Reviewed: December 4, 2001
Reviewed by: Mark Smith
Released: November 5, 2002
Almost anyone who owns an original PlayStation knows the name Metal Gear Solid and anyone who owns a PS2 owns or at least has played a copy of last year's mega-hit, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The adventures of Solid Snake is the stuff that legendary games are made from, and this franchise has been particularly successful.
The PS2 version of Sons of Liberty built upon its predecessor in both scope and length, but in the end it succumbed to its own grandiose vision and boged the player down in seemingly endless movies, sacrificing gameplay for the narrative. I’m told by our Japanese cultural attaché that the Japanese gaming public enjoys this style of game, but for the trigger happy domestic gamer, we found ourselves tapping your foot impatiently as com-link conversations and movies droned on and on.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance marks the first Metal Gear game to appear on a non-Sony system in over a decade, and the Xbox version paves the way for the PS2 and PC release in 2003. It's been just over a year since Sons of Liberty debuted and Konami has spent that time tweaking the game and adding new content to this new release. It has everything the original game offered plus enough new content to make this game stand on its own.
They don't call this version, "Substance" for nothing. Check out these new features:
Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance puts you in the boots of our favorite commando, Solid Snake, but only for the first third of the game. Much of this game is played as a new character, Raiden, which may prove disappointing for those looking for an exclusive Snake experience. Both characters and the gameplay are identical, so it’s only a difference of graphics and voice actors when switching heroes.
Of particular interest in this version was the fact that both chapters of the main game are available from the moment you first stick in the DVD. The PS2 required you to finish the first half of the game before granting you this luxury, but now you can jump right into the Big Shell mission if you choose. If you are a newcomer to the game then I would highly discourage this. The tanker mission provides much of the background story and character development for the second part of the game.
The second half of the game has Raiden teamed up with Snake who communicates via Codec to give Raiden additional instructions and tips. PS2 owners never got to play as Snake after the first half of the game was over; however, this time around the designers have included five scenarios that let you play several new Snake missions. While these missions take place in familiar settings and even use characters from the main game they are unfortunately not related to that story.
The missions in Snake Tales are varied in length and there are no cutscenes, which means you will be reading plenty of story and background info before and during these missions. To add a greater challenge you are stripped of your radar and Codec. You must now rely on your powers of observation rather than that all-seeing map in the corner of the screen.
The main game plays like a typical 3D action game with a few unique innovations. You have some amazing movement controls at your disposal such as hugging a wall then peaking around and firing a quick burst before ducking back. You can grab onto rails and ledges and shimmy sideways. You can even do chin-ups to build up your grip meter so you can hang and shimmy for longer durations. Control is almost perfect and my only complaint is that you must maintain a constant pressure on the stick when hugging a wall. It would have been nice to toggle a wall-hug mode.
Metal Gear has always relied heavily on stealth tactics and Substance is no different. There are way too many enemies to go barging in with guns blazing. You are virtually required to sneak, snipe, and dispatch your enemy silently. Often you will need to conceal or dispose of a body to avoid detection.
The AI of the enemy is considerably advanced and they will detect the slightest suspicious change in a given situation. If a guard is missing from his post reinforcements will be called, a sweep of the area takes place, and the guard is replaced. Some guards must check in via radio, so if you drug a guard and he is unable to respond more guards appear. These creates an interesting timed element to some parts of your mission.
There are some environmental challenges that offer a unique gaming twist. In one situation you are sneaking through almost the entire length of the ship via a series of cargo holds. Each hold is filled with hundreds of Marines who are all watching a video presentation. You must sneak through these holds timing your movements with the changing slides and concealing yourself behind crates. In one of my most memorable captures I accidentally stood up in front of the slide projector casting a huge shadow on the screen immediately alerting a hundred angry Marines.
As good as the AI is, it fails to achieve total realism. For instance, if you are spotted then run away and hide for long enough everyone goes back to normal duty like you were never spotted. Realistically, they should continue searching until you are found or everyone is dead, and if you require such realism you can up the skill level to the point where if you are detected even once the game is over. For the more casual gamer, you will find the lower difficulty settings more than challenging.
Physics are a major part of this game and they are as perfect as real life. Watch raindrops bounce off of surfaces, watch the wind blow Snakes bandanna and rustle his famous mullet haircut. Shoot glass and watch it crack, shatter, and crumble to the floor. Knock over an ice bucket and watch the cubes melt in real-time. It’s all unnecessary to the game, but very necessary to creating an amazing virtual world that sucks you in and immerses you in the story.
