“As long as the times refuse to change, we’re gonna make a hell of a racket” – Big Boss, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.
Perhaps more so than any other franchise in recent years, Metal Gear Solid is littered with self-referential nods and acknowledgements. So it’s not unthinkable that this line, delivered in Hayter’s signature gravely baritone at the end of Peace Walker, could well be a hat-tip to the series’ ever-changing gameplay.
Narrative and storytelling in MGS have been the primary focus since day one, and no other franchise has earned such infamy for it’s convoluted plotlines and coma-length cutscenes. But it’s the games’ incrementally evolving mechanics which have allowed the series to survive and thrive in an industry increasingly dominated by fast-paced, action-heavy titles.
In maintaining a consistently high-quality narrative with conspiracy-laden arcs on par with the best Hollywood action-thrillers, Kojima Productions have ensured series veterans will keep coming back if for no other reason than to enjoy the story; while changes to the core gameplay draw in new fans used to a choice and faster pace in play style.
When you look at each game from one to the next, it’s hard to pinpoint any drastic changes in formula (excluding the deck-building and hack ’n’ slash spin-offs of course). But take 1987’s Metal Gear, and last year’s Ground Zeroes, and you may as well be comparing titles from two completely different series.
Let’s look at a few small, but significant changes, which have allowed MGS to up its pace and broaden its appeal.
We’ll start with something simple: the camera.
The shift from a top-down viewpoint in Metal Gear to fixed angles in MGS1-3, was largely down to the natural evolution of 3D graphics; but 3’s ‘Subsistence’ revamp was the first game in the series to introduce a player-controlled 360-degree camera. Meaning that rather than spending time in-game creeping between fixed angles to see what might try and shoot them, players could quickly identify nearby threats and move, based on what they could see, rather than what the static camera wouldn’t allow them to spot.
As well as compensating for the sudden, terrifying lack of Soliton Radar, this meant players had to rely on their own spatial awareness, rather than their ability to manipulate a finicky, semi-static camera. It made moving forward with confidence much easier, and deciding when/how to move in-game, faster.
The addition of a first person camera mode in MGS2 had a similar effect, allowing players to see beyond the edges of the fixed angle; and opened up enemies to targeted fire. Meaning the length of a fight came down to how quickly and accurately the player could land a successful headshot. The new camera was even retrofitted to MGS1’s divisive Twin Snakes remake, and saw purists arguing that it made things too easy. But using it was completely optional (unlike Snake’s new rocket-jumping abilities, which were, sadly, mandatory…)
Character movement experienced a similar overhaul, with each tweak further allowing the player to dictate their own pace. The introduction of Snake’s back aching ‘crouch-walk’ in Peace Walker provided a compromise between crawling at snails-pace and jogging out in the open. More recently in Ground Zeroes, sprinting was added alongside a tactical side roll, resulting in a total of five different movement speeds each with their own distinct situational advantages.
Perhaps GZ’s most significant addition though was Reflex Mode: a brief window of opportunity for careless players to plug an alerted guard before he had a chance to call for help. In previous games, being spotted resulted in an immediate alarm state, and the few minutes that followed would be spent gunning down respawning goons or cowering in the nearest cardboard box. But Reflex offered a second chance at a clean run. If players were quick on the draw, they could avoid a lengthy gunfight or a tedious game of hide ‘n’ seek. And if like the first-person mode of Twin Snakes, anyone felt it made things too easy, they could just turn it off – the game actively rewarding them for not using it.
Other simple changes in GZ went a long way towards upping the pace, like Codec conversations being mostly replaced by iDroid radio chatter; cutting down on time spent in lengthy conversations about what day it was, or why the protagonist’s bedroom was so empty…
Aside from all the little tweaks though, one of the series’ biggest changes was the shift to mission-based gameplay from Portable Ops onwards (encapsulated in Ground Zeroes’ ‘Tactical Espionage Operations’ subtitle.) By divvying up in-game events into clearly defined missions, gamers could easily identify breaks in the story, allowing them to better structure their own play sessions. The division of story missions and side ops meant they could rattle through the main narrative ignoring the fluff if they wanted, and those determined to get the most out of the experience could indulge in as many monster-hunting, NPC romancing distractions as they could handle.
The final, major evolution in MGS’ gameplay is of course the freedom to choose how to tackle an operation in The Phantom Pain. Stealth purists are free to while away the hours sat under boxes, memorising patrol routes and pacifistically crawling from one end of Africa to the other. And those that prefer an old-fashioned balls-to-the-wall assault are free to load themselves up with enough firepower to start a small war, before charging headlong at their objectives guns blazing. The combat-heavy options in TPP might never quite match the pace of experiences like CoD or Titanfall, but the combination of bionics, mechs, competitive multiplayer and customisable armaments ought to get you damn close. If that’s what you’re used to.
Ultimately, whichever the approach, the result is the same. Players are still treated to the same great narrative, illustrated by the same masterfully directed cutscenes with the same emotional cadences the series is renowned for. The incremental evolution of MGS’ gameplay though, has led to a play-as-you-like design approach that’s allowed gamers to dictate their own pace and play style, without compromising on the core features that first popularised the franchise. Next week’s Metal Gear Solid V is the result of a pretty long refinement process, but as a result, is sure to please Outer heaven veterans and Camp Omega newbies alike.