Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty turned 17 years old on November 13th. Recently, the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection went backwards compatible on Xbox One, giving me a chance to revisit what is probably one of my top five favorite games of all time. What I realized, after not having played the game for at least a decade, is Metal Gear Solid 2 does a lot with very little, and most modern games could learn a thing or two from that.
Metal Gear Solid 2’s settings seemed a lot larger when I first played the game in 2001. Sure, Grand Theft Auto III introduced a level of scale I’d never experienced with Liberty City that same year, but Metal Gear Solid 2’s tanker and Big Shell environments contained so many mysteries and hidden nooks that the effect was a larger than life experience. Shadow Moses from the first Metal Gear Solid was slightly bigger, but the better graphics in Metal Gear Solid 2 must have made the prospect of sneaking through the Big Shell more daunting at the time.
After playing it again recently, both the tanker and the Big Shell were much smaller experiences than I remembered. Maybe it was because I already knew everything there was to know about them, or maybe it was because we’ve had two decades of open-world games, but the Big Shell in 2018 seemed slight and static compared to most games. It’s explorable, with various areas you’ll revisit, but it feels really strange compared to most games. While games either have multiple levels in different settings, or else one large setting (i.e. an open-world map), Metal Gear Solid 2 has (for the most part) one setting that isn’t all that open, and that’s probably it’s best feature.
Obviously, from a narrative perspective, Shadow Moses inspired the Big Shell. But beyond the Metal Gear games, the modern games that really come to mind as having a similar map design are BioShock or 2017’s Prey, in how its single setting contains multiple, open areas.
Instead of limiting the game, I think this smaller map design is what makes Metal Gear Solid 2 so special, especially when it comes to the bloat that most modern games offer. There are some secrets you can find, but besides that, there’s only one objective at a time. There are no side objectives, just the mission at hand, and this helps control and propel the narrative pace in a way that most modern games fail to do. Each mission offers a new puzzle to solve, or a new mechanic to master, but there aren’t any skills you have to upgrade. Every boss has a specific weakness, but how you go about exploiting that weakness is up to you. There is an openness to the approach while giving the player enough parameters to feel like there’s a reason and order to what’s happening—that there’s an actual design in place. Sure, this design might be a metaphor for Metal Gear Solid 2’s narrative and how the Patriots are controlling Raiden, but the effect is presenting a focused experience for the player as well.
Metal Gear Solid 2 mostly reminded me that modern games simply have too much stuff in them. The recent launch of Spyro Reignited Trilogy had a similar effect: compared to the overstuffed Manhattan of Insomniac’s latest game, Spyro’s self-contained worlds (which Toys for Bob faithfully recreated) are elegant in their simplicity. Even God of War, which would have been the perfect vehicle for a simple, linear action game, felt the need to add “value” by introducing RPG mechanics like item stats and skill points. And Prey, despite its similar level design, arguably offers a few too many side objectives, at least for me.
The irony in all this is that the Metal Gear saga ended (as far as I’m concerned) with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, which takes place on a couple of open-world maps that are some of the most satisfying and interactive I’ve ever played. Again, however, those maps only gave players one thing to accomplish at a time. Even when it was trying to do open-world gaming, the Metal Gear Solid series knew that less was more.