Review: Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (Vita)

MGSHD

Metal Gear is a series that is probably best known for over the top cutscenes, exceedingly long radio conversations and a guy with a mullet running around under a cardboard box.  Anyone diving into these games will find Hideo Kojima’s distinct sense of humor in full force, as well as his ability to make the ridiculous seem plausible and to cleverly break the fourth wall at just the right times.  Four–two 8-bit and two modern–games from this series are shining examples of the fantastically rare phenomenon in video games of signature style and gameplay substance coexisting in the same package.  This collection does an impressive job at taking the offline portions of the two PS2-era Metal Gear Solid games and making them look true to their original releases on the Vita, but does not do anything extra for those who already played them.

To make things clear from the outset, this is not the same package of content that was re-released for the PS3 and 360 last year.  Most notably absent is Peace Walker, the sequel to Portable Ops, the first main-continuity Metal Gear game that originally came out on the PSP.  The lack of Metal Gear AC!D, a spin-off set of games that combined trading cards, Metal Gear, other Kojima game references and Japanese SRPGs, sprinkled with fan confusion and scorn, and the few other non-canonical games is completely understandable.  But as Peace Walker was originally a PSP game and was included as part of the other HD collections, it is confusing that it is not part of this package. 

A cynic might say they wanted to get people to buy it separately on the PSN store, but a fairer consideration might be that as the collection needed to be shipped on those little Vita game cards, there might not have been enough space available for three full-sized games.  (If you listen to some Konami employees, it seems like the cynics might be right.)  After all, there is a lot of talking and cinematics in three MGS games.  The reason does not really matter, just know that the complete rise of Big Boss is not documented herein and the three versions of this HD package (PS3/360/Vita) can be found online for the same price.

Also notably absent, especially in a product called Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, is a version of Metal Gear Solid.  I thought it was weird when the first round of MGS releases came out and did not include some edition of the original game, and it is still weird.  Silicon Knights worked in conjunction with Kojima Productions to release a version of the telling of the Shadow Moses Incident for the GameCube in 2004.  It is my understanding that a few Easter Eggs and Psycho Mantis telling me that I like playing adventure games like Super Mario Sunshine and/or whatever rights SK has prevent The Twin Snakes from being re-released.  Kojima has said that he may do a remake of MGS at some point, but it would be a total remake, not the same retelling of MGS1 with MGS2’s engine.  The whiff of a promise to replay the pivotal Metal Gear game will do little to satiate new players that want to have any idea what is going on in this game series.  

No matter how much artificial exposition and long drawn out conversations there might be in the two main games that are part of this Vita compilation, they do not do nearly enough to inform players as to what is going on.  One of the great strengths, and in a way a huge weakness, of the Metal Gear series is that Kojima has had his hand in it since the beginning and is intimately familiar with the intent, scope, and continuity of the series.  Unfortunately for new players, there seems to be an expectation that people have played every game in the series to get the complete picture.  Some characters get a little background fleshed out, but not too many.  The purposes for packages like this, slightly better looking versions of PlayStation 2 games in a series put back on store shelves, is to give consumers a chance to catch up and get a good bang for their buck.  (Also, publishers don’t get any money on a sale when people buy used games on places like eBay.)  The failure to include some version of MGS, even that weird Motion Comic that came out for the PSP, makes it difficult to recommend to anyone that wants to get the full story in one package.

Those who want to get into Metal Gear, and ignore the obscure references to other Kojima-led games in the series, are going to have to buy two more PSP games and some version of the original Metal Gear Solid.  As a whole, it is a great series that should be played. The problem is that there are a lot of Metal Gear games and the order of their releases has been kind of screwy.  The two easiest routes to take to appreciate the series are either historian or story driven.  For those that want to see how the systems and graphics have evolved over time as well as feel the impacts when they hit people who played the games over time, go the historian route of: Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid, MGS2, MGS3, Portable Ops, MGS4, Peace Walker.  For those that could care less about how cardboard boxes have been used in the past or how features have been added over time and just want to see events chronologically as they take place in the story, the path is: MGS3, Portable Ops, Peace Walker, Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, MGS, MGS2, MGS4.  I played these as they came out, and I would imagine it would be jarring to have features ripped away only to suddenly come back six games later, but that’s just me.

