Metal Gear Solid 2 Revisited 20 Years Later - VRGyani News and Media

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Sunday, August 8, 2021

Metal Gear Solid 2 Revisited 20 Years Later

A big part of the transition that sent video games from niche fun into artistic expression was Metal Gear Solid. Released in 1998 for the original PlayStation, Metal Gear Solid eradicated almost every stereotype regarding games at the time. Instead of encouraging taking enemies head-on, players were incentivized to avoid any and all conflict, practically creating the stealth genre as we know it and influencing tons of other new IPs—including Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell and Syphon Filter—that would follow come the turn of the millennium.

In the first Metal Gear Solid title, players assume the role of Solid Snake, a super-soldier pulled from retirement to stop a potential nuclear crisis on the fictional Alaskan island Shadow Moses and destroy the latest iteration of a bipedal nuclear weapon known as “Metal Gear.” At the Shadow Moses facility, Snake encounters a wide array of enemies ranging from genetically altered soldiers; an elite special forces unit known as FOXHOUND that's comprised of outcasts who border on the supernatural; and Snake’s clone twin brother, Liquid. While these sound like the ingredients of any late 90s action video game fare, Metal Gear Solid completely subverts any and all expectations by not only exploring deep existential themes like identity and the pains of war, but by placing an emphasis on the story itself. Through its near 12-hour runtime, Metal Gear Solid dedicates nearly 4 hours of it completely to cutscenes, something that was virtually unheard of at the time. While this may seem excessive to some, superb voice acting and interesting twists and turns are good enough to fully immerse the player in this bizarre world, even if they’re only interacting with it 66% of the time.

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Before reading further, we have to warn you that this retrospective will contain spoilers for both the first and second Metal Gear Solid titles. If you haven't yet had a chance to play this incredibly unique and fun titles, we recommend you enjoy them and then come back to engage in some analysis. You have been warned.

Spoilers Ahead

How We Got Here

A full breakdown of Metal Gear Solid’s plot would probably require its own novel, but we’ll try our best to summarize it.

Set in the near-future after a fictionally elongated Cold War, Snake’s journey initially seems simple: stop a group of terrorists who are threatening nuclear annihilation and save a number of VIPs, including DARPA Chief Donald Anderson and ArmsTech president Kenneth Baker. The terrorist group FOXHOUND, who has seized the remote island of Shadow Moses, has demanded the U.S. Government provide them with $1 billion and the remains of ‘Big Boss,’ a legendary soldier who Solid Snake supposedly killed several years prior and of which he and his rival twin Liquid are clones. FOXHOUND’s leverage in this deal happened to be the possession of Metal Gear REX, a bipedal military weapon with nuclear capabilities. But as the mission progresses, Snake begins to discover that this mission isn’t like any other he’s had and proceeds to uncover a string of conspiracies and lies regarding his mission’s purpose and his presence on Shadown Moses island.

Needless to say, Metal Gear Solid was a hit among gamers for its intricate story and engaging gameplay loop. The game was an immediate success, selling millions of copies upon release. MGS was equally acclaimed by critics, with the game receiving perfect, or close-to-perfect scores from almost every major gaming publication at the time. As of the writing of this article, Metal Gear Solid has a 94/100 score on Metacritic and is considered one of, if not the most defining title of the original PlayStation era.

Same Hero, New Story

Following the resounding success of Metal Gear Solid, developers Konami announced the sequel in 2000 before debuting a demo at that year’s E3 convention to much hype and anticipation. Now equipped with shiny new hardware offered by the then-new PlayStation 2 console, early demos of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty showed a huge leap in terms of graphics, animation, and gameplay. With early builds of the game available for public consumption, there was a ton of pressure placed on the shoulders of Konami and director Hideo Kojima to satisfy fans in a follow-up to a game that was already considered a modern classic. After a year’s wait, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was released in November of 2001.

