Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is fun, funny, and surprisingly fantastic

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After an hour of playing Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, I was ready to give up. The normal difficulty setting serves up a frequently trying level of challenge during the dull prologue that sees Raiden using his HF Blade to gradually cut apart a hulking Metal Gear. The scope and scale of the game is impressive, no question. All of those insane Metal Gear Solid 4 cutscenes that featured the cyborg ninja kicking ass are realized in Revengeance as a fully playable action title from Platinum Games. It seemed unapproachable though, with only the most basic of tutorials and no real indication of how to survive in this post-stealth Metal Gear world.

Then, everything clicked. It came late for me, during the game’s second chapter (third, if you count the prologue). After being pounded mercilessly again and again by gorilla-like Mastiff cyborgs in the sewers of a Mexican city, the unique rhythm of the game’s ever-deepening combat system finally dialed in. The challenge remains, but it’s a technical challenge that should be familiar to those who feast on the over-the-top spectacle of Platinum’s Bayonetta. Naturally.

Metal Gear fans are in for multiple shocks. The out-and-out action in Revengeance has been touted repeatedly, but it’s still jarring to consider it a good thing when you hear the “alert” tone sound while a red exclamation point pops up over an enemy’s head. There’s occasional stealth, though it is never forced. It’s also used primarily as a tool to cut down on the troop numbers that you’ll eventually, inevitably face in open combat. 

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Then there’s the surprisingly lucid narrative; an easy-to-follow tale involving a terrorist group, genetically enhanced super-soldiers, and the ever-present Metal Gear trope of private military companies.  The near-future setting in Revengeance opens on a post-Metal Gear Solid 4 world that has embraced PMCs as useful entities. Wars are fought on both sides by armies of hired contractors, and futuretech warfare is the order of the day.

There’s also some unexpected humor in Revengeance that sits at the forefront of the story. It’s dark humor to be sure, and always framed against the backdrop of a relatively dire endtimes scenario, but there’s a light heart to this Metal Gear game that is more pronounced than it has ever been in the series. Short, punchy cutscenes help keep the action flowing, but the humor keeps you riveted to the A to B narrative progression. This includes everything from Raiden’s exchanges with his pet Blade Wolf AI (a companion earned after the first chapter concludes), to taking control of a three-armed, spherical dwarf Gekko. Even the Polearm weapon picked up from an early boss is used for laughs, as it’s a literal pole made of multiple robot arms.

Everything is held together, however, by a killer set of combat mechanics. The highlight of this is, of course, the free blade feature that allows players to hold down a gamepad’s left trigger and use the right analog stick to direct the path of your cutting. Yes, it is endlessly entertaining to chop up basically anything in the game’s highly destructible environments. Free blade use is also necessary for progression in Revengeance, since you’re able to earn upgrade currency if you slice across a highlighted portion of your enemy when an on-screen meter is filled. Successfully performing this kind of finisher — which also involves a momentary QTE — is rewarded with re-filled health and free blade meters, which makes for a satisfying focus on scoring chain kills.

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Platinum Games definitely still has some work to do on polishing things up before Revengeance arrives in February 2013. The camera in particular is horrifically fiddly, spinning around and losing track of the action far too often. I struggled just as much during my preview play to maintain a view of nearby enemies as I did to master the combat mechanics. Some additional balancing would be welcome as well, with the Normal difficulty feeling just a bit too unforgiving as it currently stands.

The biggest issue, however, is the absence of of a real tutorial. The basic controls are laid out in the opening moments of the game’s prologue, but more advanced techniques — such as the Zandetsu finisher described above — are left to tutorial-focused VR missions. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach save for the fact that you unlock these VR missions as you play, and accessing one involves quitting out of your game and loading back to your previous checkpoint when you’re done. It’s all to easy to skip over these tutorials as you keep pressing through the early game, and frustration with the unclear mechanics is almost sure to follow.

Make no mistake: Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is an exceptional game. One that many fans could ultimately come to view as Platinum Games’ best. It honors the heart of the Metal Gear series while striking out in a new mechanical direction, and the result is a thoroughly entertaining ride based on my early hours playtime. It’s not particularly user-friendly if you’re a newcomer, however, and the game in its current form runs the risk of frustrating players before everything fully “clicks.” This may or may not change prior to release, but Metal Gear fans would do well to keep that in mind as February 19 approaches.