Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Essentials #33: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Arriving late to the original Metal Gear Solid, I didn't have to wait as long as some for Konami's followup, but my anticipation was enormous nonetheless. As soon as I completed the first game, I went online and loaded up the trailer for the sequel. It was the E3 2000 debut trailer, so this must have been late 2000. Based on the amazing video, Metal Gear Solid 2 looked to be everything I could have hoped for. Solid Snake, more badass than ever, was back for a direct sequel. The stunning graphics showed off the next-gen power of Sony's PlayStation 2, and I foolishly remarked that we had arrived at the point where real-time models could look as good as pre-rendered stuff. Little did I suspect that what I had actually seen was a trailer for a demo, and the real Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, arriving in 2001, would not at all be the game I'd expected or hoped for.

Booting up that tanker stage that had been the demo, the game appeared superficially to be just a sharper-looking version of its predecessor. The overhead camera was the same, the radar was exactly the same, and Snake himself had more or less the same moves and animations. The trailer showed off several new features, however, including the abilities to fire from the first-person perspective and to shoot from behind cover. Snake could also hang from railings, hide in lockers, stash bodies in same, toss empty ammo clips to divert sentries, and lay down erotic magazines to distract them. Frankly, none of this stuff was necessary nor even very useful, aside from the hanging, which was only required at a few specific points. But all this interactive minutiae was a testament to the painstaking craftsmanship of the engine.

Enemies meanwhile behaved more realistically. Alarms no longer meant infinite guards appearing from out of nowhere. Instead, if there was trouble, they would call for backup, and a more heavily armed squad would arrive to clear the room. Ironically, although they were among the showcase additions, if you were playing Sons of Liberty well by its own stated terms as a stealth action game, you wouldn't even come across the new sweeper squads or riot shield soldiers. The shoot-from-cover mechanic likewise saw no real use past the demo. The same went for Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams's much publicized contributions to the score.

But the ability to aim and shoot in first-person view was a significant addition that completely altered my approach to the stealth progression. With the brand new silenced tranquilizer gun, I simply sniped each and every guard I came across from a safe distance. The only tricky spots involved the radio men. If they didn't make their scheduled reports on time, HQ would send squads to check in on them. If you were just passing through a room, however, there would still be plenty of time to pop everybody before anyone even noticed. It was only years later, while I was collecting dog tags, that the game became even remotely challenging. Another new feature, the dog tags determined what rewards the player unlocked upon completion of the game, and they could only be won from guards by sneaking right up behind them and holding them up. For most of the game, this was still easily achieved by just knocking them out first, and then rousing them and sticking them up as they rose. Some guards yielded immediately and wiggled the items out of their clothes, while more stubborn would-be heroes needed extra "encouragement" to the arm, after which they would be begging for their lives much like those scientists I incinerated back in Syphon Filter. I'll leave it to your imagination how I responded this time, but I'll say that, on one very sad occasion, I forgot that I had the Socom equipped instead of the non-lethal M9, and it was a slippery slope from there.

A slightly less significant change, once past the tanker stage, the radar was no longer active by default. Rather, in order to activate it in a given room, you would have to first locate the room's "node" and download the data. Since you wouldn't even know where the node was without the radar, this meant that, on first entering an area, you would have to sneak through without the omniscient advantage of a map marked with vision cones identifying all personnel. The new "AP Sensor" was a poor substitute that vibrated the controller as you got closer to an enemy. I had considered the radar to be rather an essential part of Metal Gear Solid's design, so this move away from its use confused me. The ability to track all enemy movements, placing the emphasis on the player's strategic response, lent the first game its puzzle feel, and the node-hunting, while perhaps fairer to the weak AI, also exposed the poorness of the overhead camera that clearly relied on the radar to give the player a more complete sense of a space. It led to a lot of stumbling around in the dark on my part. Needless to say, I gave up on that pretty quickly and switched to the "very easy" difficulty, which considerately left the radar on at all times. I did come back to the higher difficulties later while collecting dog tags, but, by then, I already knew all the guard routes by memory.

Whether the gameplay had changed too much or too little, the general consensus was that MGS2's mechanics were very strong. The controversies lay in the characters and story. Anybody who bothered to flip through the instruction manual first probably would have raised a curious eyebrow at the description of Raiden as the player character during the plant chapter. Perhaps Raiden's mission would be as short as the tanker episode, and then it would be back to Snake? Or maybe Raiden would just be cool? The reality was a twist that some players still have yet to get over. I personally didn't mind playing as Raiden, and, moreover, I wasn't even all that shocked to see him relieve Snake as the star. I suppose I was accustomed to series like Castlevania, where the player character changed all the time. I also always found it just a tad odd when players identified themselves too closely with their player characters. Whether I was controlling the rugged Snake or the effeminate Raiden didn't make any particular difference to me, so long as their abilities were the same. During the interactive parts, it was all me, while, during cut scenes, all the characters were just themselves and it was no reflection on me. That was how I preferred it.

