a review of Zone of the Enders 2: The Second Runner
a videogame developed by Konami Japan
and published by Konami
for the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system
text by Samuel Kite
I’m spit-balling, here. I never heard of Metal Gear until I played Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation. It was a game that was hard as hell to control, looked decent, and had a very satisfying mechanic for snapping the necks of enemies. I remember, at the time, wondering why the process for aiming your pistol was so awkward, but after a while, I got used to it, and used the laser-sight mode to lock on to whatever I wanted to shoot. This was still slow and cumbersome, and got alot worse when you had to put the gun away and take it back out again to reload it. If you wanted to look somewhere, and did it while your gun was out, you had to gingerly put it away to avoid accidentally shooting whoever you were looking at.
When Metal Gear Solid 2 came out, I didn’t have my own Playstation 2. I own one now, but at the time, I was boycotting what I saw as Sony being incredibly stupid. Every night, just about, my friends and I played something on the N64 or Dreamcast. In the heady college days, we spent about 90% of our free time on the couch, and those systems dominated our lives. One of their best features was that they accommodated four people. When the Playstation 2 came out with two controller ports, that made me hate it. What kind of dinosaur bullshit was that about? It didn’t help that anything released on the PS2 and the Xbox that generation looked better, and often ran better, on the Xbox. Not necessarily because the thing was a super computer or whatever, but because for anyone who cared to investigate it for even a millisecond, it seemed like developing for the Xbox was cake and icecream, and developing for the PS2 was cod liver oil and vomit coming out of a fire hose directly into your eyes.
One of the reasons I didn’t *get* my own PS2, despite it having plenty of good games on it (that were exclusives) was Metal Gear Solid 2‘s indolent bullshit culiminating in about five minutes of gameplay that was genuinely amazing and fun and simple. The katana made that game incredible. It took all the frustrating parts and glossed over them with a simple, intuitive weapon, that, if it had been developed in any way whatsoever could have made a sneaking game that gave me the giddy feeling of hiding in the cedar chest with the blankets while my mom was doing laundry for hours at a time. Dr. Octopus is stupid, but the fact that you fight him with that sword made the anticlimax of all boss fights into a wonder of gaming beauty.
Since I sound so positive, you might wonder where the disconnect is. The disconnect is that the MGS series is like raising a fetal alchohol syndrome kid. It doesn’t understand consequences. So when it does something wrong, you have to be nice to it. You have to take the diazapine or whatever to keep your sniper rifle from wandering around like a two year old in a construction site. You have to turn on thermal vision to see the guy who’s visible no other way, and then do it again when he hits you and knocks it off your face. Unfortunately, you’re not really helping by being patient with it — the term “can’t” learn consequences isn’t quite true. The flexibility of the brain is remarkable, and, if you really care about this child, you will do your best to help work out how to understand this most basic of feedback mechanisms.
The reasons people don’t put that effort in can come down to misplaced motherly protective instincts, nostalgia, deep seated guilt (perhaps this is somehow my fault — and by this I mean scenarios where the child is adopted, and the guilt is misplaced), but, above all, what really makes it complicated is the inability to perceive consequences actually opens a window to true genius. In a Homer Simpson-like fashion, the person who cannot understand what might result from their actions is willing to try anything. They do try anything. So, for every time an annoying man in a lab coat wets himself before your very eyes, another man’s identity becomes known to you by using a directional mic to listen for his pacemaker.
Now, my rational stance is that you live in a world and you have to be equipped to deal with the harshest possible restrictions on your existence, because the universe at large doesn’t care about your feelings. That means, if you have this kid, and you really intend to raise him, you have to do it right, and do your best to make sure he isn’t going apeshit for the rest of his life. That is a daunting undertaking, and, quite frankly, this is why I have no intention of adopting a kid with fetal alchohol syndrome.
Tragically, an inability to perceive consequences actually works extremely effectively within society to perpetuate fetal alchohol syndrome. Someone with the disease tends to be more likely to be an alchoholic, and more likely to do anything risky. Risky things include unprotected sex, the number one side effect of which is offspring. Because it is very difficult to adopt healthy orphaned children unless you are a stable, married, heterosexual couple, people who are single parents, or unstable for whatever reason, tend to be able to adopt children with this problem. This puts them in an environment where they’re less likely to get the help they need, simply by virtue of the time it takes (kids take time, kids with problems take even more — a single parent doesn’t have as much as two people would).
