Throughout most of the nineties, the only exposure Western video game fans had to the Metal Gear franchise was the NES port of the original MSX title. Metal Gear Solid changed this in 1998 when it demonstrated its relevance in the 3D era by selling nearly six million copies, and proving to the public that the medium is capable of plots more complex than “kill all the bad guys.” Although the plot left few lingering threads, players naturally clamored for a sequel. They weren’t alone; after all, this is an industry in which the higher-ups to pressure creators into encore performances in the wake of a great triumph. Though the man behind the series, Hideo Kojima, was initially uninterested in making a follow-up to his blockbuster hit, he ultimately yielded, and development of this new installment began in 1999.
A year later, Sony released the PlayStation 2, inspiring Mr. Kojima to set his sights higher. To this end, he recruited Harry Gregson-Williams, a prolific British film composer from Hans Zimmer’s studio, to orchestrate and arrange the main theme and took advantage of the machine’s superior hardware specifications to add unprecedented levels of detail in an effort to bring the environments he created to life. The game was originally going to be called “Metal Gear Solid III,” with the Roman numeral purposely hinting at a nonexistent installment to serve as a plot point while representing what were the three tallest buildings in New York City at the time. This plan was ultimately dropped and the game was retitled Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The year 2001 saw the completion of this project, blazing the trail for the series in a new era of gaming.
Playing the Game
Metal Gear Solid 2 is the fourth canonical entry in Konami’s famous stealth-action series. It is played from a top-down perspective, though the camera dynamically changes to focus on important details when the need arises. For instance, pressing up against a wall and peaking around a corner will give you a clear shot of what lies beyond. Although your character obtains a large number of weapons and gadgets throughout the course of the game, it’s recommended to engage the enemy as seldom as possible. On lower difficulty levels, the main character is stronger and can take more punishment than the guards, but they have sheer numbers on their side, meaning that every encounter outside of boss battles and scripted events only wastes your resources.
Although this game is very similar to its direct predecessor, there are quite a few new features which greatly enhance the experience. For starters, the health bar no longer starts small and increases upon defeating a boss. Instead, it’s same length for the entirety of the game. The protagonist will begin to bleed if his health gets too low, represented by the meter turning orange. When this happens, he steadily takes damage until he is only inches away from death. By crouching, his wounds will be sealed, and the meter refills until it turns back to its normal color.
The most significant change this game offers is that you can now shoot any weapon from a first person perspective, allowing you to aim at guards and destroy security cameras more easily. Taking a page from the first-person shooter genre, a headshot instantly fells an enemy. Don’t think that this means you can simply gun guards down with impunity though, as they are much smarter than their 32-bit counterparts. In the event that you get spotted, a guard will inform HQ via radio, triggering the alert phase, which in turn, causes reinforcements equipped with riot gear to hone in on you. Their sweeps are much more thorough this time around, for they will look in air vents, open lockers, and overturn boxes to flush you out. Not only that, but they employ tactics one would expect from real-life police units such as SWAT. If you’re hiding somewhere, it’s common for them to throw a flashbang in the vicinity of your last known location while one soldier takes point with his comrades providing cover for him, yelling “Clear!” as is standard procedure.
Some guards keep HQ informed with regular status reports, and the people on the other side of the radio will get suspicious if they don’t hear back from them. Moreover, dead bodies no longer vanish into thin air during regular gameplay, so if a guard happens to find one, they’ll notify their superiors and tighten security. This is known as the caution phase. To deal with this new challenge, you are given nonlethal weaponry. Unconscious guards are merely kicked awake by their peers who, in turn, will not call for backup. Furthermore, you can drag incapacitated soldiers and hide their bodies in lockers or other discrete areas to avoid suspicion. You don’t have to worry too much about whether the guards are dead or alive in these cases because as long as the locker they’re in remains shut, sleeping guards will not wake up in them. Picking up and immediately setting down a guard multiple times can cause items such as ammunition and rations to fall out of their pockets.
