In preparation for Metal Gear Solid V, I’ve been playing through the entries in the series that I missed. It’s been enlightening.
Over the past week, in preparation for Metal Gear Solid V, I’ve been racing through MGS 3: Snake Eater and MGS 4: Guns of the Patriots, the two games in the series I hadn’t played before. As a first time player coming to these games years after they were released and running straight from one to the other, there are some things that have leaped out at me.
(There are major spoilers throughout this article for all the Metal Gear games except for Metal Gear Solid V.)
The two games serve as perfect bookends for the entire Metal Gear story, showing the start and the end of the Patriots, the secretive organisation that’s behind all the Metal Gear games.
Starting in 1964, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is chronologically the first game in the series. It tells the story of how a skilled CIA operative going by the codename Naked Snake becomes Big Boss, the man who would become a founding member of The Patriots. Throughout the Metal Gear series the story has repeatedly referred back to the legend of Big Boss, but he never appeared in any of the Metal Gear Solid games - only in the original Metal Gear games.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots ends the story for Solid Snake, the clone of Big Boss we’ve played as since the original Metal Gear. In each game Snake has uncovered more of the Patriots’ plots and now, nearing death, Snake is finally able to end the organisation.
Seeing the start and the end of the story of The Patriots story re-contextualises everything that came in the games before. You get a better understanding of what was going on behind the scenes in Metal Gear Solid, you realise what was going in Metal Gear Solid 2’s nuts ending, and you get a sense of the grand plan the series’ creator Hideo Kojima has slotted together over the last 28 years.
Most modern sequels have the same core game and then add a few mechanics to fit the new setting. Metal Gear doesn’t do that. Its mechanics are more like tropes that are reinvented for each game.
For instance, in Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2, you had a soliton map that showed you a top-down view of the environment and little vision cones for each soldier. In Metal Gear Solid 3, set thirty years before the original Metal Gear Solid, none of that tech exists. Mechanically it’s a step backwards, breaking down one passive system into multiple separate active systems. You have an AP sensor that will buzz when you’re near an enemy but doesn’t tell you where exactly they are; you have a motion detector that sweeps round in a circle around you highlighting pinpoints of movement, but is no use against a stationary enemy; and you have a sonar that you can use to ping out a pulse and detect enemy object locations (though potentially be found out from the noise).
The complication of detection from Metal Gear Solid 2 to 3 forces you to play more carefully, to make use of the new stealth mechanics, such as camouflage, because your technology is not as advanced as in the earlier games. It also embeds you in the Cold War setting, making you fully aware of the fact you’re in the past.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is set fifty years after Snake Eater, further into the future than any other Metal Gear game, so you’ve an eye camera that gives you augmented vision. When looking at drones you can see where their sensors are pointed, you get an overhead map that pinpoints enemies and, unlike in Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2, you can keep using this tech even when the enemy are on high alert. It all feels like an advance on what was available to you in the past games.
Konami took Metal Gear Solid down the sim path in Snake Eater: you’re living off the land by capturing and eating animals, adjusting your camouflage to match your environment, and keeping your stamina up in the face of harsh weather conditions. The team also gives you much finer control over your weapons, which, while suited to deliberate gun battles like a sniping arena, is less well suited to fighting a guy wearing a jetpack and torching up the level with a flamethrower.
To accurately fire your AK, you have to ready it by half pressing in the square button, go into first-person by holding R1, put the gun against your shoulder so you can look down the sights by holding L1, aim with the left stick, and then press square all the way in to fire. I’ve played less intimidating flight simulators.
Boss fights become maddening as you’re frantically tapping between weapons and aim states, all while being attacked.
What makes it worse is that different guns have different controls. If I take out my sniper rifle I become rooted to the spot and L1 becomes your aim button instead of R1.
Separate to guns, the number of times I meant to roll out of fire but would simply lie down in the grass, or I wanted to crouch behind a rock but would instead stand up straight as if daring the eagle-eyed guards to ignore me, was not exactly insignificant.
Across Metal Gear Solid 1 - 3 there’s a gradual increase of controls based off the same layout, but by 3 the added complexity just became too much.
It may be because I went straight from one game to the next that I loved the controls in Metal Gear Solid 4 so much, but they are leaps and bounds better. Movement is clearer, so you can crouch and walk while aiming your gun, either from the hip or, with a tap of the triangle button, down the sights. Selecting, aiming, and firing are all down with the same buttons across all the guns (and shooting is mapped to the triggers instead of the square button).
In Snake Eater it felt like I was fighting with the game to do what I wanted, in Guns of the Patriots I didn’t have to think about it.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is known for its long cutscenes. Across the game there’s more than five hours of them. The final video is in the Guinness Book of Records for being 71 minutes long. During one fight scene I was able to get my dinner and eat the entire thing before the video came to an end.
It took me 16 hours to complete Guns of the Patriots. That means I spent almost a third of my time watching cutscenes instead of playing the game.
But don’t think that means Metal Gear Solid 3 is much better.
It took me 30 minutes before I got to do anything in Snake Eater. There’s a 10 minute long intro video before 20 minutes of a codec call where your commander is telling you what your mission is. It’s a terrible way to open a game.
And, considering I completed Guns of the Patriots’ final boss battle at 5.30am and I didn’t see the credits roll until 7am, that too, I think, is a terrible way to end a game.
