Clean out your hard drive and dust off your gamepad for Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, which you could easily tell originated on consoles if you didn't know it already. In fact, this game bears the dubious distinction of not just being a port of a console game, but a port of a port of a console game. Originally, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, a critically acclaimed espionage thriller for the PlayStation 2, was released in 2001, and it was then ported to the Xbox last year with a new name and some new features. Now the Xbox version is available for the PC, and it requires a DVD-ROM drive along with a whopping 3.9GB of hard disk space, and that's for the minimum install. Plus, the default keyboard-and-mouse controls are practically unusable, so a gamepad with at least 10 buttons is more or less required. And no one bothered to remove the specific references to the Xbox control scheme from the game or the manual. So it's fair to say that MGS2: Substance could have been ported over a lot more gracefully. Yet this is such an unusual, intriguing, and shocking game that despite the rough translation, it still makes for a one-of-a-kind experience on the PC.
In 2001, the release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was gaming's equivalent of the premiere of a huge Hollywood blockbuster. Anticipation for the game had grown extraordinarily high, both because it was a sequel to what's regarded as one of the best PlayStation games ever made, and also because a number of dazzlingly produced teaser trailers did an incredible job of whetting gamers' appetites for Metal Gear Solid 2's story and gameplay. People just couldn't wait to once again reprise the role of secret agent Solid Snake and infiltrate heavily defended enemy compounds using a combination of stealth and force, uncovering untold military secrets in the process. Upon the game's release, it met with glowing reviews from critics and was hailed as a superlative successor to its namesake--and yet players were shocked to find that Metal Gear Solid 2 turned out to have a huge twist: The main character in fact wasn't the coolheaded Solid Snake, but an entirely new character, an inexperienced young soldier called Raiden--a Luke Skywalker to Solid Snake's Han Solo.
This later caused a backlash among legions of Metal Gear fans, many of whom felt like MGS2 was a big slap in the face. So, at any rate, MGS2: Substance lets you experience one of the most talked-about video games ever made, since the core of the game is a straight port of the PlayStation 2 release. It assumes you have some experience with the original Metal Gear Solid (which was ported to the PC in 2000), though the storyline promises to bewilder you no matter how familiar with the characters and setting you are. Substance also throws in a number of additional features, most notably a series of no fewer than 500 so-called VR training missions that let you explore the nuances of MGS2's first-person and third-person action without all the cinematic trappings. For a single-player-only game, it packs in a lot of value.
The core game consists of two parts, the first being a relatively short sequence in which you play as Solid Snake, and the second being the main portion, in which you play as Raiden. Very story-driven and mostly linear, MGS2 is by all means a cinematic game, one that you simply sit back and watch almost as often as you actually play. Much of the story unfolds via one-on-one conversations between the game's main characters using a communications device called a codec. Here you just see a green-tinted screen with close-ups of the speaking characters' faces, and you listen to (or read) what they have to say. At other times, Metal Gear Solid 2 presents some extremely impressive noninteractive cutscenes using the game's 3D engine, which look like something out of a big-budget action movie, only with video game characters instead of real people. These of course are much more interesting than the codec sequences, although the game's story does remain engaging if you're willing to keep up with it through a few very strange plot twists and put up with some occasionally bad and always long-winded dialogue.
The actual gameplay involves lots of things: sneaking around, exploring, shooting with a variety of different real-world weapons, going toe-to-toe with some interesting and challenging bosses, and numerous other small but clever elements. The action appears highly realistic--some surprisingly lifelike enemy behavior, outstanding animation, and lots of little details make Metal Gear Solid 2 one of the closest computer game approximations to superspydom ever. But at its heart, Metal Gear Solid 2 is still an action game, and the game's designers, with tongue in cheek, borrowed a few classical video gaming conventions: For example, at the normal difficulty setting, you can withstand an inordinate amount of gunfire before finally perishing. You can instantly restore your health just by eating rations. Guards are curiously nearsighted, unable to detect you if you stand about 30 feet away, and strangely deaf, unable to hear you running full speed ahead. On the other hand, the game's authentic touches, such as how depleted ammunition magazines can be thrown to distract enemy guards, or how Snake can use cigarette smoke to reveal infrared tripwires, can be really impressive. Even so, Metal Gear Solid 2 isn't exactly a simulation of being a secret agent, so those looking for a more believable spy game would be better off with the recent Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell.
The controls of MGS2: Substance will take some getting used to, and you shouldn't even bother trying to get used to them until your gamepad is plugged in. If you've played a lot of first-person shooters, you may initially be thrown off by how the game constantly requires you to switch (albeit seamlessly) between a top-down third-person perspective and a first-person view. The catch is that you can't aim precisely from a third-person perspective, but you have to stand still when in first-person mode. So you'll often sneak up behind guards, switch to first-person view, and then quickly shoot them in the head either with deadly ammo or with tranquilizer darts if you're feeling humane. There are a lot of nuances to the controls, such as how you can dangle from railings or ledges, press your back up against a wall and peak around the corner, and crawl through narrow spaces. But it's too bad these controls weren't optimized for the PC. MGS2: Substance could have worked quite well as a purely first-person-perspective game. As it is, you'd be well off using a gamepad that's similar to the stock PlayStation 2 controller. Better yet, there are adapters available that let you use a PlayStation or PS2 gamepad on your PC.
