Our current (or, according to some critics, aged) understanding of video games tells us that Metal Gear Rising should be a good game. A damn fine one, in fact. If you engage it only for its audacious spectacle, then Rising works wonders. If you engage it as a game to be played, it works wonders. Yet both approaches hide the game’s serious thematic issues regarding war. While Rising seems somewhat aware of these problems, it fails to mitigate them entirely. For those who play video games for their engaging systems, this should not be a problem. But for those who play video games to challenge their minds, there are better games than this. At the very least, you’re best suited going into this game well-informed.
Because for all the flaws Rising has, it also has undeniable merit. Much of this comes from how utterly ridiculous it is. Although Metal Gear Rising places itself as a sequel to 2008’s Guns of the Patriots, its narrative has little to do with that game. Instead, it sees series mainstay and cybernetic samurai Raiden slash his way through crowds of mooks on his quest to end a corporate conspiracy that aims to create war for profit. Yet the story is not the first thing you will notice about the game. That honor belongs to the presentation. Rising takes a lot of cues from American game design, focusing on a bevy of grand set pieces with explosive action you can’t help but lose yourself in. Naturally, this means that it also takes influences from American cinema. The action focuses on spectacle, with frequent movements and flashy effects littering the experience. Especially notable is the dubstep metal soundtrack. Half of the tracks sound like a triumphant war march, while the other half sound like general rock music with a touch of the ridiculous thrown in.
This constant barrage of spectacle is enjoyable, yes, but more important is the effect it has on the player. It’s a distracting effect. It takes your focus away from what the narrative communicates, and then directs it on the fast action on screen. Nothing about these effects primes you to look at Rising with a critical eye. It’s the kind of visceral schlock that tells you to turn your brain off and just enjoy what this product is spoon-feeding you. I am not degrading the game with this statement; only clarifying the mood that its presentation sets.
And to some extent, this is a mood that the combat mechanics mirror. The irony is that at the same time, Rising’s combat is highly technical and requires a lot of thought and skill on the player’s part. The combat has a lot of technical aspects to contend with, from different ways of attacking to blocking enemy attacks to slowing down time to slice foes into tiny pieces to etc. Unfortunately, Rising does not teach you these nuances effectively. Often, it will introduce a new mechanic in the game and then proceed to teach you its ins and outs. In addition, it often leaves out important information about these mechanics.
Both tactics leave you prone to easy-to-make errors. For example, the game introduces Blade Mode (its equivalent of bullet time) far in advance of actually teaching you how it works. This meant that for some time, I knew that I had to interact with these red squares the game presented me with during Blade Mode, but did not know how. I came to the reasonable conclusion that I was to slice around these squares (so as not to damage what they contained), when the game really wanted me to slice through them. It took a significant portion of the game for me to realize this mistake and correct it. Through this, the game accidentally encourages unskillful play. Given the highly skill-based nature of the game, the result is frustrating. The game becomes less fun not because of my own inability to handle its challenges, but because of the game’s failure to explain them properly. This is not even going into how the game forgets to tell you very important mechanics, like locking onto enemies (critical if you want to block their attacks).
But if you’re able to move past this, Metal Gear Rising is a highly rewarding experience. Some of the reward comes from the scenarios the game places you in, spectacle again rearing its head. But much more of the reward comes from the polished design that Platinum Games is known for. Each fight becomes a demonstration of skill; every one a delicate dance as you jump from hacking away at opponent to quickly knocking another back and using Blade Mode to slice their heart out. Victory requires a fair amount of effort, knowledge, skill and attention. Thus, with your attention focused on navigating these challenges, it’s easy to forget the ends these systems are being used for. Why focus on the game’s messages when you have to slice through so many enemies? How can you? Barely anything in Metal Gear Rising brings your attention to what the narrative is doing. The game is a magic show, using all sorts of complex, high tech sleight of hand to distract you from what it’s doing behind the curtains.
And yet I have no problems with what Metal Gear Rising does. (Not now, at least.) Its tactics would only be worrying if they were hiding some unsettling message that its audience could easily relate to. Clearly, this doesn’t apply to Metal Gear Rising; its content is too ridiculous for that to be possible. The story takes place in a near future very closely related to our own. Despite this, half the characters are cybernetic swordsmen. Raiden’s quest involves rescuing children’s brains (literally, their physical brains) from a VR training nightmare. He accomplishes this by running up and down buildings, jumping off them only to land back on them, as though gravity emanated from the buildings themselves. And the game only ups the ante from there.
In short, Rising is almost entirely divorced from our reality, and proud of it. And it should be; this is what enables it to be so good. Where the presentation demands that we turn off our brains and just enjoy what’s on screen, the content justifies it by showing us a reality so alien to our own that we can barely relate to what’s going on. The game can have its cake and eat it, too.
Obviously, these lessons apply to what you do in the game, as well. The aforementioned Blade Mode demonstrates this well enough. While it’s possible to enjoy it for the challenge it presents, it’s far easier to enjoy this mode for its ridiculous, flashy nature. One of Rising’s selling points leading up to its release was how you could cut an object into billions of unique pieces. Despite this, few of the game’s slices (or physics) make sense. Trees are as light as feathers. There is no such thing as laminated glass; it all slices cleanly. People are made up not of specific bones and organs, but of generic meat stuffs. Machines do not hide specific gears or parts, but a generic bright orange or dull grey metal, instead. In this way, Blade Mode mirrors the narrative. The former exists in a separate reality of its own creation. Under these circumstances, it’s easy to let loose and slice to your heart’s content.
