Metal Gear Solid 4

I finished MGS4 a short while ago. I haven't mentioned anything about it yet because I wanted to get an overall feel for the experience, especially since my opinion on the game has changed so drastically over the course of the past couple of weeks. Coming off my first session I was convinced I wouldn't be able to play it due to the amount of movement in the camera (neccessary movement in order to check and negotiate your environment constantly). That was somewhat disappointing to say the least. Luckily the constant positive feedback I was getting about it from various people encouraged me to try it again, and lo and behold - either I got used to it or something about it changed, but I didn't have a problem since.

As I've mentioned previously, I'm a huge fan of the original MGS (its high placement in my top 100 is testament to that), but the subsequent instalments on the home systems never quite gripped me the same way. However, finishing MGS2 was a hollow experience - not, as you might expect, because of Raiden. I didn't mind the character at all. It was more my feeling cheated by what I saw as a lazy retread story and a largely bland location. Looking back on it I did have plenty of fun in small doses, but I can't shake the overall disappointment.

MGS3 I've just never been able to get into. I've tried both the original and the Subsistence versions, and never gotten more than a few hours into it. I think I just lost the patience for stealth gameplay, and losing patience in MGS3 almost invariably leads to a frustrating death.

In MGS4 you're given enough backup in terms of equipment to take the game on in your own style. Sneaking or guns blazing are both viable options. Early on I found myself trying to take the stealth route, but in the end I found it much more satisfying to play as an action game... mostly (there are a few occasions where that isn't an option).

The game is heavily weighted towards cutscenes, which is a given for an MGS title. I don't have a problem with this, as I'm heavily invested in these returning characters and their story. What it did was bring about a curious state of mind while playing, though. I found the opening sections of the game fairly unengaging. Something about the location maybe, but it came off as another military shooter. Something I have absolutely no interest in. I found myself wanting to skip the gameplay sections to get to the cutscenes, and every time I was given control of Snake it became almost a chore. There are a few clever moments, but on the whole I felt that the opening act was quite lacking.

Luckily it picks up quite splendidly in act two, and continues to build from there. Act four in particular is magnificent. At some points I found myself gobsmacked by what I was seeing onscreen - it's a real technical tour de force, possibly the most visually impressive game I've ever played in fact. It's not all in the big moments though, there's something particularly impressive about the facial rendering on the characters; it's managed to leapfrog the uncanny valley and present a cast of totally believable digital actors. Not quite perfectly real, but rendered with such flair and attention to detail that they become genuine personalities.

The big moments are out in force too, though, and it's here that my main gripes about the game are to be found. There are few things as deflating in a videogame as being treated to a tremendously exciting cutscene full of action, then being given control in order to perform a rudimentary task. There are occasions where, between scripted events, you are given control of Snake and simply have to run down some stairs, or turn a corner. On the flip side you do get to perform some pretty thrilling sections, but they are few in a game of (for me) around 15 hours. I have to admit that what kept me interested in playing through was the story, and that did live up to my expectations as a sometime fan of the saga.

Having said that, I think there is more 'game' to be found in there, and subsequent plays will turn up more interesting and fun ways to interact. Playing it stealthily for example, or going for a no-kills game. Also, I barely scratched the surface of the equipment side of things, or seeing what I could do with Metal Gear Mk.II - a small robot companion that can stealth, knock out enemies and interface with equipment. I was only ever reminded of its existence when it turned up in cutscenes. I replayed the Playstation game many times, refining my game until I could tackle it on the hardest difficulty with a good rating. I'm not so sure this one will tempt me to do the same but it will certainly get another play or two.

Spoilery bit:

Surprisingly, the game actually does tie up the whole story and give satisfying conclusions for all the major characters. I suspect a hefty chunk of it is down to retconning, but it works. The biggest impact on me was the return to Shadow Moses. It serves a function in the plot, but it also covers the bases of fan service and being a commentary of one of the themes of the game. The effects of age on the location and on Snake himself, the push forward of technology - which is presented to you in no uncertain terms at a couple of points. Curious how the undoubted highlight of the game should be a chapter harkening back to an older title. Nostalgia obviously plays a part, but there's also a heavy melancholy about it, like revisiting the house you grew up in and finding it derelict.

In dealing with the characters the game stumbles a little on the emotional side, tending towards the overwrought and melodramatic. I tend to find this with Japanese media, so generally I put it down to cultural differences. Everyone has their moment to shine, the game going out of its way in particular in order to win audience favour for Raiden (who, it has to be said, shows up to save the day a little too often).

End of spoilery bit..

