Although a short game, Metal Gear Solid is also a pretty good one
Most video games have the character generally killing any enemy that comes in your way, and find ways to support the weakness of the enemy. First person shooters give you a continuous flow of ammo to shoot at any enemy in view; platformers generally have enemies die within one to two jumps on the head; even RPGs, which are not known to show an outward preference to violence (compared to games like Duke Nukem and Carmageddon, at least), encourage killing enemies as a means to progress through the game and to make it easier to kill more enemies. However, there are some games that promote finding ways around being detected by enemies rather than risk being killed by a more powerful foe, the most famous example being Metal Gear Solid. Although survival horror games like Resident Evil and Alone in the Dark encouraged circumventing enemy encounters, Metal Gear Solid popularized the idea and expanded upon it, making stealth gameplay a huge part of modern games. It’s just a shame that the game is so short.
The biggest feature of Metal Gear Solid is the focus on stealth gameplay. The concept is simple: Solid Snake must avoid enemy contact whenever possible, finding ways to maneuver around the guards. He can stun them with stun grenades, distract them with a simple noise, and, if necessary, kill them with a silenced shot from a SOCOM. Should Solid Snake dare to directly kill the enemy or wander into plain sight, support will come from every direction and generally try to kill him. The enemy AI is actually smart enough to pull this off, reacting to Snake’s stimuli and checking every area before calling off their yellow alert. There are also little touches throughout the game to add challenge, like gas being pumped into rooms, elevators refusing to work, and guards lifting up your cardboard box while you hide under it.
If the enemies are competent with what they are doing, then the bosses, by comparison, are simply fabulous. Every boss in the game is a fairly large character in the story (unlike other games, which create bosses with no relevance to the story whatsoever), and each one requires a unique and generally fun way to take them down. Revolver Ocelot plays a slight game of cat and mouse as Snake dodges his bullets and shoots when Ocelot reloads; Vulcan Raven hides in a tank, requiring that grenades be chucked into it; and perhaps most famous of all, Psycho Mantis uses his telekinetic powers to break the fourth wall, take control of Meryl, and fling furniture and decorations at Snake. On the subject of Solid Snake, he is perhaps the best villain in the entire series (including games after this). Everything about him is extremely well done: he looks like a modern day Darth Vader; he has a creepy personal theme that is used to possess people’s minds; the fight with him is challenging and inventive (even in the Merlin-esque way he flings objects around); and he predicts your personal playing style based on actions taken throughout the game (and whether or not Suikoden or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night are on the memory card).
Metal Gear Solid’s stealth concept of gameplay is done much better than in previous Metal Gear installments, where stealth gameplay felt like a mere add-on to a modern day Zelda-esque adventure game with anti-nuclear war themes. In fact, Metal Gear Solid is the first game in the series which does not feel like a Zelda game where being seen by the enemies is a bad thing. Unlike Ocarina of Time (released later in 1998), which converted to a third person view of the protagonist and focused more on solving puzzles in dungeons, traversing across the fields of Hyrule and fulfilling an epic quest that encompasses an entire kingdom, Metal Gear Solid prefers to retain its overhead view (except when looking past a wall or in first person view) and operate on a smaller scale, the plot taking place in an isolated compound within a period of 24 hours, and the compound itself being incredibly small.
However, this all seems like a reason for the game to be incredibly short. Metal Gear Solid only lasts about 5 hours on normal difficulty, and there is not much replay value. Sure, there are some unlockables that encourage another playthrough, like an infinite ammo bandana or stealth camouflage, but they do not add anything significant enough to the game to warrant another playthrough. To make matters worse, it seems the developers padded the length of the game through the cutscenes. A large portion of the cutscenes can seem fairly long, sometimes explaining things the player will need either a high IQ or prior experience with the series (mostly Metal Gear 2) to understand, using terms like perestroika and Zanzibar Land.
But to the story’s credit, it is very well written. The plot follows Solid Snake as he infiltrates an Alaskan military compound called Shadow Moses, trying to stop the terrorists occupying the island and bring down their super-weapon, Metal Gear REX. The plot does sound like a typical spy movie, but the developers knew that going in, and decided to hold their project to Hollywood production standards. The voice acting is superb, especially given what preceded it (Capcom holding the most responsibility for bad voice acting before this). There are also instances of real life video clips, which are surprisingly well pulled off and believable.
Metal Gear Solid’s story has an in-depth, yet at the same time perfectly understandable presentation, and the saga of Solid Snake generally feels epic (not in the “beating Metal Gear Solid without any weapons or radar” epic, but Iliad-esque epic). Oddly enough, this can be attributed to the fact that underneath all the talk of nuclear weapons and terrorist operations, the story can be summarized as “the valiant knight rescuing the princess from the dragon’s lair”. This point is made stronger by the metal behemoth Metal Gear REX, which, when encountered, behaves much like a literal dragon, even giving off a Jurassic roar that would fit a dragon well.
While the underlying concept may seem ancient and dated, the true anachronism of this game is the anti-nuclear war message that surrounds the medieval notion. A lot of the story proclaims the evils of the use of nuclear deterrence and similar methods, even going so far as to include a grim statistic on how many nuclear warheads were left in the world by the game’s release (despite several treaties aiming to reduce that number). However, the message is more of a Cold War era message which seemed dated when the game was released in 1998 (seven years after the collapse of the USSR).
This should not come as a surprise, since the series was created during the Cold War and most of the themes covered in the 8 bit games have carried over into modern installments. This statement applies especially to Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, a game which shares a staggering amount of scenarios almost verbatim with this game. For example, both games feature a key which can only be used by changing temperature, observing the gait of every sentry in the compound to find out which is the girl to be chased into the women’s restroom, being chased by guards up an incredibly long stairwell, fighting four enemies in an elevator, a cyborg ninja who turns out to be a friend from a former mission, a one-on-one fistfight with the pilot of Metal Gear after its destruction, looking on the back of the game case to contact a female character and progress through the game, and generally immoral methods of creating super soldiers (psychological damage to children in Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid employing genetic manipulation). Metal Gear Solid also takes the presentation of Metal Gear 2 almost piece for piece, but to be fair, there’s no reason to change the arrangement and organization of gameplay elements due to the fact that they still work.
Finally, the game’s graphics are technologically sound and look good from a purely hardware standpoint. The textures are nicely rendered, the characters manage to look realistic (even with the graphical limitations of making a believable face), and there is a plethora of tiny details to the game. Snake’s footprints can be seen in the snow, the desks are populated with random bric-a-brac (like somebody may have actually been there), and there are storage lockers all over the compound, and there are security stations on the road out of Shadow Moses in the game’s driving sequence finally. However, from an artistic standpoint, the game is depressingly consistent. Everything in Metal Gear Solid is a drab shade of gray, the only real difference between areas being the shade. The two notable exceptions are the commander’s office where the Psycho Mantis fight takes place (another reason he is a great villain) and the area immediately after it, which is mostly brown with little lighting. The latter example ends up being counter-conducive to the whole experience, making navigating the area difficult (insult being added to injury by the fact that this is the goal of that portion of the game).
However, many of these problems are minor compared to the largest problem: the criminally short length of the game. Konami tried to hide the short length with a lot of cutscenes, but this tactic fails miserably, as the length of Metal Gear Solid is about 3-5 hours (without skipping any of the cutscenes). It is a shame that a game with such great gameplay and well executed plot will only last a day or two.