Monday, October 16, 2006

Metal Gear Acid 2 Post-Mortem

[Now Experiencing] [Computer Gaming]

The original Metal Gear Acid was an intriguing concept - a collectable card-gaming stealth espionage action game. Unfortunately it was plagued with a host of problems, including a laughably poor plot, glacially slow pacing, uninteresting enemies, horrible game balance, and a swarm of user interface inadequacies.

With the release of Metal Gear Acid 2, I'm pleased to announce that Kojima Studios has removed some of the interface inadequacies.

In Metal Gear Acid 2, you'll be taking control of the legendary hero Solid Snake on another of his patented stealth espionage missions into the heart of a terrorist-controlled military facility. Well, actually, it's not the Snake. It's a clone, or something. But close enough. The point is, you'll be sneaking your way through a good dozen or so enemy-packed levels on a quest to do away with yet another new giant-mech-like Metal Gear. And when I say "sneaking", I mean shooting holes in anything that moves, because it would take the patience of some kind of zen master to play this game the way it was meant to be played.

Like the first Metal Gear Acid, you won't be moving around in real time. Instead you'll be drawing cards from a deck and "playing" them to move around, equip and fire guns, and perform sundry other actions. All actions have a "cost", representing how much time they take to perform; if you use a lot of cost, your enemies will have a correspondingly greater number of actions before you get to act again.

You won't be going it alone, either. About a third of the way through the game you'll be joined by Venus, who's some sort of female assassin. From that point forward, you take on the game's missions as a pair, which makes for some theoretically interesting game mechanics. For instance, when both characters are able to target the same enemy, firing on that enemy will produce a bonus for "covering fire". With some weapons you can actually have both characters firing simultaneously, creating a kind of kill zone. If you were bothering to actually be stealthy, it also has some nice potentials in terms of one character creating a distraction so the other can sneak past a guard, and so forth. But you won't bother with stealth, so you're unlikely to actually use that potential.

As you progress through missions, you earn points, which can be spent at the intermission shop to buy "packs", which add new cards to your collection. You can use those cards to customise and improve the decks that Snake and Venus use during missions. You'll find that the power level of your cards hikes up dramatically as the game goes on, but the danger level of your opponents never significantly increases. As a result, the early missions where you have few cards can be a little tricky, while the later missions are laughably easy.

Of particular note as far as game balance goes are a set of cards which reduce your cost when played, effectively allowing you to act more often. Once you have enough of these cards in your deck, you'll find your able to string together many, many actions without letting your opponents respond. On some levels, you may reach the exit before the guards of the stage get to act. It breaks the immersion considerably. What's worse, this was a problem in the first game - but instead of being fixed, it's been made worse. There are now more cost reducing cards, and the new ones are even more powerful than the old ones.

As any fan of Metal Gear Solid knows, the most memorable parts of a good Metal Gear game are the boss fights, and sure enough Metal Gear Acid 2 features a good half dozen skirmishes with named individuals. But don't hope for enemies of the caliber of Psycho Mantis, or The Sorrow. Heck, you won't even find something as good as Vamp. Almost all of the bosses in Acid 2 are basically just big tanks of hit points. To defeat them you don't have to work out their pattern, or use a clever trick - you just have to pump them full of lots of bullets. Some of the early ones are actually less challenging than killing the regular guards. Even the final confrontation with Metal Gear itself is notably anticlimactic.

The plot itself is substantially better than the original Acid, but it's still more than a little lame. Like Acid, it takes place outside the Metal Gear Solid continuity, featuring a Snake who's clearly not the actual Snake we know and love from the Solid games. There's very little in the way of meaningful mystery or revelation going on, and you'll find yourself not really caring about what happens next.

As a side note, Acid 2 has an absolutely appalling treatment of its female characters. And I'm saying this as a person who has no real problem with playing the Smackdown vs Raw wrestling series. Acid features not just a fairly high level of innuendo and cheesecake, but it's completely contextually inappropriate. The character of Eva in Metal Gear Solid 3 may have gone around half-dressed most of the time, but it fit the whole James Bond ambience of that game. In Acid 2, the feeling is more of a gritty techno-thriller, and when the sharp professional Dr Takiyama happens to have a giant cleavage, a half open labcoat, and no bra or shirt underneath, it just looks grotesque. Likewise, the fact that Venus regularly bounces up and down on the balls of her feet and then looks down at the effect this has on her breasts just comes across as really bizarre.

The music in Acid 2 is passable if not special. It features a lot of musical motifs from the Solid games, along with some new music of its own. The mix works, but it's certainly not as memorable as Harry Gregson-Williams' scores for the PlayStation games. Sound effects are mostly passable footsteps, gun sounds, and the usual cast of alert and alarm noises that Metal Gear players are no doubt familiar with by now.

The graphics are a little better than the dark and muddy visuals that the first Acid demonstrated. Acid 2 goes for a comic-book cell-shaded look, which makes it easier to see what's going on, but doesn't really add much to the game as a whole. The graphics are technically strong but artistically uninteresting.

One of the gimmicks that Acid 2 made a big deal of during development was that the game would feature a 3D mode, and would ship with a 3D viewing apparatus called the "Solid Eye". It's important that you don't get excited by this. The Solid Eye is a cardboard box that you assemble yourself. The 3D effect is achieved by displaying a similar image on both the left and right of the PSP screen, and the box makes sure your left eye sees the left image and your right eye the right. Slight differences in the images produce the illusion of depth.

For the 3D effect to work correctly, you have to keep your face pressed to the cardboard box, eyes about six inches from the screen. Your eyes start to hurt after about five minutes. Needless to say, you won't be interested in playing the game like that, so after trying it once you'll probably leave the 3D mode switched off and never return to it. It's not tied into the game in any way - there's not any puzzles that require it or anything - so it's easy to forget the mode is even there.

The game also contains every cutscene from Metal Gear Solid 3 in a special theatre mode, and watching some of those in 3D is kind of cool, but if you've played Solid 3 you've seen them before, and if you haven't they'll spoil that vastly superior game for you, so again it's a bit of a pointless exercise. There's also some not-quite-soft-porn 3D, with some scantily clad Japanese women fondling replica guns and having waterfights and suchlike, which isn't even as interesting as it sounds.

The interface is significantly better than the original Acid. There's a lot of built in help features, which are handled well, in terms of being available without being annoying. Moving around is also relatively painless now. You can open doors and pick up items without sacrificing the rest of your move. A free look mode allows you to ascertain exactly what your enemies can and cannot see, making the stealth that you won't be doing that much easier. There's also a lot more information available in the deck construction area, although the fact that Acid 2 features more than twice as many cards as its predecessor means you'll still be spending an eye-gougingly long time scrolling through lists when it comes time to build your deck. And despite all the improvements, it's still an unnecessarily complex and unintuitive game.

If you're wondering whether to buy this game, the answer is no. Sadly, it's probably among the better PSP games available, but that's a comment on the PSP and shouldn't be seen as an endorsement of Acid 2. It's marginally better than the original Acid, so if you want to buy into the series you're better off with this one - there's no real plot continuity to worry about. But there are better Metal Gear games, there are better collectable card games, and there are better turn-based strategy games, so it's really hard to recommend Acid 2 to anyone for any reason. Give it a miss, and save your money for the forthcoming PSP Metal Gear Portable Ops.

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