From its days as a generation-defining PlayStation 1 game to its most recent outing on PS4, the Metal Gear Solid series has seen some of the most drastic, impressive and unexpected evolutions of any game you care to name.
Each generational iteration has blown away its competitors away with exceptional graphics, gameplay mechanics and storytelling. Even if its stories were a little far-fetched and sometimes involved 100 year-old snipers and minigun-wielding Alaskan Shaman, we’ve lapped them up, time and time again. But how did Metal Gear Solid evolve over time?
Having first begun as a well-received MSX game titled simply Metal Gear, the core concept remained largely the same for 30 years: tactical espionage action. The worlds and characters around that, however? Not so much.
The premise has always been simple: your character, one of the various iterations of Snake (Solid, Liquid, Solidus, Naked, Punished, Venom) must gain access to a place, usually a military installation or facility, for the purpose of extracting either information or a person. Greater rewards are then bestowed upon you, based on the speed and quality of your gameplay. With the end-game rankings for Metal Gear Solid ranging from Hound to Hippo and Cat to Crocodile, if you want to achieve the best rank (Big Boss) you’ll need to finish the game in under 3 hours, having consumed no more than a single ration and by killing fewer than 25 guards and being spotted fewer than five times. Quite the challenge. But not for you, Snake.
3D gaming only truly arrived at home in 1994, to any recognisable quality, with Sony’s PlayStation. Just four short years later, in 1998, you could silently attempt to undo your mistakes in Half-Life, travel through time in Majora’s Mask or sneak your way around a multi-levelled Nuclear weapons disposal facility on an Alaskan island codenamed “Shadow Moses”. An incredible leap in graphical fidelity, Metal Gear Solid had not only some of the best graphics of the generation a full two years before the PS2 came out, but it brought with it some of the most inspired gameplay mechanics. Footprints in the snow for guards to follow; wolves who won’t attack you if you smell like their friend; and a boss who can read your movements unless you switch the controller port. All concepts equally as bizarre as brilliant.
This also ushered in the idea of, not so much a revolving door of villains, but of a roster unmatched in the medium. A rogues’ gallery to easily rival that of the greatest comic book characters like Spider-Man or Batman, for both size and substance. Enduring characters like Revolver Ocelot and Gray Fox were introduced in a phenomenally confident fashion, within just one game.
Fast-forward four years to 2002. The world has changed following the harrowing events of 2001 and this only makes the plot of the Metal Gear Solid series feel all the more relevant. More real. Since his exploits on Shadow Moses, the world around Snake has begun to develop a plethora of Metal Gear machines in a new era of nuclear proliferation. From just the third line of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty – “We had classified intelligence that a new type of Metal Gear was scheduled for transport” – you found yourself in the natural evolution of the story. Not just one Metal Gear, one terrorist group or one facility, but dozens. A free-for-all of force and fission to be fought across the globe.
Sons of Liberty began on the Discovery tanker as it ebbed along the Hudson River towards the American East coast, Snake once again sought to infiltrate and investigate a facility teeming with enemies. Once again, he did so in a world so much more graphically advanced than anything else available at that time. You can see series creator Hideo Kojima really enjoying the new capabilities of the hardware in some of the smallest details. Round a corner in the lower decks and – is that Vulcan Raven? No, it’s a shadow cast by a toy miniature of the MGS1 baddie. Shoot it and it’ll even shoot back with little foam balls. Hide amongst the fruit and veg in the upper deck storage room and you’ll be coated in chunks of destructible watermelon and concealed in a disorienting haze of flour. More practically, tranquiliser darts take effect based on where you shoot; head or heart for an instant takedown, arms and legs need time to pump the toxins around. You can even shoot an enemy’s radio on their belt and they won’t be able to call for back-up. A fantastic evolution of the footstep-following in the first game.
Later in Metal Gear Solid 2, there’s a more real-world evolution observed, too. Set late in the noughties, combat is now a role conducted by drones. Once on the Big Shell section, Cyphers patrol the exterior, seeking and destroying intruders and interlopers as a cheaper, more disposable resource than expensive human guards. A scarily accurate prediction of the evolution of real-world warfare.
