*Gasp*, what's this? A new post? Some actual content? Activity for the first time in almost a year? Preposterous.
I'm not quite sure where my writing fell off. But it was likely somewhere between the insane mental load of my day job, the immense self pressure of trying to improve my own game dev skills at any given moment, and the abhorrent laziness that courses through my veins like water down the Yangtze. What's worse is that I didn't feel particularly guilty about not posting here. It felt like the lowest possible priority below, in no particular order:
So yeah, that's why I haven't posted in forever.
You can imagine then, that for me to be writing a new post, after so long, that I must really, really, really love Prey (2017). It's insane that I'm this addicted to a game (in a good way) after what feels like a century of having not really felt invested in any of the games I've played.
Full disclosure - I have played some pretty cool games over the past 11 months; Red Dead Redemption 2, SOMA, Hitman (Season 1), God Of War, as well as a metric butt load of Apex Legends. All of them were great for multiple reasons. God Of War in particular was fantastic, and was one of the few games I've (ever) played to actually have a lasting emotional impact on me. But there is a metric I use to determine if a game is great, or truly, deeply, madly incredible. And that metric is, quite simply, "Did I play it until 2AM and still lie to myself about playing for just five more minutes?"
That is something I hadn't done since playing The Last Of Us back in 2017. And it is something I have done now with Prey at least a couple of times. I haven't even finished it yet, and to be honest, even if the ending is super disappointing I don't care. The 15 or so hours I've been fully immersed in so far more than make up for any hypothetical garbage ending.
So, why do I love Prey? In summary:
If there is one thing I didn't expect at the start of the year, it was that Spider-Man For PS4 would be the game to have the biggest emotional impact on me. I saw the reviews, I saw the metacritic score and I saw how much everyone talked about the game, and it wasn't entirely surprising. Insomniac have proven themselves to be a pretty solid game developer, and their combination of game design married up with such an interesting IP was bound to turn some heads. I got Spider-Man For PS4 (and yes I will continue to add the "For PS4" part since it's such a ridiculous title) because I knew I had to take a look at it, and I wanted to complete it before Red Dead Redemption 2 came out since I had an inkling that game would also take up a lot of my time.
I went into Spider-Man For PS4 with high hopes after everything I had seen and heard about the game. And my hopes were met exceptionally well. The fast paced introduction to Peter Parker, his alter ego Spider-Man, and the version New York that they inhabit, is one of the funnest intro's to a video game I've played in years. It went a long way to help establish the atmosphere and feeling that would exude from the game for the rest of my time with it. Much like how Rocksteady captured what made Batman an interesting character to play as in the Arkham series, Insomniac managed to take the decades long history of Spider-Man, and boil it down to the basic elements so that casual fans, or even people with zero knowledge of the character, would still care about what was happening in the game.
My two biggest (and honestly, only) complaints about Spider-Man For PS4 are to do with the kitchen sink approach to the side quests/time killers, and the overall hand holding approach that the game has towards the player.
A lot has already been made of how much of the game doesn't actually involve Spider-Man himself. For parts of the play time you play as Peter Parker, his ex-girlfriend MJ Watson, another lad called Miles Morales, and you even do some basic pattern matching and circuitry connection mini-games. Whilst I did appreciate the inclusion of more elements to show off Peter Parker's more sciencey side (as far as I know that hasn't really been shown much in previous games) I do wish that they didn't take the form of the most basic concepts of puzzle design. It was almost comical when the puzzles first came up with flashy animations, and Parker explaining the extremely complex science behind what was essentially an inverse version of spot the difference.
The missions where you play as MJ or Miles also weren't fantastic. Although I did like the way that the missions would be set up as flashbacks, or as running in parallel with what you had been doing as Spider-Man, they simply weren't fun. They were chores. As you were essentially doing what you would be doing as Spider-Man, but with severely fewer options. By that I mean, you were sneaking around, distracting guards, and getting to a checkpoint. There are missions where you do this as Spider-Man, but they're just way more fun and interesting because you have a dozen different ways to go about the challenge. As MJ, all you can do is throw stuff to distract guards, and as Miles, all you can do is hack machinery (with your smartphone, natch) to distract guards. I actually liked MJ and Miles as characters in cutscenes, and I was interested in what they got up to in between missions, but I would have much preferred it if they had stuck to just being in cutscenes.
