Weird Retro Mumblings: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty… a Retrospective

Spoiler Warning: This post discusses the plot & themes of Metal Gear Solid 2 … also you probably should have already played it… 

Only a few gaming powerhouse franchises sit in the dubiously privileged position of making gamers everywhere say “Sooo… how many of these games are there now?” upon each new offering; spanning generations, decades, and poor numbering conventions will do that to a series. The ‘Metal Gear Solid’ franchise fits comfortably into that mitten with five numbered sequels, a few canon but non-numbered games, at least one sub-series (the gloriously bizarre ‘Metal Gear Acid’ which, and I’m looking at you my secret Konami readers, is due for a PC re-release), a few remasterings, and that’s without opening the pantry door to find the “old” Metal Gear titles from way back into the 8-bit era. It shouldn’t surprise me (but it does) that we’ve recently passed the 15 year marker since Hideo Kojima’s misunderstood sequel was first rattled into PS2 disc trays across Europe and, given that this title probably represents the peak of my interest in the series, I began to turn it over in my mind.

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Looking back, it was a game that had brilliance, bizarreness, and some undoubtedly shaky elements, but context is needed to really evaluate how it stacked up as a title. The original ‘Metal Gear Solid’ (MGS) for the all powerful Sony Playstation undoubtedly represented one of the finest offerings on that system. Focusing on the events know as the ‘Shadow Moses’ incident according to ingame lore, players took control of the now iconic Solid Snake; a new breed of reluctant hero in a game that discussed the horrors of war, dangers of nuclear proliferation, and touched upon the perils of genetic engineering. It was a title that showcased some excellent stealth based gameplay and epic boss battles against the memorable band of Foxhound members, all tied together with Kojima’s skewed reality including a healthy comedic lump of 4th wall breaking. In short the sequel, ‘Metal Gear solid 2: Sons of Liberty’ (MGS2), carried the often crippling burden of an excellent first outing coupled with a generation jump to the PS2.

The hype train was kicked into overdrive during what felt like (at least in the UK) a prolonged pre-release build up made distinctive by the distribution of a demo bundled with ‘Zone of Enders’ (which I’m sure significantly boosted sales of that slightly mediocre title), and later given away on the cover of magazines. The demo covered the majority  of, what would later be revealed to be, the prologue, ‘Tanker’, mission; it opens with Snake bungee jumping into a tanker gently easing its way down the Hudson, in what was at the time, some of the most cinematic visuals seen in a game. From here the player once again took control of Snake as he ventured through the corridors of the ship which had been taken over by terrorists. As a marketing move the demo was outstanding, the setup created intrigue, showcased the visuals, and acted as a virtual playground to experience some of the new gameplay elements: first-person aiming, hiding bodies, shooting out radios to name just a few. It presented the possibility of a more urban setting (New York), Snake once again cast as the morally dubious hero, the darkness & rain precipitating a brooding atmosphere, and old rival Revolver Ocelot in the mix. As a demo, and a prologue to the main game, the tanker gave fans exactly what they wanted…

… and then Kojima pulled the ol’ switcheroo.

I remember the slow realisation dawning upon me that the fresh faced, slightly bland, Raiden would be my vehicle for the remainder of the game. This fed into the overall plot arc and themes, but many players felt a pang of betrayal especially considering that, to add to the deception, early gameplay footage/screens had shown Snake in locations throughout the game; the developers had tried to wrong-foot the player but it had worked too well. Likewise, those first few minutes of the ‘Big Shell’ mission was a continuous series of diversions from the outing suggested in the prologue: Raiden stepping out in the sunlight of a clear day rather than the oppressive night we had left behind, New York City being nowhere in sight, a formulaic map laid out for the hours ahead, and a new band of misfits, Dead Cell, to face down. The game screamed that is was trying to be different to its predecessor, which in retrospect could be interpreted in two different ways: either it was trying to make the point clear at the opening so later the realisation that the experience had been intentionally analogous to the ‘Shadow Moses’ incident (MGS) held more gravity, or cynically it was Kojima’s desperation at trying to shake up the formula enough to make a noteworthy sequel rather than just more of the same.

mgs2_2

Aside from the jarring nature of the opening, I proceeded to immerse myself in the game and, despite any shortcomings I’ve picked out here, remember it as being one of the most played PS2 titles I owned. The core stealth based mechanics had been laid out in the prologue and the substitution of Raiden for Snake didn’t change that; it worked well and it was still a rewarding experience. I hinted earlier that the Big Shell was a formulaic map, but it provided an ideal vehicle to carry this type of gameplay. The whole facility comprised of oceanic platforms mounted on stilts; six platforms surrounded a central core structure in a hexagon formation linked by bridges to form one half of the shell with a similar arrangement linked by another bridge. It was a layout of convenience; the bridges acted as the gateways to new regions with some kind of entry barrier, and the platforms acted as self-contained areas to house the core gameplay. From a design point of view, each platform interior could essentially be treated as an isolated ‘level’. Sneaking through the platforms, taking cover, watching guard sequences, and choosing between confrontation & evasion was where this game shone brightest.

Arguably it was in the echoes of ‘Shadow Moses’ that the weaker elements were apparent. Some sequences were heavily borrowed, such as the remote controlled missile to disable an electrified floor and the searching sections (bombs this time rather than patches of discoloured concrete). The crew of Dead Cell playing the role of Fox Hound felt like a substandard substitution when compared head to head: FatMan’s arena based confrontation was overly comedic compared to the equivalent encounter with Raven; the Harrier much less personal than the Hind D; The two battles with Sniper Wolf substituted with a single sniper protection section; and the non-boss of Fortune feeling like a cheap gimmick. I have to reluctantly say that only Vamp fulfilled a novel and distinct role of the encounters that occurred prior to the closing stages. I don’t even recall much about each of the members of Dead Cell, whereas Fox Hound vibrantly jumped out of the game with troubled backstories and emotionally charged death sequences.

