mgsbanOne of the things that really grabbed my interest this past E3 was Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It looked fantastic, with some excellent music that really helped to sell a rather melancholic atmosphere. I never really got into the MGS series; despite owning a console capable of playing every instalment, I’ve only played Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, so I hadn’t been caught up in all the preceding Ground Zeroes/Phantom Pain mystery and hype. But the recent controversy over the ‘sexy’/’erotic’ design of MGS5‘s sniper Quiet reminded me that I really quite liked the look of the game’s E3 trailer.

I mentioned above that I’ve only ever played MGS2, and that was around its original release (so we’re talking over a decade ago now). I remember a friend buying Hideo Kojima’s mech combat game Zone of the Enders just for the MGS2 demo that came with it, and we both sat and played through it. As I shot a guard in the backside with a tranq dart before running to hide in a locker, I remember thinking, “This is amazing! This is the future!”

So when it was released, I rushed out and bought a copy, played through it, and though I enjoyed it, I didn’t really understand what was going on. I didn’t get as much from it as I would have had I played Metal Gear Solid first; the titles in this series strike me as being as much movie as they are game, and back in 2002 I only really got the game part.

I’ve had a copy of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection sitting on my shelf for about six months now, so I had been planning on catching up with the series for a while. Indeed, I even started playing the first game on my Vita months back, but got a bit stuck and abandoned it. Having gone a bit mad watching MGS5 trailers over the last few days, I’ve been itching to get into the series. I also came to the realisation that I’m unlikely to ever play the HD Collection on home console as all of my current screen time is going to either Final Fantasy XIV or Tales of Xillia. So I bought a second copy for the Vita (of course, this means I’ll have to keep the 360 copy for Peace Walker).

So this lengthy, possibly unnecessary framing narrative brings us to the topic of today’s piece: Metal Gear Solid. Because it’d be silly to start from the second (well, technically fourth) game, no? So how does a fifteen-year-old title hold up at the dawn of the second round of HD consoles? Surprisingly well, actually. Now, MGS may be a pretty old game at this point, but as this piece attests not everyone has played it. With that said, it goes without saying that there will be spoilers ahead.

Metal Gear Solid begins with our protagonist, codenamed Solid Snake, infiltrating a hostile base from the sea while a voiceover from his commanding officer details his mission: a renegade special forces unit, FOXHOUND, has seized control of a nuclear weapons disposal facility and made demands of the US Government, one of which is the delivery of the remains of legendary soldier Big Boss. If their demands are not met, they have threatened to launch a nuclear weapon. Snake must rescue DARPA chief Donald Anderson and Kenneth Baker, the president of defense subcontractor ArmsTech, who were both on-site at the time of the revolt, as well as stopping FOXHOUND from launching their nuke, and he has less than 24 hours to do it. Of course, things are not as they seem…

In an era where a majority of developers are focusing on creating cinematic experiences, Metal Gear Solid feels remarkably contemporaneous; indeed, it’s surely one of the games that pioneered the push for expansive, cinematic storytelling in games, and the fact that it’s often named as one of the greatest videogames of all time is testament to its influence and legacy. Despite its dated visuals, the level of polish is immediately evident: every cutscene and codec conversation (and there are plenty here) is fully voice acted, and the performances are generally of a pretty high standard. Only Cam Clarke manages to chew the scenery a little as FOXHOUND leader Liquid Snake (though I can forgive the man who voiced both Leonardo and Kaneda). Those same cutscenes are all directed with a filmic flair unexpected of a director making his first 3D game, a flair that betrays Kojima’s youthful desire to be a filmmaker, full of sweeps and pans and without exception beautifully framed.

The game is still (mostly) a joy to play as well, likely owing to the simplicity of the core sneaking action: this is a stealth game, and it is strongly advised that you remain hidden. Using your soliton radar, you can view your immediate surroundings from a top-down perspective, allowing you to see the position of nearby guards and their area of perception, a cone that describes the range and limits of their view. Stay quiet and out of your enemies’ sight and you can often get through an area completely avoiding confrontation. If you’re detected, your radar is jammed, and there’s no way to see where enemies might be coming at you from, save going into a first-person view with a tap of the triangle button which roots you to the spot. It’s a well-balanced system that only tends to frustrate if you’re careless and get spotted with no hiding place nearby.

However, this being a ‘tactical espionage action’ game, you also have a handful of gadgets at your disposal: rations to replenish your health; a range of goggles granting thermal, night vision or standard zooming capabilities; the iconic cardboard box for hiding in plain sight; anti-anxiety drugs to steady your nerves and your aim, and many others. And although direct confrontation is discouraged, Snake collects a selection of high-powered weaponry throughout his adventure on Shadow Moses, including chaff grenades to confuse electronics and even a fly-by-wire missile system.