When it comes to the hand holding aspect, I'm talking about how the game often doesn't give you the option to fail. Obviously in certain aspects this doesn't always apply - combat can be challenging and dealing with different goons using different tactics was satisfying and fun - and there were plenty of times I failed there. But in many other ways the game is incredibly forgiving. Web-swinging requires way less finesse than it originally seems, the quick time events have zero challenge, enemies in stealth sections are ludicrously blind and deaf, and all of the secrets, collectables and Easter Eggs are all hidden in plain sight.
Using the collectable backpacks as an example, I thought the whole point was that they would be hidden, so that you would actually have to go looking for them, and then your reward was a new token and some Spidey memorabilia. But they're all shown on the map the moment you activate a tower (slow down there on the innovation front Insomniac), and once you get close enough you just click the right analogue stick for it to show up highlighted and shiny for the whole world to see. And this happens with every kind of challenge in the game. Whether it's Black Cat's hidden plushies sparkling at you whilst also vibrating the controller just to make sure you didn't miss them, or hidden power boxes that you find by once again clicking the analogue stick and following the shiny, glowing trail and then being told for the sixth time that day how to take out said power box, the game is terrified of the pace dropping because the player took a moment to think about something.
Those two negatives aside for the moment, I do want to talk about the way Spider-Man For PS4 handled its story, its characters and fallout from what happens. Spending time with all of the characters was surprisingly enjoyable, and although I wasn't the biggest fan of the moments where you weren't playing as Spider-Man, it did mean that the additional cast of characters meant more to me. And as things escalated towards the end of the main story, I got genuinely invested in what would be the outcome for Peter Parker and his friends and family. It became clear that not everyone was going to make it to the end, and I kept playing just to see what the conclusion would be. The ending itself, was emotional and satisfying, even if the final scene itself was a bit abrupt when it slammed to credits.
As I said before, I went into Spider-Man For PS4 expecting a good game, potentially even a great game. I didn't expect to go in and find an emotionally engaging and satisfying game. But there it was. And I look forward to seeing where Insomniac takes the series next, as they obviously have big plans for Spider-Man - I just hope that they do the same for Peter Parker, as they did so well with him here.
The original Shadow Of The Colossus was released 13 years ago. Wow. That's a long time. That's longer than most careers of everyone I know. That's before modern smartphone's existed. That's before most people had decent internet. That makes SOTC a ridiculously old game. And I played it (or at least the remake for PS4) for the first time this past month.
Playing a game a decade after everyone has already proclaimed it as one of the greatest pieces of interactive entertainment ever created, is difficult. Trying to keep expectations in check is near impossible. Avoiding spoilers is near impossible, and not making certain assumptions about the game after hearing everyone else talk about it, is near impossible. Nevertheless I bought the PS4 remake, loaded it up and entered the mysterious world of Shadow Of The Colossus.
I'm not going to describe my second-by-second playthrough because enough clowns have already done that over the past decade. I'm just going to mention the things that stood out to me or surprised me. The most prominent of which was "You don't get to choose what order you fight the colossi in?!"
I don't know where I got this idea that you could take on the colossi in any order you wanted, but that was what I had assumed for years. It might have been because people used the words open world and sandbox interchangeably, mixing up the meanings. But I was disappointed to find out you had to take on each colossus in a linear order, which I felt took out some of the mystery of what I expected. I knew that you could only find colossi by following the light from your sword, but I had thought that this would just point to the nearest colossus, and that you could go in the exact opposite direction and find a different colossus if you chose to. It's not a super massive deal, but definitely wasn't what I was expecting.
My second biggest takeaway was that the camera, at times, was utter garbage. It prioritised showing off the landscape rather than letting me see where I was actually going. It would get stuck on Colossus armpits as I was trying to climb their back hair, and the rest of the time it would just be plain unresponsive and lead to way more frustrating moments than was acceptable.
