It's hard to believe Metal Gear Solid 2 is finally here. And though fans' expectations for this sequel have been set almost impossibly high, both fans and sceptics alike will now discover that Metal Gear Solid 2 indeed lives up to its promises. It's an undeniably impressive game that's just as unforgettable as the original, and it's longer too. Perhaps best of all, Metal Gear Solid 2 stays true to its roots. Though you'll undoubtedly get swept up in the game's plot and be dazzled by its cinematics, it's the incredible story and the tense, enjoyable action at the heart of Metal Gear Solid 2 that make it so extraordinary.
Then again, Metal Gear Solid 2's story is what drives the action along, and it's such a major portion of the game that it demands to be addressed even before the gameplay itself. If you've played Metal Gear Solid, then you'll vaguely know what to expect from the story of the sequel--"vaguely," because you'll know nothing more than the fact that you're in for a real roller-coaster ride. Even some of the most minor points of the game's convoluted plot are entertaining and interesting.
This review will not disclose any specific plot points, since you'll enjoy the game so much more if you experience it all firsthand. As such, if you take just one thing away from this review, then it should be this: Do not let anyone reveal the plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 to you, whether intentionally or inadvertently, before you play the game yourself. In fact, you'd even be better off not reading the manual that comes packaged with the game, as it includes more information than you'd probably like. You'll learn how to play the game in context anyway. If you do happen to hear something about the story, don't worry. Even if someone told you what The Matrix was really about, that still wouldn't replace the experience of watching the movie. It's a similar case with Metal Gear Solid 2, a game that can't suitably be described in words, even if its plot twists can.
It's safe to discuss Metal Gear Solid 2's story on some levels. For instance, it's safe to say that it gets at least as much attention as the story of its predecessor did. This means you should expect to watch Metal Gear Solid 2 almost as much as you actually play it. Lengthy cinematic sequences and extensive dialogue are common throughout the game. The abundance of noninteractive sequences opens up Metal Gear Solid 2 to justifiable criticism--games are made for playing, not for watching, right? If you want to just stare at a screen, then turn on the TV or go to the movies. But Metal Gear Solid 2 is an exception. It's worth watching more than most anything that's in theaters or on TV. It's a great game, too, but make no mistake--a noninteractive story, a very good one, makes up a significant percentage of the game's overall length.
As you're playing, you'll discover soon enough why it's best not to discuss the plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 with anyone who hasn't played it yet--so they may enjoy it as much as you. But like with anything exciting, you'll yearn to talk about it with someone who's also shared in the experience. You'll probably compare the plot with that of the original Metal Gear Solid. You'll debate over which game had the better story. You'll draw comparisons between the games' somewhat overstated political agendas--much like Metal Gear Solid, the sequel can get preachy and is maybe even somewhat hypocritical in some of its underlying themes about nonviolence and environmental awareness. You'll compare the great cast of characters of the first Metal Gear Solid with that of the new game. You'll wonder what Kojima will do next.
It's more than likely that lot of people who never played the original Metal Gear Solid will play the sequel, even though the original was successful. Since the plot of the sequel ties in with the first game, these people may find themselves confused by some of the references. Metal Gear Solid 2 does include a brief rundown of the events that transpired in the previous game, but it's best to actually play through the original prior to playing the sequel. On the other hand, if by chance you've never played Metal Gear Solid, then the surprises in Metal Gear Solid 2 will be even more pronounced since you'll be unfamiliar with what Hideo Kojima is capable of in his storytelling.
Technically, the story sequences in Metal Gear Solid 2 are slick and stylish, far more so than what you'd typically find in other games. The fully 3D cinematics are rendered on the fly just like the rest of the game, making these scenes blend in seamlessly with the actual gameplay. The story sequences are often very dramatic, and they're directed with a flair that's comparable to that of Hollywood's--and Hong Kong's--greatest action movies. The characters are very expressive for the most part, thanks to the painstakingly detailed 3D models and the motion-captured animations. Sometimes, the characters' faces don't exactly convey the emotions they're supposed to be feeling--that these are rare exceptions speaks highly of the artists' work in capturing a real sense of humanity (or at least personality) in the excellent cast of Metal Gear Solid 2.
