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Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection (PlayStation 2) artwork

Metal Gear Solid: The Essential Collection (PlayStation 2) review

"Three games in one box for a mere $29.99 (plus tax) would seem like a situation that is full of win, likely epic win, especially when those games belong to such an auspicious series as Metal Gear Solid. Having only experienced the series enough to know that there is some guy named Snake and that everyone he meets is excessively chatty, part of me has always wanted to understand why so many fans are so loyal to this one-man army. I initially thought that the spastic amounts of plot devel..."

Three games in one box for a mere $29.99 (plus tax) would seem like a situation that is full of win, likely epic win, especially when those games belong to such an auspicious series as Metal Gear Solid. Having only experienced the series enough to know that there is some guy named Snake and that everyone he meets is excessively chatty, part of me has always wanted to understand why so many fans are so loyal to this one-man army. I initially thought that the spastic amounts of plot development seemed counterintuitive to the whole action thing, but apparently playing a MGS game for the action is like going to Pizza Hut and ordering a salad.

Metal Gear Solid isn’t so much a “tactical espionage action” game as it is an opera in video game form (minus the singing, obviously), or perhaps a “what-if” scenario involving James Bond stuck in an anime. It is so over the top with its drama and plot twists that if there is a stretch of time longer than five minutes without a betrayal, pregnancy, disguise plot, or revelation that everything we thought we knew is actually a lie, then you’re not playing it right. If asked to summarize the rudimentary plot of the series, I would say:

You are Solid Snake, the cloned son of Big Boss, and he fights walking bipedal tanks armed with nuclear weapons and his brother, who is also a clone, who dies but lives on in a severed limb that is attached to Revolver Ocelot, who is the lost son of The Boss (not to be confused with Big Boss), who was the mentor of Big Boss, who wanted to reunite the world using an obscene amount of money that was in the hands of a covert group of people who were controlling the United States but are now dead but live on in self-aware artificial intelligence operating from outer space.

(... the hell?)

Even after playing these three games, I still have yet to decide if the mythos is genius and full of symbolism that makes a daring comment about America’s role on the international stage and how ideology overpowers the men who create it or if Kojima is trying to appear clever by presenting an incoherent plot in such a way that the player is worn down until they give up and accept that anything with this many words involved must be intelligent. Personally, I’m inclined to the former with lingering hints of the later popping up from time to time. The respective way that each game represents its theme (Meme, Genes, and Scene) can be brilliant at times, but to get to a point that you can really appreciate said brilliance you’ll have to accept more bullshit than the average farmer encounters in a lifetime.

The main problem the series suffers from is its inability to interpolate the player. These games very clearly want to be movies, and while each one accomplishes that with progressively higher levels of success, the notion of separating interactivity from narrative is really detrimental to the series’ full potential. It never does anything that couldn’t have been done with a film, minus the ability to save and quit because the audience can’t take it anymore. I’m a firm believer that the next great work of art we produce is going to be a video game, but that game is not Metal Gear Solid. It is what Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy was to Shakespeare’s Hamlet; sometimes trashy and sometimes overdramatic for a cheap thrill, but showcasing oodles of latent potential that someone with more artistic wit will actualize at a later date.

Don’t get me wrong; the whole experience is still very enjoyable, much the same way trashy soap operas can form a cocaine-like relationship with their viewers. Perhaps its best aspect is its over-the-top characters. You’ll meet a drug-addicted sniper with a mild sexual attraction to wolves, an obese demolitions expert wearing roller skates and drinking champagne, a bi-sexual vampire, a guy that shoots bees from his mouth, and a psychic who can read your memory card. The main villain in the series is a spur-wearing gunslinger possessed by the amputated arm of your dead brother. This cast can be overwhelming at times, especially when your movie-obsessed support character wants to talk endlessly about horror films every time you save your game or when Raiden’s girlfriend wants to discuss their relationship in the middle of a heavy firefight, but they are always memorable. Every character is never what they seem, often double and triple crossing their enemies, and in a few cases not even existing at all.

