Metal Gear Solid 2 Is Disappointing

I finished Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty about 3 weeks ago and I’ve been putting off writing about it because I couldn’t decide what I thought of it. I’ve now come to the conclusion that the game was tiring and not really worth the effort of suffering through it. I played the original PS2 version and used that for screenshots rather than the HD re-release because I already owned the PS2 version.

MGS2-9

Released in 2001, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is the sequel to the original Metal Gear Solid (MGS) that I wrote about a few weeks ago. The first quarter of MGS2, called the “Tanker Chapter”, is played with Solid Snake two years after the original game. Snake has joined an organization whose purpose is to stop the proliferation of Metal Gears, heavily armed walking tanks  that are becoming the standard in military groups all over the world. Snake is trying to find the new Metal Gear model that was developed by the Marines on an oil tanker to take photos of it and leak them to the press. The last three quarters of the game, called the “Plant Chapter” is played as a new character named Raiden two years after the “Tanker Chapter”. Raiden is to break into a marine chemical plant and rescue the President of the U.S., who is being held hostage by a terrorist group called “Dead Cell”. When the president is saved, he reveals that American society and politics are controlled by a shadow group called “The Sons of Liberty”. Their complex machinations are to blame for the events of both games and for the convoluted plot in MGS2.

Here are my thoughts on the game:

Characters

The characters and their designs stand up to the pedigree of what was established in the first game. They’re creative and outlandish without jumping the shark. See what I mean:

Solid Snake

Solid Snake

Solid Snake is gruff, world-weary, and emotionally scarred, just like in the last game. In a hilarious twist, he spends a lot of this game going by the name Iriquois Pliskin. Kurt Russell and I are tickled.

Raiden

Raiden

Raiden is the player character for the majority of the game. Raiden’s usurpation of Snake’s leading role was controversial at the time of this game’s release. See the further reading section for an article on this. Disappointingly, he only uses the sword in his character art at the end of the game. Fortunately, a game completely devoted to Raiden and his sword just got released.

MGS2-10

The Internet has always led me to believe that he is a crappy character, but that wasn’t the case for me. In fact, he came as a welcome reprieve from Snake’s melodrama and feelings. In short, it was nice to play as a dope who didn’t know what he was doing instead of a grizzled war veteran with regrets.

Olga Gurlukovich

Olga Gurlukovich

Olga starts the game as an enemy helping to overtake the tanker in the “Tanker Chapter”, but later switches sides to release Raiden from imprisonment. She is motivated by her child, who has been kidnapped by The Sons of Liberty and will be killed if Olga doesn’t comply with their demands. Olga’s boss fight is the only one in this game I really like. It’s just a shootout where she uses environmental obstacles like tarps and lights to screw with your aim. It’s extremely simple and elegantly executed. Also, she has armpit hair.

Fortune

Fortune

Fortune is one of the three members of the terrorist group known as Dead Cell. At the end of the “Tanker Chapter”, her father, a  marine general, dies at the hands of Revolver Ocelot, pushing her into a suicidal depression. Since her father’s death, Fortune has wanted nothing more than to die, and joined Dead Cell for this reason. Unfortunately for her, Fortune’s power makes bullets change their course and go around her rather than hitting her, meaning that she can’t be killed in a gunfight. Her appearances are excellent…I’ve always found this kind of suicidal nihilism in characters alluring and she just oozes it. She has some unfortunate things happen to her later in the game that I’ll save for my Ladies of MGS post later. Her skin is notably darker in the game than it is in any of her concept art.

Fatman

Fatman

Fatman is the second member of Dead Cell. He is, as his name suggests, a fat man. What his name doesn’t tell you is that he’s obsessed with explosives and rides rollerblades, in what may be the only known appearance of rollerblades in popular media after 1996. Fatman’s coat is also invulnerable to bullets. It’s times like these when I wonder why it’s only video game antagonists that seem to have the technology to create things like bullet proof trench coats. His reason for joining Dead Cell is a vainglorious wish to be remembered for his bombs after he dies. While he doesn’t get a lot of screen time, you do spend the first half of the “Plant Chapter” running around and disarming the bombs he’s placed all over the plant.

Vamp

Vamp

Vamp could be the most ridiculous character I’ve met yet in the Metal Gear franchise. He has a vampiric taste for blood, acquired after he was forced to live off the blood of his family while he was trapped in the rubble of a destroyed church. He also has been implanted with nanomachines that grant him extreme agility and speed along with the ability to heal quickly. Vamp is also a knife expert. These things are not why he is named Vamp though. He is called Vamp because, according to Snake, he is bisexual and had an affair with the Marine general (also Fortune’s dad) that was killed in the Tanker chapter. Now he’s good friends with Fortune and a part of Dead Cell.

This type of thing is one reason that I have hard time caring about the story in this game. The story spends so much time twisting in on itself that it becomes an incestuous fairy tale that I just can’t abide.

MGS2-10

Backstory aside, Vamp is still a fun character. He is vampire, garlic allergy or not. Vamp dies several times during the game, only to rise up and fight again. I happen to know he appears in MGS4 and am excited to see what Kojima does with him there.

