By Chi Kong Lui
If first impressions are critical, Konami got Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (MGS2) off to a dazzling start in May of 2000. At the world’s largest videogame tradeshow, E3, the media and gamers alike were treated to a sneak-peek of the title in the form of a dramatic Hollywood-style movie trailer shown through-out the three-day event. The buzz was almost instantaneous, and it sent shockwaves throughout the industry as the media machine went into overdrive. MGS2 would be heralded as a dawning of a new age of interactive entertainment.
Flash forward to present day. It’s only a couple of short months away from this year’s E3 and the one-year anniversary of the historic debut of MGS2, but time has done little to calm the tidal waves of hype and expectation. For each gamer, it has been an agonizing eternity; our own little private hell of waiting, wondering and hoping with only brief moments of comfort and jubilance in the scant press clippings, screenshots and interviews that have been strategically offered to us before the ambiguous release date of sometime in Fall 2001.
Konami must have sensed this mounting tension with the gaming populace, and rather than have the hype backfire and escalate to dissention, the powers that be decided to throw us a bone in the form of an early playable Trial Edition to MGS2. The Trial Edition demo comes as a pack-in bonus to their most recently released title Zone Of The Enders, but sort of like
when the Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace movie trailer debuted before the film, Meet Joe Black, I get the feeling that most people are going to be skipping the main attraction and heading straight for the demo disc.
Following the same format of all the previous Metal Gear titles, players once again assume the role of Snake, the stealthy one-man army on yet another mission to put an end another terrorist group with the trademark nuclear-powered giant robot named Metal Gear (this time Ray). The sequel has been a long-time coming, and after playing through the 45-minute, single-stage demonstration and trying to fully experience what the title offers, I’m happy to report that the MGS2 delivers the goods big-time and should be as great as gamers are expecting.
If it’s one thing that should come as no surprise to anyone is that the visuals are just drop-dead gorgeous. For months now, blurry movie files and high-resolution screenshots of the game have circulated over the Internet, so almost everyone has some semblance of what’s in-store graphically. Yet to witness the game in actual full-motion gameplay glory is still quite a sight to behold regardless. Series creator, writer and director, Hideo Kojima, has stated in many interviews that a high level of attention and detail was focused on capturing the sense of natural weather and subtle ambient effects. For anyone who experiences the demo for themselves, it goes without saying that Kojima and his team of developers were incredibly successful in that endeavor. The game opens in a torrential down-pouring of rain, and it’s incredible to see and feel that effect played out on-screen. Significant amounts of smoke and shadow effects also come into play later in the interior scenes, but they have nowhere near the dramatic impact of the outdoor rain scene in the opening moments of the game. Combined this with the ultra-realistic polygon models in the characters and environments, smooth life-like animation, hip Steady Cam-style camera work in non-interactive cut-scenes and distinctive sense of cool in the overall art direction, and you have yet another candidate for the old debatable most-visually-impressive-game-ever distinction (although this one might actually hold true more than any other title in recent years).
In terms of story and voice-acting quality, it’s too early to tell. All the voices are still in Japanese with English subtitles, and while the demo hints at some story elements to come, very little plot details are actually revealed in the opening sequences. Though I will say that the dialogue between Snake and Otacon is so quick and convoluted in the introduction movie, I had a hard time understanding what exactly was going on.
What I personally liked most about MGS2 so far is that Snake has many more abilities than in his previous outing. One of the main complaints I had about the original Metal Gear Solid was that Snake’s player-controlled abilities were limited, and I never really felt immersed in the character. The sense of role-playing was weak, and the game was much too story-based than interactive for my taste. The balance between gameplay and story in MGS2 is much more to my liking. The environments are more interactive (almost everything can be opened, explored, and shot to bits). Snake is still capable of performing all his old regular moves, like the dragging choke-hold, crawling on the floor, shadowing walls, creating diversions by knocking on walls, and the ultra-advanced crawl-inside-cardboard-box disguise, but there are also plenty of noteworthy additions. At any time, Snake can look and attack from a more accurate and stationary first-person perspective. Snake can now hang, hide and shimmy over banisters and ledges. Once he’s hanging, he can drop down onto guards and knock them unconscious. For more stealth options, Snake can also peek and perform surprise attacks around corners. Incapacitated guards can also be dragged and hidden in lockers or thrown overboard in a ship. Then there’s my personal favorite, the hold up. If players are able to sneak up on guards and beat them to the draw, guards will surrender with their hands up, and give-up items if you take aim at either their head or groin!
