TGR Roundtable: Metal Gear Solid 4 and the Future of the MGS Franchise

For more than a decade, Metal Gear Solid has been one the premier console-based franchises for an entire generation of gamers. Based around innovative stealth gameplay and a story that has grown almost insanely complex over the years, it is a series almost as stubborn as it is beloved by its fans. Metal Gear Solid 4, if nothing else, demonstrated how stolid the determination to remain consistent had become. Many praised the game for its refined and excellent gameplay, while just as many criticized and refused to play it due to its heavy reliance on lengthy, non-interactive cinema scenes.

Metal Gear Solid 4 has brought the saga of Solid Snake to a rather certain end, but as with most any popular video game franchise, it can be almost guaranteed that fans are in for an eventual sequel. With so many intricate plot lines having come to close, however, one must question where the series will go from here? The series has survived largely off of the push to see where what was going to happen next. With no "next" in question, what can Konami do to further, and more importantly, better this excellent and beloved franchise?


Stew Shearer:

Metal Gear Solid 4 is easily my favorite game of 2008. I bought it, beat it and then beat it again, and again, and again. I haven’t done that since I first played Metal Gear Solid 2. It was, in my opinion, a near-perfect close to Snake’s story and I have a great respect for Hideo Kojima and crew for the uncompromising manner in which they made the game they wanted, rather than pandering to those gamers that might have reduced MGS4 to simply another Gears of War or such.

That being said, there were certainly some aspects of the game that weren’t what they they should have been. While I hate to give the often irrational detractors of the franchise any credence, I will say that the cinema scenes in MGS4 were a bit overbearing, and at some points downright unnecessary. I would never suggest to get rid of them altogether, as they sometimes are more useful for storytelling than gameplay alone. That goes for any franchise. That being said, the sheer bulk of the cinema scenes was just too much in MGS4. Even just a little editing, a shoring off of those bits of information the player could have done without would have worked wonders for the game, especially considering how truly excellent the gameplay honestly was.

If I were to make any sort of suggestion for the future it would be to simply showcase the gameplay more. Metal Gear Solid 3 on some level managed to find a nice balance between its storyline and its gameplay. Still, by that game’s end, I felt things were a bit sparse. Why the franchise’s developers don’t just add a little bulk to the gameplay, even by just shallowly adding in more stages or areas to get through between plot points is beyond me. There sometimes really isn’t anything wrong with that. With MGS4 already out, however, and an obviously rather lengthy wait in store before we can expect any new Metal Gears on the shelves, it would just be nice if Konami could find it in them to release some DLC packs for the game. I think — being one myself — fans would happily shell out a few dollars to see Snake through a few more missions, and if Konami were creative enough, it could really be something worthwhile.

For instance, even though a lot of modern gamers and longtime fans of the series have never played them, the Metal Gear Solid games reference the original Metal Gear games quite a bit. I personally have MGS3: Subsistence (which includes the classic games), so I have been able to tinker with them a bit, but I think an incredible idea would be for Konami to remake the original Metal Gear games as DLC for Metal Gear Solid 4. It would give a lot of players a deeper understanding of an entire section of the MGS plot, and more so, since the focus of those games was much less on the story and much more on the gameplay, revamping them with the new control scheme would give many players exactly what they’ve been asking for. I would even consider remakes for the PSP a great idea, especially considering the dry spell of good titles for Sony’s handheld, but overall I think the best home for them would be on the PS3 as a part of Metal Gear Solid 4.

Perhaps I’m wrong. What do you guys think? Should Konami focus on DLC for MGS4 like I’ve mentioned, or is there another path you all think would be better for the franchise? I personally think that there is way too much potential left in MGS4 to move on just yet.

Jeffrey Matulef:

Wow, I disagree with you on quite a few points, Stew. While I do believe the series relies too much on cut scenes, I don’t think adding more gameplay is necessarily the answer as one of my biggest pet peeves in gaming is when games are artificially lengthened. Maybe I’m just a jaded critic, but I like games where every hour I play feels like something different. In fact, that’s probably my single favorite thing about the MGS franchise.

