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

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

"Metal Gear Solid 2 is the point of the series where it it’s not just a game anymore. It was here that Hideo Kojima was convinced he was making History’s Next Great Epic. This was to be the Homer’s Odyssey of the video game era. The half hour codec conversations were to leave the viewer in a state of trance, convulsing with the uncontrollable aura of Truth. When Kojima tells us “Life isn't just about passing on your genes. We can leave behind much more than just DNA”, we are not listening ..."

Metal Gear Solid 2 is the point of the series where it it’s not just a game anymore. It was here that Hideo Kojima was convinced he was making History’s Next Great Epic. This was to be the Homer’s Odyssey of the video game era. The half hour codec conversations were to leave the viewer in a state of trance, convulsing with the uncontrollable aura of Truth. When Kojima tells us “Life isn't just about passing on your genes. We can leave behind much more than just DNA”, we are not listening to a 13-year-old’s first philosophy essay. This is a grown man who believes that he is one of the greatest wizened sages of our time. He sees himself the harbinger of a new medium of transcendental thinking—the Aristotle of the modern age--and he wants you to know it.

Wait, wait, wait. This is a video game we’re talking about, right?

Not really, but you’re forgiven for thinking so. It says “Tactical Espionage Action” right there on the box. The back has screenshots of a guy sneaking through hallways filled with guards. Yet all of that stuff is window dressing. Metal Gear Solid 2—oh hell, the whole MGS series—is the Atlas Shrugged of video games, where every character is either a personification of Kojima’s philosophical and political beliefs or a strawman opposing them. It is a game where the controller spends more time in your lap than in your hands, wondering (as the characters launch into the umpteenth speech about THE POWER OF GENES) “when do I get to play?” Later on, it devolves beyond that; you cry out in desperation, “When is something going to happen?” The answer is “never”. Metal Gear Solid 2 is a game about nothing, where nothing happens to a bunch of nothing people.

The first rule of good writing is to connect with your audience. If you can link with their emotions, if you can make them feel how your characters feel, that’s it. You’ve done it.

MGS2 doesn’t do that.

The storyline is like one of those fourth-grade exercises that gives the class dozens of steps of instructions, where Step 1 discreetly says “sign your name and don’t do anything.” The kids who are drawing loop-de-loops inside spirals and doing handstands an hour later are suckers, laughed at by the discerning few. Describing the plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 is pointless. I would call it a shaggy dog story, but in this case, the “shag” covers every atom in the universe. It is that bad.

I will try to recap. The plot begins with badass supersoldier Snake (you can tell how cool he is; his name is Snake) throwing away a cigarette. This is the last time MGS2 makes sense.

He bungee-jumps from a bridge, landing onto a big oil tanker with a preposterous backflip. He gets into contact with his best bud—scratch that, good friend—scratch that, frequently-seen life partner Otacon, who informs him that since his stealth camo (a widespread technology in the far-off future of 2009) is busted, he’ll have to sneak through the ship the old-fashioned way. His mission is to photograph the big walking robot onboard, because “every state, group, and dotcom” has its own big walking robot now. Wait, did he just say “dotcom”? So Google has the Megazord in a closet somewhere just in case Facebook gets out of line? And hold a sec: why is this conversation even happening? Isn’t this a stealth mission? Why do none of the guards notice when someone pulls an outrageous Hollywood stunt to get onboard? Why wasn’t Snake given any of these vital details before the maneuver to get on the ship? How is a walking bipedal tank even slightly viable or useful on a modern battlefield? So it’s a taller, slower, less compact, easier-to-knock-over version of a regular tank? Oh, but this one can swim! We all know humanoid bodies are an excellent form factor for underwater vehicles.

This all comes before the ninja cyborgs wielding katanas, the evil possessed hand that “talks” to Snake, the telekinetic girl who isn’t actually telekinetic, except when she actually is, and that guy with the rollerskates. I don’t even have to bring in any of the more laughable parts yet, because 4 minutes in, the story already makes no sense. Not a single button has yet been pressed.

