A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Six: You’re pretty good!

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

Good ol’ Ocelot. He’s everybody’s favorite gun-spinning, double-crossing, apple-crushing, torture-obsessed, moustache-sporting, trenchcoat-wearing supervillain(?).

Metal Gear Solid has lots and lots of characters, and while most are integral to the contained plot of whichever games they appear in, Ocelot is one of the few that has broad importance to the saga as a whole. While it’s hard to keep tabs on his plots and allegiances from story to story, it hardly matters when he’s chewing on the scenery.

Here are some of my favorite Ocelot moments!

#6: No Ocelot! Waaaahh!!

No one character appears in every single Metal Gear Solid game, but Ocelot comes close; Peace Walker is the only game he doesn’t grace with his presence. If Peace Walker has a bright and glaring failing, surely this is it!

I suppose it could be argued that this is an essential slice of Big Boss’s life story, free from hyper-manipulative agents such as Ocelot. And from a narrative perspective, I will grudgingly concede that three or four more layers of backstabbery wouldn’t have improved anything.

But in his absense there was nobody to spin guns or crack wise. Big Boss just completes his mission without anybody taking the piss. What a shame.



#5: Taking the Tanker

There’s not a lot of context for Ocelot’s actions throughout Metal Gear Solid 2. At first he’s working with Gurlukovich, but then he shoots Gurlukovich. Later he needs the President alive, so he shoots the President. He needs Olga and Solidus and Fortune to help take the Big Shell, so of course he shoots all of them too. At times it really feels like he’s betraying people for the sheer thrill of it. And also he’s possessed by a magic talking arm…? Weird. It all reeks of setup for a sequel, which I suppose was his primary role in Metal Gear Solid as well.

He makes a hell of an entrance, though. First, he emerges from the shadows at the end of the Marine commandant’s speech, complete with deprecating, sarcastic applause. Then he shoots everybody important, acts all smug about it, and proceeds to blow up the tanker you’ve spent the past two hours carefully sneaking around. And while most MGS villains wait until the final act to hop inside of a Metal Gear and start lipping off, Ocelot decides to break tradition and do it right at the beginning. All that’s missing is a bout of maniacal cackling.

Sure, there’s that stupid bit where Liquid Snake’s dead arm is taking over his brain, or whatever. But I choose to believe, within the context of MGS2, that Ocelot is just letting Liquid think that’s what’s happening.



#4: Betraying Colonel Volgin

Metal Gear Solid 3 is chock full of fantastic Ocelot moments. Set during the Cold War, we are treated to a much younger, much cheekier Ocelot. In that simpler time Ocelot still had all the bravado and aplomb he’s so well-known for, but hasn’t yet tempered it with experience. As a result, quite a lot of MGS3 shows Ocelot taking his lumps, not from magically-appearing ninjas or supernatural talking hands, but simply the result of his own lack of humility.

There’s always the question of just who’s side he’s on, though. Very early on Ocelot develops a rivalry with Naked Snake that transcends his orders as a Soviet officer or an American CIA double-agent. While most of the rest of the characters seem to be disciples of The Boss, Ocelot becomes infatuated with Snake instead. As a result we’re treated to a lot of great character moments where Ocelot, dangerous though he is, just so very desperately wants senpai to notice him.

My favorite scene, though, is Snake’s confrontation against the dispicable Colonel Volgin. When Volgin orders Ocelot to stand down, depriving him of the showdown he feels he deserves, you actually feel for the little bugger. Ocelot responds to the situation by abandoning all pretense of being Volgin’s subordinate and openly starts rooting for Snake to win, going so far as to throw his equipment to him and giving him some encouraging finger guns.

The moment when Volgin shouts in exasperation, “Just who’s side are you on!?” is the moment Ocelot becomes the man he’s destined to be.



#3: The Torture Event

Leave it to Metal Gear Solid to make a rote button-mashing minigame engaging and memorable. The rules are simple: Snake’s life bar will constantly drain as Ocelot electrocutes him, and you can mash the button to make the bar goes back up. If you die, the game doesn’t let you continue. If you’re about to die, and you don’t want to replay the last hour of backtracking, you can hit another button to give in to the pain… but then you get the bad ending.

We know the rules so clearly because Ocelot explains them to us, as though it were a game. Which it is, I suppose, to the guy holding the PlayStation controller… but it doesn’t feel that way. While Snake is strapped half-naked to a metal table waiting for the shocks to start, Ocelot spells the situation out in terms that we-the-player understand all too clearly. He taunts us if we haven’t saved recently. Admonishes us for thinking about using a turbo controller. Calls us back to his torture dungeon, over and over, if we can’t figure out how to escape his prison cell.

By the fourth session, when your forearm aches and your hand is cramped up from all the mashing, Ocelot’s offer of making the pain end start ringing all the more true. The way he gets into your head with a combination of total moral depravity and gleeful fourth-wall breaking… it’s no wonder this horrorshow is Ocelot’s most famous scene in the series.



#2: Final Fist Fight

Throughout Metal Gear Solid 4 Ocelot (properly Liquid Ocelot, at this point) remains a step or six ahead of the player at all times. And yet, it still feels like a cheat, because there’s that nagging sense that Ocelot did all the work and got all the character development, only for Liquid to take over his brain at the tale’s end and take all the credit.

Ocelot doesn’t get to take control of SOP by setting off fireworks on the Volta. Ocelot doesn’t get to face off in an epic Metal Gear vs. Metal Gear battle at the docks of Shadow Moses. As great as these scenes are, it keeps coming back to that stupid talking arm from MGS2, and the knowledge that Liquid is stealing the spotlight. If Liquid was going to be the big bad in the end anyway, what was the point of that great after-credits monologue from MGS1?

But then we get to the final battle, not only of MGS4, but of the entire Metal Gear saga. No nanomachines, no weapons, no equipment; just two old men pummeling each other senseless, mano-a-mano. After a few punches, Liquid’s MGS1 character model flashes on the screen, and the name beneath his life bar changes from “Liquid” to “Liquid Ocelot”. A few punches later, the flash displays the talking arm scene from MGS2, and his name switches to simply “Ocelot”. What’s more, Snake’s name changes too — to “Naked Snake”.

Then the realization of what’s happening finally hits home: there never was any Liquid. Ocelot is such a chessmaster that he had to fool himself in order to complete his schemes. The player controls Snake in this fight, but we’re seeing things from Ocelot’s perspective. As Snake clobbers him, he regresses back through the damage done to his psyche over the years until, in his own mind, he’s a kid again, the world around him fades entirely away, and he gets his long-awaited tussel with Big Boss.

It’s a fine and fitting end for the character, but it’s cathartic for the player as well. After many years of cursing the stupid talking arm subplot foisted upon us by MGS2, we get to finish off the series with a real fight against Ocelot where we literally beat the Liquid out of him.



#1: Guess we’ll wait and see…

Ever since his first appearance in the Phantom Pain trailers, I’ve been giddy with anticipation to see what sorts of shenanigans Ocelot gets up to during his time working with Big Boss. This time around he won’t be a villain. Or, at leat, he won’t be an antagonist. It’s a new role for the character, and I’m more excited to see how it plays out than I am about any other part of the story.

Of course, it may all be a ruse, and there’s another heel-turn waiting in the wings to catch me off guard. If that’s the case, though, I don’t think I’d have it any other way. Godspeed, you marvelous bastard.



That brings us to the end of Metal Gear Memory Lane, but I have one more little surprise for you tomorrow, just as The Phantom Pain hits our PlayBoxes and X-Stations. Thanks for taking the journey with me!

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A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Five: Snake, open the Survival Viewer…

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

The worlds of the various Metal Gear Solid games are very finely detailed. My first exposure to the series was Metal Gear Solid 2, and I recall my mind being blown while watching my friend pick individual bottles of ketchup and mayo off of a pantry shelf with his gun. A few years later I spent a week or so frustratingly plugging away at Metal Gear Solid 3, trying to figure out how the goddamn game wanted me to play it without a radar. Turns out the answer was quite simple: it wanted me to stop worrying so much, and find my own solutions for each map.

As many bullet points as each game’s feature list has, though, excessive replays will leave you with the feeling that there’s a little something still missing from the equation. Here are a few little extras I really wish each game would have included.

#6: Backup on Codec

The gaggle of support characters Snake can ring up on his radio or codec was a huge part of the first three Metal Gear Solid games, and even the 8-bit Metal Gear 2 before that. They provided helpful hints and suggestions about gameplay elements when the player was stuck. They carried a lot of the weight of fleshing out the game worlds with backstory and character development. Sometimes they meta-gamed you, as in one especially memorable case in MGS1 that forced the player to, literally, think outside the box.

But in Metal Gear Solid 4, Otacon and Rose is all you get. Which isn’t to say anything against these two characters; Otacon has always been a personal favorite, and Rose is actually quite pleasant to talk to without the whole nattering girlfriend undercurrent. But two contacts? In the MGS game with the most gameplay features, the biggest cast and the most bloated plot?

There’s a wealth of options we’re missing out on here. We can’t call Campbell to get mission updates. We can’t call Meryl or Raiden to get detailed info about the environment and conflicts we’re sneaking through. We can’t call Drebin to hear how big his boner is over the semi-automatic recoilless carbine we just picked up. We can’t call Sunny to hear about all the fantastic Konami games she’s playing on her PlayStation Portable™.

As a result, a big part of the essential MGS experience is lost, and MGS4 is the poorer for it.



#5: Pause During Menus

The action in the first four Metal Gear Solid games paused while you went into your equipment menus, allowing you a few precious moments to think about the best load-out to clean up whatever problem you just caused for yourself by rolling into that patrolling terrorist’s line of sight. This was necessary because, as big a deal as Snake’s commanding officer makes about going in light, within ten minutes he ends up with an entire garage of weapons and gadgets strapped to his back.

Peace Walker is a multiplayer game, though, and it wouldn’t do for Player 1 to pause Player 2’s action because he’s swapping out his stun rod for his stun grenades. So in that game, instead of pausing the action, the menu screens only pause Snake. While you’re standing there rifling through your, er, rifles, all of the enemy soldiers still have their full range of movement. This has been the cause of more than one frustrating death.

A necessary evil in the world of multiplayer, to be sure, but Peace Walker applies this same limitation even if you’re playing by yourself. The feature isn’t used to create a more realistic or immersive experience, like it is in Ground Zeroes. In that game Snake can only carry a couple of items, and has a clear visual indication of what he’s doing in the game world while the player is dottering around the menu. In Peace Walker the player is carrying around a boatload of stuff, and Snake just stands stock still and upright while his player makes up his mind.

