Metal Gear Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (2001)

mgs2 cover

Ah, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Obligatory background talk: MGS2 was one of the most anticipated games of all time. The long awaited sequel to the critically and commercially successful PSone gem, Metal Gear Solid, MGS2 was hailed as amongst the first and greatest truly defining titles of the PS2’s illustrious catalogue of games. This was something new for the industry, video games by and large hadn’t seen this sort of hype before. People had MGS2 pegged as possibly the greatest game of all time long before it was released.

So how did it hold up? MGS2 amazed me when I first played it way back when. I was always a big fan, I even liked Raiden (yes, I’m one of those people). So let’s talk about it now that I’ve returned to it with added, y’know, maturity and stuff. Before I dig into the plot I’ll talk about the technical and gameplay changes. For starters the graphics were amazing. Crisp, gorgeously detailed and still amongst the best on the PS2. It also had some physics effects that were any self-respecting nerd’s wet-dream. Insignificant objects in the game were given painstakingly detailed animations so that, for example, if you shot a bottle, it would realistically break from where the bullet hit it. Yes, MGS2 sure was (and is) visually impressive.

mgs2 tanker
Ta-dah!

The sound design also saw a significant jump in quality. Creator Hideo Kojima recruited bigwig Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams to do the score and it’s really impressive. It makes you appreciate how significant a musical score is to feeding into something’s production value. I mean, I loved the soundtrack of Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid but this went above and beyond what was expected from a video game. It has a really fitting electronic soundtrack that plays with minimalism really well but is also downright epic in places (but who would expect anything less from the great Gregson-Williams?) That said, being slightly controversial it was a bit repetitive here and there, especially that the same tune is used for almost all the boss fights.

Onto gameplay, it’s pretty similar to the first Metal Gear Solid but it introduces enough new features to change the general feel and approach in a more engaging and believable way. The basics are the same, solo infiltration mission, equipment procured on-site, sneak past the guards, getting caught springs alarm, mechanics heavily favour stealth, etc, etc. Enemies are now a lot smarter, they have realistic fields of vision that isn’t perfectly illustrated on your radar so you are required to use more cover and common sense when sneaking around. They also now need to actually call in backup over their radio before an alarm triggers which gives you some welcome leeway before the whole damn facility is instantly aware of your precise position. The alert mode now has enemies doing realistic sweeps and covering exits. You can aim for specific parts of the enemy to take out their radio, their firing arm, their legs, a shot to the heart or head is an instant kill. You have a useful first person aiming mode, a tactical dodge-roll and a broader range of close-combat skills. The level design is another step up, interesting layouts, varied patrols, a larger range of options to progression. Generally things feel a lot more tense and interesting and crucially a lot more realistic. Your character now moves with his gun aimed at the floor (as opposed to the James Bond style gun against the shoulder stuff of the first game), and the feel of the game is a lot more organic, you spend a lot of time looking at where the enemies line-of-sight is falling and planning you way across the landscape. You also see the first appearance of the tranquilizer gun, which adds a nice variation to the gameplay whereby you can put a guard to sleep rather than killing him, which won’t trigger an alarm nor will it fill you with a dreaded feeling of guilt.

mgs2 screen

Critically, it has some of the same downfalls as the first game. Backtracking means that you end up rushing through some areas at the expense of stealth. A lot of the rooms have all of the guards instantly in view, so you can just whip out a tranq gun and get all of them to hit the floor and then sprint from one side of the room to the other. It takes you out of the experience. The level design also frustratingly gets more derivative and easier as the game goes on, having a totally backwards slanting difficulty curve (though not half as bad as the first game). Also, whereas a lot of the shortcomings of the first game can be explained away with hardware limitations that isn’t really the case here. It’s kind of silly when you can shoot numerous hydraulic powered syringes with powerful sedatives into somebody’s face only to have them go for a little nap for a few minutes and then wake up as if nothing happened. Plus it’s really difficult and impractical to knock somebody out, which makes a no-kill run (although an admirable thing to feature in your game) pointlessly more difficult than it needs to be. I also think some of the controls were needlessly complicated, shooting from around a corner involves holding multiple awkward buttons simultaneously. The worst aspect of the gameplay by far is the optional collectables: dog tags. To get a soldier’s dog tags you need to sneak up behind him and hold him up at gunpoint. I really love this game so I was considering going for all of the achievements until I realised that that involves holding up every soldier in the game on every difficulty level. That means beating the game in this stupid, unappealing playstyle at least four times. This is not a good way to shoehorn extra content into your game.

mgs2 hold up

Let ye be warned, this rest of this retrospective is a critical examination of the game’s story and themes and assumes you’re already familiar with the plot. Here we go.

