Metal Gear Solid is the game that has been sending chills down the back of this industry for over two years. Konami leaked bits of information about it here and there, but there was no hiding the notion that Metal Gear Solid would be an adventure of epic proportions. Now, all the waiting has ceased, and the game is finally upon us. But does Metal Gear Solid live up to the years of hype? That really depends on your perspective.
At its core, Metal Gear Solid is truly a lesson in stealth. Forget about running into rooms with your gun blazing, leaving nothing alive but an occasional rat. Here, living by the gun readily equates into dying by the gun. Why bother fighting the guards when you can just sneak around behind their backs, crawl along walls just out of the sight range of surveillance cameras, and hide behind boxes?
Unlike most other games, Metal Gear Solid really knows how to tell a story. You, as retired supersneaky agent Solid Snake, must infiltrate a base that has been overrun by terrorists. These terrorists, however, are members of your old unit, a top secret organization known as Fox Hound. The hounders are sitting on a supersecret new weapon and enough nuclear warheads to send the planet back to the Ice Age. Your mission (no choice here - you're forced to accept) is to infiltrate the base carrying nothing but a pair of binoculars and a pack of smokes, check up on a couple hostages, find out if Fox Hound even has the ability to carry out its apocalyptic threats, and if it does, stop it. The storyline unfolds in a seemingly never-ending collection of cutscenes, all extremely well rendered using the game engine. The game doesn't need FMV to clog up the process (given the amount of time spent watching cutscenes, FMV probably would have made MGS a three- or four-disc game), although it does use video in a few isolated cases and uses it reasonably well. When you first start playing the game, you truly do feel like you're constantly in danger. There are so many ways that guards can be alerted to your presence. The most dangerous, of course, is sight. If you enter the line of sight of a guard or a camera, you've got a fight on your hands. Luckily, their lines of sight are represented by big cones on your radar. Simply stay away from the cones, and you'll never get spotted. If you stomp through a puddle of water or across a metal catwalk, fire off a weapon, or knock on a wall (great for luring the dummies to their doom), nearby guards will hear the noise and check it out. They'll even follow footprints in the snow. If you're spotted, a bunch of guards come out of nowhere and start playing target practice with you. This also starts a two-part timer. The first part of the timer is the danger timer. During this time, guards are extremely alert, and they scurry around, hoping to find you. If you can manage to stay out of sight, the second timer starts. During this time the guards don't look for you quite as actively. If you can stay hidden during that time, the guards stupidly assume that you must have run away, and simply return to their posts. No increased patrols, no manhunts. They just forget they ever saw you and continue to wander aimlessly. While it's understandable that this had to be done for gameplay purposes (getting spotted once and playing the rest of the game with tons of guards on your tail wouldn't exactly be fair), it comes across as more than a little silly. Plus, all of these guards are badly in need of some corrective eyewear, because they can only see about 20 or so feet in front of them. Heck, you can even shoot a guard in the back of the head (it takes multiple shots to kill), and he'll just look around, not see anyone, and go back to standing there like an idiot. When you're not running behind the backs of the foolish guards, you're encountering various puzzles and bosses. Most of the puzzle aspect is totally ruined by your radio, which allows you to check in with different people throughout the game. They'll also frequently call you, sometimes to advance the story, and they'll always tell you exactly what to do next. Your colonel frequently drops you a line to lay heavy concepts like "Snake, push the action button to climb down the ladder" on you. Also, after most major encounters, your buddy, the colonel, checks in and basically recaps what you were just told. Usually it takes the form of "Didn't (party x) just tell you that (item y) is kept in (location z)? Hurry, Snake! We're almost out of time!" It needlessly interrupts the game and makes you feel as if you're an eight-year-old with attention deficit disorder instead of a trained killer. All this really sucks any difficulty the game could have had right out. While none of the puzzles are really hard in any way, having them spelled out to you before you've even started on them is just plain stupid. Even though the game has multiple difficulty settings, they all suffer from this problem.
