Saturday, August 17, 2013

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

The year was 2001, the PlayStation 2 was then cutting-edge technology, and the greatest gaming generation of all time was about to begin*.  Hideo Kojima was standing in a situation that most game developers could only dream to be in:  the creator of one of the best games ever made now working on a brand new follow-up using vastly enhanced technology and seemingly unlimited possibilities.  Any "Metal Gear Solid 2" would have been a guaranteed Best Seller, such was the excitement of millions of gamers.  And Hideo Kojima had ambition to match that excitement.  He was going to create a game unlike any ever before:  This wasn't just going to be a new tactical espionage action game, this was going to be a mindbending genre-breaking experience, ripping the player out of easy and simple paradigms into a new world of confusion, satire, and gonzo madness.

And what was the result?  Well, "Metal Gear Solid 2" is still not a fondly-remembered game.  Much of this results from Kojima's elaborate joke, where for years this was marketed as another Metal Gear adventure starring Solid Snake, when in actuality, you can only play as Snake for about two hours, and then suddenly replaced with the rookie Raiden.  The world's reaction was at best mild annoyance, at worst a barrage of ad hominem attacks with not a small undercurrent of homophobic hatred.  (Gaming culture was not a very enlightened place a decade ago, and it hasn't evolved much.)  Worse, to Kojima's long confusing rants about Internet controls and loss of player control and God Only Knows how many other ideas wound up filling "Metal Gear Solid 2"'s gumbo of pretentious twaddle.  Most gamers simply shook their head unable to understand anything that was going on, creating an entire side industry of MGS2 scholars, similar to that of the "Chrono Cross" scholarship.  While some fringe intellectuals worship MGS2 for all of its weirdness, gaming history seems to have called this title a failed experiment, and cheerfully devoured the next Metal Gear game:  a simple fun call-back to James Bond in the 1960s, known as "Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater".

I was actually rather excited for "Metal Gear Solid 2", because there really isn't a very large collection of games that anybody would call "arty" or "pretentious".  Honestly there aren't enough games that go off the deep end into merciless soups mocking their players and laughing at our dreams of super spy action.  I heard the dim claims of "Fission Mailed" and "I need scissors, 61!" and was into it.  Unfortunately, that's only part of the equation.  "Metal Gear Solid 2" for its first half is just another Metal Gear game, one which only at times manages to equal the design brilliance of the original.  But the final section of the game only half a lunatic adventure, the other half is long boring speeches about... well, I haven't even a clue.  I get the distinct feeling that "Metal Gear Solid 2" was quite simply a game that wasn't finished, leaving huge holes in its story not out because it was being coy with its players and leaving everything up to interpretation, but because a deadline was coming up, Kojima didn't know how to end the story, and just left it unfinished.

The shame of it is that "Metal Gear Solid 2" actually has the raw bones and materials to make what could have been a game equal to its original.  Even with the weirdness and the twists (some of which actually work in my opinion), Kojima still used the PlayStation 2's processing power to create a game far more advanced than "Metal Gear Solid 1".  While the original** PS1 title was still a very much 2D game, with only the vaguest aiming system to accommodate the extra dimension, this new PS2 game exists in the full real world.  Enemies can spot you from above or below now, you actually have to factor foes on several levels.  And "Metal Gear Solid 2" is now actually a shooter, with the right gun you can aim from massive distances to clear out rooms, and the shooting controls now... exist.  Enemy AI is considerably smarter, to the point that you can no longer take enemies out one-by-one, they will immediately know when their soldiers are getting killed off man by man.  Graphically, characters now have faces, the world is much more fleshed-out, and there's dynamic lighting and shadow.  "Metal Gear Solid 1" is a game from another period, an antique.  Its a very beautiful antique, but its still clearly out-dated.  "Metal Gear Solid 2" is a modern game.

Though I must say, not that modern.  The controls still aren't great.  Neither Raiden or Snake seem to know how to move while aiming, severely limiting your combat actions.  The hand-to-hand combat is as awful as ever.  I have no idea how to flip an enemy over versus just punching them in the face.  And all of these Metal Gear games seem to share the same awful annoyance in that when you knock an enemy down with a nice punch combo, you have no choice but to let them stand up again and stab you in the nuts.  You mean nobody knows how to kick a guy when he's down?  I was done with honorable combat when I started hiding in boxes.  Do you think that poor bastard whose head got blown off with a sniper rifle even knew he was dead?  Then again, the CQC sucks in "Metal Gear Solid 3" too, when I slit who knows how many throats entirely by accident.  I'm so sorry, Mr. Harmless Scientist Man, I only meant to toss you to the ground to knock you out, I didn't mean to respray the ceiling with your vital fluids!  Please forgive me!

