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Did the ‘Metal Gear Survive’ Beta Allay or Add to our Fears?

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I must admit, I feel kind of bad for Konami. I’m no less disappointed than anyone else by the series’ jarring shift away from the relentlessly original, narrative-driven, stealth-action of the past towards the hackneyed zombie survival genre. And I’m certainly not condoning Konami’s allegedly appalling treatment of its former employees.

For all their mistakes and putative misdemeanors, however, it’s still somewhat tragic to witness a developer that’s provided countless gamers with so many happy memories over the years, fall so far from grace in the eyes of its fans and struggle to escape from the mire of controversy in which it finds itself; all while it attempts to move on from the acrimonious departure of auteur Hideo Kojima and take the series forward.

Having played a fair few hours of the recent Metal Gear Survive open beta, however, I have to say, my sympathy is waning.

Much as I enjoyed the beta’s albeit meager offering of ‘salvage missions’ to begin with (once I’d got my head around the game’s bewildering array of systems and menu screens, that is), it wasn’t long before that initial excitement wore off and the experience became a tedious slog.

Taking place between Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain, Metal Gear Survive follows a group of Militaires Sans Frontières soldiers who, after being sucked into a wormhole during the evacuation of Mother Base at the climax of Ground Zeroes, are thrust into a desperate fight for survival in an alternate dimension that, it just so happens, is inhabited by hordes of weird, crystalline zombies. Their goal, to mine enough ‘Iris Energy’ to reopen the inter-dimensional portal and return home to the perfectly-normal-by-comparison reality in which the rest of the MGS universe is set.

The plot is as bat-shit crazy as it sounds. Not that Metal Gear has ever shied away from the incredible, of course – there was an honest to goodness vampire in Sons of Liberty, for crying out loud; not to mention a scene in Guns of The Patriots in which a technologically enhanced Raiden holds back a speeding, 50,000-ton battleship, almost literally, single-handedly. The difference is, these moments, as close to jumping the shark as they sometimes came, possessed an originality and kind of charming absurdity that Survive seems to lack in its seemingly by-the-numbers approach to survival action. Moreover, these moments actually tied into the wider MGS universe one way or another. The more outlandish features of Metal Gear Survive, by comparison, come across as derivative; the product of focus testing and market research, not the frenzied mind of a creative individual like Kojima.

Indeed, though Survive certainly looks and even sounds like a Metal Gear game – the UI and graphical style in general will be intimately familiar to anyone who played The Phantom Pain, while a handful of traditional sound effects, the alert noise, for example, are preserved too – there’re few conceptual similarities between it and Kojima’s original conception; something he himself identified shortly after the initial reveal. In other words, rather than creating an entirely new IP for its first foray into the online-focused, survival genre, Konami decided to cash in on the Metal Gear brand instead, though it meant provoking the animosity of fans. The theory being, presumably, that this would ultimately be the more profitable option of the two; the Konami execs realizing that a group of die hard fans will undoubtedly buy anything Metal Gear related on day-one, regardless of quality, and that this approach would enable the developers to re-use assets from previous titles in the series.

However, it’s important not to extrapolate too heavily at this stage regarding the thematic and metaphorical aspects of Metal Gear Survive, at least. The beta itself was severely lacking in context, after all; and content, for that matter.

After having created their avatar in the game’s actually quite comprehensive character creator, and coming to grips with the various features of the unnervingly clinical hub area –which, out of interest, bore more than a passing resemblance to a hospital operating theater/serial killer’s clean room – the player is able to choose between one of three ‘salvage missions’.

The aim of these missions is to defend an automated mining device located at the centre of the map from three increasingly large and aggressive waves of the above-mentioned zombiecorns, while it extracts ‘Iris Energy’ from the alien environment; the substance needed to allow the stranded soldiers to re-open the wormhole that sent them here in the first place and return home. Mercifully, given the sheer number of threats surrounding them, the player can call on up to three friends (or random strangers online via matchmaking) to aid them in their onerous quest to escape this benighted land, along with a prodigious arsenal of weapons, traps, and barricades. There’s one rather serious caveat, however: the soldiers have to make the ammunition, traps, and defensive fortifications they need themselves from scratch, meaning the player must spend a certain amount of time during each mission scouring the landscape in search of the requisite raw materials, and/or completing randomly generated ‘side-missions’ in the hopes of being rewarded with a new weapon blueprint or a nice big cache of rare resources.

