"Konami’s Metal Gear series had, frankly, a fairly undistinguished history. Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 developed new genre in which stealth was of overriding importance; there were guards everywhere, and they attacked relentlessly if they spotted you, so the only road to survival was to stay hidden. Yet despite appearing on both the NES and MSX consoles, the games never really took off in the way they deserved. But wait -- like the Final Fantasy series, Metal Gear was ready to make the turn from..."
Konami’s Metal Gear series had, frankly, a fairly undistinguished history. Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 developed new genre in which stealth was of overriding importance; there were guards everywhere, and they attacked relentlessly if they spotted you, so the only road to survival was to stay hidden. Yet despite appearing on both the NES and MSX consoles, the games never really took off in the way they deserved. But wait -- like the Final Fantasy series, Metal Gear was ready to make the turn from obscurity into the spotlight. For this series certainly made the turn; from an unassuming background was born Metal Gear Solid, a game that took the Playstation by storm.
You’ve probably heard that Solid Snake kicks ass. You’ve heard right.
From the beginning, Snake is the lone-wolf, last-man-standing kind of action hero. As a government operative, he is sent alone to infiltrate a nuclear disposal plant on Shadow Moses Island in Alaska; this facility has been attacked and occupied by genetically-enhanced soldiers. Commanding these troops are members of the former FOX-HOUND group. Once Solid Snake himself was a member of this elite squad, but they have now turned from counter terrorism to the business of terror itself. Certainly this scenario affords ripe opportunities for tension; the good guys and bad guys all know each other. Plot twists, surprising defections, and shocking betrayals blur the lines even further, making it a constant guessing game to determine who’s on what side.
Snake is sent in alone to do his mission, without even a weapon as he first swims onto the shore of this intimidating island. Yet his elite training more than suffices. He’s able to pick up a wide variety of weapons and ammunition as he makes his way through the base: pistols, sniper rifles, small automatics, even missile and rocket launchers. But his most important tools are his wits and his senses: avoiding a guard is always preferable to shooting him dead. Although he couldn’t bring his own gun, Snake was able to cram two things into his wet suit for the swim. The first is the Codec, a convenient videophone device which allows Snake to communicate with his comrades during his mission. The second is a pack of cigarettes, which of course emphasize Snake’s badassness -- his line of work is dangerous enough that lung cancer hardly seems like a pressing threat.
Snake is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Metal Gear Solid’s inimitable cast of characters. In fact, he’s often outdone by the villains of FOX-HOUND. The casual sadism, long trenchcoat, and pistols of Revolver Ocelot; Vulcan Raven’s massive chain guns and medicine-man mysticism; the strange telekinesis of Psycho Mantis. As you move through the game, these are the bosses you must face and defeat, but they are also fully-developed characters on their own. Because all these characters are so unique, Metal Gear’s boss battles are among the best any game has offered. They represent a break from the stealthy survival of the main levels, a chance to unleash your violent tendencies. Each battle is also unique; you’re fighting not just a powerful enemy, but the special circumstance of the struggle.
This is what separates Metal Gear from more recent pretenders like Splinter Cell; Metal Gear essential created this sneak-‘em-up genre under its own power, but it’s not just about stealth. The boss fights tax your creativity as much as your trigger thumb. The regular gameplay forces you to be creative as well; while the entrance and exit of a room might be obvious, it won’t be so easy to get across without being spotted by the guards. You might choose to hide behind a vehicle at one point, race across a gap while a soldier is walking in the opposite direction, then disable a security camera with a chaff grenade before moving up a staircase. You might also sneak around the outside of the room, or try to slide along the wall underneath the camera. There’s always a variety of ways to elude detection. If a guard does spot you, he’ll set off an alarm and you will need to hide for a short amount of time before the troops will stand down.
While you’re avoiding these enemies, you’ll also be trying to acquire various keycards that allow you access to different parts of the base. This might smack of Goldeneye or Perfect Dark’s “fetch-item-X-and-escape” levels, but it’s actually much more cerebral. Nominally, Snake has been landed on this island to rescue two hostages, but of course the mission immediately becomes much deeper and more complex than he had bargained for. Even as you puzzle out ways to gain admittance to more secure areas, you’ll be learning more and more about what’s really happening on Shadow Moses Island.
Some people say Metal Gear’s graphics are bland. At first they might seem so, to be sure. But a better description of Metal Gear’s graphics would be austere -- with an almost ascetic lack of color and none of the eye-catching FMVs that have graced other Playstation titles, Metal Gear has a visual grace that few other games can match. The environments of the game look almost as if they were rendered in grayscale, but this reflects the hostility of both the outdoor landscape and the base’s interior. While the color scheme is not especially vibrant, the game is hardly bland on the visual side, either. Tons of realistic detail are packed into each area of the game. When you walk through a snow-covered area, you’ll leave stark footprints that fade away as time goes on. The rooms are filled with crates and storage chests; not only do these afford you excellent cover, but the sharply corrugated steel boxes add to the realism of this dingy Alaskan outpost.
Sound is also something that you’ll need to take into account as you avoid the enemy forces. By knocking on a wall, you can attract a guard’s attention, but you’ll also need to be careful with the noise of your footsteps. As you move deeper into the base, industrial areas like the furnace room have clanging mechanical background clangor, while outdoors there is little more than the hushed passage of the wind across the packed snow. Music is used sparingly, but when it does come up in boss fights, the explosive effect of the fast-paced orchestration adds to the intensity of these rare all-out battles. But above all this, the highlight of this title’s audio is the voice acting. It’s rare to see an action game which has characters as interesting as Metal Gear’s, and the high quality voices highlight this. From Snake’s gruff whisper, dulled by years of smoking no doubt, to the growl of the survivalist Master Miller, to the piquant femininity of Codec operator Mei Ling, each character’s voice meshes perfectly with what the player would imagine for them. Sometimes voice acting can distract that player, but here it greatly deepens your immersion in Metal Gear’s world.
It might be clichéd to say it, but the worst thing about MGS is that it ends too quickly. Additional difficulty levels add some replay, but nevertheless it’s a pretty short title. Yet the quality of the product is so strong that this can be ignored. Metal Gear’s motto -- Tactical Espionage Action -- perfectly defines the game’s cunning mixture of fighting and stealth. An engrossing plot and masterful presentation allow the well-conceived gameplay to flourish.
The O.G. of stealth games, Metal Gear Solid is one of the finest titles on the Playstation.
Community review by denouement (April 24, 2004)
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