Solidus Snake

Solidus Snake is the apparent leader of the operation to take over the chemical treatment plant and has enlisted Dead Cell to help him do so. You can tell Solidus Snake is the leader from his stylish cape and eye patch. He spends the first part of the plant chapter with the name “Solid Snake” until the real Snake calls him out. Solidus wears a suit that allows him to become a Reagan-era hard body at the drop of a hat, granting him super strength and speed. At the end of the game, he finds out he’s been duped by the Sons of Liberty and Dead Cell. Yes, both organizations have been playing him. It’s almost enough to make you feel bad for him.

Revolver Ocelot

Revolver Ocelot

Revolver Ocelot is a return character from the first game, this time serving as the chief antagonist of the game. He double crosses Dead Cell, Solidus, and the Sons of Liberty, proving himself to be one bad mother. His character design is still spaghettiwestern-tastic with his duster, spurs, moustache, and revolver, but he has had his arm replaced with the arm of Liquid Snake, who was killed at the end of the first game. Ocelot surprisingly good with his new hand, but the arm also carries the consciousness of Liquid, which seeks to overtake Ocelot from time to time. Eventually, through Ocelot, Liquid gains control of a Metal Gear Rex unit and blows everything up. If I remember from my brief time with the MGS4, Ocelot eventually gets completely overtaken by Liquid, which is disappointing, because his Western bravado is really interesting in this modern terrorism ridden universe.

Boss Fights

The boss characters are exciting and creative, but the boss fights less impressive.

Take the fight with Fortune midway through the plant chapter. Since Fortune can’t be hit by bullets, the player has to hide from her for around 90 seconds and not get hit by the boxes she’s flinging around the room with her rail gun. That’s all. You just run from box pile to box pile trying not to get hit.

Fatman’s fight consists of disarming bombs, tripping him with mines, and then shooting his exposed head when he falls over.

The fight against Solidus and Vamp riding a harrier jet is exactly the same as the helicopter fight from the first game, stinger launcher and all.

These encounters lack the intricacies that were involved in every fight in the first game. The boss fights wouldn’t have been a big deal to have re-use all of the boss fight patterns from the first game if it would have meant avoiding these pedestrian charades. The fact that they just took one fight from the first game makes it seem like they ran out of ideas. To my mind, there’s nothing in this game on the same level as the bosses in the first game, particularly the tank and the Metal Gear fight.

Speaking of Metal Gears, the most disappointing fight for me in MGS2 is the one with 9 Metal Gear Rexes at the end of the game. Metal Gears are the eponymous walking tanks, so this fight sounds like it should be intense, but it’s just a slog. The problem with a fight like this is that if you’re fighting a lot of big enemies on one life bar, they all have to have short life bars or it will get frustrating for the average player. In this case, the short life bar of Rex makes you wonder what the threat was in the first place. Normally, enemies in fights like this are holograms or something similar to explain the small life bars away. Here, we have one man with one rocket launcher that kills 9 of these things and this is what the world is frightened of? I don’t buy it.

Gameplay

The gameplay is much improved from the first game with the advent of the dual shock joystick as part of the control scheme. The player character goes where you want him to and controlling him doesn’t hurt my thumb anymore. I appreciated the ability to shoot from first person as well rather than using Snake’s unwieldy laser pointer.

MGS2-11

Punching and kicking is still a bear, but there aren’t any forced hand-to-hand segments in this game, so while the hand to hand controls aren’t any better than they were in the first game, they’re never a hindrance. In conclusion, the game is an absolute joy when it’s letting you play, which leads to my next point.

Cutscenes

MGS2 is a mess in terms of pacing and it’s because of the interminable cutscenes. This is Metal Gear Solid‘s thing and I understand that, but the game suffers for it.

I replayed the tanker chapter the other night to record some things. Since I knew what I was doing, I should have been able to breeze through it. I would have been able to, but the cutscenes took longer than my gameplay did, so my time investment doubled. I spent as long watching cutscenes as I did playing.

MGS2-12

It’s even worse in the plant chapter, which I’m playing through again now. I can expect to enjoy gameplay segments of 2-4 minutes before a cutscene plays. The cutscene will probably be 3-5 minutes.

I don’t understand how this game is so beloved if it doesn’t even let you play! There are many different meanings for the word “game”, but I don’t think any of them involve watching this many cutscenes. The end of the game is an atrocity, with two 15+ minute cutscenes bookending a 2 minute battle with the final boss. The gameplay to cutscene ratio is completely out of hand. All of this for a preachy story about how we’re all valuable and we can all make a difference. Ugh. Hideo Kojima has all of these interesting characters and he’s spending time showing me how my actions can make a difference in the world? It all feels like a waste.

MGS2-13

If the story weren’t so convoluted OR if it weren’t so melodramatic OR if it weren’t so preachy, then I might have more patience for it and all of these cutscenes. Unfortunately for my attention span, this game hits all three of those buttons almost constantly.