The bait and switch protagonist issue of Snake vs. Raiden is really not much of an issue for me, because ultimately they play pretty much identically.  Snake is still a major character in this game, to the point that it seems like he had an entire separate adventure with own boss fights that by rights, should have been playable.  Its really disappointing to hear about Snake having huge firefights and then forlornly realize you're still chugging around dismantling bombs.  Then there's a moment where a major villain corners Snake and Raiden, with Snake holding her off while Raiden moves forward, meaning that there's an entire boss battle against a critical character that is not only non-playable, but you don't even get to see it.  Then this happens again at the climax with Snake having a final boss battle against a reborn Liquid Snake, none of which is shown at all.

Raiden as a character is appropriate to the storyline.  The point of much of "Metal Gear Solid 2"'s Big Shell section is to be a very clear satire of the original storyline, recreating many of the same beats as part of the villain's conscious plan.  That plan really makes no sense at all, but I appreciate the concept.  Your hero this time isn't Solid Snake, its basically a guy who just played "Metal Gear Solid" (explained in-universe as Virtual Reality training), and thinks he's equipped to handle the super spy game.  Raiden himself needs to be a cypher to the player, while appearing to be a completely harmless normal guy, if not even a gullible idiot in the midst of a failing relationship with one of your Codec supports.  The player will note long before Raiden will that something if very fishy about the Colonel Troutman in this game, who isn't nearly as supportive or interested in connecting personally as Troutman did in the last title.

The actual design of Raiden relationship with his support characters isn't dissimilar to that of the player's relationship with GlaDos in "Portal".  This is of course, played far less for laughs in "Metal Gear Solid 2", where the false commander is none other than a well-known ally from a previous game, and somebody you're told is your girlfriend.  That you've never seen Raiden work with either of these characters before is a major clue, and if the relationship between Raiden and his girlfriend seems false to you, its because its supposed to be.  A game or any story really, should never just say "oh, these two are in love" but "Metal Gear Solid 2" does, but for a purpose.  Colonel is the "GlaDos" working for a sinister purpose:  to turn Raiden into a new Solid Snake by giving him an experience similar to the last "Metal Gear Solid".

My only problem with the Snake and Raiden switcheroo is more of a technical issue.  The first section, where you play as Snake, has almost no pedagogical design within.  You're just flopped on deck with nothing but you're wits and a silencer pistol, and neither one is going to tell you much of how to play this game.  Then bizarrely, after you've passed a boss battle, a major hallway firefight, and a small photographing puzzle, you almost start a whole new game.  Now Colonel is telling Raiden how to shoot, how to crouch, how to hang.  Kojima, if your player got this far, they should know this already!  Unless maybe this unnecessary tutorial was designed to show off how much of a rookie loser Raiden is... I dunno.

But really, one point I should deeply concentrate on:  there's nothing particularly wrong with Raiden as a character.  A lot of the hate he's collected over the years is because he's too pretty, his hair is too fabulous, and he spends too much time being naked.  If you've ever called Raiden "gay" for this reason, its probably because you're projecting more furiously than a Republican calling Obama a fascist.  And then you should really examine why you're so in love with a guy named "Solid Snake" whose tight combat suit gives you a perfect view of every contour of his shapely ass.  Now, if you hate Raiden's bitchy girlfriend, that's fine, she's awful.  But Raiden himself, he's A-okay in my book.  And his dodge backflip was thoroughly kickass.

The problems with "Metal Gear Solid 2" actually begin towards the end of the Big Shell section.  Prior to this, it was standard Metal Gear action, this time with a mild bit of diversity thanks to a more Metroidvania-style of design.  Instead of a big line from beginning to end, this game takes place on two hexagons, with something of a maze structure and even backtracking.  The game pace wasn't quite the same breakneck ACTION ACTION ACTION as on the PS1, but it still had its own style and was enjoyable.  There was even a nice bit of diversity to the bosses, with puzzles, sniping elements, and rocket launchers all getting their place.  Then at some point, I noticed that the Big Shell's top hexagon was almost entirely cut off from my exploration.  And then some warning lights started coming on.

After you've passed a very frustrating escort mission***, the game starts to go completely off the rails.  This was what I expected, but not quite in the same way as hoped.  You learn that Colonel and your girlfriend are evil, you find yourself naked and helpless in a flying doom fortress, and then suddenly stealth is abandoned entirely for a series of action-packed adventures.  Several enemies disappear entirely unfought, several scenes seem to be missing entirely (mostly because releasing a video game where a huge aircraft crashes into Lower Manhattan in late 2001 was in about as good taste as sending the residents of Aurora, Colorado some free Batman DVDs), and then you fight a completely pointless final boss battle against a character who clearly isn't the main villain.  Then it just ends.  Nothing settled, some villains still clearly running away, and somehow Raiden's girlfriend is real despite how little sense that makes.  Snake says "don't worry about what's real", and I'm supposed to go home.

There's "I don't know what's real anymore and I'm not sure what happened" and then there's "this is completely unsatisfying".  We have an evil super AI controlling you the entire game and apparently in control of the whole United States - which is a plot point that belongs in the rantings of a crazy gun-stockpiling Montana Neo-Nazi fucktard, not in a serious video game - and you never dispute it.  The main villain is trying to fight these guys, they're clearly the real enemy, having installed a False President and plotting to censor the Internet, and instead of teaming up with that villain, you kill him, and are supposed to go home.  We've done nothing but help them along, we let them manipulate us once again.  All player agency is destroyed.  Maybe that was the point, I dunno.  But purposefully awful is still awful, sorry, Kojima.

