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‘Metal Gear Solid 4’: An Act By Act Analysis

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“War has changed.”

There is not a single video game that opens as profoundly, or as appropriately, as Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots does with Solid Snake’s “War has changed” monologue. In less than five minutes, not only is the game’s tone established, so is a new direction for the franchise as a whole. War has changed, yes, and so has Metal Gear. Where Portable Ops signified the coming of a new identity, Guns of the Patriots solidified it. In telling no one but the player that war has changed, the audience knows to expect something completely different from this point on. This is made all the clearer when, roughly fifteen minutes later, a title card with the words “Act 1: Liquid Sun” comes up on screen.

Along with war, Metal Gear Solid’s narrative structure has changed as well. This isn’t the first time a Metal Gear title has split itself into two; both Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater divided themselves into sections featuring a prologue and a main game, but those prologues served to set up the core narrative. While there certainly is an overarching plot to Metal Gear Solid 4, each act does have its own story and themes to give it an individuality it otherwise wouldn’t have. They all connect to one another in the end, but Kojima injects so much identity into each act that analyzing MGS4’s narrative without taking the act structure into account feels misguided. Every act has its own narrative and thematic purpose in the context of Guns of the Patriots.

Before diving into act analysis, it is important to establish what Metal Gear Solid 4 is about at its core: Solid Snake. The series has never shied away from character stories, with Raiden and Big Boss both starring in rather character driven games, but it also never stopped to critically analyze Snake as intensely as it would Raiden or Big Boss. The original Metal Gear Solid did put Snake in a position of philosophical reevaluation, while also giving him a traditional character arc, but it never truly criticized what it meant to be Solid Snake. Snake had to bare the burden of committing patricide, and whether or not he enjoyed killing, but his arc was more focused in Snake carving an identity of his own and generally defrosting as a person. For a game so focused on family, Snake never even gets a chance to muse over ending the game by committing fratricide.

Come Metal Gear Solid 2, and there genuinely is nowhere for Snake’s character to go as an individual. As a result, Raiden becomes the protagonist and Snake takes on a mentor position. By the time Metal Gear Solid 3 ends, the only real thread left to explore is a deconstruction of Solid Snake in the same vein as Raiden and Big Boss. Of course, doing said deconstruction would require setting a game after Metal Gear Solid 2, a game that ended in such a way where a sequel would be thematically impossible. Needless to say, this puts Metal Gear Solid 4 in a predicament- it can’t be a sequel in order to preserve MGS2’s legacy, but it needs to be a sequel because the only natural plot thread left involves analyzing Solid Snake as a character. Coupled with Hideo Kojima’s intense disinterest with the series by the mid-2000s, MGS4’s script not only deconstructed Solid Snake, it destroyed everything that came before it to make a point. Guns of the Patriots is about Solid Snake, but it’s about a Solid Snake who’s going to be broken alongside the world around him; and neither are repairable.

Every single event in the first act serves to establish the annihilation the Metal Gear canon is about to undergo. Solid Snake is dying of a manufactured version of Werner Syndrome; his code name is changed to “Old Snake;” Meryl is introduced only to look at her once hero with nothing but pity; Metal Gear Solid 3’s stamina meter is replaced with a psyche meter that goes down during cutscenes depending on how Snake is treated; Naomi is formally working with Liquid; and Ocelot undergoes a complete personality death after Snake Eater went through such great lengths to develop him. Liquid Sun is a cold, cruel, introduction of an act and it deserves all the praise in the world for how much damage it does.

The only way to deconstruct Solid Snake so late the series truly is to destroy the lore around him. Better yet, act one’s approach to following up Sons of Liberty is everything it should have been: nothing. There is not a single major reference made to MGS2’s plot save for an acknowledgement that the Patriots do exist in some capacity. Otherwise, the resolution to Metal Gear Solid 2’s themes and plots are left up to the imagination. This, of course, doesn’t last as the second act immediately makes it clear that MGS4 is a direct sequel to MGS2, but act one serves as a reminder of how good a sequel Guns of the Patriots could have been without hurting Sons of Liberty.

Act one’s strength as an opening is also, sadly, its greatest weakness. Liquid Sun is the promise of a story of sacrifice, and that simply isn’t what Metal Gear Solid 4 is going to end up being. It has elements of sacrifice, especially within Snake’s and Raiden’s character arc, but the narrative is mainly about the passage of time. Outside of a tenuous connection to Liquid Ocelot, there is no logical reason for Snake to be a part of the fight. He’s old, he’s dying, and the next generation is leaving him in the dust. At the same time, though, there is worth in his age. He’s experienced, he’s smart, and he has something the next generation lacks: strength of will. Time marches on, and it’s important to realize when your time is up so the next generation can take the reins, but it’s just as important for the next generation to look back on the time gone by to take from the previous generation.

Although Metal Gear Solid 4 would go on to wreck MGS2’s ending in the next act, this theme of time actually does make Sons of Liberty stronger in hindsight. While Raiden taking over Snake’s role already had narrative and thematic weight, Guns of the Patriots conceptually recontextualizes it so that it’s a formal passing of the torch between two generations when control switches over to Raiden. It’s a detail like this, that feels so appropriate with Metal Gear, that makes act one so bittersweet. Kojima had done the impossible and made a sequel to Metal Gear Solid 2 that actually made sense; and then he utterly ruined it.

“Snake, the only thing keeping you together is the strength of your will.”

Act 2: Solid Sun is, quite possibly, the single worst narrative stretch in the entire Metal Gear franchise. Not because the content is poor, it’s actually quite inoffensive in its own bubble, but because it tramples over everything Metal Gear Solid 2 stood for. Where the first act took a conscious approach to ensuring MGS2 was left untouched, the second makes it a goal to reference every detail from Sons of Liberty so the audience knows that none of that thematic weight as the credits rolled actually mattered. While the mere inclusion of Rosemary and Vamp, characters who have no purpose existing outside of MGS2’s context, certainly damage their home game, it’s what Kojima does to Raiden that makes the second act such a narrative disappointment.

At the end of Metal Gear Solid 2, Snake tells Raiden that he needs to find something to believe in. On a narrative level, this is a way of resolving Raiden’s character arc by having him reevaluate his life up to this point. On a thematic level, this is Snake’s way of telling the audience, through Raiden, that it’s up to them to decide what actually happened during the events of Sons of Liberty. More than anything, this is a sentiment meant to leave players critically thinking as they reflect on the end of the series’ narrative. Come Solid Sun, however, and Raiden is back; not as his old self, nor a progression of himself, but as a cyborg ninja whose very presence contradicts everything Raiden as a character once embodied.

Raiden’s role as a cyborg ninja only makes sense by under-analyzing his character, which is especially frustrating considering Metal Gear Solid 4 is the first Kojima directed MGS not to have a co-writer. Kojima is entirely responsible for Raiden’s shift as a character. He used a sword at the end of MGS2, he was a child soldier, and he had a serious problem with emotional detachment. In Sons of Liberty, his backstory serves as commentary on the average gamer while also contrasting him to Solid Snake. In Guns of the Patriots, his backstory is a flimsy justification for why he’s now doing back flips and cutting down bipedal tanks with a katana.

If that weren’t enough, Raiden’s entire personality undergoes a psychological shift. While he was already at his breaking point by the end of MGS2, he was able to hold in together in the hopes of rescuing Olga’s daughter and finding his own truth. He was naive, but he was determined to do what he believed was right, and he had a strong sense of justice. He was lonelier than he lead on, and made sure he was seldom vulnerable, but he was still able to open up under the right circumstances and never rejected camaraderie. In MGS4, he’s a jaded, alcoholic, stoic who refuses to let a single person in and even abandons his family in order to finish a fight that doesn’t concern him.

In that last respect, and that last respect alone, Raiden does come off slightly compelling. For all his flaws, he does contrast Snake appropriately. Snake is the past generation while Raiden is the next, and both are fighting battles they have no reason fighting. In hunting down Liquid Ocelot, Snake is fighting a war designed for the next generation. By trying to kill Vamp, Raiden is forcing himself into a battle that the past generation should have finished. They are both out of place, and they suffer immensely for it. More importantly, the states of their bodies are in direct opposition. Snake is dying because of what the world did to him. Raiden is dying because of what he did to himself. The latter survives only through augmentations. The former through strength of will alone.