What canon??

First, some explanation. In MGS, you acquired a special item depending on whether or not you made it through the torture sequence with Ocelot. This would affect which character, Meryl or Otacon, you were able to save at the end and the survivor would give you the support item that they were using throughout the game. Otacon gave you his stealth camo, which makes Snake invisible, and Meryl gave you her headband, granting Snake infinite ammo.

Now for the confusing part. For the entirety of the “Tanker Chapter” and when Snake reappears later in the game, Otacon is acting as Snake’s tactical support. Snake uses a stealth camo unit at the start of the game, so this makes sense. At the end of the game, Raiden worries that Snake will run out of ammo, but Snake cheekily points to the bandanna on his head as if to say, “Don’t trouble yourself, friend. I have infinite ammo.” This comes after 6-7 hours of game where there has been no mention of Meryl at all. Ugh. Where did the headband come from? I’m not normally a stickler for this stuff, but come on. One of them had to die. I happen to know that both characters actually show up in the fourth game, so maybe the first game did the Dallas dream thing and never actually happened? Hard telling.

In conclusion, I’m feeling pretty lukewarm about the Metal Gear Solid series just now. The first one was good fun, but the second game felt like the people that made it either didn’t care or didn’t respect the people that are playing their games. It’s hard to feel loved when they never let you play their game.

SO MANY CUTSCENES. Maybe they should just make a computer animated feature length film.

The Dorkly agrees with me.

The Dorkly agrees with me.

It would help if I could drum up a little interest in the story, but I just can’t. Everything is happening so far beyond Snake and Raiden’s control that it felt at times like they may as well not even be present in the game. Of course they’re involved in the plot, so maybe it’s me who shouldn’t be there.

I’ve committed myself to playing through all four of the core MGS games, so I’m going to, but I’m starting to think I won’t like it very much. The gameplay, like I said earlier, is excellent, and hopefully it will be able to shine through more as the series moves along. This series is loved by lots of people, including several people I hold in high esteem, so we’ll see where it takes me.

Further Reading
Metal Gear Solid 2: Gaming’s Greatest Con Job by Jeremy Parish
On Playing Metal Gear Solid 15 Years Later by Me

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Mortal Kombat Managed To Offend Me

My sensibilities have been offended. My friend and I were playing Mortal Kombat this weekend and we had an excellent time. This is a game that exists to be absurd. Between the near naked ladies, the entrails, and the bone breaking, this series has pretty much become a cartoon. It’s difficult to imagine anyone taking it seriously. However, Kano got played a few times this weekend, and in spite all of the ultra-violence and sex, Kano is what offends me in this game.

In a game with menus like this, I managed to get offended.

In a game with menus like this, I managed to get offended.

This is Kano:

Kano

Kano

I’ve never noticed him before because I’ve always thought of him as a lesser character in Mortal Kombat even though he was one of the fighters in the original game. No one I’ve played with before had used him, so he was always an afterthought to me. In a game filled with undead ninjas and blood sorcerers, why would anyone pick the 80’s action movie villain? Here’s his background as stated by the game:

Undisciplined and dangerous, Kano is a thug for hire. From weapons dealing to cold-blooded murder, his military training has made him the go-to man for the Black Dragon. But when an operation went to hell and his face horribly mutilated, Kano’s crime spree was almost ended. Ever the survivor, he used his underworld connections to find a cyberneticist capable of repairing the damage. Kano was fitted with several high-tech enhancements, most notably his eye laser. With these new weapons, Kano’s reign of terror has only just begun.

He’s so pedestrian! If you beat the arcade mode with him, this is his ending:

So he takes over the world with his laser eye? His moves also consist largely of him rolling himself up in a ball and hurling himself at the other character. It’s like Blanka if Blanka wasn’t a lovable green butt-scratching half man. Suffice to say, this character does not do anything outwardly to impress me.

MK7

I saw Kano in action this weekend and he is a creepy asshole. It’s mostly because of this one command grab he has. Here’s the move:

Is it just me or does he come off as a sexual predator there? Ugh. Between his laughter, the noise the victim makes, and the positioning of the characters, it makes me think of the violent, grainy recesses of some porno tube site. Mortal Kombat is extremely violent and oversexed, but it delivers it’s controversial material in a way that’s extremely self conscious for the most part. The violence is so outrageous and constant that it can’t be taken seriously.

MK5

Kano’s grab is made creepier by the classic video game problem of ladies making amorous noises when they get injured. See what happens when Kano grabs Raiden?

Compare that to the video of Kano grabbing Skarlet a little ways up. Raiden’s cries of pain certainly give the proceedings a different timbre.

This move of Kano’s differs from just about every other special in the game in that it’s perfectly realistic looking and a person could feasibly do it to someone else. No one can teleport or throw ice balls at people, but people can certainly choke each other and laugh violently. Even when Stryker shoots someone with his gun, it seems silly because it just takes a couple points of health off and the enemy is just fine afterwards.

