Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty might be the best videogame sequel ever made. While I am, in part, talking about quality, I am also talking about its status as a sequel. A lot of what makes Sons of Liberty an amazing experience is how it positions itself in relation to Metal Gear Solid. It’s a game fully aware of both the nature of sequels and the reception of the original game.
Most sequels seek to improve and iterate on the previous title, and while Sons of Liberty does improve many of the systems and ideas of the original game, that’s only the surface level changes to the game. Most of the major changes involve how it plays with and usurps expectations and understanding of what a sequel is and what it can do.
For instance, in what is probably one of the biggest twists in videogame history, Solid Snake is left for dead after the opening mission. This is one of the major ways in which Sons of Liberty begins toying with the idea of what a sequel should be. Instead of simply being another adventure for the main character of the series, he is unceremoniously tossed aside to make way for a new leading hero.
The player spends the rest of the game playing Raiden, a character built from the ground up to be everything that Snake isn’t. If snake is the confident, cool veteran, Raiden is the wet behind the ears rookie who’s honestly a bit lame. As if to accentuate this lameness, Raiden can slip and fall on bird poop and if he tries to execute a backflip on an uneven surface, he falls on his ass. These mechanics reinforce that the game knows that, at least in relation to Snake, Raiden is a lame action hero.
That being said, one would be remiss to see the qualities Raiden possesses that Snake does not have. He’s a much more nimble and agile hero. Also, Raiden’s uncertainty and inexperience makes him a far more complicated, nuanced, and human character. If Solid Snake is the iconic action hero of the 80s, Raiden is closer to the more grounded and conflicted action hero of the 00s.
Further underscoring this is the character of Rose. Unlike all the characters in the game so far, she’s a civilian who is brought onto the mission only because she has a personal relationship to Jack/Raiden. She often interrupts the flow of the game in order to ask Jack about his personal feelings and hash out relational issues. This is perhaps one of the most brilliantly subversive elements of the game, one which constantly jabs and undermines the action heroics of the game by reminding us that Jack/Raiden is a man with a conflicted, messy relationship that would fit far better into a romance story.
Compared with the first game, the codec calls are faster and heavier than the previous game. And while one of their functions is to interrupt the flow of the story, there’s even more subversive elements at work in the codecs. For instance, when the player starts playing as Raiden, they are given a tutorial after already having played the game for about an hour and a half. It’s a clear jab at game’s attempts to handhold the players, a message that has only become more salient in recent times.
And in the vein of mocking videogame trends, perhaps the biggest jab at videogame trends in the game is the resurrection of Liquid Snake. Recurring villains is a common trope in games, one need look no further than Mario’s steadfast antagonist Bowser. In this case, Liquid Snake periodically possesses the body of Revolver Ocelot as Ocelot was given the arm of Liquid Snake.
The game “resurrects” Solid Snake who never actually died but instead went undercover. He ends up becoming his own agent in the game, running around doing his own things while the player ends up tagging along behind him almost as a Robin to his Batman.
Another playful element of the game is the way in which the Bosses mess with expectations. One of the running themes of the bosses is the idea of immortality. Fortune is a woman who cannot be killed. Any bullet shot at her simply bends past or around her. Likewise, Vamp is an immortal being that the player cannot seem to kill.
The game toys with bosses from the previous game. For instance, the Harrier fight is a variation of the Hind D fight, but with a couple of added elements, such as assistance from Snake and two levels in which the player can hide. Also, the Metal Gear RAY fight is essentially the Metal Gear REX fight all over again but with the addition of two more Metal Gears into the fight. Further capping it off is the fact that it is yet another unwinnable fight. The player must simply persist until triggering a moment where Raiden admits he cannot win the fight.
This fit in elegantly into the idea that the player, along with everyone else, is being manipulated by an organization called the Patriots, a shadow group that secretly runs the entire world. The player’s actions are simply furthering their ends. In a similar way to Solid Snake being manipulated into activating Metal Gear REX, Raiden is simply another cog in the machine.
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the game is its self-awareness as a video game. As the game progresses into the final act, code starts flashing across the screen, the Colonel is revealed to be an artificial intelligence, and Solid Snake breaks the fourth wall by telling Raiden his bandana gives him infinite ammo. During the RAY fight, the player is basically transported to what looks like a simulation. Codec Calls begin to become weirder and more self-aware, at one point even going so far as to tell the player to do something else with their life besides play a video game.
And to cap it all off, Revolver Ocelot says that the entire mission is actually an attempt to producer another Solid Snake in Raiden that the entire base is built as a simulation of Shadow Moses. Even within the world of the game, there’s a contrivance and artificially being presented and deconstructed. Sons of Liberty not only makes the player aware they are playing a simulation, the characters themselves are part of an in-game simulation.
Taken in conjunction, all of these elements make Sons of Liberty a thought-provoking, subversive, and brilliant sequel. Many sequels mess with the formula of the original, but perhaps no other piece of media in the history of art strives to be as much of a subversion and deconstruction of the original game. You are a goofy, weak gamer only able to win insofar as it suits the needs of the simulation. You are simply another cog in the machine. You are not a son of liberty.
© 2015 James Blake Ewing