Once you do press some buttons, it is immediately apparent that something is wrong. The game’s controls are different. I don’t mean “different” in the way that Half-Life was different from the average FPS; I mean it in the way Jim Jones was “different” from the average preacher. They are absolutely bloody horrible. They are completely unsuitable for a 3D video game environment. The game takes place from a bird’s-eye view, like the original Metal Gear did in 1987. Kojima apparently forgot that video games changed between 1987 and 2001. You can see ten feet in any direction; very handy in a game where being able to see your enemies is everything. You cannot adjust the camera at all. Kojima seems semi-aware of MGS2’s camera disaster; the first-person view is a deliberate concession to it. Yet first-person is a begrudging addition, as if Hideo-san didn’t want the game to be too modern. Case in point: you cannot move while in first-person. Yes, that’s right, as soon as you have a decent view of your surroundings, you’re glued to the floor. MGS2 quickly devolves into a rhythm: walk five steps, go into first person, look around, walk another five steps, first person, look around, another five, etc. The gameplay has a herky-jerky pace that’s constantly “clunking” between the two perspectives. There is no sense of cohesion, no fluidity; the game interface is so mechanical you may as well be controlling a tank. In Mario, this is the gameplay: walk right, grab mushroom, jump on enemies. Note that you do not switch to vector graphics when you want to see a Goomba. In MGS2, it’s walk forward—CLUNK—first-person—CLUNK—okay, there’s the enemy—CLUNK—gotta hide now—CLUNK—oh geez, where is he now? There he is!—CLUNK—gotta hide in a different place—CLUNK—you get the point. MGS2 is not recommended for the epileptic.

You don’t do much in MGS2. You walk down a couple of hallways, hide from a few guards, and watch cutscenes. Mostly the latter. The gameplay is an afterthought to the story, a diversion in between Kojima’s self-absorbed twaddle. It is the most elaborate DVD scene selection menu I have ever played. While ostensibly a stealth game, no stealth is required at any point on default difficulty. It is faster and easier to shoot everything in sight than it is to hide. Those who want to use stealth will spend 90% of the game looking at their radar, as it provides a much better view than the camera. If watching two dots moving around on a 50x50 subscreen sounds thrilling to you, you’ll love Metal Gear Solid 2. Your objectives are of the most basic variety, consisting of little else than running to whatever room your codec buddies tell you to and watching the cutscene triggered there. At one point, you have to find three bombs hidden in three different rooms. You are told exactly where you have to go and how to find the bomb. For instance, in the area with a big plane, you have to look under the plane. Very stimulating puzzle there, Kojima. Your brain has swelled to new levels of brilliance. I am also in awe of the part after that long cutscene where you gain control, but if you do anything, you are shot to death. The only solution is to not press any buttons for ten seconds, after which another long cutscene starts! The future of interactive media is here.

Here is actual dialogue from Metal Gear Solid 2:

“I’ve taken care of that annoying fly. What’s the situation over there?”
“Puzzling. I saw a man dressed like a ninja just now.”
“It’s the only way to describe it. A kind of cyborg ninja, complete with a sword.”

Masterfully written. The only question is whether this or Yu-Gi-Oh will win the next WGA award.

MGS2’s plot sucks and blows like a didgeridoo. It is the sort of thing I would expect from a teenager’s Matrix fanfic. It tries to be postmodern in the most inept ways possible. Kojima seems to have missed the point of video games: they are interactive. The player can do things with them. They are not static—they actively involve the spectator. MGS2 really, really, really doesn’t want to be a video game, much like how Kojima really, really, really doesn’t want to be a game designer. It wants to be a movie. There are many parts where the player can put down the controller, go make some lunch, come back, and not have missed a beat. Nothing in MGS2 is concise. Film has to be concise: by paring down exposition to the bare minimum, the plot gets moving as fast as possible. Movies use images to convey information instead of words. They make their dialogue as “snappy” as possible, so every line carries maximum impact.

In MGS2, everything is said ten times. It is the most inefficient narrative I have ever seen. A huge chunk of the plot takes place on the codec screen, which consists of two character’s faces bantering back and forth. When Raiden and Rose talk about their relationship issues, they state the same points again and again and again as you watch their green-tinted heads perform the same tedious animations. Kojima uses longwinded dialogue to tell virtually all of his story: he not only fails at using the interactivity of video games, but at using the visual aspect of film. He actively avoids using non-codec cutscenes because he doesn’t know how to animate conversations that long without it looking stupid. I don’t blame him: it’s impossible. Hell, there are points when two characters in the same room will say “Let’s talk about this in codec” and do just that.

