Snake? SNAAAAAAAAAAAAKE!!!

Posted: April 15, 2011 in Gaming
Tags: , , ,

The week in which I tackled the entire Metal Gear Solid series: only horrifying when you remember that each game is somewhere in the region of 20 hours long.

Metal Gear Solid

Metal Gear Solid

…is a game that I played way back in 1998, and on its box, above the game’s title, was written “tactical espionage action”. Alongside another game released a few months earlier called Tenchu: Steal Assassins, those three words marked the birth of gaming’s “stealth action” genre…or – at the very least – propelled it to erstwhile unheard of heights. These were games that challenged you, not with killing everyone in your path with the biggest, baddest guns you could get your hands on, but rather with employing stealth and cunning to avoid enemies altogether and complete your objectives without ever being seen. For the first time, you found yourself studying the guards’ patrol routes from a safe distance, disrupting security cameras with chaff grenades, and – if you were forced to take an enemy out – dragging their bodies to out-of-the-way locations so as not to alert their buddies. Indeed, one of the most iconic tropes in the series is the ability to avoid discovery by hiding under a cardboard box.

Metal Gear was also game-changing in its production values and director Hideo Kojima’s cinematic vision. Voice acting had already come a long way since the ever-quotable Resident Evil 1 (2:30 still makes me laugh out loud), but Metal Gear wasn’t just not bad; it was really very good. When a character first appears, their name is displayed on-screen alongside that of their respective voice actors. I feel certain this was a career boon for all involved, as opposed to the “talents” of Res 1, who – evidently – were too embarrassed to even provide surnames. (She never worked again? Quelle shock!)

The story goes that a splinter cell of the special forces unit, FOXHOUND, has lead an armed uprising on a remote island in Alaska’s Fox Archipelago. This island, codenamed Shadow Moses, is the site of a nuclear weapons disposal facility, and the forces that have seized control have, in doing so, acquired the nuclear-capable mecha, Metal Gear REX. They’re now threatening the US government with a nuclear reprisal if they don’t receive the remains of the legendary mercenary Big Boss within 24 hours. This is where you come in. The game’s protagonist is Solid Snake (plain old “Snake” to his friends): a likewise legendary infiltrator and saboteur, and star of two relatively obscure titles back when games looked like this. Ostensibly sent in to locate key hostages, Snake is soon faced with some inconvenient truths, such as that he was actually deployed to wipe out the terrorists so that the government can reclaim REX, and that both he and the terrorists’ leader, Liquid Snake, were the product of a government-funded genetics program to clone Big Boss and create the “ultimate soldier”.

During the mission, Snake receives support and advice via the codec radio in his inner ear: everyone from the radio’s inventor and technical wunderkind, Mei Ling, to his old survival coach, Master Miller (who – in one of the game’s most shocking twists – turns out to have been Liquid Snake all along!). Arguably though, the game is most memorable for its cast of villains: the elite FOXHOUND, who you’ll fight toe-to-toe with in the fields in which they excel. This ranges from a one-on-one gunfight with Revolver Ocelot, a Western-style gunslinger and expert interrogator, to a sniper battle in a sprawling snowfield against the beautiful and deadly, Sniper Wolf. Most famous, however, is the complete mindfuck of an encounter with über-creepy telepath, Psycho Mantis, who reads your mind (with some assistance from the PlayStation’s memory card) and predicts your every move…until you plugged your controller into the other port. The fights were epic (did I mention he takes on a Russian Hind D helicopter single-handed?), and the game meta in a way that few had ever been before. When one first teams up with rookie soldier, Meryl, we’re told that we can find her codec frequency on the back of the box. Which box? The game’s, of course! (As a complete aside, I just spent a good 10 minutes trying to find a picture of the back cover on Google before it occurred to me to just take one myself.)