This reliance on crafting and, because the player can only carry a certain amount of gear before they become over-encumbered, inventory management, is a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s certainly effective at ramping up the tension, making the player dig deeper into their vast bag of tricks during missions, and communicating the importance of strategy (thinking carefully about which items to use at any given time and when is key to success on the higher difficulty levels). But it also means the player is more often than not reliant on melee combat to dispatch the encroaching hordes, which is a bit of a problem when the hand-to-hand combat is as imprecise as Survive‘s.

There are bigger issues to consider, however, the most intrusive of which I’ve already mentioned. You see, while the crafting system is pleasingly deep and the process of gunning down scores of hostile zombies or eviscerating a 20-strong mob with a single, well-placed trap hugely is satisfying at first, it’s far too repetitive to retain the player’s interest for long. And, crucially, I’m not sure this is simply a consequence of the beta’s frugality.

In my experience, I found the salvage mission’s core feedback loop inherently dull: repel zombie assault, harvest resources, strengthen defenses ahead of next wave, finish mission, replenish supplies using recently acquired resources, repeat. There just doesn’t appear to be any real spontaneity or diversity to proceedings.

Now, because the single and multiplayer portions of the game are connected (hence the always online requirements addressed by Goomba Stomp’s Andrew Vandersteen in a recent article), it’s more than likely the main purpose of these salvage missions is to give players another opportunity to resupply outside of the main campaign; intentionally designed to be short and relatively straightforward so as not to get in the way of more pressing matters. Nevertheless, I worry the laborious, repetitive nature of these missions is A. off-putting as a meta game and B. an insidious, subtler way of enticing the player into spending money on microtransactions. Not necessarily to gain an advantage over other players you understand – if Konami is to be believed, loot boxes aren’t part of the Metal Gear Survive experience – but to ease the otherwise infernal grind.

And, though it’s perhaps not as problematic as the issues just raised, I have to say, I’m also a little concerned the game will be too action-orientated.

Unlike State of Decay or The Long Dark, for example, the majority of each salvage mission I undertook was spent slaughtering mindless zombies, rather than fortifying a defensive position, fighting against a host of potentially fatal factors to keep the player avatar’s body in good working order, or sneaking around a group of high-level enemies in an effort to snatch a juicy bag of goodies. No doubt these systems and mechanics will feature more heavily in the single player campaign, if nowhere else, but even then, I can’t escape the feeling the survival elements will be executed in a somewhat slap-dash manner and thus that the overall experience of playing Metal Gear Survive will be far less diverse, rewarding, and enjoyable in the long run.

To return to the title of this article, as far as I’m concerned, the beta did little to assuage the nagging doubts I have about Metal Gear Survive.

The salvage missions I played, while certainly enjoyable in small bursts, are far too simplistic and repetitive to provide lasting entertainment; which, I agree, wouldn’t pose much of a problem if they served as an optional distraction from the main story. However, as the single and multiplayer content is interlinked, I fear players will be forced to undertake salvage missions with exasperating frequency in order to top up their resources, weapons, gear etc.

That being said, when you consider the dearth of content available in the beta, it could rightly be argued that it’s unfair to infer too much or pass final judgement until the finished game releases next month.

While I agree with that statement in principal, I would counter that by saying I was just as concerned by the things I didn’t play during the trial period as the largely underwhelming things I did. For instance, although Konami has confirmed there will be a 15-20 hour single player campaign to sink our teeth into, we don’t really know if there’s a deeper narrative hiding out of sight. Nor has it been explained how the always-online internet connection and drop-in, drop-out co-op will affect the story.

Naturally, developers aren’t going to showcase absolutely everything they’ve been working on in an open beta. Especially if the game in question is under such scrutiny as Survive. But let’s not forget, the likes of Overwatch and Ghost Recon: Wildlands, to name but two, managed to give players a far better indication of what to expect during their trial periods, generating excitement and interest in their titles, without giving everything away prior to launch.