It's worth pointing out that much of the story is revealed through dialogue over the codec, a high-tech transmission system some of the characters use. The action is paused when the codec screen comes up--you'll sometimes take calls right in the middle of a battle--and the codec screen itself is just a green-tinted, mostly static display featuring the faces of the two characters talking. Needless to say, then, that codec conversations aren't as interesting to watch as the cutscenes are. Still, the strength of the story makes the codec scenes engaging, even if they can be long-winded and a bit too frequent at times. The best part about the codec is that, as in Metal Gear Solid, it doubles as a thoughtfully integrated in-game hint system. At virtually any time, you'll be able to contact your allies for advice in the context of any situation. You'll first get general suggestions on how to proceed, but if you get really stuck, then repeated calls will eventually yield more-specific tips.
Though the game is optionally subtitled, every line of dialogue is spoken out loud, as in the original Metal Gear Solid. The speech is of similarly good quality in the sequel, partly because all the voice actors for the returning characters reprised their roles, including X-Men screenwriter David Hayter as Solid Snake. As in Metal Gear Solid, the voice-overs don't always sound natural. The speech of some of the characters, including Snake, is exaggerated, and though the dialogue mostly flows smoothly, it still sounds scripted. Even so, the over-the-top voice acting justly fits the game's over-the-top characters, and the dialogue itself survived the translation from Japanese intact. The game ends up having the feel of a good graphic novel. It may not seem completely serious, but it takes itself seriously, though with a few clever in-jokes thrown in for good measure.
While some won't be completely satisfied with all the voices, it's hard to imagine anyone not being smitten with Metal Gear Solid 2's soundtrack, which was written by experienced Hollywood composer Harry Gregson-Williams. Some of this dramatic score has already been etched into the memories of fans who have watched Konami's various teaser trailers in anticipation of the game. The rest of it is just as remarkable, and it serves to magnify the epic feel of the plot. What's particularly great about it is that the music is situational and changes with the action. As you're sneaking through enemy territory, the soundtrack is deliberate. If you're caught, it deftly transitions to a fast-paced theme that will make you want to keep running just as much as the swarms of gun-toting guards on your tail will. Music is used to excellent effect during the cinematic sequences, too.
Metal Gear Solid 2's soundtrack will likely stick with you long after you've finished the game, and the rest of the sound effects are equally good. From the deafening gunfire, to the distinct tones of footsteps on different surfaces, to the game's wide variety of ambient effects such as seagulls squawking and torrential rain pouring down, Metal Gear Solid 2 sounds fantastic. The game even supports Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in a few key cinematic sequences.
The core gameplay of Metal Gear Solid 2 is similar to that of its predecessor, though with a few additional complexities that make it even more interesting. Unlike the game's story, most of its gameplay elements were revealed some time ago when a playable demo of Metal Gear Solid 2 shipped with Konami's Zone of the Enders. If you played that demo or the original Metal Gear Solid, then you know that the object is to stay hidden whenever possible, as you've infiltrated an enemy compound and are facing superior odds. Circumventing the opposition is difficult but not impossible thanks to a great variety of moves at your disposal: You can flatten a guard with a quick martial arts combo, crawl while prone, peek around corners, and even perform an acrobatic leap to make a quick getaway. More-complex moves, like hanging from railings, shaking down fallen guards for their items and dragging their bodies out of sight, and sticking guards up with a gun to their backs, are also possible. And, of course, you can run around while hidden beneath a cardboard box, if you happen to find one. No matter what you're doing, the controls are smooth and responsive, and the character animation looks consistently outstanding.
