Review: Now that the dust's settled, just how good actually is Metal Gear Solid 5?
When MGS 2 and 3 were graphically spruced up and re-released for the Xbox 360 I bought it pretty-much day of release. I remembered my PS2 days - the sneaking, the monitoring of enemy patrols and the effortless taking out a succession of enemy combatants in the smallest of time-frames.
The memories came flooding back - the intro movie; the driving rain, the bridge, dropping onto the ship passing below. It all looked and felt amazing. And then the game started.
Suddenly, other memories long forgotten also came flooding back.
It is a few years earlier. I have my new PS2 and a new copy of MGS2. And the controls are just FUCKED. The button configuration and what they do bare no relation to any other game I've ever played. Moving around is a janky, twitchy, affair and it's hard to judge cornering or even the basics of how my character relates to his environment. Alarms go off every ten seconds and I'm usually dead soon after; unless I manage to hide somewhere, and then death is given a short holiday.
I probably persevered an hour or so before I just gave up.
Stop staring at me, you unplayable bastard.
The thing is - I had a friend who owned this game and I watched him play it. He'd put the time in and learnt the insane controls and had a great time.
A couple of months go by. I play San Andreas, and XIII and MonkeyBall, but eventually the time comes -
I have to sit down for a day and learn how to play this damn game.
And I do. I slowly get better. Hiding gets easier, pouncing on people something I slowly get more efficient at and then - at some point - I turn into a fucking ninja. Everything just clicks and becomes absolutely fluid.
Enter a new zone. Patrols above and below. Make an instant break for cover; if I get spotted on the way I know I can take out the unfortunate soul who spots me in a heartbeat and be on the next one before I need to blink.
I got good at that game.
A few years later I'm sat there with my 360 controller in my hands, and I can't work the controls again. Klaxons everywhere. It'll take a few hours of learning before i can actually start having fun, and I just think to myself -
I still have not replayed them.
If there's a mitigating factor, it's this - back in the olden days MGS2 sat atop of my PS2 and I knew it was a good game. It had also cost me proper money as new games on physical media were, back then, expensive as all hell, and I was also poor. So I made myself play it, eventually.
Now? I've got 600 games on Steam. I haven't played most of those. I own even more - I have keys for games everywhere. And I've got Netflix and multi-channel TV.
I got distractions, son.
Will I ever go back? I don't know. I go back to Deus Ex every couple of years, Half Life 2 and a few others, but ALL my gaming is PC based now (though it's still largely a sofa/console-type experience - there are good reasons for this and its the subject of an impending article).
An assessment of MGS5 surely depends on two things - how well does it stand up on its own? And how does it compare to the previous games (though I honestly think most people who play MGS5 won't have played one of the earlier titles).
An interesting place to start though, is with this question -
Actually, what IS a Metal Gear Solid game?
And it was only by asking myself this question that I realised something that's actually pretty obvious. There's ONLY ONE MGS game. It's a game Kojima has been making on different hardware for 20 years. Some of its early key features, I suspect, wouldn't have been so prominent; stealth - always obviously always a core mechanic in these games - perhaps was lent on and taken to extremes because the technology at the time couldn't deliver the other things he wanted. The hardware and physics engines and AI weren't there at the beginning, so instead the early Metal Gears are as much stealth puzzles than anything else. But that wasn't where Kojima wanted to be - so every new game brought the next step toward the game he had in his head. Better AI, smoother controls, better physics, better combat - and that led us to the more-rounded, broader, gaming experience he was always trying to get to. He found telling his story in the early games in a "normal" manner impossible so he found other ways of doing it. That's why all the cell-phone calls. That's why all the mini-movies.
The first game is completely different in feel to everything that came after. The aesthetics and the sneaking are there, but It's incredibly rigid in its game-play and it has, strangely, the same kind of vibe to it as something like Another World. It can't be an open world with deft combat, so you get something else. If you're supposed to be stealthing and you get spotted - you're probably screwed. You don't have options. Which is fine, but while it's dressed up as a combat stealth game, it's actually a puzzle game with lots of crawling about. Try running about with a gun and taking enemies out in the traditional manner in that game and see how far you get.
Now you might say "Well, it's not supposed to be that kind of game", but just wait until we get to MGS3, and how - among other things - he largely ditches those cutscenes as soon as he can.
