Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Metal Gear Solid (Disc 1) - Happy Ann...

To celebrate the 2nd Anniversary of this blog, I decided to review Metal Gear Solid, a game from 1998 that is well regarded in video gaming as a classic of the medium and a staple of anyone's PlayStation 1 collection. However, I've hit a bit of a snag.

Here's how it is: I decided to go through my backlog a little more by finally playing Metal Gear Solid, a game that I had purchased on a trip to Texas for about $10. I had finally gotten around to playing it recently, and since I needed to post a review of something for the anniversary, I figured that this game would be extremely appropriate to review, due in part both to how far I had gotten and my feelings on what I had played thus far. Unfortunately, when I got to the part where I needed to switch to Disc 2 (right after the second encounter with Sniper Wolf), the game wouldn't let me. I tried a few more times, including regulating my use of a Chaff Grenade on some pesky Gun Cameras; still nothing. When any repair place for it was closed, I tried again the next day (which will be yesterday as of this posting) and got the disc resurfaced; no luck. Since my issue definitely isn't a hardware issue, as the disc refuses to work on my PS1 and PS2 (I doubted the success of it on my PS3 if those two failed even though it laughs at scratches), my only recourse left now is to buy another copy of the game just to complete it.

Unfortunately I won't be able to get another copy and complete the game on time to review it for the anniversary, so I decided to meet halfway and review the first disc for now, with a plan to talk about the second disc later. As a result this may be written more like I'm giving my impressions of the game so far, rather than as a full review of the game. I apologize for this and hope that this is the only time I will ever have to split a review of a multidisc video game. So, without further delay, here's what I think of Metal Gear Solid so far.

The story of Metal Gear Solid is actually a continuation of the games Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, neither of which I would have been able to play anyway (or at least not that easily). Fortunately the North American game manual actually acknowledges the question of "What is 'Metal Gear'?" and both the manual and game proper provide text recaps of those two games (the ones in the game are more in-depth). This is very fortunate, since it allows those starting out the series with this to still understand references to these events throughout. In his first mission (1995 in Metal Gear), Solid Snake, the newest member of elite special force group FOX-HOUND, is sent to Outer Heaven to rescue Gray Fox -the only member given the code name "Fox"- and destroy a nuclear-equipped walking battle tank known as a Metal Gear. He succeeds, also defeating Outer Heaven's leader, Big Boss, who had sent Snake into Outer Heaven under the belief that he would fail. Four years later (1999 in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake), Snake is sent by FOX-HOUND leader Roy Campbell to Zanzibar Land to rescue Dr. Kio Marv, who created an oil refining microbe named OILIX. He succeeds, but is also forced to defeat Gray Fox, the leader of the Zanzibar mercenary outfit. Snake also takes down a new Metal Gear and has a rematch with Big Boss, who loses once and for all. After this, Snake gives up on war and retires to the peaceful Alaskan wilderness.

In the 21st Century (in Metal Gear Solid), the nuclear weapons disposal facility on Shadow Moses Island has been captured by Next Generation Special Forces led by members of FOX-HOUND. The terrorists demand to have the remains of Big Boss within 24 hours or else they will launch a nuclear weapon. To counter their efforts, Roy Campbell recruits Solid Snake once again, this time to single-handedly infiltrate the facility and rescue DARPA Chief Donald Anderson and the President of ArmsTech, Kenneth Baker. Then, he is to prevent a nuclear launch and defeat all of the terrorists: Revolver Ocelot, an expert with handguns; Vulcan Raven, a giant and shaman; Sniper Wolf, the beautiful and deadly sniper; Psycho Mantis, former member of the KGB's Psychic Intelligence Unit; Decoy Octopus, master of disguise; and their leader, Liquid Snake, a man with the same face as Solid Snake and the only other member of FOX-HOUND who was given the code name "Snake." Snake, also tasked with finding out the whereabouts of Meryl Silverburgh, Campbell's niece, dives into his mission determined to complete it in time to prevent a nuclear catastrophe.

Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I'd to say that so far the story is one of the most well-written stories ever to grace a video game. The pacing is just the right speed to set up and explain different aspects of the Metal Gear universe, as well as the events on Shadow Moses before and during Solid Snake's mission. As the events unfold, there is a lot of depth to the writing, with characters analyzed and careful discussions of human psychology and political intrigue introduced just enough to get you to think about your targets and actually see the driving motivations behind the way they function. It does more than just have the villains be complete cardboard, instead actively making them more unique and interesting, which helps them become all the more memorable even after you turn off your console. The interactions that Solid Snake has are also enlightening to the Metal Gear universe, as the ghosts of his past haunt him once again and he learns more about the internal politics of FOX-HOUND, as well as just what it means to be a real soldier. Relationships are also hinted at and can even affect how one character will respond in a later situation, making it all the more intriguing once it comes to pass. I also appreciated how the game knows when to be suspenseful as well as dramatic. There are feelings I experienced in this game that didn't come up so easily in others, which I will go into detail about later. So far, though, I'm finding myself engrossed in Metal Gear Solid's storyline.

Next up is the gameplay systems, mainly the fact that the game focuses heavily on stealth, or, as the logo puts it, Tactical Espionage Action. As Snake goes through the Alaskan facility, he must avoid detection from the guards for as long as possible by hiding within the environment and generally staying out of their line of sight. Some items that Snake can come across, such as the famous Cardboard Box item, as well as use of the radar to read cones of sight can help avoiding mooks and cameras, which may or may not shoot at you upon detection, easier to avoid. However, he must also take sound into account, with things such as stepping in a puddle of water being enough for a guard to wonder what's going on and investigate. If Snake is detected at all, then Alert Mode will come into effect, obscuring the radar and giving him a short amount of time to hide, triggering Evasion Mode if done successfully. If Snake can avoid detection until the end of Evasion Mode, then the game will resume as normal, with guards being ordered to assume their positions again and granting Snake a new opportunity to advance. Being detected was genuinely surprising at times and could at times invoke a feeling of suspense as I tried my hardest to stay away and use up as little ammunition as possible to not attract more guards. Trying to fight off a seemingly endless wave of bad guys as the clips gradually dwindle away was more than a little unsettling and made me more resourceful and cautious in how I approached the levels as a result. The right box at the right time can be a real life saver.

What helps make the stealth more interesting however is the ability to switch camera angles at appropriate moments. The game is normally in a 3/4 overhead perspective, but a simple button press will switch to a first-person view to get a closer look at the environment. I didn't take advantage of this mode much, but there is another camera angle that allows Snake to see around corners easier. This I liked, since if needed, a guard pattern can be observed more closely while still giving Snake time to react to what he sees. These camera changes are unlike what I see in a lot of games now, which have fully controlled cameras and operate in a more open environment, which, while arguably allowing for better environment reading, hasn't gotten my heart to beat faster with urgency like Metal Gear Solid has.

Should Snake have the need to use a weapon, there are plenty of options, most of which can be easily found in the environment. A couple of guns can easily be used to fend off various soldiers if need be, though there are also plenty of grenade options, including normal, Stun and Chaff grenades to also make getting through a level more expedient, though you still need to weigh your options as to whether or not you really want to use that ammunition so hastily. While other guns are required in order to pass, like the Nikita, which fires remote controlled rockets, and the Stinger, which launches surface to air rockets, you still need to decide if its a good idea to use them outside of their intended use. I'm enjoying the variety in weapons so far, though the only weapon I really didn't like to use was the Sniper Rifle, since you need to constantly take Diazepam to lower Snake's anxiety levels and steady his shot. It gets annoying after a while, particularly when you run out of the stuff in a desperate moment.

Thankfully, it is actually pretty easy to switch between weapons and items. By holding down L2 or R2, you can bring up a menu that scrolls against the respective corner of the screen so that you can make the best choice of equipment when you need it most. Pressing L1 or R1 will also equip and unequip the selected item at will, so you can hide under the cardboard box of your choice in one second and then start running at full speed the next. I feel that the controls overall are designed pretty well, as I was able to get the hang of them pretty quickly and make snap judgments on the fly, partly thanks to the speed at which something is equipped, though I'll admit that the gun controls take a little getting used to.

