Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty HD Edition review
Solid Stealth Simulation
Back when Sony were busy contesting Nintendo for the first time on the home console market with the first PlayStation, there were a few key titles giving Sony the support it needed. One of those games happened to be Metal Gear Solid, the first 3D entry in the Metal Gear series and one that helped shape the stealth game genre into what it is. So you can imagine the anticipation when a sequel heads for the PlayStation 2. Can this game deliver? Short answer: yes.
Long answer: The game's core strength is in the way it approaches its stealth gameplay, in that sneaking through areas undetected is always pushed as the best option without throwing in crippling penalties if you are spotted. For, that has always been a deal breaker and why I've found it hard to find enjoyment in other stealth games I've tried, but MGS2 seems to hold a strong understanding of striking a balance.
The game provides a variety of options and features to make sneaking about fun and effective. The camera is usually set in an overhead position as the player explores the different areas giving a reasonable view, but the viewpoint can be changed based on circumstances. For example, pressing up against a wall and approaching a corner will move the camera down low so you can more easily peak around and look down the passage. A first person view is also usable, letting you not only get a good view of your surroundings but to better aim weapons. The final touch is the radar that sits at the topright of the screen. There are numerous settings based on player set options, but by default you can use this to view a map of your immediate surroundings as well as locations and orientation of enemy soldiers during calm periods, yet expect it to be jammed if you set off alarms. Aside from a few locations, you'll first have to locate a node and download data to use the radar in each area.
So let's cover what you can do to actually deal with an enemy presence without alerting everyone nearby. Simply sneaking past without getting spotted is an obvious choice, although it is generally the least effective option most of the time. Thankfully you can take enemies out of commission, clearing the way to progress. Knocking the enemy out with a punch and kick combo is one way or you can sneak up behind them and snap their necks. As you play you'll also gain access to various weapons. A few of these are well suited to taking out bad guys undetected, such as the M9 that fires tranquiliser darts or finding a suppressor for your handgun to silently kill targets.
Generally the enemy AI in terms of spotting you is mostly solid, although it does come with a few oddities. Most enemy view distances are quite limited, letting you stand clear as day across the room at times and not be seen, but the design of the stages generally prevents this from regularly becoming an issue. A few tricks are in place to make sure staying undetected isn't too easy. If an enemy finds one of his comrades dead the enemies will be more alert for a while and some extra soldiers will come in to look around. Likewise, some grunts regularly radio in status reports and suspicions will be raised if command don't receive that report. Moving bodies to where they can't easily be found (for example, you can stuff them into open lockers) becomes key.
The alert system has four stages to it that form the punishment that game deals if you get spotted or otherwise raise concerns in the enemy camp, starting from the normal status where they're not aware of you to full red alert where reinforcements flood into the area and are actively hunting you. This is where combat comes into it. As a general rule, combat in this game isn't as strong as in something like a FPS. If those reinforcements do flood into the area you're unlikely to be able to beat them easily in a firefight even with assault rifles and explosives in your inventory. Rather, your best bet is to take out anyone in your way as you run, trying to find a place to hide until the alert level goes down. However, you shouldn't mistake this as bad design. The control setup is certainly vastly different to any other series I've played that involved using guns and takes some getting used to but the weakness in it feels somewhat intentional in order to promote stealthy gameplay. The boss fights lend themselves well to showcasing this. Here you don't have much in the way of stealth options so must fall back onto combat. The battles tend to be very interesting and offer some interesting tricks to the combat, such as having to deal with explosives at the same time or taking down an aircraft with missiles.
The item system is set up well. Holding a shoulder button brings up either the item list (L2) or the weapon list (R2). Here you scroll to what you need and release to equip. Pressing these buttons also alternate between fast unequipping and re-equipping the last item you were using. As for finding items, most tend to be scattered around different places, while some supplies can be obtained by shaking down fallen enemies. While you may not expect as such for a stealth game, a little exploration can be rewarded with items you wouldn't get otherwise. Other controls also respond well, letting you control the speed of movement, crawl around or take aim. A few times it does become tricky, like when the game asks you to jump over gaps or when the camera moves as you're pressed up against a wall, but these are thankfully rare.
In addition to the tight level design that compliments the stealth action and giving a few optional areas to explore for goodies, the locations in MGS2 have all sorts of interesting tricks and treats to make playing through them fun. In order to progress you'll have to locate bombs planted around the place, find a way past infra-red tripbeams without setting them off, hang and shimmy across railings to pass by obstacles or finding a way to turn off an electrified floor.
MGS2 delivers a complex engaging storyline that covers all sorts of areas relating to terrorism and deception. The narrative is generally split into two sections, with one part covering the infiltration of a tanker that's carrying a new version of Metal Gear, then the story picks up again two years later as terrorists take over the Big Shell, a facility used to clean up an environmental mess. Saying anything more would spoil things, but suffice to say elements of the story won't seem to fit and then the plot twists appear that start to unravel the details for you. It's definitely worth noting that, while it is possible to enjoy the story without knowing the events of the previous game, you'll be left at a serious disadvantage as watching for and knowing all the key references to MGS is part of the fun. For example, when a certain character appears and speaks to Snake like they're old friends, those new to the series simply won't understand the significance.
While I did enjoy the plot, there are a few issues involved. For one thing, events can get seriously complicated as you progress, to the point where it can become very easy to lose track of what's happening if you're not careful. The bigger problem though is the sheer length of time some of the story sequences can go on for. In places it can get to the point where one can start, you can go make yourself a drink and a snack and it'll still be going by the time you get back. So you do have to be prepared to spend a lot of time absorbing the events as they play out as much as you do actually playing the game.
The visuals do look pretty good. The theme of the areas are similar due to the locations of the tanker and plant and the team have done well to craft that metallic structure feel, such as grated walkways, hatch doors, lockers, railing and windows. Lighting is used to great effect too, with a strong difference between light and dark areas that tie in well with the gameplay. Some of the special effects in place look fantastic too and really show attention to detail. When on the tanker level the outside areas are lashed with rain. When Snake moves indoors he's visibly dripping wet for a little while. That's the kind of care and attention you want to see.
Characters models do the PS2 hardware some justice, giving us a good view of the cast involved. People move around convincingly, especially in aspects like sneaking around or radioing for backup, which is fantastic in sequences like hiding from enemy scout teams as they’ll dash around investigating the area. The HUD is also done well, giving you all the vital intel without cluttering the screen too much.
The music in the game is exceptional. Of particular note is the main theme that plays out during the opening, as well as being cut into a few key scenes during the game. The background music suits the game well too. The vocal tracks used are excellent too, with the voice actors giving enough life to the onscreen characters speaking to give the events a sense of personal involvement. This kind of quality isn’t just restricted to story progression. You can hear the enemy soldiers speaking during their rounds too, like radioing in no problems to command or audibly questioning what that noise was.
Metal Gear Solid 2 is a fine example of a stealth game done right. The careful balance of encouraging sneaky gameplay while not throwing infuriating punishments should the player fail in avoiding detection is what makes it work and helps the player to persevere. That gameplay combined with the package of story, graphics and sounds makes for an excellent game. I do wholeheartedly recommend getting the first game before this, or at least becoming very familiar with the story of MGS, just so the full impact of MGS2 isn't lost on you. Once you've done that, dive in and enjoy the second helping of stealth gaming.
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