The culprit: Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, as part of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection)
Every series has its black sheep: the game that either fell short of the established quality mark, or tried to do something different, but didn’t quite succeed. In the Metal Gear Solid series, the title of black sheep usually goes to the second opus, Sons of Liberty. And I would tend to agree. Compared to its predecessor, things just don’t quite gel together. Even in the fanservice department. Considering the game is designed for an overwhelmingly male audience and is part of a series now famous for its mild naughtiness, there’s really not a lot of it. No Meryls or Sniper Wolves here, gentlemen. You have manly Olga and her armpits (way to give Russian women a bad rap, thanks!), just-as-manly Fortune, who looks like she just came out of a Pro Wrestling ring, Emma (Otacon’s half-sister), straight from ‘nerdy-14-year-old-stalker’ land and Rose, who’s in a whole league of her own, and not in a good way. On top of that, there’s a rather lengthy section involving Raiden (a.k.a. Jack) running around buck naked. It’s a refreshing change of pace from scantily clad ladies, but I’m curious: which part of the player base was this aimed at?
The storyline is intentionally designed as a sort of rehash of the first game, which distinctly impairs its impact. But the reason it provides for said rehash opens a whole other can of worms. Kojima’s (N.B. Hideo Kojima, the mastermind behind the series) intention may have been to deliver a deep philosophical message about the increasingly virtual nature of our society, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one going “what…the…hell…” during that–oh…1hr long?–final cutscene. And yes, the cinematic overload the series is now notorious for is beginning to be apparent here. It’s still the same kind of epic nonsense as in the first game, but it somehow got turned up to 11 (cue obscure film reference). Especially the ‘radio breakdown’ episode. And naming the various rooms of the final area of the game after the stages of the digestive tract (culminating in “Arsenal: Rectum”) might have been a liiiittle bit too much. The aim was to give the player the sense of having been swallowed by a malevolent entity. Well, it certainly worked! It also seems like there was a lot more American patriotism going on this time around, which, I must say, feels very strange in a Japanese game.
The game is split into two uneven parts featuring two different protagonists. I didn’t mind it, but it certainly caused an uproar when the game came out. Snake, who is the face of the MGS series, now has to share the bill with a newcomer called Raiden. A younger, more impulsive, more emotional, more talkative, blonder and ninja’er newcomer. It’s like a clash of the stereotypes: the rough, grizzled Action Man vs the acrobatic, pretty (but so very pretty…) anime hero. In fact, he’s so pretty that one male character mistakes him for a woman, despite the fact that he’s wearing a skin-tight bodysuit, then proceeds to grope him (…). To make matters worse, Raiden starts his section of the game being briefly codenamed Snake, just to cement that “hey guys, I’m crashing this party!” feeling. Certainly not the best way to win support. But you know what? Despite having been warned multiple times about him…I actually liked him. Shocking, I know. He was a nice change of pace from Snake’s “I don’t have time for this crap” attitude, especially since the structure of the game allowed for a direct comparison between the two. I’ve heard him described as whiny. Well, I’d certainly whine for a lot less. Yes, Snake also has his share of baggage and bears it quietly, but I don’t mind that Raiden is more open about his issues. Not that “open” is quite the proper term. I’m pretty sure he would’ve dwelt on them a lot less if not for his girlfriend, Rose.
Oh. Dear. God. Rose. “Jack, what day is it tomorrow?” “Jack, you seem upset.” “Jack, you’re in the middle of a dangerous mission, you could die at any moment, and I shouldn’t bother you, but…do you really care about me? Do you? Do you really? Because I don’t think you do. In fact, I think that you’re scared, and you don’t let me in, and your room is empty, and I bet you enjoyed rescuing Emma, you pervert, and…” *gets shot* I have rarely encountered a character that annoyed me to this extent. Raiden deserves a damn medal simply for putting up with her. And before you ask, yes, “Jack and Rose” was intentional.
Moving right on, due to the game’s insistence on rehashing its predecessor, much of the villain cast feels like a pale ersatz. There’s a Grey Fox stand-in and the Foxhound-wannabe Dead Cell. It’s a little difficult to take someone seriously when they’re riding around on rollerskates in a bombsuit while drinking wine from a straw (heresy!). That’s Fatman, and although the battle against him definitely qualifies as annoying, he’s no Vulcan Raven. Secondly, where Sniper Wolf scored a winning combination of cleavage, stealth and shadiness, Fortune wears a swimsuit (this isn’t a JRPG!), and flaunts those glistening man-thighs and that enormous railgun. Not to mention that her unique…condition all but nullifies the point of her boss battle. The only one that manages to equal his predecessor is Vamp, who, despite sharing Fortune’s condition, is just as disturbing as Psycho Mantis (if not more, due to the lack of fourth-wall-breaking tendencies) and certainly just as nefarious. To top it all off, you have Solidus Snake, who gives off a distinct Doc Ock vibe, but is otherwise a sorry excuse for a villain.
This isn’t to say that the entire cast is bad. Other than Snake, Otacon also makes a comeback, providing some thoroughly random hilarity in the first part of the game by trying to imitate Mei Ling and a rather heartbreaking episode in the second one. All of that, thankfully, sans pant-wetting. In the villain department, fan-favourite Revolver Ocelot also reappears, albeit with a somewhat disturbing twist.
To round things off, a few words about combat. It’s almost identical to The Twin Snakes, but for some reason, I had a lot less trouble with the controls this time around. Maybe because the PS2 controller is more ergonomic. Or maybe I simply got used to them. In any case, for anybody who’s only played the original Metal Gear Solid, it’s a significant improvement. You still get a codename based on your performance upon completing the game, alongside a pin code made up entirely of letters. This was originally intended to be entered on a special website to get the statistical breakdown for your playthrough. However, it’s no longer available, due to the age of the game. I must also say that collecting dog tags is now noticeably more difficult. There are quite a few tricky ones, even on Normal mode, and one memorably hair-tearing instance at the end of the first part of the game, where there’s a whole military meeting going on. The final series of battles is also particularly nasty this time around. Having to fight through roomfuls of guards before finally facing the big bad has a tendency to deplete rations. This resulted in my restarting several times to get the hang of the Metal Gear RAYs (yes, that’s a plural). Not to mention the ensuing smackdown against Solidus. There are a lot of things he is not, but “goddamn annoying” certainly applies as much to him as it did to Liquid, if not more. Let me also say just how much I hate the HF Blade, which is mandatory for that battle. Who thought that controlling a katana with a joystick was a good idea? Doesn’t help that you obtain it right before the final series of battles, meaning that you don’t have time to properly get used to it, short of running around slicing at thin air.
To make a long story short, this is still MGS alright, even if not in top shape, so if you enjoyed the first game, you might as well keep going. It only gets better, and if you want to understand what’s going on in MGS4, playing this one is pretty much a requirement. Not a bad game by any means, but certainly not the best the series has to offer.
Sons of Liberty was remade as Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance two years after its initial release, but apart from some minor graphic upgrades and a lot of optional stuff, such as Virtual Training combat simulations, a skateboarding mini-game (of all things) or the Snake Tales–which essentially gave people who really hated Raiden the ability to replay some of his sequences as Snake–the core game is the same as the original. In other words, if you already have the original, no point in shelling out more money. This version is also the one included in the recently-released Metal Gear Solid HD Collection.