The whole game is filled with awkward moments. All of the voice acting sounds off; as usual, Snake talks as if his throat is permanently clogged with phlegm. His post-sentence “growls” are even more pronounced than in MGS1; if you offered him a soda, he’d say “sure I’d like a Dr. PepperrrRRRRRRGH.” It’s unnatural and obnoxious. Raiden is the resident Japanese-game-girly-guy, with long blonde hair and the voice of a ninth-grader. His effeminacy is the subject of several embarrassing scenes, such as the one where the president grabs his crotch. Yes, really. It has nothing to do with the plot and is never mentioned again, but it’s there anyway. The homoerotic undertones from the first MGS are brought to the fore this time; whenever the nubile, slender Raiden gazes longingly at the muscly, hairy Snake, the viewer is left to say, “Okay Kojima, we get it.” He even included a character named “Vamp” this time, a guy who not only drinks blood, but—can you guess the double entendre? Oh, Kojima! You’re such a card! And then there’s the part where Snake and Otacon do their secret handshake. Good lord. MGS2 proves, if nothing else, that including gay themes in a game for the sake of including them is awkward 100% of the time.

I have described MGS2 in a disjointed manner, as a series of unconnected events. This is no different from witnessing MGS2 firsthand. Not only do events not flow from A to B, they don’t flow, period. For every He-Man reject supervillain who pops up, there’s a discussion of the Liberian Civil War. For each time your CO breaks the fourth wall to explain game controls, Otacon talks about having sex with his stepmom. Kojima cannot decide whether the game is set in the real world or not. When reality begins to distort itself and the game begins self-referencing its status as a video game, it falls painfully flat. The increasingly ridiculous “twists” don’t provoke a shocked reaction; they don’t provoke anything. The game has been so detached from reality before this point that the only possible response is “huh”, that puff of air that escapes one’s lips when they hear a mildly interesting fact. It’s like sprinkling sugar on a candy cane.

Metal Gear Solid 2 is impossible to take seriously. The game constantly switches between grim drama, tongue-in-cheek cartoon, and postmodern art film. Its various moods clash with each other in the most jarring way possible. The scope of the events in a story is irrelevant; as long as the viewer relates to the story, engaged with all their emotions, they feel something has happened. MGS2 is like dumping a bag of marbles: it makes a lot of noise, but nothing sticks. The viewer leaves feeling that they have not seen or felt anything of importance. It is not a good sign when my only response to a story regards its ineptitude. How can one put lines like ‘LAUGH AND BE FAT” in the same universe as the real-world issue of child soldiers? MGS2’s writing is amateur, it’s hackneyed, it’s juvenile, and I can’t even hate it because it was so bloody boring. The reason Hideo Kojima is a game designer is because he is a lousy filmmaker.

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Community review by phediuk (December 17, 2009)

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randxian posted December 22, 2009:

Appreciate the simile used to relate how the game is similar to a grade school excercise in which students are given a list of instructions, but are really supposed to only complete the first step.

Also like the humor, although some of it seems forced and esoteric. An example of it being forced is ". He gets into contact with his best bud—scratch that, good friend—scratch that, frequently-seen life partner Otacon," I'm not sure what purpose this statement serves. An example of it being esoteric is "is the Atlas Shrugged of video games." I have no idea what you are talking about here.

The main problem is this review drags on way too long. Your main argument seems to be that the storyline is nonsensical, but you spend way too much time reiterating this point over and over again. While you do throw in some new stuff and sprinkle in some humor here and there, you still should make this whole review tighter.
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phediuk posted December 24, 2009:

The review is not my best. I wrote it when I was in a bad mood and it sprawled out into that mess. I will definitely be touching it up later.

It didn't help that I chose MGS2 to write about. It's such an easy target with so many bizarre/awkward/counter-intuitive things to talk about that it's difficult to write a concise review for it. I noticed the other 2/10 review deliberately limited itself to the intro sequence with Snake. It was still enough to fill up a review.

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