And that's basically it for my whinging. The game is extremely well made, good looking and atmospheric. I like the game because it's straightforward, minimalist, and doesn't really waste the players time. It stands in stark contrast to modern AAA games with their millions of mechanics, micro-transactions and menu-driven faffery. In SOTC it's just you, your magical sword, a horse that couldn't care less about your plans, and 16 straddling behemoths. Although it's obvious some were shown a bit more love than others, when one is a giant freaking dragon/bird thing that you have to jump on and do aerial battle with, and then another is just a perturbed, overgrown goat.
There's not much more to say on SOTC that hasn't already been said. I just wanted to make sure my opinion was noted down so that history could ignore it forever more.
It wasn't until I wrote down the title of this post that I realised how long the names of both these games were. Horizon: Zero Dawn and Shadow Of The Colossus (Remastered) are two games I started playing recently but haven't gotten anywhere near completing.
I started with Horizon first for a few hours and then got somewhat fatigued by the predictable nature of how things were proceeding. It's not a bad game - on the contrary it's extremely absorbing, cinematic and intuitive. My issue was with how it felt like the gameplay was going through the motions of every other sandbox adventure game that had come out in the past few years. Learn to move, learn to scavenge, craft upgrades for your weapons, assign skill points to gain new abilities, buy and sell all of the trinkets, etc etc. All elements that had been tried and tested several times before and had been proven to work, and engage the player and ensure a pleasurable experience.
The problem is that once you see the steps laid out before you, it sort of shatters the illusion. Knowing I would have to put in a certain number of hours, before I unlocked certain areas/missions, and saw more of the story, made me feel somewhat deflated. I realise this probably doesn't make a lot of sense, and I'm very likely doing a poor job of explaining all of this. But it's like the game was hollow - which probably isn't going to be a popular statement considering how loved this game is. It feels like the game includes all of this ancillary stuff because it's expected, not because it would be fun or unique or would add a new twist. As if it's just there to fill a quota.
So after having this minor existential crisis on behalf of the game, I decided to stop playing and loaded up another title - the remastered version of Shadow Of The Colossus (SOTC). I had never played the original but had seen the countless praises thrown its way over the years from even the most jaded games critics. And after the initial cinematic and story set up, I felt a refreshing wave of relief wash over me. The simplicity and minimalism was upfront and deliberate, and I realised I wouldn't have to jump through several sets of hoops to make progress.
Shadow Of The Colossus tasks the player with finding and destroying a several absolute units. Why? To bring your dead girlfriend back to life. How do you find them? Your sword points in the direction of the nearest colossus. How do you kill the colossi? With your sword (somehow). What happens after you kill a colossus? You move onto the next colossus via your horse. Simples.
Obviously this won't please everyone. For some people the set up and content might not have enough meat on it. Maybe they want more complexity or nuance in the "combat". Maybe they want more depth to the story, or want more lore from the world the game takes place in. People who want these things will not get them, and that may be a deal breaker. Fair enough.
But for me, it's exactly what I wanted. It is the polar opposite of the over stuffed, over burdened and over subscribed titles that dominate modern triple-A. It is a game I want to continue to work through, to see if the minimalist approach holds up over the entire run time.
I won't be able to do this any time soon however, as I have yet again moved to a new city, for a new job, and my poor PS4 has been left behind. But don't worry PS4, I'll be coming back for you soon.
I am genuinely curious to know what the numbers are of people who have only played DOOM (2016) on Switch, as opposed to people who played it after already playing it on PS4, Xbox One or PC. I'm pretty sure it's a relatively low number. One that I am a part of.
So I got hold of a copy of DOOM for Switch and felt like a man in a desert being handed an ice cold glass of water, since I've been without a new game on Switch for a while now and I still don't have access to my extensive PS4 games library. And not only was I going to be playing a new game, it was a new game that had already received significant amounts of praise on all of the other platforms it had already been released on. But then I had to take a step back as I remembered most of the reviews had focused on how tight the shooting gameplay was, and how the speed and pace were unrivalled in their intensity. And the most intense game I had played on the Switch so far was arguably Breath Of The Wild. An action heavy game, but not exactly lightning fast in its pacing.
First thoughts on starting DOOM were "Wow, this is taking a long-ass time to load". Might as well get that out of the way. The loading times are extensive. Like, noticeably extensive. I thought it wasn't a big deal, hoping that it would just be an initial loading requirement, and that afterwards things would be zippier. Nope. Every death led to an equally long load time leading to my millennial mind wandering off and checking Twitter, somewhat breaking my engagement with the game.