Would I say brief MGS2 demo has the same kind of near-perfect seamless gameplay found in classics like The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time and GoldenEye 007? Not by a long shot. While the overall game design felt good so far, I had issues with the control scheme. I was always critical of the controls for the original MGS, and the problems that plagued the original still haven’t really been resolved in the sequel, either. The main problem I have is when I back Snake into a wall, the camera angle changes, but the control orientation remains the same. One second you’re supposed to point left to lean into a corner, then camera angle changes so that you’re facing an entirely different direction, but you’re still expected to point left. I’ve always found this setup to be confusing and unnatural, and I wish they would have come up with another method of control that wasn’t so dependent on orientation. What only makes things worst is the overly sensitive analog stick and the unintuitive button layouts. There may be many more actions and abilities for players to have fun with, but it’s a double-edged sword that comes with consequences. The button schemes for all the various maneuvers are extremely complicated and hard to manage in the heat of the moment. To perform certain actions like peeking around corners and surprise attacking a guard in
a first-person view requires a bit of finger gymnastics in order to hold down two shoulder buttons while pressing and holding down another—all the while trying to keep track of the control orientation and aim with an overly sensitive analog stick!
Another complaint I have is that performing some of the more advanced moves and tactics is way too difficult and frivolous. Players can stop guards from alerting others by shooting the walkie-talkie in their hand. Sounds simple enough, but when you’re in the middle of the action, trying to figure out all the buttons and aim with an overly sensitive analog stick, it becomes a near impossible task. It also makes little sense when you can just as easily cold-clock the guy with a combo before he completes his transmission. The same could be said of the extremely cool "hold up" feature. First of all, not only did it take me hours just to get it work (again another testament to the difficult controls), but the ability doesn’t really serve any real purpose or function. It’s much easier and efficient to just put a cap in the guy’s head with his back to you and search his lifeless body for items instead.
Regardless of those complaints though, I was still impressed. It’s too early to fully evaluate the game based on what little we’ve played so far. All I’ll say for now is that the Trial Edition held many enjoyable surprises for me, and hopefully later stages will make much better use of the advanced tactics. Speaking personally, I’m actually a bit relieved. If MGS2 fails, I could imagine a huge fallout in which the heads of top industry heads would be rolling, and the entire market dragged down by its failure. Expectations for MGS2 are through-the-roof, and from what I gather from the Trial Edition, it should be the sales record-setter that the executives are hoping for and the kick-ass rich gaming experience that the gaming public is craving. Even as I write this sentence, I can’t wait to get back into the game, sneak-up on another hapless guard and figure out a new way to administer some digital ass whupping. If anything, that’s a good sign.
Tentative Rating of Trial Edition: 9.0
By Dale Weir
There was a time when this industry could not get enough of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons Of Liberty (MGS2). Immediately after Konami previewed the game, chat rooms and message boards were flooded with excited gamers ready to put down the $300 just to play this one game, and there was not a Web site worth its salt that didn't have a preview posted within days of the debut. Our first MGS2 preview brought our server to its knees almost immediately after it was posted, and our email inboxes soon overflowed with requests for more information and movies. Needless to say, the importance of this game was not lost on us. But all of this attention and hype—much of it generated by the media and gamers—may have come at a price. It's funny that
Chi draws a comparison to Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace—a movie that languished under unrealistic expectations—because in my opinion Konami's MGS2 Trial Edition may have suffered from similarly unrealistic expectations that set the bar just out of its reach.
