Metal Gear Solid HD Collection review: The definitive handheld MGS
27th Jun 2012 | 10:30
And now for portable platforms' greatest trick - cramming last-gen blockbusters onto palm-sized hardware. The 3DS gave Snake Eater a solid go in a fuzzier, jaggier port - but now it's time for Snake to come home.
Rather than a game nipped and tucked to suit the modest power of 3DS, this is the fully-fledged HD collection that made its way to consoles in February, minus PSP hit Peace Walker (it's already compatible, so there's no reason for Sony including it besides a sudden explosion of generosity). It's the definitive handheld Metal Gear experience, not only console-perfect, but thanks to the Vita's OLED screen, dual thumbsticks and touch features, even better.
Two Metacritic-conquering games lay before you. Your choices are 2001's postmodern story of kidnapped Presidents, terrorist-triggered environmental disasters and naked cartwheeling agents in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, or 2005's Cold War-era prequel Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a back-to-basics survival story. Both games are as brilliant as they are incomprehensible.
Discarding continuity, Snake Eater should be your first shot - time's been kinder. At first, though, it feels distinctly old-fashioned, revolving around limited moves and stilted interactions within linear jungles and concrete facilities. Those expecting something closer to Splinter Cell pre-Conviction would do well to forget Ubisoft's stealth-'em-up series - barring a bit of sneaking they're not even in the same genre. The farther you go, the newer it feels, but you'll have to push past some rather outdated design on the way.
Take movement, for instance. You can't crouch-walk, which is surely lesson 101 in secret agent school. Snake's not Sam Fisher, permanently hunched, like a spec-ops Gollum; he can either run, walk, or creep along the ground in first-person, difficult with fully modelled waist-high grass blades (attractive as they are).
It's the same with combat; enemies don't flop convincingly to the floor after Snake's close-quarters-combat arsenal of chops, kicks and knife-to-the-throat hold-ups (use them to extract info from guards who mostly have just one quote which they'll endlessly repeat) but fall with exactly the same animation each time. Or hunting frogs, fish, crocodiles, birds and snakes, which upon death transform into bobbing cans of meat. Even the jungle, beautiful as it looks, feels poorly designed, an organic setting reduced to artificial layouts of passages and corridors flanked by walls of earth and separated by frequent loads times.
These all sound like detrimental flaws, but rather, they're qualities you've got to get used to. And you will. Let's not forget, Snake Eater came out seven years ago. Combat's not stilted - it's precise. Movement's not limited - it's deliberate. The jungle's not artificial - it's designed. Push through and you'll find a game brimming with ideas (camouflage, trap-setting, injury treatment), freeform combat, inventive boss fights and a beautiful setting teeming with life. It's Hideo Kojima's crowning glory.
SONS OF ANARCHY
Sons of Liberty is the weaker of the two, near ruined by the series' most convoluted controls. Snake Eater introduced crucial analogue movement, allowing silent creeps on patrolling guards, but here you're binary, all but operating in ones and zeroes. Run or walk, there's no middle ground.
Cover's another low point, the several simultaneous button presses you'll need to peek round corners, whip out guns and knock on walls to lure enemies made even trickier with the Vita's stubby thumbsticks. Shooting too feels detached, opting to use the face buttons rather than triggers to fire.
Of all Sony's HD collections - Ratchet and Clank, Devil May Cry, Jak and Daxter - Sons of Liberty is the most inaccessible. That's entirely because it's so good. Master the counterproductive controls and they'll give way to total freedom - of movement and level traversal and guard interaction.
You can hang off ledges and drag bodies and aim guns at guards in first-person to shake them down for ammo and supplies. And if one gets wise? Turn him into a human shield. The range of interaction was revolutionary at the time. It's something to keep in mind during initial struggles.
The Vita's new touchscreen controls attempt to alleviate problems. Like in Snake Eater you can pinch the rear pad to switch between first and third-person views, flick to slit throats, and slide to peek around corners, but none of it feels intuitive. By adding new controls without fixing core issues, you're left with several schemes - just no primary one that does the job. What does, however, is the inventory: simply flick up or down to scroll through weapons and items, and tap to equip. It's simple, it works.
This Substance version of Sons of Liberty offers extra missions in VR and Snake Tales modes, and Snake Eater nods towards the Subsistence model and packs in two ancient originals - Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 MSX2. There's also a lot of game here.