Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Difficulty Levels and Engagement

You know how most people seem to think that narrative experience remain the only truly “engaging” form of the video game? Those of us playing video games before their transformation into interactive film know that this isn’t true. It cannot be true, in fact! Difficulty and challenge within the context of a video game provide a unique source of engagement and constant learning that one doesn’t get from other mediums. Like Sherlock Holmes’ process of deduction, identifying a problem while in the middle of a tense situation, then solving said problem, makes each and every experience memorable and challenging. The ability to improvise and play around with various mechanics to dominate the field enhances that effect.

I suppose this became clear to me as I’m playing Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance on Very Hard mode. You might imagine that just playing Normal might give you your fix, but not for me. Even with the wildly swinging camera (as I mentioned in my review of both the game and the DLC), there’s something incredibly satisfying about the game itself, whether the parrying mechanic or the inherent usefulness of each tool and weapon or the game’s ability to tell you what enemy attack happens next – without big text boxes appearing on screen, anyway. It’s incredibly intuitive the first time you complete the game, and you’ll get a good feel for the insanity and the pacing of the combat.

However, Very Hard completely changes how you need to play the game. If you thought you were an ultra-cool cyborg ninja who could cut through anything, even a person’s soul, prepare for a giant wake-up call. It doesn’t matter how much you upgrade your weapons, or how much stuff you accumulate, or how good you thought you could parry attacks – you will find yourself humbled at the utterly insane onslaught of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance’s Very Hard. Obviously, the game’s precision and responsive controls seem designed for this kind of thing; now, we can watch the default game style taken to its breaking point.

I’ll admit I thought myself a bit skeptical, as Hard Mode didn’t propose much of a challenge – enemies hit for double damage, but that’s not much of a concern once parrying becomes second nature as enemies only attack one at a time. I imagine most people didn’t notice this at first, but as you start to recognize the obvious visual cues (red = parryable, yellow = dodge, purple = run away or get stunned), it’s really easy to parry counter and defeat whole crowds of enemies at once. Audio cues help for those enemies offscreen as well. One easily abusable tactic involves slicing a normal cyborg (ones without heavy armor) once, and then Zandatsu immediately – a crowd of cyborgs could fall immediately with one well-timed slice and chaining Zandatsus. Of course, you can’t do this to the bosses, but their patterns don’t change all that much in the lower difficulties.

The primary difference, then, for Very Hard comes from the enemies attacking all at once. If you’ve seen any of the Ninja Gaiden reboots, it’s a lot like that – except, of course, you don’t have a reliable block button except if you’ve got nerves of steel to block all those attacks at once. Furthermore, there’s no easy escape measure like the dodge roll as the Dodge Offset only gives you a limited set of invincibility frames – just enough to avoid grab attacks with good timing. Now imagine trying to avoid and parry counter all these attacks coming in from multiple directions, and you can see the dilemma: get surrounded and YOU WILL DIE. Period. They’re stronger than you now, and attack as quickly – thus, you need to change your approach on nearly every fight.

This also comes to light because, unsurprisingly, they’ve changed the enemy makeup of any fight – prepare for some hilarious and frustrating surprises as the game throws whatever sick and demented combination you can imagine. Fighting three Mastiffs while getting pelted by rocket launching cyborgs from afar gives me PTSD flashbacks to Ninja Gaiden. It doesn’t help that Mastiffs now jump around like maniacs and make the camera swing wildly if it is currently locked on their position – especially the later Desperado variants! Goodness, that one problem causes more issues than you’d suspect. Health powerups mean next to nothing when you die so quickly. Honestly, at a point you just need to laugh at how astonishingly hard Platinum Games worked at frustrating you, and then taunting you to finish their gauntlet of death.

MetalGearRisingRevengeanceMastiff

Yeah, these guys aren’t any fun.

So how do you do it? Well, you become a cyborg ninja is what you do! Rise to the occassion, or die – quite the “old-school” mentality, shall we say. You need to develop the same insane reflexes as Raiden, and play the game as if your life depended on it. You must know every enemy’s pattern and react according to which ones present the highest threat. You must seperate, divide, and conquer; big enemies with giant attacks can’t stay up for long or they’ll kill you. Enemies with projectiles need elimination almost from the outset or you’ll find yourself interrupted and stun-locked. Let me tell you, being stunned happens A LOT if you do not play right; it’s not cheap, but a tangible market of your failure to deal with the circumstance. Get used to the slim margin of error, or don’t.

You’ll find yourself using every available option. Ripper Mode, MGR:R’s equivalent of Devil Trigger from DMC, lets you cause massive damage but turns off Zandatsus – perfect for killing high armor enemies that don’t let you Zandatsu them from the outset. Sub weapons no longer seem optional; EM Grenades, especially, work fantastically in stunning all the enemies for some fast kills – even putting on infinite subweapons doesn’t make the game any easier, I have to say (Infinite Wig A, pretty sure). Seemingly useless weapon transform into essential choices for certain encounters; the incredibly slow Pincer Blades, for example, turn into one of the most effective weapons in the game for knocking down most foes and priming them for Zandatsu kills, especially when charged. You’ll prioritize high damage HF blades over the default weapon simply because you’ll need enemies to die quickly, either for health or for making those high score timers (trust me, they’re strict). And if you’re wondering why I emphasize Zandatsus so much, you’ll need the resources they give more than ever – health’s a rare commodity, and the better HF blades use your electrolytes at an alarmingly fast rate to go along with their damage and speed – you’ll need to line up precise cuts within a split second if you don’t want to die.

All of these new challenges and difficulties bring out the best in the holistic combination of game systems – it’s truely fascinating to employ AND watch in action. Heck, I’ve had people observe me before and they have no idea what’s happening, nor the kind of skill, speed, and concentration required to master a particular encounter. The boss fights emphasize moments of complete and total concentration for absurdly long lengths of time – Monsoon turns into a battle for survival and parrying mastery as his attacks get faster and faster when he loses health. Mastering a whole new timing for the same attacks will throw you off, guaranteed, and a mistake could cost you your life. This video (though it’s on Revengeance difficulty) should give you a pretty good indication of the fight:

Once you make a mistake, it’s difficult to get your timing back in nearly any encounter; you need to keep your cool and play according to your plans, and that’s very difficult to do. Play perfect, or die – what a game! I play lots of action games in this vein, but I never concentrated and devoted myself to the task so wholly and utterly as I had to do in finishing the game on this new level. It’s utterly engaging and amazing to push yourself right to the very edge and snatch victory right from the jaws of defeat time after time. Failure’s merely an opportunity to try again and again, getting a little better each time. I imagine PG* put the scoring system inside the game for that purpose, but I am not even worried about that right now – I just want to finish Very Hard. Revengeance does the same exact thing – except making enemies strong enough to defeat you in two hits, and making parry counter ten times stronger and all other attacks incredibly weak – sounds like fun!

I think a lot of video game players miss this sort of experience, one unique to video games, out of a malformed presupposition that fun, enjoyment, challenge, and difficulty can’t constitute something meaningful, wonderful, or artistic in and of itself. There’s a notion that, correct me if I’m wrong, the correct and fine-tuned arrangement of mathematical formulas that make certain video games so fantastic to play and watch cannot function as “art” in any sense. That they force the player to engage with the game on its own terms, and not the “play as you want” model of our modern culture, seems to escape them. By forcing you into particular constraints and making the player earn their victories, they end up hoodwinking the player into a particular role without their knowledge! Rather than insert the player into some arbitrarily constructed narrative circumstance, the game’s very systems force you to become the character. The controller merely becomes an extension of your mind’s will, conscious to the point of complete and utter focus on what’s happening on screen.

It’s hard for me to “go back” to the more narrative-focused experience – all I can do is criticize the game for not having this or that as my analytic side takes over and begins the deconstructing. Not so with MGR:R – who can think about anything else when life or death hinges on my abilities? You can see how one engages us more than the other. If anything, I’m just trying to let people understand what makes games engaging in the first place – not violence, or aesthetics, or anything to that effect; they are fundamentally games, and this set of accumulated systems makes interaction a joy. Not that aesthetics don’t help (here, they augment the game in many subtle ways), but they’re a secondary layer on top of the primary elements.

Imagine how many people missed out on this part of the game, breaking it down to its essential elements and having a field day with great interplay between all these different ideas. Other than the Eurogamer review and the Edge review, I didn’t see many other reviewers praising this aspect at all, and it’s a shame. Design choice matter; mechanics matter. They influence your opinion of the game to quite a degree – some don’t even reveal themselves until later in the process after you’ve beaten the game a few times. Without playing the game as it is meant to be played (the expectation of multiple playthroughs, for example), that opinion becomes nigh-useless to anyone but the “casual”, who I’d call the “lazy” gamer more often than not.

Maybe we could also call him/her the “unwilling to corroborate their entertainment with their real life”. Perhaps video games should reflect more of a Christian’s life after all, something akin to James 1:

12 Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. 13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself does not tempt anyone. 14 But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. 15 Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. 16 Do not be deceived, my beloved brethren. 17 Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.18 In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.

We find ourselves in temptation under our own power – our own desires bring us to that point. Many trials come from within, and said trials derive from our essentially sinful nature. As far as video games go, the temptation remains to make them an innocuous experience, to “get through it” with as little pain as possible. But look at how much you miss as a result. Video games represent that same impulse to only tempt people as far as they can endure (1 Cor 10:13) – or challenge them, as the case may be. We can either rise above our circumstances with the help of God, or fall as we rely on our own power. So many factors can contribute to success – knowledge, wisdom, love – but only one Person can take you out of it.

Try a game on the highest difficulty (or, for most arcade, the default difficulty) and you’ll find yourself in a very different, but no less enjoyable, experience at the heart of all play.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.