Mention stealth gaming to any seasoned player, and the Metal Gear and Splinter Cell series will spring to mind. Both series are responsible for introducing countless gamers to the stealth-action genre, and both have done so in very different ways. While the Metal Gear series created the concept of using stealth to avoid combat, Splinter Cell refined the formula and brought in a third-person action perspective that proved popular with Western gamers. But which series is truly the king of stealth? Read on to find out...
The original Metal Gear, first released by Konami for the positively ancient MSX2 platform back in 1987, is the granddaddy of stealth gaming. Many new action titles shoehorn-in the obligatory stealth-focused level, but back then, the idea of skillfully avoiding confrontation to complete levels was revolutionary. The plot of the first Metal Gear will be familiar to fans of later games in the series - special ops agent Solid Snake must use his stealth and combat skills to destroy Metal Gear, a deadly walking war machine. Even the camera and gameplay setup is instantly recognizable - the world is viewed from above, and Snake has plenty of trucks, tanks, and other objects to hide behind. Metal Gear also pioneered the use of radio messages to move forward character and plot development, a technique still utilized in many new games. As such, we have to begin our face-off by giving bonus points to Metal Gear just for inventing the stealth genre. Without such a groundbreaking game, Splinter Cell simply would not exist.
While the original Metal Gear sold incredibly well on the NES, even spawning a direct sequel, it was the release of Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation in 1998 that gave Snake his largest audience. Subtitled "Tactical Espionage Action," MGS showed gamers what tightly implemented stealth gameplay could achieve in a 3D environment. It was also one of the first cinematic gaming experiences, drawing inspiration from action and spy movies of the time to give the game a compelling narrative from start to finish. Its unique style and fixed camera angles also set the game apart from its contemporaries, although this is a design decision creator Hideo Kojima attributes his motion sickness to. Needless to say, MGS was a smash hit, and sold over 6 six million copies.
By this stage, other developers were already starting to sit up and take notice. Thief: The Dark Project was released shortly after MGS and it also focused on stealth rather than direct combat, albeit from a different perspective in a medieval setting. Later, games in the Hitman series offered a different take on stealth gameplay by focusing on disguise and infiltration.
This is where Splinter Cell comes into the picture. Released in 2002, the original Splinter Cell was heavily-inspired by Metal Gear. Cynical fans may even want to brand it as a wholesale rip-off of MGS. Splinter Cell introduced Sam Fisher, an NSA operative that uses stealth and technical gadgetry to infiltrate levels and complete missions. Fisher also keeps in touch with his commanding officer Colonel Campbell by using his radio headset. The first Splinter Cell even sported its own three-word tag line - "Stealth Action Redefined." However, it would be unfair to brand Splinter Cell as nothing more than a rip-off of MGS. The game centered heavily on the use of darkness to avoid detection, and its third-person perspective gave it a distinctive, more up-close-and-personal feel. Sam Fisher was also definitely more of a globetrotter than Snake, as Splinter Cell saw him sneaking around and snapping necks from Tbilisi, Georgia to the CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. With strong sales and a brand of stealth gameplay more familiar to Western gamers, Splinter Cell sold well and spawned a string of sequels.
Splinter Cell also pioneered multiplayer stealth gameplay, beginning with the second game, Pandora Tomorrow. Pandora Tomorrow allowed gamers to turn their deadly stealth skills and gadgets on each other, playing as either mercenaries or spies. The third game, Chaos Theory, introduced co-operative gameplay, and allowed players to team up to take on several specially designed co-op missions. Multiplayer finally arrived in the Metal Gear universe with the launch of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, however this was more of an add-on than a central focus of the game. Similarly, MGS4's multiplayer failed to impress, and did little to add replay value to the single-player focused title.
As the two series progressed, they grew in different directions. Metal Gear Solid expanded its focus to include a growing cast of playable characters including Raiden and Big Boss, while Splinter Cell remained fixated on the world of Sam Fisher. While Snake was one of many cloned super-soldiers, the introduction of his wife and daughter made Sam Fisher more relatable.