And as for the villain's motive rant, its about a five minute long babble about how Raiden is a douchebag, how human beings cannot be trusted because we let people starve to save baby pandas, how the Internet is letting loose dangerous ideas, about... well fifteen other nonsense ideas.  The conclusion is:  these villains are completely fucking nuts, and we need to defeat them.  Too bad, you don't.  Maybe thirty bananas putting on a spirited performance of "Let's Fall in Love" represents a deep thought-provoking argument about America's foreign policy, it still doesn't matter if nobody has any idea what the hell you're saying with those bananas.  Maybe I could have seen the real point, but I was too busy wiping Kojima's self-assured splooge out of my ears.

Again, I don't really know how serious "Metal Gear Solid 2" was ever supposed to be.  Maybe it was all some sort of a joke or a social experiment, or something.  A lot of the mystery of the conclusion is ruined thanks to "Metal Gear Solid 4", spoiling any suspicions that the game was all Virtual Reality or that Raiden wasn't real or the more crackpot theories.  Unfortunately, there had to be a "Metal Gear Solid 4", there was no way the series could have ended like this.  I mean, you had Liquid Snake dancing around the Hudson River undefeated in a giant robot, you can't end a story like that.  Or maybe, Kojima honestly believed that the world should be controlled by a nutcase AI system, maybe he just hates his own players, I dunno.  But whatever the problem, the series moved on, "Metal Gear Solid 2" was a misstep, and "Metal Gear Solid 3" pulled its foot out of the muck of nonsense and back into the real spirit:  old campy action movies.  If MGS3 is James Bond meets Rambo, and is genius, MGS2 is Richard Kelly meets Misato Kato, and is meaningless.

We'll see in the next post if "Metal Gear Solid 4" winds up creating a fitting conclusion to the saga (I'm using the word properly), or if its just another failed disaster.
* I can name at least a dozen fantastic classic games from the GameCube/PS2/Xbox era:  "Wind Waker", "Super Mario Sunshine", "Final Fantasy XII", "Okami", "Shadow of the Colossus", "Simpsons: Hit and Run", "Twilight Princess", "Super Smash Bros Melee", "Dragon Quest VIII", "Final Fantasy X", "Skies of Arcadia", "Kingdom Hearts" and "Kingdom Hearts 2".  In contrast, of this current generation, I can name... four or five truly great games:  "Super Mario Galaxy", "Sin and Punishment 2", "Batman: Arkham City", "Bioshock" (which I still need to finish), and maybe "Metal Gear Rising".  What's weird is that there are plenty more PS2 and GameCube games that I missed that I need to play versus PS3 games.  I really need to play "Digital Devil Saga" and "Metroid Prime" one day, I don't ever need to play "Assassin's Creed" or "Resident Evil 5".

** I basically ignore the original Metal Gear games, and I know I'm not alone in that.  Yeah, I'm sure there are like nine people out there worldwide who really love the old 8bit games on the MSX2 computer system.  (What even is an MSX2 computer, anyway?)  I'm not one of them, everybody really discovered this series when it went 3D.  And there really does seem to be a huge disconnect between the 3D games, which are their own web of self-references and call-backs, while the 2D games are so quaint and barely referenced.  In "Metal Gear Solid 4", Snake goes back to the beginning - Shadow Moses Island, not Outer Heaven.



  1. Do you think you could make a coherent plot out of Metal Gear Solid 2 (but you can't add anything to it that wasn't in the game already)?

    1. Oh, easily. Rose and Colonel were obviously both meant to never be real, but the game seems to be pussying off on Rose's existence. Her character is so fake-feeling and artificial that seeing her at the end is more disappointing than if she was an AI program.

      Anyway, the Patriots are trying to turn Raiden into Solid Snake. That's fine. In fact, its even a decent third act twist, once you've beaten Solidus, Raiden thinks the adventure is over, but then the mindbending craziness that's been building continues, until Raiden totally loses his sense of self.

      At this point, you return to Snake for the final section of the game. (We'll ignore the Liquid Ocelot plotline because that is endlessly stupid no matter how you look at it.) Snake is moving through the crashsite of the build Arsenal Gear, fighting off the last of the enemy soldiers, when BOOM, its Raiden. Raiden, now a supersoldier condition through a Second Shadow Moses to be Snake's equal, and the greatest threat he's ever faced.

      So there, Raiden should have been the final boss. Maybe Snake didn't have to destroy the Patriots at the end, but its definitely disappointing when the game ends with you beating up a character who really wasn't a bad guy at all, except for that Liberia business, and leaving the real villains up in the air.

  2. It's asking a bit much, but I'd like to see your thoughts on Snake Eater. It sounded like you had some qualms with it, and your qualms with things that people say only good stuff about are interesting. I like it when I can hear varying opinions on popular things.