It’s usually not too much trouble to duck around a corner or into a shadow to get your equipment sorted… but the game gains nothing by forcing this restriction.



#4: Start with the HF Blade

Every Metal Gear Sold player who wanted Grey Fox’s sword had their prayers answered at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2 when Snake presents Raiden with the High-Frequency Blade. Suddenly the player had much cooler melee options than punching or grabbing, and a use for that second control stick which mostly just sat there unloved throughout the game. The HF Blade had a very satisfying motion to it, giving Raiden new avenues of offense and defense to explore: he could use it to deflect bullets, he could do wide sweeps or quick stabs, and if he was feeling really fancy he could execute a Zelda-style circle slash. It gave definition to a character who, by design, had spent the whole game without an identify of his own. It felt like the kind of thing the whole game could have been based around.

Unfortunately, all those players who had their prayers answered had them rudely dashed again when the HF Blade was taken away from them after two scenes and a boss fight. But there was hope: it’s MGS tradition to offer new toys to play with on replays. Snake even mentions his magic bandana in the very scene he gifts Raiden his sword! Maybe the HF Blade will be in Raiden’s inventory next time we play, letting us slash our way through screens we had to carefully sneak through previously?

It was not to be. Though Raiden would get his due as Official Ninja Badass in a spin-off game over a decade later, the sword in MGS2 is forever relegated to being an endgame gimmick. This is a pretty serious grievance in a universe where Old Snake can start his mission with voodoo dolls and a solar-powered death laser.



#3: A Way to Skip the Backtracking

Twice during the course of his infiltration of Shadow Moses, Snake has to drop what he’s doing and backtrack to old areas for pretty silly reasons. First he has to abandon his bleeding comrade and return to an area at the very start of the game to find a sniper rifle. Later, he has to criss-cross a screen full of boring, empty catwalks in order to reach old areas so his magic key changes shape. I see what they were going for here. In the first case they needed an excuse to get Snake away from the area so the bad guys could kidnap his girlfriend. In the second, they had sixteen barrels of exposition and needed a way to pace it out over a few extra screen transitions.

On replays, though, all the backtracking accomplishes is forcing me to be very, very bored for a very, very long time right at the tail end of my playthrough.

The Gamecube remake of MGS1, The Twin Snakes, solves both of these problems in really handy ways. There’s still a sniper rifle way back in the armory, if you want one, but there’s a non-lethal rifle in a much closer room, for your convenience. And as for the cardkey, there are handy pipes of liquid nitrogen and hot steam right there in the hangar ready to fulfill all of your magic key needs.

It’s considered an MGS faux pas to say anything positive about The Twin Snakes, though, so for purposes of this article I’m forced to ignore it. Too bad, because otherwise I’d be inclined to give MGS1 perfect marks in this category.



#2: Camo Quick-Change

A big element of Metal Gear Solid 3 was surviving in a harsh, natural environment. In addition to his equipment load-out Snake had to worry about finding food, tending to injuries, mapping his surroundings, and using camouflage. There wasn’t an elegant way to handle all these new features in the standard L2/R2 menus, though, so for the first time an MGS game got a big, obtrusive subscreen to handle it all. The game called this the “Survival Viewer”, but we all knew it was really a “Pause Menu”, and mostly just tolerated it.

For an even mildly-skilled player, all the contents of the Survival Viewer were pretty easy to ignore. There’s tons of food littered around the game world, injuries are few and far between as long as you’re half-decent at stealth, and no single area is really large or confusing enough to require a map. Camo, though, remains important throughout the game, and it gets really obnoxious going into the menu every few minutes so Snake can play dress-up.

The end result: there are a few different strategies for using camo in MGS3, and none of them are close to the probably-intended “pick the best camo for the situation you’re in”. Some players only switch camo when the environment changes drastically. Others ignore the system entirely and rely on distance and line-of-sight shenanigans to remain unspotted. And others put on the tuxedo and zombie face paint and play the entire game like a karate conga line.

Point is, the ability to hot-swap between the two or three most useful camo options would have gone a long way to making the mechanic feel useful, rather than vestigial.



#1: A Boss Fight

Steam says I have 120 hours played in Ground Zeroes. That can’t be right. A counter must have glitched out somewhere, or maybe I accidentally left the game running in the background for a couple days. Or, well, maybe I really have sunk that much time into the game. For as little content as Ground Zeroes has, there’s a tantalizingly huge combination of ways each of the missions can be solved, and lord knows I’ve put in the time to explore them all. I shudder to think what my playtime is going to look like after a year of The Phantom Pain.

For all the fun to be had, though, Ground Zeroes is missing what is, for me, one of the defining elements of the MGS series: a boss fight. For a demo that is supposed to show the breadth of what the Fox Engine is capable of, that’s a pretty huge and glaring omission.

Maybe, with the incredible amount of freedom afforded to the player, there just isn’t room in the MGS5 games for a more narrowly-structured one-on-one combat experience? If that’s the case, it’s incredibly saddening. But if it’s not — and I have faith that it’s not — why not put a little taste of that in the prologue?

The main mission, Ground Zeroes itself, isn’t the place for a boss fight. It’s pure infiltration and extraction, and stopping things partway to force a gimmick fight would have felt very weird. But the two Extra Ops missions are non-canonical sillyfests, and would have been just perfect. Instead they tease a Psycho Mantis rematch which never materializes, and makes Raiden fire rockets at helicopters for ten minutes.



Alright, that’s enough bitching. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at my favorite character from the MGS saga, relive some of his most memorable moments, and look forward to his triumphant return in The Phantom Pain. Thanks for reading.

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A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Four: Do you want to hear the quetzal call again?

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

Metal Gear Solid games always have large casts of colorful characters. You have the player character, his radio support, a squad of elite soldiers for boss fights, a scientist or two what needs rescuing, an NPC helper buddy who usually needs babysitting, a character or two of ambiguous allegiance with mysterious hidden agendas, the big bad, the real big bad behind who you thought was the big bad, a shadowy figure from the US government who is only mentioned in passing, and then a sprinkling of cameos and references to characters elsewhere in the series.

With such a huge population of folks and only so much spotlight to go around, you’d think there’d be no room for characters who don’t pull their weight in the story. You’d think that. Alas, you’d be wrong.

#6: Johnny

Strictly speaking, Johnny isn’t a new character. In the first two Metal Gear Solid games he’s a generic soldier with unforunate stomach problems who has bad luck with the ladies, and in Metal Gear Solid 3 he’s that guy’s grandfather. As a fun little easter egg, the character is fine. He offers a sorely-needed humanizing element to the generic soldiers Snake spends so much time teabagging and/or shoving into lockers. We all wanted him back in Metal Gear Solid 4, but… just not like this.

We first meet Johnny as part of Rat Patrol 01, Meryl Silverburgh’s PMC oversight unit. This already stretches disbelief rather thin. I’ll buy one of the Shadow Moses terrorists falling in with the Gurlukovich mercenaries, considering the tenuous connection through Ocelot and the fact that he’s presented as a silly offscreen cameo in MGS2. But Meryl’s group is an official arm of the US military. Didn’t anyone do a background check? Doesn’t Meryl recognize him?

Anyway, the character is played for laughs for a couple of acts, which I originally took as just another example of MGS4 overdoing itself a bit. But no, in the final act it turns out we’re supposed to take the character totally seriously, as he’s one of the three soldiers hand-picked to be launched into the heart of Liquid’s base. Even more ridiculous, we discover that Meryl takes him seriously, and I honestly thought she had more sense than that.

Don’t get me wrong, combining a massive violent shootout with a romantic marriage proposal between a woman who insists she has no interest in men and a dude whose only defining trait for ten years has been “he poops himself” is hilarious and wonderful. But it’s such a stark, comedic contrast to the overly-serious tone of the rest of the endgame that all I can do is roll my eyes at it.



#5: Major Raikov

Lots of MGS fans spent the years between Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 hating Raiden, the anime prettyboy who replaced Solid Snake as the player character. So when MGS3 begins and Naked Snake has a Raiden mask in his inventory, everyone just thought it was one of Kojima’s little meta-pokes at his own canon. If that’s all it had been, we could have just chuckled at it and gone on with our lives, but no. It turns out there happens to be an enemy officer who looks exactly like Raiden, and you just happen to have your face in his inventory, and using said mask to disguise yourself as said officer is an actual gameplay objective.

Well, okay, now that there’s a lampshade on it we have to stand up and take note. Is there an in-universe reason why this Russian officer just happens to look exactly like an albino Liberian assassin who won’t be born for another twenty years? Did the Russians have their own version of Les Enfants Terribles ten years before the Americans thought of it? Who decided an American CIA agent needed a mask of this officer on what was supposed to be a two-hour extraction mission?

There’s a lot of fun stuff you can do with the Raikov disguise, once you have it. But man, the game has to do some pretty crazy gymnastics to justify what otherwise is just a quick visual gag. I’ll admit it’s ultimately worth it, though, to hear The Boss call Raiden a fairy.



#4: “Mr. X”

Metal Gear 2 has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden who turns out to be Grey Fox. So, of course, Metal Gear Solid also has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden who turns out to be Grey Fox. And since MGS2 was written as a subversive version of MGS1 it, too, has a mysterious character that rings you up to tell you where mines and invisible lasers are hidden, only this time it doesn’t turn out to be Grey Fox. Whoa!

This time, the player’s shadowy benefactor turns out to be Olga Gurlukovich, the leader of the Russian mercenary group patrolling the Big Shell. And I’m certainly not arguing that Olga is at all unnecessary, or that her agenda of secretly helping Raiden from behind the scenes is a worthless plot element. Just the contrary! Olga’s plot is one of the high points of the series, and her reasons for aiding Raiden ring particularly true amongst a cast where everyone is backstabbing everyone else.

What I don’t get, though, is why she needed to literally dress like Grey Fox to accomplish her role in the story. Yes, the Patriots were attempting to re-create Shadow Moses as closely as possible, but that didn’t translate literally in most other parts of the exercise, so why just this one thing? The real reason is because Kojima wanted us to have a “wait, Grey Fox is back!?” moment, and a scene where Ocelot almost loses his arm again, and a reason for Raiden to use a sword in the final act. But it still feels flimsy, and cheapens the role of an otherwise great character.



