In part one of our somewhat less emotional and more poker-faced perspective on the anthropomorphic presence that likes to call itself ‘Hideo Kojima’, we cataloged his rise to fame when he finally was able to successfully translate the Stealth-action series he created to all three dimensions. Now it’s time for part 2—which consists of the franchise both hitting its peak, and falling off the bottom–several times.
METAL GEAR SOLID 3: SNAKE EATER
SNAKE EATER was developed with the criticisms levelled against MGS2 in mind. As a result, Kojima decided to narrow the focus, reduce the bloat and go a bit back in time. While this may be seen as a cop out–it really wasn’t in this case. Allowing the story to focus on ‘Naked Snake’ (aka ‘Jack’ , aka ‘Big Boss’) offered a clearer perspective on the whole saga. Ridding the series of a lot of its usual hangups from 1 and 2, and focusing on a soviet-era, james bond-esque spy thriller also worked in its favour. While some were probably disappointed that Kojima chose to move away from all the ‘mysteries’ that were established in MGS 2 (As he probably should have. More on this later.), it was probably for the best. As SNAKE EATER tells an extremely well-written, plotted and engaging story with great character arcs, awesome reveals and a truly satisfying (and emotional) ending. Even the oddball ‘eccentric’ touches/ off-colour sense of humour the series is known for is done so in a more subtle way—ensuring that the jarring, absurd moments are kept to a minimum. (Even though, Kojima can’t let go of his thing for ‘guys grabbing other people’s crotches’. WTF.)
All of these narrative improvements are further enhances by this being a real, actual game. As in, there’s a lot of gameplay this time around. While the series still can’t compete with say, SPLINTER CELL: CHAOS THEORY in terms of advanced gameplay, what’s here offers a genuine improvement over the rest of the series. While controlling Snake is still a bit cumbersome (and won’t eliminate long-time complaints), the large, open-ended jungle atmosphere makes up for the shortages. It’s fun to move around the areas and exploration is actually encouraged. There are a lot of gadgets to fool around, the camouflage system is excellent, the natural ecosystem and wildlife of the jungles is a joy to explore (And exploit)—not to mention, the extremely sharp writing and lovable characters make even the dreaded ‘Codec’ calls a joy, and the game once again features memorable boss characters (including series’ best fight against “The End”). While the cutscenes can still be a bit long for most people’s tastes, they’re forgivable this time, due to the sharp writing, superb direction and vivid characterization. SNAKE EATER is the sort of game where both the interactive and non-interactive portions are good. Which is not usually the case with the series.
SNAKE EATER is often categorized as the ‘peak’ of the METAL GEAR SOLID series. And to be honest, it’s hard to argue with that. It’s proof how genuinely good Kojima can be when we wants to. It’s a legitimately good piece of software that can even be recommended to series’ detractors, those who routinely mock MGS for having inferior gameplay to SPLINTER CELL, HITMAN or THIEF—not to mention mainstream gamers in general. Yes, it is still a story-driven, linear romp. But here it’s pulled off so well that it’s hard to care. SNAKE EATER is definitely one of the PS2’s best games, and one that has a lot of entertainment value to offer to this day.
METAL GEAR SOLID 4: GUNS OF THE PATRIOTS
Following Snake Eater, the bar was set very high for Kojima to finally conclude his series, with what was considered then to be its final, canonical installment. On paper, everything looked to be in motion. The power of the Playstation 3 was perhaps what was needed for the series to realize its true potential. Kojima and his team would, at least theoretically be able to finally provide gamers with the perfect mix of solid stealth-action gameplay and outstanding cinematic storytelling. Wrapping up all the series’ threads in a satisfying way, alongside in a fully featured game–not just an interactive movie.
In execution, that’s what we initially seem to be getting. The first two chapters of MGS 4 are some of the best in the series. Not only do we actually control Solid Snake himself for the first time in over a decade, we actually do so in a honest-to-god real stealth system that always gives the players a variety of options to approach every situation. In short, this is the first time where the series gameplay is actually up to scratch with other games on the market. It’s still not CHAOS THEORY or THIEF, but Snake’s improved toolset, coupled with the large, open-ish environments inspired from SNAKE EATER, and the dynamic systems-like elements of the ‘warzone’–where Snake is forced to improvise and adapt, finally help consolidate the METAL GEAR SOLID series’ own unique stamp on the stealth genre. There’s a lot of genuinely gameplay to back up the usual ‘gimmicky’ stuff. Not to mention, there are a lot of offensive options as well, with a massive arsenal of weapons, grenades and rocket launchers–allowing Snake to go full on Rambo if he wants to. The weapon handling is still a bit on the clumsy side, but it’s hard to care. Overall, it’s just fun to try and approach situations and see what works. Not to mention the extravagant production values make the cinematic side of MGS4 even more impressive than previous installments. The cutscenes are on par with any Hollywood production and offer a wonderful compliment to the solid gameplay foundation.
