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‘Portable Ops: Metal Gear Solid’s Missing Link

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“Go forth, and find your own calling.”

What exactly is Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops in relation to the rest of the series? It isn’t written or directed by Hideo Kojima, it isn’t a numbered title, and it’s alluded to as a semi-canon entry at best by Peace Walker. At the same time, however, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots has an intimate connection with Portable Ops that often goes unnoticed under an analytical lens. Although many do so, discussing Metal Gear Solid 4 without taking Portable Ops into account ignores the fact that the PSP spin-off was anything but during its development. During the 2006 Tokyo Game Show, Kojima claimed, “If you change the Ops story, you have to change 4. If you change 4, it also becomes necessary to change Ops. Until Ops is finished, 4’s story can’t be finalized.” This emphasis given to Ops’ narrative in regard to Metal Gear Solid 4 is simply context that cannot, and should not, be ignored. It may not be written or directed by Hideo Kojima, it may not be a numbered title, and Peace Walker may disregard it, but it is undeniably an important piece of Metal Gear’s canon. Sadly, what it considers important marks an unfortunate shift for the franchise’s storytelling.

Prior to Portable Ops, each game in the series focused more on thematic exploration than pushing the narrative forward. Metal Gear Solid followed the events of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, but it focused more on exploring the themes of genetics and legacy than it did on simply following Snake in his next adventure; Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty disguised itself as a direct sequel to MGS before quickly breaking that notion down in favor of critiquing society while breaking down what it meant to be a sequel; and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater dropped all pretense of telling one continuous story by flashing back 45 years to chronicle Big Boss’ origin story and re-explore the series’ themes in a different context. Themes are so important to Metal Gear that Hideo Kojima even went so far as to attribute a keyword to each main game in the franchise: “Gene” for MGS, “Meme” for MGS2, and “Scene” for MGS3. The post-Ops games likewise feature keywords, such as “Sense” for Metal Gear Solid 4, but they suffer from the same problem Portable Ops does: the themes are secondary.

via www.psu.com

“Call me Snake.”

While the theme of inheritance does linger over the narrative, particularly in the second half, Portable Ops concerns itself more on continuing the story of Big Boss than it does on making any point about the nature of inheritance or succession. Although it makes sense to set a game after MGS3 to some degree, especially considering Snake Eater cuts off about thirty years before Big Boss’ death at the hands of his son, his story was nonetheless over thematically. Big Boss had killed his mentor, lost faith in his country, and inherited the title of “Boss” all with the promise of a life filled with eternal warfare. What happens next isn’t important. What matters is the fact that audiences now understand the man behind the codename. In fashioning Ops as a sequel to Metal Gear Solid 3, the story runs the risk of coming off as derivative; which is exactly what happens. Big Boss’ loyalty is put under scrutiny again, The Boss’ legacy is brought back into question, and Big Boss goes so far as to drop his inherited title in favor of his old codename. All this is done so Big Boss can have another outing. Ops’ excuse is that it’s telling the story of how Big Boss came to develop Outer Heaven while foreshadowing the identity of the Patriots so the reveal doesn’t come entirely out of nowhere in MGS4, but nothing in its story has weight. It doesn’t help that future games refuse to reference it, but even in its own context Portable Ops feels meaningless. Big Boss’ relationship with Campbell has no substance, Gene is a blander Liquid Snake, Gray Fox is shoehorned in with a backstory that contradicts his previous one, and the existence of Metal Gear RAXA completely devalues Otacon’s character arc in the first game. Out of everything Ops does, though, nothing is so blatantly reductive as Big Boss calling himself Naked Snake. In one fell swoop, everything Snake Eater built up to was dismantled for the sake of comfortability.

Reductive, derivative, and incompatible with the rest of the series writing-wise, what is it that makes Portable Ops Metal Gear Solid’s missing link? The answer lies in what comes after, not before. Portable Ops is the series’ missing link because it acts as a bridge between Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots. As at times asinine as Ops can be, it does set the stage for MGS4 appropriately. As a matter of fact, it sets the stage for the entire rest of the series. The unfortunate truth is, every game after Metal Gear Solid 3 is reductive, derivative, and incompatible with the rest of the series writing-wise. Metal Gear Solid 4 is the last game that seems to care about themes, but it also cannibalizes Metal Gear Solid 2’s narrative to make a point; Peace Walker is basically Kojima’s own personal Portable Ops, complete with rehashing Big Boss’ downfall; and Metal Gear Solid V has an incomplete mess of a narrative that clearly didn’t know what it wanted to be anyway. Kojima denounces Portable Ops in Peace Walker, but the fact of the matter is Kojima lifted more from Ops than he would from his own games in the post-Snake Eater world. Portable Ops is Metal Gear Solid’s missing link because, with the exception of MGS4, every game after it is exactly like it.

via www.giantbomb.com

“The futures we saw were one and the same. Snake, you will destroy Metal Gear, and you will create a new Metal Gear in its place. Your children: Les Enfants Terribles. Snake, your son will bring the world to ruin. Your son will save the world.”

