Microsoft kicked off its E3 2013 press conference with a bold stroke, showing off the first proper look at Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It was a huge coup for Microsoft, if you recall all the hand-wringing about Metal Gear Solid 4's PlayStation 3 exclusivity. Remember the year Microsoft took out a huge trade ad saying, "Mr. Kojima: Jump in!"... only to be completely ignored? Clearly times have changed.
That's all well and good for Microsoft -- and I'm happy for them and all -- but the demo for The Phantom Pain struck me for entirely different reasons. Namely, as a fan of the games, not the companies. As heavily sought-after as it may have been at the time, Metal Gear Solid 4 has gone down as a somewhat contentious game. Players have taken issue with everything from its revamped mechanics to its structure to its story. And while I enjoyed the game at the time (I scored it pretty highly), it also felt to me like a dead end for the franchise. Hideo Kojima and his collaborators painted themselves into some rather byzantine corners and then wriggled free by playing the get-out-of-jail-free card that was nanomachines -- handy, but it didn't really leave anywhere else to go.
Plot cheats aside, my biggest complaint with MGS4 was the way it started out as a fantastic stealth/action game but ended as something else entirely. It radically revamped the series' clumsy legacy mechanics into a third-person shooter at once both modern and appealing while leaving players room to approach it as quietly or violently as they liked. Midway through the game, however, that came screeching to a halt as the free-form play gave way to a series of corridors and open areas littered with waist-high cover points, and the human foes faded away in favor of robots (or rather: Nanomachines).
But as much as MGS4 went off the rails, Peace Walker for PSP went a long way toward righting its course by putting the emphasis firmly on the shooting mechanics. In fact, Peace Walker felt for all the world like a second take on the brilliant but sometimes clumsy Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, broken into bite-sized portable-friendly chunks. Even the franchise's customary ludicrous plot twists felt more tolerable thanks to the PSP game's far less bombastic presentation.
Watching the trailer this morning made me realize how much further Peace Walker needed to go to properly reinvent Metal Gear -- and to its credit, Phantom Pain actually looks like it might take the series the rest of the way. In a lot of ways, it feels like the realization of what Snake Eater wanted to do, but which the technology of the time couldn't support... and which would have felt maddeningly clumsy with the series' dated control scheme even if they'd tried.
Metal Gear has always been a slave to technology. It began its life on the MSX/2, a computer/console hybrid that could only handle a few moving objects and didn't handle scrolling screens with much in the way of grace. Throughout the series' history, its design has reflected the impositions of RAM and processor ceilings, always pushing at the edges but never quite breaking beyond the restrictions of small environments and limited interactive dynamism. For the next generation, Metal Gear will incorporate all the things it's always aspired to: A huge, open world; seamless transitions between stealth and vehicles (and even the ability to blend the two modes of world navigation); and even a day/night cycle.
As I watched the trailer for The Phantom Pain, all those interesting but incomplete systems that cluttered Snake Eater -- you know, inventory degradation and the like -- came to mind. I thought of the tech demo feel of the tanker chapter of Sons of Liberty. I remembered the complex, multi-faction battlefield of MGS4's opening chapter. And I saw all those things coming together into a properly realized form... or at least, I hope so.
At the same time, The Phantom Pain is still very much a Metal Gear game, which means it's kind of ridiculous. The dialogue feels like the work of a young writer at the cusp of making the transition from hoary cliches to lyrical elegance. The characters are ridiculous, from the surly Joffrey-esque young man Eli (whom many fans have pegged as a young Liquid Snake) to an absolutely ridiculous sniper wearing little more than a bikini top -- because that's what you want to be wearing when you're perched on an exposed rock for hours at a time drawing a bead on a target while the desert sun beats down on you. The bad guy is a fellow named Skull Face, who in the most prosaic comic book tradition is, in fact, a dude with a skull for a face. Even Big Boss has a new modifier for his "Snake" code-name.
It's all very silly, and yet, at the same time, totally intoxicating. The Phantom Pain's demo showed Snake infiltrating enemy lines, using advanced CQC in order to rescue his old friend Kaz Miller. Snake (now voiced by Kiefer Sutherland trying his damnedest to sound like David Hayter, which makes you wonder why they didn't just stick with Hayter as his voice actor) rides into action on horseback alongside his rival-turned-ally Revolver Ocelot, who himself looks perfectly poised at a midpoint between his MGS3 "Adam" persona and the long-haired elder statesman of the Solid Snake era. I don't know how Kojima does it, but amidst all the silliness, the teaser for his upcoming game hits me right in the part of the brain that used to fixate over ads for the NES Metal Gear, the part of me that just can't give up on the franchise no matter how goofy it gets.
In the end, though, the thing I find most enticing about MGSV is the expanded scope of its game mechanics. Metal Gear has always been about stealth, and despite the shift to a much more open approach to its overall design MGSV doesn't appear to dilute the importance of sneaking about. Kojima has outed himself as an unabashed Assassin's Creed fanboy, and yet The Phantom Pain looks to retain a truer kernel of sneaking than the shallow stealth lip service we've come to expect from Ubisoft's "stealth" franchise.
While my days of poring over each and every Metal Gear trailer in pursuit of minuscule hints are long past -- the shenanigans Kojima played with MGS2's teasers made certain of that -- today's Phantom Pain trailer certainly caught my attention. I'm not sure where the game's story is going, and I'm not really sure I care. But by god, I want to experience the next evolution of the series' 25-year history of tactical stealth action.