And yet, in spite of my obvious (increasingly verbose) love for the game, I just never got round to tackling any of its sequels. It was thus – armed with 13 years of nostalgia and the entire MGS back catalogue – that I sat down to play:

Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes

…which isn’t technically a sequel, but rather the “remastered” version of the original, released on the GameCube several years later. I figured this would be the best place to start given that it had been at least a decade since the last time Snake and I spent any quality time together, and quickly came to regret that decision. As it turns out, they meant “remastered” in the Star Wars sense, which is to say ruined. It featured an array of new abilities taken from the then-already-released MGS2 (such as the ability to use lockers as hiding places for Snake or anyone he happens to have murdered), and a graphical overhaul that, 7 years later, isn’t all that impressive.

Where the fail really lies, however, is in the acting: which is made all the more inexplicable by the fact that all of the voices were provided by the original cast. It really is like someone sat them down and said, “Ok, guys, just like last time…only shit” and the minute I heard “This is Nastasha Romanenko, a pleasure to work with you, Solid Snake,” spoken in a worse Russian accent than Linka from Captain Planet, my heart just sank. It only went downhill from there. Snake spends the entire game doing his best impression of Batman-as-interpreted-by-Christian-Bale and Mei Ling and Dr. Naomi Hunter have both lost their accents completely in favour of what is presumably the actresses’ native North American tongue. Almost every cut scene, too, has been “updated” with John Woo-style, slow-mo, bullet-time action sequences; the most egregious of which sees Snake jump in the air and land on a missile…fired from a helicopter. Any scenes of a sombre nature have also been duly stripped of all subtlety. Case in point: spot the difference! I’ll give you a hint: one of them is shit. I mean it’s not bad enough that they turned Sniper Wolf into Ke$ha, but they somehow succeeded in draining her death scene of any emotion whatsoever, and took out the most beautiful piece of music in the entire fucking game in the process! It’s a sad day and age when you’re being out-acted by polygonal faces who can’t make expressions.

Insult to injury. I tried to wipe it from my memory the minute it was over by starting MGS2, only to receive a “disc read error” from my PS2. Thankfully I was through in Dundee that week, and my brother very kindly donated me his on account of the fact that it was gathering dust in his living room. More thankfully still, before I knew that the PS2 itself was at fault, I attempted to clean the disc using toothpaste at the behest of many a website, which turned out not to have ruined it entirely. Sadly the same can’t be said for the poor bastard in the comments section, who wrote that “Using a toothbrush scratched the CD way more than it was before.” (Toothpaste, you idiot, paste!)

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

As the first direct sequel to the PS1 hit, MGS2 had a lot to live up to; and in the eyes of a lot of people, it didn’t. This was largely considered the fault of that naked gentleman above, though whether coincidentally or not, I rather enjoyed it. His name is Raiden (pronounced correctly as “Rye-den” – the Japanese word for thunder and lightning – and not “Ray-den” like the thunder god from Mortal Kombat who apparently can’t say his own name right), and he normally wears a little more in the way of clothing. The perceived problem with him (and by extension, the game) is, as far as I can gather, that he wasn’t Snake

Rather, MGS2 is split into two chapters: first, the “Tanker” (where you do, in fact, reprise the role of everyone’s favourite gravel-voiced hero) which forms a prologue to the “Plant” (where Raiden takes over for the remaining 80% of the game). The opening sees you sneak aboard a ship as our original protagonist in order to recover data on the new counter-Metal Gear unit: the amphibious Metal Gear RAY. It was constructed in response to the multiple Metal Gears that have been built by various factions all over the world since REX’s original design was leaked. After the reappearance of Revolver Ocelot (fresh from having the now-deceased Liquid Snake’s arm – and, apparently, consciousness – attached to his person), it all goes a bit awry. The newly-formed Liquid Ocelot escapes with RAY, sinking the tanker, and Snake along with it.

We then move two years into the future, where Raiden has been sent to the site of the tanker’s destruction (now a clean-up facility called Big Shell, under siege by the terrorist group, Dead Cell) to recover the US president. Along the way, he encounters Iroquois Pliskin, a man who is so obviously Snake that you frequently want to punch Raiden in the face for not realising it sooner. Dead Cell is formed of bomb and rollerblade enthusiast, Fatman; a woman for whom no bullet can find its mark named Fortune (“Lucky in war and nothing else”); and – just to bring it all full-circle – a bisexual sociopath named Vamp who, as a child, was in a church explosion caused by Fatman and had to drink his parents blood to survive and that went on to become fuck buddies Fortune’s dad (and possibily Fortune herself) who was serving aboard the tanker destroyed by Ocelot at the beginning of the game. Still with me? Good. Oh, and their leader is Solidus Snake: a third clone in the project that created Solid and Liquid. BOOM!

