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Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty [PlayStation 2] – Review

 

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Title Card

It’s been about a month since Jeff and I completed Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Generally, I try and write about a game within a few days of completing it but this game wound up provoking so many mixed emotions for me. It’s left me awestricken in many ways, some good and some bad. This is a game that’s often touted as the first postmodern video game, and while I’m too much of a dullard to fully comprehend this statement, the way my own opinion has been split in so many ways is indicative of its provocative nature. It’s a game I admire and disdain at the same time, and I’ll try my best to detail some of the major reasons why.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Tanker
Stealthily eliminating foes was the way to go.

Like our recent playthrough of Metal Gear Solid, this wasn’t my first experience with this game. I originally played it a couple of years after its release and recall thinking the world of it then. As a sequel, the narrative subverts most preconceived notions of what to expect, and I think high school John really got a kick out of that. As an adult, I still find that fascinating, perhaps more so now, especially having directly completed its predecessor. One of the most notable ways Kojima did this was through a bait-and-switch of the protagonist.

While the first hour or so of the game stars Solid Snake, as one would expect, the true star of the game is Raiden. As a character, he’s anything like Solid Snake, the gruff, self-assured action-movie hero one expects in a game like this. Instead, Raiden is supposed to represent the player, a novice whose preparations for the big time constituted training in virtual reality. These preparations leave him undoubtedly skilled, but not with a mindset capable of being successful in the ways Solid Snake has been previously. His lack of confidence was grating to witness, although his character arc climaxed with my impression of him notching up a little bit.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Dragging.jpg

The story of Metal Gear Solid may have grown convoluted but it doesn’t hold a candle to anything on display here. At its most basic, this game centers on Snake and Otacon’s quest for Metal Gear nonproliferation and Raiden’s journey to discover himself. Then about a dozen layers are added on top of those and any further comprehension requires extensive notetaking and periods of downtime to digest the events of the lengthy and frequent cutscenes. The breakdown between actually playing the game and watching it was somewhat jarring, although I did enjoy watching more than playing. Maybe I feel that way because the time I had to develop my stealth and combat skills was squashed between lengthy conversations that took me out of the experience? Either way, I felt my performance was less impressive compared to the previous game.

Due to narrative reasons that are mind-blowing, the events of the game are purposefully similar to the Shadow Moses Incident and wind up serving as little more than a test to creating a solider equal to Solid Snake. Pulling the strings is a shadow organization known as the Patriots. Already in control of the United States (every election has been a sham and most major government officials are representatives of the organization) they’re seeking control of the flow of digital information now. A new Metal Gear was designed and the AI contained within, GW, is the construct to achieve their goal. There are about another dozen crucial characters and their allegiances and double crosses become confusing narrative fodder. Thankfully I did take detailed notes but even so, I remain unclear on many things and feel another playthrough is necessary to really comprehend everything. Nonetheless, the narrative was the freshest aspect of this game and it was unpredictable at every point.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Raiden
Raiden was a tough character to like.

Likewise, the depth found in the gameplay has also been drastically increased. The increased AI is no joke; no longer do guards make buffoonish decisions when catching a glimpse of Snake in a box. Rather, they call reinforcements more often than not and send in additional soldiers to “clear” an area, searching in most nooks and crannies. It felt like setting off an alert resulted in many more mission failed screens compared to the previous game. I want to say in addition to the more stringent AI, the alerts lasted longer too. Frequently, I would throw Raiden or Snake in the line of fire just to get a quick reset instead of hiding for the few minutes it would take for things to cool down. This resulted in a less enjoyable gameplay experience. It’s also one of the reasons I’d like to replay the game again, just to take my time and devote all my focus to remaining stealthy and see if my performance and enjoyment increase.

The gameplay improvements are not relegated solely to stealth actions. Gunplay received an overhaul in the form of first-person shooting. First-person shooting provided a greater level of accuracy when eliminating enemy threats, and provided some fun when taking them by surprise. Individual body parts could be targeted, including the ability to shoot the radios an enemy may call for reinforcements with. This viewpoint was only useful in specific cases though as the character would remain locked in position – the game couldn’t be entirely played like a first-person shooter. It was a smart addition nonetheless and added a further layer of complexity to approaching a situation.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Precision
With first-person shooting, the level of precision allowed increased immensely. Shooting soldiers, or glass bottles, in specific locations yielded different outcomes.

Like its predecessor, there were many great set piece scenes with most of them revolving around the varied boss fights. Again, there was a rogues’ gallery of bad guys to defeat and each encounter was a unique experience. I can’t think of any being down-to-earth showdowns; for instance, Raiden battling a roller-skating mad bomber of sorts or his showdown with a small force of towering Metal Gears. The set pieces extended beyond cinematic fights though, including one particularly frustrating platforming section. One section in particular ate our lunch, seeing us retry twenty or so times. Raiden was forced to navigate a narrow strip of piping across a body of water and the various obstacles highlighted why such a section didn’t jive with the super responsive character movements.

Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty - Boss Fight
By the end of the game, Raiden had been redeemed in my eyes, proving he could hang tough.

What do I think of this game? The narrative is bold, but tough to follow. I want to replay and reread my notes to try and piece everything together. I didn’t much care for Raiden although I felt he was redeemed by the end; for a deeper analysis that I agree with (and reasoning why this game is postmodern), read this. The gameplay split my opinion the most. I like the improvements, even though the increased AI resulted in a tougher game with more frustrations. Again, it’s another reason I’d like to replay, in order to have a more enjoyable experience. As it stands, it was enjoyable seeing what happened in the game, less so to actually play. I still think the original is unsurpassed as a pure video game or piece of entertainment. I would agree that this game is incredibly bold and deserves most every ounce of praise; it just wasn’t as fun to play.

