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Metal Gear Solid VR Missions: The Kotaku Retro Review

After stealthily sneaking past a series of guards in the cold, digital halls of endless data, I’m brought to a new environment, now with a gun in hand and a series of explosive gems floating before me. I have to take all of these objects out as fast as I possibly can. And then, once I’m done, I’ll do it over again, this time in a different map, and now with rendered humans I’m expected to eliminate. It becomes routine, reflexive: aim, shoot, punch, kick, strangle, hide, run, crawl. Over and over and over again. A repetitive voice recording congratulates me at the end of each challenge, but that’s the only human interaction I experience that isn’t a matter of life and death. Sometimes I stop to contemplate these repetitive actions…but those thoughts fade into the endless cloud of data that surrounds me. It’s all about killing here. It’s all about practicing to be the most efficient, lifeless mechanism of death. And yet, I love it.

In 1999, Konami issued an expanded version of Hideo Kojima’s cinematically inspired, stealthy political thriller, Metal Gear Solid. Titled Metal Gear Solid: Integral and released in Japan, it featured the base stealth game that followed the story of Solid Snake as he is sent on an impossible mission to prevent the world from descending into nuclear warfare while coming to terms with his own mysterious past. Integral also featured an extra disc with 300 “VR Missions” that distilled MGS’s base gameplay loop of sneaking, shooting, and handling explosive weaponry.

Set in a virtual training environment that would become a major theme of MGS’s sequel, these missions were spun off into their own release for North American territories titled Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions. The dark green cover of MGS: VR Missions featured the masked face of one of MGS’s coolest characters: the katana-wielding cybernetic ninja once known as Gray Fox. On the back, the game promised more than 300 training missions for Metal Gear Solid, plus exclusive modes and, yes, even the opportunity to play as Gray Fox himself.

VR Missions entered my life as a gift from family who had mistaken this release for Metal Gear Solid itself. But despite my initial disappointment at not getting to jump into the gripping narrative of Solid Snake, I soon learned that VR Missions was the perfect way to prepare for the infiltration of Shadow Moses. And I came to appreciate it as a game all unto itself.

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Revisiting VR Missions in 2024 is an interesting exercise, largely because VR Missions is inherently a very interesting game in its own right. It often holds up well as its own standalone release, but there are more than a few discomforts and missed opportunities–especially considering its recent reemergence in the technically flawed Master Collection that shipped for PS5, Xbox Series X/S, Switch, and PC in 2023.

Although the general concept of a massive series of training missions for the main Metal Gear Solid game loop would return one more time in Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, there hasn’t really been anything quite like this. VR Missions is a Metal Gear Solid game, but without the series’ signature narrative. There are no cutscenes. No lengthy radio chats on the good ‘ol Codec. No sweeping narratives that intertwine real-world political history with a twist-laden plot starring only the most eccentric of characters.

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VR Missions has none of what, I suspect, many people come to Metal Gear for. Yet if you are tuned into the themes of MGS, that of a healthy criticism of war, killing, and how we create systems in our society to facilitate such things, it’s hard to ignore these themes as you practice, over and over and over again, becoming a ruthlessly efficient soldier. Plus, the very concept of VR missions plays a central role in more than a few Metal Gear games, so it’s arguably canon, a depiction of things we know exist in MGS’ lore. In fact, you could sort of headcanon VR Missions as a kind of “found footage” game existing in the MGS universe.

Plus, if you’re like me and always found MGS’ nuts-and-bolts gameplay to be a little bit lacking in the narrative-heavy mainline games, VR Missions is more than happy to provide almost too much MGS action, revealing that the original Metal Gear Solid has a surprising level of depth and mechanical joy to learn, master, and exploit.

Read More: Why You Should Play VR Missions Before Metal Gear Solid

But let’s start with a brief history lesson: Why is Metal Gear Solid even a stealth series to begin with?

A genre born from limitations and a love of film

The original Metal Gear shipped in 1987 on the MSX console. A top-down, 2D game adorned with a simple, militaristic color palette of grays, greens, and browns, it’s the genesis for a series that would last for decades, all the way up to Hideo Kojima’s final MGS game, 2015’s Metal Gear Solid V. Well, technically beyond that, actually, considering Konami’s poorly received multiplayer game Metal Gear Survive in 2018. Now, however, the initial Solid trilogy (in addition to the Metal Gear games from the ‘80s) has returned in last year’s the Master Collection.

