The Merits of MGS

Is the MGS series worth playing through? I am really wary because I hear they are heavily story/cutscene-driven but people with good taste seem to like them and I love the visual design.


The thing is, however long the cutscenes are (and they get way too long with some of the longest clocking in at 90 minutes), there’s an equal dedication to the gameplay systems. Beyond that, Kojima has no problems with using gamey abstractions wherever he wants with no hint of irony. Characters will actively tell you to press the action button when needed. He makes up things like jungles in Russia when it suits him. There’s the Soliton Radar based on “currently existing technology”. MGS3 introduced the “Active Reload” system, which allowed you to reload a gun by unequipping it, also canceling that gun’s animation. This was mentioned in the manual. MGS games break the 4th wall frequently without making a joke.

Beyond that, they’re just good games. The first one is kind of rough and simple, don’t know if I’d really advocate it, but it has its moments like vulcan raven. The second one onwards is where it really comes into its own. The games offer an absurd number of options to the player in how to distract enemies, take them down, manipulate their AI, and even simply move around.

I’d personally consider Metal Gear Solid 3 the actual best stealth game ever made. You can capture animals, live or dead, to serve as food. They all help different amounts. Some can be released to distract guards. Some are poisonous. You can also poison guards by blowing up their food supply, then tossing them rotten food, which they’ll eat. You can knock guards out, shoot their limbs, then they’ll walk with a limp. You have disguises where you need to show your face to some people and hide it from others, camouflage based on floor tiles, a stamina meter that depletes based on how much you’re carrying at one time. It has bizarre things like spinning snake in the survival viewer to get him to throw up, which can actually help food poisoning. You can knock on walls, throw expended magazines, shoot guards in the foot so they’ll fall asleep later rather than sooner, timing it for the perfect moment, or in the head to take them out now. You can diveroll through windows or over walls. You can of course hold guards up, shoot out their radios so they can’t call for help, interrogate them, and throw them to the ground, knocking them out. You can plant TNT and remotely detonate it. You can fake kill yourself and come back to life. You can leave dirty magazines on the ground to occupy guard attention. All the bosses leave you special items if you can take them out nonlethally.

The Metal Gear Solid series is fantastic. It has this amazing dedication to simulation as a way of augmenting gameplay complexity, not for a sense of realism or immersion, and frequently has characters tell you to press the action button, or comes up with awesome abstractions that fit the gameplay really well.

It’s the bizarre perfect split between a story focus and a gameplay focus. There’s nothing else like it.

12 thoughts on “The Merits of MGS

  1. treeghettox August 26, 2016 / 8:35 pm

    Uh, I’m pretty sure you could Active Reload in MGS2. I distinctly remember using it during the MG Ray fight.


    • Mulgar H August 27, 2016 / 1:00 pm

      Tactical reload’s been in the series since MGS1 but I already corrected him about this on twitter


      • treeghettox August 30, 2016 / 11:09 pm

        Maybe the manual didn’t reference it until MGS3? I only own the discs so I can’t check.


        • Chris Wagar August 31, 2016 / 3:26 pm

          I’m told it was in the earlier manuals. my mistake.


  2. Gilgamesh310 October 19, 2016 / 12:21 pm

    I’ve just started reading your articles, and I like a lot of what I’ve read so far, but I have to strongly disagree with you regarding MGS, and especially the third game. I don’t think it’s even close to being the best stealth game, and find myself getting really frustrated with the praise it gets. What you said about the gameplay mechanics, is all true, but most if it is just there for shits and giggles and doesn’t have much direct bearing in the stealth itself. None of it is pragmatic in getting through the game. Which is the thing with Kojima. He’s great for gimmicks and Easter eggs et al, but the core gameplay often suffers. The best way of getting through most MGS games, is just to shoot soldiers in the head with the silenced pistol. It breaks the game in a sense. I was glad to see Matthewmatosis at least, point this out. The camouflage is all well and good too, but it’s tedious as fuck having to go in and out of the menus to access it every time. The same goes for accessing other stuff from the menus, and removing items that damage your body. This is all very tedious. The Last of Us actually handled the backpack feature *way* better, due to the fact that it all happened in real time and was quicker. There’s so many issues I have with this game(and most of the series) from a stealth perspective. The stealth mechanics are very bare bones, compared to games like Thief and Splinter Cell. Those games had very deep systems regarding viability and audio, that no MGS game even came close to replicating. A big problem I did have with MGS3, was how ridiculously long the alert and countdown phases were. You would often need to wait in the one spot for literally 5 minutes, before it goes away, and it’s fully safe to move on. I know you have a safer passage in caution mode, than on the alert or evasion phase, but the length of time for all of them is long, and it just discourges hiding, but venturing out and shooting instead. Which is yet another problem I have with the game. It’s too easy to get from one area to the next without sneaking. Once you have the shotgun in particular, you can blast lots of enemies away with little difficulty, before triggering the next cutscene, and cancelling the alert. MGS2 handled this aspect better, by making it easier to die when not being spotted, and having the alert phases go by quicker, but it wasn’t until MGSV, where I actually became satisfied withe the gameplay. That game does certainly have pacing issues, and chapter 2 was rather poor, but I consider it to have the best gameplay in the series. But I think the best Thief and Splinter Cell games,B completely shit on it, from a gameplay standpoint. I’d also say Thief has a better and certainly more elegantly presented story.


