There are a handful of games every generation that prove to be a capstone of all of the games that came before it and an ultimate conclusion to all of the mechanics that have been slowly perfected over the years leading up to that game. Sometimes games like this come out in bunches over the span of a couple of years and sometimes it takes a decade to get something this monumental to store shelves and in our living rooms. No matter how you slice it the Metal Gear Solid series is home to many of those experiences, with every numbered entry, and arguably most of its spin-offs, being genre-defining experiences that go many years before ever being eclipsed – if they ever even are. Out of all of the Metal Gear Solid games you could easily choose any of them and examine them for long periods of time coming up with scads of reasons as to why it’s the best game ever made, but perhaps the one that provided the most surprises in this regard is Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. It was a game that certainly stood on the shoulders of many great games that came before it but just as well inspired countless more that came after it.
The first thing that I feel should probably be talked about – if for no other reason than to simply get it out of the way – is Metal Gear Solid 2’s ability to completely surprise and shock its players with twists and turns that you just couldn’t have seen coming. The series is certainly no stranger to plot twists, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a game in the series that is more densely packed with them then the second one. Most notable of which is the fact that you don’t even play Snake for the vast majority of the game. While Metal Gear Solid 2 certainly started out looking like it would continue the adventures of Solid Snake and Otacon with one of the franchises most memorable opening sections, it deliberately took a hard left turn with a completely new character that couldn’t have been any more different than Snake.
Raiden was young, Naive, and relatively inexperienced (at least when compared to Snake) so to see him get duped by characters and confused by situations that probably wouldn’t have tripped up somebody like Snake or a Big Boss was an entirely different narrative experience then seeing the franchise’s more hardened characters express their learned skepticism at every turn. While many Metal Gear Solid fans including myself just plain didn’t like Raiden at first, it didn’t take long for the excellent writing and character development from Hideo Kojima and his team at Konami to turn him into a staple for the series. Thankfully Snake is still around in the game, though. He is still absolutely part of the story. But at the same time, it’s really Raiden’s game, and despite the sour taste that might have put in players’ mouths at the time of his reveal, it worked out extremely well by the end. The conflicts Raiden faces within himself and with Rose are often just as impactful as the events on the Big Shell, as well as the macro themes about the delineation of information that we’ll discuss later.
Gameplay wise, Metal Gear Solid 2 could not be more of an improvement upon its predecessor as it was. Along with the obvious advancements that MGS2 was afforded by being on a completely newer console than the previous game, also came some fantastic gameplay tweaks. While the first-person view mode from the last game also returns here, it’s not just for looking around anymore. You can now shoot in this mode as well as use various other devices like planting C4, mines, or using the bomb-freezing spray. All of this is not only nice for the sake of options, but it also gives you a better look at what you’re doing for those situations that require more precision. Like getting a headshot with tranquilizer darts to knock an enemy out instantly – as opposed to going with body shots that make the effect take longer.
Plus, if you were willing to hold your controller in a weird way, you could also walk around freely in first person mode – not that you ever need to. Another major advancement was in the stealth combat itself, which of course was a major selling point for the series. You can now knock out a guard just like you could in the last game, but also move his body out of sight. if you were in a sticky situation and needed to take out multiple guards in a small area without any of them ever knowing what was going on, you could feasibly pull it off if you are willing to work the timing out just right. Some sections would only need you to move a body around the corner out of sight from the other guards, but if you had a little bit more time you could carry a body all the way over to a storage locker and seamlessly place him in there by walking up to it. Or you could unleash your inner demons and throw them off the tanker as Snake in the opening section. It’s a mechanic that seems basically standard nowadays in stealth games but at the time what is rarely offered, and was arguably never as intuitive as it was in MGS2.
While I would probably concede that the boss fights in the first Metal Gear Solid and the third one is probably overall better than the rest of the series, they are still a massively strong point in this game. With Fatman and Solidus being the clear stand-out battles. As with all Metal Gear Solid games the boss fights in Sons of Liberty required completely different skill-sets than what you would need to navigate through most of the rest of the game. Along with taking you out of your element they also had incredibly interesting back stories. This made fighting them so much more impactful – knowing that coming up against Raiden would be the end of their unique and fascinating journeys put a lot of spice in those battles. There might not be any completely mind-blowing psycho mantis style moments in Metal Gear Solid 2 but that doesn’t mean it lacks top-tier boss fights.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Metal Gear Solid game if it didn’t have an outstanding story with deep, layered characters, conflicting interests, and broad themes that included smart commentary on the current and probable future of modern society. While the first game was a little bit more about the duality of opposites, and how rivals strangely need each other to justify their own existence, Metal Gear Solid 2 takes a big step back from all of that and examines the contradictions of society as a whole and how we are headed into some morally questionable territory with how we choose to accept or deny information based on our own preconceived notions. Of the predictions that are laid out mostly towards the end of the game is the one that we will all, one day, end up in our own little bubbles. How having given ourselves over to the unregulatable abundance of information and intellectual freedom will come with just as many risks as it will rewards. For every new enlightenment the oversaturation of information will create, there will be just as many new ignorances. I wish I could say that Metal Gear Solid 2 was wrong about that prediction, but as with most of Kojima’s suspicions about where humanity is headed, it seems he was on the money. Here’s to hoping that Death Stranding isn’t as accurate.
Whether it’s the advancements and stealth mechanics found across Snake’s adventure in the tanker and Raiden’s quest throughout the Big Shell, or the eclectic group of narcissistic-yet-surprisingly-empathetic antagonists the game throws at you, or the overarching themes about the future of warfare, humanity, and the downsides of freely-flowing information, Metal Gear Solid 2 has it all – and then some. To say it was ahead of its time would be an understatement. The reach of its themes and the execution of its gameplay were unmatched in its time, and even today hold up shockingly well. It’s a game that must be played to be believed.
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