After all the delays and all the drama and all the prom night tears of anime fans, we’ve finally gotten our articulated robotic digits on the long-awaited Mighty No. 9. Billed not so much as a spiritual successor to the Mega Man series, but as a complete rehashing from the original creator with new technology and no Capcom hanging around to get their grubby hooks in it. The real question now is: does Mighty No. 9 live up to that lofty pedigree?
The simple answer is: yes it does. Mighty No. 9 is Mega Man in all but name, which is fantastic news to old school fans of the series like myself. There are some fresh ideas here, but the game translates all the running and gunning and robot smashing/assimilating from Mega Man to a new, bright, shiny package.
The premise of Mighty No. 9 (sing along if you’ve heard this one before) is that the robots of Whateversville, U.S.A. have suddenly started to run amok. Unfortunately, this means that the brilliant Dr. White’s creations – Mighty Numbers 1 through 8 – have succumbed to whatever has infiltrated their programming. They’ve each staked a claim on a section of the city and are running rampant, causing chaos and destruction wherever they go.
For some reason, however, Mighty Number 9 – affectionately called “Beck” – and his sister, “Call” (a nice shout out to the original series’ “Rock” and “Roll”) were unaffected by these strange goings on. So it’s up to Beck to rush to the city’s rescue, arm cannon a-blazin’.
The story sounds pretty standard, but you can’t really call Mighty No. 9 a reboot of the Mega Man series. None of the original characters are back again, this being a completely new universe (thanks Capcom), and the game does a decent enough job giving itself its own identity. You can’t really call it a rehashing of the old series for this reason as well. The story has a few interesting twists and turns that keep it fresh, even to long-time fans of Mega Man, long after the novelty has worn off. Just when you start to get bored and think “been there, done that,” a new piece of information is thrown at you that makes you scratch your head and wonder what’s really going on. There are more than a few loose threads that don’t really get cleared up and seem to have no real purpose, but overall, the story works very well.
We’re not talking Shakespeare here, of course. The story is more like a decent Saturday morning cartoon – complete with charming and competent voice acting all around. If you’re not already invested in the game’s mechanics or the legacy of Mega Man itself, the story probably won’t sell you on it. But it’s definitely a nice icy topping to this nostalgia cake.
As for the mechanics, while most of the basics have been ripped wholesale from the old Mega Man formula – you move to the right, you fire your blaster, you get new abilities from the boss characters (more on that in a moment) – there is definitely a new emphasis on speed to keep the game moving right. Mega Man was not a fast game. It was ponderous, made moreso by Rock’s rather sluggish pace and clumsy mechanics. While Beck doesn’t really move with much more agility than ye olde Blue Bomber naturally, his version of Megs’ slide dash, called “AcXelerate,” sends him speeding forward – on the ground, in the air, even straight down, as many times in a row as you want – allowing you to traverse the landscape with a great deal of speed (sometimes at the sacrifice of precision).
Beck’s dash has another feature as well: weaken an enemy enough and Mighty Number 9 can dash through them, absorbing their “Xels” and powering himself up. Generally this manifests as simply a boost to your score, which will be rated at the end of the stage with a pithy letter grade. However, you will occasionally gain short-lived powerups from these wild dashes, and if you absorb enough, you’ll gain an “AcXel Recover,” which function like Mega Man‘s e-tanks, which are absolute necessities as enemies do not drop health or other powerups anymore.
The overall effect of these added mechanics create a frantic and somewhat more mobile game than its predecessor, but once you get the hang of it, it feels really good to use. Getting into the rhythm can create a flowing, seat-of-your-pants experience from the start of the stage to the end, and the addition of points and grades, as irritating as I personally found them, is bound to add a lot of replayability to the perfectionists who can’t put a game down until they’ve gotten the highest ranking on each stage. Add this to the additional challenge modes you unlock, including a race and co-op mode, the latter of which has one player playing Beck and the other Call, and I think this is a game fans will be playing for a long time.
The stages are all bright and colorful and well-designed with Inafune’s brilliant design work front and center. Like the original Mega Man series, the game will never present a challenge to you that it has not given you ample time to learn how to deal with it. You’ll often face a challenge in a much safer setting early in a stage before you’re asked to do something trickier with it later. And while most of the stages are pretty stock-standard “run right until you find a boss and shoot it to death” (and I say that with the utmost love), there are a few truly brilliant twists, like the stage in which you must hunt down a robotic sniper in a government building by following the direction of his shots, or the stage in which you’re hopping from car to car in moving traffic.
