La Li Lu Le Lo, y’all.
Anyone who’s played the Metal Gear Solid series will undoubtedly have their ranking of its various titles, and I’ve spent many an occasion with friends and colleagues discussing which MGS goes where and why. For me, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty always seems to top the list, for reasons which I’ll explain.
I’ll always remember the first time I played MGS2: I was 15 and I started it on a Saturday afternoon, and by Sunday evening, I had completed it. I simply could not put it down. This binge came a few months after completing Metal Gear Solid, a game which completely changed the way I thought about gaming, and MGS2 took that to the next level for me.
To take a step back for a moment, MGS2 was one of the most anticipated games ever. People had it pegged as possibly the greatest game of all time, long before it was even released. The long-awaited sequel to the critically and commercially successful PlayStation classic Metal Gear Solid, MGS2 was hailed as amongst the first defining titles of the PlayStation 2’s illustrious catalogue of games. This was something new for the industry – video games predominantly hadn’t seen this sort of hype before.
So how did it do? Most fans of the Metal Gear Solid series see MGS2 as a disappointing step-child, mainly because the main character of the series, Solid Snake, was not the main character this time around. Instead, we were introduced to Raiden, a younger soldier who has received all of his training from VR simulations, an hour or so into the game, after playing as Solid Snake for said time.
I actually liked playing as Raiden for most of the game (yes, I’m one of those people). 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 shifting focus to another character was that it allowed Snake to be characterised in a way he couldn’t before. Suddenly, we could see Snake as somebody who was totally clued in, somebody who’d learned from his previous endeavours and could offer support and backup to somebody who had to learn it all from scratch.
Graphics-wise, the game was amazing; crisp, lovely and detailed, and still amongst the best on the PS2. It also featured some physics effects that, at the time, were any self-respecting nerd’s 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. MGS2 sure was (and is, 14 years later) visually impressive.
What I really love about MGS2 is that it took a lot of elements from the original MGS, but introduced enough new features to change the general feel and approach in a more engaging and believable way. To name a few, you have a useful first-person shooting mode, a tactical dodge-roll and a broader range of close-combat skills. The level design is also a step up, with more interesting layouts, varied patrols, and a larger range of options to progress. Generally, things feel a lot more tense and interesting, and crucially, a lot more realistic. 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 – something that went on to become a staple of the whole series. From the bird droppings that you can slip on, to the individual bottles of liquor in the crew’s lounge, MGS2 set the bar for every high budget game that would follow it in that generation.
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. That involves holding up nearly every soldier in the game on every difficulty level, which means beating the game in this stupid, unappealing playstyle at least four times. Really not a good way to shoehorn extra content into your game. Also, whilst the codec calls in the game are quite long and convoluted, I could live with them being part of the bigger story. However, I DESPISE the calls with Rose. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who’s ever liked those calls, and both Raiden and Rose seem so clueless about their own relationship. For the most part, it was just an unnecessary part of the story. Really lame.
This game is famous for its mad-cap story, multiple confusing plot-twists, and outright insanity. There is far too much to summarise, but the essence of the story involves a simulated version of the original Metal Gear Solid, only with new protagonist Raiden taking Solid Snake’s place. 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 things like “ludonarrative dissonance” (yeah, I know), but the fact is that game critics didn’t really have the necessary frameworks to critically evaluate MGS2 at the time it was released. 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.
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”, and “you can’t tell VR from the real thing”. Areas near the end of the game are decorated with computer code; they are surrounded by an endless expanse, and in some areas, it appears as if you are stepping on what looks like electrical currents. 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”; a reference to an unlock in MGS1 after achieving the ‘true’ ending to the game. There’s even a possibility that the entire game could be a simulation within the game world. Mental. So much of the game takes liberties with realism, breaks the fourth wall, and has characters saying odd things; pretty subversive.
If the game begins by presenting Raiden as a bland character that we’re supposed to project ourselves onto, that’s not how the game ends. Near the end 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, and this is in total contrast to the player in control. Suddenly, this almost non-character, who we’ve grown frustrated at for being so void and uninteresting, is somebody we absolutely cannot connect with, and is distanced from the player in such a significant way that we never really get to connect with him again. 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 cyborg ninja at least slightly more logical (emphasis on slightly).
It’s at this point that it’s revealed that a secret organisation in the game world control and manipulate almost everything. At the time, this was a completely different form of narrative-driven gaming, and it took a few years for me to really appreciate the issues dealt with in the game. Not many titles that I knew of dealt with massive political issues, questioning the main villain’s alliance (even though his endgame didn’t justify the means, but that’s a whole other issue) and messed with the very reality of the game world. The game is rife with symbolism and certainly up for numerous open-ended interpretations. I’m not going to say that MGS2 is perfect, because it isn’t, but it was certainly progressive and it’s hard for me to do anything but respect it after I was left pondering it for days after I completed it.
I find it a real shame that the MGS fanbase was less accepting. MGS2 received massive critical acclaim, but the main criticism levelled against it was its confusing, philosophically-inclined plot. It’s no surprise that the next game in the series, MGS3, played it a lot safer thematically. Even MGS4, the game that tied the others together, kind of glossed over the MGS2 Big Shell incident to an extent. I often wonder just how things would have been if the fans were more onboard with the philosophical underpinnings of MGS2.
Most of the boss battles aren’t all that memorable, granted, but the ones that most people do remember are great. The Fatman boss battle, for example, was something a little more creative; who wouldn’t want to fight someone that resembled an evil bomb-laying Jet Set Radio character? The Metal Gear RAY showdown seemed like a more daunting task to me too, compared with the REX fight in MGS. The RAY fight is also in some sort of virtual space too, which again, seems quite strange. The final boss fight with Solidus is pretty good, and the best in the game, but certainly the worst final boss in the series, reaching nowhere near the epicness of the two fist fights with Liquid or the battle with The Boss in MGS3.
The plot, of course, is just a twist-ridden guilty pleasure, much like the whole series. Ocelot really starts to turn insane at this point, and 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 real challenge to keep track of everything that’s happening. I’m tempted to say that the Metal Gear series is in fact badly written, but it’s so crazy and fun and full of passion that it’s hard not to get sucked into it. It’s the kind of writing you just throw adjectives at: exciting, weird, dense, convoluted, stupid, memorable, complex, ridiculous, melodramatic. I mean, some of those words are good.
The big reveal at the end is the existence of the Patriots, a clandestine group seeking to control the digital flow of information in order to mould the shape of history into whatever way they see fit. That’s a pretty big statement. People can take something from that, and it’s delivered with a sincerity that I think really works. I found it to be quite a powerful bit of fiction with real relevance to the world we live in.
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; it’s so over-the-top and the most bonkers title of the series, and I think that’s the main reason why it’s my favourite. I have blind spots with the other games in the series, but for some reason I remember every part of this game. I won’t say that MGS2 is a masterpiece, but it’s an excellent example of something that supersedes its own genre by intelligently and playfully bringing in philosophical themes and social commentary.