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How ‘Metal Gear Solid V’ achieves such a high level of realism

Published Sep 23rd, 2015 10:15PM EDT

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In case you haven’t heard, one of the most realistic video games of all time debuted recently for the Xbox One and Playstation 4. “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” is a third-person shooter that lets you roam around army bases in Afghanistan and shoot the bad guys.

However, its open-ended gameplay, unscripted sequences, and factors like sound and changing weather create a sense of actually being on the battlefront. It’s a technical achievement that has earned rave reviews. As I found by playing the game myself, there’s nothing quite like it.

About that open-ended gameplay: The sense of “being there” comes from the game’s overall structure. You can go anywhere and do anything. When you sneak into a base, you can decide to blow up a tanker, crawl through a sewer, or run right through the main gate. In one early scene, I managed to crawl through the entire base without any confrontations.

Gaming expert Chris Ferguson, a professor at Stetson University, told this open-ended gameplay helps gamers feel as though they are accomplishing something, which adds to the realism. He explained how the Self Determination Theory is at play.

“We often turn to games to help us get needs met that aren’t met in real life. More realistic games can make our accomplishments seem more important, again at least within the game universe and do more to help us get those needs met by games,” he says.

Apart from the open gameplay, the graphics are also ultra-convincing.

For example, in the opening sequences of the game, there’s a mounting sense of dread, accented with ominous music and flickering lights that’s exacerbated by how close you feel to the action. Several sequences take place just a few feet or even a few inches from you.  More than anything, the game puts you inside the head of the main character who has a prosthetic limb and multiple gunshot wounds. His dire condition makes you want to help him.

In another scene after the long introduction, you see the main character riding horseback in a sandstorm. The camera angle is perfect — you see the foreground rocks and the horse pushing against the wind. Blink twice and you might think it’s a movie.

One of the main tricks the game uses to convince you the action is real is that the camera moves as though someone is holding it. After the storm passes, the camera jumps like your eye would — first looking down, then up, then following the main character up a ravine. When you look through a pair of binoculars and zoom in, the graphics blur and lose focus as though steam is rising.

Sound plays a major role here. In some scenes during a heavy rainstorm, you can run faster because your footsteps are not as loud. You ride a horse in the game to cross the desert faster, but if you go prone, you can sneak around undetected.

The day-to-night changes impact the realism as well. At night, your aim is not as good but you can sneak around easier and enemies won’t be able to see you.

Dmitri Williams, an USC professor who studies the science of games, told that games like Metal Gear Solid 5 are just about to cross a threshold into photorealism. Fergusson says we’re edging closer to a time when video games are more like interactive movies that gives us a richer sense of character development and visual excitement.

We’ll see when the next game can top “Metal Gear Solid V.”

by John Brandon

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