ron, Jun-29 2008

Stop Holding Z And Tap R To Not Shoot

Famous as I am for immediate participation in current events, I have finally played through Metal Gear Solid: Guns Of The Twin Snakes, just this week. I had started the game on multiple occasions, but never made it far. I always soaked up the long initial briefing sequence, and then quickly got frustrated in the very first room ("Cargo Dock"). Stealth. Oh stealth, my nemesis of old.
I was never too fond of stealth gameplay, especially of the (often shoddy) stealth interludes shoved into otherwise fine games, which was a widespread malady at some point (e.g. Sin, Beyond Good And Evil, billions more). I knew that in the Metal Gear Solid series, stealth would be a big part of the equation. It was an uphill struggle right from the start.

Solid Snake pressing against a wall

So that's Snake, currently hiding from a pesky security camera. The game separates multiple levels of alarm which correspond directly to enemy numbers and alertness. The light green bar under the radar tells us that I have messed up my cover slightly, but as I am hiding so nicely and the bar keeps ticking down, it'll all be okay again in a few moments.

The first few rooms are actually the hardest, simply because the control scheme is so unusual and takes a while to adapt to. You start in a very small space that requires you to crawl, and crawling is implemented in an especially clunky way. When I eventually made it past that first room though, the bad, forced, unmanageable stealth quickly made way. The strict stuff in the first few rooms is more like a setup, a gateway into a surprisingly varied, mostly story-driven, adventurish game with stealth themes. At times it feels like a puzzle game where each room has a range of solutions based on timing of your moves around the guards' patrol routes. Sokoban with a tranquilizer dart gun.

I actually ended up liking how the game circumvents most of the issues that I usually have with stealth gameplay. I like how it doesn't impose any long-term punishments for going out of cover to any degree, and how it makes its most difficult stealth challenges optional, for a few non-critical goodies.
With very few exceptions – one of them is unfortunately the very first room, and most of the others are boss fights – the game is very tolerant of players breaking out of style and just running right past guards. As long as you make it to the next room boundary, your alarm status is effectively reset, and if you don't, you can retry as many times as you want from right where you entered the room. Especially if you're backtracking through rooms that don't contain anything (anymore) you need to pick up, you're not forced to play them "properly" (that is to say slowly, carefully) every time. And this is how stealth needs to be done.

A firefight inside a hangar

Snake is by no means helpless, but open combat against groups of enemies is quite dangerous, not least because of the unusual top-down third-person perspective. You can switch into first-person iron-sight aiming, err, "simply" by holding down two buttons at the same time … but then you're unable to move.

The other significant part of the Metal Gear Solid experience is of course the story-telling. I'll confirm that yes, it does go to longer lengths than any other game series I've touched before. While the cinematography and the acting are impressive, it's clearly a story that is designed for a game and bound by its realities, e.g. there is of course a convenient main villain with a roster of henchmen who will provide a good supply of boss encounters. With its strong dosage of characterisation scenes and serious attempts to send a lasting message about war (and peace), it's clearly too long, too ornate for a feature film as well.
What's interesting is how the in-game characters acknowledge that they play parts in a game story. On certain occasions they will refer to the controller, controller ports, saving your game and the continue function, but unlike what I've come to expect from my fourth-wall breaking, it's not wrapped in apologetic silliness. It all happens completely in ernest without even a shred of humor. I can't remember any other game that handled itself so competently in that regard.

A tattooed man standing in a tank's top hatch, a raven sitting on his shoulder

Say hello to Vulcan Raven, here to represent the middle ground between being just a weird guy, and being a comic-book supervillain with impossible special powers. The characters in the MGS universe aren't just your everyday passengers.

Metal Gear Solid is not just a unique story delivery vehicle. The good thing about it is that it doesn't neglect any of its facets. It's a well-designed game and a well-delivered story. One might fault it for dipping a bit too deep into the crazy, implausible with its character designs. There are also some annoyances with the controls. None of it feels like an act of carelessness though. The game broke so much new ground in its play mechanics that there was no established convention to cling to, and Snake's move set is just too large to trivially map it onto the Gamecube controller fully, without resorting to at least some mode toggles, button combinations and context sensitivity. It works, after a brief period of accustomisation.

I'm definitely glad I finally tackled Metal Gear Solid properly. It's such a boldly unique game, it almost felt like a genre of its own. It's a great ride fused with sound mechanics, and its story and story delivery are better than 90% of everything else I've played. I won't claim the messages sent by the game to have a lasting effect on my life, but it really doesn't have to for me to like it. It was at the very least interesting, and refreshingly serious despite being completely over-the-top crazy. A tasty combination.

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