Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (Substance)

Unlike its predecessor, Metal Gear Solid 2‘s gameplay innovations were dramatic. To list the most obvious: Analog movement allows players to move in close to enemies, even on noisy floors, without having to crawl. Bodies are persistent and discoverable. Guards can be “held up” by training a gun on them at close range from stealth. Enemies are not linked as if by hive-mind anymore, and must actually radio for help when sounding an alert, but their radios can be destroyed. Some specific guards have the job of regularly reporting in to the command post, and if these guards are incapacitated, more guard teams will be sent to learn why (though extra guards ought to be moving to the adjacent areas, given how easy it is to leave a strut while the command post is just starting to get suspicious). Nonlethal incapacitations have been added, with new tranquilizer pistol and sniper rifle options. Guards taken out in this manner will eventually wake up, but if other guards find their sleeping friend, it will be viewed as negligence rather than an emergency situation, which means nonlethal players don’t really ever have to bother stashing bodies into lockers.

I’m pretty sure that several of these ideas were original ones at the time. But 2001 falls under an era of gaming that was probably even more awkward than the first batch of late-90s 3D titles. I may be generalizing, but there’s an unjustified confidence in the games of that period. MGS1 had ugly character models, but was aware of it, and avoided framing a scene as such, not relying upon facial expressions except through some great hand-drawn codec screen art. Even though MGS2’s models still aren’t much to look at, the game confidently declares that it is ready for its close-up, so it feels like it has hasn’t held up as well as the previous title, visually and stylistically. (I’m also sad that the codec art is gone.) Games also became more sophisticated at this time, but more confusing too, without the modern on-screen button prompts we have now to get us through those situations. Developers began to take on bigger challenges than simply navigating 3D spaces and clicking heads, often without guideposts to follow: we started to see more “escort missions” with suicidal AI.

And in fact, two characters need to be escorted. It isn’t fun to help either of them, but neither is it terribly frustrating: your charges can die unexpectedly, but their health bars tend to be manageable if your own performance is fine and you’re killing the things that would hurt them. What bugs me more is that these combat situations are mandatory; that I can’t sneak to where I need to be at my own pace, skipping the sword fights with waves of storm trooper ninjas. The combat system is adequate — definitely a step up from MGS1, even if it has some weird movement controls in first-person view — but nobody is playing for it.

There is one boss fight I really liked: Fatman, who skates around planting bombs that have to be disabled by quickly spraying them with coolant, while also doing your best to interrupt and damage him before he can plant more. The other bosses were either grueling or easily exploitable due to blind spots in their AI.

MGS2 takes place on “Big Shell”, a structure of linked hexagons built in the ocean. It looks exactly like the Mother Base later built by the player in MGSV (and apparently in Peace Walker before that). Kojima must have liked the design, and I think it made for a cool base myself, but when it’s the sole location apart from the prologue, the environments seem inflexible, even if the interiors of each strut vary considerably, apart from all of them having roughly the same square footage. At one point, a section of the Big Shell is destroyed, and you have to move along the wreckage, which sort of keeps it from repeating itself, but the narrow, burning catwalks around the periphery amount to an even greater restriction of your options. The last stubborn holdout of the keycard mechanics from the original Metal Gear — having to actively equip the keycard before the doors will open — is now gone, but apart from a few return trips to the warehouse, this barely affects you. Rather than a sprinkling of level 3, 4, and 5 doors to remember the locations of for later in each strut, there tends to be exactly one new route for each security level, telling the player in a clean, linear, gamey way where to go next. When it’s like this, the fun of actually getting your access privileges upgraded is gone anyway.

One bright spot in the level design is that it makes better use of the 3D space than MGS1 did, with balconies and ledges to drop from, but this is only true occasionally.

The collection of secrets and easter eggs are truly impressive, including use of the directional microphone to listen in on distant characters, codec calls made from quirky locations and circumstances, and reactive dialogue about some of the most trivial things I had done. After finishing the game, I looked online to see what little gags I had missed, with the answer being probably 80% of it. They anticipate players doing every remotely perverted thing possible in the game’s engine, like equipping the porn magazines (an item which has the primary purpose of distracting guards if dropped on the floor) while making codec calls from the women’s bathroom. I always admire devs putting in the effort for things most players will never know about.

mgs2-olga

I really wasn’t expecting Otacon to comment on the rest of my camera roll when I went to upload mission photos, but I loved that he did.

The story of MGS2 goes to a thousand places pretty quickly. In Kojima’s effort to subvert all expectation, Solid Snake is not the main character, but he still has plenty of time on-screen, and I think I like him just as well in a support role. In his place is Raiden, a young anime bishie who lacks Snake’s arrogant charm, often whining about his orders and arguing with his girlfriend each time the player radios her to save the game. From what I’ve read, it sounds like the new protagonist was very contentious when the game first came out, and I wasn’t sure where any of it was going early on — especially his rather mundane relationship problems with Rose — but Raiden’s personal history and relationships are one of the narrative experiments that I think have a better payoff than most of the other things going on.

To give a taste of those “other things” in the story: Snake is framed for an act of terrorism by the Illuminati. A third clone of Big Boss (and former POTUS) fronts a group trying to destroy the Illuminati through a detailed plan which involves the seizing of an oil spill containment facility, former Spetsnaz mercenaries, a nuclear bomb, and the kidnapping of the current POTUS… and he’s manipulated into every little part of it by an AI, testing its own capacity to make perfect soldiers. It oscillates between beyond-cartoon campiness and the Unabomber manifesto in massive dumps of exposition, sometimes throwing so many insane ideas in a span of thirty seconds that I needed to reload a save before the cutscene in the absence of a pause or rewind button, because if my head ever started to spin, I’d only fall behind.

But some of this content is earnestly thought-provoking, especially looking back now at Kojima’s ideas about manipulation of overabundant information, which seem like a prescient description of not just the scale of modern internet filter bubbles, but more critical events in recent memory, like Facebook’s ad-targeting in the 2016 election. If only these themes weren’t delivered in such a clownishly convoluted package. The MGSV story was also messy, to be sure, but the entire style of storytelling here is so alien to the game I started with that I’ve given up on truly reconciling the eras of Metal Gear into a cohesive whole, Revolver Ocelot especially.

Fourth-wall breaking and pranks are still very much a part of the Metal Gear brand here. A year before Eternal Darkness, MGS2 was pulling even better tricks as Raiden’s world fell apart. I was getting badgered by nonsense codec calls every time I took a step, my map turned into something resembling a woodcut of Dante’s Hell, and my radar minimap got replaced with an image of some woman sitting on a deck chair. I got a fake Game Over screen in the middle of a fight. Raiden finds out that his girlfriend is a lie, and still has to call her to save the game. If saving existed as it does in most games, as something apart from the characters, done from the pause menu, that would not have been possible, and it’s a brilliant device.

An innovative title in the stealth canon. Its artistic vision ranges from bold and subversive to boring and repetitive, and it would have been better off abandoning some spectacle sequences and putting its quiet infiltration mechanics to greater use, which were hamstrung by the modular and isolated environment. But I much prefer this kind of experimental sequel to a safe one.

This game was thoroughly enjoyed by the reviewer. It is an excellent game that may be too simple or not ambitious enough to be a 5, or there are design flaws meaningful enough to prevent it from enduring as something truly beloved. Highly recommended.

 

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