Metal Gear Rising hands-on preview
A warning: there is no amount of hyperbole in the world to adequately describe Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.
Enough time has passed for us to come to terms with the fact that combining developer Platinum Games with the Metal Gear franchise is a strange cocktail indeed. I thought it had been long enough, given the footage released thus far, to have steeled myself for the usual Platinum epileptic assault on the senses. Within 5 minutes of sitting down with Metal Gear Rising, it became quite clear that no amount of preparation would have been enough.
It’s a post-Patriots world (see: MGS4). Floppy-haired ninja Raiden is part of a cyborg security firm, tasked when we meet them with safely escorting the Nigerian prime minister. This means, of course, that their convoy is ambushed by more cyborgs (most people in Rising are cyborgs). Cue an angry Raiden working out his emotions with his trusty lightning sword.
It’s unbelievable how quickly the mission escalates. Within minutes of getting my first taste of combat (aside from the optional tutorial) against lesser cyborgs, an old foe rises from the ocean. You might remember Metal Gear Ray.
What follows is one of the most over-the-top boss fights I’ve ever experienced. J-rock guitar squeals out of my headphones. Starting at close quarters, Ray’s armour is gradually dismantled by frantic sword-swinging as I dodge missiles and deflect machine gun fire. Then there’s that judo throw seen in early trailers, a head-on charge using rockets as mid-air stepping stones, and a dramatic tumble down a collapsing building. It’s a bravura opening mission that thoroughly sets the tone for the game. Consider my socks thoroughly blown off.
METAL GEAR, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
It’s a clear statement of intent from Platinum Games. This is their game, and they’re doing things their way. I do encounter several Metal Gear-isms during the course of my session: that alert noise, cardboard boxes to hide in, a revamped Codec and Soliton radar. But such aesthetic touches aside, Rising is a different animal, and the Ray encounter exemplifies this shift. Here is Raiden, one-on-one with Ray just like all those years ago. Only this time he’s arcing through the air, blade crackling with electricity, treating the once fearsome Metal Gear like a play thing.
I wondered if the game had played its hand too early. Surely the action couldn’t get any bigger? Yet it was immediately followed by a showdown with Sam, another cyborg ninja, on a speeding train, which leaves Raiden badly injured. He’s rescued by his colleagues, receives an upgrade to his body, and the story sends him around the globe to track down the dastardly members of Desperado Security (think MGS3’s Cobra Unit, but even weirder) and uncover a surprisingly dark political conspiracy. I’m treated to a rapid succession of explosive set pieces, from exploding helicopters to collapsing buildings, battles in the pitch dark to plummeting elevators. The plot seems to act only as a device to fling you from set-piece to set-piece.
After all, Rising is all about the combat. Platinum is known for their frenetic, deep combat systems, and Rising didn’t disappoint. When Raiden was first announced as protagonist, we all wondered if his blistering MGS4 cut scenes could be recreated in gameplay. This is as close as anything will ever come.
The combat system is deceptively simple. Attacks are executed by two face buttons (square and triangle on the PlayStation) that unleash either light or strong strikes. These can be combined into lengthy combos and spectacular flourishes, depending on the enemy or context of the battle. Crucial to success is the parry system. Hold an attack button and press the stick toward an enemy attack and you’ll block it, creating an opening for a strike of your own. Before I mastered this I died with alarming regularity.
Crucially, despite the lengthy combos and frequent QTEs, I always felt in control and not that the game was doing the work for me. Button bashers won’t get too far. In fact, there were a number of sharp difficulty spikes on the normal setting that really took me by surprise and left me looking at the Mission Failed screen more times than I care to admit. How frustrating these moments prove to be may depend on your blade-wielding prowess.
You’ll spend most of your time fighting; most levels are really just a linear chain of arenas cleared when everything inside them is in a million pieces. Raiden is equipped with a Ninja Run ability that performs much like the free-running in Assassin’s Creed, but is arguably smoother. This largely served to deliver him to the next fight as quickly as possible. There is, as promotion has been at great pains to stress, the option of stealth, but this felt like an afterthought, limited to a few stealth attacks that are nowhere near as fun as engaging the enemy head-on.
Instead Platinum has focused on ensuring that the high combat frequency doesn’t become repetitive. After every major skirmish you’re awarded a ranking and a number of Battle Points based on your performance. These are used to buy upgrades to Raiden’s body and equipment, such as new combos, augmentations, and weapons. Quite how effectively these will ward off repetition remains to be seen; I played for almost 6 hours straight, and can’t say I found myself getting bored.
SLICE AND DICE
This is in no small part down to Rising’s party trick: Blade Mode. Hold L1 in or out of combat and the camera pulls in behind Raiden’s blade to gift you intimate control. Weaken enemies sufficiently before entering Blade Mode and you can efficiently relieve them of their limbs, or simply dice them into mincemeat. Although you can use the standard attack buttons, using the sticks grants you near-surgical precision.
It’s quickly apparent that this is more than a very stylish gimmick. Yes, you can slice enemies into sandwich filling for the hell of it (and I did, a lot), but using the system to tactically remove enemy appendages can really swing a battle in your favour, and is the key to victory in boss battles. Rising encourages precision cutting by giving Raiden the ability to replenish his health by tearing out an enemy organ; only a cut in the right place will allow you to retrieve it.
It was a couple of hours into the game before I came up against Mistral, the femme fatale seen in trailers who attaches Tripod arms to her back, that Blade Mode really begins to make sense. Weaken her with standard attacks, before using Blade Mode’s accuracy to (literally) disarm her and deal real damage. In a combat system this stylish and spectacular, this more tactical approach fitted in effortlessly, and required genuine skill to pull off effectively.
It was a little disappointing then to discover that Blade Mode’s use on the environment is less developed. As promised, much of each level can be cut into countless pieces. I spent a good chunk of my first hour seeing just how finely I could slice a tree. However once the novelty wears off, there was little meaningful interaction with the environment. Major architecture can’t be damaged, so it’s mostly used to slice through doors and fences to clear a path. I had hoped for the environment to be part of the combat, letting me drop scenery on my enemies’ heads.
It’s a shame, as the graphics have taken a real hit to accommodate this interactivity. The majority of areas I encountered were drab and nondescript, an obvious concession to the graphical grunt required to allow such freeform slicing and dicing. On a positive note, the simple scenery did mean that the frame rate rarely stuttered even during the combat’s most intense exchanges, so the action was never interrupted. The only annoyance in combat was the erratic camera. The lock-on system seemed to struggle with the sheer speed of some enemies, and in the heat of battle entering Blade Mode often left me facing in the wrong direction or with my view of the enemy blocked. It didn’t take long to adapt to these issues, but it would be less frustrating if they weren’t there.
Despite the unlikely prospect, it seems that Metal Gear Rising has come together rather well. As you’d expect from Platinum the combat is stellar, with enough depth and variety that should keep it fresh and rewarding, and the frequency of jaw-dropping set pieces is bound to keep you ploughing onward. If you’re hoping for a new Metal Gear Solid, you might want to wait for Ground Zeroes. If you just want to have a lot of fun with the combined lunacy of Platinum and Kojima Productions, this is definitely worth checking out when it’s released next year. This is Metal Gear, but not as we know it.
Check out a pair of brand new gameplay trailers here.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in February 2013.
David wrote this preview after playing around 6 hours of a near-final version of the game at Konami HQ in London.