Unfortunately, Rising cannot always maintain these circumstances. Sometimes, the action is too rooted in a material reality to justify what the presentation tells us. Other times, the humor simply doesn’t work. Raiden’s superfluous DynoMutt-esque sidekick comes to mind, but the game’s use of stealth is probably a better example. Yes, a game based heavily around quick action opts for frequent stealth sections. I understand why Platinum chose to include this mode: as part of the general lampooning of previous Metal Gear Solid tropes. When done through the narrative, these moments work rather well. Not only do they criticize these games as stodgy and maybe a little self-serious, but they also criticize them successfully, somehow.
Through the narrative. Through the stealth gameplay, however, these criticisms fail. Much of the acerbic tone is lost. These segments are more often frustrating than they are engaging. The game only has two types of environments: wide arenas and constrained hallways. Both limit how complex stealth can be, but more importantly, the game uses both environments for stealth and combat. Understandably, it’s hard to know when to sneak through an area and when to slice through it. Expect a lot of botched stealth operations throughout the experience.
Not that these failures will impair you. Outside a score deduction, the game doesn’t punish you. In fact, it’s perfectly possible to slice your way through a failed stealth section. Easier, even, given how the game was built around slicing rather than stealthing. So why should I even bother sneaking? Raiden isn’t even known as a sneaky character; his idea of sneaking into Mexico involves a sombrero. The stealth is an awkward fit; a joke that fell flat immediately on delivery, and now lingers on far longer than it should.
Yet this is not Rising’s most concerning problem. After all, the game gives us a very easy way to ignore the stealth and not make the game any worse for it. We cannot say this for how the game treats war, violence, etc. Like previous Metal Gear Solid games, Rising’s zany antics hide a very serious message about war. Yet unlike those previous games, this game’s coverage of war poses real problems and does not show the subject matter proper reverence. The villains are largely to blame. I assume they were included for some kind of satirical purpose. (That war is turned into a laughing matter is problematic enough.) Raiden’s quest pits him against World Marshal Inc. and Desperado. The lines between the two entities are vague, but that’s unimportant. What is important is their depiction. Rising casts both parties as Saturday morning cartoon villains who gleefully embrace war and destruction for their own sakes. This is clearest in the first hour, when one of the Desperado twists Lennon’s famous words into “Give war a chance.”
If Rising is to be believed, then war is an easily solvable problem. After all, it arises not from ideological differences or lack of resources, but from a small, easily identifiable group of individuals. Of course, these very ideologies hold the potential to ignite the flames of war, meaning that Rising’s messages become just as dangerous as the problem they wish to solve. This is especially strange in light of the game’s constant criticisms of America’s bellicose foreign policy. True, the game seems aware of war’s broader causes. But this awareness is pithy. The game spends more time casting the villains as the cause than it does casting the broader issues. Moreover, within the narrative, the former is more cogent. The only times we see the world at peace are when the villains are out of the picture. Africa (or at least a small part of it) is at peace in the beginning, before the villains arrive, and the world is at peace at the end, when they have been wiped from the face of the Earth. It is easier to see them as the engine of war, thus holding up the game’s terrible messages.
At least on some level, the writing appears aware of these problems. It uses Raiden as a sort of response to these issues, letting him embody all the problems these views would entail. For example. early on, Raiden calls his blade a tool of justice. If he is fighting for justice, then the violence he uses to obtain it is literally justified. However, his definition of justice is only ever implied. More importantly, the antagonists use that very same logic. The only difference is in their definitions. Accordingly, he should be the same as the very people he criticizes.
Metal Gear Rising pre-empts this argument and works it into Raiden’s character arc. Numerous characters criticize his plans as shortsighted, impractical, naive, etc. However, these criticisms are not enough. Raiden’s allies only ever criticize his plans and his actions without ever touching the ideas that motivate either one. For example, nobody ever questions him on the individualistic nature of his quest. Yes, they question his methods, but his individualism is taken at face value (if at all).
This is despite said individualism enabling his violent methods. Raiden is the lone warrior going against the man. His adversaries are a sinister cabal who hold the fate of the world in their hands. Standing in his way are waves of generic mooks. Such a mindset enables him to see those in his way as mere objects of resistance, rather than as full human beings. The moral weight off his shoulders, Raiden can now do anything to achieve his ends. Admittedly, one arc midway through the story confronts this logic head-on, but its resolution is insufficient. Rather than find a reconciliation, Raiden briefly gives into a sort of moral nihilism before more or less returning to what he was before. Because the game has failed to fully solve the problems it has identified, its criticisms are rendered incomplete.
And the sad thing is that if we ignore these problems, then Rising is a fantastic game. It’s fantastic to watch and just as fantastic to play. But there’s the rub: we cannot ignore these problems. They are too important for us to sweep under the rug. Yet when the game addresses them, it fails to address them sufficiently. We should ask more from our games than the spectacle this game revels in. We should ask for meaningful substance that we can properly and thoroughly engage. Looked at this way, Metal Gear Rising fails to live up to that promise.