When PlatinumGames and Kojima Productions took the wrapping off the game formerly known as Metal Gear Solid: Rising at last year’s E3, I commented on Twitter that it looked liked everything awesome and negligent about modern Japanese game design. That E3 trailer featured a striking, unique visual art style that was accompanied by fast-paced acrobatic action, yet also featured heavy doses of cheese and other idiosyncratic quirks (but seriously, that subtitle?). Lo and behold, having now finished the completed product, I find that initial reaction aptly describes Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance–a game that somehow manages to swing wildly between exhilarating, cringe-worthy, philosophic, and infuriating.
At its most elementary level, Metal Gear Rising is a third-person hack-and-slash action game. There is a light attack button and a strong attack button, a progression of enemies with different behaviors and weaknesses, iconic boss battles, upgradeable abilities and equipment, quick time events, collectible bonuses, and combo and high score systems that reward mastery of the mechanics. However, despite checking all the usual boxes, Rising is anything but a typical action game with its undoubtedly Metal Gear political overtones and a bombastic flair reminiscent of Platinum’s own Bayonetta. In short, Rising is exactly what you imagined when you first heard the action savants at Platinum were working in Hideo Kojima’s twisted world.
As I detailed in my preview over a month ago, Rising has two major characteristics that distinguish its mechanics from others in its genre: Blade Mode and the defense system. In regards to the latter, it’s actually the lack of a proper defense system that is so notable, and yet is one of the game’s greatest triumphs. Protagonist Raiden–especially after the prologue–is a powerhouse of a killing machine, quite accurately referred to as a cyborg ninja by one of the supporting characters. As such, he has little interest in perfunctory combat tactics such as blocking and dodging; Raiden is all offense all the time. That design philosophy naturally leaves parrying as Raiden’s only line of defense. Most enemies will glow orange a moment before they attack, leaving the player a tiny window to perform a light attack in the appropriate direction. When executed properly, said enemy is staggered, allowing Raiden a window to counter with a renewed onslaught. Despite the natural mashiness of general combat, the parry system is finely tuned due to its tight timing window and required aim, and it adds an ebb and flow to the flurry of offensive attacks without ever leaving Raiden feeling impotent or breaking up the hyper-aggressiveness of his style.
As for Blade Mode, the free-form, right-stick-powered, slow-motion slicing mechanic heavily featured in early incarnations of the title, it too leaves a favorable mark on the flow of combat. As long as Raiden’s energy meter is at 100% capacity (upgrades can eventually push total capacity upwards of 100%), holding the left trigger activates Blade Mode, allowing Raiden to line up highly accurate slices in the heat of combat while the meter slowly burns down. On lesser enemies, limbs can be freely cut off, including left arms that for some weird reason function as an upgrade currency. Stronger enemies must be first weakened by standard attacks before blue-hued limbs signify that they are ready for amputation, while any sufficiently weakened adversary will also have a weak spot highlighted in Blade Mode in the form of a small red box. Successfully slow-mo slicing through this box exposes a cyborg spine full of electric blue magical energy goo (or “nanomachines” in the game’s parlance). Referred to as the Zandatsu, this finishing move refills the entirety of Raiden’s health and energy meters, providing a tangible gameplay benefit while never losing its immensely satisfying visual appeal.
The entirety of Metal Gear Rising‘s beautiful, flowing, and (I really cannot emphasize this enough) lightning-quick combat is delivered in a buttery 60 frames per second, never dropping despite the weight of its occasionally colossal scale or its intricate, wonderfully-rendered art design. In a game this fast, with such emphasis on rhythm and precise timing, the technical achievement of 60fps goes well beyond cosmetics. And yet, on the strength of such a solid base design, Rising regularly and fantastically delves into stunning set pieces that are both wonderfully ridiculous and wildly exhilarating. Sometimes that means jumping from missile to missile to attack an apache helicopter, sometimes it means gravity-defying hops between falling debris to scale a skyscraper, and sometimes it means getting in the face of a stupidly overpowered boss. Many of these exciting sequences are quick time events, a handful are context-sensitive extensions of existing mechanics, and nearly all end up leveraging the inherently dramatic Blade Mode as punctuation, but all these moments share a common thread: they are visually stunning and tightly choreographed, with the camera zooming, panning, and cutting with the mastery of a seasoned cinematographer without ever feeling like the gameplay is being nerfed to pull it off.
Such impressive sequences unfortunately stand in stark contrast to the general quality and utility of the camera in any other gameplay scenario. Fighting against the stubborn camera is a constant chore and directly inhibits gameplay. Sure, camera control is mapped to the right stick, and clicking in said stick resets the camera to a neutral position, but such player-reliant actions only offer a temporary fix, and moments later the camera is just another adversary again. A lot of times, even after adjusting the camera, it just doesn’t want to stay put as it tries to swing around to gain a better vantage point on enemies. Severely exacerbating the frustration is the camera’s relatively close position to Raiden; while not quite the over-the-shoulder perspective of Resident Evil or Gears of War, Raiden’s character model frequently occupies the vertical length of the screen. Such a perspective can lend itself to more dramatic views of the action during set pieces and traversal, but in the more common forum of free-form swordplay, it’s getting in the way far too often. The clumsy implementation only serves to highlight the virtues of a fixed camera perspective such as those in God of War, and while I’m by no means suggesting Platinum should’ve handcuffed themselves to that philosophy, much more work needed to be focused on making the standard combat camera complement the action rather than sully it.
