At least 9 games came out in the dozen years videolamer went on sabbatical to backpack around Europe and really find itself. We did not have the opportunity to talk about any of these games in a timely fashion because the site was focused on getting its groove back, but that will not stop us from discussing these games absurdly late. Here are some of our favorites, disappointments, or just generally interesting games from the years after 2011 but before 2017.
Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes
It’s a weird argument to make, but the paid demo for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a more satisfying version than the full release. While The Phantom Pain is undoubtedly a phenomenal game that should be considered one of the generation’s very best (despite its unfinished state), Ground Zeroes is more in line with what I consider to be a Metal Gear Solid game, and one that has a more satisfying sense of progression. For one, in GZ, you actually play as Big Boss, which sadly cannot be said for TPP. Kojima once again pulled a Raiden on us, despite the backlash that ensued following the release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and, instead of playing as the co-titular hero of the franchise once more, you play as a non-descript character that acts in Big Boss’s stead. It was a weak and cliché solution to justify the fact that Big Boss shows up in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake despite having seemingly been killed by Solid Snake in the original Metal Gear. The idea barely makes sense (Plastic surgery? Really? *rolls eyes*), and when the twist is finally revealed, the weight of what you accomplished by that point feels like a joke: you were not the legendary hero you thought you were. Fans of the franchise have been walking in Big Boss’s shoes since Metal Gear Solid 3, and to see it end like that feels like a betrayal, one that’s only slightly tempered by the fact that this is just a repeat. That makes Ground Zeroes, unceremoniously, Big Boss’s final outing, so that’s something to cherish.
The other aspect worth mentioning is the game’s level design. GZ, set on a small island in the Caribbean that houses an American military black site, combined what we’ve come to expect from the series with a vertical slice of TPP’s open-world design structure. When you initially reach the island, you survey the area, discovering a large military installation situated on the north edge of the island awash in flood lights. While it’s a subtle note to harp on, for me this setup felt true to the Metal Gear Solid ethos. My mind wondered at what duplicitous political machinations took place behind the building’s facade. For the most part in TPP, there are no large buildings to explore in that sense, which feels like another (albeit nitpicky) betrayal to fans, who have cherished memories of places like Shadow Moses, the Tanker, the Big Shell, and Grazny Grad. (Helping to prove my point is the fact that you even revisit Shadow Moses in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, as a tool to help the legacy players reflect on Snake’s history and accomplishments.) TPP contains mostly smaller buildings and installations that simply feel like extensions of the outdoor areas, so forget about the hallways and office spaces that have been staples of the series. While I’m never against a series evolving, I was nevertheless disappointed that TPP didn’t stay true to the series. For a brief, shining moment, however, we had Ground Zeroes.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut (WiiU)
Yes, the WiiU version, but hear me out. I had played the original PS3 version when it first released in 2011, and I enjoyed it for the most part. But the game reached its apex, in my opinion, with the Director’s Cut on the WiiU, released in 2013. To be honest, I bought this game on a whim to help justify the purchase of my WiiU after it was clear the system was a failure, a task destined to fail no matter which games I bought. What helped to differentiate the WiiU version was the use of the tablet, which let you read the game’s various emails and bits of lore on the smaller screen. Presented this way, it helped me to absorb the information on a much deeper level, and to appreciate the world building aspects that the writers created. Think of it as a AAA Game that included an in-game book to read. Some will absolutely hate that idea, while others will see the value. Plus, it helped to create a sense of make believe and role-playing. The pocket secretary that I found in the game was actually the WiiU tablet in my very hands! Believe it or not, that was the tech showcase for the WiiU tablet, though I’m probably part of a very select few who would ever argue that.
Oreshika: Tainted Bloodlines
This is one of the weirdest games I’ve played, and it’s the kind of game that is more fun to discuss than it is to play. The actual gameplay loop is frequently frustrating or boring, but the idea of it held my interest for a while. The premise of the game is that your family has been cursed to have an extremely short lifespan, but various gods and goddesses are willing to help you out by making kids with you so your bloodline continues. Magically, of course (it involves lots of rainbows). It’s about as creepy as it sounds, but no creepier – which puts this at the weird crossroads where it feels and sounds sketchy, but isn’t that bad and I’m actually a little surprised it’s not worse, given the Vita landscape.