These stages help break up the monotony of some of Mighty No. 9‘s more by-the-book levels – the obligatory fire and ice levels, the latter of which doubles as an underwater stage (joooooooy), are the biggest offenders here. Overall, I never got too sick of the stages…which is nice because you will probably be playing them a lot.
The other thing Mighty No. 9 translates from the old Mega Man games is the steep difficulty curve. While it does retire a few of the more notorious challenges – no one will be mourning the loss of the disappearing block puzzles over lava anytime soon – there are plenty of reflex-based puzzles that will have you controller-hurlingly frustrated. And Infaune’s obsession with insta-kill spikes is back in full force, with some truly insidious sections that had me ready to put the game down several times.
At the end of the game, there were only a half-dozen sections that forced me to replay them to the point of frustration. Unfortunately, another carry-over from the old Mega Man games, the goddamn lives system, means that if you fail enough on a certain section, you’ll have to replay the entire stage again just for another crack at it. And stage design being what it is, the most difficult sections often come at the end, meaning there will be times when you will have to replay the entire stage several times.
While this never got the point of being a deal-breaker for me (though I did invent more than a few clever new cursewords), I’m an older gamer and indoctrinated to seemingly-unfair difficulty curves. Someone who doesn’t share old-school sensibilities about difficulty in video games may be caught off guard on some of the game’s trickier sections, though I still don’t feel like it ever becomes too problematic.
Insta-death spikes and out-of-the-blue reflex challenges aside, Mighty No. 9 is a very well-designed game, and this translates into its character designs too. One of the best parts of getting a new Mega Man game was seeing what the team came up with for new robot masters. This time around, the stage bosses are called “Mighty Numbers,” Beck’s “siblings” in the way that the original six (or eight, depending on who you ask) robot masters were Rock’s, and they’re all quite well-designed both visually and mechanically with a special trick pretty much required to beat each boss (though I do look forward to all the no-hit, buster-only runs of the game that will undoubtedly show up on Youtube in the months to come).
The best part is that they actually play a part in the story once you free them from whatever is causing the robots to go haywire, not only giving you advice on how to beat certain stages (and giving you a hint as to which Might Number weapon the boss will be weak against), but also appearing to help you in tricky spots. It’s a subtle change but a nice one, giving each of the eight Mighty Numbers their own personality and presence in the story.
Of course, defeating each of the Mighty Numbers will give you their weapon. In Mighty No. 9, these are represented by new forms for Beck, which go beyond simply a new color scheme and give him new visual features and abilities. While some of the abilities simply give Beck a new way to shoot enemies, most of these forms are quite useful and add new mechanics to the game. Even better, while these forms do have weapon energy like in the Mega Man series, the energy recovers over time (since enemies don’t drop power-ups) and when you absorb enemies’ Xel, meaning with some good planning, these weapons are effectively unlimited (except on bosses, unfortunately).
Unfortunately, I found a few of the abilities to be vastly superior to the others, and outside of a few sections of the game where a specific ability is required to proceed (most of these are done quite cleverly, fortunately), I mostly stuck with the same few forms, which is good, because switching forms is a royal pain in the ass. You’d think with all the practice Infaune had with this that he’d have it down to a science, but there is no quick and comfortable way to cycle through Beck’s special forms. You use the left button and left shoulder button to go up and down the list and have to push Y to activate the weapon when you reach it. While this may seem like a small thing, in the heat of battle, it’s difficult to pick the weapon you want with any precision. Undoubtedly the team left out the pause menu selection to keep the game moving quickly, but I feel like it would have been an excellent addition to the game all the same.
At the end of the day, Mighty No. 9 delivers exactly what was promised: an old-school Mega Man game in everything but name with enough newness that old hands won’t feel like they’re treading the same tired game they’ve played a hundred times and newcomers to the series won’t feel like they’re playing a game that’s 30 years old, but not so much as to tarnish that nostalgic feeling of coming home. I only hope that good ol’ Rock is watching down from wherever old IPs go and beaming with pride as his father carries on his legacy.
Let’s just pray he didn’t see that awful ad.
Mighty No. 9 was reviewed on PC with a copy provided by the publisher
Developer: Comcept, Inti Creates| Publisher: Deep Silver | Genre: Action Platformer | Platform: PC, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, Playstation Vita | PEGI/ESRB: E 10+ | Release Date: June 21, 2016
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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