Many of these items come in very handy during the generally excellent boss battles, and a number of these encounters stand out. First off, there’s the borderline fourth wall-breaking fight with FOXHOUND’s resident psychic Psycho Mantis. It’s a battle that really plays with the conventions of the medium, extending the game into the real world: Psycho Mantis can read your mind, he knows your every move before you’ve even made it, so you need to do something unexpected. But what? Switch to controller 2 of course! Then he won’t be able to read your movements any more! Your commanding officer even tells you as much in a codec conversation. And this after Mantis proves his power by reading what’s on your memory card and making your controller vibrate (two things which I was unable to experience playing on Vita, though Mantis did note that I saved often, calling me a “prudent man”). Such is this encounter’s infamy that I sadly knew all about these things long before playing the game, diminishing their impact somewhat, but it’s hard to look at this battle as anything over than an inspired treatment of a player’s immersion in the game world, even as it forcibly removes them from it.

A few other boss battles stand out for me: a tense, long-range shoot-out with Kurdish sharpshooter Sniper Wolf in a wide open snowfield, the slow, deliberate movement of your scope at odds with the damage dealt by the PSG-1 sniper rifle, demanding accurate tracking and shot placement or leading to curses if your bullet misses its mark; and the handful of battles against Solid Snake’s nemesis and genetic brother Liquid Snake, who is obsessed with exacting revenge on our protagonist for being the ‘better’ clone of Big Boss. We first fight Liquid on a rooftop as he hovers above in a Hind-D helicopter gunship, and here we get to use our homing Stinger missiles to bring him down. Later, we find him piloting the titular Metal Gear REX, and the resulting two-stage battle is another tense affair as Snake tries to maneuver into the hulking, heavily-armed mecha’s blind spot, confuse it’s electronics and fire a Stinger at it’s most vulnerable points. Next comes a very John Woo-style bare-chested punch-out atop the ruined hull of REX, at the climax of which Liquid, defeated, apparently falls to his death. Except of course that he doesn’t…

Metal Gear Solid‘s story also holds up against the flow of time, taking in a heady mix of ruminations on the nature of war and those that wage it, military-industrial espionage and intrigue and legacy through genetics. There are a couple of weak points: the script often taking great pains to explain simple things (I get it Otacon, the PAL key is three keys in one!) while glossing over seemingly-important points with a line or two – I actually went to the Metal Gear Wiki after finishing the game, not to figure out what the hell happened, but to shore up my own understanding of the game and make sure I had everything straight in my mind. I’ll be interested to see how much more sense MGS2 makes after having played its predecessor, but something tells me I’ll be paying the Wiki another visit.

There were a couple of mechanical annoyances playing MGS on the Vita that I feel are worthy of note. Firstly, the game uses the L2/R2 buttons on your controller to bring up item and weapons menus, which you then cycle through with the d-pad. The Vita does not have L2/R2 buttons, so these functions are instead mapped to the rear touchpad, which doesn’t appear to like static inputs; it seems fine tracking your finger’s movement, but probably about five times out of ten, placing my finger in one place led to the menus popping in and out a handful of times before finally settling and allowing me to select the item I wanted. Having this functionality mapped to the rear touchpad is a bit of a pain even when you’re not trying to use it, as it’s easy to trigger a menu when you don’t mean to just by holding the Vita and shifting your fingers, leading you to eventually effect a hideous claw-grip method to keep your digits away from the touchpad until you need it. This will eventually make your hands ache, so remember to take breaks! The face buttons can also be a bit troublesome in one section where you need to do a bit of good old-fashioned button mashing. Perhaps it’s that the buttons are small, but they don’t seem as responsive to mashing as those on a full-blown pad, and sometimes won’t register a press (for the record, my Vita’s buttons are absolutely fine – the machine is still utterly pristine). These issues are with the Vita’s control method for non-native titles rather than the game itself, but they’re worth noting in relation to Metal Gear Solid, as (at least in the case of the menu selection) you’ll be encountering them frequently.

Finishing the game took me just shy of fifteen hours, but I imagine you could probably race through it in half that once you know what you’re doing, and replay value comes in the form of different endings and different items given to you at each ending (either Meryl’s infinite ammo bandana or Otacon’s active camo stealth suit) that you carry into your next playthrough. I absolutely loved my time with MGS (even with a number of frustrating restarts, often on one of those aforementioned boss battles), but I’m not sure I’ll be playing it again. Not any time soon, at least: next up is Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and Raiden.

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