… Then there’s a point somewhere towards the end of the game, where Raiden wakes up naked, and it’s like Hideo Kojima just picks up the ball and starts running with it, to the stunned silence of everyone else… because everyone else was just having lunch at Pret… 

From this point on, the player is treated some outlandish moments; equal parts genius and madness which makes it tricky to say if it is good or not. Even writing this retrospective having not picked up the game for years, each bizarre element of this final rollercoaster stands out clearly. If it’s not odd enough that a completely nude Raiden is running around concealing his zone with this hands (.. and actually I would have found it less weird if he hadn’t been doing this), it is at this point that the colonel, who has been instruction Raiden through the mission, is revealed as an AI. The distorted colonel’s communications become progressively strange, nonsensical, and  in many cases 4th wall breaking which add pleasant interludes to Raiden’s breezy romp around a Metal Gear Ray hanger avoiding guards. Suddenly Raiden is face-to-face with, a once more sneaking suit clad, Snake who quips about having infinite ammo because he’s wearing a headband (another 4th wall breaking callback to the unlockable from the original) and presents Raiden with a samurai-sword. Giving the player a sword, with a completely new control scheme, late in a game focused on stealth and gun combat is a move which still baffles me; my only explanation is that the developers came up with this ending section first and then realised that swordplay didn’t fit with the rest of the game. Not that the sword was all bad; it represented the inception of the title ‘Metal Gear Rising Revengeance’ (should not be a real word) which was reportedly well received, and utilised the right analogue stick effectively to mimic the various swipes & slashes. As the player continued down the rabbit hole they were met with various waves of enemies to cut up intermingled with yet more 4th wall breaking “Fission Mailed” screens leading Raiden to … somewhere… to battle waves of Metal Gear Rays; I was never quite sure where this cyberpunk/VR style arena was supposed to be. As before, the waves of Rays represent a mildly unsatisfying boss; the only real encounter against a Metal Gear in the game and was watered down by being repetitive. Then just a quick half an hour of cutscenes, loaded with what were supposed to be twists and revelations (after the first one they start to become meaningless), which I havn’t ever managed to follow entirely, before the final sword-fight against Solidus.

In the jungle of cutscenes there is a moment where Ocelot, possessed by the right arm of Liquid Snake, takes a Ray and dives off into the ocean, followed by Solid Snake in one of the more visually dramatic pieces… and I still have no idea why that happens; what happened to Snake? what happened to Ocelot/Liquid? and why the developers felt the need to include it?

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Maybe I’ve been too critical of what was an engaging and experimental title; it was certainly a spectacle and held my attention for several playthroughs at the time. Looking back it’s clear that the intent was to delve into the old argument of ‘nature vs. nurture’ and examine the meaning of reality, but somewhere along the way those messages became garbled. I’m speculating, but on reflection it seems as though the weaker elements were signs of the developers trying to recapture the magic of the first title; the 4th wall breaking attempts seemed forced, the quirky elements overplayed, and what was supposed to be an intricate and complex plot told in a convoluted way through lengthy cutscenes and dialogue. The release of the ‘Substance’ edition of the game seemed to acknowledge some of these problems; it played to the game’s strength by adding a large number of VR missions showcasing core gameplay along with a selection of mini-scenarios titled “Snake Tales” no doubt created as a concession to those players bitter at being forced to guide the rookie Raiden through the main game. ‘Metal Gear Sold 3’ further demonstrated that the developers had learnt from this outing with a tighter plot, fewer cutscenes, and once more some memorable bosses…. having written all of this, I still get goosebumps watching the MGS2 intro… so it must have done something right…

Feel free to jump into the comments with your memories of MGS2 15 years on! 

7 thoughts on “Weird Retro Mumblings: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty… a Retrospective

  1. Oh, hello. You seem to be talking about my favorite MGS title! haha

    I’ve played through MGS2 too many times to count, but the one thing that stuck with me was that, through all the strange misdirection throughout, the game was subtly pointing the player toward realizing that it was *too* like Shadow Moses, like the instance with the remote-controlled rocket and electrified floor, the torture scene, etc etc. That’s interesting that you say the messages came across as garbled. I actually never thought that when I was playing. It covered a lot, like you said, from nature vs nurture to becoming desensitizes to war to government subtly trying to control us through technology, but I thought the game left enough breadcrumbs for the players to follow….

    The part I remember the most was Fortune stopping those rockets even after her technology was taken away. OR wondering which Rose was an AI and which one was real… OR when Raiden took off his dog tags and the information I had input at the beginning of the game was on them!

    Anyway, 15 years later we’re still talking about it, so it obviously did some things right! haha

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It certainly is a game with some excellent moments!

      I’ve just been sat here thinking about your comment that the player was nudged to realise the similarity with Shadow Moses, and part of me thinks that they should have just ridden the simulation theme all the way to the end. It could have been really interesting if from the torture scene onwards, corruption in the AI spread to Raiden’s perceived reality to the point that it actually started to become the Shadow Moses incident. I can just imagine the environment breaking down into those settings, and maybe even the distortion of the Dead Cell into the Foxhound…

      …Sorry, that was a weird tangent…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That would be so fascinating if the AI corruption started influencing Raiden’s perception of reality. I wonder how that could happen? Through his nanomachines?

        Yeah I think there are a lot of ways they could have presented the Shadow Moses similarities, but I did like the subtleties – for me, it made the final “punch” that much better! But if they really pressed the point, that could have opened up some new storytelling possibilities, as well!

        Liked by 2 people

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