Best of 2015 #3: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom PainDespite The Phantom Pain facing ardent attempts to undermine it from both Konami’s avarice and Kojima’s lack of restraint, its qualities manage to shine through. And believe me, if the game is still shining after living through this many attempts to torpedo it since release, the core game must be shining pretty damn brightly.

It would have been higher on the list this year were it not for some poor design decisions and an annoying structure. It’s a superb 15-20 hours stretched quite thinly over 50-60 hours, with the second act being mindbogglingly bad in its design. I was wishing for it to hurry up and finish by the end, which even with the best underlying gameplay in the world, is not a good sign.

But when The Phantom Pain is at its best, it’s so, so good. The open world complements an infiltration game incredibly well, dramatically increasing the strategic options in a series that has always been famous for giving you more than one way to complete an objective. Going back to classics like the first game, suddenly the option to go through the front door or the vent doesn’t seem too freeing. Do you go in from the north, south, east or west? Day or night? With a sniper or the dog? By vehicle or on foot? With explosives or silenced weapons? Non-lethal or live rounds? Extract or eliminate?

It’s just a shame when all this variety is used to infiltrate the same encampment for the 12th time. Hopefully whomever is in charge of Kojima now won’t give him such free rein.

Best of 2015 #4: Rocket League

Rocket LeagueConventional sports games haven’t done much for me in a while, the limitations of real sport striking me as unnecessarily restrictive on gameplay design in an effectively limitless medium. Real sport is for playing or watching in real life. If you’re going to turn it into a video game, let me fire a missile at the other participants or take them on with full, 360-degree movement.

Rocket League is grounded in reality – people play competitive games with real RC cars, after all – but, as I like it, with some of the limitations removed. You can boost yourself up walls with rockets, flip through the air, even fly to an extent if you have the patience to master it. This is a sport that I wish really did exist.

Either way, Rocket League was tremendous fun, certainly the best indie game of the year, and thanks to it being given away to PS Plus subscribers, one of the few multiplayer games that isn’t Call of Duty to have maintained a healthy population of players. It’s a fun, accessible party game with split-screen – remember those? As a free game for PSN subscribers it was, of course, a no-brainer, but even at the current price of £9.49 it would be one of my first recommendations for the post-Christmas glut of new PS4 owners.

Best of 2015 #5: Until Dawn

Until DawnUntil Dawn seems to attract faint praise, with reviews I’ve read and podcasts I’ve listened to featuring turns of phrase like “best 8/10 game ever” or “Night Trap but not crap”. The thing is, these statements are frequently tempered with a clarification that the game actually is very, very good. It’s what the first wave of ‘interactive movies’ promised to do, minus the bad acting and VCD-quality FMV. And it shows up the games of David Cage as the pretentious nonsense they are, even matching them on the technical level where they admittedly shine.

It’s apparent that I love the same teen slasher movies as the developers, with the films that I came of age watching, like Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, clearly represented, along with classics old and new. The slow mechanics even make the dash of The Descent that’s in there less annoying than it has invariably been when action games introduce the late-game mutant enemies.

I’ll be interested to see whether Until Dawn keeps its appeal after a few years, when so much of the fun this time around came from chats with friends about your route through the game, who made it to the end in your playthrough and the horrible deaths of the characters that didn’t. Even completionists didn’t always need to chase that perfect run where everyone survives, the game making your one of several hundred permutations feel like yours alone. It’s a linear, narrative-led adventure without feeling as restricted and like a choose-your-own-adventure game as, say, something from Telltale.

I saw Until Dawn available for as little as £15 in the run-up to Christmas, not far off what you’d pay for a new horror movie on Blu-ray. And I guarantee you this will give you more entertainment.

Shenmue on a Kickstarter budget

ShenhuaEven if the numbers Shenmue III is pulling in are strong for a Kickstarter project, they’re not anywhere close to a modern, big budget, open-world game. They’re not even close to the $70 million that gets thrown around in discussions about the original’s extravagant cost. But the arguments are frequently misleading, so I want to take the opportunity to discuss some misconceptions and how an authentic Shenmue III experience could be delivered with a much-reduced budget.

For one thing, the $70m figure is an exaggeration. Yu Suzuki himself has put it closer to $47m, which doesn’t even hit $70m when adjusted for 15 years of inflation. Not small change, to be sure, but not even close to what a major open-world game can cost today.

It’s thanks to the current prevalence of open-world games that a Shenmue game could be made on a more modest budget, hence this one running on Unreal Engine 4. Shenmue was pushing boundaries with a bespoke engine, doing things that hadn’t been seen before; much of it is commonplace now, easily achieved using off-the-shelf middleware.

The explosion in gaming budgets since Shenmue came out doesn’t make $47m less gigantic in the context of 1999, of course. But something that’s frequently forgotten is that much of that was an investment in this revolutionary tech, which was supposed to power a multi-episode Shenmue saga. The engine was ultimately only used for Shenmue and a single sequel (four chapters in total), making profitability impossible and giving the game the appearance of an outrageous budget. Numbers aren’t available for Shenmue II on its own, but you can see how much further the money went, once it didn’t have to pay for the tech, in its sheer scale.

