Kojima’s seminal PS1 classic brings a twisting story with some tight stealth-action gameplay, making it one of the most essential purchases for Vita.
|Franchise||Metal Gear Solid|
World-building & Story
Terrorists have taken over a nuclear weapons disposal facility in snowy Alaska and are demanding the return of Big Boss’ remains or they’ll launch a nuke at American soil. There’s only one man capable of infiltrating the facility and stopping the threat – the legendary soldier Solid Snake, who is pulled out of retirement that hits closer to home than ever before.
Metal Gear Solid tells a gripping thriller story that it’s easy to get swept up in – it was incredibly influential in its day and is still absolutely worth revisiting today. There’s enough twists and turns that you’ll never truly know what’s coming, but it’s coherent enough as a standalone tale unlike some of the later entries. Knowledge of the previous two MSX Metal Gear titles is a bonus for a couple of the reveals, but it’s definitely not essential as I went in blind just fine.
Part of the reason things work so well here is the character development – every cast member you come across has a defined role yet are given plenty of exposition beyond this thanks to optional codec conversations, creating empathy and an attachment to everyone. This is particularly evident in your backup characters like the peppy and driven Mei Ling (undoubtedly my favourite member of the Metal Gear universe) or evasive scientist Naomi Hunter – they’re more than just a collection of hints, but memorable people you interact with (I could’ve taken a bit more Nastasha who seems to get glossed over, but this is a minor point).
This extends to the terrorists you’re battling, who again are much more than a collection of clichés who are forgotten about after being bested. Psycho Mantis’ ethereal presence and fleeting appearances pose a real threat – you’ll want to take him down after he possesses your friend, but his origin story is heartbreaking and adds some real gravitas to the story (a similar thing happens with Sniper Wolf, which is even more upsetting due to her connection to the besotted Otacon).
At the centre of everything is the love story with Meryl Silverburgh, your commanding officer’s niece and an inexperienced soldier who gets caught up in the terrorist occupation of Shadow Moses. Through a few simple scenes Kojima helps you form a real attachment with her, which makes it worrying when she’s no longer with you – it’s fascinating how much I cared about her eventual fate. It’s rare for a war story to focus on a romance element too, even if things do get slightly skeevy in places.
On paper Metal Gear Solid tells the tightly-woven story of a hero taking down an international threat, but underneath the hood there’s so much more going on which undoubtedly enhances the end product. There’s a layer of commentary about the proliferation of nuclear weapons alongside high-concept ideas like nanomachines and cybernetically enhanced humans. Beyond this, supernatural elements play a large part in the world-building – which makes the game one of the most unique in the industry, mixing fantasy and reality with ease.
Yet almost stealing the show is the setting – Shadow Moses island is a fascinating mix of beautiful snowy tundras with metallic mechanical nuclear warhead storage, yet there’s all sorts else mixed in here too. It’s the perfect backdrop for the unfolding action and memorable long after you’re finished discovering its secrets.
Presentation & Sound
Oddly, by making the stylistic choice of low-poly models and assets in Metal Gear Solid, it actually manages to hold up better graphically than many of its contemporaries – while the atmosphere and tone ensures that any deficiencies are quickly forgotten when playing.
Character models are an interesting blend – they actually display characteristics far beyond the PS1 era, with things like realistic gun loading animations and crouch-walking. Everyone has something unique about them – Psycho Mantis floats around with his telekinetic powers while Vulcan Raven lumbers around with a chaingun. With that said, little details like Snake’s eyes only being shown as a blurry collection of polygons is noticeable, but if anything comes off as a nice quirk these days.
The game certainly makes up for things thanks to the scale of its action and environments. Each area is lovingly crafted to feel unique – offices have personalised desks, while some of the outdoor fields are pretty large compared to other PS1 titles and draw distance doesn’t suffer either. The developers use some clever tricks to mask loading screens too, such as elevator rides or cutscenes, making everything feel more connected and coherent.
Surprisingly, all of the cutscenes are rendered in-engine (incredibly rare at the time) which again adds to immersion and in general these are fantastic to look at. They do have a slightly blurry filter to them at times but you’ll be more awed at how thrilling they are – Hideo Kojima may have received some flak for his self-indulgent directing, but he has a certain style which is incredibly unique, visceral and thrilling to watch.
Sometimes, the snowy setting does become a bit much and certain corridors later in the game tend to repeat a bit too often, but otherwise the environments are brilliantly designed and I have to admit that they do contribute to crafting a coherent and memorable setting. Again, technical deficiencies are minimised by the overhead view which means you’ll rarely be looking up close at stretched textures or muddy objects.