#3: Nastasha Romanenko

In a game about the evils and dangers of nuclear weapons, Nastasha Romanenko’s job is to repeatedly inform Snake about the evils and dangers of nuclear weapons. Campbell initially informs Snake that Nastasha can provide him information on the weapons and hardware he comes across in his mission, but nine times out of ten she instead serves up dire and possibly dubious factoids about nuclear stockpiles around the globe. These conversations are never useful in the context of Snake’s exploits in Shadow Moses. In fact, it’s entirely possible to complete Metal Gear Solid without ever adding her to your codec screen.

Nastasha does serve a quasi-important role in the plot, at least inadvertantly. Much of the back half of the story involves a game of Spot the Spy, where Snake has reason to suspect there’s a spy amongst his support team. In that sense Nastasha is a bit of a red herring, a warm body in Snake’s phone book for the real traitor to hide behind. Maybe some players spent a good portion of the game suspecting her…?

Still, it’s a pretty flimsy justification. Nastasha herself is so unimportant that she’s the only living character from the first two MGS games not to come back for Metal Gear Solid 4. Heck, even a few of the dead ones miraculously made an apperance!



#2: Cécile

In Peace Walker, Snake doesn’t have a support team, per se. Instead, characters will chime in on the radio at various points in the mission to offer advice or encouragement. Cassette tapes that unlock between missions offer a bit of background and development, but Cécile’s tapes come across like… well, like a birdwatcher with a bad French accent taking up space in a Cold War story.

As far as I can tell, Cécile serves three minor purposes in the plot of Peace Walker: 1) to mimic bird calls for one mission where Snake has to identify the song of a particular jungle bird, 2) to dwell a little too much on how Dr. Strangelove likes the ladies, and 3) to provide a “girl time” entry in Paz’s diary. Other than that, it seems incredibly forced that a birdwatcher from Paris would want to hang out with a scruffy military organization after escaping with her life from a mad scientist.

Actually, there is one more thing. In one really bizarre conversation, Kaz Miller points out that Cécile’s full name sounds a bit like “Kojima is God” in Japanese. That’s probably just a coincidence. After all, just how self-absorbed would you have to be to invent a character for the sole purpose of a juvenile power trip?



#1: Hideo Kojima

OH COME ON.



I probably have to come clean at this point: I really am a huge fan of the MGS games. I tease them because I love them, but also because as great as the games are, they’re far from perfect. It’s just more fun to complain than to praise. Tomorrow, let’s complain about some features missing from these otherwise highly detailed and feature-rich games! Thanks for reading.

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A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Three: Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

Innovative gameplay ideas are one of the mainstays of the Metal Gear Solid series. When detractors poo-poo Kojima’s narrative style by saying he just wants to make movies, it’s pretty easy to shut them down by pointing to any number of creative gameplay sequences such as Psycho Mantis or The Sorrow. Or by pointing to game mechanics which open up opportunities for interactive storytelling, like stamina bars or the Metal Gear Mk. 2.

When you pitch enough things at the wall, though, a few of them aren’t going to stick. Each game has a few stinkers that I dread just about every time I replay the games. These are their stories.

#6: Intel Operative Rescue

Including the Side Ops from Ground Zeroes in these lists does seem a bit disingenuous, but considering you can clear the main story mission in under ten minutes by adopting a fun-loving devil-may-care attitude to gunning down marines it’d be kind of slim pickings otherwise. In truth the Side Ops make up quite a lot of the game’s meat and potatoes, each offering slight twists on your mission objectives in the great big sandbox of Camp Omega. They’re a big part of the game, is my point, and dismissing them because they don’t “count” is short-sighted.

The Intel Operative Rescue mission, however, is a shining example of the worst gameplay the Fox Engine has to offer. Instead of being a variation on the scout-and-sneak gameplay of the main mission, it instead boils everything down to a linear rail shooter. A series tradition, to be sure, but a kind of bland and frustrating one. I don’t play these games so my guy can mow down everything in sight with infinite machinegun. I like for that option to be available as a way to mess around on replays, but it’s just not what Metal Gear Solid is good at.

I admit I’ve been biased against rail shooter segments in ever since the original game had me shoot through Liquid’s invincibility frames for five straight minutes. These segments simply aren’t engaging to me; they are the lowest possible form of action gameplay. That being said…



#5: Motorcycle Chase

…the rail shooter segments are very rarely the worst parts of the game. That I picked them as the worst example of bad gameplay from Ground Zeroes and Metal Gear Solid 3 speaks to the high quality of the rest of those two games.

The motorcycle chase scene at the end of MGS3 is a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping escape sequence… the first time you play the game. As early as the first replay you see the scene for what it really is: an incredibly long, barely interactive cinematic. It’s broken up by a short sniping segment and one of the most exciting boss fights in the series, sure, but once you have enough MGS3 experience it just becomes a chore you have to do to make the game let you win.

There is a silver lining, though: by equipping the Cold War camo you earn by stamina killing Colonel Volgin, the motorcycle soldiers won’t shoot at Snake as long as he’s facing them. Instead they just drive along saying “Damn it!” over and over. This turns the scene into a weird parody of itself, a kind of Scooby Doo chase. Once that stops being funny, it at least gives you a chance to put the controller down and take a bathroom break.



#4: Oil Fence Sniping

Sniping scenes in video games have to be done very, very well, if they’re going to work at all. Done well, they can be very tense and exciting, like the battle of wits against The End in Metal Gear Solid 3. Done badly, they turn into arduous experiences like the battle of suck against Crying Wolf in Metal Gear Solid 4. Somewhere in between is Metal Gear Solid 2‘s oil fence sequence, which is neither tense nor arduous. It’s just kind of… there.

Raiden’s NPC helper buddy moves automatically along a long, dangerous path with no cover. His job is to stay behind and clear her a path by taking out enemy soldiers, mines, and flying robot machineguns along her route. The solution is to put on the thermal goggles, pop some pentazamin and shoot anything that lights up bright white.

Resource management isn’t an issue, since the ammo box near Raiden’s position magically grows back every few seconds. Messing up is unlikely, since the targets are so obvious and your NPC helper has enough health to survive several encounters. Plus, Solid Snake is hanging out in another vantage point and will fire on anything you don’t, just in case you absolutely can’t be arsed.

The gameplay isn’t challenging or engaging, but it sure is long. There are a couple of neat easter eggs to discover along the way concerning Raiden’s silly hair and an enemy soldier who poops himself, but that’s about it. And in the end a vampire jumps out of the ocean and kills your NPC friend anyway, just to make sure you don’t even accomplish anything.



#3: The Infinite Staircase

Without the intention to spark off a discussion about how Metal Gear Solid games are “supposed” to be played, I offer this statement: MGS3 was the first game in the series that you could approach as an action game and really succeed. It has large environments that offered better movement and positioning options than MGS2’s angular corridors, a robust hand-to-hand combat system with a close-range insta-kill option, and a health bar that regenerated once things cooled down and you found a toilet to hide in for a few minutes. In the first two games any run-and-gun gameplay was essentially a punishingly long Game Over screen, giving you time to reflect on your poor life choices before throwing you back so you could play through the section properly.

Unfortunately this didn’t stop MGS1 from having a bunch of run-and-gun scenes anyway, and that game doesn’t even have the benefit of an aim button that lets you score headshots. Over and over again Snake finds himself in scenes where the best possible course of action is to equip his rations and spray FAMAS bullets everywhere until the encounter music goes away.

One such scene stands out as being particularly bad, though: the staircase leading to the top of the communications tower. After triggering a forced alert that any player with good sense could have avoided, Snake has to climb more flights of stairs than there are atoms in the universe. From what I can tell this sequence only exists because everything in MGS1 is culled wholesale from Metal Gear 2, which had a similar stair-climbing sequence, complete with an endless supply of soldiers firing from all direction. Except that was a 2D top-down pixel game that offered a decent range of movement and a clear view of your playing area, while MGS1 limits your movement to “forward” or “die and try again”, and soldiers can fire at you from outside your field of vision.

So what can you do? Equip the rations, hold the d-pad, maybe throw a stun grenade now and again. Close your eyes and count to one hundred, it’ll all be over soon. If you’re a very good boy we’ll reward you with a cool boss fight before locking you in your next spray-and-pray setpiece.



#2: Vehicle Battles

If the Metal Gear Solid games have one clear and shining high point, I’d say it’s the boss encounters. They’re almost always wicked fun and highly inventive, requiring the player to think outside the box and use techniques or equipment in surprising ways. Often the bosses have weird quirks or gimmicks the player can exploit, winning the fight with a bit of lateral thinking. The best of these gimmicks develop the boss’s personality through gameplay in a great example of storytelling in ways only an interactive medium can accomplish.

Peace Walker didn’t have any of those. Instead, it has Snake facing off against tanks and helicopters every few missions. These vehicle battles make use of Peace Walker‘s RPG elements, by which I mean the only viable strategy is to equip an RPG and fire rockets until you win. I also mean you can earn better weapons with higher damage stats by grinding old missions for cash. Eventually your numbers are big enough to win the fight in twelve shots instead of fifty, and you can move on with the game.

The first time I faced off against an armored vehicle in Peace Walker I approached it as a typical MGS boss fight. I failed over and over while looking for the trick. The most powerful weapon I had found at that point in the game barely scratched the boss’s overbloated health meter, and there didn’t seem to be any attack patterns to learn or weaknesses to exploit. Clearly I was missing something… but what?

It turns out these missions had been designed with Peace Walker‘s multiplayer gameplay in mind, and taking them on in single player without grinding for better weapons is an act of futility. The solution really is to just stand back and whittle the boss down over the course of a long battle of attrition. Sure, you can replay the level later on when you’re better equipped and extract the same bit of satisfaction you get from killing a blue slime with Erdrick’s Sword. That’s just not much help to you on your first pass, when the stubborn tank is blocking off your route to the next level.



#1: Trailing the Whistling Rebel

You might have noticed a running theme in these infuriating gameplay sequences: Ground Zeroes aside, they’re all things you have to complete in a very specific way in order to finish the game. Their real sin isn’t that they’re boring (though they are) or that they’re frustrating (though they can be)… it’s that they’re devoid of the freedom and alternate solutions the MGS series is known for. These are games that are meant to be replayed again and again, trying new strategies each time. This wonderful freedom allows you to evade guards or carefully tranq them, to bring The End down with cigarette spray, to pick where to land your extraction chopper.