MGS2 again is all about stealth, timing, doing your research and being super tactical. You can't take on hoards of enemies but the combat is far more evolved, because time had moved on and new things were technically possible. It's here that we reach an interesting point - and where the accusations that persisted about Kojima (that he really wanted to be making Hollywood action films, but had chosen the arena of games to do it in), began. The hardware available to him allowed him to show all these amazing action-scenes, but wasn't good enough to allow the player to actually be part of them.
Things changed - incredibly on the same console, the PS2. The PS2 was actually still a huge seller for Sony in emerging markets, but MGS3 marked the end of the console as a force in gaming (popular yearly franchises and the like were still getting adapted/hobbled versions on PS2, but little else - no new AAA now).
MGS3 was a far different proposition to the earlier games, as for the first time Kojima got close to making the game he wanted to make - he kept the stealth elements but was, for the first time, able to push the hardware graphically and technically (the work put into the legendary MGS FOX graphics engine must have been unbelievable - playing MGS2 and 3 now on a PS2; they look like titles from different hardware generations) and this resulted in opening up the gameplay - running and gunning was now occasionally a valid and fun approach - if you knew what you were doing you could run at bunch of motherfuckers spraying bullets and throwing grenades and still be standing at the end of it. Of course, Kojima being Kojima, he had to throw in a stealth section the like of which none of the other games, or anything since, had ever seen. I'm mainly talking about the "The End".
There are ways of negating this level and this challenge, but players in-front of their console at the time didn't know any of that.
We, us real gamers, didn't have any Youtube to tell us how to easily do things. What we had was was an invisible asshole ("The End") sitting in a tree somewhere who exploded our heads anytime we blinked. Get the microphone out, get an idea on where he was - sweet. Edge away and round; slowly.
Fucking dead again.
Apparently - "read the title - the game play it is on very easy." So try this shit on hard. I dare you. (26 Apr 2009 - Uploaded by sargeantchallenger)
At the time I hated that level. In retrospect I admire the shit out of it. It took me hours. (I was not playing on easy). You want something casual and fun? There's Pokemon. This game, this one right here, is occasionally difficult as all HELL. You had to adjust and play the game on its' own terms, or you weren't getting any further. Unless you were playing on easy.
Also in MGS3 there was the introduction of CQC (hand-to-hand combat, basically) which you could play the whole game without using, so I didn't. I liked shooting people or knocking people out. Until the end, which you can't beat without being pretty proficient at it. I played that final boss fight so many fucking times.
You get that "keep playing until you actually get good" attitude in some indie titles still, but in AAA's? Nope. Publishers don't spend $60 million on a game that some 12yr olds can't finish, because those 12yr olds will screw your game by word of mouth ("ths gayme is two hard annd is brokin. DO KNOT BY!!!!!") and you'll go out of business. The challenge is still there; you just can't choose normal difficulty. Normal is the new easy. Normal is for children.
MGS3 though; hell. Adapt or fuck off.
It's a section that's obviously echoed in MGS5 and your first meeting with Quiet. An amazing invisible sniper who repeatedly fills you with holes until you start thinking laterally. Though it's MGS3-lite in comparison.
MGS4 was a weird mish-mash of every gaming genre around, born of this being the tentpole release for the new PS3. In gameplay terms nothing has changed and there's nothing here that represented the challenges found in the earlier games. It looks beautiful and the movies are prettier than ever, but for the first time the gameplay hasn't evolved. Hell, the films don't need to be there anymore. Anything a cutscene could do you could have done in the game; the graphics and engine had evolved to that point. Instead - boring stalking of a target that only appears for one level but shows off the lighting effects? - check. On-rails vehicle based artillery shenanigans that look really good but are dull as hell? Check. It's, purposely, an easier game to play. Narratively and gameplay-wise it's a huge, choppy, mess. But everything is fucking beautiful and to this day I assume the technical demands of that game were Kojima's attempt to make the PS3's CELL processor burst into flames. Much of it seems like it's there to make demos out of. And this was Sony's big new game to help sell a new console - so I imagine there were some pressures on him.
I'm taking this picture for tactical reasons.