Interestingly, many of the gameplay features which debuted in this installment, such as a full orchestra kicking in when the player character is discovered by an enemy and the ability to move and hide bodies in storage compartments were originally conceived when developing Metal Gear Solid, but the technical limitations of the original PlayStation prevented Mr. Kojima from implementing them. When playing this installment, I could tell that he wasn’t content with merely providing a graphical update to his series as his efforts took full advantage of the new technological capabilities the PlayStation 2 afforded him.
There is proof of this even in the tiniest details such as the fact that the keycard issue, which has been plaguing the series from the beginning, has finally been completely resolved. Doors now open automatically if you simply have the appropriate card in your possession. In practical terms, this means you can unlock them without having to take off your gas mask first.
The improvements don’t stop there, however. As before, you can have one item and one weapon equipped at any given time. In Metal Gear Solid, it could often take a while to find what you wanted to use because they were all on a single, continuous list. Unlike the MSX installments before it, your entire inventory couldn’t be displayed on the screen after a certain point. Thankfully, in Metal Gear Solid 2, the menus are organized in a markedly more sophisticated manner. You cycle through your inventory by holding down the back shoulder buttons on the controller – the left one allows you to access items while the right toggles the weapons menu. Both of them are presented as columns with items serving similar purposes forming rows. Just to name a few examples, bandages and rations, which are both healing items, are on the same row, as are the various pistols you collect. If you tap the button quickly, you can deselect the item. Tapping it once more equips the item that was last selected. This comes in handy for boss fights that require weapons such as the stinger launcher, which prevents you from moving while you’re using it.
I found that Metal Gear Solid 2 had the best level design in the series thus far. In this regard, it’s unique because it’s the only entry that entirely takes place on manmade structures. Despite this, the areas have a surprising amount of variety to them as every section of the facility has its own unique purpose that successfully creates an environment I could see existing in real life. You also don’t have to backtrack nearly as often. When you do, there is often more than one path you can take to get from place to place, so it’s far less repetitive than it was in older installments.
Metal Gear Solid 2 was a major step forward in a lot of ways, but I would have to say my favorite mechanic, and part of the reason I like the series so much, is the presence of nonlethal weaponry. The tranquilized pistol you’re given can only fire one shot at a time, but it’s surprisingly effective and has a built-in silencer, making it my preferred weapon by a considerable margin. Then again, I’ve always liked it when games allow you to get through the experience while keeping causalities to a minimum – even if there’s no reward for doing so. To me, providing a player with a means of getting past hostiles without resorting to excessive violence is indicative of a pensive creator who wants to question basic video game conventions that are just blindly accepted by his or her peers.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: The following section will contain unmarked spoilers. Skip to the conclusion if you wish to experience this game blind.
In the year 2005, members of the secret ops battalion, FOXHOUND, rebelled against the United States Government, seizing control of a disposal facility on Shadow Moses, an island of the Fox Archipelago in Alaska. They had possession of Metal Gear REX, a bipedal tank capable of independently delivering a nuclear warhead to any target on the planet. Their ambitions were stopped by Solid Snake, one of FOXHOUND’s original members brought out of retirement. Although the world breathed a sigh of relief having avoided a Third World War, it quickly became apparent that the worst was yet to come.
Following the events of the failed insurrection, countries around the world began developing superweapons similar to Metal Gear REX. Believing that these weapons were too dangerous for humans to handle, Snake and Hal “Otacon” Emmerich, a scientist the former befriended during the mission, founded the non-governmental organization, Philanthropy, with a single goal in mind: the complete eradication of these new Metal Gears. One of the members of Snake’s mission control, a Ukrainian weapons analyst named Nastasha Romanenko, had written an account of the incident on Shadow Moses. The book became a bestseller and profits were donated to Philanthropy to help put an end to this arising threat.
