Sunday, February 24

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Review (PS3): A Cut Above

Note: A copy of the game was provided by Mindscape Asia Pacific for the purpose of this review.

I think it's fair to say that Kojima Productions wasn't quite sure what the Metal Gear universe would look like between the events of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (MGS4); and to be fair, neither did I. I think it's also pretty apt to say that they didn't quite know how to successfully merge stealth and swordplay, as Metal Gear Rising had languished in development hell since 2009. Perhaps realising that they were in over their head, development duties were handed over to Platinum Games -- of Bayonetta fame -- in late 2011. Further to that, the decision was made to set what was Metal Gear Rising after MGS4 and add a subtitle: Revengeance. With a powerfully-silly new name and a fresh set of hands at the wheel, Raiden's passage through Vapourware Limbo was assured, though I must admit some trepidation upon first catching the reveal trailer. My doubts have finally been proven unfounded, however, as Revengeance is one of the finest brawlers that I've ever played.  

A word of warning to start, the game does its best to break you in its first hour, with a woefully-steep learning curve and some difficult boss encounters that are sure to slow your progress out of the gate. I must admit that if it weren't for the fact that I had played the demo, the duel with Blade Wolf may have affected my overwhelmingly-positive overall impression. Still, it must be said -- and it has been, well for that matter by Kotaku's Evan Narcisse, Kirk Hamilton and Chris Person -- that Platinum does a terrible job of showing you the ropes. 

I found the decision to lock (as in you'll need to "un") the dodge attack to be a huge oversight as, for games of this ilk, the ability to dance around enemy attacks is nothing shy of essential. Considering how cheap it is, it's almost criminal that it's not available from the get go. The odds are stacked against you, and early, but allow me to drop this hint: equip your repair paste (press left on the d-pad to bring up the equipment menu) ASAP and unlock the dodge attack once you earn the requisite BP; your experience with Revengeance will be all the better for it. 

The combat system is satisfying, and not just because you can rip the spines out of your enemies and cut them into as many as two hundred and fifty-three pieces (my record, it was a helicopter). Swordplay works because finesse is rewarded and there are obvious cues to prompt the player to the use the game's key mechanics. That and it looks ridiculous. Via judicious use of Blade Mode -- which allows Raiden to deal massive damage through precision strikes -- and parries, players are able to cut through most battles with a minimum of both time and fuss. If your sword strikes are sufficiently accurate, you can then pull off the Zandatsu technique, which allows Raiden to rip the repair unit (looks suspiciously like a spinal chord) out of pretty much any enemy combatant to replenish life and blade energy. There's a lot to take in and not every fight will go according to plan, but when it does, the feeling of exhilaration and raw power that you'll feel is unmatched. 

If you're having trouble with timing your counters or miss cues to enter Blade Mode against vulnerable enemies, you can still grind your way through most battles by using standard attacks and combos which will have Raiden breakdancing foes to their knees, perhaps even removing them in the process. Your garden variety cyborgs can be filleted without much ceremony, but the larger foes -- and believe me, they're as numerous as they are diverse -- usually require a bit of a warm up before the optimum conditions for surgery are met. There's also unlockable melee weapons and secondary weapons -- including various forms of grenades and launchers -- that require just a little bit too much effort to use, but all things considered, there's plenty of ways to cut through swaths of enemy combatants. 

Boss fights and the narrative context surrounding them evoke thoughts of Old West showdowns, Might Morphin Power Rangers' level ceremony and Dragon Ball Z-esque speed and scale. There's only one real disappointment, though on the whole, these encounters are a great fit as there are almost no cheap hits, plenty of forgiving quick-time events and some truly spectacular visual sequences on offer. Combat rules apply to boss fights as well, so you can parry the majority of their attacks, but, as with most other encounters, you can combo your way to a win without need of precise counters. In another nod to its developer's progeny (Bayonetta and Devil May Cry), some fights repeat, but the fields in which they take place can vary, meaning that the tactics required are different. These large scale bouts are a real highlight and some even stand amongst the best I've seen in brawlers past. 

