Metal Gear Solid. Those three words still manage to affect people in this industry. If you were at ECTS for its last visit to Olympia, you probably remember the twenty-foot Konami video screen and Europe's first glimpse of Metal Gear Solid 2 : Sons of Liberty. It was about the only thing during those three hot, muggy days of trade show endurance that brought the huddled masses to a standstill. For the five or so minutes it lasted, you could have heard a pin drop. Well, if it weren't for the sound of Russian ID-modified rifles spitting venom all over the place and our gruff, righteous hero pursued by an avalanche of water and debris... In any event, a lot has happened since ECTS 2000. The PlayStation 2 launched to critical acc.. well, just criticism actually. With a high price tag and a lack of truly great games, in a lot of cases it was the promise of games like Metal Gear Solid 2 that sold the console during those early months. Indeed, one of the criticisms levelled at Konami during the development of MGS2 was that the hype machine could be responsible for a backlash if the game failed to live up to the expectations of deprived PS2 owners when it was eventually released. As the trickle of quality games for the PS2 became a full-on torrent this became less of a problem, but with MGS still occupying a special place in many gamers' hearts it was always going to be difficult if Konami failed to deliver on 110% of their promises. Of course, as you may have guessed, they have done just that. Metal Gear Solid 2 is not the best PS2 game out there, and if you're really strapped for cash this month you might want to set it aside for a rainy day and get stuck into the likes of platform favourite Jak & Daxter or his vaguely devilish chum Maximo. Having said that though, this game is a prime example of why the PS2 stands to remain the world's most important videogame platform and beat off its second generation of competition. Take the finest elements of animation, design, music, voice acting and artificial intelligence and use them to present an engaging adventure starring the hero of Shadow Moses and you have MGS2 pretty much wrapped up.
Sons Of Liberty begins with the finest video game introduction ever. Scored by Harry Gregson-Williams, the British composer behind the soundtracks of movies such as Shrek, Replacement Killers and Armageddon, MGS2 is also a very fine sounding game, especially during these opening moments. As the strains of Gregson-Williams' rousing score resonate, it's not terribly clear what's going on at first. In the accompanying documentary (provided along with some other extras on the game's second DVD), Hideo Kojima explains that the DNA motif used to present the credits, interspersed with cutscene and game footage as a sort of montage, is meant to echo Solid Snake's plight as he deals with the other Snakes in his life, and as the music ebbs and flows throughout this grandiose introduction, it brings us closer to our once cherished hero and offers some of the most emotive musical direction I've ever seen. As the game proper begins though, you are faced with a choice. Instead of hurling you into the ether with a mere stun gun to assist you, the European version of the game asks, how much do you know about the Metal Gear Solid legend? Of the five answers, the top one is the 'right' response, which confirms that yes, I did complete the first game and, yes, I was suitably good at it. Selecting this gives you a choice of Normal and Hard skill setting options and then whisks you away to the start of the now-familiar section from last year's demo, with Otacon talking on the Codec (the communication device of choice for FOXHOUND operatives) and offering you advice on your controls and movements, padding out another few minutes with his musings on life, love and any other material he has handy. The other four options yield different 'versions' of the same game. Not finished Metal Gear Solid yet? Then you can choose not to have the ending spoilt for you, and the game will sidestep the Snake / tanker sections and a whole host of other bits completely. Honestly though, MGS2 in its entirety takes roughly ten hours to complete, and this 'questions' idea seems a bit superfluous. Sure, you can save yourself from spoilers, but you'll also miss out on a lot of the game. The skill settings on the other hand are rather more useful, adjusting the challenges you face rather than simply changing the number of enemies you encounter. For example, one of the demo levels involves reaching the bridge of the ship, and on higher skill settings the stairway going up from just inside the first doorway is barred, forcing you to take the long way round. Clever, eh?
