Friday, December 28, 2012

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty - What the F---?

After the success of the original Metal Gear Solid, a sequel was created for release in 2001 titled Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. This release came with so much hype that many players infamously purchased the game Zone of the Enders for the sole purpose of playing the demo for Metal Gear Solid 2. Over time, the game has become known primarily for its introduction of a new protagonist as well as its infamous mind screw of an ending. This, and the fact that I played the first Metal Gear Solid, got me curious enough to actually see what everyone's talking about. One's thing's for certain: you'll witness the complete evisceration of the fourth wall, and your sanity, by the time it ends.

In the two years since the Shadow Moses incident in Metal Gear Solid, Revolver Ocelot sold the blueprints for Metal Gear on the black market, thus allowing corporations and entities that are rich enough to collectively create quite a few Metal Gear derivatives. Solid Snake infiltrates an oil tanker, U.S.S. Discovery, with assistance from Otacon to obtain information about the latest version, Metal Gear RAY. RAY is designed as an amphibious walking battle tank, thereby allowing it dominance over more territory than thought possible. When Snake finally obtains the information he needs, by sneaking past Russian soldiers and confronting Olga Gurlukovich, Revolver Ocelot shows up to "reclaim" Metal Gear RAY for himself, putting himself in the pilot seat and destroying the tanker to eliminate all traces of his presence as well as kill Solid Snake. This section of the game does a really good job at introducing new elements to the Metal Gear universe as well as continuing the story beyond the first game, the biggest surprise being the mention of a powerful group known as the Patriots. It is a suspenseful section that highlights just the kind of man Snake is and how he's gotten better over time.

Then Raiden shows up. Two years after the Tanker incident, Raiden is sent by a reformed FOXHOUND to an offshore cleanup facility, the Big Shell, to rescue hostages, including the United States President, from a terrorist group known as the Sons of Liberty. The terrorists, headed by a man claiming to be Solid Snake, are backed by members of a rogue SEAL anti-terrorist unit known as Dead Cell, whose core members are Vamp, a knife wielding man who drinks the blood of those he kills; Fatman, an expert with bombs; and Fortune, a woman who's luck prevents any bullet from touching her. With assistance from Colonel Campbell and his girlfriend Rosemary, Raiden must do what he can to eliminate the terrorist threat and prevent a nuclear strike on Manhattan.

What follows is a series of events that are, for the most part, a rehash of the events in the first Metal Gear Solid. The bosses, despite being clever and memorable, feel more like stand-ins for the former FOXHOUND members from the previous game and the plan the terrorists have in mind is also not unlike that of Liquid Snake. A lot of what happens to Raiden in the Plant chapter is very remniscent of what happens to Solid Snake, including the appearance of a mysterious caller named Deepthroat/Mr. X, the need to backtrack to advance the plot (hope you love that Strut F Warehouse!), using an electronic item to try and thwart the terrorists and a section where grabbing the PSG-1 Sniper Rifle is an absolute necessity among other things. My experience with Raiden was filled with memories of the first game that I was simply reliving through another character.

And then about 80% of the way through the game, the player is confronted with insanity in its purest form and is given a mere glimpse into the eye of madness. After Emma Emmerich's death and the supposed death of Vamp, the player is introduced to revelations about Raiden and the video game itself in such a concentration that they might as well be clocked with a freight train. The sudden wave of information includes piling so many gambits on top of each other that it is unclear who the actual bad guy is (if there is one to begin with); a series of convoluted double and even triple crosses; the downright confusing and possibly contradictory motives of the Patriots; deconstructions of several elements of the gaming medium; and forcing the player to question the exact reality of everything they've been doing while controlling Raiden. This is as far as I can go without just rendering an entire paragraph or so with spoiler tags and is in fact just the tip of the insanity iceberg. On top of this, just when you feel safe(-ish), the stinger at the end of the credits twists the knife deeper by revealing that the Patriots have all been dead for at least 100 years! This ending is one of the most confusing and brilliantly frightening things I've ever witnessed in any medium; I thought I would be prepared, but I never expected to witness what I did in the super long chain of cutscenes. What really didn't help however was that some cutscenes that were important to the plot were excised in the wake of 9/11, but even then I'm not sure how much better it would have turned out. I really hope there's a good explanation for what I saw because it's bothering me and I feel I really need to cool off from Metal Gear Solid for a while before approaching the next game in the franchise (don't worry, I'll still cover the other games eventually).