Camera quirks and unresponsive context-sensitive commands do spoil the party somewhat, but with a bit of patience safe passage is all but assured. Camera position is key to successful parries as you need to meet your opponent's strike with a directed light attack. Whenever there's any distance between Raiden and an opponent, the player's view of the battlefield will most often be obscured; in that you'll either lose sight of your intended target or, perhaps more troubling, lose sight of the healing items or collectibles for which you had decided to put yourself in harm's way. Ninja Kills (read: stealth kills) are stomach-churningly brutal, but managing to wrestle the camera and position required to perform them are often not worth your while. In the grand scheme of things, these are minor quibbles, but know that frustration is unavoidable when seeking revenge with a vengeance. 

I should also note that movement is a disorienting joy thanks to the magic of the Ninja Run command. By holding the R1 (or presumably, Right Bumper) button, players can traverse obstacles and deflect gunfire. My favourite game mechanic since Dishonored's "Blink" also allows for Raiden to attack on the move and proves invaluable in some of the game's more difficult battles. Camera issues plagued most every run I went for, but an obscured view never caused me to die. Frustrating and fun in equal measure. 

In terms of presentation, Revengeance is an unrelenting force, assaulting the senses with jarring contradictions in tone, generation-leading visuals and hilaribad (hilariously-bad) hair metal to score the affair. At its core, this is supposed to be the harrowing tale of a grown child soldier coming to grips with the ethical malaise of the war economy; but in terms of execution, it's an absolute clusterfuck comprised of disturbing imagery and awkward humour. To give you an example of what's in store: following on from a reference to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: Secret of the Ooze is a disturbing revelation regarding the nature of Raiden's enemies. Memories of Vanilla Ice tainted by the thought that I may have been battling with what are essentially child soldiers... sometimes it's a little too much to compute. 

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is a Metal Gear game for lovers of 3D brawlers that are synonymous with Platinum Games and its origins. A playthough will only last five hours, but multiple difficulty levels and a slew of VR Missions should serve to keep the disc spinning in your console of choice. Those looking for tense stealth action and gunplay need not apply, as these elements are a mere afterthought in this package. The camera and some control quirks provided frequent frustration, but I found myself enjoying Revegeance more than the games that it apes. It's a gloriously-violent, brutally-difficult, fast paced and off-puttingly hilarious spin on the storied franchise that simply demands your time and money. 

A cut above the rest.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is set to be released in Australia and New Zealand on February 26; although, if my shopping trip is anything to go by, you should be able to buy it now from your retailer of choice. If you want to be my best friend in the universe, feel free to buy me the Collector's Edition which comes with a Play Arts Kai Raiden action figure. 

Thursday, February 14

DmC: Devil May Cry Review (PS3): Old Dog

One night on the week before Christmas in 2001, I arrived home from a long shift of fish mongering to find a gift from my best friend: Devil May Cry for the PlayStation 2. I was speechless; never before had anyone (other than my parents) spent that much money on me for any occasion. I was also somewhat troubled by the fact that I had no idea what to expect from this game that featured a striking, white-haired man on the front cover. Rather than swim around in feelings of gratitude and uncertainty, I booted up my gift and Matt and I started playing.

We laughed, we died (oh so many times), and we played into the early hours of the next morning. Despite our best efforts, we stalled at the third mission, unable to defeat the Phantom at its end. For days I persisted and finally triumphed - but that was only the beginning of my struggle. The fight against Nightmare held me for weeks, and it took me about two months to finally defeat Mundus and finish what remains one of my favourite video games of all time. 

I've played every entry in the series, and while I have a special place in my heart for the original Son of Sparda, I must admit that I was relieved to see that Capcom had handed the reins to Ninja Theory after the festival of backtracking that was Devil May Cry 4. The English developer is renowned for creating some of the best looking games on current generation hardware (Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and Heavenly Sword), and while they were yet to create anything mechanically compelling, I had faith in their vision. 

That faith has paid off. 

New tricks
Save for a new haircut and duds, this is pretty much the same Dante I've fought with for over a decade. Yes, there's new weapons as well, but in terms of tone and flow, this is strikingly similar to previous instalments. It's also easier (at least in terms of the Normal difficulty setting) and the scoring system is far softer, but Ninja Theory pay tribute and do justice to the series that internet trolls have campaigned against with relative benignity. 