But enough about what isn’t here and how this is not a comprehensive primer on Metal Gear, let’s talk about what is here and what it is.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

This version of MGS2 is a remastered version of the Xbox game, Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, reformatted for a higher resolution and to comfortably run in the size of the Vita’s gorgeous screen.  The game consists of two parts which tie into the same story.  The first is the Tanker mission in which Solid Snake infiltrates a large ship to find what he suspects is housing a new kind of Metal Gear.  A “Metal Gear” is not just a catchy title for a video game franchise, it is also the catalyst for everything that happens in this series.  Metal Gears are walking tanks which are highly mobile and have the capacity to launch a nuclear missile.  When contrasted with the thousands of geographically fixed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles fitted with nuclear warheads, known and accounted for by the nations of the Earth, the prospect of a free-roaming – potentially nationless – nuke is obviously a huge threat to just about any country’s security.  Put less fancifully, a Metal Gear is a mech.  Various government, corporate and terrorist organizations are, at different times, very pro or anti-mech and it is this weaving through these various interests whilst keeping an eye on the mission at hand that will occupy players for about ten hours.

Tactical Espionage Action on the box means that this will be a sneaking mission.  While it is certainly possible to walk though several sections of the game, guns blazing and mowing down all opposition, it is not very fun or challenging.  On a basic level, the main goal in MGS2 is to go wherever Col. Roy Campbell tells you to go, get there, and then go to the next place he says.  The fact that for most of the game players are prevented from getting where they need to go by numbered doors requiring corresponding keycards, this exploration of BIG SHELL doesn’t feel particularly free or open.  Style aside, the appeal in the game comes from challenging yourself to get from point A to B without setting off any alarms, getting past all of the guards, cameras, and sentry robots without either being noticed or killing anyone.  It is supposed to be possible to go through the entire game without killing anyone, but there is no requirement that you do so.  Personally, I got all the way through the game until the acquisition of the High-frequency Blade, a futuristic cyber-ninja weapon which vibrates to get hotter and kill faster.  After getting the sword I somehow managed to end over seventy virtual lives.  I suppose I should have been more patient and punched them to sleep, but the sword is far more appealing.  Playing with a no-kill metagoal is only one of the ways to challenge yourself and increase the replay value.

It should be no surprise to anyone at this point, or anyone that looks at the box art, that in this game players will largely not be playing as Solid Snake but as a blond dude named Raiden.  In 2001 it seemed like everyone lost their minds when they found out that David Hayter was not going to be talking to offsite personnel on his codec throughout the entire game.  The bizarreness of the main character bait and switch, is that the gameplay is not significantly different between the two.  Anyone who has only played a modern Metal Gear game with a guy named “Snake” in it (other than Super Smash Brothers Brawl) should be right at home.

Regardless of whether players decide to spill blood or not, the best moments of gameplay come from moving from one room to the next without altering anyone.  A wide range of options are at Raiden’s disposal to get this done.  The most basic method is to simply stay out of sight while guards wander around looking for, well, you.  This process is assisted by a heads-up display that shows a close layout of the room as well as the location of the guards and their field of view.  Those wanting more challenge can either ignore this option or just turn it off.  Guards can be distracted by tapping on walls, tossing objects that make noise or even dropping a nudie mag to distract very bored gentlemen on patrol and hiding in cardboard boxes while others roam past. 

Raiden has the ability to destroy electronic surveillance equipment, sneak around them (sometimes) or use chaff grenades to disable local high tech devices, including his own radar.  In classic Metal Gear fashion, guards will have little manga-inspired icons pop over their heads whenever they react to something, from a giant question mark to the dreaded Exclamation Point!, accompanied by a surprised noise which is just as iconic as anything in the Zelda franchise, indicating that the guard has seen Raiden and will open fire and start to call for help on his radio.  This ultra-serious spy setting contrasted with the utter silliness of moments like this are a big part of the appeal of Metal Gear games in general, and MGS2 in particular. 

