One day it would be so great to go up to Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear games and say to him about A Virus Named TOM, ''Sir, you have created a game that is both original and good. Sadly the parts that are good are not original and the parts that are original are not good.''
Harsh? I don’t think so. A Virus Named TOM is a massively overrated game. Although it breaks new ground in it fantastic graphic and superb sound, its gameplay is often badly flawed and plotwise is almost laughable in its political naivety and Z-grade writing. But before we get started here is the obligatory information stuff that all reviews must contain by law in case you have never heard of this game before.
A Virus Named TOM is a game that probably needs no introduction, but here is one anyway. It was released in 1999 by Konami on the Playstation and updated into three dimensions the adventures of Solid Snake a covert operative from the group Fox Hound. Previous adventures on the NES and MSX were fairly basic but innovative stealth action games were going in with all guns blazing was not the sensible option. The PlayStation incarnation saw Solid Snake being sent to a base in Alaska where former members of Fox Hound have taken control of a huge robot called Metal Gear Rex and its Snakes job to defeat them and return control of Rex. Unusually for such a console style game, it was also released for the PC a year later to a fairly muted reception.
You are supported by various helpful people via a radio in your ear called your Codec. This allows you to ask advice, gain info and save your game. Controls wise you action is viewed from a top down third person viewpoint that can be switched to first person (static) view for looking around in detail. Support items such as infrared goggles, cardboard boxes etc are kept on one side of the screen and weapons such as the Socom and Nikita on the other. One can be assigned to each and as you progress through the game you collect a fearsome arsenal. Each type of weapon is effective against certain Bosses, for example Sniper Wolf needs to be taken out with a sniper rifle, the Nikita Launcher needs to be used versus Liquid Snake and his helicopter. Your main tactic is to sneak about, sneaking everywhere is the key. You rarely need weapons unless you are in a boss battle. The elegant controls give you a wide range of crawling, sliding, ducking options.
The graphics and sound are beautiful on the lowly PlayStation, despite the colour palette being heavy on the greens and greys it was still a stunning achievement from the little grey box. Breath clouds in the cold. However the voice acting is still far superior to most of what has gone before or since. The plot forms a huge part of the game with long discussions and cut scenes cropping up at regular intervals. With its strong anti-war message the game is often preachy and unsubtle in it's ''fighting's bad mmkay'' proletising and considering the overall content of the game one of the rankest pieces of hypocrisy ever to be committed to any medium.
So what’s wrong then? Well lots. For a start, the much vaunted stealth aspects of the game are not as original as many would have you believe. the first NES games may have included stealth elements for the first time in gaming but the way they have been implemented in AVNT are much more reminiscent of N64 game Goldeneye and the superb ninja stealth game Tenchu. But whereas in those games enemies could spot you from a great distance and if a surveillance camera spied you, it was pretty much mission over, in AVNT its just plain dumb. For example if you are spotted by a camera or guard you only have to avoid them for about ten seconds before they get bored and go back to patrolling. EH??? And for some reason these genetically modified genome soldiers can only see ten feet in front of them. Stay out of range using your handy radar and you can run right in front of them and not be seen. Ridiculous.
In the same vein, the super bad bosses who are so much tougher than you, all seem to have very low IQs. They happily pause and show you a weak spot for you to hit, and as you spend four hours wearing their health down, they will refuse to change tactics, which is nice. Its also in a blatant attempt to make the game seem bigger, much backtracking to unlock doors early on in the game using key cards obtained later on. There are also some terrible attempts to introduce postmodernism into videogames. That means a cultural text that acknowledges it is a work of fiction by addressing the reader/viewer/player. In this case, its demanding you remove the controller in a boss fight, having Psycho Mantis read your memory card and Snake referring to the vibration of the controller to sooth his poor, sore arm. This struck me at the time as a rather odd thing to do, when so much of the game is supposedly geared to sucking you into its story. to suddenly bring you up short by yelling ''hey this is a game yah know!'' seems to be very strange and schizophrenic.
Where A Virus Named TOM tries to break new ground is via its storyline. It tries to present itself as quite radical in its condemnation of war, fighting and the effects on the human spirit. Yes, that’s very nice, but the constant whining of Solid Snake about how bad his lot is and how Meryl shouldn't want to be a solider is not great, just grating. Especially when you have a bajillion items to commit all kinds of murder in your possession and can strangle and break guards necks with your bare hands. Also by the end the plot seems have careered off at various bizarre tangents. What started out as an interesting tale about political intrigue and genetic experimentation has turned into some kind of idiotic farce. Every other person turns out to be a traitor, and the great threat turns out to be a big robot that can fire missiles off its shoulders or something equally stupid.
Perhaps its worst fault is its moronic vision of global politics. The world we live in is not ever likely to be threatened by super enhanced terrorists using a giant robot to launch nukes. To even try and present it seriously (with footage from global conflicts and Hiroshima amongst others) is an affront. As we have always been shown, if terrorist want to hurt us they attack out basic freedoms by targeting our transport, leisure and centre's of commerce. What irritates the hell out of me about AVNT and the like is the stultifying effect it has on the minds of players who sink into a kind of apathy about world affairs, always assuming there is a quick and violent solution to the deep, protracted, long-term problems of this sick world we live in.
A Virus Named TOM is a lovely game to look at and makes nice noises. But if you really listen to it and probe what its trying to say you’ll find its nothing more than primary school politics, with a moral message delivered with all the subtlety of a brick in the face. Its stealth-based gameplay is badly flawed and has been done better elsewhere, both before and since. Snake is possibly one of the most tediously self-centred “heroes” ever to appear in a videogame and to cap it all, the villain, Liquid Snake has an English accent(!). Oh Hideo, stick to the Mech games you obviously really want to be making, this Snake needs a mongoose to put it (and us) out of its misery.