Dark Souls and Sneaking Snakes in Guantanamo

I’ve been really sucked into Dark Souls II.

Part of me contemplated going back into the frustration fest asking “why do you want to put yourself through this again?” until I spent a few hours with the new game realizing that From Software has introduced a few subtle tweaks to make it fun all over again.

Three big changes stand out for me:

1) Bonfires can teleport you – Dark Souls II is huge. I’ve already spent as much time as I did in a Mass Effect playthrough (avg. for me is about 30 hours, give or take how much exploration/sides I want to do) and haven’t unlocked every area yet. There are supposed to be four “Old Ones” that I need to take down and I’ve only found one so far. And that one I had to take down with help. But the size of the gameworld coupled with its deadly challenges feels like it can easily push the game into Skyrim-like hours of play for someone that wants to take their time.

I know that some might rail against the idea of “quicktravel” in a game like this. Demon’s and Dark Souls didn’t let you easily bounce from one bonfire to the next — you had to fight your way to each checkpoint if you wanted to progress in the game. It made the journey that much more riskier because. That leads into the next thing…

2) Enemies don’t respawn after so many kills – If you wanted to farm souls in the first two games, you could with impunity until the returns began outweighing the time invested. In Dark Souls II, after killing an enemy so many times, they just don’t respawn. Ever. Not even if you power down your console/PC and went back into the game limiting how much farming you could actually do. The only alternative to earn more souls is to embrace the co-op/PvP aspect of its online system where players can help each other out or hunt each other down instead.

But it’s completely up to them on how they want to approach this. If you want to be the hunter, or a player that likes helping others with bosses, it’s your choice, and with the limited spawns, From Software has made it an even more important part of the game. Fortunately, there’s a lot of souls to be had in the regular game if you don’t want to go online anyway so solo players don’t really need to feel forced into online play if they don’t want it. At the same time, I’ve been having a lot of fun in helping other players out.

3) Balancing feels much better – I love Demon’s Souls. I thought the balancing in that game was well done, but I also loved the ruined world created there. Dark Souls, at least for me, had brutally unexpected difficulty curves that Demon’s didn’t. The gargoyle boss in Dark Souls was a harrowing gatekeeper for me, and getting past the sniper in Anor Londo after a long slog to get there was a test of patience that I really hated repeating.

Dark Souls II seems to have carefully balanced everything out to a tantalizingly simple degree. It only seems easier until you realize that it’s also throwing more bosses at you along with saving up the brutal challenges later on. Black Gulch? Poison out the wazoo. Or try the Gutter’s perpetual darkness. If that’s not enough, there’s a place in the game that, if you’re connected online, randomly dumps you into someone else’s world. Dependent on the lock-on aiming? There are enemies that you can’t use it on because they’re invisible. The list goes on.

There’s also a way to raise the already tough difficulty of the game from within it in various ways, so those seeking an even tougher challenge have that option before dashing any impatient recklessness into tiny, itty-bitty pieces.

The good news is that the really brutal challenges are several hours in creating a sense in giving players time to acclimate and warm up to Drangleic’s ruined beauty. And that’s not a bad thing. I’m still playing through, pushing forward, and finding more things that have utterly destroyed me including one boss that took me an hour or two to finally beat on my own. I’ve also never summoned help in the first two games, either. But here, found that it was a lot more fun — and less frustrating — to cooperate in taking down a monstrous horror.

So Dark Souls II? Glad I jumped back in.

The other game that I played was Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes.

The main mission behind the game is short. I had it finished in a little under an hour and half, so I’m not sure how people are coming up with the whole “10 minute” or “25 minute” completion threshold. After I completed the mission, the game also told me I had only reached something like a 9% completion.

That only means that it has a ton of unlockable stuff making it a non-traditional (for an MGS game) smorgasbord of what players can expect when Phantom Pain, the rest (and much bigger) of the MGS V experience, comes out sometime in the near future. Depending on how much time players want to spend with this, the fun factor will wildly vary.

So in a sense, Ground Zeroes seems to only want to whet players’ appetites, but at the same time, it’s aimed exclusively at the hardcore MGS crowd who will likely enjoy more of what it offers especially in unlocking extras to be carried over to Phantom Pain.

There are “tapes” to listen to to bring them players to speed on what’s happened, unlockable side missions with spoken dialogue and setups, day and night versions of the same, sprawling map (a black ops site in 1970’s Cuba run by the US), and a host of new mechanics (Snake can drive almost anything he sees, so it’s up to you on whether you want a bigger score in sneaking out or break through enemy lines in a stolen truck) that will likely play larger roles in Phantom Pain.

