The Metal Gear Solid franchise is among the most revered in all of gaming. Hideo Kojima’s sprawling opus of espionage, nuclear weapons, and betrayal commands a considerable amount of attention and is always a hot topic of conversation among gamers. Having yet to play any game in the series I naturally felt left out and thought it was finally time to find out what all the fuss is about. Thankfully, Konami released the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for the PlayStation Vita, giving me a chance to experience both Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 in one convenient package. So with cautious optimism, I took the plunge and decided to jump right into the series.
Once you boot up the game you have the choice of playing either Metal Gear Solid 3 (the first chronological entry in the series, taking place in 1964), or Metal Gear Solid 2 (which takes place between 2007 and 2009, but was released several years before Snake Eater). Considering I never played the original Metal Gear Solid I decided to play part 2 first, so that I could experience them in the order they were released.
Metal Gear Solid 2 starts out with Snake investigating a tip about a new Metal Gear being transported on a military ship on the Hudson River. This opening episode of the game is thrilling and memorable in its impact before it all slips away and Solid Snake is replaced as the main character by a rookie operative, codenamed Raiden. I understand that this swap was a major shock to gamers a decade ago, but to me it comes off as an extremely clever set-up for the ensuing plot. I enjoyed the first few hours of MGS 2’s story, as it seemed to set up the stakes, the objectives, and the characters at an effective pace. Things took a turn for the bizarre shortly afterwards and the plot became so muddled, pretentious, and weird that it was hard for me keep up with the numerous, lengthy cutscenes. You can’t even save the game without enduring a long-winded and sentimental exchange between Raiden and his love interest.
Snake Eater fares much better in this regard. The story is still equal parts strange and meandering, but the narrative is much easier to follow because it requires no knowledge of the previous games. The original Snake is tasked with recovering a Soviet weapons researcher that wishes to defect to the U.S. Things take a change for the worse when Snake is betrayed by his mentor, The Boss, and left to fend for himself on a very important mission in the jungle where he must use camouflage and feast on wild animals to survive. Seeing Snake endure repeated episodes of brutality and heartbreak allowed me to connect with him in a way few other game characters allow. Say what you will about Kojima’s storytelling, but he definitely knows his characters. Snake Eater also pays homage to Cold War-era pop culture from its delightfully Bond-esque theme song, to the discussion of films such as “A Fistful of Dollars” and “Dr. Strangelove”, thankfully replacing the schmaltzy minutiae of its predecessor that occurs when you save the game. Snake Eater also happens to be one of the few games I’ve played in recent memory where the story’s conclusion felt as rewarding as playing the game itself.
The controls can be a tad clunky. The dual analog sticks work about as well as you would expect and are the reason why movement is the most straightforward aspect of an otherwise unorthodox control scheme. The Vita’s tiny buttons don’t do combat justice. One of the most annoying quirks is that you are unable to release the square button without firing your weapon, which is counterintuitive towards carrying out your mission stealthily. Due to the lack of necessary shoulder buttons, item selection has been relegated to touch screen controls. Luckily the game still pauses whenever you want to toggle through items, which somewhat abates how cumbersome touch controls feel in comparison to simply holding down a trigger button. Outside of menu navigation and item selection, the touch screen is only used to zoom in while aiming through a scope or during a cutscene. It is a bit disappointing to see that the Vita’s many unique inputs aren’t put too much use in either game; there were many contextual situations that I feel would have benefitted from either touch or motion controls. Though perhaps it is best the developers focused on recreating the authentic console experience during the porting process instead of forcing on something that would need to be implemented with very thoughtful consideration.
