Note: The title of Metal Gear Acid will be spelled throughout this post with an "i" instead of the pretentious exclamation mark.
Rewind a year, to PSP launch day in Australia. I tracked down to my local Electronics Boutique, and picked up my wonderful new preordered Sony handheld. I bought two games to go with it from the launch line-up. One was Wipeout Pure, which I haven't regretted for a second. The other was Metal Gear Acid.
Fastforward back to today, when I finally finished Metal Gear Acid after playing it on and off all year.
That play length doesn't represent a fantastic depth of content, or endless replayability, or fantastic multiplayer. It's accounted for entirely by a frustrating design, lots of redundant gameplay, and a rather dull plot. Were I not a complete Metal Gear fanboy, I can promise you that I would never have finished it at all.
It's my own fault, really. I had such a good experience with Metal Gear's last handheld outing on the Gameboy Colour (also known as Metal Gear: Ghost Babel) that I just kept hoping that the PSP incarnation would measure up to the rest of the series. But I was disappointed.
* Metal Gear Acid tries something new, and takes a risk, which is always to be commended. It replaces the tried and true Metal Gear tactical espionage action with a turn-based strategy where your actions are taken through playing action cards drawn from a customisable deck.
* The graphics are highly comparable with Metal Gear Solid for the Playstation and are an excellent early demonstration of what the PSP is capable of.
* Firing weapons feels appropriately visceral.
* The soundtrack and sound effects are reasonably good and certainly don't feel out of place in a Metal Gear game.
* The collectable cards are full of Konami/Kojima fanservice, with references to all the other Metal Gear games (including Ghost Babel), Zone of the Enders, and Policenauts.
* Many of the cards trigger short skippable movies when played showcasing relevant footage from the games they're drawn from.
* Coordinating two characters at once is occasionally fun and makes for an interesting spin on some classic Metal Gear gameplay; for example, one character can tap a wall to attract guards while the other sneaks past in a different direction.
* There are a couple of good set piece boss battles, notably the two battles against Clown and the final battle against Metal Gear.
* Like most Metal Gear games, being stealthy (supposedly the aim of the game) is disproportionately difficult and poorly rewarded. Combined with the overall frustrating nature of the game, there's a strong temptation to just run and gun.
* The difficult overall is balanced poorly. Later decks effectively let you "stop time" and just run circles around enemies, dispatching entire stages of soldiers before they can get a shot off. Conversely, early stages before the cost reducers and stealth camo become available can be punishingly annoying.
* Despite a wide range of cards available, you end up using very few of them. Certain classes of weapon (such as the shotgun) are neutered by poor range, high cost to fire, and a relative dearth of ammo. A wide range of pistol weapons are made irrelevant by being simply unable to do relevant damage to an enemy. Most of the weapon power-ups such as "Head Shot" and so forth are not worth the time due to (again) a high cost, and the fact that they vanish over time or after a single use. Most of the novelty effect cards are.. well, a novelty.
* Many situations in the game see you using just one of the two characters available to you. (A favourite tactic of mine was to have a firepower character and a stealth character.) This means that you have to keep flicking back to the unused character and telling them to wait, which can be frustrating.
* There are many long sequences of sitting in an area where you've already killed all the enemies and either slowly crossing the area using movement cards or waiting for a specific card to cycle into your hand.
* Some of the boss fights are underwhelming.
* The plot is rubbish. No, really, even for a Metal Gear game. It tries to be filled with twists and surprises, but the execution just feels childish and contrived, rather than the mixture of confusing and deep that the rest of the series regularly achieves.
* [Spoiler] The game ends with you defeating Metal Gear, and then watching every other surviving villain character being defeated by NPCs or escaping. Not delivering a showdown with the mastermind behind events leaves me feeling cheated.
* The nature of the deck building system requires you to repeatedly replay stages to earn more points to buy cards with. Very frustrating.
* The game doesn't include any of the head-games that the Metal Gear series is famous for. Nothing on the scale of Psycho Mantis, Arsenal Gear, The End or The Sorrow is present in the game.
The Metal Gear series COULD have worked as a card-driven turn-based strategy, but this particular game took a couple of wrong turns unrelated to its new format. I think where Metal Gear Acid went wrong can be summarised by two main points.
1) Metal Gear Acid fails to capture what made the Metal Gear Solid series so exciting: innovative and exciting boss battles, quirky humour, engaging characters, imaginative and surprising sequences of "thinking outside the box", and a rewarding climax.
2) Metal Gear Acid tries to use "all the rules all the time". It would have benefited endlessly from some context-sensitive mechanics. For example, allowing free and unlimited movement when all enemies on a stage have been cleared, or allowing you to set a character to "sleep" when you don't intend to use them for a while.
By all means, try this out if you're a Metal Gear fan. It's not a total disaster. But were it not for its position near the PSP's launch and its relationship to a successful franchise, I doubt anyone would remember it this long after its release.
Now, I DO have the sequel sitting on my shelf, which promises that it's learnt from its mistakes. I'll try it out once I've had time to forget the original, and see whether it delivers.