Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Metal Gear Solid V (MGSV), more than I usually do, it’s occupying much of my free thinking time. With 162 hours on the in-game clock and 75% completion I do the most logical thing, I start playing Watch Dogs 2. The original Chicago set hackathon from Ubisoft was a very enjoyable experience. Despite the controversy surrounding its apparent visual downgrade, the game provided me tens of hours of both offline and online fun and a shiny platinum trophy to boot.
In Watch Dogs 2 the action moves to a new city with a new protagonist. The games colour palette sees a major overhaul, with the somewhat drab and dreary tones of Chicago replaced with the technicolor triumph that is San Francisco. It is the gaming equivalent of Dorothy entering the door in to the Land of Oz. Our new hero Marcus is a cheeky hacker chappy with some nifty parkour skills and an endless stream of pop culture utterances to boot. Who in 2019 doesn’t remember the Los Locos song from Short Circuit 2? Just me? I’m showing my age.
The game features a narrative that unfolds in a natural fashion given the open world setting. Big bad corporations doing big bad things on one side, with Marcus and his trusty hacker crew on the other looking to save the day. It’s hardly original but it’s simple structure doesn’t get lost with the distractions of a non-linear game. Games of this ilk often suffer from poor pacing, but not Watch Dogs 2. In the case of MGSV the theme of revenge is hampered with numerous subplots; the appearance of The Man on Fire (Volgin from Metal Gear Solid 3) and the Eli (young Liquid Snake) subplot to name but two, which go nowhere yet take hours to play out. In Watch Dogs 2 core story missions and optional side missions all feed into the broader narrative of the world. Where Ubisoft shine in open world narrative story telling, Kojima Productions sadly fail quite badly.
MGSV is unique as it is the first time in the Metal Gear Solid series that the game ditches linear and carefully curated design principles of past titles to favour an open world approach. It was a bold move for a team who built their reputation on considered curation and it showed. The two ‘open worlds’ are set in Afghanistan and along the Angola-Zaire border region. They can’t really be considered open worlds so much as they are large levels. Both areas feature many settlements and buildings with detailed interior environments. The landscapes are desolate with little to interact with and little to do. Now before you say anything, I don’t expect to see Snake entering various time trials (if you ignore the S ranking system) or playing mini games, but could typical open world tropes have improved things in the case of MGSV? What if Snake had liberated a village or settlement from enemy control? His actions to save innocents (or not) would have allowed Snake to gather information to aid his overall quest. His actions within the world could have led to a more emergent narrative allowing players to have a unique story experience like Telltale Games or Netflix’s Bandersnatch. Another benefit from this component would be in relation to the games hidden karma system aka the ‘Demon System’. Your in-game actions; killing enemies, harming animals or developing nuclear weapons manifest with the increase (or decrease) of the shrapnel ‘horn’ sticking out of Snake’s head. This key game feature is never explained another example of the game’s inability to do the basics correctly.
I don’t believe that the empty and featureless landscapes of Afghanistan and Angola-Zaire tie into the subject of emptiness. They are evidence that the Kojima Productions team were not sufficiently experienced in open world game design, failing to balance the key ingredients of exploration and opportunity.
Watch Dogs 2 on the other hand is a game that truly understands its open world setting, coming from Ubisoft, the connoisseurs of the open world. The city of San Francisco and its surrounding environs are fully exploitable to the player. Not only is environment hackable with Marcus’ phone taking control of traffic lights, bollards & even vehicles to cause havoc and distraction, but his hacking skills can interact with members of the public. The game expands on the mechanics of Watch Dogs with a new addition; the ability to create conflict between gangs and the police. Need to get into a heavily patrolled area? Simply use your phone and call it in. Marcus can falsify evidence to have a gang attack a rival gang, police can arrive to intervene or arrest a corrupt officer. The games upgrade system allows you to improve Marcus’ skillset to take full control of the open world. The upgrade tree allows you to create a snowball effect to this hacking mechanic, creating multiple hacking strands turning gangs and cops against each other in a seemingly never ending loop. Marcus can sit somewhere safe, use his tech and allow the chaos to unfold before he swoops in an completes his task without any difficulty. This mechanic is an excellent design decision allowing the player to change the way a mission can evolve. Despite the extensive range of available weapons to Marcus, I believed that he was someone who would shy away from the direct use of violence. This incredible mechanic allowed me to peruse a more peaceful approach for Marcus creating my own internal karma system.
Should you wish to pursue a more direct approach to missions, you can of course use weapons to do so. The weapons can be created at your various hacker safe houses with the use of 3d printer, with your new fully customisable weapon available seconds after you choose to create it. MGSV also allows you to create new weapons through your research and development team on Mother Base, but unlike the instant gratification of Watch Dogs 2 the game makes you wait in real time for your latest upgrade.
Aside from weapons Marcus has tools at his disposal, his remote control car and drone can also give you a stealthy approach or reconnaissance advantage. Tools in MGSV like the Walker Gear allow rapid transition across the desolate landscape reducing the overall pain in the player’s proverbial ass. The infamous Battle Tank is so unworkable that Kojima and co leave it unfinished (like much of the game) in a Mother Base hanger never for direct use by the player.
All of these design decisions be it the open world approach, the poorly paced narrative, unexplained gameplay features, the pointless episodic structure and the unfinished state of the game are a sad end to the Metal Gear Solid saga. On the flip side, the refined mechanics, upbeat character, lively setting and sandbox gameplay create one impressive recipe, resulting in game so incredibly open-ended you can reply the same mission over with different strategies every time. The ability to sneak into areas using non-lethal takedowns, a full-on shoot-em-up approach or assistance from your jumper or drone buddies make me believe that Watch Dogs 2 is the Metal Gear Solid game that MGSV wishes it could have been. The leap in quality from Watch Dogs is self evident, I do hope that Ubisoft have faith in this series and continue to build on the incredible foundations that Watch Dogs 2 has established.
I would encourage those of you who have yet to play Watch Dogs 2 to find a copy and play it, you might even find yourself quoting Metal Gear as you do; hey Watch Dogs 2 “you’re pretty good”.