Conceptually, breaking Raiden down so mechanically only serves to benefit Snake’s character arc which is simply the problem with telling a story like Guns of the Patriots. For a deconstruction of Solid Snake to work so well, it needs an element like Raiden, a character audiences care about. At the same time, though, including Raiden means dismantling Metal Gear Solid 2 to the point where it’s no longer recognizable. Solid Sun shows that Metal Gear Solid 4 is a sequel in name alone, and the unfortunate truth is that it had to be this way.

This is the tragedy of Metal Gear Solid 4. For it to exist, it needs to break down what came before it. Act two goes relatively easy on Snake as a character, because the audience now has Raiden as a comparison point. At the same time, the situation is all the worse for Snake because Raiden is a creation of his own making. It’s ultimately Snake telling Raiden to find something to believe in that causes Raiden to break. Even if it’s in complete opposition to Metal Gear Solid 2’s message, it’s nonetheless a necessary addition for Snake’s arc. Raiden is the reason that act two is the worst stretch in Metal Gear history, because he’s explicit proof that he couldn’t be ignored if the series were to continue. It’s a sad realization, because it’s also a realization that Metal Gear Solid did not end when it needed to. In continuing past Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater, it was obvious those games needed to be damaged for the series to continue. While Guns of the Patriots certainly does more damage to Metal Gear Solid 2, it doesn’t let Metal Gear Solid 3 get out unscathed.

“So long as there is light, there will always be shadow.”

As the effective midpoint of Metal Gear Solid 4, Act 3: Third Sun has quite an important job of setting up all the pieces for the finale while also breaking Snake down to his lowest point. Up to the start of act three, Snake has managed to overcome most obstacles thrown in his way with relative ease. While the subject of age is certainly a somber one, the inevitably of his death lingers only in the background. In an act as retrospective as Third Sun, it’s only fitting that Kojima choose to finally break Snake down now. It’s made all the more fitting when taking into account that this is the act that focuses on the events of Snake Eater the most. Snake’s lowest point comes to him when confronted with his father’s past. It should be noted that while the Snake Eater references aren’t as egregious as the Sons of Liberty references were in act two, they still damage Metal Gear Solid 3. Where the problem with act two was that the MGS2 inclusions simply couldn’t be reconciled with the type of story it told, the MGS3 inclusions in act three are either poorly written or poorly implemented.

Raiden’s inclusion can’t be justified, but it can be understood because it has literary merit in regards to Snake’s character arc. The Snake Eater nods are atmospherically appropriate for what Snake undergoes this act, but they often feel forced in and low quality compared to everything else Kojima has written for the series. They also reveal an unfortunate implication about Metal Gear Solid 4’s relationship with the rest of the series: it always needed to reference MGS2, but it clearly never needed to reference MGS3. Most of act three just goes to show how little of events in Snake Eater actually mattered in the context of the rest of the series. Kojima tries to force these deep connections by explicitly revealing Big Boss’ codec team as the Patriots all along, but this kind of twist has no basis existing. Snake Eater was about Big Boss’ downfall, it wasn’t about the events that happened. Third Sun flips the narrative and prioritizes the events over the meaning. In turn, Snake’s greatest defeat is appropriately dressed, but awkwardly shoved into an act too eager to romanticize Metal Gear Solid 3 to the point of pandering.

Perhaps the biggest narrative fumble in act three is the revelation that Big Boss’ one-time romantic interest, EVA, now code named Big Mama, was Snake’s birth mother all along. Conceptually, this is an interesting idea ripe with potential. Snake killed his father and his twin brother, and now he meets his mother. For the first time in his life, Snake has a family member who isn’t working in direct opposition to his goals. Unfortunately, Kojima makes this one of the only moments in the entire game where the audience doesn’t get a glimpse into Snake’s psyche. Rather, he remains uncharacteristically quiet as Big Mama reveals his parentage and the identity of the Patriots. Snake has always had a habit of shutting up during exposition dumps, but never to the point where he’d neglect commenting on intimate information directed at him.

Snake’s silence isn’t what makes the whole interaction so poor, though. Big Mama’s dialogue is seriously lacking compared to other characters in the game, let alone the rest of the series. She spouts off biblical references for little to no reason, and the Judeo-Christian imagery feels painfully out of place. Snake Eater had references to the Garden of Eden, but they were always just references meant to be endear players to Big Boss and EVA. EVA joked that he, Naked Snake, was tempting her, when in truth it was EVA who tempted him the entire time. That’s the extent of the reference, but Metal Gear Solid 4 romanticizes to the point where it becomes Big Mama’s character painting a wildly inconsistent picture of who EVA is.  

As for Snake’s character arc, Third Sun actually does a surprisingly great job with gradually breaking him down. The act begins with him using his OctoCamo to replicate his younger face only for Meryl to disregard his youthful appearance as soon as she sees him. This is an important moment for Snake as it establishes that he can’t go back to who he was. A younger face is just a disguise for the body that’s slowly dying. This moment is paralleled at the end of the act when Snake and Big Mama get caught in an explosion and Snake ends up with a burn scar across his face.

As Big Mama lay dying in the aftermath, she similarly disregards him in the same vein as Meryl, “So long as there is light, there will always be shadow.” This echoes back to Liquid calling himself and Snake the brothers and light and darkness near the end of Metal Gear Solid. If Snake is going to kill Liquid Ocelot, he needs to be prepared to die as well. This also means that the most meaningful dialogue Snake has with his mother is her essentially telling him that he needs to die. Snake begins and ends the act with a face that isn’t his, rejected by two women who should have important roles in his life but don’t.

“An cuimhin leat an grá”

After two acts spent tearing apart Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater, it’s surprising to step foot on Shadow Moses once more and realize that Act 4: Twin Suns might just be the greatest conceptual moment in all of Metal Gear Solid. For once in Guns of the Patriots, dismantling a game’s legacy feels appropriate. In fact, what Kojima does to Shadow Moses doesn’t even hurt Metal Gear Solid’s legacy. Rather, it makes it stronger. Shadow Moses now exists in these two very specific moments in time: the past, where Snake lived out his golden age- and the present, where Snake succumbs to old age as Shadow Moses sinks into the ocean. Every hallway, every room, and every moment is a living eulogy for the original Metal Gear Solid. For an instant, it genuinely feels as if Snake is his old self again.

Act four is a reminder that at the center of Metal Gear’s themes were characters living, dying, and growing in benefit of a greater narrative. It’s here where Snake is forced to confront the passage of time directly. Once Shadow Moses sinks, it’s over. Once the disease catches up to Snake, it’s over. Once the credits roll, the Metal Gear saga is over. Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 both presented themselves as definitive ends to the series, but for all of Metal Gear Solid 4’s faults, it truly made it feel like this was genuinely the last time. Even with the knowledge that Peace Walker and Metal Gear Solid V exist, it’s hard not to look at Twin Suns and believe, just for a moment, that Metal Gear really was going to come to an end right then and there.

Raiden does return in this act to fight Vamp once and for all, but his inclusion here isn’t as grating as in act two. There’s an emotional weight to Raiden’s arc here, and he finally starts to show some of his old vulnerability. More importantly, Raiden does not get to kill Vamp here. Rather, he gets mercy killed by Naomi. Vamp’s death is unsatisfying and gives Raiden absolutely no closure, but that’s exactly what it should have been. Raiden was fighting a battle that wasn’t really his and he’s left once again lost without a purpose. There’s one particularly powerful moment at the end of the act where Raiden seemingly gives his life to save Snake. As he’s crushed to death, he thinks back to an old conversation with Rosemary while his consciousness fades away. Act five immediately take away from the sacrifice by revealing that Raiden had lived, but, in that brief moment, Raiden was his true self again. There was a flicker of the Raiden from Sons of Liberty. At its core, act four is about the relationship between identity and the passage of time.

Time has changed Snake, Raiden, and Shadow Moses, but not to the point where they’re unrecognizable. Snake is older, harder, and slower. He is a man past his prime in every regard. At the same time, he still embodies that iron will only humans can possess. He fights not because he has to, but because he wants to. He fights to keep the world together. This isn’t his battle, but what matters most to him is ensuring there are no more battles left to fight. Raiden is broken, jaded, and psychologically shattered yet he maintains his sense of justice and puts his life on the line to save the one man who genuinely tried to give him a future. He fought a battle that wasn’t his and got nothing out of it, so he decides to pass on his life so Snake can keep his. Shadow Moses is sinking, covered in ice, and abandoned. It is a relic in every sense of the word, but it’s still home to one of the greatest stories in video game history. It is a museum of what has come and what is about to go. It is a plea for the audience to take the past as it was and move on.

