The Importance of Control Schemes in the “Metal Gear Solid” Series

Be warned, there may be spoilers below.

I’ve been playing the Metal Gear Solid franchise over the summer in order to get ready for the release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I rushed through all of the main games in the series. I still need to watch a Portable Ops video to catch up, then do the same for or play Peace Walker. Then I can finally play Ground Zeroes and be caught up to speed.

For most of these games, it’s been the first time that I’ve played them in years. I played MGS as recently as last year but I probably last played MGS2 sometime before 2006. I think it was the same or 2008 for MGS3.

When I played them all again, I turned a critical eye to my old friends. Experiencing the series in such quick succession allowed me to be cognizant of all the changes and the different ways each game played because of them. My habits from MGS2 two hours before would not transition well to MGS3. This allowed me to really understand what I appreciated about the Metal Gear Solid games in a more contemporary context.

Stealth in Metal Gear Solid is simple. The top-down perspective provides an unobtrusive way to see around corners and obstacles. The Soliton Radar system performs a similar function but also allows for the player to see the range of an enemy’s sight. MGS and MGS2 both function in this way.

Some shots of the Soliton Radar throughout the games. The white dot is the player, red dots are enemies. The cones represent fields of vision. Yellow cones are cautious/curious guards and red cones are alerted guards. All rights to the Metal Gear Wiki for this image and their knowledge.

Tactical espionage in MGS boils down to avoiding your enemies’ line of sight. Walking behind their backs or otherwise not in their field of view allows you to get by without raising an alarm. While there are other variables that sometimes complicate and spice up this simple system, such as footprints or sound, this is MGS’s stealth at its core.

Technically, the first three MGS games don’t force the player to complete their missions with stealth. MGS and MGS2 both give the player access to weapons such as pistols and assault rifles. MGS3 goes further and deepens the physical combat system by introducing more weapons to the player’s arsenal. After the weapons are introduced in each game, the player can play the game with guns blazing.

To combat this, MGS encourages a stealth playthrough through calculated decisions and limitations. Snake has a low health pool and can’t take that much damage. This deters players from combat scenarios as combat likely means certain death. Combat is made more difficult because enemies can shoot from off-screen, creating an imbalance between the player and the guards.

Note how limited the player’s vision is and Snake’s health bar. Probably a victim of bullets from off-screen. Poor guy. All rights to image owners.

Each shot that Snake suffers makes him reel back in pain before the player can act again. These mini-stuns can be chained together and leave the player unable to act for an extended period of time. Together, this creates a deadly and often frustrating situation that is intended to make combat difficult and not fun.

After the introduction of analog sticks to the Playstation brand and the improvement of console first person shooters in the early 2000s, the Metal Gear Solid games held onto an outdated and convoluted control scheme. This is what aiming and shooting a gun in first person requires in MGS2 and MGS3.

  1. Have a gun equipped.
  2. Hold the R1 button to go into first person.
  3. Press the Square button to hold up your gun.
  4. Release the Square button to fire.
  5. Release the Square button slowly to lower your gun without firing.

The PlayStation 2 controller buttons were analog as well, providing the functionality for number 5. This control scheme has a couple of unfortunate side effects. One of them is that if you release the Square button too fast, you shoot whatever guard you were trying to hold up in the head, or you fire a shot that alerts nearby guards.

This complicated control scheme is only made worse when trying to shoot from around a corner, which requires the following

  1. Press the left analog stick against the wall to stand against it.
  2. Move the left analog stick to the side to get to the corner.
  3. Press the R2 or L2 button to peek around the corner.
  4. Hold all of the above motions, then go to step one of shooting.
Actual image of someone trying to shoot in “Metal Gear Solid.” All rights to the poor bastard playing because who knows how he took this picture.

This control scheme could have easily been streamlined. Going into first person view with a gun equipped could draw the gun automatically. Coupled with a dedicated shoot button, the player is able to decide whether or not to shoot within a simple binary system, with far less room for error and misplaced shots from removing a thumb too fast.

The difficulty of this control scheme further encourages player to sneak past guards. Trying to shoot has room for error and the player is safer to just avoid it. This system is kept for the first three MGS games, even when MGS3 expanded upon close quarters combat. It functions as an intentional system to discourage gun combat in favor of player stealth.

MGS4 is the first game where the shooting mechanics are updated to a more streamlined and intuitive scheme. The game’s controls update to a post-Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War world with a contemporary third-person shooter control and movement scheme. It’s no surprise that this is also the Metal Gear that players discuss how easy it is to go loud.

Because of the updated controls, it’s easier to play MGS4 as a shooter. It chooses one of the simplest schemes.

  1. Press the L1 button to raise your weapon.
  2. Press the R1 button to fire.

The R2 button lets you fire your weapon’s secondary function, while the Triangle button lets you toggle between third person and first person views. This is beyond simple compared to the finger gymnastics required to raise your gun, aim and shoot in previous MGS games.

The player is also able to move while aiming and shooting in MGS4. While the player could technically move and shoot in previous games, this also required some fancy fingerwork of holding down one face button with your thumb while continuing to use Square to shoot. Moving and aiming in first person view was impossible.

The introduction of movement allows Snake to be a goddamn badass. Now that he can move and shoot at the same time, he can fight on the same level as guards. Shooting is no longer a tradeoff of evasion for combat. The player can do both at the same time. It’s not as difficult. It feels good. It’s more fun to play.

MGS4 does adapt to this change. The first two acts put Snake in the middle of a battlefield, right between two warring sides. In the first three MGS games, this scenario would be stressful. There’s a lot of bullets flying around and detection would probably lead to death. While you can still sneak around both factions, it’s often more beneficial to just help one side wipe out the other one so you can get into the next zone.

Combat is not the punishment that it was in previous games. Bosses are more involved and action-packed and there are more combat sequences outside of boss battles. The FROGS that are fought off with Rat Patrol Team 01 in Act 1 and the forced Gekko fights in Act 4 are more intricate and prolonged encounters than they would have been in earlier games. Combat sequences also exist in greater frequency because they have the freedom to do so. With the improved control scheme, combat doesn’t exist as a punishment in the way that it used to. It’s more fun and enjoyable, or at least easier to play.

Drebin and his shop are an implemented supplement to MGS4 and its new combat system. The player can, at any time, use Drebin points to buy weapons and ammo from his shop and have them added to their inventory. Because it’s now easier for the player to use their weapons, they will now be inclined to use more ammunition and try out different armaments. The forced combat sequences mentioned above also encourage the player to use the new weapons and upgrades that they have purchased from the shop or push them toward it whenever they run out of supplies in one of the scripted fights.

The improved control scheme for shooting in MGS4 allows the player more freedom in how they handle scenarios. A simple control scheme is often a better control scheme. No player wants to fight their controller in order to complete an action. Frustration arises whenever a player has to fight their controller before they can fight their enemy.

This isn’t to say that the control scheme in early MGS games is bad. Quite the opposite, actually. Their strenuous nature is something that affected the design and play of the games themselves. Careful examination of later games like MGS4 shows a clear shift in design that further supports the connection between control schemes and gameplay.

Disclaimer: All used images belong to their owners. I tried to do some research after I found the featured picture for this article on Google Images, but I was unable to locate the original source. I pulled it from Whoever the artist is, goddamn that is a great piece.


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I like video games and have strong opinions about "World of Warcraft."

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