Retrospective: God’s Not Dead (2014)

It has been quite a while since my last Retrospectives series. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had plenty of ideas for write-ups during the past several months (some more conventional than others), but I kept getting drawn back to the same series: the God’s Not Dead franchise. Hoo boy… Considering that this is a series rooted inextricably in ideological arguments, hopefully you can understand why it took me so long to get around to this one. To be upfront, I’ve heard a lot of commentary on this film, but I tried to not let it colour my opinions on the film too much going in – I wanted to see if there was any merit to all the vitriol this film has inspired. So strap in, we’re going to start this at the beginning, with 2014’s God’s Not Dead.

The film’s poster is decent, I have to admit. I could do without the crowd at the bottom, but there’s a certain evocative element to this design which I can’t deny (even symbolically, down to the black/white contrast), plus it makes sense for the film’s story… Good job, I guess.

God’s Not Dead was produced by Pure Flix, an evangelical movie studio and distribution company which had been creating Christian films for about 10 years before God’s Not Dead. According to Russell Wolfe, co-founder of Pure Flix, the concept for film came about when the studio was looking for ideas and were suggested to make a film about apologetics. Around the same time, the Alliance Defending Freedom (a conservative, evangelical lobbying group which has been labelled as a hate organization by the Southern Poverty Law Center) were telling the producers stories about apparent Christian persecution, which inspired the campus setting of the film.

That’s the official story at least. I can’t be the only one who has heard of the urban legend of the “atheist professor” while growing up in the church. God’s Not Dead cribs liberally from this myth, even down to some of its arguments which, as one writer puts it, makes this the first film based on a chain email. Kelly Kullberg has also argued that the producers of God’s Not Dead stole her own life story, which caused her to sue them for $100 million. This lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, with the judge claiming that the film and her own script weren’t similar enough to constitute copyright infringement. Whether this is because Kelly Kullberg was also ripping off the atheist professor story or not is unclear.

God’s Not Dead ended up being a surprise hit at the box office in its limited theatrical release, bringing in around $65 million on a $2 million budget, despite having no real mainstream star power or marketing associated with it. As I have written about in the past, this success came about from the free viral marketing that churches offer these kinds of projects – the pastor tells their congregation to go see this movie because it will affirm their faith, and so the film has a built-in audience that it doesn’t even need to dedicate a marketing budget towards to reach.

The story of God’s Not Dead is structured in a manner similar to Paul Haggis’ Crash, with a number of characters’ narratives intersecting, and all centred on an overarching theme, in this case Christianity and faith. The main plot revolves around a student named Josh Wheaton who takes a philosophy class taught by the notoriously hostile Jeffery Radisson. Radisson tries to get everyone in the class to declare that “God is dead”, but Josh refuses and is forced to defend his position over the course of the next three lectures, while Radisson grows increasingly hostile at his defiance. Meanwhile, we’re treated to a few side-plots: Amy is a hostile liberal journalist who gets cancer, her boyfriend Mark is a psychopathic and self-interested businessman (there isn’t really any thrust to his scenes beyond that), his sister Mina is Radisson’s girlfriend (or wife maybe? It isn’t clear at all and I have heard conflicting answers) who is growing apart from him because she is a Christian, Ayisha is a secret Christian within a very traditional Muslim family, and Pastor Dave and Pastor Jude can’t get their car to start when they want to go on vacation (seriously, that last one is a subplot which gets a lot of screentime during this film).

Eventually, this all culminates in Josh winning the debate against Radisson, most of the atheist characters convert to Christianity and Radisson gets hit and killed by a car, being converted on his deathbed by Pastors Dave and Jude (and thereby justifying all the screentime they’ve had throughout the film on their seemingly pointless subplot). Everyone rocks out at a Newsboys concert and the film encourages everyone to advertise the film for them (again, seriously).

With the plot out of the way, let’s get to the positives for God’s Not Dead first. For the most part, this is a very competently-made film. The directing and production values are better than you’re probably expecting – it certain looks like an independent film, but not an amateur made-for-TV movie. The acting is also mostly solid across the board, with only Josh’s girlfriend putting in a clearly bad performance (although she is dispensed from the plot pretty early on, luckily).

Other than that though… hoo boy. I’m just going to get the technical issues out of the way first; the editing is really weird sometimes. For an early example, Radisson is handing out pieces of paper to his class to sign “God is dead” on, when the film suddenly cuts away to Pastors Dave and Jude arriving at the airport. This cut was made for seemingly no reason, and I can’t understand it because it deflates the tension of the classroom scene. The only justification is that at the end of their scene the pastors say “God is good”, which is then contrasted by Radisson saying “God is dead” before cutting back to the classroom, but this doesn’t justify that first, abrupt cut in the slightest. There are weird edits like that sprinkled throughout God’s Not Dead, in part due to its story structure. That said, the script is definitely the main issue in this film, and it brings down an otherwise competent production. I’ll get to the broader implications of the script later, but for now aside from the pastors and maybe Josh, the characters are, on the whole, very one- or two-dimensional at best, serving more as object lessons rather than fully-realized characters. Obviously, that is a major issue for a character drama like this. Furthermore, this film’s script is just plain dull for the most part, stretching itself thin over an almost 2 hour runtime. I recall that around the 40 minute mark I was feeling like the movie was starting to drag, and then I saw that there was still more than an hour left and I just thought “How!?!” Honestly, the film could have done better by focusing much more on the main plot, maybe building some tension by actually giving us some insight into Josh’s research (he just sort of shows up with his big presentations each time), and show us more of the strain that this stand was apparently putting on him (he loses his girlfriend due to ridiculous circumstances and Josh says that he is falling behind on his school work because of it, but we never really see how this is really weighing on him).

Still, God’s Not Dead would have probably just come and gone without a fanfare if that was all that was wrong with this film’s script, but I think we all know that that is far from the case. God’s Not Dead fails spectacularly in two main departments: its apologetics and its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians, both of which I feel are rooted in the filmmakers’ ideological bases. I feel like the filmmakers were expecting a negative reaction from the secular world when they made God’s Not Dead, but I do not think that they were expecting that the most vehement drubbings of the film would be from within the Christian world itself, due to these two major flaws.

Let’s start with the apologetics. Both Josh and the film itself are quite explicitly tasked with proving that God exists, but their arguments in favour of God are not particularly compelling. Josh presents three lectures which I’ll boil down simply:

  1. The Bible always contended that the universe didn’t always exist, whereas science assumed the universe had always existed until the Big Bang was discovered, implying that science shouldn’t be taken as an absolute. He also argues that something had to have caused that Big Bang to occur in the first place. When a student asks who created God, he says that that’s based on an assumption that God must be created.
  2. When faced with Stephen Hawking’s assertion that the universe created itself, Josh uses some quotes to undermine Hawking’s authority and suggest that since Hawking also said that philosophy was dead, taking him at his word would contradict Radisson’s entire career. He then says that evolution doesn’t prove where life came from and claims that in a cosmic sense, life and all of evolution has occurred very suddenly (that particular argument was just confusing when watching and, on review, makes no sense – it’s just plain wrong, evolutionary time isn’t measured on a cosmic scale, it’s measured on an… evolutionary scale).
  3. Josh argues that evil exists because of free will and that we can join God in heaven because He allows evil to exist temporarily (also very funny in this part, the filmmakers use a slide of The Creation of Adam by Michelangeo and airbrushed Adam’s dick off so as not to offend any prudish evangelicals in the audience). He argues that without God there are no moral absolutes, although Radisson would say that cheating on a test would be “wrong”. Josh quotes Dostoyevski, saying that “without God, everything is permissible”. Josh then makes the claim that “science has proven God’s existence” without any basis, and gets Radisson to admit that he hates God, to which Josh asks “how can you hate someone who doesn’t exist?”

I don’t really want to spend a lot of time breaking down these arguments (if you’re interested, there’s a good article on Psychology Today which does just that), but suffice to say that they don’t even come close to proving that God exists, despite Josh’s assertion otherwise. Most of his arguments are just turning atheistic arguments back at themselves or creating an intellectual uncertainty that an individual could choose to fit God into. At best, his arguments convey that we don’t know where life came from, so if you want to believe in God then that’s your choice, but that’s still a failing grade when your stated task is to prove the existence of God. Even worse, while Josh could conceivably make a case that God exists in general, he instead makes his task basically impossible by immediately restricting himself to proving the existence of his own Judeo-Christian God. This results in quite a few potential objections that could have been made towards Josh, but are never brought up, such as that his argument over evolutionary leaps sounds an awful lot like he’s trying to justify the creation narrative, of which there is absolutely no evidence. It’s clear that the filmmakers did some apologetics research (there’s even someone credited with this in the film crew), but I question whether they put the film’s claims up against real philosophers or academics. If they did, then it certainly does not come across in the film, because the arguments are clearly weak. All that said, considering that this film is clearly directed towards the evangelical bubble, it’s expecting its audience to already have formed the same conclusion as the filmmakers, meaning that the need for strong proof is basically non-existent.

The other big issue with God’s Not Dead‘s script is its portrayal of Christians vs non-Christians. Let’s start with the Christians: they’re all portrayed as intelligent, respectful, happy, even-tempered people which everyone should aspire to be like, from the applauded heroism of Josh, to Ayisha’s faith in the face of persecution, to the eternal optimism of Dave and Jude. The one exception to this is Josh’s girlfriend, Kara – she is set up as someone who is a Christian, but when Josh decides to stand up for his faith she constantly orders him to just lie and sign the paper. She’s also a total idiot: she picked a crappier school in order to be with him, she has the next 50 years of their life together mapped out and him failing this philosophy class is enough to derail the whole plan. Kara is an awful, stupid shrew of a character who only exists to up the stakes for Josh when she breaks up with him (although considering how he reacts, they weren’t going to last 50 more years anyway) and to contrast against the “virtuousness” of Josh. I’d argue that, based on the way Kara is written, we’re meant to her as”lukewarm” or “not a real Christian”, since she does not give God priority in her life.

In contrast, let’s look at our atheist characters… individually, because holy crap is there a lot to say about all of them. Let’s start with Mark, played by ex-Superman Dean Cain – Mark is an unabashed, self-described asshole businessman who only cares about making himself better off. In his introduction, he won’t even give directions to his girlfriend unless she will do something for him in return (I keep having to make this same aside throughout this review, but again, seriously). Even when his girlfriend tells him that she has cancer, he accuses her of “breaking our deal” that their relationship is just about getting something out of each other for personal reasons, and then immediately breaks up with her because a cancer-striken girlfriend is a total drag. Oh, and he also has a mother with dementia who he refuses to see because she won’t even remember that he was there. And to put a cherry on top of it all, it is very much implied that Mark is the one who hits Radisson with his car and then leaves him to die. Mark is a deplorable, selfish, unsatisfied, loveless person who is very clearly meant to be the object lesson for Josh’s assertion that “without God anything is permissible”. Put simply, Mark is meant to represent the fundamentalist idea that atheists are amoral (it’s a pervasive enough idea that even atheists tend to think it’s true), but is such a cartoonish dick that you have to wonder if the filmmakers really think that there’s anyone like this. Look, I shouldn’t have to say that being religious doesn’t make you a moral person any more than being an atheist makes you amoral. In fact, if the filmmakers had done some actual philosophy research, they would have known that ethics and morality are an entire school of thought in their own right which doesn’t require a religious background.

Next we’ll look at Amy, Mark’s girlfriend who is a gotcha journalist and blogger. Amy is clearly intended to be a left-leaning character, although thinly drawn and from the perspective of someone who obviously doesn’t understand why a leftist might legitimately hold those kinds of beliefs. This is shown early on when Amy ambushes… sigh… Willie Robertson (of Duck Dynasty fame) and his wife. Her interview questions consist of the following: does he hunt (duh), what gives him the moral right to maim animals (“I don’t maim ’em, I kill em!”) and what does he say to people who are offended that he prays on his TV show (he shuts her down with Bible verses). Naturally, Willie throws out some way-too-eloquent-to-be-real answers and Amy doesn’t even respond or react to them with her own questions or follow-up. Look, obviously there are anti-hunting people, just like there are people who don’t want to see prayer on TV, but these are definitely a very small minority – most reasonable people don’t really give a shit about either. Now, what if Amy had been upfront about the sorts of things that actually rile people up about the faith of the Duck Dynasty crew, the sorts of things that a real journalist would probably be interested in capturing in an interview? Would it have seemed like the secular world is just targeting people of faith unjustly? Would his rebuttals have seemed to reasonable when he’s trying to explain that he doesn’t hate gay people? Somehow I doubt it.

Anyway, Amy gets cancer out of nowhere and spends most of the film grappling this grim reality after Mark dumps her. By the end she’s back to her old tricks, sneaking into the green room with the Newsboys before a concert and asking the band “How can you sing about God and Jesus as if they’re real?” Umm, because they believe that they are, duh? The band then throws out some more very obviously scripted answers which cause Amy to break down and convert out of absolutely nowhere. If Mark is meant to represent the amorality of atheism, then Amy represents the liberal media. However, in addition to making Amy a really poor journalist in general, the filmmakers once again show that they don’t understand why Christianity is so often “targeted” by the media by not realizing that it is the beliefs associated with Christians which come under fire (such as homophobia or, ahem, anti-intellectualism), rather than belief itself.

Rounding out the main atheist cast is Jeffery Radisson, Josh’s philosophy professor, representative of the “liberal elite” in education… I have a ton of notes to get through on this one because he is so, so bad. Before we even meet him, Josh goes to enrol in his class and is discouraged from doing so because Radisson has such a history of anti-religious fervour that the entire school is well aware of it. Somehow Radisson has never been disciplined for being blatantly discriminatory, even though he starts every semester off by trying to get everyone to sign a paper to say that they agree that “God is dead” (the act of which, he reveals, is worth a whopping 30% of the students’ total grade!?! What kind of a bullshit class is this?). Radisson seems simultaneously shocked when Josh denies this, and smug in his belief that a first year philosophy student won’t be able to prove the existence of God.

As events unfold, a number of things about Radisson’s character become more and more clear to the viewer. First of all is that he is incredibly hostile and clearly nursing a personal grudge, which is truly apparent when he stalks and confronts Josh after class on a couple occasions and tells him that he’ll freaking destroy his future for defying him. Radisson ends up being straight-up dictatorial, wanting all his students to fall in line with what he believes and turning into a giant man-baby in the face of any sort of dissent. This is also demonstrated in Radisson’s relationship with Mina, a former student of his who he somehow fell in love with despite the fact that she is a Christian! During a faculty dinner party, Radisson constantly belittles Mina and her faith for no other reason than because he is a smug, misogynist dick, which the entire faculty goes along with (because they are all atheist monsters as well, even down to shark-like glances at Mina when she pipes up about her faith). When Mina (understandably) breaks up with him, Radisson says that he won’t accept or allow Mina to leave him, a move which obviously doesn’t work. I mean, who aside from a narcissist or a sociopath would think like that?

As Radisson’s life just falls to pieces, between Mina leaving him and Josh “beating” Radisson in each debate, it’s revealed that Radisson is such a militant atheist because when he was 12, his mother died of cancer. God didn’t answer his mother’s prayers or his, so he hates God for taking her away from him, a fact which proves to be the coup de grace in the final debate. This makes Radisson demonstrative of the infuriating fundamentalist belief that “there are no atheists”, since they can’t even conceive of the reasons why someone could logically and reasonably not believe in God. The end of the film seems to suggest that his experiences have caused Radisson to undergo a fundamental change in his life and he goes to try to reconnect with Mina before changing his life and becoming a better person. Just kidding about that last part, the filmmakers have him get hit by a freaking car and make a deathbed confession to Pastors Jude and David (justifying their role in the plot and implying that this was all part of God’s convoluted murder plan), rather than provide first aid to the severely injured man. It all makes Jude and David come across as callously perverse in a sense, as they say that this deathbed conversion is a cause for celebration – I mean, I understand their logic, but a dude just freaking died here.

Beyond all that, Radisson is just further proof that the scriptwriters don’t understand the kinds of people this movie is supposed to be portraying, nor did they bother to consult any. I doubt there’s any atheist philosophy teacher who hates God so much that he would avoid even discussing him. I mean, if I was in that class I would take the invitation to sign “God is dead” as a teaching tool to show the class that you’re not supposed to take anyone’s word for granted – this is a philosophy class after all, which is supposed to be about the art of solving problems using logic. Radisson also seems to hold quotes from scientists such as Stephen Hawking (even on subjects he is not accredited for such as theology and philosophy) to a level bordering on reverence. When Josh dares to challenge Hawking’s belief that the universe created itself, he scoffs at Josh’s insolence. It’s almost as if the scriptwriters believe that an atheist believes that science or scientists are inerrant on the same level that evangelicals hold their Bible. Even the philosophical quote that makes up the film’s title, “God is dead” from Nietzche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, is botched in this film so badly that I had to look up to make sure that my interpretation of it wasn’t wrong (it wasn’t). Radisson claims that the phrase means that it is settled that God does not exist, nor has he never existed. Rather, this quote is tied to a very specific time and place – the advent of the Enlightenment and modernity at the turn of the 20th century had brought about social changes which were causing belief in God to plummet in the Western world. As a result, the concept of an “absolute moral reality” (God) was now meaningless, which would lead people into nihilism. As David Kyle Johnson puts it:

“Radisson doesn’t know what the phrase ‘God is dead’ means. […] He thinks it means that ‘God never existed in the first place.’ The phrase, coined by Friedrich Nietzsche, means nothing of the sort and in fact has nothing to do with God’s existence. Instead, Nietzsche was trying to argue that belief in God no longer affected how people live their lives; specifically, God was no longer used as a moral compass or a source of meaning: If only Radisson, and the makers of the film, had bothered with a four second Google search.”

Oh and I would be totally remiss if I forgot to mention the worst subplot in the film, the one revolving around the only non-Christian religious character, Ayisha’s father, Misrab (is… is that intended to be a pun on miserable? Bloody hell…). From his introduction, Misrab comes across as controlling and traditionally conservative in his Islamic faith, most notably by forcing Ayisha to wear a niqab in public and questioning her when he sees someone make casual conversation. From her introduction Ayisha shows that she does not want to wear the niqab, taking it off whenever her father is not around to see her. Misrab comes across as very sinister from little more than the way that the camera frames himself and Ayisha. It is later revealed that Ayisha has secretly converted to Christianity when we see her listening to a sermon by… Franklin Graham!?! Oh what the literal fuck were the filmmakers thinking when they dropped that name bomb here? Could they be any more tone-deaf? Again, bloody hell, this is the worst subplot in the whole damn film. Anyway, Ayisha listens to Graham’s sermon and then her brother sneaks up on her for absolutely no reason, sees what she’s listening to and then tells Misrab. Misrab goes into a rage (presumably because she’s listening to other religions, but who knows, maybe he’s suitably pissed that she’s listening to Franklin bloody Graham) and begins angrily slapping Ayisha in an incredibly uncomfortable domestic abuse sequence that ends with him throwing her out onto the streets as both of them cry at the circumstances that led them to this outcome. As villainous and reprehensible as Misrab is, I can at least understand where he’s coming from here and see that what he’s doing is breaking his heart, rather than just being cartoonishly evil like the atheist characters. I realize that this sort of awful shit happens, but bloody hell, what does it say about the scriptwriters when the only non-white family in the whole movie is a stereotypical, misogynist, domestically abusive Muslim family, especially considering the sort of audience this film is supposed to be catering towards?

Part of the problem with Ayisha and Misrab’s subplot is that I question whether the scriptwriters really knew what they were doing with it, or whether they just threw it in for an example of Christian persecution and an opportunity for some serious melodrama. I feel like the main reason this was added to the movie was because most of Josh’s proofs of the existence of God could apply to Islam as well, so the filmmakers felt the need to show that they were just as wrong as the atheists. Islam ends up being a contrast to Christianity – whereas the Christians are free and don’t hate women, the Muslims come across as dangerously old-fashioned and violent. The thing is though, this subplot is disingenuously one-sided. For example, while the film portrays Islam as being stifling and oppressive to women, I have seen and heard numerous stories over the years of women who have left the Christian church because of the way that it treats women. The sort of Islamic tradition on display in God’s Not Dead is a clearly conservative one rooted in “sharia law”, which is not too far off from the sort of theocracy that American evangelicals seem to hypocritically push for. Furthermore, Misrab tries to comfort Ayisha early in the film, saying that:

“It’s hard living in their world and being a part of it. A world you can see but can’t touch. I know they seem happy, but know that when you look around at all these people, there is no one who worships God, not the way he deserves and demands to be worshipped. We must never forget who and what we are. That is the most important thing.”

That statement could have just as easily been given to, say, Paster David and no one would question it, but I’m not sure the filmmakers even realize how their depiction of Muslims in this film really isn’t far off from the reality of Christians. After all, how many LGBT youth have been disowned or thrown out of their houses by supposedly Christian families for coming out of the closet*? There’s just so much disingenuous cognitive dissonance in the portrayal of Christians and Muslims that it’s just as insulting as the characterization of atheists.

If I haven’t made it obvious, I feel like a lot of this film’s failings stem directly from the filmmakers’ skewed evangelical ideology. This is quite evident throughout the film as I have already stated, from the lack of understanding of basic philosophy (in a movie about a philosophy class), to the arguments convincing only to someone who already believes in them, to the insulting depictions of “the other”. It even shows up in the little moments throughout the film – at one point, Josh and Pastor Dave estimate that, out of 80 students in Radisson’s class, Josh is the only one who has ever been to church. This is a preposterous estimate considering that nearly 80% of Americans are Christians, but it belies the belief shared by evangelicals that they are an oppressed minority (growing up in an evangelical household, I certainly believed this too). As Alissa Wilkinson said, “White evangelical Protestants, who make up the lion’s share of the so-called faith-based audience, are the only major religious group in America who believe they face more discrimination in America than Muslims do. And nearly eight in 10 white evangelical Protestants believe that discrimination against Christians is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities”. This is made all the more obvious by the end credits, which list a number of “examples” of Christian persecution in America… if you count business discrimination, largely revolving around refusing to serve homosexuals and providing health care for abortions, as “persecution”.

The filmmakers’ conservatism also plays into some of the film’s failings. Now, I don’t believe that there was an explicit intent to make God’s Not Dead into a piece of conservative propaganda, but the filmmakers very clearly fall on that side of the political spectrum, from the people they choose to credit onscreen (Lee Strobel, Franklin Graham, Willie Robertson, etc) and those that influenced the film off-screen (the Alliance Defending Freedom). This leads to such previously mentioned failings as having a Muslim character listening to Franklin Graham, to having Amy be a left-wing caricature. Sean Paul Murphy, a scriptwriter for Pure Flix, actually might have some insight into how politics were influencing the studio’s direction by the time God’s Not Dead was being produced:

“I grew up watching indie films of the 80s and 90s, those filmmakers managed to make art with small budgets because they had a passion for the medium. It’s not the budgets. It is a disregard for the art of filmmaking. And faith films will not get better until the audience demands something better, but they tend to evaluate films solely on the message itself. As for the counterproductive hatred of atheists and other non-believers, I tried to buck that trend. In Hidden Secrets, the first film produced by Pure Flix (but its second release), my co-writer and I sought to create a fuller, more sympathetic portrayal […]. Nowadays, however, the audience reward films that fight the Culture War for them.  It is easier to generate anger than compassion. I have no interest in that.”

As a result, we’ve got a film with aspirations to sway agnostics towards God, which claims that it has empirical evidence for His existence, but which fails to even understand the positions of those it is arguing against. Meanwhile, it draws in Christians with cameos from celebrities within the evangelical bubble, has a cross-promotion with Christian music label Inpop Records (which provided the film’s soundtrack, including the title song), sets up a blatantly cynical viral marketing campaign which encourages the audience to tell everyone to watch the film and provides an affirmation that everyone’s out to get the poor, innocent Christians. After all, the conflict in this film stems from a hostile atheist forcing his beliefs on a Christian, when that Christian was content not to force them on anyone.

In summation, God’s Not Dead is just a boring movie to watch, with a crappy script and extremely problematic portrayals of Christians and non-Christians at its core which undermine any sort of debate which they may have been trying to foster. It’s not even like I fundamentally disagree with the premise of the film (I do believe in God as well), it’s more the filmmakers wrongheaded notion that the world is suppressing Christianity that’s the issue. There is a line of thought on this film which claims that this film is about “being forced to accept that other people might believe something different”, or that the filmmakers hate atheists and relish in their suffering, but I don’t believe that is the intent. Their conception of them is, however, downright insulting, owing to a profound lack of imagination and empathy. When it comes down to it, I just don’t believe that evangelicals understand why it is that students tend to grow out of the church when they go off to school, and the answer is, quite simply, evangelicalism. When you create such a rigid, dogmatic and fragile structure which requires a denial of science and intellectualism, coupled with a belief that every word of the Bible is infalliable, and that this is the only way to be a true Christian, then of course they’re going to come to the conclusion that it’s all wrong. Maybe if they could actually step outside of the evangelical bubble, then perhaps they could have come up with some stronger arguments for why God is not dead**.

4/10

Be sure to come back soon when I cover the next entry in the series, God’s Not Dead 2!

*I’d recommend reading Unfair by John Shore for some heart-wrenching examples of this.
**Sigh, why did they call this “God’s not dead” anyway, considering the quote it’s named after is “God is dead”? The only thing I can think is that the producers assumed that there wouldn’t be enough audience members familiar with Nietzche’s quote, and therefore “God is not dead” would be less natural-sounding than “God’s not dead”. Again… doesn’t give much credit for the intelligence of your audience.

Christian Mingle – The Almighty Cockblocker

Recently my girlfriend was looking for a movie that we could watch on Netflix and, surprisingly, asked if I wanted to watch Christian Mingle. She isn’t a Christian herself, so this was particularly unexpected, but as someone who’s interested in crappy movies, this movie had been on my radar for quite some time and of course I said yes to the offer to watch it. It was basically just a reasonably well-done version of one of those low-budget W-network romantic films, with a religious spin on things to differentiate itself. I’m not really interested in a full review of the film (I’d give it a 4/10), but the film’s religious elements did get me thinking because they were implemented in some strange ways which I feel run counter to the intended message.

First off, Christian Mingle is very much an archetypal low budget romance movie. If you’ve seen one of these before, you know the drill – you’ve got your generic white couple who get drawn together, a manipulative mother, an unbearable romantic rival, a stupid conflict that draws the characters apart and which would have been easily solvable with a little communication and common sense, etc. Perhaps the weirdest thing about all of this though is how Christianity has been shoehorned into this archetype. Usually the central conflict comes because of some nefarious falsehood or because of some sort of scheme on the part of the villain, but in this story that means that the villain is… God, or at least this form of Christianity. It might have actually been interesting if this was intentional, but it definitely does not seem like that is the case here.

Much of the early conflict in Christian Mingle is driven by Gwyn feeling like she isn’t “Christian enough” (she’s a Christmas and Easter Christian, but that still makes her Christian) and Paul overestimating her devotion to God. Gwyn and Paul fall for each other, while Gwyn tries to learn how to be a better Christian. Interestingly, the film’s focus seems to be primarily directed on Christian lingo, rather than on the actions that would set someone apart and in fact seems to be the villainous mother character’s issue as well. She’s trying to set Paul up with goody-goody church girl Kelly, who’s clearly “in” the Christian group but clearly doesn’t have a connection with Paul like Gwyn does. Then, while volunteering together in Mexico*, Paul finds out that Gwyn isn’t Christian enough and decides that they can’t be together anymore, despite both of them clearly being in love. So, what this film is saying is that because Gwyn isn’t at the same faith level as Paul, they can’t be together? I mean, she basically says she wants to be better, she wants to know God the same way he does. Isn’t this every Evangelical boy’s dream, to save his girlfriend’s soul? Apparently not, according to this movie, because they split and he gets matched up with Kelly for a while.

So what does Gwyn do? She starts praying, going to church, reading her Bible, etc. And then she quits her job because she doesn’t feel honest marketing products she doesn’t believe in (as the Common Sense Media overview of the film puts it, “Why does no one ask if there are clinical trials to back up the product’s claims?”) and goes and volunteers full-time in Mexico. As a result, she apparently reaches a point where she’s “Christian enough” and Paul seeks her out on his own accord… and reveals that he loved her all along. So, wait, would he have gotten back together with her if she hadn’t completely changed her life for him? Would he have gotten over his own barriers and accept her in order to make love work? Who knows, because the movie’s story conveniently swerves to avoid having to actually answer this! Hell, it would even have been interesting to me if they had done something to suggest that this was supposed to be a metaphor for God’s love and that he seeks her whether she believes the “right” way or not, but obviously this kind of film doesn’t have any sort of ambition to it.

As I’ve probably hammered home by now, the biggest issue in Christian Mingle is that it really harps on this exclusive form of Christian belief that Gwyn fails to measure up to, although the film never really says what that involves outside of loving God. I’m not sure if this is just Evangelical dog whistling, or if the film just thinks that if it doesn’t take a stance at all then it will be able to reach a wider audience. This makes me wonder why the hell Gwyn’s faith maturity is such a big deal, because she clearly is game to grow. The aforementioned Common Sense Media’s review put it well when they said that “most followers of Jesus tout the claim that God loves everyone, which is a policy of religious inclusiveness, but this plot hangs on the exclusionary position born-again parents take when they fear their son is being wooed by a non-believer”, and not only that but the film seems to reinforce that exclusionary message. Everyone has to begin a journey of faith somewhere, not to mention that spiritual growth develops over a lifetime, so why does everyone expect Gwyn to be fully developed in order for she and Paul to have any sort of relationship? It’s just a baffling message and I can’t understand why it is treated like a given assumption throughout the film, unless it’s just pandering to the mindset of the hardcore Evangelical bubble.

Furthermore, the film really drops the ball on what a Christian life should look like. In addition to making the Christian characters the real villains of the piece and having Christianity and God become the obstacle which is preventing love from being achieved (without any sort of self-consciousness about this message, I may add), God barely seems to have any real positive effect in the lives of the characters in the film. Like, Gwyn says that the Christian characters are all so happy and different, but that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Again, Paul’s mom is uptight, Kelly is clearly a jealous schemer and most of the Christians are portrayed in a manner which I can only describe as “low budget TV romance quirky”. Again, if you’ve seen enough of these films, you’d know what I mean – characters who are supposed to be fountains of humour but whose actions make them feel inhuman. Even Paul himself is quite bland and feels tethered by his faith, rather than liberated, and he is only actually interesting when he’s breaking free of that shell to be with Gwyn. The film also doesn’t help its case when it reveals that practically every other character in Gwyn’s life is secretly Christian, most notably Gwyn’s sassy black friend, Pam. As a result, we don’t really get any unfulfilled non-Christians to compare the faithful to. The result of all of this is that God basically becomes window dressing in a film which is clearly intended to actually be about Him. Everyone’s talking about God, but He has no actual presence in the film, which doesn’t help the resulting perception that Christian Mingle is about “authenticity […] to a specific way of worship”.

Obviously the film has other issues (the fact that it’s basically a paid advertisement using faith as a springboard being most notable), but I felt like these ones here are the most central to the film’s failings. Like I said in the intro, it’s otherwise just a competent made for TV romantic film, if you’re into that kind of thing. However, the one thing that it does to differentiate itself is handled really poorly when you apply any sort of critical thought towards it… y’know, assuming that they were actually trying to make Christianity and God look appealing anyway.

*Or, well, a super cheap cowboy set doubling for Mexico. Seriously, I laughed my ass off at this part.

Retrospective: Jurassic World (2015)

Welcome back to the final entry in the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we we will be looking at the latest film in the franchise, Jurassic World. After years of false starts, could the Jurassic Park franchise rejuvenate itself for a new audience? Read on to find out…

There was a more “traditional” Jurassic Park poster, but this was probably the big one and demonstrates how the franchise’s marketing has shifted in the 14 years since Jurassic Park III.

Following the release of Jurassic Park III, the franchise entered a protracted state of development hell. Spielberg and Johnston hinted at a number of ideas that they had for sequels, including pteranodons attacking the mainland as hinted at the ending of Jurassic Park III. However, development seemed to shift away from following-up on Jurassic Park III‘s loose threads and onto other ideas. One of the first which seemed to gain traction involved the dinosaurs spreading uncontrollably, with Sam Neill, Jeff Goldblum and Richard Attenborough reprising their roles and the lovely Keira Knightley being rumoured to play a grown up Lex Murphy. Stan Winston’s studio moved forward with special effects planning, filming locations were scheduled and actors were signed on, and it seemed like Jurassic Park IV was underway.

However, not all was well on the project. A script couldn’t be agreed on, perhaps because the central premise was bonkers – pretty much every story that they came up with revolved around some sort of genetically modified dinosaurs being used as mercenaries and wielding guns. Drew McWeeny, who saw an early version of the script, probably said described the situation the best: “I think it’s well-written and certainly inventive, but I also think it just might be the single most bugfuck crazy franchise sequel I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure we’re ever going to see this thing onscreen. It just doesn’t seem possible that Universal would make something this vigorously whacked out.” Suffice to say, the film continued to have issues putting together an acceptable script and its production dragged on longer and longer. Years after the fact, concept art from this time in the film’s development leaked online, which featured a variety of ass-ugly dino hybrids.

Between 2006-2008, a variety of stories, scripts and filming rumours were bounced back and forth, but still nothing was materializing. Then, on November 4, 2008, Michael Crichton passed away and it seemed like the general consensus was that the franchise should die as well. However, rumours surrounding a fourth film persisted regardless, with Johnston stating in 2010 that there were plans in place for another trilogy.
It wasn’t until early 2012 that Jurassic Park left development hell and began to materialize into what would become Jurassic World. Retrospectives veterans Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were brought on to script the project after the success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Brad Bird (of The Incredibles, The Iron Giant and Mission Impossible 4 fame) wanted to work on the film, but was preoccupied with Tomorrowland, so instead he suggested that producers Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall consider Colin Trevorrow. Trevorrow had only directed one full-length film at this time, Safety Not Guaranteed, but the producers were sufficiently impressed by it that they brought him on board. Juan Antonio Bayona, director of the tsunami disaster film, The Impossible, was also considered, but was unable to commit to the project. He would eventually be brought on to direct the sequel, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Trevorrow became involved with rewrites of the script along with Derek Connolly, and they incorporated three ideas that Spielberg wanted – a functional theme park, a human who has a relationship with trained raptors and an escaped dinosaur antagonist. A few scenes were also inspired by sequences in The Lost World novel, namely the velociraptor motorcycle chase and the Indominus Rex’s ability to change colour.

Chris Pratt was cast in the lead role of Owen Grady, a role he landed just prior to his big breakthrough in The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy. As a result, he was inadvertently the first real “movie star” to lead a Jurassic Park film, an inadvertent situation that the marketing was quick to capitalize on. Bryce Dallas Howard, an actress I admire who (at the time) had been looking for her big break as a lead actress for about a decade, was cast as the female lead, Claire Dearing. The film features two child leads played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, who play Claire’s nephews who are visiting the park. The film’s human antagonist is Vincent D’Onofrio as Vic Hoskins, who wants to use the dinosaurs for military operations. Rounding out the main cast is Irrfan Khan as Simon Masrani, the owner of Jurassic World after the death of John Hammond. The only returning character is B.D. Wong’s Dr. Henry Wu, who had a small role back in the original Jurassic Park as the scientist responsible for creating the dinosaurs, and who returns here in a small but important role.

The story of Jurassic World picks up in the present, where John Hammond’s vision of a dinosaur theme park has been realized and has been a fully-functional success for years now. The film follows Claire Dearing, the park’s administrator who is preparing to launch a new attraction involving the park’s first hybrid dinosaur, Indominus Rex, but there are security concerns regarding how dangerous it is. She is asked to have the park’s raptor handler and trainer, Owen Grady, to come and inspect its paddock to ensure that it is safe. Meanwhile, Claire’s two nephews, Gray and Zach, travel to the island to see her, but she is too busy with work and they end up having to sight-see together. While Claire and Owen are inspecting the Indominus paddock, the Indominus engineers an escape and the pair then have to try to stop the rampaging beast, protect the safety of the park guests and find Gray and Zach.

If the previous two films in the franchise were meant to be distillations of what Jurassic Park is, you would think that dino-carnage is the only thing that actually matters in this series. However, the dino-carnage in Jurassic Park only mattered because of a number of other elements which made the film so much more than those b-movie roots – strong characters, spectacle, a compelling narrative and a fascinating sci-fi hook. Jurassic World recaptures at least a couple elements of this formula which the other two sequels had lacked, and is definitely owes more of its structure to the original film than any other movie in the franchise. In addition to the theme park angle, it also explores some ideas which were largely brushed aside in the other sequels, such as the theme of humans tampering with genetic engineering.

Seeing a fully functional park is definitely cool and easily one of the best aspects of Jurassic World. It actually takes 40 minutes for things to start getting bad, so we get some time to see attractions and how the park operates. While it isn’t as interested in the spectacle and logistics of running a theme park as Jurassic Park was, it does use this to help ratchet the stakes up as the film progresses. As things get worse and worse, the guests’ safety becomes a concern, as does the fate of the park itself, which can’t survive another major PR disaster. That said, the portrayal of the park and its safety is also very questionable, and I’m pretty certain that this wasn’t intentional either. Like, how has the Mosasaur never jumped into the crowd and killed anyone yet? How have the raptors never jumped out of their enclosure’s low walls or dragged the handlers down by their poles? Didn’t Jurassic Park insist that raptors were basically diabolical? And why does the gyrosphere ride have no rails and allow people to drive around virtually endlessly amongst herds of dinosaurs? Even the Jeeps in Jurassic Park were on rails. These are just a few of the weird issues that permeate throughout Jurassic World‘s portrayal of its titular park, and while they’re really just small niggles, they’re just weird, distracting and rather obvious engineering problems.

The other fantastic idea that Jurassic World presents is the idea of a hybrid dinosaur. In the novel, genetic engineering was a more important element of the plot than the actual dinosaurs were, so the franchise probably should have exploited this element a long time ago*. The Indominus Rex makes for a truly fearsome antagonist, to the point where I don’t know how future films in the franchise are going to manage to live up to it. I mean, any dinosaur antagonist will feel like a step down now, and human antagonists have never been compelling. What makes it so fearsome is its unpredictability and high intelligence – the twist that it is part-raptor was quite clever and makes for a great “Oh shit” moment when it turns Owen’s pack on their human handlers. It also doesn’t hurt that the Indominus Rex is brutally violent. It immediately leaves an impression with its first victim, who you can see getting his leg ripped off as the Indominus devours him. Moments later, it chomps down on a helpless security guard without mercy. Then when the ACU try to contain it, it annihilates the squad and one gets messily devoured while blood showers the camera. These first couple scenes really establish how nasty (and questionably PG-13) the Indominus Rex is, and the film is always at its best when it is involved in the action.

Remember how I said that strong characters were one of the core elements of Jurassic Park? Well… Jurassic World did not get that memo, and it suffers greatly for it. Owen does some cool things, but he’s such a generic American action hero – he’s always right, he’s a man of action, he is brash and standoffish, he doesn’t adhere to authority he disagrees with, etc. One would hope that more of Chris Pratt’s natural charisma would get to shine through, but unfortunately it is mostly buried underneath a bland character. Claire is similarly just an archetype, the workaholic woman who learns to ease up over time. Bryce Dallas Howard does her best (and kind of succeeds), but the role is… questionable to say the least – I’ll get to that later though. As for the two kid characters, Zach and Gray, they live up to the series’ legacy… which is to say that they have one character trait and are otherwise useless to the plot outside of being a burden. Gray is implied to be a high-functioning autistic genius who is obsessed with numbers, but this never really actually impacts the plot any. Zach is his older brother, who is just an insensitive dick for most of the film until he decides to become a better brother.

Outside of the leads, the new owner of the park, Masrani, is actually pretty cool. He actually takes responsibility when things go south and is surprisingly heroic… I just wish that he got to do more before his unfortunate death. The character of Lowry is also a mixed bag – on the one hand, he actually has some good comic relief moments, particularly his subverted “action romance scene” moment. However, he’s also borderline insufferably meta, being an extremely obvious audience surrogate and Jurassic Park fanboy who makes no sense within the context of this universe. He is kind of funny the first time you see the movie, but he just gets cringier on repeat viewings.

Vic Hoskins is also so terrible that he brings the movie down along with him. The character himself is just irredeemably evil for the sake of being evil, to the point where he sees dinosaurs attacking the innocent guests and grins about it. The moment he appears on screen you know that a) he’s going to be the bad guy, and b) he’s going to get munched on before the film ends. More crucially though, Hoskins is the vector through which the film introduces its idea of having raptors trained as military weapons. This idea was already tenuous enough in Aliens, and here it makes even less sense. Like, there are a host of really obvious reasons that real world militaries are turning to drones and cyber technology rather than training animals for combat (reliability, cost, practicality, ethics, etc). Really, this is the sort of idea where creating genetically engineered humans might actually make sense at some point within the Jurassic Park universe, but the technology is clearly not there in this film. It’s just an awful subplot which unfortunately only gains prominence as the film moves towards its conclusion and weakens the latter-half of the story.