Some entries are undoubtedly more stealthy than others (and spin-offs such as 2013’s Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance largely eschewed the need to be sneaky at all), but the decision to base the core loop of this militaristic action series on being silent and unseen starts with the MSX console’s inability to render enough characters on screen to fit Hideo Kojima’s initial vision of a war video game.

Kojima turned, as he often does, to cinema for inspiration. The Great Escape served as an essential piece of media for Kojima, who was once quoted as saying, “If The Great Escape didn’t exist, there would probably be no Metal Gear today.” Kojima would turn to other films, perhaps the most notable being Escape from New York, as the inspiration for MGS’ action and protagonist. But The Great Escape gave Kojima the themes of sneaking and surveillance. Speaking to The Atlantic, Kojima said he wanted to “simulate” the feeling of escaping and staying hidden found in The Great Escape:

Enter VR Missions, 12 years after the arrival of the original Metal Gear, and we have a game that removes the narrative coating to focus solely on delivering the challenge of staying hidden, as well as fighting against unstoppable forces that outnumber you in people and weapons.

Sneak. Then sneak again, this time faster

Metal Gear Solid: VR Missions features hundreds of missions spread over the following categories and subcategories, many of which you’ll need to play twice (once for “Practice” and then again for a timed run) to reach 100-percent completion:

And that’s the game distilled into a list. To think of VR Missions is to think of lists, of things to do, deeper challenges to unlock, clear times to achieve (and then to beat on subsequent runs). Each mission starts with a description. Snake loads in, you succeed or fail (some missions, like those in “Sneaking Mode,” end if you so much as get spotted).

Each category has a variety of challenges. Some are just like the encounters you run into in Metal Gear Solid. In some you’ll have to deal with challenges like remaining hidden while you leave your footprints behind in the snow, or hiding in a cardboard box to go unseen by humans, cameras, and searchlights.

To play the entirety of VR Missions’ offerings is to spend more time doing any one of the many facets of MGS’ core gameplay far more than you will during Snake’s trip through Shadow Moses Island in the actual Metal Gear Solid. And VR Missions puts you in environments and situations that pose challenges of the kind you’ll never have to contend with in the narrative-heavy MGS.

Take using grenades for example. Strictly speaking, you only ever need to use grenades once in Metal Gear Solid: during the fight with Vulcan Raven’s tank. In that boss fight, Snake must lob grenades up and into a tank’s entry port to bomb out soldiers inside, and eventually destroy the tank.

Read More: 16 Things The First Metal Gear Solid Doesn’t Outright Tell You

You can, of course, use grenades elsewhere in the game, but that’s up to you. Using explosives in Metal Gear Solid is also very risky as you will immediately enter alert status if there are any enemies in the area.

But in VR Missions you have multiple missions and challenges related to grenades (and every other weapon in the game). The more advanced ones task you with visualizing the 3D space of MGS in ways the original game doesn’t. One such mission sees guards patrolling an inaccessible area underneath Snake, meaning you need to time your grenade throws and judge their travel distance to take them out. And if you’re doing the harder timed runs, you’ll want to wait for the guards to be grouped up to take ‘em out as quickly as you can.

Read More: The Original Metal Gear Solid Has A Fast Travel Mechanic You Probably Didn’t Know About

The Nikita launcher and PSG1 sniper rifle also get their time to shine. In Metal Gear Solid, these weapons are used for less than a handful of scripted sequences, most of which are fairly straighforward. Not so for VR Missions, which challenges you to navigate tight, cramped mazes with the remote controlled missiles of the Nikita, and very long-ranged shooting galleries with the sniper rifle.

Going through all of these missions hardens you into the “trained killer” MGS’ Mei Ling calls Snake. You learn all of the techniques and tricks that MGS won’t teach you, let alone even ask of you. For example, detonating a Nikita missile early by unequipping the rocket launcher is a key strat in taking out guards and targets easily. Immediately unequipping the Stinger missile launcher after firing grants Snake a speed and mobility that, while not required, can help a ton in MGS’ Rex and Hind-D battles. Claymores, you’ll learn, can be set off the second they’re laid down. Nikita missiles can climb up stairs. And setting up elaborate chain reactions of C4 explosions rarely gets old.

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Not only does VR Missions teach you wonderful new skills and techniques to deploy with MGS’ weaponry, but you’ll even discover aspects of the game’s physics that you probably never considered in the 1998 game. The most amusing is how you can send multiple guards flying by knocking them into one another. Some missions, in fact, rely on this mechanic, asking you to punch and kick one guard so they can fly forward to knock over a row of genome soldiers like they were dominoes, in an amusing but challenging display of precision and physics.

