with whoever the villain in Until Dawn is. He'd set up a Jigsaw-like scenario in which two of my "friends" were strung up in front of a massive buzzsaw and I was forced to select which person I wanted to save. Since I know how horror villains think, I chose to sacrifice the character I wanted to save, knowing that the contraption would go against what I told it to do. That's precisely what happened, and it was a brief spark of triumph for being one step ahead of the game.

Then it hit me.

Oh god. Please don't tell me that the same character gets sliced up in that scene regardless of which way you turn the lever. I've known games that did that! The original Infamous had a dreadful sequence in which Cole had to make the classic "superhero choice" -- pick between saving a bunch of civilians or the woman he loves -- and it rearranged the circumstances behind the scenes so Cole's girlfriend would always die. That was another game that put a big emphasis on choices and consequences. Bunch of hot air that was, but at least we got a solid action-sandbox title out of it. If Until Dawn were to pull the same shenanigans, when choices and consequences are the only trick up its sleeve, that'd be a total deal-breaker. But they wouldn't do that, would they?

They did. No matter which "choice" you make during the buzzsaw sequence, the same character always gets cut in half. Which means I'm calling BS on this whole enterprise right now. Until Dawn, you're barely a game, you have no immediate thrills and your one claim to fame turns out to be a charade. A game that actually fulfills the promise of actions having consequences would be high on my list, but despite its big song and dance, Until Dawn is just like all of the others. You and David Cage should hook up.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Metal Gear Solid V: The Spoiler FAQ (with apologies to Rob Bricken)


Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is great. This is not a point that many people will be willing to challenge. I gave it a relatively glowing review a couple of days ago, stating that it "makes an absolute mockery of every genre entry that preceded it." Oh, and also the plot is crap, which is a bit of a nag for a series that has largely made it this far on the strength of its plot. This doesn't prevent The Phantom Pain from being awesome, but it does warrant criticism, and since I can't spoil the specifics in the actual review, I figured I'd do that here.

For this post, I'm stealing Rob Bricken's popular "Spoiler FAQ" format, though I doubt it'll be an issue, since no one ever reads anything that I've posted on here. Nevertheless, here's my relatively complete take on everything that The Phantom Pain's story gets wrong (or, at least, everything that I could remember, since the game's narrative failure is long and winding.) Big thanks to David Roberts for proofing this and correcting a couple of things, because what treacherous road Metal Gear's lore is.

So what's the Metal Gear series about?

It's about a soldier who led a successful mission in the '60s and the subsequent attempts to either replicate or kill him over the next five decades.

That's it?

Good heavens, no, but that's the gist of it. Though Big Boss's reputation as the greatest soldier who ever lived maybe be a little exaggerated, since it was revealed that his success in Operation Snake Eater was more or less orchestrated. But I digress.

So where does The Phantom Pain lie in all of this?

Well, after a disillusioned Big Boss left the military, he spent roughly the next decade assembling a private band of mercenaries with the help of a fellow named Kaz Miller. In 1975, his headquarters were destroyed when an inspection turned out to be a ruse. A guy named Skull Face leads the attack, which puts Snake in a coma for nine years. When he wakes up, he's, like, really angry about that.

So The Phantom Pain is just a revenge story?

Not quite. Skull Face has an evil scheme, i.e. he's engineered a deadly parasite that that's only triggered by specific languages. His intention is to use the strain to wipe out all English speakers on the planet.

Jesus. What's the point of that?

Well, he seems to think that the English language is some sort of ethnic cleanser. He's Hungarian, and he believes that the spread of English is some form of psychological warfare used to erase cultures, or something to that degree.

That certainly sounds like something Kojima would come up with. But why did he go after Big Boss specifically?

He hated Big Boss stealing the spotlight, I think?

That's weak.

Honestly, the only reason his plan fails is because Big Boss gets involved, and that only happens because he makes things so personal. He's a bit of a bumbler, really.

So who is Skull Face?

He's a guy whose face looks like a skull.

I know, but like, what's his backstory?

Remember Major Zero, your commanding officer from the first game? Turns out he actually ran a second unit that functioned as a sort of invisible cleanup crew for FOX. This unit was called XOF, because it's a mirror of FOX or something.

So Skull Face is working for Zero, then?

Well, no, actually. In fact, Skull Face is the one who eventually induces Zero's vegetative state. Turns out he was secretly building his own influence in the military to carry out his ulterior schemes.

Anything else I should know about this guy?

He's been using Huey Emmerich to build a bipedal nuclear launch platform called...

...Metal Gear?

..Sahelanthropus.

Oh. So wait, why does he need that thing when his plan revolves around vocal cord parasites?

I've spent almost a hundred hours with this game and I can't answer that. And the funny thing is that the creation of Sahelanthropus is the other thing that leads to Skull Face's defeat, since Psycho Mantis winds up taking control of it and using it to destroy his base and kill both him and his most intimidating subordinate.

Psycho Mantis is in this game?!

Don't get excited. He kinda just shows up from time to time and does the "Psycho Mantis pose" before disappearing again. He never talks and it's never really established what his motives are. It seems like he's working for Skull Face, but then he just kind of turns on him without any apparent reason.

