Here’s a hot take that’s both more than a little lukewarm and likely isn’t all that controversial: I think I preferred Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes to its full-blown follow-up The Phantom Pain.
When Konami first announced its plans for a smaller, splintered Metal Gear Solid 5 ahead of the main event, the feedback wasn’t entirely positive; it was the most expensive demo ever made, asking an eye-watering £20 for a mere two hours of play and was nothing so much as Konami nickel and diming a fanbase ravenous for another slice of one of gaming’s most revered series.
It’s hard to find anyone sympathetic to Konami in the wake of its messy divorce with Hideo Kojima, and maybe the partitioning of Metal Gear Solid 5’s opening chapter was no more than a cash grab. Maybe, at a time when big budget console development had clearly fallen out of favour in the halls of its Roppongi headquarters, something that became painfully clear in the miserable aftermath of The Phantom Pain’s release as Kojima’s own pocket of Konami was shuttered, it’s an injection of cash that gave Metal Gear Solid 5 a final stay of execution.
Yet there’s more to Ground Zeroes than just canny business sense. Its self-imposed limitations made for a more instantly gratifying game. In the confines of that camp, the systems that made The Phantom Pain are there in potent concentrate: a mouth-burning shot of pretty much everything that made Metal Gear Solid 5 so great. Maybe it’s the lingering disappointment of The Phantom Pain’s final hours talking, but Ground Zeroes had a real punch that its follow-up lacked.
I’m reminded of all that in the immediate wake of this week’s release of the first chapter of IO’s Hitman revival. Square Enix somewhat muddled its way to the eventual business model – its fiddling and fumbling in the run-up to release was as clumsy and cumbersome as one of my own attempted hits with Agent 47 – yet it’s landed in a pretty sweet spot, an episodic release with the first instalment coming with an agreeable price point that’s less than you’d pay for a round at the pub.
The recent success of Life is Strange may have helped nudge Square Enix towards its position with Hitman, yet it still feels like a bold move. Life is Strange was a narrative-driven game, and Hitman – apologies to anyone who’s literate in the lore of Agent 47 – most definitely isn’t, yet it’s just as good a fit for an episodic release. You don’t need a narrative to thread you through multiple episodes if the systems are in place, and Hitman doesn’t seem to come up short in that department. It’s a neatly formed Lego set, with more than enough pieces to play with until next month’s new toys and playpen arrives.
Placing each playpen on its own gives them a nice, sharp sense of focus, too – and it runs mildly counter to the prevailing philosophy that bigger is always better. That’s certainly the case with open world games, whose maps are often measured in how many of its predecessors and competitors can be squeezed into the play space – how many Skyrims can it swallow up whole, how many Los Santos is it wide – and it’s true of sandbox games, too. Hitman’s sandboxes are dense with detail, and placing them on their own affords them the care and respect they most definitely deserve.
Perhaps I’m most excited, though, because it’s another erosion of a model that’s had its hold on the medium for far too long; the big budget blockbuster that does everything it can to justify its £50 price point. I’ve spent the best part of this week playing the most recent example of that, Ubisoft’s The Division, an excellent loot shooter with the most expansive of open worlds filled with a head-spinning amount of things to see and do. Here’s a game that will hungrily devour whole days of your life, and be pretty smug about it too. After all, that’s what we’re after, right? As I crawl towards the level cap, wading through 40 hours before it’s in my sights, I sometimes have my doubts.
The Division’s an extreme, of course, bloated by its necessity to keep players coming back for more with its heady expanse a huge part of the appeal, but those dozens of lost hours can make me pine for a big budget game brave enough to be succinct – one bold enough to be over in the course of a single evening, and one that’s respectful of the player’s time.
It’s something smaller teams do with great success – games like Journey, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Gone Home would have had half the impact if they were twice as long – so how wonderful would it be for big studios to find a way to craft more compact games? A huge barrier to entry to triple-A games remains the price they cost and the time they consume: the episodic answer could be the kind of neat and tidy approach of which any self-respecting assassin would be proud.