Revered by many as some of the greatest games ever made, Konami's PS2 and PSP era Metal Gear Solid titles have returned, remastered - or rather, ported - to run on newer, more technologically advanced consoles. Sons of Liberty, Snake Eater and Peace Walker are available in pristine high definition versions for both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, while the Nintendo 3DS version gets its own stereoscopic version of Metal Gear Solid 3.
In this article we'll be looking at all three products, cross-referencing them with the original versions as they appeared on PlayStation 2 and PSP, discussing their technical make-up and the quality of the ports onto the current-gen platforms. Have these classics been well-handled in their transitions across to new hardware? And from a Digital Foundry Face-Off perspective, which HD Collection is the one to buy?
Let's kick off with the compilation high-def remix for the Xbox 360 and PS3 - an intriguing release that sees accomplished HD remastering house Bluepoint Games (God of War Collection/ICO and Shadow of the Colossus) take on the task of porting across MGS2 and its sequel, while Japanese developer Genki tackles the unenviable task of bringing PSP Peace Walker to the HD consoles.
720p imagery at 60 frames per second is promised for all three titles, and for Metal Gear Solid 2 at least, this shouldn't be a problem - after all, the original game on PS2 already ran at 60Hz, albeit with cut-scenes running at lower frame-rates with image-blending used to give a sense of smoother motion.
In this video presentation we've managed to force a pure 480p 60Hz output from our fully backwards-compatible PS3, giving us a digitally precise feed to compare against the HDMI loveliness of the same game running on Xbox 360, and both video captures are running at 50 per cent speed. In terms of the quality of the visuals, there's basically nothing to tell the 360 and PS3 games apart - both run at native 720p with 2x multi-sample anti-aliasing engaged. The only worthwhile comparison here is SD vs. HD.
"Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater look beautiful rendered in high-def, the original art assets and effects work shining when given over 4x the resolution to play with."
The comparison demonstrates that Bluepoint's approach to HD remastering hasn't really changed at all. The firm is not in the business of replacing artwork or dramatically improving the original game (certainly not to the same extent seen in Oddworld's Stranger's Wrath HD) but there's a really strong argument here that they really didn't have to. Konami's PS2-era artwork scales up beautifully, and similar to the first Bluepoint remaster, God of War Collection, there's enough definition to the key artwork that there really is no need to further embellish it.
In addition to that, all the effects work seen in the original Metal Gear Solid 2 (a lot of it demonstrated quite beautifully in the initial opening sequence) is present and correct in the HD remaster, and owing to the higher resolution offered by the HD platforms, the effects stand out that much more and work beautifully in concert with the characters and environments. The over-arching impression is that MGS2 has evolved into a stylised, if a little simplistic, interactive CG movie that remains highly playable.
Overall presentation has clearly improved too: anti-aliasing makes all the difference with this style of visuals, and the frame-rate boost to the cinematics is obviously welcome: while the frame-blending effect remains, there's an overall sense of consistency between cut-scenes and gameplay. Now everything runs at 60 frames per second all of the time, with just the occasional dip in performance on the PlayStation 3 version of the game - nothing to worry about, here at least.
"Both MGS2 and Snake Eater ran at a native res of 512x448 on the PlayStation 2, with the hardware then upscaling horizontally to 640x448 before the image hit your TV screen. "
Snake Eater Gets the Processing Power It Deserves
Things changed radically for Konami with the release of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Kojima and his team decided on a substantial increase in detail and in-game effects work, which came at the expense of the 60Hz update rate of its predecessor. The overall effect was gorgeous, but there was often the sense that too much detail was being packed into the available resolution, resulting in a lot of aliasing. As a point of interest, both MGS2 and Snake Eater ran at a native res of 512x448 on the PlayStation 2, with the hardware then upscaling horizontally to 640x448 before the image hit your TV screen.
With the introduction of 2x MSAA and a 4x resolution boost, it's safe to say that the transformation Metal Gear Solid 3 undergoes in its transition to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is quite remarkable: finally, the full potential of the original artwork and Konami's unique VFX are finally being fully unleashed.
Snake Eater was an ambitious game for its era, and this was reflected in its performance level. While Konami shot for 30 frames per second, it frequently went over budget - the days of MGS as a 60Hz series were over. We saw dips down to 20 and even 15 frames per second during the cut-scenes, while it appears that Konami utilised a soft v-sync during gameplay, with tearing creeping in when frame-rate dipped below 30FPS - a necessary tactic for ensuring smoother response and a staple in current gen development.
