Release Date: March 22, 2005
Buy 'METAL GEAR ACID': PSP
Metal Gear Solid is widely considered to be the epitome of narrative gameplay, with its plethora of cinemas and long dialogue sequences, all of which was smoothly integrated into the gameplay. The game could be completed in a mere eight to 12 hours on the first try, keeping with the concise ideal of gaming's past. Essentially, Hideo Kojima took everything he learned from developing games during the 8-bit generation on, and applied them to a single game. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was meant to be a post-modernist freak-out session, which makes it great in its own right, contrary to what many who missed the point say about the game. The incredible gameplay is still present, and as easy to pick up as ever, although average players found the narrative style to be ambiguous. While MGS3 is still pure Kojima, its return to a slightly more palatable narrative style is clearly one that took the response of the fan base into account.
Where will that leave the series? After all, it is Kojima's unique directorial style that has brought Solid Snake and co. to become the great gaming icons they are. It is Kojima's intriguing experiments with gameplay and storytelling, culling from every moment of his experience in the industry, that make the games the must-plays they are. Where will the series be without him? In a mediocre yet enjoyable state, judging by the results of Metal Gear Acid.
Acid is an experiment, but not one with Kojima's streamlined panache. It is a card game-cum-strategy RPG-cum-stealth action game. It retains all that the basic gameplay of MGS was about, but without a semblance of the pick-up-and-play style that not only made the main series more enjoyable, but is more well-suited to a handheld game. This is not to say that Acid shouldn't be turn-based strategy. What plagues the game are the huge learning curve and tedious missions. This game plays and looks like Metal Gear, but is designed to be anything but. Is it the worst Metal Gear yet? Snake's Revenge still holds that title, but this one is next in line. But is it fun? Definitely.
As with any Metal Gear game, it all starts with a dramatic introduction, throwing players right in the thick of the (confusing) action. Acid happens to be more MGS2 than the first or third games, which is for the better in this case. It makes the slow-paced game feel a little more exciting... at least when the dialogue is translated deftly, which rarely occurs.
The story: an airliner is hijacked by an unidentified group of terrorists. The big problem: a soon-to-be Presidential candidate is onboard. The demands? Only the word "Pythagoras" is given – which happens to be the name of a research project being conducted on Lobito Island. Solid Snake is sent to investigate, and so the game begins. Simultaneously, hell begins to break loose onboard the plane, which is being monitored closely by two living dolls seemingly on the edge of their sanity, and ready to kill. Snake must work fast, lest every last hostage lose their lives.
Yeah, I said living dolls. Hey, the story is non-canon, alright? Besides, this is a series that once had an obese man on in-line skates presented as a menacing boss!
The entire story is presented in either storyboard-esque sequences with little to no animation, or cinematics that employ the in-game engine. The stills aren't nearly as extravagant as MGS3, but they are so well-drawn – and hi-res, thanks to the beautiful PSP screen – that they give Acid a unique, but quality, feel. The presentation does hurt because of the missing voice acting, however. (We'll get into that a bit later.)
Once the missions start up, it feels like a massive visual assault of both good and bad. A leaky slurry of bad design crashing into Kojima's original concepts. One look at Boktai shows what a Kojima-related handheld game should be: an experiment, a way to reach out to the gamer, and most importantly, keep the portable gaming format in mind. Boktai was not the best Gameboy Advance game in the world, sure, but it is a solid release nonetheless. I am convinced that the new versions – Boktai 3 and Boktai DS, will greatly improve on the formula, getting Kojima ever closer to the perfect portable concept game.
But if Boktai was two steps forward, one step back, Acid is a full sprint in the wrong direction. Hold it; I'm not referring to it on the level of being just a game. I mean its status as a portable game. Simplicity is the key to a portable experience. Pick-up-and-go play. Stop-as-soon-as-you-think-you-freakin'-need-to play. Acid is the anti-portable game, even more so than the Solid games.
You know something is going wrong when the portability of the home versions would have been much, much better.
Acid brings to the table extremely long missions, slow, slow, did I say slow gameplay... my god, is it nothing like any portable game should be. And how torn this makes me, because this game is the perfect Metal Gear non-canon edition. What better experiment than a turn-based strategy game? With cards, at that? If you've got the time to sit with Acid, it is a fantastic experience, but it is not without its flaws, most of which rear their ugly faces within the first five hours of play (this is a 25-hour game!).