Act four is a moment for players to truly sit down and evaluate who Snake was and is in retrospection. Following a physical and psychological scarring in act three, Twin Suns puts Snake in a place of familiarity so he can regain some of his essence. He muses on the past, shares memories with Otacon, fights Ocelot while piloting a Metal Gear, and watches Raiden finally take his lesson from Metal Gear Solid 2’s ending to heart. It’s a somber act meant to elicit introspection, and it stands out as one of the few moments in Guns of the Patriots that feels genuinely Metal Gear Solid. It’s easy to forget that just two acts ago, Kojima essentially ruined Metal Gear Solid 2 out of what felt like obligation. Here, nobody would be held at fault for just accepting Metal Gear Solid 4 for what it was.

In a way, that’s what Twin Suns is trying to do. The act opens with Snake reliving the literal PlayStation Metal Gear Solid. He can walk around, get caught, and walk in the snow. It is a reminder that, while MGS4 might change the lore of the series, the previous games cannot be altered. Metal Gear Solid is there, Metal Gear Solid 2 still works in its own context, and Metal Gear Solid 3 can be enjoyed without thinking about what comes next. Act four is about learning to accept what has come and what is gone.

“This is it, brother; our final moment. The battle has ended, but we are not yet free! The war is over, but… You and I still have a score to settle.”

As the last proper chapter of the game, Act 5: Old Sun has to tie up every loose end not directly focusing on Solid Snake. There’s an air of finality to each moment as it becomes clearer that, now more than ever, Kojima wants to end Metal Gear Solid. As Snake makes his way through Outer Haven, it truly feels like he’s coming face to face with Big Boss’ ideologies for the last time. After two games of trying to prevent his legacy from resurfacing, Snake has to put the rebirth down in what he knows will be the last mission of his life. Coming off the high of Twin Suns, it’s only natural to expect that same quality going into the finale. All the pieces are set for a satisfying conclusion, after all. Snake is going in alone, Meryl is getting in on the action, Otacon has a master plan to take down the Patriots, and Kojima will surely justify keeping Raiden alive in an incredibly moment. Unfortunately, while some loose ends wrap up rather nicely, there are a two in particular that conclude terribly. Old Sun has a lot on its plate, and it balances everything surprisingly well, but the quality is as inconsistent as act three.

By far, Naomi and Meryl have the two worst endings in Metal Gear history. Even though Naomi died in the fourth act, she returns in the form of a recorded message right before the final boss effectively taking credit for the defeat of the Patriots. In a way, this mirrors Raiden’s inability to finish off Vamp himself in act four, but the lack of satisfaction here feels out of place since the narrative pieces aren’t where they need to be for this to come off a clever literary move. Instead, it just feels like a last minute twist with little emotional weight to it.

Meryl’s ending is certainly more inoffensive in regards to the Metal Gear narrative, but her wrap-up feels much worse than Naomi’s. In an action-comedy sequence after an incredibly tense act, she and comic relief Johnny, a character previously known only for pooping his pants, vow to marry one another should they survive. It is a moment that defies all storytelling logic and stands out as the single worst written and directed cutscene in the Metal Gear canon up to this point. What’s particularly jarring about Naomi’s and Meryl’s endings is that they don’t tie into the overarching narrative of the passage of time. This is a problem Metal Gear Solid 4 has all throughout. It has this central theme, but it’s so obsessed with its nature as the tentative last game in the franchise that it desperately tries to tie up any loose end it can. Act five ends up feeling incohesive thanks to these moments, which is a shame considering how strong the other two main wrap-ups are.

Although keeping him alive isn’t completely justified given the content, Kojima does do a surprisingly good job in bringing Raiden back for the last act. In a moment heavily reminiscent of their time in Arsenal Gear, Raiden shows up to defend Snake as he powers through to the end of the game. Just like in his “death” scene during act four, Raiden feels like himself. He’s still jaded, but the essence of his personality is back. In an inversion of MGS4’s message, the next generation comes to help the past. Even though him sacrificing himself for Snake in act four effectively would have conveyed the same message, it’s made more explicit here because Raiden isn’t trying to die to save Snake. Rather, now he’s simply saving him so the both of them can live. Raiden realizes the value of life through the past generation, meaning Snake passed on a genuine message to the next, making his words from Sons of Liberty ring all the truer.

Similarly, Ocelot’s ending stands out as particularly strong. With the Patriots defeated and the world essentially saved, Snake and Liquid Ocelot both realize that the only thing left to do is kill one another. As the two trade blows, it becomes abundantly clear that this fight has no greater meaning. It’s two men simply fighting to the death. At the same time, this is a fight with all the meaning in the world. For Snake, and the audience, it is the definitive end of a chapter. When Snake kills Ocelot, it’ll mean that he, too, has to die. Even in the face of death, Snake does what he needs to do in order to finally wipe out a generation that’s only caused damage for the next. The more Snake fights Liquid Ocelot, the more the Ocelot personality comes back. By the end of the battle, Liquid has been fully beaten out and Ocelot dies as himself, knowing the son of the man he loved most came out victorious.

While this is an act that tends to take a backseat to Snake’s character arc, it isn’t without one key moment: the microwave. Before Snake can enter the heart of Outer Haven and purge the Patriots, he has to crawl through a microwave corridor. The further he goes, the more he burns up. Snake screams and he falls, but he keeps crawling. The screen is split in two at this point, with images of the supporting cast slowly failing while their only hope burns himself alive to save them. As all this is happening, the player is forced to mash the triangle button to keep Snake alive.

This is a genuinely painful and enduring act, a physical reminder of everything Snake has endured up to this point. Walking through the microwave is a moment of pure sacrifice on Snake’s part. Even though Raiden could have easily done it himself, Snake undergoes the task to show the next generation that life is worth fighting for. It is a symbolic act that signifies the end of the past, and one that symbolizes the crux of Snake’s entire character arc. He has always fought to let the world be as it is, and now he’s showing the world the lengths he’ll go to ensure that he leaves the human race intact. After five acts of living just to die, Snake embodies the value of human life at death’s door.

“This is good… isn’t it?”

The grand finale to Solid Snake’s saga, Naked Sin/Naked Son is simultaneously the epilogue Metal Gear Solid 4 did and did not need. By the end of Old Sun, there’s still one last thing Snake has to do: die. Having killed Ocelot, passed on his message to the next generation, and saved the world, Snake heads to the grave of Big Boss so he may take his life and kill the last remnants of a generation gone by. As he kneels in front of his father’s headstone, Snake places his gun in his mouth and the camera pans into the sky. All players are left with is the sound of a gunshot as the screen fades to black.

From the moment Guns of the Patriots began, Snake’s death was an inevitability. He was rapidly aging, the FOXDIE in his body was mutating, and it had become clear that he simply had no place in the modern world. In taking his own life, Snake sacrifices himself from the pain of dying, from the pain of turning into a biological weapon, and from the pain of being made redundant. It’s an almost defeatist end to one of gaming’s most legendary heroes, but that’s exactly what makes the act so powerful. Snake’s suicide is a moment of genuine vulnerability, a reminder to the audience that he has always been just another man. In a sense, Snake reaches an enlightenment that neither Raiden or Big Boss do at the end of their respective games. All three characters have been deconstructed over the course of the past three Kojima directed games, but only Snake ends his game understanding who he is and what he must do. There is no misunderstanding, there is no confusion- Solid Snake has to die.

At the end of MGS4, Solid Snake is the one character in all of Metal Gear to come out a genuine hero.

Which makes it incredibly awkward when the ending credits cut back to the game to reveal that, not only did Snake not kill himself, Big Boss is alive and ready to confront his son. Just like with Raiden in act two, Big Boss’ inclusion in the epilogue is counterproductive to the essence of his character. He was corrupted by his country, tried to create a world of perpetual warfare, and was killed by his son in turn. He was a hero who fell from grace and died a pathetic death in Central Asia. Big Boss returning for the epilogue belittles Liquid’s, Solidus’, and Ocelot’s character arcs. All three characters do what they do in an attempt to carry about what they believe is Big Boss’ legacy. His death triggers a chain reaction in the world where his sons are pit against one another while his closest ally desperately tries to make Outer Heaven a reality. In the end, they all fail because Big Boss never truly passed on a legacy.