I must confess that I have never been a big fan of Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation. That isn't to say that I didn't enjoy playing it, but I never found it to be such a euphoric experience that would cause me to proclaim it the best game ever. But after reading countless analyses from industry pundits and interviews with Hideo Kojima himself (ours included), I was more than a little eager to get my hands on this demo. My disappointment really doesn’t come from a lack of empathy for Kojima and what he was trying to do with his opus. As an appetizer, this MGS2 demo is a good one. But I have to wonder if you look past the visuals there are some flaws that hamper the entire product.
As soon as I started MGS2, I was overcome by a sense of déjà vu, similar to when I first picked up The Legend Of Zelda: Majora's Mask, the sequel to The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time; the great memories and emotions that I felt while playing the original came rushing back, reminding me why I loved the game to begin with. It was the same with MGS2. The melodic background music and Hollywood-style camera work pick up right where the original left off. Kojima's excellent direction and flair for the dramatic is on display right from the beginning and are just as visceral as they were with the original.
Even a passing glance would cause an observer to proclaim this game as the best representation of what the PlayStation2 can do in the hands of a talented developer. MGS2 may look amazing in still images and movies but none of that can compare to seeing the game running on PlayStation 2. The graphics, aliasing aside, are sharp and incredibly detailed. Sometimes when watching I wondered aloud whether it was CG or real-time graphics I was watching. I was very impressed by the extra graphical details Kojima incorporated into the game. The breath of nearby guards can be seen from a good distance away, and rain will fall on the screen whenever you pan the camera towards the sky. The detail packed into the game is no doubt a result of the PlayStation2, but it’s these little touches that Kojima chose to add that really set the game ahead of the competition.
Kojima added some much-needed features that I'm sure even the most loyal Metal Gear Solid fan would admit were needed. My favorites are Snake's newfound ability to peer around corners and down corridors and the new first-person perspective mode. It always bothered me how the despite the reversed over-the-shoulder perspective used when Snake stood against a wall, you would still have to use the overhead perspective to take care of an enemy. With this new technique I can not only check down corridors without using the on-screen radar, but I can also take quick shots at guards once their back is turned and duck back behind cover in one smooth motion. The first-person perspective is a great addition since it allows me to really see the action through Snake's eyes when it counts. If a guard comes up to me with a transparent bulletproof shield, I can switch to the first-person view and shoot around it.
Though the two features I mentioned make excellent additions to a Metal Gear Solid sequel, they are only hampered by the surprisingly cumbersome controls. As I mentioned, Snake can now look around corners, but doing so is not as easy as it may sound. For one thing, getting Snake to creep up to a corner or wall is made difficult since the camera angle changes. Where I was once pulling back and to the right on analog control stick, I had to consciously remember to keep doing so even though my brain was telling me to do the exact opposite. I found something as simple as sticking to a wall to be difficult to begin with because the controls were so flighty. If you are not precise in your handling of the analog stick, you could have Snake doing the exact opposite of what you intended. I can't count the number of times I went from hugging a wall to leaping out in front of an enemy (or enemies). It's doubtful that this will be changed or if it can even be changed given the design system, but it was an annoyance just the same.
Even this brief glimpse managed to scream "next-generation" with its beauty, attention to detail and innovative gameplay. There may be some chinks in MGS2's armor, but it is still early so Kojima make be in the process of correcting these issues as you read this. There is also the issue of the ever-important story elements not being fleshed out in this demo. That means that character interactions, dialogue and plot—some of Metal Gear Solid's strengths—cannot be judged just yet. Despite my gripes, I was still very impressed by this early taste of MGS2. It may not have struck me as the "second coming" as others in the industry seem to believe, but it will certainly be the game to watch when the 2001 Holiday season rolls around.
Tentative Rating of Trial Edition: 8.5
By Brad Gallaway
After what seems an eternity of hype and unbelievably high-gloss reports from nearly every game information source available, I have to say that the short piece of Metal Gear Solid 2 released on the Zone Of The Enders demo disc has lived up to every single bit of the talk so far.
Unlike Chi and Dale, I really enjoyed the original Metal Gear Solid (MGS) in a big way, and I’ve been a fan of the series since the original game way back on the NES. It’s quite clear to see from the demo that Snake’s come a long way since his 8-bit days, and every piece of evidence points to the likely event that Metal Gear Solid 2 will be Kojima’s ultimate masterpiece, and something to be universally respected.
While definitely not perfect, MGS hit the mark everywhere it counted. From what I’ve seen so far of the demo, MGS2 looks to completely outdo it not only visually, but also interactively. At the risk of sounding like every other magazine, Web site, reviewer and critic on earth, everything I saw was generally amazing. The intro, the graphics, the level of detail—everything. Since I’m sure most readers already know that you have to see MGS2 to believe it, I won’t spend any more time discussing the eye candy.
Graphics aside, the thing I found most entertaining about the demo and the thing that I perceive (so far) to be the biggest advancement is the amount of things you can actually DO as Solid Snake. Shoot guards on any part of their body, hide inside lockers and look out from the vent slits, hang from ledges and drop off—it’s all in here. To be honest, there are even more things to do that I didn’t even think to try, and that’s the part which has me so excited. Half of the enjoyment I had with the disc was just going around and seeing what kind of crazy maneuvers I could pull off, or how much of the environment wasn’t interactive (which is not much, honestly). If the rest of the game follows suit, we are looking at an incredibly high new watermark in videogames.
With a new level of interactivity, along with it comes a new level of control. I did have to sit down and take some time to get acclimated to the setup on the DualShock 2, which is even more complex than MGS, though it’s unavoidable due to having so many more actions available. I do agree with both Chi and Dale when they mention the camera’s problematic switch when leaning up against walls, and some of the more sophisticated moves took some effort as well as manual dexterity. Will these issues be a problem in the full version? It remains to be seen.
Other things I’m reserving judgment on include the storyline, voices and characterizations. Like was mentioned earlier, the demo still has Japanese voices, so the quality of the domestic version is currently unknown. Still, almost all of Kojima’s work has been universally praised as having consistently outstanding production values, so I’m not too worried. Hopefully Konami will tap the cast of the original game, as I felt most of the voices were as perfect as game voices get. David Hayter, the voice of Solid Snake in MGS, would be especially welcome for the sequel.
One of the areas that I would say MGS needed to improve was the plot and writing. While easily better than the majority of games made, MGS had enough elements in it for two games, possibly even three, which I felt diluted the overall impact and focus. Also, some of the characters had extremely long speeches that appeared predictably during the game, usually as they lay dying. While not major things, they helped to increase the game’s "cheese" factor, and this is one part of MGS2 which will I hope will be improved over the original. From the demo, it’s much too early to tell.
Overall, I came away from the small piece Konami has baited us with extremely impressed. The environment of the game and Snake’s place in it were extremely well-realized, and if the other areas in the game receive as much attention to detail as the first 15 minutes available from the demo, it’s going to be an unbelievable experience for gamers everywhere. Titles with the amount of promise Metal Gear Solid 2 displays come fewer than once a generation, and I hope that Hideo Kojima does everything necessary to bring the finished version to the highest level of quality possible while providing a huge jumpstart to the sagging PlayStation 2 as well as the entire world of videogames. The tough part now is that waiting for the final version will be even more grueling than it was before I had played the demo.
Tentative Rating of Trial Edition: 10
Somewhere between all the gaming, Chi some how managed to finish high school and get into the New York Institute of Technology. At the same time, Chi also interned at Virtual Frontiers, an Internet software consultancy where he learned the ways of HTML. Soon after acquiring his BFA, Chi went on to become the lead Web designer of the Anti-Defamation League. During his tenure there, Chi was instrumental in redesigning and relaunching the non-profit organization's Web site.
Today, Chi is the webmaster of the American Red Cross in Greater New York and somehow managed to work through the tragic events of September 11th without losing his sanity. Chi considers GameCritics.com his life's work and continues to be amazed that the web site is still standing after the recent dotcom fallout. It is his dream that GameCritics.com will accomplish two things: 1) Redefine the grammar of videogames much the same way French film critic Andre Bazin did for the art of cinema and 2) bring game criticism to the forefront of mainstream culture much the same way Siskel & Ebert did for film criticism.
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