Kano’s command grab simply doesn’t match the rest of the game and I don’t really understand why it’s there. Unrealistic violence and an inexplicable lack of brassieres are one thing, but Kano turns my stomach. Mortal Kombat is no model of political correctness, but rapey command grabs just don’t have a place in it.

See? No brassieres.

See? No brassieres.

On Playing Metal Gear Solid 15 Years Later

I recently received Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater for the Playstation 2 as a gift. Barring a failed playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots in late 2011, I haven’t played a Metal Gear Solid in 10 years! Four games have come out in the main Metal Gear Solid series, starting out with Metal Gear Solid in 1998. It is a stealth based action game where you spend most of your time avoiding combat. Since this is a series that is so well known for being a confusing, cutscene ridden mess of plot and sneaking, I didn’t feel like it made sense to play through the fourth one having not played since 2002. Now that I have all of them, I’m going to play them through in a row. I started last weekend with the Playstation original, Metal Gear Solid.

Solid Snake

Solid Snake

In Metal Gear Solid, the player character is Solid Snake. He has to stop terrorists who are planning to launch an untrackable nuclear weapon from the island of Shadow Moses with naught but his sneaking suit and the box of cigarettes he smuggled onto the island his stomach. In the game’s world, he is a living legend who has already stopped the walking tank called Metal Gear once in Zanzibar, which is a part of Tanzania. That was the NES game Metal Gear, which came out in 1987. There was also a sequel released in 1990 called Metal Gear 2: Solid SnakeI have not played either of those, although I can’t imagine that an 8 bit stealth game is anything but frustrating, so I won’t let that hold me back.

Hideo Kojima, the creator of Metal Gear and it’s sequels, brought the series into a 32-bit 3-d world on the PSX incredibly smoothly and used this game to install the boss fights, characters, and cutscenes as part of the Metal Gear Solid identity. Metal Gear Solid is definitely a great game in spite of it’s flaws, and I’ll illustrate that in this post. I can understand why everyone thought it was a revelation in 1998, but playing it through for the first time in 15 years was bumpy. Here are some thoughts:

The boss fights are still involved and intense, lengthy dialogue and all
Like this fight I had with a man called Vulcan Raven in a tank:

This fight is incredibly complex due to the amount of steps and number of weapons you need to complete it. This is refreshing since the art of the boss fight seem to have fallen by the wayside in recent years. Here is a list of the steps for this battle:

  1. Disarm the claymores the field before the fight starts
  2. Throw a chaff grenade to disarm the cannon so you can approach the tank
  3. Throw a stun grenade to disarm the machine gunner so you don’t lose health while you’re damaging the tank treads
  4. Use the claymores you collected before the fight to damage the tank treads and slow it down
  5. Throw regular grenades into the gunner’s turret to kill him

Phew! That’s way more steps than boss fights I’ve gone through recently, especially the Destroyer fight in Borderlands where I just sat behind a rock and waited for my ammo to regenerate for 15 minutes.
Sometimes when the player defeats a boss in Metal Gear, the game plays bizarre deathbed sequences where the boss tell you their life story, like this example from the character Psycho Mantis:

Oh good, so you were trying to kill me because your dad hated you. I thought it was because you didn’t like me. Fathers should have to watch that cutscene in the waiting room so that they understand what happens if they’re bad at their new job. You too could be the cause of your child psychokinetically burning your village to the ground.

The boss character designs are creative and well defined

Just look:

Liquid Snake

Liquid Snake

Liquid Snake isn’t so creative, but he should be here since he’s the leader. He’s the terrorist mastermind and the twin brother of Solid Snake. Get it? Liquids and solids are opposites. He’s kind of milquetoast compared to all the other terrorists even if he is a terrible pain in the ass to fight at the end of the game. He just won’t die! You blow up Metal Gear with him in it, then you fight him in hand to hand combat on top of Metal Gear’s wreckage, then he chases you at the end of the game and you have to shoot him with a machine gun. Even then, he only meets his proper demise in a cutscene after all of your hard work.
Revolver Ocelot

Revolver Ocelot

Revolver Ocelot gets his shooting hand cut off almost right away and seems to be manipulating everyone to his advantage. Also, he’s a gaddang cowboy in Alaska. I assume he’ll be fleshed out more as I move through the series since he’s the only villain who survives the game and he has a mysterious phonecall with the President after the credits. His role in this particular criminal organization seems to be to agree with Liquid Snake.

Psycho Mantis

Psycho Mantis

Psycho Mantis is a master of telepathy and telekinesis. His manipulation of Meryl, a support character I’ll get to later, throughout his fight is incredible.  In order to defeat him you actually have to use a controller that is plugged into the second port on the console because he evades everything you do from a controller plugged into the first port. In other words, you have to kill him using the controller for player 2 rather than player 1. Hilarious! Also, his buckles/gas mask/leather thing is real badass.