Communicating with you via codec is Colonel Campbell from the first game, and Raiden a.k.a. Jack’s girlfriend, Rose. Gee, I wonder where they came up with that, dur-hur. She’s an annoying cunt, and 90% of your communications with her follow the pattern of “Jack, you forgot our anniversary. Why won’t you open up to me, Jack. Jack, I’m pregnant. Jack?” Tragically, every one of those is a real – albeit paraphrased – conversation that actually takes place. There’s also one particularly confusing exchange between Raiden and Snake Pliskin which goes as follows:
Snake: That’s how he acquired a taste for blood.
Raiden: So that’s why they call him Vamp.
Snake: No. ‘Vamp’ isn’t for vampire. It’s because he’s bisexual.
I’m sorry, Snake, I’m not sure if I follow? (I did, however, enjoy Raiden’s moral outrage at Vamp’s “closeness” to Fortune when he was also her father’s lover, to which Snake counters, “Would it have been better if it was with her mother?” Touché!)

In either event, it emerges that Raiden, too, is being fucked around by the government, and we soon learn that Big Shell is not, in fact, a treatment facility, but rather the latest “Arsenal Gear” which houses a powerful AI supercomputer capable of controlling and manipulating the transmission of all digital information across the globe. The presidential elections and democratic process are also revealed as a sham, and we find out that the true rulers of the United States are a shadowy organization known as the Patriots. And all of this would be fine, nay, interesting, except that the storyline soon gets a little too bogged down in its own post-modern, moral message. Metal Gear 1 is an obvious indictment of nuclear warfare, but never to the extent that it’s a game about nuclear warfare. In MGS2, however, the whole commentary on information distribution and freedom of speech in the second half of the game ultimately overtakes the entire plot, to the point where it loses a lot of the immediacy in the events of the actual characters. Add to which, the game has some long-ass cut scenes, and no ability to pause them should you find, 5 minutes into an hour-long movie, that you really need to pee. This is exacerbated by the fact that the ratio of movies to gameplay feels decidedly weighted in the former’s favour; and I genuinely believe that if you removed the cut scenes and codec conversations, the game would be about 2 hours long.

It also plays a lot like the first one, which is arguably the whole point after we discover that the Patriots are actually putting Raiden through a set of events to mirror Shadow Moses, but that doesn’t make it any less derivative. The game starts out strong (I loved sneaking aboard the tanker to take pictures of Metal Gear RAY, and finding/defusing the bombs hidden across Big Shell) and playing Raiden instead of Snake didn’t bother me nearly as much as it did the rest of the zomg Raiden is teh fagz0rz extent it did the rest of the MGS-loving community (an argument summed up perfectly in this one image). It does, however, lose momentum towards its conclusion, and falls into a few pitfalls like the penchant in Japanese games for making you defend a frustratingly helpless girl for the better part of 30 minutes whilst (literally) dragging her about by the hand. (Resident Evil was frequently guilty of this until Sheva came along.) I don’t think it deserves nearly the degree of flak it seems to have received over the years, but it’s also not competing for my favourite title in the series. Unlike:

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

…which I’d describe – with no small degree of ambivalence – as the Metal Gear I most and least enjoyed. Before we explore my bipolarity however, a plot outline. Snake Eater takes us back to 1964, and though our protagonist looks and sounds an awful lot like Snake, the time period reveals to us that we’re witnessing the origin story of the man who will later become Big Boss. Since Big Boss is rather recognisable for his dashing eyepatch, we can also feel safe in the certainty that he’s going to encounter some ocular mishap over the course of the game. It’s set during the Cold War, where “Naked” Snake (so named because he’s initially unarmed and undertaking a one-man sneaking mission; not because he’s setting a precedent for Raiden to follow in several decades time) is sent to the jungles of Tselinoyarsk in the still-extant USSR. His mission is to rescue a defecting Soviet scientist named Sokolov who’s secretly developing an advanced nuclear-equipped tank called the “Shagohod” (the “Metal Gear” of MGS3, though the eponymous mecha does still make a cameo in its fledgling stages). However, due to the apparent treachery of Naked Snake’s mentor and spiritual mother, The Boss, he’s soon charged with stopping the renegade faction she’s joined (lead by burly,  S&M aficionado, Colonel Volgin) to prevent an all-out nuclear war.

