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METAL GEAR SOLID 2 / Konami / PS2
Poor Raiden. He gets blamed for so much that really isn't his fault.
Look around on the Intertubes and you'll see that MGS2 is the most reviled of the four main games of the series. There isn't universal enmity for it, but ask a random sampling of 10 Metal Gear fans to rank the four main games of the series in the order that they prefer them, and I guarantee you at least eight out of any ten will put MGS2 dead last with no hesitation.
Ask people why, and the short answer you frequently get is "Raiden." It was certainly a bit of a cockslap to the face, in the days before this game launched and when the pre-release hype was at an unbelievable level, to find that the segments with Snake sneaking through a tanker that we'd seen in the demo and E3 displays and such was actually just a small prologue to the main game, and that the vast majority of our playtime would actually be spent with the acrobatic silver-haired pretty-boy. You can certainly understand people's disappointment when they plonked down $50-60 expecting some Snake and getting a hearty dose of Not Snake, and I don't mean to advance the claim that Raiden is a good or compelling character, but he really isn't that bad, either. From a gameplay standpoint, he's got all of Snake's moves and then some, and he's really much more of a pleasure to maneuver about than Snake ever was in the first MGS.
While the Raiden bait-and-switch was indisputably part of the general disappointment and negative sentiment toward this game, it's also become a scapegoat, especially by Hideo Kojima himself. Rather than admitting he wrote a bad, messy, overly convoluted and pretentious story, and laid out a game that more frequently offers up boring drudgery and frustration rather than compelling fun, he just points to Raiden and says "Lol I shouldn'ta made him instead of Snake, sorry guys, I'll make him gay in the next game and also you can slit his throat."
This was actually the game that convinced me to buy my first PS2, shortly after it launched and I played about half an hour of it at a friends house. I soldiered on through it after obtaining my own copy, despite notably not having all that much fun at the halfway point, and completed it with no intent to ever play it again back in 2001 (I would have sold it, but the market was already flooded with dirt cheap used copies.) Upon picking up a used copy in 2010 at Gamestop to give it another run and write this review, I have to admit I only got about 3/4 of the way through the game before quitting, feeling like I'd wasted enough of my life on it already.
Kojima's best games - Snatcher, the first MGS, MGS 3, Policenauts - really hook you and make you want to keep coming back for more, no matter how overly verbose or frustrating they might get at points. This particular game, however, is the only one of the MGS series that I quickly started feeling it was a chore to play. And it isn't because of Raiden.
Let's take a look at the game step-by-step. It has a fairly neat introduction, with Snake bungee-jumping into the Hudson River with stealth camo on (which quickly shorts out, to give the game at least some semblance of challenge.) The graphics are great - in fact, the engine here is superior to the much later MGS3 in a number of regards; it moves faster and much more smoothly, but there's also more vibrant color and greater background detail. From a technical standpoint, it's really quite an accomplishment, and there's a whole new suite of maneuvers that basically read like a wish list of MGS fans - you can aim any weapon in first-person view now, you can do a combat roll, you can hang off the edges of stuff and go hand-over-hand to sneak past sentries, you can hold people up and shake them down for items complete with a hilarious little peepee dance.
Both the story and gameplay get off to a decent start as well. Snake is on this ship to get info on a new anti-Metal-Gear Metal Gear that the U.S. Marines have developed. As the ship is full of fine upstanding young Marines, Snake comes in equipped only with a tranquilizer gun and camera, intending to just do some relatively peaceful sneaking and peeping. The ship quickly gets taken over by heavily armed Russian troops, however, and Snake now has to deal with them as well as make his way to the Metal Gear to snag some photos. Along the way you fight a short-haired chick with hairy armpits in a fairly easy but nevertheless interesting battle that makes use of destructible terrain well, and also gives the hipster demographic something to masturbate to I guess.
The game on the whole starts to go downhill at the end of the tanker sequence, which only lasts for about an hour or so. Longtime series villain Revolver Ocelot shows up to steal the new Metal Gear, which I guess is fine as a plot development, except that he's grafted Liquid Snake's arm onto the one that he got chopped off in the previous game, and the arm somehow periodically takes over his body and causes him to speak in hilarious Cam Clarke yelling voice. Not only that, we find out that the new Metal Gears are apparently inspired by Hideo Kojima going on an Evangelion binge while writing the game - they look like dinosaurs, they have glowy eyes and they even do metallic roars. What tactical advantage is there in roaring? Who knows, but it's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the story getting ludicrous and silly.
Poor Raiden steps in to take the mantle of heroism for the rest of the game, which takes place two years later in a oil-rig-like facility called the Big Shell. Set up in the ocean just off the coast of New York, the Shell ostensibly is there to clean up the massive amount of oil and general shit released into the Hudson when the tanker asploded. However, while the President is on a tour of the facility, a terrorist group called Dead Cell (composed of the usual mutant super-powers crew that serves as boss encounters) takes it over, holds him and a bunch of other random people for ransom, and threatens to launch nukes at New York to boot.
The Shell itself as a setting is a bit of what's wrong with the game - it's this kind of boring orange metal mass that has too much repetitive terrain, and which forces you to retrace your steps far too often to satisfy some plot convention or another. It's a tolerable game environment at first, though, and combined with Raiden's advanced suite of moves, the very nice gameplay engine, the more realistic and challenging guard behavior, and a story that's canting towards disappointment but hasn't totally spun itself out yet, things are enjoyable enough to make you look forward to coming back to the PS2 and seeing what happens next.
