Metal Gear Acid
Or Alkaline. Your Metal Gear ph may vary.
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Greedily ripping the cellophane from my copy of Metal Gear Acid on the train, I was distressed to learn that the clip holding the UMD had worn out, and I wound up catapulting the poor disc halfway across a busy Tube carriage. At which point the beautifully illustrated manual nearly fell into a pile of sick. Both items escaped unblemished through a mixture of resilience (UMDs are deceptively tough) and my own forethought (I had my knees together under the potential flight-path of the tumbling manual). But it was a sign of things to come.
Apparently not unlike the box itself, Acid is intricate and ingenious but disappointingly rough around the edges. Having dispensed with the idea of doing a "proper" real-time Metal Gear game based around the usual combination of high-tension sneaking, panic-stricken retreat and high-concept cinematic interludes, the team lead by director Shinta Nojiri (who, despite receiving a front-of-the-box credit in Japan, has to make do with a barely visible reference on the reverse in the USA - what's that about, Konami?) instead opted to create something bound by elements destined to antagonise as many as they enthral.
Those are: somewhat tense turn-based sneaking, only moderately panicky retreat, storytelling through radio conversations often backed by glorious hand-drawn illustrations, and the occasional cinematic interlude. The most positive offshoot of all this, from the perspectives of both the sympathetic and antipathetic, is that it's also determinedly kleptomaniacal and logical.
First things first: the goal is still to make it through environments causing as little interruption to the flow of terrorist guard patrols as possible, even though you eventually play with a companion at your side. This means flattening yourself against walls, hiding in vents, dodging obstacles like infrared beams and mines, observing guard patterns so you can avoid their probing (and, let's be honest, fairly blinkered) eyes, and trying to avoid confrontation. Fail to do so and, assuming the guard has time to radio in, the game plunges you into an alert phase where patrols increase in pace and number and you're best served by hiding.
Meanwhile, when you're not trying to quietly hop it between objective markers, there's the added intrigue of a plot involving a plane full of incapacitated hostages including a presidential candidate, with bizarre and slightly horrific psychotic dolls calling the shots, and the need for good old Solid Snake to stop loafing and journey to an African research base with shady corporate ties - overrun by terrorists, naturally - in search of the mysterious "Pythagoras", the object of the plane-dwelling terrorists' desires.
But while it looks like previous Metal Gear Solid titles, and fair play to Konami for managing that, this is a turn-based game in a similar vein to Future Tactics or, at a slight stretch, Fire Emblem. The key difference here is that the moves you make are reliant upon a deck of cards. These are picked out by you (or the "auto" command) in advance, and the majority of them allow you to move around (whether it's their primary function or not), some of them allow you to perform actions like firing a gun, hanging from a ledge, throwing a grenade or hiding under a cardboard box, while other cards replenish health, speed up your turn cycle, or offer some specific, multi-turn benefit that protects you from a particular firing angle, allow you to perform more actions per turn, or something along those lines.
You hold six cards at a time, use a preset number per turn, and each of them has a "Cost" associated with it. The greater the Cost, the more actions your patrolling adversaries will be able to perform before you retake control of Snake; and when you've been spotted, and you're being hunted at speed, a big number can be, er, costly.
There's also an ad-hoc multiplayer mode that I won't be talking about because I haven't got enough words to play with, I haven't got two copies of the game, and everyone who has played it seems to think it's rubbish. Make of that what you will.
There are a lot of good things to be said for Metal Gear Acid. Approaching each level generally means unhooking the camera from its tether above Snake's shoulders and examining the layout and guard positions - their view of the surrounding area not marked by green cones on a Soliton radar in the corner of the screen, this time, but rather by dots on the playing grid that represent an area they have within sight - and then carefully managing the flow of cards into and out of your hand so that you can move as sneakily as possible for little Cost, whilst keeping potentially advantageous cards on the periphery just in case. It's chess-like, and, with the right player at the controls, can become extremely addictive.
The wealth of variation in your deck is likely to remain largely unexplored as you focus on moving around undetected and incapacitating guards only where necessary, but for the cosmopolitan player there are many different approaches to investigate. You can set claymore mines to ensnare unsuspecting guards as they toil back and forth; you can hide yourself under the aforementioned cardboard box and sit in more or less plain view giggling childishly; and you can draw upon cards named after infamous Metal Gear characters, each of which represents some sort of tactical switch. Revolver Ocelot's card, for example, decreases the Cost of using firearms at the expense of being able to use close-quarters attacks, like the samurai sword, should they pitch up.
Doing all this can be extremely satisfying, and surviving the occasional Alert phase isn't as draining as one might imagine because, although you'll probably be too cocksure to fall back on the quick-save option that often, confrontation is not a recipe for total disaster. It adds just enough tension. As much as you might experience getting yourself into an easily escapable checkmate position in chess; you try to avoid doing it because safety's better than sorrow, and because the satisfaction you'll gain from outwitting someone is much greater if you do it without stumbling along the way, whether or not the cost is slight. Everyone wants their team to win 5-0, not 5-4.