Because of that, I can’t help but wonder if this was Konami’s plan all along with the Metal Gear Survive beta. To entice both the doubters and more opened-minded fans alike with a couple of undoubtedly entertaining if ultimately flawed secondary missions, convincing them that the game is worth the gamble after all, despite the initially vociferous response; concealing any narrative, mechanical, or environmental weaknesses until after the game has released and they’ve made their money.

Counting Final Fantasy VII, The Last of Us, the original Mass Effect trilogy, and The Witcher 3 amongst his favourite games, John enjoys anything that promises to take up an absurdly large amount of his free time. When he’s not gaming, chances are you’ll find him engrossed in a science fiction or fantasy novel; basically, John’s happiest when his attention is as far from the real world as possible.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Mike Worby

    January 27, 2018 at 9:34 am

    Man this game looks awful. I cannot for the life of me fathom what Konami is doing.

    • John Websell

      January 28, 2018 at 7:55 am

      Perhaps Konami thought it’d be easier for us to accept it’s transition away from AAA video game development if it ended any lingering hopes we may have had of another decent Metal Gear game?

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PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Ghostrunner,’ ‘Everspace 2,’ and ‘Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’

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‘Ghostrunner,’ ‘Everspace 2,’ and ‘Wrath: Aeon of Ruin’

We’ve already covered a wide variety of the games on display at PAX South this year, from retro revivals to unorthodox romances to everything in between – and we’re not done yet! In this next roundup article, we cover three more ambitious, action-packed games: Ghostrunner, Everspace 2, and Wrath: Aeon of Ruin.

Ghostrunner

Ghostrunner

Ghostrunner was one of the most in-demand games at PAX, and after playing it, it’s easy to see why. This first-person action slasher, developed by One More Level and produced by 3D Realms, lets players dash through the air, run across walls, and slash through enemies at blistering speed all while exploring a dystopian cyberpunk world. It’s gorgeous, lightning fast, and feels amazing to play.

Ghostrunner begins in a broken future, where the remnants of humanity have hidden away in a single condensed tower. Naturally enough, you’re put in the role of the one rebel who dares to rise up against the forces oppressing humanity. As you begin your uprising, you’ll also encounter a grand mystery – why is humanity the way it is now? Just what happened to the rest of the world? And what’s that voice you hear in your head?

Ghostrunner

My demo didn’t offer much illumination to these mysteries, but the 3D Realms team assured me that the story plays a significant role in the main campaign. What my demo did offer, however, was a look into the fast-paced, brutal gameplay that defines the game. Combat is so dynamic in Ghostrunner. Your arsenal of moves is massive and varied – of course you can run, jump, and slash with your katana, but you can also run along walls, dash over chasms, slow down time to dodge bullets, and more.

When all the moving pieces flow together, Ghostrunner achieves a visceral, almost hypnotic flow of battle. There are a few obstacles to this feeling. The controls took a bit of getting used to on my end, but that would be because, console peasant that I am, I’m not used to playing 3D games on a keyboard instead of a controller. Also, this may be an action game, but at many times it feels more like a puzzle game. With bloodthirsty enemies scattered around each environment, you’ll often need to take a step back and methodically evaluate which abilities to use in each situation. This can take some trial and error – it might have taken me more than a few tries to clear out the final wave of enemies. But when the solution works out, it’s a beautifully exhilarating feeling, and that’s what sets Ghostrunner apart.

Wrath: Aeon of Ruin

PAX featured plenty of retro-styled games, but not many quite like Wrath: Aeon of Ruin. This retro-style FPS is a throwback to the simpler, faster days of shooters, built entirely in the same engine as the original Quake. It was even based off the work of Quake community modders. If you’ve played any classic FPS like the original DOOM or Wolfenstein, then you should have a good idea of how Wrath plays: it’s brutal, lightning fast, and action packed.

