First, I have to admit something… I've never been too "friendly" towards the MGS franchise, being mostly very critical at times. This happened mainly because of a very stupid reason, as they were part of some of the games that would be used in a conversation to dismiss my taste in games (teenagehood, you know how it is). Instead of Call of Duty and Metal Gear Solid, I was enjoying Medal of Honor and Splinter Cell instead. A very silly reason, but of which I eventually grew out of. Years later, still not being quite well informed about stealth games, I finally decided to give a shot at the franchise I've put off for so long… beginning with MGS4. Yeah, I know. Long story short, although I did finish the game, I couldn't help but be very critical of very complicated interface/controls when playing (although it could be argued that the first Splinter Cell games could get quite complicated too in terms of controls) and obviously… overly dramatic scenes with tons of repeated information, which happened to be very. VERY LONG. It didn't stop me from enjoying the game, but I wasn't quite… impressed. "Why do people love this franchise so much? Other than the awesome characters and a surprisingly deep sci-fi plot, this is a convoluted mess to play!". And I went back to Splinter Cell.
Years passed, I discovered this sub, other stealth games, yada yada, bought MGS1 and the HD collection on PSN and finally went through the first game. And… I actually managed to understand why people hold this series in such high regard! I do have my fair share of complaints about it, but more on that later.
- very accessible gameplay (in concept). You have (most of the time) a bird's eye view of the action and the stealth gameplay can be summed up to "stay out of vision cones indicated by the radar". Pretty simple and it works;
- On top of that, it is mostly a stealth game, but has plenty of room for action sequences and some goddamned amazing boss battles, which I wasn't expecting at all given the simplicity of the general gameplay. Although not exactly what I look for when playing a stealth game – I'd rather be much more vulnerable and play a full, 100% stealth game rather than being forced into action sequences from time to time – it's easily understandable how this game manages to popularize stealth mechanics in a more streamlined, easily digestible way that most gamers can enjoy;
- The plot… it has plenty of ridiculous and non-sensical moments at several times, but generally contains serious undertones about war and a clear message that is very well delivered. Also, sci-fi and mecha stuff. Overall, it is a pretty solid (heh) story to play through, with plenty of feels. Almost feels like I'm playing an anime that is avoiding to look like an anime by trying to be an espionage thriller, but can't quite pull it off and that's awesome;
- Perhaps the strongest aspect of the game: characters! No matter how memeable some of their quotes can be, their encounters are always awesome and their charisma is just undeniable. For example, every FOX-HOUND member feels so very unique and interesting you can't help but feel something for them, especially in the ending conversations;
- The soundtrack feels very distinct from other games in this era, sounding eeringly beautiful at times. It fits and it's memorable. And since we're talking sound, straight after talking about the characters… The voice acting, despite being incredibly cheesy at times, it is pretty damn good. Most lines are very well performed and when the exaggeration or cheesiness kicks in, it fits in with the characters;
- Cinematography… not usually an aspect I include when going over a game, but in this case it's undeniable. It was not the only game to employ it, but it's quite clear that this came from the mind of someone with at least some strong familiarity and knowledge about movie making. I'm not going to say it was the first "cinematic game" as I'm yet to do my homework on that, but I'm pretty sure if it didn't begin the trend of the cinematic style in mainstream gaming, it sure as hell helped popularize it;
- Interactivity. Now this… this is where I believe Kojima best displays his ingenuity. Psycho Mantis boss fight. Naomi telling you to put the controller in your arm so that she can relax the muscles after a session of button mashing. The not-so-subtle instructions for the player, but aimed at Snake, such as the Colonel telling him (us) to switch controller ports. It treads this uncanny valley of "within the game's universe, but not quite".
