Games Should Be Made Amazing Whatever the Hardware

People appreciate it when they don’t feel like they’re being discriminated against for not ‘upgrading’.

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May 15 2014, 6:00am

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Two of the biggest names in the stealth game genre have come out to play in 2014, across platforms both current and next generation – or perhaps that’s present and past generations, now that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are so embedded, with the former installed in four million homes and its Sony rival in over six million. Whatever: out now for these new black boxes, 360 and PS3 alike, are Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and Thief. And only one manages to properly protect the prodigious reputation of its parent series.

The original Metal Gear, developed by Konami and released in 1987 for Microsoft’s MSX2 home computer, was notable for not only further popularising the stealth game – avoidance of enemies over direct confrontation always produced better results – but it also marked the design debut of Hideo Kojima. The 50-year-old Japanese national has worked extensively on several acclaimed games since – amongst them Snatcher, Zone Of The Enders and 2010’s Castlevania reboot, the recently sequelled Lords Of Shadow. But it’s for the Metal Gear series that he’s best known, and what his status as one of gaming’s most celebrated directors is founded on.

Ground Zeroes is ostensibly sold as the fifth instalment in this narratively complex saga, charting the complicated relationships of primary protagonist Solid Snake (who isn’t always the playable role) and a cavalcade of supporting characters both substantial and tertiary with Cold War-inspired military machinations and the rise of private army forces. But there are so many more titles in this series – well over 20 at the last count – that anyone attempting to play catch-up now had better put three months aside to unravel everything. And Ground Zeroes isn’t even a "complete" game – it serves as a prologue to the forthcoming game-five-proper The Phantom Pain, likely out in 2015.

But despite only featuring a brief, two-stage central plot complemented by a selection of subsequently unlocked smaller operations and, if all nine collectable XOF patches are found on the same save, a sweet little platform-dependent bonus mission, Ground Zeroes never feels short on content. That you can finish the main game inside an hour is missing the point: Kojima has here created a small-scale sandbox playground like few others, in the shape of a 1975 US black site based in Cuba, which has the potential to provide endless hours of entertainment.

'Camp Omega', a clear analogue of Guantanamo, is a beautifully tailored environment hiding tremendously terrifying secrets, full of the kind of attention to detail that much larger open-world settings simply can’t deliver, due to asset management and time restrictions. When Snake, aka Big Boss and voiced for the first time by Kiefer Sutherland, is dropped off under cover of darkness just outside the rain-lashed complex, the first direction is simply to gain access. How you go about doing this, though, is entirely up to you.

Take the impressive-of-AI guards head on and revel in the carnage? Sneak around the sides, past the searchlights and then into the storm drain system? The choice is yours – and even then, the precise methods of progression are purely player-designated rather than strictly determined by rigidly single solutions. There’s a magnificently emergent element to Ground Zeroes that operates on a potently concise level – it responds to you brilliantly because its systems only have to operate within the tall fences of a relatively small game world. This Snake has a freedom that past Metal Gear leading men could only dream about.

Ground Zeroes’ heritage means that it’s instinctive to guide Snake around Omega as quietly as possible, taking out patrolling NPCs with tranquiliser darts and bundling their passed-out bodies out of the sight of their colleagues. But the game stands up perfectly well as a third-person shooter, too, if that’s how you want to take it on. Snake’s capacity for receiving damage is forgiving, but stand up to several armed enemies at once and expect to be restarting from your last checkpoint pretty quickly.

When you are detected trying to sneak past enemies, the game slips into a few precious seconds of bullet time-style slow motion to allow for an accurate headshot, preventing a base-wide alert. Such a mechanic is a clear concession to gamers’ differing wants – Kojima isn’t punishing those who want to go all guns blazing, giving noisier participants space to neutralise potentially session-ending encounters before they escalate – but at no stage is the Metal Gear series’ core stealth gameplay compromised. It is entirely possible to finish Ground Zeroes’ extraction objectives without firing a single hollow-tip, and doing so leads to a better ranking at the main game’s end.