No matter how good anyone is, if they are playing this game for the first time, eventually they are going to get spotted.  While absolutely divorced from reality, MGS2 works better than a lot of stealth games which have a subtext of “You Are Fucked” after getting caught, as it is usually pointless to do anything other than reload a checkpoint or just wait to get killed.  Upon getting caught the game will shift from normal mode to ALERT status where Raiden’s radar is jammed and all guards, plus a few of their buddies from who knows where, sweep into the area on a search and destroy mission.  In addition to locking down some areas, this will cause trouble for Raiden as outside guards will regularly spawn until he is dead.  Being a sneaking mission, the best option is usually to kill or knockout nearby guards and then hide under a table or in a locker or hang over a rail until everyone leaves after being unable to find him.  This is tense as the super spy can usually kill any given trooper, but will probably get hit with a bullet or two, and the game’s equivalent of health packs are not infinite.  Also, sometimes blood will leak from a bullet wound leaving a trail of blood for other guards to find.  “Hmmm, there is a dead guy here and a trail of blood leading to that locker.  I wonder where the infiltrator is?”  Eventually, if Raiden can keep out of sight for long enough, the guards will return to an intensified search pattern, and then completely forget that the man who killed eight of their pals was ever there.  Silly, sure, but it is far more fun than the alternative of a nice “GAME OVER” screen or its equivalent featured in other stealth games.

All this sneaking and shooting is brought on when terrorists calling themselves the Sons of Liberty take over a massive clean up facility called Big Shell, which was being toured by a group of VIPs, including the President of the United States.  From that fairly straightforward setup, things quickly go right off the rails for Raiden as he is forced to question who he is and where his loyalties lie.  There is no real choice in the story–the ending is going to be the same no matter what–but it is so well done and intricate that it is difficult to complain.  The game is fully voiced and most of that voice is going to be heard in the codec.  This is a means that Raiden has to communicate with advising specialists and his commanding officers while no one else can hear him.  These always strain believability as the conversations can last several minutes, presumably while guards are walking around looking for the guy being a Chatty Kathy on the radio.  As everything is entertaining and goes into a bizarre amount of detail into the fictional world and its characters, it is engrossing and fascinating even if it doesn’t make any sense.

MGS2 on the Vita looks like it did back in the PS2 era.  The character animations are believable and downright cinematic in quality whenever watching an in-engine cutscene.  Soft textures accentuate the otherwise rigid world to create a setting that is believable, but only believable as a high-end video game.  Like most of the titles of its era, the faces on characters are not expressive when the game is actually playing.  The textures are somewhat detailed, but not anything akin to what one would expect from a modern game like RAGE or even an older game like DOOM 3.  The HD-ification of the Big Shell mission and its prologue to the naked eye has only made things slightly crisper, defined a few lines of objects and characters a little better, and made it display on the Vita, not creating entirely new assets.  There are no apparent graphical issues most of the time, except for the rare instance when looking around in first-person mode while too close to an object results in the camera going inside the object or person in front of Raiden and makes the game unplayable until he backs up.  But that does not happen very often.

Players are likely to be impressed not just by the visuals, but by the rapid switches between silly pop culture references and international intrigue.  The members of Dead Cell which comprise the bosses in this game are not as memorable as the other characters in the Metal Gear series, but they get the job done and are far more impressive than most end level encounters in other games.  Overall, Metal Gear Solid 2 is a great game that is worth playing even if you have no idea what went on in earlier games as there is a decent amount of exposition when it is needed.  After all, how else are you going to experience “Naked Raiden”?

