As I mentioned in my preview piece a couple weeks back, I haven't played all of the Metal Gear games, and don't retain the sharpest memories of those I have. I remember the basic gist and could probably do okay on a "Match the character to the name" test featuring the biggest series stars, but if you dropped a reference to a minor character or event, I'd be lost. And that is why I was excited for Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, a spinoff game starring Raiden (from Metal Gear Solid's 2nd and 4th games) that would be free of Snake, Big Boss, their clones and (most of) the series' complicated back-story. Not only could I play it without being hopelessly confused, but maybe it would reinvigorate my fandom and inspire me to finally get off my butt and finally finish MGS3, and - at long last - crack the seal on the fourth game, my purchase of which is nearing its five year anniversary.
But that wouldn't happen if I hated the game, and I'm happy to say that is far from the case. I'm sure a few die-hards will cry foul about the changes, but it's their loss - I had a blast with it from start to finish, and felt that it deserved the Metal Gear name despite the overhaul. As the story begins, Raiden is working for the "Private Security Provider" (PSP) known as Maverick, protecting the Prime Minister of an African country who has recently begun to lead an unprecedented period of peace and rebuilding. Before long, their convoy is attacked by a cyborg soldier named Sundowner, who kidnaps the Prime Minister with Raiden in pursuit. Sadly, he fails to stop Sundowner in time, and is seriously injured in the process - losing his eye and his left arm. A few weeks later, Raiden is repaired and sent back in the field to stop Sundowner and his fellow "Winds of Destruction" group from overtaking the independent state Abkhazia, as well as uncover their ultimate plan, as well as figure out who is behind this new threat, because let's face it - no video game introduces its top enemy this early in the campaign; there's always a boss of the boss. Along the way he will uncover a plan to make soldiers out of children, discover a lab filled with robotic brains (and eyes! Very creepy visual), don a Mariachi costume for some reason, and slice the ever loving shit out of many, many, many cyborgs.
Storywise, it's pretty easy to follow - there's an appearance of a character from MGS4 that comes late and is rather vaguely explained (the codec helps some, but I had to consult a Wiki to really grasp their importance) - but otherwise I never felt at a disadvantage for being a glorified newcomer. And there are no big plot twists that I can recall - it's a pretty straightforward action adventure story that uses the "start a war to make money" plot of any number of Bond films and adds a distinctly Metal Gear edge. Raiden may never be as iconic as Snake, but he's certainly less annoying than I remember him being - he's actually pretty badass (I understand that this was introduced in MGS4 after all the scorn he received in Sons of Liberty), and never once whines. The game even dips into his rather tragic past and fractured psyche; the child soldier subplot hits home for him, and there's a sequence where he is able to hear the very human thoughts of the soldiers he has been ordered to kill. It never gets too pretentious or preachy, but there's enough there to give it some more weight than you'd expect from any clip that shows him gracefully dismembering bad guys in showers of blood.
That last bit is the primary focus of the game; while you can use stealth often (on a couple occasions you are basically forced to), this isn't like the other games where you can take your time and complete the entire thing without killing anyone - at least once per level there's a scripted fight scene that you cannot escape until all of your opponents are dead, and if there's a way to end the boss fights without killing them, I never found it. And really, why wouldn't you want to engage with your high frequency blade and accompanying super-fast ninja moves? I'm not a fan of "run around, find some guys, kill them all, move on to the next area and repeat" type games, mainly because I find the action repetitive, but the game mixes it up often enough to keep repetition at bay, and thus I never once tired of "ninja running" toward a bunch of soldiers, toppling a few of them with my sweep move, and then slicing and dicing like a madman, pausing only to take advantage of Raiden's special "Zandatsu" move, which allows him to pull regenerative tissue out of his opponent and heal himself up.
To do this, you must carefully aim at a sweet spot (usually located in the chest area of your opponent) using "Ninja Blade", which you activate by holding down the left trigger and aligning your blade slice with the thumbsticks. It takes a while to get used to, and even by the end I was still having trouble aiming quickly (you can only stay in "Ninja Blade" mode for a short period of time, and enemies continue to move in slow-mo), but it added a lot of unexpected strategy to the bigger fights. For example, during a battle with a giant Gear and a bunch of soldiers, it's a good idea to focus on the big guy and only head over to the easier enemies for a quick kill/health recharge before returning to the tougher foe - but of course this also leaves you open to more attacks. Much like the stealth sections have you considering the safest (only?) route to wipe everyone out without being seen, you have to consider lots of options even for these "simple" sections, and when you add in your unlocked weapons and "sub-weapons" (typical Metal Gear stuff like rocket launchers and a variety of grenades), it's even more impressive.
Of course, you can always just skip the "Zandatsu" process and rely on "repair nanopaste", a healing item that can be found scattered around the game levels and occasionally obtained from downed foes. These will restore 100% of your life bar and if set as the active item will automatically apply when your life hits zero. However, it's best to not do that and save them for the boss fights, particularly the one at the end of level 3 and the final boss, which IMO are the game's toughest foes by far and can wipe you out with a few hits if you're not well-stocked on paste. Trust me, level 3 has some tough spots, but nothing in the final level, even the sub-boss, should require you to use one if you're playing carefully - be fully stocked!