The game’s setting is both its greatest strength, and biggest downfall. MGS has, easily, the best, most coherent story of the lot. It plays (rather intentionally) like a classic Bond movie, right down to Naked Snake’s frequent rendezvous with sexy double agent (and consummate Bond girl), codename: EVA. Its aware of its own ridiculousness, and even has a campy theme song that harks to the best of ’60s/’70s-era Bond. It also captures the ‘espionage’ aspect better than any of the others, allowing you to camouflage yourself in the jungle, pose as a Russian scientist, and wear a hat made from a crocodile to avoid detection when swimming through the water. More importantly, it also balanced the gameplay to cut-scene ratio quite considerably better than MGS2, and most of your time spent playing the game is actually spent playing the game. As a by-product, it also gave me quite the crush on young, homoerotic Ocelot, before he becomes the moustached lothario Solid Snake duels with 40 years later.

Where it went wrong for me was the introduction of an actual, external menu. One of the series’ greatest strengths is in complete immersion, and having to physically take yourself out of the game – and you will: often – ruins that suspension of disbelief that every other aspect of the game tries to build on. A slightly bigger issue is that I hated the very feature the game is named for; to wit – the ability to hunt the jungles myriad fauna to keep up your stamina. It’s not my PETA-like leanings that stopped me from relishing the opportunity to go all Rambo on Soviet Russia’s ass, just that you so often find yourself in the middle of a high-octane escape from twenty armed soldiers, only to find that Snake skipped breakfast and is now too hungry to run any further. This reaches unbearable heights at the end when you’re also providing for an injured EVA, who eats like a fucking hog and leaves you with nothing – nothing – to take into the final boss fight. (I later read that you can simply knock her out and drag her through the jungle, but that information came too late to prevent my rage-induced aneurysm.)

Snake also gets genuinely injured in the game, and the menu provides you with a first-aid system to treat his more critical wounds. Having to apply a styptic, disinfectant, suture and bandage to every fucking cut and burn he receives is painfully laborious; especially when you frequently encounter bosses that specialise in cutting and/or burning you. Similarly, the camouflage system (represented by a percentage in the top right of the screen which tells you how “invisible” you are to the Ruskis) might have been enjoyable but for the fact that you have to manually go through the menu to use it; separately changing the pattern on both his face and clothing. And – where the game’s camp, ’60s milieu starts to fail it – is in the technology department. I appreciate that jumping 40 years in the past would necessitate a few downgrades, but everything from your sonar to your thermal goggles has a battery life, which is steadily depleting alongside your stamina and your health and your invisibility. It ‘s just too many mundane variables to keep track of, and worrying about your stomach rumbling or your battery going flat at the most inopportune moments gets really old, really fast. Limiting the amount of weapons/accessories Snake can carry at one time is also a pain in the ass, as was – again – having to go through the menu to change them.

One of my biggest frustrations – that made me actively hate the game for the first two hours – was that being spotted by one guard would immediately put every other guard in the area on high alert. What I liked about MGS2 was that even if you fucked up taking out one enemy soldier, he’d still have to call for backup to alert anyone else that they were in similar danger. In Snake Eater, it’s like every guard is fitted with his own silent alarm which – ironically – might have been believable in any of the later entries, but given that this one is set in a time where radios are the height of technology, it just served to piss me off. Feasibly, the reason I liked the latter half of the game so much more than the former was that I actually just got better at it and could avoid most of those situations, but there was one scene in the beginning that I literally had to re-do over ten times because of the guard’s nonsensical telepathy.

