In the run-up to my most anticipated game release in years, I thought I’d take a look back at some previous Metal Gear Solid games in the most arbitrary way I know how: tedious list-based fanwank! Each day until The Phantom Pain is in my sweaty, shaking hand I’ll be taking a look at one aspect of what makes the MGS series special and rating each game from best to worst. (Or worst to best, depending on your perspective!)
Innovative gameplay ideas are one of the mainstays of the Metal Gear Solid series. When detractors poo-poo Kojima’s narrative style by saying he just wants to make movies, it’s pretty easy to shut them down by pointing to any number of creative gameplay sequences such as Psycho Mantis or The Sorrow. Or by pointing to game mechanics which open up opportunities for interactive storytelling, like stamina bars or the Metal Gear Mk. 2.
When you pitch enough things at the wall, though, a few of them aren’t going to stick. Each game has a few stinkers that I dread just about every time I replay the games. These are their stories.
#6: Intel Operative Rescue
Including the Side Ops from Ground Zeroes in these lists does seem a bit disingenuous, but considering you can clear the main story mission in under ten minutes by adopting a fun-loving devil-may-care attitude to gunning down marines it’d be kind of slim pickings otherwise. In truth the Side Ops make up quite a lot of the game’s meat and potatoes, each offering slight twists on your mission objectives in the great big sandbox of Camp Omega. They’re a big part of the game, is my point, and dismissing them because they don’t “count” is short-sighted.
The Intel Operative Rescue mission, however, is a shining example of the worst gameplay the Fox Engine has to offer. Instead of being a variation on the scout-and-sneak gameplay of the main mission, it instead boils everything down to a linear rail shooter. A series tradition, to be sure, but a kind of bland and frustrating one. I don’t play these games so my guy can mow down everything in sight with infinite machinegun. I like for that option to be available as a way to mess around on replays, but it’s just not what Metal Gear Solid is good at.
I admit I’ve been biased against rail shooter segments in ever since the original game had me shoot through Liquid’s invincibility frames for five straight minutes. These segments simply aren’t engaging to me; they are the lowest possible form of action gameplay. That being said…
#5: Motorcycle Chase
…the rail shooter segments are very rarely the worst parts of the game. That I picked them as the worst example of bad gameplay from Ground Zeroes and Metal Gear Solid 3 speaks to the high quality of the rest of those two games.
The motorcycle chase scene at the end of MGS3 is a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping escape sequence… the first time you play the game. As early as the first replay you see the scene for what it really is: an incredibly long, barely interactive cinematic. It’s broken up by a short sniping segment and one of the most exciting boss fights in the series, sure, but once you have enough MGS3 experience it just becomes a chore you have to do to make the game let you win.
There is a silver lining, though: by equipping the Cold War camo you earn by stamina killing Colonel Volgin, the motorcycle soldiers won’t shoot at Snake as long as he’s facing them. Instead they just drive along saying “Damn it!” over and over. This turns the scene into a weird parody of itself, a kind of Scooby Doo chase. Once that stops being funny, it at least gives you a chance to put the controller down and take a bathroom break.
#4: Oil Fence Sniping
Sniping scenes in video games have to be done very, very well, if they’re going to work at all. Done well, they can be very tense and exciting, like the battle of wits against The End in Metal Gear Solid 3. Done badly, they turn into arduous experiences like the battle of suck against Crying Wolf in Metal Gear Solid 4. Somewhere in between is Metal Gear Solid 2‘s oil fence sequence, which is neither tense nor arduous. It’s just kind of… there.
Raiden’s NPC helper buddy moves automatically along a long, dangerous path with no cover. His job is to stay behind and clear her a path by taking out enemy soldiers, mines, and flying robot machineguns along her route. The solution is to put on the thermal goggles, pop some pentazamin and shoot anything that lights up bright white.
Resource management isn’t an issue, since the ammo box near Raiden’s position magically grows back every few seconds. Messing up is unlikely, since the targets are so obvious and your NPC helper has enough health to survive several encounters. Plus, Solid Snake is hanging out in another vantage point and will fire on anything you don’t, just in case you absolutely can’t be arsed.
The gameplay isn’t challenging or engaging, but it sure is long. There are a couple of neat easter eggs to discover along the way concerning Raiden’s silly hair and an enemy soldier who poops himself, but that’s about it. And in the end a vampire jumps out of the ocean and kills your NPC friend anyway, just to make sure you don’t even accomplish anything.
#3: The Infinite Staircase
Without the intention to spark off a discussion about how Metal Gear Solid games are “supposed” to be played, I offer this statement: MGS3 was the first game in the series that you could approach as an action game and really succeed. It has large environments that offered better movement and positioning options than MGS2’s angular corridors, a robust hand-to-hand combat system with a close-range insta-kill option, and a health bar that regenerated once things cooled down and you found a toilet to hide in for a few minutes. In the first two games any run-and-gun gameplay was essentially a punishingly long Game Over screen, giving you time to reflect on your poor life choices before throwing you back so you could play through the section properly.