Second thoughts (after the game finally loaded) were "Wow, those textures are garbage". I don't know if this was just exaggerated because I was only playing the game in handheld mode, but the textures were notably, brutally blurry up close. I knew that some concessions had been made to get the game to run on the Switch, but this was painful to look at at times. And I had not even played the game on another platform previously. So although I had seen footage of the game running on PS4, it's not like I knew exactly what the game was meant to look like precisely.
Loading and texture issues aside, once I started playing, I could see why the game had received such high praise. When a game has clear direction, it comes across in the gameplay. It's clear that the vision for DOOM was intensity, brevity and a visceral presentation. This permeates throughout everything in the game. From the start you are punching and shooting demons immediately. Explanations for controls are brief, you run at an almost comical speed, and there is no reload button. Exposition is light, and your character actively ends exposition pieces with his fists. It's appealingly refreshing for a game not to go through the same motions that many of its contemporaries seem resigned to.
I will say, however, that the Switch version of DOOM is easily the weakest, and that is without even playing it on any of the other platforms. This isn't just because of the presentation being murkier, but because of the Switch controls not being precise enough for the speed of the action. More than once I died knowing that if I was using a different controller, I would have survived. And this isn't a case of sensitivity, it's a case of feeling. The Joy Con analogue sticks don't have the precision of other controllers, or a mouse and keyboard. Maybe the Switch Pro controller does, I wouldn't know. Whether playing with the Joy Con's attached to the console, or in the Joy Con Grip, the controls still felt sluggish and I never felt like I had the precision I was meant to have.
The final disappointment however, although minor compared to the presentation and control issues, was with the ending. It's not that the ending is terrible, it's just that it is so boring, and such an anti-climax for a game all about not following the conventions of its contemporaries. The ending has you going back to hell one last time, defeating the giant, horrific spider, alien, Olivia robot thingy, shutting off the gate to hell, and returning to Mars. And then what happens?
That stupid robot, Sam whatever, delivers a boring monologue, and then just swats you away to some unknown location, with a vague promise that you'll meet again. In a way it sort of mirrors the endings of the first two Half Life games. But whilst this kind of acceptance works fine for a blank slate like Gordon Freeman, for the Doom Marine it is bollocks! He should have stopped the Hayden-bot halfway through his speech, destroyed him with a tin-opener and then crowned himself king of Mars. Or something else equally audacious. Something that matched up with the rest of the games outrageous attitude.
I get they were probably setting up for a sequel, but with the attitude that this title had, I would have been more pleasantly surprised if the game simply set itself on fire the moment the campaign was completed.
Super Mario Odyssey was the first Mario game I actually bought, played for any significant amount of time, and completed. Well, I got to the end of the story - I have not, and will not, try to get all of the remaining Power Moons. I'll leave that to the lunatics.
The Super Mario series is just one of those things that passed me by - like many other Nintendo first party games. So it was with great curiousity that I bought Odyssey, especially considering how a lot of online reviewers were calling it the greatest game of all time, ever, in all realities. Ever. I had a feeling this was most likely a nostalgia thing considering a lot of reviews dropped the holy words "Super Mario 64" about a million times.
Super Mario Odyssey is good. But it isn't great, isn't the greatest game of all time, and isn't even my favourite game on the Switch. That said, I was pleasantly surprised at the level of polish that had gone into it. The opening cinematic, the crisp sound design and brevity of the set up all gave a great first impression. The central mechanic of being able to possess many of the inhabitants is neat and gets used extremely well. It helps add variety to a game where Mario's traditional core abilities are nowhere to be seen.
I don't want to go on about all of the positive aspects of Odyssey, since hundreds, if not thousands of others have already recorded those aspects down for future historians to ignore. I want to focus on two negatives. Two negatives that were such massive issues for me that for at least several minutes during my play-through, I thought everyone else on the planet was a moron.
