Review: Metal Gear Solid 4 (Sony PS3)

Metal Gear Solid 4
Genre: Stealth/Third-person shooter
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami
Release Date: 06/12/08


Metal Gear Solid 4 is many things to many people. It’s the end of an icon. It’s the culmination of a long, awesome story. It’s the final chapter in the life of an interesting character. It’s closure. It’s justification for waiting in line for three days in front of a Circuit City in the cold, rainy Fall air praying you didn’t catch pneumonia just to get a black box you never use. It’s a system-selling application. It’s the second coming, the Rapture, and all things bright and beautiful rolled into one.

God is in his Heaven. All is right with the world.

So, this, then, is the review for everyone else. This is the review for everyone who hated the first three games, doesn’t care about Solid Snake, and doesn’t give a damn about Otacon, the Patriots, Raiden, Big Boss and everything in between. This is for the folks who know nothing about the franchise, know nothing about the characters, and only have one question: IS THIS GAME ANY GOOD IF I DON’T KNOW OR CARE ABOUT THE PEOPLE IN IT?

Let’s take a look.

Now, the plot of MGS4 kind-of sort-of works as a combination of filling the holes/resolving the hanging plot threads sort of conclusion to the series of games while simultaneously reminding you of them/filling you in about them to a limited extent, on the off chance you’ve forgotten the stories of the past four to seven games (with the focus being on Metal Gear and MGS 1-3), and in that respect, it works. Snake, now physically close to ancient due to the effects of some sort of unknown disease (though it’s presumed to be the work of FOXDIE) is called into action one last time in pursuit of his nemesis, Liquid Snake (who’s presently inhabiting the body of Revolver Ocelot through his new hand, which WAS Liquid’s). Liquid, it seems, is planning some sort of action against the Patriots (and the world) that involves nanomachine manipulation, as it seems that every soldier on Earth has them in their system to some extent or another. Nanomachines allow field soldiers the ability to communicate more readily with their squadmates, to receive orders more easily from commanding officers, and generally improve their combat capabilities… until someone takes control of them or makes them go haywire, something Liquid is all too ready to exploit. Snake, of course, wants to stop Liquid at any cost, and despite his deteriorating physical state, he’s all too ready to throw himself out into the field of battle one last time, in hopes of stopping Liquid and saving the world. Battle is all Snake knows, of course, and as such, he’s all too willing to step out into it, for what will probably be the last time.

Now, here’s the thing: love or hate the man, Hideo Kojima is a fantastic writer and director, and anyone who says otherwise either has an axe to grind or is an asshole, period. Kojima has absolutely written and directed a solid piece of work in MGS4, one that is rife with intrigue and substance and chock-full of little homages, not just to the MGS series but also to a bunch of unrelated Kojima works (Metal Gear Mk. II is a Snatcher reference, Otakon has a Policenauts wallpaper on his computer and Meryl herself is a Policenauts reference, among many others), showing that the man legitimately does love his work. Kojima may claim that video games aren’t art and that he is not an artist, but it’s hard to support this argument, simply because of the amount of love the man puts into his work, and MGS4 is a prime example of that. The writing is strong, the logic works reasonably well, and the overall execution of the plot is quite solid, all in all.

That said, allow me a digression: a few years ago, I opted to finally take the time to read through the Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy series of books. The first four (each published about a year or two after one another) serve as a nice, solid story of a bunch of likable, entertaining characters getting together and doing whatever weird things the plot dictates, with the fourth book, So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish, wrapping everything up in a nice neat package, except for one TINY plot point that hadn’t been resolved. Fandom, being what it is, pointed this out somewhat regularly, and Douglas, nearly a decade later, published Mostly Harmless, a bleak, depressing book written during a bleak, depressing time in his life that basically, well, resolved everything in the universe in the most final manner possible. From a personal perspective, it’s a well-written, well thought out piece of work that’s generally not very good, in that it feels less like “something the author wanted to write” and more like “tying up loose ends”, something Adams himself kind of admitted to in interviews prior to his death.