The reboot reinvigorates the franchise with some satisfying, grappling hook-heavy platforming, glorious visuals that are rich with colour, and a combat system that does just enough to stand apart from its predecessors. This old dog has some new tricks in store for you, but it really is that old dog that you know and love. Call off the petitions, protests and other meaningless acts of slacktivism!

Slow start to a Savage call
The greatest criticism I can level at DmC is that it takes a little too long to get going. It takes until just shy of the halfway mark for the training wheels to be taken off, and for the combat system to reach its addictive potential. Sure, the narrative is reasonably compelling in the initial stages; but with the swordplay failing to match the drama of angels, demons and the realm in between, I struggled to maintain interest. 

Once the Devil Trigger is pulled, however, I found myself hooked. Hurtling across battlefields of varying sizes, controlling crowds of fierce enemies and making judicious use of weapons with varying affinities is great fun. I was worried that the need to use angelic and demonic weapons against specific enemies would be cause for frustration, but opportunities to unlock and upgrade weapons and attacks are afforded regularly, and the combat system never tires as a result. 

The pumping, industrial-approaching-dubstep score and sound effects were key to my enjoyment of the brutal combat. It's easy enough to feel powerful, switching between guns and heavy melee weapons, but hearing a guttural "SAVAGE!!!" amongst it all really gets the blood pumping. The various S words that are screamed as you ascend the combo ranking system, paired with the fluid animation and positively ferocious attacks all make for a satisfying experience that, at times, reaches the heights of series' best entry, Devil May Cry 3: Dante's Awakening. As a series veteran, I was ultimately pleased with what Ninja Theory had cooked up. 

Still tough... and a little rough
As I mentioned previously, DmC, at the Normal or "Devil Hunter" setting, is easier than the average Devil May Cry game. In fact, it's the easiest entry since the woeful Devil May Cry 2. Not to say that veteran combatants will be left wanting of a challenge though, as there's four extreme settings waiting for any players that finish the game. I've started my "Son of Sparda" run, and be rest-assured that the mix of enemies and remixed damage model have me failing like the days of old. 

There were some other quirks that impacted on my experience. The PlayStation 3 version features some painfully-long loading times as well as some frame rate hitches during cut-scenes. These graphical issues are made all the more apparent when the silky smooth flow of combat transitions to a stumbling mess of a scripted sequence. Still, make no mistake: DmC is stunning, if not perfect to behold. 

It's also worth noting that the boss fights fail to deliver anything near as challenging as a wave of Dreamrunners and Butchers. These screen-hogging encounters are time consuming though, so you may find yourself tuning out when you really should have your wits about you. The last two encounters in particular proved very underwhelming, if not visually spectacular. Speaking of Dreamrunners and Butchers, the run-of-the-mill enemies are where you'll see the fruit of Ninja Theory's labour. Each is stunning, colourful, and a perfect fit for the series. The big guys may not pack any sort of punch, but the everyday creatures show where the inspiration went. 

Devil May Care
Look, if you're wanting the white-haired rock star with washboard abs, you'll get the stomach and the attitude. If you're after a quality brawler with enjoyable platforming sequences and a serviceable story, you'll come away content. It's a little slow to get going and it doesn't do anything too drastic with the established formula, but once you first pull the trigger, you're in for a real treat. Highly recommended; the first great game of 2013. 

Tuesday, February 5

Darkness II Review (X360 - Single player): Eye of the Needle

It was the second time that I played through chapter 4 when it happened: opening double doors to reveal a pool hall, goons with eyes on the door and guns raised. My response was gloriously violent and cool. That's right I said it, "cool". I picked up a pool stick with my Darkness arms, waited for two of my opponents to cross paths and then released it. The action on screen slowed to a crawl as the improvised projectile pinned both men to the wall in an explosion of crimson. Once the impact of my violent act had sunken in, I could then hear Tone Loc's rendition of "Wild Thing" on a nearby radio.

Like I said, "cool."