Sniper Wolf

Sniper Wolf

Sniper Wolf is a sniper. Her fights are frustrating because the sniping controls in this game are awful. Sniping, a practice associated with precision, does not lend itself to the sloppiness of the Playstation controller directional pad. This was before auto-aim was invented for the modern first person console shooter and modern players will definitely feel it. Also, boobs. She develops a sexual attraction to her targets before she kills them, marking them with a scratch and focusing solely on them until they are dead. I think I sense a “Ladies of Metal Gear” post in my future.

Vulcan Raven

Vulcan Raven

Vulcan Raven is a shaman and Alaskan native. He commands a horde of ravens that he never uses against you. I always thought that was a waste. He does hunt you down in a tank and with that huge gatling gun in the photo. His boss fights, particularly when he’s driving the tank, are probably the least predictable of the lot.

Gray Fox

Gray Fox

Gray Fox is introduced as Cyborg Ninja. He was Solid Snake’s friend, but now he’s trying to kill him for reasons that I don’t have the want to summarize here. He was supposedly killed by Snake in the first game, but has come back here in a metal exoskeleton to exact his revenge. His boss fight is a tremendous pain in the ass, due to the fact that it’s all hand to hand combat and he is much stronger than you, but his dialogue throughout is epic and intense, so that makes up for it. Here’s a taste of what I mean:

I could look at the concept art for the Metal Gear Solid series all day 

Yoji Shinkawa is the man. I love the smoky appearance of all of the art in this game, some of which can be seen in the boss photos above. It gives you an idea of what the characters look like, but doesn’t keep you from imagining details either.

The graphics are really good!

It’s a common problem in PSX games to be unable to tell what you character is supposed to be pantomiming, especially since we’re so spoiled with modern graphics. However, indeterminate pantomiming is not a terrible issue in this game! Player actions are well animated and the characters contrast well enough with the scenery to be able to see what they’re doing. The enemy animations are detailed enough that, in an unfortunate sequence, you can tell who Meryl is when she’s in disguise because her butt moves more than the other soldiers. I especially like how the developers handled the faces…they didn’t try to put a ton of detail or definition on them because the PSX just couldn’t handle that sort of realism. You can see what I mean in the clips throughout this post.

The controls are awful

We’re lucky this game came along because it laid the foundation for all of the cool stealth and cover based shooters we have today, but it controls just terribly by modern standards. Jeepers cats. My thumb hurts from using the silly directional pad for the last week. These are the games blisters are made of. Snake is just a little too slow to do what you want him to sometimes. I remember being good enough to get through this game with a Big Boss ranking (Extreme difficulty, less than 3 hours, no deaths, 1 or 0 rations used, less than 25 kills) when I was in 8th grade, so it must have been proficient at the time. I have no patience for it now though.

The combat is particularly frustrating whether it’s hand to hand or with firearms. The hitboxes* and aiming feel really sloshy and you get punished harshly if you miss, so boss fights, for as cool as their gimmicks and characters might be, are usually an exercise in frustration as the enemies take large chunks of your health away every time you miss with a punch.

The role of women in this game is schizophrenic at best

MGS11

There are 5 women in this game and they are all some combination of useless, sexualized, and evil. I’m only briefly going to talk about Meryl (the girl in the center of the photo), but I could write at length about all of the female characters. I want to observe how the women’s roles evolve as the series progress before I say too much about it as a whole. That “Ladies of Metal Gear Solid” post is definitely happening.

It is ALWAYS COLD wherever Meryl is.

It is ALWAYS COLD wherever Meryl is.

I just want to address two of the issues with Meryl here. The first is that there are two instances in the game where the player can go to great pains to see her without her pants on. That is to say, in her underthings. These are special “Easter Eggs“, or secret, so they’re not readily visible and you have to work for them. Back in 1998, we didn’t understand that 32-bit polygon ladies are not attractive. Also, I was in 8th grade, so I have an excuse. Here’s the second instance and what you have to do to trigger it:

You can see the first instance here. Her overt sexualization, especially for the time, leads me to the second issue with her.

This is actually something Meryl says after Snake hits on her. Ugh.

This is actually something Meryl says after Snake hits on her. Ugh.

The second thing I want to look at regarding Meryl is that she is Snake’s damsel in distress. Midway through the game, Meryl gets shot and it’s all very tragic and sad:

She’s not dead though! The player has an option to go through a torture sequence as Snake later in the game and if they do, Meryl will be ok at the end. Ocelot tortures Snake to find out how to arm the nuclear weapons for Metal Gear, and he says that Snake can surrender, but then Meryl will take his place. This sounds acceptable, but the torture sequence takes six minutes of constant button tapping to keep Snake’s health high enough to survive. Alternatively, your other option is to push select and skip the torture scene altogether and let Meryl die.

This is a game that grades the player at the end with several metrics, one of which is how long it takes you to get through the campaign. The best rank is achieved by finishing the game in under three hours. In those terms, six minutes is an extremely long time. Anyone looking to earn the best grade at the end of the game will skip this torture sequence, avoid terrible thumb pain and kill Meryl. Even though the dialogue for the rest of the game has Snake being sad that Meryl died, the rules of the game encourage the player to let Meryl die! I understand that this could be a commentary on doing the right thing even if it’s not the easiest thing, but no player who’s pushing for the best rank wants to make life harder for themselves. It appears Meryl exists in this game to have, in Solid Snake’s words, a “cute butt” and then get killed.

