Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Top 50 Games - 9. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is the weirdest game ever made. It is also the most surreal game ever made. Note that these two are not the same thing: by weird I mean unusual, by surreal I mean dreamlike. Operating at his most fearlessly extreme, Hideo Kojima was able to craft a game so perplexing, unexpected, and postmodern that most gamers still don't know whether to praise or revile it. Seeing as how it's managed to claw its way into my personal top ten, it should be obvious that I fall into the former camp. Love him or hate him, Kojima is a genius, and his almost frustratingly unique vision is on display more vividly in Metal Gear Solid 2 than in any other work he's produced.
The story begins with grizzled espionage veteran Solid Snake tracking down a new version of Metal Gear (bipedal nuke-equipped monstrosities) on an oil tanker floating inconspicuously down the Hudson River. Ocelot shows up and, needless to say, all hell breaks loose. Snake is last seen gasping for breath as he gets pulled into the icy depths surrounding the destroyed tanker. The screen fades to black. And now the real MGS2 begins. You see, Hideo Kojima pulled possibly the funniest and ballsiest video game prank of all time. Eager fans controlled Snake for a bittersweet few hours before being introduced to Raiden, a whiny, skinny, effeminate wimp who soon becomes the main protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 2. Nobody knew about him prior to playing: no press, no internet carnivores, nobody but the tight-lipped team at Konami. While some are still resentful of the deceptive switch-up, every time I think about it I can't help but chuckle. It's hard to believe that they got away with it, especially considering the massive hype that built up around the game, and it would be even harder to imagine being such a scam being successful today.
One summer day in 2003, my friend from camp brought over his PS2 and the second Metal Gear Solid. We played for about five hours straight before getting a "disc read error," making our way from said Tanker chapter to the cutscene in which Solidus Snake is formally introduced. And those five hours were heavenly. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is clearly not my favorite game of all time, but those first five hours were the most intensely blissful and perfect of my entire gaming life. I bought my own PS2 and a copy of the game in November 2004, playing the game to completion and thoroughly enjoying it, but I've never had an experience like that first session since. Something about the fidelity, interactivity, cinematography, and attention to detail struck me in the tender regions and absorbed me whole. The next generation of console gaming that the PS2 and MGS2 spearheaded couldn't possibly live up to my first impressions of it.
I suppose my first order of business should be to touch on Metal Gear Solid 2's most immediately stunning aspect: its graphics. Snake is first seen walking along the George Washington Bridge in the pouring rain. To reach the oil tanker where Metal Gear Ray is held, he runs and leaps off the side, tossing off his raincoat and activating his stealth camouflage at the same, then quickly rappels his way down onto the deck. After talking with Otacon for a bit, you finally assume control of Snake. When I first started moving him around, it felt incredibly strange. The weather effects, the animations, the movie-like polish... I felt like I shouldn't have been playing, like I still should have been watching. For the first time ever, a game's visuals seemed too good to be real. I made my way through the tanker level and the rest of the game without ever ceasing to appreciate the technical and artistic wizardry. There are countless flourishes of realism that go a long way to enhancing the experience. When Snake comes inside from the heavy rain, he is surrounding by fog and leaves wet footprints that guards can pick up on. The characters' animations are of just as high quality as the rest of the visual package, from Snake's somersault and Raiden's cartwheel to Vamp's acrobatics and Ocelot's pistol twirling. It was all very spectacular back in the day and I still think MGS2 is a good looking game.
When it comes to audio, this game is likewise no slouch. Voiceovers are of professional quality, effects are satisfying (I still remember the sound of Raiden slipping on bird droppings), and Harry Gregson-Williams' rousing score never fails to get me in the mood for some tactical espionage action.
Metal Gear Solid 2's A/V aspects were certainly striking in its day, but once there's a controller in your hand (and you're not watching a cutscene), the game gets even more pleasurable. As with most elements of a Hideo Kojima game, some love the controls for their involved sophistication and some dislike them for their convoluted nature. Again, I fall into the former camp. Metal Gear Solid 2's controls are complicated sure, maybe even a bit confusing for newcomers, but they're not unwieldy or frustrating. By taking advantage of every little aspect of the DualShock 2, a vast breadth of possibilities are available to the player. Holding R1 pulls the camera into a first-person viewpoint. Holding square raises whichever weapon is equipped, at which point you can aim with the left analogue stick or fire by depressing and then releasing that same square button. This may sound complex enough, but there's more. Lightly sliding your finger off the square button will let Snake or Raiden put down the weapon without firing, L2 and R2 are for leaning left and right respectively, holding them in tandem lets you stand on your tiptoes, etc. Mastering the controller and all of its intricacies feels like learning an instrument, but without all of the frustration, time, and "Greensleeves."