Besides the cardboard box, you'll have various other gadgets at your disposal. The most important of these are a radar display that shows enemy guards in your vicinity and your highly advanced sneaking suit, which protects you from injury and makes you all but silent, though not invisible. Many of the other devices, such as thermal goggles and a mine detector, will be familiar if you've played previous Metal Gear games, and they're still fun to use. But your wits are what will get you past guards, security cameras, and more. Darting from cover to cover can get you through some areas, but at other times, you'll have to take out guards without them noticing you. The guards are all rather nearsighted--you can see their field of vision represented by a cone on your radar display, and it stretches only to about 30 feet. On the other hand, this is more than enough for them to spot you within the game's generally confined environments, and besides, you can't always depend on your radar to indicate whether enemy forces are nearby or if you're within visual range. That's because, in most areas, your radar will initially be disabled until you find a computer terminal and establish an uplink. Metal Gear Solid players should appreciate this catch, as they'll realize the always-useful radar can't be taken for granted.
You're bound to be spotted by a guard sooner or later. He'll likely take a few potshots, duck for cover, and radio in for reinforcements. The alarm will sound, your radar will go offline in the commotion, and heavily armed sentries will pour in. Unless you manage to find a place to hide, you'll likely succumb to these aggressive forces, which use surprisingly devious tactics to flush you out and take you down. If you die, you can usually continue play from the point at which you entered the immediate area, which keeps the game from getting frustrating, even when the going gets tough.
You'll start out with a modified single-shot M9 pistol that uses tranquilizing rounds. It can knock your foes unconscious, but the drugs won't work instantly unless you score a hit in the head area. Doing so requires the use of the first-person view, which you can switch to instantly by pressing and holding the R1 button. Here, you can take precise aim at your foes using any of your weapons, and this is probably the biggest gameplay difference between Metal Gear Solid 2 and the original, where you could look around from a first-person view, but couldn't fire, except with certain weapons. In the sequel, you'll find yourself always shooting from the first-person view, since it's tactically advantageous to do so. The constant switching from the third-person view to the first-person view takes getting used to, though the game integrates some tutorial lessons to get you up to speed. Actually, the fact that the first-person mode is used so often in Metal Gear Solid 2 may make you wonder why the game can't be played exclusively from that perspective. As it is, like in Metal Gear Solid, you can rotate and look up and down in first-person mode, but you can't move.
The original Metal Gear Solid was sometimes criticized for the implausible behavior of its guards. If they spotted you, they'd rush at you mindlessly, and while killing them was easy enough, all you really had to do was stay out of sight for less than a minute and then they'd go back to their business as though nothing happened. They're more believable in the sequel--guards will hunt for you for a much longer period of time than in the previous game, so the alarm is a bigger problem than before. What's great is that, since guards have to radio in to raise the alarm, you'll actually have a moment to react if you're spotted. Most notably, a well-placed shot can disable a guard's radio, preventing the general alarm. But in a devious new twist, in many areas, even if you take out all the guards undetected, reinforcements will eventually show up to investigate why contact was lost with the others. This will make you think very carefully about whether you wouldn't be better off just trying to sneak by.
All this isn't to say that Metal Gear Solid 2 is perfectly realistic. For instance, rooms respawn with guard patrols when you later revisit them. Metal Gear Solid 2 keeps the realism mostly superficial--it's still got a lot of traditional gameplay elements under the hood, such as rations you can eat to instantly replenish your health. Things like this keep the game fun and should be a nostalgic treat for fans of the series.
Rations notwithstanding, Konami's preview trailers promised that the world of Metal Gear Solid 2 would be very lifelike and interactive, and it is. Shooting various things in the environment produces appropriate results. Mirrors and bottles shatter, crates and furniture break, and bags of flour and fire extinguishers burst--sometimes revealing infrared tripwires as their powderlike contents waft through the air. Other such details abound. You tiptoe over the bodies of knocked-out guards. Tiny bugs can be seen buzzing next to light sources. The rain and underwater effects look strikingly realistic, and they are perhaps the best of their kind in any game to date. When you're shot, gouts of crimson blood splash onto the nearby walls and floors, sometimes even onto enemy guards' bulletproof riot shields--a grisly effect, though the fainthearted can toggle off the game's gore. Despite all this, the game always runs at a perfectly smooth frame rate.