That’s part of my problem with Jurassic World – it has some clever ideas, but it often just decides to take the dumb or lazy route for the sake of convenience. Maybe the most eye-rolling example of this is that everyone’s radios/phones stop functioning properly at the absolute worst times. This is an inexcusable trope in most films when it happens once, but this happens at least four freaking times in Jurassic World. Even worse, Zach and Gray’s phone won’t get any reception one minute, but then the next it suddenly works and alerts the Indominus Rex to their position because convenience. There’s also a moment where Masrani is told that, despite being the owner of Jurassic World and InGen, that he’s not authorized to know what genetic modifications were made to the Indominus Rex, a claim which he doesn’t even question, because the film wants that to be a twist later. The characters also make just so many stupid decisions for the same reason – because it’s what the plot needs. For example, after being told to return to the park, Zach drives off in the gyrosphere with Gray and, after seeing a hole torn in the fences, decides that that would be a good time to go off-road. Oh, and predictably, the gyrospheres have no override system, or anything to stop them from leaving their enclosure. Hell, the whole plot hinges on character stupidity – when Owen and Claire think that the Indominus Rex has escaped, instead of calling the control room to figure out where it is, Claire speeds off in her car and then calls them, because the plot requires her to be a) away from the Indominus Rex paddock, and b) in the control room. Even worse, Owen and a couple workers decide to saunter into the paddock before finding out where it is, which ultimately leads to the Indominus Rex escaping.

This issue of laziness and convenience is so bad that I feel like I need to break down a whole sequence just to demonstrate how egregious it gets. So, first off, Owen and Claire are being hunted by the Indominus Rex in the ruins of the old park when Masrani flies overhead with his helicopter. This causes the Indominus Rex to give chase to the helicopter, which it somehow gets ahead of. Then Owen and Claire suddenly teleport to be right beneath the helicopter as it chases the Indominus Rex into the aviary. Pterodactyls and dimorphodons escape and begin flying towards the park guests. This is where the editing (unsuccessfully) tries to mask the ridiculous leaps in distance, time and logic that unfold in order to make this scene work. The dinosaurs pursue Zach and Gray’s jeep back to the park, while Owen and Claire somehow run to some command centre** before the flyers can make it to the guests and attack. Zach and Gray make it back and then minutes later, Owen and Claire arrive with the ACU before things can get too out of hand. And then, to make things even more silly, Owen and Claire make out while people are getting mauled all around them. The time/space dilations here are on the level of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones, where they’re clearly just throwing logic out the window to craft the scene that they want and to get characters where they’re needed, and expecting us to be too passive to notice. I’m not sure if this is on the script, the editing, or Trevorrow’s direction, but it is Jurassic World at its worst.

In regards to Trevorrow’s direction, it is generally decent throughout. He takes a cue from Jaws in hiding the Indominus Rex from full view until well over an hour into the film, which was a wise decision. However, his action sequences are hit-or-miss affairs. Unlike Spielberg, whose films both had long and extremely tense action set-pieces, Trevorrow’s action sequences are far more frequent, but lack the same sort of punch. The first two Indominus Rex attacks are exciting, but brief, and final battle is exciting (in part due to its fanservicing), but most of the action sequences don’t really stand out all that much to me. Sure, they’re bigger and louder than the dino carnage of the other films, the body counts are considerably larger, and they somehow managed to work multiple explosions into a film involving dinosaurs, but they lack that same level of investment and excitement. This might be because the story isn’t compelling enough, or that we don’t really get all that invested in the characters, rather than that the sequences themselves fall flat on their own.

The special effects are also worth noting in Jurassic World. Previous Jurassic Park movies always relied skillful utilization of animatronics, puppetry and top-notch CGI to bring the dinosaurs to life. Jurassic World, by contrast, switches almost entirely to CGI for this purpose, and it really shows. The creatures are clearly rendered with far more detail, but they don’t feel nearly as real to me. Contrast the gallimimus scenes in Jurassic Park and Jurassic World as an example, there’s something about how the dinosaurs and characters interact which doesn’t hit the same chord. The early sections of the film impress that “no one’s impressed by a dinosaur anymore”, which is a clear commentary on the status of blockbusters since Jurassic Park III came out. Since then we’ve been inundated with so many CGI-heavy blockbusters that relying exclusively on CGI just makes Jurassic World lose any sort of special feeling that the series used to enjoy. Hell, say what you will about Jurassic Park III, but the spinosaurus was an animatronic in half of its action scenes, and a bloody impressive one at that. As far as I can tell, animatronics were used a grand total of once in Jurassic World, when Owen and Claire find a wounded apatosaur. This was actually a wise time to use animatronics too because it makes the scene feel more real and sad as it slowly expires in the characters arms.

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, it wouldn’t be an I Choose to Stand post without mentioning the film’s, um, troubling gender relations. There have been many words said about whether Jurassic World is sexist, but is this merited? Thanks to memes, most of this conversation was boiled down to “Claire wears heels, because sexism”, but is there more to it than that? Well, the film portrays Claire as a workaholic, uninterested in other people and too busy to have normal relationships with people. She is also very clearly written to be obsessed with maintaining control. The character’s entire arc is about learning to stop putting so much value into her career and more into getting a relationship and having children. This could be a totally fine arc if handled well, but Jurassic World makes some really strange decisions which make me question whether it is just archetypically sexist, or just ridiculously ignorant of the implications its narrative is conveying. Like, there’s literally a scene where Claire’s sister tellers her that she should have kids, which Claire says is unlikely, but her sister insists that she will and that it is worth it. I mean… are they aware how condescending this scene comes across? Are they aware that this is in any way a potentially touchy subject? As The Daily Beast puts it, “Jurassic World is not about corporate greed, anti-militarization, crass commerciality, disrupting the food chain, or dinos eating the shit out of people. No. It’s about a woman’s ‘evolution’ from an icy-cold, selfish corporate shill into a considerate wife and mother.” Meanwhile, her relationship with Owen just reinforces this – he is belligerent, but always one who takes control when he can, which seems to be what attracts her to him. He’s basically the definition of a manly man, and she isn’t able to be truly fulfilled until she ditches her icy exterior for him.

Beyond Claire’s characterization, the death of Zara also has attracted some questions of sexism, mainly due to the way the rest of the film treats women and just how over-the-top her death is. While I personally feel like this is another clear instance where Trevorrow was just tone-deaf about how this might come across, I’ll just leave you with this quote from him where he is oddly excited by the notion that he’s going to get to murder a woman in spectacular fashion:

“It was the first time a woman was going to die in a Jurassic Park movie. We’re an equal opportunities bunch of murderers! So we felt, ‘Alright, let’s make it the most spectacular death we can possibly imagine – let’s involve multiple animals from sea and air…’ I love this moment so much. We’re playing on the audience’s expectation and jadedness. […] But we definitely struggled over how much to allow her to earn her death, and ultimately it wasn’t because she was British, it was because she was a bridezilla. […] In the end, the earned death in these movies has become a bit standard and another thing I wanted to subvert. ‘How can we surprise people? Let’s have someone die who just doesn’t deserve to die at all.'”

All-in-all, Jurassic World is kind of a mixed bag for me. On the one hand, it’s hard to deny that it’s probably the best Jurassic Park sequel we’ve gotten… and yet, due to its bland characters, lazy plot and general stupidity, I kind of hate a good deal of it. It’s an odd situation, where I appreciate the first half of The Lost World enough to give that film some love, and I truly enjoy the dumb fun of Jurassic Park III, but find myself turned off by how lazy and generic Jurassic World gets at times. The film could just have been so much better if they trusted in their audience’s intelligence a bit more.

6.5/10

So, what does the future look like for Jurassic Park? Well, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom releases this year, so it doesn’t seem like we’ll need to wait another 14 years until the next entry. That said, Fallen Kingdom looks… intriguing. The first trailer definitely turned me off – on the one hand, at least it’s trying something different and we’ve been told that the bulk of the plot is being kept secret for now, but is the volcanic eruption the crux of the plot? Trying to evacuate the dinosaurs? I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like the basis of a particularly compelling film to me. However, the Super Bowl trailer dropped just days before this was posted (and after I had written this retrospective), and was considerably more intriguing. Looks like dinosaurs on the mainland again? Maybe as a more central part of the plot, it could work this time.

If I was going to write a Jurassic Park film, I’d probably push the genetic engineering element even further forward. The films have kind of ignored the impact of their own tech on the wider world. For example, while human-dino hybrids are an awful idea, the idea of more genetic manipulation in general is under-utilized outside of the Indominous Rex. And what about rival corporations? Part of the concern was that InGen didn’t earn their knowledge, but how much worse would it be for the corporate knock-off brand of dinosaur? Why do they need to go to InGen for weaponized dinos, why not go after a competitor which they obviously would do if InGen won’t suit their needs? Why even use animals for their weaponized creatures anyway, why not just create super soldiers? There are plenty of angles that can be covered, but the issue with Jurassic Park continues to be that audiences expect the same plot structure in each one.

This is how I’d rank the series from worst to best:
Jurassic Park – 9/10
Jurassic World – 6.5/10 (I waffle between this being the best and worst sequel in the franchise though)
Jurassic Park III – 6/10 (arguably the worst, but it’s at least more consistent and fun than The Lost World in my opinion)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park – 5.5/10

*I actually heard an interesting fan theory that the spinosaurus in Jurassic Park III was actually InGen’s first weaponized experiment, which would explain its considerably heightened aggression compared to the dinosaurs in the previous films. The film hints that InGen has been working on other dinosaurs in secret, but it never actually followed up on that plot hint. It would be an obvious retcon, but it’s a cool idea that I kind of hope that Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom will follow up on.
**One could argue that this command centre was somewhere close to the old park ruins and the aviary, but I’m not buying that. First of all, there are a lot of people here, and if that was the case then Zach and Gray could have just headed here instead of back to the park, since an active building would have been marked fairly obviously. Secondly, if it was there then couldn’t Owen and Claire have gotten some help? Or maybe Masrani could get some ground support? And why wouldn’t the Indominus Rex have gone here instead of hunting the heroes if there were other people close by? It’s an obvious plot hole, and one which we’re supposed to ignore for convenience’s sake. Unfortunately, at a certain point, convenience gets abused to the point where I can’t help but notice it as the pile just gets higher.

Retrospective: Jurassic Park III (2001)

Welcome back to part three of the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this post, we’ll be diving into 2001’s Jurassic Park III. After the muted reaction to The Lost World and Spielberg’s decision to step away from the series, would a new director inject fresh life into the franchise? Read on to find out…

After The Lost World, Spielberg was ready to step away from directing the franchise and instead went on to produce. Joe Johnston instead was brought on to direct after having offered to direct the previous entry. Johnston would later go on to be well-known for The Wolfman and Captain America: The First Avenger, but at the time he was already famous for making quality family-friendly, special effects-heavy blockbusters such as Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Jumanji and The Rocketeer. Without a novel to form the basis of the plot, a new story had to be written from scratch for the first time in the series history. The first draft of the script revolved around teenagers getting stranded on Isla Sorna, but this was ultimately rejected when Johnston was officially brought on board. The second script revolved around Pteranodon escaping from Isla Sorna and killing people on the mainland and featured a number of characters which would make it into the final film, including Alan Grant and Billy Brennan. This script would have had two main plots – one with Grant and company crashing on Isla Sorna, and another investigating the attacks on the mainland. Production went underway for this version of the script, with sets, costumes and props built to support it. While it was not based on any previous works, some action sequences were inspired by scenes from the novel versions of Jurassic Park and The Lost World, such as the aviary and the spinosaur attack on the river.

However, in an Alien 3-style turn of events, the script was rejected by Johnston and Spielberg only 5 weeks before filming was scheduled to begin, with $18 million already poured into the production and a series of sets which now needed to be worked into a non-existent story somehow. The parallel plotlines were deemed too complicated and the film was ultimately truncated into a single rescue mission plotline, with a script getting rushed to meet the filming schedule. A final script was never actually completed during the production, which is never a good thing to hear (although some films, such as Iron Man, prove that this can still work out in the end).

As I alluded to before, the only returning character in a major capacity in Jurassic Park III is Sam Neill as Dr. Alan Grant. Laura Dern makes a delightful return in an important cameo role as Ellie Sattler, although some fans might be disappointed to see that Grant and Sattler did not work out as a couple. Considering that she very much wanted kids and he did not, it’s not surprising to see, but Neill and Dern have great chemistry still and there’s a sad undercurrent in their interactions which shows that they clearly still really like one another. Of the new cast, the most notable is definitely William H. Macy of Fargo, Boogie Nights and Shameless fame, who plays Paul Kirby. Téa Leoni also appears as his ex-wife, Amanda Kirby, and Trevor Morgan as their son, Eric Kirby. Rounding out the main cast is Alessandro Nivola as Billy Brennan, one of Grant’s dig assistants who is a bit of an adventure-seeker. The cast is actually rather small and not nearly as strong compared to past films in the series, but most of them put in solid performances (barring one, but I’ll get to that later).

The plot of Jurassic Park III revolves around the Kirby family, whose son Eric gets stranded on Isla Sorna. Desperate, they con Alan Grant and Billy Brennan into helping them find their son, but soon get stranded on the island and have to fight for survival as they are hunted by a relentless spinosaurus and a pack of velociraptors… wow, I’m actually kind of surprised that I got the whole plot summarized there in only two sentences, but that just goes to show that Jurassic Park III is a very thin film on the plot side of things. Considering that the script never was completed, this should perhaps be not so surprising, but Jurassic Park III is content to just be a fairly standard B-movie action-adventure story. Compare the set-up and character establishment we get in previous films in the franchise to Jurassic Park III. In Jurassic Park, we get nearly an hour before the running and screaming starts. In The Lost World, we get nearly 40 minutes. In Jurassic Park III, we get only 20 minutes to get to know people before the film rushes us into the running and screaming. On the plus side, at least the rescue mission set-up gives the audience and characters direction, provides emotional catharsis and a bit of time to breathe between action sequences and allows the characters to develop a bit, but no one is going to say that Jurassic Park III ever takes its time to get anywhere.

Perhaps owing to the rushed script, much of Jurassic Park III‘s plot feels incredibly contrived. While the idea of someone getting stranded on Isla Sorna is an interesting idea, the entire plot gets thrown into motion because Eric and Ben (Amanda’s boyfriend at the time) are parasailing and the crew of the boat they chartered gets devoured without explanation within minutes of arriving after passing through a fog. This is just the first of a number of “convenient” events which occur which don’t really make a lot of sense or which aren’t really explained. Like, within minutes of landing on Isla Sorna, the characters are attacked by the spinosaur, the “professional” mercenaries with the big guns are wiped out and their plane crashes, putting the rest of the plot in motion super conveniently. Then there’s just lots of little moments that are done for a cheap scare or “because plot”. Why is Ben’s skeleton still hanging in the tree he crashed in? Why does the raptor hide behind the glass tank motionless? Why is the spinosaurus even hunting the humans anyway (at least The Lost World went to great pains to justify why the t-rexes would be following the moveable feast)? And who the hell is constantly calling Paul’s satellite phone every second of the day!? Hell, we even get another Chekhov’s Lucky Pack for the second film in a row.

On the character side of things, it’s nice to see Alan Grant back. While Malcolm’s the funner, more dynamic presence in Jurassic Park, Grant was always my favourite character. In this film, he has gotten surlier, more world-weary and disillusioned after the events of the first film. Billy provides a nice counter-point to him, with some youthful enthusiasm and optimism, although his character isn’t as well developed as one might have wished. As for the Kirby family, Paul is definitely the likeable and learns to grow braver and more capable as the film progresses. Eric is also rather interesting, being probably the most capable character in the film, although once he gets rescued he just becomes more of a tag-along. That said, he’s the first child character in this series to not be a complete burden and is probably therefore the best child in the whole franchise. Finally, we have Amanda Kirby, and oh my God is she annoying. Eric isn’t the burden in this film, because that role goes to Amanda, who is constantly making insufferably stupid decisions. I’m not sure if she’s supposed to be so annoying, or if that’s Téa Leoni’s fault, but bloody hell you’re going to wish that she would become dino chow, even though within the first 10 minutes you know exactly who is going to live and who is going to die in the film. Of the obvious cannon fodder, I actually rather like Udesky, who knows that he’s in way over his head and just wants to get the hell off of this island. He tends to be good for a laugh at the expense of his cowardice, he lasts just long enough to leave an impression on you and gives us probably the best death in the film to boot.

Joe Johnston is a very competent director, but he doesn’t bring the same sort of energy to the proceedings as Spielberg. He may not have had his heart in The Lost World, but that film still had its standout sequences which Jurassic Park III can never really match. The first spinosaur attack and the aviary scene are both quite exciting, but the action sequences tend to not stand out quite as much as they did in the past. That’s not to say that they’re bad, but they just aren’t given the same sort of flair. Sometimes the direction/editing is wonky as well, most notably when Grant gets knocked out on the plane, which is handled with a first person perspective fade to black. The film moves at a brisk 90 minutes, which could be down to the fact that there was no script in place more than anything else. Also worth noting is that the special effects are still very good, the CGI is well-utilized and the animatronics are still central to bringing the dinosaurs to life.

Perhaps due to his past as a director of kid-friendly family blockbusters, Jurassic Park III is much lighter in tone than previous entries were. The emphasis seems to be on fun and humour and rarely on building tension and horror, which is further aided by the way the film telegraphs very obviously who is going to live and who will die. The only character whose fate is up in the air throughout is Billy and in the film’s standout sequence, it appears that he is killed by a flock of pteranodon (we can even see a lot of blood in the water as he is washed downstream). However, the film totally cops-out in the ending when it reveals that not only did he somehow survive this attack without any sort of explanation, but the US Marines also manage to find and secure him before Grant and his group. It’s a bullshit ending that makes absolutely no sense and just feels like someone threw it in at the last moment to give us an unearned feel-good ending.

Jurassic Park III is certainly the divisive film. Some people like it more than The Lost World, but there is also a sizeable chunk of the fanbase who despise it for a number of reasons. There are some people who dislike the admittedly lazy and throw-away plot, or the shift from a serious and tense tone to one that is much more light-hearted. The sense of wonder has also been largely jettisoned in Jurassic Park III, focusing instead entirely on the running and screaming with one very short scene of admiring the herbivores late in the runtime. The portrayal of the dinosaurs also has definitely caused some fanboy rage. The spinosaurus is less of an animal and more of a terminator as it chases the survivors around the island. Fans also hate that the spinosaurus beats a t-rex in a fight early in the film, which is thrown in as an obvious way to establish that “this new dinosaur is better than the one you already like”. The rage that scene inspires is bad enough that the Jurassic Park wiki page for it has to include warnings not to get butthurt about it. Some fans also hate how the velociraptors are portrayed, although they are definitely more menacing than they were in The Lost World in my opinion.

For my own part, I’m a bit mixed. I definitely acknowledge Jurassic Park III‘s obvious problems, but it’s obvious from the get-go that the film is aiming to be little more than a b-movie filled with unpretentious dinosaur fun and I feel like it succeeds in its aim. It’s certainly less disappointing than The Lost World, which aimed higher but missed the mark, even if Jurassic Park III‘s aims are far lower as well. It’s definitely a throw-away film, but I always enjoy myself when I watch it so I feel like it deserves some points for that at least.

6/10

Be sure to come back soon as we round out this retrospective with Jurassic World!

Retrospective: The Lost World – Jurassic Park (1997)

Welcome back to the Jurassic Park retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be looking at the second film in the franchise, 1997’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park. After the first film set box office records and captivated the imaginations of audiences everywhere, a sequel was practically guaranteed. Could Spielberg and company recapture the same magic which made the original film so special? Read on to find out…

As I said in the previous entry, The Lost World: Jurassic Park apes the original film’s poster hard, only really differentiating itself with rougher, decayed design and a cool tagline.

After the success of the first novel and film, Michael Crichton was pressured to write a sequel. Most fans (myself included at the time) had expected the sequel to involve Nedry’s embryo canister in some way, and even Spielberg explored this option, although it was ultimately dropped and never explored outside of the Jurassic Park Telltale game. After discussions with Spielberg and others, Crichton eventually relented when he got an idea for a sequel, which would be published in 1995 under the name The Lost World. However, by the time the novel was nearing publication, Spielberg was uncertain if he was going to return to direct, with Joe Johnston (who would eventually direct Jurassic Park III) offering to take his place. Shortly after The Lost World was published, Spielberg announced he would direct the film, although with some reluctance.

The Lost World novel was… not great, to say the least. It’s pretty clear that Crichton’s heart wasn’t truly in it, and the plot definitely suffers for it. The story of the novel revolves around Ian Malcolm hunting down a scientist who is stuck on Isla Sorna while Lewis Dodgson (the guy who Denis Nedry betrays John Hammond for in the original book and film) attempts to capture dinosaurs at the same time. Lots of mindless dinosaur-based carnage ensues. The film wisely discards most of this plot set-up, retaining only the most skeletal bits of it, most notably the idea of a “site B” where the dinosaurs were bred in secret in their own ecosystem. Perhaps notably, Crichton was not involved in the writing of the sequel. Other than that, the film also features a sequence from the novel where t-rexes knock a vehicle off of a cliff, which ended up being the standout moment of the film. The Lost World also features a number of sequences inspired by the first novel, including the opening beach attack, a character being swarmed and killed by procompsognathus, and a t-rex attacking characters hiding behind a waterfall.

Other inspirations on the film included Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (which obviously inspired Crichton as well) and the film Hatari!, which apparently influenced the scenes of hunters capturing dinosaurs. The ending was also changed three weeks before filming began, because Spielberg decided that he wanted to see dinosaurs attacking the mainland instead of the originally-planned ending which would have seen the characters attacked by pterodactyls as they attempted to flee the island.

The only actor returning in a major role is Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm. As the standout of the first film, this was a rather inspired idea, although this film sees him becoming more of a standard action hero than the sardonic, doom-saying mathematician he was in the first adventure. Richard Attenborough, Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello appear in cameo roles as their characters John Hammond, Lex and Tim, respectively, but they do not have a huge impact on the plot. New additions to the cast included most notably Julianne Moore as Sarah Harding, Ian’s lover. Vanessa Chester is also brought in as one of Ian Malcolm’s daughters, a spunky African-American girl named Kelly (the fact that she’s a mixed race child is actually quite surprising and notably refreshing, considering how rare this still is to this day). Rounding out the heroic cast is a young Vince Vaughn also appears as a resourceful and opinionated nature photographer, Nick van Owen, who is joined by Richard Schiff’s detail-oriented engineer, Eddie Carr. On the other side of the coin, the film’s primary antagonist is Hammond’s nephew, Peter Ludlow, played by a weaselly Arliss Howard. The film also features a couple standout performances from the hunters, particularly the late, great Pete Postlethwaite as Roland Tembo. Of the new cast of characters, Roland is by far the most entertaining and badass, easily stealing every scene he’s in with his intensity. Also worth mentioning is Peter freaking Stomare as a seemingly sadistic mercenary, Dieter Stark. All-in-all, a good cast nearly on par with the original, and once again no one puts in a poor performance.

The Lost World picks up 4 years after the first film ended. InGen has covered up the incident and Ian has been discredited after he tried to go public with what happened. However, after a dinosaur attack on a wealthy family, it is discovered that InGen is hiding a second island full of dinosaurs on Isla Sorna, where they would breed them before their delivery to the park. Hammond commissions Ian and a team to document and protect the creatures in their habitat, and Ian initially refuses until he finds out that his girlfriend, Sarah Harding, was approached as well and is already on the island. He and his team head to Isla Sorna to rescue her and realize that Ian’s daughter, Kelly, has stowed away on board as well. Before they can do anything about this realization, a group of hunters led by Hammond’s corporate nephew, Peter Ludlow, arrive on the island and begin rounding up the dinosaurs to take to the mainland. Nick van Owen and Sarah free a bunch of the dinosaurs and destroy the hunters’ camp, but discover an injured t-rex infant and try to rescue it. The baby’s parents follow them back to their trailer and attack it, leaving both teams stuck on the island and having to band together to survive…

Remember how I said that there was a current of child-like wonder running through the first film? The Lost World is much darker in comparison, with some really nasty scenes punctuated throughout: the opening scene where a child gets mauled by procompsognathus, Eddie getting ripped in half by a pair of t-rex, Carter getting stomped on by a t-rex and sticking to the bottom of its foot, Dieter and Burke’s deaths ending with a shower of blood, raptors wiping out probably two dozen hunters mercilessly and the civilians getting chomped in San Diego. It’s still PG-13, but it’s certainly darker and scarier than the first film was, without the awe that the first film inspired at times. In spite of this, the film is also clearly aiming for a younger demographic than the first film as well, as it is quite clear that the studio was building in merchandising opportunities whenever it could. This is felt most obviously in the InGen hunting team’s equipment, which includes elaborate vehicles like something out of a G.I. Joe cartoon. I can actually remember the toys that they were selling at the time, and the hunters’ vehicles were featured quite prominently there. This clearly mandated merchandising is just one example of how The Lost World is a film which doesn’t have nearly as much heart put into it as the first did, being largely made due to fan and studio pressure.

The film also suffers from a weak script. While no one puts in a bad performance, it doesn’t help if your actors aren’t given anything to work with, and The Lost World definitely fails nearly everyone in this regard with a plot which is far too thin. For example, we’re given only 30 minutes to establish all the characters and make us care about them before the “running and screaming” starts, which is only really 1 or 2 scenes for most of the principal cast. The script just doesn’t flesh anyone out enough or give them time they need to make us care. Kelly suffers most egregiously from this, being nothing more than a burden and only contributing in one cringe-worthy scene of Chekov’s gymnastics to save Ian from a velociraptor. Sarah Harding and Nick van Owen also suffer greatly from the scripting deficiencies, with us only really getting the thinnest sketches of their characters before the action begins. Making things worse, we don’t really get any development of any sort for the characters after their 1 or 2 scenes of establishment, which just makes it even harder to care about anyone.

Furthermore, the characters tend to act stupidly for little more than plot convenience. For example, Sarah (a paleological behaviour expert) decides to start petting a baby stegosaur while in the middle of their herd, which obviously leads to the rest of its family attacking her to defend their baby so we can get an early action sequence. She also later tells the group that the t-rexes will be tracking them with their superior sense of smell and then in the next scene is seen with a jacket covered in baby t-rex blood smearing it all over the trail behind them like a total oblivious idiot when Roland points this out to her (and of course, not even Roland thinks to actually ditch the jacket at that point). Nick is also a common victim of this problem, most egregiously when he decides to rescue the baby t-rex by bringing it back to the team’s trailer, thereby bringing the wrath of the parents down upon them. Even Ian isn’t immune to this – one minute he’s desperately trying to get Kelly off of the island, and then the next he’s helping Sarah and Nick sabotage the hunters before trying to get the radio to work again so Kelly will be safe (of course, Sarah and Nick’s sabotage operation destroys all the radios on the island, whoops!).

All that said, the film is buoyed significantly at the 45 minute mark by the t-rex attack on the trailer. This is easily the best part of the film, which ramps up the tension as we wait for the t-rexes to approach, to their attack which flips the trailer and leaves it leaning precariously over a cliff while Sarah lies helplessly on a breaking pane of glass, to Eddie’s heroic rescue attempt and subsequent tragic death. It’s a major shot in the arm right when the film needed it and arguably one of the best single sequences in the entire franchise. And honestly, character development issues aside, The Lost World is basically as good of a sequel to Jurassic Park as you could expect up until this point… however, the moment that trailer falls off the cliff and explodes, the film suddenly nosedives significantly, turning into a series of running, screaming and senseless death (Roland himself says it best when he calls the group of faceless mooks a “moveable feast”). As I said in my retrospective of the first Jurassic Park, that film could have been worse in its second half when the characters stop developing and just run away from the dinosaurs, but we already had gotten to know and like them by that point so it wasn’t an issue. The Lost World does not have that luxury. It has a hard enough time making us care about its principal cast, not to mention the dozens of nameless, faceless cannon fodder which are suddenly brought into the fold at this point. Sure, we get some interesting action sequences here, such as the t-rexes attacking the hunters’ camp and velociraptors ambushing them in the long grass, but these scenes lack the emotional punch of the first film and instead trade that for sheer visceral excitement. They succeed to some degree, but it is not a worthwhile trade-off by any means.

The film also suffers in the notoriously half-baked t-rex escape in San Diego. You can definitely tell that Spielberg rushed this ending into the film, because it very distinctly feels like it was filmed and conceived separately from the rest of the movie. The idea of a t-rex rampaging in a populated city is actually rather interesting and fits well into the series’ themes, but the film does not set it up well enough for it to feel like an earned payoff. Instead, it plays out like a very bog-standard monster movie and jettisons all but two of the characters we were supposed to be trying to become attached to throughout the rest of the film. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of Die Hard with a Vengeance and its clearly half-assed ending. It does serve as one of the big showcases for the CGI though, which has improved significantly in the intervening 4 years between films. In fact, I’d say that The Lost World deserves the reputation that Jurassic Park‘s special effects are so often bestowed with, because the CGI is utilized more often and holds up nearly flawlessly. That said, the animatronics and puppets are still being used frequently in this film, which is great to see as well and helps to ensure that the film’s effects still remain great to this day.

All-in-all though, The Lost World is disappointingly mediocre. It has promise, but it seems content to just squander all of it and turn into a mindless romp packed with as much dinosaur carnage as possible by the halfway point. The non-existent character development also cripples any sort of emotional investment in the film, making the carnage far less engaging than it was in the first film. In fact, The Lost World is the 3rd-lowest-scoring film in Spielberg’s filmography, after Hook and 1941, making it something of a black mark on his directoral career. Maybe with a bit more time in the oven and a bit more enthusiasm, Spielberg could have spun gold again, but as it is, The Lost World falls short.

5.5/10Tune in next time as we tackle the third film in the franchise, Jurassic Park III!

Retrospective: Jurassic Park (1993)

Holy shit, surprise, it’s another Retrospective series! I honestly wasn’t expecting to do another one of these, since they tend to take quite a bit of time, work and effort to put out to a level I’m happy with. That said, I was thinking back on the Jurassic Park film franchise just the other day and it was making me think of how interesting this series’ journey has been, which started giving me that writer’s itch. And so, let’s launch into this with the first entry in the series, 1993’s Jurassic Park

Pretty much the definition of an iconic poster. Simple, but so evocative. In fact, it’s so iconic that every subsequent poster in the series has aped it wholesale.

Normally I beat around the bush and try to act coy about what my overall thoughts on a film are in one of these reviews. I’m not even going to bother with that pretense here – Jurassic Park is a bloody classic. You know it and I know it too. I mention that up-front because it’s relevant to note that the film is based on the Michael Crichton novel of the same name which, somehow, is even better than the movie in my opinion. The novel hits most of the same beats as the film, although basically every scene or character is different in some manner. Some particularly fun examples of differences from the original novel are that the lawyer, Donald Gennaro, was originally written as a muscle-bound badass who punches a velociraptor in the face when it bites him in the arm, John Hammond is originally a petulant and unrepentant corporate villain, and that the big climax with the raptors involves far more of the creatures on the loose which the heroes end up having to fight with freaking rocket launchers. In addition, the novel has much more detailed discussions about chaos theory, while also fitting in so many action sequences that the novel would still be plundered for inspiration in the next 2 sequels. The novel is also notably far more violent, with scenes including such gory imagery as babies being eaten in their cribs, men being disemboweled and eaten alive and dinosaurs getting blown in half. I actually wrote a paper in 12th grade about all the differences between the film and novel and the only element which survives basically intact is Denis Nedry’s character, who is just as much of a slobbish buffoon in both mediums.

Anyway, before the novel was even published, Crichton and Steven Spielberg were in talks about the premise, which Spielberg thought was fascinating. A bidding war between 4 studios broke out, but Spielberg and Universal won it and got underway producing the film. Notably, Spielberg wanted to make Schindler’s List, which would be funded after he directed Jurassic Park. Basically, in the year 1993, Spielberg ended up putting out 2 of the best movies in their respective genres because the man is just that much of a legend.

Also key to the film’s success were its ground-breaking special effects work led by Stan Winston (of Aliens, Predator and Terminator fame) and Phil Tippett (who did stop-motion effects on Star Wars and RoboCop). Originally the dinosaurs were going to be achieved through a mixture of animatronics and stop motion, but Spielberg found the stop-motion effects to be unsatisfactory. Dennis Muren of Industrial Light and Magic claimed that they could use computer generated imagery to achieve the desired effects, which he demonstrated with footage that would form the basis of the scene of the T-Rex chasing Gallimimus (which prompted this exchange immortalized in the film: “When Spielberg and Tippett saw an animatic of the T. rex chasing a herd of Gallimimus, Spielberg said, ‘You’re out of a job,’ to which Tippett replied, ‘Don’t you mean extinct?’“). The CGI tends to get all of the praise, but most of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are actually brought to life with puppetry and animatronics, which are all top-notch and help to make the effects work even more impressive and life-like. That said, the CGI is often heralded for being better than anything that gets put out today, which is definitely a stretch. It is usually quite good, shockingly so for 1993 special effects, but you can often tell when CGI is being used and when animatronics are. In fact, at times the CGI is just straight-up poor, most notably in the “big reveal” scene where Alan Grant sees the brachiosaurus for the first time, and we end up seeing this unconvincingly-textured behemoth marching across the land. That’s actually rather unfortunate because it dilutes the impact of the scene a bit, although it would have been mind-blowing in 1993. Thankfully, CGI is never over-utilized, only being relied on when it is needed.

Jurassic Park is also gifted with a very talented cast, none of which puts in a poor performance.* Jeff Goldblum’s character, Ian Malcolm, is the clear standout just by virtue of Jeff Goldblum playing his usual brand of eccentricity, but he’s only a bit more entertaining than Sam Neil and Richard Attenborough’s characters. Hell, even the bit parts are intensely watchable, from Bob Peck’s badass game warden Robert Muldoon, to Wayne Knight’s bufoonish villain Denis Nedry, to Samuel L. Jackson’s sarcastic Ray Arnold. As I wrote earlier, nearly every character differs from their book counterparts, but the changes to John Hammond are the most impactful on the plot. Taking him from being a curmudgeonly and greedy bastard to a well-meaning, enthusiastic entrepreneur lends the film an air of tragedy, most keenly felt in the scene when he bemuses on his past with Ellie Sadler (capped perfectly with a heart-breaking reading of his signature line, “spared no expense”).

The very first thing that strikes you about Jurassic Park is John Williams’ score, which sets the tone perfectly. It puts you on edge when it needs to and swells you to excitement at the perfect times. When I was writing my notes while watching the film, literally my very first one was “Immediately, oh God the music”. Tying into this feature, the script and Spielberg’s direction build so much suspense that any sort of comprehensive list would just be a plot summary. That said, the t-rex attack is probably the textbook, standout example of how to build suspense in a major action sequence.

Jurassic Park is a film of two halves. The first half is used to establish the setting and plot, begin building up suspense, and (primarily) to provide the audience with speculative wonder and adventure. This emphasis on wonder actually makes the second half more impactful, because we get to see how amazing this island is and the creatures which inhabit it. It’s very easy to get caught up in John Hammond’s own enthusiasm for the park and root for its success in spite of any concerns of its safety, particularly during the “Mr. DNA” scene (which also happens to be an ingenious way to explain the admittedly ponderous scientific elements of the book in a quick and palatable way). Even when the film shifts from adventure into an action and horror in the second half, the sense of inherent wonder at this island still lingers at times, such as when Grant, Lex and Tim take shelter in a tree and witness a herd of brachiosaur feeding.

The second half of the film is where things go pear-shaped for the characters and all of the suspense that has been building up boils over into basically non-stop action-horror for the next hour. The survival-based half of the film seems to have been the main thing which has been seized-upon with subsequent Jurassic Park films, rather than the sense of wonder which sets this film apart so much from its sequels (not to get too ahead of myself, but Ian Malcolm lampshades the plot structure himself in The Lost World when he says “Oh, yeah. ‘Oooh, ahhh,’ that’s how it always starts. Then later there’s running and um, screaming”). This is notable because one of the most common complaints about Jurassic Park is that after the first hour, the characters basically spend the rest of the movie running away from dinosaurs rather than being developed. Only Grant and Hammond learn some small lessons in this whole time, but otherwise you could swap nearly any character out for another without impacting the plot any as everyone’s just running and reacting to the dinosaurs hunting them. That said, I don’t feel like Jurassic Park truly suffers because of this – it’s a notable weakness, but luckily the characters were already established well in the preceding hour and given distinct and likeable personalities, so we still care about them when the film isn’t giving us more reason to.

Other than that, I can only point out a couple other weak points with the film, but they’re really nitpicky. One would be the kids, Lex and Tim, who are basically just burdens. They do have thematic significance (helping to develop Grant’s character), provide some additional wonder and Lex manages to get the security system working again briefly, but otherwise they can be a bit of an annoyance and would begin the “obligatory child character” trope which would plague the series going forward. I also am mixed on the t-rex’s vision, which Grant conveniently knows is based on movement. On the one hand, it provides some more tension, but it’s also super convenient and largely ignored in any subsequent film (Crichton’s sequel novel even tries to retcon it out in very clumsy fashion). There are also some mise-en-scene issues with the cliff suddenly appearing in the t-rex paddock, but this could just be down to poor explanation of spacing, plus the film does a good job of making you not notice this anyway. Other than that, it’s kind of silly that the wrecked car chases the characters down the tree, but again… nitpicks. This movie freaking rocks, is a defining film from my childhood and is definitely amongst my favourite films of all-time. It’s a classic, no question.

9/10

Be sure to tune in soon for the next entry in this series, The Lost World: Jurassic Park!

*In fact, literally the only performance in the film which I would classify as “poor” is Gerald Molen, who plays Dr. Harding (aka, the guy who is looking after the sick triceratops). This is probably because he’s actually more of a producer rather than an actor who… wait… he produced 2016: Obama’s America? What the hell!?! Ugh, well now I’m going to cringe twice as hard every time he says, in response to the triceratops’ pupils being dilated, “They are? Well I’ll be damned!”

Review: Werewolf – The Beast Among Us

As I stated way back in 2013 when I did a retrospective of The Howling franchise, werewolves are my favourite monsters in basically any medium. Hell, they’re even by far my most picked (and most successful) deck in Smash Up. However, despite all that love, even I have to admit that most werewolf films are total garbage, with only a handful of true gems managing to stand out. That said, if you’re the sort of person like me who can gleefully appreciate a trash film, then there are plenty to pick from in the werewolf subgenre. Hell, I have (on more than one occasion) seen crappy looking werewolf DVDs on video shelves and decided that I needed to see just how bad it actually was for myself. One of the more memorable instances of this was when I saw a copy of Werewolf: The Beast Among Us on a Walmart video shelf and thought that it looked promising… well, promisingly dumb, at least. Fast-forward 5 years and I saw that the film was on Netflix. I didn’t have anything better to do with my Boxing Day evening, so I decided to check it out for a laugh…

Not trying to spoil what my feelings on this movie were, but the official cover art here is definitely hyping you up for a far cooler film than what we actually get.

Werewolf: The Beast Among Us actually has a bit of an interesting history. It was born out of the ashes of the 2010 remake of The Wolfman. That film was a critical and commercial failure and, while I actually really like it (especially the director’s cut), it did not do well with audiences either. At the time, Universal was in the very early stages of trying to get their classic monsters back onto the big screen (in fact, they originally offered Guillermo del Toro oversight for this initiative, which would have been incredible). However, with The Wolfman failing to resonate, Universal thought that their best option with the property was to remake it again. However, this project ended up morphing into a plan for a loose series of low-budget spin-off films of the 2010 remake, although The Beast Among Us was the only one which would actually see the light of day. This is because it would release in the same year as The Avengers, which would lead Universal to attempt to launch The Dark Universe with Dracula Untold and The Mummy (2017), both of which failed to garner any enthusiasm. Considering how difficult it was for me to even explain Universal’s thought process in the last 7 years, it’s little wonder that The Dark Universe has been such a colossal failure.

I’m getting ahead of myself a bit here though. Universal had much more modest aims with The Beast Among Us, aiming for the direct-to-DVD market… which, apparently, was still a thing in 2012. Huh, who knew? 2012 must have been that awkward period where the DVD/Blu-ray market was losing viability but the VOD-release market hadn’t risen to prominence yet either.

The Beast Among Us immediately opens on a bad note with the obligatory “badass monster hunter origin story” which you’ve seen a million times (and which I already covered on my last werewolf movie review, Red: Werewolf Hunter) – a family locks themselves up to protect themselves from the monster, but it breaks in, kills the family, the kid manages a lucky kill and then we get a time-skip. It’s basically the easiest way to establish a “badass” character and lets the audience infer basically everything they need to know about them, but good God has it turned into a lazy shorthanded trope.

From there, we skip ahead to some unspecified time in the mid-to-late 1800s where we get introduced to the kid from the opening sequence, Charles, who is now all grown up and is the grizzled leader of a werewolf hunting group. This group are all colourful and distinct characters… archetypical, but distinct at least (you’ve got your drunken badass, heavy gunner, the hot action girl, the shady guy, etc). As fun as seeing werewolf hunters in action could be, I was worried pretty much right off the bat that Charles would be a crappy protagonist because he tries so hard to be badass that it could have been cringy and campy instead. Luckily, the film seems to have anticipated this and wisely went for a “less is more” approach, making him more of the idealized side-character everyone looks up to. It also doesn’t help that the film really bungles fleshing out any of the characters, especially in the hunting group (again, they’re mainly just a single character trait each rather than characters). The only one with any real development is Stefan (the previously mentioned shady guy), but that is simply because the film wants to utilize him as an obligatory secondary antagonist.

Luckily, the film instead chooses to make its protagonist a doctor’s apprentice named Daniel, whose village is under attack by an unusually powerful werewolf. He isn’t an amazing character either, but he’s definitely the most interesting in the whole cast, makes a good audience surrogate and is someone who you can empathize with. Unfortunately, his love interest, Eva, does not share that same fate, being relegated to the most boring and generic of generic love interests imaginable. Other than that, there’s Daniel’s prostitute mother, a doctor whose name is literally Doc, a stressed out mayor and a con-man hunter named Jaeger (who is actually rather fun to watch).