Even if playing as Snake would not have made me feel manlier, might I not have preferred a story centered around him? Maybe, but Snake was still a major character in the game, and I honestly found Raiden and Rose to be fairly interesting, their relationship quite unlike any other in gaming. On the surface, Raiden seemed innocuous enough, especially in contrast with the legendary Solid Snake. But, precisely because he wasn't a legend and arrived with no backstory, he was a mystery, and I was intrigued to see this initially blank character filled out gradually, sometimes in unexpected directions, through his conversations with Rose. And if Raiden sounded whiny for a soldier, it only seemed to me a natural and human response to the contradictions around him. After having seen Snake play the unwitting dupe to four competing interests in the first game, I was pretty glad to hear Raiden voicing his frustrations.

Hideo Kojima would later offer a few different explanations for why he introduced Raiden as the new lead. According to one account, during focus testing for the first Metal Gear Solid, one female player memorably declared her disinterest in the talky story full of old men characters. The pretty boy Raiden was thus designed to appeal to female gamers. That explanation implied that Kojima thought that Raiden would make the sequel more marketable. Why then, instead of being used to promote the game, was Raiden's existence kept such a secret until after its release? In those pre-release trailers, Konami even went so far as to hack Snake into scenes that, in the actual game, would feature Raiden instead. No, the bait-and-switch, with Snake the lone star of the trailers, the demo, and the box cover, seemed to me a calculated move to provoke players by betraying their expectations. In a more convincing explanation, Kojima insisted that Snake was the main character of Sons of Liberty, and the point was to elevate him by showing him from the perspective of a supporting character that shared in the player's admiration of him. Mission accomplished in that case, I'd say, because, whether or not Kojima intended for it to play out quite as it did, I suspect a lot of fans came away appreciating Snake more than they ever had coming in.

Even if marketing had played a part in Raiden's creation, Sons of Liberty was nevertheless a project driven by artistic aspirations far beyond most other games of its time, perhaps beyond what most players could appreciate. The original Metal Gear Solid felt very much like a video game version of a big-budget Jerry Bruckheimer movie. Some roughness in the script could be attributed to the newness of the medium, although I would have argued that Snake at least was a deeper and more contemplative soul than a good many action movie heroes. Nevertheless, for many gamers, myself included, a Bruckheimer production was exactly what we wanted from an action game. While those movies may not be the highest art, they thrill us with the spectacular moments that we then fantasize about experiencing ourselves. Metal Gear Solid allowed us a sampling of those experiences and left us wanting more. Sons of Liberty disappointed a lot of fans by shooting higher.

Agonizing quasi-incestuous angles notwithstanding, the story could not be labeled mere melodrama, nor was it trying for drama. It bordered on farce, laced jarringly with blunt philosophical meanderings. I don't know that I've ever come across a story more explicit in its messages than Sons of Liberty, yet the experience was still often bewildering.This was a multi-faceted metafictional narrative that could only be told through an interactive medium. Raiden was literally and figuratively the video game soldier prepped for the field through virtual reality simulations, including a Shadow Moses scenario that mirrored the player's experience with the last game. If the player had a hard time growing attached to him, it was no more than the alienation that defined Raiden's own existence, as a hollow man running away from who he was, and who ended up a pawn in a construct where possibly nothing was real. He was a game piece manipulated most of all by the player, yet when things went crazy, it was the player that the game would turn on, and, in the end, in order to "win the game," the player would have to share his role as a performer with no real say.

For those patient enough to wade through the hundreds of screens of text in the "Previous Story" section, the weirdness actually began even before the first bit of gameplay. Among the many cool inclusions in the original Metal Gear Solid had been the dramatic summaries of the previous two titles. Just as the VR training familiarized the player with the gameplay mechanics, these formal backstory synopses got the player up to speed with the events of the first two games, which most players would not or could not have played. Before the game even officially began, I came in consequently with a reverence for Solid Snake, despite never having actually seen him at work. With Sons of Liberty, I looked forward to a similar summary for Metal Gear Solid. Instead, I got a whole mess of bunk and one account that sounded plausible yet distressingly unfamiliar in parts. It seemed to me that anyone who had missed out on playing Metal Gear Solid would have been badly served by these misrepresentative reports. But then that made me question the reliability of the MGS summaries of the first two games. Years later, when I finally played them myself, sure enough, the most pertinent detail in those--Big Boss being Solid Snake's father--never even came up in the actual Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. It was a later revision, and the MGS account had practically assumed my ignorance and taken advantage of it to rewrite history.