Act 3 of Metal Gear Solid 4 has not even one whiff of that kind of freedom. You start out by tailing a man walking through the streets of an occupied European village after curfew, and… that’s it. That’s your life for the next hour or so. You have to stay far enough behind him that he can’t spot you if he turns around suddenly, and there are a couple places where you need to take out PMC troops to clear his path, but outside of that it’s just a matter of walking behind the NPC and listen to him whistle a jaunty little tune with twelve notes.

At one point the rebel ducks into an alley and changes into a PMC disguise, so there’s a slight uptick in the action as the game shifts from “follow the only guy who isn’t a soldier” to “figure out which soldier you need to follow”. But even that little bump of excitement flattens out when a support character chimes in on a codec with, “There’s something strange about that soldier. Do you hear whistling?” Why yes, yes I do! I hear it over and over, forever! It haunts my dreams!

There are no shortcuts and no way to speed things up. Even if you memorize the path and know exactly where to go, the door at the end won’t open unless the rebel has walked his entire route. Ignoring the rebel and going off to explore the town isn’t any fun either, as there’s nothing of note to do or see outside of the critical path. And your reward for finally making it to the end? A goddamn rail shooter. Joy.



And there you have it: six gameplay sequences which the series would just plain be better off without. Say, aren’t there a few characters who fit that same bill…? Thanks for reading!

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A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day Two: She Has a Cute Behind

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

The internet is abuzz these days with the topic of how women are portrayed in video games. Folks at one extreme argue that showing so much as half a boob in a game is proof that all developers are misogynist by nature, and folks at the other extreme feel the best way to deal with folks at the first end is to tweet out a death threat along with a screenshot from Google Maps. So what does Metal Gear Solid add to the conversation?

The games do a pretty good job at having strong, complex, and even flawed female characters. They also tend to be pretty equal-opportunity when it comes to sexual exploitation, as Raiden’s tight, chilly buttocks can attest. The series is still rife with situations that will make you cringe, though. Let’s look at a few!

#6: Nothing! Nothing at all!

There are three major female characters in Metal Gear Solid 3, and all three belong on a Top Ten list somewhere. I’m fine with EVA’s rampant cleavage; the plot wouldn’t be an authentic Cold War era spy story without the seductive double agent. She’s a capable spy who is spinning a lot of plates, and repeatedly aids Snake’s mission in ways more engaging than just handing him his next keycard. Sexy is just a part of her character, rather than the defining element.

The Boss, meanwhile, is presented every bit as Snake’s physical equal, and is in a very real way the most important character in the MGS canon. I’m fine with her opening her shirt to reveal her snake-shaped cesarean scar, since the offending breasts aren’t presented sexually, and the game has earned a bit of heavy-handed symbolism at that point. The scene is handled exactly the way it would have been if The Boss had been a man, and I think that’s important. (We’ll handwave why this hypothetical man has a cesarean scar. This is MGS, I’m sure there’s some convoluted explanation.)

Para-Medic might be the most troubling, considering she has what I’m fairly sure are fetishes for monster movies and weird food. If you didn’t want a mental image of a someone getting straddled while wearing a Godzilla costume and laying on a bed of instant noodles, you shouldn’t have read this paragraph. But that scene isn’t in the actual game, so I think we’re safe.

If any of these characters are a bad example of how to write women in video games, I have no idea what a good example looks like. I’m giving MGS3 a free pass.



#5: “All right, keys!”

There’s been a lot of controversy about Ground Zeroes‘s so-called “rape tapes”. It’s true, one of the collectable tapes you find in Camp Omega has some incredibly disturbing audio of the two POWs you’re supposed to rescue being physically and sexually abused. And it’s true that the violence can get pretty excessive, particularly the subsequent surgical bomb removal and its aftermath. This is rough, unsettling stuff. I found the tape difficult to listen to, and I’m a fan of the Saw movies.

What I think the controversy fails to address, though, is that the tape is neither cheap nor gratuitous. No, we didn’t need an audio log of a young woman being raped and tortured to establish how bad the villains are, but neither is it off the table, considering the subject matter. As with so much of Ground Zeroes we won’t really know where it’s all going until The Phantom Pain is out… and by then everyone will have moved on to whether it’s okay for Quiet to run around in a bra and torn leggings.

I do have to pick something from Ground Zeroes for this list, though, and since there aren’t any other interactions with women in the whole game, I’m defaulting to Kazuhira Miller’s godawful Meryl impression from the Déjà-Vu mission, which is way more offensive to my sensibilities than seeing Paz’s guts.



#4: Meryl’s Undies, Etc.

You spend a lot of time in the original Metal Gear Solid thinking about Meryl Silverburgh’s butt. I don’t mean that in a “yo bro, check out dat booty” sense, I mean there is a legitimate gameplay reason you have to notice Meryl’s butt and how it differs from the other butts in Shadow Moses. This is one of those quirky outside-the-box gameplay elements MGS1 was so fond of, and simply being able to animate two otherwise identical soldier models to walk in distinct ways was a marvel of technology at the time. That’s not what this entry is about.

No, this entry is about one of MGS’s fine and upstanding traditions: using boobs and butts as easter eggs.

There are lots of ways to get the game to acknowledge that you’re thinking too much about Meryl’s fun bits. If you go into first person mode and stare at her chest, you can get her to blush. If you perform a particular sequence of actions near her prison cell early in the game, you can see her exercising in her underwear. Later on, if you’re fast enough, you can literally catch her with her pants down.

It’s worth noting that MGS1 has lots of non-boob-and-butt related things to discover. The game is very responsive to observant players who are willing to experiment. But that doesn’t change the notion that Meryl’s butt is a kind of reward — positive reinforcement for poking the game world. It’s all in good fun, and it might actually be in-character when you consider what a caveman Snake is, but still: play well enough, and you get to see panties. That’s a pretty low bar to set.



#3: Rose

There’s a section of Metal Gear Solid 2 where Raiden has to escort a barely legal young woman through an obstacle course. You can knock her unconscious, lay on top of her, call her brother to brag about it, and the game acknowledges you’re doing this. That’s pretty horrible already, but still not as bad as Rose.

Imagine every sitcom wife you’ve ever seen, and all the associated tropes. All the nagging and scolding, all the long-suffering humorlessness, every instance of “she’s right even when she’s clearly wrong”. Now, transplant that character into a video game about guns and explosions. MGS2’s story is all about subverting expectations, but even so, Raiden’s girlfriend Rose was too much genre cross-pollination to handle. Never mind being a cringeworthy portrayal of women. Rose is just a bad character, period. As codec support, she’s not fun to talk with the way Mei Ling and Para-Medic are. As a girlfriend, she’s the mean girl the plucky heroine of a romantic comedy needs to convince the leading man not to marry. She’s utterly ineffective at conveying… whatever it is her constant whining interruptions are supposed to convey.

The key word really is “constant”. Every time Raiden does something Rose doesn’t approve of, the player gets a codec beep to make sure he hears about it. Disarming bombs in the women’s bathroom? “Pervert!” Holding a young girl’s hand because her legs don’t work and she can’t move otherwise? “Is it because she’s prettier than me?” Capturing an enemy uniform to infiltrate the most tightly-secured location in the plant? “Jack, do you remember the day we met?” At one point Raiden gets yelled at because his bedroom is too clean.

There’s a plot twist later on when we learn that Rose may or may not be an artificial intelligence designed to make Raiden believe he’s talking to Rose. That it does such a good job, though, merely indicates that the real Rose is actually that bad. She’s one-dimensional in a series filled with complicated characters, and we know it’s not the product of lazy writing. Someone worked really hard to make her this much of a blatant stereotype.



#2: The Beauty & Beast Corps

There’s nothing wrong with an all-female military unit in an MGS game. In fact, there’s something refreshingly progressive about being able to choke out generic balaclava-clad ladies for a change. But the execution of the Beauty & Beast Corps is so badly botched that it doesn’t matter whether the original idea is good. It is so painfully obvious that the characters themselves are simply the product of Hideo Kojima wanting to do mo-cap sessions with supermodels, and nobody having enough clout to tell him otherwise.

After defeating one of the B&Bs you are treated to a very long cutscene where her robot armor falls off, leaving her in a skintight bodysuit that leaves very little to the imagination. Just to make sure you see every square inch of their high-definition boobs and butts, several minutes of cutscene follow where the boss writhes about as the close-up camera pans around all her curves. Then a second boss fight begins, but the boss no longer has any attacks or poses any threat; she simply walks slowly and seductively towards Snake, tittering suggestively, and will attempt to latch onto him if she gets close enough. For most sane players the nonsense ends here. Finishing off the Zero Suit form of the boss takes little effort and is accomplished in short order.

If you drag the fight out, though, eventually the background fades away and Snake is left alone with the beauty in a featureless white room. At this point Kojima passes on his personal fantasy to the player, as Snake can pull out the in-game camera and stage his own personal photo shoot. As Snake snaps away the beauty will continue to pose, thrusting and smiling and giving naughty looks. When you get tired of that, bust out your iPod and play her some J-pop, and she’ll dance for you.

I have nothing against a little cheesecake, nor against breaking the fourth wall. But when these things are combined so gratuitously and plastered on my screen for minutes at a stretch, it ruins my experience. The pacing of the game is destroyed, along with any hope of caring about who the beauties are as characters.



#1: Date with Paz

How does it get worse than shameless, exploitative, fourth-wall breaking T&A? How about shameless, exploitative, fourth-wall breaking jailbait T&A?

Date with Paz is one of those squick-y anime dating sims shoehorned into the MGS engine. It involves the 40-something-year-old Big Boss and the 16*-year-old Paz sharing some, er, quality time together on the beach. To clear the mission you have to use the game’s built-in squad communication feature to say encouraging things and make little hearts appear over her head. She likes phrases such as “Get inside!” and “Box time!” Once you’ve gotten enough hearts, pull out your Love Box (which is a real item in the game) and invite her to join you. The box immediately starts a-rockin’ and you even get an achievement!

If you use communications Paz disapproves of, she’ll emit a broken heart icon instead. (My favorite example: “We’re pulling out!” “Do you not like being with me?”) Do this enough times and you’ll fail the mission. Of course, if that’s your goal, a faster method is to stand next to Paz and use the CQC button, which for this mission is helpfully replaced with a “grope Paz’s breasts” button. Then she’ll slap you to the ground, call you a creep and storm off indignantly.

If your only desire in life is to see the teenaged Paz in her underwear, S Rank the mission and then play it again. If you S Rank the mission twice, the rest of the Mother Base ladies strip down as well if you bring them up in the staff menu model viewer. Amanda’s unmentionables even have MSF branding, which means Mother Base’s manufacturing facilities are hard at work churning out women’s underwear in addition to lime soda and spicy curry.

