April 16, 2015

That's A Wrap: Metal Gear Solid

warning: may contain spoilers 

I've been itching to replay this for some time now, so I finally cracked it open and accidentally beat it again instead playing whatever I promised I was playing. Whoops. Anyway, Metal Gear Solid is the first PS1 installment of the "Tactical Espionage Action" Metal Gear series, and remains among the best and most popular of the franchise. Chronologically, MGS takes place after Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, which was originally released exclusively in Japan for the MSX2. It can now be found in some form or another on PS2, PS3,  PSVita, Xbox 360 and Wii VC. MGS is a 3D upgrade from its predecessor, in that it's no longer a top-down only game.

I certainly can't recall exactly what I felt the first time playing MGS, but I doubt my opinion has swayed much. The game begins with a very militant and impressive set up, graphically and story-wise, teaching you a number of terms you may have never heard before and establishing strong character development and political interest. It succeeds in making you want to play more. Right now.

Do we really need to talk about graphics? Holy PS1 graphics, Batman. They did not age well. Nobody
You couldn't pay me, sweetheart.
has a face and everyone communicates with a series of awkward nods and polygon-erific gestures that were almost famous at the time. These days it unintentionally adds a great deal of comedy to the game. Unfortunately the cutscenes were shot with same game engine, so no beautiful FMVs here, folks. But they didn't let you believe this was all they were capable of. In MGS, you'll also see occasional fits of actual camera-shot footage to sweeten the deal, and there was a great attention to detail, too. Footprints in the snow, glass windows breaking, papers flying around while you fight in an office, blood on the walls and floors and scaredy cats pissing themselves… there are loads of effects like these to really help you sink in.

Now that the game has aged a bit, the sound for MGS is rather unimpressive and untrue. While the iconic effects and jingles waste no time stimulating your nostalgia sensors - or in my case, the "my phone is ringing!" reflex - the actual quality of the sound is pretty awful. Even famous Snake actor David Hayter doesn't quite sound like… Snake. In all, the voice acting - and there is a lot of it - is pretty standard stuff, I suppose. Hayter really succeeded in giving Snake a "solid" personality (ha ha ha) but the rest of the cast comes off a bit cartoon-y at times. Again, this was exceptionally common for games of the era and the fact that MGS employed as much VA as it did was an impressive feat on its own. Also, no one really sounded like anyone else, which means each character has their own defined sound for you to become accustomed to. All things considered, it was well handled, which stands as a tick in the "pro" column because in a game with no faces, understanding your characters is truly dependent on voice acting.
Among the worst sound effects is the one heard while you choke someone out. That said, there is a great satisfaction in hearing it. Many effects are used repeatedly to the point of annoyance - one strapped up ArmsTech president comes to mind - but other than that I can't offer any complaints. The game's iconic sound effects are used rather effectively, and add to the stealth and military themes of the game.
The music is not terribly noticeable as you play, but it's obvious that the soundtrack exists to assist in the formation of atmosphere, in the ambient sense, more often than not. So the music isn't a super important part of playing. If you go back and have a listen to the soundtrack alone, it's quite the pulse maker! There is a great use of different instruments across the frequency spectrum which makes the best use of the PS1's capabilities.

The Metal Gear series is very large and quite complex. Each game ties into the others, however they were made and released out of chronological order, so it's up to fans to piece together the story. In Metal Gear Solid, a splinter group of FOXHOUND has made terrorist threats to the American government, demanding the remains of the legendary soldier Big Boss, among other things, or they will launch a nuclear attack. Snake is brought out of retirement to infiltrate the group's headquarters, and complete two simple tasks: rescue DARPA chief Anderson, and confirm the organization's ability to follow through on nuclear threats. Of course, as you do so, you learn of a much bigger problem: the very real Metal Gear Rex, and it seems Snake's allies are hiding something from him… You spend most of the game tracking down key members and uncovering more info on the Metal Gear program, and finding out who your true friends are.
Truly the most amazing thing MGS has to offer is its writing. There is a brilliant and engrossing use of espionage and wartime aspects, science and technology (fictional or otherwise), comedy, and good ol' fashioned blowing shit up. It remains one of the most entertaining stories told via video game in history. The pace is impeccable and the way the secrets and excitement unfold leave Hideo Kojima virtually unmatched as a story teller. I'll be damned if you can put that controller down. That said, MGS is a very dialogue driven game. There is a lottttttttttttta talking in this game, folks. In fact, people - myself included - often joke that one does not play MGS, one watches it.
If you're someone who is easily put off by strong narratives and frequent dialogue interruptions, you'll want to put several thousand leagues between you and this game.

