Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance

PS3 / Xbox 360

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance
A new Metal Gear starring Raiden, a sword-wielding cyborg soldier, who slashes in half pretty much everything in arm's reach.

Despite doling out an unending avalanche of fanciful weapons, Metal Gear games not-so-subtly deplore the use of lethal force. For the most part they'd prefer if you let the machine guns and rocket launchers lay fallow in inventory and instead dealt with the innumerable terrorist forces using only a tranq gun. When Raiden receives his first sword, towards the end of Metal Gear Solid 2, the weapons menu helpfully indicates that it can be swung blunt-side first, should you prefer to non-lethally dispatch the hundreds of mechanically-augmented super soldiers between you and the final boss.

So it should come as a bit of a surprise the first time, in Metal Gear Rising, that Raiden rips out a cyborg enemy's robo-spine.

The future still sucks. Disassembling the Patriots didn't turn everyone into free-thinking, peace-loving, self-actualized individuals like we hoped. As in Metal Gear Solid 4, nations are still fighting proxy wars through the use of Private Military Companies and now cyborg technology has proliferated to the point of universal accessibility.

Rising, which bears the satisfyingly absurd and suitably Kojima-esque subtitle "Revengeance," was originally conceived as a mostly-stealthy mostly-nonlethal Metal Gear Solid 4 prequel. After spending two years without reaching critical mass the project was handed off to Platinum, who reshaped it into a "character action" game more in the mold of Bayonetta than Metal Gear. It is very fast, it is very aggressive, and it is very violent.

Raiden, now a member of one of the less obviously evil PMCs, is a lightning-quick, ultra-strong cyborg who gets his mechanically enhanced body replaced with a different, better, mechanically enhanced body after the first one gets roughed up by a guy with an exploding sword. Now he can slow down time and manually aim sword swipes to slice up limbs, pillars, boxes, watermelons. Combat flows with deadly efficiency, where the player whittles down an enemy with a hail of quick and strong attacks, lines up a perfect slice after freezing the world with a shoulder button press, then obliterates their foe by stripping out their spine with a quick time event (usually with a complimentary "Dead On!" from Raiden).

Spines are rich in electrolytes, the game promises, and the most immediately available source of health in almost all situations. The only way to keep in tip-top shape is by slashing your enemies limb from limb before tearing their life away with your bare hands. The analog stick sword-aiming is a bit fidgety, but easy enough that blindly swiping about while in slow-mo will yield enough health-giving spines to keep Raiden alive, if not in tip-top condition. Expert players who take the time to master Blade Mode will experience a surfeit of spines, sometimes two at a time, and barely see the health meter dip at all.

It is gross; it is really gross (though the gore is nominally softened because all the spines are robot spines: they look like sky-blue rave necklaces, not gristly hunks of meat) and it happens a half-dozen times in every combat encounter. The developers show off their cutting physics with a collection mini-game where Raiden must remove the hands of certain enemies with a precision slice in order to secure data hidden in their cyborg parts. Flicking the analog stick up and to the right and being rewarded with a glittering green cyborg forearm, shorn-off at the elbow, is similarly gross.

It is gross, but it is gross in this unfairly satisfying way. Fights are in a constant staccato flux of fast motion - slow motion - fast motion, recalling the editing in a Zack Snyder movie but without the onerous task of watching a Zack Snyder movie. The game's core lies in tiny moments of anticipation. The anxious pause between tearing out an enemy's spine and crushing it into paste. The slight delay as Raiden jumps into the air before he's able engage Blade Mode and slash through the leg of a 20 story tall robot. The hold-and-release charge-up of an explosive quick draw. Raiden feels quick, and powerful, and in the first few levels nearly unstoppable, because all he needs to do to top off his energy tanks is waste the nearest guy and all he needs to do to reflect storms of bullets is hold down the run button.