It seems that Platinum at least gave passing thought to its struggles with the camera since it implemented a lock-on system to help keep action focused–or it tried to, anyway. The lock-on ability is as broken as the regular camera, often struggling to find the desired target and even once it has, it can randomly switch off that target to another enemy of lesser importance. This is especially infuriating during the boss fights, which often consist of several lesser enemies harassing the player from all angles as the boss zips around to disparate areas of the battlefield while exhibiting pattern behaviors that require the player’s undivided attention. Similarly, even in routine skirmishes that showcase any level of verticality–such as when fighting flying enemies or Metal Gears–both the standard and lock-on cameras struggle to function properly on a basic level. When environmental hazards are added to that volatile mix, well…good luck keeping your controller in one piece.
It’s a shame that the dysfunctional camera so often robs Rising of the elegance displayed in its impressive animation and general aesthetic. It is not the only area of the game’s presentation that feels lacking, however…or at the very least, inconsistent. The politically-charged plot centers around traditional Metal Gear topics such as private military corporations, the military-industrial complex, and international conspiracy. At the same time, the writers attempt to add depth to Raiden’s character with several self-examining monologues concerning the moral ambiguity of slaying countless cyborgs in the context of Raiden’s self-proclaimed doctrine to protect the weak. The monologues themselves, or the often lengthy cutscenes they are a central part of, are not even the problem; in fact, dialogue is generally well-localized and cutscenes are riveting, dramatic, and action-packed, displaying a level of flamboyant bravioso that justifies taking control away from the player for such lengthy periods.
However, the development of the story and its characters is a convoluted mess. Rising takes place several years after Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, with the protagonist being part of a PMC outfit contracted to handle security for a foreign regime. Rival PMCs predictably disrupt this newfound tranquility in an attempt to revert the world to the more financially lucrative era of war profiteering. Along the way, Raiden picks up a personal vendetta to complement his philosophical motivations. A few gruesome injuries necessitate a few cybernetic enhancements, and thus Rising‘s solid narrative groundwork is laid. From that point, however, Platinum keeps trying to throw new wrinkles into Raiden’s character progression and into the villains’ motivations, at times going so far as to try to rationalize the villains’ aims as just motives from their perspective. Schemes for financial gain become twisted with a misplaced rationale for a better society, and meanwhile Raiden is haunted by a bloody past that disrupts his own mental fortitude. In the end, there are several ambitious ideas that Platinum never figures out how to mesh together. Good guys and bad guys start flip-flopping roles, promising motivations are lost in the ether, even the delightfully ridiculous dialogue devolves into delusional rambles. Rising frequently oscillates from being over-the-top fun to serious social commentary, and there is no cohesiveness to its narrative agenda.
Perhaps fittingly, the game’s very structure also suffers from this schizophrenia. Metal Gear Rising opens with several lengthy levels, each taking over 45 minutes to complete. As it nears its final act, however, a pair of levels are completed in rapid succession (under 10 minutes each) while cutscenes are used to fill the gaps where Raiden is traversing. And then, during the final act, Platinum decides it wants to blow the lid off again, turning in the longest chapter in the entire game. Much of this is due to the three-stage final boss, each of which successively grows cheaper and more frustrating. Worse, each successive phase of that final encounter strays further and further from the rules established throughout the course of the entire game, veering away from the hyperspeed ballet into a protracted, dull, and truly infuriating struggle. What should have been a powerfully climactic moment teeters on ruining the entire experience as the myriad flaws that have dogged Raiden to this point (the abysmal camera, increasingly lost and pedantic dialogue, cheap enemy tactics) reach a breaking point devoid of any of the game’s equally numerous virtues (its pace, its fluidity, its generally aggressive style and parry system).
There are further problems in the underlying mythos and the plot developments that frame Rising‘s incredible conflicts, but at this point it should be pretty clear that the narrative will only be of substance to the most diehard of Metal Gear fans. And for what it’s worth, I am not among that group; this is the first game in the series that I put more than an hour into let alone finished, so it’s understandable if some of the in-jokes were lost on me. Some homages I did understand–numerous playful tie-ins with Snake’s infamous cardboard box–while others clearly required further context, such as the villains’ frequent pandering to Raiden’s dark past as “Jack.” That caveat aside, this is a new game in a new genre by a new studio with a (mostly) new cast, so while fan service is all well and good, that doesn’t change the fact that the narrative aspects of the game are fundamentally disheveled.
And yet, no matter how far Rising strayed from comprehensibility, it remained a thrilling action experience. Whatever mess was left between Kojima Productions’ original script and Platinum’s more recent additions, one takeaway is paramount to all others: Platinum knows how to make a damn fine action game. When Rising is clicking on all cylinders, it is one helluva badass thrill ride. Its unique panache, its free-flowing combos, its innovative wrinkles, speed, and unapologetic self-confidence combine to produce a true gem. For those who seek more, there are several layers that add hours of replayability, from standard fare like higher difficulties and goofy costumes to entirely new weapons and unlockable challenge-like VR Missions.
Rating: QUEEN — Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is at times one of the best action games of this console generation, and yet at times embodies some of the genre’s worst pitfalls. The gameplay has plenty of unique hooks and exhilirating moments, but camera issues and a few questionable design decisions (coughfinalbosscough) bog down the experience. There are several interesting characters with a wide variety of origins, personalities, and motivations, but dialogue ranges from cheeky to cheesy, a promising plot devolves into clutter, and lengthy cutscenes can be at times tantalizing and at others stale. Art and sound direction are wonderfully executed and the game runs on a technically impressive foundation, but weaknesses in the details of its design inhibit total immersion. Rising is incredibly fun and incredibly cumbersome. It is, in short, a modern Japanese game, with all the promise and pitfalls that heritage brings.
Version Reviewed: Xbox 360 retail copy