MGS4 feels like the same thing. The story literally feels like Kojima is standing behind you, shouting “YOU WANTED TO PLAY AS SNAKE, DIDN’T YOU? YOU WANTED THIS, SO ENJOY IT!” as he ties up all of the loose threads in the series, almost entirely in the most depressing ways imaginable. Early in the game, and I don’t think this should be a spoiler for anyone, it’s pointed out to Snake that thanks to his deteriorated physical state and his advanced aging, he’s a dead man in a year or so, and at this point, he’s a broken down shell of a person even while ALIVE. The story tries to alternate between joy and sorrow, but the amusing scenes are hard to swallow alongside the morose and depressing narrative, and the ending of the game feels less like a liberating, heart-felt ending (as it was intended) and more like the wake after a long, bizarre funeral. That isn’t to say that a depressing story is a bad thing; Kojima has proven many times he’s capable of writing a good, depressing bit of work (look at Snatcher and see how much hopelessness exists in that), but the problem here is two-fold:

1.) Metal Gear Solid, as a series, has never been about that sort of thing; hope is as much a part of the games as anything else, but MGS4 eschews that hope in favor of telling a ham-fisted story about how “War is bad, mmkay?” instead of an even story. Snake isn’t fighting for life or a cure or salvation, he’s fighting because THAT’S ALL HE CAN DO, and it’s a pitiful way to send off a character who’s so beloved, and who has made you so much money.

2.) The writing, good as it is, never really works the way it should for anyone who’s only a casual fan of the series. Characters from all across the series are referenced and brought up, damn near everyone who isn’t dead (and several people who are) show up in the game, cluttering it with characters to the point of absurdity, all to tie up loose ends, usually in the most depressing way imaginable. Across multiple games this would be forgivable, and with perhaps half of the plot points chopped out this would be tolerable, but in one game, the whole experience becomes this depression soup, where every ten minutes something good happens, only to spend the next forty-five treating that plot development like Charles Bronson’s family in Death Wish.

On the other hand, I felt pretty smart when I realized Sunny was singing the Fibonacci sequence while she was cooking. There’s no apparent POINT to this, but it’s nice to know that random trivia occasionally helps you out with Kojima games. So there’s that.

Basically, the story is as good as it can be and it’s a solid resolution to the series, but the experience literally feels like it’s a punishment to the player for wanting to play as Solid Snake from Kojima, something that the admission that more MGS games, sans Snake (and Kojima, apparently), are coming out only further reinforces. If you’re a fan, you might get from it what you’re expected to, but for casual or non-fans, it’s a bleak, depressing tale that feels forced and unnecessarily corrupt in tone, and crams three games worth of plot into one game, trying desperately to resolve every little plot thread to the point where characters who might have been viewed as complex become cardboard cutouts (Meryl, for instance, was a complex character in MGS1; here, she alternates between “Ëœwhiny bitch” and “co-dependant” at the drop of a hat), and that’s a shame.

On a presentation level, and I cannot stress this enough, MGS4 is perfection incarnate. Visually, the game is style and substance heavy, firing on all cylinders from beginning to end. The game never feels the need to render cinematics in anything other than real-time graphics (something the prior games did well enough), which not only makes the graphics look impressive, but also generally makes the experience flow a lot better than in games that stop to load up cutscenes. When cutscenes play out, often they will finish by pulling back the camera to INSTANTLY drop you right back into the action, which is a smooth, stylish way of doing business and helps to make the experience more immersive. You can also poke around in various cutscenes in a few different ways, either by switching around camera angles, taking control of the Metal Gear Mk. II (when available), or by pressing various buttons when they pop up on screen to, for instance, look at what Snake is looking at or to pop up a flashback to an older game in the series. The character models are all rendered well and animate nicely, the locales you visit are atmospheric and full of style and charm, and overall, there’s nothing to complain about. Hell, even the installation screens, featuring Snake smoking a cigarette, are rendered well and entertaining to watch; it’s not every day you can say that. The aural experience is also bliss; the music is expertly composed and fits the tone of the experience very well, the various effects are well mixed and sound great in context, and of course, the voice acting is absolutely stellar, thanks in large part once again to Mr. David Hayter and his spot-on portrayal of Solid Snake, but also due to the fact that the voice casting is largely excellent across the board. In short, MGS4 is a game that, if you can say nothing else about it, you can say it has virtually flawless presentation, which is to its credit.

Which brings us to the gameplay, and surprisingly enough, this is arguably MGS4’s strongest area. Now, fans (or not) of the prior titles, whether or not they still like the older games, can probably agree that while the mechanics of the MGS experience worked perfectly fine in MGS1, by the time MGS3 rolled around, the format was getting a little stale and didn’t work as well as it used to. Well, MGS4 takes all of the old mechanics that worked well on their own, from the stealth mechanics to the trigger menus and beyond, and basically transposed those mechanics over top of what feels essentially like Resident Evil 4 style action gameplay. The end result is a gameplay experience that is not only slick and stylish but is also responsive and, most importantly, not exclusively reliant on the whole “hide in the shadows and don’t get spotted” design of the older games.

