When examining a claim like that it’s important to put it into context. Metal Gear Solid 2 is arguably one of the most anticipated games of all time. From a personal point of view, I don't think I've ever looked forward to a game more than this one. The original Metal Gear Solid is to this day a masterpiece in multiple regards. It told an admittedly bloated but ultimately poignant story centred around the importance of nuclear deterrence and the dangers of meddling with genetic science. It was probably the first game ever to approach its narrative with genuinely cinematic storytelling methods. Its script was ludicrous and yet actually engaging and even educational. It pretty much invented the modern day stealth genre. Above all that, it properly introduced one of, if not the, greatest protagonist in gaming, and managed to make the player feel like the ultimate soldier and an expendable pawn all at the same time.
After the success of the original MGS, Solid Snake became an overnight poster boy for the PlayStation brand. As a character, he's got the guts and determination of John McClain, the combat wisdom of Rambo, the no nonsense attitude of Jack Bauer and the aura of James Bond. As players, we knew he was the ultimate soldier before the plot revealed him to be the actual perfect soldier. Every conversation and confrontation Snake met with had him either adorned by his allies or sincerely respected by his enemies (minus Liquid, who clearly had serious sibling issues). As such, we as inhabitants of this character felt a similar sense of superiority to those around us, and it worked really well. Simply put, it made us feel badass.
Cut to Metal Gear Solid 2. Hideo Kojima introduced us to Snake on the PS2, and it looked incredible. Snake's block head from MGS1 was replaced by a proper face capable of showing emotions. The gameplay was evolved with the first person view and the ability to hold up guards, just like in the movies. I literally bought Zone of the Enders just to play the Japanese version of the MGS2 demo, such was my excitement. I bought the demo again as part of a magazine in the build up to launch just to play it in English. I spent hours just holding up guards, tranquilising them and hiding them in lockers. Or shooting all the bottles on the liquor cabinet just to see the bottles smash realistically. Sneaking into the pantry and doing the same thing to the stockpiled fruit. Basically, I just loved playing around with the environments, and my anticipation for what the full game could offer was at fever pitch. When the game was actually released, I of course enjoyed playing out the Tanker scenario again, even though I could play the majority of it blindfolded by this point. Having already replayed it on the PS Vita, it's still a wonderful experience, and at the centre of it all there is Snake, still being a complete badass.
If you're familiar with the Metal Gear series, you probably know what comes next. Two years flash by, and rather than filling the boots of the legendary Solid Snake, a deliberately confusing Codec call and a brief codename change later and we're met with a whole new player character, the afore mentioned Raiden. If you aren't familiar with the original Metal Gear Solid, then I hope the first few paragraphs of this post serve to illustrate how fucking massive a deal this was. The very fact that Konami managed to keep all of this under wraps is incredibly impressive given the hype around this game and anything to do with its plot at the time. I think it's still to this day one of the biggest twists in gaming history (and the Metal Gear Solid series can lay claim to a few of them). Kojima's decision to remove us from control of the lynchpin at the centre of this universe was certainly a brave one, regardless of how successful it was. He could quite easily have resprayed the original Metal Gear Solid, added in some gameplay tweaks and had Snake yell out 'Metal Gear!!' at the correct moments and we'd have lapped it all up. For that reason, I have immense respect for what he was trying to do. Principally, he wanted to explore the character of Snake from an outside perspective - to let us inhabit the role of in the in awe spectator to his brilliance rather than perform acts of heroic brilliance ourselves. To a certain extent that worked, but there were two crucial things that hampered this new narrative direction for me. The first thing is that I think Kojima undervalued how much the playing audience actually loved playing as Snake and the feeling of being the ever resourceful super soldier I've gushed about above. The second, perhaps more vital thing is that the character we got to play as instead, Raiden, frankly wasn't very likeable in comparison.
For me, the experience of seeing Raiden in MGS4 and viewing firsthand what a cool character he could be just goes on to further emphasis how big a misstep it was putting him front & centre in MGS2. He is arrogant, over exuberant and to use a military term Snake uses when meeting Meryl for the first time; he's way too 'green', which for the uninitiated means inexperienced and essentially weak. Simply put, he's the antithesis of Solid Snake, and to go into a sequel expecting to play as our beloved Snake only to be put in charge of his complete character opposite for the majority of the game still leaves a real bad taste in the mouth. It's harsh on Raiden because few characters could ever match up to Snake, but a lot more could have been done to make the transition a bit more digestible. The voice actor for a start has the unfortunate blessing of a genuinely whiny voice that's hard to listen to. Couple that with the incessant interruptions of his girlfriend Rose to ask him what the significance of tomorrow is in their relationship (I'm not making this up, by the way) and you've got some very tedious Codec conversations on your hands.
I understand it comes off a bit shallow to have let all of these non gameplay specific aspects of the game dampen my experience, but I think Kojima would be pleased that as a fan of the series key aspects of the plot are important to me. I won't go into further detail of how convoluted the plot of the series gets by the end of the game, as I could write a whole new post about that (as soon as I figure out what's actually going on finally). Playing the game again after a few years, and in light of what happens in MGS4, I do feel like I've judged it too harshly at times. Strip away the plot details and it's still a thoroughly excellent game. The Big Shell section of the game continues to build on the evolutions to the gameplay, the boss characters are as eccentric as ever and continue to offer interesting challenges and there are some real stand out moments in the series, like when you have to go incognito to infiltrate the main section of the Shell and pick out a hostage from the crowd by aiming a directional microphone at him and listen out for the tick of his pacemaker. Really fun, really original gameplay.
So in conclusion, Metal Gear Solid 2 remains a good, maybe even excellent game. Nothing I'm seeing this time around is going to propel it up from the bottom of my list of favourite Metal Gear games, but as a series the bar is set incredibly high. This is still one of the best games of the PS2 era certainly. That said, I'm just as excited to get to the end of this game so that I can start again playing Metal Gear Solid 3, where I can slip back into the comfortably worn boots of the original Snake and reintroduce myself to the various uses of tobacco in combat situations.