Gameplay becomes more diverse in the second half of the game where you will find yourself spending a good chunk of time disarming strategically placed bombs, avoiding enemy patrols, and fighting some of the coolest bosses in any action game to date. These bosses are not only originally, but highly challenging in that they react and change their tactics based on your actions. Even so, you will eventually learn their basic patterns and figure out the best way to defeat them.
Those of you who enjoy "boss fights" will love the new Boss Survival mode that has you battling all of the bosses in succession. This is tremendously challenging and if you can master this part of the game the story mode will not be a problem.
Some examples of boss battles include the mad bomber on inline skates who skates around the Harrier landing pad planting explosives that you must disarm while trying to avoid him running you over. Another boss battle pits you against a Harrier jet, as you fight from a burning and twisted section of catwalk. You must dodge machine gun fire and stinger missiles while trying to take out key points on the plane with your rocket launcher.
There is so much detail that serves to enhance the gameplay. If you run around in wet clothes (or even worse – NO clothes) you can actually catch cold then start sneezing making it hard to sneak around. Lights cast shadows that help you spot enemies around corners but also allow them to spot you. You can stash bodies in lockers or hide in them yourself.
It gets even better. How about various boxes that you can hide in. Wet boxes for outside and a variety of dry boxes for certain parts of the level. If you use a machine parts box in the kitchen instead of a food box you will probably alert a guard or two. The galley features hanging pots and pans that clank and rattle around. The storeroom is full of fruit that can get shot up into bite-sized chunks. Put a bullet into a bag of flour and watch Snake start sneezing.
For the perfectionist, there is a series of dog tags that you can collect. These are found all over the game on key individuals. They are very hard to find and you will have to shake down almost every dead or unconscious guard you come across if you want to collect them all. A handy pair of IR goggles makes spotting these tags a bit easier. To fully enjoy the story I highly recommend saving the dog tag scavenger hunt for a separate and dedicated pass through the game.
Near the end, gameplay takes a nasty twist where it favors story over action. You will find yourself sitting through cutscenes and listening to incessant babblings of your girlfriend who just happens to be your mission coordinator. I wanted to smack her when I’m sitting there trying to save the planet and she’s saying things like ‘Jack, tell me about your childhood”, or “Jack, do you remember what day it is today”. I was almost hoping she would turn out to be the enemy so I could kill her in the end.
Sons of Liberty was easily one of the most gorgeous games released on the PS2 last year and everything seems to have made the trip over to the Xbox in all its former glory. Even so, Xbox gamers have come to expect graphics that are cutting edge and while Substance looks good it admittedly looks no better than the PS2 game. In fact, there were several instances where Substance suffered from slowdown, mainly in the tanker level.
This game was originally designed for the PS2 and used every trick the system had to offer and a few new one their programmers had to come up with. Unfortunately, all of these programming tricks were specific to the PS2 hardware and didn't translate to the nVidia chipset in the Xbox. While these graphical hiccups are few and far between they are there and distracting when the happen, but easily forgiven considering the programmers would have had to practically rewrite the game to fix them.
The game engine is still very advanced and when you combine real-world physics with the amazing talents of the artists who created this game, you have something that looks and plays as close to real life as it gets on your TV. Subtle details are perhaps this title’s strongest point. The texture work is incredible and doesn’t lose a pixel of detail even when you are nose-to-the-wall.
Special effects such as weather are realistically rendered and responsible for most of the problems that do exist in Substance. The rain in this game is like none other whether you see it falling through the sky or splashing on the deck. Enter the interior of the ship and watch the immediate area fill with fog then slowly dissipate. Snake will even leave wet footprints if you forget to shake yourself dry once inside. And if that’s not enough, how about seagulls who drop their “presents” on the catwalk, which cause you to slip and fall if you step in the white goop.
Special effects reach new heights in the end levels where you are inside a virtual reality environment. The use of glowing textures and transparencies make for some incredible levels. Watch in amazement as Jack leaves grid-like footprints as he walks across the floor and they slowly fade away.
The character animation is amazingly lifelike down to the subtlest movement. Watch bored guards stretch and yawn or watch Snake sneak, crawl, roll, jump, hang, or roundhouse kick the bad guys. You can shake down the enemy for ammo and other items then drag their corpse off to some dark corner or toss it into the briny deep.
The cutscenes are a mix of 3D graphics and FMV, but perhaps the most amazing thing is that all of the CGI movies are rendered on the fly. You’d swear they were pre-rendered but they’re not. These movies use every Hollywood trick, camera angle, and special effect in the book to create an experience worthy of the big screen.
Other nice touches include a great com-link interface that let you communicate with a variety of people. A handy dialing list keeps track of all your favorite frequencies and you even use this clever device to save your game.