You'll likely feel motivated to come to grips with the controls, since Snake and Raiden have a number of moves for you to master. They can strangle unsuspecting victims or use them as human shields, they can hold up their victims by surprising them with a gun to their backs, they can execute hip tosses or punch and kick combos, and they can leap away from (or headlong into) their foes. Also, what with the game's great variety of pistols, assault rifles, explosives, and high-tech gadgets such as thermal goggles and a long-range microphone, Metal Gear Solid 2 definitely provides you with a lot of cool stuff to use and a number of cool situations in which to use it.
The core game is about 15 hours long the first time through, assuming you don't skip over the plot (and you shouldn't), plus there's some inherent replay value in it. For one thing, the story rewards multiple viewings, since you'll invariably miss some of the rapid-fire details the first time through. Tougher difficulty settings make the artificially intelligent guards much more ruthless and disable your tactical radar display, the absence of which makes playing the game very different and a lot more challenging (though, admittedly, that's partly because the third-person perspective will sometimes cause you to blunder headlong into enemy guards standing just offscreen). You can also fight your way through the game's sequences using a variety of different tactics, uncover numerous amusing secrets, and unlock some hidden extras by sneaking up on and sticking up all the guards you'll encounter, shaking them down for their dog tags and collecting these as you go along. It's a fun little meta-game.
Early reports stated that Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance would allow players to experience Raiden's chapter of Metal Gear Solid 2 from the perspective of Solid Snake, and that turns out to be partly true. One of the extras in Substance is the addition of five small, new missions called "Snake Tales," each starring Snake and each taking place during the events of Metal Gear Solid 2. These are balanced for experienced players and can be played in any order, but compared with the lavishly produced main game, these new missions seem rather disappointing. Cinematic cutscenes are replaced with pages of onscreen text, and there's no new voice-over, so the additions to the storyline in these new missions seem unnatural and slapped together. Nevertheless, they're certainly a chance to play more of the game from the perspective of Solid Snake.
The VR missions are more compelling and offer a great variety of increasingly challenging tactical situations. The main plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 makes numerous references to Raiden's VR training, so it's great to finally see exactly what he had to go through (though fans of the original Metal Gear Solid will remember that game's similar VR training missions). In these stylized scenarios, you'll master all the game's different weapons, sneak through numerous difficult situations, and practice holding people up, taking people out, and moving precisely. You're rated based on your performance in each of these stages, and if you score well enough you'll get a code that can be used on Konami's official Web site to compare your standings against those of other Substance players.
As you finish more and more missions, you'll gain access to hidden characters and their own unique sets of VR missions. Generally, some of the best mission types are the "alternative missions" for each character, which are unlocked once you finish with the basic missions and tend to be quite creative and enjoyable. For instance, one has you running through a nearly pitch-black, enemy-infested area with nothing but a ninja sword and the goal of defeating everyone in the level. Also, some of the elimination missions are a lot of fun, as they provide you with numerous weapons but limited ammo, forcing you to take out a bunch of foes quietly, accurately, and strategically.
When it was released, MGS2 was heralded as one of the best-looking video games ever released. Its meticulous attention to detail and its superb motion-captured animation are carried over intact to the PC, but some instances of noticeable graphical slowdown and clipping now mar what was a consistently smooth gameplay experience on the PS2. The frame rate problems sometimes occur in high-intensity situations, such as during certain action-packed cinematics or when you're being swarmed by enemies, so these issues don't just affect the graphics, but can also hurt the gameplay experience a bit. Nevertheless, it's still a great-looking game, filled with memorable characters and realistic effects.
The game's audio is even better, thanks to some very good voice acting and MGS2's terrific, catchy musical score, which was composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, who has provided similar music for big-budget action movies such as The Rock. If the game's cutscenes don't make you feel like you're taking part in an epic thriller, then the music most certainly will. Its interactively changes depending on the situation and will make the game's suspenseful bits all the more so and the game's intense bits all the more so. The rest of the game's audio is also very well done, from all the different-sounding firearms to smaller touches like the sound of seagulls off the coast of the game's main setting of a mysterious deep-sea production plant.
In stark contrast to the eagerly anticipated 2001 release of MGS2 for the PS2, the PC version MGS2: Substance quietly snuck onto shelves earlier this month, and due to its steep requirements and obtuse controls, it threatens to disappear just as quickly. However, it really shouldn't, because there's a great game hidden in MGS2: Substance--one that just isn't comparable to anything else.