Overstuffed’ is a word that often gets tossed around in discussions of the Metal Gear Solid series. The downside of the overstuffing is that the games are usually overstuffed with interminable codec calls, non-interactive cut scenes and superfluous details but on the upside, each MGS game is bursting at the seams with the kind of ideas that most designers would build an entire series around.
Kojima and his team tend to jam every idea they have into whatever game they’re working on even when there’s not really space for it. Ever notice how you can affect enemies emotions with sounds and gadgets in MGS4? No? Probably because there was so much other stuff going on at the same time that it got completely lost in the mix.
So this is a tour of the MGS ideas graveyard – where great gameplay mechanics and Easter eggs go to die. These are the 5 most amazing gameplay ideas that MGS just let go of completely.
After MGS3’s clunky menu-heavy foray into camouflage, Kojima used the near future setting of MGS4 (the then-futuristic 2014) to streamline the system resulting in one of the coolest inventions of the Metal Gear series. Instead of scrolling through lists of camo patters a la MGS3, the player was able to press against any surface and mimic the colour and texture of whatever they touched (like an octopus). Now everywhere was a potential hiding place and MGS finally had a stealth mechanic to rival Splinter Cell‘s wonderfully crisp light/dark stealth system. The feeling of watching a guard walk past a barely visible bump against a wall remains unmatched by any amount of shadow lurking. There was also the irresistible urge to press Snake against every surface in the world just to see what it looked like and the ability to ‘save’ camo patterns turned OctoCamo hunting into the kind of goofy metagame that feels right at home in a Metal Gear title. But with the subsequent games heading deeper into the Cold War, the high-tech OctoCamo suit is yet to make a reappearance.
SOP (Metal Gear Online)
Seeing through walls has been a crutch for the stealth game for years now; Splinter Cell: Conviction, Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored all feature the mechanic in some form or other, affording the player precious info on guard positions and thereby reducing the likelihood of the old ‘stumble blindly into the eye-line of gun-toting thug’ moments that made up 95% of stealth experiences before 2008. It works because it removes a lot of the trial and error and patrol memorisation that puts so many people off the sneakier pleasures in gaming. It also feels like cheating. Why can Sam Fisher see through walls? I know why, but why? The fuck awful multiplayer component of MGS4 – Metal Gear Online – offered a brilliant fictional justification for what’s now become a stealth mainstay; team members were linked together through nanomachines in their blood and ‘synching’ at the start of the match allowed them to see each other as glowing blue/red silhouettes. Now, where it gets interesting is that if a player managed to ‘capture’ a member of the other team, they could ‘hack’ their nanomachines and reveal the locations of every player ‘synched’ to the captured player. It was only momentary but it gave the hacker an invaluable head start on their opponents. Most of all though, it felt earned. And while ‘seeing through walls’ looks to be back in MGSV, it seems more like the tagging system found in Far Cry 3/Splinter Cell Conviction than the one from MGO.
Radio Man (MGS2)
MGS2 is so full of brilliant stealth game mechanics that it’s all the more upsetting when it crawls all the way up its own ass towards the end of the game. Up until Raiden fights the Harrier Jet, the game is a nail-biting masterclass in stealth gaming that forces the player to pay close attention to their surroundings and enemy behaviour to survive. A great example is the ‘Radio Man’ guards who frequently call in to HQ to report on their current status. Like, really frequently; sometimes as often as every 30 seconds. Take the radio man out and you’ll hear a message from HQ: “Why are you late with your status report?” followed by an order for the backup team to go check out the area. The backup team aren’t following any patrol patterns so their behaviour is a most unwanted unknown quantity in the player’s tightly controlled environment; they can wake up sleeping guards, find dead bodies and call in heavily armed assault troops if they spot the player. With that in mind, it’s often best to leave the Radio man wandering around an area making his regular reports to HQ meaning that no area is ever ‘safe’. When Raiden is searching an area for hidden explosives (another great discarded idea) having to leave one guard patrolling makes for a stomach-knottingly tense experience. Compare that to most modern stealth games, where the player subdues every enemy in sight before looting the room/achieving their goal and you can’t help wish that the ‘Radio Man’ would come back.
Supply Stashes (MGS3)
There are more ingenious gameplay touches in one MGS3 boss fight than there are in most games. MGS3 almost suffers from a gaming version of Three Stooges Syndrome with ideas tripping over each other to make it on to the screen. One such mind-blowing idea was that of food and ammo stashes that the player could rig with TNT and destroy. Why would you want to destroy the food and ammo stashes? The same reason you would in real life. To get the upper hand. In MGS3, the enemies are subject to the same basic human needs as the player which means if they get hungry, they need to eat. Much like the player – if enemies don’t eat, their physical condition deteriorates; their hands begin to shake so they can’t aim as well, they can’t see as far and they’re physically weaker so they do less damage with melee attacks. They’re more easily distracted too, sometimes stopping to search for food or even eating food that someone may have left lying around. And maybe that someone let the food go off before they left it lying around so that whoever eats it is too busy throwing up to notice someone sneaking through the grass near by. Destroy the ammo supplies too and you’ll see shaky looking soldiers empty a clip at Snake before running out of bullets and having to resort to a side arm or even a knife. Here’s hoping MGSV brings back this particular dirty trick.
Call off the Search (MGS3)
One more stroke of genius from the peerless Snake Eater featured a series mainstay; the radio/codec. What had, up to this point, been a means to contact support teams and get tips, suddenly turned into a fully fledged gadget in MGS3; stations healed the player, called in air strikes and even opened certain doors when called. Players were encouraged to interrogate guards for radio frequencies which meant getting close to enemies rather than picking them off from across the map in one of the series’ many brilliantly balanced risk/reward scenarios. The most cunning use for the radio however, was to call off ‘alerts’ and cautions; Snake would call HQ, impersonate a guard and give the all clear. It gave the player a chance to be Han Solo on the intercom in the Death Star (except y’know… it worked.)
It’s not just those 5, there are countless other nuggets of genius tucked away in the MGS games that might never see the light of day again – things like The Mk II (MGS4), Bomb Disposal (MGS2), Mystery Missions (MGS Integral), Enemy Emotions (MGS4), Heat/Cold Effects on items (MGS1), GPS Scanning for Soldiers (Portable Ops) and the Retinal Scan door in MGS2 to name just a few.
So if you’re making a stealth game, you could do worse than steal a few of Kojima’s cast offs.