Playing Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty again, after all these years, has had an interesting effect on my opinion of it. Which is to say, I actually like it now. I'm tempted to compare it to a maturing, fine wine, a substance I'm sure was heavily consumed during the game's development, but the truth is that Sons of Liberty remains every bit the unhinged and convoluted mess I remember it to be. A mess that, with patience and even the slightest idea of what you're getting yourself into, becomes considerably easier to navigate. Wait ... does that make me the wine?
Interestingly, your impression of Metal Gear Solid 2 is likely to be more positive if you never bothered to finish it. Upon first completion, it leaves a bad taste in the mouth, an inkling of bitterness that ultimately overpowers every other memory of your experience. Indeed, my recollection of the game brought about nothing but a feeling of anger -- the Metal Gear Solid sequel I expected and the one I played seemed to differ greatly -- and a dull ache at the back of my head. I'm sure that's due to the game's mind-warping plot and, if not, the injuries sustained by having the carpet constantly yanked from under me. Thankfully, subsequent visits allow you to spot Hideo Kojima's fingers and give them a good stomping.
Removed from the narrative stunts and bizarre situations, the gameplay in Metal Gear Solid 2 is, without a doubt, superior to that found in the original adventure. You'd think that alone would make it the better game, but... we'll get to that. Sons of Liberty greatly expands upon the franchise's peculiar and still unique brand of stealth, not to mention the mental capacity of the formerly inept and forgetful guards. Whereas genre competitors like Splinter Cell adopt a serious approach and encourage you to linger within shadows, Metal Gear Solid's alternative to direct confrontation has always been a tad more playful. It's just like those youthful days of hide-and-seek in the park, the critical difference being that you get shot if someone finds you. Rough neighborhood.
The single greatest leap in minion intelligence comes in the shared realization that they're not alone. Guards will whip out radios and demand heavily armed backup before chasing you around the corner. No longer will they forget about you as soon as you disappear from view, engaging in systematic searches because, hey, you were there just a second ago! And forget about that cunning cardboard box disguise -- a suspicious box will be properly aerated first.
"Sons of Liberty asks an interesting question: What do you want from a sequel? "
With improved, sneaky maneuvers and more cunning (albeit still comical) guards to foil, how is it that Metal Gear Solid 2 unites so many faces and palms? The game's infamous surprise, of course, is the introduction of a different protagonist following the game's rain-drenched prologue, though you may want to switch out the "different" adjective for something like "foppish," "effeminate" or "flimsy." Raiden was certainly no Solid Snake, despite having identical moves, gadgets, weapons and motivations. The white-haired whiner's greatest contribution to gaming, perhaps, is delivering proof that players actually care about nonsense like "characters" and "story."
Raiden's role -- and that's a word I and the game's characters use intentionally -- closely mirrors that of Snake's in Metal Gear Solid. So much so, that Metal Gear Solid 2 borders on being an outright remake of the previous game. I'm not sure whether it's intentional or not (does it matter?), but Sons of Liberty asks an interesting question: What do you want from a sequel?
We angrily assault message boards when our favorite franchises take an unexpected turn, in the fear that number two or number three will fail to capture those feelings we had before. Essentially, we want a similar, familiar experience with a just tweak here and an interesting twist there. That's what Metal Gear Solid 2 delivers, with several elements that can be directly linked to Snake's Shadow Moses mission.
Just like Snake, Raiden suffers through a lengthy torture and interrogation sequence towards the end of the game -- in an identical room with identical equipment, no less. Entering via an underwater passage and a cargo elevator, his mission is to infiltrate an isolated, guarded installation that is merely a front for something more sinister. A group of bizarre, melancholy weirdos stand in his way, once again led by a clone of pre-Solid Metal Gear villain, Big Boss. The high-ranking individuals Raiden is sent to rescue perish immediately after encountering him. A mysterious cyborg ninja aids him along the way, even repeating Gray Fox's warning of hidden mines. Add in a sniper section, throw in a remote-controlled rocket sequence and switch out the Hind battle with a Harrier fight, and you have your sequel.
Of course, what drags this one down is the change in avatars -- you're still not playing as Solid Snake! Indeed, Metal Gear Solid 2's true cleverness (and utter pretentiousness) comes through when it integrates its "perfect sequel" structure directly into the story. Raiden, switch off your console. This mission is just a simulation.
Though hugely impractical and exceedingly unbelievable, the situational simulation that Raiden finds himself in is actually an elaborate machine, meant to replicate a soldier on par with Solid Snake. Every battle and every circumstance encountered throughout the game, while sincere from the point of view of the participants, forms part of a veiled Shadow Moses recreation. Despite being congruous with Metal Gear's theme of cloning exceptional warriors, the belief that an exactly calculated sequence of events and challenges can forge a legendary hero could be considered just a teensy bit far-fetched. Well, it would be in any other medium.
"The climax is nothing short of an insane attack on the fourth wall ... everyone talks to you like you're playing a game. And, let's face it, you are.'"
Sons of Liberty's climax is nothing short of an insane attack on the fourth wall. An uploaded virus doesn't merely affect the game's fictional computer network, but the game itself. The colonel suffers a hilarious mental breakdown, Snake assures you he's got "infinite ammo" and everybody talks to you like you're playing a game. And, let's face it, you are. In a moment very reminiscent of BioShock's late-game revelation, Colonel Campbell asks Raiden why he's even taking orders from someone he's never even met. Why are you taking orders from the colonel, hmm?
The machine meant to transform Raiden into Snake isn't confined to the Big Shell complex -- it envelops the game, or the "simulation," itself. What is a game, if not an exactly calculated sequence of events and challenges, meant to transform you, the player, into a virtual soldier? Or a thief. Or a race car driver. Or a superhero. No matter the genre, success in a game always hinges on your ability to play a specific role.
For all its deception and overwrought delivery, Metal Gear Solid 2 ultimately delivers a fun and fascinating look at video games and sequels. It may not be intentional and it may not be particularly subtle, but it's a message that should resonate with anybody who's ever wanted to become someone else in a game. Have you?
TOMB RAIDER: ANNIVERSARY
ELITE BEAT AGENTS
METAL GEAR SOLID
METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY
The B[ack]log chronicles Ludwig Kietzmann's fight against that seemingly insurmountable and entirely self-inflicted obstacle, the ever-sprawling backlog of games that are either unfinished, unplayed or unloved. Every week (HA!), Ludwig hopes to subtract at least one and ramble on about it for a few paragraphs ... if you don't mind.
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