Another aspect where it both excels and falls short is characterisation. It does an amazing job with some – arguably most – of the characters, like EVA: ever the femme fatale. Colonel Volgin, too, is very well-rounded: a sadistic bastard, who nonetheless has a soft side for the lovely EVA, along with one of his pretty-boy soldiers, Major Raikov. (Indeed, after Snake kills the latter and dresses up as him to infiltrate a military base, Volgin identifies his treachery by, erm, touch – as you can see in the picture above. He’s also none too happy about it, and Snake is subjected to a fairly horrendous beating which is around the time he finally loses that eye.) I also loved young Ocelot’s hero-worship slash man crush on Naked Snake (evidently, in the world of Metal Gear, criminality and bisexuality go hand in hand), and Snake himself undergoes a genuine character arc over the course of the game.

But Volgin’s henchmen, the Cobra unit, seem like a waste of otherwise interesting designs and innovative boss battles. When one thinks back on FOXHOUND, Sniper Wolf & co. were so cool and so memorable, but more importantly, we had a real insight into who they were and why they fought. Even in MGS2, Dead Cell’s colourfully incestuous back story gives the battles with them a greater sense of gravity, whereas the Cobra guys (The Fear, The Pain, The End, The Fury and The Sorrow) just pop up every so often, attack you, and blow up when it’s all over while screaming their names (“The Paaaaaaiiiiiiiiiinnnnn!” “The Fuuuurrrrryyyyyyyy!”) The real shame is that the boss battles themselves are really pretty clever, and if they’d given us even just a radio call to flesh them out a bit, it could have been a really strong cast of villains. The radio calls, themselves (Snake Eater’s vintage answer to the codec), were also a bit hit or miss. I wished Para-Medic had been gven a name – it just seemed oddly distancing – and a day after finishing the game, I already couldn’t remember the name of the black guy who’d helped me with my tech. In fairness one of these actually plays into a future plotline in the series, but at the time, it just made it difficult to connect with someone who should have been endearing since she’s constantly telling you all about her favourite cult horror movies.

There’s also the fact that The Boss’ trademark “Patriot” gun looks uncannily like a penis which perhaps just speaks to my own puerility but was nevertheless severely distracting whenever the game required me to take it seriously.

Despite my eight million criticisms, however, I really did enjoy it, and – as I said earlier – the story was easily on par with (and dare I say a tiny bit better than) the original. What I loved were the moments where it really took advantage of those ‘meta’ aspects Hideo Kojima loves to throw, where it acknowledges itself as a game and runs with it. In the battle with The End (a decrepit sniper who’s saving his last ounce of strength to take out Naked Snake), you can turn off your PS2, set the internal clock a week ahead, and when you reload the game, he’s died of old age. Things like putting on your Raikov mask in the battle with Volgin so that he momentarily won’t attack you (“Ivan! Is that you?!”) were sheer brilliance, and reminded me of the best parts of the original (such as when Psycho Mantis comments on your taste in games based on your memory card) .

I also liked and appreciated that Snake Eater plays through in a way that’s completely fresh and completely different from both MGS1 and 2. Granted it does fall into a few traps like the penultimate battle against a big machine followed by a hand-to-hand battle against your strongest opponent, but I guess that’s no different from the way every Residen Evil game finishes with a fucking rocket launcher, which I’ve long since learned to live with. (Also: this time you’re on a motorbike!) Simply put, it is the most unabashedly fun instalment in the series, which takes a decided turn for the sombre in:

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

In short (and based on how long this has gotten already, I’ll try to keep it that way): MGS4 is both the perfect conclusion to the series, and a complete fan-service for everyone who came along for the journey. In 2014, 9 years after the incident on Shadow Moses Island, the world economy relies on continuous war, fought by Private Military Companies which now outnumber government military forces. PMC soldiers are outfitted with nanomachines that enhance their abilities on the battlefield and the control network created through these nanomachines is called Sons of the Patriots: a system which Liquid Ocelot is preparing to hijack in order to seize complete control of all fighting across the globe. Snake, meanwhile, is experiencing accelerated aging due to his status as a clone, and has less than a year to live. When his former commanding officer Roy Campbell approaches him with one last mission – to terminate Liquid – Snake accepts and is dropped into the Middle Eastern war zone where his old nemesis is believed to be hiding.