But if you screwed up and somehow got to the last boss (or any other that's giving you trouble due to a lack of health replenishment), luckily none of the levels are so long that replaying them would be much of an issue. Like the previous games, you can blow through the campaign in a matter of three or four hours if you're playing well and not rooting around for hidden collectibles - there's even an Achievement for passing a certain level in under 7 minutes. The levels are unevenly paced, too - the first couple seem long enough (though one inexplicably lacks a boss), but the last three can be played through in about a half hour if you skip the cut-scenes. One level is only a boss fight, and not even a particularly tough one at that. Likewise, for a while after the (understandably long) intro, the game manages its cut-scene/actual playing balance much more successfully than any MG I've played since the NES original, but as you get closer to the end you'll be putting your controller down more and more. At one point they even try to make it seem like the game is starting up again, but you don't actually do anything - you can't even move! You just look around a bit (if you want) while the villain keeps talking, and after a few minutes of that it returns to a proper cut-scene. So despite the overhauled gameplay and lack of Snake, fear not - Hideo Kojima and his team have got you covered with the other series' trademarks, for better or for worse. And if you want to hear all of the codec conversations, be prepared for a lengthy endeavor - on level 1 I opted to listen to all of the ones currently available across your four contacts, and it took about two hours - much longer than the level itself. However, this is where the plot points of the game are really fleshed out and where you'll learn about your foes, so you should definitely at least sample them after every big event if you want the whole story.
The collectible element adds much value to the gameplay - you can spend as much time in the field as you do listening to codecs if you look around for everything. In addition to the addicting Achievement list (with five secret ones - I looked them up and I can assure you that I will never, ever, EVER obtain them) that can keep you going back, there are a few different mini-games scattered throughout the game's eight levels. One involves finding thirty left hands of certain enemy soldiers, which your trusty scientist Doktor (the guy who made your awesome ninja suit) has asked you to find and will reward you for doing so, and there are twenty data discs hidden around the campaign to find as well. Beating the campaign nets you different rewards depending on how well you play (and on what difficulty level), and there's a hilarious little mini-game involving yet another hidden element that should amuse series veterans (it involves that old standby - the cardboard box). Your suit and weapons are all upgradeable as well, allowing for some light role-playing action as you spend your battle points wisely (and this provides incentive for you to go back and play levels again - now with better weapons and more health!).
Then there are the VR missions, which also need to be unlocked by exploring each and every corner of the game's levels for laptop computers that Raiden hacks. I would recommend playing them in between levels, not only to break up the gameplay a bit, but completing them nets you more BP to spend on the things that can help you in the rest of the campaign. As with the older games, these provide a variety of bonus stages that set you on different tasks - wipe out all of the enemies, clear the room without being caught, or simply race to a checkpoint in a given amount of time (read: run like hell and don't stop to fight any of the things that are trying to kill you). Those and the "kill everyone" types are fine, but I quite like the stealth ones that have you figuring out how to get to the end without being caught - some even have you wipe everyone out via "Ninja Kill", which involves sneaking up behind them and taking them out with one hit), and finding the ones I missed in the campaign is another big incentive for me to replay it.
Another incentive: now I can skip the cut-scenes and hammer the Y button to race through the codec conversations if I want. As always, some are necessary to follow the story (and if you take a long break in the game to return to Skyrim or something, you can use the codec as a refresher on what's going on), but others are just plain goofy, like when Raiden discusses "torture porn" movies with Doktor, or the difference between basketball and football with Kevin, his ops guy. It might be a bit ill-fitting - the plot involves kidnapping children and basically killing them in order to retrofit them as killing machines, and then your "save" contact back at base is telling you about the best way to make a samosa - but that is another trademark of the series and thus it actually fits perfectly. There's even a game-long "subplot" about the possibility that a coffee mug might fall off a desk - you just can't get that sort of charming nonsense in any other franchise.
Sadly I won't be able to skip the songs, though I guess I can take advantage of Xbox's custom soundtrack in these moments (sorry, PS3 owners!). For just about every major fight, you'll hear a rock instrumental that's decent enough, but at a certain point lyrics come in, offering something that usually sounds like 30 Seconds To Mars' first album as covered by the Black Veil Brides. I've heard worse (I'll take it over any ballad I've heard in a Final Fantasy game), but it got pretty grating to hear them over and over (on a loop no less) during the tougher boss fights that took me several tries. "Violence breeeeeeeeeeeeeeds viiiiiiiiiiiiolence" - get used to hearing that one!
Other than that, my only complaint about the game that I can't chalk up to my own lacking skill as a gamer is that the difficulty has peaks and valleys, rather than a steady upward climb. I found a lot of it to be a breeze on normal difficulty, to the extent that I considered switching it to hard, only to to then encounter a fight that made me wonder if I'd even be able to pass it on easy without tearing my hair out. Dying is part of the fun, I think - you figure out what you did wrong and try a new approach - but the game doesn't adequately prepare you for one hit kills (final boss) or being besieged by enemy helicopters while trying to fight the game's hardest boss up until that point (with zero ammo resupplies in the area). There are also a couple of quick timed events (or forced "Ninja Blade") sequences that don't give you any clear indication of a) what you're supposed to do or b) what you did wrong to deserve death.
But no game is perfect, and none of the above ever seriously hurt my enjoyment overall. Besides, it's flawless technically - I finished the game before the now-standard "day one" update (patch) was released but never encountered any glitches or graphical hiccups. Sure, I wouldn't have minded it being a bit longer, but with so much incentive to replay it's hardly an issue in the long run. Overall, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance offers plenty of variety to the gameplay, enemy types, and locations, colorful bosses (most of whom will drop their weapon upon defeat) that each require a different tactic to defeat, and most importantly in this era of games that focus all their energy on multiplayer and don't put much effort into the single player portion, an enjoyable campaign that I am eager to revisit. I think both newcomers and die-hard fans of the series will find lots to enjoy here despite the lack of Solid Snake (who is only mentioned once or twice in the codec conversations), and as an Xbox owner, I'm stoked to see a new entry in the series hit alongside its Playstation counterpart. Here's hoping it's not the last.
(Reviewed on Xbox 360)