Our mission is carried out by the only playable character, Solid Snake, but you're not alone. With you always, via codec, are Colonel Campbell, Dr. Naomi Hunter and techy Mei Ling. You'll receive regular calls from these nosy people instructing you on gameplay or filling in plot holes. You can call Mei Ling to save your game and hear her quote literature. Then, you're introduced to the Colonel's niece (sorta) Meryl*. She's a hard-to-miss rookie soldier who becomes an integral part of Snake's journey. You'll also get regular calls from Snake's former mentor, Master Miller. He's a shady guy. In the early game, you'll cross paths with the aforementioned DARPA chief, Don Anderson, as well as ArmsTech president Kenneth Baker, who'll both reveal invaluable information regarding Metal Gear. You're given a codec frequency for Nastasha, a weapons specialist. Do with that as you please. And lastly, you'll rescue and befriend a curious fellow named Hal Emmerich - possibly the most famous MG character, next to Snake… SNAAAKE! *dun dun duh!*
The FOXHOUND degenerates consist of Revolver Ocelot, an allegedly Russian, Western-style shooter who uses - get this - a revolver; Sniper Wolf, the lady of the gang, and - you're not gonna believe this either - a sniper!; Vulcan Raven, who feels at home in a tank or… with ravens…; Decoy Octopus whom you may or may not meet… he's a master of disguise; Psycho Mantis is easily my favorite of the baddies. He uses telekinetic and telepathic powers to cause you all sorts of problems. And of course this motley crew is lead by Snake's opposite - yet the same in so many ways - Liquid Snake.
And then there are casual appearances by a random cyborg ninja…
The amazing thing about MGS is that every person I just mentioned gets a great deal of character development and none are lackluster. You really fall in love with every character and want to know more about them. To accomplish so much information delivery in so little time, all of your adversaries die soap opera deaths and try to suddenly repent for their crimes. This is by far the cheesiest component of the writing but it does convey information effectively.

And here we have our blurry PS1 screen shot of glory. Just to the right of center is our protagonist. This is one area where the game went back to its top-down roots. In the top right is my radar, which demonstrates bad guys with red dots, good guys with green dots, doors with red squares, camera fields of view in yellow and enemy FOV in blue. These are important to take note of because it'll determine your path through the area. And that's it, you'll have to use the actual visual to determine elevation, find stairs and so on. Also, your radar likes to jam frequently, rendering it unusable. Thankfully, this won't normally bother you during standard movement and exploration, just during special areas and boss fights.
To open doors you'll need the proper clearance, in the form of a PAN card. You'll receive a whole bunch of these throughout the game at difference security levels, but if you try to enter a door without the proper clearance it'll just beep at you.
You can have two things equipped at any time: one item and one weapon. To the bottom left you'll see I have the level 1 PAN card equipped so I can quickly move through level 1 doors without having to retrieve the card every single time. Most items work this way, you'll have to have them "equipped" to make use of their function. Some items, like rations, don't have an automatic trigger, though. You can equip them if you want to - which is helpful during boss battles - to have them handy, but you'll still have to toggle the item menu and press circle to use them. Most of the time I just use one and then quickly reequip whatever item I need at the time. Naturally, that means the box on the bottom right is my weapon. You can see I have a gun equipped and 18 of a possible 25 bullets to spare.
You can cycle through all of these inventories by pressing and holding L2 and R2 respectively, then use your D-pad to scroll through and choose. If the indicators on the screen distract you, you can disappear them by tapping L or R.
When you receive a codec call, an image will pop up on the center of your screen, in addition to hearing the legendary codec ring tone.
The last thing that might pop up is health bars, in the top left corner. These come in a few different
formats. As expected, you'll often see Snake's health, labelled "LIFE." If he's put into a scenario in which his air supply is limited, another bar will pop up directly underneath ("O2") which indicates how long you can breathe. It will slowly deplete as long as you are in the comprised situation, and once it runs out your life bar will start to shrink in its place. Your life bar, as well as other stats and capacities, will increase a little after every boss battle. And speaking of bosses, their life bars will also pop up during battles, right under Snake's. You'll use this to plan your battle (in the case of Ocelot, you'll actually see his weapon on screen, too, so you can have an idea of his attacks).