Now, here’s the thing: if you’re an old-school fan of MGS, the mechanics of the game work spot-on as you’d expect with a few nice additions to make the experience fresh and exciting. If you want to play MGS4 like a stealth game, knock yourself out; the controls for movement and sneaking are as simple as ever, with a simple button press pinning you up on a wall, allowing you to crouch, dive, crawl and more, sneaking around is as easy as it’s ever been. Of course, no MGS game would be complete without new mechanics attached to the sneaking around, and MGS4 has that in Octo-Camo; as you get into a sneaking position, your Sneaking Suit will change appearance to match the terrain, allowing you to blend in with the surroundings. This works similarly to the MGS3 camo mechanic, only everything is pretty much done for you (except for face camo, which DOES exist, but doesn’t pop up until a ways into the game), and you can register patterns for later if you’re so inclined as well as use a few pre-sets that are in the game. You’re also provided with the Solid Eye as a tool that can be used for such activities; aside from providing night vision and the ever present corner map for watching enemy positions, it also provides optional binoculars and highlights items to be grabbed while you’re on your way through a zone, so you can make your detours as needed. In addition, the Metal Gear Mk II can also be taken control of for reconnaissance, disarming traps, knocking out enemies, and other fun, stealthy stuff as needed; this goes through a mild cosmetic change later in the game, but is functionally identically useful otherwise.

Now, if you’re the sort of person who HATES stealth mechanics, you’ll probably be pleased to know that you don’t HAVE to play MGS4 like that all the time to survive; by and large, you can play the game like your typical run-and-gun third person shooter and still have a blast. For those who are (rightly) pointing out that the stealth mechanics are the whole point of the game, that’s true, but honestly, you can spend plenty of time taking enemies out with your arsenal of weapons and have a blast this time around, broadening the appeal of the experience significantly. The combat controls are slick and feel responsive at all points, and it’s very easy to work with combat to the extent that the game often switches between run-and-gun mechanics and stealth sequences, which is something the older games did to a lesser extent, but this time around it feels more… natural in execution. In short, the combat mechanics are pretty damn awesome and work far better than they have in prior installments. Fans of both styles will find that the game occasionally sticks you to one side or the other in certain situations, of course; certain sections will REQUIRE stealth or blazing gunfire, and for fans who are fans of one style of play, the other may be less than desirable, but rest assured: it will be no less enjoyable.

This is further expanded upon thanks to Drebin’s gun laundering. About an hour into the game you’re introduced to the character Drebin, a black market gun launderer who makes guns usable by Snake (by default, guns are ID locked to prevent unauthorized individuals from using them), in exchange for Snake picking up guns he doesn’t need and passing them along to Drebin. This also earns up credit that Snake can use to purchase equipment from Drebin which can be used in battle. Basically, you can think of it like the wandering shopkeepers in, again, RE4, only with mechanical differences (selling acquired weapons automatically instead of finding gold, buying stuff right from the options menu instead of having to hunt one down, you get the point) and a generally larger catalog. This is positive on two levels; first, the AMOUNT of guns in the game is astronomical (the final numbers are quoting somewhere between fifty to seventy of them, which… well, WOW), and second, your guns are quite customizable with all sorts of equipment, from grips to scopes to flashlights to silencers to underbarrel shotguns (no, really), which, again, just makes the combat all the more fun and exciting, thanks to the sheer variety of things to play with.

At this point, you would think the above would be enough to keep the experience going for a good long while, but no, it gets better. The cinematic nature of the game comes together with the strong mechanics in a number of events, from a split-screen boss battle where you’re fighting one threat while an ally fights off a separate foe to several shooting-gallery sequences from moving vehicles, that make you FEEL the experience the game is trying to convey in one of those gut-level reactions that so few games can truly replicate. The motorcycle sequence in particular feels like it was done EXCEPTIONALLY well, with all sorts of appropriate tension queues and dramatic pulse-pounding action to spare, and another sequence later in the game sees you driving something you’d never expect and the whole sequence involved is just right in so many ways. Boss battles are often incredibly inventive as well, and from the first major showdown with a member of the Beauty and the Beast Squad (basically this game’s version of FOXHOUND) and how it’s crafted onward these sequences are generally inventive and amusing to see.