So he possesses Sahelanthropus, which I'm assuming Big Boss must then fight?

Right.

And that's it?

No, that's not it. We may never know what was going on between Konami and Kojima behind the scenes, but it honestly feels to me like Kojima had planned for Skull Face's defeat to be the finale of the game but then rushed to include more connective tissue between the Big Boss and Solid Snake stories once he realized that this would be his final Metal Gear. So after what feels like a conclusion, up to and including a full credit roll, Kojima then introduces a bunch of additional plot threads that he doesn't have the time to properly address.

Like what?

Well, like a character named Eli, who is pretty much the worst thing about The Phantom Pain.

Who's Eli?

He's Liquid Snake, i.e. one of Big Boss's clones. The evil one, specifically. And you'll know it the minute you set eyes on him if you're even a casual fan of this series.

How does he figure into this?

He's initially known as the White Mamba and has been leading a group of child soldiers in Africa. I'm pretty sure he was only included because Kojima read Lord of the Flies right before he began writing this.

Sounds like you're jumping to conclusions.

The first time we see Eli, he's literally sitting in front of a decomposing pig head surrounded with flies. Also, the deleted ending reveals that Eli eventually forms an adult-free sanctuary on a desert island. Also, the script for said deleted ending literally refers to him as "Lord of the Flies."

Kojima's such a nuanced guy. Wait, there's a deleted ending?

Right. So after Big Boss defeats Sahelanthropus, he has it airlifted back to the new Mother Base to serve as some sort of trophy. Eli gets it running again and recruits his fellow child soldiers, who have all been taking refuge on Mother Base, to abscond with it.

Then what?

Then nothing. The proposed final mission was supposed to resolve that particular plot thread, but it was never finished. So instead, Eli just fucks off with his own doomsday machine and that's the last we hear about him.

Why does he steal it to begin with? Can you at least answer that?

Honestly, nothing about this character makes sense. His arc seems to revolve around his relationship with Big Boss, but we never actually see the two of them interacting aside from a couple of contrived boss battles in which the game's usual rules involving tranquilizers and knockouts suddenly don't apply. He seems astutely aware of the fact that he's a clone of Big Boss, since he keeps referring to him as "father," but anything driving his apparent daddy issues happens off-screen. And even before he hijacks Sahelanthropus, he's constantly wreaking havoc on Mother Base, to the point that you wonder what Boss and company see in him, why they keep him on.

Are you having fun spelling out "Sahelanthropus" over and over again?

A blast. Also, Eli has the vial of the remaining vocal cord parasites. Again, in the final game, this goes unaddressed.

How does Eli get Sahelanthropus operational again, anyway?

With the help of Huey.

What's he doing here?

Big Boss, Kaz and Ocelot are suspicious of him, partly because he's working for Skull Face, and partly because the "inspection" that led to the original Mother Base's destruction was his idea. So they kidnap him and torture him repeatedly.

Aw, poor guy.

Actually, they're totally right. He's evil, though the specifics shine a light on one of The Phantom Pain's biggest problems, which is that it relegates some of its most important chunks of lore to easily-missed audio logs, many of them unavailable until this aimless endgame bit.

Give me an example.

Well, like there's this whole subplot involving Huey's relationship with Strangelove and the child that they had together.

Ah, Strangelove! The scientist who engineered the AI in Peace Walker! What's she up to?

She's dead.

Oh shit!

Huey murdered her.

Oh shit!

They had a disagreement about using their son, Hal, for experimental research, and Huey responded by sealing her in an AI pod, suffocating her.

Oh shit!

Big Boss and crew discover this by extracting the pod and finding her skeleton inside.

Oh shit! So why do they even keep this asshole around?

Well, they coerce him into building a new unmanned tank called Battle Gear.

I bet that's fun to pilot!

We'll never know, because even when it's complete, you never actually get to use it.

Does it serve any sort of plot relevance?

Nope.

Bummer. So Huey's useless, huh?

Well, in addition to assisting Eli in escaping with Sahelanthropus, he also orchestrates an outbreak of the vocal cord parasites on Mother Base, long after Skull Face has been dealt with. This forces Big Boss to shoot a bunch of his own men to prevent the parasites from spreading.

That sounds intense.

It's a powerful sequence, but it's just sort of anecdotal in that it comes up after the parasites arc is completed and doesn't go anywhere. It's just one of many things that happens after the central story has been resolved.

But maybe seeing Big Boss having to kill his own soldiers is an important step in his transformation into the villain he'd eventually become in the original Metal Gear games?

You'd be on to something there if the character we're controlling was actually Big Boss.

I... what?

The character we're controlling isn't actually Big Boss.

Wait, what? Who is he, then?

He's a medic who works for Big Boss.

But he looks exactly like Big Boss.

He underwent plastic surgery to make himself look exactly like Big Boss.

Um, why?

So the real Big Boss can go undercover and... do... stuff.

When is this revealed?

In the very last story mission of the game. See, the very first chapter has a character who we assume is Big Boss awakening from a nine-year coma and then being led out of the hospital by a guy named Ishmael as it comes under attack by soldiers. Ishmael's face is covered in bandages, but he has Kiefer Sutherland's voice, which obviously sets off some alarms. But whoever he is, he's clearly not Big Boss, because Big Boss is the guy we're controlling.