To begin with, Outer Heaven was born out of a perversion of The Boss’ dying words, giving an air of illegitimacy to everything Big Boss did over the course of the series. When he dies, Solid Snake is the only person with him and he chooses to live his life independent of Big Boss’ philosophies. Liquid, Solidus, and Ocelot weren’t with Big Boss when he died, but they still try to give his death meaning in order to fit their agendas. Each character has their own version of Outer Heaven they want to see realized, but they’re all inconsistent with one another. Big Boss suddenly returning from the dead removes much of the weight from their misinterpretations as he was seemingly always there to pass on his legacy. Big Boss was a warlord, but there was tragedy in the fact he died alone with a son who wanted nothing to do with him. Him never actually dying hurts the series when looking back on it with a Metal Gear Solid 4 context.

Another issue with Big Boss’ return is what it represents for Solid Snake’s character arc. After an entire narrative of being told that Snake has to, and will, die, it’s hard to see an outcome where he survives as narratively satisfying. After all, Guns of the Patriots presented itself as the ultimate character deconstruction for Solid Snake, a genuine end to the series’ protagonist. From a pure plot perspective, Snake failing to kill himself is not a poor move on Kojima’s part. As already established, Snake is just a man. He is vulnerable and he has moments of weakness. In a way, him pulling the gun away at the last moment is an endearing moment that shows a considerable amount of humanity. No amount of self introspection and resolution could prepare Snake for suicide.

Having Big Boss appear as a physical manifestation of that concept is an interesting idea with an almost mythological presence. After an entire game filled with overtly technological explanations for the franchise’s mystical elements, Big Boss’ appearance is conceptually fresh. Unfortunately, while he does work as a representation of Snake’s humanity and his closeness to death, Big Boss spends the entire epilogue monologuing about the Patriots; how Zero, a supporting character from Snake Eater, was the main villain all along; and his misinterpretation of The Boss’ will. The only part of Big Boss’ ending monologue that truly matters is the last. Him realizing he was wrong all along is a fitting end to his character, if unnecessary. He understands through Snake’s actions that he was wrong about The Boss, but it’s too little, too late. Big Boss is about to die in his son’s place.

Big Boss dying in favor of Solid Snake is a strange way to close out the epilogue as it does give closure to Snake’s character arc, but he ends up sharing said closure with Big Boss. That said, this was a series that always revolved around the dichotomy between the pairing. Even when the father was supposedly dead, the son still had to fight his many shadows to wipe out his legacy. As Big Boss dies for the first and last time, there’s an understanding between the two previously unseen in Metal Gear Solid. They’re enemies, but they respect one another.

Big Boss never saw Snake as his son, and Snake never saw him as his father, but they nonetheless valued each others’ merits as men. Big Boss telling Snake that he can, and should, live out his final days in peace is a tender moment that makes sense for both characters. Big Boss always had this sentimental side to him as shown in Snake Eater, and Snake always had this desire to retire and live a quiet life. The father dies in the son’s place so the latter may at least live a bit longer. Considering Snake is a clone of Big Boss, as well, this does mean the past generation still dies.

All this harkens back to the passage of time present throughout Metal Gear Solid 4. Snake was a creation of the past generation, but he lived in a world of his own. He became the past, but he was stuck fighting between Ocelot’s and Raiden’s generations. Him putting the gun down and lighting one final cigar for Big Boss is a visualization of the fact he can accept the passage of time without killing himself. Were it not for the massive information dump Big Boss unloads on Snake, Naked Sin/Naked Son would be a pitch perfect epilogue. Even then, though, Snake’s character arc still comes to a fitting close. He didn’t kill himself, but he never had to. He spent the entire narrative sacrificing himself for the sake of others, and it all ends with someone sacrificing themselves for him. For the first time in his life, Snake is free to be a man.

“The world would be better off without Snakes.”

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is at times convoluted, disjointed, and inconsistent. It brings back characters for little to no reason, ends several character arcs in narratively unsatisfying manners, and tears the series’ lore to pieces in order mirror Kojima’s frustration with the franchise. At the same time, it’s a beautiful, and often genius, conclusion to Solid Snake’s character and the greater Metal Gear narrative. The passage of time is felt throughout every act, and Snake’s character truly falls to pieces only to rise as a freed man at the end. It is a game inherently about the value of life and what can be accomplished by a single individual.

At the end of MGS4, Solid Snake is the one character in all of Metal Gear to come out a genuine hero. Every single thing he has done was for the betterment of humanity. He was often cold and disconnected from the people around him, but he always fought for them. As much of Guns of the Patriots is a deconstruction of Solid Snake, it is a tribute to him. Even at his lowest point, Snake represents the greatest attributes of mankind. He fought a battle that wasn’t his, not because he believed the next generation couldn’t do it themselves, but because he felt responsible. Snake killing himself would have ended the story on a powerful moment with a powerful message, but him surviving is all the stronger because it’s proof that time does not divide. Generations can co-exist and, in his last days, Snake should pass on a final message: to live in peace.

All that’s known about Snake’s last days is that he spent them with Otacon and their foster daughter, Sunny. Most notably, Snake quit smoking. Cigarettes were almost synonymous with the character and, at the end of his life, he chooses to give them up in favor of a healthier goodbye. Snake quitting smoking is ultimately for the best, not due to health reason, but because it signifies a true change in his character. The world is better off without Snakes, and giving up smoking is his way of formally renouncing the code name that followed him for years. At the end of his life, at the end of a saga, Snake does not die an animal. He dies a man. War had changed. Metal Gear had changed. And Solid Snake had changed.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and pretentious French lit, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball on the internet and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Mike Worby

    April 18, 2018 at 10:07 pm

    This is a truly excellent piece Renan. Nice work, best one yet in the series.

  2. Andrew

    June 7, 2018 at 5:10 pm

    I just finished the game, and I want to thank you for this articulate and insightful piece. Excellent work.

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Games

What’s love got to do with it? Link’s 5 Best Almost Romances in ‘Zelda’

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 14th, 2016. 

****

For all the fairy tale aspects and emphasis on collecting hearts, the Legend of Zelda games aren’t exactly known for getting overly lovey-dovey. Despite having two characters who are clearly meant for each other, Link and Zelda have been basically all about business over the last thirty years, putting work before pleasure. Sure, there have been the occasional sideways glances or insinuations in between killing the pig monster that’s trying to take over their world, but otherwise the relationship has mostly stayed strictly platonic, full of the kind of stiff mutual respect that leads to underpopulation.

Zelda, of course, is burdened with the many responsibilities that come with running a kingdom constantly under siege by the forces of darkness, as well as presumably having to consistently fight the urge to give in to Stockholm syndrome during each of her many kidnappings. So basically, she’s pretty busy, really focusing on her career right now. She’s also royalty, so that’s intimidating (and most likely requires a similarly noble suitor). And Link? Don’t mistake his oversleeping for laziness. This guy needs his rest so he can slay monsters and push boxes that should be way too large for him to push. The Chosen One just doesn’t have time to play the Hyrule Field, and frankly, just like with a superhero, it’s probably best he doesn’t get to close to anyone.

Still, there have been hints of love over the last few decades, with Link’s opportunities extending to relationships of tenderness and awkwardness alike that have offered hope of a Happy Ever After for the hero in green. Unfortunately, he’s killed fans’ hopes by blowing every one of them, whether by tragic twist of fate or simply running away in embarrassment. Oh well. Here are the best of the “almosts”:

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Saria

Throughout all of the Zelda games, one thing has become apparent: Link doesn’t really do guy friends. This trait is on full display in Ocarina of Time, but while Link may never be bros with that jealous jerk Mido, that doesn’t mean he’s all by his lonesome. His companionship with an actual Kokiri is clearly a deep, meaningful one, and so Saria becomes one of the most endearing characters in the game. Sure, Malon is cute in that farmer’s daughter kind of way, but she seems more in love with horses than heroes, and besides, with a dad who can’t take care of himself, you know the honeymoon would be short. But Saria genuinely cares. She gives Link an ocarina, a pretty cool gift if you’re a forest person, and she teaches him a song so that they can always be in contact (hint, hint). Add to that the long, sad, lingering look on Saria’s face as she watches her “friend” cross the bridge to adventure, and you know there was something going on.

