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January 27, 2013

I Should Have Finished... Rez

I've decided that I don't have a lot more to say about Metal Gear Solid 2, so I'm moving on to comment on the absolutely fantastic Rez, which I played through in one frantic 24 hour period in October.

Rez is perhaps the most elegantly designed pure shooter I've ever played, one whose elegant design is layered and subtle; I don't play lots and lots of shooters, by any means, and I know there are many excellent examples of the form. Tetsuya Mizuguchi's attempt to incorporate synaesthesial elements into the play are well known, and although I had played the game a bit at times to experience just that sensation, it wasn't until I played the whole thing through to the end that I began to understand just how deep the design went.

Thematically, it appears that the game centers around hacking into a computer of some sort; rhythmic, pulsing enemies accompany an electronic music score, and the aesthetics all have a sort of Tron Legacy-like outlining. Percussion accompanies your shots, which come rhythmically, and you only have a small amount of control over the camera -- primarily, you are responsible for directing the firing of a laser-like weapon at targets as they appear. As you progress, you have opportunities to upgrade your avatar, which occurs automatically as you consume various items that are dropped by destroyed enemies. This character grows in complexity, from 8-triangle polyhedron to Buckminster-Fuller-style globe, to humanoid character sitting cross-legged and floating inside a shell. All of this is beautifully presented and aesthetically interesting.

But what's really fantastic about the game is how the levels actually work. The structure of the game is that there are five levels; each of the first four must be sequentially unlocked by defeating the one prior. Each of these four levels contains ten phases; there's an item that the player can shoot that will appear in each of these phases which will skip the remainder of the phase and take the player to the next phase. (In each level, the final phase is a boss battle.) If the player ignores these shortcuts, more of the phase is available to challenge, and the player will naturally progress to the next phase as he completes the remainder of these sections of the level.

The fifth and final level can only be unlocked once all phases of the prior four levels have been tackled in this way; the fifth level has a similar structure, but the difficulty is quite high, and so you'll find yourself revisiting the earlier levels to power up your avatar.

And here elements of the design really surprise. The game maintains information about your performance on these earlier levels, particularly what percentage of those levels you completed and what percentage of the enemies you destroyed. As this latter number climbs, the difficulty of the levels noticeably increases, particularly in the boss fights in the final phases. The game seems evergreen, constantly challenging you even as you might be attempting to simply grind your way to accumulating enough avatar powering up to tackle that final level. And further, the new difficulty of these earlier levels will raise the player's skills sufficiently to be able to approach the very high degree of difficulty of that fifth and final level. Fantastic stuff.

It was a beautiful experience and one that caused me to remark at the time that I can't wait to play all of Mizuguchi's other games. I'll get to them some day. I can't recommend Rez enough to players nor to game designers looking for elegance in design, even in something as apparently simple as a shooter.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 27, 2013 10:18 AM

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