We have only seen one proper trailer for Hideo Kojima’s next Metal Gear Solid game, Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes; so it might be a little early to make such predictions. But one of the few aspects of MGS: GZ’s gameplay we know for certain may provide a series-fixing development.
A recap: it’s the first title since the divisive, ambitious Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots; it’s got another weird mouthful of a name, “Ground Zeroes”; it’s the first Metal Gear game in the infamous Fox Engine; and it looks to be mixing up the Metal Gear formula a little.
Now, onto what’s wrong with the series, and how this new entry may address its fundamental flaw. (Thanks to IGN for the video below, an extended version featuring gameplay in its last 6 minutes.)
The Series’ Problem.
Before I try to persuade you as to why this might be the best MGS game yet, perhaps even better than the next numbered entry Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (unless it keeps the series-fixing mechanic I’m about to talk about), let’s note the problem that Ground Zeroes might address.
Every gamer knows what the biggest problem with the MGS series is. Even people who have never played one will cite it as a commonly-mentioned issue. The problem has plagued them since the beginning, and it remains the elephant in the room which even got in the way of Kojima’s divisive and ambitious Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It’s an issue which turns off even the most well-meaning new player.
What is the biggest problem with the MGS series? Ask any fan or non-fan and one topic always comes up.
Too many cutscenes.
MGS2: Sons of Liberty was the first real offender, though all of the games do it. People could take or leave MGS2’s ridiculous idiosyncrasies of the plot- the over the top lines and characters, the immersion-breaking situations and self-obsessed ponderings- but the fact that, at the end, the player had to sit through nearly an hour of cutscene before the credits even rolled was just too much. And there were even more cutscenes after the credits.
Not to mention the fact that the player can’t move through an area or two of gameplay without a cutscene or phone call interrupting the mighty-fine gameplay on offer. MGS4 took it to a new extreme (an extreme paralleled in other games these days, for example Max Payne 3), by my count, I only played around 6 or 7 hours of actual gameplay in a 20-25 hour game. I spend twice as much time sitting watching bloated and wordy cutscenes than actually enjoying gameplay.
The greatest pity is that the gameplay has only improved constantly- I personally think MGS4 has arguably the best gameplay ever in a game. It has pitch-perfect stealth mechanics, shooting mechanics, cover, mobility and adventure mechanics. Even the level design is sublime- I think Act 2 is one of the greatest chapters in game history. But the fact that the player spends more than half of the game just watching junk happen with no input, effectively ruins it.
While the series’ design of small open areas connecting A to B was great, and the gameplay fantastically deep, the series shot itself in both feet by drastically limiting the amount that players actually get to play.
So what is Ground Zeroes going to achieve?
How Ground Zeroes Will Fix It.
Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes is an open world game.
It may not sound like much. Open-world and sandbox game designs are a pretty huge market these days. Not to mention the fact that MGS games have always had a fairly open element- one could argue they are all open world games, as they follow the level design format of multiple small open areas attached by often-interconnecting routes, and the player is free to move back and forth between them. For the most part.
However, unlike these, MGS: GZ is a fully open world game. In the trailer, we briefly see Snake using a handheld holographic map. The map is, Kojima says, the actual map the game will use. We see a large sprawling area not just to the East, where Snake is headed, but also to the North and West. We see some rectangles which obviously signify a camp or barracks of some sort, stretching away off the edge of the map’s reach.
In the demo, Snake avoids a spotlight, takes out a guard, briefly attempts to drive a car, then decides to take a chopper to his destination. A destination where, no doubt, a cutscene will happen.
However, had I been playing, I would have said: “screw your order to make me go East and only East, game- I’m travelling West! I’m exploring and avoiding dudes! I’m Tactical Espionage Actioning my own way!”
In an MGS game to-date, if you’re tired of watching cutscenes, tough. At the end of the next area or two there will be one. It might last ages. There’s nothing to do except backtrack repeatedly and avoid the same bloody guys over and over again, to look for easter eggs, which gets boring and lonely fast.
In Ground Zeroes, if the player doesn’t want to watch a cutscene, the player just doesn’t go to the objective on the map. She/he just goes off in another direction. She/he just explores. Cutscenes are avoidable for the first time in the series. Gameplay can dominate .
And with other new systems, there may be even more of an incentive to do this: the player can try to find more gear or resources which, we’re told, will be useable to upgrade a virtual “Mother Base” to give us yet more resources.
The vehicle stuff? I can take it or leave it. I’m a stealth purist so prefer to go on foot, to use as few tools or gadgets as possible. So I’ll be humping it, naturalist-style across Ground Zeroes’ island. The driving will be okay but I doubt it’ll fit wholly with series’ style. I certainly won’t be using it.
Kojima said in a great interview with OPM that he wants to deliver a truly open-world experience that players will love. He wants to offer the option to take planes, cars, bikes, or any mode of transport available.
I think the true value of the open-world level design will be more subtle. It will be something more immersive. It will be something Kojima-san probably wouldn’t want to mention vocally.
Basically, I think the open-world level design will fix that key problem with the Metal Gear series. It should fix the overabundance of cutscenes by giving the player more lateral freedom: something which, as I said, has been a problem since day one, and has nearly crippled a couple of entries. The cutscenes will now be physically avoidable- the highly-detailed and well designed areas standard to the series will be open to exploration in any way preferred, and hopefully this will make evading guards and exploring a hundred times more emergent and engaging. The largest areas in the previous games- like Grozsny Grad in Snake Eater- gave us tantalising moments of this effect. Hopefully Ground Zeroes will channel this into a constantly immersive experience.
MGS has always had some of the most deep and detailed gameplay in the whole history of videogames. Taking this level of depth and interaction, and putting it in an open world could be the most enjoyable step Konami take with the series.
Side note: a similar development may be happening with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Assassin’s Creed was a very divisive game, players complaining of bugginess and gameplay mechanics which just weren’t engaging enough. Black Flag, like Ground Zeroes, also has a seamless and incredibly large open world, this time with open seafaring and tightened mechanics. This may fix game mechanics which were highly problematic in Assassin’s Creed 3- much to the same effect that certain issues with the MGS series may be fixed in Ground Zeroes.