The superfluous attitude that the narrative sometimes takes may make these games feel cheesy at times, but there are many moments when Kojima’s dream of cinematic gaming is realized in spectacular ways. The story of The Boss, a soldier who sacrifices everything she has for her ideology, is both beautiful and insightful – and she is one of the only female characters in video games to not be defined in degrading, misogynist terms. Many of the other side stories, like the relationship between Snake’s support character Otacon and his estranged step-sister, while over the top and out of place with its drama, can be equally touching. There are many times when Kojima’s attempts to use these polygonal characters as actors in a movie just looks silly – video games simply can’t be used effectively this way – but when his vision succeeds, it creates something truly special.

When these characters stop talking and give you the privilege of playing the games, you’ll be treated to a mixture of exciting stealth, cheap bosses, obtuse controls, and strange humor. You’re encouraged to sneak around your enemies, and the failure to do so often results in stiff punishments -- like death. It can be very satisfying to sneak past a bunch of armed guards, threaten a soldier at knife point, and perform other devious spy things, but this is frequently hindered by poor cameras and lame gunplay. These games never become difficult so much as they become cheap or unfair, which, in addition to lengthy story segments, can really alienate players expecting compelling action. Most of the time, I felt like I was playing an RPG, minus the goblins and fireballs (though there is a vampire and a guy that shoots lightning from his arms).

The three games in this collection were all revised and rereleased at least once on their contemporary consoles. Here is a brief run-down of the three games and the version that Konami has included:

Metal Gear Solid -- Ingenious ten years ago and technically frustrating today, the heroic quest of Solid Snake begins here by infiltrating a secret base in Alaska armed with only the pack of smokes smuggled in his stomach. Its top-down camera and sloppy controls make it feel like an NES game with polygons, which is exasperated by profuse, redundant, and poorly written dialogue. Despite its faults, the whole fighting your doppelganger evil clone while he’s riding around in a giant walking tank thing is still just as amusing today as it was then, and it is necessary reading material if you want to make any sense out of the Metal Gear universe.

This is literally a reprint of the original PSX version – not Integral, not Twin Snakes, and without the VR Missions that were released as a stand-along product – and as such, you will need a PSX memory card or a Playstation 3 to save. If this compilation is intended for people that are new to the MGS series, it seems presumptuous of Konami to expect them to have a PSX memory card sitting around. This would have been the perfect time to release Metal Gear Solid: Integral in the US; rereleasing this outdated version is lazy and inexcusable.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty -- The most contentious in the series, you’ll be playing 2/3 of the game as the white haired and somewhat whiney Raiden, whose sole qualification for this mission seems to be that he played Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions (and I mean that literally). There are parts of this game that, if you are not prepared, can be a serious clusterfuck of information – most notably the last few hours, in which the game itself becomes a self-consuming artifact. Codec and dialog scenes can sometimes run well over half an hour with as little action in the intermission as walking across a bridge to initiate another conversation. Players seem to have wildly different reactions to the story – I myself found it insultingly poor my first playthrough, then brilliant on my second run. Once some of the obscure references and symbols begin to click (if they ever do), the pieces of the narrative will fall into their proper place. Or it might remain a garbled mess of verbal excrement. Your mileage may vary.

While MGS2 still retains some of MGS1’s faults, it adds such things as chokeholds, a tranquillizer gun, the ability to hang off ledges, and the ability to shoot in first person; though I wouldn’t consider those innovation so much as requirements for any competent action game. There is also a set of virtual missions that can be a fun diversion from the chatty campaign.

The version included is Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance in its entirety, which is the complete and authoritative version of the game. Missing, however is The Document of Metal Gear Solid 2, which was released with Substance in Europe and as a stand-alone product in the US. It contained some behind the scenes information that, while not crucial, would have been nice to have.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater -- You are now Big Boss, who also goes by the name Snake to mess with your head. The graphics engine has been overhauled to produce expansive jungle environments, which is an impressive feat on the aged PS2. Codec conversations are significantly shorter and less frequent, but cut-scenes with polygonal actors are much more prominent. This is without a doubt the most film-like of the three games – even the introductory credits are a shameless homage to James Bond films, which is what Snake Eater is clearly trying to imitate.