So after defeating Phantom Ganon in the Forest Temple and revealing Saria as the Sage of Forest, her resigned acceptance that their carefree days are behind them is a bittersweet acknowledgment (and reminder) that duty will always come before happiness. Mido’s revelation later that she had been waiting all this time for Link’s return doesn’t help with the melancholy, her unfulfilled pining just another casualty in the fight. But hey, at least she gets to hang out with a bunch of other misfits who are similarly trapped by their fated responsibility! Including…

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Princess Ruto

I’m not sure that anyone has thrown themselves at Link more than Princess Ruto. As a spoiled brat being carried around inside a giant fish that ate her, Ruto develops a one-way relationship that culminates in her believing the two to be engaged when she hands over Zora’s Sapphire, all while blushing profusely. These aggressive signals couldn’t be any more obvious, but Link does a great job of playing it cool and clueless. She really doesn’t pull too many punches though, and it’s hard to explain why he doesn’t bite. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend the rest of their lives with someone who’s rude, entitled, and bossy? So what that she’s an entirely different species and any offspring would be freaks of nature?

Even when older Link meets her later, she finds time to bring up their love life amidst all the seriousness of being a very important Sage, scolding Link for making her wait so long, then explaining how she can’t be with him until her duties are over. It’s all hilarious until you think about what would happen if Princess Ruto ever really did get free. Sorry fish lady, but the princess for Link is in another castle.

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Marin

With its tropical setting, one would think that Link’s Awakening would be one of the best chances for Link to find true love, but alas, even though he meets the girl of his dreams (who even looks like Zelda!), yet again it’s not meant to be. It’s hard not to instantly relate to Marin and her fascination with the young lad who washed up on Koholint’s shore. She has been trapped on an island her whole life, imagining a big exciting world out there beyond the vast ocean’s horizon, and yearning to see it. What kid (and many adults) can’t identify with that feeling? Link represents discovery, adventure, and the enthusiasm and verve she displays because of this is infectious. She definitely likes him, but does she like him like him?

Though quick to chide Link for hitting a cucco or smashing a jar, she’s rather shy about her feelings, but a couple of things slip. Sitting side-by-side on a log at the beach, she reveals her deepest desires and asks to know everything about him (before awkwardly laughing the question off), and later on top of a mountain, nearly confesses something before being interrupted by her father. The game itself even seems to think Link has a shot, asking after the hero “acquires” her and holds her high above his head like a treasure he just found, “Is this your chance?”

Sadly, however, Marin’s story may be the most heartbreaking of all Link’s ladies. She knows that when the Wind Fish wakes up, all of Koholint, herself included, might vanish into memory. She pleads with Link that “some day you will leave this island… I just know it in my heart… …Don’t ever forget me… If you do, I’ll never forgive you!” Marin just wants to exist, to feel, and Link, the person who has awoken that inside her, is destined to be the one that takes that from her. Getting the best ending to the game reveals some hope that maybe these two will meet again one day, in a magical land far away.

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Midna

Has Link ever had a more fully-formed relationship with anyone than what he shares with the impish former ruler of the Twilight Realm? Following the classic Hollywood arc, the two start out bickering and irritated with each other, Midna constantly hounding her wolfish companion, with Link begrudgingly powering through the pain in order to get to the princess he actually likes. Naturally then, over the course of many trials and monster-shaped obstacles, the two slowly began to develop a mutual respect and liking for each other, as tragic backstories are revealed and codes of honor are put on full display. By the end, when sassy beast turns into great beauty (a nice twist on a classic fairy tale trope), Link is left speechless (big shocker), much to Midna’s delight. “What? Say something! Am I so beautiful that you have no words left?” This is called flirting, people. If I was Link’s wing man he would’ve received a nudge in the ribs right here.

In fact, most of their interactions over the entire game comprise of her playful teasing, the type of schoolyard antagonizing that is akin to pulling someone’s hair and running away. If Link’s the kind of guy I think he is, these insults will only add to the liking. On top of that, her mysterious nature and later trusting openness can only strengthen the interest. Of course, what it could easily boil down to is just that really, they’re the perfect match: she’s funny and talks a lot, while he’s well, Link.

Unfortunately, he stays true to silent form, and after a brief pause at the end where she clearly wants to admit her feelings but (I’m assuming) feels awkward with Zelda around, Midna departs back to her own dimension, never to be seen again, all because a certain green-clad idiot just stands there and lets her destroy the Mirror of Twilight (with a tear nonetheless) having never told her how he actually feels! Stupid Link! Rookie mistake, pal. Live and learn, plenty of fish in the sea, and all that crap.

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Zelda

Ah, but which Zelda? Well, in the entire franchise, there are really only two with whom Link had any real chemistry beyond teaming up to save the kingdom, but the best of those is the one that wasn’t even a princess. In Skyward Sword, Zelda is a happy youth, the kind of spirited person that everyone is drawn to, a force of positivity and happiness. She also has had a crush on Link for years, as the two have been particular friends since they were kids, much to the annoyance of a jealous Biff-type schoolmate of theirs. This really is the boy-next-door meets girl-next-door story that has less of a fantasy feel than the other games, feeling more grounded and accessible.

Much of this realistic feeling is owed to the amount of awkwardness between the two whenever they’re left alone in the beginning and things start to get real. Zelda often fishes for compliments on her choice of clothes or weirdly, her harp, while Link stammers his way through the several “aw, shucks” responses. This is all highly endearing in a puppy love sort of way, but throughout the game we are reminded as well of how deeply these two really care for each other, with Zelda risking her life without a moment’s hesitation to save Link from falling, or the goddess’ plot exploiting the fact that Link would “throw [himself] headfirst into any danger, without even a moment’s doubt” to save her.

Still, though there are many acts of bravery and sacrifice on both sides that outwardly prove love, the beating heart of Link and Zelda’s relationship in Skyward Sword lies in the small moments, glances, and gestures that have players rooting for these two crazy kids to come through in the end. Zelda nervously folding her hands in his presence, Link’s embarrassment at the implication of a kiss, the playful way she is constantly pushing him off the edge of high places and endangering his life, etc. While the end makes no guarantees, as one of only three people living on the surface, this is Link’s best chance to make a life for himself outside of killing things.

Ten bucks says his “be aloof” strategy drove her straight to Groose.

***

And that’s it! So, while romance has never been a main focus of the Zelda series, that doesn’t mean Hyrule doesn’t have a pulse. Link’s made a life out of collecting hearts, and despite all the misfires with the ladies and fish ladies, Link’s still young. He’s just got to get back on that horse and find someone that’s not his horse. After all, it’s dangerous to go alone.

Though you could always choose the bottle…

Link-romance

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Indie Games Spotlight: Apple Arcade (Almost) All the Way

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Apple Arcade Indie Game Spotlight

We love indie games here at Goomba Stomp – after all, they can offer some of the most groundbreaking, creative experiences out there. However, with so many coming out every single week, it can be hard to know which of them deserve your attention. That’s why we’ve started our new Indie Games Spotlight series, where we’ll highlight some of our favorite new independent games every other week.

Our inaugural issue is dominated by the recently released Apple Arcade. Apple’s ambitious new service has brought with it plenty of standout titles to discuss, including some from respected creators like Devolver Digital and WayForward.

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Devolver Digital Joins the Arcade

Apple Arcade is upon us, coming with a slew of stylish indies from a variety of developers new and old. One of the service’s most immediately prominent supporters is the boutique publisher Devolver Digital, which is supported Apple’s platform with some exclusive new titles, two of which we’ll highlight below.

First is Bleak Sword, a compact brawler that takes place entirely in stylish dioramas. Inflicted with a deadly curse, players must traverse through the isometric black, white, and red environments to right the wrongs of their world. The action has been streamlined to work equally well on both mobile devices and traditional gamepads, although it has also been spiced up with some RPG elements like spells to cast and stats to upgrade. It’s available to play now for Apple Arcade subscribers.

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The second release is Cricket Through the Ages, which features “inarguably accurate recollections” of the game of cricket throughout human history. Some of its true-to-life scenarios include one prehistoric match between cavemen and dinosaurs, another taking place during a medieval joust, and of course, one in outer space. Featuring simple one-button controls and support for both single- and multiplayer, this historic romp may not be exactly accurate, but it certainly does look ridiculous and fun. It can be played now on Apple Arcade.

Indie Games Spotlight

Mosaic Paints a Bleak Picture of the Daily Grind

Mosaic is all about one of the most mundane aspects of existence: the daily grind. It takes place in a seemingly pristine world where there’s little more to life than clocking in and out of work and whiling away the idle hours with mindless mobile games. As reality becomes gripped in a “harrowing technological autocracy,” it tasks the player with becoming the lone rebel to shatter the façade.

With its polygonal 3D visuals and subversive narrative, it easily draws plenty of comparisons to Playdead’s iconic Inside, as well as more recent experiences in the same vein such as the excellent FAR: Lone Sails. For those looking for a more introspective, provocative experience, Mosaic should be well worth checking out. It’s available on Apple Arcade now and will come to consoles and PC later this year.