With that obstacle removed through the use of a third-party engine, able to render environments on the scale of Shenmue in its sleep, all the money goes on content. A budget that’s likely under $20m all-in is still tight, but it appears doable.

My final point is that this simply won’t be as big as Shenmue II. That game was ridiculous in its scale, dwarfing the already-impressive original game. The series has gone from a small hometown to playing the stranger in a foreign metropolis, and this one looks like changing it up again, continuing the rural Chinese setting of Guilin. Even with three locations, Suzuki has compared the planned scale to Dobuita in the first Shenmue, and that’s okay. We’re getting Shenmue III, and it’s a series about density and realism in its detail, rather than sprawling scale. After all these years, I’ll take it.

Ultimately, the precise breakdown of Shenmue III’s funding is unclear. We know that Sony is providing some money for publishing and marketing support, but the team has clarified that the bulk of it will come from Kickstarter. Evidently, Suzuki was prepared to make the game on a budget of $2 million, plus a modest amount of outside funding, and since the game has already breezed past the target, anything we can add, even if this doesn’t approach the scale and grandeur of the Dreamcast games, is gravy.

Thoughts on E3 2015

Gone may be the days when I’d spend the entirety of E3 week online, downloading 640×480 videos to burn to CD-R and watching press conferences regardless of the hour, but this year’s left me feeling more positive than most recent ones. Even when the last couple carried the sweet nectar of new hardware to freshen up some tired console lineups, it all seemed strangely uninspired.

Sure, Nintendo stayed true to form and disappointed. But that doesn’t get me down since I got fed up with ploughing that tract long ago now. It’s the regular disappointments, to varying extents, that I’ve suffered from being variously in the Sony and Microsoft camps over the last three years that have got me down. I’m struggling to remember a year when one or the other didn’t stumble since the immortal E3 2006, and having both on top form? You’re back into a time when even Nintendo was worth watching there. Circa 2004, maybe.

Microsoft thankfully grew out of the Kinect years and realised that you can only headline so many press conferences with Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty. It has the feeling of a platform holder that knows what it’s doing again, like it did when people like Peter Moore and Ed Fries were in charge. Great games and, it must be said, a much more impressive 2015 line-up than Sony. That means the Xbox One actually has a 2015 line-up.

Sony, though. The Last Guardian, the Final Fantasy VII remake and, seriously, Shenmue III? All they needed was a surprise Half-Life 3 announcement and we’d be out of long-running development sagas to make fun of. Sony dazzled, and it certainly made for better theatre, but it felt like a distraction from the mediocre PS4 release calendar for the rest of the year.

I guess that makes Microsoft’s conference the cute girl next door to Sony’s international supermodel. The better option, albeit with less razzmatazz, but man, that girl has Shenmue III…

Shenmue III reaction

I’ve never given up hope that Shenmue would get its conclusion, and it seems that my faith has been rewarded.

Shenmue III Kickstarter

It’s funny, though. For years I’d always suggest Shenmue III as a dream E3 announcement as a joke, opening myself to a ribbing, but in the last couple of years it started to feel like a real possibility. Yu Suzuki started to make public appearances more often, dropping hints that were taken as hope by some, trolling by others. He was pictured with Sony’s Mark Cerny at a time when Sony was openly courting developers, and then Suzuki uttered the words “to be continued” after the Cerny-hosted GDC postmortem.

This all left me more disappointed that it didn’t materialise at E3 2014 than I had since 2002. But I still had the feeling that there’s no smoke without fire. Something had changed, even if I wasn’t sure precisely what.

Fast forward to this E3, and this tweet:

Surely he’s not that cruel? Even if Suzuki thought that was just a cool-looking forklift, he knows what people are going to read into that, right? But the seeds were sown, and I started to believe. I put the possibility of Shenmue III somewhere below the similarly MIA The Last Guardian and Final Fantasy VII remake, both of which were all but leaked in the days beforehand, but I went to bed last night with my fingers crossed.

It’s going to seem like I’m making stuff up here, but I genuinely dreamt that Shenmue III was announced last night. It was an MMO in my dream, and I remember seeing all the NPCs in the various neighbourhoods with player handles above their heads.

Sorry, Barney.
I’d like to apologise to my brother for the early awakening.

I then inexplicably woke up at 4:30am – normally it takes a good few runs through the snooze button to get me up when the alarm goes at 7:30 – and checked my phone to see the news on GAF. $300 plus shipping went into the Kickstarter fund immediately. Then came much celebrating and annoyed texts from those I’d bothered with early morning messages. They’ll forgive me eventually.

I’m just absolutely ecstatic. It’s hard to believe that this has finally happened, after all the jokes and teasing aimed at those who’ve been carrying the torch for so long. I’ve spent the morning on Twitter, sharing reactions that mirrored my own, finding out which tiers my Shenmue-loving friends have pledged at. People who remember my old Shenmue website have been emailing me out of the blue to share their happiness too.

What a day.