It takes just a second of watching Undetected’s trailer to see the Metal Gear Solid influence. The action fades into that unmistakable top-down camera showing an agent in an industrial corridor, and – in seconds – you hear that tap, tap, tapping of feet on the metal floors.
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Watch the rest of the game’s first trailer, exclusively revealed here on NME, and you’ll see a 90-second love letter to the stealth classic made exciting again in 2021. You can find out more about the game on Undetected’s Steam page.
But while Metal Gear Solid tapped into Hideo Kojima’s love of Cold-War conspiracy theories and infused it with his trademark sense of auteurist weirdness, solo developer Antonio Freyre says that Undetected is about inclusion, unity and, well, pacifism. Better living through stealth.
“I loved everything about Metal Gear Solid from the story to the gameplay, sound, music, everything,” says Freyre. “For me, the best parts are the first few areas that are pure stealth, before the game turns into a boss rush. I’ve always wanted to see a game that elaborates on those sections (the docks, heliport, tank hangar, etc). I know we are never getting a top-down Metal Gear Solid anymore, so I wanted to make one myself.”
Freyre is relatively new to game development, coming from a background in creative tech that blended technology and media together (and that, in itself, would be enough to make Kojima purr). A year ago, during the height of the pandemic, Freyre adopted the Merlino Games moniker and made and released The Chameleon, a stealth game with superpowers set in the terse political climate of the 70s.
“The Chameleon was also a stealth game, with PS1-style graphics and a more arcade-like approach to stealth,” says Freyre. “I developed that one on my own, too, and it had good reception. I used that one mostly to learn my way around the engine, but it still got some good support and attention.
“Now that I feel confident with game development, I have decided to make this game I’ve been dreaming of for a long time: a stealth game with a Mexican protagonist, taking everything I’ve noticed could be improved in my favourite games and trying my best to make it even better.”
While Freyre is working on the game alone, he has had some help from artist Dakota Lee to design the characters – which puts us in mind of Kojima’s relationship with long-time collaborator and art mastermind, Yoji Shinkawa. Freyre confesses a love for Splinter Cell and Thief, too, and admits that while it’s not a stealth game, A Short Hike is a game that “never leaves his mind” and is a constant inspiration. Indie stealther Filcher, itself a revival of Thief, also gets a shout out.
That’s a lot of stealth inspiration, and every crumb of it has been filtered through into Undetected. “The tension that is created even when the player is just hiding is fascinating to me. Seeing an enemy slowly approach you and barely miss you is exciting. I also like the creativity that it gives the player. Messing with the AI in these games is always hilarious. It’s more of a problem-solving genre than an action genre. I like to take it slow when I play games.”
The list of games from the 90s and beyond have inspired Freyre’s specific take on Metal Gear Solid, which he enthusiastically describes as a ‘boomer sneaker’ – a riff on the colloquial name for the ‘boomer shooters’ like Quake, Doom and so on that’s proliferated over the past 12 months. This blend of influences has resulted in a suite of changes to the base Metal Gear Solid formula that, in theory, improve the quality of life for players that might be experiencing this flavour of stealth game for the first time.
“[Undetected] has a few changes and QoL improvements over the original MGS,” he explains. “One of the main problems with the top-down MGS games is that you end up staring at the Soliton radar most of the time. In Undetected, you have off-screen markers and a ‘listening mode’ in which you can scout the map and plan your movements.
“The second thing that’s different is that lightness/darkness play a bigger role in how you hide from enemies. If you’re in the dark, you’re invisible (unless it’s an alert). You have a lot of opportunities to turn lights on/off and modify the environment to fit your approach. There’s also plenty of hiding spots like vegetation, lockers, vents, holes in the ground, whatever. There is also more focus on sound than in older MGS games. Everything makes a sound, and there’s an on-screen marker that notifies you how loud you are. This game is all about hiding. Even boss fights have to be finished stealthily.”
Suddenly, those Thief and Splinter Cell influences come out into the open (no pun intended), and you can see how all those newer, more specific elements from other games fit in the Metal Gear Solid philosophy – and weave together beautifully in Undetected. The end result? Freyre hopes his project feels like more than the sum of its parts, and plays like a totally distinct game that stands apart from the legacy titles from which it draws inspiration.
To that end, the game is non-lethal only, and it doesn’t have a tranquiliser gun or other knock-out mechanics, either. “You can’t kill anyone and you can’t put them to sleep either. You have a lot of bullet types and explosives to use, but none of them will kill or completely disable an enemy. You can distract, knock down (but not knock out) or slow down the enemies, but it is ultimately a game with a peaceful message of unity. No disintegrations.”
One difference here is the boss fights are still non-lethal, but will have you throwing down against cyber-augmented opponents.
“Each one of the bosses has a part of their body that has been cyber-augmented,” Freyre explains. “One of them is a sniper who has an enhanced sense of smell. In the fight, you need to find ways to fool his sense of smell so you can slowly approach him until you can get behind him and disable him.” It sounds like one of those esoteric mechanics Kojima would crowbar into one of his setpieces – and we’re here for it.
While you’re employing non-lethal measures, no one has told the bosses this – they’re out for blood. Ultimately, this means your engagements always come down to stealth. “All the bosses can be fought directly to make them weaker, but the last blow always has to be a sneaky one, so you can disable their bionics and win the fight,” Freyre notes.
Another big change to the stealth genre in Undetected is the story: Splinter Cell and Metal Gear Solid both star superstar American agents pulling off impossible missions, and while Garrett doesn’t come from any real-world country, he’s cut from the same cloth: a gruff white guy doing stealthy things.
Undetected is set in Mexico, with a Mexican protagonist and a diverse cast of characters from around the world. As Freyre keeps saying, the game is about unity. It should feel, culturally, totally unique when compared to a lot of the pillars of the stealth world. A breath of fresh air for the genre.
If nothing else, the time is right for someone to step in and start making the top-down stealth games of the early Metal Gear Solid days – especially as those games have temporarily been removed from sale while some rights issues are being resolved. Freyre wants to both plug a gap and provide you with something new.
“In general the MGS series hasn’t received the best treatment lately, I hope Undetected will help scratch that itch,” says Freyre. “Even if they do make a new game or a remake, it won’t be top-down like this. I think it’s always a good time to keep an eye on indie games. There are a lot of great new ideas – or improvements on old ideas – that get overshadowed by AAA.”
As we finish our chat, Freyre talks about what he thinks makes a great stealth game, yet another influence he’s hoping to fit into Undetected. “It’s about three things for me; informational transparency, intentions over execution, and making a low-punishment environment,” he says. “Informational transparency means not intentionally hiding info from the player just to trick them. I like when stealth games give me all the info for me to come up with a plan.
“Similarly, by rewarding intentions over execution, you reward players for how smart they are, not for how skilled they are with a controller: they should be able to execute their plan without much difficulty. Finally, if the player messes up, you should let them go back to planning quickly, so they can try again.” If all three tenets come off as planned, Undetected will have that pace, challenge and satisfaction that has made the stealth genre – for generations – feel so compelling.
It’s still early days for Undetected, but Freyre seems to have a clear vision, and knows there’s a genuine market waiting with baited breath for something inspired by Hideo Kojima’s off-the-wall stealth classics. It may be a little way off yet, but this one seems worth watching the shadows for.
Undetected is planned for release in 2022. You can find out more on the game’s website.