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Metal Gear Solid [PlayStation] – Review

Metal Gear Solid - Title Card

The hype and critical acclaim surrounding Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain got to me (it started last year with this). With my tendencies though, I’ve opted to ignore that title for now and jump in at the beginning: Metal Gear Solid. Technically Metal Gear would be the beginning, but whatever. My usual cohort is following suit and he’s postponing his time with MGSV until we make it through the core series. If there were any gaming series that would benefit from this way of playing, this would be the one. These games are dense with dialogue and exposition and understanding or linking them together coherently may come easier after freshly experiencing them. To assist, I’m going to be doing intense note-taking in the hopes that I’ll understand the narrative and characters even better.

He doesn't know what's coming.
He doesn’t know what’s coming.

Before ever controlling Solid Snake we went through about twenty or thirty minutes of backstory. Most of which was done through (optional) barely animated briefings and through these, the inspiration of Escape from New York was apparent. The characterizing aspects of Solid Snake and his initial mission mimicked Snake Plissken’s so closely I’m surprised there wasn’t legal action! We were also treated to a few Codec conversations and cinematic cutscenes illustrating Snake’s infiltration of Shadow Moses Island. The latter highlighted why it was, and still remains, so highly regarded. Hideo Kojima and Konami revived a classic series in the guise of a big-budget action movie and defined the modern era of storytelling in video games.

The story that unfolded over the next dozen hours centered on Snake’s stealth mission to recover two kidnapped figureheads associated with the U.S. Dept. of Defense and prevent the terrorist group responsible from using a bipedal nuclear equipped robot: Metal Gear Rex. The group responsible is actually the black ops Army unit that Snake once belonged to: FOX-HOUND. The current members have gone rogue, calling themselves the Sons of Big Boss, and are requesting the remains of Big Boss (the unit’s founder). They want access to his genes, which in the wake of the Human Genome Project the U.S. has been secretly isolating “soldier genes” and injecting them into soldiers, creating a “genome army” with skills more proficient than the average warrior. Big Boss was “The Greatest Warrior of the 20th Century” after all.

Just another classic scene.
Just another classic scene.

The story gets way more convoluted from there and at times, it felt like a break was needed to understand the events or conversations that just happened. I did strive to take comprehensive notes and playing with another person also helped to soak in the data and translate it into information. Once we’re done with the series, I’m going to try and understand everything as best I can and that’ll probably involve writing a synopsis of each game. The series, and this game in particular, doesn’t require in-depth note-taking to find enjoyment or some understanding but the lore is so rich that I feel like it’ll be rewarding and enlightening in the end.

For the most part, the events that take place seem plausible and with a little imagination, realistic. Maybe the thought that a bipedal nuclear equipped tank of sorts would be the ultimate weapon is a little farfetched, but this is a game whose inspirations also include mecha anime. The characters that make up the cast on the other hand, specifically FOX-HOUND, well, they’re less believable. They are, however, a rogues’ gallery of fascinating villains. The standout is of course Psycho Mantis, whose psychic abilities included reading the files on the memory card, predicting the player’s actions (forcing the player to plug the controller into the second controller port), and a few other “breaks” in the fourth wall.

One of the most memorable boss fights of all time.
One of the most memorable boss fights of all time.

The battle with him will remain one of the most memorable video game boss fights for a long time to come, but they all weren’t as great. The majority of them are very memorable, if only for the fact that the fights themselves were generally bookended with much conversation and featured the distinctly unique members of FOX-HOUND. Others will remain memorable to us specifically because of their difficulty. Whether it was the uphill battle we were in for because of Solid Snake’s limited health or the challenging situations we’d just gone through beforehand, I’d say a quarter of the fights took a half-dozen attempts each. One thing’s for sure, like the members of FOX-HOUND, each boss fight was unique and required different weaponry or tactics.

While the battles could be frustrating depending on the circumstances, the typical sneaking gameplay wasn’t so hard. Honestly, it didn’t make up a lot of the game in retrospect. The memories of my original playthrough ten years ago are filled with the feeling of helplessness after getting caught and just giving in to the enemy’s weapon fire in order to quickly restart. That didn’t occur to us often on this playthrough. We did get caught every now and then, but we were able to successfully evade capture or quickly eliminate a soldier or two before it escalated to total despair. I imagine we’re just playing smarter than high school me.

The showdown with Metal Gear Rex, like a few other boss fights, was no walk in the park.
The showdown with Metal Gear Rex, like a few other boss fights, was no walk in the park.

It’s been seventeen years since this game was originally released and I think playing it is still as vital to one’s gaming résumé as it was then. This is a cinematic game that was unlike any other at the time of its release and one that still stands out today. With a complex narrative, feature film presentation, and audio/visual qualities that were remarkable for their time (and still respectable today), Metal Gear Solid is a must-play game. I didn’t find playing it as enjoyable as watching it and trying to follow along with the intricacies of the plot could be difficult, but there were some brilliant sections and set pieces nonetheless. The stealth aspects remain a challenging and enduring appeal for me, but the negative experiences we had with a few of the boss fights outweighed the positives. It’s a landmark video game, all in all. On to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty!