Metal Gear Solid 2 - Retroperspective
If Metal Gear Solid on the PS1 was a watershed moment for video games growing up and Hideo becoming the video game icon we know him as today, then with its sequel on new hardware he not only secured that but Cemented his place in history and built a park on it with a ground breaking game in every sense of the word.
Not only was MGS2 one of the reasons E3 is now so exciting with first glimpses of new games, but it also gave us the first ever public “beta” of a game in a then bundled Demo disc with Zone Of Enders. But what was achieved from Kojima and his team was nothing short of industry leading and astonishing, take any recent demo from the likes of Naughty Dog, Sony Santa Monica, Microsoft with Gears of War or even the joy from The Last guardian AND Shenmue 3 being a reality. Crunch them together and you get the idea of how big an impact the game made at its debut and eventual release, I do not exaggerate here in saying this game was an absolute technical, masterful and mechanical masterpiece but I will delve into that later. The only other game that comes close was Half Life 2 in its level of impact IMOP.
The game is set 2 years after the events of MGS1 and the events of Shadow Moses, Snake is now a rogue philanthropist working with Otacon in the Philanthropy organisation, when you are creating a discreet underground division clever naming is low on the to do list. Trying to confirm if another Metal Gear is in the making, he infiltrates a Marine vessel On the Manhattan river that they have information is carrying said mechanical marvel. This tanker level was the complete showing of the E3 trailer and most of its content available within the Demo (most likely the most purchased Demo in history) and gets Snake back into his Sneaking suit and in action, with heavy rain to boot. Throughout this mission we are slowly introduced to the brand new game mechanics within the game that are so vast and in-depth that when this was played for the first time mouths spent much time touching the floor.
This early Tutorial gets you set for the meat of the game which happens a further 2 years later (2009) with another mission needing some more stealthy action aboard Big Shell, A huge Oil refinery of the coast of New York. Being taken hostage by a group known as the sons of the Liberty which manages to confuse even further by a double jeopardy situation involving an deeper government conspiracy with the group known only as the Patriots. The liberty gang have kidnapped all on-board including a visiting president of the United States ( escape from New York reference number 157). Unless the ransom demands are met all will die in an orchestrated terrorist plan evolving death and environment disarray (a theme of the time and game's underpin culture).
But the biggest shock was not the story but the hero, with Kojima trolling the gaming world again ahead of any others whilst also using one of the second games messages of social development of people, effectively social engineering. He used bait and switch right up to launch with everyone thinking that you again played as snake, instead we where introduced to Raiden, designed to be more appealing to women and more of a low key less stereo type gruff voiced anti-hero as snake. This ,as you can imagine ,came with much division on opinion and creating 2 camps of team Raiden or team snake, this was such a large issue that in the subsequent Substance release that also hit the original Xbox later added in some Snake tales missions where you could play on-board missions as snake in parallel with the original Raiden tale.
But aside the change of hero the training and upgrades the game and engine delivered are identical. Raiden is more acrobatic than snake so melee was more fancy with wheel kicks, and crescent kicks ahoy. The roll was replaced with a fancy cartwheel but also hair was lavished with the Loreal treatment!.
But the vastly expanded move set from the tanker was all present and correct here, sneaking, climbing, shooting. First person aiming and the verticality of levels was improved with the new hanging skill. Giving you a stamina bar and further evasive options but with a finite span to heighten the tension. It really was a gargantuan leap over the previous game and all others.
Guards could be held up at gun point, pointing the gun at them caused fear and a giveaway jiggle of possible freebies, this could also be achieved by manipulating deceased or incapacitated guards also. This element of surprise coincided with sneaking up at corners, peering round cover and linking together for a seamless action of pop and shoot. This AI routine even had the guard drop out or evade your hold up if you clicked an empty gun at them. The environment was also all woven into this, from the tanker mission coming in from outside rain, caused the camera to fog from condensation, wet footprints could lead guards to your new hiding ability, which even allowed dispatched guards to be hidden.
You could even catch a sniffle with your sneeze bringing your hide and seek to a close. But the huge leap was how enemies worked in co-ordinated style, using coms and clearing military procedure, a fully equipped army expert was used for all Mo-cap animation and methods adding even more to its authenticity.No element was missed, pressing the lean button to hard could even cause a bang that would spell trouble for you.
Being caught in a full clear mode had the soliton radar change to a fixed camera showing the patrol frantically looking for you in a military fashion, picking a hiding spot or cardboard box was all up to the the highly impressive AI of the game, so good In fact that it really has never been significantly improved on since, but it did not stop Here with physics also being deployed, a shooting gallery of bottles and glasses could be destroyed dependant on impact and would react and move upon the force, water melons, crates, steam pipes even bags of powder or fire extinguishers could be improvised as a make shift IR viewer for traps, it was not only the vast array of upgrades and improvements the game had, but how they all impacted the core mechanic of the game adding greater challenge, depth and immersion, this is no clearer in the sense that nearly 15 years later it still feels like a modern game which would still be special now.