(Jump to 4.30 or watch the whole thing for a masterclass in cheese.)
Metal Gear’s story is an odd one. Reading summaries of each game’s story on Wikipedia, diving into more detailed character pages and breakdowns of the series’ many shadowy organisations, is really compelling. I’ve spent hours reading and re-reading those pages. However, the way that story is delivered in the game is terrible.
The dialogue in Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots is vague, wordy, and sounds unnatural. When you explain something to someone you pick out the relevant details of a thing, enough to make the concept you’re explaining clear to the listener. In Hideo Kojima games the characters speak whole histories. It’s like they’ve jumped to a section of an encyclopaedia and are reading the whole thing out verbatim.
Nor are these spoken histories always that clear. A major part of Guns of the Patriots’ story revolves around a global AI system that’s being integrated into everything from hospital management to guns on a battlefield. Hearing the characters talk at length about multiple AIs that are embedded within one another that will activate when encoded with the AI of Big Boss and somehow lead to global enslavement is dull, confusing, and told badly.
I didn’t realise how much I loved the MGS story until I had to tell it to other people. It is the most batshit thing ever.
While playing Guns of the Patriots I had to explain who Liquid Ocelot was and I fell into a Kojima-style explanation. “Well, at the end of Metal Gear Solid you kill Liquid Snake, who is your brother and a clone of Big Boss, but Revolver Ocelot, who had his arm cut off my a ninja, transplants Liquid’s arm onto his stump and the nanomachines in Liquid’s blood take over Ocelot’s brain so the two now share one body.”
There’s almost no part of the game that can be explained without falling into a pile of pseudoscience, conspiracy-theory history, or implausible backstory. It’s great.
If you want to get really hammered, drink whenever Snake asks a question in a cutscene. His role in the game seems to be to have exposition told to him and, so he doesn’t seem left out of the conversation, he will say back one word as a question.
(If you want to go to hospital, drink when Snake asks a question AND whenever a character uses an acronym. You won’t make it through the first 30 minutes of Snake Eater.)
The presentation of women is where I struggled with the games most. Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots are filled with great female characters but only a few escape being awkwardly sexualised.
Take EVA in Snake Eater, for instance. She enters the game on the back of a motorbike and saves you from an ambush. She then shows you her breasts. EVA is out to seduce you but the team couldn’t go with something more subtle than having her walk around in set of overalls unzipped to the navel most the time. During some cutscenes button prompts will pop up to let you get a different view of the action. The video introducing EVA lets you stare at her arse and her chest. Even when she’s riding her motorbike she wears her top zipped down. Throughout Snake Eater you have characters talking about the practicalities of war–how to hold your gun right, how to stay alive in the wild, and how not to draw attention to yourself–but somehow the developers didn’t think freezing your tits off while riding your motorbike in Russia ran counter to those ideas.
In Metal Gear Solid 4 we get to see Mei Ling again for the first time since the original Metal Gear Solid. She’s the captain of a ship now and, like EVA, saves Snake’s life. However, immediately after learning she’s a captain, Otacon says he’s heard it’s because an elderly admiral took a liking to her. And after she saves Snake’s life she gives a mission briefing where she trips over long enough to give the camera a long view of her arse.
From costumes to camera work, throughout these two games the women are almost always sexualised.
I’ve read a few people say that you spend more time looking at Snake’s bum than any other and it’s true: while in-game you spend a lot of your time staring at Snake’s muscular buttocks as he crawls. But it’s not a sexualised view. It seems any shot in the cutscenes that can be framed by the cleft of a girl’s arse is. Whenever a woman is introduced the camera pans over her body, lingering for a moment on her crotch, breasts, and bum. This is what is referred to as the “male gaze” in filmmaking. It’s very different than watching a guy crawl on his stomach from behind.
There are some exceptions, though. The Boss, a major character in Snake Eater, is awesome and remains unsexualised. She is the head of the Cobras, the unit of boss characters you fight throughout the game, and as you learn more of her story you realise she was playing a larger part in the story than any other character. In none of the cutscenes is she sexualised, including (I’d argue) the final battle where she unzips her overalls to her waist. Unlike EVA, where it was clearly meant to titillate, The Boss does it to show off the crude snaking ‘S’ left from where she had a cesarian in the middle of a battlefield in the Second World War. She is ever presented as the warrior.
(I’d love to play a game that went through her time in the Second World War and how she founded the special forces.)
Before last week I hadn’t played a Metal Gear Solid game since completing Sons of Liberty in 2003, so when I returned to Shadow Moses in the penultimate act of Guns of the Patriots it was the first time I’d stepped in the arctic base from the original game in 15 years.
When I saw the snow-dusted helipad and the first notes of ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’ began to play over the howling winds I felt a lump in my throat. Kojima knows how to craft memorable moments. The battles with Sniper Wolf and Psycho Mantis, being tortured by Revolver Ocelot, and the fight with Liquid above the burning wreck of Metal Gear Rex have cemented themselves in my gaming memory. Returning to the place where it all happened and walking through the abandoned base so many years later was surprisingly emotional.
Despite the criticisms and frustrations I had while playing through Snake Eater and Guns of the Patriots, I came away completely in love with the games. Nothing compares to the bombast, the experimentation, and the style of Kojima’s games. I can’t wait to get stuck in The Phantom Pain.