Start, Run, Word. I sat staring at the screen wondering what more could possibly be said about the infamous Metal Gear Solid 2. By now we're all used to the 'too many lengthy cut scenes/codec conversations/girly-haired ladyblokes' exchanges that seem to permeate throughout comments threads following every web article published about the game, ever. We've established that there are some parts of MGS2 that should never have made the cut, and that there simply wasn't enough game for some of you. Konami wants to change this.
Enter the snake
The arrival of the Metal Gear Solid franchise on the Xbox could scarcely have been a better one. At the core of the game is, of course, a port of MGS2: Sons of Liberty; and port is definitely the operative word. There is absolutely no improvement in visuals, which was a major disappointment at first. When you line the game up against Splinter Cell, which everyone does, whether they admit it or not, it barely competes aesthetically with its inherited fuzzy PS2 textures and slightly chunky models.
While Konami didn't bother to take the time to sharpen things up for the improved hardware, you soon get used to the looks, which weren't exactly shabby in the first place. But what I did find most strange and frankly inexcusable were the occasional drops in frame rate, which scream 'sloppy, unoptimised port syndrome'. Having played the PS2 version from start to finish, sitting down to this felt almost like a step backwards, but I imagine newcomers will still be suitably knocked back by some of the lovingly crafted visuals and cinematics.
The gameplay itself translates very well to the Xbox though, and you'll find your way around the controls in no time. You still have the initial options of starting at the beginning, with Snake's mission on the tanker, or halfway through with Raiden's entrance into the story at Big Shell, except thankfully the game now sidelines the baffling 'I haven't finished the previous game, but I would like to start this game from the beginning. I have no children and a dog called Jenny'-type questions and gets straight to the point. From there on in, you may as well just read our review of the PS2 version - it's exactly the same.
Like father, like son
So far, so expected. But of course then we have the extras tacked on to convince the punter to part with their hard-earned. The original Metal Gear Solid was re-released with a collection of VR missions; short "virtual reality" tasks which focussed on training the player in elements of the core gameplay. MGS2: Substance takes this idea and absolutely drenches the player with over 500 missions to pile through, separated into specific categories with tasks concentrating on sneaking, shooting and the tricky first-person action mode.
The missions start off very easy, as you might expect, but they quickly pile on the pressure, and you'll soon be tempted to hurl the controller at the screen as you fail the missions over, and over, and over again. And that's the curious thing; simple though the concept might be, this portion of the game quickly becomes extremely addictive and moreish, and coupled with score tables (and international rankings via Konami's website, albeit not via Xbox Live) the MGS2 experience takes on a unique kind of arcade-challenge charm. And the fact that there's no shortage of VR missions means that you could be coming back for weeks trying to get through them all. The reward for your efforts? New characters and costumes, and more VR missions. Big wow, but that's not why this part of the game is fun; it's the competing that counts.
The other main alternative to the main game is the inclusion of Snake Tales; a series of short missions where you play as Snake in the Big Shell portion of the game - a section previously limited to the aforementioned girly-haired Raiden. While concentrating on the raw stealth-assault elements of the MGS model, without cut scenes and dialogue these missions actually come off rather weakly. The story is relayed via screens of written text, and in order to increase the challenge Snake is stripped of his radar, but compared to the polish of the rest of the game, Snake Tales feels rather lacklustre and tacked-on.
So is it worth it? Quite possibly, depending on your experience with the original version of Sons of Liberty. As a first-time player with an Xbox, you can't afford not to get this. The main game is a tremendous achievement; it's brash, theatrical and very, very cheesy. It doesn't know what it wants to be - some might say an interactive movie, and if you must level that criticism, then at least admit it's a damn fine interactive movie. The rest of us will just get on with soaking up the mostly-fabulous visuals and cinematics, bizarre storyline and nicely paced stealth antics. It is what we like to call a flawed masterpiece, rivalled only by Splinter Cell. Couple this with the huge amount of extra content, and there is a magnificent amount of stuff to do, making it an essential purchase.
However, if you're well-acquainted with Sons of Liberty already, we'd be hard pressed to recommend the outlay based on the mostly extras alone. It depends on how much of a fan you are of the original, and just how much you want to get your hands on more of the same.