Technology

Sold on Metal Gear Solid


An interactive comic based on the game series is well suited to the Sony PSP and will appeal to fans of games and comic books alike

Solid Snake. Arguably the greatest spy and soldier in video gaming, Snake is the protagonist in a series of games centered on a mobile nuclear device, Metal Gear. He's back, this time in a title for Sony’s (SNE) PlayStation Portable.

Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel isn't so much a game as it is a hybrid mix of comic book, film, and video game action—and I'm including it in a series of reviews of promising summer titles (see BusinessWeek.com, 7/11/06, "So-So Sudoku"). This PSP disc tells the complete story of the original Metal Gear Solid game. It contains digital versions of the Metal Gear Solid comic books drawn by artist Ashley Wood, written by Kris Oprisko, and published by IDW in 2004 and 2005.

And that's only the beginning. An original musical score, sound effects, animation, and a plethora of eye-grabbing graphic enhancements make this gripping tale more akin to a highly stylized, animated movie than a comic. Bullets fly, explosions abound, and cyborg ninjas materialize out of thin air as the viewer is taken on a multihour thrill ride. Series creator Hideo Kojima crafted an incredible and intricate story for the original Metal Gear Solid game, and this comic-book adaptation is just as engrossing. I was already a fan of the games, and I know Snake's story as well as anyone. Even so, I loved every minute.

MENTAL MODE.

This iteration of Metal Gear Solid suits the PSP well. Though it fits in your hand, the system's wide screen displays the artistically rendered comic panels flawlessly. And I never found the text hard to read. This budget title stands out as original content on the PSP that couldn't really be replicated on another system, and it's a welcome contrast to overpriced PSP movies and games that don't translate well from the home consoles.

From the moment you boot up the game disc, you are immediately thrown into Solid Snake's story, in what the game developers call "VR Simulation Mode." The game plays like a movie, and the screen proceeds to the next page in the comic automatically—unless you tell it not to—progressing at just the right speed for you to read all the on-screen text. During playback, you can also speed up the progression or bookmark a page, as well as use a menu to go directly to any page in the book. Watching the whole story takes two to three hours and is a great experience in itself.

The game's other two modes give the title its "game play" aspects, and it's in these modes where you'll spend the bulk of time. In the "Mental Search Mode" players search for and collect "memory elements" embedded in the comic panels, which come in handy later. I was initially skeptical about this gimmicky-sounding mode, but the designers put a lot of work into hiding the elements.

After each page is displayed, a small icon appears in the bottom-right corner of the page, prompting you to press a button and enter Mental Search Mode. Scanning the pages for elements and zooming in and out reveals hidden items and art that can't be seen during normal playback. An optional radar-like device gives a readout that helps you find memory elements and gets more accurate the further you progress in the game.

MEMORY CHALLENGE.

Once you've collected those memory elements, you enter "Memory Building Simulation Mode," a 3D matrix where you can read more about and view related photos of the elements you've collected—and ultimately engage in a challenging game where you figure out how the elements fit together. For instance, you'll need to find the linkages between Snake and other characters or the connection between an enemy and his weapon. But there's a catch: You can't view the information stored in the memory elements until you've "recognized" that element by connecting related elements, and at times, you'll have to revert to search mode to gather hidden clues missed earlier.

The only real drawbacks with the game also occur in the memory building part. Being a 3D matrix of more than 300 memory elements, it becomes very hard to navigate after you get far into the game. I often spent 5 or 10 minutes just searching through the matrix, looking for a memory element I knew I had seen before.

Also, the system allows you to make erroneous linkages between elements, which can be frustrating when some of the false linkages seem more logical than the correct ones. Though for the most part, the connections are fairly straightforward and intuitive.

VIDEO-GAME VALUE.

It can take quite a long time to complete the matrix (hint: it doesn't stop at 100%; video games never do). But the game doesn't even give you a reward or much of an acknowledgment when you're finished, which can be anticlimactic.

To top it all off, Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel is a bargain. The printed version of the Metal Gear Solid comic is available in two volumes at $20 each, for a total of $40. With this $20 title, not only do you get the multimedia version of the entire comic, but the memory-element minigame as well.

Even if you already own the printed book, I'd recommend the PSP version for its multitude of extras and enhancements. If you're new to the series, picking up this digital comic wouldn't be a bad way to get acquainted. And since the comic-book adaptation of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is well under way, it's a safe bet we'll see a nicely done PSP package of the seminal title's graphic-novel sequel before long.


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