6.5

Metal Gear Solid review
Ain't What She Used to be

Summary:





It’s inevitable as the decades roll on that our expectations for games will continue to increase. It’s never fair to remove a game from its historical context when judging how good or bad it was, but with publishers suddenly cottoning on to the popularity of ‘retro’ gaming it’s interesting to see how re-releases or remakes hold up against modern standards. I’m well aware that the slightest criticism aimed at a game by the legendary Hideo Kojima is literary suicide, so before I make my peace I’ll specify the following: the version here reviewed is that released on the Playstation Network for the PSP in 2009. The fact that this edition is almost unchanged from the PSX classic makes the limitations of previous gaming generations painfully clear.

The ‘tactical espionage’ smash hit Metal Gear Solid has the player assume the role of a retired infiltration expert codenamed Solid Snake. A former member of the legendary mercenary team FOX-HOUND, Snake is called into action once again by the US government when terrorists seize control of a nuclear disposal facility. As a master of stealth and combat it’s up to Snake to sneak into the facility, collect intelligence, thwart the evildoers and potentially save a whole bunch of lives, although it’s not quite as stale as it sounds. Unbeknownst to many of its staunchest admirers, Metal Gear Solid is actually the third game in the Metal Gear series, but its release in 1998 was undoubtedly one of the defining moments in video gaming history and its legacy is undeniable. In an era dominated by the likes of Nintendo’s Mario and Zelda, it offered mature subject matter and unapologetic difficulty which made it one of the PSX’s killer apps. In hindsight, it almost single-handedly popularised the stealth genre, may have been partially responsible for the shift in console gaming’s target audience towards young adults and even the rise of Sony as a video gaming market leader.

Further than that, it introduced the Western World to the genius of director Hideo Kojima who for a time was the video gaming equivalent of Hitchcock, introducing an ‘auteur’ style whereby he had a hand in virtually every stage of the writing, development and publication processes. It was one of the first console games to deliver an intricate and genuinely engaging storyline with twists and turns, revelations, double- and triple-crosses, and even real footage. One boss fight in particular still stands as perhaps the most effective breaking of the fourth wall ever implemented, and was all the more astounding considering that it had virtually no precedent. So popular did Metal Gear Solid become that 2013’s Revengeance will be the 19th subsequent release in one of the most successful series in video gaming history. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much Metal Gear Solid in a nutshell – time-locked and far more impressive for its legacy than for the game itself. Worse still, while the original wasn’t as great as everyone remembers either, the PSP version is the worst available.


Slippery like a Snake: The birth of the stealth action genre


As promised, gameplay consists of a blend of stealth and action. Aside from movement you’re given the ability to crouch behind cover, crawl, view your surroundings in first-person perspective and equip a variety of weapons or performance-boosting items. At the game’s outset, we’re told that we’re given free reign to decide the ‘best course of action’ for a given situation – meaning that there are usually a couple of different routes to navigate around the room and the option to sneak your way from one side to the other or charge around the corner all guns a-blazing. The problem is that (a) progression is linear even if room-specific navigation isn’t, and (b) almost every gameplay element conspires such that you’re strongly discouraged from fighting except when absolutely necessary. The top-down perspective gives you an extremely limited view of your surroundings and hence a very small amount of time to react to changes in your situation. Some of the ideas are fantastic, like knocking on the wall you’re pressing up against to attract a guard’s attention. You’re also given an impressive range of weaponry to tackle a variety of enemies, from pistols to rifles, grenades (of the standard, flash-bang and anti-electronic varieties) and good old-fashioned hand-to-hand. But for a game which demands so much precision the graphics aren’t great and the controls are among the most frustrating I’ve experienced. Movement is strictly 2D and conducted through the directional pad which is altogether unsuitable for subtly peering around corners or ducking behind cover. The game doesn’t seem to be able to tell when you want to flip someone or put them in a chokehold, which is frequently the difference between life and death. The PSP version has a further problem with equipping items that requires you to simultaneously hold the directional pad and analogue stick in opposite directions, in a manoeuvre that just about dislocates your thumb. Wouldn’t be so bad if you didn’t have to do it all the time.

The crappy controls aren’t a problem so long as you don’t get caught, of course, but you will – time and time again. It’s difficult enough trying to work out what you’re supposed to do, particularly when it comes to boss fights, but it’s a real headache when you still can’t do it even once you’ve figured it out. The approach is to throw you straight into the deep end where you’ll have to sink or swim, and more often than not, you sink. Apparently this was caught in testing because your contacts will provide you with clues once you’ve died a few times, but that doesn’t take away the pain of respawning at an annoyingly-placed checkpoint and having to sit through several lengthy cutscenes for the second, third or fourth time. It’s just as well that most (but not all) of them are skippable.


Poor controls and lacklustre graphics make any fighting a real headache


Here comes this review’s real blasphemy: the much-lauded storyline is actually pretty poor. It starts out with a premise concerning terrorists and the threat of nuclear war like something from a Tom Clancy novel, which works so long as you’re in to that sort of thing. For a while it provides a mystery-investigation quality as you’re trying to figure out key characters’ identities and motives, making you eager to play on. Before long, however, it turns into quasi-science fiction by working in genetic engineering and ultimately some attempted musings at philosophical topics like fate and family. I really don’t understand what the intention was here. At the time video games were still mostly targeted at kids and teenagers, and the scientific intricacies of the plot would be way over most of their heads. Perhaps that was the intention, because those of us who are actually nerdy enough to be interested in this sort of thing are put off by the glaring inaccuracies in the details. Basically, it gets the worst of both worlds.