Portable Ops’ greatest tragedy isn’t that it strayed from what the series once considered important; it’s that it genuinely tried to find a place in Metal Gear’s narrative and failed. Underneath the story of Naked Snake becoming Big Boss yet again to establish Outer Heaven is a commentary on the nature of inheritance and succession. Big Boss is The Boss’ chosen successor; Gene is a super soldier created to inherit the prowess of The Boss; Big Boss inherits Gene’s resources and ideologies; and Elisa’s premonition is one inherently about succession. These two ideas link back perfectly into the franchise’s overarching theme of legacy, but they lack a proper reason for inclusion. Big Boss shouldn’t be inheriting anything from Gene because his desire to establish Outer Heaven was already solidified at the end of Snake Eater; Gene shouldn’t be modeled after The Boss because it means his character lives in the shadow of two of the series’ most important antagonists; and Elisa’s prophecy adds a mythological element that feels horribly out of place in Metal Gear. The series always relied on a little bit of mysticism as part of its charm, but Elisa goes too far. Previous games in the series said something with their themes. They sought to say something. Portable Ops’ themes don’t say anything. They don’t hold water. They exist because the other games had themes. That alone should disqualify it from securing a place in the Metal Gear saga, but, if that were the case, it would also apply to Peace Walker, Ground Zeroes, and The Phantom Pain.

These three games, while written and directed by Hideo Kojima, follow in the same footsteps as Portable Ops by prioritizing the continuation of Big Boss’ story with a loose focus on themes. Where Portable Ops gets excommunicated, though, Peace Walker and the Metal Gear Solid V duo get a free pass due to the air of legitimacy which Kojima’s presence gives them. Hideo Kojima is a fantastic director and writer, but Big Boss’ story was already told. The greatest storyteller in the world wouldn’t be able to make a continuation of Big Boss’ narrative feel natural because the greatest storyteller in the world would understand that there wasn’t any story left to tell. A good sequel could be made, but any approach would be at the expense of the already complete Snake Eater. In this regard, Portable Ops simultaneously does and doesn’t get the criticism it deserves. It does because it’s a sequel to a game that doesn’t need a sequel, but it doesn’t because the other sequels get off Scot free.

via youtube.com (DBoy9 | IconSeanX15)

All this isn’t to say Metal Gear is suddenly a bad franchise after Portable Ops. There’s a lot to appreciate about Metal Gear Solid 4 from a narrative and thematic perspective, and Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid V redefined the series’ gameplay in a way that felt appropriately fresh. Even Ops isn’t without its redeeming qualities. The story, while unnecessary, does improve in the second half while setting up MGS4’s narrative, and its themes do work in a bubble independent of the previous games. Really, the problem with Portable Ops is that it became a missing link despite being critically important in understanding the direction the series adopted with Guns of the Patriots. There isn’t some sudden shift after Snake Eater because Ops exists as a bridge. Whether or not it keeps the spirit of the series intact doesn’t matter, especially since the later games blatantly stray away from what made the series Metal Gear in the first place. What matters is that Portable Ops exists and deserves to be acknowledged, flaws and all.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. John Cal McCormick

    April 13, 2018 at 3:27 am

    It should have stayed missing.

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Fortnite’

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Join us all month as our staff looks back at the most influential games of the past decade. This is not a list of our favourite games but rather a look back at the games that left the biggest impact in the last ten years on an artistic and cultural level. After careful consideration, we narrowed it down to ten games that have most defined, influenced and shaped the industry as we know it.

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You know, I never thought I’d be writing this article.

I thought Fortnite was going to be another one of those fads that came around quickly and left just as quickly, a fading blip of relevance like every other AAA game that releases and is buried under something better. Whether that be better looking, better playing, or just plain…better.

That never happened. Instead, what we got was a phenomenon.

There are only three other times in history where I feel like the world “phenomenon” really translates well: the original NES, PokéMania in the West, and the launch of World of Warcraft. However, Fortnite really captures the meaning of that word. It absorbed, and to a slightly lesser extent, continues to absorb large amounts of popular culture, integrating itself into the American ethos in a way that sent ripples throughout the larger, non-gamer market.

It’s hard to quantify the impact of a peak claim of nearly 250 million players. Most games don’t reach a fraction of that player base and those that do don’t often carry the clout that Fortnite accumulated for itself. Oftentimes, when a game is as mentioned and cited in the industry as Fortnite, it’s for unmitigated disasters or fads that quickly fade due to their failure to adapt.

