Konami certainly disappointed "some people" when they decided to produce a turn-based, card-focused Metal Gear game for the PSP instead of something more in line with the action-oriented games already available for the PS2 and Xbox. Poo on them, I say. Metal Gear ACID is easily one of the best turn-based strategy games to come along in years. It offers a deep and flexible system of deck building and card playing, and, better still, it contains everything that has made the Metal Gear franchise so popular over the years.
This latest game takes place in the year 2016. Terrorists have hijacked a plane loaded with passengers (including Senator Viggo Hach, future presidental hopeful). Their only ransom demand is to be given something called "Pythagoras." As it turns out, Pythagoras is some sort of top-secret project under development at the privately-owned Lobito Physics and Chemistry Labs. Unfortunately for the passengers, Lobito has no intention of turning over the data and the United States has a policy against negotiating with terrorists. On the sly, the CIA sends a lone operative in to steal the Pythagoras research data and subsequently infiltrate the terrorists. That man is Solid Snake.
That's the story in a nutshell. Anyone familiar with the Metal Gear franchise knows that Konami is very skilled at conjuring up compelling storylines loaded with all sorts of suspenseful twists and turns. That's true of Metal Gear ACID. As the game progresses, Snake eventually joins forces with a sexy special forces officer, uncovers secrets about his own past, and (say it with me) comes face to face once again with the nuclear-powered menace known as Metal Gear. Each of these plot points is explained in excruciating detail by way of numerous lengthy cinematic sequences that appear after every mission. In fact, they might just be "too lengthy" for some people. On the upside, the story is engaging and the cinematic sequences are put together with an eye-catching mix of in-game graphics and Japanese style sketch artwork. The only "real" flaws evident in the game's story elements are (1) the translation from Japanese to English was rushed, so some portions of the dialogue seem nonsensical, and (2) no voice acting was recorded for the dialogue.
In a departure from the norm, the typically-lonesome Snake has a partner in this game. Her name is Teliko Feldman. She's a special forces operative who looks dead sexy in her skin-tight stealth suit. Once you meet up with her after the 2nd mission, you'll be alternating control between Snake and Teliko during future missions.
Enough jibber jabber–here's how MG ACID works. The game is turn-based, which means that players and enemies alternate moves. It's also card-focused, which means that all of the moves you can make, items you can use, and weapons you can equip&use must first be put into a deck and randomly drawn between turns. Snake and Teliko each have their own separate decks, which you can fill and organize as you see fit. Decks can contain as few as 30 cards and as many as 40. Snake and Teliko can both have 6 cards in their hands at any given time. During a turn, Snake can play a maximum of 2 cards and Teliko can play up to 3. Some cards increase the number of cards you can play per turn. When a new turn begins, Snake and Teliko will automatically draw up to 2 new cards to fill up their hand. If you run out of cards, the game will shuffle and re-deal for you, although you'll incur a modest time penalty. After Snake and Teliko take their turns, the enemy gets a chance to play its own cards.
Generally speaking, each mission gives you an objective to fulfill (usually acquiring data or reaching an exit). None of the missions have time limits. If both Teliko and Snake run out of hit points during a mission, however, you'll have to restart it from scratch. Like most games of this ilk, movement happens across spaces on a "hidden" grid. For instance, if you play a Genome Soldier MOVE card, you can move up to 4 spaces in any direction. That means you can move 4 spaces forward, or 4 spaces backward, or 2 spaces forward and 2 spaces left, or any combination of spaces that add up to 4. This all adds up to a chess-like cat and mouse game that involves a fair amount of sneaking around and killing. And, oh yeah, thanks to the various sub-levels and objective changes that happen during a mission, it can take upwards of 2 or 3 hours just to play through one full level.
Remarkably, many of the features, actions, and strategies that were in the action-based console Metal Gear games are present in the PSP game. The difference here is that you have to draw and use cards in order to use weapons, equip objects, and perform various skills. Want to equip a Stealth Camo suit? There's a card for it. Want to use the M9 pistol to put enemies to sleep? There's a card for it. Want to use a health ration, toss a chaff grenade, or place a C4 charge? There are cards for all of those items. Meanwhile, the various movement cards allow you to move around within each level, but they also let you interact with the environment–Snake can crawl on the floor, flatten himself up against walls, knock on walls, hide under desks, climb ladders, and hang off of railings (just like he can in the console MGS games). Graphically speaking, the levels are put together with the same walls, floors, objects, and decorations that you've seen in the console Metal Gear Solid games. The guards even get exclamation points above their heads and call for backup when they see you.