Weirdly, despite the endless possibilities of the new PS3, MGS4 isn't half the game MGS3 is; despite all the callbacks and returning characters. Also, after many of the freedoms of MGS3, 4 seems remarkably "on-the-rails"; a backward step. Kojima can't be blamed. Sony needed a game that would sell a console (though the Blu Ray player was probably most responsible for shifting units), and the pressure to deliver something that showed off everything the console was graphically capable of, and that normal people could easily pick up and play, must have been immense.
At least Meryl looks pretty.
So, up until this point what is the quintessential MSG experience?
Controlling Snake no longer feels like you're constantly fighting the game; moving around in general is an easier and slicker thing to do, and actual fighting a legitimate option; but all the while still largely sticking to its stealth roots. It was a more rounded experience now - you felt like you had options. An alarm going off didn't mean the place swarming with combatants (in place of actual AI) and instant death - you had more options in dealing with situations. It wasn't just the controls and what you could do with them that had opened up, the maps had too - it feels like a bigger, more polished, game in every way.
As previously referenced - It's long been an argument of detractors that Kojima basically just always wanted to make movies, but had wrongly chosen the arena of gaming to do it in. These days it isn't an argument that holds up. Thousands of games are being released each year and our idea of what a game actually is is now being pushed around and changed pretty regularly.
Kojima liked his games to have long sections of narrative. Big fucking deal. We have games now that consist of walking around wet islands while someone reads journal entries to us. We have games where a mountain sits there and occasionally talks to us. We have games where we can do things, but that lead to no reward. The entertainment isn't the destination, it's in the doing of the thing.
I knew, certainly with 2,3 and 4 that I was sitting down for half movie and half videogame. I did not have a problem with that. I got the beers and the snacks in.
MGS5 doesn't do any of that. Instead a mix of previously unimaginable action set-pieces and a fuck-ton of decent AI that would have exploded a PS3 fill those gaps instead. It's not that Kojima couldn't have kept stopping the action for some 30 minute documentary about the illuminati or whatever - he just no longer has the need. Watch a film? You're IN the fucking film. You're voiced by Keifer Sutherland. There's a gigantic mech jumping over mountains trying to get to you and smash you into goo. This is a fucking movie, but this time you're actually directing the thing.
You're all getting Fulton-ed.
The Smashing Pumpkins once released a double-album called Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. Yes, it's a shit title. It got ok reviews (just stay with me a minute, here). There are at least 10 fantastic songs on that thing. So, if they'd cut out all the shit, and just kept the good tunes it would - in my opinion - have gone down as one of the greatest albums of the decade. Billy Corgan screwed himself - he hid genius amongst shit.
This opinion of mine, of that album, is not entirely unrelated to this appraisal of Metal Gear Solid 5.
There's this, truly, great moment near the end of Chapter Two of MGS5. You've now got all these warzone kids on your base. They've got no lives to go back to and if you send them back their country they're just going to end up in gangs and war and death. So, you've decided to keep them - educate them, and one day they'll help you make the world a safer place. You're on the deck of a platform; the kids are running around and then the sun is blotted out, a huge shadow slides across everything. Helicopters have brought something in on tow ropes. We cut to the bottom of a cargo area where the choppers are parking this thing. A giant metal foot is swinging in the air just above the floor of the hold. It taps a tank that's already in there - the tank goes flying.
We cut to a long-shot, looking at the platform - and much of the base - from a distance. Towering over everything, everyone, is the product of a lot of time, money, research and effort. Towering there like an absolute behemoth - a Metal Gear.
The game should have ended there. You want to disarm the world, but you've got this death machine parked in the middle of your base. You're saving these children, and you have this death machine parked right in the middle of your base.
It was a fantastic moment, not just visually, but for what it meant. Where are your ideals and morals, really? Isn't there a weird disconnect between these two things and all your lofty ambitions, and then your possession of this thing. Or does the fact that it's a deterrent justify it being there?
"What an ending", I thought. "No easy answers, all questions".
And then Chapter 3 happened.
Chapter 3 is a cluster-fuck. Excuse the language, but it just is. You want to include these things in your game, Hideo? Fine, but make them a "special missions" section or something; bonus levels for progressing through the proper game. Some of the missions are exact copies of earlier ones, but now you have to do it in a different way. Some progress the story, but mostly don't. Some are just harder variations of things you've already done - like killing that Metal Gear again.