That’s only till act two. The third act reveals Kojima back to his former annoying habits, which unfortunately drags the entire experience. From here on hence, the player is bombarded with hours upon hours of cutscenes. And the gameplay devolves around various situational set-pieces that often force the player to play it as a clunky third person shooter. In fact, there is such little gameplay in the second half of the game that it’s kind of baffling. You pretty much ‘play’ for a total duration of 2-3 hours overall. The boss battles (save crying wolf) are uninspiring and drag down the experience. Not to mention, the less said about the unsatisfactory big ‘reveals’ the better. While some of the emotional moments are great, a lot of them are just dumb and ridiculous–making those who invested long term in the lore probably scratch their heads. Not to mention, there is piles, piles and piles of expository cutscenes that often go on for more than an hour, repeatedly forced moments of ‘fan service’ and an epilogue that while fun to watch in the moment, is a total Deus Ex Machina, and makes no sense in the context of the overall series. It’s the deadly combination of bad plotting and bad writing–usually the death signal for any form of narrative.
However, there are a few moments where the game truly excels at. If nothing else, Kojima does handle the character of Solid Snake gracefully. You might not get to ‘play’ as him much, but the game builds up nicely to his big emotional moments. Some of the fan-service is actually amazing–including the whole Chapter 4, where Snake returns to Shadow Moses, culminating in a Rex-vs-Ray fight. And some of the final moments are genuinely moving. Had these been mixed properly with the actual solid (no pun intended) gameplay, we could have had the best title in the series. As it stands, it’s a missed opportunity. A decent, fun-in-the-moment experience that has barely any replay value, due to it’s uneven, disjointed nature. It’s good for what it is overall, but a massive step down from SNAKE EATER, and quite frankly, the weakest METAL GEAR SOLID game, until…..
METAL GEAR SOLID 5: THE PHANTOM PAIN
Full confession: I didn’t play ‘Ground Zeroes’. I don’t consider a $20 demo a ‘full game’. People who played it, told me that it was mechanically the most sound METAL GEAR game yet. So I took their word, and eagerly awaited THE PHANTOM PAIN. Hoping that the gameplay improvements would mesh well with the open-world in creating the best entry in the series. A title that would finally expand the open-endedness of SNAKE EATER with an improved gameplay system, alongside great storytelling, would be the ultimate METAL GEAR SOLID game.
Of course it didn’t go this way. I’m not sure if THE PHANTOM PAIN can even be called a ‘game’. It feels more like a technical demo, or a proof-of-concept of something Kojima would make later down the line. Snake now moves like an overpowered tank and can mow down guards like RAMBO, or fulton them back to mother base. If you don’t enjoy these activities, then too bad. That’s more or less all there is to gameplay; which consists of repetitive infiltration missions that make you visit the same place over and over again, forcing you to deal with the same type of guards over and over again. The story (or lack thereof) is also appalling. To call it disjointed and haphazard would be an understatement. Not only do the retcons not make sense in terms of series canon, they don’t make sense in the logic of the story as well. The open world also well, is an illusion. It’s more like a linear hallway in which Snake and his horse can only travel one way. The boss fights are tedious as well, making even the terrible ‘bullet sponge’ bosses from MGS4 look good in retrospect. Games usually have a few major design decisions that drag the experience down. THE PHANTOM PAIN on the other hand is made of bad decisions that make the experience a drag just after a few hours in. It’s baffling that this game got 10/10 from major outlets, when it is such a repetitive, lackluster, tedious experience that is on par with FABLE 3 in being terribly designed and conceptualized. Sure the Kojima/Konami conflict may have something to do with this, but in my opinion, the game is broken in terms of concept as well, being poorly thought-out from the get-go. It’s baffling that a game this small, mediocre in gameplay and presentation cost $80 million. Either way, it’s a terrible title, that makes the series end with a whimper, which is in high contrast to the massive ‘bang’ it made when MGS1 first hit shelves in 1998. It’s easy to call THE PHANTOM PAIN the worst game in the series, because it pretty much is.
Even when not saddled with the baggage of being a METAL GEAR title, THE PHANTOM PAIN is pretty much a forgettable experience that feels empty and bland. On the narrative front, it is also a big disappointment. Most gamers were probably (and rightfully) expecting the game to make the transition between SNAKE EATER and the original METAL GEAR–showing how Big Boss became the villainous military dictator that he eventually did. Instead, players were treated (or subjected to, rather) a dumb, broken ‘narrative’ (I use this word loosely) which barely had anything to say or any characters to note. Even stupider was ‘The ‘big twist’, which was so dumb that it felt like an intentional slap in the face to fans (Hey, maybe it was). It’s easy to point fingers at Konami on how things went wrong, but our educated guess is that it also had a lot to do with Kojima’s now-overblown ego and ridiculous personality. Speaking of which….
Join us next time, where we go in-depth (or at least try to) into Kojima’s personality, and its bizarre and controversial nature over the years. We’ll also analyze METAL GEAR SOLID: PEACE WALKER and discuss our hopes/ fears/ ambivalence/ confusion on DEATH STRANDING.