Archive for June, 2007

Metal Gear Solid 2: Stealth

Let’s talk about gameplay a little. MGS2 is basically a stealth game punctuated by boss fights. I think the first stealth game I was aware of was Thief: The Dark Project, and consequently this is in my mind the canonical stealth game, the one that I think of all others in terms of. Thief was released in 1998, the same year as the first Metal Gear Solid. There had been stealth games before — notably, the original Metal Gear that Metal Gear Solid was based on — but only a few, and they didn’t have as much as an impact as these 3D ones. There still aren’t all that many games based mainly on stealth mechanics, but it seems to be fairly popular as a temporary constraint in platformers and shooters, a way of varying gameplay. Here, of course, that’s reversed: it’s the occasional shooting mission that keeps the sneaking from getting stale.

The point of a stealth game is, of course, not being seen. The designer can enforce this by making the game end (or, more likely, restart from the last checkpoint) as soon as an enemy spots the player character. And indeed, that’s a common approach in those stealth scenes in non-stealth-based games, presumably because it’s simple to implement. But that’s a bit harsh for extended use, so in the MGS games, as in Thief, being spotted simply has negative but not-immediately-fatal consequences. The sentry who saw you sounds an alert, unless you can stop him in time, and suddenly you’re facing more foes than you can easily handle. What happens then varies from game to game. In Thief, it is always at least theoretically possible to defeat all the enemies and wander unhindered until you decide to finish the level. This can break the mood somewhat. MGS does it differently: the enemies are effectively infinite in number, with new troops coming in to replace those killed. The player basically has no choice but to find a place to hide until they decide to stop looking for him, and then resume sneaking. This approach makes for better gameplay, in my opinion, but it’s not without its drawbacks. To support it, there have to be certain places that the guards will never look: inside a locker here, behind a crate there. And once you figure out where they are, you can easily spend most of your time sitting in those spots, waiting for the alert timer to run down. This can also break the mood somewhat.

There’s also something about the MGS approach that I can’t quite articulate, a feeling that I find typical of console games as opposed to PC games. Something about the way that the level of detail in the solution (such as ducking into a closet) is on a much coarser scale than the level of detail in the presentation. I may return to this point as I go through more PS2 games.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Cutscenes

A comment to a previous post called MGS2 “mostly cutscene with the occasional gameplay”. Well, I’m in a fairly big piece of gameplay right now, searching all over the Big Shell (a facility in the ocean) for bombs to defuse. Someone very skilled at the game might find this scene fairly short, but for me, finding each bomb involves several iterations of the basic stealth-game cycle: venture forth, get spotted by an enemy, run away, find a hiding place, wait for the hue and cry to die down, venture forth once more. 1Or, alternately, don’t find a hiding place, get killed, and resume from the last save point. Sometimes I just jump into the ocean to speed the whole process up. This is the single largest uninterrupted (or at least not-significantly-interrupted) assignment I’ve had so far, and it’s hefty enough that I had to break off in the middle to sleep. So at this point, I’m thinking that “mostly cutscene” is an exaggeration.

I can see where it’s coming from, though. The cutscenes in this game have a quality about them that makes them seem interminable. I don’t think it’s mainly because they’re excessively long, though. It’s because of how they’re structured. There are several different purposes for cutscenes: assigning new objectives, explaining new equipment or UI features, explaining the backstory, introducing bosses that you’ll be fighting later, etc. Usually, when a game does a cutscene, it will have one purpose in mind. When MGS2 starts a cutscene, it often goes for several of these things sequentially. And when it finishes one, it may even change format (from scripted actions in the game’s main graphics engine to a conversation over the player character’s comm link, or to FMV), creating the sense that the cutscene is ending. So the player expects to immediately begin playing again, and that expectation is thwarted. Repeatedly.