You see, I got into the series rather late, and didn’t even like it much at first. My introduction to the series was MGS3: Snake Eater, and while I thought it had a lot of interesting ideas and set pieces, I found the gameplay broken due to a finicky camera full of blind spots, and felt like the cut scenes dragged on forever and weren’t especially entertaining. Saying they were good "for a videogame" just didn’t cut it for me, because if those cut scenes were a movie they’d be horribly boring to watch. Over a year later, I tried MGS1 and MGS2, and liked them better (perhaps because I knew what to expect by then), so I decided to give MGS3 another go, this time with the enhanced Subsistence port. The difference was like night and day.

The new camera made the game go from interesting, but broken, to the single best stealth game I’d ever played by a country mile. The boss encounters were tense and thrilling (still among the best I’ve played in any game, ever), and the game looked beautiful when you could examine it in full 3D. I still felt like the cut scenes were mostly convoluted with some truly awful dialogue, but after my initial playthrough, I found myself playing through it again a whopping four more times in quick succession, this time skipping all the cut scenes. So yeah, I realized the appeal of Hideo Kojima’s inventive game design, but still didn’t find the story particularly engaging.


MGS4 changed that somewhat for me. It was the first time I found myself truly engaged by long videogame cut scenes. At times I nearly forgot I was "playing" a game, but I didn’t mind as I was so enthralled with this "movie" I was watching. Much of this is due to the fact that most of the story plays out directly in front of you rather than through codec calls and characters quite literally lecturing you, often with makeshift PowerPoint presentations (my favorite being in MGS3 where Col. Volgin gives a 10 minute lecture on the history of the Philosophers, which he kindly agrees to explain right before he’s goint to kill you — all while a time bomb is ticking away). MGS4 still has a bit of this, but substantially less. The dialogue is still a bit hoaky, the characters are one-dimensional, and the plot is too complex to really wrap your head around. But much to my astonishment, I didn’t care. To me, it was all style with little substance (perhaps more than I give it credit for), but what style it was! From Harry Greggson-William’s amazing score, to David Hayter’s wonderfully understated performance as Snake, to some of the best set pieces in gaming, the whole thing just felt riveting, even if I didn’t always understand what was going on.

It’s too bad the denouement ruined so much of this. Without giving everything away, multiple characters who should be dead come back, often with new bodies. (Thank you, nanomachines!) It’s a truly awful conclusion that takes away much of the gravity that the game had built up before then.

The good thing is that this is never what I think about when I think about MGS4. Instead, I think about the sniper boss duel set in a blizzard, the brilliant use of audio cues from the original Metal Gear Solid, the phenomenal "tunnel sequence" late in the game, etc… These are the moments of gaming legend, and despite how I may feel about Metal Gear’s contrived, convoluted story, I’ll always have a soft spot for the series because they’re filled to the brim with these kinds of moments. Most games are essentially an hour demo stretched into a 12-hour game, but not the Metal Gear Solid series. The fact that these games switch gears (no pun intended) so often solidifies (again, no intended) them among the most unique action/adventure games in the medium.

As for the future of the series, I hope to see Kojima tell less convoluted stories. Just because a story is complex with a lot of characters, does not make it deep. Though I ragged on it a bit earlier, I do think that as a whole, MGS3 has the best story in the series. At its core, it’s about a young soldier being sent on a mission to kill his mentor. It’s rather powerful stuff, and the few scenes between Snake and The Boss are rather involving. But all too often, the game got bogged down with things like forgettable villains, femme fetales, drunken scientists, ancient conspiracies, and a McGuffin. Still, there was a good, simple story somewhere underneath all that, and I’d like to see Kojima tell more stories like that. Hideo Kojima is the kind of guy who throws everything at the wall in order to see what sticks. I feel he needs to be more selective. He needs an editor to trim the fat off these massive tales. I don’t think a simple solution like "more gameplay" is the answer. I think it’s rather a pacing issue. The cut scenes need to be tied to what’s happening, rather than going off on tangents regarding the overtly complicated backstory.