Set four years after the events of the first game, MGS2 takes place in a world where the Shadow Moses incident has gained traction with the mainstream public. Despite being labeled a terrorist by the powers that be, Solid Snake’s exploits have made him a thing of legend in modern society. Now fugitives of the American military industrial complex, Snake and Otacon have since formed the non-profit group Philanthropy, a UN-recognized anti-Metal Gear organization committed to ridding the world of nuclear death machines. Following an anonymous tip regarding the development of a new Metal Gear, codenamed RAY, Snake illegally boards a Marine-controlled ship masquerading as an oil tanker in the New York Harbor with the purpose of acquiring photographic evidence of the machine’s existence. The photos would then be uploaded to the internet and create resistance to new nuclear weaponry being produced.

Unfortunately, Snake and Otacon aren’t the only ones looking for the latest iteration of Metal Gear on this particular night. Just moments after boarding the ship, a group of rogue Russian commandos commandeer the vessel, killing all Marines above deck while seizing control of the ship. To make matters worse, former GRU colonel Sergei Gurlukovich and Revolver Ocelot are the ones behind the sudden hijacking. What was originally meant to be a simple stealth mission to take a few photos has now turned ugly really quick. It is at this point where the game officially begins from a gameplay perspective. As Snake, the player slinks through the multiple levels of the ship that the Russian forces control. Obstacles include many of the tropes seen in the first game with multiple guards, laser-triggered SEMTEX traps, and security cameras.

The first several hours of MGS2 hits all the beats you’d want it to. You’re playing as your favorite action hero in a fresh environment enhanced by the technological advances in the hardware of the PlayStation 2. In the original MGS, 3D environments and character models were still in their infancy when it came to the minute details. But in MGS2, the rainy and dimly lit exterior of the tanker, as well as the tight corridors of its interior, are beautifully crafted and rendered. Even two decades later, the game still holds up from an aesthetic point of view. The introductions of both first-person view and the tranquilizer gun are both welcome additions as it allows the player to better outmaneuver enemy patrols and take them out through non-lethal means if you want make your protagonist a moral force of nature.

Furthermore, the AI is solid. In MGS2, dependent on the difficulty you’ve chosen, enemy sentries patrol each level with gusto and will quickly identify environmental inconsistencies should they be there. Some enemies are responsible for providing status updates to their superiors and, should you take them out, heavily armed reinforcements will arrive to survey the situation. This also applies if you’re spotted, in which case the enemy will quickly engage you before radioing for backup. These improvements in enemy AI double down on the game’s desire to have you approach most situations with a ‘stealth first’ strategy as taking them head-on is extremely risky and will often see you overwhelmed by superior firepower and numbers.

All these neat improvements and additions keep the player heavily invested for the first three to four hours of the game before the most controversial aspect of MGS2 rears its head. After having a firefight with some of Gurlukovich’s men when infiltrating the tanker’s holds and navigating around a whole contingent of unsuspecting Marines—who are completely unaware that the vessel has been hijacked—Snake obtains the photographic evidence of RAY’s existence and sends them to Otacon via a remote uplink. Before Snake can make his escape, Ocelot and Sergei reveal themselves and capture Marine Commandant Scott Dolph. As Sergei iterates his plans for stealing RAY to return Russia to a global superpower, Ocelot reveals that his true plans for RAY is to “return” it to “the Patriots” (referred to as the 'La-Li-Lu-Le-Lo' by Dolph), double-crossing Sergei and his men. Snake attempts to confront Ocelot when the latter begins to twitch and shake. Turns out, Ocelot’s right arm is that of Liquid Snake’s and for some reason, it is being used as a way for Liquid to use Ocelot’s body to do his bidding through mind control. With the strength of RAY, Ocelot scuttles the ship and kills everyone on board. Snake is shown struggling in the water as Otacon frantically calls to him. The screen fades to black.

