When talking about a classic like Metal Gear Solid, discussing a lot of the obvious elements seems like it would be tracing over familiar territory. The diverse set of core mechanics, the government paranoia laced story, and the signature Kojima style have all been talked about for over a decade now. Instead, I’d like to hone in on one of the elements that shines out after just playing the game for the first time: getting around in the world.
The entire game takes place in the Shadow Moses compound in Alaska and as the player progresses through the game, he/she makes his/her way deeper and deeper into the base. From just a level design standpoint, the way all these areas connect and build off of each other is quite impressive. However, there’s so much more to getting around in Metal Gear Solid that makes the design so brilliant.
From the first map in the game, something that is presented to the player is the idea of multiple routes. The opening area is a rather simple, open area of guards patrolling around crates in front of the base while a soldier walks back and forth on a scaffolding one story up overlooking the front entrance. The player has a couple of options from getting in either on the ground floor or up on the scaffolding, making the initial map design a bit more open and free-form than most games.
This doesn’t always hold true. The multiple routes almost always converge on the same entrances and eventually the game narrows down more and more as the game progresses. However, the game does delve into the controversial realm of backtracking. Keycard access often blocks off areas the player needs to go back to in order to get certain items need to progress.
However, the game alleviates this problem in a couple of ways. It sometimes provides items that makes going back through these areas much smoother. For instance, the play is given a handkerchief which has the scent of one of the enemy soldiers, making the enemy dogs friendly.
Another memorable section is a level where half of the floor is flooded with gas. The player must move through this part of the map much quicker than normal or begin taking damage from the fumes. You can find a gas mask a bit after this area which makes going back through this area to pick up a couple of items in the far corners of the map a much easier proposition.
It also respawns certain items that make getting back through certain areas much faster. The two biggest items are chaff grenades and stun grenades, which makes getting past cameras and soldiers respectively a breeze. Between these two options, backtracking is often a quick and easy affair with a minimal amount of fuss or frustration.
And, of course, one would be remiss to not mention the iconic box which makes sneaking around much quicker as the player doesn’t have to worry about ducking for cover or staying out of sight when using stealth. It’s yet another element that makes moving around Shadow Moses more fun after spending a couple of hours falling into a groove with how sneaking works.
While the game is primarily played from a top-down perspective, leading to levels that are built as horizontal slices, the game does use more and more verticality in the later sections to add more to the mix. The player ascends a flight of stairs and then must rappel down the side of the tower. And, in one of the last areas of the game, a myriad of walkways are traversed through a liberal use of ladders.
All of these elements makes Metal Gear Solid a game that makes getting around the world a bit different for almost every room. That diversity of level design coupled with the item design are part of what makes Metal Gear Solid such an elegantly paced and impeccably designed game.
© 2015 James Blake Ewing