Thursday, July 14, 2011

Analysis: Metal Gear Online

Metal Gear Online refers to the multiplayer modes of both Metal Gear Solid 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4. While I've compared those two games in a previous article, it's also worth discussing the differences between the online modes. However, I will mostly be focusing on MGS4's online mode, due to the fact that it's a great example of lazy, half-hearted justifications. So, to start off, let's start talking about MGS4 Online.

MGO is a game that's meant to take place in the world of MGS4. In Metal Gear Solid 4, the military-industrial complex (sponsored by a conspiracy or two) rose up to become the dominant force of the global economy. Wars between mercenaries are common to the point of apparently being the major source of income for many countries. Using advances in nanomachine technology, the ruling powers developed systems that would make soldiers more efficient, more combat-capable, and less driven by emotions. However, it also makes it so that they're less "involved" in combat, since the emotional control given to them by the nanomachines also desensitizes them to the horrors of war. The combination of these two things (a world constantly at war and soldiers who are "detached" from the combat they're involved in) is the backdrop to MGS4 Online, a game where players take the role of PMCs and participate in unending battles for no real reason other than winning.

That's not a bad concept, to be frank. MGS4 was all about trying to set up the fact that nanomachines have basically turned war into a videogame for the soldiers involved in it, and what better way to illustrate this than through actually having the players take the role of those very soldiers? The nanomachines explain a lot of the "gamey" elements (HUDs, ammo counters, communications) and the emotional controls explain why players behave like players and not like soldiers (i.e. no fear, no fatigue, no trauma, no remorse). Sure, there's some technical issues with the whole nanomachine concept, but it works for what it is: a way to compare the player's experience to the in-universe soldier's experience. In terms of its internal consistency, it wouldn't be hard to translate MGS4's "world at war" scenario to an online game.

The problem is that Metal Gear Online only goes halfway with the concept. The players are meant to be PMCs, and their abilities are justified by nanomachines, but other than that the MGS4 setting might as well not even exist. Players group together in "clans", battle objectives are things like ducks or frogs, and the entire system just seems totally game-like. While it could be potentially argued that this is just an evolution of the "war as videogame" concept, within the MGS4 universe itself the mercenaries still recognized that they were fighting over actual objectives and were part of PMCs. The battles were for petty, greedy reasons, but it was still "take this power plant" or "root out the enemy in this area".

MGO, on the other hand, throws in standard FPS elements because "that's what you do with online shooter games" and doesn't bother to make it more like MGS4's story. These things aren't even hard concepts to integrate - a few name changes, maybe some more game modes and management elements, and you're done. The reason it seems like it wasn't integrated was because they didn't think it through. They cared enough to add some elements of MGS4's setting, but not enough to go through with it. This basically means that if you thought MGS4 was interesting or intriguing, or you liked the whole concept that it spent several hours setting up, you're out of luck.

To me, most of Metal Gear Solid's problems come from its indecisive tone. MGS wants to be two things. Firstly, it wants to be serious commentary on the global stage, covering wars, economics, information control, and so on. The presence of long tirades about scholarly topics suggests that, on some level, Kojima thinks his dialogue is worth taking seriously. Yet, on the other hand, Kojima also wants his game to be wacky and indulgent, which is why he includes pin-up models, ninjas, and monkeys wearing metal diapers. It's a schizophrenic mix that has always led to a lot of really questionable or unpleasant moments, and MGO is no exception to that.

Metal Gear Online includes a lot of "classic Metal Gear" humor elements. The most notable one is the presence of items like the magazine; in single player, magazines and Playboys and the like serve as distractions for guards, whereas in MGO they literally force a player to stop whatever they're doing so their character can ogle it. While their use in single player is a bit questionable - a suspension of realism for a cheap laugh - in MGO it's outright preposterous. Similarly, the objectives for several game types are a duck and frog, because those are cute animals that serve as semi-mascots for the series. It's a bit difficult to take the serious narrative about serious mercenaries and serious government control seriously when it's represented by "capture the duck" mode.