Anyway, The Beast Among Us starts out really poorly, introducing us to the hunters and to Daniel and Eva, without really giving us a sense of who is who, and jumping between these two perspectives in a confusing manner. In fact, the first 10-15 minutes of the movie are quite difficult to follow, mainly serving to establish the nature of this world that we’re exploring – there is a blight of werewolves on the countryside, people are being slaughtered by them, the citizens will slay those who become infected without mercy, and there are groups of hunters tracking the wolves down to keep people safe. The film also establishes that there’s a new breed of werewolf that is breaking the usual rules of lycanthropy in this universe (namely, that it can transform without the full moon) that has been attacking Daniel’s village, which prompts the hunters to lend their services (in a scene which toes the line between a Jaws rip-off and “homage”). Wanting to see the deaths end, Daniel offers his services to the hunters, who accept with much reluctance.

The Beast Among Us very much looks and feels like a TV movie – a fairly professional and high-quality one, to be fair, but a TV movie none-the-less. That said, it is surprisingly gory. The opening segment of the film establishes how brutal the werewolf attacks are by having mutilated corpses strewn across the streets, forest and falling out of ravaged carriages. Hell, there’s also a scene where Doc and Daniel realize a man they are trying to treat has been infected by lycanthropy, so Doc pulls out a pistol and blows his head off. If you’re looking for buckets of blood, then this film will deliver in that regard.

One unfortunate aspect of the film is that its werewolf is largely realized through CGI. Again, it’s certainly better looking than Red: Werewolf Hunter, likely due to Universal’s involvement in this film’s production, but it still is a far cry from Dog Soldiers or An American Werewolf in London… or, hell, The Wolfman remake. The filmmakers do show some restraint though, as the CGI is mostly used in shots where the werewolf is moving and attacking. There is also a practical costume which is used at times when we’re actually supposed to empathize with the werewolf, which definitely shows some wisdom on the part of the filmmakers and suggests to me that they knew that the CGI was going to be inadequate. The costume actually looks pretty good too, it’s just a shame that they couldn’t find a way to use it more throughout the film.

Anyway, I don’t want to totally spoil the film because for all its problems The Beast Among Us is a reasonably entertaining film with a couple good twists, but it also fails to really leave an impression on you when it’s over. It’s literally forgettable… and I’m not exaggerating about that either. I set up the start of this review to imply that this was the first time I had seen this film, because I honestly thought that it was. However, when I went to go rate it on IMDb afterwards, I saw that I had already seen this movie 5 years ago. Like I said, this film had a couple good twists and isn’t even all that bad, but I had completely forgotten that I had ever seen it – The Beast Among Us is that generic and that mediocre that I never even had a feeling like I might have seen this before. I couldn’t even remember who the main character was going to be or who the werewolf was all along. That’s actually what prompted me to write this review, because it’s interesting how forgettable movies work – I’ll never forget any of The Howling films (even the fourth one, in which literally nothing happens until the last 10 minutes), Project X or Troll 2, because they at least manage to stick with you afterwards. However, a film that doesn’t fail hard enough, or which fails to do anything but stick to bland tropes is harder to recall and may just be the worst fate that can befall a movie.

Like I said, The Beast Among Us is a reasonably entertaining film, but it will not stick with you afterwards. It never really rises above mediocre, but it’s worth the watch if you’re into werewolf films and have a lazy weeknight with nothing better to do.

4.5/10

Movie Review: All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006)

There few experiences more baffling in enjoying movies than coming across a movie which is incredibly flawed, but that you love regardless. It’s exactly how I feel about the absolutely brilliant, but fundamentally hamstrung Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and it seems like a lot of people have been feeling this about Suicide Squad as well. Recently, I rewatched another film which I felt was brilliant but flawed, the 2006 slasher film All the Boys Love Mandy Lane… and dammit, I just cannot stop thinking about it. The film is way deeper than it might appear at first glance, or even more than pretty much any slasher film I can think of for that matter, and yet it feels like the film was totally passed over and in need of a revisiting.

Good God that is a gorgeous poster, largely thanks to the equally-gorgeous Amber Heard. Fantastic tagline too, this poster basically single-handedly sold me on the film years ago when I first saw it.

Oh, and be warned – I’m going to attempt to dig deep into this film’s themes, so expect spoilers galore. Got it? Good.

All the Boys Love Mandy Lane revolves around a girl, Mandy Lane, who comes off of summer vacation to find that everyone in the school now seems to agree that she has become smokin’ hot in the past couple months. She is content to stick with her nerdy friend, Emmett, but with her newfound attention, she starts drawing the eyes of the popular guys on campus, including football jock Dylan and his friends, Jake, Bird, Red, and also the admiration of these guys’ girl-friends, Marlin and Chloe. Dylan invites Mandy to a party in hopes of hooking up with her, but Mandy insists that Emmett has to come if she does, much to Dylan’s consternation. True to form, Dylan tries to seduce Mandy unsuccessfully, but then Emmett makes him look like a fool, causing Dylan to punch him in the face. Later, Emmett heads to Dylan’s roof to look down on the partiers, but Dylan comes up and tells him to get down. Emmett then convinces Dylan that he needs to do something to impress Mandy and make her fall for him – like jumping from the roof into his pool. Dylan decides to risk it and jumps, but strikes his head on the edge of the pool and is killed instantly.

9 months later, pretty much everyone in the school hates Emmett, and Mandy has seemingly moved on to the more popular cliques. She receives an invitation to go to a house party at Red’s ranch, which she agrees to attend along with Jake, Bird, Marlin and Chloe. All 3 of the guys brag about how they will be the “first” to hook up with Mandy, while Chloe and Marlin both vie for Jake’s attention. Throughout the party, Mandy is subjected to attempts to seduce her by the guys (particularly Jake and Bird), but she is very tepid about going along with the advances – she clearly isn’t interested, but the guys try regardless. Red’s ranch hand, Garth, shows up around the property at various points to keep things in order, and Mandy clearly finds him instantly intriguing (as does Chloe).

As the night goes on, Chloe and Marlin make a joke about Jake having the smallest penis at the party, which causes him to storm out in a huff towards the barn. Marlin chases after him and proceeds to give him an apologetic blowjob, but when it comes time to reciprocate, Jake just laughs and tells her to piss off. Marlin is furious, but is suddenly attacked and fatally wounded by a hooded assailant. Unaware of this, Jake returns to the house to try to force Mandy to sleep with him, but she rebuffs him aggressively. Frustrated, Jake gives up on Mandy and steal’s the group’s only vehicle and a gun as he drives off in a drunken stupor to find Marlin for another round. When he finds her, he gets drawn into a trap, where he is shot in the head by the hooded assailant.

The partiers hear the shot and assume that it’s Jake acting stupid and drunk, but Garth threatens to put an end to the party. Mandy manages to convince him to hold off until morning at least, until the car drives back to the house and the driver (who the partiers assume is Jake) launches a firecracker at them. Bird chases after the truck and Garth threatens to call Red’s parents, but they decide to just put an end to the party instead. When Bird catches the truck, he finds that the hooded assailant is actually Emmett. The pair fight, but Emmett ends up slashing Bird across the eyes to blind him before stabbing him to death.

The next morning, Emmett sneaks into the house to admire Mandy and leave a blood-stained message. Realizing that something is badly wrong, Garth tries to lead the group out of the ranch, but is shot in the shoulder by Emmett. Red and Chloe make a break for it out the back door of the ranch to get help, but Emmett intercepts them and shoots Red. Chloe runs back to the house to try to get Mandy to help her, but when she runs into her arms, Mandy stabs her to death. We discover that Mandy has been in on this with Emmett all along, and they had planned to kill the popular kids is a testament to their love for one another. However, when Emmett insists that Mandy kill herself and then shoot him in the heart, Mandy decides against this. Emmett becomes infuriated and tries to kill her, but Garth suddenly appears and shoots Emmett, wounding him. Emmett stabs Garth a few times before chasing after Mandy with a machete. The pair fight, but Mandy gets the upper hand and stabs Emmett to death. She then heads back to find Garth and save his life by rushing him to the hospital.

From the plot synopsis, it probably sounds like the film is pretty standard for the genre, but there are a few things which make it stand out. First of all, the film is absolutely gorgeous, with some fantastic cinematography from Darren Genet. That said, the night scenes, which make up the bulk of the film, aren’t nearly as memorable as his unnerving, incredibly harshly lit daytime segments, which run the gamut from an almost-tender shot of hand-holding in the sunset (if not for the rapey connotations of the scene itself) to the almost documentary-style way that the camera tracks Chloe as she runs away, screaming, as Emmett chases after her in his truck. Much of the film reminds me of the harsh, washed-out grittiness of Tobe Hooper’s slasher classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which almost-certainly was a major visual influence on the film.

The performances in the film are also fairly solid. No one really stood out to me as being poor, although the only one who stood out to me as particularly noteworthy was Whitney Able as Chloe. It might be because that character had the best material to work with, but she goes from “typical mean-girl cheerleader stereotype” to a truly pitiable and tragic person that I genuinely felt sorry for… unlike basically every other character in this not named “Mandy”. I also thought that Luke Grimes played a really contemptible asshole with Jake, putting in enough smugness that he’s kind of entertaining to watch rather than being unbearable (you should have been taking notes, all you irritating sacks of shit from Project X). I’d like to say that Amber Heard did great as Mandy, but I’m a little indifferent on her performance. To be totally fair though, she’s playing a character who spends the vast majority of the film in a (seemingly) passive role, so she isn’t able to really assert herself until the end (where she does a good job). If nothing else though, she definitely has the looks to sell the idea that these guys are all going crazy over her.

My main beef with All the Boys Love Mandy Lane though comes down to the script side of things. If you go into this expecting a slasher film, then you’re probably going to find that it’s fairly boring – very little seems to happen during its middle segment, and you literally get 60+ minutes into the film with more than half of the total body count occurring before any of the characters even realize that there might be a killer on the loose. For my first viewing, I was just sitting there watching the movie slowly go by with characters just getting killed off occasionally, seemingly without much consequence in the film itself, which was making me wonder what the whole point was.

However, the film is much more interesting on that second viewing, where you already know what you’re going in for and have your context recoloured. I didn’t miss the film’s clear commentary on aggressive hypersexuality the first time (it’s incredibly in-your-face about it), but when you go into the film realizing that it’s the entire point of the film (rather than being a generic slasher), it makes the film so much more coherent. My understanding of gender relations has also improved considerably since I first watched this film, which helped colour my perception quite a bit. When I first saw this movie, I was probably leaning more on the idea that this was a “Beta Uprising” slasher film and kind of empathized a little bit with Emmett. I had realized there were feminist themes to Mandy Lane in my initial viewing, but after my second viewing it seems pretty clear to me that the film is just saturated in them.

Of course, most reviewers picked up on the feminist themes in the film, but some didn’t think that the film’s approach was successful. Bitch Flicks’ review of Mandy Lane claims that the film stops short of being feminist because they felt that the film was declaring Chloe and Marlin were traditional slasher “whores” who were deserving of their deaths, and claimed that the film would have been better if they had only killed off the men as a message about the harmfulness of toxic masculinity*. However, I believe that this analysis was unfortunately shallow and off-center since they seem to think that Mandy is supposed to be the film’s innocent feminist icon. In particular, I’m not so sure that the film is condoning Marlin or Chloe’s death for being sexually active like they claim – after all, Chloe’s death in particular was incredibly sad and didn’t occur to me as being “comeuppance” like “whore deaths” so often do in slasher films.

From the moment that the film begins, Mandy is absolutely immersed in a culture of in-your-face hypersexuality and superficial relations. There’s a clear element of sexual entitlement amongst most of the male characters, as nearly all of them seem to believe that they are going to be sleeping with Mandy at some point. Even the least-aggressively entitled character, Red, seems to think that he is going to get with her at some point, despite not actually doing anything to see this hope through. In my opinion, the superficial relationships on display throughout the film are one of the first keys to understanding the narrative. If you pay attention you’ll find that, for all of their big talk about hooking up with Mandy, none of “the boys” actually bother trying to get to know her. Most of the time, their interactions with Mandy seem to come down to gazing at her lustfully, telling one of the other guys that “they’re gonna hit that” and then trying to woo her with transparently-empty attempts at charm. Chloe and Marlin aren’t much better – despite supposedly being best friends, the two girls constantly tear each other down, such as Chloe’s repeated insistence that Marlin is fat (she isn’t) or Marlin insulting Chloe for having pubic hair (which she insults as being “Sherwood Forest” down there). Both girls are completely complicit in the boys’ objectification of them. In particular, Chloe’s relationships also clearly revolve around the superficial – she spends the entire party trying to get with Jake, and when he ignores her she tries to seduce Garth in turn, unsuccessfully. In one of the film’s more tragic scenes, she also laments to Mandy in private that Mandy is so much prettier than her. Her melancholy tone conveys utter defeat, but the fact that this is the first thing she really says to attempt to connect with Mandy suggests that prettiness is the only thing that she really understands. Honestly, I think that this exchange might have been the moment which sealed her fate at the film’s end.

However, the film gives us a clear counter-point to the superficial relationships in the film in the form of Garth (pay attention, this is going to become a trend). Garth is the one character who actually makes an effort to get to know Mandy, and without the ulterior motive of trying to fool her into sleeping with him for that matter. In fact, during one of their bonding moments, he ends up feeling like he can’t be with Mandy because she is “about 10 years” too young for him. This conveys that he respects her and finds her very interesting, but doesn’t want to force a relationship with someone so much younger than him, while also standing in stark contrast to the other guys, who only really talk with Mandy if they think it’ll get them closer to sleeping with her. It’s also worth noting that Garth demonstrates his responsibility and seriousness throughout the film – on a number of occasions he decides not to party with the teens because he has work to do around the ranch, or he wants to keep them safe. Contrast this to Bird, who only volunteers to walk to the ranch because he thinks he will get to hook up with Mandy on the way there, or who gets pissed off when he needs to restart the generator because he thinks he’ll miss another opportunity. Mandy, for her part, clearly finds Garth very intriguing, but unlike Chloe, she wants to get to know him and not just use him as a one night stand.

The second major key to understanding the film is the idea of sexual competition. This is made very obvious near the beginning of the film when Emmett chases after Mandy wearing a shirt which has “natural selection” written across the front of it, which is intended to convey the old “survival of the fittest”/Social Darwinian philosophy shared by assholes everywhere. Going along with the superficial relationships, the film is absolutely awash in hypersexual competition amongst the characters. Pretty much every sexual reference which is clearly framed in a negative light is linked to some form of attempt to tear down or compete with others. Just as a short list of examples, we have Chloe insisting Marlin is fat, Marlin’s comments about Chloe’s “Sherwood Forest”, Jake bragging about having hooked up to girls from 42 of the 50 States, Bird volunteering to walk back to the ranch so he can get rather rape-y with Mandy, Jake refusing to reciprocate to Marlin after she gives him a blowjob, etc. One particular instance that deserves further elaboration though is when Jake’s rather extreme reaction when Chloe and Marlin agree that he has the smallest dick in the room. Jake is such a toxically-masculine character who has been constantly attempting to one-up everyone, that this rather public declaration of him having the smallest manhood is nothing short of a devastating blow to his ego (especially since he’s trying to get with Mandy at the time). This explains why he gets so worked up about something so trivial, because as far as he is concerned, he’s the top of the pile, the alpha male if you will. Chloe also comes to fit into a similar mold as the film progresses. She brushes off the “Sherwood Forest” comment at the time, but later in the film, she is seen breaking down and crying as she attempts to trim her pubic hair in order to up her perceived value. At one point, we also see that she wears a padded bra in order to make it appear that her breasts are bigger than they actually are – a superficial and somewhat short-sighted move in many respects, but one which allows her to compete more “effectively”.

It’s also pretty clear that all the obsession about Mandy is just an extension of this hypersexual competition. Everyone wants to get with the “pure virgin”, Mandy Lane because she is unconquered, and whoever gets to her first will have their status instantly boosted as a result. In contrast, Marlin and Chloe are both sexually active, so hooking up with them isn’t considered particularly desirable. This is most clearly demonstrated when Jake finally gives up on Mandy and decides to just go have sex with Marlin again, claiming that he’s going to go “back to the well”. There’s a sense that if any of the guys do get with Mandy, then that will be the end of it – they may obsess over her now, but that’s only because she is “pure”. If she started indulging the boys’ desires, then their interest in her will wane considerably until her “sexual currency” is worthless. The toxic masculinity of this mindset is extremely clear and should be distressingly familiar to anyone who anyone who pays much attention to the manosphere (particularly pick-up artists): the idea that real men should be having lots of sexual partners, but women who have had lots of sexual partners are dirty, worthless whores with shrivelled vaginas. The hypocrisy of this mindset is staggering, but in Mandy Lane, Marlin and Chloe are complicit in it – it’s not a coincidence that both girls are lusting after Jake, the biggest misogynist in the entire group. It’s also worth noting that this competition for Mandy’s attention ends up coming down to grand gestures (eg, Dylan jumping from the roof into the pool, as if that would make Mandy instantly drop her panties for him) or really transparent lies that they think will impress her (eg, Bird claiming that he “respects the woman” and then forcing Mandy to hold his hand and give him a not-so-innocent kiss on the cheek… as if his words speak louder than his actions). Who does end up impressing Mandy, you may wonder? Garth, who just… is. He doesn’t do any grand gestures or lie to try to impress her, he just is himself and does the right thing when it is needed. He out-battles the competition without even having to consciously compete.

The third key to understanding the film is in Emmett’s role… which, compared to the other two keys, the film doesn’t shed quite so many answers on, and so interpretation is going to be relied on a bit more. Based on the previous two keys though, it would seem to me that Emmett is representative of a different, more primal sort of “competition” than the other boys are involved in. I believe that this is the entire point of the film’s opening 10 minutes, which focuses almost entirely on interaction between Dylan and Emmett. In this opening, Dylan attempts to woo Mandy through sweet words, charms and his physique. Emmett very clearly realizes that he can’t compete with Dylan in this arena, as demonstrated by the scene of him standing in front of the mirror without a shirt… which he then puts back on in defeat before sitting alone at the pool during the party. However, when he heads up to the roof, Emmett figures out that he can compete using his brain and convinces Dylan to effectively commit suicide. In Emmett’s (clearly sociopathic) mind, he may think “sure, Dylan might have been a more charming fellow and have a nicer body, but what good does that do him if he’s dead and I’m not?” Emmett may hate the superficial nature of the popular kids in the film, but many ways, he’s not much different than they are.

Emmett’s ruthlessness can ultimately be boiled down to just more gestures and competition – on a far more vicious scale, but gestures and competition none-the-less. He believes that Mandy is impressed by his viciousness (and, to some degree, she kind of is), so he attempts to escalate it show just how devoted he really is. His obsession pushes him too far though, as the gestures and the ideas become the real thing he’s in love with. For example, I believe that Emmett is basically holding Mandy up like a goddess of purity. When he kills Marlin, just after she gives Jake a blowjob, he is particularly vicious. He forces her to fellate the barrel of a rifle before breaking her neck, a level of sadistic “comeuppance” which he doesn’t reserve for any of the other characters. While Bitch Flicks might argue that this is just a misogynist moment of “slasher-flick whore punishment”, I’m not entirely convinced that that is the intention – rather, I think it is intended to signify Emmett’s own sense of twisted misogyny which has developed from his obsession over a single, idealized woman. It is certainly within reason to believe that he views Marlin as a worthless slut who gratifies other men, unlike his perfect angel, Mandy, hence why he forces Marlin to fellate the gun barrel (an image which effectively symbolizes “sex = death”).

The crux of Emmett’s big display at the film’s end is that he and Mandy have a suicide pact, which he believes will show his ultimate devotion to her to the entire world. In fact, he believes that this display will be so effective that it will inspire “copycat killings”, like they’re the Romeo & Juliet of mass murderers. However, what would this gesture actually do for Mandy? The only person who “benefits” from this suicide pact is Emmett, because it will show the entire world just how much he loved Mandy Lane, while preserving her role in the plot so that everyone will still believe her to be the pure, virginal woman (in fact, if she’s dead, then she’s eternally untarnished). In a sense, the mass murder and then suicide pact would (in Emmett’s mind) set him up as the ultimate conqueror – the man who overcame all the other men he was competing with in a permanent sense and then won Mandy’s heart forever. Does he really “love” Mandy though, or is he in love with this idealized notion of her? The fact that he goes berserk when Mandy rejects the suicide pact suggests to me that he’s in love with his idealized angel and his own grand gesture, rather than Mandy as an actual person with her own beliefs and wishes. Ultimately, Emmett reveals that he’s no better than Jake or Bird – forcing his will on Mandy and believing that he is entitled to her, but unable to comprehend that maybe she isn’t interested (the fact that she rejects his suicide offer by saying “you should never do anything for me” just hammers this home harder).

As screwed up as that mindset is, I’ve been to the sorts of places that Emmett’s mind has gone in this film, and so I find his logic disturbingly understandable (y’know, minus the murder). In high school, I was obsessed with this one “pure” Christian girl who I missed my very brief chance of dating before she moved on. However, I couldn’t get over her and ended up shielding her from other guys in the school who I thought we assholes, much in the same manner. In fact, at one point I was sorely tempted to push one asshole down the stairs who wouldn’t stop creeping on her, and at the time I decided against it… because she’d probably sympathize with him and not me. Now I probably would have been too level-headed to actually go ahead with it, but that was the sort of obsessively-screwed up I was in high school. I was also so obsessed with her purity aspect that I was very consciously shutting out any sort of sexual thoughts or feelings in regards to her, and would get pretty furious if other people spoke about her in a sexual way. In fact, it was unhealthy enough that I wondered what the hell I would do if we ever did actually end up dating and get together, I’d probably not be able to cognitively handle it. So… yeah. You can probably understand why I saw a lot of Emmett in myself when I first watched this film.

The final key to understanding the film is Mandy herself, or rather, understanding her motivations. We’re never really given an entirely clear understanding of why she turns on her supposed “friends”, to what extent she was involved in their murders, or exactly why she turns on Emmett at the end (although, as I stated above, it’s likely that she had come to realize that he was no better than the other boys). As I wrote earlier, I think Bitch Flicks makes a mistake in holding up Mandy as a straight feminist symbol in the film. While there are certainly feminist ideals attached to her, her sociopathy makes it a little difficult to view her as a simple, Nathaniel Hawthorne-style walking symbol. It’s pretty clear that she’s not just railing against the patriarchy throughout the film, but that’s hardly enough to make the film “not feminist”. Rather, to me she seems to be more of an independent character through which feminist themes are explored.

In an initial viewing of the film, it feels like Mandy is a passive figure for most of the action. She spends most of the film being gazed at while other characters attempt to get with her, or is off somewhere else while those characters get brutally killed. However, on a second viewing, it becomes much more clear that she is in control nearly the entire time. Scenes where she appeared passive as she watches the other characters bragging about sexual conquests or belittling one another gain a sinister subtext as we realize that Mandy is not just witnessing – she’s cataloguing their sins. She’s an interesting sort of slasher anti-hero – instead of hunting down and killing the characters, she influences other people to eliminate the characters for her. This also is where I disagree with Bitch Flicks’ assessment that we’re supposed to hold her up as a pure feminist example, because as the film goes on, it’s pretty clear that we’re not supposed to be condoning the deaths of the characters. Chloe and Red in particular begin to grow close during the increasing stress of the night and are set up in a manner which makes it seem like both of them are blossoming into a real relationship which could help them both (particularly Chloe with her tortured self-loathing and feelings of inadequacy). However, when they are both dispatched, it is a truly tragic and heart-wrenching moment which we pretty clearly are meant to not feel good about. I’d rather see these characters become good people than lose their lives as punishment for their mistakes, but Emmett and Mandy see things otherwise.

Where does Mandy’s murderous motivation come from though? This is a puzzle that I had to mull over for quite a while because the movie doesn’t give us a straight answer. However, I think I might have come up with a convincing answer: the one big common feature which unites Mandy and Garth is the fact that both of them have lost someone incredibly close to them (in Mandy’s case, her parents; in Garth’s, his wife). If you’ve ever lost someone close, or listen to the Dead Things podcast, you’ll know that it’s a life-altering event which changes your entire outlook on the world. Now picture this – Mandy is surrounded by this superficial, belittling hypersexuality, which she has come to realize is meaningless next to the grand scope of mortality. Then, after the summer break, she comes back to school and suddenly finds herself immersed in the fickleness of this superficial attention, which causes her to resent it even more. She’s almost like the Jigsaw killer, lashing out at people for not appreciating their lives, and the lives of other people who they just use and abuse. This idea is also demonstrated when Mandy kills Emmett, declaring that she wants to finish high school instead of dying for him, suggesting to me that Emmett isn’t even really all that cognisant of the finality of his own actions.

There is also a seemingly inconsequential scene in this film which I think really hammers home this link between Mandy, Garth and death. During one conversation, Garth reveals that he had to kill off the entire herd of cattle at Red’s farm because they came down with an illness, to which the partiers are incredulously surprised that he had the stomach to eliminate the entire herd by himself. As Garth explains, it was his responsibility and it had to be done. The fact that Mandy and Emmett have their final confrontation in the mass grave that these cows were buried pretty-explicitly draws a link between the characters and this idea of eliminating the diseased for the greater good. For Emmett, eliminating the other characters improves his standing and acts as a gesture of his devotion to her. For Mandy, it would seem that she shares Garth’s view – she views the superficial, the toxically masculine, the competitors, as the diseased which must be eliminated for the good of the “herd”, and values honesty and the responsibility to step up and do what is necessary – hence why she turns on Emmett. This also helps to explain why she likes Garth so much, because she sees a connection in this philosophies… although Garth may not see them as quite so similar if he understood Mandy’s true nature.

And that’s All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. I do hope that I helped shed some light on why I love this film so much, in spite of its rather slow plotting in the middle. I understand the reasoning behind it, but I can’t help but be kind of deflated by the way that the film kind of drags and feels inconsequential at times. If you look into the film beyond the surface level though, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane is a real treat full of interesting themes and ideas – I mean, after all, isn’t looking beyond the skin what Mandy would want you to do anyway? Something to consider.

7/10

*For one thing, this could easily be construed as misandrist, which is something that the feminist community doesn’t need to be getting legitimately thrown our way. Furthermore, I believe that the existing message in the film is more nuanced than that heavy-handed sort of conclusion would have been anyway.

Video Game Review: Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 – Venus (2016)

This happens to be my 200th post on I Choose to Stand, and I’ve put together something special… After all the shit-talking I’ve done about Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, I thought that it was pretty unfair of me to just dismiss it off-hand. As a result, I picked up a copy of the PS Vita version (like hell I was going to get caught playing this on my TV) and set about writing this review. Is it as bad as I had predicted? Read on to find out…

Note that the game is very careful to highlight that you can use the touch controls to manually jiggle the girls’ boobs. Stay classy Tecmo, stay classy…

DOAX3 is a… umm… well, it’s pretty hard to place it within a genre really. The most succinct way to describe it is that it’s a minigame collection based around a voyeuristic appreciation of sexiness, with some very basic happiness-management and dating sim elements layered over it. The first thing that really struck me about DOAX3 was just how similar it felt to previous DOAX games – I had previously played a little Dead or Alive: Paradise, but even that cursory glance was enough to notice that DOAX3 has basically the exact same menu-based user interface and layout. Hell, even the locations are the basically the same, and the thumbnails look very similar too (the Sports Shop in particular looked almost identical to me). The game is also clearly carrying over a number of art assets from Dead or Alive 5: Last Round – the characters themselves appear to be updated, but the swimsuits and even some of the environments have been very clearly shared between the two releases (and the bulk of the “new” swimsuits are just palette-swaps).

Perhaps most egregiously, I also noticed that a very significant portion of the game’s gravure videos are lifted from previous games in the franchise, reusing the exact same animations and even camera angles. I didn’t do a comprehensive count, but when cross-referencing Hitomi’s scenes in Dead or Alive: Paradise, I noticed that quite a few were reused wholesale, such as her riding on inflatable orca in the pool, her very cute improvised dance session, eating an ice cream cone and going for a bike ride. They also directly lifted Hitomi’s Private Paradise scene from Dead or Alive 5: Ultimate‘s DLC. I’m sure there are more of Hitomi’s scenes reused that I just haven’t encountered in DOAX3 yet, and the fact that I’ve found this much recycling for just a single character is kind of a demonstration of how little effort seems to have gone into differentiating DOAX3 from previous games in the franchise. I don’t want to accuse Team Ninja of being lazy, but the sheer amount of recycled content makes me feel like they basically just put in a minimal amount of effort on this release – hell, they couldn’t even expand the cast past 9 girls, possibly because this would have required them to add in more items for the dating sim elements.

Controversially, DOAX3 also removed some features from previous DOAX games – in particular, the Marine Race (aka, Jet Skiing) and Water Slide have been removed entirely, presumably because the marina has been excised from the game (for no apparent reason other than lack of effort). The cast of characters is also kind of disappointing. Series mainstays, such as Christie, Tina and Lei Fang have been replaced with DLC characters from DOA5. I know that they put this up to a popular vote, but the fact that some of the main characters of the series have been excluded and have been replaced with people that we don’t have any sort of story context for makes the game feel significantly less true to the DOA name (naturally, the two highest-voted new characters in the poll were the two biggest fetish bait – the lolita schoolgirl, Marie Rose, and the biggest tits and ass in the franchise, Honoka).


On the plus side though, Team Ninja seems to have put most of their effort into the graphics and physics engines, which definitely shows. The PS4 version obviously looks superior, but the PS Vita’s graphics are pretty damn good as well. Aside from a reduced framerate and resolution, the only really noticeable downgrades in the handheld are, for whatever reason, that the girls don’t get suntanned and can’t suffer SFW “wardrobe malfunctions” during some of the minigames – hardly make-or-break issues, but their exclusion is a little odd. The game’s physics engine is also probably the best that the series has ever seen – DOA is notorious for its hilarious (often intentionally-so) boob-physics, but DOAX3 seems to have stepped up its game in a surprisingly-positive way. The boob physics appear to be much more, uh, natural this time around… plus they added butt physics too, because Team Ninja understands priorities. The only really annoying graphical issue is one that has persisted throughout the series – hair physics. The characters’ hair goes crazy all the time, clipping through characters, objects and generally just going bonkers while the physics try to make sense of their programming. Some of the swimsuits have the same sort of issues, particularly the leis (which are apparently glued to the girls’ nipples or something) – the dangle physics don’t seem to have been figured out yet, which is probably why we don’t have any men in the DOAX series yet (BADUM TISH!). Still, for a game based almost entirely around sexiness (and with so much recycled content), the emphasis on the graphics was probably the right call to make, with all of the girls looking even better than they already did in DOA5.

The actual gameplay of DOAX3 takes place over the course of 14 in-game days, each split up into morning, afternoon, evening and night-time segments. The morning, afternoon and evening segments can be used to play minigames, relax or buy new swimsuits, while the night-time segments basically just give you the opportunity to gamble your cash at the casino. There’s about one line of story for each of the girls which explains what they’re doing on the island, but beyond that there’s basically no overarching plot – you’re just on the island and you get to choose how you want to spend your vacation time. The game does present you with missions in order to earn “Zack Dollars”, upgrade your “Owner Level” and increase your girls’ happiness levels, but it’s really just up to you whether you want to accomplish these missions or not. The only real goal is to make the girls happy by the end of your vacation – the happier they are, the higher your final score is.

The bulk of the gameplay in DOAX3 revolves around a series of 6 minigames. Of these, volleyball is by far the funnest and most rewarding. It’s not particularly deep, but there is some actual strategy involved in winning and skill involved as you learn how to defend, set up plays and master better (but more risky) serves. The payouts are also considerably higher than any other minigame, so you’re probably going to spend most of your time playing this unless you’re just hunting missions all of the time. It’s also legitimately quite fun to play, with a reasonable amount of challenge involved.

The second minigame is tug of war, in which you just move the analog stick left to pull, or right to feint, and tap X to regain balance. However, when I’m playing I don’t find that there’s much reason to do anything other than just tug it constantly (heh heh). Easy-level opponents don’t really react quick enough to fight back, so if you just tug then you’re pretty much guaranteed a win. Normal-level opponents require a bit more strategy, but even when I’d open with a feint trying to be strategic, I found that I was losing a lot more. I just ended up tugging it mindlessly again after that (heh heh), and won 3 matches in a row with no effort. Honestly, winning in tug of war seems very shallow and is basically a crapshoot, because feints are unpredictable and can cause you to instantly lose if they pull one off. It can be fun as a diversion, but it gets stale pretty quickly.

The third minigame is butt battle, which feels like the most stripped-down (heh heh) fighting game ever. Basically, press O to bash the other girl in the butt with your own butt, and use the analog stick to dodge or sidestep. However, I have found that there isn’t a lot of reason to do much more than just hammer on O to win most of the time. For normal-level opponents and higher, butt battling feels a little more like a rhythm/timing-based game as you just wait to see if your opponent dodges or not. It’s still pretty shallow and doesn’t really seem to exist for much more reason than to make you laugh and appreciate the butt physics (oh and to show off the wardrobe malfunctions on PS4).

The fourth minigame is beach flags, which is basically just an HD remaster of NES Track and Field. Basically, wait until the game says go, then button mash X as fast as possible and then press O to dive for the flag before the other player does. It literally takes seconds to finish (heh heh) and, if you’re like me and can’t button mash for shit, then winning against hard-level opponents is basically impossible. It’s just not particularly engaging or skill-based, providing little more than an opportunity for quick cash if you don’t want to spend a lot of time on a minigame for whatever reason.

The fifth minigame is pool hopping. It’s sort of like a speed-based QTE game, where you jump to platforms marked with one of the Playstation face buttons on each one. Platforms are spaced apart at different distances, with a tap of any of the face buttons being required to make a small jump and a hold being used to jump over longer distances. In addition, players can use the face button that matches the platform to perform the QTE to gain additional cash. Honestly, I think pool hopping might be my least-favourite minigame, mainly due to the controls – the difference between a button press and a hold is miniscule, making it super easy to accidentally throw yourself into the pool and then scream in frustration at the annoying controls. Plus the game emphasizes speed, so it’s very easy to screw up as you try to stay ahead of your opponent. I find that I can’t even finish it if I’m trying to match the buttons on the platforms, so I usually just focus on whether my next move is a hold or a tap. Pool hopping definitely takes practice, which I guess makes it more interesting than most of the other minigames, but the frustratingly finicky controls take a lot of patience to acclimate to.

The last minigame is rock climbing, which was added in place of Marine Race and Water Slide. It’s literally just 40 seconds of QTEs, making it arguably the most boring minigame in the entire collection. It feels like it’s just an overglorified gravure video with some button prompts overlaid on it, but at least you get Zack Dollars for completing it (which is far more than I expected). Once you’ve finished it once, you’ve seen everything it has to offer.

In addition to the main minigames, the game also features a casino where players can choose to gamble their Zack Dollars with the other girls. The three offerings (blackjack, poker and roulette) are certainly functional but are very basic even in comparison and lack much visual flair to keep them interesting for long periods of time. Roulette seems like the most throwaway since it’s almost 100% luck based whether you make any sort of payout. I spend most of my time in the casino on blackjack and poker (which is using the five-card draw rules rather than Texas hold ’em, sadly), since there’s actually some skill involved. Poker in particular is pretty easy to rake in money with consistently if you know how to play, since you can just bluff opponents off the cards most of the time if they have weak hands (and as long as you don’t just go in with awful hands yourself all the time). A poker session can a pretty fun diversion sometimes, but most nights I just skip going to the casino since it doesn’t really change or give you much reason to keep going back aside from farming for money. Oh, also, for a game that is all about sexiness, I’m also disappointed that Team Ninja still won’t actually put animations of the girls you’re playing against in the casino. Instead, they just show bubbles with the characters’ heads in them acting as an avatar (the same system used in previous DOAX games). It once again smacks of a modicum of effort being applied, and is doubly unsatisfying since this is a game about sexiness – you think they’d play that up shamelessly here. As a consolation, we get images of the girls on all the playing cards, but it’s not much of an effort (especially since the pictures are basically all promotional renders, which might have taken an afternoon of work to apply to all the in-game cards).

Aside from the minigames, the other main feature in vacation mode is the ability to watch the gravure videos of the girls relaxing around the island. While they’re clearly intended to be the game’s main draw, I find that they aren’t particularly well-integrated into the game. You can choose to initiate these videos by visiting parts of the island to relax, but this is where, one of the major failings of all of the DOAX games comes into play – the games are clearly meant to be playing up sexiness, but triggering these scenes uses up a portion of your very finite schedule with no practical gain (as far as I can tell, they don’t even give you satisfaction, which is mind-boggling). Time you spend on relaxing could have easily been spent on volleyball, which is both funner and provides you with currency to buy new swimsuits. It’s like the game’s systems are actively discouraging you from doing the very thing that the game is designed to do, which is frustrating (good thing a quick Youtube search will give you all the DOAX3 gravure videos you could ever want without wasting any of your vacation time or spending a penny). This is my general problem with sexy/porn games – the “game” parts tend to clash with the actual point of the game (and where all the effort was actually directed… in this case, appreciating skimpily-dressed girls). While I’d probably rather be appreciating the gravure videos, I’ve got no practical reason to do so, which just ends up highlighting how unsatisfactory the gameplay itself is. I think it would be more interesting if the game gave you higher satisfaction yields for choosing to relax, while continuing to give you good money and satisfaction yields for completing activities, which would at least give you a strategic reason to pick between the two options.

It’s also worth pointing out that all of the minigames take up the same amount of in-game time, whether you spend 15 seconds playing beach flags (or falling into the pool on the first button prompt in pool hopping), or spend 2 or 3 minutes on a heated game of beach volleyball. It feels kind of strange to me that you can end up completing a whole 14 day vacation in probably 10-15 minutes if you choose to blaze through the shorter games. It might have been a little more interesting if there was more of a time-management risk/reward factor, where you can play volleyball for longer times but with a greater payout if you win, compared to the shorter games which would have lower payouts but smaller time investment, meaning you can play more games. As it is, there doesn’t seem to be much reason to play anything other than volleyball most of the time, since it’s both the funnest activity and the highest paying of them all.

That said, the emphasis on volleyball just highlights how poor the other games are. A glance at the trophy statistics shows that (as of the time of this writing), the percentage of players with 10 wins in each of the minigames is as follows: volleyball (41.3%), rock climbing (32.2%, shockingly), beach flags (27.6%), butt battle (26.9%), tug of war (26.8%) and pool hopping (20.5%). As you can see, the contrast between volleyball and all the other games is pretty stark. With only ~30% of players even hitting Owner Level 10 (about the equivalent of completing 3 vacations), it makes me wonder how many people grew tired of the game’s offerings within a couple hours, or how many spent all of their time on the only really good minigame on offer.

The one big addition to DOAX3 is the new “Owner Mode”, which allows you to play as a caretaker who Zack has entrusted ownership of the island over to. The basic ideas kind of play out similarly to a management game (think like the absolute simplest Football Manager ever). You can start a vacation as the owner if you’d like, or you can switch to it seamlessly at any point in the menus. The point of playing in owner mode is to maximize the happiness of all of the girls on the island as best as you can, which is where the game’s basic dating sim mechanics come into play. Each girl has favourite items, food and colours. While the game doesn’t just go out and say what each girl likes this time (aside from their colours, which makes it basically impossible to give them a bad gift wrapping), a quick Google search makes it easy to figure out what their preferences are. I know that some people enjoy dating sim elements in games, but I have always found them to be an absolute bore at best, and an irritating chore at worst since I’m just following a set of instructions to get the outcome I want. There’s no real strategy to it, you just do what the game expects you to to get the girl to accept your gifts. The only real reason it seems like they’ve thrown this in here is for the bonus sequences where the girls will try on their new swimsuit in front of you (giving you the option to peek, but of course this ends up being both SFW and exceptionally pervy).

Beyond happiness-management, owner mode also gives you a second pool of Zack Dollars which can be acquired by completing missions and gambling in the casino, and which can be spent to gift girls new swimsuits. Owner mode also gives you access to the Owner Shop, where exclusive swimsuits can be purchased. This is where the game’s microtransactions come into play, because of course they do. The microtransaction system (known as “Premium Tickets”) is disgusting – as you would expect, they allow you to buy premium swimsuits from the Owner Shop for real world money. This is egregious for a number of reasons. For one thing, many missions require you to buy a girl some special swimsuit from the Owner Shop. However, most missions don’t tend to have particularly great payouts, so the odds of you having enough Zack Dollars for the better ones have clearly been designed to incentivize the sale of Premium Tickets (unless you get really lucky in the casino). With the more expensive swimsuits running 14+ Premium Tickets, you’re looking at $10 (Canadian) or more just to gain the privilege of dressing your virtual characters in a single swimsuit that’s already in the game… and that’s before factoring Team Ninja’s inevitable future DLC plans (and their demonstrated history of horrifically shitty business practices there). Also, the contents of the Owner Shop at any one time are semi-random meaning that, like the shittiest free-to-play games, they force you to spend money to get the items you want because they might not be there when you can afford them. Microtransactions are just such a shitty thing to include in a full-priced game like this, especially when they have been so obviously manufactured to push players into spending money on them, and doubly-so on a game which seems to have put as little effort into it as this.

The other big feature of owner mode is your Owner Level, which represents how much work you have put into the game. It is also tied into some special swimsuit and item unlocks, but unfortunately the game expects you to put in an absolutely ridiculous amount of grinding (heh heh) to get stuff. Some of this is stuff that should be an absolute necessity for this sort of game, such as the ability to freaking pause gravure videos, which requires you to be a mind-boggling level 80 to unlock (a feature which was available from the start in Dead or Alive 5: Last Round, a game where sexiness and taking photos isn’t even the whole point of the experience). Honestly, the amount of grinding that the game expects out of you is absolutely ridiculous considering how little content or substance is on offer. As much as I want the ability to pause gravure videos, the thought of having to grind to level 80 makes this feel like the game is wasting my time.