Now for the things I just couldn't help but criticize:
- one you could already think of after reading that first part… LONG, BORING CUTSCENES. Pretty sure I'm not alone when I say that Metal Gear Solid games are usually the games that make me say out loud "OH MY GOD, WILL YOU LET ME PLAY ALREADY?!"And before people start raising their pitchforks… Listen, I'm not against cutscenes in videogames, nor against dramatic, serious plot related stuff. Trust me, I enjoy all that. But here's the thing: you gotta pull it off right, because when you don't, it'll feel forced and out of place. Even by the year's standards this still doesn't work and it doesn't help that Kojima isn't exactly the type to leave things unsaid. He's not exactly the subtle type, and subtlety is an art, both in cinema and videogames. Which leads me to the main culprit…
- Writing. Ever seen the first part of
? It's incredibly funny seeing it in sequence, but incredibly annoying when in practice. The constant repetition of words, information and "WHAT?!" bombs to prompt the next sentence… Kojima, my boy. This isn't just a problem of your 90s self. You have an amazing imagination. You're awesome at creating characters, thinking outside of box… but when it comes to character lines, you sometimes come very close to George Lucas' levels of writing. And when you don't, you make something that just doesn't work, yet we excuse it for the sake of having some more time with the characters. Every in-game NPC knows it's an urgent mission, yet they keep talking like they have all the time in the freaking world. Nearly dead characters have (conveniently) enough time to say their last words to Snake. I forgive these non-sensical clichés because I do want more time with the characters, but treating every single encounter like it's the final boss of the game can become desentisizing in a way. Kojima manages to pull it off somehow despite this, but it's still something that he seriously should review, as given my experience with MGS4 he still didn't quite stick it;
- I've mentioned interactivity before, and how it walks this uncanny valley. Honestly this is more of a neutral point rather than an outright flaw: sometimes it broke immersion, sometimes it didn't because I was already invested enough and didn't really care;
- The gameplay… sure, it's good, but it's certainly not as revolutionary as many would think (more on that below in the comparison). Also, for a blend of action and stealth, the action part suffers from the same issues I've faced in Tenchu, which is this very weird auto-aim that only works when it feels like it, or with very specific positioning;
- Still on gameplay… the backtracking segments. Look, it's one thing to be playing Castlevania SotN (thank you Psycho Mantis for noticing), which is all about that exploration, backtracking… but on a 2D plane and giving you abilities to explore more, better and faster. But telling me to go back a few sections on SUPER IMPORTANT story moments? That's some serious pacing issues right there. Hell, even Snake complains the first time it happens. Honestly feels more like an annoying stretch rather than being actually challenging.
My perspective overall on Metal Gear Solid is much more positive now, thanks to this game. I cannot overlook the flaws, but I can certainly praise how much it got right. Not to mention that this is, ignoring the backtracking parts, one of the few games that I've played through in which I noticed little to no rush towards the ending of the game. Everything feels purposeful and that the vision of the game director was fully realized with no deadline stress and whatnot. And that is an absolute achievement regardless of the age the game was developed in, as well as a sign of a GOTY.
However… this ain't over yet. I mentioned above that Metal Gear Solid was a franchise I never really dipped my feet into. Usually, what happens is that every stealth game gets compared to MGS due to its popularity. I'm going to do the opposite: how does it fare against it's fellow sneaky companions in the 90s? Obviously I'm not going to compare this to Splinter Cell, which benefitted from many other references. So I'll compare it to what I've seen described as "The Class of 98"… the 3 pillars of 3D stealth gaming. MGS is one of them, the other two being Tenchu: Stealth Assassins and Thief: Dark Project. So… how does it fare?
MGS, TENCHU AND THIEF
Well, with Tenchu the discussion is quite short. Both games are very clunky (hard to control, pointing/aiming at enemies is a mess), Tenchu being hilariously and absurdly so, while MGS manages to retain some grace to this day. But to be fair, Tenchu went full 3D, while MGS played it a bit more safe by restricting the core gameplay and view to something that already worked in the Metal Gear games, but on a 3D map. True, you can change to first-person and some moments really depend on a 3D perspective, but nothing on the same level that Tenchu and Thief achieved. As a result, Tenchu aged much worse than MGS. Despite that, Tenchu is still quite a fun(ny) game: it had some pretty neat ideas for navigation, sporting an awesome soundtrack and some ridiculous voice acting that puts the "over-the-top-ness" of MGS to shame. Not to mention that the game actively encourages you towards assassination, which gets pretty gory and satisfying.
With Thief, it gets more complicated. In contrast to its contemporaries, Thief aged very, very well mechanically speaking, suffering just from a certain stiffness in movement that feels deliberate and from a very serious need for reviewing the default controls. By installing a fix for the Dark Engine and arranging the controls, you're pretty much playing a modern stealth game with 90s graphics. It also benefits from the fact that it's a full on stealth game (except for a few of the last levels, looking at you, Escape! and Strange Bedfellows) that actively discourages you from combat and killing (especially in Expert), rewarding you instead for taking the pacifist, sneaky, ghostly approach. While MGS relies on vision cones, which is hilarious if you think about it, Thief relies on light and shadow, as well as sound and plays these off with a high degree of immersion. There's no radar either, just drawn maps, your own sense of direction and wits together with a compass. You can also manipulate your environment with your tools, helping you avoid detection. I'm not saying that MGS doesn't have its own share of tricks and quirks (loud surfaces on which you have to crawl, cardboard boxes), but it certainly feels limited when compared to what Thief achieved. And it's not like one can play the plot/lore card either as a final triumph over Thief, as the franchise features some pretty damn interesting stuff too, in the form of believable and charismatic characters and a story that gets darker (heh) the more you dip your feet into it.
If I had to give a verdict to these games, I'd probably go with this: Tenchu has the silly, gory and awesome fun. MGS has the feels, the sci-fi philosophy and the characters, as well as accessibility. Thief has the gameplay, level design and the thick, mysterious aura. They're strong in their each respective areas and it's sad that only MGS got recognized.
Well, that's it. MGS2 HD awaits. Or Thief 3. Or a completely different game, who knows. Keep on gaming.
EDIT: mistakes and rewritten a few parts. Did some general corrections as well.
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