Sound is universally brilliant – absolutely every line in the game is voice and the cast each turn in brilliant performances, with David Hayter nailing Snake’s gruff soldier tones while Cam Clarke hams it up as the terrorist leader Liquid (special mention to Kim Mae Guest as Mei Ling too, who captures her sweet innocence). Otherwise, Metal Gear Solid effectively uses silence to add to the atmosphere and tension (meaning when you do get sound effects, they can actually make you jump like you’re playing a horror game) but music is included and when it’s used, the tracks fit perfectly.
Gameplay & Content
Pioneering the stealth-action genre, Metal Gear Solid blends numerous ideas that work in perfect tandum to create a brilliant gameplay style – it’s been imitated many times, but is still wholly unique and executed perfectly here.
You play as Solid Snake on a sneaking mission to Shadow Moses island. You have no weapons or supplies which means you’ll have to make do with anything you can find and combat is initially discouraged in favour of hiding in the shadows from enemies who easily outnumber and outgun you. Later on, you’re given the choice of playstyles – you can continue to play stealthily or use a more gung-ho approach to achieve your mission.
To help Snake stay hidden, he can pull off a variety of maneuvers ranging from hiding in cardboard boxes to peeking round corners to scope out foes. Experimentation is encouraged and this is actually one of the game’s greatest strengths – it’s fun to mess around with the guards, making noise so they come to find you then sneakily snapping their neck from behind.
When you first enter an area, you’ll be given a minimap (radar) in the top corner which shows the general layout as well as enemy placement. Your foe’s field of vision is shown via a cone in front of them, which means you can effectively plan strategies for taking them down – again, it all plays into tactical thinking which is something Metal Gear Solid excels in as you’re really encouraged to think about what you’re doing, especially on your first playthrough (later runs allow you more freedom to try things out).
Sadly gunplay isn’t as hot as stealth – once you do gain weapons you generally just have to hold square to engage a red dot sight then press it again to shoot. It’s cumbersome but functional – thankfully more important later weapons like sniper rifles and stinger missiles use first-person aiming although you can’t move while doing this. Some smart ideas are introduced with first-person aiming too – Snake’s aim will shake due to the weight of the weapons and natural human nerves, but you can find drugs that will steady his hand (but are in short supply), adding an effective resource-management element to the shooting.
Aside from this, there is an element of Metroidvania-esque backtracking in the game via various security doors exist which can only be opened by a certain level of keycard – this encourages full exploration of each area and gives nice bonuses for those players who like to return to previously explored zones. There are some really unique bespoke gameplay sections too – one involves using cigarettes to discover a laser grid, another involves crawling through a minefield using a mine detector.
By far Metal Gear Solid‘s smartest idea comes right at the end though, a vehicle chase that feels like something out of an action movie and is by far the most thrilling set-piece I’ve ever seen in a PS1 title (or to be honest, a video games in general). Interestingly there’s also a sequence on a very long staircase that strongly recalled a similar scene from Final Fantasy VII – was there something going on with Japanese AAA devs and staircases at the time that I didn’t know about?
Undoubtedly the star of the show is the boss battles though – each one is smart, challenging and memorable through some incredibly unique mechanics that make each feel like an event which the rest of the game is anchored around. Take for example Sniper Wolf – what could’ve been a simple shooting gallery instead is transformed into a tense battle of wits as you anticipate her moves, all on the backdrop of a gorgeous snowy tundra. Everyone else has their moments too, but hands-down the best is Psycho Mantis which breaks the fourth wall in ways I never could’ve envisaged to create possibly the best boss battle I’ve ever seen. You’ll be thinking about these fights long after you’ve finished playing and they’ll definitely be the highlights for any subsequent playthroughs.
All of these elements come together perfectly to create a final package that is hugely satisfying – a bombastic thriller that you can play how you choose with a plot that’s one of the most gripping I’ve ever seen in videogames. It’s no wonder it spawned the franchise it did – Metal Gear Solid is a perfectly formed stealth action masterpiece.
An unforgettable adventure through the brilliant Shadow Moses island, Metal Gear Solid combines a thriller plot featuring characters that are easy to connect with alongside stealth-action gameplay that encourages experimentation and smart thinking. It’s a brilliant achievement for the PS1 and although some of the controls haven’t quite held up over time, it’s wholeheartedly worth revisiting on Vita.