While there is some subtle difference between each type of mook in the game, the most standout enemies are easily the bosses. Each one requires a unique strategy to beat, like waiting for Revolver Ocelot to reload his gun or throwing a grenade down the hole of Vulcan Raven's tank or even having a fist fight with a Cyborg Ninja. One of the more memorable ones is the two encounters I had with Sniper Wolf, if only due to how frustrating they are. You have to use a Sniper Rifle to get at her the first time and optionally the second time, though I decided to use it anyway to test my skill. Running out of Diazepam during the second encounter made my shots more inaccurate, thus forcing me to depend on my luck holding out. Thankfully it did, but I will never forget my troubles with trying to kill her. The first encounter with Liquid Snake also requires the use of Stinger Missiles, with the lack of Rations, the item that can increase your heatlh, causing my pulse and sense of dread to increase as both of us inched closer to death, with only a single mistake needed to spell disaster for me during the fight as I held out and fired off enough missiles to take down the Hind he piloted.

The most memorable and talked about fight however would have to be the one against Psycho Mantis. His fight is very unique and one I haven't since seen replicated in any game since. He begins by reading the player's memory card, making comments about them based on the games they have played as well as their overall performance thus far in Metal Gear Solid. Next, he demonstrates his psychic abilities by moving your controller through the rumble feature. During the actual battle, he can read all of your moves, mess with your TV screen and negate any damage you try to inflict on him. The only way to do anything to him is to clear your mind and switch your controller to Controller Port 2, allowing freedom to kick his ass. While I didn't quite understand what made the fight so great at first, I began to see the real genius behind it when it was at last right in front of me. He is the only boss I can recall who demonstrates his abilities by reaching beyond the screen and interacting with the player on a whole new level. There is a certain feeling I got, which I can't quite describe, when I had to physically interact with the console to outsmart Psycho Mantis, a feeling that is much different than reassigning the controller with the press of a button or a couple of mouse clicks. This indescribable feeling, as well as the sense of urgency as he possesses Meryl, is the reason why Psycho Mantis has one of the most memorable boss fights in all of gaming, and I really wish that there would be one in the future that can recapture that same magic.

Another instance of this indescribable feeling is when I realized that in order to get Meryl's Codec number, I had to look on the back of the actual game box and notice a certain screen shot. This is an example of how Metal Gear Solid goes the extra step and lets the player figure out that a video game doesn't have to be limited to the confines of the screen in front of them, but that they can also access the contents of the room to find a hidden solution to a standing problem. In this way, Metal Gear Solid is more and more of a stroke of genius.

One thing to keep in mind however while playing Metal Gear Solid is that in order to build upon the world it resides in, it has to have cutscenes. A lot of cutscenes. If there's one thing I've learned, it's that this game has plenty of cutscenes and Codec conversations, as well as a full Briefing on the disc about the Shadow Moses mission which is made of them, which I understand are required to help flesh things out and keep the atmosphere ever changing. However some of them can be pretty long, which can get in the way a little if you're trying to do something else really soon. This still didn't prevent me from enjoying them and reacting appropriately, it just sort of bugged me, partly because as a result the game itself is much faster paced than I had originally anticipated.

While the graphics of the game are actually pretty good for a PS1 title, the only things that bothered me about the 3D character models was the faces. I understand again that there are technical limits for the system, but they look a little blurry and their eyes always look like they're closed (almost like a particularly bad Rob Liefeld drawing). I thank the character designers for keeping them distinguishable, but I personally enjoyed the Codec conversations more due to the wider range of expressions and more identifiable facial features. I don't want this to come off as me detesting older game graphics, but I just wanted to express a more minor annoyance I had.

Then there's the music, which I must say is composed very well so far. The different styles between cutscenes and in-game action help really well to set the mood and some pieces would be easily recognizable if I heard them out of the original context. I also enjoy the voice acting, which helps the characters come alive and establish their personalities as more believable. Special praise goes to David Hayter, who voices Solid Snake in a way that still gives him depth while retaining the cold personality he has at this point in time.

Metal Gear Solid, at least thus far, is a very enjoyable game. I'm finding myself captured by a unique world with distinct original characters and a great balance between stealth and action. At this point, I can't wait to see what Disc 2 has to offer to complete the story and see just how Snake plans to stop Metal Gear REX from causing worldwide destruction.

Come back later for a look as I complete my review with my thoughts on Disc 2. Hopefully the end of the world won't get in the way of that.

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