Metal Gear is undoubtedly one of videogaming's best-known franchises. The series is popularly credited with starting the stealth genre with Metal Gear Solid, one of the original PlayStation's runaway hits. It was an unquestionable smash that did much to strengthen Sony's cred with gamers. Bringing Snake back for the PS2 in the equally successful and controversial Sons of Liberty was another home run for both Sony and Konami. Clearly, the goal with Metal Gear Ac!d was to score once more by launching the new PSP hardware with a proven superstar. However, this time Snake's mission is quite a bit different than his past forays, and the results are mixed.
No longer featuring real-time action, Ac!d is a turn-based strategy game using a new collectible-card style system for attacks, abilities, and movement. Play consists of an intricate structure where Snake creeps through environments slowly and methodically, every step requiring forethought and planning. With a set number of options available each round, and with each action incurring a "cost" in time accumulated before Snake can take another turn, reactionary playing rarely pays, and skin-of-your-teeth escapes are few and far between. This time around, the speed of a trigger finger is irrelevant—it's all about mental dexterity.
As a fan of Strategy-RPGs like Vandal Hearts and Shining Force, and also someone who enjoys collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering and the PS2's phenomenal cult hit Culdcept, I was sold on the genre-fusion premise of Ac!d from the get-go. In practice, I found that it was full of good ideas, but lacking balance and smooth playability, especially in the all-important first few hours.
My first impressions of the game were so poor and my level of enjoyment so low that I actually shelved it and walked away, so frustrated that I needed to put it down. The camera system is very weak, and it's difficult to get a good view of areas that feature multiple elevation levels, or those with intricate architecture. It was hard to see small features like vents to crawl into, or oddly-placed doors. A prime requirement in Strat-RPGs is that it be easy to grasp the character's surroundings in order to make effective choices. Ac!d stumbles here.
Another rough area is that the game's way of managing guns—a central play mechanic—is completely counterintuitive, and the developers take no steps to make it easy for players to understand. Instead of simply drawing a gun card and "using" it, I had to first equip a gun card. Then I had to draw another gun card of the same caliber and combine it with the first card before I could shoot. I could, however, fire the gun right away as a counter-attack. It's extremely confusing and makes no sense, especially since the gun cards available at the beginning of Ac!d aren't used this way at all.
Other irritants abound, such as the fact that Snake can't really "do" anything (…except punch) without a card. It's important to sneak and not be seen, but I couldn't grab a guard from behind and choke him out to avoid detection. I couldn't climb over small boxes or hang from ledges without the specific cards. I couldn't get through locked doors without standing around helplessly burning through my deck waiting for the key card to come up. When seen, I couldn't fire on a guard standing right next to me without using a card to simply turn and face him. It drove me batty that I would use a card and then be interrupted by a cutscene, after which I would lose the card I just selected even I never actually got to use it.
I could go on, but the point is that many of the qualities of the card system in Metal Gear Ac!d are eccentric, to put it mildly. Too many things make too little sense, and I can't see why the Ac!d team ham-handedly tried to completely reinvent the wheel. Still, I count myself as a true Kojima fan and I love the Metal Gear series, so I came back to Ac!d after a short break and a mental prep session. The funny thing was… I ended up liking it a lot.
Once I got used to all the quirks and idiosyncrasies, the rough edges, the frustrations and every thing else, I discovered a great Metal Gear game that didn't reveal itself until I slogged through the first eight to ten not-very-enjoyable hours. The story ended up excellently unfolding into a dark, spiraling flower full of twists and turns in classic Kojima style. Working my way through hostile territory with Snake's new partner Teliko was a great exercise in precision teamwork, and collecting enough cards to give me creative leeway in designing my playstyle took the experience to a higher level.
It's extremely unfortunate that the Ac!d team couldn't reshape the opening hours into something more welcoming and tolerable. I can easily see why so many people would give Metal Gear Ac!d the cold shoulder since the game clearly gives it to the player first. However, for those who manage to make it past the painful introduction, there's a very worthy addition to the Metal Gear legacy to be found. I'd even go so far as to say that I enjoyed Ac!d more than the recent MGS3: Snake Eater when all was said and done, but an Ac!d sequel with a huge tune-up would be even better.