Five by Five – Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Metal Gear Solid 2 was one of the first games I recall getting really excited about when I heard it was coming.  These days I very rarely dig much into anticipatory pre-release stuff.  I don’t bother clicking through swaths of screenshots and trailers for most games aside from maybe checking out a gameplay video to get an idea of how it’ll run.  If you tell me a new Zelda is coming out that’s pretty much all I need to know to want it.  Back in the day though, when we heard Metal Gear Solid was coming back we went nuts.  We gathered around a Playstation Magazine demo disc and watched that two-minute teaser dozens of times to try to glean every little bit of info we could from it.  I bought my first Game Informer specifically because MGS2 was on the cover.  The mania lasted just long enough that the first time I finished the game I thought the story was absolutely brilliant.  But the more I played it the more I came to realize the strange duality of a great game and a terrible game inexplicably occupying the same disc like a world of tactical stealth military action overlaid with a parallel astral realm of pants-on-head insane conspiracy theories.  Read on, if you dare.

New Places, New Faces

Lots and lots of new toys: Despite the ridiculous story, I always have a fun time playing this game because of the huge upgrade to gameplay mechanics compared to earlier installments.  I’m of the mind that a fun stealth action game requires two key gameplay elements (and lacking either of these makes for terrible stealth levels): the player needs to be able to percieve patrolling enemies and other hazards, and the player needs sufficient mobility to evade said dangers through careful use of skill and timing.  MGS2 loads the player up with a nice swath of new moves such as being able to tuck & roll into hiding at the last moment, better use of cover and corners, hanging from ledges, and improved (though still not great) shooting mechanics all around.  Guards react differently depending on whether they’re shoot in the arm or leg or body or head, and if you’re a fantastic shot you can even shoot the radio in his hand so he can’t call for backup.  Additional bonus mojo points for including a tutorial section on the main menu where you can see how all the moves work with demo videos.  There’s a handful of sections that lend themselves well to one specific move or another, but generally you’re just given a playground of wandering patrols and hiding spots and let loose to solve the puzzles with your bag of tricks.  And if despite all these tricks you still get spotted, then things get crazy…

Sweep and clear: Enemy troops are likewise upgraded to match your new skills.  Although they can still be craftily eluded once you know their patrols, they’re sharp when you make mistakes.  On higher difficulties they can get suspicious or go straight to alert mode if you cross their line of sight even if you’re outside their cone of vision, and sometimes they’ll employ binoculars to gain full vision at a long range.  If you get stuck in one area in alert mode you’ll also have to deal with the new clearing crews, heavily armed and armored soldiers who will systematically search every nook and cranny of the room, the controller pulsing in time with your character’s speeding heartbeat as the corner camera shows you dramatic views of the clearing crew getting closer and closer to your hiding spot.  Do you hide and hope they don’t look in your one dark little corner or do you bolt and hope you can make it to the door before you get gunned down?  Speaking of running…

Man on the run: Though I enjoy a good stealth game, what I dislike about a bad one (and so far a majority of stealth levels in action games) is automatically failing upon being spotted.  I like it even less when you’ve basically automatically failed when you’re spotted because you’re virtually guaranteed to be savagely murdered with no hope of escape, so you get to watch your character bleed for a minute or two before you get to press continue.  In MGS2 getting spotted isn’t good, but it’s not the end.  Standing your ground to try to kill all the guards is maybe possible if you’ve stocked up on gear, but you’re gonna bleed and you’ll be low on resources after (excluding higher difficulties in which open combat ends with your insides becoming your outsides).  It’s a method of game design I highly support; if you use the brute force way you can get through to the end, but if you use the clever way you can get a more rewarding experience.

Name, rank, and serial number: The method for attaining the series-standard infinite ammo and invisibility items this time around is collecting dog tags, which can be found on nearly every enemy in the game.  Some will hand them over at gunpoint, but a handful of tough guys won’t give it up unless you fire off a warning shot (and they’re not afraid of your tranq gun).  This adds a decently fun layer of metagame over the regular mission, as it takes a little while to get tags out of someone and often his friend will be back from patrol quite soon.  I also dig that all the tags you accquire on all difficulties add up, so if you’re not yet a legendary mercenary you can start collecting on Very Easy to get the items to help you through Hard and Extreme.