There’s also a scoring system to rate yourself against everyone else around the world as part of a complete grab bag of systems built around the MGS formula. It’s like fast food for MGS fans placing a lot of emphasis on players in making the most of it rather than leaving it to the developer to take them down a pre-determined linear tour.

But is it fast food that you should pay for? At the same time, I can’t help but think that this could have all been included in Phantom Pain as a separate disk, or even as part of the main game as a “side ops” or “prelude” mode instead of being sold by itself. That’s also given rise to controversy over the ‘net over reports on how short the game is, but as sensationalist as the claims to its length have been, it’s also an interesting commentary on what players expect in terms of value.

It’s no secret that the psychology behind a $60/$50 price point has been shaped over the last two decades by what more and more games offered at those prices have offered. While no one would probably complain about a traditional Super Mario game from Nintendo debuting at $50 because of its long history of compelling and lengthy content, I remember seeing Strider’s arcade port for the Sega Genesis at $50 and that’s a much shorter game depending on how you wanted to play it. If you tried doing the same thing today for a game that would only take less than half an hour to finish, no one would hear the end of it on Twitter/Facebook/insert-your-favorite-social-media-platform-here. And even at $30, that’s what we’re seeing with Ground Zeroes.

And developers/publishers know this which is why the new Strider came out at $14.99 on Steam (it’s also available on other plats like PSN and XBL) yet offers a lot more content than its arcade predecessor did a quarter of a century ago. Another example is Platinum Software’s Anarchy Reigns, a brawler title whose focus is online play with two relatively short campaigns that can be finished under a few hours of play. If you were really into the online half of the game or were simply a big fan of beat ’em ups, it was well worth the $29.99 price point it debuted at. Conversely, if you were only into the five-hour campaign mission for Call of Duty: Ghosts, that $60 price point could be tough to justify no matter how much bro-love you had for the series.

At the same time, Ground Zeroes’ short main mission doesn’t tell the complete story behind what else the game offers fans, though Konami did bow to pressure to lower the physical retail price for the PS4 and Xbox One versions (originally $40 USD which seems to play too heavily into the “it’s on next-gen so it’s automatically more expensive” rationale) prior to its release after social commentary on said campaign length. The PS3 and Xbox 360 retail versions are still holding at $29.99 where the PS4 and Xbox One versions were finally priced down to. Digital only copies are at $19.99.

I think it was a good decision on their part mainly because it would conceivably get into more gamers’ hands and be a lot more appealing to “hardcore” MGS fans on next-gen systems that may be upset over the “short” length of the main mission no matter how much love they have for the franchise. PS3 and Xbox 360 owners still need to decide on whether that’s still a good price for a slice of MGS V with digital customers perhaps in the best position.

Odious Repeater has also pointed out another interesting reason for why Konami decided to parcel this out in his article, Double-Fined: Selling Overhead to Fans, by essentially pointing out that it could be used in the same way that Early Access or Kickstarter contributions are being done — to subsidize development costs on another product.

In Konami’s case, Phantom Pain (and, as he points out, possibly R&D costs on the new Fox Engine). Viewed in this context, it’s a huge win for Konami in leveraging their fiscal needs alongside Hideo Kojima’s creative decision on wanting to try something like this as a visionary designer. Not only does Hideo Kojima get to tell MGS V’s story his way, but Konami also gets to see just how well this funding model might work.

Konami’s last fiscal report noted a number of year-on-year losses including a steep dive within its pachinko division, but overall, the company is still respectively solid and diversified with deep pockets begging another question: how much does this actually factor into Ground Zeroes’ standalone position versus Hideo Kojima’s original vision for MGS V? As noted earlier, Konami had dropped the price on the physical release of Ground Zeroes to allay the negativity swirling around it before its release.

But more importantly, Ground Zeroes isn’t a bad slice of MGS fun though it’s still hard not to shake the feeling of it as akin to a special “super demo” with Phantom Pain bonuses. More recently, Square-Enix’s Bravely Default RPG for the 3DS did the same thing with its demo, although in its case, the demo was free. Sutherland as the new voice of Big Boss doesn’t have the “too many cigarrettes a day” voice Hayter brought, but I could get used to it, though while interrogating enemies, I couldn’t help but think of 24.

I don’t think anyone at Konami will think that the idea of creating an additional revenue channel by leveraging a MGS V prelude in this way was a bad one, either. Fans get a small part of what they want, Konami gets both publicity and revenue, and Hideo Kojima continues to direct MGS V’s narrative his way though not everyone might agree with his approach. If anything else, at least the fans are talking about it.

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