MGS2's gameplay presents players with opportunities to indulge in every scenario that its controls seem to promise. The cleanup Plant that Raiden explores is rather open-ended, with all sorts of goodies to find and ways to fuck with the guards. Want to hold up a sentry from behind, circle slowly around to his front, go into first-person mode, aim for his jewels, watch him plead for mercy and give you his dog tag,  tranquilize him, drag him into a locker, close the door, and then roundhouse kick it till said door comes off its hinges, causing the guard to slump listlessly onto the floor? In Metal Gear Solid 2, you can. In Metal Gear Solid 2, you can shoot watermelons. In Metal Gear Solid 2, you can deal with bugs, C4, and fire with the same coolant spray. In Metal Gear Solid 2, you can use the right analogue stick to swing a katana in whichever direction you please (take that, Wii MotionPlus!). Physics-based goofing was introduced here before Half-Life 2's gravity gun made it hip; the Plant is about as thrillingly interactive as any video game environment yet crafted. Piercing steam pipes and fire hydrants, swimming around the flooded hallways of Shell 2, disguising yourself as the enemy... There's a lot to do in MGS2's stealth action sandbox, and such ridiculous depth makes for endless entertainment.
We can all agree that Metal Gear Solid 2's graphics and gameplay are solid (No pun intended? Ah screw it, pun intended), but its story is another story altogether (Last pun, I promise). Most consider it a nonsensical mess of deception, Y2K paranoia, postmodern irony, and half-baked philosophy. It is a mess, I won't deny that, but where other critics and gamers hate MGS2's story (if not the entire game) for its byzantine eccentricity, I love it. I don't think it would be a good idea to go into much detail here, but I will say that on my first couple of playthroughs, Metal Gear Solid 2's plot was compelling, intelligent, and surprising, filled with twists and turns; a real rollercoaster ride. Today it's just hilarious. Not enraging, not disgusting, just funny. Really, really funny (the late-game lines in which Snake tells Raiden to believe in something and pass it on to future generations are particularly gut-busting). And I guess that's all I'm gonna say about the story; no need to engage in techno-babble if there exists the option not to.
Easily one of the most important and under-appreciated elements of the Metal Gear Solid series is its oddball humor and general weirdness. Hidden throughout the game are various Easter eggs, many of them self-referential, such as the discovery of a Vulcan Raven action figure that shoots beads out of its little gatling gun. Some are just silly and immature, like walking under the urine stream of a relaxed sentry and feeling your DualShock vibrate as the golden shower rains down on Raiden's head. Even bosses aren't immune to the game's sense of humor: a villain named Fatman rides around on roller skates with a glass of wine in his hand. Details like these thankfully alleviate some of the tension present in the game's dark plot, and serve to imbue it with a wonderfully precise charm.
The marketing ploy, humor, and story come together in Sons of Liberty to transform it from a spy thriller into the weirdest game I've ever played. Like I said, though, weird and surreal are not the same thing. Katamari Damacy is weird. The Persistence of Memory is surreal. Metal Gear Solid 2 feels as dreamlike to me as anything the school of surrealism has produced. Part of it is the feeling of falling down the rabbit hole that the story provides, part of it is subtle, like the sound of the seagulls crying in a Hudson River sunset. The obvious place in which the game's dream juice can be soaked up is in an unforgettable late-game scenario aboard Metal Gear Arsenal. After being tortured, Raiden is released from his restraints by an unexpected ally. He is now free to move around, but there's a catch: he's stark naked and weaponless (he can't even throw a punch, as his hands are being used to cover up his nether regions). Soon he starts getting Codec calls from his commander Colonel Campbell (sorry for the alliteration), but they're a bit odd. The Colonel tells Raiden he's been playing the game too long and that he should turn his console off. Another message recounts a story of Campbell driving home one day and then passing out after witnessing a bright light; "What do you think happened to me?" he asks. This scene is one of the most hilarious and horrifying in all of gaming, stuffed to the brim with classic lines: "I need scissors! 61!" "I'm pregnant... Your baby," "Fission Mailed." It's fucking brilliant. There's another moment though, that is much more subdued and simple, barely even a "moment" for anybody but me. C4 explosives have destroyed large sections of the cleanup Plant's Shell 2, preventing Raiden from entering certain areas. During an escort mission, Raiden finally moves through some of the buildings in Shell 2, but they're all deserted, as the guards have already boarded Arsenal. By the time Raiden and the girl he is protecting get to the sewage facility and climb down a ladder as the sun sets, everything just feels unreal. I can't quite put my finger on what makes it special, but at this exact point in the game, I felt like I was dreaming. Silent Hill 2 and Snake Eater come close, but aside from them Metal Gear Solid 2 is all alone in its dreamlike brilliance.
I adore Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty  for the same reasons many hate it, and more. It's a technical marvel, a liberating sandbox, a perplexing science fiction spy tale, an awe-inspiring prank, and a masterpiece of surrealism. It's the work of a genius doing his thing without inhibitions; not the kind of game fans wanted, but the kind we need more of.

No comments:

Post a Comment