Unfortunately this didn’t stop MGS1 from having a bunch of run-and-gun scenes anyway, and that game doesn’t even have the benefit of an aim button that lets you score headshots. Over and over again Snake finds himself in scenes where the best possible course of action is to equip his rations and spray FAMAS bullets everywhere until the encounter music goes away.
One such scene stands out as being particularly bad, though: the staircase leading to the top of the communications tower. After triggering a forced alert that any player with good sense could have avoided, Snake has to climb more flights of stairs than there are atoms in the universe. From what I can tell this sequence only exists because everything in MGS1 is culled wholesale from Metal Gear 2, which had a similar stair-climbing sequence, complete with an endless supply of soldiers firing from all direction. Except that was a 2D top-down pixel game that offered a decent range of movement and a clear view of your playing area, while MGS1 limits your movement to “forward” or “die and try again”, and soldiers can fire at you from outside your field of vision.
So what can you do? Equip the rations, hold the d-pad, maybe throw a stun grenade now and again. Close your eyes and count to one hundred, it’ll all be over soon. If you’re a very good boy we’ll reward you with a cool boss fight before locking you in your next spray-and-pray setpiece.
#2: Vehicle Battles
If the Metal Gear Solid games have one clear and shining high point, I’d say it’s the boss encounters. They’re almost always wicked fun and highly inventive, requiring the player to think outside the box and use techniques or equipment in surprising ways. Often the bosses have weird quirks or gimmicks the player can exploit, winning the fight with a bit of lateral thinking. The best of these gimmicks develop the boss’s personality through gameplay in a great example of storytelling in ways only an interactive medium can accomplish.
Peace Walker didn’t have any of those. Instead, it has Snake facing off against tanks and helicopters every few missions. These vehicle battles make use of Peace Walker‘s RPG elements, by which I mean the only viable strategy is to equip an RPG and fire rockets until you win. I also mean you can earn better weapons with higher damage stats by grinding old missions for cash. Eventually your numbers are big enough to win the fight in twelve shots instead of fifty, and you can move on with the game.
The first time I faced off against an armored vehicle in Peace Walker I approached it as a typical MGS boss fight. I failed over and over while looking for the trick. The most powerful weapon I had found at that point in the game barely scratched the boss’s overbloated health meter, and there didn’t seem to be any attack patterns to learn or weaknesses to exploit. Clearly I was missing something… but what?
It turns out these missions had been designed with Peace Walker‘s multiplayer gameplay in mind, and taking them on in single player without grinding for better weapons is an act of futility. The solution really is to just stand back and whittle the boss down over the course of a long battle of attrition. Sure, you can replay the level later on when you’re better equipped and extract the same bit of satisfaction you get from killing a blue slime with Erdrick’s Sword. That’s just not much help to you on your first pass, when the stubborn tank is blocking off your route to the next level.
#1: Trailing the Whistling Rebel
You might have noticed a running theme in these infuriating gameplay sequences: Ground Zeroes aside, they’re all things you have to complete in a very specific way in order to finish the game. Their real sin isn’t that they’re boring (though they are) or that they’re frustrating (though they can be)… it’s that they’re devoid of the freedom and alternate solutions the MGS series is known for. These are games that are meant to be replayed again and again, trying new strategies each time. This wonderful freedom allows you to evade guards or carefully tranq them, to bring The End down with cigarette spray, to pick where to land your extraction chopper.
Act 3 of Metal Gear Solid 4 has not even one whiff of that kind of freedom. You start out by tailing a man walking through the streets of an occupied European village after curfew, and… that’s it. That’s your life for the next hour or so. You have to stay far enough behind him that he can’t spot you if he turns around suddenly, and there are a couple places where you need to take out PMC troops to clear his path, but outside of that it’s just a matter of walking behind the NPC and listen to him whistle a jaunty little tune with twelve notes.
At one point the rebel ducks into an alley and changes into a PMC disguise, so there’s a slight uptick in the action as the game shifts from “follow the only guy who isn’t a soldier” to “figure out which soldier you need to follow”. But even that little bump of excitement flattens out when a support character chimes in on a codec with, “There’s something strange about that soldier. Do you hear whistling?” Why yes, yes I do! I hear it over and over, forever! It haunts my dreams!
There are no shortcuts and no way to speed things up. Even if you memorize the path and know exactly where to go, the door at the end won’t open unless the rebel has walked his entire route. Ignoring the rebel and going off to explore the town isn’t any fun either, as there’s nothing of note to do or see outside of the critical path. And your reward for finally making it to the end? A goddamn rail shooter. Joy.
And there you have it: six gameplay sequences which the series would just plain be better off without. Say, aren’t there a few characters who fit that same bill…? Thanks for reading!