Odds and ends: Lots of little upgrades contribute to making the game overall more fun, which I’m going to lump all into one line item here because I can.  Visibly worn items like Snake’s Bandanna and Raiden’s GRU Uniform are kept visible on the character during cutscenes.  You can now fast-forward through codec conversations by holding down Triangle instead of individually clicking X every time.  The random junk in rooms making it look lived-in is back, but now there’s physics to all of it so stuff gets messed up during firefights.  And best of all, you can use the stealth item to walk right up to a guard, crouch, go to first-person view, punch him in the nards, and watch him wince and fall over in pain.  Great stress relief, that one.  There’s also a handful of special features on the Substance edition like a swath of varied VR missions, an odd skateboarding minigame, a set of Snake Tales missions that play like bad Metal Gear fanfics made into game levels, and fun bits like a Boss Survival mode and a goofy Casting Theatre that lets you recast a handful of key cutscenes with different character models.  Want to see Snake kill Raiden in a swordfight or watch a middle-aged office woman fight giant robots?  Now you can.  Try to keep these good things in mind as I now prepare to rip MGS2 a new one.

Fission Mailed

Why do I have to use my codec to talk to someone standing two feet away?: This game rightly draws a good bit of criticism for excessive use of talking head codec conversations.  It’s kinda neat that they use the 3d in-game models, and while the other guy is talking you can press R1 or R2 to express your character’s approval or disapproval respectively, but nothing could excuse this level of storyline-delivery abuse.  They spend far too long explaining relatively simple concepts, and while I appreciate the logic that communicating silently on subvocal mics and headsets is a good idea when enemy troops might be right around the corner, that doesn’t mean the player should be stuck sitting watching talking heads and text blocks all the time.  Some of these conversations take place in situations that really should end with the character having been surrounded by a dozen armed guards or drowned or burned to death or whatever long before the lengthy conversation finally came to an end.  It’s like how the giant monster would inexplicably stand there not interfering while the Power Rangers take half a minute to assemble the Megazord.  Something that irks me further is that on very brief occasions you see them using little tricks to have these codec conversations without the talking heads.  Sometimes they cut to dramatic external shots while characters monologue, and on a couple occasions the codec beep is used to transition between scenes as someone gets a call in the middle of something.  With friends like these, however, you’ll come to dread that beeping sound…

I’d rather have Brian Blessed: The support crew is a lot thinner this time around, and worse they have far more to say, far less useful advice to give, and an unusual spontaneous unfamiliarity with the complexities of the english language.  I honestly don’t understand what happened to the voice acting in MGS2.  It’s kind of comprable to the quality of voice acting we had in a lot of games of the time, but it’s a bit of a jump back compared to MGS1.  Dialogue frequently has jarring changes in inflection from one scene to the next.  Sometimes it seems like scenes were chopped up and re-ordered without re-recording the dialogue, but other times it just sounds like people reading english lines who aren’t familiar with how the language is supposed to sound.  Stranger still is that these folks are good actors and a couple of them are returning cast from MGS1, so I know these people know how to deliver good lines.  It should be pointed out that the largest exception to this criticism is Jennifer Hale as E.E., whose delivery inspires a good bit of sympathy and makes her probably the only character you won’t want to strangle at least once during the game.  And for the award of character most deserving of a half-brick to the skull, we have a tie…

Raiden: I’d like to preface this point by saying I support the theoretical idea of Raiden.  If you try to tell the story of just one character for long enough you run out of story ideas, and Snake (awesome as he is) has essentially been in the same story three times now.  Having the player take the role of a new character gives the opportunity both for new character development but also to show a new side of Snake by having the player interact with him from an external perspective.  In delivery, however, Raiden is just an incredibly unlikeable protagonist in ways that won’t begin to be fixed until two games later.  He whines incessantly about everything he’s told to do, he’s a jerk to everyone he meets, and he only goes through a modicum of severely rushed character development in the closing minutes of the game.  To double your trouble you also have his  even more whiny girlfriend on the support staff for really poorly thought out reasons, incessantly complaining that Raiden doesn’t know what’s so special about today or that his bedroom is undecorated.  I’d like to go on a tangent for a moment to point out a random npc towards the end of the game.  There’s a bit where you’re on a big ‘let’s have a boss fight here’ platform as arsenal tengus drop in from all sides.  Most of them are armed with submachine guns, but this one guy drops in with a sword.  I’ve always wondered about that guy.  I wonder what kind of life choices he made that led to him deciding, “Yeah I know everyone else brought a gun and this guy has fought his way through our entire base almost by himself, but dangit I’m gonna take him on with this sword cause that’s how I roll.”  I wanna get in that guy’s head.  The point of this tangent is that towards the end of the game I’m more interested in the backstory and development of a random expendable enemy minion than I am in The Adventures of Whiny Blonde Prick and his sidekick Whiny Girlfriend.

