Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Attack on Metal Gear Solid: the Novel

What comes to mind when you hear the title? For most people, they will reminisce about their youth when MGS1 was released on the PlayStation in 1998. It is one of the greatest video games ever made, and one of the greatest franchises in the video game industry selling millions if not billions of copies worldwide, (I'm including all the games here) but what made it so great?

Metal Gear Solid was more than just a game. It took the gaming media and brought it to a new high. For the first time, players were immersed in a world away from reality, yet still keeping realistic themes like love, fear, hatred, and betrayal. It was the first true cinematic game which seemed like the players were part of a movie rather than just a game - a story come to life so to speak, MGS1 was one of the first games to feature full voice overs both in-game and in the cinematics. It also featured a full soundtrack and realistic sound effects (for its time) Like all Metal Gear games, MGS1 pushed the PlayStation's potential to its fullest and even surpassed what was expected of it. Even still today, it is praised for its excellence. Now in it's fourth main console incarnation(not counting the original MSX games from the 80s. The Metal Gear Saga is one of those genre busting games that starts the player off in a familiar stance then throws them off their feet and challenges them to think strategically in order to complete their mission. 

But this is not a review of Metal Gear Solid the game. Which is awesome and would take me forever to write a review up to its high level of gravitas. (possibly in the future)

Like many other widely popular franchises, Metal Gear Solid has had its run with almost every other form of entertainment media including: toys, clothes, radio dramas, graphic novels, and books. Not to mention the in-the-works Metal Gear Solid movie, but I'll touch on that in a later review about video game based movies. In terms of books their have been a few incarnations; mainly fan-written stories with their favorites characters, as well as novelized versions which are verbatum to the VO script to the games, and also unofficial versions of the main plot. However, there is one official written work.

This is my attack of Metal Gear Solid the novel.

Now I know what you're thinking, “It's just our favorite cigarette smoking, bandana wearing protagonist on an adventure that doesn't have anything to do with the regular canon of the games, right?” 

Wrong. While on the outside you may think that, because after all, most video game based novels are just taking place in the same reality with either different characters or different circumstances; but in this case both are wrong. It actually is based on the first game. (by first I mean MGS1. MG and MG2:SS came out a decade earlier and I could do an entire attack on why the novelization of those sucks) But as it is this book MGSTN doesn't suck. It is written by Raymond Benson whom some of you may recognize as David Michaels, the writer of the Tom Clancey's: Splinter Cell books. I have to admit, his style of writing is not my favorite, but he is quite a competent writer and has a grasp on characters which he himself has not created. 

 After picking up the book, the first thing you notice, other than the familiar font used on all of the PS2 metal gears, is the cover image. Its the classic Yoji Shinkawa illustration of Snake with the goggles seen on the title screen of the game. Awesome! Yoji Shinkawa has been the lead artist and character designer of the series since MGS1, its only fitting that his work accompany the novel. It is one way that you can tell that it is an official release. Above the title there is a sentence which reads, “The official novel of the thrilling Konami video game created by Hideo Kojima!” By reading the synopsis on the back cover, you find out that this book is not just a novelization but actually delves into the mythos of the world Solid Snake inhabits, giving insights to the characters and their motivations, as well as a little back story (which helps tie-in the series)

Ok, there is a little hiccup on the back. Complaint #1: on the back of the book it says, “Solid Snake's mission is to breach the heavily fortified base to rescue hostages and to destroy the superweapon.” My problem with this is that; 1: its technically not a base, but a secret government-run nuclear warhead storage and disposal facility, but I'll cut them some slack seeing as that's a mouthful to put on the back cover synopsis; and 2: Snake doesn't know that there is a “superweapon” in the “base.” It's not part of his original mission plan, it only comes up after he finds out about it; but again, I'll give them slack on this because its a catching phrase and the prospective reader may buy more readily if they know there is a “superweapon.”

I'm not going to give spoilers (technically – since it is based on the game) but I will discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly of this novel. Pun intended. 

As I said earlier, the writer gives insights into the characters that was not offered in the game itself, and he shows incidents outside of the game that influenced Snake and the other characters. He does this fairly well. Of course he did have several sources to draw from including: the game, the graphic novel, the development team, and the creator – Mr. Kojima – as well.  

For those of you who have played the game, you will note several differences, many differences in fact that span the entire novel. These differences are not bad mind you, but it does detract from the nostalgia a bit. For those who haven't played the game or are just not familiar with it, this point is moot.