My demo got straight to the point. After teleporting me to a distant hellscape, I was faced with a horde of demons, ranging from simple skeletons to more aggressive ogre-like enemies and flying laser monsters. Thankfully, I was also given an assortment of weapons to take these creatures down with, including a simple handgun, a powerful blade arm, and my personal favorite, a shotgun. Each one of these felt good to control, and like any good old-fashioned shooter, they gave me a great feeling of power.

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Like any good, brutal FPS in the vein of Quake, Wrath features an insane amount of mobility. Movement is extremely fast and fluid, allowing you to zip across and above stages with reckless abandon. This extra speed will be necessary, especially considering that enemies can slaughter on with reckless, overwhelming abandon.

Of course, being built in the original Quake engine, Wrath is a delightfully retro treat to behold. It features all the signature hard polygonal edges of PC shooters from that bygone era, but with the added smoothness and fluidity of modern hardware. The game feels great to play and is a unique treat to behold. Wrath is currently available on Steam Early Access, and there’s plenty of new content that can be expected throughout the year, including new levels, enemies, and even a full online multiplayer mode. Stuffed with violent retro action, Wrath: Aeon of Ruin is absolutely worth watching out for.

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Everspace 2

Space is the final frontier, offering limitless exploration This’s the exact feeling that Everspace 2 captures. This sandbox open world space shooter dumps you in outer space and leaves you to figure out the rest, allowing you to fight, scavenge, and explore as you will, all with an incredible amount of freedom.

It’s a remarkably beautiful game too, boasting of extremely detailed 3D graphics that wouldn’t look out of place in a full 3D AAA experience. It’s extremely ambitious, offering a wealth of customization options through parts that can be scavenged from fallen space craft or space debris. There’s alien life to discover and a wealth of locations to explore, with the full game apparently featuring more than 80 unique environments.

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These environments will always be interesting to explore thanks to a mix between handcrafted worlds and randomization. The original Everspace was a pure roguelike, and as developer Rockfish Games told me, this constantly changing design has often been fundamental to previous great space shooters. Although Rockfish opted for an intentionally designed open world for the sequel, they want to maintain some of those same roguelike elements. That’s why whenever you venture through the many galaxies of Everspace 2, the galaxies and planets will be the same, but the items you find or enemies you encounter within them may change each time.

It took me some time to get used to Everspace. It immediately offers a great amount of freedom, with the demo simply dumping me in space and only requiring that I take down some enemy units and pick up some loot. Yet once I got the hang of the controls and the environment, it became extremely fluid and natural to zip through space, upgrade different components, and experience all the free-flowing action that it has to offer. Space is the ultimate freedom, and Everspace 2 is set to represent that.

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PAX South 2020 Hands-On: ‘Windjammers 2,’ ‘KUNAI,’ and ‘Young Souls’

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PAX South

PAX South 2020 attracted tons of exciting publishers to San Antonio, and even with such a crowded lineup, the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth easily stood out as some of the show’s very best exhibitors. Streets of Rage 4 might have been their standout demo, but the French boutique publisher and developers brought a fantastic selection of games to the show, including their signature retro revivals and some promising original indie games of their own.

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Windjammers 2

Sequel to the much-beloved arcade classic, Windjammers 2 takes all the hectic frisbee-throwing action of the original and updates it for the modern generation. For those unfamiliar with the art of windjamming, it’s effectively pong, but instead of balls, you toss discs back and forth across the court. It pits two players against each other on opposite sides of the court, tasking you with mercilessly hurling your disc back and forth until it gets into your opponent’s goal.

You can just throw the disc directly at your opponent, but Windjammers 2 gives you many more options besides that. To really excel at the game, you’ll have to make use of the most extravagant moves you can, dashing across the court, leaping into the air, tossing the disc above you before slamming it down into your opponent, to list only a few of the uber-athletic abilities at your disposal. The game can move extremely quickly when both players take advantage of these capabilities, yet things never feel overwhelming. I always felt in control of the action, even when my quickest reflexes were put to the test. It’s fast-paced disc throwing insanity, and I couldn’t get enough of it.