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Get your Zelda Fix with A Knight’s Tale

Between the remake of Link’s Awakening and the upcoming sequel to Breath of the Wild, Zelda fans certainly aren’t starved for content. However, if you want even more Zelda-like action beyond what Nintendo is offering, then A Knight’s Tale looks like it could do the trick.

A Knight’s Tale ticks all the Zelda-like boxes: stylized cartoon graphics, a massive world to explore, puzzle-filled dungeons, and simple action-based combat, to name a few. Powered by Unreal Engine and boasting of more than 30 hours of content, it’s looking like a hefty serving of Triforce-inspired goodness. Unlike most other games on this list, no Apple Arcade subscription will be required to play this adventure when it launches across all consoles (yes, including Switch) and PC this fall.

Indie Games Spotlight

Spidersaurs: Contra Meets Cartoons

Remember being a kid and waking up every Saturday, eagerly anticipating a morning full of colorful, action-packed cartoons? That’s the feeling that Spidersaurs aims to capture from its very first trailer. It presents a post-apocalyptic world that’s being ravaged by mutant dinosaur-spider hybrid and pairs this with a run-and-gun gameplay style that’s reminiscent of classic Contra games.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Spidersaurs is the pedigree behind it. It’s being developed by WayForward, the creators of all-time indie classics like the Shantae series as well as more recent hits like River City Girls. It’s safe to say that whenever WayForward is involved, a quality product is more than likely to result. It should be well worth a look, especially since it’s available now exclusively on Apple Arcade.

Go on an Emotional Adventure with Mutazione

Mutazione offers a completely different type of cartoon experience than Spidersaurs. This narrative-focused adventure game is a slow, laid-back experience populated by otherworldly characters and presented with a delicate hand-drawn aesthetic.

It tackles the topic of growing up, putting players in the role of 15-year-old Kai as she leaves home to care for her ailing grandfather in a mysterious, forested world. It teases a mixture of relaxing slice-of-life activities – making friends, playing music, going to parties – while also alluding to a broader spiritual journey. Like so many other games on this list, it’s available to play now on Apple Arcade. It’s also available for purchase on PS4 and PC, for those who haven’t dived into Apple’s new service yet.

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Game Reviews

‘Borderlands 3’ Looks to the Stars While Stuck on the Ground

After a long hiatus, Borderlands returns… pretty much the same as it always was, for better or worse.

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Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3 is one of the most bizarre gaming experiences of this generation, a highly-anticipated, long-awaited sequel clearly feeling the pressure of living in its predecessor’s enormous shadow. Both beholden to its past and searching for its future, Borderlands 3 is a strange amalgamation of abundantly familiar elements and a few new ideas, most of which never truly find harmony with each other during the game’s lengthy campaign.

Borderlands 3 is perfectly content to just be more Borderlands, with all the expected thrills and frustrations one would expect from that philosophy.

In its attempts to look forward and backward at the same time, Borderlands 3 ends up feeling like a series of half-measures, a collection of systems and story beats that, in the few moments they’re able to take evolutionary steps for the franchise, feel like there’s still room for the now decade-old series to grow. Unfortunately, across the 50+ hours I’ve spent traversing, shooting, and constantly marking items for junk in my inventory, Borderlands 3 hasn’t offered those moments nearly enough, too often falling victim to its old habits, using its legacy as a crutch, rather than a device to propel the franchise into its (admittedly uncertain) future.

Borderlands 3

It doesn’t help Borderlands 3 front loads some of its worst writing; the opening act of the game is gratingly awful, hammering away at the same few punchlines for its characters as players embark on the series of fetch quests that comprise the game’s opening hours. Beginning some unidentified amount of time after Borderlands 2, Borderlands 3 opens on a war-ravaged Pandora enraptured by its inhabitants latest obsession: the Calypso Twins, who have seemingly galvanized the majority of the Crimson Raiders in their quest to… well, we’ll talk more about the Calypso Twins, and their role in the story, a bit later.

Early on, Borderlands 3 is desperately trying to prove to the audience it is still the same ol’ Borderlands, interrupting its genitalia references to break the fourth wall and acknowledges that yes, we’re once again beginning with a series of annoyingly spread-out fetch quests to introduce characters and establish tone. But the delivery of the game’s typical blend of meta humor and pop culture references feels stale on arrival; the lengthy fetch quests just feel like simplistic mission design, and “big dick energy” jokes just don’t hit like they used to in 2019.

(There’s also an entire plot line built around Ice-T as a sentient teddy bear, who calls his in-game wife a bitch constantly, in between dick jokes. It’s as terrible as it sounds.)

Borderlands 3 quickly establishes these abundantly familiar rhythms – and then, surprisingly, doesn’t do much to expand upon them through the rest of the game’s main campaign. Though Gearbox has called this title “the big one” in the past, it doesn’t feel like a major step forward in any sense of the word – and at worst, Borderlands 3 occasionally feels like a regression of what it does best, a slow burn of slight disappointments which add up to a confounding experience.

Borderlands 3

There’s also Borderlands‘ absolute dismissal of Twitch culture; as the introductory chapters of the game catch players up on the Calypso Twins’ sudden accrual of power, Borderlands 3 has a strangely “old man yells at cloud” feeling to it (to myself borrow an overused meme for a moment), an odd feeling for a game that prides itself on its own (debatable) edginess and camp.

The Calypso Twins are built around the stereotypical cult of personality associated with the biggest streamers of the world – and boy, does Borderlands 3 not spare an ounce of vitriol for the admittedly complicated, often disturbingly regressive world of streamer culture (though they do have a weapon that is a direct Dr. Disrespect reference, and also feature some of the most elaborate Twitch integrations of any modern game). But Borderlands 3 admonishes creator and follower alike with an empty dismissal of the “influencer” – in a rather bleak application of its signature nihilism, it buries any kind of interesting exploration of the Twins- as either characters or societal critique – under a thick layer of cynicism.

It never really even contemplates their place as unifers in a galaxy full of corporations addicted to war profits, under a thin, cynical veneer of disregard for their place in any culture, Pandorian or human – its critique of streamer culture ultimately just feels empty. At times, it even feels hypocritical; unsurprisingly, Borderlands 3’s consistently been one of the most-watched games on Twitch since before its public release last week (plus again; there are multiple streamer-related references sprinkled through the game). It’s contradictory at best – and when considering how thin the public personas of Troy and Tyreen are actually defined outside of “shitty streamer people and their shitty followers”, it just feels weird.

Borderlands 3

Like the story, the shooting and looting of the game is immediately familiar, though it is a much more welcoming feeling: the single biggest improvement to Borderlands 3 is the shooting, which feels tighter and heavier than it has the previous three entries in the series. If there’s a truly transcendent evolution of the game’s formula, it’s found here: the shooting is simply magnificent from the word go, especially with the new traversal elements of mantling and power sliding, movement options that do wonders to bring life to the game’s many, many, many, many engagements with massive groups of enemies, hidden baddies, and massive (-ly lengthy, though mostly well-varied) boss encounters.

The class selection is also fantastic; there’s a distinct rejection of Borderlands 2‘s semi-linear class system, with each of the game’s four characters featuring multiple unique skill trees players can utilize to create an impressive diversity of builds with. There are hints of old characters in Fl4K, Zane, Amara, and Moze, but those elements are welcomely remixed and expanded upon, in creative ways I just wish the rest of Borderlands 3 would take a hint from; I’ve never had so much fun switching between characters in a previous game, experimenting with the intersections of their diverse ability sets, and seeing how the game’s Legendary and Anointed equipment rarities can further those builds is easily the most satisfying part of the game (though admittedly, all four classes take until about level 30 before they truly unlock their mechanical potential).

Borderlands 3

It is worth noting the game’s technical performance is as inconsistent as its narrative; for a game that’s been in development for so long, Borderlands 3 feels particularly unpolished for a finished product – hell, between writing and editing this review, I lost a collection of 50 legendary items out of my storage bank because of a widespread bug, kind of an unforgivable mistake for an entire game built around loot hunting.

Outside of the major performance issues widely-reported since the game’s release – including the virtually unplayable “Resolution mode” on Playstation 4 Pro – Borderlands 3 is ripe with the glitches of the past: broken mission objectives, inconsistent AI companion pathing – and, as an added bonus, the expected bevy of Unreal Engine quirks (like falling through the map multiple times). Though it seems like a small complaint, waiting 5-7 seconds for your in-game menu to load in every few minutes in a 2019 video game quickly becomes frustrating, one of many examples of Borderlands 3‘s many rough edges.