Why Chapter 3 exists in the form that it does is a complete mystery. And it just leaves you puzzled and confused and -
...Let down. Disappointed. So much that came before, and what you thought was the ending, was well-considered and thrilling and accomplished. And then you get given this bunch of random shit. There are a whole bunch of stories about Kojima and Konami - ranging from arguments about the direction the game was taking to rumours of all-out war between the two. The truth, I suspect, will never really be known - and I also wonder if the deterioration between creator and his publisher ended up with the final section of this game being such a mess. We can only guess.
I hope that's Konami's blood they're covered in.
Then there's Quiet. If you wanted to create an absolute firestorm on social-media and opinion pieces on the net and in the press then the presentation of Quiet could have been a scientifically developed way to provoke maximum exposure (is that a pun?).
Quiet was, by far, my most used companion. The cleavage I don't think was a problem - but the combination of that and being to see right up the crack of her ass? That was. I'm not a female gamer and I don't have a female gamer in the house. I have female friends who will have played this game but weirdly, I've just realised, we've not even discussed this subject (that's actually really strange - I'll need to change that).
The reason I mostly took her places with me was because she makes the game easier. She can take up position behind and above you - taking out enemies who suddenly appear out of tents, or whatever, that you weren't even aware of (which suited my "drive right into enemy camps and then just deal" approach down to the ground). When you're building your army you can send her to an outpost and by the time you've arrived by jeep she's tranquilized everyone there - leaving you to just Fulton-capture them. And then you can pick another place on the map and she'll go off and do it again.
During missions you barely (another pun?) see her - most of the scenes people have problems with happen when you're on the helicopter, and I'll admit I found them distracting and pretty sexual, at first. Because they are. But you spend literally hours on that chopper and you eventually get to a point where you, honestly, just don't see it anymore. This isn't an excuse, it's just that if you see the same things over and over they stop having the same effect on you.
For the record, despite Quiet apparently needing to be practically naked because her skin is screwed up and needs to breathe, you can put proper clothes on her in the later stages of the game. You can put fatigues on her - as if she was, you know, a proper soldier. And you know what? I did. I'd developed respect for her and, I know this sounds weird, I preferred her to be properly clothed. She was a fellow soldier and I owed her my life and it just seemed right.
And she didn't die.
We'd spent a lot of time, hours upon hours, taking out tank groups, outposts, fortresses - she'd saved my life countless times. She'd actually, somehow - despite the lack of talking - become an actual person to me. The looks she gives you - bored, playful, disappointed, sometimes downright motherly, go some way to fleshing out her character (I'm not even touching that one).
If I had a girlfriend who gamed, or I was older and had a daughter, I don't know how I'd feel about Quiet - but for me, playing for hours, it became a non-issue.
Yeah, yeah, I've seen them. Now do you mind? I'm trying to do some work.
With one exception. You can trigger a shower scene between the two of you (nothing sexual and you're both fully clothed) late-on in the game. While this happens a number of people - workers on the base, all men, surround you and hoot and holler at her - sexually turned on and celebrating how hot they think she, and the situation, is.
It's fucking horrible, I mean seriously unpleasant. As a gamer what exactly am I supposed to be getting out of this? You could say "don't complete the conditions that trigger that scene" - but you can trigger that scene without even knowing about it. There's nothing else like it in the game and I sincerely wish it wasn't there.
So, there are problems. But ignore the issues with Quiet and the travesty that is Chapter 3 and just focus on the actual game (which I don't consider Chapter 3 to be part of) and you're left with this -
MGS5 is a masterpiece. The game doesn't stop and show you a film of bad-guys doing things they physically wouldn't be capable of in the actual game. If there's a cut-scene it's there for a justifiable narrative reason. If you need to be fed important information it comes naturally over Comms while you're still playing the game. How you approach situations is limited only by your imagination, the options open to you truly staggering. Combat, set-pieces, just travelling around - all one seemless, beautiful, gameplay experience. And in a world. The openness of a Grand Theft Auto but with the polish of a dedicated AAA shooter - everything just rolling into each other effortlessly. There isn't anything else like it in games. It's remarkable.
And so fucking pretty. Stealth-killing a well dug-in platoon and driving to the next location as the sun comes up, knowing you can go anywhere - endless possibilities...
It's amazing. It just is.
Just pretend that last "Chapter" isn't there.