* Yes, yes, I know she’s not really that young. But Snake doesn’t, and that makes it worse.



Socially offensive characters aren’t the only missteps the Metal Gear Solid games make, though. Sometimes the gameplay screws the pooch as well! We’ll talk about that tomorrow. Thanks for reading.

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A Week of Metal Gear Solid — Day One: Like One of My Japanese Animes

In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)

If there’s one thing critics of the Metal Gear Solid series love to poke fun at, it’s the incredibly long-winded story sequences. The gameplay-to-cutscene ratio can get pretty ridiculous at times, and while fans of the series don’t see this as a weak point, each game tends to have a few moments even the most Kojima-addled of us find tough to swallow. Personally, I’m not bothered by the length of the cutscenes so much as how mind-numbingly pointless some of them can be.

Today, we’ll take a look at some of the most pointless scenes in the series — cutscenes whose utter lack of connection to the story is matched only by how much of your clock time they eat up.

#6: Agent’s Recording

It’s hard to say how important Skull Face’s backstory is going to end up being to the plot of The Phantom Pain. MGS games can be pretty hit-or-miss with details like that. For every heartfelt deathbed confessional there’s a tedious, eye-rolling sob story. Is Skullface a Sniper Wolf or a Crying Wolf? Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure: it’s certainly not important to the events of Ground Zeroes, even though Skull Face spends seven and a half minutes droning on and on about it.

Was the intent to give Skull Face an aura of mystery, as though his haunting visage in all the MGS5 trailers weren’t enough? Was it to offer a humanizing counterpoint, an origin point for his unsettingly evil behavior in Ground Zeroes? The tape fails on either account, since it’s so devoid of actual details that could help develop his character. We only really know two things about him by the end: he likes torturing people, and he likes the sound of his own voice.

As with so many aspects of MGS5, I’m putting this one in the Jury’s Still Out Bucket. Skull Face might end up being a deep and enduring character, but if so, it won’t be any thanks to his hidden backstory tape in Ground Zeroes.

#5: Major Zero Changes His Name Back

Metal Gear Solid 3 is no stranger to lengthy radio conversations. For the third game running, there are hours and hours of recorded dialogue for players to discover, exploring the personalities and relationships of Snake’s support team. I think it’s to the each game’s credit that some of the series’s most popular characters are only ever visually represented by a tiny greenish portrait. Whether it’s Mei Ling sharing a Chinese proverb or Sigint indulging in some good old gun porn, it’s a great feeling to know these characters so well only on the strength of their dialogue.

Things stumble a bit, though, when these endearing character moments are dropped directly into the game’s critical path. It’s one thing for MGS3’s Major Zero to digress into a tangent about James Bond in an optional message on the way back from the save menu. It’s something else to interrupt a description of Snake’s crucial mission objectives to explain why — in excruciating detail — he changed his callsign to “Major Tom” and then decided to change it back again.

The Major Tom digression is just a silly joke, and the explanation is just a flimsy in-universe justification. That’s fine and dandy, but not when it’s presented right in the middle of important mission information the player would do well not to skip.

#4: “Just like one of my Japanese animes!”

Even before becoming a series tradition, the expository infodump was one of the most famous aspects of the first Metal Gear Solid. At a time when dialogue-intensive JRPGs were at the peak of their popularity, when cutscenes were viewed as a technological marvel, and when even passably-decent voice acting was considered a miracle, the switchbacks and intrigues of MGS1’s plot were solid gold. In retrospect, there are lots of scenes that seem quaint, and even a little embarrassing. But one in particular stands out as being particularly unnecessary.

Okay, it’s immediately evident why we’d need to pay attention to Metal Gear’s lead engineer. And it makes sense they’d want to preface that meeting with a memorable boss fight. And sure, considering who that boss ends up being, Snake’s emotional codec freak-out is perfectly understandable. And once the engineer is secured, a bit of soul-searching on his part is to be expected. And even though that’s already like six cutscenes in a row already, okay, I’m even willing to accept our new engineer friend being an anime dork as a bit of integral character development.

But was it really necessary to cut to footage of an actual giant robot anime, right in the middle of what is already one of the longest non-interactive sections of the game? I feel like we could have gotten the gist of Otacon’s character without having the point driven home that deeply. Again, this is the kind of tangent that belongs in an optional codec call, not spliced in the middle of a cutscene filled with actual story development.

#3: Stillman’s Big Reveal

Otacon has an even more pointlessly embarrassing character moment in Metal Gear Solid 2, but he faces stiff competition from lots of other ancillary characters in terms of sheer time-wasting. The stated themes of MGS2 are the way thoughts and behaviors can be manipulated by diverting the flow of information, and many of the game’s conversations have a subversive bend in that direction. This is a game where every character has some big tragic secret they’re hiding, no matter how hard that square peg had to be pounded.

Raiden’s first mission on the Big Shell is to poke around the place disposing of C4 bombs. Enter Peter Stillman, the cynical explosives expert with a bum leg who taught the villainous Fatman everything he knows. Stillman supports Raiden with gear and instruction through the ordeal, but it becomes clear something isn’t quite right. Then the incredibly obvious shoe drops: it turns out the student has surpassed the teacher, and Fatman was two steps ahead of Stillman the whole time. Whoops! Now Stillman has to engage in the requisit noble sacrifice, giving Raiden an opening to take Fatman down for good.

But this being MGS2, there must be a dumber plot twist hiding behind the big one. And here it is: turns out Stillman doesn’t have a bum leg after all; he can walk just fine. He tells everyone he lost a leg when Fatman blew up a church because he feels guilty that Fatman blew up a church. Well, regardless of whether or not that makes sense, Stillman pours his heart out about his secret shame in a very long and very boring codec transmission that nobody cares about. And then he dies and all the other characters forget about him, so it matters even less.

#2: Drebin’s Bedtime Stories

I adore Drebin. It was a gutsy move introducing an important new character into a cast already bloated with every bit player and cameo from three previous titles, but Drebin is both likeable and memorable. His moral ambiguity comes across as passably heroic in a world where human lives are a commodity. His smooth demeanor and helpful gameplay interactions make the whole SOP subplot a bit easier to swallow — a necessary function, given that without that ridiculous subplot the rest of Metal Gear Solid 4‘s story would fall apart. You’ll be subconsciously doing his little hand gesture sendoff every time he exits the screen. His pet monkey wears a tinfoil diaper. For all Drebin’s positive qualities, though, he’s not much of a storyteller.

Boss fights in MGS4 are already fairly long by design, and each one caps off with a cutscene where the boss wiggles her butt in your face for two minutes and then a second, stupider boss fight where she tries to hug you to death. And just when you thought it was time to move on, Drebin calls up and makes you listen to his atrocious B&B Corps fanfiction. It turns out all the militaristic robot women hellbent on killing Snake are actually tragic anti-heroines who have suffered atrocities that have left them psychologically traumatized, but didn’t actually mar their flawless porcelain skin. The first time he does this you’ll raise an eyebrow. The second time he does this you’ll realize, good god, he’s gonna do this every single time, isn’t he?

In MGS1 each villain had a deathbed monologue that developed them as characters, because such humanizing moments helped expand the moral grey area the plot wanted to play with later on. In MGS3 the individual bosses were less important than the overarching plot, so their backstories were relegated to optional radio conversations with Sigint as an afterthought. The B&B Corps in MGS4 aren’t interesting characters, though, and their stories are all the same: “War came to this poor girl’s town, and she had nightmares that an animal was killing everyone, and it turns out she was the animal all along, but then Snake came along and set her free and gosh, ain’t that just swell.”

The worst part? You can’t even call Drebin’s codec on your own time to indulge in a little gun porn. He’s probably sore because I downvoted all his fanfics.

#1: The EVA Tapes

The structure of Peace Walker is mission-based, rather than objective-based, which means it had to shift gears a bit from MGS’s standard narrative flow. Instead of filing the little character moments into radio conversations that would eat into what are supposed to be bite-sized action scenes, each character instead has a set of tapes that unlock as you advance in the plot. You listen to these during the in-between moments while you’re faffing about on Mother Base. There are only a few characters, and only a couple tapes unlock at a time, so alternating between story missions, Mother Base chores and backstory feels pretty natural.

Except for EVA, Snake’s love interest from MGS3 who doesn’t have an in-person appearance in Peace Walker. I suppose it’s nice to know she’s still around, given the offscreen turbulence that has occured between the rest of the MGS3 cast in the last decade or so… but all her tapes unlock at once and it takes a solid hour to listen to them all. That’s an unacceptable amount of time for a character whose backstory we already know and who has no bearing on the events of the game we’re currently playing.

It gets worse. The actual content of the tapes — all seven of them — convey information the player already knows. “Snake, remember at the end of MGS3, when I talked at great length about how America pooped all over The Boss and then kicked her into a ditch? Well it turns out the poop was exceptionally frothy, there was enough of it to fill a dump truck, and the ditch was really the Grand Canyon filled with broken glass and termites. Oh, and they did it twice.”

MGS3 has one of the most emotional video game stories I’ve experienced, and EVA telling The Boss’s story was the perfect capstone to it. During Peace Walker I felt like it was tugging too much at a string best left alone, but in the end it handled The Boss’s “reappearance” in a pretty satisfying and respectful way. Peace Walker is one of the few MGS games with an uplifting ending — the first ending, that is, not the sooper-sekrit bonus ending. The depressing subject matter of the EVA tapes took away from that, and their content was entirely redundant to boot. Hopefully Snake recorded over them with some Bee Gees or whatever.

Coming up tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how the MGS games tackle everybody’s favorite hot button issue: good ol’ well-intentioned misogyny. (Spoiler: not very tactfully, as it happens!) Thanks for reading.

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Analyzing the Smash Roster — Super Smash Bros. (N64)

What are the criteria for a character’s inclusion in the Super Smash Bros. series? I don’t think anyone knows for sure, but in the decade and a half since the first game’s release it’s been a lot of fun to speculate. The topic itself isn’t inherently exciting — the answer is probably something close to “the characters most popular with our current target market” — but it tangentially touches a lot of side-topics which are quite interesting indeed. Things like, what makes a popular video game character in the first place? And what keeps them there? How are those characters defined and categorized in our communal consciousness? What is each character’s role in how games are played and perceived? Are these even important questions to ask?

