My column here at Retroware focuses on stories in video games. One of my favorite parts of playing a game is getting to know the characters, investing myself in their plights, and sitting on the edge of my seat because of an exceptionally engrossing plotline. Sometimes, however, the gameplay far outweighs the plot. This makes me sad, especially when the preceding game set a huge standard of excellence. Metal Gear Solid 2: The Sons of Liberty was one of these games, and it broke my heart.
I wasn’t a Metal Gear fan growing up. As a Nintendo fan in North America, my Metal Gear experience was limited to Metal Gear on the NES, the inferior port of the much better MSX2 game. I also didn’t play Snake’s Revenge, the Western only sequel to the NES Metal Gear, until I was much older. My first memorable experience was with Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation. My uncle got it for Christmas the year it was released and was eager to show me the game. I watched him play through more than half the game before I went and picked it up for myself.
Metal Gear Solid was amazing. This was the best voice acting I’d heard in a video game ever. Nothing even came close. This was just about as close to a great action movie as any game had ever come. Solid Snake was the epitome of an action hero. The supporting cast was just as great. Everone had so much personality and the lore built within the game went way deeper than it had any right to. I was sucked into this universe without any resistance. I’m not a huge fan of the military genre, or even stories set in modern times, but this game had me.
When Metal Gear Solid 2 was announced, I was too excited to wait. I ate up all the promotional materials, played the demo disk found in Zone of the Enders more than a few times. I was ready to take another awesome adventure with Snake and his friends. But it just wasn’t meant to be. As much of a disappointment the reveal of the wimpy man child Raiden was, that wasn’t what killed the experience of The Sons of Liberty. It was the way the story was presented to the player.
From the onset, the game relied way too heavily on the codec. In the original Metal Gear Solid, the codec conversations were a performance of excellent voice acting and script writing. In the sequel the conversations lasted well past their welcome, with characters droning on and on about themes and subplots, or just coming off as genuinely annoying.
Raiden, Solid Snake’s replacement, sneaks through his first mission with a wide eyed wonder that you would come to expect from a kid rather than a capable secret agent. At the beginning, he is unconvincingly cocky about his virtual reality training. Later in the game, his insecurity about the mission and his superiors come off as whining in contrast to Solid Snake’s genuine urgent concern in the predecessor game. Rose, Raiden’s data analyst and girlfriend, just seems incredibly out of place for a top secret sneaking mission. Sure, this is a Hideo Kojima extravaganza, where the over-the-top stories are part of the appeal, but it just doesn’t work here.
Whenever situations are presented to the player, the writers went about telling rather than showing. This means that instead of giving the player more exciting and compelling action to portray story, character just engage in conversation. Everyone just talks an awful lot. It’s not especially interesting, either. More often than not, I find myself skipping through the longer conversation to get back to the action of the game. Kojima and his writers seem to want to really drive home the fact that technology will eventually completely change everyday life. A certain conversation near the end of the game really drives this home, through the front door, and out the back door into the back yard, then flips the car several times before coming to a complete stop on the roof.
Conversations will start when they really aren’t necessary. Sometimes these are disguised as training or tutorials. Great voice acting doesn’t save this. I’m not interested in a five minute explanation on how to hang from the side of a catwalk to get around enemies. Show me through gameplay somehow, don’t force a jarring gameplay interruption in the form of a codec conversation. This happens far too frequently. The stealth action is greatly improved in this entry from it’s predecessor. The camera works better. Your character controls more responsively and realistically. There are a lot more incredibly fun actions that weren’t present in the original. It’s a really fun game to play, but the frequent and long interruptions really take away from the entire experience.
This isn’t to say that the story of Metal Gear Solid 2 is completely without redeeming qualities. On the contrary, there are a lot of really interesting things going on. Solid Snake’s relationship with Otacon is emotional and a very welcome sight after seeing how cold Snake was in the first game. Character development! Fortune’s entire subplot was very interesting. It makes me want to know more about her and her backstory. And who doesn’t want to know what happens to Olga’s kid, Sonny, between Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 4?
All in all, the experience of Metal Gear Solid 2 is largely tarnished by the poor implementation of the story. Most of the time the first reaction from video game fans about Metal Gear Solid 2 is that it’s more of a movie than a game, with the lengthy cutscenes and codec conversations. It’s not an undeserved criticism, either. It’s a good thing we got a great followup in Metal Gear Solid 3. It’s just too bad that Konami and Kojima couldn’t strike a great balance between story and gameplay in the games to follow, because the series is now limited to Japanese gambling machines. Goodbye, Snake.