Oddly enough, the least-flashy aspect of owner mode might just be the best part since it sticks to the central philosophy of sexiness – the ability to just sit back and watch the girls doing their activities without having to take direct control. This can be pretty relaxing, particularly if you’re enjoying a good volleyball match, and gives you the opportunity to take (inevitably pervy) pictures. The lack of a pause ability right out of the box is even more egregious in this mode because snapping quality photos is very difficult to pull off when you can’t anticipate the girls’ movements. Still, snapping photos is pretty fun and the in-game controls are robust enough that you can get some really great shots if you practice.

Honestly, DOAX3 feels like the sort of game which would have greatly benefited from a next gen design philosophy overhaul. How much cooler would this have been though if New Zack Island had used an open hub world system where you take control of one of the girls and navigate the island, relaxing and performing activities to your heart’s content? If nothing else, this would have been significantly more interesting and exciting than the existing menu-based UI system. The game could also do with some co-op functionality, especially since you spend the entire vacation with a partner anyway. Multiplayer was actually a feature from DOAX2 which was removed in this game, co-op could have been a great step forward. Naturally, I understand that Tecmo-Koei probably doesn’t expect the game to sell very many copies, so they probably figured that they couldn’t justify the sort of work that would be required to rewrite the game from the ground up. However, with Team Ninja’s insistence on recycling content, we’re left effectively playing an early Xbox game, just with shinier graphics than before. This already didn’t cut it when DOAX2 dropped in 2006, and it’s even more noticeable in a world where identically-priced games feature more refinement and meaningful content than ever.

As you can probably tell from everything up to this point, I don’t think that DOAX3 is a particularly good game. However, in spite of all the shittiness on display, I have to admit that I was actually finding it to be somewhat enjoyable in spite of itself. It’s a strangely relaxing change of pace from my usual sort of gaming entertainment, as I get smacked around in Bloodborne, Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest and XCOM 2… and then use Rainbow Six: Siege to cool off. DOAX3 just lets me lean back and enjoy some minimal challenge while basically giving me the ability to do whatever I want to on my 14 day vacation. It’s kind of difficult to review in that sense, because it’s clearly extremely niche, lacking in meaningful content and difficult to quantify. I can kind of understand how it can get reviews as low as a 1.5/10, but I can also see why someone would give it something as high as a 6/10 if they were being very forgiving of its obvious flaws. For my own part, the lack of content, ridiculous insistence on grinding to make up for said lack of content, disconnect between gameplay and sexiness, and Team Ninja’s seeming overwhelming laziness push it into the negative side, but there is some sort of intangible relaxation that the game brings which make me feel like being at least somewhat generous to it. I don’t exactly recommend the game, but it is definitely going to only appeal to a certain kind of niche gamer.

4/10

…Oh, and did you think I’d not bother to mention anything about sexism? I decided to set that aside for my feelings on the game, but honestly I didn’t really have a particularly difficult time doing so. Maybe the shittiest sort of SJW-type would bristle at the very idea of this game existing, but I didn’t really care all that much when I was playing. The voyeuristic aspects of the game can be rather pervy at times and I sometimes have to stifle a laugh at how silly the game is when it’s trying to be sexy, but the game isn’t particularly offensive. It’s also strangely chaste in some ways – while the girls enjoy looking sexy, they seem to have little interest in sex itself (especially since the series’ more sexily-dominant characters, Tina and Christie, didn’t make the cut). Naturally, this has some troubling implications in itself, but at least the girls are all presented as “look, don’t touch” and beyond attainability, rather than just being sex puppets for our gratification.

If DOAX3 had come overseas, I honestly don’t think that there would have been much of a furor. Hell, I was at an EB games just this morning and saw Onechanbara and a bunch of other typical “sexy Japanese” games on sale without giving a shit. Of course, Tecmo-Koei used the controversy that grew from the lack of a Western release to bait even more controversy for sales (the announcement of “Owner Mode” was probably the most obvious example of this), while PlayAsia basically turned it into an art, effectively netting them their intended audience without having to spend a dime on localization. Really though, I think there’s room for this kind of game to exist – as I have emphasized all through my review, DOAX3 is a game all about sexiness, so if it wants to be sexy then fine. My problem is when otherwise-serious games, particularly ones with an exclusively-male-gaze version femininity in them (such as Metal Gear Solid V) come out and end up dominating the market share. We’re at a point where there are enough positive female characters, from Tomb Raider, to Life is Strange, to the upcoming Horizon: Zero Dawn that I think we can afford a cheesy bit of fantasy in the form of DOAX3 without setting women back decades.

Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid V – The Phantom Pain (2015)

So finally we come to the most recent entry in the Metal Gear franchise – and likely the final entry for that matter in the eyes of most fans. Would Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain manage to bring the series full circle, while charting an ambitious new style for the series? Read on to find out. (Since this game is quite recent still, I will point out that there are MAJOR spoilers throughout this article.)

DEVELOPMENT
First off, it must be said that The Phantom Pain was fraught with an incredibly troubled development which is almost as intriguing as the game itself. We still don’t have all the details, but a sketch of the events which transpired has developed over time, which I will briefly recount here. Shortly after the release of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, it was revealed that Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus had been brought together to create Silent Hills, an announcement which people discovered after exploring the mysterious, acclaimed tech demo P.T. Fans of that series thought that this was a sign of a return to glory for Silent Hill, which had been languishing for 2 console generations by then after a long string of bad-to-mediocre releases.

However, only a few months after the announcement of Silent Hills, disaster struck. After a corporate restructuring Konami had begun to scale back its AAA gaming publishing, choosing to instead focus on less-risky mobile games and licensed slot and pachinko machines. While we don’t know the details of what happened, this caused a rift to grow between Konami and Kojima. The red flags started rising when “A Hideo Kojima game” was removed from all Metal Gear promotional art for The Phantom Pain and on previous Metal Gear games. Soon, Kojima announced that he would be leaving the company following the completion of The Phantom Pain, which instantly caused panics over the status of The Phantom Pain and Silent Hills. Ultimately, Silent Hills was cancelled after an agonizing couple of weeks of silence, with P.T. being pulled from PSN shortly thereafter in spite of massive backlash, while Konami insisted that The Phantom Pain would be unaffected.

The exact causes of the split between Konami and Kojima are uncertain, but it can be inferred that money was a prime factor. Perhaps due to Konami’s desire to downsize their console gaming presence, there have been many reports that they were uncomfortable with the high budget on The Phantom Pain, which reportedly surpassed $80 million. This might also have been a major contributing factor to Ground Zeroes‘ separate release, in an effort to recoup costs quickly. On a related note, timing was also likely an issue – Konami likely wanted the game to be released within a certain budgeted timeframe, and Kojima’s vision was too ambitious to fit comfortably into these restrictions. Ultimately though, this lack of transparency on Konami’s part has damned them in the eyes of the public, even if they do potentially have reasonable motives (I mean, if Kojima Productions had become too expensive for them to maintain then fair enough, but if you don’t say a damn thing to us about it then we’re going to side with the creative auteur behind our favourite games).

PLOT SUMMARY
The game’s plot picks up 9 years after the events of Ground Zeroes as Venom Snake (aka Big Boss) wakes up from a coma to find himself in a dangerous new world. His muscles have atrophied, his body is embedded with shrapnel and his left arm has been amputated. Before Snake can be fully rehabilitated, the hospital comes under attack by XOF forces and a mysterious psychic boy and a deadly, flaming phantom. Snake barely escapes, thanks to the guidance of an unknown man calling himself Ishmael and a timely get-away courtesy of Revolver Ocelot.

From there, Snake heads into Afghanistan to rescue former comrade Kazuhira Miller, who has spent the last decade building a PMC named Diamond Dogs to seek revenge on Cipher for the destruction of Mother Base. Along the way, they uncover a plot by the rogue XOF commander, Skull Face, who has rebelled against Zero and has effectively brought much of Cipher under his control. The hate-filled rogue has decided that Zero’s ambitions of world unity through information control are doomed to failure, and that the only way to unite and control humanity is through fear and revenge. In order to achieve this, he intends to spread chaos by constructing a new Metal Gear, Sahelanthropus, and by distributing inexpensive nuclear weapons to PMCs and smaller nations, stopping nuclear-equipped nations from strong-arming others (while also retaining control of these nuclear weapons as a fail safe). Secondly, he intends to eliminate the English language as a form of revenge for the loss of his own mother tongue – with English as the world’s dominant language, all other languages (and therefore cultural understandings and viewpoints) are under threat of singular control, all as part of Cipher’s intention for global unity. To do this, he has weaponized an ancient species of parasites which reproduces when it recognizes distinct vocal patterns.

In his time building Diamond Dogs, Kaz discovers that Huey Emmerich was responsible for the attack on Mother Base 9 years earlier. Huey has been working for Skull Face and is responsible for the construction of Sahelanthropus. Snake captures Huey and puts him to work developing a new Walker Gear for Diamond Dogs, but is kept under surveillance. They also discover a mysterious, mute sniper named Quiet, who has incredible powers mirroring XOF’s SKULL unit. Kaz immediately distrusts her, but Snake and Ocelot allow her to join Diamond Dogs and provide Snake with support on missions.

Diamond Dogs begins hunting Skull Face in Angola, but in the process Mother Base becomes afflicted with an outbreak of the vocal cord parasites after Snake brings back contaminated materials. The outbreak runs rampant until Venom Snake rescues Code Talker, the man who developed the parasites under duress from Skull Face. A young boy named Eli, suspected to be one of Les Enfants Terrible, is also captured and brought to Mother Base, where he constantly flaunts Snake’s authority.

Snake then goes to attack Skull Face head-on, but is captured and taken to Sahelanthropus, where Skull Face tries to get The Man on Fire (revealed to be a phantom of Colonel Volgin) to kill Snake. However, the nearby presence of Eli causes a young Psycho Mantis (Volgin’s puppeteer) to switch allegiances and unleash Sahelanthropus on Snake and the XOF troops. Much of XOF is destroyed and Skull Face is mortally wounded, but Snake manages to take down the Metal Gear after an epic battle. He and Kaz then gloat over Skull Face’s dying body, mutilating him in retribution before Huey puts him down for good. Diamond Dogs retrieve the remains of Sahelanthropus, putting it on display at Mother Base as a symbol of their victory as Eli and Psycho Mantis look upon it with their own nefarious designs.

In the game’s second chapter, Kaz begins a witch hunt within Diamond Dogs’ ranks, hoping to root out all within their ranks that he deems dangerous. Particular targets of his wrath include Quiet and Huey Emmerich, who is revealed to be a pathological liar the more he is interrogated. After a second, more serious, outbreak of a mutated strain of the vocal cord parasite ravages Mother Base, it is discovered that Huey was responsible. He is banished by Snake just before Quiet goes missing. Snake tracks her down to a Soviet base, where he discovers that she has been infected with the English strain of the vocal cord parasites. Skull Face had intended for her to infect Diamond Dogs with it, but she had turned against XOF and taken a vow of silence. However, after witnessing the mutation of the infection on Mother Base, she had realized that she was too dangerous to remain there. After an intense battle with the Soviet army, Snake is injured and Quiet is forced to break her vow of silence to call in helicopter support to save his life, damning herself to death from the infection. After Snake is rescued, she wanders into the desert to die alone.

Some time after this, Venom Snake receives a tape which reveals that he is not the “real” Big Boss, but rather the helicopter medic from Ground Zeroes. After the helicopter crash, Cipher conspired with Ocelot and (eventually) Big Boss to create a decoy to draw the attention of XOF while the real Big Boss set about creating his own nation of soldiers in secret. Kaz is incensed by this revelation, denouncing Big Boss as a traitor and pledging to support Venom Snake and the sons of Big Boss to bring him down. Ocelot remarks that a time will soon come when these two Big Bosses will be at war with one another, just as the sons of Big Boss will clash.

In post-game recordings, we also receive some plot revelations. While Kaz is furious at Big Boss for betraying his trust, he is also angry with Cipher, which he had been working in concert with to help establish the beginnings of the war economy. He had followed their instructions under the belief that they were going to reunite him with his old friend, making the reveal Big Boss’s decoy sting all the worse. We also hear recordings from Zero himself. Following the unauthorized attack on Mother Base, Zero had been acting to get XOF under control, but Skull Face infected him with a lethal parasite, throwing his ambitions into disarray. A rapidly-deteriorating Zero orders Donald Anderson (aka, SIGNIT) and Strangelove to create the AI network that would come to be known as the Patriots. In his last recording, Zero visits a comatose Big Boss in hospital, revealing that despite their differences, he is still quite fond of his foe. His system thrives on conflict, and therefore he needs someone like Big Boss to cause it.

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
The Phantom Pain opens with a very intense and harrowing hour-long introduction into this brave new world. This sequence works very well for two reasons – it takes its time to draw you into the scenario and then, when it lets loose, you have absolutely no idea what is happening or why. It’s deliberately uninformative, but this just makes the horrifying events which happen here more impactful. I definitely got some Silent Hills vibes here and think that Kojima was dying to try his hand at a horror experience.

Once this sequence is complete, The Phantom Pain truly begins in earnest. While Ground Zeroes offered us a tantalizing taste of what an open world Metal Gear game would look like, that game absolutely pales in comparison to the freedom that The Phantom Pain offers*. The second that you get thrown into the expansive Afghanistan map, you feel a little overwhelmed with how much freedom the game has given you to approach missions, and where exactly to focus your efforts. The maps are dotted with all sorts of enemy outposts for you to approach or avoid at your discretion, while dozens of unique items, weapons, gameplay systems and AI buddies open up entirely new gameplay styles and practically guarantee a different experience for everyone. This also can lead to some incredibly intense moments where you end up in an extremely tight situation and find yourself improvising a solution on the fly which miraculously ends up working… whether due to your skill or the overwhelming force you choose to bear down on enemies, it’s up to you.

The game features two open world maps in Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border, both of which are rather unique. Afghanistan is dotted with cliffs and covered in desert, its action mainly centered around the roads controlled by Soviet troops. As a result, this map is actually surprisingly linear, with mountains forcing the player through series of choke points and making confrontation a regular affair. This is moderately disappointing, and can make traversal a real chore as the game wears on. However, Angola-Zaire is far more open, with the majority of the map traversable however the player wishes and roads being little more than an enemy-filled suggestion. This map is mainly covered in plains and swampland, with some jungles and villages offering a wide variety of ways to sneak about.

The game also features the most recent version of the base management meta-game which was pioneered in Portable Ops and Peace Walker. The Phantom Pain‘s base management is extremely similar to Peace Walker‘s, with troops captured in the field being assigned to various positions based on their skills to unlock new weapons and items. Going hand-in-hand with base management is the improved fulton extraction system. Fulton is one of the game’s strongest assets and is better and more convenient than ever. Instead of being limited to a handful of extractions as you were in Peace Walker, The Phantom Pain will quickly give you access to dozens of balloons to snatch enemy troops, supplies and eventually even vehicles as it pleases you (and if you run out of balloons, then just send a supply request for some more). My only complaint with this is that the fulton system is almost too good now – until your base gets completely filled up, there’s basically no reason to kill enemies when you can just fly them away with your balloon and make them join you. It also makes the numerous tank battle side-ops in the game a complete joke when you can just fulton the tank away without a fight and then take out the oblivious escorts (and fulton them too to boot). Still though, this is a rather minor quibble, as extracting enemies is one of the defining aspects of the game.

The Phantom Pain also contains a very fun buddy system, in which a very useful AI companion will join you in missions and follow commands. This system functions flawlessly and is an unexpectedly great addition. You start off with a horse named D-Horse who helps you traverse terrain easier and who can allow you to shoot while on the move (something that you can’t do while in a jeep or truck, probably so that D-Horse stays useful in the mid-to-late game). However, as you play, you can gain access to a wolf named D-Dog, a supernatural sniper named Quiet and a Gekko-like walker named D-Walker. Taking them on missions increases their bond with Snake and opens up powerful new abilities for them to unleash on enemies. All of them have their uses, but for my money D-Dog is the best – having 100% situational awareness is incredible for someone like me who doesn’t need a lot of help taking down a base silently. However, Quiet is also very good. She’s arguably overpowered, but she’s an incredible asset to have in missions backing you up… and can provide a fantastic distraction if the enemy’s defences are just a little too organized for your liking.

Returning in an expanded form from Ground Zeroes is driveable vehicles. Unfortunately, they’re not all that big a deal on the whole. The jeeps are the most useful of them since they help you traverse the maps far quicker than on foot (which is going to quickly become a problem once you inevitably swap out D-Horse for D-Dog or Quiet). However, the other vehicles are pretty useless for most of the game. The trucks are too slow to use effectively, and you still get spotted when driving them far too easily. The LAVs and tanks are funny to use on an enemy base once or twice, but aside from that they’re practically useless aside from a very small handful of boss battles, but even then they take a ridiculous number of shots to take out most enemies. For example, in one side-op I needed to shoot down a chopper but didn’t want to bring a missile launcher for the task. As a result, I took the heaviest tank to destroy it, but the chopper ended up taking more than 6 shots without an issue before it blew up my tank with its machine gun. Driveable vehicles are definitely a cool addition to the series, but it’s too bad that they’re just not all that useful outside of getting from place to place in less time.

The enemy AI is also definitely the best that the series has ever seen in my opinion. Sons of Liberty‘s AI was relentless when they were on alert, but The Phantom Pain‘s AI feel like geniuses sometimes. They call for help from nearby allies. If they see something suspicious more than a couple times, they’ll call in an alert which will put everyone in the area on edge. They also will warn other outposts of your presence and call in for backup if you reveal yourself. If they spot you, they’re not going to ease up until you neutralize everyone or until nearly a day of in-game time goes by, which is miles ahead of the goldfish-memory enemies we’ve seen in the past. Their vision cones are also fairly reasonable – they’re still rather near-sighted, generally needing to be within about 50-75m to spot you if you’re running, but if it was any closer then that the game would likely be far more frustrating. If anything, they’re far more reasonable than the laughably blind enemies in Portable Ops or Peace Walker. What all this adds up to is enemies who are actually rather thrilling to outwit, while remaining predictable enough that a skilled player will be able to take advantage of their routines as they get better at the game. It also makes me feel kind of bad when I kill enemies, especially when they get so badly wounded that they’re left bleeding out – I end up wondering if they have families back home and why I am killing them. This, of course, incentivizes non-lethal attacks and fulton even more.

It’s also worth noting that there are in-game counters to some of the tools that you will use on the enemy, and vice versa. If you go for a lot of headshots, enemies will soon be wearing helmets. If you use smoke grenades, they’ll wear gas masks. If you use decoys to fool enemies, you might soon find yourself the fool when an enemy decoy psyches out your plan of attack. These counters can make enemy encounters very challenging as a form of emergent gameplay (especially the riot suits that show up late in the game, which are the bane of my existence and make my stealthy playthroughs incredibly challenging). However, they can be countered by your combat units, by sending them out on missions to destroy enemy supplies. Doing so though costs you opportunities to gather resources and GMP, feeding into the game’s infinite strategic possibilities.

The game’s voice acting is good as you should expect from the series. Of particular note, Keifer Sutherland really grew on me and I think he does a really fine job as Snake… the only problem is that he is silent for long stretches of the game. Like, David Hayter’s Snakes would comment on things and reply whenever people talk to him. In this game, Venom Snake is often strangely silent when people are talking to him, with a particularly long jeep ride being the strangest example where it feels like Snake’s lines are completely missing. I’m not sure why Snake is so quiet for most of the game – perhaps Keifer Sutherland was unavailable to rerecord some dialogue, or the game’s constrained development didn’t leave room for some of the dialogue to be inserted, or perhaps it was intentional as a part of the theme of the power of words? Whatever the case, it’s a little awkward and too bad that we didn’t get more of Sutherland’s bad ass Snake performance.

Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering, the game’s graphics are fantastic. I wonder how much they had to downgrade them for PS3 and Xbox 360 in order to make them work on those systems, or whether they compromised the current gen versions to make them work. If nothing else, this game really showcases how fantastic and scaleable the Fox Engine is.

However, for all of its positives, there are some issues with The Phantom Pain‘s gameplay, some nit-picky, some more substantial. On the more minor side, there are some complaints about the opening credits which play at the start of every mission. These wouldn’t be much of an issue, but they do end up being “spoiler-ific” at times when they reveal that Skull Face or a SKULL unit are going to show up at some point when you wouldn’t have known otherwise. Each mission also has a post-missions credit sequence, but at least this can be easily skipped. The credits are obviously a rather minor issue and I quickly just learned to ignore them as I fiddled with my iDroid and reloaded weapons, but it’s hard to argue that the game wouldn’t have been improved somewhat if they had been removed.

Also worth pointing out is the game’s fast travel system. As the game goes on, traversal becomes a major chore and begins to feel like it’s padding out play time. Enemy bases become a pain in the ass to encounter when you’re trying to get somewhere and it becomes obvious that large stretches of the maps are just empty land. Considering the size of the maps, and the limited travel routes available in Afghanistan in particular, a proper fast travel system should have been implemented to cut down on the hours of point-A-to-point-B busywork which is going to pile up. The game does feature a very basic “mailing” system, but it is barely explained in game and is not particularly helpful – basically, there are obscure delivery points across the map. You must get to each of these points and then steal the point’s shipping manifest. This will allow you to be delivered to that location by hiding in a cardboard box at a delivery point when there are no alerts. As you can probably tell, it’s a cumbersome system that still requires a ton of traversal through empty space to even get it working, and even when it is functioning, it delivers you into the heart of enemy bases… not the ideal place to end up as you can probably tell.

Ideally, the game should have just given you the option to ride your helicopter to different landing zones without having to exit the map every time you climb on board. It already does this when you visit Mother Base, why can’t it do the same in the main maps? This would also disincentivize overuse and over-reliance on fast travel, since calling the helicopter costs GMP.

On the more substantial end of the complaints, the open world means that enemy encounters are far less deliberately designed than in previous games. This is an obvious trade-off, offset only by a few missions which take place within confined areas (such as “Code Talker” or “The War Economy”), but it is worth pointing out. On a similar note, the game’s side-ops have been designed to be plugged into around a dozen particular places on each map. This makes these encounters feel more dynamic, but they almost always play out the same way, with troops and targets located in the same areas. Furthermore, the side-ops’ variety is nowhere near the level it was in Peace Walker. If you want to get 100% completion, get ready to grind through the exact same missions over and over again. Each side-op type has more than a dozen extremely slight variations (eg, “Extract the Highly Skilled Soldier 16”), but even the differences between these side-ops are only marginally different from one another. Even more annoying is the fact that the game will continue to spawn completed side-ops on the map. Sure, you can ignore them when you come across them, but if you’re like me then just entering their area of operations is going to make you feel like you have to complete them, if only for the (reduced) GMP reward.

Speaking of repetitiveness, the game’s second chapter is notorious for making you repeat earlier missions under different circumstances. While it’s a little better than Chapter 5 in Peace Walker, this section of the game feels very tacked-on and is almost certainly a product of Konami’s interference on development. Basically, the game requires you to replay most of the harder missions that you beat earlier in the story, but with different conditions for completion. These are Extreme (more punishing difficulty and no reflex mode), Subsistence (start with no equipment and no reflex mode… I found these missions incredibly frustrating) and Total Stealth (an alert phase results in instant game over – this was basically my existing play style so I didn’t mind this too much). I would have preferred if every mission could be replayed voluntarily with these conditions, but as it is it’s clearly padding to try to distract from the fact that most of chapter two’s actual “story missions” are over glorified side-ops.

Also, the mission “Truth: The Man Who Sold the World” is a particularly egregious offender in this regard and bears extra mention. Billed as a proper story mission with an actual impact on the game’s narrative, this mission is little more than a straight replay of the game’s opening mission with only a small change near the beginning and a slightly shorter ending to differentiate it. Other than that, you’re forced to replay the whole opening hour all over again, but this time with full knowledge of what’s going on. This sequence fails for a number of reasons. First of all, knowing exactly what’s happening robs the scene of the impact and horror which it had the first time you play. Secondly, making its completion a requirement to reach the game’s true ending turns it into a slog and highlights just how on rails this whole segment is. Aside from a couple of short moments, there are almost no changes here from the original opening – hell, even the tutorials have been kept in place, making this section feel incredibly contrived. You think that they could have at least cut down most of this sequence or changed more things to keep it from dragging on and becoming incredibly tedious.

Also, many of the game’s “boss battles” are amongst the absolute worst in the entire franchise. The “Cloaked in Silence” missions (both the original and Extreme versions) are very fun and tense, as are the “Sahelanthropus” encounters (again, both the original and Extreme versions). However, all of the boss battles against the SKULLs are infuriatingly awful (with the sole exception of the sniper SKULLs in the standard version of “Code Talker”). The SKULLs are bullet sponges, requiring hundreds of bullets to take down. If you thought that the mechs in Peace Walker were bad, imagine that, but with 4 of them chasing you around. The armoured variety almost impossible to take down if you didn’t happen to bring a Machine Gun or Sniper Rifle with you. I shudder to imagine how awful it would be to try to defeat them non-lethally. There’s basically no strategy involved in defeating them either – just hold down the trigger and try not to get killed as you fight these annoying bastards for upwards of 10 minutes. Even worse, on Extreme missions, they can one-shot you with ease. This absolutely ruins the sniper battle on “Code Talker”, where you can’t even get a shot off without having 3 other SKULLs instantly kill you (the secret here is to call in a tank to shoot them, but this will take 10-15 minutes of incredibly tedious work to pull off, they still take 8 shots to down and they can still blow up the tank if you don’t play uber-conservatively). The armoured SKULLs on “Metallic Archaea” are even more annoying when you factor in a save glitch in the game which can be triggered by taking Quiet into this battle, especially considering that her anti-material rifle is the easiest way to bring these suckers down. I ended up having to take D-Walker and fired off every last one of my mini-gun shots to take down just 2 of the bastards.

So yeah, bottom line: F–K THE SKULLS WITH A RUSTY PIPE.

Finally, we have Konami’s awful microtransactions which have marred the game since release. First of all is the game’s forward operating base (FOB) system. On the one hand, this is actually a pretty cool opportunity for dynamic multiplayer action. However, its implementation sours the water very quickly. For one thing, playing online instantly slows down your menus consistently every time you open your iDroid (which, if you haven’t played before, is constantly). Thankfully you can disconnect in the pause menu, an option which I took advantage of for nearly my entire playthrough.

On top of this is the whole ploy behind FOBs – MB coins. This is Konami’s microtransaction currency which they generously offer to sell you in up to $80 chunks. With MB coins, players can purchase additional FOBs to gather resources for their bases and to buy cosmetic items in Metal Gear Online. Oh, and to buy freaking FOB insurance, a feature which was patched in a month after release. FREAKING FOB INSURANCE. If “FOB Insurance” doesn’t become the new “horse armour” of this console generation then there is truly no justice in the world. Up until recently I dismissed microtransactions in these sorts of games as a silly cost recouping gimmick which I can easily ignore, but I have decided that they really are a distasteful blight. The whole point of microtransactions is that they are meant to fund free-to-play games. However, when full-priced, AAA games try to get in on this action, it’s breaking this financing strategy. Unless they’re going to compensate by giving us something (such as free, worthwhile DLC), then they’re simply fleecing us for more money.

As you can probably tell though, Konami seems to have created many of the biggest issues in The Phantom Pain. The game just feels unfinished on the whole. While cutting features is a necessity in nearly every game’s development, the corporate restructuring of Konami late in development seems to have caused the company’s leadership to give Kojima a firm deadline to release the game and less support to complete his vision. This likely caused Kojima to heavily compromise and ditch a ton of features that he had been planning on including until this time and is likely the source of the split between Kojima and Konami. Since release, fans have discovered a massive amount of planned content was cut, including 3 new (likely smaller) maps, Snake Eater-style guard dogs and even a whole third chapter. It can also be deduced that Chapter 2 was likely heavily stifled by these cuts as well, with the plot thread about Eli stealing Sahelanthropus being dropped entirely, Kaz suddenly going blind and the game’s ending appearing with no narrative explanation whatsoever. Furthermore, the presence of “The Kingdom of the Flies” on the collector’s edition bonus disc suggests to me that this mission is intended to be canon but was not given the proper time to be included. While Konami may have declared that The Phantom Pain‘s development was not affected by the friction between the company and Kojima, I have an extremely hard time believing this, and the unfinished nature of the final product goes a long way to reinforcing these notions.

I’ll be honest though, most of these complaints are massively outweighed by how well The Phantom Pain plays. All-in-all, the game is an absolute joy to play. The freedom that it gives you to approach situations is unparalleled and the toolbox that it gives you to unleash your imagination is expansive. I had worried that the game’s daunting 30+ hour length would make replaying the game an unattractive idea, especially when compared to the much more reasonably-paced games in the franchise. However, as I’m writing this about a month after I finished the game, I’m already getting hankerings to replay it so this fear seems to have been somewhat allayed.

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS

The Phantom Pain has the opposite problem of Guns of the Patriots: the game emphasizes gameplay to such a degree that it becomes detrimental to the story. Furthermore, the friction during development seems to have only made these issues worse in some ways – as I have said, entire storylines are dropped, whereas others are introduced out of nowhere. That’s not to say that The Phantom Pain has a terrible narrative (it’s still far more thought-provoking than most games out there), it’s just far more fractured than we’re used getting from a Metal Gear game. I also believe that the game places more emphasis on themes rather than telling a straightforward narrative which contributes to its murky reception.

Before I dive into the game’s themes, I have to say that the game’s story is incredibly confusing if you don’t listen to the supplementary audio tapes (and, to be honest, it can still be confusing even with the tapes, particularly in regard to the vocal cord parasites). These tapes generally fulfill the roles which exposition dumps would have in previous Metal Gear games, explaining every concept, the setting and characters’ histories. Considering the time that you have to spend getting from place to place, there should be plenty of opportunity to listen to the tapes, and they do a great job of keeping you interested as they convey fascinating insights into Afghan War history or the  I can’t imagine trying to understand the game’s story without the aid of these tapes; it would be a completely different experience.

The tapes also really flesh out many of the characters. Code Talker in particular is a rather unimportant side-character after he cures the parasite outbreak, but when you listen to the dozens of tapes about his research and motivations, he becomes extremely sympathetic. Hell, he might be my favourite character in the game and that comes down entirely to the numerous recordings he has made explaining his life and the tragedies that have befallen him (plus I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the way that he says “DA VOKUL CORD PARASYTES” out of my head).

Also, the secret post-game tapes are crucial to understanding the game and assuage some peoples’ complaints about how Guns of the Patriots revealed that Zero was the force behind the Patriots. These tapes give us our first clear glimpse at Zero’s motivations since his very brief cameo in Portable Ops, and bows out the series with a very sympathetic look at arguably the biggest villain in the whole series. Since Guns of the Patriots, Kojima has seemed to be trying to hammer home the idea that there are no true villains in the Metal Gear saga, only flawed individuals with the noblest intentions. Zero’s characterization fits into this idea very well – in creating Cipher, he is attempting to bring about world unity through information control. Unfortunately, Cipher has become quite unwieldy, necessitating the invention of AIs to control his system without having to worry about figures such as Skull Face overthrowing him. His friendly demeanour towards Big Boss also stands in sharp contrast to Kaz and Big Boss’ own murderous, revenge-fueled motivations.

And speaking of revenge, this is the first theme of the game and the one most clearly foreshadowed by Ground Zeroes. Also worth noting are the game’s frequent allusions to Moby Dick. These not-so-subtle references underscore The Phantom Pain‘s analysis of revenge, since Moby Dick‘s Captain Ahab is famous for allowing his desire for revenge consume and destroy him. Revenge is the driving motivation of nearly every character in the game – Kaz and (to a lesser extent) Venom Snake are both principally concerned with exacting revenge on Skull Face for destroying Mother Base 9 years ago, while also reserving a future desire to get back at Zero. Huey Emmerich seeks his own petty vengeance against Diamond Dogs and Cipher. Quiet is torn over whether she should complete her own mission and get revenge on Venom Snake for her immolation. Skull Face’s evil plan is entirely focused around a ploy to exact revenge on the English language for stealing away his mother tongue and for robbing him of his identity. Colonel Volgin’s desire for revenge is so strong that it turns him into a literal demon. Eli’s thirst for vengeance against Big Boss is so strong that he becomes a conduit for Psycho Mantis. Hell, Code Talker even expounds that the vocal cord parasites are, in essence, exacting revenge for their near extinction by ancient humans. So yeah, as you can see, there’s a shitload of revenge-plots at play in The Phantom Pain.

If that were where the exploration ended, then it would be a rather shallow, well-trodden theme for the game to tackle (although Taken comes to mind as a legitimately good example of the shallow side of revenge fantasy). However, The Phantom Pain is more interested in what revenge does to a person. As a general rule, every character who is motivated by revenge either relents or has it destroy them in the end. Kaz goes from a charismatic, likeable leader to a paranoid, cold-hearted, xenophobic bastard who sees insubordination at every corner and loses his friendship with Big Boss as a result. Huey’s bumbling attempts at revenge alienate him from everyone around him and nearly get him killed, turning him from a well-meaning person into a monstrous villain. Skull Face is defeated only because he underestimates his desire for revenge and loses control of Psycho Mantis, causing his plans to literally come crashing down around him. In “The Kingdom of the Flies”, it is also revealed that Eli is nearly killed when he refuses to stand down in the face of Cipher and Venom Snake, surviving only because of the timely intervention of Psycho Mantis.

On the other end of the scale though, Quiet and Venom Snake’s journeys are far different. Quiet is horrifically disfigured by Venom Snake during the hospital escape and is only saved when Skull Face implants her with parasites to be used as a biological weapon to exact her revenge. She initially goes along with this plan, but at some point her perspective changes. Perhaps because Venom Snake spares her life when he had the chance to kill her, she decides not to carry through with her mission, despite still wrestling with desires for vengeance. It is also implied that she starts to develop some feelings towards Venom Snake in spite of their rocky history. In the end, she sacrifices her own life in order to save his in an ultimate display of forgiveness. It’s a rather beautiful demonstration of the hollowness of revenge, while forgiveness leads to redemption.

Venom Snake on the other hand does not seem to be quite so gung-ho about revenge as Kaz. On the one hand, he does want to seek him out, but he does not seem to get a gleeful satisfaction out of it like Kaz. Furthermore, he also seems to be just as motivated by the evils that Skull Face perpetrates (if not more), rather than just seeking to settle his personal vendetta. He also is demonstrably merciful to people who do him wrong, such as Huey Emmerich, Eli and Quiet (although this is player-determinate, depending on how people play, he might end up being a vicious monster outside of cutscenes). This changes in the game’s ending though, when the truth about Big Boss and Venom Snake is revealed. Venom Snake is portrayed here in his demonic form, suggesting that the truth that Big Boss forcibly stole away his own identity drives him to become evil. The parallels between Venom Snake and Skull Face are so clear here that I’m basically convinced that this is supposed to be the intended interpretation of the ending, and it also helps to explain some of the logical gaps that this twist creates. There’s a fantastic essay that you can read here which goes into greater detail which I would recommend reading.

Also, before I move on to the next theme, I must say that this analysis of revenge retroactively makes Metal Gear Rising even more of a red-headed stepchild of the Metal Gear franchise. That game is basically the definition of the shallow revenge fantasy, which puts it greatly at odds with this game’s message that revenge is a desire which destroys people and can literally turn them into a monstrous figure. I know that Rising is intended to be dumb fun, but this just makes it even more of an inconsistent issue within the series canon.

The second, and perhaps most important, theme in the game is the power of words and language, and their place in the formation of identity. Having done studies in communication, language and colonialism, these themes resonated with me quite a bit and might have actually made this particular aspect of the game even more profound for me. Caliban’s famous lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest came rushing back to me many times due to the game’s themes:

“You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language!” (I.ii.366–368)

The power of language is an extremely under-appreciated force, so it’s heartening to see it highlighted in a video game of all places. As a side note, I think that a major reason why the Planet of the Apes remake sucked so bad was because it underestimated the power of language. By having the humans and apes able to communicate with one another from the outset, the entire idea of humans being a subjugated, inferior species just goes out the window, because if the apes didn’t sympathize with them then the humans would just organize and fight back.

The least-subtle example of the power of words in The Phantom Pain is the vocal cord parasites. When they first showed up in the game, I thought that having seemingly supernatural parasites all of a sudden showing up was a ridiculous plot development on par with the overuse of nanomachines in Guns of the Patriots. The existence of weaponized, supernatural parasites would probably be something that would have been useful in subsequent evil plots, but having something so over the top exist for only one entry strains credulity. While they may still be rather ridiculous in a lot of ways, their inclusion actually makes some sense… if you listen to Code Talker’s cassette tapes, that is.

In essence, Code Talker reveals that mankind evolved in symbiosis with a strain of parasites which initiated vocalizations as a mating call. Over time, the influence of the parasites caused early humans to evolve the ability to produce complex speech patterns without requiring the parasites to do this for them. As a result, humans began to use these vocalizations for their own purposes, meaning that the vocal cord parasites were no longer able to make their mating calls, while a retrovirus transcribed the ability to speak right into man’s genes. I believe I have actually heard parasites cited as a possible explanation for what might have caused humans to gain the power of speech, so there seems to be a precedent for this plot development, and one which ties into the game’s themes quite naturally when you look into it. While it’s a rather blunt way to incorporate this theme and the parasites’ abilities can be rather ridiculous, with the contextualization of the audio tapes I actually warmed up to them somewhat (although the more supernatural parasites have to be one of the biggest credibility stretches in the entire franchise).

The two characters who most clearly exemplify this theme are Code Talker and Skull Face (although there are others who tie in a little more loosely). Code Talker is a Navajo (or Diné) biologist who is terrified that his culture is going to be erased. After centuries of American imperialism, the Diné way of life is at risk of going extinct as his people are forced into residential schools, where their culture and language was systematically and insidiously stripped away from them. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, English’s worldwide dominance has put the very existence of smaller languages at considerable risk. Code Talker watches as his peoples’ language is exploited in World War II as a cipher, while the discovery of uranium deposits in Navajo lands causes many Diné to begin mining it to fuel the Cold War – with deadly consequences. These injustices cause Code Talker to delve into his research of parasites, which Skull Face exploits to become ethnic cleansers under threat of wiping out the Diné if he fails to comply. To Code Talker, language arguably the key factor of his peoples’ identity:

“To erase our words was like erasing our people. Their ‘education’ was tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Over time, the overt persecution of our language stopped. But to this day it continues to be eaten away by the lingua franca that is English. Many of the Diné outside the reservations can speak nothing else. It isn’t just our language. Across the world, minority languages are being destroyed by dominant languages. Many are on the verge of extinction.”

Similarly, Skull Face is a living embodiment of the dehumanizing effects that cultural imperialism can have on a person. As a child, his mother tongue was robbed from him by foreign invaders who forced him to adopt their language. During World War II, he was caught in a factory bombing, stripping him of even more of his identity as his body was covered in horrific burns. As he was passed from nation to nation, Skull Face’s languages were in constant flux and he began to understand the under-appreciated powers of language:

“I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders I was made to speak their language. With each new post, my masters changed, along with the words they made me speak. Words are… peculiar. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong… War changed me – and not only my visage. Words can kill. I was invaded by words, burrowing and breeding inside me.”

In Skull Face’s view, Code Talker’s discovery and development of vocal cord parasites presented him with the perfect vector by which to extract his revenge. Skull Face seems to have a very skewed take on “The Boss’s will”, emphasizing her desire to “let the world be”. However, in order to do so, he believes that the answer is through chaos rather than control. English will have to be eradicated because of the homogenizing threat it poses to cultures the world over, and also conveniently helps him to get back at another target of his vengeance (conversely, Zero’s plan is to use English to unite the world as part of his conflicting interpretation of The Boss’s will).

On the other hand though, Quiet is basically a living counterpoint to this theme. By choosing to remain silent, she cannot construct her identity through speech. Her actions are the only things which “speak” for her, and so people project their own prejudices onto her. Kaz in particular wants her dead when he discovers that her abilities are the same as the SKULLs, whereas Venom Snake and Ocelot are simply cautious, interpreting her actions as an attempt to help them.

It must be said though that this theme links back to Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty really well, since those games are all about “genes” and “memes” – the role of fate and identity in the formation of an individual. I imagine that Kojima intentionally added this little bit of connective tissue to link The Phantom Pain to the subsequent Metal Gear games, although it would have been nice if it had been set up even a little bit in Ground Zeroes.

This brings us to the game’s third main theme, the titular “phantom pain” sensation which manifests itself at various points in the narrative and within the player. The game contains many references to phantom pain, almost all based around Venom Snake. The most overt example is Venom Snake’s amputated arm, which he states actually is experiencing the titular sensation. There are other, more subtle examples throughout the story though. One particularly affecting example is during the mission “Shining Lights, Even in Death”. After being forced to kill many of his comrades to prevent a mutated strain of the vocal cord parasites from being unleashed, Venom Snake finds himself unable to part himself from his fallen comrades, the men who died at his own hands:

“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you; plant your roots in me. I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds…”

Instead of giving them a burial at sea, Venom Snake turns their ashes into diamonds to give his men a visual reminder of the dead. In essence, the soldiers of Diamond Dogs have become an extension of Big Boss himself, and he cannot simply give them a funeral and then move on. To me, this scene seems to represent Snake’s attempts to reclaim a small part of the men who he has lost. The ending can also be seen as a an attempt to show that Venom Snake is going to be swallowed up in the identity of Big Boss when he dies, meaning that no one is going to even know he existed and will just attribute his actions to someone else.