Technically a lot of things in MGS are optional, but I wouldn't say there are any true side quests. It's up to you to explore and find every upgrade and weapon, but that's about it. There are a few mini-game type additions to the game, at least one of which is very prominent.** Snake is subject to electrical torture, and the player is expected to participate in a sort of "test your might" challenge, pounding the circle button to keep Snake alive for increasing amounts of time. It's especially quirky when your adversary makes a point of telling you he'll know if you're using a turbo or "auto fire" controller. This game was so interesting in its ability to detect your hardware.

Part of what makes MGS so fun and tactical is the inventory you can collect and use throughout your adventure. Let's have a look at some:
Rations restore some health; Your scope is essentially a telescope or binoculars. Zoom in, y'all; Diazepam relieves shaking while sniping; Cold medicine… I'll give you one guess…; Cigarettes are addictive and a part of this balanced Snake. Also you can see lasers and shit; Body armor needs to be equipped to cut damage taken. Then you get various ID cards and PAN card for getting around, as well as a handkerchief, ketchup and other such commonly found things at a nuclear waste disposal site. Their uses will present themselves around the time you get them. You can also acquire useful upgrades such as a gas mask, thermal googles, a mine detector and night vision goggles - which will lock you into first person mode. Boo. And last but not least… in fact it is, by far, the greatest thing MG has to offer: cardboard boxes. You'd think I was making a joke just there but I'm not. Cardboard boxes have provided MGS fans more entertainment then everything else combined, and they do have practical uses, too! Climbing into one will "ship" you to the location associated with the box, and they'll sometimes hide you in sticky situations. But mostly you just laugh and get peed on.
If you give up on stealth, combat is typically handled in one of three ways: shoot 'em, choke 'em, or punchpunchkick. I say that because I mean it literally and because it comes with its own set of sound effects. For shooting, you'll gather a few options: the SOCOM pistol, straight and true; the FA-MAS assault rifle, for when you need many bullets at once; the Nikita launcher, a fun little challenge. It's a missile launcher, but you have to control the projectile yourself, which accelerates and you'll need quick fingers to get where you're going; the PSG1 Sniper Rifle is pretty self-explanatory but comes with its own challenges, namely that you can't hold it steady… or can you? You'll also come by a stinger launcher (surface-to-air missile); claymores (mines) which need to be salvaged from the ground; C4 (explosive) and three types of grenades: ordinary, stun and chaff, which blow shit up, stun shit up, and disable shit up (temporarily renders cameras and turrets unable to detect you, but it'll mess up your radar, too!), respectively. Good fun.
Items and ammo refills will appear throughout the stages as rotating boxes; simply passing through them will have Snake collect, unless your inventory is maxed out.

But the most memorable and outstanding feature in MGS is the codec. This is the communication device used by most characters. Essentially, it's a radio. You tune it to the frequency you'd like and contact the person on the other end. But that's not very high tech is it? Well, the codec is buried deep into the person's ear so no one can see it, nor can they hear another's conversation unless tuned into the same frequency with a monitor on. The codec is used… basically nonstop in MGS. You will be bombarded by calls, and if you really want the full experience, you'll be making a few yourself. You'll collect different frequencies on your journey and be able to contact a variety of people for different reasons. If the codec calls slow you down, you can ignore them or power through by mashing the X button. Otherwise press select to answer. To make calls, open the codec (via select) and tune it by pressing the D-pad left or right until you've got the right frequency, then simply press circle to call.  Pressing down while the codec is open will open up your "phone book" and give you quick access to anyone you've spoken to before.

Beyond that there isn't much else to see inside MGS! Your items and weapons menus are accessed on screen, and the only other thing to do is pause, which just freezes your screen as is. There are, however, a few things to check out when you first pop the disc in:
New Game> Start a new campaign.
Load Game> Load a saved file from your memory card.
Option> Edit game options like captions, sounds and vibrations.
Briefing> Shows you a nifty little video that precedes the game, then leads to the "briefing file" which offers some more information.
Special> Takes you to text summaries of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. A little extra education in case you don't understand something in this game!
VR Training***> A fun, outside mini game which will help you hone the skills necessary to beat MGS. Most stages require you to get from point A to B while meeting the stage's requirements and challenges. There are 10 initial stages, and then you unlock 'time attack mode'.
It's also worth noting that MGS for the PS1 is a multiple disc game, so you'll be prompted to switch discs when the time comes.

***Some versions of MGS won't have VR Training or "VR Missions" as it was actually tacked on after the initial release in Japan. They later released them on a bonus disc, and integrated VR into rereleases of MGS down the road. If I recall correctly, Twin Snakes does not offer VR training.

