You’ve just infiltrated a highly secure enemy base using only your cunning and the scant equipment that you happened to find on your way. After rendezvousing with your hostage, you’re showered with a stirring speech on the importance of global nuclear disarmament, as well as the horrific impact of an increasingly militarised world economy. Suddenly you hear a ruckus outside the prison cell that you’ve just broken into, and upon opening the door, you’re treated to the hilarious sight of an enemy solider stripped naked, and tied up in a humorous position on the floor. That sort of wild disparity in tone is the very essence of Metal Gear Solid – a true masterpiece, and arguably the best game in the long running franchise.
This oft-acknowledged classic deftly jumps from solemn to silly and back again without a second’s thought. You play as Solid Snake, an operative sent to root out an armed uprising being led by renegade Special Forces unit FOXHOUND. This mission takes you to Shadow Moses Island, a base located in the remote Alaskan wilderness.
Needless to say, the game’s narrative has more twists and turns than an F1 race track, with plot wrinkles being doled out at a dizzying pace. Luckily, a memorable cast of characters – including arguably the greatest team of villains ever assembled – helps to anchor this gleefully absurd plot. Plucky codec calls, as well as expertly directed cutscenes also help to flesh out the story.
Surprisingly, the title’s graphics actually hold up in a modern context; it’s clear that the limitations of the hardware were used as a means of informing the art style rather than hindering it. Shadow Moses Island feels stark, cold, and uninviting, and the visuals reflect this. Ultimately, the game acts as a perfect example of why strong art direction will always trump polygon count.
Indeed, there is something totally beguiling about the world Kojima is slowly beginning to create in this inaugural chapter; something familiar, but totally foreign at the same time. And with influences ranging from John Carpenter to Sergio Leone, and just about everything in between, it’s not hard to see why. It feels like the ambitious auteur has taken all of his favourite cultural artefacts, crumpled them into a ball, and then miraculously managed to craft a tight and compact stealth game out of them.
This can also be chalked up to Kojima’s trademark brand of oddly specific detailing. Whether it be coaxing a dog to urinate on one of your boxes in order to coax away the other rabid animals, or the fact that your plucky protagonist can catch a common cold, the game is utterly bursting with strange little secrets to discover. While ultimately inconsequential, these nods make the title’s world feel rich and full.
Unfortunately, its gameplay doesn’t hold up quite so well. Obviously, it would be unfair to compare the title to its modern compatriots, but it's equally difficult to ignore the leaps and bounds that have been made in the genre since its release. The stealth is suitably tense, but sometimes feels stiff and unforgiving. What’s more, there are several totally impenetrable progress blocks littered throughout the game which require the sort of lateral thinking expected from Mensa members.
The latter can be enjoyed as an archaic example of Kojima’s patented provocative pizazz, but the former is much less easy to get along with. However, the title’s boss battles are a real treat, with the now infamous Psycho Mantis fight – as well as the final showdown – being two particular highlights.
It would also be remiss of us not to mention the title’s soundtrack which – at this point – is basically the stuff of folklore. Bold brassy arrangements, angelic choirs, and the now trademark game over screen music are all the indicators of a truly masterful score which manages to be equally energetic and emotive.
On paper, Metal Gear Solid really shouldn’t be as successful as it ultimately is. It features a tonally inconsistent plot, stodgy and outdated stealth gameplay, and a string of frustratingly impenetrable progress blocks. And yet, the title remains a genuine genre triumph from start to finish. This leaves us in a bit of an awkward position because, as reviewers, our job is to pinpoint the exact reason a game succeeds or fails. So what is it about Kojima’s stealth opus which is so utterly compelling? Can we justify such a high score for a game which commits so many cardinal sins? How exactly does it manage to get away with these falters? While we can never be entirely sure, we think that the answer to most of these questions probably has something to do with nanomachines.