The problems lie in the shoddy localization, for the most part. The tutorial teaches next to nothing about the workings of the game, leaving players to wrestle with the obtuse interface to discover the ways of Acid themselves. The basics are easy enough to figure out: six cards are in your hand at all times. Every card be used for either movement or the action listed on its face. All actions have a specific "cost," which translates into the amount of "real time" taken up. The lower the cost-per-turn, the shorter your opponents' turns are. Complex, but all that stuff comes easy.
Then the unexplained strangeness starts showing up, and not just grammatical errors, which cause enough confusion by themselves, but outright mistranslations riddle both cards and informational text. Also, a slightly confusing oversight: there are absolutely no instructions describing the discrepancies between equippable and normal weapons. Normal gun cards are used instantly and then discarded, never to show up again until the reshuffle. Equippable weapons take up a slot in your inventory, but they cannot be fired on command. How to use these weapons is never described, although they do periodically fire off on their own during the counter-attack phase. The lowdown: in order to use equipped weapons on your turn, you must play compatible ammo cards (there are a few types for each weapon). I know this sounds obvious, but the way the cards are described does not point towards them being used this way, especially during that irritating period where you have an equippable weapon in your deck but have not yet come across an ammo card. I figured this out the hard way through trial and error, but going by forum squabble, it seems like many gamers were confounded by this function for many an hour. If the translations of the cards made a little more sense, this wouldn't have been such a problem.
Speaking of translations, some of the cards themselves, including some of the aforementioned ammo cards, are downright mistranslated. Not badly translated, not confusing, but completely off the mark as to what the function of the card is. Most notably, one of the ammo cards is not compatible with the weapon it states it is. Come on, Konami. Kojima always said this series was directed more towards the U.S. gamer than any other territory. Get it right in the language of the larger fan base, please.
What the fan base will appreciate universally are the incredible graphics. INCREDIBLE. Graphics. (At least when they aren't cursing the angular environments while fussing with the constantly irritating camera system.) Snake's model looks to be taken from the GameCube's Twin Snakes, which puts butterflies in my stomach. A GameCube-quality model in the palm of my hand? The textures seem to be downgraded from PS2 quality quite a bit, however, but are blurred nicely, and everything is anti-aliased to kingdom come. Of course, on the small screen, it is hard to notice the simple textures anyway, so the game looks good until that confounded camera swoops in too close.
The hand-drawn art is without a doubt the most impressive stuff on Acid. The high-res screen looks so beautiful and clear that this system simply begs for a few great 2D games to release, ASAP. (Redrawn Snatcher, please?)
Now, if said hand-drawn scenery could have had the incredible voice actors employed for the Solid games put to work on the PSP, the presentation would have been simply sublime. Instead, I'm stuck hearing Snake voice actor David Hayter's speech haunting my subconscious every time I play Acid for more than 10 minutes. I'm not normally the biggest supporter of voiced games (Zelda should be left as-is, thank you very much.), but modern Metal Gear games really cry out for help in this regard. Otherwise, the rest of the sound is ripped straight from the MGS series, and is up to the high bar of quality set by those games.
No matter how good the game is in any specific regard, it is nothing like a true Kojima release would have been. It plays like a modern game, but it does not come from a perspective of sponge-like experience soaking. Acid does not have 25 years of different game development philosophies behind it. Instead it combines Phantasy Star Online Episode III with Metal Gear Solid, and transcends neither.
Because every action is such a long-winded affair, this game is utterly unapproachable as a true portable game. It is portable in the 16-hour airplane flight kind of way, but not the on-the-bus-off-the-bus playing that so many of us cope with by popping in a game on our favorite little gaming device and playing away. It's not just the turn-based nature of the game that's the problem either; Fire Emblem, Final Fantasy Tactics Advance, and especially Advance Wars all proved that the genre could be easily molded into a release applicable to gamers on the go. It seems like the team responsible for Acid ignored their format completely.
With Kojima swearing off the Metal Gear franchise for what he says will be the final time (originally he was to stop after MGS2), we may never get to see what he would have done with a portable game starring everybody's favorite espionage master, Solid Snake. But that's okay; interviews point to multiple games in progress from the director outside of Boktai 3 and Boktai DS. Hopefully, he can strike magic once again as he did with MGS, and create a culturally defining release. Make no mistake, though: there is fun to be had with Acid. It takes some patience to get there, but once you do, it feels like everything was worth it.