I’m explaining this painfully slowly because every game Kojima makes is like this, and as soon as I see what I’m getting into, I usually dust my hands off, put them up like goal posts, and mouth the words “I’m out.” I actually have Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater for the Gamecube, and I’ve never played it. Despite the endorsement on this very site. Why? Because while I applaud the people who go through that experience for their selflessness and domestic heroism in raising these damaged children, I choose to gather my positive karma in other ways.
If the Metal Gear series is a kid with FAS, then Zone of the Enders is autistic. If you can sit through the screaming and crying and get the thing to look you in the eyes, whatever potential it might have won’t break your heart, because you’ll be too worn out to be thinking like that.
I watched the story-so-far video on the main menu before I started the game. It helped somewhat to contextualize what was incredibly painful and stupid for no reason in the plot and dialogue, and what was incredibly painful and stupid because it was continuing forward from some earlier tumor. I’ll try to make it short. Kid sees everyone he’s ever known die in an attack on the space station where he lives. He trips over something and falls ass-first into the cockpit of an experimental super weapon with an AI so advanced that it can plan your missions for you and answer complex hypothetical questions. In fact, it’s so advanced that it says things which make more sense than the lines of dialogue from the human beings around it. This bizarre reversal of a Turing test lays out clearly and concisely for the kid what it wants to do, where it wants to go, and the steps it will take to get there. The kid saves a nice Jewish girl, fights alot of robots, and ends up learning a whole lot about responsibility.
As the game begins, you find yourself listening to dialogue which is nearly not painful, except that the main character has a name which is incredibly stupid: Dingo Egret — and, actually, let me just stop here for a second. When I typed that, I had to go to the Wikipedia article, because I just naturally assumed I had erred and written something similar to his name, but replaced it with funny words. It turns out — that’s actually it. No doubt, this name was chosen to show that he is both a wild dog, and a tiny delicate bird that you just want to cuddle and nurture. This cuts to the core of the teenage experience, and, coincidentally, has something in common with the whole :I need a hug; Don’t touch me!” aspect of autism.
I’m sure if you played the first game when you were between ten and fourteen, and the second game in your late teens, this series is probably attached to your brain stem like a symbiotic organism, and the feelings of nostalgia and the resonance with your internal coming-of-age-drama are probably so strong that reading this far has been an act of grim determination to ignore what some bitter asshole has to say about the game you love.
My bad, brah. Don’t be foamin’.
In any case, the first interactive sequence is fairly clever. It introduces you to the dash button, the attack button, and the “go up” button, which is presented as though it were a jump button (but isn’t, because you fly for the majority of the game). But it does it in the context of some beater robot for mining, and you don’t have any enemies. In my mind, this is a great way to teach me about the controls.
Immediately thereafter, you’re introduced to the anime cut scenes, and the robot from the first game, complete with the AI which has long-term thinking down better than the meat puppets that pilot it and went to finishing school in its spare time. The main character . . . Dingo Egret . . . remarks on how nice it is to talk to an AI that isn’t dumber than he is. This seems like a metaphor for gender equality, and comes off as less weird than the Master Chief/Cortana lovefest. Not the least because there’s no actual affection.
You get to fight something before you really understand how to pilot the craft. This is nice because it lets you try out the buttons you’d just used to get where you were going in the context of the actual game. Then you’re offered training, cordially, by the AI, and the main character . . . Dingo Egret . . . accepts the offer (again, cordially). The menu system that puts you in a VR world to take lessons on controlling the robot are both well done, painfully slow, and a huge hiccup in the flow of events (while the training is taking place, you are supposedly in the middle of some kind of space raid by Martians). You’re given the option to skip this though, and, all things considered, I can’t fault the game too much for showing me that this option was available. Especially since some of the finer points of the control scheme are hard to deal with without being flat out told how they work (warning: this may be an indicator of excessively complicated impossible to use crap).
Then you get to actually play.