Two years after the rebellion, Snake and Otocon have received a tip that the U.S. Marines are transporting a new model of Metal Gear through the Hudson River on a disguised oil tanker known as the USS Discovery. Snake infiltrates the tanker by bungee jumping off the George Washington Bridge, determined to verify and expose the new superweapon’s existence to the public.
That’s not what this game is really about, is it? Or at the very least, what I described in the above paragraphs was a mere preamble to the real story.
An enemy agent sunk the USS Discovery two years ago, which credible sources say spilled thousands of gallons of crude oil into the New York Harbor. Shortly after this incident, the United States Government commissioned the construction of a decontamination facility approximately thirty kilometers off the coast of Manhattan: Big Shell. It is April 29, 2009, and a group of terrorists calling themselves the Sons of Liberty have seized control of the plant, taking the U.S. President hostage. They have demanded a ransom of thirty-billion dollars in exchange for his safety. If these terms are not met, the terrorists will blow up Big Shell, igniting the crude oil contained within the facility’s oil fence along with the chlorides used to decontaminate the harbor and destroying the Hudson Bay’s ecosystem in the process.
A new FOXHOUND recruit, codenamed Raiden, is sent to infiltrate Big Shell to rescue the president along with any other people that may have been taken hostage. The Sons of Liberty consist of Russian mercenaries and former members of a special operations unit known as Dead Cell. Their leader is said to be Solid Snake, who was confirmed dead following the USS Discovery’s sinking in 2007. Though mystified by these strange turn of events, Raiden is resolute in his mission to prevent what could likely end up being the worst ecological disaster in recorded history.
Thanks to a single game, Solid Snake became a popular character among video game fans for his distinct, growly voice and rich, three-dimensional characterization. It’s best to keep in mind that Metal Gear Solid was released in 1998. At this point in the medium’s history, it was remarkable that a mainstream video game protagonist would have any kind of personality – even if it would be considered flat by modern standards. With this in mind, one could only imagine the shock they felt when they played through Metal Gear Solid 2 only to learn that he was not its central protagonist. It’s difficult to fault them; after all, promotional materials for this game insinuated that the entire experience is set on the tanker. Whenever Big Shell was showcased, screenshots were presented either from a first-person perspective or with Snake’s character model edited in. Even in the introductory cutscene, Raiden only shows up in the last few seconds, masking his importance to the story.
When I picked up this game for the first time, I knew that Raiden, not Snake, was to be this installment’s protagonist because, by that point, the twist was common knowledge. Oddly, I would have to say this is a rare case where not going into the game blind was a good thing. Because I knew that Snake’s section of the game was short and he would be replaced, I never thought of Raiden as annoying like some fans do. Although he starts as a blank slate, more of his backstory is revealed as the plot develops, and I found it to be every bit as interesting as Snake’s. Also, I had already seen just how complex the plot of an average Metal Gear game could get with the previous entry, so my favorite aspect about Raiden how he provided a fresh perspective for the zaniness the series has to offer.
Despite all these new developments, one could easily perceive Metal Gear Solid 2 as a mere rehash of its predecessor. As the story continues, you will pick up on several parallels between Big Shell and Shadow Moses. Both games involve a lone agent infiltrating a facility in order to rescue a VIP from a group of terrorists who have demanded a monumental sum of money under the threat of causing serious harm to the world. I, however, thought there were enough differences between the two games so that even with all the callbacks, they were still distinguishable from each other.
One less defensible problem I have with this game’s storytelling is the length of the cutscenes. It’s clear that Mr. Kojima wished to show off the capabilities of the newest PlayStation model, but at times, it feels like the non-interactive portions eclipse the actual gameplay. This never was the most ideal way to convey a story in a medium that requires human feedback, but in Metal Gear Solid, they were at least succinct enough that they rarely overstayed their welcome. The same can’t quite be said about Metal Gear Solid 2, in which there is at least one that lasts over thirty minutes. This is all for cinematic vignettes where the writing and acting aren’t always up to par; some of Raiden’s interactions with his girlfriend can be rather grating. Fortunately, the cutscenes are usually interesting enough that whether they’re good or bad, there’s almost never a dull moment to be had.