The exclusion of the radar, the open environments, and the floating camera completely changes the way the game is played, as do esoteric controls. Nearly every button serves multiple functions and pressure sensitivity is often employed to tell the difference. The circle button for example punches, throws, slits throats, and enters CQC mode. For the first half of the game, every time I tried to interrogate someone I would accidently slit their throat – this continued until I discovered that I was press the circle button to firmly. For another example, there was a moment when I was attempting to use my sniper rifle in some tall grass. In order to do this, I had to press and hold five buttons, not including the analog stick, to aim and fire! There are buttons on the controller that I still don’t understand, even after completing this game once.

Also new are survival elements, like wearing camouflage to blend in to the forest, applying bandages, and eating wild animals. While this can be amusing at first, healing your wounds is something you’ll mostly be doing during boss fights. Opening up the survival viewer 10-15 times during an epic duel to the death brings the action to an absolute standstill. For something that was intended to generate immersion, this is probably its least immersive feature – and it doesn’t even make sense. How the hell is Snake digging a bullet out of his head with a knife and cleaning and stitching the wound while hanging from a ledge and getting shot at by a helicopter?

Despite all this, the quality of Snake Eater is much higher than the other two games. There’s a lot more action, and the still profuse amount of story is told with more artistry. It also looks fantastic for a PS2 game. During cutscenes, you can zoom in and pan the camera around, as though the game wants you to undress it with your eyes.

Only disc one of Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence is included. The second disc contained not only the now defunct Metal Gear Online, but also boss rush, the original (and hereto unreleased in the US) MSX versions of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, and a few other extras. The main MGS3 campaign is still complete (along with the new camera that was added to Subsistence), but half of the experience has been removed.

Konami has essentially done the bare minimum that they could get away with in this collection. Each game has new boxwork that adopts a uniform style across the series, but nothing else new or interesting was added. There are no special booklets, no artwork, and no thank you note. Considering the quality of The 20th Anniversary Collection released in Japan, we in North America should be offended.

That said, the bare necessities are here, so it is possible to give yourself a crash course in the Metal Gear canon if you’ve been able to hide from it for all these years. It’s a series that should really come with a warning label though: it’s very hard to swallow, with moments of absolute frustration and incompressible gameplay inconsistencies, intermixed with a dangerously intoxicating epic. This isn’t the video game that’s going to be competing with Paradise Lost for your shelf-space, but it might just overthrow Whitman (not like that’s a challenge though). Kojima doesn’t always succeed in what he attempts, but when he does, great things happen. One can almost see the evolution of games from simple top-down affairs to cinematic monsters as this series progresses, which makes this necessary material for anyone that likes video games, even if it is just to play through them once.

dagoss's avatar
Community review by dagoss (July 04, 2008)

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espiga posted July 04, 2008:

I’m a firm believer that the next great work of art we produce is going to be a video game,

That's been done already. It's called ICO.
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sashanan posted July 05, 2008:

Your 8 is pretty kind, given that you have plenty of misgivings about the series, and more to the point, that some seriously odd choices were made in what to include in a collection marked as 'essential'. I was fully expecting a 6.
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asherdeus posted July 05, 2008:

Link in the end of the article doesn't work.
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bluberry posted July 05, 2008:

good review man, completely agreed with what you said. as much as I enjoyed it, MGS3 really does have too much menu-diving. plus this collection is missing out on a few too many things.
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dagoss posted July 06, 2008:

@asherdeus: It was to a page describing the 20th Anniversary Collection. I just removed it; problem solved. It seems URLs to sites outside will not work in reviews.

@espiga: I agree.

@sashanan: I can see where you're coming from. I think part of the problem is that I tried to cover way too much material at once. I would have scored each component differently. This review could really be broken up into four reviews.
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Felix_Arabia posted July 06, 2008:

Links to urls outside of HG don't work? Since when?
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dagoss posted July 06, 2008:

It only seems to be in reviews. For example, an anchor tag with HREF="" will link to "" instead.
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espiga posted July 06, 2008:

When you do your a href tag, make sure you.include http://www. That should help you avoid broken links.
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dagoss posted July 06, 2008:

Ackk! I hate when I do dumb things.

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