When sequels flip the script, what makes some become beloved successes and others maligned dark spots of their franchises?
Video games have sequels. If they are really popular, they have many. As the movie industry has known for years, sequels are a comparatively safe choice because a lot of the work is already done for you when you start. There is no need to reinvent new likable characters, gameplay, let alone a whole new world. It's a much safer bet to take what you have, a proven success, and improve upon it before feeding it to the no doubt hungry fans. However, that doesn't stop companies from doing it. There are sequels out there that, in one way or another, take what was successful and decide to change it and innovate. Sometimes drastically. They change the characters, the tone of the story, and occasionally even the fundamental game design so much that the new game is not even considered to be in the same genre as its predecessors. And it works. Some of the time.
I'm going to take a look at two sequels to well-established franchises that made a significant shift in design and examine what are the pieces about each that make them either beloved or bemoaned by fans. The games I am looking at are Resident Evil 4 (RE4) and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (MGSV). Both of these games are critically acclaimed. However, despite its high review scores, the general consensus around Metal Gear Solid V is a divisive split amongst the fanbase. I'd like to look at each of these two and try to determine what it is exactly that MGSV did differently.
Resident Evil 4 (RE4) belongs squarely in the well-received category, and that's an understatement. It is not unusual for fans of the game to consider it the best action game of all time, let alone a good entry in the Resident Evil series. It's a fact, however, that RE4 was a departure of sorts for the Resident Evil franchise. The original three games were progenitors of the Survival Horror genre and some of its most highly acclaimed representatives. RE4, on the other hand, injected a heavy focus on action. No more the vulnerable hero trying to navigate the dangerous world and avoiding conflict if at all possible, Leon Kennedy is now a zombie killing machine. Granted, elements of the previous games are still present, but the tone and gameplay are something very new. While all of this did alienate some people, the vast majority took to the new direction with a fervor rarely seen in gaming. I think this is mostly due to the quality of its game design. It introduced a new way to play shooters, its pacing is considered top notch, it is even credited for more or less inventing putting a camera over the main character's shoulder for crying out loud. Like the new direction or not, Resident Evil 4 revolutionized the action genre when it came out in 2005 and we are still feeling the waves today. So, RE4 is a good game. But I think what sets it apart from MGSV may perhaps not be what it did, but what it did not do. To understand that, I'll look at MGSV.
It's not uncommon for fans of stealth action games to consider Metal Gear Solid V to be the peak of the genre. The mechanics and moment-to-moment gameplay is jam packed with options and the game is a beauty to behold in action. They made a transition from the more exploratory or linear designs of the older games in the franchise to a full-on open world map for V. While it wasn't the most full to the brim open world that's ever been seen, the switch was not as jarring as one might expect. The wide open spaces and multitude of infiltration angles worked fairly well with MGSV's all new stealth gameplay. Even when one wasn't playing as the perfect, unseeable spy, the gunplay itself was done well. Whereas previous entries in the franchise had controls for firefights that weren't abysmal, MGSV's third person shooting brought itself up to the standard of other full-time shooters. Some even think that it is the best third person shooter engine ever put to pixel. So, given all that, what's not to like? In a word, story. The Metal Gear Solid games are famous for their verbose, eccentric, convoluted, and, sometimes, poetic writing and narrative. The gameplay is fun, but the writing is what makes Metal Gear Metal Gear. This is where MGSV, and other games like it, went wrong. The primary criticism of MGSV is that the satisfying or exciting story moments are few, far between, and never hit the same high notes that its predecessors did. This lackluster story left a lot of hardcore fans feeling empty, despite the arguably fantastic gameplay. I am not saying that narrative is the one defining characteristic that determines whether a sequel will be accepted by its fanbase or not. I am saying that the quintessential heart of a series, whatever makes that series what it is, is what designers must be careful not to lose. For Metal Gear Solid, this was its quirky characters and story.
This is where MGSV and RE4 differ. While RE4 was so different from its predecessors that it is literally in a different genre, it never lost what it was. It never feels like RE4 has totally forgotten its legacy or that it is outright spitting in the face of what came before. The same can't be said for all of Resident Evil. After striking gold with RE4, Capcom continued pursuing this more action-oriented style as the series went on. This resulted in games that were pushing further and further from the slow-paced horror of the original game. This came to a head with Resident Evil 6, a game that was received so poorly that Capcom actually took a step back and returned to the claustrophobic horror of its roots with Resident Evil 7. RE7 was widely praised, and I'd love to see a return to form for the Metal Gear Solid franchise as well. However, that brand of bizarre espionage action may be something that we won't see again for a very long time, as the series Director, Writer, Producer, and Game Designer Hideo Kojima has left the company for bigger and better things in Death Stranding. Regardless, I hope that other designers take heed from these and other new, inventive sequels. It is OK to reinvent the wheel. It's a major risk, most definitely, but one that can sometime pay off in dividends. If that is the goal, however, it is important to never lose sight of the core of the experience.