So out of all of this, I suppose you're wondering how I feel about both Raiden and the sheer amount of cutscenes in the game. Well, for the cutscenes, I believe that they are important for fleshing out certain details of the story and introducing the characters properly. The problems with them in this game is that unlike the first Metal Gear Solid, the amount of them gets to the point where you are no longer sure how much gameplay there really is, since there is a disproportionate ratio between them here in favor of the videos. If you were to remove every single video and codec conversation from this game, I'm pretty sure that the actual game, where you're actually in control, wouldn't even last you nine hours unless you're particularly prone to dying.

As for Raiden himself, I was a little thrown off by his sudden appearance in the narrative (yes, it is possible to be surprised about something even if you read about it before the actual experience; there's a big difference between reading about something in a game and actually playing it to get to the event) and just how long I actually had to control him. He felt like a weaker version of Solid Snake, which was in fact a deliberate facet of his design, and his bishonen nature was a little unsettling, if only because he has pretty wide hips for a man. For the most part, I really just feel indifferent about him, although I must say that his tragic backstory comes right out of nowhere and seemed like they were making it up as they went along. The revelations about him at the end also made playing as him borderline insulting, though I have a feeling that Hideo Kojima in this case made his point really clear (well played, Kojima). I hope that if they do bring him back in a sequel, they'll make him a better character.

Moving on from the heavily convoluted story, I'd like to say that the overall gameplay has gotten better. The player is now allowed to shoot from behind cover, which can be helpful in some situations when you really need to get rid of an enemy in the way. I also found the first-person aiming helpful for the handguns, since it gives more precise control over where your shots go. This is especially helpful with the biggest addition to the arsenal: tranquilizers. Both the M9 handgun and PSG-1T sniper rifle can fire tranquilizer rounds that will render someone unconscious rather than outright kill them, providing an alternative method for clearing the different rooms. These rounds also introduce a new mechanic where the location someone is shot at will determine the speed at which they fall unconscious (ex. the head or the heart will have an instant effect, but hand and foot shots take longer).

There's also a new swimming mechanic, bringing some new variety and challenge to the levels with an O2 gauge that determines your available air. However, the player will now need to worry about leaving a trail of blood or water to their location, the former of which can be stopped with bandages. Thankfully there are now also more places to hide thanks to the ability to hide out in a locker until the coast is clear. Being able to roll between cover and hide out in the shadows are also welcome additions, creating new ways to sneak around undetected and even pass certain obstacles.

Being on the PS2 allows the Metal Gear Solid series a graphical upgrade, and this one is a real marvel. Characters look more realistic and are now much more expressive, adding depth to each performance from the voice actors. With the improved environments and effects, the game is also more immersive and pleasing to the eye. This is not to say that the graphics of the previous game were bad, but the improvements help show how well the franchise can look on a newer platform.

Finally, I'd like to mention the score, touted as being done by Henry Gregson-Williams. I am not particularly familiar with his film scores, but I think he did a fine job here creating music that adds to each scene in a way similar to the previous installment. It's perhaps not as memorable at the moment, but I still think he pretty much nailed it.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is an...interesting video game. Thanks to how it handles and deconstructs many themes in video games, including the concept of free will and the difference between fantasy and reality, it can be considered the first postmodern video game ever created. Its gameplay and graphics have improved well from the previous game, but the story is very confusing and complicated with an ending that will question your beliefs about what you just saw. Despite this, I'd still recommend Metal Gear Solid 2 to PS2 owners, as it is a real highlight of the system's library. Even if you've heard the twists by now, this is still an experience that you really have to see to believe.

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