The controls for MGS are truly funny. At the time, the controls for this and other PS1 games were so exciting because of the new, sleek controller and its many buttons. But after so many years, I gotta say the controls are pretty clunky. The PS1 era has kind of been buried by new control maps, so the commands for MGS feel a bit off, but you'll adapt to them in time… or you'll die. Whatever.
If you've got your analog enabled, the left stick will shuffle our scruffy hero around, otherwise the D-pad does the trick. Pressing X will cause Snake to crouch down, and is usually the cancel button as well. Consequently, circle is the input button where applicable, pressing it otherwise will tell Snake to show you his mean left hook. Triangle is an interesting button, it puts the game into first-person mode. For as long as you hold the button down, you'll see things through Snake's eyes, and a FOV will pop up on the radar for you, too! Square is pretty useless in everyday gettin' around, but becomes your fire button while in combat. If you're using the SOCOM, holding square instead of tapping will lock on and then fires upon release.

The game offers you easy, normal, or hard mode as your jumping off point, and you can unlock extreme mode afterward. The major differences are the effectiveness of items, damage dealt by bad guys, the difficulty of bosses and other small nuances (like the length of the mini game). On hard mode you'll not have access to your radar, either, so I don't really recommend it unless you've played the game before. Really the difficulty of the game lays in your ability to slow down and figure things out. If you rush, you'll get caught in situations unprepared and get stuck wasting a lot of time running around and fighting meaningless fights. That said, the trickiness of the game wears off after a while. Once you've been playing for a bit, you'll be accustomed not only to the controls, but you'll be able to better predict enemy patterns and feel more comfortable around them and the camera's line-of-sights. Knowing what you're doing goes a long way in MGS. I've played this game on all modes at some point or another, this time on normal. As I said, I found the mechanics of the game to be trickier than anything else, but I also went into this with a great deal of experience, so there was no need for me to fuss with boss strategies and the like. The bosses in MGS range from annoyingly running in circles to more simple "point and shoot" motifs, but the game offers some of the most unique boss experiences a gamer can have, regardless.

When it's all said and done, I can beat MGS in about 9 or 10 hours. That isn't necessarily impressive but a rookie could do worse. This is partially because the game isn't very long, partially because I'm kind of a pro now (I remembered almost everything this playthrough) and partially because this game is very easy to play in one or two sittings, as I did this time. Because the game sucks you in, time seems to evaporate and suddenly the game is over. This is one of a very few games that I recommend playing in as long bursts as you are able. It's much more effective that way.

I don't think I could suggest any improvements for MGS that could be handled by anything other than a(nother) remake. The graphics desperately need an update, the script could use a rerecord, some of the sound effects need replacing and the controls need to be updated. That said, I'll be perfectly content if they never remake MGS. The game is so good anyway and brings a lot of nostalgia to the table for me, so I'm still happy playing this wonky Playstation copy.
But fear not, children. MGS has been ported all over the damn place and made available to you on nearly every Sony system: PS1, PSP, PS3, PSVita and PC. You can also get the Twin Snakes remake on Gamecube. I don't care what you play it on, if you like fast-paced, action games with a strong narrative, this is the game for you. If you dislike stealth and long cutscenes, this is not the game for you. As I said before, chronologically speaking, MGS isn't the beginning of the story, but that doesn't make it a bad starting point for new MG fans. There will be a few plot holes and mechanics that won't be familiar to you, but all in all MGS is a solid, standalone game that will keep you busy regardless of your knowledge or interest in the rest of the series. And if you do want to play the others, MGS will give you an introduction to key players and tactics that you will carry on to the other games.

  • *For those of you that don't have the "CD case," Meryl's frequency is 140.15
  • **This determines your ending! If you survive the torture you get the Meryl ending. If you give up, you get the Otacon ending.
  • Remember, you're a spy. Don't be hasty. Take cover and watch for enemy patterns. 
  • And while you're at it, get familiar with your surroundings, too. There is a certain degree of backtracking in this title so it doesn't hurt to know where you're going. Also helps for those sticky times when your radar gives out.
  • When it comes to security cameras, you can slip by by sticking to the walls directly beneath them.
  • Thermal goggles are your friend. They'll help you get through laser traps and, in a pinch, they work for detecting mines, too. There are a number of battles where these bad boys come in handy, as well. Make sure you find them!

1 comment:

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