From here on out, it becomes a game that finally answers the mysteries which its predecessors had been posing for years; and no opportunity to tie-up or tie-in with a previous entry is wasted. It also becomes somewhat infamous for the criticisms levelled against it; namely, that it’s a movie disguising itself as a game. This is – I believe – an utterly ridiculous criterion for criticism, and while some scenes do run for almost 90 minutes at their extremes (though blissfully this time, with the ability to pause when your bladder or doorbell beckons), it’s never to do anything but advance a storyline which – after 10 years – requires rather a large canvas to play out.

The whole cast is back, including a cyborg, ass-kicking Raiden who – from the looks of 2:20 onwards in this video – I guess they really wanted the fans to like this time. He even gets to face off against former rival, Vamp, who – one hopes – will actually stay dead the third time around. The way in which it ultimately ties even the most peripherally-mentioned characters in the series’ history to their true, more familiar identities, though, is where the game’s scriptwriting truly shines; and when seemingly unimportant trivia from years past becomes critical information in the events of this game like they’d been planning these reveals for years, it reminded of all my favourite “Of course! why didn’t I realise this sooner?!” moments throughout film and literature.

The plot is hesitant at first but the pay-off when you meet the mysterious “Big Mama” (who one immediately knows is going to be a familiar face, though quite whose face was a surprise even to me) more than makes up for it. At one point, the game even takes you back to Shadow Moses, and the entirety of Act 4 is just MGS porn for veterans. The moment when the snow cleared and I saw the heliport where it all began while the hollow reeds of the original theme started to sound in the background: it felt like home. That section even ends with Snake taking control of Metal Gear REX (who’s been gathering dust since you finished him off last time) and facing off against Metal Gear RAY, as controlled by Liquid. It’s a literal clash of the titans, straight out of a Godzilla movie, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it was one my favourite boss fights in any game I’ve ever played.

Also: this exchange when you stumble across the exact location in the first game where the technical limitations of the PlayStation 1 required you to switch to the second disc:
Otacon: Hold it, Snake. Time to change the disc. I know, I know… It’s a pain. But you need to swap Disc 1 for Disc 2. You see the disc labeled “2”?
Snake: Uhhhh. No.
Otacon: Huh? Oh, wait! We’re on PS3 system! It’s a Blu-ray Disc. Dual-layered, too—no need to swap.
Snake: Damn it, Otacon, get a grip!
Otacon: Yeah, what an age we live in, huh, Snake? Wonder what they’ll think of next!

…:D!

The game’s main antagonists, too, are the antithesis of my problems with the Cobra Unit. The Beauty and the Beast Unit are a group of female soldiers who were given special suits to turn them into killing machines after each of them suffered from such intense Post Traumatic Stress Disorder caused by the horrors of war that she could no longer function. Not only do you learn their back-stories, but after hearing about the atrocities each of them suffered, you almost wish you hadn’t. And each in their own way is a clever homage to every previous boss in the series: the animal totems of FOXHOUND (Crying Wolf, Screaming Mantis) and fought in reverse chronological order to the originals; the weapons of Dead Cell; and the emotions of the Cobra unit. None of them are especially difficult to overcome, but they are fantastically nostalgic, entertaining and harrowing in equal measure.

Indeed, the biggest “problem” I had with the game was the 20 minutes spent tryng to remember why the music sounded so familiar, which I could have saved myself if I’d just Googled the composer, Harry Gregson-Williams…a.k.a. the Narnia guy. My only legitimate criticism, in fact, was with the first 2 (of 5) Acts, which take place within a Middle-Eastern battlezone and war-torn South America. As with war movies, my brain switched off and started playing elevator music for some parts of it, but – in an inversion of MGS2 – Guns of the Patriots rapidly picks up momentum, and doesn’t stop until its action-packed, tear-jerking finale some 20 hours later.

When it was all over, I truly felt like I’d come to the end of an era, and Guns of the Patriots is both a perfect entry in the Metal Gear series, and the best tribute a fanboy like myself could ever ask for.

Solid Snake: we salute you.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s