But Big Boss isn't the guy we're controlling?

No. The final story mission of the game has us replaying this entire sequence, but with an additional cutscene that reveals Ishmael as the true Big Boss, who's actually totally intact and isn't missing any body parts.

Whose plan is this?

Zero's.

I thought Big Boss and Zero were enemies now?

They are.

OH MY GOD.

And the weird thing is that this mission is buried deep in the game, to the point that the internet seems torn on how to unlock it. You basically just have to do optional stuff until it just unlocks itself.

So wait, which Big Boss is the one who shows up later in the series?

They both do. The fake Big Boss was the villain in the original Metal Gear, and he actually did die at the end of it. The real Big Boss is the one who then shows up in Metal Gear 2 and, eventually, Metal Gear Solid 4.

What's the point of all of this?

Now there are two Big Bosses!

So do we ever actually see what caused Big Boss to take an antagonistic turn?

No. If anything, it's an even bigger mystery now, since any major developments that happen in The Phantom Pain can be dismissed on the grounds that we're not actually following Big Boss at all. We're just watching the exploits of some fuck who's convinced himself and the rest of the world that he's Big Boss, and who will die the next time in the series that he shows up.

How do you know that Zero's in on this? Is he in this game?

Not really. He's just featured in a handful of audio logs that establish his connections to every character and event in this series. Honestly, this character's entire contribution could have been written and recorded in an afternoon. Shame, too, because I actually think Zero is a fascinating character, but he's constantly given the short shrift.

Is there anything else I need to know? You mentioned that Skull Face had a subordinate?

Yeah, Volgin.

Wait, what? The main villain of Snake Eater? That Volgin?

Yeah, although it's not actually revealed that he's Volgin until the endgame stretch. Apparently, he wasn't actually killed in Operation Snake Eater, and further experimentation resulted in him developing pyrokinesis. He's nicknamed "The Man on Fire."

None of Kojima's creative juices went into character names, I'm noticing.

Want to guess what the Man on Fire's weakness is?

Water?

Correct!

I was joking, but okay.

There's a boss battle against him, and it is the biggest anticlimax in a game full of them. You literally just knock him into a pool of water that's maybe one foot deep. You do this once and he's dealt with.

That's how he dies?

No, he get trampled by Sahelanthropus when Psycho Mantis goes insane.

Seriously?

And it's only well afterward, when you have to hunt down his remains, that it's communicated through audio logs who he actually is. "Big Boss" retrieves his body and brings it back to Mother Base.

Then what?

That is the conclusion of Volgin's plot thread.

Ugh.

Have I told you about Quiet yet? The sniper who wears a bikini and never talks.

Stop.

Actually, she's largely a really cool character. Her reason for not talking is that she's carrying the vocal cord parasites from the beginning and doesn't want to trigger them. She's initially one of Skull Face's agents, but defects after she spends some time with Big Boss and develops feelings for him.

Aw, that's sweet.

She's actually one of the few components of The Phantom Pain that gets a satisfying send-off, too. Big Boss gets badly injured while the two of them are out in the field, and he needs to be picked up, so Quiet directs the helicopter pilot by, y'know, speaking, presumably activating the parasites and dooming her. So she sacrifices herself to save Big Boss. It's a beautiful scene. Unfortunately, it too is pointlessly difficult to actually find.

Do tell.

Firstly, you need to get her bond rating to max, which involves bringing her along on a bunch of missions. If, like me, you never used her, you're in for some grinding. This unlocks her final mission, and for as much fun as the rest of The Phantom Pain is, this one mission is a crash course in bad game design.

How so?

Well, for one, it's a Horde-style endurance level in a game that largely goes through great lengths to allow players to avoid combat altogether, and this is the one time when The Phantom Pain decides that stealth is completely off the table. Enemies are in constant combat mode and know where you are at all times, even when they shouldn't, as per the game's rules. Also, you're mostly fighting tanks, and they're unfairly buffed to the point that many of their shots are one-hit kills and several of them took me a couple dozen rockets to destroy.

Sounds like you've just got terrible equipment. Why didn't you just ditch that mission, upgrade your rockets, and come back when you're better prepared?

Because (a) I don't want to spend 90+ hours in a non-RPG only to settle for grinding to oblivion to clear the final mission, and (b) for whatever delightful reason, you can't actually exit this mission until you've finished it.

Is it worth it for Quiet's conclusion, at least?

I mean, kinda. It's a great scene, though it's undermined a bit by her perverted attire.

Dare I ask why she's wearing it?

She's photosynthetic. She breathes through her skin. Clothes would suffocate her.

Are you fucking kidding me?

And Kojima apparently thought this was really clever.

This game sounds awful.

It's fantastic. Seriously. It's just not great for the reasons that Metal Gear games typically are, and that's understandably thrown some fans for a loop. You should absolutely play it, but with the expectation that you're getting a revelatory approach to freeform stealth mechanics and not a cohesive, satisfying story. Because, I mean, just look at it.