They had to make up a word for it. For all the over-the-top cyber-machismo dancing across the screen in this new Metal Gear game. Nothing currently extant in the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition, would do. And the definition? Something like, "the confluence of bionic ninja warriors, near-future war profiteering and giant, quadraped war machines." Revengeance.
So, is Revengeance a word you should make part of your vocabulary? Yeah, it is.
This Metal Gear game focuses on Raiden, the soulful cyborg warrior who became controversial after debuting as the main playable character in Metal Gear Solid 2. Revengeance happens four years after the events in Metal Gear Solid 4, in a world where the constant churn of global combat is a crucial economic driver like oil, pharmaceuticals or consumer electronics. And Raiden's part of that, working for a private military corporation called Maverick to protect heads-of-state, kill terrorists from rival PMCs and intervene in coup d'etats.
Even though the spotlight is all his this time, Raiden still doesn't feel as magnetic as Solid Snake, the world-weary stealth savant most associated with the Metal Gear games. But, then, MGR:R exists on the other end of the Metal Gear spectrum. The game still offers up the series' trademark philosophising but it's more cocky and cavalier, not as mournful as on the Snake side of the mythos. Raiden's adventures take place after Metal Gear 4 and the game references the Sons of the Patriots affair as a turning point with regard to how conflicts are fought. While the game's war-has-changed future represents the cheapening of human life that disgusted Snake, nobody seems all that bothered by it. Raiden himself treats his own body like a weapon, disposable and replaceable. Cyborgs exist as a secret, more palatable option than UAV drone strikes but one used by PMCs not world governments, so as to dodge any bio-ethical murkiness. Cyborgs don't get counted in official death tolls either and Raiden himself barely looks human anymore.
This isn't the game that's going to make Raiden an icon though. The voice acting, dialogue and character design that bring him to life don't resonate with Snake's philosophical stoicism. Tough as the game tries to make him seem, he still comes across as a whiny weak sister. Lethal as all hell, yes, but annoyingly sullen.
Revengeance is a weird little baby, born of Hideo Kojima's conceptual sperm and Platinum Studios' womb. The action game manages to feel in line with both the famous game designer's self-aware sensibilities and the all-star dev studio's high-adrenaline combat. In fact, the rip-out-a-spine-and-then-ruminate-about-human-nature proceedings feel like they were hashed out over an epic whisky-and-karaoke binge.
One minute, I was done up in goofy traditional dress or wobbling underneath a metal drum to sneak past enemies. The next, I was in a gruesome processing plant, where brainstems of abducted children were held as raw material for new crops of bionic cannon fodder. The action through the game is bombastic, with set pieces that get more overblown as you go. You'll run up a barrage of missiles to destroy the helicopter that launched them and hijack flying enemies to escape exploding buildings.
In terms of tone, the pendulum swings from cheesy, so-bad-it's-good territory to moments of shock horror and exploitation. But I never got whiplash, even as I moved from gleefully beheading fools to debating moral relativism with an archenemy.
It's the cutting that, paradoxically, holds the whole game together. Glorious cutting that always feels so damn good.
Revengeance rotates around swordplay. Raiden's main weapon is a fancy future-sword that cuts through just about everything. Like other third-person action games, mixing up light and heavy attacks lets you unleash combos. You'll have other weapons and tools — more bladed implements missile launchers, decoy lures and electromagnetic pulse grenades — that you can add to your arsenal, too. But the main element here is the ability to angle sword attacks and shred animate and inanimate objects to bits.
In addition to Raiden's health bar, players will have to manage his fuel cell energy. This resource powers the Blade Mode mechanic, which slows down time and lets you dismember enemies with surgical precision. While in Blade Mode, you can rotate the high-frequency blade to a specific angle using the right stick. This comes in handy when you need to slash more explicitly. For example, if you chop off a bad guy's left arm, you'll get data chips that are among the game's rarer collectibles.
Revengeance ties combat into health management in a clever way. Once you slash an enemy up a certain amount, you can enter Blade Mode to target a select area for dismemberment. Hacking off that limb opens up a zandatsu sequence. It's a split-second window that exposes a chunk of cyborg tech can restore all your health and fuel cells, provided you snatch it with a super-quick button press.
The zandatsu is Revengeance's signature move. Like the active reload in Gears of War, it's the kind of skill-intensive mechanic that makes you feel great every time you nail it. Associating the zandatsu with continued health adds just the right amount of compulsion, too. It makes you think about how you cut and why. Revengeance offers the chance to feel lethally inventive in how you dispatch enemies.
The option to freely slice with the right stick made me feel like a sushi chef, cutting with the grain — or is it against? I forget — to get the most succulent part of a fresh fish. Miss the moment for a zandatsu and you'll curse yourself, especially if it's the only chance you get for more health during a gnarly boss fight. There's a bloodthirstiness to it all, yes, but one that lives in fleeting split-seconds and feels oddly joyous. Killing waves of bad guys in a video game has rarely felt this artistic. And as this is a Metal Gear game, stealth is present. But, since the game is so combat-centric, it's offered mostly as an option, not a mandate.
But Revengeance's tempered cyber-steel does have flaws. The game does a poor job of teaching you how to play it. Even when I knew what I had to do in an early boss fight, I still couldn't execute the parries that I needed to break down the enemy's defence. And I had to stumble onto basic elements like defence and health management. Crucial bits of info get mentioned in passing or get buried inside sub-menus where you don't really need to go, as in the case of the game's save-anywhere function. Some of these things get spelled out in the VR missions you discover while playing, but that's a really ass-backwards way of revealing a game's systems.
While a few levels dazzle with their use of colour and layout, most of the game happens in sewer/warehouse/military base environments that are hoary clichés. I also found myself wishing for a quicker way to switch between secondary weapons. Worst of all, the game climaxes with a truly aggravating boss fight that left me wondering what it was supposed to represent. The nigh-invincible status quo of the military industrial complex? A strained justification for the continuance of multi-tiered final battles? It doesn't matter what Platinum wanted me to take away because all I felt was annoyed.
But, overall, the game's edge is sharp. It still hits the marks of what a Metal Gear game should be about, but inverts the combat and stealth. You're encouraged to slash instead of sneak. Rambling codec conversations and overly verbose cutscenes are waiting there for the Kojima faithful too. The experience takes moments from samurai legend — where wild slashing and/or icy precision win the day — and updates them in a setting where technology renders the human body almost obsolete. Short as it is, the newest Metal Gear mixes old and new elements up in winning fashion, proving that the series may be more adaptable than anyone ever thought.