Playing VR Missions never fails to reveal a surprising depth to MGS’ gameplay. On first glance, and especially by 2024’s standards, MGS feels stiff and unforgiving. You must come to a complete stop to strangle a guard; running and gunning requires you to hold down two buttons at once; multiple weapons force you into a first-person perspective in which you can’t physically move.

VR Missions escalates to such complexity and speed that you’re forced to overcome the rigidity of what was, even in 1998, a sort of obtuse and rigid set of game systems. And there’s no skill tree to climb or better versions of weapons to unlock. VR Missions, like Metal Gear Solid, offers a standard, unmoving set of game mechanics for you to develop mastery over, mechanics you’ll come to develop almost an instinctual, impulsive control over.

It amazed me how I soon learned to quickly and efficiently clear rooms of guards with rapid-fire bursts of a silenced pistol, an occurrence that was all the more surprising because VR Missions’ controls are clunky, lacking the smoother, more FPS-like feel of later Metal Gear games. And that right there is where I start thinking of the narrative of MGS. VR Missions is a very simple, straightforward collection of stealth and shooting challenges that wants you to become the fastest, deadliest digital killer imaginable.

Read More: Metal Gear Solid Retrospective: ‘You Enjoy All The Killing, That’s Why’

Arguably, VR Missions could be considered canon, perhaps training Snake undertakes on the submarine en route to Shadow Moses (Snake does mention VR if you choose to play the limited VR missions included in the original 1998 MGS) or at some other time. Additionally, MGS2’s Raiden has clearly undergone VR training, citing names of VR missions he’s been on, with scenes from VR Missions played over the top of his dialogue. At the completion of all of VR Missions, you’ll even see blueprints for a certain Metal Gear model that would appear in a later game.

But while the challenges of VR Missions are fun, the most interesting elements feel a little short-changed. VR Missions is often a series of endless virtual halls of digital gunfire and sneaking, with slight breaks for more interesting scenarios at the end. Sadly, those more interesting, even experimental, modes are too few in number.

Underbaked creative potential

Once you start hitting around 70% completion, more interesting modes in VR Missions open up. One such is the “Mystery Mode,” which tasks you with solving a crime. Each mission warps Snake next to a dead body with a text giving you a clue as to the killer’s identity. There are hints such as, “the killer is near-sighted,” or “the killer was just eating an ice pop.” You’ll then have to investigate a line-up of three guards and do your best to determine what gives the killer away. There are only 10 of these missions (with the final one being kind of a joke). It’s a shame that VR Missions doesn’t have more of these kinds of clever, offbeat scenarios for you to tackle.

But what is likely one of the most exciting features of VR Missions is also its most disappointing. Yes, you can play as MGS’ super-cool cybernetic ninja, with his katana and gravity-defying martial arts moves…for a mere three nearly identical missions.

After such a long and arduous climb through VR Missions’ seemingly endless list of sneaking and weapons challenges, getting to play as a super-cool character for just a tiny fraction of the time you spent to earn the privilege makes for a remarkably hollow conclusion to this game.

VR Missions is the kind of game you don’t see these days

While VR Missions’ existence as a standalone game was likely the end result of a business decision to split off a bonus disc from an expanded version of Metal Gear Solid, it would’ve been nice to see some better structure, and more opportunity to engage with the unconventional game modes like Mystery or Puzzle.

Of course, it’s hard to imagine that a game like this could even exist in today’s world, with countless demands for AAA video games to reach impossible amounts of revenue, and a preference for endless live-service games featuring highly monetized storefronts, battle passes, and the microtransactionization of weapons, outfits, levels, and more. (And those transactions are becoming less and less “micro” all the time.) If Hi-Fi Rush wasn’t enough for Microsoft to keep Tango Gameworks around, we certainly shouldn’t expect quirky, experimental spin-offs of major franchises like Metal Gear.

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Still, VR Missions is a welcome addition to the current Master Collection, and a great way to soak up a whole lot more stealth action gameplay. The same is very much true of Metal Gear Solid 2’s own VR missions (which you’ll find under “Missions” in the Master Collection version of MGS2). In both cases, they’re the perfect way to develop incredible mastery over the challenges of the main game, making repeat playthroughs of MGS and MGS2 at higher difficulties even more doable.

VR Missions may lack the narrative heart of what many love about Metal Gear, but in its sheer volume and insistence on segmenting and delivering a near endless supply of challenges, it proves to be a fascinating and worthwhile pursuit that helps you develop remarkable levels of mastery over its systems and pushes the series’ stealth gameplay to places it doesn’t go anywhere else.

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