Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was originally released in 2001 for the Playstation 2 and it received high critical acclaim but it also divided fans of the series. The story is split into two sections: a Tanker chapter set in 2007 that acts as the game’s prologue and the Plant (Big Shell) chapter set two years later which is the main story portion of the game. In the introductory Tanker chapter you play as Solid Snake who is working with Otacon as part of an anti-Metal Gear non-governmental organisation known as ‘Philanthropy’. Snake is sent in to investigate a tanker navigating the Hudson River in New York to determine whether it is carrying a new prototype Metal Gear and it soon becomes apparent that he isn’t the only one interested in what the ship is carrying. For those new to the series a Metal Gear is the codename for a giant walking tank that is capable of firing nuclear missiles. Ironically, this is the only part of the three main story modes that comprise the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection where you control Solid Snake.
In the Plant chapter set in 2009 you play a character codenamed Raiden who was new to the series at the time and although he had completed many VR training missions this was his first actual assignment. For many fans of Metal Gear Solid on the original Playstation this decision seemed bizarre, tampering with the established formula they expected and it almost seemed like a snub to them. Raiden was introduced in part because it was thought his character would appeal to a wider demographic, particularly women and also that the player might identify with somebody who didn’t have experience infiltrating an enemy stronghold - a new player would be going through their first mission just as he was. In addition, as Raiden the player would effectively be an outside observer which enabled Hideo Kojima to present a deliberately twisting turning plot involving characters and events that would continually make you question what was going on and what it all means. The meandering story contains postmodern themes about social engineering, control, conspiracy theories and artificial intelligence. The plot has more twists and turns than a coiled snake and was confusing by design but this was perceived as a shortcoming of the game by some.
The story of Metal Gear Solid 2 can feel disjointed and confused but while some of this is by design it is also true that events in the real world contributed to this. The game was originally going to take place in the Middle East but the setting was changed during development because of rising tensions in that region. The Tanker chapter which was supposed to be a U.S. aircraft carrier was rewritten and survived into the full game and the later part of the prologue makes a lot more sense with this in mind. The attacks on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York in September 2001 also caused some late development changes including a section of the game being cut for obvious reasons where a Metal Gear smashes through the Statue of Liberty and half of Manhattan. It is difficult to know what Sons of Liberty would have been like had these changes not taken place and although a game has to be judged on its own merits it is important to understand why changes were made and how its development was influenced by real world events.
The gameplay which is inextricably linked to the camera and controls has gradually evolved during the course of the series so here they are closest to the Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation. In normal view the game will automatically determine the camera angle for you, either from an overhead perspective, fixed camera angle or predetermined following camera. More control over your viewpoint can be achieved by pressing up against a wall or in corner view where you can more easily look for possible enemy threats. A first person perspective view is also available but movement is limited while in this mode only allowing leaning around corners or standing on tip-toe to look over low objects. First person perspective is great for precision shooting but during action sequences like boss battles it is advisable to use it sparingly and rely more on jumping out from cover which will automatically lock on to enemy threats if you are aiming roughly in the right direction.
The controls have a degree of complexity which some may find overly complicated or cumbersome at first in comparison to today’s games. Yet learning the controls of this 'Tactical Espionage Action' game is like learning the tools of your particular stealth trade. Your primary aim is to avoid detection but the limited viewpoint requires you to learn and then use all your skill techniques effectively. Here learning the controls and mastering them is all part of the experience and not an unnecessary obstacle to prevent your enjoyment of the game, though it can feel like that at first. Fortunately, in the Special menu you will find a very helpful Basic Actions section with descriptions accompanied by short videos showing beginner, intermediate and advanced control techniques and it is a good idea to work through these before starting the game. Once the controls become second nature you will experience the game the way it is meant to be played but it might take some patience before reaching this point.
As with Metal Gear Solid you will have a radar in the top right corner of the screen showing the location of nearby enemies and their field of vision displayed as blue cones while they repeat their assigned patrol routes, yellow cones when they are suspicious and red when they have found something. If you are detected the enemy will go through various heightened alert phases where they will more actively search for you or even bring in reinforcements until the condition eventually returns to normal. You may wish to tranquilise the enemy to pass a particular area, shake unconscious bodies to gain items or drag a soldier to somewhere where they won’t be discovered by other patrolling guards such as storing them in a locker. You can crawl to make yourself less visible, hide in lockers, knock on walls to distract enemy soldiers, crouch inside a cardboard box or even plant adult magazines on the ground to distract guards. It is important to note that while the Tanker chapter’s radar is on by default, when playing as Raiden in the Plant chapter you will need to activate the radar the first time you reach a new ‘strut’ or ‘core’ of the Big Shell facility. This adds an increased element of danger and your first task on reaching a new area will be to locate a computer node and download the map for it.
Most enemies on each difficulty level will be carrying a unique Dog Tag and if you point a gun at them at close range catching them unawares you can hold them up and take it from them. After you point a gun at an unsuspecting guard you will need to run round in front of them to face them without lowering you firearm to get them to part with their Dog Tag. Not only is this the ultimate humiliation for a soldier but the game keeps track of how many you collect rewarding you with special items that will help you, not to mention giving you bragging rights with trophies or achievements. Some tougher enemies can’t be intimidated by simply aiming at their head or other sensitive areas of the body. In these cases you will need to shoot them with a live round in the arm or leg in order to encourage their cooperation. The addition of Dog Tag collecting for each difficulty setting is entirely optional but adds a significant amount of gameplay for those who cannot resist such a challenge.
