I’ve written about Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty here on Gaming Respawn before and consider it one of my favourite games of all time. I recently decided to go back to it and try doing a non-lethal run where I either put enemies to sleep with a tranquilliser gun or knocked them out with my burly fists and feet rather than sending them to death’s sweet embrace. However, rather than go back to my PS2 copy of the game, I instead decided to play a version of MGS 2 that I hadn’t ever taken a spin on before in the form of Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance. I also decided to play the game on the large cumbersome doorstep that was the original Xbox.
For those not acquainted, Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance (which I will henceforth just be referring to as “Substance” in order to save precious seconds) was released after the original Sons of Liberty with some extra modes added to flesh it out a bit. Konami had done similar with the original MGS game, and they would do it again by bringing out a game called Subsistence for MGS 3. Substance, in some ways, was a response to fans of the original MGS 2 game who had complained that you couldn’t play enough of the game as Solid Snake. Indeed, Snake (Dave to his mates. No seriously, that’s actually the character’s real name) only shows up for about 90 minutes at the start of MGS 2 before he gets supposedly drowned in a ruddy, big tanker, and we end up playing as Raiden instead.
Raiden may have been a hit with the ladies (and he was deliberately designed with that in mind), but a lot of the “grr, I’m a MAN” brigade didn’t like that they suddenly had to play as a far more human and decidedly cute looking blond dude as opposed to the ultra-gruff and manly Snake. In order to appease them, Substance not only includes the full MGS 2 game but also a bunch of additional “Snake Tales” where you take control of Snake and have him run around the Big Shell facility where the second part of the game takes place. On top of that, they have also thrown in a bunch of VR (great, now I’ll have the VR Troopers theme stuck in my head all day) Missions, where you have to do things like avoid detection to reach a goal on the map or take out all of the guards in a given timeframe.
What differentiated Substance from Sons of Liberty was that it also came out on the Xbox, thus giving owners of Microsoft’s console the chance to play what had previously been an exclusive killer app for the PS2. Being that my PS2 collection generally dwarves that of my Xbox, I decided to head to a certain internet-based auction site to pick myself up an Xbox copy of Substance for a reasonable price. In a lot of ways, the gameplay hasn’t really changed that much, although the game was originally made with the PS2 control pad in mind, meaning the Xbox pad isn’t exactly optimised for it. Annoyingly, you can’t tweak or amend the button layout either, meaning you have to go with the default that sees you clicking down on the left analogue stick in order to go into first person view, which is not conducive to smooth combat a lot of the time.
Running whilst holding your gun is far more difficult now as well as you have to hold down the A button whilst also holding the X button and moving the control stick. A is also the button you use for crouching, which often means you’ll try and walk whilst holding your gun and will instead just crouch down without moving at all. When a big part of Substance comes down to holding up guards and shaking them down, not being able to move whilst holding your gun can be pretty frustrating. On the PS2 you just had to hold down L1, which wasn’t really used for anything else and was in a suitable position on the pad that meant you could hold it with your left index finger whilst moving the control stick with your thumb. That was just a much smoother way of controlling the action and, again, highlights how they optimised the game for PS2 use and kind of made a bit of a dog’s breakfast when it came to the Xbox controller setup.
Substance also has moments where it graphically looks a little off, and you have slowdown in some of the boss battles when the game struggles with so much going on. It’s strange as you’d think a console as powerful as the Xbox would handle what was a relatively early PS2 release with ease, but that isn’t always the case. Substance is still playable on the Xbox and MGS 2, as a whole, is still a game that I really enjoy, so it’s not a terrible port by any means, but I would still say that the most optimal way to play it, if you want to do so on classic hardware, would be the PS2 version. I wouldn’t say you really needed to go out of your way to get the extras found in Substance either, with the standard PS2 cut of the game being a perfectly cromulent way to enjoy it.
Though adding in the Snake Tales mode to Substance is a nice idea, its execution is somewhat flawed. Firstly, you don’t get any cutscenes and instead just get a wall of text every time the narrative advances. The soliton radar isn’t present, and you have no choice on the level of difficulty, meaning that you’re reliant on enjoying the default set-up. MGS 2 is a game that is designed to be played with the radar, so when you remove it, the difficulty automatically spikes. My guess is that they jacked up the difficulty by removing the radar in order to make it harder to complete the mode, in the way a lot of NES games were ludicrously difficult in order to make them last longer. As with those games, it’s equally cheap when Substance does it here, and it hampers the enjoyment that could be found within the mode.
The Snake Tales mode is also a bit of a missed opportunity as they could have used it to let you play the sections of the Big Shell portion of the story that you originally didn’t get to see when you were playing as Raiden instead of Snake. We could have seen the second chapter of the Big Shell from Snake’s perspective instead of Raiden’s, making it literally “Snake’s Tale”, and it would have added an alternative view on the game’s events. Snake gets himself into a lot of interesting situations in the Big Shell, which we only really get tantalising glimpses of when he converses with Raiden. It would have been great if Substance had allowed us to take control of Snake and live out those situations, but sadly, it wasn’t to be.