As you would expect, stealth is encouraged in MGS2 and yes, you can still hide in cardboard boxes. If you're seen, or if one of your victims manages to scamper away and call for backup, you'll have to find somewhere quiet to hide while the bad guys conduct their search and things calm down. And as in the original Metal Gear Solid, your radar is jammed during this time and high alert is assumed with multiple enemies on hand. Get caught out and reinforcements will quickly arrive. But if you absolutely cannot get past an unsuspecting guard without his physical removal, your M9 tranquilliser gun comes in handy. Which brings me neatly to one of the game's finest achievements; the control system. Aiming a weapon in MGS2 is simple. Although the game is viewed from the third person perspective, allowing you to judge Snake's movements from above and behind, holding R1 switches you to a first person view, giving you the chance to aim with your analogue stick or d-pad. Assuming you've equipped your M9, USP or whatever else you've happened across, you can then hold down square whilst you find your target. This raises your gun and lets you aim using the sights, and a quick release of the button will then fire a shot, while a gentle release can be used if you reconsider. Snake's movement code is very impressive as well, allowing him to tip-toe, walk, run, stand, crouch, crawl, hide behind objects, lean against and sneak along walls, snoop round corners and fire there if he needs to. Snake can jump over and on top of objects, and he can hang onto railings so as not to be detected by guards patrolling walkways and the like. He can punch, kick and flying-kick his enemies into temporary submission, and then lug the ones he's knocked out into some quiet corner for safe keeping. Or bundle them into a locker. The real bombshell though, when it comes to MGS2, is that anything Snake can do, Raiden can also do.
Raiden is the character with whom players will spend most of Snake's adventure. Well, it's a sort of joint ownership thing, if you like. In an attempt to give players a better impression of Snake - in other words, a third person out of body experience - Kojima-san and his team have opted to hand control over to Raiden, a wet-behind-the-ears newbie at FOXHOUND whose handlers are an ambitious Pentagon type and his hint-of-girlfriend Rose, who persists in calling him Jack. Giving players control of Raiden, after taking Snake's incursion of the tanker to its natural conclusion and bringing on the bad guys, allows Kojima-san and his team to build up Snake's mythos. This is done through an explosive story of betrayal, confusion and Hollywood-style mayhem, with the constant introduction along the way of additional characters, including a couple of my favourites; the charismatic almost-retired bomb disposal expert and his protégé gone bad, Fatman. Although this all adds to the cinematic atmosphere of the game, the pacing is rather uneven. I was consistently annoyed by rambling and often frankly unimportant conversations over the codec. When Kojima-san claimed the codec was merely "a tool" in a recent interview, he was in fact glossing over what is arguably the main delivery mechanism for storyline elements, and where the player will spend most of their time during the course of the game. The fact that every codec conversation - and every conversation in the entire game - is voice acted, admittedly very well, is little consolation for the persistent use of this archaic device to advance the story and add to the game's extensive play time. Players can spend hours hearing Rose and Otacon's offerings on Chinese proverbs amongst other things, just for trying to save the game. Thank goodness there's a button to skip them. Realistically though, most of the game's important moments are witnessed in these professionally-shot scenes, which can take the game all over the world .. and take every twist and turn out of the player's hands. You see, although MGS2 is an experience unrivalled in terms of its scope, and although it works beautifully as an ensemble, when you consider how little actual stealth action the game includes and, conversely, how much of your time is spent watching cutscenes and listening to the codec, you have to ask yourself, is this really the pinnacle of gaming that some critics have claimed it to be? Is it to become legendary as the best example of the convergence of movies and interactive media? No. But it's a damned fine effort. From the rain beating down on Snake as he races across George Washington Bridge in New York to the little caskets blowing off steam in the interior of the ship during the introductory section, every little thing in Metal Gear Solid 2 has been drawn, programmed and realised spectacularly. The authenticity is unmatched and the animation is gobsmackingly good. Anybody could be forgiven for losing themselves to MGS2's alternate reality with such sharp visuals and stunning in-game cutscenes. The 3D world created by Konami here is utterly believable, and even though some of it is anime-style fantasy pap, it's believable pap. Tangible pap.
Metal Gear Solid 2 : Sons of Liberty is the most highly anticipated PS2 game ever. Although it seems to be fairly popular to write it off in places for its fairly low gameplay quotient and over-reliance on cutscenes and the codec conversations (without which it is a fairly unexciting game), the overall effect is still as stunning and enjoyable as ever. You may feel foolish gripping the controller throughout a 40-minute cut scene, but MGS2 is something which must be experienced. It doesn't represent the pinnacle of gaming, but it does offer something truly unique and consistently innovative, whether it's padded out with interminable dross or not. Buy it. There won't be another one of this calibre for several years.