The Smash series has a lot of characters to pick from. Sixty-two at the time of this writing, with more on the way as DLC for Smash 4. Way too many to look at coherently in one article. So for now I’d like to stick to the original Super Smash Bros., released for N64 in 1999 to a different generation of gamers.

The Original 8

Originally, there were only eight fighters in Smash:

Defining the criteria for this cast is easy, but not trivially so. At first glance you might say it’s something like “the eight most popular Nintendo characters at the time”, but that is incomplete. For one thing, it’s hard to argue that Fox, only two years removed from what is still considered his best game, was more popular than the fourth most popular Mario character, or the tenth most popular Pokémon. If that were all there was to it, Smash 64 would have been four Mario characters, five Pokémon, and Link.

And it clearly wasn’t “the most popular Nintendo 64 characters”. Donkey Kong 64 was still ten months out. The next Metroid game wasn’t even destined to beat the next Smash game to market.

How about “the most iconic Nintendo characters”? That’s closer, but still fuzzy. Characters like Pit and Little Mac are absolutely iconic of a particular era of Nintendo history; what caused them to be left behind? What about Marth, the main hero from the first game in Nintendo’s only tactical RPG series? Yoshi is iconic for sure, but he got his start as a sidekick and then earned his starring roles only after a period of time. Couldn’t the same be said for Wario, who made the transition from quirky villain to lovable anti-hero? And then we have Samus, who is undoubtedly iconic and did make the cut, but who hadn’t had a starring role in five years and whose series looked to be on the decline. When selecting between icons, neither past success nor future success looked to be a good indicator.

So we can’t boil the criteria down to a single, decisive trait. What we can do is look at those traits all these characters have in common. Only then does a pattern emerge. The original eight were:

  • first-party Nintendo characters
  • with prominent roles
  • as good guys
  • in at least two titles
  • that are available in all three major markets
  • and who aren’t joined by anyone else from their own game series.

Adding up all these traits gives us a much better final roster than going with “most popular”. It gives us a nice cross-section of Nintendo history, representative of characters both old and new, from a wide variety of genres and visual styles. It has a nice “makes sense” quality, the kind of thing which only looks effortless. It’s really hard to make a case that any other character deserves one of these eight spots. I had never played a Pokémon game when Smash 64 came out, and had no particular affection for Pikachu, but I immediately recognized why he was there and knew he deserved his spot.

The criteria were loose enough to catch necessary edge cases like Pikachu and Yoshi, but tight enough to give the game a very structured feel. There weren’t just eight characters, there were eight stages, and everyone had their own home turf. Everyone had a unique icon, an instantly-recognizable emblem from their games that sat underneath their health indicator. Everyone had their own unique victory music which played when they came out on top in a fight. Rather than the hodgepodge the series would eventually become, Smash 64 is cleanly and equally divided among the Original 8.

I think this is key to understanding the role of Smash 64 as a part of its own series and in the video game landscape as a whole. It was originally a quirky cross-over game, not a vast and all-inclusive celebration of all things Nintendo. This is noticeable in the game’s cartoony art, where all the characters are drawn in a style distinct from the games they came from. Pikachu is a little too big, Samus a little too small. Mario and Link have weird noodle appendages. Nothing was quite cutesy enough for Yoshi or Kirby. In other words, Smash 64 is its own little world, and the fighters are all just visitors here. A round table with eight places set.

The fighters in Smash were there to serve the game itself. It was not yet true that Smash was there to serve Nintendo and its community.

The Original X

Why stick with 8? It’s a nice number for a fighting game roster, sure. Enough characters to offer some variety, but not so many that you’re overwhelmed with options and styles. The original Street Fighter II had 8 fighters to pick from. It makes for a nice, clean 4×2 selection grid.

But let’s say sticking with 8 wasn’t necessary, or desirable. Keeping the original criteria in tact, what other characters might have made the cut? Or, phrased another way, which characters from future Smash titles might have gotten in earlier, had the roster been larger and the original criteria adhered to?

My research wasn’t exhaustive, but I found four obvious candidates that don’t break any of the criteria:

This roster looks a little weird, though. It no longer has that “makes sense” quality, even though we’re still in the bounds of our criteria. Pit and Little Mac are both well-known for their NES appearances, but their sequels weren’t nearly as enduring. (How many of you even knew Kid Icarus had a Game Boy sequel?) Wario gets in under the same technicalities as Yoshi, but he somehow just doesn’t seem to fit. Maybe his design is just too reliant on Mario’s to work? Or maybe most players continued to see him as a villain, despite having two adventures of his own? Captain Falcon came from a much-loved series, but the series is loved for its speedy gameplay and not its characters. Maybe that sets him apart from Fox, who also spent all his time sitting in a ship?

Expanding the roster out to twelve, it starts to become clear just how arbitrary the original criteria are. You start leaving room for the type of questions that plagued the roster reveals of Melee and Brawl. You know, the “Why X and not Y?” questions. Surely Marth is a better pick than Mac, never mind that nobody outside of Japan knows who he is. Should we really be including Pit, who hasn’t had a game in eight years, when loosening our “one character per series” requirement would open the door for Peach, or Diddy Kong, or any number of Pokémon? Wario’s kind of a good guy, but also kind of a bad guy, so why not go full bad guy and add Bowser?

Are we sure we can’t sneak in a character from Excitebike or Pilotwings? Or Tetris?

In the end, the 8-fighter limit is, itself, part of the criteria. It’s what causes that “makes sense” quality the roster ended up having, by not getting too messy with the edge cases. The answer to any number of “Why not X?” questions was: “Because there were only so many spots.”

The most ardent Wario fans in the world, if being honest with themselves, will be able to see why their guy lost out to a blockbuster like Yoshi. In later years, it was a much harder pill to swallow because left-out characters were being measured against the likes of Meta Knight and Dark Pit.

Secret Characters

Of course, Smash 64 really did end up with twelve characters. It began the series’s proud tradition of locking up some of its fighters behind gameplay challenges, and is one of the earliest trend-setters of the kind of unlockable content that became so pervasive in the industry, for better or worse. But who to include?

We could have ended up with something like the roster above, which sticks to the rules but starts introducing uncomfortable questions. That’s not the direction Smash 64 went. Instead, it very purposely bent the criteria just enough to sneak in a couple more edge cases:

First off, Captain Falcon immediately made the cut, and it’s easy to see why. Unlike Wario Land and Kid Icarus, the F-Zero series was modern and popular. He’s a good example of what the top of Nintendo’s B-List looks like.

The other three secret characters each break one of the criteria, but in an enlightening way. Each of them feels like a character that would have been in the Original 8, if there were no criteria to follow. And the ways in which the criteria were bent offer some insight into how the roster would grow over the years, as it ballooned up from 8 to 62.

Luigi is the most obvious choice, the clear counterpart to his big brother. Mario’s level in the 1-player mode includes Luigi as a CPU partner, and unlocking him is as easy as playing the bonus practice with the Original 8, something every player is likely to do within two hours of turning the game on. Any game with unlockables needs one as easy as this to get the player comfortable with the idea. And having one fighter be similar, but not exactly identical to, the “main” character is a fighting game tradition dating back to Ryu and Ken.

Jigglypuff and Ness are the most interesting choices, though. They each represent fan favorites, characters that made some fraction of the player base really happy. What these two characters possess, though, is a whimsical design that speaks to players who don’t know who they are yet. Appealing to fandoms and creating new ones both became important aspects of roster selection in future Smash titles.

I can go a little deeper into this idea, because I’m representative of both sides of that coin. I was a huge fan of EarthBound when Smash 64 came out, and was over the moon when I got the game and found out he was in it. His inclusion was so left-field unlikely that it seemed like a miracle to me. They even got his victory fanfare exactly right! My favorite part of the Sound Stone ditty. I used it as my Windows 98 startup sound for a couple of years.

Meanwhile, I had never heard of Jigglypuff and was initially a little put off that they’d include such a nobody. But actually playing the game turned me around on the character in a big way. She has a cute design that’s hard to dislike, adorable sound effects, and a fun gameplay style that really clicked with me. What I came to realize is there were players out there who felt about Jigglypuff the way I felt about Ness, and vice-versa.

Secret characters are a good place for a fighting game to get a little crazy with movesets, and Smash 64 was already pretty crazy. These characters are a little more unconventional in how they move and what they can do. Ness lacks a traditional recovery, requiring both planning and accuracy to keep himself on the stage compared to the third jumps of the Original 8. Captain Falcon has both a powerful but non-variable wind-up as well as a mid-air grab. Jigglypuff has a one-hit kill that only works at point blank range. These are characters a player might not want to try until they’ve already mastered the basics.

So the game needed secret characters, and the selection process for vetting them made some pretty interesting choices. All of these ideas informed how the series would grow over time.

Smash 64’s Legacy

I think they got Smash 64’s roster as close to exactly right as they were ever likely to get it. They split the difference between making the game feel like the sum of all its component parts, while still pandering to important sub-fandoms in the greater Nintendo community. Every character was fun to play as, and nobody was so weird or quirky that fans of the character couldn’t reasonably use them. The roster definitely didn’t happen by accident; it only looks like they made all the obvious choices.

Most importantly, remember that there were no guarantees in 1999 that there would ever be a Smash Bros. 2. There clearly had to be room to grow outwards, and the secret characters showed fans some tantalizing ways that growth could happen. The roster had to be strong enough that players in 2015 could look back at the one and only Smash Bros. game and know they got it right. We don’t live in that world, but I still think it’s safe to look back from 2015 and say that.

Smash 64 has the best roster in the series. There are no dud characters, no shameless clones, and no obscure head-scratchers. It doesn’t feel bloated or overcrowded. It feels like they hit all the high notes without leaving anybody out.

And it gave Metroid fans reason to believe that maybe, just maybe, Nintendo hadn’t forgotten about them after all.*

*(My apologies to EarthBound fans, who actually were forgotten, and would remain so indefinitely.)

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HELP HELP EVERYTHING’S BREAKING

Don’t panic, I’m just switching webhosts. Stuff is going to be weird and/or broken for a while. For that matter, I’ve got archives stretching back to 2009, so the really old stuff might be weird/broken forever. I’ll do the best I can to get everything back up and running!

Thanks for reading!

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Multiclassing in D&D 5e

I love the idea of multiclass characters in Dungeons & Dragons, but I hate how it’s usually implemented.