But the PS2 was a powerhouse of a machine for the time, Sony had excelled and made the still most successful console ever and powered it with its evocative Emotion engine (all the footage you see here is from the PS2 game) that allowed heavy computational loads. Hideo and crew showed that they had conquered the machine with this showing, taking the machine, dimming the lights, setting up some soft music, pouring the champaign and really set the mood for an emotional showing.
Visually it was unsurpassed at its debut and for sometime after, the intro with further references to Hideo's love of 80's action movies seeing not only Plisken references, vampires but the Terminator start as his cloaking suit is shorted by the rain. It all combined into a show stopper of an entrance. Again all running real-time on the PS2 and highlighting the talent of the machine and team.
With such dense particle effects of rain, smoke, DoF effects on camera, motion captured animation it also had planar reflections for characters and scenery way before screen space tricks could be used, even early attempts at volumetric light and shafts all had screen time to demonstrate how far ahead the team where. With such an impressive game engine from a physics and AI side along with animation they still managed to excel just as much if not more So with the rendering.
With this still not being enough it also had a fully dynamic lighting system that covered you in shadows and light dependent on the source and area, lights could be shot out to assist you and hinder the enemies, this is best demonstrated with the engine room shootout compete with gun equipped torch that cast dynamic shadows on enemies and scenery, this was the real stress test though that can see the frame-rate dip from such a huge load but only by a couple of frames,but the game was on top of all this a 60Hz target. But this frame-rate could alter between 30 and 60 dependent on the load, but as this is the Pal version it also serves as an example of frame options open to developers, this game here in the UK runs at the Pal setting so instead of being 60/30 from NTSC it is actually running 50/25 as I have said before a great option that still feels as smooth as 60. But here the output is being managed by the machine and engine for the display type. The drops to half rate are mostly in cut-scenes but if the engine can manage the next stage it drops the cap, all signs of a great engine but game-play stays pretty solid a the 60/50 target. But the high post effect filled cut scenes being where you can notice it most, the DoF and makeshift motion blur ( an almost PS2 trademark effect of the time) could cause the fps to drop to the 30/25 but it never hinders the majority of gameplay that much, and only really makes everything delivered even more impressive. The first casualty was this in the following chapter as the team had to improve on such a technical masterclass with vastly enhanced environments and overdraw, which I will cover in my next chapter. It is a solid showing and also as techniques have advanced here you can see to emulate slow motion they simply update the frame at the capped point, in this case every 6th frame for a 10fps display on pal TV,s. It is a very interesting example of the old split we used to have from output displays/region changes.
All of these elements came together to deliver a complete experience that you could and many did (including myself) while time away in playing with these core game mechanics of AI, physics and lighting to impressive effect. The tense atmosphere and art design of the shoot out here is a highlight and a personal favorite.
The game is littered with these, from boss battles, shootouts or confusing codec conversation it never fails to keep delivering and surprising. Puzzles all needed logical thought and use of these ingredients to overcome. This is not to say it is critique free, some of the retreading to extend game time is a little cheap, with the bomb disposal mission out staying its welcome. Again some cheesy lines and far too much codec work can intrude at times.
But the enemies are another eclectic mix of mad, bad and bi-polar that continues the mix of action, sci-fi and horror from the previous games and constant throughout the entire series. Even big shell should look familiar as it returns as mother-base in The Phantom pain.
But it's basic core was true to the game, key cards kept you locked into areas until earned through boss trials, weapon upgrades came. Characters evolved and the games story as much as its characters became a focal point.
The message in the game was of social development, trust and government distrust, all traits Hideo manipulated for his own ends with the snake to Raiden switch.
It was Also influenced by the twin towers attack meaning parts of the game had to be amended prior to release including a shot of Rex between the towers, and the falling flag at the end of the game with solidus being defeated.
It's biggest statement is viewing the hero from a genuine 3rd person, we see snake as he is to others a mercenary, a killer, a man that does what it takes no matter the cost. With a seaming betrayal by him in the game leaving Raiden to be captured and tortured, it was Hideo's ulterior motive! To show people can be made to think and feel a certain way based on actions and mis-direction...ultimately no-body is perfect or indeed can even be believed, nothing is as it seems.
The game still stands as possibly the franchise high point and a benchmark from the team on pretty much all levels visuals, sound design, animation, game design and mechanics. While also serving as a flag ship title on the PS2 platform, but magically it was improved upon further in Snake eater... A game that made its Rambo love clear, but that is a story for another article..in my metal gear chronology leading us into the much anticipated latest saga which also shares MGS2 target of 60fps.
Join me next time for another look back at snake and his battle with the a new enemy, the jungle and his diet!
Take care .... And as Snake said if we get through this all will,be revealed.