The stealth genre is not one I follow too closely. I’ll pick a stealth game when it looks interesting, I enjoyed Dishonored enough and I thought the stealth mechanics in Sekiro were implemented really well, but I always have a hard time with the inherent slower pace of most stealth games. This explains why I’ve never played a Metal Gear Solid game before. But I recently picked up a PS2 and Metal Gear Solid was the first game I picked up for the system, I wanted to see what it was that has kept people so enthralled with it since 1998, why people love its creator, Hideo Kojima, so much, and if this was the stealth game that would finally help me love the genre.
Booting it up, the game’s visuals aged better than I expected. Sure, everything is noticeably pixelated on a HD television, but the art style and environmental design is really great. Everything is blue and metallic, heightening the sense that it’s a real military base in Alaska. You can see Snake’s breath when he is outside in the cold and the character models themselves are some of the cleanest and best looking I’ve seen on the system. It’s oddly charming watching the characters just nod their heads up and down instead of moving their mouths in cutscenes.
I wasn’t a big fan off watching minutes long codec conversations, though. A lot of the discussions Snake has with his team members via the codec are just there to dump exposition, and having to watch it all with just two character portraits that hardly animate isn’t very engaging. However, the voice acting is extremely strong. It was one of the most impressive aspects of the game for me. PS1 games weren’t known for great voice acting (just see Resident Evil or Mega Man 8 for that), so to see Metal Gear Solid take it seriously was great. They had to have the best voice acting possible, though, because Hideo Kojima didn’t just want to make a video game, he wanted to tell a story.
The story of Metal Gear Solid is basically a political/military thriller, but widened to explore themes of a soldier’s place in the world, trust in one’s government, nuclear weapons, and love. Honestly, the whole thing is very silly and over the top with larger than life characters and constant plot twists. It was the main thing that kept me playing in the second half of the game, but I wouldn’t say the writing itself is good. Character dialogue is almost always verbose, repetitive, and bloated. Characters explain unimportant details, like how the key cards open doors you just walk by, and they are always telling Snake how great he is and that he’s such a legendary soldier. I know, by this point, Snake has starred in two games already, but I would rather have his prowess as a soldier be expressed in gameplay, rather than characters saying it constantly.
I was similarly mixed on the gameplay. The controls have that classic PS1 stiffness, pressing against walls while trying to turn a corner is a constant issue I ran into, but once you get used to them, the stealth gameplay is enjoyable. The player is given many tools to sneak around guards: crawling under tables, looking around corners by pressing against a wall, knocking on walls to draw guards to the sound. The best tool they have to use is the Soliton Radar. This is a mini map in the top right of your screen that will show enemy locations and their sight lines. Using the radar well is key to infiltrating the base successfully. There are certain areas where the radar will be jammed and you will start to notice that a lot in the last half of the game. There are hardly any places on disc 2 that use the Soliton Radar. Not only is it disappointing to build up this skill to have it then taken away for most the end of the game, but it also leads to a lot of instances of being shot by something you couldn’t see off screen.
There are also a couple bad moments of backtracking in the later half of the game, the worst being changing the shape of the PAL card. . You have to climb to the top of Metal Gear Rex to enter the control room, then you have to climb back down to go to the frozen warehouse, then climb back up to control room, then back down and take two long elevator rides to furnace before finally climbing back up Rex. This section is too long for its own good. It is just so boring and tedious. With most the rooms you travel through being devoid of enemies, there’s not much to keep the player engaged. It feels like padding at its most basic definition.
For me, the worst aspect of Metal Gear Solid are the bosses. The stiff controls make Ocelot and Gray Fox’s fight way too clunky, and the slow first person aiming makes the fights with Sniper Wolf and Rex terribly sluggish. Every boss has such a small window of opportunity to hit them that the fights involve a lot of waiting around. They never felt like they were testing my patience as a player, though, they just felt tedious. The worst fight for me was the Hind D which combines not only the slow aiming controls and small windows to do damage, but also has long periods where the helicopter dips below the building, meaning you just have to wait for it to come back to shoot it. The fight with Psycho Mantis is memorable because of all the meta nonsense happening, but my favorite boss in the game was Vulcan Raven in the warehouse. This is mostly because it’s the only boss fight that utilizes the Soliton Radar in a meaningful way as you watch his movements on the screen and place mines or C4 in front of his path.
Metal Gear Solid has the Resident Evil problem to me. While Resident Evil starts off as a scary survival horror game, it slowly becomes more action oriented as the game progresses until you are fighting giant bio weapons with rocket launchers. Metal Gear Solid follows the same pattern but with stealth gameplay instead of survival horror. The beginning is strong as you are just sneaking past guards from room to room, but towards the middle of the game the stealth gameplay gives way to action set pieces and boss fight after boss fight. I started to notice this after the first Sniper Wolf fight as I was lead down a string of frustrating action moments I didn’t feel the game prepared me for. After the fight with Sniper Wolf, you have the torture sequence where you mash the O button to survive. This leads to the communication tower section where you either run from the guards or shoot them down, stealth is not an option. Then the Hind D fight which I already discussed. The only room that requires any stealth skills past this point is the furnace and I found myself missing the sneaking around of the early game.
I can see why the game blew people away in the 90’s. With its great presentation, incredible voice acting, and emphasis on a real story, it stood out on the PS1. It really is the best cinematic experience you can have on that console. I only wish that the gameplay had stayed consistent throughout the entire game. I haven’t given up on the series, however. I still really want to play Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater because I’ve heard it’s really incredible. But first I have to get through Metal Gear Solid 2 and its bonkers story.