In practice, this shortened lifespan means you have around 2 “years” of game time before a given character kicks the bucket, and in that time you can spend each day exploring dungeons, training, making new family members, etc. At one level, this is a mechanically simple dungeon-exploring RPG with an ever-changing party, but at another level it’s a long-term time management simulation where you have to keep several factors in mind – are there enough children to take the reins in the future? If I push further in that dungeon, is my veteran going to be over-stressed and die early? Some features of the game require long-term investment (e.g. heirloom equipment) to be most effective, so when you can put all of it together, it can be satisfying to see your family prosper (of course such prosperity is, like your family, short-lived).
The world map is randomly generated, and you have to look for specific things in dungeons to progress. At the outset of the game, you can configure how long you want the game to last – which is a feature I’d love to see more often in games – but even with the fastest/easiest settings, you’re likely to need to explore thoroughly to progress and waste precious months (or Oreshika-decades) on false starts, exploring areas you’re not ready for yet or discovering dead-ends with nothing worthwhile. Mechanically, fights are pretty simple, but the varied weapons you have access to – and the short lifespan of any given character – will freshen battles occasionally as you learn to deal with new mechanics or abilities.
While it’s not the greatest game, Oreshika is a game that is worth mentioning – it’s one of those niche games that will really appeal to some audiences, even if it’s not likely to reach mass appeal.
I still play 4X games every once in a while, and typically have to resort to classics like Master of Orion 2 because I haven’t found a modern game that scratches the same itch. I’ve tried several, though, and when Paradox announced Stellaris I was very excited. I’ve spent entirely too much time playing Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings II, so it’s pretty hard to ignore a 4X-ish game from the same creators.
Stellaris is engaging enough, I suppose, and I’ve put around 40 hours into it over several years, but its slow pace combined with fairly repetitive early-game means that I tend to play it for a few days, realize I made very little progress over a few play sessions, and then drop it. In other 4X games, I feel like either the pace is a little better (games finish in 2-4 hours) or randomization makes the early-game more interesting.
I’ve been excited by some of the recent updates, but at this point the buy-in for the DLCs I missed seems a little too high given the risk of getting burned (or bored) again.
Spec Ops: The Line
This was once a critical darling, then the subject of intense backlash. A lot of folks now think this game is unduly critical of its playerbase, scolding them for literally playing the experience that is on offer.
But I think that’s a cop out. The game doesn’t deny that there is something viscerally enjoyable about shooting at targets. It just tries to point out that maybe it’s at least a little messed up that so many highly successful action games are based on real world conflicts in which people still living today might have lost loved ones. And how easily any one of us can casually and unquestionably carry out horrific actions under the excuse of “just obeying orders”.
Spec Ops: The Line is a game that’s stuck with me for years. But it’s also one of several games that made me realize just how fragile, insecure, and lacking in self awareness many gamers are. We, as a hobby, don’t want games that make us question ourselves, or our worldviews. We aren’t interested in juggling two separate but related ideas or themes in our head. We can’t help but see things in black or white. We don’t just want to be entertained, but also validated.
That might be fun some of the time. But there are other times when you just need a game to grab you by the shoulders and shake you.
Metal Gear Solid 5: Phantom Pain
Unlike Matt, I (respectfully) don’t think you have to hand it to this game. Phantom Pain is a lot of things, but “good” isn’t one of them.
Yes, the tech is impressive. But the story is an unfinished mess that doesn’t feel like an MGS game. The open world is pretty, but largely useless. What you have is two large maps with a handful of bases, and absolutely nothing else in between them. You can run around in them as you see fit, but there’s almost never a reason to do so in any given mission.
And once you’re in a base/camp/outpost/whatever, the game falls for the same trap as other MGS games, only worse. You have all these ways in which to interact with the world – and with enemies – by shooting things, throwing things, etc. In other words, this is a stealth game in which you’re encouraged to do things that cause a commotion. Experimentation almost always leads to getting caught, and once you do, you can sit back and enjoy waiting for minutes on end for alerts to die. This is a game that wants you to toy around with its systems, only to punish you for doing so the “wrong” way.
The cherry on top of this shit sundae is the fact that, by and large, it’s basically an upgraded, “next gen” version of MGS: Peace Walker. I already played that game, and loved it to death. But I was hoping for something more in this big sequel.
One thing I 100% agree with Matt on is that Ground Zeroes was the better game. It’s the perfect example of how some of the best game experiences come from working within a set of limitations. Which I guess means that Phantom Pain is an example of how having no limitations can bite you.