The first Metal Gear Solid game has a really good ending that concludes much of the story (the "Shadow Moses Incident") nicely, while also setting up a sequel by having some unresolved plotlines and a massive 'WTF!' moment after the main credits. So, I was looking forward to Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty while also wondering just where the hell Hideo Kojima was going to take the story next; little did I expect the absolute mind-melting, post-modern clusterf**k that was about to be unleashed upon my brain. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is an amazing game, utterly unique, but at the same time the best follow-up to the original that you could ever ask for, especially if you like anime like Ghost in the Shell or Patlabor. However, this game was also massively controversial at the time, with many fans feeling betrayed by the “tanker” demo that teased the game before its release. This is not a review but a retrospective and so it goes without saying that there may be spoilers aplenty – if you’ve not played this game then I suggest you pick up the HD version and go in with an open mind.
Technically speaking the game is obviously a massive leap forward from the first title. Despite releasing quite early in the PlayStation 2's life cycle, the increase in power finally brought the game up to a graphical standard that does justice to the characters and environments. The aesthetics are totally in keeping with the first game, while also cleverly updating them with an almost anime-inspired style and "cleanness" to the overall image; this is especially beneficial in cut-scenes where we finally have characters that can emote somewhat - although lip-sync with the voice acting is almost non-existent. Yet again, Hideo Kojima frames the cinematics with the eye equivalent to a Hollywood director and if you like films such as The Rock then you'll be more than happy with the oil-rig location and sweeping outdoor sunset shots. After playing through Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain the “Big Shell” reminds me very much of ‘motherbase’/Outer Heaven.
The soundtrack is also amazing with a very distinctive and strong score, backed up by some excellent voice acting. Some of the dialogue is questionable but then that is because the plot and characters are generally off-the-wall. Speaking of plot, I might as well discuss the story. The reason that I mentioned Ghost in the Shell earlier is because to me, this sequel feels very much like an anime directed by Mamoru Oshii, which is to say that it deals with a lot of philosophy and existential issues that spiral the plot off into strange tangents. Personally I loved it, but I can see how a lot of people might be swallowed up by the swirling mass of ideas presented here, especially towards the game's conclusion. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is also *extremely* postmodern and delights in tearing down that fourth wall; there are moments in the last quarter of the game that made my skin crawl as I began to question everything I'd been doing for the past 15 hours. Not only are the characters double-crossed in the game and have to wade their way through the thick goop of conspiracies within conspiracies, but also the player has to face the game double-bluffing and toying with you. One moment in particular literally had me screaming "...What!? Whaaat!? WHAAAAT!?!?"
All this praise I've heaped upon the game so far hasn't even touched upon the gameplay improvements that this sequel brings to the original formula. The first person view (present in the first game) now lets you aim and fire weapons with pinpoint accuracy, especially in the high definition PS3 version, and this is used throughout in really devious ways. Often there will be rigged explosives strategically placed within locations that require you to shoot-out their battery packs to disarm them, or fire a coolant to prevent them from going off. But these devices are hidden under things, on ceilings, or in other crafty locations that mean you really need to scope the place out in first person otherwise you'll be caught by one and instantly killed. You also have more movement options available, such as hanging from ledges or aiming around corners; also you can hold-up guards by drawing a gun on them from behind and you can conceal bodies by dragging them away and putting them in lockers, etc. One of my favourite additions to this game and something that really puts more recent games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution to shame (I loved that game by the way) is that you can go the entire game without killing anybody - even bosses! - if you wish. The guards and sentries patrolling the levels can be taken out with tranquilizers, or knocked unconscious using a variety of means; bosses have a secondary "health" bar which is their non-lethal take-down option.
The controversy surrounding the game came from the bait-and-switch involving the titular Solid Snake and new protagonist Raiden. It’ actually integral to the plot and the themes of the game, but many people were annoyed that they didn’t get to play another adventure as Snake and instead had to settle for a rookie who is in completely over his head. Raiden is actually quite a likable character and his frequent CODEC conversations fill in his character nicely; he’s also a returning character later in the series and in fact got his own spin-off game in Metal Gear Rising, but that’s another story. Overall, despite some issues that were fixed later with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (such as the overhead camera angle being too close), Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is a game that was very much ahead of its time, utterly unique and an amazing sequel to an already amazing game. While not my favourite game in the Meal Gear series, I still think it’s a classic and definitely still very much worth a play, especially the sublime HD version on PS3 or PSVita.