I’m a student of AD&D Second Edition, and the dual- and multi-class rules in that game were very strict. The idea was that a dual- or multi-classed character was a rare and powerful breed. It involved a major alteration to your character concept; a Fighter/Thief was meant to be played much differently than a Fighter or a Thief. In addition, not every class could be multi’d; a Paladin was a Paladin for life… unless he strayed from his path and became a Fighter.

Third edition changed the multiclass rules in such a way as to open up more character variety. Now any race could be any class, and what’s more, you could take as many class levels in however many classes you liked. The added character options were cool in theory, but they often led to silly decisions like “I’ll be a L10 Wizard/L1 Fighter, because I mostly want to be a Wizard but I want a few extra HPs and weapon proficiencies.” The addition of prestige classe and splatbook material made this even sillier, with bizarre “optimized” builds where a player might spread his EXPs across seven different classes.

As far as I can tell this practice of “dipping into” another class for a level or two in order to gain some mechanical bonus was retained and even encouraged in fourth edition. Gone was the idea that your character’s class represented his adventuring career path. Instead of being part of who your character was, class levels were treated like dots on character creation screen.

Fifth edition seems to be trying to curtail the practice of “dipping in” in two ways. First, it places hard restrictions on ability scores for multiclass characters. If you want to dip into Wizard to score a few free attack cantrips, you first have to build your Intelligence to 13. (Or plan ahead by putting a 13 into Int at character creation.) The justification for this is that your character’s first class level is the culmination of all his training and experience up to this point in his life, and that picking up a second class requires a sense of natural aptitude so as to be able to pick up the concepts of the new class quickly.

The second way it downplays the practice is the way each class gains its class features. Most classes don’t get all their core features together until L3, which is three levels you aren’t spending in your main class. Further, most classes don’t get ability score improvements until L4, so if you multiclass too early or too often your ability scores are going to be lagging behind. Thus, multiclassing makes sense for a player who has a unique character concept in mind, and not so much for someone who wants to justify a patchwork 4/3/2/1/1 build.

(A third thing it does is to offer lots of watered-down versions of class features as feats. So if you’re just looking to dip in for a specific feature, you’re usually better off taking the related feat and not missing out on a level in your main class.)

Upon reflecting on the rules, though, and reading some arguments both for and against the new multiclassing system, I’ve decided they still aren’t strict enough. A player who spreads class levels more than two ways, to my mind, is metagaming at an unacceptable level. At the point you’re deciding whether your Druid/Thief needs a level of Fighter to round things out, you have left the realm of character concept behind and are starting to fiddle too much with the numbers. In addition, some classes, as described in the Player’s Handbook, are just more difficult to multiclass into than others.

With that in mind, I’ve sketched together these rules for players who want to multiclass. The goal is this: a character’s second class should be a skillset used to augment and flesh out the character’s first. A character should not have three classes. As a result, it’s easier to pick up classes with features that can be reasonably learned and practiced, and more difficult for those with stronger thematic concerns.

In this article I’ve ordered the 5e classes by how difficult they are to multiclass into.

Tier One: Easy, but…

Warlock

As far as I’m concerned, the only requirement for becoming a Warlock is forming a pact with some supernatural creature. Such creatures are in are in no short supply. A player who expresses interest in multiclassing into Warlock would be shortly contacted by such a being. That being said, such entities are often manipulative or malevolent, or at the very least have ulterior motives for giving away a fraction of their power. A multiclassed Warlock may quickly find himself at odds with his patron, or be faced with difficult moral quandaries they otherwise would not have faced.

Tier Two: Easy

Fighter, Rogue, Wizard, Cleric

It was a happy accident that the four easiest classes ended up being the D&D staples! But it makes sense. These classes are comprised mostly of skills which can be learned and practiced. In the D&D world anyone can pick up a sword and become reasonably competent with it, or noodle around with some low-level arcane magic. And having picked up the basics, the remaining 19 class levels are really just about honing your skills.

Anyone looking to multiclass into Fighter, Rogue or Wizard would need to state their intention at the beginning of a session, and then spend a considerable amount of energy during that session working towards their stated goal. Suffice it to say, this could really only be done during a roleplay session and not during a dungeon hack. (Even during a roleplay session, they would likely have to ignore the main plot in favor of their training.) At the end of the session, if they’d been sufficiently diligent and pass a few checks, they get enough EXP to go up one level in the new class.

Clerics would work the same way, except they would be restricted to gods whose temples or followers the player can immediately access, and they would have to be sincere in their desire to follow that god. A multiclassed Cleric who works against his god’s interests would lose those class levels until he shaped up.

Tier Three: Difficult

Bard, Monk, Paladin

Like the core four, these classes represent characters with skill, knowledge and training that can theoretically be picked up by anyone. They aren’t quite as broadly defined as the core four, though; being a Bard or a Monk implies a certain kind of outlook on the world that not everyone possesses. Being a Paladin implies no such thing; it’s a flat-out demand. What’s more, music schools and monastaries are in shorter supply than with the core four, and differences in opinion between teacher and student could end up being major roadblocks.

Picking up one of these classes would involve finding an NPC of the class who is capable and eager to teach, and that there are no major personality conflicts between that NPC and his student. The player would then be required to touch base with his teacher in order to train up to L2 and L3, at which point they pick their archetype and can advance as normal.

I would probably also require the player to continue this training uninterrupted until that point. If your Fighter decides to train with a stoic knight to gain levels in Paladin, said knight is going to question your devotion if you say, “Thanks for the first class level! I’ll be back after I get my next ability score advancement from Fighter!” I wouldn’t revoke the new class levels, but I would probably rule that the player had effectively abandoned his training after a bit of dabbling, and not allow them to advance in their second class without a serious show of dedication.

Tier Four: Effectively Impossible

Barbarian, Druid, Paladin, Ranger

These classes represent not just skills and ideals, but entire lifestyles. The skills in these classes are not things you learn to do, but rather are manifestations of how your character grew up and how that shapes his view of the world. The Barbarian’s ability to channel his inner rage is not a thing that can be learned; nor is a Ranger’s connection to nature, or a Druid’s ability to wild shape.

That said, if the player really latches onto something that exists in the game world as inspiration, I may allow that player to abandon their old class in favor of one of these. You wouldn’t lose your old class levels, but you wouldn’t be able to advance them anymore after switching. This represents a profound shift in the character’s goals and priorities; the abandoning of the old life for the new.

The reason Paladin is in both of these categories is because I could really see it going either way. It depends a lot on what the Paladin’s oaths are and how the character approaches the transition.

Tier Five: Actually Impossible

Sorcerer

The Sorcerer really blurs the line between race and class. Whether or not you’re a Sorcerer is a function of your birth; you either have it or you don’t. A character with six levels of Wizard does not suddenly wake up and realize, oh yeah, turns out I had magic blood all along!

The flip side of that is, I could see treating the first level of Sorcerer as an offshoot of race or background. That is, a character who woke to sorcerous power early in life but decided (for whatever reason) to not persue it. As a result, this is probably the only time I would allow multiclassing right at character creation. A player could take one level of Sorcerer to start, then say, “…but he denied his magic heritage and trained as a Rogue instead.” That character would start the game as a L1/1 Sorcerer/Rogue, and wouldn’t gain any EXP the first session he’s played. Thereafter he always has the option to take more levels of Sorcerer as he decides to develop his powers.

I don’t think any of the players in my current campaign have designs on multiclassing anytime soon, but hopefully if that changes they don’t find these rules too restrictive. If they do I’ll… I dunno… feed them to a roc, or something.

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Why D&D 5e is Awesome — An Example (The Paladin)

It would take pages and pages of text to share my thoughts on the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons. In short: I’m a fan. I love the books, I love the new systems, I love the new takes on old systems. I’m a gushing starry-eyed fanboy, despite what this old blog post about it would have you believe.

In case you don’t want to read what Old-Bitchy-Brickroad-From-2012 has to say, here’s the teal deer: Wizards of the Coast made some silly claim about how D&D 5e was going to appeal of fans to all previous versions, and I found that claim to be ludicrous. My feeling was that the history of D&D was too big a thing to condense into a single ruleset. All four editions (really six editions (but really nine or more)) of the game had dead ends and failed experiments which couldn’t be excised without losing something important. You had 2e with its motley of mechanics and dice systems (perfect for nerds who love fiddly numbers!). You had 3e with countless feats, skills, prestige classes and magic items (a min/maxer’s dream come true!). You had 4e with its tactical grid combat and ECL rules (everything a wargaming lootmonger could desire!). There was a lot of crossover between these wide and disparate systems, but I was of the opinion that they each had their niche. I was very skeptical of WotC’s “all things to all players” claim because I didn’t see how you could unify the things that various edition purists enjoyed under a single ruleset in a meaningful way. I figured the new edition would be a mishmash of redundant rules, vestigial mechanics and pages upon pages of optional minutia.

phbs

But 5e won me over! I could go on and on about how brilliant I think it is and how elegant some of WotC’s solutions wound up being. Indeed, if you’ve been watching my streams lately or showing up to our weekly gaming sessions, you’ve probably already had your fill of that. So instead, I’m going to narrow the focus a bit and talk about just one specific example of something 5e did very, very right: the Paladin.

A Quick Note About 3e

This document mostly references the Paladin class from second, fourth and fifth editions. There are two reasons for this. First, as we’ll see, I tend to define 2e and 4e at being at two different extremes of the tabletop spectrum, and 3e falls somewhere in the middle. So it’s somewhat less useful as a comparison to the new ruleset. And second, I don’t actually own a copy of the 3e rules, and in fact have never read them! I’ve played in many 3e games, but never run one, and I can’t remember anyone in our group playing a Paladin in one. I have vague ideas about their place and function in the game, but no firsthand knowledge and no reference material.

In other words, I’m sure there’s a lot to be said on this subject in regards to third edition. But I’m not the guy to say it. Sorry, 3e fans!

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Second Edition Paladin

What you’re looking at is a badly-cropped photo of pages 27 and 28 of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook. It looks positively dinky compared to the class descriptions in later editions, but keep in mind that each of 2e classes were part of larger “class groups”. The Paladin shared some rules in common with the other two classes of the Warrior group, notably the Fighter. Most of the class description, as a result, can be summarized by “here’s how Paladins are better than Fighters, and here’s the price they pay for getting that way”.

And make no mistake, Paladins are better than Fighters. I don’t mean that in the sense that the game was poorly playtested or had terrible balance issues. I mean they were specifically designed that way. Nowadays it is considered a mortal sin to have huge power gaps between character classes, both in tabletop and video games. To do it on purpose would be unconscionable. But that’s how 2e is designed, honest injun! If we’re talking straight up game mechanics, there is no reason whatsoever* to play Fighter when Paladin is on the table

So to understand the 2e Paladin, we have to understand some reasons why it might not be on the table.