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1. Or, alternately, don’t find a hiding place, get killed, and resume from the last save point. Sometimes I just jump into the ocean to speed the whole process up.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Change of scene

The first chapter of MGS2 ends with one of Liquid Snake’s henchmen (who he’s apparently possessed) making off with the new Metal Gear prototype. Metal Gear is a bipedal walking tank armed with nuclear missiles. It seems every episode in the series introduces a new Metal Gear prototype, which the player fights and destroys at the game’s climax. This time around, it’s an amphibious model, designed to evade detection by walking along the ocean floor or something like that. A company of marines is transporting it by ship, and the theft is accomplished by sinking the ship, killing everyone on board who isn’t inside an amphibious walking tank at that moment — including, apparently, Solid Snake. (As if.)

A scene transition covers a lapse of two years, and gameplay resumes in a different place, with a different player character. He’s also code-named Snake (although he’s quickly redesignated “Raiden” to avoid confusion), and like Solid Snake in his early days, he’s an agent of FOXHOUND (which was disbanded years ago — something weird is going on there), but this one has no field experience. He’s has extensive training in virtual reality, though, as the dialogue keeps on reminding us over and over. Add to this some suggestive changes to the design of the “Game Over” screen, and it seems likely that we’re looking at a trapped-in-the-holodeck scenario here.

The weird thing about this chapter is that there’s much more tutorial content than the chapter that preceded it. Raiden is unfamiliar with the things that he has to do on a real mission (“real”, yeah right), so, as he explores, his commander gives a piecemeal explanation of the controls over their comm link. (The writer is not at all shy about having the characters comment on game mechanics. 1 There’s a point in MGS1 when a character tells Snake to look for a number written on a CD case. I honestly thought at first that I had hit a bug — that I was supposed to have found a CD case object by that point in the game. But no, he was talking about the game’s packaging. ) But to a large extent, the things covered here are things that we’ve already had to do back on the tanker in chapter 1. It all makes me wonder if the game was originally designed to start with Raiden, and the first chapter was designed later to make the continuity with MGS1 clearer or something.

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1. There’s a point in MGS1 when a character tells Snake to look for a number written on a CD case. I honestly thought at first that I had hit a bug — that I was supposed to have found a CD case object by that point in the game. But no, he was talking about the game’s packaging.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty

So, I just moved from New York to California. Currently, my desktop PC is in a moving van somewhere between those two points. The slimline PS2, on the other hand, fits easily in one’s carry-on luggage.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is one of the games from my shopping spree when I first got a PS2. I had played the PC port of the first Metal Gear Solid and found it had an entertaining if somewhat off-kilter vibe, somewhere between Tom Clancy and GI Joe. You get all this military jargon, political analysis, and technical detail about weapon systems, and then you get attacked by an invisible cyborg ninja. Who eventually turns out to be your former boss, who you thought was dead.

Last night’s MGS2 session didn’t really involve much playing. I familiarized myself with the controls (new to me, since I had played MGS1 with a keyboard and mouse), and played some hide-and-seek with enemy soldiers on a boat, but it was mostly cutscenes and exposition. This isn’t entirely the game’s fault. Since it’s been years since I played the first Metal Gear Solid, and since it had a pretty convoluted storyline, the first thing I did was read the plot summary available from the MGS2 main menu. Or rather, summaries, plural. There are three. The first is in the form of a review of a book written by a minor character from the game, and gives a basic outline of the story in broad strokes. After you finish reading this, the game makes the second summary available. This one is an account by a conspiracy nut (and it takes some doing to be a conspiracy nut in the world of Metal Gear, where the government really is controlled by secret cabals) who somehow got an advance copy of the book, and it goes into most of the implausibly-many plot twists in the game. Read this to completion and you get access to the third summary, which is the book itself. This not only contains a great deal of the more important dialogue from the first game, it even has new revelations about things going on behind the scenes that the player character never learned about.