I had of course heard the old "nature vs. nurture" arguments before, but, at the risk of sounding ignorant, I'll admit that it was this video game that introduced me to the now Internet-prevalent concept of "memes," as introduced by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Although the word "meme" would not be used in Metal Gear until the Metal Gear Solid 3 trailer, Kojima's familiarity with Dawkins's book on evolution was already established with the first MGS. That game had used genes as a theme, and, looking back, it was denser than I had thought during my first playthrough, but it was still not exactly Gattaca. It had seemed about as deep a contemplation on the implications of genetic manipulation as James Cameron's Terminator movies were on artificial intelligence. In other words, it was intriguing, but, as far as I was concerned, it was only in there because the sci-fi action story had to be about something. And at the end of it, MGS made the optimistic argument that we as human beings were more than our genes. Hideo Kojima's work of fiction did not offer any scientific support for its conclusion, but it was a warm and fuzzy ending to a thoroughly satisfying journey. Sons of Liberty, however, perverted that idea with the truly disturbing suggestion that, if genetic manipulation yielded no supermen, the cultural engineers were nevertheless capable of controlling the rest of a man's makeup. And the worst part was that MGS2's ending offered no uplifting message to suggest otherwise. Indeed, in an increasingly senseless world awash with such Internet trash as TMZ, Twitter, Adult FriendFinder, this blog, I at times almost find myself agreeing with Fake Colonel Campbell that somebody ought to be regulating the nonsense. Honestly, I think these troubling questions without answers may have been at the heart of many players' frustrations with the story.

Or maybe it was the game's roster of the lamest villains ever, including a fatso named Fatman, a bisexual vampire named Vamp, and an obnoxiously self-pitying woman who could not die, though it was her one true wish. Ugh. Even Solidus, the third and most well-balanced Big Boss clone, was at times a goofy Dr. Octopus ripoff. And let's not forget Revolver Ocelot, back from the first game and periodically possessed, in perhaps the plot's most absurd and unexplained element, by the ghost of Liquid Snake, who somehow lived on through his arm that had replaced Ocelot's lost hand. Keep in mind, this was a universe where Big Boss had had all four limbs replaced by cybernetics. Yet Ocelot had to settle for a transplant from a cadaver, and Liquid specifically? And Ocelot kept it even though he knew it was allowing Liquid to take over? Crazy stuff.

Metal Gear Solid opened my eyes to where video games could go technically, but I still never imagined a game like Sons of Liberty. My enthusiasm for gaming soared after the first MGS, and, amazingly, by defying and far exceeding my expectations, the sequel managed to raise it another whole level. No less a milestone in my gaming history than its predecessor, Sons of Liberty changed the game again, and the pre-MGS2 world seemed so small in the face of the infinite possibilities it opened up for storytelling and narrative scope in the interactive medium.

Additional Information

A year after the original North American release, Konami came out with Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance as a timed exclusive for Microsoft's Xbox. In 2003, Substance arrived on the PS2 and PC as well. An expanded version of Sons of Liberty, it left the main game mostly unchanged, aside from swapping out the in-game pinups--many of them originally taken from magazines of the time--for more generic Konami-owned images. It added content in the form of tons of VR missions, as well as a set of "Snake Tales" scenarios that allowed the player to control Snake in non-canonical short stories. These goofy missions were presumably meant to appeal to Snake's fans who were disappointed at having to play as Raiden for most of Sons of Liberty, but without relevant plot contributions nor any voice acting to lend personality, I really didn't see the point, which I felt only strengthened my case that it didn't matter who you played as while you were playing. The VR missions likewise went ignored as I realized that I was only interested in playing MGS2 for its story.

For me, the most interesting thing in Substance was the "Casting Theater," a feature which had previously appeared in the Japanese and European releases of Sons of Liberty. It allowed you to view a small selection of the game's cut scenes while replacing the character models with different ones chosen from a list. A few scenes even included a completely different and much better-looking Meryl than the one in Twin Snakes.

The PS2 Substance also included a lame skateboarding mode that was supposed to help promote Konami's unremarkable Evolution Skateboarding game.

In 2002, Konami released The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2, one of the most bizarre titles on the PS2, at least among North American releases. An "interactive documentary," it was essentially a database of MGS2's art assets. There was Hideo Kojima's script that included the catastrophic New York end scenes that had been cut following 9/11. I hadn't noticed anything unusual when I first played through MGS2, because, by that point in the game, nothing made sense, but, replaying the game with knowledge of these edits, there were definitely some abrupt cuts where those scenes should have been. The Document also included a sound test, a concept art gallery, and a development timeline. You could also view any of the Sons of Liberty cut scenes, but with none of the audio. The most interesting inclusion may have been the complete MGS2 trailer history, which allowed the player to relive the deception that began over a year before the game was even released.

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