I tend to reject fanboyism; I couldn’t care less about the console wars, have no favourite game company, and I have about as much loyalty as a hungry cat. Nevertheless, the Metal Gear Solid franchise drives me near to the point of making an exception.
Strangely enough though, out of all the franchise’s amazing titles, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty happens to be my favourite entry. I know it probably shouldn’t be. I know Snake Eater advanced the series’ gameplay so much further, and that Guns of the Patriots has many of the most breath-taking moments in the series. Damn it though, MGS2 messed with my head, and that’s powerful medicine.
My first experience of the title was watching my brother play it for the larger part of a day. By the time he got to Colonel Campbell’s ravings about turning the console off, we were both convinced this was some warning by the game that he’d been playing it for too long. So, we turned the game off, turned it back on again, and of course realised we’d been tricked. In essence, powerful memories such as these capture exactly why I love this game. The tale of MGS2 is at once convoluted, ridiculous, sad, and invigorating. Although the title brought everything from its predecessor to a new level, it was the story that shined the brightest.
Players and critics alike consistently rate it as one of the worst games of the franchise (despite the high review scores it received at release), and this is largely down to the disappointment that you didn’t get to play as Snake for the majority of the game. You only play as him in the title’s first segment on the tanker; a section that acts more as a prologue than anything else. Still, those moments of wandering around the Russian-occupied boat are wonderful for experimentation. Otacon’s codec calls provide some amusing moments whilst also offering some info on the events after Shadow Moses, how the duo have become anti-Metal Gear terrorists and established a wonderful bromance.
But, after Snake feels up some lady posters and has a sexy photoshoot with Metal Gear Ray, Liquid Ocelot sinks the tanker, and seemingly kills Snake along with any hope of him being the protagonist. In steps the blonde-haired heartthrob Raiden in a skin-tight sneaking suit. His mission is to infiltrate the Big Shell facility, and to rescue the president and the hostages. At face level, this sounds like a suitable, uninteresting plot for a typical action game, but Kojima’s involved here, so let’s just throw out any misguided notion that the plot was going to be mundane. Raiden quickly runs into a bisexual vampire named Vamp, who’s chomping on Iroquois Pliskin (aka not-Snake), a suicidal lady who can deflect bullets, and a cocktail-sipping fat man on rollerblades. They’re all part of a group known as Dead Cell.
Bizarrely though, the members of Dead Cell aren’t the strangest feature of this title, in fact they may be the least. You see, Raiden’s mission mirrors that of the Shadow Moses incident from MGS1. Looking over MGS2, you can see that the story of the previous game punctuates this one at every moment: Colonel Campbell guides your mission, Dead Cell replaces Fox Hound, Solidus replaces Liquid, there’s a ninja who warns you about mines, and Raiden is originally codenamed Snake. The list could go on, and it’s no coincidence that there are so many similarities.
We’re going to get into murky waters here, but don’t be scared as nobody really fully understands what happened in MGS2. What we do know is that towards the end of the game there’s a major twist that explains all the coincidences, and consequentially creates a mass of ‘Oh my!’ moments. Spoilers ahoy! The reveal is that the Colonel, and Raiden’s girlfriend Rose – both of whom have guided Raiden through the mission – are in fact AIs, and that the Big Shell incident was a simulation set up by their creators, an all-knowing, all-powerful group known as The Patriots.
This simulation was known as the S3 plan, to Liquid Ocelot the abbreviation stood for Solid Snake Simulation, and to him it was believed to test if any soldier could be manipulated into becoming as battle capable as Solid Snake. Though, in reality, S3 stood for the Selection for Societal Sanity, and was really meant to see if The Patriots could manipulate world events. From here MGS2 goes on to philosophize over what control is. The plot brings up questions about society, the passing on of information, and begins the series’ discussion of AI. It’s all extremely deep and really builds up a story to be capitalized on in future titles.
The main overarching theme of MGS2 is about the passing of information, or memes, as opposed to the passing of genes that was explored in MGS1. The Patriots seek to control memes and rewrite history through the spread and censorship of information, thus extending their control through the digital era. However, as Snake explains towards the end credits, the human side of this process cannot be controlled; finding something to believe in, and leaving a legacy for future generations through ideas and thoughts.
It all could have been a very dry plot, but MGS2 continued what its predecessor started; it put the ridiculous beside the serious. The way the Colonel and Rose are unmasked is one of the game’s quirky charms. The two AIs begin to go insane, and end up breaking the forth wall over numerous lengthy codec calls, one of which (the Colonel’s infamous ravings) I mentioned in the opening. Kojima must have really relished in this moment where the Colonel rambles on about Rose cheating on Raiden, and tells him to infiltrate Outer Heaven. To top this off, all this happens while Raiden is walking around naked and weaponless.
In fact, the entire title reflects the mischievous side of Kojima, who tricked players into believing Solid Snake was to be the games protagonist, through Raiden’s absence in trailers and screenshots. Perhaps if the switch hadn’t been kept secret, the disdain directed towards Raiden wouldn’t have been so intense.
Funnily enough though, I’ve always seen Raiden as a great character. He’s imperfect, vulnerable, and thus relatable, and his psyche is nowhere close to the legendary hero Solid Snake. Raiden (or Jack) was traumatized from his time as a child soldier, is trying to live a normal life with Rose, but instead ends up being manipulated by The Patriots. He’s a character who brings up many emotions, and for me it seems that Kojima’s greatest trick might not have been tricking us as to who the protagonist of MGS2 was going to be, but in fooling many into not liking a great character, merely because he wasn’t Solid Snake.
This epic story, sprinkled with some nostalgia, is what makes MGS2 my favourite of the series, but there’s also some excellent gameplay here. Innovative touches such as the guards’ much-improved behaviour really add to the game, and there are also lots of small touches added like hanging mode, first-person aiming, and an over-abundance of VR missions. The soundtrack is also outstanding and the graphics are stunning. What also deserves a mention is the awesome skateboarding mini game included in Substance; I spent hours getting Snake to grind and kickflip around the Big Shell facility.
I adore MGS2 and could rant on for pages about the game, but really it’s only the highest peak among a range of grand games. It was MGS1 that began the journey, MGS4 gave Solid Snake a magnificent finale, but without MGS2, neither may have resonated so strongly in my mind. Now, with the Phantom Pain being released, I’m eager to witness the finale of the series. I know its timeframe is far from that of my favorites, but I know it’ll have at least some moments that can stand beside those I had in Metal Gear Solid 2.