The ambition of the original MGS3 combined with the fact that the HD remaster is a port with few enhancements means that even on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Snake Eater is prone to some impactful frame-rate drops. In this regard it's the Microsoft platform that manages to retain the most performance. In this triple-format 60Hz video, we compare Xbox 360, PS2 and PS3 versions of the game. What is intriguing is that in many cases it's the exact same areas that challenge the engine on all three versions, but obviously the impact of the frame-rate dip is quite different in each case.
"The Snake Eater port even manages to stress the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with the Microsoft console enjoying more consistent performance."
While a locked 60FPS is always preferable, a fair few games ship with what reviewers dub a "locked 60FPS" when the reality is anything but. This is what we prefer to call a "perceptual 60FPS" - where frames are being dropped but the presentation remains smooth enough to fool the human eye. Metal Gear Solid 3 on PS3 and 360 has some performance issues not just during the cut-scenes but often during gameplay too - the Microsoft machine seems best equipped to stay on the right side of the perceptual divide, while the PS3 game dips below more often.
It's not all bad news for PS3 gamers though - the "transfarring" mechanism allows players to swap their Peace Walker save states between the PS3 and PSP via cloud storage (though after playing on PS3, you'll never want to go back!) while progress on MGS2 and MGS3 can be shared with the forthcoming PlayStation Vita version of the HD Collection, which rather unfortunately, doesn't include an HD version of the PSP exclusive - what a shame.
Snake Eater 3DS: Ambitious But Ultimately Flawed
But of course, the Vita HD Collection isn't the only way to play Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater on the move - there's a recently released Nintendo 3DS version too. In the Eurogamer 7/10 review, Jeffrey Matulef makes a "solid" case for the game, citing improvements made to Snake's manoeuvrability, basic refinements to aiming, and the ability to use the 3DS camera to snap new camouflage textures for Snake's outfit. However, frame-rate is criticised - quite justifiably as the analysis below demonstrates.
Elsewhere, there's clear evidence that Konami has retooled this game with some additional features for the 3DS. Shiny specular components that were nowhere to be found on the original game are added here, while there's also evidence of some normal mapping being deployed. Bloom has also been reconfigured and seems to look nicer overall on the 3DS. On the flipside, foliage appears to have been dialled back somewhat in places, and effects such as depth of field have been toned down - the latter is not of huge importance as the focus of the player's eye itself adjusts naturally in a stereoscopic presentation. However, we also see a fair amount of lower res texture work and filtering looks like a significant downgrade too - though how much of this is down to the lower screen resolution is difficult to say. Perhaps the most dramatic difference is the revised colour grading - this was presumably implemented in order to make the game stand out more on a mobile screen.
Despite some cutbacks compared to the original, imagery isn't really the problem with Metal Gear Solid 3DS however. The changes and cutbacks Konami has made here aren't exactly an issue (and many of them are difficult to spot on the low 400x240 resolution screen) and it should be stated for the record that the 3D effect is in places quite remarkable - to the point where we could have taken a drop down to 30FPS for 3D support on PS3 and Xbox 360. The major problems with the 3DS version concern control and performance. When it comes to the utilisation of the face buttons for camera and aiming, the result is simply unintuitive, offering nowhere near the same level of precision as the original game, unless you buy the hideous Circle Pad Pro.
Adding to the issue is the fact that the performance level of the 3DS game is pretty awful, operating at a baseline 20 frames per second, and often dipping below that during gameplay. Here we've got hold of one of Nintendo's special 3DS "partner" units that feature twin DVI outputs, allowing for a range of different video output options unavailable on a retail unit. This allows us to capture and analyse gameplay, and we can also confirm that nothing seems to change when switching to 2D mode. You can see a full stereoscopic version of this video over on YouTube.
"The reduced resolution, stuttering frame-rates and utilisation of face-buttons for camera movement and aiming make Snake Eater 3DS a chore to play on the standard 3DS."
Peace Walker: The Most Radically Improved HD Remaster?
Snake Eater 3D actually has much in common with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, Konami's full-fledged MGS outing for the PSP, which has of course been "remastered" in HD for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. For a start there's the PSP's "emulation" of the second analogue stick via controls remapped to the handheld's face buttons - as with the 3DS game, it's a really inadequate system of control that Konami feels the need to beef up with the implementation of an auto-aim system. However, even with that disabled, the game still seems to help the player out to a great extent, redirecting errant shots roughly aimed at the enemy's head into precision one-shot kills.
The analogue slider also turns out to be ill-equipped to deal with the nuances of the Metal Gear Solid control system - sneaking up on opponents and staying quiet requires just a small nudge on the controller and keeping that position locked is nowhere near as easy as it is on a conventional Dual Shock, or indeed the PlayStation Vita sticks.
