Review by beaker342

Reviewed: 01/29/04

Metal Gear Solid 2: Style over Substance


Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance is the Xbox port of Metal Gear Solid 2, the highly anticipated and massively hyped sequel to the original Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation. In addition to the original campaign, the Xbox version includes hundreds of bonus missions and the inexplicable addition of a skateboarding minigame.

I owned the original Metal Gear Solid and had a blast. In many ways, Metal Gear Solid felt like what a James Bond videogame might have been be had not all James Bond videogames been pure shooters. The player was sent to infiltrate a secret government complex against impossible odds on a mission to save the world. These types of plots make good action movies and also make good action videogames.

However, Metal Gear Solid was not without its flaws. First among these was sometimes quirky gameplay. Control was frustrating when crawling and when engaged in intense firefights. The camera angle was also frustrating at times. The game’s top-down camera angle did not always offer a view of what needed to be seen. Shooting enemies from afar was near impossible. Worse yet, enemies sometimes shot from off screen. Sneaking past guards or security cameras was also cumbersome, as it necessitated lightning-quick transitions from first to third person. The second flaw in the original game was its story. For a game with a realistic setting and hyper-realistic gameplay, the inclusion of super villains with super powers seemed out of place. At times, Metal Gear Solid seemed more like X-Men than a James Bond. Though not necessarily bad, I would have preferred a more realistic plot.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance stumbles along many of these same lines and makes many of them much more severely.

Gameplay: 7

Metal Gear Solid 2 controls almost identically to the original Metal Gear Solid. The controls are generally tight and responsive and seem to have translated well to the Xbox controller. But like the original, the game’s controls bog down during heated firefights, especially when aiming and throwing grenades.

Metal Gear Solid 2 also suffers from the same camera angle problems that plagued the original Metal Gear Solid. To combat this, the developers have included an optional first-person shooting mode. However, the utility of this is seriously hampered by the inability to move while aiming. Other stealth-action games such as Splinter Cell have opted for an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective, and with much more success. In this view, the player can take in his or her surroundings while still sneaking in and out of the shadows.

Sadly, there is not much sneaking in this game. Throughout the game, stealth remains an underdeveloped device, and running and gunning is usually just as viable an option. When pursuing the stealth strategy, guards on alert will always know where to look for you, even when hiding in one of the cardboard boxes that have become signature for the series. But even more inexplicably, the player can cancel alerts by simply moving to the next room. The guards on level 2 of a complex will be oblivious to the fact that the player just killed a dozen guards in a firefight on level 3.

Level design is satisfying but never rises to the level ingenuity. One particularly good moment comes when the player dons a disguise in order to get into contact with a group of prisoners. But these moments are too few and far between. Perhaps the most glaring blemish is the close relation of the level design to the original Metal Gear Solid. Prepare to encounter battles with helicopters and giant robots eerily reminiscent of the original. Though the game later attempts to explain these similarities away, one cannot help but think the developers were just lazy.

Story: 3

Here is where the game falls apart. Like the original Metal Gear Solid, the game’s story is one part James Bond and one part X-Men. But where Metal Gear Solid’s story was only absurd, Metal Gear Solid 2’s story is both absurd and amateurish.

Videogames have always had amateurish plots: rescue the princess, save the president from ninjas, etc...and these amateurish stories are not necessarily problematic as long as they do not figure largely in the game and do not take themselves too seriously. But in Metal Gear Solid 2, the story takes front and center stage and takes itself very seriously.

A great level of criticism has been levied against Metal Gear Solid 2 for its imbalance of story and gameplay. These criticisms have some merit, for there are several scenes of dialogue in the game that last more than ten minutes and in which the player has no input. Other games have managed to tell their stories far more effectively. There is a brilliant level in Hitman 2 where the player discovers that he has been double-crossed. But the player makes this discovery not through any dialogues or cutscenes, but through regular gameplay and exploration. As videogames become more like movies, they should aspire to this standard. Videogames too often forget the first rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell.

But I am not certain I would have been so frustrated by these elements had the story been better. The story contains no compelling characters. Each plot twist is explained and analyzed in excruciating detail, leaving nothing for the player to interpret. The plot also doubles back on itself over and over again with what must have been a dozen betrayals. The producers of this game have confused double-crosses with depth and the obscurity of these double-crosses with cleverness. And like Star Wars and the Matrix, it seems too wrapped up in its own mythology to bother telling us an interesting story.

Graphics/Sound: 10

Upon its release on Playstation 2, Metal Gear Solid 2 received accolades for its graphics, which pushed the capabilities of that system to their limits. The game’s graphics are no less amazing on the Xbox, even when compared to current Xbox-exclusive titles. The first stage's rain effects are particularly impressive.

Metal Gear Solid 2 also boasts a Hollywood-quality score and hours upon hours of competent voice work. If for nothing more, the game’s voice actors deserve credit for reading such absurd dialogue with enthusiasm. The only glaring omission here is the lack of voice work in the game’s bonus levels.

Replayability: 6

A gamer of above-average skill will be able to finish Metal Gear Solid 2’s primary campaign in only a few days’ time. Once finished, the game offers little reason to be replayed. Sometimes, I find myself replaying a game to retry a specific level in order to try a different strategy or relive a particularly memorable moment. I sometimes also replay games to reexamine their plots. Metal Gear Solid 2 offered few memorable gameplay experiences. And since each twist in the plot is explained in excruciating detail the first time around, the game's story gives little reason for reexamination. This is a particularly grave sin considering story-driven nature of the game. The inclusion of hundreds of additional VR missions, which focus more on stealth and gameplay and less on story, are Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance’s only saving grace.

Conclusion: 6

Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, despite its name, is an exercise style over substance. The game features an intriguing concept, breathtaking visuals, and cinematic scores, but offers an ultimately hollow experience. If looking for a better stealth experience, try Splinter Cell or Hitman 2. If seeking a good story, read a book or watch a movie.

Rating:   3.0 - Fair

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