Now, let's take a more in-depth look at the card system. Even though each of the game's 204 individual cards has its own picture and use, they all fit into three distinct categories: MOVE, USE, and EQUIP. MOVE cards function just like you'd think they would–play one and you can move the # of spaces shown on the card. USE cards can be weapons or items. The key here is that USE cards are put to use immediately after you play them. If you play a SOCOM card, you'll be able to shoot at an enemy. If you play a ration card, you'll instantly regain 150 hit points. EQUIP cards can be weapons, armor, stealth items, or skills. The main difference between USE and EQUIP cards is that EQUIP cards often function in a delayed or ongoing capacity. The Evade EQUIP card is a good example of a delayed action. It'll cause Snake or Teliko to dodge an attack–even if that attack happens many turns later. The Stealth Camo EQUIP card, by contrast, is an example of a card with ongoing effects. When you play it, the character you're controlling will turn invisible for a period of time. At the beginning of each level, Snake and Teliko have 2 slots available for equipping EQUIP cards. Luckily, there are cards in the game that can double and triple the number of equipment slots. Some cards can also enhance or diminish the effectiveness of other cards just by being equipped in the slots next to them.
Okay, so now you know about the different types of cards and the limits placed on the number of cards that can be played per turn or equipped. There's one last limitation to learn about–time. Every card in the game has a COST associated with it. When you use a card, that COST is added to a timer. Snake and Teliko, as well as all of the enemies in the game, each have their own individual COST timer. COST represents how much time must pass before you can play more cards. If Snake's or Teliko's COST timers are larger than those of the enemy, the enemy will be able to play cards (and thus move and make attacks) before Snake or Teliko will–effectively causing you to "lose a turn." In general, the more powerful a card is, the greater the COST associated with it.
And now, a word on weapons. Roughly half of the game's cards are weapons (handguns, rifles, automatic weapons, missile launchers, grenades, bombs, and so on). Some guns are silenced and some aren't. Usually, the loud ones do more damage, but have the drawback of sounding the alarm–which brings re-inforcements into the level. Each weapon has its own specific ratings for damage, hit possibility, shots per volley, and COST. Instant USE weapons tend to have a higher cost and lower damage ratings than EQUIP type weapons (which must be loaded with a 2nd EQUIP weapon of the same caliber in order to be fired). Some weapons also have unique traits assigned to them. For instance, if a weapon has the FALL trait, its shots may knock the enemy down or even render them unconscious. A nice side effect of FALL is that it also knocks enemies backwards a space, and if there's another enemy in that space, they'll be knocked down by their flying comrade. One specific trait I really love is BURN, which can set enemies on fire for multiple turns, gradually depleting their hit points each turn until the fire goes out. A fair number of EQUIP cards are actually attachments that can be added to weapons in order to enhance their hit and damage ratings–such as silencers, scopes, and spread enhancers.
Fans of the cardboard box and disguise items from previous Metal Gear Solid games will be especially happy to learn that they're also present in Metal Gear ACID. If you recall, Snake could put a cardboard box over himself in the MGS games and use it to hide in plain sight until guards walked away. The same is true in ACID. When Snake equips a cardboard box, guards will ignore him so long as he doesn't walk past them with the box on his head. That's pretty useful, whether you're just trying to inch your way past a pair of eagle-eyed sentries or hiding out until an alarm shuts off. As for disguises, there aren't many (just 3 guard outfits), but they do offer an alternative for situations when the guards aren't fooled by cardboard boxes.
Early on, the only way to get new cards is to find packs hidden within the levels. Once you complete the 2nd mission, however, you'll be able to access a card store from the intermission menu. Points are given out at the end of each mission based on how quickly you complete it, how many guards you kill, and how many times you're spotted. These points can be used to buy new card packs from the card shop. In all, there are four different card pack sets to choose from–MGS1, MGS2, Classic MGS, and MGS3. Like any good card set, there are commons, uncommons, rares, and super-rares to find.
Where MG ACID's gameplay really shines is in the flexibility that has been built into the card usage system. The best way to explain it is through examples. The most obvious is the distinction between MOVE cards and other cards. When you play a move card, you can move Snake up to 6 spaces in any direction, often at a low COST. But what happens if you don't have a move card in your hand? No problem. The majority of other cards can be used to move Snake too, but they will only let him move 3 spaces and usually carry a higher COST than actual movement cards. In terms of weapons, there are USABLE and EQUIPPED weapons. The difference being, usable weapons can be used right away, but they bleed more COST to use, whereas equipped weapons must first be equipped and loaded (by equipping a second weapon on top) before use, but they usually have no associated COST and often have better accuracy ratings. Here's another weapon-related example. Let's say you toss a grenade next to a guard. You have a choice from that point: (1) Play other cards during your turn and let the grenade detonate during the enemy's turn, or (2) use a weapon card to shoot the explosive, which will cause it to explode right away. In the first instance, the enemy may be able to run away from the blast zone, but you'll be able to play more cards. In the second instance, he'll definitely be blown to bits, but you'll have used two cards to make it happen.
Best of all, you can organize your card decks based upon your own play style. If you want to sneak around and avoid using weapons, you can fill your deck with movement cards, stun grenades, cardboard boxes, and stealth items. Alternatively, if you want to be a one-man wrecking crew, you can fill your deck with AK-47's, Desert Eagles, grenades, and Nikita missiles.