In short, the game is good! It only takes around 3 hours if you know what you’re doing and it got me excited to play through the rest of the series. I’m hoping that the controls will get better and the characters will get a little more fleshed out. This series is known for it’s well-written if confusing plot, but that was not apparent from the first game.

*Hitboxes are the areas on a character model that can be damaged by attacks from other characters. See here for an explanation of them with respect to Street Fighter 2. It’s the same idea here.

On Dark Souls as a Nihilist Manifesto

When people talk about Dark Souls, they often talk about how hard it is. That’s because it’s hard. Just over the New Year’s holiday, I got to watch a good friend play it for the first time. It did not go well for him. He died over and over and over again, falling down pits and being immolated by his foes. He built a good deal of character that weekend.

It was fun watching him die over and over again, but one thing about his experience really stuck out. He was asking me what character class he should choose and a after a good deal of stuttering and thinking, he and I came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter. I had some time to think on the way home after the holiday and came to conclusion that the developers didn’t give anything in Dark Souls any intrinsic value. That’s because Dark Souls is a nihilist manifesto. Mind games are normally reserved for PvP, or player versus player, games, but this is one single player game that has them in spades.

I’m not well versed in the theory of nihilism, so we’ll use the popular definition that people are generally familiar with:

a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless

Dark Souls goes to great pains to show the player that the things that are normally thought of as being “important” in video games are not important. Checkpoints, bosses, and visual gratification are not the goal here. In order to overcome Dark Souls, the player has to find satisfaction in growing their skill enough to pass through the game rather than a neat cutscene or piece of exposition.

Now to the numbered paragraphs. All good essays are constructed with numbered paragraphs.

  1. Character CreationDSN1
    This was what solidified this idea for me, so I’ll start here. Unless the player has very specific intentions for your character, the character class you choose at the start of the game doesn’t matter. Any class can wear any armor or accessory, wield any weapon, and cast any spell or miracle provided that their stats meet the prerequisites. Each class starts with different stat distributions, but characters level up so quickly early in the game that any differences between characters of different classes can quickly be erased.
    Further, no matter how awesome you make your character look in the character creation screen, the default state for characters to exist in in Dark Souls is “undead,” which translated means “looks like a burn victim”. As a result, until you get much better at the game and can sustain some humanity, your sexy lady avatar will look like a burn victim.

    DSN2

  2. Loss of souls
    When a player kills something in Dark Souls, they gain souls and humanity, which are the game’s currency. When a player dies, they drop those souls and humanity in a bloodstain. The dropped souls and humanity can be regained by reaching the bloodstain and touching it, but failing to do so results in a complete loss of the bloodstain and everything in it. The game just forgot all that cool stuff you did. Sorry.
    This ties into my next point:
  3. Bonfires
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    Bonfires refill a player’s health source and allow them to level up among other things like upgrading equipment and picking what spells you want to use. Bonfires act as the player’s only respite from the constant feeling that they”re going to die. However, they also re-spawn all of the enemies that the player has killed since the last bonfire. While this might lead one to believe that the game just forgot all of the cool stuff you did again, it also allows the player to regain any souls that they may have lost after failing to reach a bloodstain or just grind for souls to level up. Bonfires erase all of the good things you do, but they also have the ability to erase all of the bad things that are happening to you.
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  4. Inscrutable story
    Most games propel the player character through a series of events with a combination of cutscenes and in-game dialogue and events. This is not the case for Dark Souls. This game eschews the normal trappings of story and requires that the player dig for a story if they’re interested in it. The game gives the player a beginning cutscene and one of two ending cutscenes. Past that, the player must divine the game’s story from NPC, or non-player character, dialogue and the item descriptions in the player’s inventory. If you read the item descriptions and learn about the in game characters, you’ll soon learn that all of them died attempting what you’re trying to do. The only reason the dead characters have any tangible importance to the player is that they can use the powerful equipment that their corpses may hold. Of course, the player can just use their equipment without reading the item description at all, which further negates the importance of story in this game.
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    Let’s jump to the end of the game. Many people  had problems with the ending because it’s short (as in less than a minute) and it doesn’t tell you anything. The player kills Lord Gwyn and then the player can either leave his chamber or “rekindle the flame” in the center of his chamber. Regardless, you get a 30 second cutscene and then your character magically appears back at the start of the game. The character retains their stats from the end of the game, but all of the enemies are now much stronger. This method of beginning a “New Game+” offers the game a Sysiphean feel. Other games have a “New Game+” feature ,but Dark Souls is so abrupt about it that it seems to say, “Nothing you just did mattered.”
  5. Connectivity between player worlds
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    When the player first meets Solaire of Astora in the Undead Burg, he alludes to the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls with this statement:
    The way I see it, our fates appear to be intertwined.In a land brimming with Hollows, could that really be mere chance? So, what do you say? Why not help one another on this lonely journey?
    We are amidst strange beings, in a strange land. The flow of time itself is convoluted; with heroes centuries old phasing in and out. The very fabric wavers, and relations shift and obscure. There’s no telling how much longer your world and mine will remain in contact. But, use this, to summon one another as spirits, cross the gaps between the worlds, and engage in jolly co-operation!”
    Apart from birthing an obnoxious Internet meme, Solaire is explaining the diegetic reasons for the way the multiplayer system works. Each player’s character has their own world that they work through and other characters enter the world to help with bosses or attack the character as an invader. Regardless of the outcome of these visits, only the host’s world is altered; the invader’s/phantom’s world isn’t changed at all.
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    In addition to this, you can see how other players die by examining their blood stains and reading messages they left for you.
    Each player has their own world that’s important to them, and what happens in other players’ worlds matters only insofar as they give you some humanity or try to kill you. What you do is  important for you and your character, but no one else cares.