The difficulty settings weren't in the Japanese version of the game, and they really have a "thrown in at the last minute" feel to them. The game's easy setting is equivalent to the Japanese version. Normal difficulty changes the game a little bit, but not enough to really make a difference. Hard steps up the amount of damage you'll take and also disables your radar. Extreme difficulty is locked until you beat the game once, and it also is sans radar. Now, the trouble with this is that the gameplay was really designed around using the radar system effectively. Without it, the only way to see guards is to use the first-person view or to peer around corners. Unfortunately, you can't move while in the first-person view. The time you take to stop and look for guards may be the time that one of them turns around and sees you. Meanwhile, you're in a viewpoint where you can't even hide, let alone fire a weapon. This wouldn't be so bad if the view was pulled back a bit, but most of the guards you shoot or avoid won't ever be on the screen. If they make it onto the screen, chances are they're already shooting at you. While the game surely has its share of problems, it must be said that the game presents itself extremely well and really is fun to play, even if it is almost completely devoid of challenge. The control is extremely well conceived, and inventory selection is especially elegant. But don't even think of playing Metal Gear Solid without the Dual Shock controller. This game is probably the first to really make perfect use of the vibration functions and really goes a long way to maintaining the suspension of belief in both its timing and its subtlety. Once immersed in the world of MGS, you honestly do feel like the star of a spy-styled thriller. Whether you're silently breaking the necks of guards or merely pounding the circle button while strapped into a torture device, you really do feel like the fate of the world hangs in the balance. It's a great ride and a reasonably captivating story, which, considering you spend more time watching the story unfold than actually playing the game (it's been said that the game has ten times as much dialogue as the average movie), really helps the game. There are so many cutscenes and other stops in gameplay, that the game itself almost seems like a collection of minigames, inserted to keep you from tuning out the plot. The storytelling is not perfect, though. About halfway through the game, the storyline takes a dramatic turn, and the rest of the dialogue is basically one big antinuke, antiwar message, peppered with lots of "How could I have involved myself in such an evil scheme?" speeches. If I wanted to be preached to in such a way, I'd go to a rally. Still, there are enough twists and turns in the plot to keep it interesting in spite of its obvious and annoying antinuclear agenda. From an audio/visual standpoint, Metal Gear Solid is truly incredible. While the game's textures may be on the grainy side, the detail with which everything is rendered is truly amazing. There's no 2D trickery here - everything is rendered in 3D, right down to the littlest details, like items residing on desks and maggots festering on rotting corpses. Everything looks real and acts in an extremely realistic way. The animations are very well done and run at a nice, smooth rate. A touch of slowdown pops up when multiple enemies are on screen, but it really isn't too noticeable. The soundtrack and effects are totally unmatched. The music has an ominous feel that perfectly sets the mood of the game. The sound effects are extremely well done, from gunfire to the little click you hear when picking up an item. The effects also vary depending on your surroundings. If you're out in the middle of a snowstorm, shots will sound muffled. If you're in a tight room or ventilation shaft, effects take on an appropriately echoed sound. Also, unlike most translations, the English voice work in Metal Gear Solid is surprisingly good. What they're actually saying may be a bit hokey and cliched at times, but at least they deliver the dialogue with the right amount of conviction.
To say that the length of the game is disappointing is generous at best. Even if you were to watch every single cutscene and fumble around a bit at the beginning while learning the controls, you would still finish the game in around 15 hours. Once you know exactly what to do and skip as much plot as possible, you can run through the game in three hours or less. Konami attempted to add value in the form of the various difficulty settings, as well as incentives to play through the game again, but no amount of special items and visual tweaks (Gee... the cyberninja is red this time. Yea. Ooh, now I'm wearing a tuxedo. How... exciting) make Metal Gear Solid worth playing through more than twice, and even playing it through a second time just to see both endings is stretching it a little bit. Its brevity is simply appalling. While the game is definitely worth purchasing, you could easily rent it for a couple days and see everything that is worth seeing. Five years from now, when we look back upon Metal Gear Solid, what will we see? The game definitely is revolutionary in many ways. It breaks new ground in gameplay and truly brings the video game one step closer to the realm of movies. It is, without a doubt, a landmark game. But the extreme ease with which it can be mastered and the game's insultingly short length keep it from perfection. Plus, do we really want games that are more like movies? If Hideo Kojima, the game's producer, was so set on this type of cinematic experience, he should really be making movies instead of games. While Metal Gear Solid currently stands alone, it stands as more of a work of art than as an actual game. It's definitely worth purchasing, but don't be surprised if you suddenly get extremely angry when you finish the game the day after you brought it home.