Not long ago, I played (and reviewed) Metal Gear Solid, a game about war, loss, duty, giant robots and cardboard boxes. Now its chain-smoking hero, the stealth operative known as Solid Snake, is back for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty: a sequel packed with explosions, conspiracies, politics, over-the-top bad guys and—you guessed it!—stuff in which to hide.
Two years have passed since the Shadow Moses Incident, in which terrorists nearly got their devious hands on Metal Gear REX—a colossal armored vehicle equipped with nuclear warheads. Solid Snake stopped the terrorists, but the design for REX was leaked. Now military groups everywhere are building their own off brand Metal Gears. In response, Snake and his techie friend Otacon have founded Philanthropy, an organization devoted to stopping the proliferation of Metal Gear weapons. How does Snake achieve this goal? By sneaking around in a cardboard box, of course!
I enjoyed Metal Gear Solid so much that I was eager to dive into its sequel on the PlayStation 2. Is this game, like the first, an enjoyable experience of sneaking, shooting and fighting huge robots? Is this game an unplayable mess with an incoherent story? Is it a bit of both?
This game is better than its predecessor. It’s also worse. As a game, it refines and polishes the gameplay of the original Metal Gear Solid and puts the player through some really creative challenges (and a few brief, regrettable sections of tedious gameplay). As a story, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty begins well but slowly loses track of itself and becomes a mess.
The first thing I’ll say about MGS2 is that a Major Plot Twist happens a couple of hours into the game. I won’t reveal it for two reasons. First, it’s an interesting turn for the story (and gameplay) to take; I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who might actually play the game. Second, I’m afraid that if I spoil the twist, the game’s director, Hideo Kojima, will sneak into my apartment and snap my neck while I’m sleeping.
Much of what I could say about this game I’ve said before. The player must sneak around, hiding in lockers, destroying security cameras, killing (or tranquilizing) enemy guards and avoiding detection at all costs. If the enemy finds the player, he is toast. Soldiers flood into the area with guns blazing during an alarm, leaving the player either to run and hide or to die with honor. The player’s chances of survival are helped by a arsenal of handy guns, gadgets and unconventional gear—including twice the number of cardboard boxes as in MGS1. Now you’re playing with power!
While the gameplay hasn’t changed much from MGS1, the game finds clever ways to use it. The first game gave players a pointless camera. This one requires players to take photos of a Metal Gear to expose its existence. MGS1 gave players a sniper rifle and hardly any open spaces in which to use it. MGS2 has an entire section in which the player must spot sensors rigged to bombs and shoot them out with the sniper rifle. Bravo, Kojima!
Not all of the gameplay twists in the game are positive, however. The player must explore flooded hallways, and swimming controls are horrendous. The player must also escort a cowardly hostage who is terrified of water, bugs and bullets. Guess what the player encounters? Flooded corridors, sea roaches and soldiers with guns. It is a truth universally acknowledged that escort missions are horrible. Why, Kojima? Why?
Then, in its final hours, the game gives the player a sword. Why? I don’t know. What I know is that the sword handles very differently from the guns and explosives the player has used for the entire game. Oh, and the player is forced to use this strange new weapon to defeat the game’s final boss. Bad idea, Kojima.
The story is a wonderful mixture of spy thriller cleverness and comic book nonsense. For every intelligent discussion of military tactics or nuclear proliferation, there’s a cyborg ninja or a bomber on roller skates. Sadly, the supervillain-esque bad guys of MGS2 are a bore compared to the ridiculous (and awesome) villains of MGS1.
Unfortunately, the story begins to unravel in its final chapters. MGS2 examines an astonishing number of complex ideas—social engineering, media censorship, virtual reality and existential angst, to name just a few—and they get muddled toward the end. Things begin to happen so quickly, with explosions and plot twists and colossal robots, that the player (at least, this player) is left asking, “What just happened?”
There are also moments that are simply odd. For example, the president of the United States grabs the player character’s crotch at one point in the game. It makes sense in context, but… still. Every time something bizarre happens in a Metal Gear game, my younger brother and I shake our heads philosophically and say, “Kojima wills it.” There can be no other explanation.
Anyone who enjoyed the strategic gameplay and engaging story of MGS1 will probably enjoy its sequel: the expanded gameplay and interesting plot more than make up for the tedious and confusing bits. Players new to the series will be perplexed by the story; I strongly recommend starting with the first Metal Gear Solid and taking it from there.
Will I play (and review) Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, the next game in the series? Yes. I must. Kojima wills it.