So if there all of these ways that Dark Souls tries to negate the significance of player actions, why have so many people played and enjoyed it? Like most games, the only real purpose of anything that happens is created by the player themselves, but Dark Souls is more blunt about making the player need to self-motivate. There will be no cutscene of your character taking on hoards of enemies alone or lightly dressed blue girls to give you some eye candy after a tough fight. The only reward the player ever receives are the words “You Defeated” flashing across the screen and a bunch of souls that are just as easily lost as the rest of the souls in the game.

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Dark Souls actively tries to make the player feel like they don’t matter. The enemies and environments in Dark Souls are difficult to survive, but a more significant challenge is overcoming the constant demoralization and clinging to the small goals you may have set for yourself. In spite of how lonely Dark Souls is much of the time, one of the major themes is the importance of creating meaning in personal improvement and interactions with other players rather than any single action. You simply survive and move on to the next thing or you don’t, and that’s all there is to the game.

Further Reading
The Three Metamorphoses of Zarathustra by Mark L. Dotson

On the End of the Royal We

And that I was done with the royal we on this blog because it was over.

On Another Poorly Constructed Final Boss

We understand that creating a boss fight, particularly a final boss fight, must be really difficult. Here, the developer is burdened with creating an enemy who is much stronger than the ones you’ve met before, but not strong in a dumb way that negates all of the mechanics that you’ve used to reach them. However, understanding the pain doesn’t mean we can’t criticize bad boss fights when we see them, and that’s what we’re here to do.

We talked a couple of weeks ago about the crappy final boss of Gears of War 3, and here we have been faced with another one in Borderlands.

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Borderlands is so good. It’s like Diablo, but fun! Let’s have a brief discussion of what we mean by that so that we understand each other. Both are loot games, meaning that character progression through leveling and cool weapons is what drives them.

The difference is that Borderlands is a kickass first-person shooter and Diablo is a fantasy mouse clicking simulator. You might think that we’re just being reductionist and unfair with Diablo here. Every game is a mouse clicking or button pushing simulator if you want to go that far, after all. Diablo, however, is in a breed all it’s own. The player character, as a mouse cursor, clicks around the landscape to move their character, clicks enemies to attack, and right clicks to use special moves. All of this while the other hand hits an occasional potion hot key to make sure the avatar doesn’t die. The point is that there is just so much clicking and that is quite literally all you do. You have, after all, taken on the role of a mouse cursor.

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In Borderlands, the player takes on the role of a sassy character with a penchant for carrying lots of guns and killing things. From a first-person perspective, the player shoots things, explodes things, and hits things with pipes/swords/daggers/phaseblasts. That is scientifically proven to be this much cooler than being a mouse cursor.

We brought up Diablo for a reason apart from demonstrating why it’s just ok, and that is the way its boss fights are handled. If playing through the game is a series of moving the mouse around and clicking on terrain and enemies and using potions, the boss fights are clicking on the exact same spot on the screen over and over again and using potions. Sure, the bosses are pretty neat. They’re great big detailed sprite monsters that are well animated and say things like, “Ahhhhhhh fresh meat,” when they see you. That does nothing to remedy the fact that they don’t really move around and you just sit there and click a lot. By taking away the need to move the player avatar by clicking, the game cuts out precisely one third of the player’s fun, the other two thirds being clicking to attack and pushing a number button to use a potion.

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Borderlands does a good job through most of the game of not falling into this routine. Since it’s a first person shooter, the player spends a good deal of time preoccupied with aiming and taking cover. This carries over to boss fights, which consist largely of aiming and running away. Bosses usually have legions of minions that also try to kill you, but primarily function as repositories of health and ammo. If the player dies, they regenerate at a checkpoint just outside of the arena and any dead enemies stay dead, but anything that is alive recovers it’s health completely. This includes the boss enemy. Let it be known that this, as far as we at Feral Joystick are concerned, is far more engaging than the mouse clicking of Diablo. There is tension in running and hiding and hoping your shields come back enough to survive the next encounter with the boss enemy and his minions. There is not tension in clicking one spot on the screen.