Fortnite, on the other hand, has done nothing but adapt to changing player tastes, pumping out content on a hitherto unimaginable scale on an ever-expanding number of platforms. What started out confined to the typical trio of PC, PS4, and Xbox One soon expanded onto Android, iOS, MacOS, and Nintendo Switch quickly. Well-optimized ports and eventual cross-play enabled players to play with each other despite their own hardware choices. That two friends with an iPhone SE and a GTX 2080ti-equipped PC can play together is proof that Fortnite has done well to integrate players together from varying socioeconomic backgrounds.

If anything, Fortnite has proven right a premise that Nintendo has preached for years: that the more accessible a game is, the greater the success that it can be. Fortnite’s accessibility didn’t stop at its incredibly easy-to-run game engine or its easy-to-learn gameplay loop, but also continued in its actual presentation. For a game ostensibly about hunting down other players Hunger Games-style until only one player remains, it has strikingly bright and appealing visuals. Characters and skins are not only instantly recognizable, but easily marketable, ensuring that all fans–yes, even the middle-schoolers you overhear at your local games store–can purchase physical, in addition to digital, representations of their favorite characters.

In many ways, Fortnite, and its publisher, Epic Games, remind me of NES-era Nintendo.

Did they operate calculating business with a keen eye for profit through manipulating kids’ access to the First Bank of Mom and Dad? Yes. Did they create playground, and message board, conversation starters that create narratives that continue exist long after irrelevance? Yes.

But, in the end, did they create games whose importance changed gaming forever?

Yes.

Ultimately, I think that is the biggest aspect of Fortnite‘s legacy: it is one of the few games that did not shackle its free-to-play players with unfair restrictions or give paying players unfair, buy-to-win advantages. For all that it offered: hours of fun with friends, inclusion in massive social events, and the ability to continue your play across nearly every console, it gave it all for free.

And that, I think, will endure long after all the V-bucks and Battle Buses have faded away.

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‘KartRider: Drift’ is Gorgeous But in Need of Fine-Tuning

KartRider: Drift is Microsoft’s new exclusive racer coming in 2020. Here are hands-on beta impressions from behind the wheel.

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kartrider drift

KartRider: Drift had the odds stacked against it from the outset. Though the KartRider series has been immensely popular in China and Korea for more than a decade, its brand recognition in the West has been largely nonexistent. Thus, when it was showcased at Microsoft’s XO19 event in November, many dismissed the game as a generic Mario Kart clone. In reality, not only is KartRider is one of the longest-running competitive racing games in the world, but its closed beta weekend proved that Nexon is taking the impending Western release very seriously.

Push to Start

Beta players were given access to three modes: online matchmaking, solo time trials, and the garage for character and kart customization. The online interface is simple and intuitive; with a press of the “X” button players can toggle between Solo, Duo, and Squad (four-player) races across Item Mode (featuring traditional kart racer items) and Speed Mode (no items). Switching between different configurations is a snap and, thanks to KartRacer already being such a massive game in the East, I rarely had to wait more than 20 seconds to get thrown into a match. Creating private parties and inviting friends to race is also an option.

Although maps took a while to load, performance was consistently smooth once races actually began. It’s here where Nexon’s investment in Unreal Engine 4 really shines; the tracks are simply a joy to look at. Each manage to pop with personality despite not being based on recognizable IP like Mario Kart or Crash Team Racing. Of the nine tracks available during the beta only two stuck out as being a bit samey. Each of the drivers also benefit from colorful, distinct designs and fully customizable win/loss animations. The only portion of the presentation that didn’t impress was the music, which was quite catchy at first, but looped endlessly irrespective of the track.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the actual course design, which is largely serviceable but also initially frustrating. For instance, a forest-themed track features logs that stick up from the ground and stop racers in their tracks. This wouldn’t be too egregious, but the logs are so large that only tiny spaces on either side remain. Nearly half of my races on this map were marred by traffic jams caused by a couple of these choke points. Another map features a jump that must be hit at just the right time to not collide with a building and cost players the entire race.

Even maps that don’t demand unreasonable precision from new players suffer from jarringly sharp edges that make it easy to get stuck on corners. This is only exacerbated by a finicky drift mechanic that takes hours of experimentation and countless losses to nail down. While growing more competent at cornering eventually felt rewarding and worthwhile, the high skill threshold here feels like it’s at odds with KartRider: Drift’s framing as an accessible, beginner-friendly experience. These aren’t necessarily design flaws, but they seem like missteps in a game that’s trying to appeal to as many newcomers as possible.

kartrider drift

Tantalizing Customization

While KartRider: Drift’s core mechanics might aggravate the casual players it’s trying to reach, its customization options are some of the most appealing I’ve seen in any kart racer. Players can choose from a range of skins, emotes, kart types, and wheels to fully deck out their characters. Be it the aggressively adorable Bunny Buggy or skins that turn characters into little baseball and football players, it’s tough not to fall in love with the clean, cutesy charm on display here.