MGS4 was Snake’s final adventure, but that really means next to nothing as MGS2 and MGS3 didn’t star Solid Snake. The next game could still star Solid Snake and merely take place between earlier chapters (or a remake of the original Metal Gears, as Stew suggested). Or we could get another tale of Big Boss, or Raiden. Personally, I’d like them to go back a step further and make a game where you play as The Boss from MGS3. Maybe when Naked Snake was her apprentice. What do you all think?

Stew Shearer:

I understand your point Jeffrey, but I think there were a number of points wherein the developers could have let the player interact substantially rather than just watch. For instance, take the scene where Snake leads a wounded Big Mama through the sewers. We are shown a small snippet of this, but it could have been much more if Kojima and hadn’t been so set on showing us so much. What if instead, the PMCs had pursued Snake and Big Mama into the sewers. We would have had another section of gameplay, and escorting Big Mama would have allowed Snake to further mirror Big Boss a la MGS3, something the game was already playing up anyway.


Better yet, the game could have employed a mini-mission system not dissimilar to what Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops did. There was a central plot and accompanying story missions, but the players could also partake in optional side missions to earn extra equipment and such. A version of this, adapted to MGS4, wherein the player could perhaps take on similar side missions between the main acts would have helped to make the gameplay a bit more substantial and could have actually worked well as an alternative method for earning Drebin Points.

My overall point is that when you place such a huge emphasis on refining the gameplay as MGS4 did, you should provide more outfits to actually use it. Kojima and company had options, and even examples within its own series, of things that could be done to make a better game. MGS4 is fantastic, easily the best game of this year, and I would argue one of the best gaming experiences ever, but it still wasn’t the game it could have been. I can only hope this isn’t the case for MGS5 or whatever the next game is called.

Joseph DeLia:

I will say, right away, that I loved MGS4 and that it is definitely one of the best games of the year. I really enjoyed every moment of Snake’s final journey, and found the story to be enthralling and the gameplay to be in the best shape that it has ever been. That being said, the actual game hidden inside the experience that is MGS4 was shockingly short. Sure, it took me about 20 hours to get through from beginning to end, but the actual time spent interacting with that game was minimal, especially so if you look at how much time was spent participating in traditional MGS-sneaking.

Metal Gear Solid 4 contains literally everything but the kitchen sink, gameplay wise. There is *SPOILERS* a motorcycle chase, turret sequences, mech-battling, hand to hand combat, third-person shootouts, and the occasional bout of traditional tactical espionage action that the series is known for.*END SPOILER* The problem is that there is so little stealth-action gameplay in MGS4 that its inclusion almost feels like a bonus. More than half of your time in the game is spent watching cut scenes. The remaining time is divvied up among what I mentioned above, and I think that really hurts the game.

I feel MGS4 did a lot of things well, but didn’t give me enough time to actually appreciate all of these smaller gameplay elements that they implemented. It almost felt like a minigame collection in a way, as you are constantly doing different things but never doing one thing long enough to enjoy it. The game shifts you, gameplay-wise, from shootout to boss fight to chase in consecutive areas, and each flies by so quickly that it feels almost like you are playing a “best of” reel from a much longer game. The pacing in the game is also very uneven, because players would get pumped up for 5 minutes during a thrilling shootout and then have to watch a 20-minute diatribe about the state of the world which completely halted any possible adrenaline rush that you might have had. In short, the gameplay was great, but it was too bogged down with story sequences for it to truly stand out from the rest of the package, even though those story sequences happened to be very entertaining.

