Metal Gear Solid, released in 1998 by Konami and directed by Hideo Kojima, is a strong candidate for the best game on the Playstation and a personal favorite of mine. At the time of writing this Metal Gear Solid 5 is on the way, but more immediately it’s prequel game Ground Zeroes is released this month.
So it’s feels about time for a little trip to the world of Solid Snake and company.
The game centers on a nuclear disposal facility that has been taken over by a group of elite terrorists, and led by former members of the Special Forces unit Fox Hound. They are demanding a large ransom, or else they will launch a nuclear attack. Another former Foxhound member, codenamed Solid Snake, is called into action out of retirement, to help rescue the hostages within the facility and stop the nuclear threat. As it turns out however the base is more than just a disposal site; it’s where a new weapon is being developed, named Metal Gear Rex, a bipedal mech, capable of launching nuclear warheads.
There are ties to the previous games in the series, Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake (Metal Gear 2: Snakes Revenge isn’t in cannon), but the links are weak enough that you don’t need to have played them, so it’s best to think of Metal Gear Solid as it’s own separate series, especially since the MSX versions of both games are a little hard to come by (at least in the UK, where I live).
But for those who don’t know, Metal Gear follows Solid Snake on a mission to infiltrate an enemy base and destroy a nuclear-armed walking mech called Metal Gear. Sound familiar? That’s because the plot to every Metal Gear Solid game is more or less the same (with Peace Walker and to a certain extent 4 being the exceptions, but we’ll cover those games when we come to them). Another factor is the final battle which follows the fight with Metal Gear; the Big Boss! In the first game Big Boss was your commander, giving you updates and advice over the radio, until it’s revealed that he was the leader of the terrorists all along. That’s one hell of a twist! Imagine if Navi in the Legend of Zelda turned out to be the soul of Gannon at the very end! This is a theme that also continues into every game (bar Peace Walker, but again we’ll cover that when we come to it), with the final boss representing Big Boss in some way, which we’ll cover later. But this is something to bare in mind; it’s like the old school method of game plot, with each game having pretty much the same framing device: in Mega Man it’s beat the Robot Masters then Dr Willey at the end, or in Super Mario it’s defeat Bowser and rescue Princess Peach. However here there are also individual plots surrounding each game, so it doesn’t feel like rehashing. In this regard, Metal Gear succeeds where most games fail, having that familiar framing device without it feeling stale.
But onto the game itself.
Gameplay is focused on the idea of stealth; traversing the map undetected by your enemies, using tools you find along the way, like grenades designed to counter security measures like cameras, or a cardboard box to hide for enemies. You also have a few helpful moves, like knocking on walls to attract guards, or a chokehold to break a guards neck undetected. There are also weapons, but you feel incentivized to avoid using them. Ammo is limited for example, and it’s a little hard to aim, with your feet planted on the ground while you aim, unless you do a strange hand motion to hold down one button while tapping another. It feels difficult to fight, which I think was the point. Take for example in Castlevania, where you’re whip is sluggish and your jumping is limited, making the use of item weapons is imperative in certain situations. The restrictions cause the player to play a certain way, driving home the focus on stealth rather than shooting.
This does lead to a huge problem with the game however, since there are sections where you have to fight. But you’re still using the stiff gun controls designed for stealth gameplay. You’re practically handicapped! You can’t have these restricted controls, and then throw in a situation where they are a hindrance. It’s like giving someone a tennis racket to play tennis, then half way through the game switches to baseball. You aren’t given the right tools for every task! There’s also a radio to call of help from your support team; they provide you with advice, information on the building your in, allow you to save and inform you on the weapon you’re currently holding. It’s pretty cool and immersive to keep these tutorials optional unless you want them, and feels organic to gameplay.
The biggest aspect of the game in my eyes is the story, and the cinematic approach. Bare in mind, at this point my experience with narrative in games was limited to “the bad guy has the princess! Get her back!” so this was a huge deal for me. On top of that, the game begins with opening credits showing the voice actors, again like a movie. Another huge factor in the games is the amount of cut scenes, which provide exposition and allow for character development. Some people find these long winded and boring, but I personally enjoy them, and love getting immersed in the story. With plot twists, character motivations and backstories; you can tell that the heart of the game lies in its plot.
It does have its issues however. At one point a character starts talking about how nuclear weapons and waste aren’t properly stored, which I found confusing until the credits where I was kindly informed of how many nuclear warheads there are in the world. They actually tried to shoehorn in an environmental message!