Ah, MGS2. This game is famous for it’s mad-cap story, multiple confusing plot-twists and outright insanity. There is far too much to summarize but the essence involves a rehash of the first game with our new protagonist, Raiden. Kojima describes MGS2 as a “postmodern” video game, but that doesn’t really mean anything (I don’t remember any period of “modernism” preceding it), I take it he means that the game has subversive elements, and I certainly won’t take that away from him. MGS2 really takes to the realm of philosophy more so than any other MG game. This succeeded in isolating fans of the gameplay and confusing the hell out of fans of the story. Me? I loved it. I think it’s somewhat unfortunate that people weren’t really ready for MGS2 in a lot of ways. There are a lot of retrospective interpretations that talk about fancy things like “ludonarrative dissonance” but the fact is game critics didn’t really have the necessary frameworks to critically evaluate MGS2 at the time it was released. The thing is about MGS2 though, I think a lot of the philosophy behind it, or at the very least the philosophy that people see in it, is very playful by nature. None of it really radically affects the actual canon of the story. It sets up a series of thought experiments and gives you the option of dissecting them or not, there are clues and secrets to root out, but none of it really interferes with the story. I don’t know how much of it was intentional, but there certainly is a lot here to think about, if you’re willing to put on your conspiracy cap.

MGS2 is all about subversion. There are a huge amount of visual clues indicating that something is not quite right in the logic of the world. When you die in first person mode, the screen cracks along the centre. Raiden says things like “It feels like I’m in a nightmare”, “I could wake up any minute”, “you can’t tell VR from the real thing”. The areas at the end of the game are decorated with computer code, they are surrounded by a bottomless expanse, mechanically the whole genre of the game is altered. There is even a part where Snake, completely in earnest, says not to worry about running out of ammunition because he has a bandanna that provides him with “infinite ammo”. This is in reference to a special item unlocked in MGS1 after completing the game. One has to explore the possibility that the entire game is a simulation. I thought about this and I thought about how it fits in with the canon of the rest of the series and then it hit me: of course the entire game is a simulation. That’s what a video game is. If the purpose of this “post-modern” video game is subversion, well that’s it. Think about it, the infinite bandanna is an unlockable, equipable item in the first MGS, it’s not a cheat code, it’s a canonical item within the structure of the game. So why shouldn’t it be featured as a plot element? So much of the game takes liberties with realism, breaks the fourth-wall, has characters that say things like “press the select button”, so why is the infinite bandanna so unsettling, so subversive. Why is that where the line is drawn in the virtual contract the player makes when suspending their disbelief?

infinite ammo
Is this just one big joke to you Kojima? Is that it?

Expanding from here brings meaning to almost the entirety of the game’s symbolism. It’s also a direct extension of the same theme brought up in the first MGS. Consider Raiden as an analogue for the player. Firstly, he’s intentionally left without a backstory for the vast majority of the game and his personality is fairly generic. He’s very different from Snake and more reminiscent of the sort of ordinary, farmboy heroes that people are supposed to project themselves onto. Also, he has no field experience except for virtual reality simulations of the previous games and he’s vaguely altruistic but admits that he doesn’t know what he is fighting for. These can all be said of the person who is manipulating his actions through a small piece of plastic connected to their television. Think about the crucial scene from MGS1 when Liquid addresses the camera and says “You enjoy all the killing don’t you?” This point is driven home even harder in this game when Raiden, the player character, confesses to enjoying the killing, to not having a greater reason to fight except for following orders, in the same way we sit down to play and follow the mission objectives. We don’t play the game for moral reasons. This game provides us with the option to go through the whole game without killing a single person, but how many people bother to use the tranquilizer guns and non-lethal combat? If so, why? The enemies aren’t real, right?