A similar scenario plays out in the secret Paz storyline if you discover a hidden room on the medical platform. Inside this room, Venom Snake discovers Paz who suspiciously survived the seemingly fatal explosion in Ground Zeroes. However, as the player progresses through this storyline, it becomes increasingly clearer that this is not the real Paz, but only a figment of Snake’s imagination – a phantom from the past. At the culmination of this storyline, we come to realize that this is a visualization of Snake trying to come to grips with her death, especially since he only remembers her as the innocent child she had been portraying herself as throughout most of Peace Walker. While it may seem like a bit of a stretch to call this “phantom pain”, you must also remember that Venom Snake is not the real Big Boss, but rather the medic on the chopper who extracted the bomb from her stomach in the first place. He feels so much guilt for failing to save his patient and for indirectly causing the deaths of many of those around him that it penetrates the hypnotically-induced mind wipe that he has undergone to turn him into Big Boss. This guilt is a lingering phantom pain of a life and an identity which has been lost, and is a crack in his otherwise complete facade.

Finally, we come to elements of “phantom pain” which have been injected into the gameplay by Kojima. The most obvious and affecting example is the culmination of Quiet’s storyline. Following “A Quiet Exit”, Quiet is no longer able to be taken as a buddy (until the November 2015 patch, which will allow her to be recruited again when you complete “Cloaked in Silence” 7 times). Considering how useful (and arguably overpowered) she is, this can make some missions much harder and you find yourself missing Quiet constantly. I’d catch myself heading into “Sahelanthropus (Extreme)” and “Code Talker (Extreme)”, two missions where Quiet’s really the best buddy to take, and then catching myself in the thought. It’s a rather sombre moment every time it comes up. For my money, this is easily the most effective use of phantom pain in the game, and one which I encourage players to actually go through with – there are far too many people complaining about this decision, but as an artistic choice I find that it works quite well, even if it stings constantly.

Aside from Quiet’s ending, there are other gameplay and narrative elements which more dubiously tie into the idea of phantom pain. I believe that Kojima himself has said that he intentionally omitted a boss battle with Skull Face because he wanted the player to feel a lack of catharsis for having his defeat snatched away. This disappointment has caused some people to say that Skull Face was an awful villain, although I would have to disagree. He is quite charismatic and imposing and drives the player’s actions forward – we just don’t get to off him ourselves, and that seems to rub some people the wrong way. However, between such intentionally-subversive narrative elements and the clearly unfinished state of the game, it becomes an exercise in futility to try to figure out what was meant to cause “phantom pain” and what wasn’t. Many people have pointed out their dissatisfaction with the game’s ending, especially the lack of conclusion for Eli’s storyline, is just Kojima trolling us through the titular phantom pain. I personally don’t think that this was the intended case though – by digging through the game’s files, the community has found that quite a few elements, including a whole additional chapter, were dropped from the final product. If anything, I believe that Kojima had a conclusion planned, but when he discovered that he wasn’t going to get to implement it, he might have compensated and just decided to leave what they had open to this interpretation while he struggled to get the crucial elements finished in time for launch (such as “Truth: The Man Who Sold the World”, which would explain why this mission/revelation suddenly happens with no narrative explanation to kick it off – I imagine that it would have been precipitated by some event in Chapter 3 that never came about).

Moving on to some character notes, you just know that I have to speak about Quiet. Way back when she was first revealed I had some choice words about her character design, but I did refrain from jumping to conclusions since it sounded like Kojima had some sort of good justification for it. However, as you are probably aware, the justification is a ridiculously paper-thin excuse to make Quiet be as close to naked as possible, as often as possible (in short, she breathes through her skin so she can’t wear clothes or she’ll suffocate!). Making it worse, basically every time she’s on screen, Kojima subjects Quiet to a really perverted camera which focuses all its attention on her tits and ass as she waves her ass your face or her tits jiggle like a plate of Jell-o. It’s fan service at the very lowest of the lowest common denominator, and it just makes me embarrassed whenever she appears on screen… and that’s too bad, because she really is a cool character. She is a fantastic buddy to take on missions and you actually start to develop a legitimate bond with her as she saves your ass for the hundredth time or when she endearingly plays in the rain with a hesitant Snake (a rather cute and otherwise innocent scene which the camera tries its best to turn into a porno). The end of her storyline is also very poignant and I found myself very affected by her sacrifice. It’s just… that character design. Holy shit does it ever make it difficult to take her seriously in any way.

Having played through the game, I do think I understand the actual logic behind her design, but it’s not a pretty explanation. Since we know that Quiet will heroically sacrifice herself for Venom Snake, and that the player is intended to build a strong bond with her so that this sacrifice and its subsequent lingering pain will resonate, it is obvious that Kojima wanted to ensure that players would really like Quiet. However, instead of trusting in strong characterization and useful action, I believe that he decided to piss all over subtlety and took the most juvenile, lowest common denominator approach and just made sure that the player would lust like hell after her to form an attachment. I mean, in a sense it does kind of work, Stephanie Joosten is an undeniably gorgeous woman after all… but c’mon. It’s off-putting and kind of insulting to the player’s intelligence, and it becomes nearly impossible to take her character seriously due to her awful design.

Personally, I far preferred Quiet’s XOF Uniform once I unlocked it. While its existence instantly throws the “she’ll suffocate!!!” explanation into the wind, it simply is so much more sensible than her default outfit that it’s not even funny. It actually looks like a uniform that a soldier would wear and just fits her character so much better. I was actually worried that it might look a little too bland at first, but after a couple missions it had really grown on me and it made me lament her default costume even more (although now I could actually play the game when there were others around, so bonus). Hell, this might sound odd, but I wasn’t bothered at all by the cleavage-bearing Sniper Wolf costume that you can unlock by beating “Cloaked in Silence (Extreme)”. I’m not even sure exactly why either… Does her default outfit make Sniper Wolf look tasteful by comparison? Or perhaps I appreciate it when even a touch of subtlety is employed rather than pornographic fan service? Or maybe Sniper Wolf just has a better character design in general, striking a nice balance between a serious uniform a soldier might wear, while making it just cheesy enough that it has a sort of comic book sense of style? I’m not really sure, but I imagine the answer is somewhere between all three of these suggestions.**

Huey Emmerich also deserves a special mention for his role in The Phantom Pain. While there were some subtle hints in Ground Zeroes that he was responsible for the attack on Mother Base, it is not until The Phantom Pain that Huey is turned into a full-blown monster. This is a jarring change from his status in Peace Walker to say the least. On the one hand, I really did not like how his relationship with Big Boss paralleled Solid Snake’s relationship with Otacon so closely in Peace Walker, as it began to strain credulity (and before someone points it out, I don’t care if Metal Gear‘s a ridiculous series; there’s a difference between elements of magical realism and in having two generations of characters meeting up under the same circumstances out of sheer coincidence with absolutely no guiding force bringing this about). With that in mind, I significantly prefer Huey’s portrayal here as a lying, cowardly, spiteful individual as it allows him to create his own unique mark on the franchise’s story, but the justification for it is almost non-existent. The only real hints at these developments in Peace Walker that I could find are that he seems to blame his father’s genes for every misfortune that befalls him (showing a lack of responsibility) and that he believes wholeheartedly in deterrence (peace through force of arms), but even these traits are subverted through other actions that Huey makes throughout that game’s story (he feels strong remorse for his development of Peace Walker and doesn’t actually want to see any nuclear weapons be used, respectively).

With Peace Walker taken into consideration, Huey’s portrayal is problematic for a number of reasons, which is especially odd since The Phantom Pain is supposed to be a direct sequel to that game. The explanation for Huey’s complete change of character is left conspicuously ambiguous, which makes it difficult to understand some of the evil things he does. At least in Kaz’s case, losing Mother Base and his arm and leg are enough to understand if the guy goes over the edge. The only way I can rationalize this turn is to assume that, when Huey joined MSF, he believed that he would no longer be exploited to create machines of war. However, after Kaz acquired the nuke from Peace Walker and equipped it to Metal Gear ZEKE, Huey slowly realized that he was being used once again. As a result, he collaborated with XOF forces to bring down MSF, although this ended up being more deadly than he had expected. As a result, he is captured by Skull Face and forced to work on Sahelanthropus, pushing Huey over the edge and causing him to become a paranoid, distrustful coward who assumes that everyone is trying to exploit his talents for their own gains (which, when considering the threats and torture he endures, and that Diamond Dogs force him to work on D-Walker and Battle Gear, might not be too much of a stretch to imagine). Perhaps most difficult to justify though is his cold-blooded murder of Strangelove, who he was clearly head-over-heels in love with in Peace Walker. Obviously these feelings could have cooled somewhat in the time after she gave birth to his son, especially since (as she elaborates in her dying confessions) she did not reciprocate any love for him and simply used him as a willing sperm donor. In any case though, locking her in an AI pod to suffocate seems like a major overreaction to the fact that she secretly sent their son away to keep him from being used as a test pilot for Sahelanthropus. The only thing I can possibly infer here is that the choice of “murder weapon” is interesting – it is never directly stated, or even really implied, but perhaps Huey realized that she loved The Boss and not him, and so he left her to die with her symbolic lover in the Mammal Pod. It’s too bad that there’s not more justification given for Huey’s actions though. I think my speculations are sufficient to explain his actions, but they’re little more than my own personal theories filling in some rather large narrative gaps, since the game doesn’t deign itself to even bother giving an explanation.

Moving on to a few other notes about the story, I think I personally would have preferred a more “retro” style design for Sahelanthropus. As it is, it’s clearly the most powerful Metal Gear ever built, despite being smack dab in the middle of the series continuity and clearly intended to be the basis for Metal Gear REX. It’s the usual sort of irritating technological inconsistency that springs up in prequels all the time, like how the galaxy of The Phantom Menace is so much more technologically developed than that of A New Hope. The iDroid is a similar sort of anachronism, but at least in its case it is a rather minor issue which can be ignored, and it’s not like there’s a progression of iDroids in the series, with this one suddenly being the most advanced despite being in the middle of the continuity.

Also worth noting is that The Phantom Pain ditches most of the series’ signature instances of silly humour. While we get the glorious “Hamburgers of Kazuhira Miller” cassette tapes and a few humourous weapons and items (such as the surprisingly useful Water Pistol or the amazing Decoys), the game’s story is a very straight-faced affair… even when it is introducing parasites which coat the skin in carapace or when there’s a bikini-clad sniper shooting jets from the sky with her rifle. Obviously the series’ stranger elements clash with this tonal shift quite a bit, although the quirky elements remains charming enough that it still manages to hold together. The serious tone makes some of the nastier moments in the game resonate quite well, particularly “Shining Lights, Even in Death”… but considering that there are still so many over the top plot elements in place, it can still be difficult for some people to accept the narrative dissonance on display.

As for the game’s narrative on the whole, it basically boils down to filling in a few of the blanks in the series continuity. In very general terms, The Phantom Pain tells the story of why Zero puts his faith in AIs to create the Patriots network, why Kaz turns on Big Boss by the time Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake rolls around, where Big Boss acquired his “legendary mercenary” reputation and how Big Boss managed to create two military nations and “survive” being “killed” by Solid Snake in Metal Gear. Contrary to the marketing and popular belief, The Phantom Pain is NOT about Big Boss’ descent into villainy – it should have been pretty clear in Guns of the Patriots that Big Boss was never a straight up mega-maniacal monster. All of his “villainous” actions in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake were insurrections against the Patriots. Yes, he did some shady shit to get there, but his intentions were always understandable.

As for the game’s controversial ending, I’m a bit torn. First of all, having to replay the entire opening again dampened by enthusiasm for it significantly. Secondly, I think that the big reveal made for a pretty clever twist, not quite on par with the Raiden switcheroo, but close. However, the twist leaves far more questions than answers in the end and muddies the chronology significantly between this game and Metal Gear since there’s little info given for why the Big Bosses would turn on one another (although the essay I linked to in the revenge segment is, I would argue, a strong contender for the intended interpretation). It is also problematic since Big Boss clearly doesn’t want you to succeed in Metal Gear, so we’re left with two options. Either Big Boss was putting on an act in Metal Gear and wanted Solid Snake to actually kill Venom Snake for him, or Big Boss and Venom Snake were still working together and they really didn’t expect Solid Snake to get as far as he did. Neither option is airtight, although I think that the betrayal idea fits best with the overarching series storyline.

I’ve gone through almost 5500 words now delving into themes and character analyses in some detail without really getting to the heart of my feelings on The Phantom Pain‘s story… which will honestly take a small fraction of the time and space. Ultimately, the narrative of The Phantom Pain leaves a lot to be desired, being one of the weakest entries in the entire series in this regard. Perhaps it is because of the open world structure, or because the game is so clearly unfinished, but the events don’t really cohere particularly well in the end. There are definitely standout moments within the story, but on the whole, most of the missions don’t seem to be building up towards anything and simply feel like busywork. The lack of payoff in the end hurts matters even more, because why should we give a shit about all the stuff with Eli if he just pisses off into the sunset with Sahelanthropus and is never heard from again (outside of the collector’s edition DVD of course)? Then there’s the rather ridiculous elements revolving around the parasite soldiers which, again, remind me a bit too much of The Phantom Menace.

That said though, if you can untangle the twist and throw in “The Kingdom of the Flies” then The Phantom Pain acts as a pretty great mid-point for the franchise’s narrative. The pieces are set for all of big showdowns which will occur from here on out as the relationships between Ocelot, Big Boss, Venom Snake, Kaz, Liquid Snake, Solid Snake and the Patriots all begin to simmer towards a boiling point. As a middle chapter, that’s probably a good place to get the series to, but it’s just too bad that it had to be so messy on the way.

All-in-all though, simply due to its stellar gameplay Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain could easily be considered the best Metal Gear game. Its gameplay is incredibly fun and ambitious. However, while its themes are very interesting (if not particularly deep or subtle at times), its actual narrative leaves quite a bit to be desired, putting it well behind Snake Eater in that regard. It will be interesting to see how the reception for The Phantom Pain evolves over the years and whether it cools off or becomes stronger as people get over the initial sting of missing content and the twist. If Konami releases new story DLC, then this could also have a major bearing on the game, since “The Kingdom of the Flies” alone would make the game feel significantly more complete. As it is, it’s an amazing game, but one can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like if Kojima had gotten the opportunity to get it into a reasonably finished state…

9.5/10

*Much to Ground Zeroes‘ detriment, I might add. It would be awesome if they could retroactively unlock the gadgets and options from The Phantom Pain in Ground Zeroes to shake up that game somewhat and make it a little more open. As it is, Ground Zeroes is going to feel incredibly limiting now that we have seen what The Phantom Pain has to offer. As an interesting note, prior to release, Kojima had said that he’d allow us to explore Camp Omega again in The Phantom Pain, but this feature ended up being cut… surely due to the strained development period and time constraints.
**Also worth pointing out is one of the excuses given for Quiet’s attire: “well EVA was wearing even less during Snake Eater and no one gave a shit!” This is a very weak argument on many levels. For one thing, I have always found EVA’s costume to be ridiculous as well, but at least in her case she’s actually trying to be seductive and the game is trying to recall cheesy 60s spy flicks so it has some narrative justification. Secondly, when the game was first released on the PS2 in 2004, game journalism was far less developed than it is now. Back then, it mainly consisted of previews and reviews, with maybe some interviews and commentary. However, in the current climate, video games are taken far more seriously, so commentary on the content of a game is far more common and, in all honesty, this is a very good development. Even then, I doubt games journalists of today would bat an eye at EVA’s attire, but I can fully understand the hullabaloo that Quiet has caused.

Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid V – Ground Zeroes (2014)

Welcome back to the Metal Gear retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the 10th game in the franchise, 2014’s prologue, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes! I actually wrote a review for this game back when it first came out, but in… er… retrospect it was more of a justification for the game’s length rather than a real review. As a result, I’m going to make sure to cover more info on the game itself. How does it hold up now that the price has dropped significantly and with the game being given out for free on a couple different occasions now? Read on to find out…

(For the sake of this review, I used the PS4 version as my benchmark. I can’t comment on the PS3/Xbox 360 versions.)

DEVELOPMENT
Even prior to the release of Peace Walker, Kojima teased the idea of Metal Gear Solid V. His team was busy developing a new game engine which would become known as the Fox Engine. The freedom of the Fox Engine would allow for a fully open world Metal Gear game, a notion which Kojima had been attempting to achieve since Snake Eater. With work on the Fox Engine wrapping up and the next generation of consoles approaching, the decision was made to make Ground Zeroes a cross-generational game.

Prior to the game’s official announcement, Kojima went on record saying that his next game would deal with delicate, even taboo, issues which might not make the final cut in the game or which might be so shocking as to negatively impact the game’s sales. Ground Zeroes was finally revealed in the summer of 2012 through a Japanese trailer which consisted of the game’s opening cutscene. This was also the venue where Kojima announced that the game would be running within an open world setting, emphasizing player freedom to approach their objectives. It would also be available on a very wide release, with the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC all being able to play the game.

Some confusion began to grow as the game’s development continued. A trailer for a game called The Phantom Pain by “Moby Dick Studios” was quickly deciphered to be another Metal Gear game in simultaneous development. After some speculation, it was officially announced that The Phantom Pain was a part of Metal Gear Solid V, causing people to believe that this game and Ground Zeroes were going to be a single game. However, it was later clarified that they would be 2 separate games, with Ground Zeroes serving as a smaller prologue.

The game then began to encounter some major controversy. The long-time English voice actor for the Solid Snake and Big Boss, David Hayter, was replaced by Kiefer Sutherland. Fans bristled at this revelation and threatened to boycott the game, to no avail. Fans also complained about the game’s addition of “reflex mode”, which allows for a chance to eliminate guards after being spotted without setting off an alert, and a fast-regenerating health mechanic, both of which were seen as making Metal Gear too “casual”.

During the game’s initial release, the PlayStation versions received the “Déjà Vu” mission as a console-exclusive mission, whereas Xbox versions received the “Jamais Vu” mission. These two missions were timed console exclusives, which were unlocked for free for both consoles a few weeks after release. Naturally, the announcement about console-specific missions riled up some fans as well.

Probably the biggest source of controversy around the game though arose from Game Informer‘s Metal Gear Solid V cover story. In their commentary, they stated that the game was comparable to the Sons of Liberty demo, but paid for separately. Furthermore, they commented that they had completed the main mission in 2 hours, but some testers had run it in only 5 minutes. These comments caused fans to react extremely negatively, with people claiming that Konami expected them to drop $30-$40 for a demo with only 5 minutes of gameplay. These complaints were fresh in the public’s minds when the game finally released in March of 2014 (although the PC version would not be released until December).

PLOT SUMMARY
In the aftermath of Peace Walker, the UN has requested to inspect Mother Base for the presence of any nuclear materials. MSF initially turned the request down, but Huey took it upon himself to reverse the decision to try to make MSF appear to be a beacon of peace. As a result, Big Boss and Kaz prepare for the inspection by hiding ZEKE and their nuclear warhead, and evacuating civilians and heavy equipment offshore.

However, as they prepare for the inspection, Miller discovers that Paz survived her encounter with Big Boss. She has been captured by Cipher for interrogation and is now stationed in Camp Omega in Cuba. Hoping to rescue her, Chico sneaks into the enemy base, but is captured in the attempt. The Intel team attempts to discover Chico’s location, but after some time a cassette tape is received which contains a distress call from Chico. Big Boss and Miller suspect that the request is a trap, but with the inspection bearing down on them and the sensitive knowledge held by Chico and Paz, they have no choice but to attempt a rescue.

As Big Boss infiltrates into Camp Omega, Skullface, the leader of the Cipher special forces unit XOF, departs by helicopter and then heads out to sea to perform the UN “inspection”. Big Boss witnesses the helicopter convoy heading out and then moves to retrieve the prisoners. Making his way through the base, Big Boss locates Chico and then takes him to the shoreline for extraction via helicopter. Chico laments that Paz is already dead, giving Big Boss a cassette tape of her being tortured. Undeterred, Big Boss heads back into Camp Omega to locate Paz. He finds her in the basement of the Admin building, chained up in the boiler room. He sneaks her back out to the extraction site and then heads back towards Mother Base with the two rescued prisoners. However, on the way back, Chico discovers that Paz’s gut has been stitched up. Big Boss realizes that she has been rigged with a bomb and orders a medic to come inspect her. After a painful surgery without anesthetic, the bomb is extracted and thrown into the ocean.

Contact is soon lost with Mother Base though. When they arrive, they see that the base is on fire and that many of the struts have collapsed. The helicopter lands on one intact strut, which allows Big Boss to save Miller and a couple other soldiers before evacuating. Miller blames Paz for the destruction of MSF, but she stands up and reveals that there is a second bomb before jumping out of the helicopter and exploding. Despite her sacrifice, the blast radius knocks the helicopter out of control and sends it careening into the path of an XOF helicopter, causing the two aircraft to crash and putting Big Boss into a coma…

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
First off, I have to say that in a lot of ways it is fair to call Ground Zeroes a paid-demo, as it really is a stripped-down tech demonstration for the game’s main act. That said, it does have quite a bit of content to experience which helps to justify its stand-alone price point. For one thing, there are 7 different missions in this game which can all be replayed and experienced in a number of different ways. The main “Ground Zeroes” mission alone should easily take up 1.5 to 2 hours to beat on a first playthrough. In addition, unlike many open world games, all of the side-ops are well worth trying out. They all have their own interesting little stories and fairly unique objectives which make them both fun and challenging. For my own part, I have probably sunk at least 8+ hours into this game.

Of course, the “Ground Zeroes” mission is where most of the gameplay lies, and it is thankfully very fun. It is reasonably lengthy and offers a ton of player freedom. While you’re supposed to rescue Chico first, you can actually choose to go for the more difficult approach and rescue Paz first, which adds a whole new angle of challenge and difficulty to the mission. The other side-ops change up the gameplay quite a bit, tasking you with eliminating targets, retrieving intel or even killing body-snatchers.

In terms of mechanics, Ground Zeroes plays similarly to Guns of the Patriots in many ways. The radar and all associated systems have been completely eliminated, meaning that reconnaissance and situational awareness are now crucial to stealthy gameplay. The controversial reflex mode is a major boon in this department – with most of your aids now excised, having that last ditch effort to land a headshot is extremely helpful, without feeling absolutely broken either. Of course, if you’re just too damn “hardcore” for this pansy-ass bullshit, then you can just turn it off. And then eat some nails, presumably.

If you do get stuck in a straight-up gunfight, Ground Zeroes‘ combat is extremely refined. Gunplay is very fun and smooth, not featuring any of the stuttering which was common in Guns of the Patriots. Enemies’ animations when they get hit are notable for how surprisingly good they are, with shots to various parts of the body staggering them in that direction. CQC has also seen another makeover, with standard combat chains actually being a viable option, rather than having to rely on chokeholds and hold-ups to get anything done. You can also steal enemy vehicles, such as a jeep, truck or LAV (which has always proven extremely useful to me when extracting Paz).

Despite the game’s philosophy of providing player freedom, there are some annoying design decisions which go against this idea. Probably most importantly, the lack of ability to customize your loadout is a major problem which hurts replayability. Sure, you get some bonus weapons at the start of the mission when you replay it, but they’re very limited in variety. There’s also just a lack of meaningful weapon variety in general, with nearly everything being procure-on-site. The game also locks its 2 bonus side-ops, “Déjà Vu” and “Jamais Vu”, behind a collectible hunt. This is rather annoying because this locks off a good 30+ minutes of content (for just a single playthrough) which most players aren’t going to bother to unlock. It also doesn’t hurt that “Jamais Vu” is arguably the funnest side-op in the whole game.

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS
Like most Metal Gear games, Ground Zeroes opens up with a very impressive cutscene which shows off a Alfonso Cuarón-style continuous tracking shot which shows the player around Camp Omega. Here we are introduced to all of the key players, including the enigmatic villain of the game, Skull Face. Most of the story is told in a rather simple, straightforward manner, but the story itself is fairly compelling. A lot of supplementary information related to backstory is sectioned off in the game’s optional and collectible cassette tapes (including all of Paz’s secret tapes from Peace Walker). While it will take you over an hour to listen to all of the tapes, I would definitely recommend that you do so, as they fill out the whole political situation surrounding the game’s story very well, lend it additional gravitas and show the various characters’ motivations. The interrogation cassettes are also rather important as they flesh out Skull Face’s character, especially considering that he is basically a shadowy figure off-screen for the whole game.

Of course, there is one very lengthy and difficult-to-listen-to cassette tape which details the torture inflicted upon Chico and Paz, which features Paz being gang raped by the soldiers, having Chico be forced to rape Paz (with Skull Face twisting it into a sick reward for the boy, who you must remember had a crush on her) and having Skull Face be heavily implied to insert a bomb into Paz’s vagina. The amount of suffering that she endures is unimaginably awful, and the fact that this sequence is an unlockable “reward” caused a fairly big controversy. Claims that depictions of sexual violence were being used as a “reward” for the player were rather overblown, as I’m sure that most players will concede that these are hardly a “reward” at all, but rather plot explanation. You could definitely argue about the necessity of such depictions, but this was one controversial aspect of the game which I think was overblown from people who didn’t actually play the game.

It’s also worth realizing that all of the torture inflicted on Paz ties into this game’s main theme, which revolves around the ethically bankrupt actions carried out by governments. Camp Omega is clearly intended to be a representation of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and the tortures inflicted on the characters are meant to be a commentary on the moral shadiness of American anti-terrorism methods. The game compounds this idea with its theme song, “Here’s to You” (which was previously used in Guns of the Patriots‘ closing credits). The song is about a pair of anarchists who were executed by the American government in the 1920s, who are believed to have been executed for their political beliefs rather than any actual actions the pair might have committed. The song plays at a few key moments throughout the game, particularly during the opening and when Paz is being tortured by Skull Face.

With these themes in mind, I don’t believe that this game is truly about Big Boss, as it may seem to be at first glance. In my opinion, this game is all about Paz. She is the one invoked by “Here’s to You”, the martyr who is killed by the government, and the only character who has a real arc in the game. In her own audio tapes at the end of Peace Walker she reveals a conflicted desire to turn on Cipher and live as a true student of peace, but those dreams were lost. She also revealed a dislike of Chico, but when the two of them are being tortured she seems to warm up to him a lot. She even comforts him throughout their torture, even when he is forced to rape her and even though she is receiving the brunt of their depravity. She also refuses to break throughout the interrogations until Skull Face presents her with an offer – Big Boss’s life for Zero’s location. Betrayed by her own organization and perhaps looking to redeem herself for her previous actions, Paz sacrifices her own life to help ensure Big Boss’s survival. This is further demonstrated by her willingness to throw herself out of the helicopter at the end when she realizes that they didn’t find the second bomb planted on her. All of the suffering she is inflicted with makes Paz seem like something of a Christ-figure in this game. It’s easy to miss all of these plot points though if you don’t dive into the game’s audio tapes. Without them, this is a simple story about how Big Boss rescues a couple of targets. With them, this is a story about Paz’s struggles, her choices, her strength in the face of evil, and her defiance until the end.

Ground Zeroes suffers a bit as a prologue though. If the purpose of a prologue is to set up the events which unfold in the greater story, then Ground Zeroes is rather inadequate. Judged from this game alone, you’d think that The Phantom Pain would be primarily concerned with the dark side of nationalism/government control, but those plot points are never raised again. The only way that the two are really connected in a meaningful way is that it sets up Big Boss’s desire for revenge, but if you want a really tight narrative (especially in a two-part release) then you should at least try to work in the other themes in the game, rather than just the simple motivations. This is, of course, not entirely this game’s fault, but it is a strange point which makes some of the more fantastical elements of The Phantom Pain more awkward, especially after the extreme seriousness of Ground Zeroes.

All-in-all, Ground Zeroes is a very fun, but limited game. Questions of the length and value of the game persist long after its release. It is definitely a fun experience, but it really does feel like a rather large demo when all is said and done. Luckily, it is also quite cheap to acquire these days, making questions of value less of a deal-breaker for more people. For my own part, I’d recommend checking it out before jumping on board with The Phantom Pain, but be sure to experience the main story and the side-ops for maximum enjoyment.

7.5/10

Retrospective: Metal Gear Rising – Revengeance (2013)

Welcome back to the Metal Gear retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be covering the ninth game in the franchise, 2013’s Raiden-based spin-off Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance! After a troubled development cycle and some major fan backlash, would this game manage to prove itself worthy of the Metal Gear name? Read on to find out…

DEVELOPMENT
The original version of the game which would eventually become Metal Gear Rising: RevengeanceMetal Gear Solid: Rising, was announced in 2009 at Microsoft’s E3 press conference. After the praise Raiden had received for his portrayal in Guns of the Patriots, there was a strong fan demand for another game in the franchise with him in the lead role. Kojima actually wanted a game with Gray Fox, but staff and fans pushed him to focus on Raiden instead. The game was intended to bridge the gap between Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots, explaining how Raiden became a cyborg ninja, how he rescued Sunny from The Patriots and how he retrieved the body of Big Boss. A trailer was released the next year featuring Raiden absorbing robotic enemies’ power cells and with a gratuitous amount of watermelon-cutting. According to the development team, the game would allow fast-paced action while remaining a stealth game at the core, with the ability to “cut anything”.

However, the game was quickly finding itself running into trouble as it was simply not working well as a stealth-action hybrid. To put it simply, it wasn’t working at all and by 2011 Kojima pulled the plug on the game, but not before concept work on the bosses and script was completed. The project was then handed over to Platinum Games, of Bayonetta fame. Considering their previous history with fast-paced action games, this was a fantastic move. However, fan reaction was very negative, as the shift from stealth to pure action was seen as betraying the series’ roots. To these fans, the shift in direction had effectively “ruined” a game that they hadn’t played.

Under Platinum Games, the game was retitled, reworked into more of a pure action game and set post-Guns of the Patriots. Stealth was essentially removed except for optional instant stealth-kills and some cutting-based environmental kills that the player can pull off. Platinum Games also upped the game’s framerate to 60 fps, a request that Kojima himself asked for as Rising was originally going to be only 30 fps. It was also revealed that the cutscenes, settings and story were written by Kojima Productions, while Platinum Games focused on the gameplay.

A year after the game’s initial release, the game was ported to PC, the first game in the franchise to receive a PC release since Metal Gear Solid: Integral back in 2000. All subsequent Metal Gear games would receive PC ports as well.

PLOT SUMMARY
4 years after the destruction of The Patriots, the world has fallen into an uneasy state where peace is extremely fragile and the last gasps of the War Economy continue. The remaining PMCs have taken on cyborg soldiers. Looking to support his family, Raiden joins up with Maverick Security Consulting Inc as a private security contractor. He is on assignment providing security for the peace-loving Prime Minister N’mani (of some unnamed African nation) when their convoy is suddenly ambushed by a cyborg PMC. Raiden’s boss, Boris, orders Maverick Security to evacuate N’mani while Raiden dispatches many of the attackers. However, a Metal Gear RAY unit, armed with a gigantic sword, appears and destroys N’mani’s limo. N’mani crawls from the wreckage, but is kidnapped by the enemy PMC’s leader, Sundowner. He explains that he needs N’mani dead and that he wishes to restore the War Economy. Raiden destroys the RAY unit and then pursues Sundowner onto a passing train.

Raiden tracks down Sundowner, N’mani and another enemy cyborg, Sam Rodrigues. Sundowner executes N’mani and then Sam attacks Raiden. Sam proves too capable, slicing off Raiden’s arm and then slashing out his left eye. Sam nearly finishes Raiden off, but backup arrives in the form of Boris and a convoy of armed jeeps, which force Sam to retreat. Raiden is recovered and it is discovered that the enemy PMC is called “Desperado Enforcement LLC”.

Three weeks later, it is discovered that Desperado is involved in a coup against the Abkhazian government led by a local extremist, Andrey Dolzaev. Outfitted with a state-of-the-art cyborg body, Raiden infiltrates into the city of Sukhumi and then fights his way through Desperado cyborg troops to reach Dolzaev and the local Desperado leader, Mistral. He is eventually ambushed by an AI-controlled robot called LQ-84i (aka, Blade Wolf) which resembles Crying Wolf’s exosuit. Blade Wolf attempts to kill Raiden as per its mission directives, but Raiden defeats the robot and shuts it down.

Soon after, he spots Dolzaev and Mistral at a factory. Mistral spots Raiden and blows him a kiss from a distance. Unperturbed, Raiden battles his way through the facility and reaches the top of the plant, where he is confronted by Mistral. She explains that she was an orphan and a child soldier in the Algerian Civil War, and had used war as an excuse to get revenge on those who killed her parents and as a cause to kill. She scoffs at the idea that Raiden fights for justice and then attacks. The pair fight all across the facility before Raiden corners Mistral at a tank of liquid nitrogen. He severs the tank and then freezes her solid before destroying her for good. Dolzeav discovers that Mistral is dead and then blows himself up, taking out a chunk of the factory in the process. Satisfied that the coup is over, Raiden is extracted from Sukhumi. Before leaving, he recovers Blade Wolf’s remains and has him rebuilt and reprogrammed to provide him with mission intel.

Maverick then receives intel that Desperado owns a research lab in Mexico and are connected to rumours of human trafficking. Raiden sneaks into the city along with Blade Wolf and then heads into the sewers to get closer to the lab. After fighting enemy units in the sewers, Raiden encounters a boy named George who claims to have escaped the lab. He tells Raiden that the kidnapped children in the lab were having their organs harvested. Raiden hurries into the lab to rescue the children. Heading further into the lab, Raiden finds a room which is full of cyborg brain casings – the cyborgs Raiden had been fighting this entire time were adults, meaning that the children must have been taken elsewhere.

He then uses a reprogrammed Dwarf Gekko to access the lab’s data terminals, where he discovers a video of Sundowner, the lab chief and another man speaking. They comment on a VR training program similar to the one that George Sears (aka, Solidus Snake) used to train child soldiers in Liberia. Fearing that their cover was blown, the unknown man says that all of the harvested, unprocessed brains and kidnapped children need to be destroyed and the lab shut down immediately, regardless of the cost. Maverick support team member informs Raiden that the unknown man is Colorado Senator Steven Armstrong, a leading presidential candidate for the 2020 elections, and a key member of World Marshal Inc, the world’s current largest PMC. With World Marshal and Desperado working together, trying to go public with the news of their corruption is apparently impossible, as they wield too much influence over the media and would destroy them if they tried.

Raiden then fights his way to get to the surviving children. He finds them locked in a lab as the chief scientist tries to gas them to death. The scientist holds George hostage and tells Raiden that he has to surrender. Calling his rather stupid bluff, Raiden cuts the man down and then rescues both George and the children.

Deciding to take the fight to World Marshal personally, Raiden resigns from Maverick Security and then heads to Colorado to rescue the remaining harvested brains. Boris contacts Raiden and says that he can’t offer his official support for this mission, but agrees to help however he can. Raiden is then pursued through the city by the cyborgs of the Denver police, which he dispatches as he heads towards World Marshal headquarters. On the way there, Raiden is confronted by holographic projections of Sam Rodrigues, who questions Raiden’s motivations. Raiden claims that he fights to defend the weak, but Sam asks who defends the weak from Raiden. He reveals that the cyborgs attacking Raiden are merely doing so to provide for their families, just as Raiden does. Raiden is then forced to fight a pair of cyborgs while listening to their thoughts, and kills them after taking a beating. With his psyche draining, Raiden kills more cyborgs while being confronted with their own humanity, before Sam appears in the flesh, accompanied by another Desperado officer, Monsoon. Monsoon explains that the “weak” cyborgs are used as human shields for the real powers behind World Marshal and Desperado. He also explains that war is like a meme, similar to Raiden’s belief that his sword is a tool of justice. Flying into a rage as he succumbs to bloodlust, Raiden unleashes his split persona, “Jack the Ripper”. In a flurry of violence, Raiden destroys a series of cyborgs and then is confronted by Monsoon. The pair battle, with Monsoon using trickery and the ability to “magnetically” split his body to avoid many of Raiden’s attacks. However, Raiden eventually severs Monsoon’s head and destroys him for good.

Raiden makes his way into World Marshal HQ, where Sundowner informs Raiden that the brains are in the server room. He then fights his way up the building to reach the upper levels, battling through corridors, a Japanese garden and the elevator shafts before reaching the top floor. Here, he encounters AI body doubles of Mistral and Monsoon, both of which he defeats with ease. He then moves on to the server room where he confronts Sundowner, who shows Raiden the hundreds of child soldier brains in World Marshal HQ undergoing VR training. He also warns that in 3 hours time, an event would occur that would rival 9/11 and would resurrect the War Economy.

Not wishing to “damage the merchandise”, Sundowner leads Raiden to the rooftop heliport to battle. Sundowner battles very defensively, but Raiden cuts through his defences before putting the leader of Desperado down for good. Deducing Sundowner’s words about a terrorist attack on par with 9/11, Raiden realizes that World Marshal is planning to assassinate the US President, who is travelling to Pakistan for a series of peace talks. His assassination would reignite the War on Terror and War Economy in the process. They realize that the only way to get to Pakistan in time would be to reach Mach 23 speeds via an RLV spacecraft, which could get Raiden to Pakistan in under a half hour. Raiden commands Boris to see to this and seek help from the Solis company while Raiden and his support team member, Doktor, retrieved the brains from World Marshall HQ.

After picking up the brains via helicopter, Raiden and Doktor are beset by a pair of drones. Raiden destroys them but falls from the helicopter in the process, forcing him to make his way to Solis by ground. He destroys a group of World Marshal cyborgs and then escapes the city on a motorcycle. However, just as he is about to reach Solis, Raiden encounters Sam Rodrigues and Blade Wolf on the road. Sam demands a final duel with his rival and the pair battle. Blade Wolf is confused by the purpose of the fight and is unable to understand why Sam and Raiden want to kill each other so badly. Regardless, the pair battle until Raiden slashes his foe open, killing him. Blade Wolf takes Sam’s ID-locked sword as a memory of his former friend and then the pair continue on to Solis.

At Solis, Raiden encounters Sunny Emmerich, who constructed the RLV spacecraft Raiden will be using. She realizes that they don’t really have time to reminisce, and proceeds with the launch. Raiden arrives in Pakistan with little time to spare. He reaches the air base where the President was scheduled to land and attacks the World Marshal forces guarding it, having already killed the US forces guarding the base. Soon, he comes across Blade Wolf, who has been badly damaged. Searching for the attacker, the ground suddenly gives way and a gigantic mech called Metal Gear EXCELSUS appears, piloted by Senator Armstrong. He reveals that photos of the attack on the base have already been leaked onto the Internet and that people are calling for death to the Pakistani people. Due to the harsh ideologies embraced by the American people, they have become “Sons of The Patriots” and simply need an excuse to reignite the War Economy. Of course, Raiden will have to be eliminated to ensure that this all goes down smoothly.

Raiden then proceeds to fight Armstrong in EXCELSUS, destroying its front legs and then removing one of its gigantic swords, which Raiden uses to slash the mech apart. Annoyed, Armstrong emerges from the destroyed mech and powers himself up, gaining a ton of muscle bulk in seconds. Armstrong then begins to beat Raiden with his bare hands, absolutely pummelling the cyborg ninja and snapping his high-frequency blade in half. Armstrong then explains his true motives: he is looking to destroy America to make it free again, allowing everyone to fight for what they believe in and for the strong to not be held back by the weak. Raiden tells Armstrong that he’s insane and the pair continue to fight. Raiden is unable to cause any meaningful damage to his foe though, due to nanomachines in Armstrong’s body which harden in response to physical trauma.

Blade Wolf then intervenes and provides Raiden with Sam’s sword. A final voice message from Sam reveals that he set his ID lock to expire after an hour and that he wanted Raiden to do with the blade as he saw fit. Armstrong bats Blade Wolf away, but not before Raiden retrieves the sword and then attacks the Senator with it. After an intense battle, Raiden slashes open Armstrong and then rips out his heart with his bare hand. Armstrong collapses and dies as Raiden stands in the rubble.

In the game’s epilogue, it is revealed that the US and Pakistan discuss a unified effort to combat terrorism, implying that the War Economy is still not dead. It is also revealed that George is now working at Solis with Sunny, who recounts that she would not be here today if Raiden had not saved her so many years ago. Despite what anyone thinks, she considers him to be a hero. The children were given cyborg bodies and put to work within Maverick Security. Raiden also permanently resigns from Maverick and declares that he will be fighting his own wars from here on.

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
Obviously, Rising plays significantly differently than any other Metal Gear game. Whereas previous Metal Gear games were stealth-based, Rising is a fairly standard, fast-paced, hack ‘n slash action game. Thankfully, it doesn’t try too hard to fit into the Metal Gear mold and tries to do its own thing. For one thing, this game’s violence is super over-the-top, with the first 5 minutes of the game featuring people getting slashes apart and spraying out ridiculous amounts of blood. It also is punctuated by a hilariously cheesy nu metal soundtrack. While these tonal differences might make it seem odd (or even heretical) for a traditional Metal Gear fan, the extremely cheesy and ridiculous tone of the game makes it hilariously enjoyable (and considering that nu metal is known for being excessively angsty and more than a little cheesy, its usage is actually very appropriate).