There’s also a part near the end of the game where the last boss starts talking about Gulf war syndrome and soldiers, which just seemed to go nowhere and made no sense. It could have been a line of dialogue, but it turned into an essay on the mistreatment of soldiers in a modern military.
I guess it depends on if your personal preference if you enjoy these or not, so I’ll let you make the call.
But the story isn’t told at the expense of gameplay however; Metal Gear Solid is littered with cool little moments, like using the CD case to find a radio frequency, or a boss who reads your save data and judges you on your play style. The biggest for me is the torture sequence; you’re strapped to a table and have to mash the buttons while Snake is electrocuted. If you’re life drains all the way you die, and you have no option to continue from the last checkpoint. That’s right, this is the only section of the game with perma-death! You can restore your last save thankfully, but first time through you’re not going to know this is coming, and it could be over an hour since your last save! During this sequence you have the option to surrender, but these leads to a characters death as a result and decides the ending you’re faced with. It really uses the game itself to draw into its world, and immerses you without you really realizing it.
I don’t usually talk about boss battles in particular, but in the case of Metal Gear Solid, every boss battle is unique and memorable.
First up is Revolver Ocelot; a gun battle in a room full of columns, where the middle is wired with explosives so the battle takes place around the sides, using the columns for cover. Well, he uses cover. Ocelot can actually ricochet bullets to hit you when you’re hiding. However his weapon, as his name suggests, is a revolver, so he can only use 6 shots before he has to reload, which takes him a while, leaving you an opening to get some shots in. This fight feels designed around the limited combat scheme, giving you a chance to take aim and shoot, and not forcing you to act in a way that the game can’t handle.
The next memorable boss is a ninja named Grey Fox, who forces you to use hand to hand combat rather than your weapons, occasionally turning invisible and turning the battle into a form of hide and seek. Again, this forces a different style of gameplay. We had a fight based around guns with Revolver Ocelot, so now we have one that not only forces you to use a different form of gameplay to win, but also puts you in the position of the hunted against a foe using stealth.
The next boss is debatably the most memorable, Psycho Mantis. He starts by using the controllers vibrate function to “move it with his mind” (mine’s vibration function didn’t work when I fought him, making me feel like I was humoring the poor guy) and reading your data and judging your play style. Then the weirdest thing is that he’s able to read your every move, so you can’t hit him! So how do you win? By switching the controller over to the second controller port. OF COURSE! It’s a great example of using the gameplay in a creative and interesting way.
Then you’re pitted against Sniper Wolf, which forces you to use a sniper rifle to fight at long range. Again, it’s forcing you to use a different play style and makes the battle feel unique. Especially in the rematch, which takes place in the midst of a snowstorm, making the cat and mouse game even more intense.
Next up is Vulcan Raven, a giant dude carrying a mini gun. The battle requires you to use stealth, and use explosives from behind. It also benefits you to use traps, and place claymores in positions where he’s heading, or at least where you think he’s heading.
And finally you face against Metal gear itself, and it’s truly a sight to behold. Fans of Shadow of the Colossus will have some idea of the scale this thing has to your character, which was something new at the time. Bosses were usually just a bit taller than you in the days of 3D gaming, but you barely come up to this things foot! The trick being to stun the titanic machine with Chaff grenades and unloading your missile launcher, so you better hope that you’ve been saving up.
To cap off the Metal Gear experience, we have the stand in for Big Boss, this time being his son, Liquid Snake.
A bit of backstory here; Both Solid and Liquid Snake are clones of Big Boss (there’s also Solidus, but he comes in later…), so Liquid is the stand in for Big Boss in this game.
It’s another fistfight, but this time the fight is confined to a small arena on top of the defeated Metal Gear, where a fall of the edge will lead to certain death. Unlike Grey Fox you’re left with little room to maneuver, so the fight feels tighter and more personal.
There are also fights against a tank and a helicopter, both of which require different forms of gameplay to defeat, but the memorable ones are the members of Foxhound. Each has their own backstory and motivations, reveled when you fight them, starting the Metal Gear tradition of allowing you to learn more about the characters and to an extent empathize with them. Each fight is different in it’s own way and forces new ways of experiencing the game.
To sum up, Metal Gear Solid is a fantastic game and a must for any Playstation owner. It’s one of the best for a reason, with its creative use of gameplay, cinematic approach and excellent stealth mechanics. It’s restricted controls only really affect the game in a few cases, as opposed to being a constant issue, and the long cinematics may put off some gamers, so it’s something to bare in mind if your considering buying this one.
With such a fantastic game, you’d think that the sequel would be even better, right?………Right???