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For all of the boss encounters that Borderlands does so well, it falls flat on it’s face with the final fight with the Destroyer. There are several problems with this boss, listed here:

  1. The boss is an immobile mass of tentacles. Remember how we said earlier that running from the pursuing bosses and minions to find cover is half of the fun? You don’t have to do that against the Destroyer because it is an immobile mass of tentacles.
  2. In an effort to flush the player out from behind cover, the Destroyer will sprout purple tentacles that shoot exploding spores that can hit you behind cover. Unfortunately for the Destroyer, his purple tentacles have enormous glowing weak spots that will either make them retract for about 30 seconds or completely destroy them for over 60 seconds when shot. They also seem to sprout when the Destroyer reaches certain life percentages, but the point is that they are no match for Lillith and her SMGs.
  3. The Destroyer has two other attacks. The first is an enormously powerful purple beam that will almost kill a character if it connects. Unfortunately for the beam, it cannot go through cover, and with no effective way to flush the player character out of cover, it is useless. The second attack is a cover-ignoring shock wave whose radius grows as the Destroyer loses health. Unfortunately for the shock wave, there is always effective cover just outside of it’s range. Even more unfortunate is that if it does kill the player by knocking them off of the arena, the character regenerates at a checkpoint inside the arena and the Destroyer will not recover it’s health, unlike every other boss in the game.
  4. The final issue with this boss is it’s health bar. Friends, this boss has so much health. It must work out or something. Indeed, there is absolutely no conceivable way that a single player can carry enough ammo to kill this boss in one go. In order to have enough ammo naturally, the player would have to have at least one decent gun out of each category (pistol, revolver, shotgun, etc.). Now while any character can use any gun, each class is proficient with two weapon types. Further, your character has been building proficiency with the types of weapons they’ve been using throughout the game that add damage and accuracy bonuses to weapons of like types. Luckily, our siren has a class mod that spontaneously makes her regenerate smg ammo given enough time, but this is a dumb way to have enough ammo to kill something. We would shoot at the Destroyer for a full minute and then watch YouTube for 4-5 minutes before having enough ammo to go back at it. As Devin Townsend once said, Oh My Fucking God. This fight took 15 dumb minutes of shooting and hiding behind a rock while our ammo regenerated. At least we got some good Street Fighter matches watched. This kind of thing is fine if you’re doing some specialized playthrough of a game or even if you’re fighting a raid boss, but not if you’re playing it normally.
  5. As an addendum to point 4, this boss fight is being discussed as experienced on playthrough 2. The boss’s health, while still a terrible pain in the ass on playthrough 1, is not nearly as big of a deal. However, the other issues still exist and it is still not fun.

That is our piece on the Destroyer. Where the bosses in Diablo take away the need to move for the most part, the Destroyer takes away both the need to move and the need to heal, which takes away quite a bit of the player’s fun! You might even say it Destroys Fun. Maybe Gearbox was being ironic and twee?

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Given what we’ve experienced in recent weeks, it seems that developers tend to make awful boss fights when they try to do something completely different with a boss in an attempt to have them be Exciting or Thrilling.

In fact, the final bosses of Gears of War 3 and Borderlands are awful for exactly opposite reasons. Gears of War 3 completely does away with the safety of cover that has been keeping the player alive for the whole game. Borderlands, on the other hand, makes cover far more powerful than it was for the rest of the game and suffers for it. Gears becomes an impossible challenge and Borderlands becomes a YouTube marathon.

In other words, don’t fix what isn’t broke.

What did you get for Christmas?

Happy Holidays to everyone! The Bulls are getting spanked by the Rockets, so we’re going to soothe the pain by putting up a throw-away post on this blog. It’s the what we got for Christmas list!

Here’s the cool stuff we got:

Akai Katana

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Bullet hell awesome time from Cave!  This game features boss fights against samurais who summon war trains and battleships in the middle of the proceedings. There weren’t enough bullets on the screen as it was.

DoDonPachi Resurrection

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More bullet hell awesome time from Cave! Holy business you guys. I’m going to be a manic mess.

Dishonored

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Assassinating things with magic powers and knives. It’s received nothing but excellent reviews! I’ve heard there’s a system where killing people increases the infection rate of the game’s plague in rats, thereby increasing the infection rate in humans. What a cool hook! The game is hard whether you assassinate people or go all stealth. Also, the protagonist has a cool mask, so that’s nice.

Halo 4

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Because we love Halo campaigns so much. This one has new enemies in it! It’s exciting to be Master Chief again.

Dial Brand Hello Kitty  body wash

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It smells fruity, is pink, and has Hello Kitty on. What’s not to like?

Ketel One vodka and orange Crush

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Class in a glass.

Elgato video capture device

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We can put our own images and videos on the blog now instead of pirating applicable ones off of Google and YouTube! Exciting. We’re going to video this blog UP. No more promotional photos on this site unless they’re concept art! Everyone wins. Finally, that analysis of Bulletwitch we’ve always wanted to do can become a reality.

That’s our Christmas list. Who else got fly things from Santa?