Overall MGS4 is an undeniably thrilling experience. One that I can recommend without hesitation to anyone interested in the series. It won't convert you if you don't care for the others, and it certainly won't hold nearly as much appeal for someone for whom this is the first taste of Metal Gear (it won't be completely impenetrable, but so much of it is anchored to knowledge of the past games much would be missed). It houses some definitively 'next gen' moments, and is put together with an unparalleled level of professionalism and passion. An arthouse blockbuster of a videogame.

Quad Cor!

I've lurched forwards in technology once again, probably for the briefest of periods. My new PC just arrived, it's something of a monster. Basically I'm setting myself up for Spore, Fallout 3, and Dragon Age, but I'm also keen to play the things that I've wanted to for a while but my old PC just couldn't do justice to. Neverwinter Nights 2 and Company of Heroes chiefly.

I bought Mass Effect for it and by golly it's lovely. I mean, the 360 version ties for my game of last year with Virtua Fighter 5, but the tweaks to the PC version really make it shine that little bit more brightly. I'm perpetually cynical about PCs, and even though I bunged the best stuff I could possibly afford into it I still expected some performance issues with such a demanding game. Well, I'm ecstatic to report that it is smooth as butter. Never drops a frame no matter what's going on.

Saturn emulation is perfect as well. I'm currently in the process of installing all the games I care about, to see how they fare with Vista. Touch wood - from what I've read and my experience so far I may just get away with everything working. I don't play a vast amount of Windows games (most of my PC gaming is through DOSbox), but it's looking pretty promising.

Anyway, I'm no PC bore so I won't drone on about it. Just had to blog a bit of my happiness.

You wait all year for a game...

...And four come along at once.

It just struck me that I have four games to buy this week. For someone who generally shies away from new games and has a very short list of potential purchases, I find it painfully amusing that I should be shelling out for a big chunk of them in the space of a week. Mass Effect PC, Civilization Revolution, Metal Gear Solid 4, and Sins of a Solar Empire have all turned up at the same time. A couple of weeks ago I bought Rock Band (which is awesome), and on top of that I just finally ordered a new PC. The current one has served me very well indeed, giving me five years of service this summer, but it really can't hope to handle the stuff I want to be getting into in the coming months.

I've been tinkering about with the demos of Sins and Civilization, and they are both superb. CivRev in particular is a joy; it takes the essential gameplay of Civilization and streamlines out the flab, leaving a very nicely paced strategy game with a genuine sense of fun. Now, I love the main series Civs too, and wouldn't swop them out for this, but as a single-session game when I'm looking for a bit of strategy it's pretty much perfect.

The only unknown quantity is MGS4. I absolutely adore the Playstation original, but other than that I could take or leave the series. 4 is the make-or-break for my PS3, which is currently surviving as a Blu-Ray player. The new PC has a Blu-Ray drive, so if MGS4 doesn't hit a very sweet spot indeed it's bye-bye.

Well, at least after these I don't have to buy anything new until Fallout 3 or Spore. Whichever hits first.

Adventures In Text

No, this isn't about Roguelikes, it's about actual text adventures - a genre I've traditionally not gotten along with. However, I've just completed a text adventure for the first time and I did rather enjoy the experience, despite a few periods of frustration.

I think everyone around my age who had a home computer in the 80s must have tinkered around with The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings (Book One). It seemed mandatory, even if you really weren't interested in the subjects. My experience of them pretty much summed up my experience of every text adventure I tried since; I would wander about aimlessly for a bit, battle against the parser, come up against the first puzzle and give up in bewilderment and frustration (I never got out of the first room in CRL's Frankenstein).

One I remember sticking with for an inordinate amount of time was Rigel's Revenge on the Spectrum. I seem to recall I made a fair amount of progress, but I never finished it. Later as an ST/Amiga owner it became obligatory to try out The Pawn and a few of the subsequent Magnetic Scrolls titles. Always with the same results.

I think my main problem was that I could never quite wrap my head around the concept of an adventure game allowing you to pass a point of no return. Very early on I was introduced to Lucasarts' (then Lucasfilm Games) graphic adventures, and a major feature of them was the fact that you couldn't become irretrievably stuck. You could always go back and get something you missed, and in most of them you could actually never die. Maniac Mansion I think was an exception, though I've personally never played much of it. As far as I remember you had to go really out of your way in Zak McKracken to get to an unwinnable position.

The anomaly here is that around the same time I happily played and completed King's Quest III - a notoriously unforgiving game filled with instant death. With that one I was just thrilled with the setting and the notion of sneaking around to get things done, with the danger of being found out at any moment (the first part of the game has you, as a put-upon wizard's 'apprentice' - though more slave - secretly learning magic and gathering ingredients for spells every time your master leaves the house). It's getting on for 20 years since I played it, but I can only assume there were a lot of failed attempts involved, and a lot of reloading.