I think a mission pack, or even a V.R. Missions disk that incorporates Snake’s new abilities, would be a great way to extend MGS4, but at this point, I believe the series is in need of a new beginning. MGS4 took the storytelling that had been brought to the forefront in MGS2 and MGS3 and made that the primary focus of the package. The next Metal Gear should be looked at as a way to escape this, and make the series once again viable for those who haven’t been following the Solid Snake saga. A new hero, a new time, a new setting, new gameplay elements — adapted from those introduced in MGS4 — and a new villain would all breathe some new life into the long-running series. While they should keep some of the series mainstay elements, like the “!” marks and a few auxiliary characters such as Otacon, have everything else be different from the way it was before and begin a new trilogy to keep Solid fans happy for the next decade. Look to Silent Hill: Homecoming as a good example of this. They took the core Silent Hill elements and completely revamped everything else. While reviews on that title were somewhat mixed, I personally found that most of the changes they made were for the better, and the different gameplay brought some new life into the spooky town. (Silent Hill, by the way, is my favorite game series.)

I am, in part, glad that Kojima will be stepping down as director of the series (or so he says). While the man is obviously brilliant, I think a new vision for Metal Gear is what is needed to take the series to the next level. The original Metal Gear Solid on PlayStation had long cut scenes, but never overbearingly so, and the gameplay is what is remembered most. I think the series needs to return to basics, and, like MGS1, become renowned more for its fantastic gameplay than its overblown story elements.

Jeffrey Matulef:

Stew, I do like your suggestion of having an escort mission with Big Mama in MGS4. From her one scene, I did grow to care about her quite a bit. The part where David is cradling her was one of the most striking moments in the series for me. Being able to protect her, Ico-style, would have been great. I mean it’s easy to feel attatched to a hot glowing angelic girl, but an old woman? Kojima somehow makes it work.


And Joe, I think I love MGS4’s gameplay for all the reasons you didn’t. I agree that MGS4 is essentially a minigame collection, but when the minigames are this refined I certainly don’t mind. You play a stealth game like Splinter Cell and it feels like each level is the same as the last. But in a MGS game, you rarely go more than a handful of rooms sneaking past enemies before engaging in an entirely new activity. I agree that the game has pacing issues with the cut scenes, but I feel like if you skip the cut scenes, the pacing is immaculate, as is (okay, maybe the tailing section went on a bit long).

While I’m certainly not opposed to linear games, I do think it would be interesting to have a more free-roaming MGS game. Right now I’m completely enamoured with Fallout 3, and I keep thinking how great it would be to use that as a template for a MGS game where you’d have to investigate to find your objectives and have greater freedom in your approach. It could still be stealth-based and still have cut scenes, but it might help make the game longer for those who want it longer, and short and sweet for those who just want to breeze through the main campaign. A bit like how Chapter 2 of MGS4 hinted at large open environements with multiple paths. I’d like to see that concept expanded upon in the next game.

Stew Shearer:

I do think linear games are nice sometimes, but I would agree that an MGS game designed to be more free-roaming would be a wonderful shift for the next game. MGS4 gave us so many options for evading or dispatching foes, but the overall areas in which we could employ them were woefully limited. I almost envision the next MGS game being like Far Cry 2. You know your objective and are then dropped into a huge area in which you have to figure out your own method of completing it. Things might have to be tightened a bit, considering the generally plot-centric nature of MGS, but I think that could be managed.

On second thought, maybe things wouldn’t have to be tightened all that much. MGS4 essentially wrapped up the massive storyline of the series, so maybe the next game could be less story-focused and more reliant on open-world gameplay without it being a problem.

Joseph DeLia:

I will just close out the discussion by saying that I think the next MGS really needs to get back to the core element that made the series popular to begin with: the stealth. While the numerous different modes and distractions were a fantastic change of pace and made MGS4 feel radically new and different, I think a new entry with a new hero set in a new enviornment that uses the core MGS stealth gameplay in all new, original ways — much like how MGS4 did with Active Camo, and Snake Eater did with enviornmental cover — is the way to go. The stealth gameplay in MGS has always been strong enough to carry the series, and I think that the team at Kojima Productions is clever enough to find ways to vary the action up enough over the game’s running time to keep it consistantly entertaining without overloading it with minigames and hour-long cut scenes. I hope that the next game in the series is the dawn of an all new Metal Gear, just like the original Solid was for the series, and can’t wait to see what they have in store for us.

Author: Jeffrey Matulef