In addition to the main game, there are a series of alternative missions and virtual missions that can be taken on.  Players can use these modes as a way to re-encounter bosses from the main game or to compete in a series of shooting ranges and obstacle courses to earn the highest score or get the best time.  Extra content like this is cute and adds a significant amount of replay value, but is probably not enough to get old fans to buy the same game again (particularly if they already played through all of this content in Substance).  Without the story, humor and setting of the substantive single player game, some of the idiosyncrasies of the series are drawn into sharp focus, reminding players just how distinct Metal Gear’s controls are.  The controls work well in the main game as Raiden/Snake are usually sneaking about, but the actual shooting, the main activity in many side activities, is not geared for the rapid precision that is demanded to achieve the best rank.  These modes are worth trying out for those who pick up the main game but in no way should be an incentive to purchase.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

As Metal Gear Solid 3 came out, logically, after Metal Gear Solid 2, it is understandable that several of the gameplay elements from 2 stayed around for 3.  However, completely incomprehensibly the 3’s events take place before 2, indeed before any game in the series.  It is an origin story in several ways that makes other parts of the series click into a rational narrative that was absent when trying to reconcile the Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid characterizations of one character in particular.

At the height of the Cold War, the “third” Metal Gear game tells the real story behind the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Everyone who studies modern world history, or just happens to be over fifty years old or watched the panicky guys in suits on the second season of Mad Men, knows that the world almost ended when the USSR and US had a major disagreement and were fully prepared and able to shoot every nuke they had at one another.  The USSR and Cuban government began to build bases to house medium range nuclear missiles with the ability to hit most of the US in Cuba, seen as a response to a deployment of similar American missiles in countries close to Russia.  The public, and Wikipedia, is led to believe that the crisis was averted when President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Khrushchev agreed that the USSR would remove its missiles from Florida’s backyard and the US would remove the Jupiter missiles pointed at Russia.  (I guess they forgot to talk about the other, literally, tons of long range nukes still pointed at each other.)

But that was just a cover story, as told in what is at least a ten minute non-interactive intro.  The US Jupiter missiles were obsolete and were all going to be decommissioned in two years anyway, and the Russians knew this and did not become aggressive because of them.  The real reason World War 3 almost happened and then didn’t was because Russia wanted one man: Dr. Nikolai Stepanovich Sokolov.  A key player in the Soviet space program, Sokolov helped to design the multi-engine cluster Vostok A-1 rocket that helped the first man get to outer space and made it look like the Ruskies might win the space race.  Put on a secret weapons program afterwards, he began developing something for the Motherland that bothered his conscience so much that he defected to the United States.  But after the Cuban Missile Crisis, he was returned to Tselinoyarsk, a very remote and mountainous place, as Russia’s part of the exchange.  A former CIA agent codenamed Snake is tasked to sneak into this region, extract Sokolov from deep behind enemy lines, and learn whatever he can about this secret weapon the scientist was working on.  A weapon so important that all life on Earth was a hair’s breath away from being snuffed out over its development.

Once the cut scene ends and the game part kicks in, things will be seen to largely be like MGS2 (and regular ol’ MGS to those who played one of its incarnations).  Snake must go from place to place sneaking as best he can without raising alarm.  The major difference between this title and the other Metal Gear games is that this 60’s spy adventure does not take place in metal buildings with convenient ducts to crawl in and boxes to hide under, but in a jungle.  The game is broken out into sections of wilderness rather than rooms, with very long loading times in between, so the structure is not entirely different, only the setting.  The vines and grasses are not all window dressing, though, as Snake will have to use camouflage to hide.  Using a different combination of face paint and pattered uniform, the overly obsessed with his gun man can hide in the grass or against a tree and remain undetected. 

It can be a nerve-wracking experience to sneak around with camouflage as the only means of remaining hidden.  Patrolling guards have fairly set patterns but often can only be avoided if Snake slithers through the grass on his belly with the right kind of patterns on his clothing.  Camouflage is a set value, a Camo Index, that is constantly displayed, going from 0%, a Blue Man Group guy performing in front of a well lit orange wall, to 100%, a polar bear with cataracts in a snow storm.  Whether or not Snake is moving will also affect whether he attracts unwanted attention.  Sitting in the grass, hearing birds sing in the canopy while watching a bored guard stroll by, loosely holding his machine gun, close enough to touch, is probably the closest thing grown ups will get to playing hide and go seek unless they are wanted by the police. 