As they are part of the same series, both games share many common gameplay elements. Raiden and Snake find themselves primarily on their own in hostile territory and must use their wits and special equipment to complete their objectives. Gadgets play integral roles in some of the best moments in each game, whether that means using a microphone to identify a person of interest based on his irregular heartbeat or using thermal goggles to pick out snipers in the jungle. The primary game mechanics involve shooting, crawling, hiding and dragging enemy corpses where they won’t be detected. Over the course of both missions you’ll disarm bombs, carry out escort missions, and even fire at enemies from the sidecar of a motorcycle. The sheer variety is incredible. The fundamental difference in setting helps differentiate the two games. Sons of Liberty takes place in the confined corridors of an off-shore oil rig while Snake Eater occurs in the heart of the jungle, incorporating camouflage and survival skills to great effect.
Both games feature some of the most memorable boss battles you're likely to come across in any game. This is particularly remarkable because the respective combat systems don’t exactly lend themselves to traditional face-offs. Each encounter feels unique and noteworthy, not only because each boss has an outlandish personality, but also the method of dispatching them forces you to think outside of the proverbial cardboard box. Metal Gear Solid 3 in particular really brings the goods. Highlights include the final 10-minute showdown with The Boss and a confrontation with Sorrow, which literally has you walk down river, wading past the specters of every enemy you have killed up to that point in the game.
As enjoyable as the core gameplay can be in both Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater, my favorite aspect of these games is how comfortable they are breaking from convention. Kojima and his team dare to connect with, and at times actively provoke, gamers in ways only they seem capable of. There is ample fourth wall breaking, numerous Easter Eggs, not to mention the possibility of creating a time paradox or killing off a major enemy before a scheduled boss battle. Both games also skirt the boundaries of the genre by featuring ample FPS elements, or in the case of MGS 2’s closing chapters, becoming a straight up hack and slash. The environments offer an astounding amount of interactivity that rewards exploration and experimentation.
Graphically this collection holds up well but not spectacularly. The Vita’s screen (which does not display in HD despite the game’s title) does justice to the visuals of both games and compensates for faults that would be more glaring on a much larger screen. As they are, neither game feels too out of place among the Vita’s library, though Snake Eater’s jungles are nowhere near as lush as those found in Uncharted: Golden Abyss. The audio fares really well. The voice actors make the most of the series' lengthy scripts, led by David Hayter’s iconic performance as Snake. The music and sound effects are also top notch as both play integral roles in adding to the tension of sneaking around enemy-filled environments. The biggest drawback of this collection’s presentation is that it is not easy to back out of the games and modes; in some instances it is impossible unless you die. The start-up times can also be fairly lengthy.
Both Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater took me more than ten hours to complete. Both games also come with a number of extra modes and incentives for subsequent plays of their campaigns. The original MSX versions of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake are also included with Metal Gear Solid 3, as they were with the Subsistence edition of that game. Neither has aged particularly well but their inclusion is appreciated nonetheless. Noticeably absent is the much-loved PSP title, Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker, which was included with the collection’s release on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 last fall and came with an online component that added many more potential hours of fun. This omission is somewhat compensated for by the retail price that is $10 cheaper than the console counterparts when they were released. However, considering how fast game prices fall nowadays you can actually find those versions for less than the asking price on Vita, with more content, better controls, and true HD display.
One new feature the Vita version of MGS HD Collection brings to the table is transfarring. This allows you to swap save files between this game and the PS3 versions through the Internet. I understand the point is to give players the chance to continue playing the game when away from home, but I seriously call the value of this feature into question. For one, in order to take advantage of it you need to have a copy of the collection already on the PS3, which we’ve established as the superior version, thus leading me to believe that only the most dedicated fans will take advantage of a feature which is an amusing novelty at best. If Peace Walker was part of the equation then I could see transfarring being worthwhile, as that game can take upwards of 50 hours to complete, not to mention all the time spent with the online component.
While I enjoyed both Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater (the latter slightly more), I can’t help but feel I would have enjoyed them more on a console. This isn’t a case of me being against handheld versions of console games, but rather of me not being able to stomach a huge discrepancy of value between the two. Metal Gear Solid HD Collection still brings together two extremely enjoyable entries of the Metal Gear franchise in one engrossing package but you should only consider picking up the Vita version if you can’t get this collection elsewhere.
This review is based on a retail copy of Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for the PS Vita.