So, your first challenge is to deal with a few utterly incompetent or possibly completely harmless enemies. That’s more or less fine. You try out your sword, you get to use your Panzer-Dragoon-esque multi-target, lock-on laser homing device thing, which you use to deal with swarms of shit, and then you repeat the experience a few times to get warmed up. The canyon like areas where the first few sequences occur have enough room that you don’t feel too crowded, but, by the same token, not enough room that you don’t keep bumping the camera into the walls and wondering what the hell is going on — and why you just lost all your locked-on targets.
This is the first moment where a pet peeve cropped up. No ability to invert the Y-axis. Wow. Really? On a PS2 game where you’re flying at least half the time? There is an options menu. It just doesn’t have that as an option. This is a great example of the Kojima Orphanage product, and fairly consistent. The fact that it’s etched in stone isn’t so much the problem as it’s the wrong choice. Even if you are a crazy person who does not like inverted y-axis on a first person shooter (which this isn’t), you should, at the very least, be able to admit that flying a plane merits that control scheme. This is a robot. But it still flies.
Anyway, glossing over this, the way people tend to, I hoped that the fact that I was locked on to something almost all the time would mean I don’t have to worry about it. That is almost true (we’ll get back to the almost part later).
The first boss you fight seems interesting. Though I did die saying to myself, ‘What the fuck . . . How do I hurt her?’ once. Like a good gamer, I chastised myself. Clearly, I suck something. Cocks, maybe. So I tried again, and it became clear that she would do a little series of sword swipes at me, and if I blocked them, I got to sword swipe her back. In between, you had to use your lasers to shoot down her missiles (which you could also block — a welcome thing (that is to say, a blocking button that actually blocks things)), dodge around to deal with her own super move thing, and in between were opportunities to do some (small amount of) damage to her while she wasn’t ready to line herself up for some sword hits. This is all fine, and felt like a promising start.
Then you end up inside a space ship in a series of confined rooms. Oh, and let me backtrack a little . . .
One of the things I learned from the VR training series, aside from the fact that sub-energy is used up and gained back only through the mysterious use of forbidden witchcraft (no explanation), is that there is this fairly intuitive and well-executed radar scheme. Basically, there will be a hoop around your robot (piloted by the inimicable Dingo Egret) that indicates the rough distance from you of some enemy. This is not the good part. It will also make another hoop indicating the range of that enemy’s attacks. This is also not really the good part. What is good, is that there will be an angry red pie-slice indicating the direction from which the enemy is firing on you. In the initial environments where there was room to maneuver, this make you feel like one of those idealized anime piloting gods who has eyes in the back of their head and can dodge in three dimensions while killing a victim.
But, the thing only works and make sense if you aren’t mashing the camera up against walls, backing away continuously from things sharing the same closet space with you, and trying to avoid getting hung up on random rafters, girders, and whatever other futuristic clutter is pretending not to be a crate to artifically inflate the game’s STC score. Once you’re inside the ship, most of the fun part goes in the toilet.
The game’s controls are not like Descent, where it’s about piloting your way delicately around serpentine environments. It’s a lock-on, fighting-game-like arena scheme where you dash frenetically around with a tremendous amount of assistance. You don’t have to worry about circling your prey: as soon as you lock on, everything is done in terms of that lock-on — you are riding around on a sphere, the center of which is your target. If you want to get closer, press the local forward. If you want to get further away, press local backward. If you want to not be hit by anything, press nearly any other button and fly around in arcs that end up intersecting walls, girders, and et-ceteras with remarkable frequency. For the larger arena areas, this scheme works well. For 90% of the rest of the game, it’s a burden.
Three strikes started at this point. The first strike was that I had to fight a boss which was supposedly a dead woman from the previous game, and her gimmick was that she had a shield, so I had to use a physical attack . . . but, it was too large for me to use my sword (supposedly, seemed fine to me). Luckily, the room and the walls were covered in convenient steel girders. I’d already been taught how to grab and throw things. So I picked something up and prepared to throw it. At this point, the game suggested I try picking something up and throwing it. It did this by interrupting my ability to move, and offering me another tutorial. Meanwhile, the heinous, undead boss-muffin was stabbing me in the head. I died because of this asinine, redundant crap. I then got to try again. This time, I went to a wall and just threw things until I was shown a cut scene of her getting skewered by a girder. Hooray. Painful, mind-numbing dialogue continues for a little while, and then I’m introduced to the main enemy in the game: “Anubis.” There is a longish intro where I’m supposed to be impressed, and then he starts teleporting around the room and shooting at me while asking pointed questions. I fight for a while, and die once. It seems like it’s meant to be an impossible fight, since I can’t seem to damage him. However, dying isn’t acceptible for whatever reason, so I’m forced to fight again. After fighting again for a little while and getting nowhere, the undead muffin who was supposedly dead comes in from next door, carrying the thing I skewered her with, and, long story short, Dingo Egret ends up getting skewered and has to disembark for more anime cutscenes.
