Review by DConnoy

"Hideo Kojima must be stopped."

It's not often that one plays a video game that has the potential to be the greatest ever. Many games, good as though they are, simply don't have that ambition. So when a title at least aspires to redefine the way we look at gaming--to be the watershed work that everyone's going to copy for years to come--its developers are deserving of some credit... even if they're held back by a Hideo Kojima.

To be sure, Kojima is an immensely talented artist--at their best, his works are untouchable by other designers in the way they reach out to you, the player, unabashedly involving you in the experience. No other designer has the courage to break down that ''fourth wall''. Kojima is also an incredible coordinator--I've never met the man personally, but I can only imagine he has a ''cult leader'' aura around him to have assembled a team of such dedicated, hardworking, and talented game design professionals. Their work here--stylized graphics, perfect-fidelity sound effects, and the most robust gameplay engine ever--deserve the highest praise.

But, in addition to being talented and charismatic, Hideo Kojima is also sanctimonious and self-indulgent. Even more so than in the first Metal Gear Solid, he's hijacked the great work of his team--the game that we all want to play--to get his ''message'' across. And he does it with a pretentiousness that was only hinted at by the first Metal Gear Solid's ten-minute deathbed soliloquies and dime-store philosophizing.

However, the failures of the game aren't evident at first. Upon starting up Metal Gear Solid 2, you'll be blown away by the Hollywood-quality opening, backed by the MGS theme as reworked by Harry Gregson-Williams, composer of musical scores for Armageddon and The Rock. It is stirring and unforgettable, worthy of being mentioned amongst the greatest single pieces ever composed for any videogame. Unfortunately, once the game starts, that pinnacle is never again reached. It's obvious that Gregson-Williams is unfamiliar with scoring for videogames, as the tunes you'll hear during gameplay aren't so memorable. However, his experience serves him well during story scenes, where the action is controlled and directed like a movie. A smoky saxophone solo backs the appearances of the sexy but tortured Fortune, and unlike MGS, there's actually more than one piano solo to fall back on when events get their most emotional.

Getting across emotional moments also necessitates good voice talent. Metal Gear Solid had this in spades, and nearly all of the actors return for the same roles in the sequel. The quality of the script doesn't seem to be as good as Jeremy Blaustein's landmark translation of the original MGS. But, the voice actors take that material to the next level, and their performances sync to the motion-captured animation of their painstakingly detailed character models in true cinematic fashion.

These more or less perfect character models are just the beginning of MGS2's graphic achievement. While there are aliasing problems, and everything is done in that ''MGS monochrome'' that everyone will remember from the PSX release, the attention to detail is just staggering. Rain falls with disturbing realism; use first-person view to look at it and it will splatter on your viewpoint as though it were a camera lens. What's truly amazing, though, is the way that all the detail in the environments isn't just for show. Shoot a fire extinguisher and its contents will spill out, confusing and disorienting guards chasing you. Lights--any lights--can be shot out, darkening the area they once bathed. Each bottle on the shelf of a bar is an individual target, behaving with true physics when shot and not just shattering in ''generic bottle destruction'' animation. Finally, don't underestimate the danger of having a firefight in food storage--a few stray rounds can pop open a bag of flour, the inhaled contents causing Snake to sneeze at an inopportune time. It's this kind of design paradigm, a world where all objects interrelate and behave realistically, that's the future of gaming. Pity it wasn't put to better use.

Indeed, just like Metal Gear Solid, the gameplay of MGS2 is underdeveloped. At first this doesn't seem to be the case: the underlying concepts are amazing. Enemy soldiers' artificial intelligence, and the sheer number of options you have at your disposal to stealthily sneak by them or take them out, are just unprecedented. Better yet, the early segments of MGS2 really turn you loose in ways the first game never did--you can really explore the various ways to use all your options to your advantage and keep up with the hugely improved AI of the guards.

For example, an event early in the game involves the disarming of several bombs that have been placed around the offshore oil spill cleanup plant you've infiltrated. Getting through one of the expansive, multi-tiered environments would be difficult enough in the first place. But when your mission is also to search the area for the explosives and give yourself enough time to disarm them, the gameplay ramps up to a whole new level. It's a must to use new techniques like hanging from railings, shooting soldiers carefully in first-person view, and carrying, hiding, and searching their bodies, to reach and disarm a bomb in the middle of an area full of guards.

