(or, how I loved to stop worrying and love the interactive movie)
Nick F takes a look at one of the most acclaimed console games of 1998 and wonders why it took this long to get the ‘interactive movie’ right.
i, and welcome to my first column for loonygames! Over the coming weeks I’ll be looking at a selection of key console titles – past, present and future – and relating them to each other, the world of PC gaming and, hey, perhaps even the meaning of life. This week I’ve been re-playing my copy of Konami’s recent PlayStation gem Metal Gear Solid and wondering exactly why a fairly linear game riddled with cut-scenes has impressed me so much…
Remember back in the early 90’s, when CD-ROM was the Next Big Thing and everybody was raving about "interactive movies" (or so it seemed)? Early CD game developers seemed intent on focusing on the ‘movie’ elements rather than the ‘interactive’, churning out games with then-amazing FMV and CD audio, but little in the way of gameplay to keep players interested once the thrill of stamp-sized video clips playing on their computer wore off. Fortunately, most gamers soon realized that ‘playing’ your average interactive movie was only marginally less fun than getting your fingernails pulled, and the monstrosities most representative of the FMV era (i.e. the Philips CD-i and Sega’s Mega-CD) died a quick death. Elements of the traditional ‘interactive movie’ idea still crop up now and again, most notably in the Wing Commander series (soon to be on a silver screen near you - confirming my suspicion that Chris Roberts always wanted to be making movies rather than games). Thankfully, developers have since figured out more enterprising ways of using the 650-odd megabytes (remember how h-u-g-e that once sounded?) contained on the average CD-ROM. Let’s hope that some lessons have been learned, especially with the impending switch to DVD-ROM ("Gee, maybe 7th Guest could be done using MPEG-2?") - I noticed with some dread that Riven was one of the first DVD titles. Noooo!
What the hell does this have to do with Metal Gear Solid? Well, after playing through the game a couple of times, I believe it’s another interactive movie – except the concept has finally been done justice. Don’t stop reading now – let me explain! Let’s face it, all this movie talk is just a way of saying that we like a bit of plot, character and, dammit, maybe even some pathos in our gaming experience. Nobody wants to play through a completely linear game, but at the same time mindlessly running about blasting bad guys just doesn’t cut it anymore. We’re so used to being presented with flimsy, disposable plots and given faceless characters to identify with that when a game comes along oozing quality in these areas, we suddenly fall ass-backwards with surprise as the game connects with us on numerous, hitherto unrealized, levels.
What’s the plot? Well, you play the husky loving (no, not like that), burnt-out mercenary ‘Solid Snake’, called out of early retirement to save the world from a group of terrorists holding Washington to nuclear ransom. He’s bitter, he’s sarcastic and he likes flirting with attractive women (hey, remember this game’s rated "Mature" for sexual themes in the US)! Your mission starts off with Snake infiltrating the Alaskan base the terrorists have taken over, and it’s up to you to determine whether the terrorists really do have the ability to launch a nuke. Classic action movie territory (it’s actually far more complicated than that, but I don’t want to ruin anything for you – play the game)! Even better for the wannabe tough-guys out there, you start the game armed with only a pair of binoculars and a pack of cigarettes. How cool is that?
Play can be divided into two distinct sections: the interactive levels where you control Solid Snake, and the cut-scenes. You might feel that my emphasizing the distinction of the cut-scenes indicates their intrusion into the gameplay, but in reality the cut-scenes are what propel the game forward. You see, the story and the game are so closely interwoven in Metal Gear Solid that to remove one would be to the detriment of the other. Think of the number of action games you’ve played where, if you stripped away the story elements, you would still have a fairly comprehensible game – a lot, right? It is actually difficult to imagine how Metal Gear would have worked without the story line – imagine a Lucasarts adventure without a plot and you get the idea. The brilliant thing about Metal Gear Solid is that although it has a strong story, the interactive section of the game is actually streets ahead of point-and-click adventures! In fact, the level of interaction approaches that of FPS classics like Duke Nukem and Half-Life (I think I can call that a classic already) – when you’re roaming in the world of Metal Gear Solid and you think to yourself "I wonder if I can…", the answer is probably "Yes".
The control of Solid Snake is fantastic. Games like this really show up some of the benefits of designing games for consoles i.e. entire games can be designed around the (correct) assumption that every PlayStation owner has a PlayStation pad. Walking, running, crawling, armed and unarmed combat and changing from third to first-person views quickly become second nature. The shoulder buttons bring up the weapon and item selection icons – these wrap around the side and bottom of the screen, providing the cleanest item selection interface I’ve ever used – and in conjunction with the D-pad enable any item to be enabled in a couple of seconds. The ability to switch from armed to unarmed combat with a single button press (effectively changing your mode of play from ‘aggression’ to ‘stealth’) is also essential. The joy of such a well thought-out pad system is that you don’t spend time battling with the controls and instead get involved far more quickly in the game.
Sneaking about in Metal Gear is a pleasure in itself – many locations are heavily guarded, and Konami have seen fit to provide you with a ‘lure’ action which enables you to attract enemy soldiers’ attention by tapping on the side of the wall, tank, crate or whichever object you happen to be peering round the corner from. This leads me into the brilliant enemy behavior – not particularly strong AI in itself, it succeeds in creating marvelously tense games of hide-and-seek; guards will hear you if you move too loudly (step in a puddle, for instance), and should they see your footprints in the snow they will come over and investigate. Should a guard stumble on you, or the corpse of a murdered comrade, he will sound the alarm and all hell will break loose. With the sirens blaring, you’d best either open fire with the biggest, baddest gun you have, or run away and hide again.
Konami have seen fit to impose certain limitations on the enemy AI - the most obvious example is the guards’ line of sight which is far shorter than it would be in ‘real life’. This decision is undoubtedly a direct result of the workings of the game’s camera system (which I will describe later) and it is easy to imagine the frustration that hyper-sensitive sentries would cause. Thankfully, Konami had the good sense to realize that the quest for ‘realism’ (and in many ways Metal Gear Solid tries its hardest to be realistic) isn’t the be-all and end-all – at least where enjoyable gameplay’s concerned.
Snake is also equipped with a radar in the corner of the screen, providing a basic map of his immediate surroundings and (more importantly) detailing the position of nearby enemies. It shows their field of view, which makes avoiding them slightly easier. Even with the help of the radar, it takes a bit of practice to sneak up on guards and quietly snap their necks, but the grisly satisfaction it provides should please any latent homicidal maniac. Play on the ‘Hard’ setting if you really want the radar disabled, but I found it an entertaining addition to Snake’s arsenal.
Metal Gear Solid is the first game to make use of Sony’s Dual Shock force-feedback controller virtually essential. Not only does the analogue control afford much greater precision in your movements as you sneak about, but the rumble effect has been put to brilliant use; you’ll feel the wind buffeting you as a Hind helicopter sweeps over your head, and you’ll wince every time a bullet slams into your back. Even better, try taking aim with the long-range rifle and notice the way your heartbeat causes the pad (and your sniper sight) to jump slightly. Without wanting to ruin any surprises, the Dual Shock does a good job of connecting the player with the action onscreen on a number of occasions - no more so than in the awesome encounter with one section’s boss, Psycho-Mantis. Konami are to be commended on such imaginative use of a peripheral.
Credits: Pad Happy logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Pad Happy is © 1998 Nick Ferguson. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it, or you'll get some real force feedback.