One potential worry is that since the game will be completely free-to-play, it’ll follow the route of relying on premium skins and emotes to generate revenue. There was no store or lootbox-esque system implemented in the beta build, but it’s clear from the “Epic” and “Rare” tags on items that premium customization will surely be a major focus. Considering players gain experience and level up the more races they compete in, there’s hope that at least some items might be unlockables to encourage higher attachment rates.

KartRacer: Drift is an unusual Microsoft exclusive, and yet it’s clear that Nexon has poured a tremendous amount of care and resources into it over the years. Having crossplay with PC this early on was crucial and ensures a built-in online community of millions from the get-go. It remains to be seen if the team makes any track design tweaks or alters the hyper-touchy drift, but what’s already here is at least worth giving a whirl when it releases for free sometime in 2020.

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The Best Reveals of Indie World December 2019

From long-awaited sequels to unexpected crossovers to some surprising shadow drops, there was something for everyone in the latest Indie World showcase.

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Indie World

It’s been a banner year for independent games, and Nintendo has closed it out with a new Indie World presentation. From long awaited sequels to unexpected crossovers to some surprising shadow drops, there was something for everyone in this showcase. We’ve rounded up a few of the very best reveals below.

Animated GIF

The show started off strong with the reveal of Sports Story, a sequel to 2017’s much loved, golf-obsessed RPG Golf Story. Whereas the first game focused solely on the noble sport of golf, the sequel has a much broader scope, integrating a variety of new sports like tennis, baseball, and soccer, to name only a few. On top of that, the gameplay is expanding with plenty of new elements, including dungeons to explore, espionage missions to sneak through, and numerous memorable characters to interact with. Just like its predecessor, Sports Story will be a Switch exclusive when it launches in mid-2020.

Some of the best indies can be immensely stylish experiences, and such games were well represented throughout this showcase. The first one shown was Gleamlight, a 2D action game created by developers who worked on the recent Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night. It puts players in control of a sentient sword, tasked with exploring a mysterious world made of stained glass. It leaves players to their own devices, with no UI or dialogue to tell its somber story. Like so many other games in this presentation, it will release in early 2020.

Animated GIF

Another eye-catching title was Liberated, which describes itself as “a playable graphic novel.” Literally taking place across the panels and pages of a cyberpunk comic book, Liberated features a mixture of stealth-based gunplay and action platforming, along with a dystopian story told from numerous perspectives. It will be a timed Switch console exclusive when it launches next year.

Indie World

Not all games were so serious or artistic – some were decidedly sillier. One such game was SkateBIRD, which, as the title implies, is all about controlling cute little birds on skateboards. This intrepid athletes will spend their time “grinding on bendy straws, kickflipping over staplers or carving lines through a park held together by sticky tape,” and if that doesn’t sound like a good time, I don’t know what does. These little birdies won’t take flight until late 2020.

Indie World

To get even sillier, imagine the bizarre bird-based dating simulator Hatoful Boyfriend set to an Ace Attorney soundtrack. As bizarre as that sounds, that’s exactly what Murder by the Numbers is. This murder mystery visual novel blends detective work with pixelated puzzling, featuring characters designed by Hatoful Boyfriend creator Hato Moa and music by Ace Attorney composer Masakazu Sugimori. Releasing early next year, this unusual mashup will be a timed Switch exclusive at launch.

Animated GIF

Procedural generation can feel like a tired trope in indie games. However, SuperMash, which describes itself as “the game that makes games,” looks like it should be a unique take on that style with its inventive genre-mashing style. Players will be able to mash distinct genres together – such as JRPG and platformer – to randomly created entirely new gameplay styles. It has plenty of unique mashing potential, releasing in May next year on Switch.

Animated GIF

It’s seemingly impossible for Nintendo to hold a presentation without a shadow drop or two, and that holds true with this Indie World showcase. The free-to-play multiplayer hit Dauntless was revealed to include exclusive weapons and armor in the Switch version, which also features full cross-play support. Likewise, the deluxe version of the philosophical puzzler The Talos Principle was announced for Nintendo’s hybrid wonder, featuring all the immersive mind teasers and world design that made the game such a hit when it launched years ago. Unlike most other titles in this showcase, you won’t need to wait until next year to play these – instead, they’re both available for download now.

Animated GIF

The presentation opened with a sequel to a fan-favorite indie, and fittingly enough, that’s also how it closed, with the announcement of Axiom Verge 2. Details are currently scarce, but this new title will return to the sci-fi universe of the original 2015 Metroidvania hit, including “completely new characters, abilities, and gameplay.” We’re sure to learn more about this mysterious new sequel ahead of its release in Fall 2020.

These are only a few of the most exciting reveals from Indie World. For everything announced, you can see the full presentation below.

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