Again, this is the kind of thing that's totally avoidable if you don't even make the pretense of a narrative. Just say it's a multiplayer game mode, I can deal with that. They use the nanomachines, they use the PMCs, and then they don't follow up with the concepts. Honestly, though, it's less worse than it is in the single player, because unlike MGO, MGS4 does want to be taken seriously as an adult game for serious gamers. Metal Gear Online's tone is inconsistent only as long as it's meant to be connected to MGS4; if it's not connected, there's no tone problem. Yet it is apparently meant to be the same universe; the nanomachine system that connects the soldiers is the SOP system, and it functions basically as described in the game's cutscenes (not really the same as in the single-player game, though). So it's just a question of whether or not it's just a thematic similarity or if they're trying to actually do something with it.

MGO's design is, to me, one of the key differences between MGS3 Online and MGS4 Online. In MGS3 Online, a team's appearance was based on a simple selection in game type. There were three groups to choose from: the KGB, the GRU, and the Ocelot Unit. The distinct appearance of these three factions meant that it was fairly easy to tell who was who based on appearance. Something MGS3 Online also introduced was the usage of pre-made radio messages. These messages had varying voices (i.e. when you joined a match you were given a random voice) and could either be whispered or shouted, depending on how hard you pressed the button. These two things may seem small, but the combination of distinct, yet anonymous, uniforms and random, reasonably generic voices made the whole affair more believable for me.

In MGS4 Online, the increased focus on customization meant that both voices and costumes were now controlled by the player. This meant that these things would be more consistent and distinctive, but also less "generic". While the consistent voices were a relatively minor nitpick at best, the focus on costumes meant that it was impossible to identify teammates based on their appearance. In addition, the relative difficulty of accumulating reward points (used to buy new clothes) meant that it was difficult to assemble outfits as a group to create any sort of clan uniform. To cap it all off, the graphics in the game always made it comparatively difficult to see what people were wearing anyways, just because it was so hazy.

What's funny about this to me is that in all the early screenshots, there were identifiable groups and uniforms, such as soldiers in black clothes with red berets or soldiers in desert camouflage. This suggests that the people who made the game recognized that uniforms would be an important part of the concept, and yet neglected to make any provisions to include them in the game other than players coordinating their outfits through their own labor. What it does to me is destroy a small, but important, sense of community. MGS3 Online was a team game, and the inclusion of uniformity and relative anonymity made the group more cohesive. MGS4 Online always feels like what it is - a group of random strangers shoved into a room and assigned "red" or "blue", with nothing else to go by other than the color of the name floating above their head.

However, there is one reasonably solid advantage of character customization that I think MGO allows for in a relatively decent fashion: camouflage. In MGS3 Online, your team determined your uniform, and that was it for camo. In MGS4 Online, the ability to set outfits for specific levels allows you to use jungle, urban, arctic, or desert camo for appropriate maps. There's even Ghillie suits, for more dedicated bushmen, and they're notable because they specifically help only when you're in a forest map - anywhere else and it just makes you stand out. While the execution is a little sloppy, the fact that the game actually lets you use custom outfits for sensible camouflage rather than just showing off is a pretty neat idea. Overall, though, I don't think it makes up for the fact that zero effort was put into any sort of unified outfitting.

Here's why Metal Gear Online bothers me: it's not internally consistent. Right now I don't care about realism, I don't care about accuracy, and I don't care about history. I care about internal consistency. Metal Gear Solid 4 is a game about PMCs that engage in endless petty battles. MGO is a game about PMCs engaging in endless petty battles. Do something with that. The game is the same. Do something with the concept you just spent all that time establishing. Metal Gear Online is like if they made a game about gangs and gang wars where you play as a gang leader who makes a gang and then fights other gangs, and they included a multiplayer mode and the multiplayer mode was standard deathmatch.

I've said it about games before and I'll say it about games after: it's half-assed. They take a concept, they want to include bits of it, and then for some reason they don't go the whole way with it. It's not about fun in this case either, as much as that particular word gets used as an excuse, because there's no way that "running a clan" is any more fun than "running a PMC". These aren't huge, overbearing changes, they're just ways of making the community more coherent and the game more connected to the universe it's supposed to take place in. Heck, even if you started simple, the inclusion of  PMCs would allow you to introduce new concepts at a later date, concepts that take advantage of the mercenary angle and add to the gameplay experience. As it stands, between MGS4's treatment of its larger world concepts (i.e. "focus on main characters, ignore the rest of the world") and MGO's attempt to pretend most of that material doesn't even exist, I wonder if there was even a reason for the whole "world at war" thing other than "cool gadgets" and Kojima's moralizing.