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Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PlayStation 2) artwork

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PlayStation 2) review

"If nothing else, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is interesting. The games-as-art movement hadn't even gotten off the ground in 2001, and doing what director Hideo Kojima did with this one takes balls so huge that I expect to see him on a Paris runway now that the drop-crotch pants trend has taken off. "

If nothing else, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is interesting. The games-as-art movement hadn't even gotten off the ground in 2001, and doing what director Hideo Kojima did with this one takes balls so huge that I expect to see him on a Paris runway now that the drop-crotch pants trend has taken off.

Peel back all of its layers and this is the first Metal Gear that doesn't revolve around Solid Snake going up against yet another terrorist threat. Rather, it's about a shadowy governmental organization and its S3 Program--a controlled experiment that you get to play, with the hypothesis being that putting any random chump up against yet another terrorist threat would turn him into a super-soldier on par with the legend himself. The whole game is meant to be a Solid Snake Simulation, an elaborate recreation of the original Metal Gear Solid's experience set up to make a clever capital-s Statement.

The first game made a point of soldiers not being ready for the battlefield emotionally even with VR training providing an inexpensive, safe way to prepare for it physically--and the second game is a case study to show us why. It becomes obvious by the end that protagonist Raiden hasn't turned out as well as they'd imagined, and having Snake around as a calm counterpoint works brilliantly when our “hero” is losing his shit by the end of the game. It all fits in fairly obviously with the fact that you're sitting there playing a videogame, too, and Kojima does a surprisingly good job of breaking the fourth wall without stooping to cliches. When it's firing on all cylinders, Sons of Liberty is Psycho Mantis moving your controller with the power of his mind alone turned into an entire game.

Then you remember that this is the guy who made Metal Gear Solid, and that he can't write his way out of a paper bag. I'll give him one thing, the little touches throughout the game work great, dropping hints about the fact that it's Metal Gear Solid all over again without making this feel like a retread. There's a forklift in the very first room of protagonist Raiden's mission, there's a torture chamber straight out of Shadow Moses and halfway through, you shoot down an aircraft with stinger missiles as a boss fight.

When the story tries to do the same thing, though, the results are embarassing. MGS starred a scientist whose research was used for evil... so MGS2 casts his sister in the exact same role! MGS had a cyborg ninja... so MGS2 has another fucking cyborg ninja! Entire characters and subplots are forced in for no good reason; arguably, it's intentional, but after a while it's beating a dead horse just the same. The twist is good enough to work with just subtle signposting, with the core story pushing things along until the final few hours subvert everything. This game did not need another cyborg ninja.

Quite a shame that Hideo Kojima was somehow above having an editor by this point, or else we wouldn't have ended up with Raiden. My problem with Raiden isn't that he's not a stereotypical hero: it's essential that he's a weak person who falls apart along with everything else toward the end, and people who complained that he's a pussy, bro, were missing the point. The problem is how Kojima sets him up, shining lights on his flaws so constantly that after one hour with him you hate the guy just for how much of your time he wastes.

Action cutscenes where he just can't keep up with everybody else, Solid Snake included, are enough. Introducing his girlfriend as a character and having her call up every ten minutes to bitch about forgetting their anniversary or leaving dirty socks in the living room when her mother was coming over for dinner is overkill, and Kojima's inability to pare things down inevitably led to bloat.

Careless. Sons of Liberty has flashes of brilliance, but it's careless. When it comes to the game itself, the mechanics are perfect, and all of the new moves and features are intuitive and fun. But being able to hang from ledges and toss porn magazines to distract guards doesn't matter when all you really have to do is storm through the game with a tranquilizer pistol. Choke guards to death and a search party might find their bodies, triggering a manhunt; try to sneak by them and you might get caught. Whip out that tranq gun, though, and you can just put them to sleep and cruise on by. The worst that'll happen is that somebody will find them snoozing, call them lazy, and wake them up... so then you just tranq 'em both. Living up to that tactical espionage action motto might be more satisfying, but it's never worth the risk when the designers throw you a box of darts for every three guards.

Metal Gear Solid 2 may be interesting, but it just doesn't work. The final plot twist in the exhausting two-hour string of plot twists is a blunt commentary on just how easily people will suspend their disbelief and conform to a standard of sanity, and to be fair, just getting that far in a game starring a bisexual ninja vampire and Dr. Octopus as villains means we've accepted its insane logic on some level. Point taken, but we didn't necessarily like it, and that cheapens the message. Metal Gear bosses are typically surreal without being offensively stupid, and having villains up to par would strengthen Sons of Liberty both as pretentious art and as a PS2 action game.

It doesn't falter because of a personality split where art came at the expense of competence. It falters for a lack of effort, or if not then certainly a lack of accomplishment. Playing the game takes a back seat to watching the story, but if it hadn't, both halves of would have been stronger for it. We might have come away with a compact, subtle story and the gameplay to back it up. There's a brilliant piece of work buried away somewhere in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and the games-as-art crowd that can look past flaws and hail Pathologic and Killer7 for what they do right will have a special place in their hearts for it.

Too bad I'm not one of them.

mardraum's avatar
Community review by mardraum (July 29, 2009)

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