In contrast to the staggering variety of detail in the other aspects of the game, most of the actual environments in which Metal Gear Solid 2 takes place are homogeneous--the industrial settings are brought to life because of the game's fantastic graphics, but at the end of the day, they're still industrial settings, all reinforced steel and sharp angles. You'll nevertheless enjoy exploring them, if only because you'll know full well that while the game's locations may appear mundane, there's much more to them than meets the eye.
Of course, like its predecessor, Metal Gear Solid 2 isn't all about stealth. There are a number of interesting, inventive gameplay sequences that break up the more usual action. Some of these require logical thinking or good observation skills. At one point, you need to figure out how to get through a high-security door that won't open without a retinal scan by an authorized individual. At another, you need to provide long-range cover fire for a friend attempting to breach an enemy perimeter alone and unarmed. A few sequences aren't as good as the majority--for example, at one point you need to make a series of death-defying leaps, but the awkward perspective of the scene makes it very difficult to do so. On the other hand, you'll relish every showdown with the game's various villains. Here, you'll need quick thinking and reflexes to survive. Metal Gear Solid was praised for its spectacular battles with boss characters, and the sequel's drawn-out, exhilarating boss battles are just as great.
The original Metal Gear Solid was relatively short, especially if you skipped the cinematics. Happily, the sequel is longer and should take you from 15 to 20 hours to finish the first time through--assuming you watch all the story sequences, which of course you should. Still, as with its predecessor, Metal Gear Solid 2's focus on its story means it's a mostly linear game that doesn't really lend itself to lots of replay value. But the painstaking level of detail found in the game's graphics does extend to the gameplay, meaning there will be a good deal for you to do and explore once you've already finished the game. For instance, though your best bet is to stay hidden at all times, you'll also collect a small arsenal of real-world weapons over the course of the game, with which you could just as easily take a more violent, more direct approach. Or, starting with your trusty M9, you could optionally try to go through the entire game without actually killing anyone. Even bosses can be defeated using nonlethal weapons, though the outcome of the encounters will still be the same.
The game is loaded with little secrets, and the higher difficulty settings, together with the option to completely disable the all-important radar, make Metal Gear Solid 2 much more challenging. The gameplay itself is therefore fairly open-ended, which makes for more replay value than you might expect. It's true that you could finish Metal Gear Solid 2 in a dedicated weekend. But it's also true that you'll undoubtedly want to revisit it multiple times, if not to show it off to others, then just to keep on playing it and discovering new details you hadn't noticed before, both in the game and in the story.
It boils down to this: You need to play Metal Gear Solid 2. All the attention it has received leading up to its release was fully justified. All its popularity after its release will be completely warranted. Metal Gear Solid 2 isn't the perfect game for everyone. It has scenes of graphic violence. Its plot is dense and not always focused or easy to follow. And, it's true, the game could have been longer. Some naysayers will complain that Metal Gear Solid 2 is all style and no substance, under the false assumption that the game's great cinematics mean the gameplay itself was compromised. Others will claim that this and all the other positive reviews of the game are merely the result of fans buying into their own hype or giving in to peer pressure. Such arguments are predictable enough--not everyone likes to go with the popular opinion. Yet for all the many concrete reasons already described, popular opinion will ensure that Metal Gear Solid 2 will be remembered not just as a great sequel, but as a defining accomplishment in the history of gaming. Though that's beside the point--you don't need to play Metal Gear Solid 2 just because everyone else will. You need to play it because it stands a good chance of becoming one of your all-time favorite games.