The War Epilogue is a series focussing on the Metal Gear Solid Series, from 1, through to 4, in release date order. I’ll analyze where the series used to be, all the way up to where it went, and the themes that lay behind the games. Metal Gear Solid, much like it’s creator, is a larger than life series with layers of complexities that flood the veins of gaming culture, even to this day. With the controversial final entry The Phantom Pain firmly lodged in my mind, I will journal my experiences with these groundbreaking, genre-defining titles having never played a single one. I’m currently playing through the second entry in the series and perhaps the best example of postmodernism in gaming, Sons of Liberty.
The second entry to the iconic stealth franchise brings a vast sweeping range of new features in a familiar setting. The most immediate change is that the game is split into two episodes: tanker and plant. We’ll get on to plant later, but for now the tanker acts as a prologue of sorts and a bridge between Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty. A perfect, demonstrative slice of game play, an early sign of what’s to come. Detailing the difference and similarities in one easily digestible and well-designed space, taking place on an oil tanker leaving New York waters. The set up recalls famous, schlocky action movie fare with fond reverence: Terrorists sweep aboard the tanker to steal a brand new prototype Metal Gear, an even deadlier Metal Gear than in the previous game and it’s Snakes job (now working freelance) to blow the whole story open to the rest of the world. With Otocon at his disposal Snake returns as a free agent of nuclear disarmament, being purposefully framed in the opening shots to be every bit the action hero his reputation in gaming culture had set him up to be. It almost seems… Too framed, actually. It’s almost… Too heroic. Almost as if Kojima was conscious of his new role in collective gaming lexicon and wanted to satirise his own creation.
Nevertheless, The opening prologue of Sons of Liberty is a delicious cocktail of familiar tastes with brand new, freshly updated ingredients that pleasantly surprise. Snakes repertoire of moves has been given a complete overhaul. Dual stick controllers meant that a greater range of control could be exercised over Snake, not just giving him more moves but also finely tuning all the basics that matter. For starters running and walking is satisfyingly swift, switching out to other items is quick and seamless, and now Snake can manually aim, alleviating much of the painful auto aim of the previous game. He can dip, duck and dive with fluid ease and pressing up against a wall allows you to peek around the corner with a comfortable press of the trigger buttons. Snake can dangle off the edge of railings, shimmy, and jump back up in smooth, cool ease. Extra features have been added to the stealth simulation, too, where you can stick up an unaware enemy soldier by approaching them unawares and pointing your gun at their back. They’ll nervously raise their hands in the air to surrender. Snake gets a much cleaner, freer lease on life in Sons of Liberty and it feels good. No longer restricted by awkward controls, you’re able to concentrate on an interesting experience first and foremost. Plus, not only does it feel great but it looks great too.
Since the original games tentative but successful first steps into 3d graphics, the industry had moved on to establish itself as a predominantly three dimensional entity by Sons of Liberty’s release in 2001. Gaming no longer resided in the uncanny valley and Sons of Liberty shows that. Rain cascades on to the deck of the tanker, multiple levels and layers of the ship are crisp and clean, while the expanse of river and the New York backdrop are right there in front of you: graphics look gorgeous, too, in the HD PS3 version, cleanly updating the old classic to modern resolutions without spoiling the original art. Not that it was necessary – this game still looks great. The first person view shows off the new, clean art and gone are the blocky, expressionistic pixels of the previous title. This is real detail, and even 15 years later, it still looks pretty neat. That’s another notch on the bedpost for the “art versus graphical fidelity” argument.
Certain trademarks return for the prologue too. The boxes are back, functioning first and foremost as a means of hiding in plain sight in true slapstick fashion. The story still has more cutscenes than you’d ever really want to see but thankfully they are masterfully directed, and the pacing of the story slowly rumbles forward and steadily builds tension the more you play, each plot point and character arc slowly coalescing to an incredible final hour. Combine this with the upgrade in visual design and the constant breaks in play are a lot easier to take. They feel much more like a reward after beating a tough segment than an irritable chore. Especially towards the end, the increase in visual design adds layers of depth to the eventual twists and turns of the story. It’s unusual that I say this. Egregious abuse of cinematic scenes by any other developer would be an affront to gaming, especially when in this form of art where its strength lies in immersion and control, in using ideas in game design to illustrate a finer point, not impersonal force feeding of story. But Kojima’s skill as a storyteller renders the slow burn of plot reveals and glacial unravelling of character arcs worthwhile despite the occasional ludicrous levels of cheese.
