Me & Metal Gear Solid 2

There weren’t many games that arrived with as much excitement and hype as Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty for PlayStation 2 (buy here). After all, it was a follow-up to one of the PSone’s best games – which is saying something. I remember the crowd that gathered around Konami‘s E3 booth when the trailer played.

At Game Informer, we got the exclusive review cover. The cover image was drawn by Todd McFarlane. It was the first game to get dual 10s. We had an 8-page strategy guide and a 6-page feature. In an issue that also featured GTA III, Tony Hawk 3, and Dead or Alive 3, MGS 2 was king – and I had nothing to do with any of it.

Okay, that’s not totally true. I got the bright idea to do a 2-page Classic Strategy on the original NES Metal Gear. It was a game I never liked, and forcing myself to “master” it didn’t help matters at all.

The game was reviewed by Kato and Reiner – their last names, as there was already a Matt and an Andy on staff respectively before they were hired. I will always be grateful that they didn’t spoil the game. I, on the other hand, am going to speak freely about this 12-year-old game, so beware. You see, perennial Metal Gear star Solid Snake was only the playable protagonist for the first ~3 hours. After that, you take on winy blond combat rookie Raiden. Can you imagine 16 pages of coverage – we’re talking strategies and screenshots – without giving that away? Props to them!

Of course, I day-one purchased it or got it free from Konami (perk of the job) and quickly devoured the game. Back then, I used to say you always suck for the first couple hours of a Metal Gear game, as you get accustomed to the mechanics and controls not to mention the way it’s more sneak than slaughter. I too loved it.

And just days ago, I replayed it thanks to the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for PS3 (buy here). Note: I bought it on January 6, 2012 so it didn’t violate my year-long game-buying ban. I won’t say I loved it this time, but I got a lot of enjoyment, as well as remembered the things that make a Metal Gear game such a Metal Gear game. I’d like to speak on those things.

First off, the graphics on PS2 were revolutionary. The animation, character models, and textures were all top-of-class for that generation. The slightly updated Xbox port added a lot more effects. I imagine if I popped in the old game, I would be disappointed. But the HD remake essentially looks like how the game does in my memory. It’s smooth yet undetailed. The little extras are all there, but have become pretty commonplace – though things like bean cans floating in a flooded stairwell or a swarm of interactive insects is still very cool.

The story is every bit as head-scratching now, if not more so since it’s not brand new. Let’s see if I can run it down, though I do not expect you to follow:

Solid Snake is part of an anti-Metal Gear organization, and finds out a Metal Gear (giant robo-nuke) is hiding on a Navy-run oil tanker. He goes to check it out the same time Russians commandeer it. He discovers and photographs the new Metal Gear (Ray). But at the same time Revolver Ocelot, a Russian guy from MGS 1, kills the Navy commander and the Russian commander and sinks the ship – seemingly with Snake among the drowned. End Act 1 and Snake as the playable character.
Now it’s two years later. Raiden, a goofy, inexperienced kid who’s part of a black-ops organization run by the same Colonel as MGS 1 (and somehow involving his whiny girlfriend), infiltrates the giant cleanup facility placed over the tanker’s wreckage. Why? Because the President is on there when it was taken over by a group demanding a 30-billion-dollar ransom. That group is a bunch of freaks that can’t die or are vampires and junk. There are still a bunch of Russians on there, too, and together they capture the President, take everyone else hostage, and kill the SEAL teams.
Survivors are limited to Solid Snake in a disguise where Raiden doesn’t know who he is, and the guy who trained one of the freaks – a mad bomber who goes all blow-up-everything before you stop him.
You discover the President committed treason, using his nuke codes to arm the weapon in order to get a piece of the pie from the Illuminati-type group that actually runs the nation. But they betrayed him, so he helps Raiden before being killed by Revolver Ocelot – who had Snake’s genetic twin Liquid’s arm replace the one a cyber ninja cut off in Metal Gear Solid 1. Only Liquid’s spirit is inside the arm and is fighting Ocelot for control. Also, the cyber ninja shows up in the facility though it ends up being the daughter of the Russian commander (and an Act I boss) who is now somehow working with Snake.
You also find Emma, the little step-sister of Snake’s buddy Otacon. Emma has created a lot of the tech involved here, and is a better hacker than her big bro. See, Metal Gear Ray is not the big problem; the entire facility is one giant Metal Gear somehow, named Arsenal Gear. It doesn’t even need nukes to be a dangerous thing. It actually is as much an information suppressor as a weapon. But Emma’s not a bad guy, I guess, because she’s cute and tries to help with a computer virus before she dies and leaves her pet parrot to torment Otacon forever.
The cyber ninja and Snake actually betray Raiden, causing him to become literally naked and helpless. This was just bait to get closer to Solidus Snake, Snake’s heretofore-unheard-of second genetic brother who is also a former President who turned on the Illuminati-type group and has 2 Doctor Octopus tentacles that shoot laser missiles. Around this time, Raiden’s on-call support (Colonel and girlfriend) starts freaking out. Nothing they say makes sense. Turns out they’re 200-year-old AIs or something somehow, emanating from Arsenal Gear itself, and are being affected by the virus. But Raiden’s girlfriend is still a real person too, and discovers Raiden’s past as a child soldier who killed like it ain’t no thang – a history which was somehow set up by Solidus, who commanded them.
Once reunited, Snake gives Raiden the cyber ninja’s sword as an apology present. It’s kind of cool, but doesn’t help at all when you have to fight dozens of Metal Gear Rays back-to-back. However, the final battle has Raiden and his father/godfather/mentor Solidus square off with blades (and those mecha-tentacles in an Inception-esque Manhattan once Arsenal Gear runs aground.

So yeah, the story is kinda crazy. However, it actually tries, and that’s important. And it goes places that you can sometimes follow, many of which are unexpected even if they don’t always land. I do enjoy how it tackles government corruption and even video-game escapism. There are no taboo subjects. Hell, Otacon even slept with his step-mom (Emma’s mother)!

The important thing is how the narrative entails a roller-coaster of gameplay variety. The gang of freaks really is cool, even if you don’t fight one of them. You’ll run around in disguise, track down cleverly-placed bombs, do some swimming, and even have an escort mission that doesn’t suck. It always seems like you have options with what to do next or how to tackle obstacles. It’s not as open as, say, Deus Ex, but also isn’t as linear as God of War.

We have become spoiled with good cameras in games. MGS 2 still uses the fixed-camera perspective, a la old Devil May Cry and Resident Evil. There are times when you can only see yourself from the knee down. It can be frustrating, but the radar is a big help.

First-person is essential for accurate shooting, but it requires pretzel fingers. To shoot in first person, you’ve got to hold R1, hold Square to raise your weapon, and aim with the analog – sometimes holding L1 to lock onto a target. But you’ll only shoot a pistol when letting go of Square.

As I said before, Raiden is a pain in the ass. His actions are so unprofessional, to the point where you want to smack him. And when he and Rose start up, I was almost tempted to skip over the dialogue. Maybe Kojima hoped painting him as a killing machine near the end would redeem his cred, but I’m unconvinced (though I have yet to play his spinoff action game, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance [real title]). If there’s good about the switch in player-character, it’s that we got to view Snake with more awe because he wasn’t stuck being in our clumsy hands. He got to mentor us, as the player. That’s kind of neat.

I’m glad I went back and replayed Metal Gear Solid 2. Looking online, there are enough hidden goodies that I’m half tempted to try it again. Instead, I’ll probably finally play Peace Walker, which was originally a PSP game but included in the collection. Or, ya know, Konami could either port Kojima’s visual novel Snatcher to a current format or localize its Japanese-only spiritual sequel Policenauts.

***EDIT***
I originally gave this game a review score, but I’m deleting it. I think this is a rare case of a game where it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. It does something unique with its medium, and with the concept of sequels and expectation, and is therefor worth playing by anyone who is a fan of said medium whether they expressly “enjoy it” or not.

— Justin Leeper (@StillManFights)

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