Rising is also designed primarily around a philosophy of “speed”. To this end, the game has a “Ninja Run” mode which allows Raiden to sprint and automatically vault over objects. He can also slash and slide in Ninja Run which is useful for getting some quick attacks in on enemies. The game also was built around the idea of being able to cut anything, which is well-implemented. While obviously you can’t cut everything, many objects in the environment can be slashed apart, with the cut occurring exactly where the player’s blade passed through the object. It’s pretty damn impressive to see in action, although getting caught on the newly-bisected objects quickly becomes an annoyance. Rising also features a free-control “Blade Mode” which allows you to slash apart objects or enemies with exact precision. Depending on the enemy’s status, you can also rip out their repair units by using Blade Mode, providing you with a power and health refill. As a result, this action is extremely key to your continued success in Rising.

Unlike many action games, Rising forgoes a block button in favour of parrying. Enemy attacks are colour-coded by a flash – red means that the attack can be parried, while yellow means that it is unblockable. Presumably, the decision to eliminate the block button was done to keep players on the offensive and to keep them from turtling up, but it is a very controversial decision. On the one hand, it certainly does force the player to be active and alert, while also backing off when they see an unblockable attack telegraphed. However, it’s easy to miss these cues when surrounded by enemies or if they end up off-screen when they telegraph their attack. The game also makes this more annoying by not featuring a dodge mechanic by default – it’s a skill that you have to unlock early on. Even then you have to hold 2 buttons to pull it off and it’s far from fool-proof, meaning that you’re going to need to rely on parrying anyway more often than not. To make matters worse, Rising does a wretched job of explaining its fundamental gameplay systems. I didn’t understand parrying at all until about halfway through the 2nd chapter when I ran into a parry-dependant boss, at which point I had to learn the system on the fly. That said, once you do understand parrying, the rest of the core gameplay becomes extremely easy, with only a handful of enemy types providing any sort of challenge (basically just Mastiffs as they love their unblockable attacks and usually attack in groups of 3).

In my personal estimation, the combat doesn’t seem particularly deep. It’s certainly better than the rhythm-based, pathetically easy combat which pervades most modern action games these days (eg, Assassin’s CreedShadow of Mordor*, the Arkham games, etc), but I don’t think it’s up to snuff with Ninja Gaiden. Most confrontations are easy as soon as you understand the game’s parrying system, making the core gameplay a very simple game of offence and quick reaction times. Much of the game’s challenge comes from its systems not working correctly though. Again, you could theoretically block every parriable-attack with relative ease if you have reasonable reflexes. However, it’s common that you will miss your cues due to enemies being off-screen, getting being surrounded, or from all the visual chaos that occurs during combat. The camera in particular really sucks in the game at times. I found that it would swing around wildly if you headed into a corner and can make tracking enemies difficult when it moves unbidden. Alternatively, there’s a camera lock-on system, but it has the exact same problems (or worse), swinging around wildly when enemies move quickly or keeping all of your other enemies off-screen. This tends to result in some rather cheap damage as you get caught in an unblockable attack from off-screen. The lack of a dedicated block or dodge button compounds this issue as you can’t even block as a last-ditch effort.

There are also a couple of really strange design issues. For one thing, you can customize Raiden in-game, but if you do so then you’ll have to restart from the latest checkpoint. I’m not sure why this was added, although I think it might have something to do with the encounter-based ranking system. The item/weapon switching system is also counter-intuitive. Considering that the game is all about speed, it’s totally inexplicable to me that it would force Raiden to be stationary before he can switch his weapons or equipable items. It is a limitation which makes little sense and can actually get you killed at times.

Also worth noting are that the game’s environments are extremely unimaginative. If you’ve ever played a hack ‘n slash game before, let me know if this sounds familiar: there’s a level in a ruined city, across moving train cars (straight out of Uncharted 2), a freaking sewer system, city streets, office buildings… even a Japanese garden/temple setting. All of these settings are very basic action game locales, and have been since the SNES days. It would be one thing if they did something to stand out, but the environments are just very noticeably generic throughout the game.

To change up the gameplay somewhat, there are also some very basic stealth segments. They’re typically quite short and optional, giving you the opportunity to one-shot enemies if you remain undetected. However, more often than not, it’s both funner and more beneficial to just sound an alert and enjoy the combat. There’s also a sequence where you get to control a Dwarf Gekko which is surprisingly very fun, but for some reason enemies will shoot at you anyway. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it is a nice bit of disempowerment which had me laughing at my enemies’ feeble attempts to catch me.

Rising is also quite short in length. There are only 8 chapters, but they vary significantly in length – most of the earlier chapters take around 45-60 minutes, but chapters 5 and 6 took me 13 and 5 minutes, respectively. I got to the end of the game after only 2 reasonable sittings, which might have taken me only 5 or 6 hours, tops. With reasonably simple combat, replayability is going to come down to how much you want to play around with the tools you have available. You can play on a harder difficulty, go for a “non-lethal” playthrough (in which you only slice off all of your enemies’ limbs… they’ll live), try to get S-ranks on all encounters, find all of the unlockables and beat the available VR missions if you really want to extend the game’s length.

The game’s graphics are also noticeably a step down from Guns of the Patriots. While this might be disappointing as there is a 5 year gap between the two releases, it is more than made up for by Rising‘s silky smooth 60 fps. This is key for such a fast-paced game and significantly outweighs the slightly mediocre graphics. The framerate does dip occasionally, but I didn’t find that any frame drops that did happen affected the combat significantly. There is also some strange disparity between gameplay and cutscenes, where it can be nighttime in the cutscene and then broad daylight in-game, although this is presumably due to the work-split between Platinum Games and Kojima Productions.

On the subject of cutscenes, they are less intrusive than in previous Metal Gear games. Many action sequences that would have been relegated to cutscenes are now playable, although they do so through quick-time events. I also personally think that the Codec calls are a little too frequent and take you out of the action for too long when they do show up. Rising is also notable for having a ton of optional Codec conversations available – in fact, it easily has the most prominent Codec since Snake Eater.

The enemies in the game are fairly standard action game fodder and can’t really stand up to Raiden in a fight (especially when you factor in the prominence of parrying). Enemies’ visual designs draw very heavily from the technology depicted in Guns of the Patriots, particularly Sliders, Crying Wolf, Haven Troopers and Gekkos. As a result, this visual continuity helps to ground this game as being in the game universe as the Metal Gear games, despite being so tonally different.

The fight against Blade Wolf is the first difficult enemy in the game, although this is mainly because the game hasn’t bothered to teach you its own systems at this point. I posted a link above where a Kotaku writer stated that he, and many other players, hit a brick wall during this fight. I have to agree with him, this fight took me about a half dozen attempts at least before I finally “figured out” the parry system.

After Blade Wolf, most of the bosses become significantly easier. I found Mistral to be quite easy to take down by brute force, especially because she surrounds herself in Dwarf Gekko which drop health pickups every time you kill them. Monsoon was also quite easy, but because he is very rarely open to be attacked, his fight drags on significantly longer than it needed to. You also have to fight both of these bosses again shortly after defeating Monsoon, but luckily the fights are significantly easier.

Sundowner is an enjoyably hammy and douchey enemy, but his fight becomes annoying quickly. He is a primarily-defensive boss, using an explosive shield to avoid your attacks. The only way to avoid it is to use Blade Mode and cut at a specific angle, which allows you to cut off some of Sundowners’s shields. Unfortunately, I would get locked into a combo as he put up his shield, meaning that I would hit it before I even had a chance to use Blade Mode. I had to start using smaller attack chains until he put up his shield, at which point he became much easier (…again, parries).

Considering that he gets hyped up to be your big rival throughout the game, I actually found the battle against Sam to be disappointingly easy. Unlike other bosses, Sam’s battle is basically a straight-up duel, meaning that you literally just have to parry in time to make it through. Defeating him shouldn’t take too much effort to pull off, which is a bit of a shame.

Like most Metal Gear battles, EXCELSUS is stupidly easy in spite of its imposing stature. Like most giant-monster battles in these sorts of games, just attacks its parts which are close to the arena’s edge and avoid its attacks as best you can (constantly using Ninja Run is useful for this). To make things sadder, pairs of Gekkos attack you, but they do so when EXCELSUS shoots a flamethrower at you, meaning that they just get hit by the attack and commit suicide.

However, for all of the simplicity of Rising‘s combat, Senator Armstrong is a freaking annoyance. Nothing in this game will prepare you for the difficulty spike that this guy is. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and declare Senator Armstrong the absolute hardest boss in the entire Metal Gear franchise, and not in a good way. The battle is very long, you have to face him in 3 different stages and he is cheap as all hell!!! It seems that he can break parries with his regular attacks sometimes, he has a ridiculously enormous health bar and his attacks cause significant damage, meaning that if you don’t learn all of his attack patterns perfectly, time all of your own attacks/parries, avoid all of his unblockable attacks and then have perfect Blade Mode mastery, then you’re absolutely screwed. I went into this fight on Normal mode without any health regenerating nanopastes and I literally couldn’t get him down lower than 140%… luckily I knew I was at the game’s end so I just Youtube’d the finale, but this fight was seriously infuriating. I guess you can argue that he’s the ultimate test of all of the skills that you’ve learned in the game, but the fact that he is so much harder than any other test that the game throws at you suggests to me intentionally obtuse game design… it’s up to you whether that sounds like just plain bad design or the best thing ever.

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS
I’ll be honest, when I booted up Rising, I was expecting an absolutely awful story. While I wasn’t exactly wrong, the game does have a fairly complicated plot which is better than your average action game, and arguably still better than most AAA console releases. That said, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re playing through it, and when I was writing the game’s plot summary it was really striking me how stupid everything was. The main issue is that most of the game’s connective plot tissue is relegated to the hundreds of Codec calls scattered throughout the game. This can cause some pretty jarring plot points to appear out of nowhere, such as when the hell Raiden recruited Blade Wolf or the entirety of Raiden’s mission to eliminate Dolzeav – when he blew himself up I literally said “who the hell was that?” I know that a lot of people really like Codec, but Rising is a strong illustration of why I am glad that it has taken a backseat in modern Metal Gear games. When the plot info that you need to understand the game is excised and told only by pausing the action, something is wrong in my opinion. Furthermore, Rising is a very fast-paced game, so expecting the player to pause the action constantly to listen to static audio is rather counter-intuitive. If you could continue to playing while listening to Codec calls then that would be one thing, but considering that there are literally hours of audio in the game, I gave them a hard pass.

On the plus side though, Rising is a game which knows that it is all about the gameplay, so the weaker story isn’t really that big of a deal in all honesty. The humour and over-the-top moments also help to keep the cheesiness of the story in perspective. Within the first 10 minutes of the game, you heft a Metal Gear RAY over your head and then slice it apart with your sword… and that’s not even the most ridiculous moment in the game. Furthermore, Raiden is the butt of some fairly silly fun as he tries to disguise himself as a Mexican local by dressing in a mariachi uniform. The game definitely has a strange sense of humour, but it keeps everything reasonably enjoyable.

There are actually quite a few unexpected call-backs to the Metal Gear franchise as well. The consequences of Guns of the Patriots factor very heavily into the game’s narrative, particularly emphasizing The Patriots, SOP, War Economy and George Sears. The game also tries to build upon Sons of Liberty by claiming that The Patriots’ memes live on in the form of war… a thematic extension which actually makes some sense, even if it is only half-baked within the plot itself. There are also some unexpected recurring items within the game, such as the Drum Can, Cardboard Boxes and 3D pin-up models, although these are really only useful during the limited stealth segments. I wasn’t expecting this game to have nearly as many references to the rest of the franchise as it did, which actually helped it in some ways to feel like less of an outlier.

Unfortunately, Rising can’t help but trample on Guns of the Patriots‘ rather fitting conclusion for the series just to make the game’s plot work. The ethics in the post-SOP world are fairly shaky, with the peace implied by Guns of the Patriots‘ finale being on the verge of being absolutely destroyed and the War Economy continuing without The Patriots to foster it. The idea that World Marshal and Senator Armstrong are so powerful that the media wouldn’t report on them harvesting the bodies of children is pretty insane though – it’s a huge plot convenience, because obviously somebody would print this. PMCs are also very prevalent still, although I did rather like the idea that cyborg technology would end up becoming a prominent development that would shape the battlefield, especially after Raiden’s heroics became public knowledge.

Unfortunately, the game tries to hit us with a twist by making us question Raiden’s morality. This is a rather tired trope that was attempted by Ninja Gaiden 3 a year earlier, to much derision. Rising handles it a little better (for example, it made me wonder for a moment whether I’ve been slaughtering child soldiers all this time), but I still can’t help but shake my head at the assertion that “You’re the real monster! You love killing people!” “OH NOES, I IS SO CONFLICTED!!1!” It’s obviously meant to be a meta-commentary which is an indictment against the player and the character, but it doesn’t work when you make your villains a bunch of murderous, sadistic, warmongering, child-killing psychopaths… not to mention that the whole point of progression in the game is to enjoy the killing. It’s hard to take someone lecturing Raiden about his morality seriously when he really is fighting for justice… and if he enjoys the killing along the way, who cares as long as he kills these assholes and not civilians? I don’t even care that he’s killing people with families, they signed up to shield the child-murderers and decided to keep fighting.

While the “a murderer is you” angle is annoying, it is interesting that the game explores Raiden’s ideals. From Raiden’s perspective, he protects the weak and his sword is not a weapon, but rather a tool of justice. His foes scoff at this philosophy, but it really is demonstrably true in the game – he doesn’t just go around killing willy-nilly, he hunts after those who have clearly wronged him and plunged an entire nation into conflict. It seems pretty cut-and-dried that Desperado, World Marshal and Senator Armstrong need to get the shit kicked out of them. In addition, Raiden is no longer whining and running away from his troubles for once, which is a nice development. The fact that he fights for justice and to stop other children from being exposed to the regimen which turned him into a bloodthirsty killer is actually quite noble. The story conveniently ignores Rose and little John almost completely throughout all of this though, which is rather unfortunate. Hopefully Raiden’s raking in a ton of money to help support them…

I also noticed that Quinton Flynn’s performance is quite different than in previous portrayals of Raiden. He has given Raiden a significantly deeper voice, presumably to represent his coldness and experience. It makes him sound like he’s attempting to channel David Hayter in some ways as well. He also gets a ton of one-liners throughout the game, but his delivery seems to unintentionally contribute to the rather cheesy tone of the game. Luckily most of the other voice actors put in fairly mediocre performances.

The other characters are a fairly mixed bag. Sam is a very charismatic and imposing rival for Raiden, but his motivations don’t make much sense at all. Sundowner is also an enjoyably hammy villain, I quite liked his scenery-munching appearances throughout the game. Of Raiden’s allies, Blade Wolf is the only one who is in any ways interesting, due to his AI’s very defined parameters and his attempts to stretch those limits. Sunny’s brief cameo appearances are also a major highlight of the game.

Unfortunately, everyone else is pretty mediocre at best. The rest of Raiden’s support team are fairly yawn-inducing, especially the boring doctor named, originally, Doktor. His speeches tend to be long-winded as well which, when considering that 50% of the mandatory Codec calls are probably coming from him, gets annoying. Amongst the villains, Senator Armstrong has to be the absolute most ridiculous enemy in the entire Metal Gear franchise – a US Senator who pilots a giant mech ant, grows super-muscles and then has nanomachines that harden his body and allow him to Falcon punch his enemies? What the actual hell? The other villains aren’t nearly as bad, but don’t have much in the way of personality. I should mention that Monsoon has a fairly cool design though with his magnetic body parts providing a unique challenge in a game dedicated to cutting things. Oh and as there are only 3 female characters in the game, Mistral and Countrney obviously had to be given ridiculously enormous breasts… obviously.

I feel like I have been excessively hard on Rising throughout this retrospective. I did find the game reasonably enjoyable for the most part, but the mediocre combat failed to excite me as I had hoped it would and that final battle with Senator Armstrong left me with an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. I guess this is a really obvious observation, but it’s just my Metal Gear game. I can replay Snake Eater a dozen times and try out different play styles with each new playthrough, but this is a game that I don’t really have a lot of interest in replaying. The “meh” story doesn’t really help matters either, which doesn’t even factor in the fact that it screws with Guns of the Patriots‘ legacy pretty badly. Maybe some people will really enjoy this, which is totally fine, but it just didn’t scratch that action game itch that I have been having.

7/10

*The combat system was easily one of the worst aspects of Shadow of Mordor. I wanted to have some really powerful nemeses who would kick my ass again and again, but the combat was so easy that I was able to dispatch dozens of orcs without risk of taking damage. The only way I could conceivably get defeated would be if there were close to 50 orcs attacking me at once, plus 2 or 3 officers egging them on.

Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid – Peace Walker (2010)

Welcome back to part eight of the Metal Gear retrospective. In this entry we’re going to be covering Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the second canon installment on the PSP. With the franchise effectively wrapped up in Guns of the Patriots, would Peace Walker find a reasonable justification to keep the franchise alive? Read on to find out…

(Note, I will be reviewing this game based on the HD Edition re-release on PS3, and will consequently be directing quite a bit of commentary towards the work put into the port. That said, I played the PSP original as well back when the game was released, so I can give some comparisons on how the two different versions perform.)

DEVELOPMENT

Shortly after the completion of Guns of the Patriots, Kojima Productions went back to work on another Metal Gear game. Considering how definitively Guns of the Patriots wrapped up the series, there was some concern about whether another game would be able to justify itself as something other than a cash-in or that it might unravel the series’ narrative once again. Peace Walker was announced alongside Metal Gear Solid: Rising (a Raiden-based spin-off which was going to tell the story of how Sunny was rescued from the Patriots), and it was stated that these two games would essentially be Metal Gear Solid 5, although Kojima publicly considered Peace Walker the true series successor. While Rising ended up languishing and was ultimately cancelled and then repurposed into Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance years later, Peace Walker proceeded much more smoothly, with Kojima at the helm once again.

Peace Walker was revealed to be another prequel game, focusing on Big Boss and the establishment of Outer Heaven. In fact, it sounds to me like Peace Walker and its immediate successors, Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain might have been the first Metal Gear games which were made with future installments in mind, as this quote of Kojima’s original vision for Peace Walker‘s story suggests:

“Solid Snake’s storyline has ended with Metal Gear Solid 4. But there’s still a lot more when it comes to Big Boss’ storyline. The Cold War was a time where people, neither good nor evil, were manipulated by various factors, and they became good or evil. The same goes for Liquid Snake, and we’ll get to see just what happened to him.”

Obviously if you have played Peace Walker, then you know that Liquid Snake does not feature at all, but this promise would be fulfilled 5 years later when The Phantom Pain was released, suggesting to me that Kojima had a very grand vision for the future of Metal Gear and for filling in the gaps between Snake Eater and Metal Gear.

Another interesting note about the game’s development is that this is the first Metal Gear game to be specifically targeted towards younger gamers, which saw the game secure a Teen rating from the ESRB. This was an especially baffling distinction for me, because Portable Ops‘ content was no worse than Peace Walker‘s (and in fact, Peace Walker was a lot more frank and juvenile when it came to sexual/suggestive content). This makes me wonder if the split-second decapitations in one cutscene were enough for Portable Ops to get pushed over the edge, which would be rather ridiculous if it was the case. That said, there is an unspoken rule in the ESRB that subsequent games in a franchise will almost always get the same rating as the previous release, unless they intentionally go for something higher or lower. This doesn’t really affect the game much either way, but it was a rather strange note in the game’s development.

PLOT SUMMARY

Having left FOXHOUND and the USA behind him, Snake joined together with Kazuhira Miller to form a private mercenary force, Militaires Sans Frontières. Snake and Kaz are approached by a man named Gálvez purporting to be a professor at the Costa Rican University of Peace and his young pupil, Paz Ortega Andrade. They seek the services of MSF in repelling a CIA mercenary force which has entered the country and is experimenting with some high-tech weaponry. Paz, an idealistic girl obsessed with peace, reveals that she and a friend had been captured and tortured by these forces. Due to the Costa Rican government’s constitutional abolition of an organized army, they are unable to deal with the interlopers and require MSF to get rid of them. As payment, Gálvez offers an offshore base of operations and any support that he can give. However, Snake and Miller both suspect that Gálvez is a member of the KGB, which he confirms when confronted with the accusation. However, Paz is left unaware of Gálvez’s ruse, as he instructs her to play back a tape that her friend had recorded prior to her capture. Snake hears a voice on the tape which sounds exactly like The Boss, causing him to question whether his former mentor is still alive. Gálvez tempts Snake with the uncertainty, succeeding in coercing him to accept their offer for help.

After a short investigation of the CIA mercenaries’ supply depot, Snake is alarmed to discover evidence that they are transporting nuclear weapons into Costa Rica. Snake seeks help from the Sandanistas, a revolutionary guerilla army from Nicaragua that had been forced to regroup within Costa Rica. When Snake arrives, he finds that the commandante of the Sandanistas has been killed by the CIA forces, but his daughter Amanda Valenciano Libre has reluctantly taken command of the remnants. Amanda informs Snake of a CIA base to the north when they are attacked by a gigantic, flying, unmanned vehicle. A flying drone captures Amanda’s little brother, Chico, and they pursue them to try to get him back. A drone also tries to capture Amanda, but Snake destroys it before it can. However, Amanda’s leg is badly broken in the fall and she has to be taken back to Mother Base to recover. She tells Snake of a base in the mountains where prisoners are taken and he promises to rescue Chico for her.

Making his way into an enemy base, Snake rescues Chico and reunites him with his sister. Chico then acts as a guide, providing Snake with the mercenary’s shipping route. However, he warns that the route is guarded by “el basilisco”, a giant monster. Snake heeds this warning with some skepticism and then heads north in pursuit of the nuke convoy. After losing sight of the shipment in a tunnel in the mountains, Snake catches up to the convoy in a garage within the mercenary’s mountain base. By the time he arrives though, the nukes have been shipped out already.

In the infiltration, Snake overhears an argument between Huey Emmerich and Hot Coldman, the CIA station chief in Central America. Coldman outlines the basics of nuclear deterrence theory, where mutually assured destruction will prevent nuclear powers from ever actually using their weapons. The flaw in the theory though is that humans are left in charge of the decision to retaliate, which can lead to an exploitable weakness that doesn’t discourage a first strike. Coldman seeks to have a computer controlled weapon, dubbed “Peace Walker”, that can guarantee a retaliatory strike, thereby rendering first strikes as suicide. However, in order to prove his theory, Coldman needs to make a nuclear strike to prove Peace Walker’s capabilities. Huey is outraged that Coldman is going to use his creation to launch a live nuclear weapon and tries to convince him to stop. Coldman dismisses Huey, forcing the wheelchair-bound scientist to fall down a flight of stairs.

Snake comes to Huey’s aid, recruits him to MSF’s cause and then hurries to catch up to Peace Walker. However, he is attacked by a Shagohod-like unmanned vehicle dubbed “Pupa”. He destroys the Pupa, but not before Peace Walker is extracted via helicopter and taken to the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border for final launch preparations. Huey advises Snake to seek out the main AI researcher on the project, Dr. Strangelove. He also offers to help build a Metal Gear for MSF.

As per Huey’s advice, Snake heads north to seek out Dr. Strangelove. On the way, he discovers an escaped prisoner named Cécile Cosima Caminades, a French ornithologist who was captured when she was seeking out Quetzals in the Costa Rican jungle. Snake soon realizes that she is the one who made Paz’s tape of The Boss, but is surprised when it turns out that Paz and Cécile have never met. Snake sends Cécile back to Mother Base and then infiltrates Strangelove’s lab. Inside he finds the Boss’s horse and Strangelove. Strangelove confronts Snake, angry at him for assassinating the Boss 10 years earlier. She shows him her creation, an incomplete AI reconstruction of The Boss’s personality known as the Mammal Pod. Strangelove goads Snake into trying to destroy it, but Snake finds himself unable to.

The Mammal Pod and Strangelove are from the lab as Snake is attacked by the Chrysalis, the flying AI weapon which had attacked Snake and the Sandanistas earlier. Snake shoots down the Chrysalis and destroys it before heading north to intercept Peace Walker. When questioned on his ability to complete the mission by Miller, Snake insists that he will be able to go through with it and destroy the Mammal Pod, although his insistence is not entirely convincing. After so many years of wrestling with the meaning of The Boss’s defection, Snake wants answers.

Snake pursues Peace Walker to another CIA base, but is attacked by mercenaries and the massive Coocoon AI weapon. Snake overcomes these foes and then makes his way into the heart of the enemy base. Here, he sneaks his way to the Mammal Pod, but hesitates when he has the opportunity to destroy it. He tries to get the AI to tell him why The Boss betrayed her country, but it is unable to answer. Outraged that the AI can’t give him the answers he needs, Snake finally tries to destroy it, but too late – Coldman, Strangelove and the CIA forces surround him and take him captive.

Snake is tortured by Strangelove for the truth about The Boss’s final mission, about whether she was a traitor or a sacrificial lamb. She needs this key information to complete the Mammal Pod’s personality programming. Snake refuses to talk, but Strangelove views his silence as answer in itself. Snake is sent back to his cell, where he escapes using a jigsaw that he had hidden inside a snake-shaped scar on his body. He hurries out to stop Peace Walker’s activation, but is confronted by Coldman, who has taken Paz captive. Coldman announces that, thanks to the interrogation, Strangelove has completed The Boss’s AI and that Peace Walker is ready to be activated. He reveals that the launch target will be Mother Base as Peace Walker moves to relocate to the launch site in Nicaragua. In desperation, Snake tries to stop Peace Walker from escaping, which puts the mech into self-defence mode. Snake causes quite a bit of damage to Peace Walker, but is unable to destroy it as it retreats across the Costa Rican jungle towards Nicaragua. Snake pursues on The Boss’s horse, managing to reach the border before the horse loses its footing and is mortally wounded. Snake puts the horse out of its misery and is forced to end the pursuit as Peace Walker fords the Rio San Juan. Luckily, Amanda is able to gather intelligence from fellow Nicaraguan guerillas about the location the CIA base and passes this information on to Snake. He discovers that Coldman plans to coordinate his launch with the SALT II (strategic arms limitation treaty) talks occurring between the US and Soviet Union at the time, which would be occurring in two days’ time.

Snake infiltrates the CIA base, but is shocked to discover that Soviet troops are occupying it. He continues onwards as MSF forces launch an attack on the base, hoping to provide Snake with support so that he can get to Coldman and stop Peace Walker. Snake makes his way to Coldman and his captive, Paz, but is surrounded by Soviet soldiers and CIA mercenaries. Coldman gloats that he has already input false launch data into Peace Walker and that it will strike Mother Base as soon as he inputs the confirmation code. Before he can do so, Gálvez arrives. He reveals that his real name is Vladimir Alexandrovich Zadornov and that he has been in league with Coldman all along… before ordering the Soviet soldiers to turn on Coldman. Coldman is incensed as Zadornov reveals that he wants Peace Walker to fire at Cuba in order to spread anti-American sentiment throughout Central and Southern America, bringing the Soviets closer to winning the Cold War. Zadornov then forces Paz to shoot Coldman twice, leaving the man slowly dying from the wounds, before ordering Strangelove to change Peace Walker’s target to Cuba. He then mockingly congratulates Snake, stating that his actions have helped the communist revolution in Nicaragua, that his death at the hands of the “CIA” would make him a hero in the same vein as Che Guevara, and that his death would make him into a fraud like The Boss.

However, before he can complete his plan, Amanda leads the Sandanistas to attack the base and take Zadornov captive, stating that they won’t be puppets of the KGB anymore. Amanda and the Sandanistas thank Snake for giving them the strength to return to their home nation. Having presumably prevailed, Snake gets an apologetic Strangelove to take him to Peace Walker so that he can finish off the Mammal Pod and end this crisis. Strangelove states that all she really wanted was to learn the truth of The Boss’s final mission.

Hoping to prove himself right in the end, a captive Coldman secretly inputs the authorization code for Peace Walker before succumbing to his wounds. This causes Peace Walker to become active and begin launch preparations, while also relaying false-launch data to NORAD. Miller informs Snake that they are unable to stop the transmission and that if they do not hurry then the US government will have to decide whether to launch a nuclear “retaliation”. The only way to stop the signal would be to destroy Peace Walker itself.

Snake moves to destroy Peace Walker to prevent nuclear holocaust. He is able to stop Peace Walker from launching its own payload at Cuba, but is unable to stop the false-launch transmission. Hacking into NORAD’s communications, Huey discovers an extremely tense situation as the assembled heads of the US government are preparing to go to DEFCON 2 and launch a retaliatory strike at the Soviet Union. Realizing that Coldman’s gamble was going to literally blow up in their face, Snake orders Huey to patch him through to the Pentagon where he uses his reputation to convince the Chairman that the launch data was false. However, the other officers aren’t convinced and they overpower the Chairman, forcing the retaliation to go through.

With the situation becoming critical, the Mammal Pod opens on its own and Snake climbs inside to disable The Boss’s AI. In spite of this, the signal continues to be relayed, and Strangelove theorizes that The Mammal Pod’s functions must have been transferred to the mech’s second AI unit, the Reptile Pod, which is responsible for Peace Walker’s mechanical processes. In desperation, Snake tries to destroy Peace Walker once again, but the machine stands upright and begins to walk into the ocean. The Boss’s voice begins to sing out as Peace Walker drowns itself and the false-launch transmission to NORAD is replaced with peace symbols, stopping the government heads from launching at the last possible second. Snake, Miller and Strangelove all watch on as Peace Walker destroys itself, proving that The Boss willingly went to her death. Snake salutes for his former mentor and then casts aside the bandana that he had taken from her ten years ago, stating that he believes that by putting down her gun ten years ago, The Boss betrayed him. As a result, Snake finally accepts his title of “Big Boss”.

In the game’s epilogue chapter, “Outer Heaven”, MSF builds up its power in the aftermath of the incident. With Strangelove’s help, Huey completes Metal Gear ZEKE for MSF. Miller recovers Peace Walker’s nuclear missile and equips ZEKE with it in order to provide MSF with its own deterrent against world powers that might object to them. Zadornov also escapes from captivity seven times, prompting Snake and Miller to believe that there is someone on the inside aiding him. On the seventh escape, Snake encounters Zadornov hiding aboard Mother Base and then kills him in self defence. Immediately afterward, alarms go off in the base as somebody activates ZEKE.

Snake hurries up to the deck and finds that ZEKE has been hijacked by Paz, who reveals herself as a deep-cover agent of “Cipher”. She declares that she will take ZEKE back to her “masters”. She outlines Zero’s basic philosophy of information control, which she insists is the only way to bring about worldwide peace. She offers Snake the ability to join with Cipher once again and be their deterrent against anyone who tries to stop the creation of this future. Snake refuses, which causes Paz to prepare a nuclear strike against the east coast of the US, which will frame MSF as a terrorist group and allow Cipher to seize control through fear, bringing about their plans either way.

Snake battles Paz and severely damages ZEKE in the battle. An explosion throws Paz from the mech’s cockpit into the sea, and Snake presumes that she dies from this. Miller hesitantly reveals that he was aware of Cipher and of Paz’s true loyalties, much to Snake’s chagrin, but that he was using them as a means with which to grow MSF to where it now was. Thanks to Cipher, MSF has effectively pioneered a new kind of business venture. Snake warns that the world is going to fear them now and that enemies will be coming for them soon.

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN

Peace Walker plays very differently than any Metal Gear game released up until this point in the franchise. While its systems draw heavily from Portable Ops (recruitment, base management, menu-based mission structure), its gameplay it reminiscent of Guns of the Patriots with its modern third person shooter controls. However, Peace Walker iterates on both of these games by making sure that its gameplay is fun, first and foremost. By sheer virtue of having tight core gameplay, Peace Walker is instantly a hell of a lot funner than Portable Ops. Whereas Portable Ops took existing Metal Gear gameplay and then forced it into the PSP as much as it could, Peace Walker actually feels like it was built from the ground up to make the most of the hardware.
One of the most impressive aspects of Peace Walker is in how well it refines the recruiting and base management systems from Portable Ops. In Portable Ops, a significant amount of time was wasted in dragging enemy soldiers back to your truck to recruit them. This is solved in Peace Walker with the introduction of the fulton recovery system, which lets you capture enemies instantly and on location. This is significantly more satisfying and elegant a solution to recruiting than the dragging mechanic was in the previous game. Balloon supplies are distressingly limited though, so you might actually find yourself using up two precious item slots to bring the Analyzer gadget to maximize the efficiency of the soldiers that you’re recruiting. Base management has also been expanded, with significantly more troops able to be recruited, more useful items available for development and missions that you can send your combat units on to earn supplies. All-in-all, the base development system has been expanded very well and managing it can be just as fun as going out on actual missions at times.
While Portable Ops had limited side missions and player freedom, Peace Walker really emphasizes activities which don’t tie into the main story, particularly side ops and co-ops (I have never really been interested in the co-ops mode so I can’t really comment on how it plays unfortunately). There’s a surprisingly nice variety in these side-ops – some missions will require base defence, or extracting specific targets, blowing up a target, taking a picture of a target or clearing mines. There are also boss side-ops which are necessary to get ahold of some of the stronger mechanized units in the game. Then there’s the joke side ops which can be surprisingly compelling and replayable. I had a good belly-laugh at the cartoonishly slapstick Pooyan Mission, found the ghost hunting missions surprisingly compelling and the two dating missions are equal parts hilarious, awkward and clever as you try to figure out the puzzle involved in doing well in them. There are also a few Monster Hunter-themed missions which sound like a lot of fun but which I have never had the patience to actually unlock. Add in the damage indicators that show up with each shot and the mission-ending score rankings and Peace Walker feels like more of a casual, arcade-y experience at times.
 
Guns of the Patriots‘ third person shooter control scheme has been translated to PSP fairly well, although having to use the face buttons in lieu of a second analog stick never really felt as precise as it needed to be. Luckily, there’s a generous auto-aim in place and the enemies move slowly and have small vision cones, but this is still miles ahead of Portable Ops‘ frustrating shooting controls. Luckily, the HD edition’s biggest improvement is the addition of a second analog stick which makes aiming feel far more precise and drops the basic learning curve significantly.
 
Some Metal Gear purists will lament how marginalized the Codec is in the game though. For one thing, it doesn’t even have a dedicated button anymore – you have to specify that the Select button is to be used for it, because I believe it is set to co-ops communications by default. That said, assigning Codec to the Select button is probably going to be less useful than keeping the co-ops comms there by default, because it has been effectively rendered useless. The calls are always automated based on the mission you’re currently undertaking, so there’s a good chance you’re not going to get any sort of useful information anyway. For example, I was looking for an item and figured I’d call the Codec for some hints. The resulting advice was useless: Miller telling me what my mission is, Paz telling me about the area and other characters just cheering me on. Keeping Select for co-ops comms is literally going to provide you with more help in this game, I promise you, even if you only ever use them for the Date With Paz/Kaz side-ops.
 
 
While the HD edition does improve the shooting significantly, it is unable to help with the small areas and frequent loading screens present in Peace Walker. This was always one of my biggest gripes with the game, as it adopts the area-based maps of Snake Eater or Guns of the Patriots, but in a far more enclosed space which means that you’re going to be spending quite a bit of time just waiting for the next area to load (this only takes about a second or two, but it is still an annoyance when it happens all the time). Compounding this problem is the fact that there may only be a couple of guards per area, meaning that gameplay in these sections may come down to two really quick tranquilizer shots before moving on to the next loading screen.
 
The lack of checkpoints during missions can also be a source of frustration. Normally, thanks to the small maps and few enemies, checkpoints will probably not be necessary as you’re only going to lose about 5 minutes worth of gameplay. However, there are a couple longer, combat-oriented missions which you can easily die in if you aren’t paying attention and which have no checkpoints of any sort – if you die, you have to restart the whole mission. In such missions, you could easily lose 10 minutes or more of gameplay with no mercy for the sudden difficulty spike. The most egregious offender here is the last shootout before you face off with Peace Walker – this mission is around 3 time longer than normal and is just a gauntlet of enemies firing at you with all they have… and to top it all off, you have to fight a helicopter when you’re all done with it. I got to the helicopter almost every time, but by then I’d be out of healing items so I wouldn’t survive and then had to completely restart. It was quite frustrating to say the least.
 
This is probably as good a time as any to point out my biggest problem with the HD edition of the game: it’s a pretty bare-bones port. By this I mean that it seems that all that Konami did was remap the controls to work with a Dualshock 3, upped the frame rate to 60FPS and then upscaled the graphics to fit an HD screen, throwing in some anti-aliasing in the process and calling it a day. For example, I noticed that the game’s aiming controls still felt a little sluggish for my tastes, so I went into the options to increase the right analog stick sensitivity. However, I was unable to locate an option for this, and it occurred to me that this would probably be because the game was originally made with face button control in mind – there wouldn’t have been a need for a sensitivity option. If this really is the case, then that really highlights how basic a port the HD edition is. Peace Walker still feels very much like a PSP game, making for a less-satisfying experience compared to other console-based Metal Gear games. The hardware isn’t getting taxed at all and the small maps and really lacklustre graphics just don’t stack up particularly well.
 
Probably the most obvious area where the HD edition was half-assed though is in the graphical department. Peace Walker‘s textures were clearly made with the 480×272 resolution of the PSP in mind, and on that hardware they looked sufficient. Even then, the textures actually looked worse than Portable Ops, but the more interesting environmental design (eg, not just straight edges and lots of boxes scattered about) and much better lighting/atmospherics masked the weaker graphics. However, in upscaling to HD, the textures don’t seem to have been improved to compensate and it just makes the game look like utter crap – Sons of Liberty looks significantly better, and it was released 9 years earlier. Sure, they put in anti-aliasing to smooth out the edges, but this doesn’t make up for the textures which were never supposed to be viewed at such high resolution (and in fact just reveals that they are far less detailed than they might appear on a smaller screen).
 
 
This issue also extends to Ashley Wood’s digital-graphic-novel-style cutscenes. While the cutscenes have been improved since Portable Ops, featuring far more animation and more interactivity, the HD port handled them very poorly. Rather than rescanning and reanimating Ashley Woods’ original art, the developers have half-assed it and simply straight-up reused the PSP’s cutscenes. This results in art which is notably pixelated even in the default view, and which looks even worse when you use the game’s zoom function during a cutscene. I know that they basically wanted to put together a quick and easy port to recoup costs since the PSP release’s sales were underwhelming, but still, it’s clear just how little work they actually wanted to put in towards making Peace Walker a proper console experience.
 
On the subject of the cutscenes though, Kojima seems to have decided to experiment with Peace Walker and made them far more interactive, occasionally integrating them with the gameplay. In practice, this means that we get some quick-time events, some basic shooting minigames and a couple button-mashing sequences. While this sounds like a rather interesting way to keep the player involved during the story sequences, in practice it ends up being more annoying than anything most of the time. As with the worst quicktime offenders, there is very little warning when a quicktime event is coming, meaning that you’re probably going to die the first time it comes up and have to redo the scene. There are a few of these moments spread throughout the game and they end up being fairly annoying, even though I do appreciate what they were going for.
 
Worse though is the torture sequence, which is similar to Metal Gear Solid, but without the ability to skip it in any way. This sequence was the absolute worst moment in the entire game for me in both my PSP and PS3 playthroughs – I simply am incapable of mashing the triangle button fast enough to get through this sequence, so I end up being forced to redo it over and over again with absolutely no way of getting past it. The only reason I ever got past it was because I used the “Bic pen” trick on PSP and then got my brother to do it for me for this playthrough on PS3. If you don’t have any of these options, then you’re shit out of luck. I hate to think how many people probably quit the game at this point because the game offers absolutely no way to skip the sequence or make it easier.
 
 
The bosses are rather unusual in Peace Walker, since all of them are vehicle-based. The “mini-boss” encounters versus armoured vehicles are reasonably fun the first couple times you encounter them, but they basically play out the same way every time (shoot the weak points and/or neutralize their escorts until the commander shows up). Aside from the helicopter battles, the gameplay doesn’t really change up either – facing off with a tank isn’t much different than facing off against a BTR or an LAV for example, which will quickly made these encounters quite tedious. On the plus side, there are only a handful of these battles in the main game, with most being relegated to side-ops long before you grow tired of them, so if you get sick of them then you can easily ignore them. If you can get through though in a non-lethal fashion, these armoured vehicles can be farmed to provide your combat unit with huge power boosts that you need to beat some of the tougher enemy units out there.
 
The game’s proper boss battles against the AI weapons are quite fun though. By firing at specific parts and weapons on these bosses, you can disable enemy weapon systems or completely prevent them from being able to perform certain attacks. This makes them rather fun to replay… which is good, because in order to complete Metal Gear ZEKE, you’re going to have to attack each boss a few times to farm for AI motherboards. The game does a really horrible job of explaining the system for getting ahold of specific parts, which just seem to be inexplicably random – for example, I was trying to get Walk units in order to complete ZEKE and, despite firing at any associated parts of the boss as the game tells you to, I failed to get any corresponding Walk AI motherboards in the post-battle minigame. However, then when I got to the boss fight summary, the game said that I had received a Walk component, thereby allowing me to complete ZEKE. I was left baffled, and despite having played through Peace Walker twice now, I still don’t understand this system at all (and in fact, I never even got the real ending of the game on the PSP version because I couldn’t understand the randomness of these part drops).
 
The other problem with some of the bosses though is that they can be massive rocket sponges. In the final battle with Peace Walker, I must have fired 50 rockets before I finally whittled it down, which is just ridiculously frustrating. To make matters worse, Peace Walker has an attack which makes it immune to all rockets for a random length of time, meaning that if you didn’t pack a machine gun then you’re going to be stuck running around uselessly for upwards of a minute or two. If the battle was even half as lengthy and Peace Walker had a more reasonably-sized health bar then it would be a significantly funner fight, because I was actually rather enjoying the battle until it turned into a tedious grindfest. The game also has even harder versions of each battle in the side-ops, but I don’t want to think about how long these fights would take without maxed-out anti-armour weapons…
 
I’ll be honest though – I feel like I have been quite critical of Peace Walker‘s gameplay. However, most of my issues with the game are related to the effort that was put into the HD edition, the repetitive armoured vehicle battles and the bullet-sponge Peace Walker battle. Those gripes aside, the game really is quite fun. The hardware limitations are annoying, but I did find the game to be enjoyable and was having fun during my time with it.
 