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Just like the rest of DotEmu’s catalogue, Windjammers 2 combines classic gameplay with gorgeous modern aesthetics. It has the same hand-drawn style that makes other DotEmu titles stand out, like Wonderboy: The Dragon’s Trap. The original Windjammers was a time capsule of garish 90s style, and that design is retained for the new release, with characters looking even more colorful and absurd than ever thanks to the revitalized art and animations. Hectic to play and beautiful to behold, Windjammers 2 is already set to be a multiplayer hit.

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Young Souls

Streets of Rage 4 was certainly the premier beat ‘em up on display at DotEmu’s booth, but it wasn’t the only one. Alongside this retro revival was an all-new take on the genre: Young Souls, an extremely stylish action game that blends fast-paced fighting with deep RPG customization and a charming, emotional narrative.

Beat ‘em ups might not be known for deep storylines, but Young Souls aspires to something more. Along with its satisfying combat mechanics and plentiful flexibility for character builds, it also boasts of having “a profound story with unforgettable characters.” While my demo didn’t give me much of a look at this deep narrative, it’s reasonable to assume that the story will at least be quality, since it’s penned by none other than the author of the Walking Dead games, Matthew Ritter.

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However, I did get a substantial feel for combat. Young Souls features more than 70 monster-filled dungeons, and I got to venture into two of them in my demo. The action feels weighty and solid when going up against enemies, yet precise at the same time. Like any classic beat ‘em up, there’s a mixture of light and heavy attacks, along with blocks and powerful special moves, along with items and spells to exploit during combat as well. In between battles, you’re able to deck your character out in equipment and items, allowing for an element of roleplaying depth that isn’t typically associated with action games like this. In my short time with the game, it was fun to experiment with different character builds, which could determine the speed and abilities of my fighter, promising combat for the final game.

I played the demo both solo and co-op; in single-player, you’re able to switch between the two twins at will, while two players can each take control of a sibling. In both playstyles, the gameplay was just as visceral and satisfying as one would expect from a classic-style beat ‘em up like this, but the addition of a deep story and RPG mechanics put a unique spin on this entry. That’s not to mention that, like every other game at the DotEmu and Arcade Crew booth, it’s visually beautiful, featuring stylish 2D characters in 3D environments that are all rendered in gentle, washed-out colors. Young Souls might not have a release date or even any confirmed platforms as of now, but it’s absolutely worth keeping an eye on in the meantime.

KUNAI

KUNAI takes the typical metroidvania formula and boosts it to hyperspeed. It has all the hidden secrets and massively interconnected world exploration that you’d expect from the genre, and it gives you the ability to speed through that faster and more dynamically than ever. Its main gimmick is right in the name – by giving you two kunai hookshots, you’re able to traverse up and down your environments with speed and freedom, making for a uniquely vertical method to explore.

KUNAI starts out with the end of the world. In a dystopian future where technology has taken over, you control Tabby, a sentient and heroic tablet that’s dead set on liberating the planet. This serious plot is filled with plenty of personality, however, from the silly faces that Tabby makes in action to the charming dialogue and quirky character designs. This personality is rendered in appealing detail thanks to the game’s simple yet effective pixel art.

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It’s in the gameplay where KUNAI truly shines. With the eponymous kunai, you’re able to latch onto vertical surfaces. Combine this with the additional abilities to dash, bounce off enemies, or wall jump, and it provides for a uniquely dynamic method of exploring the world. Using the kunai feels easy and intuitive, fast enough to gain speed but never too floaty. It’s a balanced approach to speed and movement that never gets out of control, resulting in what it is perhaps the best-feeling movement of any metroidvania I’ve played recently. My demo was brief, and ended very soon after first getting the kunai, but the gameplay felt so smooth and natural that I can’t wait to experience more of it. Thankfully, it’s not long to wait, since KUNAI hits Switch and PC on February 6.

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PAX South Hands-On: ‘Streets of Rage 4’ Balances Legacy and Innovation

Streets of Rage 4 embodies the original series’ elegant, action-packed design and revives it for a new generation.