The two series have also employed a markedly different style of plot. Splinter Cell has remained grounded in the real world, where terrorists or rogue agents are the enemy. The world of Metal Gear, however, is a seemingly magical place where magnets can save you from being shot, and a malicious arm can end up take over the body it's attached to. The winner in story and characterization, however, is mostly a matter of personal preference, so we're going to have to call it a tie. Some will prefer Metal Gear's world of cyborg Ninjas and cloned super-soldiers, others will feel more at home with Splinter Cell's grittier, more visceral approach.
Both series introduced their fair share of innovation to the stealth genre. After expanding the Metal Gear universe and story line in MGS2, the Metal Gear series took a step back in time in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, which brought stealth gaming into a much more organic environment. Snake Eater's "camouflage index" allowed players to monitor how visible they were against the jungle backdrop, while the game's stamina gauge brought a focus on using the environment to survive. As Naked Snake (Big Boss), players used whatever plants, animals, and cover were available to keep themselves hidden and fed.
Splinter Cell also decided to shake things up a bit in Double Agent, the series' fourth game. Planted undercover with a terrorist organization, Sam Fisher must gain their trust while undermining their operations. Players must balance their actions to maintain the trust of both the NSA and the terrorists, and there are multiple endings based on the path taken through the game. This is in stark contrast to the precisely scripted plots of Metal Gear Solid titles, which at times feel more like playing an interactive film. This isn't necessarily a good thing though. A less linear plot can often lead to problems with pacing and character development. In particular, it's hard to paint a clear picture of your main character when truly plot-altering decisions are subject to the whim of the player.
Recently both games have started to gravitate towards the third-person cover-shooter genre, apparently influenced by popular titles like Gears of War and motivated the desire to appeal to a wider audience. For the first time in the series, Metal Gear Solid 4 abandoned fixed camera placements, opting instead for a third-person view to make combat easier. As a result, gameplay focused less on stealth and more on gunplay. The final chapter in Solid Snake's story also saw a renewed cinematic focus. All critics did not welcome the game's extensive use of cutscenes, but it certainly made for an experience unlike any other video game. MGS4 brought in plot threads from all three previous titles and tied them up into a suitably bombastic conclusion. In introducing big plot pay-offs and more accessible gameplay, MGS4 managed to satisfy both hardcore fans and newcomers alike.
Splinter Cell: Conviction, Sam Fisher's latest outing, also felt more like a shooter than previous titles. In an effort to make the franchise more accessible, new gameplay mechanics like "mark and execute" were implemented, allowing Fisher to target enemies and burst out of cover for quick takedowns. Conviction introduced a new revenge-based storyline too, with Fisher - now a free agent - determined to track down the man responsible for the death of his daughter. As such, the latest Splinter Cell game turned out to be more about smaller, incremental changes to a proven formula.
When it comes to deciding a winner, we have to side with the grizzled old master of stealth – Metal Gear. "Metal Gear?!", you might respond, as Snake so often does in MGS titles. That's right, Metal Gear is one of the few series that can truly claim to have been not only genre-defining but genre-creating. Splinter Cell is a great franchise, but it's been content with mostly minor, incremental updates from game to game. Of course, Metal Gear certainly isn't flawless - some will find its plot ridiculous and bemoan its lengthy cutscenes and lackluster multiplayer. But there's no denying that each of Kojima's Metal Gear series is a precisely-crafted labor of love.
Regardless, both titles have been crucial in the stealth-action genre over the past decade, and additional sequels are now in the works. While little is known about the Ubisoft Toronto's upcoming Splinter Cell 6, the future of Metal Gear Solid seems to lie away from stealth gameplay. Metal Gear Solid: Rising adds the new subtitle "Lightning Bolt Action," and is rumored to be a third-person action title starring Raiden of MGS2 fame. With a strong pedigree behind each series, gamers will be expecting great things for both Metal Gear Solid and Splinter Cell over the coming months and years.
CCC Freelance Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*