The Darkness II is loaded with ridiculously violent sequences of varying length where the player character, the returning anti-hero, Jackie Estacado is the perpetrator. It should be difficult, if not impossible, to relate to a man capable of such actions - even if they are carried out at the behest of a supremely-evil weapon. By putting the protagonist in the hot seat (read: in front of the camera) in between acts, however, you're comfortable that there's a person underneath the deceptive, symbiotic beast. Sometimes you think he may even be a person worth saving. The Darkness itself, which is once again expertly voiced by Mike Patton, is the true star of the show, but Jackie and select members of the supporting cast also deliver convincing performances. It's a predictable tale, but it's also oddly moving.

The pace of Jackie's second adventure rarely lets up, but an expansive range of "talents" ensure that you're never overwhelmed. By the end of my "New Game +" run, I could summon a swarm of killer bugs, suspend goons in mid-air and see as well as shoot through walls... all at once. Even without a great deal of "essence", however, I could still impale and eviscerate enemies with pipes and fan blades, use my Darkness tendrils to hold a car door to shield myself from enemy attacks, and swipe anything that crept into close quarters. With the Darkness as your ally -- or master, as it were -- no challenge is too great. 

Seriously, even on the hardest difficulty, there's nothing that can't be overcome with the right selection of talents. I found myself following the same enjoyable routine, regardless of the difficulty level selected: shoot the lights, stun enemies with Darkness powers (if charged), then spray the area until clean. Checkpoints are doled out pretty generously (even popping up in boss fights) and the campaign runs pretty smoothly as a result. In my experience, a second playthrough is pretty much mandatory.

Boss fights are the weakest aspect of the campaign, with your opponents posing no match for a decent set of talents. Combining Swarm with Gun Channeling ends most encounters pretty quickly, and average goons are thrown in to allow you to regenerate health and stock up on ammo. Raising the difficulty level does change the dynamics of these battles somewhat, but a calm nerve and steady hand (and Swarm and Gun Channeling) should see you through.

I should also mention that there's quite a lot to distinguish this game from its predecessor. Yes, they both boil down to hyperviolent first person shooters, but the sequel features striking cel-shaded visuals, a (for the most part) different set of abilities, and it even provides a satisfying follow up to the events of the original. The Darkness II is a truly great sequel that's well worth the hard-earned cash and time of any fans of the first game.  It might only take about five hours to reach the conclusion, it's explicitly violent -- to the point where I don't know what right-thinking individual would afford it an MA15+ rating -- and you'll guess the ending well before it comes, but I thoroughly enjoyed my second stint enveloped in the Darkness. 

Monday, February 4


For the last few weeks, I have been struggling to write. I've been struggling to focus. I've been struggling full stop.

There's something about trying to return to normality after disappointment that's utterly distracting. I could just label it "depression," but I'm operating under the assumption that as a writer (or at least, an aspiring one), I should be able to dress it up as something more complex or sexy. Although, sometimes it pays to be concise: things didn't work out. 

What this means for me is that, above all, writing to a structure is proving exceedingly difficult. I've had half of a review written for The Darkness II for a few days. I've been struggling to come up with even a subtitle for my Sonic & All-Stars Racing: Transformed review. I know what I think about these games, I'm just having trouble articulating that in a way that doesn't read cliched (feel forced, etc, etc). 

Funny thing is, I think the two, aforementioned titles represent some of the best released in 2012. The Darkness II is not only a worthy sequel to one of the better early "next gen" shooters, it's also a really good sequel in that it retains what worked from its predecessor and adds enough new stuff to feel worthwhile. There's actually quite a lot to fit under the "new" marquee: a vastly different visual style, new powers, "quad-wielding," and some solid character development (wrapped up in a thoroughly predictable plot). There is a multiplayer offering too, but I'm finding it hard to commit to anything that involves more than myself of late. Something to do with the need to believe that I'm making some progress. 

Sonic & All-Stars Racing: Transformed (henceforth referred to as Sonic Transformed for the sake of my sanity) is the best kart racer I've ever played. Sorry if I cut to the chase too quickly, but it is. Haven't even been able to find live opposition (I'm rocking the Vita version, FYI) and I'm prepared to commit. If you have any love of racing, vibrant visuals and old school Sega magic, pick it up now. 

That's muhfuqqin' Joe Musahi ridin' a motorbike, dawg. 

I'll try and formulate something more rigid in terms of opinion on these games on the near future.