At this point the Japanese writing kicks in and it ends up confusing, often bizarre, and ultimately dissatisfying. Sure, the whole ‘team of super villains’ thing is cool at first as you learn their unique abilities or ‘powers’ but because there are so many of them in a relatively short game, they’re just not treated at sufficient length for interesting characterisation. We rely on accents and physical features to figure out who the bad guys are, and their interactions with Snake drip with bravado reminiscent of Dragonball Z. It feels like a comic or manga series that Kojima’s tried to cram in to a game that’s just way too short for it, because motivations seem to change quicker than a set of traffic lights and if you’re not paying attention, it’s a lost cause. I understand what the writers were trying to do, and I appreciate that Metal Gear Solid represents one of the first attempts to create something like an interactive action movie, but the fact is that they simply bit off more than they could chew for a game which only lasts a dozen or so hours. You spend as much time controlling Snake as listening to his conversation, and you’re bombarded from start to finish with technical information, revelations, foreshadowing, twist after shocking twist... it’s just too much, too fast. Ultimately you simply lose interest, forcing a reliance on gameplay which sadly fails to account for it.


The codec screen, which comprises about a third of gameplay.


It’s an interesting if not nostalgic experience nevertheless, and some redeeming factors remain to make it playable. Voice acting which was superb for the time still holds its own. Even by today’s standards it’s absolutely ruthless in the attention to detail it requires, in a good way. You don’t get babied at all. ‘VR missions’ which are easily missed in the main screen menu serve as your only tutorial, and they utterly fail to prepare you for combat, so you pretty much learn on the fly. Your ‘codec’ (mobile phone) allows you to contact important party members so long as you can remember their frequency, and if not? Stiff shit. You’ll have to google it or try them all one by one. Even saving has its own frequency, so you might want to take notes. A further example of the increased expectations of the player is the fact that items which are essential for progression aren’t placed conveniently and obviously in your path. If you explore thoroughly enough you’ll usually stumble across them, but you’ll only learn their importance when the time comes. Otherwise you’ll need to backtrack and search for them. There are also some interesting minigame-like segments which are suitably placed and help to break up the monotony. The PSP version is particularly hampered, though, by some serious porting issues which simply haven’t been taken into account, such as not having a CD case or controller ports (you’ll know why this is a problem when the time comes).

Conclusion: In some ways a 6.5/10 feels a bit generous. The gameplay really is lacklustre, and aside from an ambitious attempt at a genuine game for adults and storytelling on a grand scale it’s aged pretty terribly. You have to take legacy and time-localised innovation into account, but the PSP version is plagued with its own problems and offers nothing new despite being released over a decade later than the original. The game still only lasts a dozen hours, has little replay value aside from trying to piece together what the hell’s going on in the story, and yet manages to command a greedy $18 pricetag as a downloadable title.

...And yet despite all this, it’s a game I’d suggest every gaming enthusiast should play at least once, if only to understand what caused all the fuss way back when. The infinitely superior sequels further the storyline and you’ll be missing out on a lot if you haven’t played through this one. Besides, you can’t call yourself a veteran gamer until you’ve defeated Psycho Mantis. If you can get a hold of a PSX version, though, get that instead, or failing that download it for the PS3. The PSP just compounds the mediocrity.

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Comments

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Angelus Nov 27, 12
Seems abit harsh for that type of score. The story is its selling point and u pretty much dismissed it by saying it's confusing and hard to understand. Personally I understood everything this game had to offer and the story is far superior to any game that is currently released at the moment. When u give a review u can't say it's aged badly when obviously u keep in mind it was made about 15 years ago when technology was not as advance. You pretty much gave it a low score because of that.

Pretty poor review if u think that way.
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Praetorian_Lord Nov 27, 12
Thanks for reading, Angelus. You're welcome to disagree but I don't have much to respond with that I didn't say already in the review. If it's any consolation, I would have given the PSX version a higher score, but that isn't what I was reviewing. The PSP version was released in 2009 and judging it by the standards of 1998 is pretty useless for anyone looking to buy it today.
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Angelus Nov 27, 12
That's the thing it was released on psn and a lot of people had purchased it , young and old and it was still given 8/10 or more. Now in this day and age graphics are everything and a lot of current gen games get a score below and 8. Just comes down to personal opinion I guess.
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EricF Dec 6, 12
Your points are all very valid, no doubt. If I played it now, nostalgia would play a huge part in why I'd still enjoy it. You must admit though (and you didn't mention it in your review besides talking about one particular nameless battle), that the boss fights are so memorable. I remember every one of them so vividly and it's been at least 10 years since I've played this game.

Very good review as a whole; nothing new there.
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Praetorian_Lord Dec 6, 12
There were many other things I could've talked about, but I thought it was already dragging on a bit. I thought the boss battles were hit-and-miss, the one I mentioned was absolute genius while I thought a few others were underwhelming. They were a nice change of pace but I'm not sure whether that's because I found the usual gameplay a bit tedious. I was also terribly frustrated when I still didn't know what I was supposed to do the fourth or fifth time I died. Mind, that probably says more about how much I sucked than the game itself.

Cheers for the read and the comments!
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EricF Dec 6, 12
Oh, I forgot to mention. The end of your review just has a little error, similar to the one you pointed out on mine:

"...it’s a game I’d suggest every gaming enthusiast should play at least once, if only to understand what caused all the fuss way back when."

Which boss fights did you enjoy? Just out of interest. I absolutely loved Psycho Mantis, Gray Fox, Liquid (obviously!) and the second Sniper Wolf battle.
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Praetorian_Lord Dec 6, 12
I must be hungover, because I still can't spot the mistake there.

Psycho Mantis (!!), Gray Fox and the first Liquid battles were my favourites. Final boss really ground my gears (chortle).
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Angelus Dec 7, 12
There's a mistake? I don't see it either lol
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