The answer lies in all the red blocks in the image above. Paladin is, by a very wide margin, the most heavily restricted class in 2e. It has the highest ability score requirement of any class and the narrowest range of race and alignment options. If you tell me you’re playing a Paladin in a 2e game, I already know 1) you’re a human, 2) you’re lawful good and 3) you managed to roll a 17 in a system where “4d6, drop the lowest” is a variant and not the standard.

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Much has been made about how Paladins must be lawful good, but even in 2e there is lawful good and there is lawful good. Paladins are expected to be absolute paragons of law and good, impeccable in word and deed. Lawful good is already a challenging alignment to roleplay properly, and Paladins in particular are at the very extreme end of that challenge. One slip-up towards evil and the Paladin loses all his class abilities, reverting to a Fighter of his experience level. This change is immediate and irrevokable, unless the Paladin acted under magical duress; in that case, he may have his class returned to him if he completes a dangerous quest of atonement.

On top of all that, the Paladin labors under some pretty severe loot restrictions. He cannot own more than ten magic items. He does not attract followers. He may keep only enough wealth to pay his debts; everything else goes to the church. He isn’t even allowed to bestow this wealth to the party. You’re reading all this correctly. Paladins are expected to ignore the primary reason for adventuring! He’s simply not allowed to partake in the standard kill/loot/kill/loot cycle most people play Dungeons & Dragons to enjoy!

In return for these huge restrictions, the Paladin enjoys many bonuses over the standard Fighter. Not the least of these are a straight bonus to all saving throws and innate protection from evil creatures. They have a class-specific magic weapon, the fabled holy avenger, whose might is as awesome as its name. And they get a warhorse buddy they can call to their side like that guy in Shadow of the Colossus. Oh, and healing, undead turning, and spellcasting abilities.

That may not sound like fair compensation for all the weight the Paladin has to carry. After all, every class in the game except the Fighter has cool features that make it unique, and they (mostly) get to keep their loot. So what does a Paladin player really get for picking such a difficult class? You’ve already guessed the answer: the class is its own reward. The roleplaying opportunities of the Paladin are endless. Simply having one around creates interesting conflict that often demands resolution outside of “kill all the orcs”. The Paladin often becomes the villain of the group as he seeks to hold the other members — even lawful good ones — to his impossible standards.

That’s why the Paladin isn’t balanced with the rest of the classes in 2e, and why it doesn’t need to be. It’s a class that demands far, far more of its player than “learn how to use your class abilities”. It’s not a class everyone is intended to play.

That sounds unfair and elitist to the ears of many modern gamers. Perhaps it is. But that’s where we start.

*No, weapon specialization is not why people play Fighters.

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Fourth Edition Paladin

Here we have pages 89-91 of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook: Arcane, Divine and Martial Heroes, or the 4e PHB. Allowing for the larger print in the 4e books, the actual description of the class is about the same length. Not pictured are the eight pages of individual Paladin class powers, twenty of which are “Something Smite”. Huge lists of powers are nothing special in 4e though; every class has those. The more notable difference is the lack of any restrictions or bonuses in 4e’s ruleset. The only limiting factor in playing a 4e Paladin is your desire to do so.

In fact, there are no rules at all regarding your Paladin’s behavior, save that his alignment must be the same as his deity’s. The Paladin is never in danger of losing any of his class abilities, regardless of how chaotic or evil he acts. From the PHB:

“Once initiated, the paladin is a paladin forevermore. How justly, honorably, or compassionately the paladin wields those powers from that day forward is up to him, and paladins who stray too far from the tenets of their faith are punished by other members of the faithful.”

This makes sense though, right? Unlike in 2e, there is no “base class” for a fallen Paladin to revert to. In 4e, Fighter is a unique class unto itself with powers all its own. It would be ridiculous to tell a 4e player, “Since you raped that orphanage, you lose all your Paladin powers. You’re a Fighter now. Pick out all your new Fighter powers.” Rather than losing something special, that player just replaces all the useful powers he had with different-but-equally-useful ones.

This is the reason there’s no red or yellow in my terrible 4e photo. Since there’s no sense of one class being better than any other, there’s no reason to hold a player of a particular class to higher standards. Nor is there any sense of penalizing that player should he fail. Instead of being rare and notable characters, Paladins are just another option on the menu.

This is starting to get a bit whiny, so let’s focus on all the reasons this is a good thing. For one, not having a “base class” is a great thing! Fighters in 4e get cool attack powers and fun mechanical bonuses for a variety of different weapons. There are lots of reasons to pick Fighter over Paladin outside of “I don’t want to be lawful good” or “I didn’t roll a 17”. It also means the player who picks Fighter isn’t made to feel redundant or useless in a group that also has a Paladin, since they’re providing different functions in combat.

It also means there are no tiresome debates about whether a particular course of action will or won’t be acceptable to the party’s Paladin. The party isn’t required to throw one-fifth of its treasure into a black hole just so one guy can keep turning skeletons and laying-on-hands. The group can engage in stealth and subterfuge without the Paladin poo-pooing or sitting out.

There’s a more important benefit to this design though: World of Warcraft had redefined what the Paladin was in the fantasy genre. It still had connotations of being the incorruptable paragon of justice, but to many players he was now a combination between fighter, tank and buffbot. The value of a Paladin was measured less in how he behaves and more by how much damage he soaks up and whether he can get his allies cleansed of debuffs.

The shift in tone makes perfect sense for a more mechanically-oriented game like 4e, then. A new Paladin for a new age. Now everybody gets to play them, not just the elite few who roll really well and can stomach a bible full of caveats.

Guys like me, though, who liked the way 2e handled its stronger, rarer, more challenging classes couldn’t help but feel something had been lost. We gravitated towards Pathfinder instead.

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Fifth Edition Paladin

Finally, let’s look at pages 82-85 of the D&D Player’s Handbook for fifth edition, and delve into why it’s so brilliant. Superficially, the spread looks pretty similar to 4e. Like its predecessor, 5e is a game where all classes are unique and ostensibly balanced. The Paladin is therefore defined by its features and abilities rather than its roleplaying restrictions.

But good golly! Look at all that real estate! Each class in 5e gets at least a full four-page spread, and many (such as the Paladin) get considerably more when you delve into the nuts and bolts of the class. Unlike 4e, where these pages were just naked lists of powers broken up by level, the 5e character options are split into broad sub-classes called archetypes. And here’s the first stroke of brilliance: only one of these Paladin archetypes is the 2e-style paragon of justice. From the PHB:

“The Oath of Devotion binds a paladin to the loftiest ideals of justice, virtue, and order. Sometimes called cavaliers, white knights, or holy warriors, these paladins meet the ideal of the knight in shining armor, acting with honor in pursuit of justice and the greater good.”

Sound like anyone we know?

If that’s not to your liking there are two other Paladin archetypes you might try, one of which (Oath of Vengeance) is much closer to the 4e-style Paladin in terms of smiting darkness and meting out justice to evildoers. The idea here — and I’m certain this is not coincidence — is that 2e veterans look at this verbiage and think, “The Paladin is back, baby!” while 4e newcomers look at it and think, “Phew, I can still be a Paladin without having to act like a self-righteous prick!” The PHB also gently nudges players towards designing their own Oaths, giving them permission to work with their DMs to customize the character so he is challenging and satisfying to play.

Even better, a brand new 5e player doesn’t have to decide right away what kind of Paladin he wants to be. Most 5e classes don’t choose their archetype until the third experience level, so the average player will have two or three game sessions to try the character out and see how it feels. Imagine a player who starts out with lofty goals of playing the perfect lawful good character, but loses his taste for it after a couple encounters. In 2e this player is cursed to play an average Fighter for the rest of the campaign, no takesie-backsies. In 4e this player doesn’t actually exist, since nothing in any of the class descriptions rewards or restricts behavior. 5e provides the perfect, elegant solution: the Paladin takes a different Oath. A roleplaying opportunity is created as the character questions his ideals and comes to respect new ones. And the player gets to keep all his cool Paladin stuff, just pointed in a bit of a different direction.

Ah, but there’s a masterstroke. You knew there was going to be a bit of red ink in the 5e book, didn’t you? Well here it is:

5e_oaths

These are the rules for Paladins who wander from their Oath, whatever that may be. They’re clear enough that Paladin players know what is expected and what to do if they falter, but they’re vague enough that it’s easy to rationalize not bringing the hammer down. They also give two possible outcomes for a Paladin who goes too far: he either loses his class features, or gains new ones as befitting his newly-evil status. These fallen Paladins are called Oathbreakers, and the rules for them are in the Dungeon Master’s Guide. Paladins are, in fact, the only class that has rules to change archetypes. Rather than being penalized by losing powers, a creative player may consider becoming an Oathbreaker a sort of weird reward for taking his character in a new direction.

Paladins in 2e were rare and special because of their roleplaying restrictions, but that meant not every player could enjoy it. In 4e the option was available to everyone, but the class lost what had made it unique. 5e elegantly allows either style of Paladin, and many degrees in-between. And it does this without requiring house rules and without introducing the drawbacks of either of the older editions we’ve looked at. Wow!

What It All Means

The treatment of the Paladin is just one example of what 5e means when it says “all things to all players”. Similar examples abound in all other aspects of the game. There will always be edition purists, surely, but it’s very difficult for me to imagine an open-minded person looking at the 5e rules and not finding them better than what they’d been using.

Back when 5e was still in development, when Wizards of the Coast was using ridiculous internet polls to ask players what they liked about each edition of the game, it was very easy for me to simply declare my lifelong devotion to 2e and then drop the mic. Lots of players were likewise disappointed in the direction 4e took the game. I wasn’t disappointed, per se, but I was vocal about the game not being a good fit for my group.

The game had to work very, very hard in order to soften my coal black heart. The Paladin is one of the reasons it succeeded. A great deal of care and attention was paid to make sure fans from 1979 would feel as comfortable picking it up as fans from 2010. The class works whether you last played one in Toril or Azeroth. That was not easy, and it’s just one of a hundred things that had to go right. I applaud the effort as well as the result.

If you’ve been skeptical about trying out the new edition of D&D, consider this an endorsement. If you want to see the game in action, drop by my Twitch stream on Sunday afternoon to see it in action. Thanks for reading!

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