raiden mgs2

If the game begins by presenting Raiden as a bland character we are supposed to project ourselves onto, this is not how the game ends. In the breadth of a few minutes we discover that he has a hugely complex backstory being raised as a child soldier, his clothes and equipment are stripped from him, he is naked and vulnerable, totally antithetical to the player who is controlling his actions. Suddenly this almost non-character who we’ve grown frustrated at for being so void and uninteresting is somebody we absolutely cannot connect with, he is distanced from the player in a significant way, he joins the ranks of the gamey cast of characters and we never really get to connect with him again. All of this happens just as it’s revealed that a secret organisation in the game world control and manipulate almost everything, in fact the entire sequence of events from the previous game was orchestrated by varying degrees by this same organisation. The name of the game is deconstruction. Just before the credits, Raiden throws away a dog-tag with your name on it, the name you input at the start of the game, symbolically severing his ties to the player. I’m not sure how intentional it was, but this makes Raiden’s next appearance as a hacky-slashy cyborg ninja at least slightly more logical (slightly).

raiden
Hmm. Makes sense.

The way MGS2 deals with the illusion of choice in video games is genius because it extends the choice into your own living room. At the start of the game Raiden knows almost nothing about the mission, the briefing is peculiarly brief and uninformative and the player is left in the dark for much of the game. So why does Raiden carry on? Well it’s the same reason that you continue to play the game. I got to wondering if Solidus was really the “bad guy” in this game. Other than being callous and ruthless, he was ultimately working towards the same goal as Snake, Otacon, Liquid and Ocelot. Raiden kills him at the end because the Patriots tell him to and they have leverage against him. I realised, maybe that’s the point. Maybe he isn’t the bad guy. But I still killed him, through Raiden, because that’s how you advance the plot. When you think about it like that it becomes a striking metaphor. Why do we go back and replay the game? Why make Raiden go through the whole thing again? He isn’t real sure, but the game makes the point of saying that something is only as real as your brain tells you it is. I mean, when playing from the start why listen to what the Colonel has to say when we know he’s just a manipulative artificial intelligence? Isn’t the act of not playing the greatest solution to the story?

raiden naked
Insert joke here

Examine the plot twists in the series so far. MG1: it’s revealed that your commanding officer is actually the leader of the facility he ordered you to infiltrate. MG2: The C.O. from the last game is actually alive and leading the second facility too, plus the man you saved from the first game has converted to working for the same C.O. MGS1: You are actually a clone of the C.O. from the first two games, your twin brother is the terrorist leader, the whole operation was orchestrated by the US government, one of the henchman was actually a spy for the president, and that dude from the last two games is now a crazy ninja. MGS2: Your whole mission was an elaborate experiment by a secret organisation that effectively runs the world, your character is actually a manipulated war orphan, the henchman from before actually works for the secret organisation except now he’s possessed via the dismembered arm of the twin mentioned before, the former president is the terrorist leader and also another clone of the aforementioned C.O. Now, consider the irony of all these twists, escalating and escalating and yet still nobody seems aware of the possibility that none of it is real, everyone (like us) seems totally willing to embrace the lunacy of their own world. Consider once more, the ultimate conspiracy that Raiden is being controlled by somebody playing a video game.

I can also fully appreciate how much of this sounds utterly convoluted. I wonder how much of this deconstruction was actually intended by Kojima, but then again, it doesn’t really matter. The game is rife with symbolism and certainly up for numerous open-ended interpretations. I’m not going to say that MGS2 is perfect, but it was certainly progressive and it’s hard for me to do anything but respect it when I was left pondering it for literally days after I completed it. Of course the MGS fanbase was less accepting. MGS2 got overwhelming critical acclaim but the main criticism levelled against it was its confusing, philosophically inclined plot, and it’s no surprise that the next game in the series (a prequel), MGS3, played it a lot safer thematically. Even MGS4, the game that tied all of the others together, kind of glossed over the Big Shell incident to a large extent. I wonder just how bizarre things would have gotten if the fans were more onboard with the philosophical underpinnings of MGS2.