So, since then I've really avoided text adventures. Of course the genre died out commercially at the end of the 80s as graphic adventures took the crown for a while, and several years exclusively playing console games didn't exactly keep me up to speed with either the history of the genre or its continued development in the homebrew space. It's always been something that's nagged at me though. I've had a folder on my PC for a couple of years called The Best of Interactive Fiction 1994-2004, which is a huge collection of freeware text adventures and the interpreters to run them. I've never delved into it seriously, but it's there as another one of those things that I fully intend to get round to... at some point.

Indeed, how I initially became enamoured of Infocom and Wishbringer is more to do with my fetish for vintage games and their physical presentation than a desire to actually play them.

Infocom games always came very lavishly packaged. Aside from the game itself there was an abundance of material in the box. Functioning as flavour, background, clues, or just simply cool stuff, each one was made uniquely special by these extras. Booklets, letters, maps, badges, even a scratch-and-sniff card for Leather Goddesses of Phobos... this is the stuff of dreams for a vintage game fan and collector. It's the embodiment of the difference in game packaging between the old and the new. These days it's a disc in a plastic case and - if you're lucky - a little more than a rudimentary pamphlet.

So, I'd been gathering up the old RPGs and regularly browsing places like The Computer Game Museum, and I found my way into the Infocom section. A treasure trove of trinkets indeed. One of my regular ebay sellers had a complete copy of Wishbringer in his store, so I went for it. A few things drew me to Wishbringer over plenty of other choices; it's classed as an introductory level adventure, it was written by Brian Moriarty (who wrote Loom at Lucasarts), and most importantly of all... it came with a glow in the dark stone. Yes, I am quite easily pleased.

Wishbringer concerns the quest of a regular postman (yourself) being tasked with the mission of finding a particular cat for an old lady. Of course that's not entirely the case and nothing is as it seems. You're soon plunged into a twisted otherworld version of your sleepy little village, complete with eldritch vapours in the graveyard, talking platypuses, duelling mailboxes and a militia force consisting of giant boots.

Going with my regime of properly playing the games I own allowed me to get into the mindset required, and possibly the most important thing - making a notated map. This is the absolute key to getting to grips with these games, and it seems such a simple, obvious measure that I'm embarrassed that I never bothered to do it back in the day with my fumblings around The Hobbit and The Pawn. Maybe I would have even cracked Rigel's Revenge if I had bothered to record everything properly. The map and notes are absolutely essential because as I mentioned above - these games are designed to be trial and error. It is very much a part of their nature to allow you to miss vital objects and not be able to return for them, to lose or destroy something you need, to die at the hands of an enemy, to work your way into an inescapable prison.

I restarted a lot. But - having a map and notes meant that I could always return to the same point of progress within minutes. Of course I could save and restore the game at any time, but mostly I'd only be saving a failed attempt anyway. Wishbringer didn't present me with any particularly head-scratching puzzles. It's almost entirely inventory-based. If you have the right item for the thing that needs doing, you'll immediately know what to do. There are a couple of moments of more lateral thinking but on the whole it's very clear. I had to consult online help twice in the game. Firstly because I'd neglected to find a coin before a point of no return (it was in a fountain I'd simply not looked in), and secondly due to a bit of parser wrestling. I'd come to the conclusion that I should try getting a creature out of a pit using a tree branch, but the game wouldn't let me either scoop it up, dig the pit wider, pull the creature with it, or anything else I tried. The solution was to drop the branch in to the pit, at which point the creature would grab into it, then pick up the branch. So really just a semantic conflict.

In the time I've been dabbling about with Wishbringer I've acquired a few more adventures: Stationfall - another Infocom one that comes with a slew of funky stuff - and the Magnetic Scrolls titles The Pawn, The Guild of Thieves, and Jinxter. I'm feeling very confident and inspired to get stuck into them, having learned a thing or two about the quirks and approaches needed for these games from Wishbringer.

Finally, a mention must go to the quality of the writing on show in the game. It ought to go without saying that the quality of a text adventure game would hinge heavily on its text, but it really was a well-crafted and fun experience both ingame and in the supplementary extras. Regardless of this it's clear to see why this genre didn't survive commercially. The satisfaction of a puzzle solved and a story well told just wasn't enough in the face of rapidly advancing graphical games. However, there's something to be said for leaving things to the imagination... I have a vision of a place and its inhabitants in my mind that would no doubt be very different to anyone else's, and that personal touch makes my experience of Wishbringer all the richer.