Your enemies will get suspicious more easily now--any sort of anomaly, such as a passed-out comrade, or even disturbed surroundings, will cause them to investigate further. Some guards radio in to their command at set intervals; if one of these misses a radio check, a team will be dispatched to see why he's AWOL, so the best solution is not always to just take everyone out. Get caught red-handed and a guard will radio to HQ for backup, and you'll quickly find an assault team shoving combat shotguns and riot shields down your throat if you don't find a place to hide. If they can narrow down what room you're in, the enemy will methodically search it, so you'll have find a safe spot--in a locker, perhaps, or under a table--until the alert passes. Naturally, make any noise at this point and you're screwed. The tension is palpable, and the early parts of the game, where you actually put your espionage techniques to work, are sublime in ways that the first MGS never achieved.

But, once the bomb-defusing event is over about a third of the way through the game, it's back into the old MGS routine. Tasks become much more simple and gimmicky (this is the part where you use the remote-control missile! this is the part where you use the sniper rifle!), the developers resort to dirty tricks to get you caught or kill you, bosses show up far too often for a ''stealth'' game, and the people on the Codec won't shut the **** up.

Yes, it seems that it's still impossible for Kojima to make a game without putting some sort of a story into it. The first big issue to get a hold of is that you won't be playing as Solid Snake. Instead, the main character is Raiden, a rookie operative whose past is a mystery. Have no fear though, the esteemed Snake will make his appearance. The plot is bearable for the first part of the game, but quickly takes a detour into Final Fantasy VIII-land when Raiden's girlfriend starts berating him for not ''opening up'' to her over the Codec (she's the one you call to save the game). I feel sorry for the girl--some of the events she recounts are pretty sad experiences, and she clearly loves him despite them, but on the other hand... I'm kind of in the middle of something here! The same goes for the rest of the plot--clearly, a lot of factions are vying for the control of the plant, and there's a lot more at stake here than just an oil spill, but Kojima is so obviously intent on keeping you in the dark about what's really going on, that there's nothing to do except just idly watch things unfold.

There's not much eventual purpose to this kind of storyline--wheels within wheels, plot twists for the sake of plot twists--and putting up with the constant interruptions of Raiden's chattering nanny is patience-trying when (the promise of) great gameplay is beckoning. It all becomes worthwhile when you get to one awesome avalanche of a revelation--the very reality that has been built around Raiden starts to crumble, the characters he's learned to trust throughout the game turning on him in some sort of 1984-redux that's gloriously paranoiac and blurs the lines between game and reality...

...but then somebody's arm starts talking.

Yup, shortly after having both excused away his lack of creativity and created a darn fine plot twist, Kojima has someone's arm talk. I can't get across the absurdity of this in any way except to just lay it out there like that, and the sheer, pointless excess of it is just an example of the unrelenting ego at work here. The narrative's finest moments (few as they are) are then forgotten as this last straw breaks the proverbial camel's back, and the wrap-up of the plot is true to Kojima form--sanctimonious hammering of his touchy-feely, faux-uplifting ''message'' into your consciousness.

In the end, Metal Gear Solid 2 is a good game, and despite all its problems I would recommend everyone play it at least once. The problem is not that it's a good game, it's that it could have been a great game. I admire that Hideo Kojima is at least attempting to go beyond what is generally thought of as a videogame--I don't play many games that at least get me to stop and think about their message. But the fact that nothing that happens during the actual game relates to the message makes the whole exercise somewhat ridiculous. Further, the inclusion of so much pointless plot and character development breaks up the gameplay and forces it down a tunnel-like path that doesn't let his talented people explore what can be done with their amazingly open-ended and robust gameplay design. Kojima needs to stop trying to wrap games around stories and start working stories into games. Hopefully, his passing of the MGS series' reins to another director, as has been hinted at in recent interviews, will be the best thing that ever happened to it--all the gameplay and great presentation we've come to expect from his crew, without his invasive, self-indulgent storylines.

Overall: 8/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 11/25/01, Updated 12/02/01

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