Similar to the 3DS outing, the indistinct controls are impacted still further by a poor frame-rate. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker runs at an absolutely rock-solid 20 frames per second on the PSP, with v-sync engaged. On the plus side, control is more consistent than it is on the 3DS version of Snake Eater - simply by virtue of the fact that performance doesn't appear to fluctuate in the slightest and the player adapts over time to the update. On the minus side, when you first start playing, the combination of poor digital controls for aiming combined with the lack of visual feedback make for a distinctly underwhelming experience. In short, Peace Walker is the game that stands to gain the most in its transition to home console.
"Freed from the physical and technical constraints of the PSP, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker just feels so much better to play on the HD consoles. Even the FMV upscaling has been handled pretty well."
It's safe to say that Peace Walker is quite the surprise package on console - all of the compromises Konami were compelled to introduce in order to accommodate the original PSP controls are peeled back (though auto aim remains an option if you really want it) and the restoration of the second analogue stick is a revelation in terms of camera movement and precision aiming. The player actually feels fully in control in taking those all-important head-shots and the ability to look where you want, unencumbered by the inadequacies of the digital buttons makes all the difference whether in terms of general traversal or gunplay.
But Peace Walker is also the most challenging of the games to remaster into high definition from the developer's standpoint. The PSP handheld's capabilities are best described as being somewhere between the original PlayStation and the PS2, meaning lower resolution textures and much reduced poly counts. Factor in a much reduced resolution - 480x272 compared to the 512x448 used for Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater - and we have a game that runs the risk of simply not having the quality to scale up to native 720p.
In this comparison movie, we captured the video output of the original PSP version and scaled it up to HD, putting it side-by-side with the remastered version running on the PlayStation 3 - a process we've experimented with previously in our Gran Turismo Evolution video. The results are intriguing.
In line with the Bluepoint conversions of MGS2 and its sequel, in terms of the game's core assets there's actually been little or even no 'remastering' as such - this is a port. As you can see, texture quality is identical and geometry is unchanged. However, just the simple act of migrating the code across has resulted in some night and day improvements.
First up there's the set-up of the framebuffer itself. The PSP is operating in a low precision mode, resulting in that rather obvious stippling effect - something seen in a great many performance-orientated PSP titles, including Gran Turismo PSP and Ridge Racer. Opting for this mode frees up graphics processing resources and of course RAM. On Xbox 360 and PS3, freed from these constraints and married up with 720p resolution, the visuals in Peace Walker take on a new dimension.
"What a shame that Peace Walker isn't included in the forthcoming Vita HD Collection - smoother frame-rates and the second analogue stick massive improve the gameplay experience."
The low poly/low res textures actually look fairly decent - a testament to the quality of the original artwork: similar to MGS2 and MGS3, the base art is very well produced, scaling up nicely. The effect is somewhat reminiscent of Ready at Dawn's God of War Collection, Volume 2 - even if Genki didn't really match the US developer's implementation of improved assets.
That said, porting across Peace Walker poses challenges above and beyond textures and geometry. There's a reason it sits on its own disc on Xbox 360 and that's down to the addition of full-motion video cut-scenes, often interspersed with QTE action and even minimal amounts of actual interaction. Bearing in mind that the original assets only appear to have been available at the 480x272 res of the PSP itself, the resultant upscaling could have been truly hideous. Genki's work here is actually fairly decent bearing in mind what they had to work with.
There's no getting away from the fact that those videos are being radically upscaled, but the results are actually far better than you'd imagine. This is down to a couple of factors: firstly, Genki appears to have used a fairly decent upscaling algorithm as opposed to the basic "fire and forget" bilinear scaling that often gets wheeled out for this kind of task. Secondly it seems that some elements such as text and some overlays do appear to be rendering in native resolution, so they obviously look cleaner than they would otherwise.
Of all the Metal Gear remasters, Peace Walker is the game that we worried about most, but it actually works rather well in its transition onto the HD platforms, making its omission from the forthcoming Vita collection all the more mystifying. Yes, Japanese and European owners can simply shell out Ł15 (or local currency equivalents) for the PSP version, and yes, you can remap the digital face-button controls to the second analogue stick - but the visual refinements seen in the HD game are obviously absent, and as it is running on the Vita's PSP emulator, there's no escaping the 20FPS performance level of the original release.
The chance to play MGS2 and MGS3 on the Vita is a mouth-watering proposition (though pre-release shots suggest a sub-native resolution and no AA) but it's a shame that an enhanced version of Peace Walker seems set to remain the preserve of home platforms only...