So even though the plot had its share of flaws, I was at least intrigued enough to want to see how the story would unfold… and then I finished it. The ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 is polarizing in gaming circles everywhere. Why is that? Simply put, the final sequences of this game reveal that the Big Shell Incident was orchestrated by a shadow government known as the Patriots. Tying into this game’s central theme of memetic engineering, their goal was to create another Solid Snake by forcing Raiden to go through a scenario similar in many ways to Shadow Moses. In other words, all of the aforementioned callbacks to Metal Gear Solid were completely intentional on Mr. Kojima’s part as a way of deconstructing the entire medium of video games and the demand for sequels from both fans and superiors in the face of a big success. From there, the story takes a postmodern turn, as Raiden is revealed to be a stand-in for the player. They are called out for thinking themselves as a hero when, in reality, they’re indulging themselves in a hollow power fantasy, accepting orders without question, and a slave to the whims of another.
Even after the 2000s drew to a close, some developers still hadn’t grasped that you cannot attack players on a personal level for making the “wrong” choice when you only give them one way to proceed. Playing games such as Modern Warfare 2 and The Last of Us have only served to strengthen this aversion. What’s intriguing to me is that I still can’t bring myself to dislike Metal Gear Solid 2 for doing this even though I firmly believe it would be the kiss of death in any other situation, and I think I know why that is. A common interpretation is that Mr. Kojima was trying to sabotage his own series by insulting his audience and deliberately toying with their expectations. The mere existence of Metal Gear Solid 3 and its sequels show that despite the incredible amount of vitriol on display, he completely and utterly failed in his mission to get people to stop liking Metal Gear. That is to say, the joke ultimately ended up being on him.
There is the issue of the ending raising more questions than it answers, but I think what helps soften the blow is the knowledge that the open threads will be resolved in a future installment. Therefore, even if you’re completely lost by the end, all you have to do is play the sequels to clear everything up, which isn’t exactly a tall order.
Drawing a Conclusion
The reputation of Metal Gear Solid 2 has taken several interesting turns over the years. When it was first released, it received a lot of critical acclaim in spite of the fans’ opinions regarding the new protagonist and the controversial ending. Once its sequels were released, it was quickly abandoned with several knowledgeable journalists declaring it one of the most overrated games of all time. Then the 2010s saw the release of games such as Spec Ops: The Line which also provided commentaries on the medium and common tropes that would normally go uncontested. All of a sudden, the same people who dismissed this game as garbage were now heralding it for being ten steps ahead of everyone else. This was a game that used postmodernism to establish a link between the player, the protagonist, and even the developer long before The Stanley Parable was even an idea. Although Metal Gear Solid 2 predates both of these games by a significant margin, I believe it reigns supreme for exploring these novel ideas without neglecting to make the experience fun.
Nonetheless, this game sparked countless debates over whether or not it works with no clear consensus in sight. Supporters believe it to be a brilliant, avant-garde masterstroke that successfully defies the limitations of the medium. Detractors see it as nothing more than a pretentious, self-indulgent mess that cost the series its credibility. Where do I stand? Honestly, even several years after playing it for myself, I’m still not entirely sure. Personally, I can’t help but think of Metal Gear Solid 2 as the video game equivalent of Captain Beefheart’s awe-inspiring Trout Mask Replica album. Both projects saw their respective creators having been allotted near-total artistic control, and resulted in a work that critics and fans alike still argue over even to this day.
Consider this: Mr. Kojima had an audience. He could have made a by-the-numbers sequel with little to no thought going into its story. He instead chose to aim higher, using his newfound popularity to challenge his audience on an intellectual level while improving the gameplay in practically every aspect. I personally give him credit for throwing all of those crazy ideas out there even if some of them didn’t quite work in practice. Not many developers would place that much faith in their fanbase. For that alone, this game absolutely deserves your time.
Final Score: 8/10