 

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS

From its opening moments, the story of Peace Walker is significantly more compelling than Portable Ops, feeling like a fully-fledged Metal Gear narrative rather than a periphery gap-filler. This is in spite of the fact that Peace Walker really doesn’t do much to fill in the remaining gaps in the Metal Gear timeline which had been left unanswered by Guns of the Patriots, instead choosing to tell a largely-original story which, in some ways, creates more questions than it answers. For example, if Big Boss was in a conflict with The Patriots in the 70s, why the heck would they allow him to come back to America and lead FOXHOUND? How would they not realize that he is the leader of Outer Heaven? And why would Big Boss knowingly send Solid Snake into Outer Heaven and put himself at risk of being defeated, rather than some incapable soldier? Snake Eater and Portable Ops‘ endings left a lot of room for inference, but by fleshing out the conflict more and introducing major new concepts, Peace Walker leaves some pretty big questions unanswered without even attempting to fill in the gaps. Some of these issues would be filled in with The Phantom Pain, but even then the answers can be rather dubious.

That said, Peace Walker‘s narrative is quite enjoyable on its own merits and is easily one of the more unique entries in the series’ canon. In some ways, Kojima also restrains himself and puts out a far more streamlined narrative. For example, it’s really nice to see Coldman explaining his entire agenda in his introduction rather than saving this for later as part of a big plot twist and exposition dump as Kojima usually does. This can also be applied to Zadornov’s introduction, as Snake and Miller realize that he is a KGB agent within the first few minutes. Even this reasonable amount of restraint is enough to reduce some of the narrative fat which plagues Kojima’s stories and makes Peace Walker quite a bit easier to follow.

The game’s non-linear design does create some narrative issues though. Foremost amongst these is that we have no idea how long a time period the game takes place over. Based on the way that the main missions flow, it seems like it can’t be more than a couple weeks for the main part of the game, with anywhere from a few months to a year passing in the epilogue chapter. This is obviously problematic once you realize it though, because that means that MSF expands to a vast size and builds a fully-featured offshore Mother Base in a matter of weeks. Then, they build their own Metal Gear from scratch in less than a year. The obvious intent here is for the player to miss this little chronological detail, but once you become aware of it, it is a rather nagging issue.

I must also say that the section of the game where Coldman activates Peace Walker has to rank amongst the most intense sequences in the entirety of the Metal Gear series. The tension just builds and builds as the situation grows increasingly more hopeless and Snake struggles to do absolutely everything in his power to prevent nuclear Armageddon. This is all capped off with a surprisingly impactful sequence where The Boss’s spirit sacrifices herself once again in order to save the world.

That said, The Boss’s AI is the point where the game’s story strains believability. It doesn’t make a lot of sense and the game doesn’t do a good enough job to justify its existence. Somehow, Strangelove is able to piece together a nearly-perfect AI personality using old mission data about The Boss, and yet she isn’t able to complete it without knowing whether The Boss sacrificed her life for her country? The fact that she needs Snake’s confession to finish this last piece of The Boss’s personality never really made a lot of sense to me, because Strangelove already assumed that she knew the answer. Could she not have just programmed her own suspicions into the AI just to test whether it would work (it also doesn’t help that the process used to get this AI functioning is not expounded upon at all)? It also creates some strange issues about Peace Walker in the game’s climax, when the game heavily implies that The Boss’s soul possesses the Mammal Pod and sacrifices itself a second time (in fact, Huey says in a rather schmaltzy manner that Peace Walker is acting “with its heart” rather than its mind, which is just ridiculous). I can understand the reasoning for these decisions – it works on a symbolic level for the AI to be a representation of The Boss’s soul, but on a narrative and logical level none of this makes any sense and it nearly derails the entire plot for me.

It is also quite interesting that the ending causes Snake to turn on The Boss and accept that he is her successor. The reason he gives is because he believes that by putting down her gun and allowing Snake to kill her, she gave up on her ideals as a soldier. While it isn’t directly stated, I believe that this is confession is meant to show the flaws in Big Boss’s interpretations of The Boss as an individual and The Boss as the symbol which he has been building up an ideology around for the past 10 years. As an individual, it seems that The Boss’s will was a desire for a world without conflict. However, in Snake’s mind, it seems that he has subscribed to The Boss’s will as a world where soldiers are valued, can fight for a greater good and where they live for nothing beyond the mission they are given. Considering that divergences in interpretation of The Boss’s will drive the conflict between Zero and Big Boss throughout the Metal Gear saga, this seems to me to be a hint that the “good guy” doesn’t even have it right. Snake has thrown himself so far into a predefined worldview in the name of his former mentor that, when confronted with the reality of her ideals, he turns on the source his entire ideology.

Not surprisingly, Peace Walker‘s primary theme is an exploration of the nature of peace and deterrence theory. While it is not exactly subtle in its methods, this makes for some rather interesting discussions on human nature. Using deterrence as a major theme was particularly fascinating to me. I actually “developed” an understanding of deterrence as a child when I was around 10-13 years old. I was wondering why we haven’t had an open conflict between major superpowers since the Second World War, when it occurred to me that the threat of nuclear attack made open war an unappealing prospect. As a result, I theorized that we wouldn’t see another World War until a missile-defence system was developed which would render nuclear strikes worthless, thereby making conflict viable once more. While obviously this was an overly-simplified view of international politics, it does hold true to the basics of deterrence and I was able to appreciate the game’s premise quite a bit.

Coldman’s views on deterrence are quite interesting and his plan actually does make just enough sense that it might have worked if he had managed to complete his plans. Having a 100% guaranteed retaliation makes mutually-assured destruction more than a threat – by having the capability to strike, they end up rendering all of their nuclear weapons useless. However, Coldman also believes that humans are incapable of launching a retaliatory strike on their own volition, a notion which Kojima declares patently false in the game’s climax as the US government nearly sets off the end of the world. The other big issue which the game seems to raise about deterrence is that everyone seems to equate it with peace. However, based on The Boss’s idealized vision of world peace, this does not mesh with her desire for peace without borders – deterrence, after all, still requires two aggressively opposed nations who are just not particularly interested in launching into all-out conflict for fear of total annihilation.

One of the more interesting and subtle uses of peace in the game though is in regards to the Sandanistas. Shortly after being introduced to Paz, the physical embodiment of peace in the game, Snake comes across Amanda and Chico, who are fighting a revolutionary war to wrestle control of Nicaragua from the American-backed regime. This creates a rather complicated picture which suggests to me a questioning of when conflict is justified. The Sandanistas cause is suggested to be a righteous one in opposition to the Somoza regime, with Amanda and Chico fighting for a cause that they so deeply for that they are willing to lay down their own life to achieve it. The game also makes numerous references to Che Guevara for similar reasons, suggesting that while peace may be the desired (if unnatural) state for mankind to achieve, there are times where fighting is necessary and justified.

Also tying into the theme of peace, Peace Walker is unusual amongst Metal Gear games for being really on-the-nose with its characters’ names. The most obvious examples of this are Paz and Kazuhira, both of whose names translate to “Peace”. However, it is not exactly subtle that both of them end up betraying their namesakes – Paz turns out to be an illusion, whereas Kaz is a businessman whose ultimate goal is to spark the war economy. The fact that both characters with the name “peace” end up betraying their namesake seems to tie into this quote from Immanuel Kant which features in the game and is brought up by Paz at one point:

“Peace amongst men living alongside one another is not a natural state. On the contrary, the natural state of man is that of war. War manifested not only by open hostilities, but also by the constant threat of hostility. Peace, therefore, is a state that must be established by law.”

Paz and Kaz aren’t the only characters with meaningful names though. Amanda Libre’s name is very apt (it basically translates to “lover of freedom”), while Chico is literally a character descriptor (it means “young boy”). Hot Coldman is also so obviously a symbolic “name” that they could have called him “Cold War Jackson” and had the same effect.

Strangelove’s name is also pointing out, although for somewhat different reasons. First of all, it is incredibly obvious that her name is a reference to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, a film which, in itself, has a lot to do with the game’s themes. Her name also foreshadows that she will become Hal “Otacon” Emmerich’s mother, since his namesake comes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, both films of which were directed by Stanley Kubrick. However, as obvious as the film reference explanation for her name is, the game tries to go even deeper and pass it off as a reference to her sexuality. This is a really weird way to try to twist the name in my opinion and kind of underscores the series’ weird approach to “queer” sexuality. Vamp is the closest parallel – he’s obviously named Vamp because he’s designed to be like a vampire, but then it is explained in-game that the name comes from him being bisexual (it’s a slang term, you’ve probably heard it in Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me”). I actually like Strangelove as a character and find her rather fascinating, but the handling of her sexuality is clumsy (she’s a bit of a misandrist and sexually assaults most of the game’s female cast) and trying to highlight it in her name doesn’t help all that much (although that’s just my take on things – there are more positive assessments of the sexualities of the series’ characters which are worth checking out).

Peace Walker‘s treatment of women in general is about as juvenile as ever. Aside from the aforementioned clumsiness about Strangelove being a lesbian, the game also goes out of its way to make awkward jokes about Paz and Cecile. For example, in Paz’s introduction you can zoom the camera in on her to give an x-ray vision of her in her underwear. There’s no real justification for this other than for it to be “funny”, but it’s also really awkward considering that at this point in the game we’re supposed to believe that Paz is a 16 year old girl. Paz also ends up in her underwear on a couple other occasions, like if you get an S-rank in the Date With Paz mission and when she steals ZEKE for some reason. Cecil, on the other hand, has basically no bearing on the game’s plot, but exists to be little more than an inside joke and some eye candy (in her introduction, if you zoom in on her cleavage the game will make a cartoonish popping sound).

On a more positive note though, Amanda Libre is a pretty great female character. The camera actually seems to respect her and she has a pretty great character arc as she learns to take responsibility as commandante of the Sandanistas. She even saves Snake’s ass in the end. Plus, while the game hints at there being some sexual tension between Snake and her, it is left as a mutual respect in the end and doesn’t end up being the defining aspect of her character in the slightest. Amanda is a great example of how Kojima can write a strong, interesting female character without objectifying her in the process, which is something that he does on a distressingly infrequent basis.

While Peace Walker largely avoids the crappy kind of “George Lucas cameos” that afflicted Portable Ops*, it does have one extremely egregious offender: Huey Emmerich. It strains belief that both Big Boss and Solid Snake would coincidentally meet up with an Emmerich and become friends. This whole addition is clearly meant to be a big shout-out to the fans, but it just totally rubs me the wrong way and feels more like bad fan fiction than the actual narrative (although The Phantom Pain would do its absolute best to fix all the problems that this bit of indulgence created…).

I’m also not a big fan of the way that cassette tapes are used in this game. They are only accessible before missions, where you get a list of tapes from each character. However, the game doesn’t let you know how long these tapes go on for – most briefing tapes are around a minute at most, but there are longer ones which can easily take 10 minutes or more per tape… and all of this is just keeping you from playing the mission you have been queuing up to play. As a result, if you’re like me then you’re going to quickly just ignore all of the briefing tapes, which is unfortunate because they do have some very informative background story info and some hilarious jokes. The tapes about the Box Tank and Snake believing in Santa both had me laughing out loud, and the tape which reveals that Cecile’s name translates to “KOJIMA IS GOD” in Japanese had me in stitches. There are also tapes by EVA, Strangelove and Paz which are all extremely key to appreciating the game’s narrative, but are hidden in the cassette tapes section and can easily get missed. EVA’s tapes are perhaps the most important to the overall franchise, detailing a ton of information on The Boss, her fateful mission into space, The Philosophers and corruption in the CIA. Strangelove’s fill in more info on The Boss and her mission to space, but they also are important for understanding her motivations and make her a significantly more sympathetic and tragic character. Paz’s tapes are also important to understand the twist about her being a villain, and actually make her far more sympathetic in the end as well.

I’ll be honest – when Peace Walkerfirst came out on the PSP, I didn’t dig it all that much. I got sick of the armoured vehicle battles and the AI grinding and never actually saw the game’s real ending (in part because I didn’t realize that it had one). I even tried to play through the game once in the past when I bought the HD collection, but I ended up pouring all my time into Snake Eater instead. Having gone through Peace Walker again though and reached the real ending, I do have to say that my estimation of the game has improved considerably. The game has a pretty great story and its gameplay is fun for the most part, although it could have been improved with less frustrating boss encounters and more challenging regular troops. It’s also too bad that they didn’t use the HD collection as an opportunity to bring Peace Walker in line with Guns of the Patriots‘ gameplay.

8/10

*Kaz gets a free pass for being so essential to the narrative, for not really resembling his former portrayals and for ultimately making Kaz’s fate in future games even more surprising and impactful.

Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid 4 – Guns of the Patriots (2008)

Welcome back to the Metal Gear retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the seventh entry in the franchise, 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. After years upon years of convoluted storytelling and epic moments, it looked as if the Metal Gear franchise was finally drawing to a close, with a storyline that promised to wrap up Solid Snake’s story for good. After all the batshit insanity that had characterized the franchise up until this point though, was it even possible to produce a game that could tie together the disparate elements of Metal Gear lore? Read on to find out…

DEVELOPMENT
After the completion of Snake Eater, Kojima announced that he would be retiring from the Metal Gear series (he had previously made this declaration after Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty, but he seemed to actually intend to go through with it this time). Shuyo Murata, co-writer of Snake Eater and the director of the Kojima-related Zone of the Enders: The 2nd Runner, was announced to be the game’s director. However, Kojima soon took over directing, writing and producing the game with Murata after some extreme fans became absolutely livid, sending out death threats to get Kojima back in charge.

Guns of the Patriots was officially announced in 2005 at a Sony press conference and then at E3, where it was revealed to be a culmination of the Solid Snake storyline, tying up all the story arcs for the characters and bringing back most of the surviving fan favourites. It was also announced that the game would be a PS3 exclusive as the franchise had been fostered on PlayStation hardware for the last 3 entries, although he was open to potentially porting it. Over time, it was also revealed that Snake would be significantly aged for this appearance and that this would be the last game in the Metal Gear series. An emphasis was placed on stealth within an “evolving battlefield”, with the option being there to befriend a faction to sway the tide of the battle. This was summed up by the philosophy of “No Place to Hide”, forcing the player to utilize faction allegiances and the new OctoCamo system.

The game also had a few scenes of female nudity which were cut – specifically, the Beauties were supposed to be naked, and the female undergarments that Snake finds at the end of Act II were actually supposed to lead to a naked female soldier. These were cut to avoid a potential AO rating though (I can understand the Beauties as that would have been ridiculously gratuitous considering how much the camera lingers on their clothed boobs and butts already, but I don’t see how the naked female soldier would have been something that would land the game an AO rating).

Shortly before the game’s release, Kojima revealed that the PS3 hardware hadn’t left him entirely satisfied. His development team had entirely filled up the 50GB Blu-Ray disc limit for the game and had still been forced to compress elements to get it all to fit, reducing the quality of (for example) textures. The PS3’s Blu-Ray drive and limited HDD space also necessitated chapter-by-chapter installs to reduce load times.

The game was released on June 12, 2008, early in the PS3’s lifecycle. As a result, it predated the release of the PlayStation Network trophy system, meaning that the game had no trophies to acquire. Fans requested this feature to be patched in for years, but it seemed that this would never happen. However, in the summer of 2012, it was finally revealed that Konami was going to patch trophies into the game. The news was welcome, but people who have played the game can tell you that the amount of work required to get a Platinum in this game is insane – you have to beat the game at least 7 times and put in at least 100 hours of work to receive it. Considering that the game had already been out for 4 years and that some players had actually done the requirements to get the Platinum already before the patch (with no compensatory reward), it’s simply not worth the effort to acquire it in my opinion. The trophy patch coincided with an option to fully-install the game instead of having to install at the start of every new chapter, filling in one of the game’s biggest complaints on launch.

Guns of the Patriots also played host to the next generation of Metal Gear Online. It was the first online shooter that I really got into and I used to play this all the time. It was slower-paced and far more unique than most online shooters of the era (this was when Call of Duty was really starting to take off). I have many a fond memory of laying down Playboy traps to catch enemies off guard and then take them out, as well as being the deadliest sniper in most matches that I played in. The game played well, but it predated the uniform adoption of PSN synchronicity across online games, meaning that you had to log into 2 separate Konami accounts to actually play online. It could also be very difficult, as headshots were lethal with basically any weapon. Unfortunately, MGO‘s servers were shut down around the time that the trophy patch was released. Still, it was a very fun experience that I will always remember very fondly. Playing through Guns of the Patriots‘ areas which were reused for maps in MGO brought the memories flooding back…

PLOT SUMMARY
5 years after the Big Shell incident, Solid Snake has been stricken with a form of accelerated aging which has made him prematurely grow into the equivalent body of a 70-year-old man – by all estimates, he only has about a year left to live, at best. Roy Campbell, now working for the UN, tracks Snake and Otacon down and tells them that they have located Liquid Ocelot. Campbell explains the global situation that has developed in the last 5 years. Ever since the Big Shell incident, the US has taken a backseat in international affairs and PMCs have risen in prominence utilizing a synchronized, nanomachine-assisted network system called SOP, Sons of the Patriots. This results in less war crimes due to emotion control, more efficiency due to real-time updates and synchronicity and ID locks on all weapons, meaning that no authorized weapon can be fired without government permission. As a result, states have outsourced war to the PMCs, resulting in a global “War Economy” as PMCs battle one another in proxy wars. Campbell reveals that most of the largest PMCs are actually controlled by a single overarching organization calling itself “Outer Heaven”, controlled by Liquid Ocelot. Liquid is planning some sort of insurrection against The Patriots and plunge the world into chaos. With the international reliance on the War Economy, no one is willing to disrupt him for fear of destabilizing their own finances. Campbell requests that Snake assassinate Ocelot, who has been spotted in a warzone in the Middle East, which Snake accepts hesitantly. Campbell tells Snake that he will be able to meet up with a UN inspection team for Liquid’s exact location.

Snake is then sent to this warzone, disguised as a member of the local militia unit. They soon come under fire from Praying Mantis PMC forces and their Metal Gear-esque unmanned mechs, Gekkos (aka, IRVING), which wipe out the militia forces. Snake sneaks past the Gekkos and links up with Metal Gear Mk. II, a small, remote-control drone operated by Otacon. The Mk. II provides Snake with weapons and equipment (including the new Solid Eye HUD device) before they move on. Making his way through the warzone, Snake encounters a mysterious man calling himself Drebin 893, who claims to be able to launder ID locked weapons. Since he is not a licensed soldier, Snake lacks the proper nanomachines to operate weapons without ID locks so he cautiously accepts Drebin’s services. Drebin gives Snake an M4 Custom free of charge, but the weapon is still ID locked, forcing Drebin to inject Snake with more up-to-date nanomachines in order for the ID lock bypass to work. This proves to be successful, and Snake moves on to meet up with the UN inspection team.

After fighting his way further through the warzone, Snake encounters Rat Patrol Team 01, the UN inspection unit, consisting of Ed, Jonathan, Johnny “Akiba” Sasaki, and led by Meryl Silverburgh. The pair reminisce a bit before Snake and Meryl get down to business. She tells him that Liquid has a camp ahead, but grows angry when she discovers that Snake is working with Campbell – she believes that her true father is a womanizing piece of shit after finding out that he cheated with her mother and that he is now married to a woman the same age as her. However, they are soon interrupted when Akiba accidentally alerts the PMC forces to their position with the reflection off his binoculars. Snake and Rat Patrol come under attack by Liquid’s FROGS unit, forcing them to fight their way out of the building they had holed up in. When the last FROGS are cleared out, Snake and Rat Patrol split up to go their separate ways.

Heading to Liquid’s camp, Snake watches as a militia unit is violently wiped out by 4 technologically augmented soldiers from the Beauty and the Beast Unit. After they disperse, Snake makes his way into the PMC camp and spots Liquid. He moves closer but spies Meryl and Rat Patrol inside the camp as well. Meryl gets angry at Snake because she thought that they were supposed to be only performing a threat assessment. Before anyone can do anything though, Liquid conducts some sort of live test which causes everyone, from PMC forces, to Rat Patrol (except for Akiba, conspicuously), to Snake himself, to begin convulsing and freak out. As he begins passing out, Snake spots Naomi Hunter with Liquid, before Akiba drags Snake to safety.

Snake later comes to in the Nomad, Philanthropy’s mobile, airborne base of operations. Otacon reveals that he and Sunny Gurlukovich (Olga’s daughter who Raiden rescued from The Patriots after the Big Shell incident) have decoded a transmission from Naomi Hunter. In the transmission, she reveals that the next phase of his tests will be in South America. Liquid has been forcing her to help him due to her expertise in nanotechnology. She begs Snake to rescue her. Realizing that they have no other leads on Liquid’s whereabouts, Snake and Campbell agree that they need to rescue Naomi in order to make any more progress. They speculate that Liquid must be attempting to destroy SOP, as it is clearly a part of The Patriots’ information control agenda. Snake isn’t sure whether Liquid or The Patriots are worse, but Campbell cautions that without SOP, there will be even more war and atrocities committed, meaning that The Patriots are the lesser of two evils in order to keep modern society afloat.

When he reaches the PMC security perimeter, Snake witnesses Laughing Octopus massacre a group of local rebel prisoners while in the guise of Snake himself. She lets a single soldier escape, telling him to remember Snake’s face as the one who killed his comrades. Vamp also appears, working alongside the PMC forces, who seem to be awaiting Snake’s arrival. Snake makes his way around the PMC camp and moves further into the jungle before receiving a call from Campbell. He introduces Snake to Rosemary, Raiden’s former fiancé and Campbell’s new wife, who will be joining the mission as a psychological counsellor. Snake soon receives a call from Raiden as well. When questioned on where he had been, Raiden tells Snake that he was retrieving the body of Big Boss for a client calling herself “Big Mama”. When Raiden ends the call, Snake calls Rosemary, who tells him that her relationship with Raiden crumbled due to his psychological trauma and the apparent miscarriage of their child. Raiden had disappeared after then and Rosemary had gone to Campbell in her grief. After venturing further through the warzone, Snake once again encounters Drebin, who explains that the Beauty and the Beast Unit are a group of gorgeous women who have been wracked with extreme PTSD and have been conditioned to believe that killing Snake will end their nightmares. Drebin also explains that The Patriots are not people, but rather a system of autonomous AIs.

Snake then leads and offensive with the rebels into the PMC’s base inside of a mansion, where he encounters Naomi Hunter in her research lab. Naomi is surprised by Snake’s aging and insists on examining him. She reveals that his accelerated aging is a natural consequence of his cloning – he was designed to be a living weapon, incapable of reproducing or living as a normal human being would, meaning that he only has about 6 months left to live. Naomi also discovers that FOXDIE, which she had injects Snake with at Shadow Moses, has begun to mutate. As the receptors on the virus break down, it will soon begin targeting people indiscriminately, turning Snake into a walking biological weapon. She expects this to begin in about 3 months time. She cautions however that, if Snake dies, the virus will die with him. She also reveals that a new strain of FOXDIE has been injected into Snake as well, causing him to believe that Drebin must have been the one to do this. Finally, Naomi explains what went wrong with Liquid’s live test in the Middle East. He tried to disable SOP from his soldiers, but the sudden rush of suppressed emotions caused them to go mad. Since he can’t remove SOP without destroying his own army, Liquid now has decided to attempt to hijack the system instead. However, to do so, he will need Big Boss’s DNA, as it is the key to the SOP system.

Before Snake can take Naomi away, PMC forces burst into the lab, led by Laughing Octopus. They take Naomi captive and lead her away while Snake battles a unit of FROGS and then Octopus herself. After a difficult battle, Snake defeats Laughing Octopus (acquiring her FaceCamo in the process) and then pursues the PMC forces to retrieve Naomi. He tracks her to a helipad where Vamp attempts to fly her away. However, Snake shoots Vamp in the head and gets in a gun battle with Pieuvre Armament troops. Soon, Liquid’s second attempt to break the system commences, causing the PMC troops to go into a dazed state. Drebin suddenly arrives in his Stryker APC, allowing Naomi and Snake an opportunity to escape as Gekkos arrive and attempt to stop them.

After an intense chase, the Stryker enters a small village where it crashes. Gekkos begin swarming the area, but Raiden suddenly appears, revealing that he has been augmented into a cyborg ninja like Gray Fox. He begins destroying the Gekko, allowing Snake and Naomi a chance to escape. However, as they fly away in a helicopter with Otacon, they see Vamp and Raiden battle one another. The pair engage in a very brutal knife fight, with all of the Gekko getting decimated in the process. Raiden manages to come out on top though, putting down Vamp before fleeing in the helicopter. Vamp revives in time to see them flying away though and calls Liquid, who tells him that this is all a part of the plan. Seeing Vamp revive, Naomi reveals that the secret to his immortality is a strain of nanomachines which regenerate his cells at an accelerated rate – a system that she developed, but which were perfected with Vamp. Raiden, severely wounded from his fight with Vamp, gives Snake an instruction before passing out: “Go meet… Big Mama.”

Regrouping on board the Nomad, Naomi Hunter begins to bond with Sunny, teaching her how to cook eggs and discussing science. She then gives Sunny a blue rose to wear in her hair. After this, she tells Snake and Otacon that Liquid is in Eastern Europe searching for Big Boss’s corpse. His genetic code and biometric data are necessary to gain control of SOP – in his two previous tests, Liquid had used his own DNA and Snake’s DNA to attempt to take control of the system, but both attempts had failed since neither of them were 100% genetic matches of Big Boss. She also reveals that Big Boss is not truly dead – his cells had been kept alive and his body was in a nanomachine-induced coma. Meanwhile, Raiden’s condition has worsened. Naomi realizes that he will need an infusion of artificial blood, which Raiden reveals can be acquired in Eastern Europe from a Dr. Madnar (possibly the same Dr. Madnar from Metal Gear and Solid Snake). Realizing that Big Boss’s body and the artificial blood are in the same area, the Nomad heads towards Eastern Europe to continue the mission.

During the night, Naomi speaks to Otacon, who has been working through the night. They discuss how their creations have been used for evil purposes. Otacon also tells Naomi about his step-sister, Emma, who had created the worm cluster which infected GW at the Big Shell. He also reveals that Sunny is the real computer genius amongst them – it was her who decoded Naomi’s heavily-encrypted transmission. After some flirting, the pair head to the helicopter, where Naomi pulls Otacon inside for some lovin’.

The next day, Snake heads into Eastern Europe to locate Big Mama, leader of the Paradise Lost Army resistance. Campbell promises that he will provide him with a way to get past the local PMC security forces from Raven Sword. Snake disguises himself with FaceCamo to make himself look younger and dresses in civilian clothes. When he refuses to go through an ID checkpoint, he is taken aside by Meryl Silverburgh and Rat Patrol, who have been deployed to the area to oversee PMC activity. She reveals that a US army detachment is in the city and are ready to come down on Liquid as soon as he makes a move. She tells Snake not to put his life at risk anymore and that she can’t stand to see him kill himself over something like this. Snake scoffs at this, leaving Meryl with some enmity between the two.

Heading out into the city after curfew, Snake locates a Paradise Lost Army resistance member and begins to pursue him while helping him evade Raven Sword PMC troops. After pursuing him through the streets of the city, the resistance member leads Snake right to Big Mama’s location. Snake bursts in and is confronted by Big Mama (aka, EVA), who reveals to him that she is her mother who gave birth to Snake and Liquid as part of the Les Enfants Terribles project. She explains to Snake the origins of The Patriots: they originally consisted of herself, Big Boss, Ocelot, Major Zero, Sigint (Donald Anderson) and Para-Medic (Dr. Clark). However, the organization soon split into two factions over their disagreement over The Boss’s will: one side led by Big Boss while the other was led by Major Zero. Big Boss had attempted to overthrow The Patriots in Outer Heaven and Zanzibar Land, while EVA and Ocelot, still loyal to Big Boss, had overseen the deaths of Para-Medic and Sigint just before/during the Shadow Moses incident. However, Ocelot had been lost when he grafted Liquid’s arm onto his body, with Big Mama believing that he was now a part of his own faction in this long conflict. Big Mama then shows Snake Big Boss’s body, loaded in the back of a van and ready to be evacuated.

The meeting is then interrupted by a group of Dwarf Gekko which reveal the resistance base to the Raven Sword forces. Big Mama, Snake and the Paradise Lost Army flee with Big Boss’s body as the PMC troops, led by Raging Raven, pursue them. Snake and Big Mama crash, with Big Mama receiving a serious injury as she is impaled in her side by a piece of metal. Snake heads into a tower to take down Raging Raven. After he defeats her, he returns to Big Mama to head to the riverside – Big Mama reveals that the vans had all been decoys and that Big Boss’s body was actually being evacuated on a boat. However, when they get to the boat, they find Ocelot waiting for them. He fights Snake, stabbing him with his own stun knife and electrocuting him as Snake struggles to stop him. Liquid gloats over his own success and then leaves in a boat, accompanied by Vamp and, surprisingly, Naomi.

Before Liquid can escape though, he is surrounded by US forces led by Meryl and Rat Patrol. Snake and Big Mama board Meryl’s boat as she orders Liquid to surrender. However, Liquid refuses and reveals that he has finally hijacked the SOP system by locking out all of the US soldiers’ weapons and remotely deactivating the circling helicopters. He then turns off all of the US soldiers’ emotion controls and then orders his FROG troops them down. The result is a massacre as many of the US soldiers are killed and Rat Patrol is badly wounded. Liquid then has Vamp throw Big Boss’s body into flames on Rat Patrol’s boat, incinerating it. Big Mama leaps onto the fire to attempt to save him, but it is too late. Liquid shoots Big Boss’s body in the head and triggers an explosion which mortally wounds Big Mama and leaves Snake with a horrific burn on the left side of his face. In the confusion, Otacon manages to sneak the Mk. II aboard Liquid’s boat as it escapes. Akiba also manages to save Meryl from drowning, for which he is rewarded with a thankful kiss. However, Big Mama succumbs to her injuries and dies.

Using the Mk. II, Otacon is able to determine that Liquid plans to destroy The Patriots’ main AI, JD, which is disguised as space junk orbiting the planet. To do this, he needs a weapon that is powerful enough to fire a missile into space and a nuclear missile – SOP is not sufficient to do this, as all WMDs are controlled by JD, not SOP. However, the Mk. II is soon discovered and destroyed, prompting Otacon to construct the Mk. III as a replacement.

As Snake and Campbell debate how Liquid will be able to destroy JD, Otacon realizes that he will use Metal Gear REX, since its rail gun predates the implementation of SOP and is capable of launching a nuclear warhead into space. After confirmation from Mei Ling, who is now the captain of the WWII-era battleship U.S.S. Missouri, Snake pursues him to Shadow Moses island. Raiden attempts to join Snake, but Sunny protests, as his dialysis is still incomplete. Realizing that Raiden has a deathwish, Snake tells Raiden that he still has a life and a family, whereas Snake is going to be dead within a few months. Raiden angrily protests that he has no family before passing out once more.

Otacon then flies Snake to Shadow Moses via helicopter and drops him off just west of the heliport. Snake then makes his way to the heliport and is met with a rush of flashbacks as he views the decrepit state of the nuclear disposal base. Snake makes his way through the facilities, evading Gekko and Dwarf Gekko units from the Werewolf PMC in the process. After making his way to the snowfield where he fought Sniper Wolf for the second time, Snake is confronted with the Beauty and the Beast Unit member Crying Wolf, who fires at him with a miniaturized railgun. Snake manages to defeat Crying Wolf in the middle of a blizzard and then proceeds into the underground base to find REX. After making his way into the hangar, he finds REX where it had been left, but that its railgun has already been removed. He is then confronted by Naomi and Vamp. Vamp attacks Snake, but Snake injects him with a syringe given to him by Naomi which suppresses nanomachines, rendering Vamp into a mortal once more. As he does so, Raiden appears and fights Vamp while Snake battles a unit of Suicide Gekko who attempt to destroy the base. Snake destroys the Gekko as Raiden slashes open Vamp, leaving him horrifically wounded. Naomi then tells Otacon (via the Mk. III) to finish him off by injecting him with the syringe – as an act of mercy, not revenge.

With Vamp now dead, Naomi apologizes to Snake and Otacon for tricking them before revealing that she has been suffering from terminal cancer now for years which she has been using nanomachines to keep at bay. She injects herself with the syringe as an act of suicide, sorrowfully telling Otacon to continue to live his life. With more Suicide Gekko headed their way to destroy the base, Otacon uses the Mk. III to reactivate Metal Gear REX. Snake pilots the damaged mech and uses it to escape the collapsing base. Raiden, however, is trapped by the falling rubble.

As they reach the surface, Snake is suddenly confronted by Liquid, piloting Metal Gear RAY. The two Metal Gears battle, with REX managing to come out on top due to some clever maneuvering by Snake. Liquid scrambles from the wreckage of RAY and begins heading towards the ocean, while Snake painfully follows after him, having injured himself exiting REX. Before he can catch up with Liquid, an Arsenal Gear emerges from the sea – Liquid’s “Outer Haven”, now equipped with REX’s railgun and housing The Patriots’ hijacked AI, GW. When JD is destroyed, control of The Patriots will defer to GW, and at that point Liquid will have full control over The Patriots’ network. Liquid then tries to ram Snake with Outer Haven, but is stopped when Raiden, who cut his own arm off in order to escape from the rubble in the underground tunnel, puts himself between Outer Haven and Snake. However, the pier begins to crumble and Raiden is seemingly crushed as Snake gets out of the way. Before it can finish Snake though, the U.S.S. Missouri arrives and opens fire. Outer Haven retreats and heads out into the open ocean to prepare for the final strike on JD. Snake and Raiden, who somehow survived, are taken aboard the Missouri to make a final assault on Outer Haven.

Mei Ling briefs US military units, as well as Snake, Otacon, Meryl and Akiba aboard the Missouri. When Outer Haven surfaces to make its nuclear strike on JD, they will send a strike team aboard the submersible fortress and infect it with a worm cluster uploaded to the ship’s AI, GW. Using intelligence provided by Naomi Hunter, the strike team will catapult on board Outer Haven and then penetrate its server room, which is protected by microwave directed energy weapon. Once inside the server room, they would upload the virus developed by Naomi and completed by Sunny. Snake, Meryl and Akiba volunteer for the mission. Meanwhile, Drebin is also revealed to be on board the Missouri, providing the soldiers with weapons and the catapults that the strike team would use to infiltrate Outer Haven.

After Outer Haven surfaces, the Missouri commences a naval battle with Haven’s defences and Metal Gear RAY units, while the strike team is inserted into the ship. Akiba’s launch is unsuccessful though, which sends him plummeting into the ocean rather than inside the ship. Snake makes his way past FROGS and Gekko until he gets deeper into the ship’s core. Here, he encounters an injured Meryl and is forced to battle waves of FROGS. However, the last Beauty and the Beast Unit member, Screaming Mantis, appears and attempts to stop Snake. Akiba inexplicably arrives and fires at Screaming Mantis, revealing that her “psychic abilities” are simply a result of nanomachine manipulation. Utilizing this knowledge, Snake defeats her before being confronted by the ghost of Psycho Mantis. After showing off to Snake, his spirit is banished for good by the spirit of The Sorrow.

Snake then continues on to the server room. Meryl and Akiba decide to hold the inexhaustible supply of incoming FROGS back and buy Snake the necessary time to get to GW. As the pair battle, Akiba proposes to Meryl, claiming to have loved her ever since he had seen her on Shadow Moses (and stolen his uniform). Meryl refuses at first, but then turns things around and proposes to Akiba herself, which he accepts.

Meanwhile, Snake moves further into the core where he is surrounded by FROGS outside of the microwave corridor. However, Raiden appears (now completely armless) and tells Snake that he will hold them off for him. Snake enters the microwave corridor after outrunning swarms of Dwarf Gekkos and struggles towards the AI core as he is painfully bombarded by microwaves. Through force of will, he manages to reach the AI core where the Mk. III uploads the virus just as all hope seems lost.

With the virus uploaded, the FROGS suddenly lose their will to fight, Outer Haven is left totally defenseless, the RAYs attacking the Missouri are deactivated and the railgun is stopped from firing. A video of Naomi then begins to play on the screens in the AI core, where she explains that the worm, named FOXALIVE, used GW to penetrate The Patriots’ entire AI network, destroy all of the AI cores and disable SOP for good, effectively eliminating The Patriots in one blow. The Patriots had intended to extend SOP to the civilian population as well, at which point their control would have been universal. While Naomi believed that FOXALIVE would result in the end of modern civilization as key infrastructure was destroyed, it is revealed that Sunny modified her virus to preserve energy and resource networks essential to modern society. Snake passes out in the AI core before Missouri troops can come and extract him.

Snake later wakes up on the deck of Outer Haven where Otacon tells him that he will find medical assistance for Snake’s wounds. However, Liquid then appears and takes Snake to the highest point of Outer Haven. Liquid explains that he had always hoped that Snake would upload the worm, since now The Patriots were destroyed for good and Big Boss’s dream could now become a reality. He challenges Snake to one final hand-to-hand battle. The pair slug away at one another as Ocelot’s persona slowly begins to rise back to the surface through each repeated beating. Eventually, the two slowly beat on another to death as Snake gets the upper hand and fatally beats Ocelot to the point of death. Ocelot reveals that he was “Liquid’s doppelgänger” and then, reminiscing on his first meeting with Big Boss, tells Snake that “You’re pretty good”, before dying from his wounds.

In the game’s epilogue, the Nomad is used as a makeshift chapel for Meryl and Akiba’s wedding. Campbell and Meryl finally reconcile as he leads Meryl down the aisle. Otacon, Sunny, Mei Ling and Jonathan watch the wedding as Ed acts as the priest and marries the couple. Drebin then shows up, providing the couple with a shower of flowers and doves. As everyone parties, Drebin reveals that the “Drebins” organization of gun launderers were actually agents of The Patriots, used to keep the War Economy going. He was ordered to help Snake assassinate Liquid, although they had no idea that Snake would be used to inadvertently eliminate The Patriots. In addition, Rat Patrol were also inadvertently being used as Patriot agents. However, Drebin is happy to see The Patriots gone as it has given him freedom to create his own organization, although his fears that the UN might become the new “Patriots” as the collapse of the War Economy has sent many countries spiralling into deep debt. Sunny asks Otacon if she can give the Mk. III to a boy she met, her “first outside friend”, and asks Otacon where Snake is. Otacon evasively replies that Snake is sick and needs time to rest.

Meanwhile, Raiden recovers in a hospital, his cyborg body being replaced with one which resembles a human body more closely. Rosemary enters the room with a young boy, but Raiden at first refuses to speak with her. Rose reveals that her marriage to Campbell and her miscarriage were both deceptions used to keep her and their son, John, safe from The Patriots. Shocked, Raiden tries to reconcile with his son, who recoils at first, but then reveals that he thinks that his father is like a superhero. The three embrace and promise never to let one another go again.

Elsewhere, Snake visits the grave of Big Boss and prepares to complete his final mission. He draws his pistol and puts it in his mouth to end the threat of the mutated FOXDIE. The camera pans away as a shot rings out…

…however, as the credits begin to roll, it is revealed that Snake wasn’t able to commit suicide and fired into the air instead. However, he is suddenly confronted by Big Boss, who has somehow been brought back to life. Before Snake can react, Big Boss disarms Snake and then embraces him with a CQC hug. He explains that he has no intention to fight Snake. Big Boss reveals that the body destroyed in Eastern Europe was actually Solidus’. Since Solidus was actually a perfect clone of Big Boss, his genetic code had been sufficient to gain control of the system, whereas Liquid and Solid’s DNA was not a 100% match. He also explains that his body has been reconstructed using transplanted pieces from Liquid and Solidus. The destruction of The Patriots finally freed his consciousness from their nanomachine-induced coma and allowed Big Boss to return to life once more. Big Mama and Naomi Hunter had been instrumental to the deception that allowed Snake to destroy The Patriots, as they used The Patriots’ own attempts to defeat Liquid against them. Ocelot was also involved – he used nanomachines and hypnotherapy to trick everyone, including himself, into believing that he was possessed by the spirit of Liquid Snake, bent on wiping out The Patriots and bringing about Big Boss’s vision of Outer Heaven.

Big Boss also explains his history with The Patriots. When the worm moved from GW to the other Patriot AIs, it also revealed the location of the final Patriot, Zero. Big Boss then wheels Zero, now in a vegetative state, to Snake. Big Boss reveals that they will never be free of The Patriots until the last of its founding members is dead. He then shuts off Zero’s air supply and suffocates his old friend and bitter enemy to death. However, with Zero dead, this leaves Big Boss as the last founding member of The Patriots. Snake questions whether Big Boss will have to die next, to which Big Boss reveals that the FOXDIE implanted in Snake is already doing so – it already killed Ocelot and Big Mama, and will soon kill Big Boss as well. He also reveals that this FOXDIE strain will supplant the mutated one, meaning that Snake will no longer become a walking biological weapon, although if he lived long enough this strain of FOXDIE will also one day mutate.