All of this stuff probably seems so complicated to you, the poor reader who hasn't yet played Metal Gear ACID. Yes, there is a lot to keep track of, and yes, you're going to need to invest a lot of brainpower and time into getting through most levels. One hour is about average for each, although some can take upwards of two or three. Don't be discouraged. All of the various card types, restrictions, and actions compliment each other very nicely and become second nature after six hours or so. Some people will find that to be a good thing. Some won't. Ah well. Also, the menu-based control system keeps everything clearly organized. Sub-menus never have more than four options, at the most, and most actions only require two keypresses to initiate.
Phew! *deep exhale* That's way more than you probably needed to know about how the game plays. So how does it look and sound? Answer: Great and pretty good, respectively.
As I mentioned earlier, the cinematic intermissions were put together using a combination of in-game graphics, Japanese Manga style drawings, and charcoal portraits. It's an odd combination to get used to seeing at first, but it grows on you. All of the in-game graphics were put together using the polygon models and textures from Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, which means that the environments are rather cubic and plain, but the people and weapons are exquisitely detailed and loaded with animation. Each time you play a card, the characters in the game act out the action printed on the card. For instance, if you walk up to a soldier that's standing in front of another soldier, and play the Spin Kick card, you'll actually observe Snake perform a chop-socky kick and see the soldier in front fly backward into the one behind (knocking them both down). When bullet-based attacks are used, you'll see Snake raise his gun, see the bullet tracers leave the gun, and see clouds of blood erupt from the unfortunate target. The main viewing perspective shows a bird's eye view of the action, but the game shifts to close-up angles when actions are being performed. You can also toggle a zoomed view and spin the camera around using the triangle, left, and right buttons. Sometimes, the movement grid and the various CARD/HP/COST indicators for all of the on-screen characters clutter the screen and obscure something important, but this isn't a common complaint.
The audio, meanwhile, is merely "pretty good." If you've played any of the console Metal Gear Solid games, you'll recognize all of the sound effects and most of the music. The various gunshots, explosions, and "slumping bodies" sound very lifelike. As for the music, it's all very sublime and matches perfectly to what's happening on the screen. When the game throws you into a particularly difficult mission, the track for that level will be much more dramatic and suspenseful than the track for an "easy" level would be. Make sure to play the game with a pair of headphones on though, because the PSP system's speakers aren't loud enough and don't do a good enough job of reproducing the surround sound effect that the music has. It's like the difference between listening to a car radio and sitting in an opera house. On a personal level, I'm disappointed by the lack of recorded voice acting. The game has literally hundreds of screens of dialogue, and it would've been nice to zone out and just listen to what the characters have to say instead of having to read all the time. One of the best aspects of the Metal Gear franchise has been its gratuitous use of recorded voice acting.
It's obvious from the tone of this review that I like Metal Gear ACID very much. That's a no-brainer, since I've personally invested hundreds of hours of my life into games like Advance Wars, Card Fighters Clash, and Final Fantasy Tactics. To be totally honest, though, there are some things I don't like about MG ACID. The main one being the way scripted events are handled. Numerous missions take 2 or 3 hours to complete. Seriously. In some of them, cinematic sequences occur at some point during the mission that culminate with Snake and Teliko surrounded on all sides by armed troops. Unless you plan for the event ahead of time–which you probably won't, since you don't know it's about to happen–you may find yourself waiting for your COST to dissipate while the bad guys empty their guns into you. It is possible to save midway through a mission, which I highly recommend doing, often.
Another thing I am annoyed by is how many of the game's features take an inordinate amount of time to unlock. Many of the game's 15 levels are broken up into multiple missions (some have multiple parts), and most require at least an hour or two to complete. Players don't gain access to the card shop until after the 2nd level. MGS2 cards aren't available until after the 4th level. Classic and MGS3 card packs aren't available until well beyond the 9th level. Do the math on that. It takes approximately 20 hours just to get the whole card shop opened up! Furthermore, you can't access the multiplayer link mode until after the 4th level. Considering how deep the card usage interface is, it's not like hiding these features until later on is actually helpful to the player.
Those complaints may be important to some of you, which is why I mentioned them. For me, they're only minor annoyances in what is otherwise one of the best turn-based strategy games I've played in a long, long time.
Let's say you do decide to plunk down the $50 for Metal Gear ACID, and you find that you enjoy it. You can expect to be occupied for quite a while. The main story sequence consists of 15 levels and approximately 30 missions. Some missions make you backtrack through earlier levels or have multiple parts. Once you complete a level, you can go back to it at any time and play through it in what the game calls EX mode. EX missions use the levels from the main story, but they involve random objectives such as "sneak past without being seen" or "kill all enemies." You earn cards and points no matter how many times you complete an EX mission, which makes them a great way to rack up funds to put toward more card packs from the card shop. After you complete the game, you'll be able to re-start with the cards you collected the first time, and you'll gain access to the "Extreme" difficulty setting.
As an added bonus for those of us in North America, the English-language version of ACID includes a WiFi (local) link mode that allows two players to compete against one another in a number of VR Mission levels.
A vocal minority have bitched and moaned that Metal Gear ACID is very different from the other Metal Gear games we've become accustomed to. While that is true, I highly recommend you don't let that fact prevent you from giving it a try, especially if you already have an affinity for strategy games.