Actually, the dialogue from the first game is somewhat improved here. At one point in MGS1, the hero, Solid Snake, is confronted by his evil twin, Liquid Snake (yes, really) who reveals that the two of them are clone-brothers, products of a secret project to create genetically-engineered super-soldiers. But (Liquid Snake whines) Solid Snake got all the dominant genes. Liquid Snake was left with nothing but recessive genes, and he’s been struggling with that handicap all his life. To which the confused player says: I do not think those words mean what you think they mean. Well, when that scene is recounted in MGS2, they don’t use those words, explaining instead that the super-soldiering process involved selecting desirable and undesirable traits and shuffling them between two gametes or something. Which isn’t terribly plausible either, but what can you do? It’s important to the story that Liquid thinks that he’s both (a) a clone from the same source as Solid and (b) genetically inferior to him.

Those familiar with MGS2 may be thinking at this point that I’m paying way too much attention to the plot. MGS1 gave a strong sense that they were just sticking in dramatic revelations at random as they went along, and MGS2 somewhat notoriously takes a nose-dive into the outright nonsensical. Well, that’s part of why I bought it. Notorious is interesting. I want to see for myself just how long I can keep making sense of it before it defeats me.

Myst V: Still Trying to Get Started

I haven’t been doing much gaming for the last week or so. I’ve been busy, and expect to remain busy for another week or two. I did, however, take the time to do a little experiment. The company I work for has given me a Dell laptop — specifically, a Latitude D620. I installed Myst V on it, and sure enough, it gives a quite acceptable framerate in the part where it was bogging down to unplayability on my usual machine, which has a faster CPU and more memory. I may eventually just hook up the laptop to my monitor and mouse and play it from there, but this would be inconvenient for various reasons, so I’ll leave that as a last resort.

By now, I’ve played through the opening several times. After an intro sequence with a voice-over by Atrus, the game starts in the world (or “age”, as the Myst series calls them) of D’ni, in the chamber where the original Myst ended. Exploring from there, I soon met Yeesha, last seen as a little girl in Myst IV, now grown up and resembling the creepy messianic figure she appears as in Uru. 1 For those not hip to Uru: It’s basically a multi-player online Myst spin-off, set some time after the games in the series proper. The online part was cancelled shortly after launch, then the content packaged as a single-player game, and more recently the online game has been launched again. I may join Uru Live after I finish Myst V. She said a bunch of stuff that I didn’t have enough context yet to understand. I remember from Uru that Yeesha has this annoying habit of never explaining what it is she’s talking about, as if she were one of the fragmentary journals that litter the series. Then I was teleported to another “age”, where someone called Esher gave me another spiel, mainly about not trusting Yeesha. This is the point where the framerate started really degrading, and I gave up shortly afterward. (There was a tunnel leading to some content, but I didn’t spend long on it.)

So I got speeches from Atrus and Yeesha and Esher, and after hearing them repeated, I’m starting to make a little sense of them. Atrus and Yeesha said things that might mean that Atrus is dead, although they both couched it in terms vague enough to admit other possibilities: in a game where people routinely travel between worlds, to say that someone is no longer of this world doesn’t mean much. Also, Yeesha spoke of a “tablet” that “responded” to me, and which would be “released” after I did some stuff. I’m starting to think that this is a part of a certain small table-like structure of stone slabs that I was examining just before Yeesha appeared. Or maybe not. It would make sense of the claim that it “responded” to me — the table glowed or something the first time I poked it, although there didn’t seem to be any other effects, beyond triggering Yeesha’s cut-scene. It would be easier to interpret these speeches if they were written down rather than delivered orally.

Come to think of it, doesn’t the UI provide transcripts? Something to look into the next time I try it.

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1. For those not hip to Uru: It’s basically a multi-player online Myst spin-off, set some time after the games in the series proper. The online part was cancelled shortly after launch, then the content packaged as a single-player game, and more recently the online game has been launched again. I may join Uru Live after I finish Myst V.