The first being that Snake meets the support team before leaving the sub. Not that this is bad, in fact in all likelyhood, he would have met the team before disembarking. Second; snake already has his SOCOM from the get-go, I actually do have a problem with this. Disregarding that it does make more sense that snake goes in with at least one weapon, in the game you have to out think your enemy while not having any weapons until a little while into the story. Third and most notable is that Snake goes in without his trusty cigs. Really? I mean, he even says that he was thinking of smuggling them in like he does in the game, but doesn't; although Snake does quickly grab some from an enemy which he comments are “terrible.” The author uses this as a recurring bit where Snake keeps complaining about having them instead of his “good” cigarettes. Another thing that fans of the game will note is that the structure of the facility has been altered to make it more convenient for storytelling. Again this really isn't all that terrible in that it does make the story flow better, but again, it loses nostalgia. Some of the fights are different than in the game, but this too makes sense, because a game and a novel flow differently. Its a bit more realistic in that it doesn't take a million bullets to take down the bosses like in games.

One thing I like about this novel is that Snake's inner monologue is shown in one line italicized text. However, halfway through the novel, these already established inner monologues are accompanied by the phrase, “Snake thought.” Why? We already know that these...

Metal Gear!?

...are Snake's thoughts. So why halfway through the book do they start saying “Thought Snake.”

One problem I have with the novel is that certain instances happen before they actually did in the game. Not by much mind you, but I think that these parts of the  story flowed better the way they did in the game. This doesn't happen often but when it does its kind of annoying. Maybe people who haven't played the game wont notice these. Some instances were even left out entirely. All of the scenes were present but, sometimes little treasures were no where to be seen. When you read you'll notice which one's I'm talking about (if you've played the game)

 I will say that the characters were intriguing and captivated me while reading, and it was all a bit more ground in reality that the game itself. As I said with the enemies being more realistic and not taking forever to kill. 

Not all characters were as fleshed out as the others, one of these being Nastasha. Arguably though, you can in fact play through the entire game without actually contacting her. But It would have been nice if her character in the novel was a bit more fleshed out. Another character I feel that didn't get enough “screen time” was Mei Ling. True, she's not a big character in the game either, but she does play her part. She's just another character I feel could have been better developed given the style of writing. If the novel was only following Snake and didn't delve into the other character besides when he actually contacts them it would have been okay to leave her and the other characters not as developed. 

The scenes which were added to the story do actually give more insights to character's and show that they are not just two-dimensional. Particularly one towards the end which I won't spoil for you. Just know that it is heartwarming. 

A few discrepancies in continuity I noticed; 1:The Hind goes after the F-16s just like in the game but there's never any mention of their encounter again in the book. 2: Sometimes there were miscounts on Snake's ammunition (i.e. he used more chaff grenades than he actually had in one scene) 3: Some rooms from the game were combined into one for the book (this is okay in some instances, but in others gets confusing) 4: In one scene a room was actually added and didn't necessarily need to be. (you'll notice it when it comes up if you read the book) 5: (this is actually in the game as well) how does the Ninja get past the electrified floor? 6: Both Miller and Deepthroat tell Snake about things way before they need to (i.e. about weapons Snake needs long before the instance Snake will need them. - I know this makes more sense, but part of the fun of the game was coming to an area you couldn't pass unless you backtracked or went to a different area to obtain the item or items needed to pass.) 7: Snake's hair is black in the novel, yet clearly in the games its brown. 8: (this is more of a problem than a continuity error and may be a spoiler to those who don't know the story) the Hind fight is over way too quickly. 9: How old is Naomi? 10: (this is in the game also) How does Miller know about Octopus when clearly Snake has told no one about it? 11: (almost a spoiler) When Snake's hands are tied, how does he “punch in” the codec frequency? 12: they also don't show his hands being untied, but they are soon after. 13: (in the game too) How does Otacon get past the security hell that Snake must navigate (guards, traps, etc)? I know the explanation Otacon gives in the game and novel, but that still leaves a lot of places that he couldn't possibly get through by those means. 14: (though not really a fault of continuity but still...) conveniently placed items. (you'll notice them) There are actually a few more, but those would contain definite spoilers. If you've played the game, you will definitely notice them. Even if you are an adept reader and are knowledgeable of plot structure you'll notice them. 

Overall I would say this book is pretty good, because if you wanted an exact word-for-word translation of the game, why not just play the game itself. It does read pretty fast, and as I said there are a few minor discrepancies, but those are generally overcome by the great character and overall story. The characters in the novel are true to their pixilated brethren (accept for some minor details which would kind of be spoiling, but are nevertheless close to how those characters would react) It's a fast read and a short read, being just over 300 pages long, but an enjoyable one. I would recommend that if you are a fan of the series, to at least check the book out, and even if you aren't a fan, but would still like to know the story. Especially if you are not a gamer and would like to know the awesome tale of Solid Snake without actually having to play through the game, you should check this book out. It's an affordable price and even cheaper if you buy from the internet.

 I give Metal Gear Solid the novel a 4 out of 5.

Metal Gear Solid the novel is produced by Del Rey and is written by Raymond Benson, with cover art from Yoji Shinkawa and cover design by David Stevenson

Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake and all other characters and games are property of Konami and Hideo Kojima

It is in the science fiction section of your local bookstore; also try

Metal Gear Solid 2 the novel is due out later this year. You can expect another review from the Random Ninja once it arrives.

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