To mix things up, occasionally other, real snakes and other creatures will be in the grass that might make a noise to attract the guard to shoot the commando lying on his stomach.  It is bad to be discovered because A) it is hard to kill people when they are spraying small arms fire around and you have to get up, and B) if guards are killed, more will show up until eventually Snake runs out of ammo and is inevitably put down.  MGS4 improved on this system by giving Snake a crazy techno suit that shifted camouflage patterns if he was pressed up against it for a few seconds, automatically getting the best camo index, which significantly reduced the amount of screwing around in menus as is required here to switch patterns.  However, they didn’t have slick stealth materials in the 1960’s, and as the Metal Gear series is at least tied somewhat to reality, you’ll have to screw around in menus to remain undetected. 

Also new to the scene is CQC (Close Quarters Combat) that both plays into the story a bit and changes the game up, if you want it to.  In previous Metal Gear games, Solid Snake, or whoever, could do a little one-two-three punch and kick combo that would knock a guard down and eventually out if done enough times after the same poor guy kept getting up for yet another whuppin’.  Snake still can do these attacks, though the last blow is no longer a roundhouse to the face but a kick to the knee, and a new full range of moves when up close to a foe and has a CQC compatible weapon equipped (read: a pistol or no gun at all).  Gone are the days of rendering a man unconscious by knocking him down three times; the ex-CIA commando can execute a judo throw to instantly send a guardsman to dreamland.  Theoretically it is also possible to choke someone out or use other less than lethal options, but the system is so touchy that unless it was a throw, Snake almost always ended up drawing his knife across a guards’ neck when I was playing, spilling blood all over the place and sometimes alerting other guards.  Mainly I learned to stop trying other CQC moves as the throw is brutal and is a great way to quickly disable a guard.

The enemies are largely cookie cutter “guy with an assault rifle” but the bosses more than make up for the rank and file’s blandness.  In keeping with the best Metal Gear Solid tradition, the bosses are all very memorable as they are well executed and are at least somewhat believable.  All members of the Cobra unit, an elite force of soldiers handpicked by Snake’s mentor, The Boss, to fight the Axis powers in World War II, will do their part to try to take her pupil down.  From The Fury, an ex-cosmonaut burned during reentry and obsessed with fire, to The Pain, a man who uses hornets as weapons, all of these boss battles and the cut scenes featuring them should stick with players after the game is powered off.  Of particular note is a sniper battle with The End, an ancient marksman who is responsible for most of the modern techniques in precision shooting.  This is far tenser than the battle with Sniper Wolf in MGS as there are far more places in the jungle for the two snipers to hide and move in.  Looking for the twinkle of his lens in the distance is thrilling as it is impossible to know whether he has spotted Snake first or if he is still scanning the jungle himself.

Metal Gear Solid 3 is a fantastic origin story for the franchise and is probably one of the best PlayStation 2 games released during the great system’s run.  That it is faithfully reproduced on a handheld is impressive.  Its story about the arbitrariness of enemy lines in war provides some explanation for the actions of Big Boss in later games, and makes one think of the purpose of war in real life. 

I did not have a copy of the 3DS version, 3D Snake Eater, available to me, but looking at screenshots, if you want to play this Metal Genesis on a handheld and have both systems, the Vita seems like the best choice.  Also on the list of things not available to me was a PS3 version of the game.  Kojima Productions has a feature called “transfarring” (no, auto spell check, I typed that correctly) which allows players to pick up their game save from the same point in the story whether they are playing it at home or on the go – provided it’s on a Sony system.  This is a neat feature for the Metal Gear superfan, but it is difficult to imagine anyone buying the two copies of the game necessary to use this feature.  Maybe it would make sense if buyers got a free copy of the Vita game with purchase of the home version, and could then make their whole life a series of virtual slit throats and alligator steaks.  But they don’t, so most won’t.

