Konami has gone to great lengths to ensure that no man or woman misses the 25th anniversary of the Metal Gear series, reviving classic entries on every current platform with the exception of PCs. Its latest nostalgic stroke is Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for the PlayStation Vita, formulated to the handheld's unique qualities. There are small issues with the new control schemes, but they are minor in the grand scheme of things. The PlayStation 2 games translate beautifully to the Vita's crisp display, and the amount of content within will warm any Metal Gear fan's heart. All told, this collection is worth every penny, and these iconic games will satiate the cravings of game-starved Vita owners in need of quality software.
Barring the unique rendition of Snake Eater on the 3DS, these are the premier handheld appearances for all four included games: Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, and ports of the first two Metal Gear games, based on the enhanced mobile phone versions of the classic MSX2 games. The Vita version of the collection carries the unfortunate stigma of omitting Peace Walker, the PSP Metal Gear game included in the equally priced console collections. Truthfully, there's a plethora of Metal Gear content in the Vita version, and any perception of a lesser product quickly diminishes.
The Metal Gear series chronicles the careers of Solid Snake and Big Boss, two soldiers with ties to military operations within and without the US government. The often complex storyline spans all four games, beginning with Metal Gear Solid 3, followed by Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, and Metal Gear Solid 2. Metal Gear games have always emphasized stealth over action, but the military setting ensures you'll reload your clip from time to time, though you can make do with minimal use of firearms. Part of the beauty of the series is the variety of ways you can complete objectives and the accompanying rewards that entice you to do so.
The other half of the Metal Gear love potion is the charming dialogue and the uniquely self-aware approach to storytelling. There are a number of self-references that will fly over the heads of non-fans, but the occasional moments of quirkiness are unavoidable and do a fine job of breaking up the weight of the heavy narratives at hand. There is a distinct personality and style to Metal Gear and once you see it, you can't un-see it. The mix of serious tones and silly easter-eggs might not be everyone's cup of tea, but there's nothing like it among Metal Gear's contemporaries.
As you'd expect, there are new inputs to take advantage of the Vita hardware as well as to compensate for the missing second pair of shoulder buttons. The Vita-specific controls are generally competent and intuitive, with the occasional exception. The main touch-screen functions are mirrored between Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, allowing you to peek around corners with a swipe and camera-zoom during cutscenes by maintaining a single point of contact. You can also zoom when looking through weapon scopes or binoculars by swiping up or down. Most importantly, the touch screen acts as the input for switching and toggling equipment, a feature that works flawlessly in lieu of additional shoulder buttons.
The rear touch pad has specific functions for each of the MGS games, only some of which are documented in the manual. Within first-person perspective in MGS2, swiping to the left or the right temporarily moves your character one step in the respective direction. If you pinch outward, also in first-person view, Snake or Raiden stands on tiptoe. When hanging, you can swipe down with two fingers to initiate a pull-up (used to level up your character's grip strength) and swipe left or right to shimmy in either direction.
MGS3 exhibits one Vita-specific input that gets it wrong. When a knife is equipped, touching the rear touch screen initiates a thrust attack. It works well enough, but the problem is the means of input. If you fancy a blade as your primary weapon, be wary of the back of your Vita, as the lightest tap from either hand initiates a potentially unwanted attack. Avoiding contact with the rear panel is challenging while maintaining a solid grip on the system, and there are no options to alter in-game inputs. This design decision is a blemish on the otherwise excellent Vita control scheme.
The other inherent issues are the clunky methods required to return to the game select screen. To do so within MGS3, you need to exit the game in progress, enter the title screen menu, and choose "return to game select." It's a roundabout way of accomplishing something that could have been tucked away in the in-game pause menu. MGS2 makes backing out even harder. Since there is no in-game pause menu, you have to back out to the Vita home screen and restart the HD Collection to switch games. Again, this seems like an obvious design oversight.
Controls and menu navigation aside, the Vita ports of the Metal Gear Solid games are sharp and vibrant, rivaling their bigger HD brothers. This is in part due to the quality and pixel density of the Vita's OLED display, but the in-game models, textures, and frame rates are top notch on their own. These are games from a bygone generation, but they positively shine on the Vita.
Though the dated graphics have aged well, the same design problems from the original releases persist. Modern third-person action games emphasize shooting while in motion, but this is something Metal Gear has traditionally shied away from. This, along with seemingly endless dialogue sequences, may bother players who have never experienced this style of "action" game. The same can be said for the lack of movement while crouched, a problem that was fixed in the 3DS version of Snake Eater. That release dipped its toes into remake territory, while this version is primarily a port, but it still would have been nice to have the same fix implemented here.
One handy feature added to the Vita port is "transfarring," the ability to share saved games with the PlayStation 3 version of the HD Collection. Similar to Peace Walker on the PSP, the HD Collection can share saves by connecting the Vita via USB. Now, the difference is the added ability to upload saves to the cloud, making the process even easier. This bridging of the platform gap is still fairly uncommon among games, which is too bad, because it extends the value of each system's version.
In the case of Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, not only are we treated to excellent ports of timeless gaming gems, but the added features are, for the most part, justifiable and unique enough to warrant yet another purchase of these games you've likely played or owned in the past. The omission of Peace Walker is unfortunate, but the four games and their additional content easily warrant the $40 asking price. Among the current Vita lineup, this collection glimmers like a diamond in the rough.