(Playing as Moze in multiplayer was a particular low light: from the gravitational physics of my character completely breaking, to glitches that rendered my player utterly unmovable, Borderlands 3‘s co-op modes are frustratingly janky, to the point split-screen co-op is almost unplayable in its current state.)

But the most frustrating part of Borderlands 3 is (outside of the character classes, of course) how risk-averse the entire affair is; in terms of mechanics and systems, it is mostly an integration of Borderlands 2 and the new elements of The Pre-Sequel, with a couple of light improvements around the edges. For example, there are now gear scores attached to every item a player picks up; there’s still no way to effectively manage an inventory, or even a consistency to how the scores are formulated, but hey, at least there’s kind of a way to compare gear (which one will do constantly, since inventory management is a still a hot mess).

Borderlands 3

For every tiny improvement, there’s a concession attached to it; a great example is the game’s map and mission tracking systems. While the map now shows the topography of each area, a useless mini-map and a thoroughly aggravating menu UI make juggling multiple missions an absolute chore (even though one can switch missions on the fly with a touch of the button, there’s no way to see multiple objectives on the map, or even switch between them while in the map menu).

This persists across the entire Borderlands 3 experience: and as the tale of the Calypso Twins and the Great Vault lurches through its interminably lengthy second and third acts, it begins to wear on the experience. For better or worse, Borderlands 3 further entrenches itself in the habits and rhythms of Borderlands 2 – which, after seven years, begins to feel stale in areas, frustratingly reluctant to change, or even reflect on its well-established sensibilities (or on itself; there are literal jokes made about CEO Randy Pitchford’s many controversies, which are… uncomfortable at best). And while the game certainly demonstrates the effectiveness of carefully refining its (rightfully celebrated) mechanics, its absolute reluctance to take creative risks begs the question of why it took so long to bring this game together (or, at the very least, begs the question of whether Gearbox really wanted to do a Borderlands 3 at all, and only green lit the project after the overwhelming failure of Battleborn).

As the game moves through its middle chapters, it just feels lacking in a way Borderlands 2 never did, even with its predecessors own inconsistent humor and pacing. Though ostensibly a journey spread across the galaxy, featuring a massive cast of familiar and new characters, so much of Borderlands 3 feels small and isolated. Every area of the game is broken up into tiny segments, covering small areas of these seemingly massive planets – an experience itself constantly broken up by lengthy loading screens and regular back tracking, which doesn’t exactly vibe with the game’s epic, world-hopping scope.

Borderlands 3

The absence of the player-characters in the central narrative is another head-scratching omission; despite the inclusion of unique dialogue for every character throughout the game, the four main personalities of Borderlands 3 feel underdeveloped – a problem that persists considering how little they’re seen during the most important moments of the game. They’re explicitly excluded from so many of the game’s cinematic moments, they almost feel absent from the game’s actual story (despite the inclusion of unique dialogue for every character throughout the game, an experiment that pays off to mixed results).

I think about the ending of Borderlands 2, and how much potential it held for the future of the series: the promise of exploring entire planets with friends, finding Vaults and hidden pop culture references was almost breath-taking in its ambition. With its series of linearly-designed, stunted “zones” and limited planet selection at launch, Borderlands 3 never really harnesses the long-gestating potential for growth; and as the story begins building towards its climactic moments, it only further highlights the creative dissonance that plagues so many aspects of the game.

The clearest distillation of Borderlands 3‘s identity crisis is found in the game’s story, which struggles to justify itself as something more than just “another” Borderlands game. It is torn between its desires to attempt something new (at least, at times), and the emotional attachment it knows the audience has with the characters, rhythms, and memorable moments from the first three games of the series. It leads to a story that often follows a template: travel to new area, meet familiar old character for a mission, fight through a series of gently-guiding corridors while constantly staring at the map, rinse, and repeat for thirty-five hours.

Borderlands 3

Save for the occasional interlude and amusing side story – though that often finds itself stuck in its own loop, with a collection of ancillary characters who either wants to remind you how funny poop is, or how much people in this world enjoy murder and death – to the point its cynical nihilism is no longer humorous, and eventually becomes exhausting.

Sure, there are a couple new characters introduced, but they’re left to the fringes of the main narrative, which is, for all intents and purposes, a retread of Borderlands 2‘s major beats. Yes, it occasionally attempts to subvert expectations, but mostly by presenting a mirrored version of the series’ previous events – where Borderlands 2 was about an evil father manipulating their disgruntled child and the Vault Hunters, Borderlands 3 is basically about mad children manipulating their father and the Vault Hunters – but it is satisfied to simply just be that story, and not much more (and at times, even becomes wholly illogical… remember The Watcher and their foreboding warnings? Neither does Borderlands 3, apparently).

There is one particularly strong section of story, however, and it comes in an unexpected place: after serving the role of enigmatic mission giver (and named member of the Borderlands 2‘s lamest DLC), Sir Hammerlock’s arc in the middle section of Borderlands 3, while disappointingly divorced from the central events of the game, is emotionally propulsive in ways none of the other story is, a moment where Borderlands 3‘s themes find their voice for a too-brief amount of time.

Part love story, and part exploration of the intersections of family and legacy, Borderlands 3‘s tale of Hammerlock and the Jakobs family is so satisfying,the one time Borderlands 3 stops screaming at the player in its desperation to be funny or surprising. For a few hours,the overwhelming nihilism of Borderlands‘ eternally cynical world view melts away, and the series truly offers something akin to hope and possibility in its world. It represents the beautiful essence of Borderlands expansive set of characters, companies, and legacies, and is the rare moment where Borderlands 3 finds harmonic brilliance between its shooting, looting, joking, and genuine attempts at emotional beats.

Borderlands 3

But like most of the other familiar faces in Borderlands 3, Hammerlock’s story is contained to his few chapters on his home planet; for a game that ultimately turns on a story of family and shared purpose, there’s so much of Borderlands 3 that just feels like it is missing the mark, or ignoring it altogether. Outside of Lilith and Claptrap (and for a brief time before her quickly-forgotten disposal, Maya) none of the game’s previously playable characters factor into the narrative in any way – hell, most of them, like Axton, Gaige, Salvatore and Krieg, don’t appear or are barely mentioned at all, which kind of takes away from the game’s attempts to be an all-encompassing adventure through the history (and theoretical future) of its surrogate family of bandits, adventurers, scientists, and adventure seekers.

Instead, there’s a lot of focus put on a handful of underwhelming new characters (including Ava, the game’s single biggest missed opportunity relegated to Whiny Teen tropes), only occasionally interjecting those sequences with familiar faces: multiple major characters of the series have precisely one mission dedicated to them through the story, which again feels like Borderlands 3 lacking confidence in its own identity, unable to commit to forging new paths, and instead peppering serotonin-laced doses of nostalgia across the story as a half-measure to cover up that Borderlands 3 really has nothing new to say about its world, its people, or the story it’s been telling now for a decade.

Borderlands 3 is perfectly content to just be more Borderlands, with all the expected thrills and frustrations one would expect from that philosophy. That doesn’t make it an abject failure, of course: it’s still a game I’m going to play for hundreds of hours with my friends, thanks to the sheer diversity of gun play and character builds (it is a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, after all) – but there’s a distinct feeling Borderlands 3 could’ve been so much more than… well, just more of the same Borderlands. Seven years after its last mainline entry (and five after its forgettable, under cooked “pre-sequel”), just being Borderlands one more time makes it feel like a series stuck in the past, retreating to safe waters by simply remixing the old game… with a strangely newfound (and ultimately, superficial) hatred of streamer culture layered on top to feel relevant in 2019.

Borderlands 3

That allegiance to the past ultimately comes at a cost; it makes the few moments Borderlands 3 tries to evolve stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the game, complete 180’s in emotional tenor that are never met by equal risks taken in gameplay design, or the construction of the main narrative. When the dick jokes and meme references subside, there is an emotionally satisfying core deep inside Borderlands 3, one that highlights the spaces in between the game’s consistently enjoyable shooting and looting gameplay loop (there’s a particular photo I discovered in the game’s later moments that literally brought me to tears, a quietly poignant and beautiful moment this game desperately needs more of).