Also attached to MGS3 are two games that originally came out for the MSX, Metal Gear and its sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.  These are the 8-bit games that started it all and are probably worth playing for those that have a strong interest in Metal Gear or retro gaming in general as some aspects of these games are referenced in other titles.  MGS as a whole has brought multiple mechanics from the old days into the 3D era.  Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 are good games.  The caveat to that judgment is that they are good older games.  The worst part about them is that the codec/radio seen in the older adventures of Solid Snake aren’t as helpful as they are in later releases.  At best one can hope for a repeat of Snake’s present goal in the complex he is infiltrating, at worse there is no meaningful response.  Several clues can be gleamed from the environment or from rescued prisoners, such as where one might find a particular kind of key card or how to get past a certain obstacle, but you’d better write that stuff down because the games will not store this information for you or repeat it.  Often times, as with a lot of older games, getting past a certain area will require a fair amount of trial and error with no apparent means to accomplish something the first time around without a lethal dose of Red Dwarf’s luck virus.  I can’t tell if the music is catchy or repetitive, but it is never far from memory when I think about it.  The sprites and environments are colorful and animate reasonably well.  They are part of history and it is neat that they are included.

I had a chance to compare the Vita version of the game to the 360 version.  The lack of Peace Walker is a clear difference, but other than that, I saw no appreciable graphical difference.  Either as a testament to the futuristic specs of the Vita or just how little extra was done to make the games HD, the image on the big screen across the room and the little one in my hand was the same.  The sound clearly had a better range on my home theater, but that would be expected given the limitations of the Vita.  One striking difference was the load times.  The load times on the handheld are three to four times as long as those on the 360.  The loading does not break the game for the Vita, but it almost got to that point. When playing only on the handheld before making any direct comparisons, the loading times already seemed long, but then holding it up to a home version of the same game illustrated just how long they were.  Ten to twenty seconds is an eternity when Alarms are going off all over the place and you’re desperately trying to find a place to hide. 

If platform is no object, then it is clearly the case that the Vita version of this particular HD collection is not the way to go.  It is missing an entire game and the load times are obscene.  For me Peace Walker, and to a lesser extent Portable Ops, is critical to the overall story of the Metal Gear series as it adds more context for the huge gap between MGS3 and Metal Gear.  There is a big disconnect there that needs to be bridged and the explanation “games in the 80s had simpler characters” is not satisfying. 

That aside, there is something to be said for looking at faithful versions of two of the greatest PlayStation 2 games out there on a handheld, in the same package.  The only major fault with the games themselves are the load times. A lesser problem may be that some players will find the use of the touch screen to select items awkward.  That must be weighted in the balance with the ability to take two complete Metal Gear games (and the two 8-bit ones) around in the palm of one’s hand and put them into and out of sleep mode at the touch of a button, ensuring constant access to tactical espionage action and patience-straining codec conversations.  Now one actually can go to the bathroom in the middle of one of these without missing anything. 

There is nothing significant here that has not been seen before, either on the PS3/360 or even in the original releases or their re-releases of that generation, but these are absolutely games that are worth playing again if it has been a while and can all serve as decent starting points for new players.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ Two amazing games at a decent price
+ MSX 8-bit games are interesting
+ Impressive these work on the Vita

Cons:
- Peace Walker is not included
- Load times are long
- Use of Touch Pad is poor

Game Info:
Platform: PlayStation Vita
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Armature Studio
Release Date: 6/12/2012
Genre: Stealth Action
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

About the Author

Steve has been playing video games since the start of the 1980s. While the first video game system he played was his father's, an Atari 2600, he soon began saving allowances and working for extra money every summer to afford the latest in interactive entertainment. He is keenly aware of how much it stinks to spend good money on a bad game. It does things to a man. It makes stink way too much time into games like Karnov to justify the purchase.