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The Bait-and-Switch

We pick things up two years later. The tanker that sank has, according to the media, become an environmental hazard, requiring the construction of a water decontamination facility known as the Big Shell about 18 miles off the coast of New York City to clean up the alleged crude oil the tanker left in its wake. The Big Shell has been illegally occupied by a terrorist group known as the ‘Sons of Liberty,’ a collective of Gurlokovich’s nomad military outfit and former U.S. special forces group Dead Cell. It's led by a man claiming to be Solid Snake, who is believed to be dead and has been blamed for the sinking of the tanker two years prior due to his body allegedly being recovered amongst the wreckage in addition to the photos taken of him by the CYPHER. To make matters worse, the Sons of Liberty have 30 hostages, among them the U.S. President James Johnson, and have demanded $30 billion in cash. (Sound familiar?) If their demands are not met, they will kill the hostages and destroy the Big Shell, creating an environmental catastrophe.

To further the misdirection going into this next chapter, Snake has been replaced as the main protagonist by Jack, codenamed ‘Raiden,’ who is about the opposite of the legendary hero in virtually every way: Raiden sports a clean-shaven look and has long blonde hair in stark contrast to Snake’s deep brown beard and signature bandana-clad mullet. Raiden’s voice is nasally and higher pitched as opposed to Snake’s trademark gravely bellow. The suit Raiden wears is skintight compared to Snake’s more breathable tactical getup. Everything that can be different is different. And because of this huge change, many players voiced their frustrations for playing as someone other than their favorite action hero.

To put things into perspective, the protagonist switch from Snake to Raiden and Big Shell chapter of the game was never advertised in any of Konami’s displays of the game leading up to its release. Whether it was trailers or the playable demo, there was never any indication that the player would control anyone else but Solid Snake. In fact, the only chapter that was featured in promotional materials was the tanker section. To this day, the switch from Snake to Raiden remains a source of contention among Metal Gear’s fanbase and has been called everything from misleading to false advertising.

Despite the bait-and-switch, Raiden’s mission in the Big Shell is quite enjoyable in terms of level design and challenges. The Big Shell itself, two hexagonal structures connected end-on-end, provides enough variation regarding design that ranges from connecting bridges abundant in soldiers to individual struts with tight corridors. There is some lack of variety in certain areas, but it delivers for the most part.

Raiden’s arc is also an interesting one. When we first met Snake in MGS, he was already a super-soldier with a legendary rap sheet whereas Raiden is embarking upon his first actual field mission after extensive VR training. This inexperience is a huge factor in Raiden’s mental state deteriorating as the mission and its true intentions are gradually brought to the surface. Raiden is not like Snake where he has a wealth of knowledge to keep him together when the situation is overwhelming. In many ways, Raiden is an extension of the player. Having gone through the VR simulations and retraced Snake’s every step, Raiden views Snake as a legend and aspires to be the soldier he was before his fall from grace in the eyes of the public. But Raiden is not Snake. VR missions are not a replacement for the real thing and cannot prepare you for the horrors of the battlefield, nor can it help you cope with them. Raiden is, in the abstract, a “wannabe”—a product of the Digital Age where things are only seen, not felt.

But beneath the unassuming exterior and inexplicable lack of experience, Raiden’s backstory is where the meat of MGS2’s plot is found. Despite an initial ambiguity in relation to his past beyond the VR training, Raiden is revealed to be a product of war, having served as a child soldier in Liberia during the First Liberian Civil War. Under the tutelage of Solidus Snake (who we’ll get to shortly), Raiden became a feared soldier despite his youthful age, earning nicknames like “The White Devil” and “Jack the Ripper” from the locals. Following the war’s end and him being placed in a private program, Raiden is relocated to the United States and undergoes extensive counseling, causing him to repress the horrifying memories of his youth. It is these repressed fragments of his past that cause a strain between him and his girlfriend, Rosemary.