Metal Gear Solid games are known for their array of weapons and equipment and this one is no exception. The game employs a useful red and blue colour code system to show which weapons are lethal and non-lethal. You will have access to an assortment of firearms but using tranquilising ammo to silently put enemy soldiers to sleep and avoiding detection is always the stealthiest approach. Stun grenades can be used as a non-lethal way to escape from a group of enemies while chaff grenades will disable the sensors of hovering AI drones. You have an AP (Anti-Personnel) Sensor which detects nearby human enemies with a vibration simulating an increased heart rate when guards are nearby and this can be particularly helpful before activating computer nodes for your radar in the Big Shell chapter. Another handy gadget Raiden will use is a coolant spray which will be ideal for disarming bombs before they have a chance to explode.
As usual you will have the Codec as the main form of communication with your support team and to save your progress during missions but because the game gives the player the option to start with either the Tanker or Plant chapters it can seem like it is hand-holding you when you don’t need it at the beginning of the Big Shell Incident. Metal Gear Solid 2 also has the most frequent Codec messages which can seem intrusive at times even if most of them are intended to help you. Pressing the Triangle button will rapidly speed through them if needed and once you encounter the Titanic inspired Jack and Rose Codec conversations you might want to do just that instead of jumping ship.
A special edition version of Sons of Liberty was later released under the name Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance and some of that extra content is also present in this HD Collection. Following the unpopular reception of Raiden, 5 Snake Tales were made which are “what if” scenarios that placed Solid Snake in different missions on Big Shell and the Tanker. The usual high quality cutscenes were replaced with text screens to cycle through the story and conversations. These were challenging scenarios compared to the main game because enemies were more numerous, they patrolled more tenaciously and the radar was permanently disabled.
The HD Collection also features 350 VR Missions and 150 Alternate Missions. These represent a staggering amount of additional content for the player to work through but they are presented in short challenges with a first, second and third place score to measure your skills against. These missions are an excellent way for you to hone your skills and because they have an independent save file you can tackle them at your own pace. The VR (Virtual Reality) Missions are split into similar categories for both Snake and Raiden. In Sneaking Mode the objective is to reach the goal in the shortest amount of time possible without being detected. Weapons mode gives you access to a specific weapon such as a handgun, assault rifle, C4/claymore, grenade, etc and you have to destroy the targets and reach the goal as quickly as possible. Hitting the centre of the targets will gain you more points and these require considerable skill and speed to gain the top score. First Person View Mode is a mission type that only lets you move in first person mode and eliminate drone targets as quickly as possible – the lock on feature is particularly useful here because the controls feel clunky.
The Alternate Missions consist of Hold Up Mode where you must sneak up behind enemies and point a weapon at them which will cause them to instantly disappear. Once all the enemies have been dealt with you just need to reach the goal to complete the mission. This can become more challenging once the number of enemies increases but it is a good way to improve your skills before embarking on Dog Tag collecting in the full game. Elimination Mode is simply defeating all the enemies and reaching the goal. Getting head shots will help and non-lethal takedowns will earn your more points. Bomb Disposal mode is similar to what you will need to do at a certain point in the main game. You need to use the coolant spray to disable a set number of bombs in the time limit and freezing the final bomb will complete the challenge. You can see the general area where a bomb is located on your radar and also hear it bleeping but you will also need to avoid or deal with guards who will also be patrolling the area. These 500 missions represent a huge amount of additional content and they almost deserve to be viewed as a separate game in their own right. It will take the player a considerable amount of time to work through these challenges and trying to attain a top score can become very addictive.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty hasn’t aged that badly as long as you have the patience to learn and master the controls. When for example you hear Otacon talking about writing apps to perform certain computer functions, it probably has more significance with modern technology than it did back in 2001. The degree of interaction with the environment once considered staggering is now more commonplace but this helps to keep the game feel less dated. The graphics no longer have the ‘jaggies’ of the PS2 era and they mostly look decent apart from a few lower quality textures here and there, especially evident in a few cutscenes when the camera pans close to walls. The art design and use of colour in the game helps to keep that timeless and distinctive Metal Gear Solid visual style.
Cutscenes generally look and sound stylish which is no surprise and they are plentiful throughout the game. Of particular mention is the opening cinematic which features an epic patriotic score by Harry Gregson-Williams which gradually builds throughout the video, fitting perfectly with the montage of clips and viewing this always puts me in the mood to play the game. Scripts and voice acting have moved on a bit, becoming more sophisticated in modern games but there are some good performances such as David Hayter as Snake of course and just the fact he is synonymous with the Metal Gear Solid series always makes his video game character(s) seem more distinctive. Some characters don’t weather the years as well as others including bosses with supernatural powers such as Fortune and Vamp and one or two others who sound stereotypically two dimensional. You can’t change history – that was just how many bad guys/bosses were depicted back then.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty enjoys a Metacritic average score of 96% which is one of the highest for the Playstation 2. Over a decade later it still deserves most of the praise heaped upon it yet it certainly is showing its age in terms of the modern conventions of user friendly accessible controls, some aspects of the acting and graphical detail. The plot while being confusing by design could be described as thought provoking, ambitiously escapist or completely bonkers depending on your viewpoint. Just like a season of 24 it is best just to go along with the story - strap yourself in when boarding the willing suspension of disbelief rollercoaster and enjoy the wild ride. The series always seems do a remarkable job of making you feel like you are in a actual place and that events are linked to the real world so when the believability of the story goes off the rails it is more jarring as a result. The gameplay is still excellent once you are comfortable with the controls but when it does click with you Sons of Liberty will become the tactical espionage stealth action game you expected. The addition of 500 VR Missions / Alternate Missions, 5 Snake Tales and Boss Survival Mode greatly increases the value of the content on offer here and earns it a respectable 9 out of 10.
2007-2009: Manhattan Tanker and Big Shell Incidents