Metal Gear Solid 4: Finally!

June 12, 2008


With Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, the story of Snake, who has become one of the most popular characters in the industry, is coming to a close. Repeating a familiar pattern, everything that’s been teased by writer/producer/director Hideo Kojima in numerous trailers is about to become reality as it lands in the hands of players. Impressive and uncompromising, it’s sure to inspire just as much love, hate, discussion, and debate as any other game in the series.

The genetically-engineered super soldier once known as Solid Snake has been transformed into Old Snake due to a rapidly accelerated aging process. While battling this condition, he must travel across the world in pursuit of his brother Liquid, who is attempting a global insurrection through nanotechnology and the private military corporations, or PMCs, that have transformed modern war. The game opens in the Middle East, then moves to Latin America, and eventually arrives at a key location in Metal Gear history haunted by old memories -- some of which still have some life left in them.

While wrestling with some heavy themes and following its core story of one extremely rugged old man trying to save the world before he bows out of it for good, Guns of the Patriots lays every last card the series has left on the table, taking on unanswered questions from numerous past titles and calling in every character still standing is to play their role.

It’s a lot to take in, and even with a high tolerance for epic-length cutscenes and your fondness for the series, it sometimes feels like too much. The sometimes bloated, messy, and tangled effort to sort out the backstory can completely eclipse the immediate plot, damaging the game’s flow and urgency. Redundancy and information overload could tempt you to skip a scene and later regret what you might have missed, or make you pause for a break even if you want nothing more than to see what happens next. But even with its problems, the game’s all-encompassing approach may be the only way this monumental saga could end.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is a beast in terms of design, but it can still be described as a linear stealth action experience divided into several acts and spanning roughly five different environments. Through stealthy avoidance or direct engagement, your objective is to move from point to point on an essentially predetermined path in order to trigger your next objective and advance the story. Maps are fairly large, but still very restrictive to the player’s movement and divided into smaller areas with obvious breaks, leading to old-fashioned and slightly demeaning escapes by loading screen.

Luckily, the path you’re meant to take is consistently interesting and rewarding with room for multiple gameplay styles. When you reach an objective marker, odds are that something significant is about to happen. The game offers a steady stream of loaded cutscenes, gameplay switch-ups, and tense battles -- not to mention singularly odd moments -- that the promise of what’s to come will drive you forward.

You’ll make it through with help from a few allies, the most important being your friend and tech-support guy Otacon. In addition to loaning out the infinitely useful Metal Gear Mk II robot, capable of scouting out enemy positions and delivering the occasional electric shock., Otacon hooks you up with the Solid Eye imaging device and the user-friendly Octocamo system, which automatically changes your camouflage pattern to match your surroundings, both significantly contributing to the game’s stealth element.

On the flip side of the equation you have a man named Drebin, a flashy arms dealer with a pet monkey who lets you instantly purchase and acquire new weapons or launder ID protected weapons you pick up on the battlefield for personal use. Drebin can also customize weapons with lights, sights, grips, or an under-barrel grenade launcher or shotgun. You pay the bills by collecting weapons on the battlefield, which are automatically converted to points, making the system easy to use and take advantage of.

You’ll end up acquiring a ton of tools and weapons as you go along, including Playboy magazines, a handy oil drum, and some particularly elite gear from boss characters. Still, it’s not just about the equipment you’re packing, it’s how you play the game… and there are a lot of ways to play.

War has changed, and Metal Gear Solid’s trademark Tactical Espionage Action has changed with it. Sure, playing Metal Gear is still about hiding, sneaking, and shooting your way to your objective, but the new high-tech gear like Octocamo and the Mk II prove that time has brought Snake more than white hair and a moustache.

The game’s general controls, on the other hand, have remained more or less the same, although with more moves available to Snake, things may have actually gotten more complicated. You’ll be faced with lots of squeezing triggers, pressing one button while tapping another, and gingerly manipulating the analog stick. Because control is both precise and complex it’s very easy to do something you didn’t want to by accident, and it’s painful to see the perfect setup blown in an instant.

Mastery of the game is certainly possible, but it’s not likely to happen in the first hour or even your first playthrough. There’s nothing wrong with a learning curve, but more intuitive controls could have made the overall experience a better one. Gadgets can help offset sneaking difficulties, but one area of control has been noticeably improved.

When hiding is no longer an option, an over-the-shoulder view and your ever-growing arsenal of firearms will see Old Snake through. It’s both easy and rewarding to slip into full shooter mode, running and gunning from a third-person view and slipping into first-person to line up a clean headshot. With formidable and aggressive new enemies including teams of acrobatic, female super-commandos known as Frogs; mooing, biomechanical walkers known as Gekko; and worthy, creative boss battles with the animalistic Beauty and the Beast Corp -- very pretty girls with very ugly psychological issues -- improved shooting is a very welcome prospect.

The enemy AI exhibits visibly smart squad behavior when searching you out in alert or caution mode, though they’re not so sharp that you can’t get off the hook by playing dead or hopping into your trusty barrel at the right moment. When it comes to the militia versus PMC dynamic, either side will be cool with you if you’re shooting the other guys, but it doesn’t go much further than that.

Stress and psyche meters appear as a new gameplay element, but while they can affect your performance in battle -- low psyche in particular can be a killer by destroying your ability to aim your weapon -- the meters seem to get more use during cutscenes illustrating Snake’s mental ups and downs.

Every once in a while, if you look really closely, you may find a single blurry texture out of a hundred crisp, razor sharp details. That’s one of the few negative things you can say about MGS4’s presentation, an exceptional package of standout artistic design and technical excellence, coupled with a thoroughly professional and memorable soundtrack and excellent voice work.

The number of unique objects, sounds, in-jokes and Easter eggs is incredibly impressive. In a move that’s telling of the game’s confidence, you can zoom in and manipulate the camera at almost any time during cutscenes. The game effectively gives you a magnifying glass and dares you to find faults. It knows it looks good.

The series has always depended on lengthy cutscenes to tell its story, and some are notably less entertaining than others. Dry, informational monologues and glorified slide shows can make you feel like you’re attending some obtuse scientific lecture or watching bizarre late night programming on the History Channel. You can fast-forward through codec chatter, put cutscenes on pause for a bathroom break, or skip the sequences completely, but missing large chunks of info won’t make future cutscenes any easier to understand.

On the more exciting end of the spectrum are tense standoffs, gloriously insane fight scenes, genuine emotional moments, and some comic relief. These moments and the overall cinematic direction that frequently provides beautiful transitions in and out of gameplay are worthy consolations for players who unlike devoted fans won’t watch every scene gripping their controller and waiting for a button prompt to trigger a still image flashback or briefly switch a camera angle.

There’s one more area where you’ll need to invest a bit of patience to reap the eventual rewards. In addition to your initial install, switching acts requires an additional couple of minutes of installation, which Snake uses to take a smoke break. This means that loading a save game from a different act will repeat the process, but in-game loading times are kept to a minimum. It’s a small hassle, but it’s worth it.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is a unique, multi-layered experience that, when all is said and done, is a worthy conclusion to an important series. In addition to coming through as a sequel, the game stands as a ringing endorsement for the technical capabilities of the PlayStation 3. Some elements of the game aren’t as progressive as its technology, but taken as whole it’s still one of the most remarkable games of this generation. As for Old Snake, regardless of your feelings about the series, this soldier has given his all and truly deserves his final salute.