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Streets of Rage 4

From the moment I began my demo with Streets of Rage 4 at PAX South, it felt like coming home. It might have been more than two decades since the first three games in the Streets of Rage series perfected the beat ‘em up formula on the Sega Genesis, but courtesy of developers Lizardcube, DotEmu, and Guard Crush, this legendary series is back and in good hands. This brand new entry aims to recapture all the style and balance of the originals, while introducing innovations of its own. If my demo is any indication, the game is set to achieve that.

Streets of Rage 4 uses the same elegant level design that set the original trilogy apart back on the Genesis. The gameplay is simple: keep walking to the right, taking out every enemy in front of you with all the jabs, kicks, jumps, and special moves at your disposal. If anything, the controls feel better than ever before, with an added level of precision and fluidity that simply wasn’t possible on older hardware.

Streets of Rage 4

That’s not to mention the new move sets. Beat ’em ups might not be the most complex genre around, but Streets of Rage 4 adds the perfect level of depth to the combat. It has the same simple jabs and kicks found in the original games, but spiced up with the potential for new combos and even a handful of extravagant new special moves. With new and old fighting mechanics, this new entry features plenty of room to experiment with combat but never loses the simple, arcade-like charm of the originals.

Streets of Rage 4 revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed style for the twenty-first century

The demo included series staple characters like Axel and Blaze, yet I opted to play as an all-new character: Cherry Hunter, a guitar-wielding fighter whose move set felt very distinct from classic characters. Her movement is speedy, certainly faster than Axel but slower than Blaze, and her guitar provided for some unique melee moves. Like the new mechanics, her addition to the character roster helps shake up the Streets of Rage formula just enough, while maintaining the core beat ’em up simplicity that made the series special in the first place.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 might innovate in a few areas, but one thing that’s clearly remained true to form is the difficulty. It boasts of the same old school difficulty that characterized the original games. The classic and brand new enemies are just as ruthless as ever, mercilessly crowding in around you and can easily overwhelm you if you’re not careful. However, just like the originals, the fighting feels so satisfying that it’s easy to keep coming back for more action.

Amid all these changes and additions, perhaps the most obvious (and controversial) change is the visual style. While the original series used detailed pixel art, Streets of Rage 4 instead boasts of an extremely detailed handcrafted art style, in which every frame of character animation is painstakingly drawn by hand and environments are colorful and painterly. Thousands of frames of animation go into each character, and the effort certainly shows, making every punch, kick, and other acts of violence a breathtaking sight to behold.

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences.

Some fans have complained that the game loses the series’ spirit without pixel art, but DotEmu marketing director Arnaud De Sousa insisted to me that this simply isn’t the case. Pixel art wasn’t an artistic choice back then – it was a matter of necessity. If the developers could have designed the game to look exactly as they wanted, regardless of technical limitations, then it likely would have looked just like the luscious hand-drawn visuals of the current Streets of Rage 4.

That’s not to mention that, as De Sousa emphasized, the Streets of Rage games are defined by looking different from one another. The third game looks different from the second, which looked different from the first – and now this new entry has twenty years of change to catch up on. Thus, it only makes sense for this new entry to adopt a radically new graphical style after all this time.

Streets of Rage 4

Streets of Rage 4 reimagines this classic series for a new generation, reintroducing the best of the beat ’em up genre for players of all backgrounds and experiences. The difference between De Sousa and myself is perfect evidence of that. He grew up playing the games in the 90s, whereas I wasn’t even born when the original trilogy became such a phenomenon and only played them years later in subsequent re-releases. Yet here we were, standing in the middle of a crowded convention and gushing about decades-old games. We might have had extremely different experiences with the series, but that didn’t stop us from appreciating the joys of stylish beat ’em up action.

“A good game is a good game,” De Sousa told me, “no matter how old.” That’s the attitude that Streets of Rage 4 exemplifies. It revives the series’ rage-filled and action-packed design for the twenty-first century. And with a release on all modern platforms, more players than ever will be able to rediscover the simple pleasure of wielding your bare knuckles against thugs of all types. Between the new art style and the solid gameplay, Streets of Rage 4 is looking like an incredibly welcome return for this iconic franchise.

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