Platinum Games has a reputation for making critically acclaimed gems that hit retail with all the force of a damp marshmallow. The one-two punch of Bayonetta and Vanquish in 2010 ensured that Platinum was widely discussed when it came to the end-of-year polls, and cemented its reputation with a certain breed of core gamer, but the sales figures did relatively little for Sega's bottom line. For Platinum's three founders - Shinji Mikami, Atsushi Inaba and Hideki Kamiya - that curious mix of adulation and frustration will be nothing new. Previously, the trio had formed the core of Capcom's mercurial Clover Studio, but the mastery evident in games like Viewtiful Joe, Okami and God Hand couldn't survive the harsh realities of business.
On the surface, Metal Gear Solid Rising: Revengeance is Platinum's best chance to buck that trend. HD re-releases aside, the Metal Gear Solid series has been dormant since the fourth game's blockbuster release in 2007. For the first time, Platinum is working with a proven AAA brand, and one that has the potential to eclipse the sales of its previous work even with a lesser game attached. Fortunately, Metal Gear Rising's focus on single-player action places it squarely in Platinum's area of expertise.
Still, questions remain: Can the combination of Metal Gear's style and Platinum's gutsy action overcome the market's apparent bias against single-player AAA games? Will fans of the series be content with Raiden in the starring role after the divisive Metal Gear Solid 2? Will the Metal Gear Solid 5 hype train prove too distracting for Rising to be noticed?
GamesIndustry International's Matthew Handrahan and Brendan Sinclair pondered these questions and more as they played through Revengeance. Their answers, and the questions raised in turn, follow below.
Matthew Handrahan: Here's the thing - I'm no great admirer of Hideo Kojima's blend of innovation and indulgence, and Platinum Games' short, stylish bursts of excitement have failed to live long in my memory. Yet I find Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance a beguiling proposition. Let me explain.
As a PC gamer for most of my life, my experience of Metal Gear Solid was entirely composed of stolen play sessions on the consoles of my more tolerant friends. The rhapsodic praise heaped upon the series left me in little doubt that I was missing something truly remarkable, but my grasp of that was limited to dislocated chunks as I stopped off between sessions on Warcraft and Championship Manager. My first, full exposure to Kojima's peerless bravado was Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots, and I'll be honest, it only worked for me half the time. But when it did...
Platinum Games could be the antidote to all of those ponderous, hand-wringing cut-scenes. Finding significant faults in the mechanical execution of a game like Bayonetta is a fool's errand, but there was a curious sense of emptiness to it that the constant colour and motion did an excellent job of disguising. It's probably a good thing that you see the world of Vanquish from behind the shoulder of someone sliding on his knees in slow-motion, because once the pyrotechnics subsided there was precious little food for thought.
"Kojima's intricate mythology grafted onto Platinum's skill for visceral stimulation sounded foolhardy at first, but on reflection it might just be perfect"
Kojima's intricate mythology grafted onto Platinum's prodigious skill for visceral stimulation? Brendan, it sounded foolhardy at first, but on reflection it might just be perfect.
Brendan Sinclair: It's certainly an intriguing combination, but more for the idea that Platinum might finally have a well deserved hit on its hands. I've been a fan of the work of Mikami, Inaba and Kamiya since their were working for Capcom as Clover Studios, and, in my opinion, their action game acumen is entirely unmatched. Bayonetta and Vanquish gave players an array of destructive tools: flexible enough to be wielded as hammers, bluntly button-mashing through hordes of opponents, but as precise as a scalpel for those willing to plumb their glorious depths. That's a rare quality in games today, when engagement is more often driven by achievements, unlockables, and other ephemera only tangentially related to gameplay.
From the Metal Gear side, I've never been a huge fan of the series. I find trial-and-error stealth games more annoying than enjoyable, but Metal Gear Solid 4 allowed for more impatient gamers (like me) to resort to running and gunning when necessary. I romped, frustration-free, through the game's sprawling, self-indulgent story, and I watched in amazement as Kojima tried to run his own narrative into the ditch, veering wildly from absurdist bathroom humour to geopolitical moralising to lightweight philosophising.
Just thinking about Metal Gear Solid's distinctive brand of crazy mixed with Platinum's knack for top-notch action has me giddy for a new game for the first time in ages. The only thing giving me pause is Platinum's dubious entry to the project: a last ditch attempt by Kojima Productions to salvage a project it was struggling to bring together. I mean, we saw what happened when Gearbox took over Duke Nukem Forever...
Matthew Handrahan: Ouch, Brendan. Ouch.
Well, after two exhilarating hours of play, I can confirm that Metal Gear Rising has gracefully parried all possible comparisons to the Duke, and diced any remaining doubts into a thousand gruesome chunks.
Strangely, though, I found it reminiscent of 3D Realms' decade-long folly in one very specific way. My abiding impression of Duke Nukem Forever was of a game that had its cake and ate it too, sabotaging its own lame attempts at satire by trotting out every single dubious trope in its iron-sights. Now, schizophrenic camera aside, Rising isn't bad in any way that I've encountered so far, but Platinum Games' mercurial gift for lithe, fluid brutality sits uneasily beside the introverted Metal Gear mythos.