I don’t know if my PS2 is having some kind of contrast issue or something, but I was noticing it was hard at times to see what was going on, and, from this point, it seemed to get worse. The main villain is so pale that his features are obliterated by the light reflecting from his face until he looms large enough in view for there to be sufficient black pixels that you can discern he has a mouth and eyes.
The next plot points caused me physical pain. I’m not dwelling on this to be mean. I’m just saying that this game made me feel like dying.
So, at last you get to play again, and the first thing is to find someone who’s broadcasting a distress call. I don’t really know how that works, but apparently you have to shoot boxes delicately, one at a time until a painful cutscene is triggered. For those who appreciate Kojima’s characters, this is Otacon, only he’s fatter and piloting a robot.
This is where the game really earned that one star. You have to “escort” this guy somewhere. But, to do that, you can’t have him follow you, and you don’t follow him. You pick him up, like he’s a toy, in one hand, and carry him. You can use him like a weapon to damage enemies, but it damages him and if you lose him, then it’s game over. So you have to go to the next room, drop him on the floor reasonably gently, and then fight all the dangerous things. Find him, pick him up, and repeat. You are doing this on your way to an objective somewhere in the space ship which is far away through a long series of identical looking hallways and closet-like rooms. There is a map, but to access it, you have to open the start menu, which pauses the game. While you look at it, you’re overwhelmed by how incredibly useless it is. Oh, look, there’s an “O” shaped blip over there with a dot in it, and my arrow is here. I wonder what the fuck that means. Connecting corridors are shown on the map, but they don’t show if they are in an ambiguous locked state or not. In addition, the fatass you’re hauling around is also your keycard. Many doors don’t seem to open unless his face is affixed to your hand.
Trying to get where I was going, I got lost, and then impatient, and tried to fly past the enemies instead of killing them. This seemed perfectly viable, especially since I was given the futuristic version of ninja caltrops by this asshole before we got started. Tragically, when you try to fly past enemies, the lock on system kicks in, and makes something the center of your universe. You are then forced to fly in an arc into a wall, or towards whatever attacked you. You can unlock your target, but your camera usually is spun around by this point, and you end up lost again. So I gave up on running past enemies and went back to killing them.
So here’s the best part. Your lock on system treats the asshole you’re escorting like any other enemy. So you can end up with him as your next target to fight before you can see him (for instance, when the camera is pointed the wrong way), and do a bunch of damage before you realize you’re not hitting the thing that’s hitting him and making him complain loudly and repeatedly — or, for that matter, the thing that’s hittin’ you.
I put up with the rest of the crap because I adopted this metaphor, and it would be cruel to abandon it just because I was getting sick of a person that screams in terror every time I try to pat them on the shoulder. There are a variety of weapons which introduce the potential for a variety of strategies, and you are not trapped inside a shoebox for the whole game. The story resolves with the same spectacular junk that is the hallmark of the Metal Gear series, and the bulk of anime, which is as low quality and full of pandering as western pop art for the most part (despite its stand out masterpieces). This isn’t Akira. You’re not missing anything by skipping these cutscenes.
Basically, this game is unplayable for me past the second stage. The only reason I persisted is to form a complete opinion of whether it’s worth sitting through. Were I left to my own devices, the last you’d have heard about this game was that you have to pick up some asshole and drag him all over a space station — and that I wasn’t interested in fighting uphill against the game’s control scheme to do it. This game is only worth the effort to get past its difficulties, and, again, here’s that metaphor, if you somehow think of it like your own child. I don’t.
I’ll stop just short of saying that it would have been kinder to have an abortion, and instead say: I hope there’re some people out there with a lot of love and time on their hands. Christlike figures.