    • Hey February 24, 2021 / 9:18 pm

      Pretty much, yeah. For a blog that goes on about depth, there is a surprising amount of redundancy being praised everywhere. DMC4, MGS3… there are a lot of things you can do but where am I going to need to do half of that stuff? Give me a system with a concise move-set and mechanics that have various uses and are NECESSARY, not just there.


      • Hey February 24, 2021 / 10:48 pm

        Depth is catalyzed by everything other than the player in any game. AI, level design, mechanics, rules for mechanics, etc. You have to make the ancillary necessitate all the cool shit a player has access to intrinsically. It’s just dressing unless I need to use it; it is redundant. You focus too much on the player’s abilities at the cost of non-redundancy I think, and redundancy is a huge part of your manifesto even.

        Would honestly like to hear your response to this. Because I like your blog, and agree with everything you say actually.

        I just can’t see your beliefs coinciding with some of the games you praise.


        • Hey February 25, 2021 / 4:14 am

          Or actually maybe they do? Mostly mean the ruleset for mechanics in previous post, not mechanics in general. Or I guess every mechanic but the those specific to the player.

          I guess I just wonder what defense you have for a lack of intransitivity in a lot of these games. I think a player refraining from dominance can make the games more enjoyable, but I wonder if that is a sign of actual decent game design or not.

          Maybe I’m just being too rigid. I probably am. I can’t think of many games that actually adhere to this.


      • Gilgamesh310 February 25, 2021 / 6:18 am

        The games Shadow Tactics and Desperados 3, actually accomplish depth by making all of the options you have, necessary at various points in the game. They’re part of the real time tactics genre, but they’re still heavily about stealth.


      • Celia Alexis Wagar February 26, 2021 / 2:53 pm

        The point of having different mechanics is to create interesting choices, and thereby depth. If your options don’t have some overlap, then there isn’t a choice between them. If your choices don’t accomplish somewhat similar things, then you end up in 3d Zelda, where you use the hookshot on the hookshot panel, the boomerang on the remote switch, the arrow on the eye shaped panel, etc. Making something NECESSARY makes the game simpler.

        That said, sure, MGS3 and DMC4 have their flaws in terms of enemy and encounter design. They could have gone a lot further in incentivizing specific approaches. I’d point out Doom Eternal as an example of a game that straddles the line of incentivizing specific approaches, but manages to keep your choices open-ended. There’s always a reason to shoot or not shoot a particular weakpoint. You want to shoot it to make the enemy easier to deal with, you want to not shoot it so you can kill the enemy faster, while risking their stronger attacks, and you might make each decision based on fuzzy factors, like how close they are, and what other enemies are threatening you. Therefore, it’s not optimal to ignore enemy weakpoints, but it’s also not optimal to exclusively target enemy weakpoints. Most stylish action games fail at this, which is something I’m writing an article on right now.

        Most games don’t simultaneously have expressive movesets and strong counter-play in their enemy designs. Games that are the intersection of these are extremely rare, such as fighting games (which aren’t even PVE), Doom Eternal, God Hand, and I’m struggling to come up with another. Ninja Gaiden has strong counterplay and good enemies (except for some stinkers), but a bland moveset. Bayonetta is the same, but better moveset, worse counterplay and enemies. DMC swings in the opposite direction with an amazing moveset but bland enemies, etc etc etc. God Hand sits at the intersection between the two styles, but is weaker than DMC at unique moves, and weaker than Ninja Gaiden at responsive and challenging enemy designs with strong counterplay (though, not by much, and mostly it’s just an easier game). It’s not technically the same genre, but Nioh (and Nioh 2 even moreso) come really close to this ideal! God of War 2018 (which I was writing a review of, but I got sidetracked because there are a lot of enemy types to cover) is technically stylish action, and it also does really well with this ideal. Part of the reason for my bias is that the skill ceiling in expressive games is clearly a lot higher than that of less expressive ones. But I do confess my bias, I like movesets a lot more than I like enemy designs, even if both are equally important to making a good overall game.

        I can’t point to a perfect overall example of a stylish action game, because there are no perfect examples. Everything this blog praises will be less than perfect because games as a field have a lot to work on, except fighting games. Fighting games are cool, even if they’re in a bit of a rut right now.

        I have a bias towards expressive movesets over good enemy design when it comes to stylish action games, and stealth games. Of the games in this genre that currently exist, I personally enjoy the expressive ones more than the hard ones. I certainly agree that Dante’s moveset could stand to be trimmed and have the unique parts honed in on, so moves are more differentiated, but I’ll disagree when saying that any particular move should become necessary. However I’ll agree that there should be more counterplay (intransitivity), some moves should obviously be better than others, depending on shifting contexts. And this is a serious failure of both the stealth genre and stylish action genre.


  3. Hey March 3, 2021 / 10:27 pm

    I was talking about the counterplay aspect. I mainly prefer games with a lot of counterplay, with relatively concise movesets that have various uses and synergize with each other. Not necessary as in a gimmicky sense, but where all the moves available would need to be utilized to get by. I suppose I think that comes a lot from the enemy design. I basically agree with you though. Thanks for the response!


    • Hey March 3, 2021 / 10:29 pm

      And I was actually thinking of Doom Eternal too, and Ninja Gaiden to a degree. Nioh too came to mind.


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