First up, the checkpoint system. It sucks. There simply aren't enough checkpoints in the game to play without frustration. The number of times I would get past what felt like a dozen different challenges, just to die because of a single, well placed Goomba, and be sent all the way back to the beginning, was too damned high. On more than one occasion I put down my Switch because the thought of going through all of those areas again was too much for me to handle. However, this issue wouldn't have been such a big deal to me, if it weren't for-
The mother fucking camera. How no one had any issue with this garbage piece of garbage is beyond me. The number of times Mario would go flying into a bottomless abyss because the camera refused to look where I wanted it to is more than I care to remember. It was unbearable. I would jump from platform to platform, just to see Mario's stumpy little body go tumbling into nothing and fall to a platform seven levels down, and I'd have to do everything again. A game series lauded for its 3D camera placement for the past 20 years has no excuse having these kinds of problems. I honestly believed that the entire planet was smoking crystal when they talked about this game being perfect when I was having trouble getting Mario to walk in the direction I wanted him to.
Those two glaring issues aside, I did enjoy my time with Odyssey, and I was glad that there was actually a post credits game to continue to play through, unlike in Breath Of The Wild. But that would be the only thing I would put in Odysseys favour, when comparing these two games. I think its a pretty interesting dichotomy between the two, and a great example of good nostalgia and bad nostalgia. A game being considered great because it reminds people of a childhood favourite, versus a game that has its roots set in tradition, but which embraces modern expectations.
Or maybe they're both great games and I just hate really poorly implemented camera systems.
I was planning on writing a post about a month ago. I was also planning on writing said post on Fortnite Battle Royale, not Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. But I've played more of Mankind Divided lately than I have of Fortnite, and I also have way more feelings to express about Mankind Divided than I do Fortnite.
Although I played the original Deus Ex, I wouldn't say I was one of those ravenous fans who constantly go on about what a flawless masterpiece it was. I played it, I immensely enjoyed it, but I never finished it. A mix of both the game engine being shoddily optimised and me getting stuck at a certain point led to me losing interest after a while. But then I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution and I finished that within a week. Although it wasn't as deep as the original game, it definitely captured it's spirit and design (aside from the infamous bosses that you HAD to kill). And on top of that it had a unique look and sound to it that still makes it one of my favourite games from the past generation.
Now we get to Mankind Divided, which I have yet to finish, but have a fully formed opinion of. And unless the ending is going to blow my balls into space with how amazing it is, I'd say Mankind Divided is a massive disappointment. There is something about the opening mission which brought this across in record time. The way the tutorial level played out, the way mechanics were introduced and the way the game controlled - everything felt slightly off. The way your allies spoke to you felt unnecessarily aggressive, and the voice work felt awkward and stiff. Suddenly being thrown into a firefight in the middle of a sand storm whilst on a time limit was also a bit of a dick move on the games part.
As the game and the story progressed, this ill feeling didn't disappear. Even basic things like character animations during conversations started to get on my wick. It's not that they were terrible or anything, they just looked off. And on the gameplay side of things, everything felt half-assed and poorly explained. There was the option to start unlocking new augments but it already felt like I had everything I needed to take on the missions. And the addition of the experimental augmentations ironically add nothing to the game. I have trouble putting this into words, because technically speaking, there isn't really anything wrong with the game. It looks better than its predecessor, and is visually more consistent when switching from gameplay, to cutscene, to cinematic, and the decision to set the game in Prague was a great choice to give it some more personality.
But when it came to carrying out the missions, I always felt like the controls were less refined than before, that the level design wasn't as intuitive as it should have been, and the conversations not as engaging or significant as they previously were. Everything in the game felt like it had been streamlined in the wrong way, with depth taken away from areas where it wasn't needed, and fat left over from the previous game where it could have been cut down. And some things were simply not explained correctly, or not explained at all. I must have been deep into hour six before the game finally started talking to me about multi-tools and their various uses. Conversely I sure am glad the game took time out to explain the collectible QR codes you can find throughout the campaign that you can scan with your phone. That didn't destroy my immersion whatsoever.
On a final, petty, personal note, the music is nowhere near as incredible as it was in Human Revolution. I still have that games soundtrack saved on Spotify. And whilst Mankind Divided has some of that same ambience and atmosphere about it, it doesn't come close to bringing out the feelings Human Revolution made me feel. To me, the soundtrack is a microcosm of the entire game; hitting the same beats as the original, but with nowhere near the amount of creativity or energy.
