Retrospectives – Metal Gear Solid series part 3

Continued from part 2.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Metal Gear Solid 2 is impossible to discuss nowadays without at least establishing what the game is “about”; the message that Kojima intended for the player. First, we need to understand that Raiden, everything about the character and his experience, represents the player (more specifically, the modern Japanese gamer/otaku, but it works well enough for Westerners). Second, the game’s surreal nature, crazy AI and double crosses are all commentary on the Information Age, which has made information not only more widespread, but has changed how one can wield it. The final message from Snake (the hero we aspire to, but cannot control for long) is clear; just believe in something, and pass your beliefs and your genes on to the future.

It is a double edged message, as anyone wary of religious fundamentalists would tell you, but it is still rather powerful for a videogame. Finally, the story and ideas behind MGS2 depend on the fact that this is a videogame. If this were a novel or a film, it could be done well, but it would still wouldn’t be the same. In fact, one might argue that a film would never be made of such a silly plot. This is a goofy videogame made in an era of pretty goofy videogames, an industry where the special effects in every cutscene are five years behind cinema, and teenage angst is high drama.

Looking at it this way, this is a pretty bold game that takes advantage of the game format as well as anything. Good work Kojima!

And yet, not so good. When I actually played MGS2 for the first time, I did not like it at all. It was one of the first games I ever reviewed. It got a generous two stars out of five. The strange thing about Metal Gear Solid 2 is that no matter how advanced it seems over its predecessor, none of it really matters. And as admirable as the aspirations are, the story still isn’t very good, and the impressions people gained from the experience are all wrong. Perhaps it did more harm than good.

MGS2 truly is a “next gen” sequel. It looks and runs much better than MGS. It adds important features like moving bodies and shooting in first person mode. There are tremendous details to the environment, from shooting bags of flour, to water beading on the camera. Important interactions are added, such as corpse relocation and obfuscation. Enemies are much tougher – when you’re caught they will do anything to hunt you down, and won’t let you hide without searching every corner of the room. It is bigger and bolder while still completely familiar.

A clever player might be able to use the environment to play tricks on guards. They might be able to be thorough with displacing them. They might go and do pull ups while hanging on a ledge just because they can. But you can also sneak past guards by knocking on the wall and running in the right direction, or just run a few rooms back to lose the guards. Every strategy from MGS1 works just as well in the sequel, and the only roadblock the game throws at you is disabling the radar in new areas.

All the new additions and fancy improvements boil down to one big tech demo for the Playstation 2. You could argue that this is nitpicking; after all, just because you don’t need to use these things doesn’t mean they aren’t welcome. But this isn’t a case of me (or any other player) playing the game for hours on end until it is broken. It isn’t about players of different skills resorting to different tactics. All one has to do is play MGS1, and chances are, they will immediately resort to their old instincts, and once they see that it works, there is no reason to do more. It doesn’t make it a bad game, it just makes it too much of the same. That isn’t what I expected from the Emotion Engine.

The story, as honorable as it might be, is also bogged down by even more schlock than MGS1. I simply cannot stand to hear Solid Snake, a trained soldier with plenty of lingo in his head, talk about how he must diffuse a group of “baby bombs” in the middle of a crisis. I don’t know how I am supposed to feel for Fortune when she acts so false and wooden. Fatman is as poor of an excuse for an MGS2 boss as I have ever seen. The silliness of it all almost makes some strange sense in the context of the story, but it loses the 80’s action film bravado of the first Metal Gear Solid. It is just weird for the sake of it – I almost buy that the whole thing is an elaborate commentary on Internet memes and the overall goofiness of videogame stories. But that only makes it worse.

You see, MGS2 came to define what MGS is about for many people. If it isn’t convoluted enough, if each character doesn’t have a backstory ranging from trite to complex, then it simply isn’t Metal Gear Solid. These expectations caused some to look at the third game and scratch their heads. It had some of the right pieces, but missed others. It didn’t all feel the same. This is because MGS3 is a very different game with a very different angle, just like MGS1 before it. The pieces are often familiar, but they are used for toward different ends. Wanting them to adhere to a strict set of rules ruins their effectiveness. I cannot say that Sons of Liberty ruined Metal Gear Solid. If that were the case, then the diehard fans would not appreciate MGS3 for the genius that it is (and they most certainly do). It does however cause the mainstream media to look at the “Beauty and the Beast” concept of MGS4 and not even blink an eye, and perhaps even consider it a return to form, rather than thinking “this is either retarded, brilliant, or Kojima is giving us a one massive ‘Fuck You.'”

MGS2 truly does comment on us, the gamer. The aftermath of its release shows just how hopelessly addicted we are to male power fantasies, and how we glorify plots that a B movie writers would scoff at. Suddenly a lot of things make sense. It is no small stretch to say that much of my worldview on gaming has been shaped by studying people’s reactions to and assessments of MGS2.

Quite powerful stuff for a game I don’t even like. I guess that counts for something.

To part 4.

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