The PC port of Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance is an enhanced version of the PlayStation 2's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. In addition to advancing through the entire storyline found in 2001's blockbuster game, players are able to take Solid Snake through five completely new scenarios in a standalone mode called Snake Tales.
Other additions include over 200 VR (virtual reality) missions structured in a similar manner to 1999's Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions, and over 100 stages of alternative missions in which players elude guards and perform other covert tasks as quickly as possible. Playable characters now include Solid Snake, Raiden, Pliskin, and Grey Fox.
The PC version of Substance does everything I absolutely loathe in a PC port of a console game -- it has no optimization for the platform's controls, no upgrade to the graphics and system requirements that are just short of absurd. Yet, despite all these problems, the sheer quality of the underlying game manages to shine through.
For the three people who just emerged from the cave they've been living in, the Metal Gear series is the story of secret agent Solid Snake, who is now a member of a group dedicated to stopping the construction of "Metal Gears" -- giant fighting robots that can also be used as nuclear weapons. Each game in the series has Snake trying to find and/or destroy a newly built Gear -- Substance involves one built by the US Marine Corps that ends up being hijacked by an old enemy from a previous game.
There's much more to it, of course. One of Metal Gear's greatest strengths has always been its rather bizarre and convoluted storylines, and in this, Substance certainly satisfies. The game is filled with long, incredibly well-produced cut-scenes that are almost as much fun to watch as the game is to play. The style and presentation of both story and cut-scenes are obviously influenced by the Japanese anime tradition, with plenty of slow-motion and unusual camera angles. This may actually take some getting used for some PC gamers who aren't anime fans. PC cut-scenes are usually more influenced by Western cinema, but it's not really a drawback and the scenes are so well done that it won't slow most gamers down for more than a few seconds.
I've ranted before on the common mistakes that developers make when porting a console title to the PC. Substance gets a double smackdown because the game is actually a port of a port. The PC version of Substance is actually based on the Xbox version of Substance, and as I feared, it has every one of its flaws. First, the game has literally no optimization for the PC platform. They didn't even bother taking the Xbox references out of the instruction manual or the tutorial text in the game. I wanted to put my fist through the monitor every time the game told me to "Press the X button" because ... I don't have a frickin' "X" button! (I was playing the game with a Logitech Wingman with Dual Analog controllers and its buttons aren't labeled.)
This brings me to the second of my "Cardinal Sins Of Porting" -- not even trying to re-do the controls for the platform. Most PC users play games with a keyboard, a mouse or a combination of the two. Put simply, Substance's keyboard controls are a mess. Unless you're willing to spend serious time re-mapping the keyboard and twisting your fingers into modern art sculptures, the only reasonable way to play this game is with a dual analog gamepad. Fortunately, there are plenty of reasonably priced ones on the market, including adapters that let you plug a PS2 controller into the PC.
Yet, despite all the mistakes, despite all that the game has going against it -- Metal Gear Solid: Substance remains at its core a truly great game. The title is played from a third person perspective and places a premium on thinking, sneaking and surprise attacks rather than rushing in with guns blazing. The game was the obvious inspiration for Splinter Cell, and despite the latter game improving on the formula in many areas (like having variable lighting), the gameplay holds up surprisingly well even two years after the original MGS2 was released.
For those gamers who, like me, never played the console original, Substance contains the entire Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty storyline. This part is divided in two halves, a shorter story on an oil tanker where you play as Solid Snake, and the "Big Shell" portion where you play as a new character named Raiden. As I understand it, this was kind of a big deal among Metal Gear fans who expected to be able to play as Snake for more than just a short prologue. It didn't bother me, but I suspect that puts me in the minority.
Fortunately for those fans, one of the added features in Substance is something called "Snake Tales" which is a series of five story based missions that take place on the Big Shell. These missions are rather short and contain no new voice-overs, and are strung together using pages and pages of text. They are, however, just as fun as any of the "Sons of Liberty" missions and I suspect that their biggest attraction is simply allowing Metal Gear fans to once again play as their beloved Solid Snake.
The game also includes 350 "VR" missions and 150 "Alternative missions". The VR missions each focus on some aspect of gameplay -- sneaking through an area without being seen, for example, or eliminating all the enemies in a particular area without setting off the alarm. As the player moves through the VR missions as either Snake or Raiden, new missions open up, as does a great deal of unlockable material including new costumes and new characters. The "Alternative Missions" are missions that take place in the setting from the Sons of Liberty portion of the game and include new goals and challenges that require you to truly master the many different moves available in the game. All of these missions are fun and trying to finish them all in order to unlock everything the game has can easily turn into a second career.
I'd recommend getting your hands on this game in an instant. While it's got its problems, games this good are just too rare to miss out on.
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