mgs2

I also always had a soft spot for Raiden. He was different from Snake, and that was okay. In a lot of ways he was easier to connect with as a character and I think that was intentional. An important aspect of the focus shifting to a newer character was also how it allowed Snake to be characterised in a way he couldn’t before. Suddenly we can see Snake as somebody who is clued in, somebody who has learned from his previous endeavours and can offer support and backup to somebody who has to learn it all from the beginning again. Raiden inherited Snake’s cluelessness and echolalia so Snake didn’t have to be burdened with it anymore (“Metal Gear.” “Metal Gear!?”) and that is something that I’m perfectly okay with. That was actually one of the problems I had with MGS4, when Snake seemed to lose all of his characterisation and resort back to a blunt instrument designed to soak up exposition.

iroquois plisken

I think unfortunately MGS2’s major let down is that it spends so much time getting you to think that it forgets to get you to feel. The individual components just aren’t as memorable as in the other games. We have no history or emotional connection with the cyborg ninja, Olga. Your codec support is a lot weaker. The Big Shell itself lacks the sheer atmosphere of Shadow Moses or Zanzibar Land. Emma Emmerich is a good character and sets up a genuinely poignant moment but not in the same way as Gustava or Meryl. The biggest disappointment by far and, honestly, had it been different I would probably definitively say that MGS2 was my favourite in the series, is the absurdly weak boss battles. They are absolutely the worst in the series. Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem, but in the Metal Gear series it actually serves as a massive boon to the overall game. The boss battles are so unmemorable that they actually seemed new to me as I was playing them, and then immediately forgot about them again. I mean, Fatman is probably one of the better bosses if only because it tried to do something somewhat creative but it’s still terrible. The Metal Gear RAY showdown at the finale is boring and easy too. The final boss with Solidus is pretty good, and the best in the game but certainly the worst final boss in the overall series, reaching nowhere near the emotional high of the first two Big Boss showdowns, the two battles with Liquid atop the Metal Gears or the battle with the Boss in MGS3 (yup, that’s literally all of them).

fatman
When I’m saying that this guy is one of the best bosses in a game, that game got problems.

The plot of course is the same sprawling twist-ridden guilty pleasure as always. Ocelot really starts to turn insane at this point, he’s always a joy to watch. Structure wise I’d say there’s arguably too much in it. The world is given so much complexity that it’s a genuine challenge to keep track of everything that’s happening. There’s literally a novel in the main menu that summarises the MGS1 and the events leading up to MGS2. I won’t attempt something so deluded as a plot summary but I can assure you that I’m a veritable fountain of inane Metal Gear trivia at this stage. I mean, I’m tempted to say that the Metal Gear series is in fact badly written, but it’s so fun and full of passion that it’s hard not to get sucked in to. It’s the kind of writing you just throw adjectives at. Exciting, dense, convoluted, atmospheric, stupid, memorable, complex, ridiculous, melodramatic. I mean, some of those words are good.

I bloody hate Rose.
I bloody hate Rose.

I feel like I should focus at least some attention on the big reveal at the end. The Patriots, a clandestine group seeking to control the digital flow of information in order to mold the shape of history into whatever way they see fit. That’s important. People can learn from that. It’s very 1984 but it’s delivered with such sincerity that I think it really works. They do linger on the “bad guy explains his cunning plot for no reason” part but that’s okay, it sort of added to the atmosphere. I actually found it to be quite a powerful bit of fiction with real relevance to the world we live in today.

colonel ai

I could honestly write about MGS2 for days. There’s just so much here, and I didn’t even bother to try and dig into the plot and write about the actual nuts and bolts of it. What I really love about MGS2 is that it’s a game that’s willing to take risks. It’s willing to create a brilliantly fun and creative bit of spy fiction and then actually say something about the world on top of it. It’s a downright clever game and it’s topical. I won’t say that MGS2 is a masterpiece but it is an excellent example of how somebody can create something that supersedes its own genre by intelligently and playfully bringing in philosophical themes and social commentary. I still think it’s probably my favourite game in the series and I would be delighted to ramble on about to anybody who chooses to provoke me.

ocelot

Now, back in time to the Cold War and onwards to Metal Gear Solid 3!

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