We see an evolution of the enemies and playing spaces, too. Obviously an increase in enemy intelligence from the PS1 era, but you’re faced with two of gaming’s most insane enemy designs ever: Vamp and Fatman. The first, an unkillable, living vampire who frustrates and fascinates in equal measure, with the ability to avoid your shots in a manner akin to an evolution of Psycho Mantis from the first game. The second, an overweight, inline-skate-wearing explosives expert. Insanity. Fatman is the perfect example of the evolution of the brilliant-but-bizarre boss battles of the first game, as you diffuse his bombs with a freezing spray and attempt to take him out at the same time.
It’s in Metal Gear Solid 2 where we first see the evolution of Kojima’s philosophy on ‘Gene, Meme, Scene’, too. We move from Metal Gear Solid’s ‘Gene’ (the idea that you are who you are, your physical features are what they are and you must do what you can with what you’ve got) to Metal Gear Solid 2’s ‘Meme’ (that your thoughts and ideas may come from you, but you can choose which to nurture, which to ignore and which to pass on to a younger generation). And finally, we’re introduced to ‘Scene’ in Metal Gear Solid 3 (that no matter the setting, being when and where you come from, born or raised, you can still choose how to react to your situation.)
Which brings us neatly on to 2004’s Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. This was the biggest evolution of the series so far, taking you from the cramped, confined corridors of military bases and tankers to the sprawling, Soviet jungle of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. This meant more open spaces, less hiding places and now camouflaging of faces. Depending on your surroundings, you could now alter your sneaking suit and face camo to match – from tree bark and mud to grass, stone and brickwork.
Metal Gear Solid 3 also evolved the idea of using your environment to your advantage. More so than just watermelons and flour this time, too. Not only could you climb trees and hide in long grass, but if you lured a guard too close to a crafty crocodile or dropped a beehive on them, well, your work was done for you. We also saw yet another evolution in the wackiness of the villains, with The Cobra Unit including The Pain, able to transform into a swarm of bees and The End, the villain who’d die of old age if you stopped playing for a few days before loading up your save.
Fatigue would now set in for Snake, too, affecting your aiming and even causing his position to be given away by a growling stomach if he didn’t trap and eat enough of the flora and fauna. Enemies, too, could fall foul of strapped supply lines. Blow up their ammo stores and they’ll conserve their rounds. Destroy their food supplies and their aiming and desire to search for you diminishes, an en-masse evolution of the radio-shooting trick from Metal Gear Solid 2.
A further evolution of the camouflage system was then carried to and improved upon in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Old Snake’s Octo-camo suit would automatically detect any surface you pressed against, like an octopus, hence the name. This evolved the camo system beyond having to constantly pause and choose your own disguises. There was also an option to sneak past warring factions, or to side with one or play with the attitude that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – something we’d experienced in Metal Gear Solid 3 with those crocodiles.
The biggest evolution in Metal Gear Solid 4 by far, however, is Snake himself. Now Old Snake, the hero of Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2 is hampered by the accelerated ravages of time thanks to the nanomachines within him. Snake’s evolution from reluctant hero, dragged from retirement in Metal Gear Solid, to a man willing to crawl to his death at the end of a tunnel cooking him with microwave radiation at the end of Metal Gear Solid 4, might feel like a Hollywood, big-budget approach to a series finale, but it’s done in the very best way.
Finally, Metal Gear Solid V, then. Metal Gear Solid V is a complete evolution for the series in so many ways, complete with a new main character, a new mission style and story arc. Apart from the larger themes and world, this game stands almost alone from all other entries in the series. A prequel to all but one of the mainline entries, Metal Gear Solid v takes the best bits of its predecessors. It has the smooth control and good looks of Metal Gear Solid 4, the open spaces and varied locales of Metal Gear Solid 3 and the tight and tense corners of Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2‘s military facilities. Add to that the towering Sahelanthropus Metal Gear, which ditched the squat stature of its predecessors for a more “traditional” robotic/humanoid look.
The world of Metal Gear Solid V is the ultimate evolution for the series (at least so far), with all previous environments able to coexist within one large map and be accessed however the player sees fit. Gone are the restricted, one-way-in, one-way-out layouts of the earliest games, and gone are the split-level designs of Metal Gear Solid 3. Instead, there’s a now unlimited verticality, offering the ability to attack from cliffs or gulleys. And gone is Metal Gear Solid 4‘s focus on warring factions and urban warfare.
With the unfortunate cloud of Hideo Kojima’s departure from Konami, fans never got the ultimate Metal Gear Solid send-off they were hoping for. But in Metal Gear Solid V, whilst not as beloved as earlier entries, we’re left with a true representation of the ultimate evolution of the series.