Metal Gear AC!D is like a pair of shoes: designed with travel in mind, needs breaking-in before you can enjoy it, and sometimes stinks. Oh yeah, that simile works.
Thanks to low expectations, bizarre gameplay and a ton of fanservice, Metal Gear AC!D was a happy surprise instead of a huge disappointment. "All-new 'Gear' for your all-new gear!" was the tag-line, and "AC!D" was the guarantee that nobody would confuse it for a serious sequel. It was a spinoff, and everybody was going to treat it like one. I've always held that spinoffs aren't supposed to jump over the bar, they're expected to limbo dance under it in style. They're supposed to take liberties, solidify franchise stereotypes, and have fun with the liberty they are granted. AC!D does these things handily.
It's hard to fault AC!D for any problems it has, such as its refusal to decently train the player on the many unintuitive gameplay mechanics, the periodic tedium of turn-taking, or its awful storyline. To players who bought the game with its marketing in mind, these things are simply "quirks" that come with the territory of a non-Kojima spinoff. What did you expect, a perfectly polished experience with revolutionary storytelling? You're completing missions with cards.
However, if you don't intend to make use of the portability, and aren't tickled by constant references to past games, the gameplay will take the center stage, at which point things can get boring and raise questions about the design choices. There are plenty of times when, during a mission, a good plan goes wrong thanks to unpredictable factors, or the illusion of a hint — something that looks like it provides cover doesn't actually, paths leads to a dead-ends, etc. Poor visual cues lead players such as myself to assume that certain areas are more (or less) important than they really are, and in a turn-based tactical game the ability to consider all factors before making a move is essential. But when you aren't taught half of the gameplay mechanics, and the maps are misleading, finding out things the hard way can end up being a massive waste of time. This becomes bitterly ironic when players want to quickly squeeze some turns into their free time, only to find that they're not accomplishing anything. Selecting "end turn" repeatedly to track enemy patrol routes or wait for an ideal moment to act is particularly annoying, with even the "fast forward" function feeling far too slow. Call it a "learning curve" if you want, but it's not fun.
The card system is what prevents AC!D from truly being a "tactics" game, but this ends up working in its favour. A real turn-based tactics game requires an immense amount of statistics and classes in order to acheive depth, while AC!D forces you to — literally — 'play the cards you've been dealt'. (No doubt the idea of card-based gameplay was inspired by somebody on the team describing traditional Metal Gear gameplay this way.) You certainly won't get the feeling that you're playing a chess game, which is unfortunate for tactics nuts, but good for people who like to improvise. The Metal Gear series has always tried to balance tactics with improvization, so this is actually quite a smart move. Randomness in game design can be annoying but it is a simple solution to the problem of deciding which options a player has in any given situation; this is why card games are about luck and how to manage it rather than precise multi-phase plans.
Then again, I haven't played through all of AC!D yet, so there are probably a lot of things I haven't learned how to do yet... Which is exciting, and yet annoying. Games should give you the core gameplay as soon as possible and introduce additional mechanics as the difficulty increases, not withhold basic information and tease you with hints after you've been guessing and stumbling through situations. I mean really, am I supposed to read the manual to find out this stuff? Probably, but I haven't had to do that since back on the Super Nintendo, and I shouldn't have to start again now.
All that basic review stuff aside, it's clear that director Shinta Nojiri and scriptwriter Masahiro Yamamoto managed to create a good game thanks to their willingness to try new things and tailor the game to the strengths of the PSP (and spinoffs) instead of trying to recreate a normal stealth-action game. And with character names like Japanese-American "Teliko Friedman", mysterious informant "Gary Murray", and Solid Snake's alter-ego "Hans Davis", it's clear that AC!D keeps the strong tradition of terrible, terrible character names for the franchise.
Game Rating Calculation:
||Things not good
||+2 Near-PS2 quality graphics
||-1 Occasional poor visual cues
||+1 Compelling and bold, memorable
||+2 Easy to pick up and put down
||-1 Tedious pacing
||+2 Forces improvisation, collect-them-all aspect
||-2 Randomness restricts tactical depth, deck management can be guesswork
||+1 Good variety of new challenges
||-2 Bad learning curve/training
||-2 Battery life, extra system purchase
||+2 For suiting a spinoff so well
||-2 For being completely crappy
+1 for Metal Gear AC!D, meaning it's barely a good game. Quite a compliment for a portable spinoff of a franchise which is known for being questionably handled by even its own creator! Thanks for reading!
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August 23, 2009