It's not a particularly hard game, at least not on Normal, but this may be because the ramp-up from combat encounter to combat encounter is extremely gradual and meticulously paced. By the time the drop-kicking gorilla robots are encountered en-masse the game has ensured you've learned the skills to survive.

It's also not the longest game, but it'll still probably take six or seven hours. More if you're determined to collect hidden items, find optional combat encounters, or remain undetected during the numerous stealth sections. Raiden upgrades his stats, purchases weapons, and learns moves using "Battle Points," which are primarily acquired by slicing people in half. There are only a handful of mechanics and a handful of weapons, but the elegant flow of combat -- dashing from enemy to enemy, dropping an EMP grenade to stun a Gekko before jumping into the air to slice out is power core, ruining a horde of Tripods with a pole-arm sweep -- never gets boring and never feels repetitive.

Bosses are slow moving balls of danger that occasionally burst into hyperactive attack frenzies. They are not quite up to Bayonetta's level, but they have their moments: usually when they're jettisoning themselves towards you in a screen-length, world exploding charge attack. Raiden's primary defense is to parry by pushing towards the enemy and attacking. The motion is awkward, but the timing window is extremely generous. Boss fights are hectic from the start, but they don't get particularly hard until the mid-point and even then you'll usually have a 5-stack of consumable healing nanopaste on hand. Most of them retreat every 30% of their life bar anyway, depositing fresh grunts onto the field who are ready to contribute their healing spinal cords at Raiden's convenience.

Taking this into account -- fodder enemies that are treated like living juice boxes and are literally faceless (their eyes and mouth covered by robo-visors) for the first three levels -- it paints a very poor picture of Raiden, and of the player, who indiscriminately murders everyone around them in the most graphic way imaginable just to sustain their own life.

That brand of self-awareness is why Rising feels like Metal Gear, despite its sword-through-the-chest stealth kill animations and despite its extensive use of middle school-caliber Nu Metal during boss fights. There are enough stealth sequences to prove it remembers its roots (you can hide from cameras and tiptoe around in a box, if you like) and there are enough codec conversations about future tech and historical Native Americans to make it seem like Kojima had a hand in this, though the optional dialogue can be measured in minutes instead of hours. Buzzwords like PMC and "War Economy" are bandied about in most every conversation. If the creators of MGS4 didn't write Rising's script whoever did certainly studied the source material.

And isn't it kind of funny, and isn't it kind of sad, that pretty much the only videogame willing to say "maybe the near-total lack of accountability we handed off to these quasi-military organizations in the 00s wasn't the best thing ever" is the one with a robot chainsaw dog?

But isn't that also what's so great about it? It's Metal Gear and sometimes that makes it hard to take seriously. It name-checks 9/11 and WMDs in these really obvious, attention-seeking ways. It has cigar-chomping villains who proselytize about the greatness of America in the way we worry is how the rest of the word thinks we act. YouTube comments are a plot point. It's all so incredibly on the nose, but the tension between its absurdity and its incisiveness is why we love Metal Gear. This is one in a scant handful of videogames with the gall to use the names of actual countries instead of ginning up some vaguely Arabic sounding name, planting it somewhere in the Middle East, and calling it a day. That ought to count for something, at least.

It's strange to play a Metal Gear game that so frankly encourages killing. It's also strange to play a Metal Gear game without an hour-long ending. We'll get used to it. Rising is exceptionally crude, and it is crude in a really graphic, sometimes disturbingly violent way that completely eclipses Metal Gear Solid's occasional poop joke. It is also expertly designed, carefully plotted, and even kind of subtle (for about a second or two), such that when it finally has its moment of "hey, don't you feel bad about ceaselessly murdering all these people?" it is completely earned.

And then it drops you into a boss fight with a guy who wields electric laser sais because, hey, it's still Metal Gear.

Overall : A-
Graphics : B+
Sound/Music : C+
Gameplay : A
Presentation : B+

+ Fast paced, fairly technical gameplay. Metal Gear Solid-lite storytelling
Sometimes awkward controls for parrying and analog-stick sword slicing

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