Snake then carries Big Boss over to the grave of The Boss, where Big Boss salutes her one final time. He sadly reveals that he finally understands The Boss’s will: “It’s not about changing the world, it’s about doing our best to leave the world the way it is. It’s about respecting the will of others and believing in your own”. Snake and Big Boss share one last cigarette, while Big Boss tells Snake to spend the rest of his life living peacefully. After a lifetime of hatred, the two finally make peace. As he dies, Big Boss’ final words are:

In the game’s final post-credit scene, Snake meets up with Otacon. Snake explains that he has one more thing that he needs to do: he needs to see this age off and see what the future brings. Otacon agrees, telling Snake that he and Sunny have to pass on the memory of Snake to future generations.

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
Guns of the Patriots marks, in a lot of ways, some of the most revolutionary changes to the Metal Gear gameplay formula in the franchise’s history. While the basic gameplay systems are very similar to Snake Eater, the game has undergone some significant refinements or completely different design philosophies to give it a more “modern” feel, making the game play significantly differently than previous games in the franchise. Leading the refined systems is OctoCamo, which replaces the bothersome menu-hopping in Snake Eater. Now, Snake’s camo changes automatically if he is stationary for about a second, making sneaking considerably less bothersome. In addition, the Cure menu has also been eliminated, making the game far less menu-intensive. The only major menu-headache is due to the limited backpack slots – you only get (I believe) 8 items at a time and only 5 weapons, meaning that you’re often forced to pause and swap out for a new weapon… especially during cutscene transitions, which will often swap one of your weapons out for an M4 or an Operator pistol.

Guns of the Patriots‘ other big addition is the refined control options. Whereas previous Metal Gear games were strangely archaic in the actions they allowed Snake/Raiden/Big Boss to perform, Guns of the Patriots really opens up the player control. Snake is now able to crouch-walk, roll around on the ground, aim in both first and third person modes and strafe while firing. This actually makes Guns of the Patriots the first game in the franchise where going in loud is actually a viable option, as the gunplay is very smooth and responsive, and Snake isn’t bogged down by imprecise aim or arbitrary control restrictions.

On the potentially more negative end of the refinements though, the Codec has been reduced to being basically irrelevant. Whereas previous games had used the Codec for story information or to provide hints, the Codec in Guns of the Patriots is basically useless. You only get a couple of channels with which to chat with Otacon about mission hints or to recover your psyche with Rosemary (and shake her boobs with SIXAXIS…). Personally I do not mind this change, as I had always found that parsing out story info to Codec calls made you have to waste a ton of time calling people if you wanted more background, or just made you skip over it entirely if you just wanted to beat the game. Personally, I prefer if the story is actually told in-game rather than being basically context-sensitive, although I do know that some people became really sad that the Codec was reduced in effectiveness here. Don’t worry though, it only gets more useless from here on out!

In addition to these refinements, Guns of the Patriots has some great new elements which enhance the gameplay. Snake now as a “threat ring” which is very useful for maintaining situational awareness and helps as the game lacks a persistent radar. The game also features the Solid Eye, which highlights enemies, provides a short-ranged radar (with sound- and sight-radiuses marked) and has built-in night vision goggles. However, if there’s one problem with the Solid Eye, it’s that it is so good that it makes most of the other items in the game practically worthless in comparison. Like, as much as I want to listen to the iPod in-game, doing so is going to gimp my gameplay significantly. That said, you can at least use the in-game camera in third person mode without using your one item slot, which is handy (and helped me to personally take many of the screenshots in this retrospective entry).

The game also introduces a ton of new weapons and customization. Drebin introduces a whole shop of weapons which the player can choose to experiment with at will, while also providing them with weapons and equipment and incentivizing risk to acquire “Drebin Points” to pay for these rewards. Guns of the Patriots also has a robust weapon customization system which allows you to equip many weapons with various scopes, sights, underslung weapons, grips, laser sights and flashlights. It’s a pretty impressive system and helps when you want to create “that one super-weapon” that defines you as a player.

Guns of the Patriots also shakes up the Metal Gear formula significantly by being the first game in the franchise to have more than 2 distinct areas. In fact, it has 5 distinct maps, spread out over the course of its 5 act structure. Compared to previous Metal Gear games, each area also tends to be significantly larger (both in terms of map size and layout) which means that there are far less loading screens. However, this is a double-edged sword, as it also means that you will likely lose a lot more progress if you die near the end of an area. These 5 areas also contribute to one of the most derided aspect of Guns of the Patriots: the mandatory chapter-by-chapter installs. When the game first launched, each time you enter a new act, you have to install the data for the mission, which takes about a minute every time it happens. This was always an annoying process, but with the 2012 patch, the game can now be fully installed on the HDD. I had done this previously and forgotten about it, but when I realized that I didn’t have to go through the chapter-by-chapter install for this playthrough, it made me quite relieved.

These more open environments help to facilitate the fundamental sneaking gameplay of Guns of the Patriots, which is very refined and modern. In the first 2 Acts of the game, the sneaking all takes place on active battlefields, which is very cool and extremely impressive. Rebel and PMC forces battle one another as you make your way from place to place, with the option available to help sway the battle in favour of one side or the other. Unfortunately, if you’re going to sway the battle then there is basically no incentive to do so for the PMCs, as they will shoot you on sight regardless, whereas the militia/rebels will choose to ally with you. Aiding the rebel forces becomes a whole game unto its own, as the rebel forces have their own objectives to achieve and won’t be able to accomplish without at least a little help from Snake. The only problem here though is that this warzone-based sneaking only really occurs in the first 2 Acts. That said, they are definitely the 2 strongest in terms of pure gameplay enjoyment.

While Guns of the Patriots doesn’t have nearly enough active-battlefield sneaking gameplay, it does shake up its own formula very frequently with many different kinds of gameplay twists. For example, early in the Middle East, Snake and Rat Patrol get into a shootout with the FROGS which plays like a straight-up third person shooter. Due to the new control scheme, this sort of scenario plays out much more successfully than similar action sequences did in previous Metal Gear games, such as the stair shootout in Metal Gear Solid. The game also features two very exciting vehicular chase sequences, which show off the game’s much more action-oriented set-pieces and improved shooting controls. There is also an interesting split-screen segment where you have to blow up Suicide Gekko with a railgun while Vamp and Raiden duel, which is fairly cool.

It’s not all about the action though. The game also throws in twists on the stealth gameplay at times. Act 2 features an extended sequence where you have to hunt down Naomi by following her tracks and avoiding enemy patrols. Acts 4 and 5 also are incredibly difficult to complete if you don’t rely on pure stealth to get you through. While this is enjoyable, it isn’t nearly as compelling and unique as the “battlefield stealth” of Acts 1 and 2. Act 3 is also an entire level of “gameplay twists”, as it emphasizes stealth in an urban environment as you tail the resistance member. However, this mission has been derided as one of the absolute worst levels of the last decade due to the shoddy design of the resistance member’s AI. Whenever he gets spotted, or he spots you, his pathfinding gets screwed up and causes him to backtrack, making this level potentially frustrating as he constantly gets knocked off of, and back onto, course. In this playthrough, I must have spent 10 minutes chasing the stupid bastard in a circle around a city block as I tranquilized guards in front of him, causing him to backtrack before advancing to other guards, forcing me to tranq them as well, etc. However, by the time he was done running in a circle, the guards I had tranquilized in the first place had woken up, causing me to literally run 2 circles around this city block before I just double-tapped all of the guards in the area to give the resistance member a bloody chance to get from point A to point B without breaking his pathfinding. It was a right pain in the ass.

There are also a couple gameplay twists which are notable for how good they are at developing the story. One such case is the inclusion of the helipad sequence from Metal Gear Solid just before beginning Act 4 to help drive home the nostalgia of the story. There is also the button-mashing sequence in the microwave corridor which, thankfully, is super forgiving. It requires a solid minute or two of button mashing, but even I was able to complete it with no problem, and the pain it induces it clearly meant to parallel the pain being suffered by Snake himself.

It’s also worth pointing out that the graphics in Guns of the Patriots are still quite good, even 7 years removed from its release. In fact, despite being an early PS3 game, its graphics are still very good in comparison to many games from later in the PS3’s lifecycle (and arguably better than some modern games, such as Fallout 4). Most of this comes down to the character models, which are fantastic. The environments are much less impressive, with much lower-resolution textures, but the game compensates with a variety of atmospheric filters which make them look very stunning regardless. This is most clearly demonstrated in Acts 3 and 4. In Act 3, the entire environment is saturated with stark contrast and a bloom effect which gives off a film noir effect. Act 4’s return to Shadow Moses uses a blue filter and some impressive ice effects to both call back to Metal Gear Solid and demonstrate the harsh nature of the area. The environments of Act 4 in general are actually very well detailed and is one of the highlights of the game as you get to see most of Shadow Moses remastered in HD.

The problem with this though, in addition to the chapter-by-chapter installs, is that the game’s framerate tends to be wildly inconsistent. The framerate tends to hover around 30 fps at best, but whenever there are explosions or some other graphically-intensive event on screen, it will dip very noticeably. It doesn’t make the game unplayable by any means, but it is a performance issue which no previous Metal Gear really had to deal with and is especially prevalent during certain sequences, such as the Act 3 motorcycle chase.

In order to get to the gameplay though, players will have to wade through an insane amount of cutscenes. The very opening of the game gives you a good idea of how the game is going to play out as you watch a cutscene, take a few steps, watch another cutscene, take a few more steps, watch another cutscene, then get a couple minutes of rather intense stealth gameplay… which is then capped off by another 5-10 minutes of cutscenes. That said, cutscenes which occur in the middle of a mission do tend to be quite brief unless they serve some sort of very important story purpose, such as Snake and Naomi’s meeting in Act 2 or Big Mama explaining the history of The Patriots in Act 3.

The cutscenes start getting noticeably longer by the beginning of Act 3 though: just to start Act 3, you have to endure about 40-50 minutes of cutscenes and then there’s even a 60 minute sequence of cutscenes between the end of Act 3 and the start of Act 4. That’s not even the worst of it, as the game’s epilogue hold a world record for featuring a whopping 71 minutes of cutscenes to tie up the last of the franchise’s storylines. Guns of the Patriots also introduces pre-mission briefings which are technically interactive, but which are basically just overglorified exposition-dump cutscenes when all is said and done. They do help contextualize the upcoming mission well, but they are also a prime contributor to the glut of cutscenes in the game.

Now, with all of this said, the cutscenes are very well-directed and tend to be fairly interesting, although they do tend to be very exposition-laden. The option has also been added to pause cutscenes, which really helps when you need to take a bathroom break in the middle of an hour long sequence. The game also features multiple save breaks in the middle of some of these sequences as well, which is very thoughtful and suggests that Kojima and company were aware that they were going to be an issue for people. The thing is though that the game is only going to take you around 16 hours to complete, and around 2/3 of that playtime is comprised of cutscenes. In fact, after skipping cutscenes, I have beaten the whole game before completely undetected in about 3.5 hours in order to get ahold of some of the special emblems. This is actually close to being on par with previous Metal Gear games actually, but it’s still distressing that even the bulk of a first playthrough is going to comprise of cutscenes rather than gameplay. I think that it would be fair to say that Guns of the Patriots emphasizes cutscenes and story to the detriment of the gameplay.

The difficulty of enemy soldiers is going to come down to your difficulty setting. For this playthrough I chose to play on Big Boss Hard, and was actually surprised by just how aware enemies were. Even the basic enemies have reasonably long sightlines in which they can see Snake if you’re not being especially cautious, prompting them to investigate. They can also pick out your footsteps, making hold-ups and CQC difficult to pull off if you’re too daring. It’s also worth pointing out that many regular soldiers look different from one another based on their role, not to mention that their character models all change from mission-to-mission based on the PMC they are a part of (which is probably why they are phased out after Act 3). The FROGS (aka, Haven Troopers) are similar to regular soldiers, but with improved armour, senses and mobility. They also have a very cool and unique design which is (in my opinion) on par with the Storm Trooper uniform in terms of its iconicness. In the latter-stages of the game, FROGS replace regular soldiers, helping to up the difficulty in a natural way.

In addition to the regular mooks, Guns of the Patriots also features a few unique, unmanned enemy types which you will have to face off with on a regular basis. Most prominent among these are the Gekko units. These pseudo-Metal Gears are really intimidating the first time you see them – they have a fantastic introduction, unique design, a really iconic theme tune, a strangely unsettling “moo” call, and are very deadly if they detect you. Their main cannons can stagger Snake and take off quite a bit of damage in the harder difficulties. If they’re blocking your path, which they often are, their “leg sweep” attack can also knock off 75% of Snake’s health in one hit, making them incredibly difficult to take on in a one-on-one battle. There are also enemies called Dwarf Gekko which appear starting in Act 4, which are very annoying to encounter. They’re not particularly dangerous on their own, but they always appear in swarms. If they detect you, they will come at you in droves. They seem to respawn during alerts, meaning that if you try to destroy them all, more will just keep coming. When facing off against Dwarf Gekko, it seems that the best strategy is to remain undetected and to just run if spotted. The game also has a few one-off enemies, such as the flying “Slider” drones, a LAV, a tank, some jeeps and even PMC troops in an armoured exoskeleton (a la Ripley in Aliens).

Unfortunately, after some of the most stellar boss battles in the franchise’s history with Snake Eater, Guns of the Patriots features a rather hit-or-miss selection of boss fights. In fact, while Portable Ops can be forgiven for its limited hardware and disposable nature, Guns of the Patriots really marked a trend of decline for the series’ boss battles, which would never again reach the heights that the series had been known for in the past. This is not helped by the fact that the game’s “boss squad”, the Beauty and the Beast Unit, have basically no personality and are just a transparent amalgamation of enemies from previous games defined by a single emotion. All of the Beasts also have a “Beauty” form, which always plays out the same way – a supermodel will emerge from their exoskeleton and pursue Snake for about a minute before dying automatically (if not shot first, although they seem to have a 50% chance of dodging all incoming bullets). These encounters are interesting the first time they happen, but each subsequent encounter gets boring quick as they are all the exact same.

The first battle in the game is in Act 2 against Laughing Octopus, which is fairly interesting. The fight itself is pretty boring (basically a stand-up shootout for the most part), but what makes it interesting are Octopus’ hiding spots and mimicry attempts. You spend most of the “fight” trying to figure out where she is hiding, and there are lots of devious places where she does so. It seems that her spots are randomized every playthrough as well, so you probably won’t even see them all the first time you beat her – I know that she didn’t utilize at least a couple of hiding spots during this playthrough, so she was always keeping me on my toes. She can get fairly frustrating though on higher difficulties, as her tentacles can kill you in 2 hits and her rolling attack will knock off 75% of your health with very little time to get out of the way of it. I was getting really frustrated because the fight itself was proceeding very easily, but then she’d suddenly kill me out of absolutely nowhere due to these extremely high-damaging attacks. Still, it is a very unique encounter, and definitely one of the best bosses in the game.

Next up is the Act 3 battle against Raging Raven, which is pretty poor. Raven basically just strafes your position and fires her grenade launcher every once in a while. She’s also quite a bullet sponge – I went through all of the ammunition in my M4 twice just to kill her Beast form. The only real test is avoiding getting blown off of the roof by her grenade launcher (which is totally random) and spotting her in the first place (she is surrounded by Sliders, which resemble her quite a bit). As a result, the battle boils down to “shoot her until she dies, and don’t get shot yourself”, which is just boring. It also doesn’t help that she has a really annoying personality, as she spends the whole fight yelling “RAGE! RAAAAAAGE!!!” over and over again. She must have taken some lessons from Khorne.

One of the best boss battles in the game is the sniper duel between Snake and Crying Wolf out on the Shadow Moses snow fields in Act 4. This battle is clearly meant to homage Snake’s second battle with Sniper Wolf, but I personally think that it bests that battle in terms of its gameplay. For one thing, the shooting controls are so much better in this game that you can actually reasonably partake in a sniper duel without having to resort to nikita missiles to cheese your way through. In addition, the game’s graphics are better able to sell the idea of this being an epic showdown in the middle of a blizzard. To make matters even better, there are also FROGS present during the fight which are constantly hunting you down and the cold is constantly biting away at your stamina bar, making this a very tense battle. There are also some interesting twists, as Crying Wolf can catch your scent if you’re downwind, and she is only vulnerable if she exits her exoskeleton or if you shoot off one of her two grenades. All-in-all, it’s a very fun and tense sniper duel which not only successfully homages one of the great battles from Metal Gear Solid, but actually improves upon the battle itself.

Unfortunately, it is then followed up by a battle with Vamp shortly after, which is easily the worst boss battle in the whole game, and easily one of the worst in the entire franchise. Despite being a pretty awesome villain, Vamp spends the entire battle just hopping from platform to platform while you pump him full of bullets. Occasionally he’ll jump down and perform an easily-dodged attack or throw some knives at you, but these attacks come surprisingly rarely, even on Big Boss Hard. On subsequent playthroughs, this fight becomes even more of a joke if you manage to unlock the solar gun, which can one-shot Vamp. The only “challenge” in the fight is figuring out how to finish off Vamp. This is actually kind of an annoying puzzle as I’m sure I’m not the only person who had no idea that the syringe could be used in CQC. Once you are aware of this trick though, the fight becomes a joke.

However, this is shortly followed up by a Metal Gear REX vs Metal Gear RAY fight to cap off Act 4, which is awesome. It is moderately annoying for introducing a completely new control scheme and attack methods out of nowhere, which means that you’re probably going to die once or twice just getting used to handling REX. When you get the hang of it though, this becomes a really fun and unique battle that fulfills many a Metal Gear fan’s dreams.

The final Beauty and the Beast Unit battle is in Act 5 against Screaming Mantis, which is clearly just an extended Psycho Mantis homage. Unlike Crying Wolf, this battle is not nearly as good, both as a homage and just in general gameplay. The fight is essentially one long puzzle as you first inject yourself with the syringe and then try to shoot off Mantis’ dolls. The fight then ends once you use her doll to tear off her armour. It’s pretty simple, but the homages are overbearing throughout the fight – we’ve got the HIDEO 1 screen, Meryl trying to shoot you/herself and even an appearance by the spirit of Psycho Mantis himself, who ends up being the actual force behind the Beasts inexplicably (which tramples on his sorrowful death in Metal Gear Solid).

Finally, the game ends with a one-on-one fight fight between Snake and Ocelot on top of Outer Haven. Similarly to the REX vs RAY fight, this is reasonably annoying for introducing completely new gameplay concepts out of absolutely nowhere, playing more like a very simple fighting game rather than Metal Gear. It also fails to explain a very crucial strategy that is basically required to win the fight on higher difficulties, that you can hold triangle during a taunt to restore health. That said, the fight itself is extremely brutal and epic in equal measure as the franchise’s biggest hero and biggest villain settle their scores once and for all. Despite introducing completely new concepts to the franchise at the very last moment, it’s a fantastic battle and easily one of the greatest moments in the whole franchise.

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS
More than any previous Metal Gear game, the enjoyment that one will get from Guns of the Patriots is tied heavily to their previous investment in the franchise’s story. This is because Kojima has very intentionally tried to wrap up all of the series’ dangling plot threads which, if you are a fan, is an extremely daunting task. As a result, Guns of the Patriots is very much a fans-only release. I can remember when the PS3 was still early in its lifecycle and a co-worker asked if there were any good games out for it yet. I wanted to say Guns of the Patriots, but I knew that if they hadn’t played any (or ideally all) of the previous games before then they would be absolutely lost. However, if you are a fan, then Guns of the Patriots is arguably the best ending that anyone could have asked for. Miraculously, it manages to wrap up the franchise’s numerous storylines very definitively and in a very satisfying manner. In fact, it manages this so well that it actually makes the stories of previous Metal Gear games stronger in retrospect (in particular, it makes Sons of Liberty actually make sense). This is even more of a miracle when you remember that the franchise was put together piecemeal during each new game.

The game’s main theme is supposed to be “SENSE”, but it is probably best described with the idea of a person’s “will” (dammit Kojima, stop trying to make a theme for your themes). This is most clearly demonstrated through the conflict between Zero and Big Boss, which sprang out of differing interpretations of The Boss’s will, and which ended up shaping the lives of countless people over the decades that the conflict boiled. It is quite symbolic that the history of Big Boss and The Patriots is explained by Big Mama (aka, EVA) inside of a church, with numerous allusions being made to religion. Whether anyone wants to admit it or not, all religions are very much built upon a system which attempts to interpret the “will” of the god(s), prophet(s) or holy text(s) which comprise their belief system, which is then further interpreted by individuals. Any religious person can tell you that all religions are full of countless factions which form from people interpreting the “proper” will of their deity in different ways and with different levels of zealousness about the righteousness of their cause. The link between The Boss’s will and religious belief is very much intended to be a clear allegory.

Of course, both Zero and Big Boss failed to truly comprehend The Boss’s will. For Zero’s part, he believed in worldwide unity through total control, and idea which he attempted to pass on to his AI networks. However, the AIs were unable to properly interpret Zero’s will – they continued to try to maintain control until they realized that they could use war to achieve this end, which ended up plunging the world into the War Economy. This downfall actually mirrors the history of The Philosophers, whose own will to unite the world peacefully failed as soon as they passed their wills on to their children, which led to the Cold War. For his own part, Big Boss spends his life fighting to protect his own interpretation of The Boss’s will, but fails to truly understand her will until he is on his own deathbed. Ultimately, these opposing wills are used as ideologies from which conflict flows.

Guns of the Patriots also places a strong emphasis on the idea of the commodification of war. The game’s opening TV channel cinematics portray a world which is very strange, a world in which our sense of “morality” has been eroded to the point where a disembodied, cyborg head acts as a gameshow host, where war is an everyday part of peoples’ lives, and where private military corporations have their own super-flashy advertisements during prime time. The War Economy as presented in the game is a pretty fascinating concept, where most of the world’s militaries are outsourced to private contractors. Rather than fighting to further an ideology (or a “will”, you could say), they fight for nothing more than a profit. Rather than honing their skills over the course of a lifetime, soldiers now gain all of their skills from nanomachines, which suppress PTSD and prevent soldiers from committing war crimes. However, due to interference by The Patriots, the War Economy ends up becoming a driving force for the world’s finances, meaning that war is suddenly no longer an evil means to an end, but rather a driving force of the capitalist system. Already, in a lot of ways, war does have this sort of economic effect, although it isn’t exactly at the point where it is the driving power behind the entire worldwide economic situation. While it is presented in a sci-fi setting, it is very much a concept which has relevant parallels.

The manufactured necessity of war is something which seems to affect many of the characters very seriously. For example, when SOP’s emotion controls are suddenly taken away, the soldiers are suddenly confronted with all of the emotions they had experienced in combat, causing men to literally die as they get overloaded with massive amounts of PTSD. For them, war has been nothing more than a game until the reality of it all hits them at once (a statement obviously intended to parallel the players’ own experiences playing war games). The Beauty and the Beast Unit is also intended to tie into this – each of them were an innocent casualty caught up in the collateral damage of war which broke their psyche beyond repair. With so many conflicts spanning across the globe, it is implied that each of them is a direct product of the evils perpetuated due to the War Economy.

Interestingly, when Liquid hijacks the SOP system, many of the characters panic about what this will mean for the world economy, as his actions have unexpectedly led to the first global ceasefire in human history. The hypocrisy of these statements was really staggering to me, as world peace is a lofty goal which we could only hope to achieve in reality. When world peace comes with a dollar sign attached to it though, the world’s governments are thrown into a panic.

Guns of the Patriots also significantly expands on the concept of moral ambiguity which the series had been introducing ever since Sons of Liberty. A great number of the franchise’s villains are either exonerated or at least partially justified in their actions by the time that the game ends, while even the heroes are given shades of grey. The franchise’s most clear-cut evil villains, Big Boss and Liquid Ocelot, both end up being redeemed in the player’s eyes by the time that the credits roll, although their respective actions were still quite monstrous. Liquid Ocelot in particular is quite the enigma – over the course of his appearances, he is personally responsible for the deaths of countless individuals, but he also brings about a worldwide ceasefire and conspires to end the control of The Patriots and the War Economy. One could argue that he was making necessary sacrifices to reach an ideal ending which would save far more lives, although I would still argue that he is very much an evil man… just one who is far more sympathetic than we had been led to believe.

The identity of The Patriots also ties into this theme. Their identities actually caused a minor controversy back when this game came out. A lot of people have complained that it was completely ridiculous that the big villains of the entire franchise were the “comic relief” from Snake Eater, but I personally have the feeling that this was always intended to be the case. Between Portable Ops and the parallels shared between the downfall of The Philosophers and The Patriots, I actually think that the idea was to show that the people who founded The Patriots were good people who did so with the best intentions. However, the corrupting influence of unlimited power eventually turned them into monstrous individuals. Such an idea actually fits into the themes of Guns of the Patriots quite well. The only issue is that we lacked the context to really understand such an ideological shift (unless you played Portable Ops), but the foundations definitely seemed to be there to me.

The game also recontextualizes Solid Snake to make all of his “heroic actions” into unwitting actions which were allowing The Patriots to continue to dominate the world. Outer Heaven, Zanzibar Land and Shadow Moses were all intended insurrections against The Patriots by Big Boss/Liquid Snake, but Solid Snake was used as an unwitting tool to maintain their power. This twist actually works quite well and shows that Snake was never really in charge of his own destiny. You’d think that that twist would piss off some of the fans, but it seems to have been accepted fairly well.

In addition to its themes, Guns of the Patriots also has some great narrative moments which make it an absolute joy for fans to experience. The plot sets up a lot of “rules” early on (such as the exact methods required to break into The Patriots’ systems), which are then cleverly subverted using pre-established story elements from previous games. The game also has a ton of fantastic moments which rank amongst the best in the whole franchise, either due to their strong narrative impact and importance to the overall storyline, or just because they’re freaking awesome. For example, Raiden’s introduction as a cyborg ninja was so cool that it launched a whole game, the REX vs RAY fight is extremely awesome, as is Solid Snake’s final fist fight with Liquid Ocelot, and Snake and Big Boss’s final reconciliation at the grave of The Boss. The game also just has some great plot beats: for example, Act 3 culminates with a series of huge twists as Liquid brutalizes Snake, leaving him permanently maimed, Big Mama dies trying to save “Big Boss”, Liquid succeeds at gaining control of SOP, massacres a unit of US marines, and then leaves the supposedly insurmountable Patriots in a vulnerable position for the first time in the franchise’s history. It’s moments like this which really make Guns of the Patriots enthralling to experience (even if they are rather long-winded at times).

However, the game’s heavy emphasis on narrative does not come without problems. One of the more cringe-worthy elements is the excessive use of scatalogical humour early on in the game, generally based around Johnny “Akiba” Sasaki. In his introduction you literally find him shitting profusely inside of an iron drum (with his ass showing for comic effect). He then proceeds to shit his pants in the middle of a firefight, with his pants comically stained brown for the rest of the battle. There are also a few different instances where Snake can come across enemy soldiers pissing, including one instance where the soldier can actually piss on Snake. I’ll admit, these moments did make me chuckle from the ridiculousness of it all, but it’s not hard to argue that the game would probably have been better off without this, especially since it tries hard to make Johnny into a heroic figure later on.
Oh, and also you can tear this statue’s dick off if you touch it too many times.

The game also has more plot holes and inconsistencies than most other Metal Gear games do, mainly by the sheer nature of trying to tie up so many disparate storylines. For example, how the hell did Meryl, Jonathan and Ed not realize that Akiba had no nanomachines? Was it not strange to them that they couldn’t share their senses with them? Does this work like in MGO where they had to manually link with him to share SOP, but were left thinking that he just refused to link?

Also, there’s a really odd retcon where Raiden suddenly is changed to actually being a member of FOXHOUND serving under Roy Campbell, even though in Sons of Liberty he admits that he has never actually met The Colonel. It was always implied to me that he was being pulled around by AIs and that FOXHOUND was disbanded, but with this inconsistency we’re suddenly led to believe that Raiden might have actually been a legitimate FOXHOUND soldier, but one who never personally met Campbell, having to switch between the real one and an AI at times in all likelihood. It’s a confusing inconsistency, although the only really major one in the game thankfully.

The Solidus-Big Boss switcheroo in Act 3 was actually a pretty brilliant twist, but by the time it is revealed, it makes Big Mama’s sacrifice not make a lot of sense. Big Boss explains that she was aware of the switch, so when she leaped onto the fire to save the body, was she merely doing this for show? It’s possible (she did think that Ocelot was totally rogue at this point so she might have done so for appearances), but hard to justify. Similarly to Psycho Mantis, Sniper Wolf and Vulcan Raven sacrificing themselves pointlessly, it seems like this is a plot element Kojima wanted to introduce for impact and then involve in another twist long after the player would have forgotten the exact details.

Finally, the justification tying Shadow Moses back into the plot is quite clever, but it also doesn’t make a ton of sense. I mean, as the owner of a series of PMCs, couldn’t Liquid have afforded to just build his own railgun rather than go to the trouble of stealing REX’s? The game claims that the manufacturing and operation of WMDs, such as this railgun, are controlled by JD rather than SOP, but we also see that Crying Wolf fires a miniaturized railgun, so he clearly has the technology necessary to construct one. Furthermore, Liquid was the one who leaked the plans for REX to the public in the first place, so he clearly knows how to build a railgun for himself. Are you telling me that he lacks the funds and trust to get someone else to build one for him? Is he afraid of a Patriot agent infiltrating his manufacturing and putting an ID lock on the weapon? The fact that there are also nuclear weapons lying around on Shadow Moses is also kind of hard to believe, you would think that the US government would have done something about this long ago or at least put the island under guard once again. The only justification I can think of is that Liquid’s plans might have changed after Act 2, which prompted him to get a railgun and nuclear weapon at short notice. Don’t get me wrong, Guns of the Patriots concludes the franchise with aplomb, but it introduces a lot of plot conveniences in order to get there.

In addition to its plot holes and inconsistencies, Guns of the Patriots also features some rather stupid plot elements which drag it down somewhat. One of these is the half-assed attempt to demystify some of the magical elements of the franchise. Foremost amongst these is Vamp, whose abilities are handwaved away as being the result of nanomachines. This is supposed to make things make sense, but unfortunately it fails to explain how Vamp is able to walk around on water, pin down your shadows, super-jump or run on water (especially since injecting him with the syringe only removes his regenerative abilities, the rest of his powers still remain). It’s a failed plot device which ends up coming across as “Kojima’s midichlorians” in a lot of ways.

There’s also the moment which I have famously stated might be one of the stupidest narrative moments in the whole franchise where Raiden stops Outer Haven, a gigantic Arsenal Gear, with nothing more than his body… even though the ground he’s standing on his crumbling beneath him. It’s completely idiotic and the height of the over-the-top moments in the game. You can’t even justify it with “magic realism” or “sci-fi technology” either, because we’ve already seen Raiden struggling just to keep up with simple Gekkos – are you telling me that somehow he’s now able to hold back a gigantic battle fortress which previously wiped out multiple city blocks in Manhattan? Or what about the fact that the pier Raiden’s standing on his crumbling, to which he stabs his own foot, which somehow stops him from losing any ground? It’s just an idiotic moment which makes me shake my head every time I see it, especially because Raiden ends up surviving being crushed anyway, making the whole sequence absolutely pointless.

Series fans will be happy to learn that nearly every major character from the previous games makes an appearance or are at least referenced. The only exceptions are most of the characters from the first 2 Metal Gear games and, for some disappointing reason, Nastasha Romanenko. Foremost amongst the characters though is “Old Snake”, which is easily my favourite portrayal of Solid Snake. In fact, it is my personal opinion that Solid Snake never really came into his own until this entry. His advanced aging makes him very unique amongst video game protagonists, while also have some very major impacts on both the gameplay and the narrative. Ever since the end of Metal Gear Solid, Snake has been a force of optimism, but his advanced aging seems to have caused him to become disillusioned and somewhat of a nihilist. This is symbolized by Snake’s smoking throughout the narrative – people constantly chide Snake for smoking as it will one day kill him, but he doesn’t care as he knows he is going to die soon anyway.

Throughout his journey, Snake is focused simply on completing the last tasks he has been assigned before he dies. Initially, this starts with finally defeating Liquid once and for all, but as the plot progresses he realizes that he will have to end his own life. Having FOXDIE make a resurgence which will turn Snake into a walking biological weapon is a pretty great twist which makes the game’s nihilist tone in the early chapters hit harder. Snake has spent much of his life fighting back against the perception that he is not a person, but rather a weapon created in a lab, but this revelation simply escalates him to a literal weapon of mass destruction. Attempting to complete his final tasks takes a heavy toll on Snake. By the end of Act 3, he has become an absolute wreck pushing himself to the verge of death, but who simply fights because it is the duty he has assigned himself. As he states to Raiden, “We started this. And it’s our duty to finish it”. It’s only through sheer force of will that Snake is able to complete his missions, but he falters at the very end, finding himself unable to commit suicide.

Luckily, the timely intervention of Big Boss finally allows Snake the ability to reacquire his lost sense of optimism as he discovers that he will not become a living biological weapon anytime soon. Reintroducing Big Boss at this juncture was a rather insane decision, but luckily it works quite well. Especially considering that he really is the second “hero” of the series, it is very appropriate that he would get his proper conclusion in the series’ finale. As a result of this unexpected reunion, Snake and Big Boss both get their “happy” endings – father and son reconcile after spending much of their own lives trying to kill one another, while Big Boss orders Snake to spend the rest of his life in peace. This gives Snake one last purpose in life, to see the end of his era off and to help build a better future. This is symbolized by the fact that he stops smoking in the game’s post-credits sequence, having found something worth living for beyond his mission. It’s a very hopeful and fitting end for the series’ main heroes, both of whom finally find the rest that they had so long wished for.

Unfortunately, the series’ third protagonist, Raiden, really becomes insufferable in Guns of the Patriots. While he gets to pull off some insanely awesome action sequences, Raiden’s personality has regressed considerably from where it was in Sons of Liberty. I know that most fans think that Guns of the Patriots redeemed Raiden as a character, but personally I much preferred him in Sons of Liberty, especially by the ending. In this game, he is significantly whinier than he ever was before. Whereas Snake loses his optimism because of his own imminent death, Raiden loses his optimism due to Rose’s miscarriage and then his own inability to face the situation, which causes him to just run away from all of his problems. This actually just makes things worse, as he gets captured by The Patriots and turned into a cyborg, his original body reduced to little more than a jawless head and his spine. It’s a pretty disturbing fate, but one that Raiden wouldn’t have endured if he had been willing to just talk to Rosemary rather than run away from all of his problems.

Throughout the game, Snake tries to get Raiden to reconcile with Rosemary, but Raiden refuses to even acknowledge that she exists. He even attempts to volunteer for a couple different suicide missions in order to end his self-imposed “suffering”, to which Snake constantly tells Raiden to get some perspective. While Snake has no future, he insists that Raiden has a family and his youth to live for, but Raiden refuses to acknowledge either of these facts. When he gets crushed by Outer Haven, Raiden seems to momentarily realize that he does still love Rose, but this is immediately forgotten the next time that we see him as he tries to commit suicide again. Even in the ending when he finally reunites with Rosemary, he refuses to even acknowledge her presence until she tells him that she didn’t miscarry, that she still loves him and that they have a son. At this point, Raiden finally realizes that he has been a complete idiot for the past few years, and finally reconciles with his family, realizing that they are the most important thing in his life. If nothing else, at least this is a happy ending and we can assume that Raiden finally grows the hell up this time… right?

Liquid Ocelot also makes for a pretty great villain. This is mainly due to his importance to the series as a whole, which lends a lot of power to his portrayal. He’s a rather great, cackling, over-the-top villain who revels in theatrics. His chronic backstabbing disorder is also in full effect, with the rather insane revelation that his was merely faking being possessed by Liquid Snake’s arm in order to fool The Patriots into destroying themselves. It’s… pretty elaborate, but at least it’s better than psychic arms, right?

It’s also nice to see Meryl make a return, and she’s pretty damn badass. She doesn’t actually get to do all that much within the plot, as most of her actions end up getting foiled by the villains in one way or another, but she does have some great interactions with Snake and has a distinct presence within the story. She’s also super imposing – usually this sort of action heroine will be very conventionally beautiful and visibly incapable of actually winning a fight (see Waif-Fu), but Meryl is jacked. She could probably steal your lunch money if she wanted to.

On the flipside, the game introduces Akiba as a completely inept soldier, but then fails to convince us that he could possibly perform a 180 degree turn and suddenly become a super soldier. Meryl falls in love with him out of absolutely nowhere and then the two of them start gunning down FROGS in perfect synchronicity inside of Outer Haven in one of the corniest sequences in the entire game. Like, this just makes no sense from what we’ve seen of Akiba – he doesn’t just fall behind the others, he is also demonstrably an idiot, as he fails to turn the safety off his gun, alerts the PMCs to their position and nearly blows Snake’s cover at the Eastern Europe checkpoint. Having Meryl and Akiba get married is a pretty ridiculous conclusion to both of their storylines. Personally, I would have just been happier if Johnny Sasaski remained a goofy cameo-character rather than a full-blown major character of his own in this entry.

Oddly enough, Sunny Gurlukovich is probably my favourite new character, and is easily the best female character in the whole game. As those who played Sons of Liberty will know, she has a really tragic backstory as an orphan kidnapped by The Patriots who never actually met her mother. During the nights, she searches the Internet for information on Olga, hoping to finally understand the mother she never had. It’s actually rather heartwarming when she begins to bond with Naomi Hunter, as she finally gets a mother figure who she can share her interests with. She is also someone who has spent their life viewing the world through a computer screen, rather than experiencing life personally. This intimate knowledge of computers actually comes in handy, allowing Sunny to perform advanced technical feats, while also creating the virus which allows The Patriots to be destroyed while preserving modern society. As a result, The Boss’s will is finally accomplished and Sunny essentially becomes one of the biggest heroes in the entire franchise. By the end of the game, she finally steps outside of the Nomad and immediately makes friends with a foreign boy, despite the two of them not sharing a common tongue. She has a pretty fantastic character arc, especially considering that she’s only 7 damn years old and a secondary character within an action game!

Unfortunately, pretty much every other female character is severely mishandled in one way or another. Naomi Hunter is decent for her medical and scientific expertise, as well as her unclear motives which help to bring about the downfall of The Patriots. However, Kojima can’t help but make it so that she doesn’t know how to zip up her shirt, baring quite a bit of cleavage for pretty much the entire game. It’s not even just a single instance, she has a couple different outfits which are identical, and Kojima takes a few different opportunities to focus our attention on her cleavage. She also pulls off a pretty big dick move by getting into an intimate relationship with Otacon, despite knowing that she has terminal cancer and is going to die soon. She could have at least let him know… Ultimately, her death is quite sad, but I found that this is mainly because it makes Otacon sad, rather than because I felt bad for her in particular.

The rest of the female characters are worse. Rosemary is absolutely useless to the plot and feels like she was only brought back as a token reference and to let you use SIXAXIS to jiggle her breasts (seriously…). Her lying about miscarrying was also a MASSIVE dick move which causes Raiden no end of suffering. Mei Ling serves a similar role, basically just showing up to be sexualized by Akiba (who literally tries to grab her ass during a briefing). I mean, she’s a ship’s captain and seems to take the role very seriously, but Johnny still tries to grab her ass and stares at it the whole time they’re together. You could argue that this is just because Akiba’s an idiot, but Kojima has been trying to make him a big hero at this point, so that doesn’t make a lot of sense as something other than a supposedly “funny” gag. Big Mama also is kind of strange. For one thing, having an elderly woman baring her cleavage is actually quite progressive in some ways and doesn’t seem to be nearly as fan-service-y as many of the other questionable design decisions in the game, but her presence basically boils down to little more than an exposition dump and then fridging to drive the rest of the game onwards.

The Beauty and the Beast Unit is probably the absolute worst offenders though. They completely lack personalities outside of their one-dimensional emotion and it is very clear that they exist for little more than fan service, with any other considerations just tacked on after the fact. Their Beauty phases in particular are 100% fan service as they serve little purpose other than to pan the camera over the Beauties’ tits and asses in their skintight suits (and remember, these scenes were originally supposed to be of naked women). You can also take photos of the Beauties, in which they will actually pose for you if you wait long enough in the fight. Each of the Beauties is also based on a real-world supermodel, making it incredibly obvious that Kojima was just taking advantage of his position to hang out with models all day for his “work”. The game does try to get you to sympathize with them, but this does not occur until after you have defeated them, at which point Drebin will call and tell you a “bedtime story” (which tends to always follow the same lines). It’s pretty shameless and unfortunate, but the shitty portrayal of women throughout the game hardly sinks the entire package.

As for the other characters, Otacon is as great as ever, but he doesn’t really develop in any meaningful way. In fact, he basically rehashes the same character arcs that he has had in his previous 2 appearances. Campbell gets pretty similar treatment, being little more than an exposition-dropper throughout the plot until the very end, where it’s revealed that he protected Rosemary from The Patriots. It’s nice to see Vamp make a return as well, his brand of freakish, charismatic villainy is very welcome, even if his boss battle absolutely sucks. Finally, Ed and Jonathan, the other 2 members of Rat Patrol, receive absolutely no character development. As a result, when they almost die in Eastern Europe and reminisce with one another, I couldn’t have given less of a shit.

All-in-all, Guns of the Patriots has some great core gameplay and a great story which brings the franchise’s storylines to a satisfying conclusion. However, it doesn’t really gel together quite as well as many previous Metal Gear games did, with it being saddled with a ton of bloat, incredibly intrusive cutscenes which comprise about 2/3 of the total runtime and shakier design decisions. Fans will be sure to appreciate the plot details that these cutscenes introduce, but non-fans will find themselves lost within the first hour. As a result, Guns of the Patriots is a difficult game to properly score. As a big fan of the franchise, I really appreciate it and love how well it ties everything together, but I really have to stress that this game should be experienced by fans only.

9/10