But that version of Borderlands 3 only comes out in fits and starts, often hindered by the series’ allegiance to its old identity, one that time, and most of the gaming industry, has passed by (at least, during the main story; I’ll be back next week with thoughts on the post-credits/endgame experience). There is a great version of Borderlands 3 somewhere, a more driven action-RPG with a tighter campaign experience, a more ambitious, fully-formed story, and a true expansion of its celebrated mechanics to marry to the game’s wonderfully diverse class set and enhanced movement options. It’s just not this inflated, safe iteration of the series, one that drowns its few iterative innovations in a sea of repetitive familiarity.

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Games

Could Apple Arcade Be the Best Gaming Subscription Service Yet?

Gaming has its fair share of subscription services, but with its flexibility and clarity, Apple Arcade could be among the very best.

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Apple Arcade

Gaming has moved beyond consoles and physical storefronts. The past few years have seen the birth of ambitious new projects like Xbox Game Pass and Google Stadia, which aim to change the way you play your games. Apple has now entered the fray with a subscription service of its own, Apple Arcade. This might look like little more than yet another effort from a major company to capitalize on major trends, but in reality, this new project has the potential to be the best gaming subscription platform yet.

So…what is it?

Apple Arcade is a basic concept: for $5.00 per month, you gain access to an expanding library of games that can be played across all Apple devices, including Mac, Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad.

Compared to other subscription platforms out there, Apple Arcade is refreshingly simple. Unlike Xbox Game Pass, you don’t need to spend extra money to play your games on additional platforms; for that one monthly price, every game can be played across every one of your Apple devices. And unlike Google Stadia, a solid internet connection isn’t required to play your games. Every title on the Arcade can be natively downloaded onto the device of your choice and played regardless of the strength of your WiFi.

Apple Arcade

The mention of iPhone and iPad may have already set some readers on edge – after all, the gaming community can’t agree on much, but it has generally determined that mobile games aren’t always the best. They rarely provide the same caliber of experiences as console or PC games, so why would anyone want to spend a monthly fee to play a bunch of mediocre mobile games?

However, Apple Arcade is intensely curated to provide a high quantity of stylish, memorable games from some of the most respected creators in the field. For instance, famed indie publishers like Devolver Digital and Annapurna Interactive are fully on board, with multiple exclusive games planned to launch with the service. That’s not to mention the sheer number of highly anticipated indie games like Overland, Sayonara Wild Hearts, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens that will be included in the Arcade. Appple’s website promises that more than 100 different games will be available to play over the course of the launch period this fall, so if the game library can keep up this quality, then it could be promising indeed.

Image result for sayonara wild hearts gif
Sayonara Wild Hearts is just one of the many incredibly stylish indie games of Apple Arcade.

What makes Apple Arcade so special, anyway?

It seems like every company and their mother has a storefront nowadays. Ubisoft, Blizzard, Epic, and even Rockstar have all debuted platforms of their own, while Google Stadia is trying to remove traditional platforms entirely. In such a crowded environment, how can Apple Arcade possibly stand out? Simply put, Apple Arcade is already set to be the most flexible and easy-to-understand gaming subscription platform yet.

Every one of the many subscription platforms out there touts its “flexibility” in allowing you to choose what games to play and where to play them. Apple Arcade does the same thing but with one major difference: less limitations. As mentioned earlier, each game can be downloaded directly onto your device, and with save data being stored in the cloud, progress can be carried on between every one of your Apple products. Meanwhile, platforms like Google Stadia effectively shut down without constant WiFi access.

Apple Arcade
Apple Arcade offers a lot of games on a lot of platforms for a low price

In terms of price, Apple Arcade continues to stand out. For $5.00 a month, you can play over a hundred unique titles. Compare this with the $15.00/mo price of Xbox Game Pass or the $10.00 subscription price of Google Stadia Premium, and Apple Arcade easily comes out on top (that’s not to mention that you still have to pay for Stadia games individually on top of the monthly fee). For reference, a year of access to the more than 100 games in Apple Arcade costs the same as the retail price of a single triple-A retail title. You won’t need to invest in a new controller either, since PlayStation and Xbox gamepads are fully supported.

Even when it comes to the games included, Apple Arcade should stand out from the crowd. Stadia may already have some massive third party blockbusters like Cyberpunk 2077 and DOOM Eternal, but they don’t offer much incentive to be played on Google’s streaming service instead of traditional consoles or PCs. On the other hand, Apple Arcade’s low price point and more practical flexibility offer a compelling reason to play games on Apple’s service instead of purchasing them individually on other platforms. That’s not to mention the handful of exclusives available at launch or coming soon after, from famous minds like SimCity creator Will Wright and the father of Final Fantasy himself, Hironobu Sakaguchi.

The world of gaming certainly has more than its fair share of subscription services. Yet Apple Arcade stands out for its clarity, its accessibility, and its remarkable library. With these factors combined, it could become the very best gaming subscription on the market.

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Games

Sirfetch’d is the Leek ‘Pokémon Sword’ Needed

Fortunately, Pokémon Sword specifically, has given more reason than just filling the pokédex for future Galar trainers to go seek out this elusive duck. Meet Sirfetch’d!

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Sirfetch'd Pokémon Sword

Ever since we were chasing pokémon around the tall grass of Johto, it was obvious that among the Kanto pokémon given evolutions, Farfetch’d was the one that had been forgotten. A pokémon with more dishes than moves, Farfetch’d had the usability of a fork scooping water, becoming a time-dwindling nuisance due to its rarity. Fortunately, Pokémon Sword specifically has given more reason than just filling the pokédex for future Galar trainers to go seek out this elusive duck. Meet Sirfetch’d!

Sirfetch’d is easily one of the best-designed pokémon for Pokémon Sword and Shield that has already been announced. With a sword and a shield made from its previous garnishing, and a prideful stance that oozes confidence, Sirfetch’d genuinely looks like the next stage of evolution from the woefully inept Farfetch’d. What we don’t yet know is its stats and, as a consequence, what tier it will be in competitive gameplay. But what we do know is it will be a fighting type with the ability steadfast, much like the fellow knight Gallade. Its signature move, Meteor Assault, will be debuting in Pokémon Sword and Shield, which inflicts heavy damage that forces the user to recharge the next turn.

Farfetch'd and Sirfetch'd
Farfetch’d and Sirfetch’d

The announcement of Sirfetch’d only creates curiosity as to who its opposing pokémon will be in Pokémon Shield. It’s doubtful that there will be another evolution for Farfetch’d, as Sirfetch’d is shown already in command of a shield, so the play on sword and shield will not feature in a twin evolution. The likelihood is another pokémon that has been neglected for so long, and in dire need of a renaissance in the franchise; something like Dunsparce from generation two would be ideal, considering that, like Farfetch’d, it manages to be both rare and pointless.

What has made the addition of Sirfetch’d and some of the other Galar region pokémon so appealing is their alignment with the inspiration and theme behind Pokémon Sword and Shield. Sirfetch’d breathes the nature that the games are trying to convey, but so does Corviknight in its chivalrous demeanor. Crucially for Corviknight, it’s another hint at a Victorian England inspiration behind Pokémon Sword and Shield; the raven in the Tower of London is as iconic as the factory chimneys that tower above Galarian form Weezing. Even the possessed teapot is taking a less casual approach to the stereotype.

But honestly, it’s quite charming to see so much inspiration derive from a region of the world. Kalos was inspired by France, but the only pokémon that conveyed a French stereotype was Furfrou, which feels like a missed opportunity in hindsight. If Pokémon is to continue using regions of the world as the inspiration behind their generational games then, from what we’ve seen so far, Pokémon Sword and Shield could be ideal templates.

Impidimp
Impidimp in all its unwanted glory.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any poor designs. The two legendaries, Zacien and Zamazenta, are the rather generic canid legendary pokémon. Rolycoly looks like the love-child of Beldum and Minior, while Impidimp looks like it fell off the pages of a lost Atom Ant storyboard from the sixties. However, if there weren’t contemptuous new pokémon in Pokémon Sword and Shield, then the games would exist without reliable antagonists; getting through Pokémon Moon without the humorous Bananarama Dugtrio would have been an emptier experience. That is why it is easy to accept an Impidimp as long as there is a Sirfetch’d.

This is partly why it is easier to look forward to Pokémon Sword and Shield than it was to Pokémon Sun and Moon. There was a slight drop in pokémon design quality from X and Y to Sun and Moon, while so far, the designs in Sword and Shield have improved from Sun and Moon. The announcement of Sirfetch’d only confirms that designs have at least been slightly improved and we can await with great anticipation for what pokémon the opposing exclusive will be in Pokémon Shield.

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