For all its intentional silliness, Metal Gear Solid 4 was a melancholy experience, and the most committed exploration of the series' core themes since its inception. Kojima may have gone to unreasonable extremes to make his points about war and violence, but I forgave the sermonising on the grounds that he is one of the few developers interested in giving a sermon at all. Yes, there were farting monkeys in metal underpants, but when it comes to AAA games I take depth wherever I find it.
"Is the game a critique of developers who wallow in violence, the players who consume it, or the industry that commodifies it? Are the developers at Platinum exempt from that criticism?"
Platinum Games is to be commended for playing to its considerable strengths, but the brief spats of hand-wringing over the avalanche of death tumbling from Raiden's blade seem absurd in the face of the obvious glee with which said death is meted out. I guess any game about the hollow morality of war with a core mechanic about slicing people into ribbons is bound to run into a contradiction or two.
That isn't a criticism so much as an observation. Right now, I feel like I'm getting 90 per cent Platinum and 10 per cent Metal Gear, which is great in one way and slightly disappointing in another. Brendan, when you stop swinging the blade for long enough to reflect, how does it feel to you?
Brendan Sinclair: It actually feels perfect to me, and very much in keeping with Metal Gear Solid 4's tonally conflicted construction. And while the Platinum mark of quality is clear up front, the further through the game I get the more I see the Metal Gear underpinnings. For example, I just toyed around with the codec radio calls for the first time, and I stumbled upon what must have been a 10-minute summary and discussion of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene, and its theories about cultural memes. It's exactly the kind of self-indulgent, non-interactive pit-stop that has become Hideo Kojima's trademark. Except for Raiden's comically raspy voice - like someone doing a slightly fey impression of Christian Bale's Batman - and the occasional mention of a room full of children's brains in jars, that high-level summary wouldn't have been entirely out of place on NPR.
But when placed in the context of a hyper-violent video game decrying the literal dehumanisation of soldiers and the use of VR training to inoculate children to the horrors of war, it becomes a fascinating critical thicket. Is the game a critique of developers who wallow in violence, the players who consume it, or the industry that commodifies it? Are the developers of Platinum or Kojima Productions exempt from that criticism? I don't know yet, and I'm not sure that I'll have answers for those questions even after I'm done playing.
Matthew Handrahan: Brendan, you called it.
Those codec radio calls offer a surprisingly rich seam of Kojima's typical musings, but any notion that Platinum Games was holding back from the full weight of Metal Gear's socio-political theorising in the actual campaign was all but destroyed by the final hour. Was Raiden really fighting against the physical embodiment of American exceptionalism and corporate greed? That's certainly how I read the encounter, and I struggle to think of another game that has stated its politics quite so brazenly. It's a commendably ballsy move, but I do wonder how it will play to a North American audience.
Ultimately, though, the sheer skill evident in Rising's combat mechanics will surely be enough to sway the majority. I'm astounded by Platinum's knack for identifying a protagonist's unique traits and expressing them through gameplay. Raiden is all swashbuckling forward motion: defence and attack are effectively the same thing; first-aid is administered by detaching and pulverising an opponent's eerily glowing spine. So many games delight in the arbitrary removal of capability, snatching away powers and skills to lazily manufacture new objectives. Platinum Games knows better.
"Metal Gear Rising is a specialist. But success in the AAA world has been claimed by the generalists: the games that have a bit of everything"
With that in mind, it's arguably fitting that the game doesn't take its time in reaching its conclusion. My game clock showed just over 5.5 hours, and, with no multiplayer modes, this relative brevity has raised more than a few complaints. I can't say I'm surprised - Vanquish was a similar length, and built for replay value rather than weighed down with extra features - but in the world of contemporary AAA development, I wonder how much longer this sort of short-but-sweet approach can last. The amount of content in games like Skyrim and Assassin's Creed 3 has set a dauntingly high bar for value in a $60 release. For me, Metal Gear Rising doesn't quite clear it.
I've never been an S-rank gamer, and there's nothing to stop those of a similar mindset from waiting for Rising to show up in the used-game section. My gut tells me that's exactly what happened to Bayonetta and Vanquish.
Brendan Sinclair: Agreed, Matt. I would love to see Rising sell truckloads. It was certainly worth my $60, but I doubt many gamers today will agree with me on that. Metal Gear Rising is a specialist. It does one thing: sword-swinging action. It executes that thing brilliantly, and in a way we've never seen before.
But success in the AAA world has been claimed by the generalists: the games that have a bit of everything, appealing to as many people as possible, and doggedly file down any rough edges (or personality) that could turn off prospective customers. Ultimately, Metal Gear Rising is just a little too different from the accepted norm to pass for a bona fide blockbuster, an off-putting but expertly crafted anomaly that perfectly reflects the cyborg Ken dolls it counts as characters.