Right now I’m trying to juggle two massive games: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and The Witcher 3. While trying to reconfigure my wake/sleep schedule I’m also realizing both of these games do exactly what I’ve hated about open-world games for some time now… but I’m thoroughly enjoying them.
You know those games, usually coming from Ubisoft, that just put icons all over the map for treasure chests and side missions to the point where it all ends up feeling like busywork? Or they throw in a lot of extraneous features like crafting materials and team management simulations? I think MGSV and Witcher 3 figured out how to do those kinds of games properly.
The feeling of trying to combine about three different game genres is pretty acute in Phantom Pain, especially if you didn’t play Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops or Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker beforehand. One minute you’re sneaking around, then you’re in a gunfight hiding behind cover, then your’e grabbing crafting diagrams and components, then you’re capturing people and figuring out where to staff them at your base to unlock more upgrades. Oh, and you have a bunch of secondary and tertiary objectives thrown all over the world map too. Where features like this bore me in games like the new Tomb Raider, Far Cry 3, and Assassin’s Creed, I find they enrich the gameplay in Phantom Pain.
One reason may be that Kojima had been at it for longer, developing the character capture and base management systems since Portable Ops in 2006 and adding onto it in the two iterations since. Not only does Mother Base feel like a well-developed system by Phantom Pain, but you can really feel that the whole game was designed around it. I always felt like the similar Assassin’s Guild system in the recent Creed games was sort of tacked on. You could probably choose not to engage in it in those games and the overall experience wasn’t heavily impacted. Maybe Ubisoft intentionally did it this way to make those systems feel less mandatory than they are when playing Metal Gear. In any case, Kojima tore down the basic structure of a Metal Gear game to have it make sense on the PSP for Portable Ops, built a new structure around these pseudo-RPG systems, developed it further in another PSP game — Peace Walker, then brought it to consoles in full force with Phantom Pain.
I don’t know about anyone else but to me the weapon upgrades in Phantom Pain feel more consequential than they would in, say, Tomb Raider. I find myself anticipating them more. You could assume they’re better balanced in Phantom Pain but I think it’s because that game’s basic controls and combat are just more fun to engage in. People have told me Tomb Raider is fun because it has very snappy controls and I guess it’s valid for them to feel that way, but from the beginning of Phantom Pain I’ve enjoyed controlling Snake which has made the game’s equipment upgrades feel even more fun on top.
Basically, the foundation of an action game is its controls and sense of movement. Perhaps this is a basic problem with Creed. None of the Creed games has had great melee combat, thus getting more sword and armor upgrades has never really enriched the overall experience. In Far Cry 3 having to craft more pockets for weapons felt stupid not only because your starting gear feels insufficient (it feels very sufficient in Phantom Pain), but because getting and using guns isn’t the most fun part of the game — causing chaos while capturing bases is. Maybe Phantom Pain just has what I was looking for in the Far Cry games.
Anyway, people say the basic combat and movement are the big problems with Witcher 3. I agree it feels sluggish compared to most popular action games, but I’ve actually come to enjoy its combat, loot, and crafting systems. I think Witcher 3’s combat is balanced just well enough to where you can get some fulfillment out of it if you fully engage in all its tools at one of the higher difficulty levels. The fact that you can win against a monster 10 levels above you with the right potions and careful analysis of its movement patterns validates the whole system in my eyes. It’s not the greatest thing in the world, but it certainly doesn’t feel phoned-in. The Witcher games have also always centered themselves around a pretty deep crafting system that’s required for getting all your essential tools. It’s not a thing some franchise just added in a later game because all the other games were doing it (maybe that’s the case in Phantom Pain).
The one thing I feel Witcher 3 does better than most open-world games though is the actual layout of its open world and the content therein. Sure it has a bunch of question marks all over the map by default, which in most games ruins any sense of discovery, but at least here you can turn them off and find all those secrets naturally. That’s the most important part: I feel like Witcher 3 wasn’t designed so you have to rely on those question marks to find all the secrets. It’s made so interesting places are naturally visible just off the beaten path or on your way between major objectives.
I guess my conclusion here is that if a game wants to further engage players with a bunch of filler content, the control systems and level design underneath it all have to feel engaging in the first place.
- I couldn’t figure out how to properly flow this part into the rest of my blog post, but I also feel like Phantom Pain is open-world for the right reason: to create a dynamic stealth/action sandbox. Stealth missions are more interesting when not scripted along a single predefined path, but instead dropped into wide space where players can make many choices and many things can happen at any given moment. Pretty early on in Phantom Pain I’m getting vibes that remind me of the first Crysis game.