On its release last year for the PlayStation 2, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty was widely hailed as a masterstroke of game design, blending a complex, twisting narrative with unparalleled stealth mechanics and a surprising indulgence of creator/producer/director Hideo Kojima's existentialistic musings on individualism, love, loyalty, and faith. It was a bold creation that used the interactive gaming medium to communicate a vision; rather than the narrative being a backdrop to the gameplay, the gameplay served as a palette through which Kojima articulated an ideology, much of the story serving as mere filler for the more substantial (and relevant) message he spoke with the games dramatic and unexpected conclusion.
But Metal Gear Solid 2, for all of its sweeping ideology and bold provocations, was a game that suffered under the weight of its own ambitions. Kojima's vision was given to us unrestrained and unrefined. Often, plot twists became so frequent and arbitrary that not only did it become difficult to comprehend Kojima's narrative, but it also became burdensome to dichotomize its convoluted progression, separating the most vital turning points from trivial distractions. The characters were similarly indulged in a most arbitrary and confusing manner; lengthy codec conversations and cutscenes that stretched up to 40 minutes often featured overdrawn speeches rife with trivialities that served no purpose other than to confuse the player and detract from the tension Kojima had so purposefully hoped to build.
Kojima's failure to restrain his vision created an imbalance in gameplay that only further compromised the poignancy of his final message. Oddities such as a tutorial that begins hours into the game; gameplay elements that are bluntly explained rather than left to the challenge the discretion of the player; and level designs that failed to lend many opportunities for players to implement the substantial array of skills, gadgets, and weaponry at their disposal drained Sons Of Liberty of its phenomenal potential. Nowhere is this lack more evident than in the title of this new expansion of the original: Substance. The original game is still here in its entirety, but is now packaged with the addition of five "Snakes Tales" (adventures that revolve around the games classic protagonist), a few hundred VR missions, over 150 alternative missions, and many other unlockable challenges too numerous to mention. Kojima seems to have recognized that he started running so fast that he forgot to tie his shoes, and thus Substance finally gives players the opportunity to more deeply explore the beautifully nuanced stealth engine that was so sorely undermined by his penchant for melodrama.
The original Sons Of Liberty is here, exactly as it was released a year ago. Although the graphics have not been improved for the Xbox, they still look spectacular even a year after the games release. The superb use of blur effects, cinematic direction and unmatched motion-capture make it a real treat for the eyes, particularly during cutscenes. A dramatic original score, superlative sound effects and excellent voice acting make it a treat for the ears as well. And although its a game wrought with imbalances, its still a unique experience no gamer should miss.
"Snakes Tales" are five adventures that seem to loosely revolve around the Sons Of Liberty story, featuring bosses and important characters from the main game. The stories are told through text, which set the backdrop and feature all dialogue (no new cutscenes were recorded for Substance) as well as delineate your objectives. The missions are challenging, long enough without feeling overdone, and often place you in situations where using your head is more prudent than using your instincts.
The VR and alternative missions are also quite challenging, but their inclusion only makes me wish that they had been implemented last year as a training mode. Upon loading the missions, you can choose to use Raiden or Snake and while the levels are the same for each, the placement of objectives and enemies varies moderately. After selecting your character, you choose between VR missions and alternative missions. The former are the same kinds of missions found in 1999's Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions—3D simulated environments, with simple backgrounds that hearken back to the film Tron, that are usually short and require you to complete a basic objective and reach the goal. There is a sneaking mode in which you have to evade guards and reach the goal without being spotted, an "eliminate all" mode in which you stealthily disable each guard, as well as various weapons-training and combat missions. There are countless missions and enough variety to provide hours of enjoyment, although the weapons training levels are somewhat bland (amounting to little more than target practice). Completing the initial set of missions unlocks yet even more missions along with new costumes for Snake and Raiden. Although the variety wears thin after a time, the sheer number of missions is undeniably impressive.
The alternative missions are much more interesting. Instead of taking place in computer-simulated VR rooms, they take place in actual locales from Sons Of Liberty and feature more interesting objectives such as diffusing bombs, taking pictures, eliminating invisible enemies, collecting dog tags, or being given only a few shots and told to dispatch all enemies in an area.
All the extra missions included with the game, replete with many unique situations not encountered during Sons Of Liberty, highlight both the strengths of the game's stealth engine and the weaknesses of Sons Of Liberty itself. Although there is a great deal of enjoyable gameplay to be had, its completely disjointed from the core game. It becomes clear that Hideo Kojima's scattered, unfocused cinematic vision left his brilliant gameplay design painfully undeveloped. Substance does offer a deep, challenging experience, but its unfortunate that the real "substance" was missing from Sons Of Liberty in the first place. It was a groundbreaking but deeply flawed game, and this expanded version of the game serves best as a reminder that as games begin to transcend the boundaries of simulation and cinema, developers must remember that gaming's strength lies in its interactivity. When that core element is overlooked, no amount of dramatic vision or philosophical indulgence can save it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.