Another satisfying part of the game is the way individual stages want to be explored. For the first few hours, a bold player can pretty much run between objectives unhindered (which, for all the bitching that Acid is nothing like Metal Gear Solid, is pretty consistent) but you won't want to, because you'll want to collect the treasures that might be lurking in that room you haven't explored yet. Indeed, one of the reasons this review took longer than expected is that I kept redoing the second half of a particular level in an attempt to get all the toys. I wanted the bonus protected by the security camera with a gun on it and a gun-toting robo-guard-dog with mean armour. And whatever was in the room on the other side of them too. So I spent two lots of 40 minutes attempting to avail myself of both, coming unstuck on both occasions because I didn't check the blocks I was moving to for that telltale line of sight marker. Alert. Muchos guards. Dead.
Actually, that sums up why Metal Gear Acid is very much my sort of game. I'm a firm believer, as anybody who reads my stuff regularly knows, in failure by user rather than designer error. When I die, I want it to be my fault. If it's not, I feel like I've been cheated. Acid gets this largely right. Consider the things it gets wrong, and on balance it comes down closer to what I'm prepared to accept than what drives me up the wall.
The Deck Editor, while pretty intuitive, oddly won't include mission-critical items if you automatically stock your deck instead of picking it all out yourself. Granted, that's because you have a choice of levels, but it only actually points this out when you've loaded the level; odd for a game that offers such measured explanations otherwise. It's equally irritating having to wait for the right card to roll around. You can edit your deck, but the likelihood of that special-use item you need coming up on cue is still slim, unless you stuff all the things you really need in your first hand and keep them there, which, particularly as the game draws on, is impractical. Then there's the camera, which I had trouble wrestling into a comfortable position at times - only spared my wrath by the deliberate pace of the game. There's also the tedium of waiting for enemy animations to complete, which, even when you use the speed-up command, is only tolerable. Oh, and silly little design decisions, like booting you back to the title screen whenever you quick-save.
But there are relatively few things that hurt you by poor design. You will occasionally flail around wondering what to do because you haven't stood on the right square to trigger a sequence, haplessly wandering into firing lines in your confusion, and it is extremely daft whenever a prescribed radio conversation stops you mid-movement that you don't then complete your movement - or at least have the option to - when the sequence concludes. On balance though, I can live with these things, or at least plan for them. If you share my views and think ahead, you'll barely furrow your brow, let alone yell at the PSP.
Summing up, then. Let's use a card analogy. Ahem. Discussions of games as transparently divisive as Metal Gear Acid traditionally descend into a fiery debate before someone pops up and plays the "it's only an opinion" card. In this case though, I'm going to hit the Discard command (getting rid of the "it's all subjective" variant at the same time, since I can chuck two cards at once) and find myself with a choice of two rather more specialised alternatives. One of them has your face on it.
Card number one says you can see two grand conspiracies underpinning things. The first conspiracy is the tale of shady government officials, psychotic dolls, paralysed hostages and misdirected government assets named after jungle pests. And maybe you don't buy it, you don't believe it, and you get awfully bored of waiting for it to turn in another direction. The second is a conspiracy of counter-intuition and bad design decisions that are simply too many and too fundamental to you for the game to remain compelling. You can't put up with them, probably didn't want to be playing this type of game in the first place, and, for that matter, get awfully bored waiting for everyone to turn in another direction so you can shuffle past at the game's self-indulgent pace.
The second card means you can see both conspiracies, but you enjoy the game through a mixture of entertainment and measured tolerance. You bask in the overblown, unbelievable melodrama that's unfolding in the skies, the smoky offices and earpieces embedded behind the smoking barrels of FAMAS assault rifles. And you tolerate the flaws because, while irritating, they do not undermine the otherwise rigid ruleset. If you die (or more likely just become slightly unstuck), it's generally not because of a design failing; it's because you didn't plan ahead and respect the structure. The frothing tension doesn't boil over into indignant frustration that much because, while it is doing things wrong, they are not the things that generally leave you lying in a puddle of blood. The slower pace means that there's less capacity for the game to ruin you with a dodgy camera angle or another traditional real-time fault, and as such prevarication's much simpler.
So which card has your name on it? Well, that very much depends on what you like about Metal Gear Solid, and how and why you react to games that have fallen victim to their own ambition. Only you can really make that call. But you should know that the first card is defensive, with a Cost that strips one point from the score below, while the second is support, and adds a point instead.
Whichever one you go for, I personally hope that Konami continues with this curious experiment. It's turned my head, even if it's not quite the 'trip' that it might have been.