It all really starts to fall apart in earnest with the first real boss, called Fatman. This is a rollerskating fat guy who wears a bomb blast suit that prevents you from shooting him, except in the top of his head which peeps out from some giant collar/face shield. He skates around really fast on rollerblades and plants bombs all over the battlefield, which you have to tediously chase down, find and freeze with chemical spray, because if even one is allowed to go off it ends the battle. He's also nearly impossible to hit, unless you plant Claymore mines in some of the areas where he likes to skate frequently ... but you'll only have Claymores if you have a strong hoarding instinct and went out of your way to pick some up that were left as a trap for you at one particular earlier point, otherwise you won't have that option and will have to chase him around tediously trying to get off a potshot when he stops for a second here and there.
The thing is, he's really not that hard. As with most of the game's bosses, you have to be drunk or playing with your eyes closed to lose to him, since he hits you so infrequently and does so little damage. They take forever to kill, though, because like Fatman, there's usually some finicky little pattern you have to run around and wait on them to finish, then you get some tiny little window to make one or two precision shots on them, then you repeat the tedious pattern again until you get another opening. It's like fighting a 3D version of the plant monster boss from Super Metroid over and over again, or a bad Treasure game; it's just tedious, cumbersome design, but it's what MGS2 chooses to roll with for the majority of the boss battles. Boss battles were something exciting to look forward to in the first MGS, and memorable - who can ever forget Psycho Mantis's shenanigans or the incredibly tense game of cat-and-mouse played with Vulcan Raven in a giant freezer? There's nothing like that here. Most of the time, boss battles are just a chore to sit through patiently.
While the bosses won't kill you, however, the environment will. When Raiden triumphantly screams "WE'VE MANAGED TO AVOID DROWNING!" later in the game, you'll understand why he finds that such an accomplishment. Big Shell is full of cheap, shitty deadfalls into the water, which end the game immediately. Roughly halfway through the game, you encounter an over-long swimming sequence where Raiden (and his weak lungs) have to constantly pop up into air pockets while searching around in a dark, litter-filled environment for a dark object. This sequence is made maddening by janky swimming controls and the fact that Raiden can't seem to just swim straight upward ... you ever seen that Family Guy skit where there's a fly trying to escape from their house, and he keeps buzzing around bonking his head on the sides of the wide-open window? That's what this sequence is like - you waste countless time and amounts of life energy jerking the stick around trying to get Raiden up into an air pocket that is literally millimeters from you, while he bumps all around the edges of it and HERP DERP HOW DO I OXYGEN. Just prior to this sequence, there's an abhorrent jumping-and-climbing segment that had no business being in a game engine like this, which leads to instant death if you screw up a jump that the game doesn't really give you proper perspective to gauge. And don't even get me started on the "LOL U NEED EQUIPMENT THAT IS BACK THERE IN THE AREA YOU JUST SPENT TEN MINUTES SNEAKING OUT OF" bits the game repeatedly ambushes you with. The narrow walkways and claustrophobic rooms of the Shell don't leave much in the way of variety for strategies in getting past guards - there's basically one right way for each area, and once you've figured it out, you just keep doing it over and over as the game keeps pushing you back and forth through these same areas over and over.
As the game's plot progresses it just becomes more over-the-top and ludicrous. You expect that from Metal Gear to at least some degree, but it's not the fun, silly over-the-top of Psycho Mantis, Liquid Snake yelling crazily while refusing to die, or 1960s surf music restoring your health. I seriously believe that someone gave Kojima an Evangelion box set while he was writing this game, and he finished watching it just after he'd started writing the Big Shell scenario. It's a mix of that sort of navel-gazing pretentious morbidness (and a bizarre and gratuitous drift toward incest on a couple of occasions) with increasingly ridiculous plot twists. About halfway through the game we come to find out the main villain is Solidus Snake, yet another clone of Big Boss that jumped out of Kojima's ass. He was apparently President of the U.S. during the Shadow Moses incident, yet somehow Snake, Liquid and everyone else involved didn't notice that there was a guy in the White House that looked exactly like them. Oh, and his special power is to somehow grow 'roid muscles at will, along with Doc Ock robo-tentacles on his back. This isn't even the worst of it as far as the story goes - I won't spoil it just in case you actually want to subject yourself to the game for completeness' sake or whatever, but the whole thing ends up being some sort of attempt to comment on media control and basically what a bunch of sheep gamers are, and how they should be thankful they have Hideo Kojima around to sort things out for them. Look, I don't know Hideo Kojima personally, I'm not the best person to judge the man's character and mental state. But you can certainly see a lot of evidence in his games and interviews and public statements that he has a pretty sizable ego. Something that men with outsized egos (and who are surrounded by yes-men) commonly do is overestimate their abilities and take on things they really aren't equipped to handle. With the first MGS, Kojima apparently read "The Selfish Gene" and thought that he had a much better understanding of genetic and environmental influences on behavior than he really did, but it all worked out OK because the game was fun anyway and did a lot of innovative things. With this one, I'm guessing Kojima read a couple of Chomsky's lightest, easiest books, possibly a bit of Kant, and then decided he was an expert on both mass media and existential psychological issues. What comes out of all this is a game that ends up clumsily cockslapping the player in the face with hipster pretention for the final few hours of playtime.
Ultimately the major problem with the game isn't Kojima's attempt to become the first video game pop-philosopher; it's that the pacing sucks, the gameplay sequences are repetitive and have play control issues (and are often just laid out poorly given the game's engine and control scheme), and for a story-driven game the cast of characters is just roundly unlikable - except for Snake, who is relegated to a mostly-invisible support role. It's such a shame, too, because this really is a fine game engine - it's visually appealing, it works very well when it's used right, and the "squad tactics" of the guards make the game considerably more enjoyable. Thus, parts of the game are actually fun - but these are just too few and far between.
Kojima himself can't even keep this game's story straight
Metal Gear Scholar
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