It’s a joy to return to Camp Omega in the side missions. The first, to eliminate a renegade threat, comes with a twist: now you’re taking on the base during daylight hours. In another, you see the base from the air, tracking an on-the-ground informant as he attempts to escape. And if you’re playing on Xbox, the final unlockable mission casts you as the cyborg ninja Raiden in his Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance guise, tasked with taking out Snatchers who’ve overtaken the base. Anyone who was a fan of Snatcher when it made is English-language debut for the Sega Mega-CD in 1994 (oh, hi!) will get such a thrill from this additional content.

Ground Zeroes is uniformly excellent, offering substantial replay value, incredible visuals through Konami’s Fox Engine (even on the tested 360 edition), and successfully encouraging players to go their own way. Thief, however, is a reboot that just can’t channel the outstanding qualities of its trio of preceding series instalments. In and of itself, the Eidos Montreal-developed, Square Enix-published first-person sneak ‘em up isn’t terrible by any measurement. It’s got its share of glitches, and the presentation isn’t entirely satisfactory – but it features atmospheric alterna-Victoriana aesthetics, and the parkour traversing across rooftops arguably works better than the comparably athletic Mirror’s Edge did.

The biggest disappointment with Thief is that it borrows heavily from games outside of its parent series, where once these titles stood with singular class. 2012’s Arkane-developed Dishonoured borrowed liberally from Thief’s locker of gameplay traits, and mixed new ideas into the formula to such a level of success that it was rated the best game of the year by several publications, including the Guardian and Edge. In its wake, this Thief feels like a poor relation rather than a returning champion, its own set of tricks for mainstay protagonist Garrett to turn to his advantage distinctly reminiscent of those showcased by Corvo Attano in Dishonoured.

Swoop, allowing swift and silent travel over a short distance, is effectively a less-environmentally exploitative version of Corvo’s Blink, while Focus – highlighting interactive elements in the surrounding area – is Dishonoured’s Dark Vision painted blue. There’s no shame in recycling previously seen mechanics, of course, but when they aren’t aligned with an individual spirit – the kind that 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project exhibited in spades – then the whole experience takes on a second-hand feel. We’ve been here plenty of times before. Not here, as in amongst the rabbit-warren side streets and crackling early electric lighting of Thief’s attractively antiquated (The) City. But here in the sense that we’re playing something we know has been done before, so very better.

Usually it’s easy to spot such a game from afar – one of a hundred by-numbers sci-fi shooters, or sports games lacking professional body approval, or racers that don’t handle like the developers have been anywhere near a motor vehicle. They resonate with a cheapness, a will-this-do attitude, even before you’ve got past the menu screen. But precedent ensures that those going into Thief will expect more than what they receive, which is basically a competent stealth game devoid of a single standout moment to begin its elevation to the standards set by its forebears.

From the time it takes for the game’s controls to bed in (I’m not certain they ever really do – why select weapons from a wheel mapped to the d-pad, and not a bumper?), through to rudimentary third-person climbing sections, flat voice acting and the weightless combat – perhaps Eidos’ way of making sure you stick to the shadows – Thief is marred by cumulative frustrations that ultimately make sticking it out through its plot of supernatural mumbo-jumbo more challenging than actually finishing a chapter without having to club at least a couple of guards unconscious. And that’s assuming the story even works for you: one early cut scene, for me, played out with no audio or subtitles, the scheming of a pair of glossy eyed mannequins muted out entirely.  

I played Thief on PS3, and friends tell me the PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions are superior in several respects. But if you’re going multi-platform and spanning generations, then follow the Metal Gear model: make your game as amazing as it can be whatever the hardware. People appreciate it when they don’t feel like they’re being discriminated against for not ‘upgrading’ before the emergence of a true killer app for any new console. Titanfall might well be The One for The One, but despite its early sales lead, there’s no PS4-exclusive title out yet to really sell the machine’s uniqueness.

Like many, I’m waiting to be substantially moved by at least a couple of eighth-gen releases before rearranging the beneath-the-TV architecture. So Square Enix’s attempt to pickpocket my pounds and pence with only an average product leaves the same sour taste in the mouth that long-term Thief series followers will feel from spending several hours in the company of this charmless Garrett and his linear path from amnesia to anti-climax.

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