What is this I don’t even: So, the story.  Good googly.  It may be said that genius and madness are both essentially the ability to think in ways uncommon to common folk, and which label you get depends on how useful your ideas are.  Kojima seems to have a rather large toybox of ideas, and while a good number of them are shiny and functional but a few are rather oddly shaped with dubious purpose.  MGS2 starts off kind of making sense, moves on to making somewhat less sense, then finishes by making so little sense that it begins to make some sort of anti-sense that causes previous notions of logic and sanity to implode in a black hole of artistic madness.  Most of the rest of the series scrambles to try to make some sense of the myriad absurdities.  Even the parts that aren’t so ridiculous don’t quite make sense.  I’ve watched the Thirty Xanatos Pileup denouement towards the end like ten times and I’m still not entirely certain who’s betraying who or why.

La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo: Liquid Snake’s villainous, lengthy, and tragically-ignorant-regarding-genetic-science monologue at the end of MGS1 can’t hold a candle to MGS2’s finale.  The few vaguely logical parts of it were roughly salvaged in MGS3 and 4, but a lot of it just defies all logic, and until they came along to try to clear it up theories on explaining the finale varied from space aliens to robots to the White House itself attaining sentience through psychically absorbing the souls of politicians.  Without the context of later releases, any of those explanations could feasibly work.  The plot almost seems to get up and leave Raiden behind towards the end, and then turns around and tries to throw in some retroactive character development in an unsuccessful attempt to give you and the last boss a reason to fight to the death against all logic.  But before you can have said illogical boss fight (and then again in the middle of said illogical boss fight via, what else, a codec conversation) the game beats you over the head with a message about information control and what we pass on delivered with all the subtlety of my above paragraph about how poorly the character of Raiden is handled.  There are some tiny interesting bits to be found here, but they’re some pretty small marshmallows floating in a cup of stale chocolate.  The whole La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo thing, for example, is a bit more meaningful in Japanese because they’re five sounds not found anywhere in the Japanese language, a reference to the theme of what information is shared and passed on and what information is buried and forgotten.  But then something strange happened.  I’m not sure if it was intentional or not, but watching through the story again revealed to me a little nugget of metagame brilliance; perhaps it is not Raiden who is the true subject of the Patriots’ information control, but us.  The idea that Metal Gear Solid 2 is somehow a good game was passed on to me, and now it may be passed on to you.

The Final Word

Replaying this game was an interesting and eye-opening experience.  For the longest time whenever I’d fire it up I’d just skip all the cutscenes because I knew the story was completely ludicrous (so much so that in writing this review I had to go hit a thesaurus to find more synonyms for ‘madness’) and I was just in it for the sharp gameplay design.  Kojima can be a good storyteller when he remembers to edit his work and take advice from the folks thinking inside the box, and his gameplay ideas continue to be the high bar against which I judge all other attempts at stealth games and levels.  The question then is whether or not you can still enjoy the series as a whole without playing through this one.  My answer is…  probably?  Things like Ocelot’s arm, the rivalry between Raiden and Vamp, and the whole schtick with the Patriots all start here, but MGS4 over-explains everything so much that you could probably muddle through.  That said I’ll always hold onto my MGS2:S disc (I even have my original-release MGS2 disc around here somewhere) for one more playthrough.  Right after I finished my review/refresher playthrough I kinda wanted to restart it and go collect more dogtags or tool around in some VR missions.  The story is inexcuseable but the gameplay is right on the money, so maybe just borrow it from someone if you just want to watch the story go all ouroboros on itself, but by this point the price is so low that if you have an ounce of metal Gear fandom in you it’s easy to justify just adding it to your collection.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance was played on the Playstation 2 and is also available on the Xbox (cross-platform differences unknown).  Initial retail price was $49.99; average retail price at time of review varies widely from under a dollar up to $30, depending on which version you accquire and whether or not you get it as part of Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection.  The ESRB has rated this game M for Mature for Blood and Gore, Partial Nudity, and Violence.  Metal Gear Solid 2 is developed and published by Konami Computer Entertainment Japan.  All copyrights property their respective owners.


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