I might end up doing a second write up once I finish Mankind Divided, although that will take a while since I am without a TV for at least the next several weeks, maybe months. And once I do get a TV to hook my PS4 into, there's a good chance I'll just end up playing Fortnite: Battle Royale again instead.
Ninja Theory is a company I have a great amount of respect for. And that isn't just because I tried interviewing with them four years ago and got down to like the last two. I have followed their work for a numbers of years, and whilst they haven't always sticked the landing with the execution of their games, it is clear that they are at least a creative and ambitious bunch. They always seem to be trying to do something different or that is at least noteworthy.
Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice is somewhat of a testament to that. It's different, creative and ambitious in what it sets out to do, but it doesn't hit all the notes it needs to.
The game has been on a lot of peoples radars for a number of years due to Ninja Theory being very public about their goal to create a title that lived up to AAA standards, but one that was made on a fraction of the budget and resources normally required. They also spoke a lot about one of the core themes of the game being centered on mental health and dealing with psychosis in a way that video games hadn't managed before. That's a lot to take on, so at least they got the ambition part right.
Thinking back at my time with the game, I didn't have an issue with the length of the playthrough, or the presentation of the environments, or the competency of the gameplay. All of those things were realised quite well and didn't provide any problems. My biggest issue with Hellbade was the fact that at times, quite tragically, it still felt cheap. The emptiness of the levels, the usage of post-processed video footage to show characters, the constant droning narration from just one voice actor and the repetition of the enemies, emphasised just how many corners had been cut to make the game on a (relatively) low budget.
It's a shame because at other times, the game can be quite mesmerising. It's use of binaural sound design, the voices making you question your decisions, the impressively detailed and animated title character Senua and use of subtle transitions to cut scenes make the game feel more cinematic than many others. These high points in the games presentation, and the presentation of its story, make the low points all the more sore to see. And although the story is at times well presented, the story itself doesn't feel fully realised.
The long and short of the story is that you are Senua; a Nordic warrior on a quest to save the soul of your dead lover. Senua has to deal with voices in her head, visions of the past, and terrifying monsters that may or may not be real. As the game takes place from Senua's point of view, we have no idea if anything that happens in the game is actually real, or entirely a figment of her psychosis. There is also a sort of sub-plot told entirely through the Norse mythology equivalent of audio logs detailing cataclysmic past events. The problem with the sub plot is that it is easily one of the most boring things I've had to listen to since I stopped going to Sunday school. I couldn't decide if it was the voice actor's delivery or the content of the script, but something about these stories was so apocalyptically dry that I stopped seeking them out after the first hour or so.
The main story itself, whilst at times engaging, didn't draw me in because it was simply too muddled for me to follow. Maybe that makes me an idiot and I should get a dunce cap stiched into my hairline, but I don't care; I didnt find the story to be captivating. When you pass out in one environment, then wake up in another with no notion of relative time and space, you have no context. Did we die? Are we already dead and just going through the different stages of the afterlife? How did we get here or are we just imagining ourselves here because we need to? If we are alive then does magic and mysticism exist in this world or is this all meant to be metaphorical? It is fine for a fictional world to not follow the rules and conventions of the real world, but it must have at least some of its own internal rules and conventions to provide the player with an idea of what can happen. There is so little context given to the player that it can be difficult to find something relatable to grasp onto in the story.
Getting to the gameplay side of things, Hellbade is a mish mash of walking simulator, mandatory combat and puzzle solving. Each is executed competently; the quiet walking parts at least take place in nice looking/interesting locales, the combat has a nice visceral feeling and the puzzles are unique and creative in their execution. However none of these elements ever really evolves or gets used in any new or interesting ways as the game progresses. The puzzles themselves are an interesting idea; lining up elements of the environment to match a required symbol. But looking for the last symbol of the game basically requires the same amount of skill as looking for the first symbol in the game. And towards the end of the story I was getting less and less patient with each puzzle section, which is never a good sign.
I don't know how to review games properly or analytically, all I can do is talk about what I feel after having finished a game. And thinking about it now, I had more interest and praise for the development of Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice than I did for the game itself. I want Ninja Theory to try out this development strategy again, and I want other studios to try it out too and see what they can create knowing they have a bit more creative flex with a smaller budget.
So if nothing else, I think Hellbalde is a step in the right direction for game development. Even if the game itself is nothing more than a series of multiple mis-steps. (Ouch).
Playdead's 2010 indie hit LIMBO is one of my favourite games ever. It was one of the only games I ever bought off the XBLA and I bought it based solely on its imagery, as it looked like it would be super atmospheric and mysterious and all that jazz. And naturally, I was very correct. But on top of the impeccable atmosphere and visuals, the game design is what truly stole the show. LIMBO was a masterclass of game design; game design in its purest form. No additional modes, or options or fluff - just a handful of simple mechanics and a linear world to use them in. I adored the game and couldn't wait to see what Playdead did next.
Fast forward seven years, and I have finally played what Playdead did next - INSIDE. On paper it simply looked like LIMBO 1.5 - a side scrolling puzzle platformer where you play as a small child in a mysterious and uncaring world. And whilst that is pretty much what INSIDE is (and that isn't a bad thing), it is also enough of a step up and away from LIMBO for it to be considered as doing more than just retreading old ground.
The set up is about as simple as it can get. You control a young boy who starts out in a forest, and he is either running away from or towards something. You can run, jump, push and pull objects, flip switches and eventually use a device that allows limited control over human-like drones. That last bit sounds like it doesn't really mix well the other abilities you have, but within the context of the game, it makes sense. Just like in LIMBO, the story of INSIDE isn't really about characters or events. In fact there is even less story in INSIDE. At least in LIMBO you were told that you were looking for your sister who was lost (or dead, or you were both dead the whole time and you were finding you way to heaven, or whatever). INSIDE just gives you a direction and tells the rest of its story with its locations, and with its atmosphere.
It's difficult to put into words the feelings that INSIDE's atmosphere and world building evoked in me. The feeling of desolation, alienation, isolation and urgency all hit me more than any other game I've played this year (except for maybe The Last Of Us). It's not like there are jump scares or horrific amounts of blood and gore (although there is the occasional gruesome death); there is just this sense of absolute dread from all of the little details you witness in your three hour play through. From your first steps into the forest being chased by men wearing blank masks, to goose stepping with mindless drones, to fending off hideous under water trolls, everything has a creepy edge to it.
Besides the solid atmosphere, INSIDE also excels at game design. Just like its predecessor, it has zero fat on it. Every single element of the game is used to full effect, and is used in multiple, varying scenarios, testing you in new and creative ways. Visual cues as to how to proceed are executed perfectly, but still allow for you to mess up the first one or two times. So it remains challenging without getting frustrating. Playdead takes each mechanic that LIMBO introduced and cranks it up to to a new level in INSIDE to the point where you think "There is no way they have another way of using this mechanic!". And yet they do, and they use it in a way that isn't repetitive or derivative.
As much as I love Playdead's two games so far, I do hope that they don't do side scrolling puzzle platformer for their third game. There is perfecting a concept, and then there is milking one beyond belief. LIMBO and INSIDE are perfect, and, unless Playdead can make lightning strike a third time, a third puzzle platformer would just start being a detriment to their past titles.
Although to be fair, if any studio could make lightning strike a third time, it's Playdead.
My feelings about Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain have been well documented over the past few weeks/months through a number of posts both on here and on Twitter. This past week, after a particularly brutal bullshit play session, I decided that enough was enough and I gave up on the idea of completing the game. As much as I wanted to complete the story and see the resolution of the characters and the tying up of the remaining dangling plot threads, I'd be buggered before I had to deal with any more of the tedious, nonsensical gameplay or overly verbose exposition.
To put this into context; the reason I so desperately wanted to finish the main story was simply because I have always liked the MGS lore/backstory. Although I think Hideo Kojima's writing is at times terrible, and I wouldn't trust him with a blunt crayon, I do think his creativity and imagination is incredible. The whole reason I loved the first MGS game was because it felt like it existed in a fully realised world with its own history and mythology. This whole idea of an elite group of soldiers and agents, each with their own storied codenames and dark secrets, taking on even more ridiculous enemies and world-destroying villains, was incredible to 11 year old me.
The MGS series had its up and downs for me. Whilst I completely adored MGS' 1 and 3, I completely despised 2 and 4. So when I first heard about The Phantom Pain I had no idea what to think. It sounded like a ridiculous concept at first, and carried on a story from one of the handheld entries into the series which I never played. But then the idea that this game would tie into the original Metal Gear and tie up the entire franchise sounded too good to pass up. So I eventually bought it (when it was on sale, fuck paying full price on something as dicey as an unfinished, Kojima-led, Konami published AAA game) but soon realised that I had made a gargantuan mistake.
Let's be clear on one thing - the core gameplay of MGS V is great. The movement, shooting, stealth and overall feel of controlling Snake/Boss/Larry is near perfect. I have very few complaints about the core gameplay. It is the setup around this core gameplay, and the progression (or lack thereof) that really gets on my wick.
The biggest problem is the switch to open-world, and the complete lack of structure that the story inherits from it. Whilst previous MGS games were short and linear, it also meant that the story was a lot more structured and escalated appropriately when needed. Since MGS V decided to go with the sandbox approach, it means now you just carry out a meandering set of barely connected missions in whatever order you choose. This in itself wouldn't be a massive problem, but the fact that 90% of the missions have the same kind of objective, leads to the game feeling arduous and repetitive much sooner than it should.
This repetitiveness is then what leads to every other issue the game has to feeling much more painful than it actually is. You start to notice how truly bad a lot of the writing is, and the delivery from many of the characters just sucks! Miller is probably the biggest culprit; delivering every other line in his stupid Christian Bale-esque half growl, like he's always just caught up to you after you forgot your bag in the coffee shop. Listening to this complete clown for hours and hours makes me wish he'd lost more than just an arm and a leg.
As big as the game world is, it's meaningless when missions all take place around similar looking outposts and facilities. The structures are always the same, the setup is almost always the same, and it all looks the bloody same! The giant world map does nothing but pad out the games runtime even longer, which is unforgivable. Again, not to keep comparing with previous MGS games but at least the scenery changed in those. The environments changed, some were wackier than others and some were downright dumb, but at least there was variety! Even in MGS 3: Snake Eater you spent 95% of your time in a jungle, but the scenarios, atmospheres and tones changed with each new section.
I'll wrap this up with the final two points that really fucked me off about this game. One is the story, and the absolute mess that it is. I won't go into detail on it since so many others have already done that, and also because I would be lying if I said I totally understood every single facet of it. What gets me the most about the failure of the story is that this game was marketed as the missing link in the MGS saga. It would show the completion of Big Boss' character transformation from the greatest soldier that ever lived, to a maniacal tyrant hell bent on being his own nuclear power. The game doesn't show any of that. And let's be blunt here; in a very real way, this game shows almost nothing of Big Boss or his character development. Moreover, the fact that Big Boss went from being a fairly charismatic action hero, to a near silent protagonist, was also a bad choice. I know this gets somewhat explained in the story, but I still think it was a bad call.
Finally, we have the Skulls unit. The elite group of soldiers that act as semi-boss fights every so often. In a few of the scenarios it is entirely possible just to run away from them, but at other times you have to stand and fight. There are usually four or so skulls, each with very powerful physical attacks, as well as very damaging ranged attacks. And to be short, fuck the Skulls. Their ability to appear out of nowhere, shoot the life out of you, and block every attack you use except for using explosives, is pure bullshit. It is not fun to fight them, the same way it isn't fun fighting the Prometheans in Halo 4. They are frustrating to do battle with. The fact that you can take out three of them, just for the fourth to get in a cheap shot and kill you, and you have to start the fight all over again, is just double-layered bullshit. That was the point I stopped playing. No half-baked summary ending was worth putting myself through more of this garbage.
After I stopped playing I decided to watch a compilation of the cutscenes/story moments that some lunatic had edited together and put onto YouTube. Even after watching all of it, I still had no clue as to what was going on, or why, or when or how. Nothing mattered any more. As far as I was concerned, the MGS series ended with Snake and Meryl riding off into the sunset on a snowmobile.
Whilst I have been disappointed with the way the MGS series has panned out, I see it as a triumphant testament of the potential of video games. Despite Kojima being about as coherent as a half-inflated bouncy castle begging for death, he has shown the world how well games can be used to tell a cinematic story. I am looking forward to seeing what he does next, but I'll keep my expectations low for it to be anything even remotely sensible.