And of course, fourth wall breaks are back, to some extent, though this time are far more of a background detail, feeling much more like business as usual rather than clever winks and nods. Snake is just as gruff, just as wry and cynical here in Sons of Liberty, although wiser with the experience of Shadow Moses under his belt. His grasp on the situation is almost immediate. He instantly becomes the consummate professional, viewing the situation on the ship with an effortless, detached coolness that has since become his defacto character trait. Though, really, Kojima clearly had plans for Sons of Liberty. Snake is almost set up by Kojima for a fall, playing with his instant hero status after Shadow Moses during the opening hours of the game, only to tear it down immediately after the tanker episode is over, leaving his fate under a rather ambiguous question mark. Kojima had planned to pull the rug from under us the whole time. As the climax of the tanker prologue draws to a close and Snakes fate is left ominously vague, a brand new protagonist emerges in his place…
As we’re left to chew over the possible death of Snake, we’re put in the shoes of newcomer Raiden, though you wouldn’t think it from the opening to the plant chapter. Teased from the start to dupe players into thinking Snake is still with us, he de-masks to reveal a less gruff, less militarised and decidedly more feminine lead. Raiden, as the game makes clear, is not Snake. Snake is every reference to 80’s and 90’s action trash you can think of: a grunting, silent, hero with a detached gaze right from a Clint Eastwood flick. Raiden however is in a constant state of bemusement throughout the entirety of the game, constantly gasping, sputtering “what?!” Or “how?!” Or even “what the…?!” And sometimes just “???” Compounded further by his apparent stone cold heart: he is totally unable to open up to his girlfriend Rose and for much of their screen time she’s almost ripping her hair out at him. He seems to be a totally emotionally void question mark, almost as if he has no past or future, and was mustered into being for the purpose of the plot. This is, of course, totally planned (narratively speaking) but at the time this must have been such an outrageous shift in tone for the series that I can’t help but feel most humourless fans would have been turned off instantly.
The plant chapter itself switches itself up a lot from the first game. The tanker prologue looks set to follow much in the footsteps of Metal Gear Solid, with its industrial, rain swept militarism – but this is almost entirely ditched in big shell. A big pastel coloured mechanical desert island in the form of an oilrig – big shell, albeit a terrible name for a location is stunningly well realised. An array of platforms (or struts as they’re known) surround two huge cores each, with connecting tunnels and bridges linking each array logically to the next, creates plenty of room for exploration while keeping the flow of gameplay “directed” down specific routes without the player realizing. You’re free to explore the first array of platforms around core 1 at your will, with each platform having a different purpose to the function of big shell but generally speaking you only ever need to be in one location to advance the plot. Items are placed logically around big shell, too. Weapons are stored in warehouses. Cardboard boxes can be found in the mailing room. Rations are in the kitchen. This creates some great eureka moments where you’re given an open, ambiguous objective to find a specific item, and knowing exactly where to look for it without having been told just by virtue of logically connecting the dots. By asking yourself “where would I find a sniper rifle?’ you can usually figure out where you need to go. It’s really great that the game will trust your sense of logic and let you go away and experiment with your own explorative nature. It also creates some classic action movie moments. A bomb placed on strut F? I know exactly where to go. Otocon is waiting to talk to me at connecting bridge AB? No sweat. I can get there. I know exactly where this is, because it’s all laid out logically. The specific platforms themselves aren’t too convoluted either, usually sticking to a small gathering of rooms stretching to no more than a floor or two each, meaning you are never lost for too long and these locations never outstay their welcome. Big shell is almost a character in itself, and I loved exploring it’s gaudy corridors and bridges and working out its shifting rules and expectations. Huge events can often take large parts of big shell out of action, forcing you to rethink your route from one place to another. It’s deviously designed, you see. Just when you get used to the connecting bridges and sneaky back doors, just when you think you’ve found your own stealthy routes around the rig, the rules change and the walls shift and you have to think of another way around. Good stuff.
Next time we talk about bad boss fights, crazy difficulty spikes, and the slow, irreversible disintegration of reality…