I liked Metal Gear Solid 2 a lot. Despite agreeing with much of the criticism levelled at it, we still immensely enjoyed Kojima's ambitious and apparently misunderstood opus. Yes, the cut scenes were too long and too many, yes, the codec 'conversations' were utterly ridiculous for the most part, and there arguably wasn't enough action to even justify calling it a proper game, really. This is something Konami are intending to correct with Substance, and with the franchise debut on Xbox, they may just pull it off.
All surface, no substance?
So what are we actually getting with this new update? At this early stage of play, it's difficult to tell. There are scores and scores of VR training missions - hundreds, even. These range from sneaking and infiltration modes to first person target practice and general weapons training. Additionally, there are a great number of "alternative missions," whereby you enter a particular stage of the game and undertake tasks against the clock. The bomb defusing section of the original game is turned into a set of challenges for one of these alternate modes, along with total elimination and hold-up modes, plus unlockable modes which we've yet to, um, unlock. We're not even sure how to unlock them, yet.
Points are dished out at the end of each mission, and should you manage to reach first place in the rankings on any particular level, you're given a completion code to enter into the official website, which enters you into the world performance rankings, assuming you can be bothered to write them all down. Quite why this wasn't done over Xbox Live is beyond us. Still, the introduction of a points system does introduce a certain kind of insistence on performing to the best of your abilities, though. Missing out on the top spot by a couple of hundred points had me retrying stages over and over until we managed it. It seems strange that a game that originally wanted to be so sophisticated has reverted to the very basic and raw appeal of old school gaming, and for the better too.
One of the other major features is the introduction of "Snake Tales". These are a series of short, stealthy gameplay sections featuring Snake sans radar, fulfilling short missions. These parts are almost pure gameplay, with short snatches of story and mission briefings provided to you via text-based page-by-page interface [oh so now they skimp on them - Ed]. The stages themselves are absolutely rock-hard for the most part, really testing your perceptive skills and at last giving you a reason to properly utilise all of the fancy moves and camera tricks. It's a refreshing leap back to basics, and a perhaps a reminder of the type of game MGS2 should have been in the first place.
You've probably got the idea by now that there's an enormous amount of tacked-on content here. The majority of it appears to play really rather well, with the VR sneaking modes in particular exhibiting addictive just-one-more-go qualities, and it's a nice diversion from the main game mode to have these 'quick fix' modes to pick up and play for five minutes at a time.
The main game itself remains exactly as we remember it, and appears to be a direct port to Xbox. The graphics were tremendous on PlayStation 2, of course, but we had hoped the textures might get a sharpening up, and the models granted a few extra polys, but it evidently wasn't to be. This isn't a major distraction, you'll understand, as the game still looks absolutely gorgeous, although bafflingly the Xbox seems to exhibit some slowdown in particularly lush areas, mostly in cut scenes. The new sections have been crafted just as lovingly as the original levels, and the VR sections in particular offer a stylish and unusual aesthetic, somewhat reminiscent of Rez - albeit far more understated.
About a year ago, MGS2 was a bit like marmite, with everyone loving it and hating it for the same reasons. As the name suggests though, this time around there's enough 'substance' here to quieten the naysayers, and fans will probably deem it unmissable. And as an Xbox debut for the series, Kojima-san seems to have done a splendid job with it, although we should still expect the single format Xbox mags, ever protective of Splinter Cell, to slate it as best they can.