New to Substance is the addition of over 350 VR missions. These have a simpler visual style that is intentionally used to create the effect of being in a holographic simulation. The graphics are still very good and they look as if they have been passed through a cell-shading or pastel filter. The animation is fluid and lifelike giving the entire experience a very surreal feeling.
The original Metal Gear Solid was unanimously heralded as having the best voice acting ever heard in any game ever. Substance continues this fine tradition or excellence by bringing back the original voice actor for Solid Snake as well as other characters who originally appeared in the first game. The voice actors who assume the roles of the new characters are equally as talented and this game will go down in history as having some of the best acting ever.
Sound effects are perfect down to the subtle hiss of the rain to the clank of a metal bulkhead door, to the report of your AK47. The whirling fan blades of the spy drones, the clanking footsteps on metal catwalks, the metallic thumping of Metal Gear Ray’s footsteps are all unique, perfect, and add to the overall immersion of the experience.
Harry Gregson-Williams did the score for Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance and as one of Hollywood’s biggest composers you can expect some larger-than-life music that fits the movie segments perfectly. Music during actual gameplay is surprisingly subdued, if present at all. Sometimes it will peak during tense situations providing just the right amount of emotional response. Sometimes, a lack of music is even more effective, especially during the stealth sections of the game where you need to be concentrating on the sounds of your environment. Don’t be surprised to play large sections of this game with little or no background music.
While the PS2 wasn't powerful enough to output a Dolby Digital soudntrack during gameplay, the Xbox easily supports a Dolby Digital surround mix for both movies and gameplay in Substance. If you have a 5.1 setup and are using the optical cable on your Xbox you will be treated to a true theatrical experience, both visually and audibly.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance is arguably a “short” game, especially if you strip out the movies and just add up the time you spend actually playing the game. Of course you can argue that the game is nothing without the story and you would be right, but in my two trips through this titles I finished the game in just under ten hours the first time and seven hours the second.
Admittedly, on my second pass I skipped over a lot of the optional conversation that takes place in the Codec when you can contact everyone and get information on everything. It makes for a great read and fills in lots of story elements the first time you play, but it will have you yawning on future trips.
Of course the big added value to Substance is the 350+ VR missions that are broken down into categories such as Sneaking, First Person, and others. Sneaking mode will be the favorite for those of you who prefer stealth missions. The include such challenges as getting from point A to B in the fastest time undetected, or somethign as challenging as eliminating all enemy soliders on the level without alerting the other guards.
First Person training has you playing these VR missions from a view that FPS gamers will instantly recognize. Control is pretty good and you have multiple configurations to choose from if you don't like the default controller layout. Weapons mode has you training with a variety of weapons to take out specifically shaped targets. Each shape requires a certain weapon, so you get some good experience on changing weapons and accuracy. The final VR mode is a Variety mode that mixes up a vast assortment of objectives and tactics. These are some of the most inventive missions in this part of the game and offer their own unique surprises.
You can play these VR missions as either Snake or Raiden; each with their own varied missions and custom rewards such as new outfits for each character. Once you have unlocked these new costumes you can then play even more VR missions for those characters. All of these are timed missions and you are scored based on how fast you can complete each one. If you aren't careful you might find yourself hopelessly addicted to these VR games, playing and replaying them to get the lowest time. The sheer scope of this VR component is staggering and it also makes for a very competitive party game.
There are also more than 150 alternate missions that are exclusive to Substance. These allow you to test and enhance your skills in a variety of situations created from the more realistic environments used in the main game. These are as challenging as anything else in the game and add exceptional value to this release.
Truth be told, there is enough content in these new missions to create a standalone game. In fact, the original Metal Gear Solid did release a standalone VR Mission pack for the original PlayStation then included those missions on the PC release. Now you get all of this gaming goodness packed right in with the main game. While some of these VR missions last only 10-15 seconds, others are quite involved and will take several minutes. You can expect many hours of challenging gameplay with this section of the game.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance dishes up a big serving of good old-fashion espionage and tactical-based combat that favors stealth over fighting. The story is good, yet at times it felt that it was being crammed down my throat. The pacing seemed to be a bit off with plenty of action in the beginning then tons of narrative during the final chapters. The very end of the game dumped an encyclopedia of back-story on you in a very short amount of time.
With more than 500 new missions and tons of secrets and new features to unlock and explore you may as well weld your Xbox CD tray shut after you stick in this disc. Aside from the over-abundance of movies and Codec chatter, there is a really great game hidden on this DVD. The freedom to explore and ultimately play this game as you see fit within the confines of the parameters of the script is a great feature that offers excellent replay potential. Whether you choose to replay it now or later is not an issue. You will replay this game sooner or later. Like a fine movie that you might watch once or twice a year, Substance will keep you coming back for your Solid Snake (and Jack) action-adventure fix.