Fueling Raiden’s confrontation with his past are revelations about his mission on the Big Shell as well as the purpose of the facility itself. As the “tanker” was merely a ruse used by the Marines to go unnoticed while transporting Metal Gear RAY through the New York Harbor, there was never any crude oil on board the ship to begin with. The Big Shell facility is instead a front for the construction of the newest Metal Gear. Unbeknownst to him. Raiden is not an actual member of a reformed FOXHOUND either. Instead, he is an unwitting agent of the Patriots—a secret organization that controls the world’s political affairs—sent to stop the Sons of Liberty from enacting their true plan of reducing their control over the world.

Making a Perfect Villain

Leading the Sons of Liberty is Solidus Snake. Initially assuming the identity of Solid Snake who is thought to be dead (before the real Snake reveals himself and confronts him), Solidus Snake is revealed to be the codename for former U.S. President George Sears, the man responsible for the Shadow Moses incident in MGS1 and the third (and perfect) clone of Big Boss alongside Solid and Liquid. By any standard, Solidus is among one of the most unique and morally ambiguous villains in all of video games. Wishing to free America from the influence of the Patriots, Solidus embarks upon a mission to commandeer Arsenal Gear—the new Metal Gear variant that is being constructed at the Big Shell facility—to rid his country of what he perceives to be tyranny and preserve the free flow of information. This is why he is after Arsenal Gear; this particular Metal Gear incarnation isn't for launching nukes but for the purpose of controlling internet functions to bend to the Patriots' will. Solidus is essentially this universe's Thanos; his intentions are noble and good-natured, but his methods of achieving this are morally flawed and sociopathic.

Among his minions for this mission are the members of Dead Cell, a former special forces unit division of the Navy SEALs that went rogue after their leader died in prison. Much like MGS1’s FOXHOUND unit, Dead Cell’s operatives are highly eccentric with some bordering on the supernatural. Vamp is a ruthless vampire-like beast with a knack for knives. Fortune is a soldier with a death wish that sees bullets harmlessly whiz past her through an apparent magnetic forcefield. And Fatman is a mad bomber obsessed with becoming a legend of explosives. A truly odd bunch indeed.

So, you have a mission that is more than meets the eye. A protagonist who is unknowingly doing the bidding of an unseen other. And a band of weird misfits all possessing what are essentially their own unique “superpowers.” If all of this is starting to sound familiar, that’s because it is.

Towards the end of the game, it is revealed to Raiden that the entire mission is a recreation of the Shadow Moses incident set up by the Patriots to find the perfect successor to Solid Snake known formally as the S3 Plan, or “Solid Snake Simulation” (though this is later revealed to be a misdirect and clarified as being “Selection for Societal Sanity” by a Patriot AI). To put it simply, the entire Big Shell chapter of MGS2 is essentially a rehash of the first game, fueling more controversy. Not only has the player been bait-and-switched in regards to which player they use for a majority of the game's runtime, but they are essentially retreading all of the story beats of MGS1.

To this day, Metal Gear Solid 2 remains a controversial talking point among the series’ fanbase with the unadvertised use of Raiden as the game’s main protagonist, and the similarities to the first game’s plot with only minor deviations being the main sources of contention. But even with those controversies taken into account, MGS2 remains an achievement regarding storytelling in video games due to the way it is presented and structured.

Metal Gear Solid’s overarching plot is quite confusing and can even be construed as convoluted when broken down to the molecular level, but its post-modern panache and dedication to its core themes is where the game succeeds in connecting the player with its world and the colorful characters who inhabit it. Whether you love it or not, MGS2’s influence and boldness have kept it relevant even two decades later and inherently encourages multiple playthroughs due its wild revelations and plot twists. And while it might not be the high point of single-player video game adventures, or even the series as a whole, Metal Gear Solid 2 played just as important a role in redefining the art of making video games after the turn of the millennium as its predecessor did in changing the culture entirely.

KEEP READING: Exclusive: 'Metal Gear Solid' Director Teases His Vision for the "First Great Video Game Movie"



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