There are also several different extras to unlock and work with to keep you entertained even after the game is over, as well as several nuances of gameplay not even mentioned yet. Snake also has Psyche this time around, which basically represents his mental health; as bad things happen to him (either in cutscenes or on the field of battle), his Psyche depletes, which causes him to become harder to manipulate in-game. Restoring said Psyche is as simple as using an item that replenishes it, though different items have different effects (taking a shot, for instance, has long-term negative effects on overall regeneration of Psyche, though it works in a pinch, while reading Playboy takes longer to work but doesn’t, ahem, hurt Snake any). This is a reasonable addition to the game that makes a lot of sense, all things considered, and doesn’t negatively impact the experience in the least On the replay front, numerous weapons and costumes are only unlocked after completing certain in-game objectives (including, oddly enough, a little something Ubisoft fans will find amusing), multiple difficulty levels are available for you to tear through depending on your skill level, as well as all sorts of interesting iPod tracks, Easter Eggs, and other interesting things. There’s also an online component that comes with the game, which is apparently kind-of sort-of a “starter pack” of a planned standalone MGS Online experience coming later in the form of expansion packs, apparently, though the core mechanic of this version amounts to feeling like a less fleshed-out SOCOM. It’s not BAD, it’s just not as strong of an online component as one would hope for, though the standalone game will most likely be far superior once all of the expansions are available and such. You DO get the standard expected Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes, as well as a few others, and a lot of the gameplay modes feel similar to their counterparts in MGS3’s online mode, which was certainly amusing for the time, but at this point the online is kind of lacking in comparison to the main game.

On the other hand, the present MGSO has apparently broken Playstation Online off and on for the past week and change, so expect finding a game to be pretty easy, assuming you can get online. Just saying.

Now, less than stellar online component aside, the overall MGS4 experience easily justifies the asking price, but that’s not to say it’s perfect; it isn’t, though the flaws are surprisingly small overall. First off, the game seems to expect that you’ve played several of its predecessors, which is reasonable but not required, thus meaning that while several things will be pointed out readily (on-screen prompts showing where you can sneak, prompts explaining how to do certain actions), others (crawling over bombs to collect them instead of set them off) will be left to you to remember, which was very… entertaining when I let a friend who wasn’t a huge MGS fan take the game for a spin and watched as Snake was thrown about like a human pinball in the first act. This is kind of unfortunate for first-time players who were sold on the game itself as opposed to being long-time fans, as it’s a little exclusionary. The pacing of the game is also spotty in places; the first half-hour or so of gameplay essentially has you running around virtually unarmed while watching cutscenes until you meet up with Metal Gear Mk II, which can be something of a turn-off for those who aren’t prepared for it, and later sections of the game can see you loading a game, fighting for five minutes, then watching half an hour of talking, which doesn’t really lend the experience well to short bursts of play. The “multiple small installs” design, where the game uninstalls and re-installs data as it’s needed by the game, is also absolutely ridiculous; sitting down, playing five minutes of a saved game, watching ten minutes of cutscenes, then being told to wait three minutes while the game installs so I can watch another ten minutes of cutscenes is, honestly, asinine, and takes away from time that could be spend playing. Decreasing loading times by a second or two between areas isn’t all that useful if I have to install something every act, especially if two or more people are playing the game at different times and you have to sit through an install EVERY TIME YOU START PLAYING. Again, these are small complaints, and they don’t make the game any less fun, but in short bursts this is agitating.

Small complaints aside, make no mistake; MGS4 is THE game for the PS3. If you’re a fan of the MGS saga, it’s a culmination of all of the events from the first game to now, and it wraps things up reasonably, if not superbly, in a game that is absolutely superb from start to finish, and if you’re not, hey, you can skip the cutscenes and just obliterate everything and have a blast all the same. Stunning presentation, slick gameplay, tons of replay value and a strong cinematic presence make MGS4, easily, the greatest PS3 game released this year, and fans of the series as well as fans of third-person shooters should be very pleased. The pacing can be awkward, the story is convoluted and overblown, there are some mild technical issues here and there, and the online component isn’t the best it could be, but as a single-player experience, MGS4 more than justifies its cost and pays off the hype in spades. Metal Gear Solid 4 might not be perfect, but it is the best PS3 game, and one of the best games in general, released this year, period.

The Scores:
Story: ABOVE AVERAGE
Graphics: UNPARALLELED
Sound: UNPARALLELED
Control/Gameplay: UNPARALLELED
Replayability: CLASSIC
Balance: UNPARALLELED
Originality: GREAT
Addictiveness: CLASSIC
Appeal: UNPARALLELED
Miscellaneous: ABOVE AVERAGE

Final Score: CLASSIC.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Metal Gear Solid 4 is the textbook example of a “system selling game”. Its presentation is stunning, its gameplay is solid and well executed, its variety is amazing, and its replayability is insane. As a game first and foremost, it is one of the best of its kind in almost all respects. For fans of the MGS franchise, it represents the end of an era, and in that respect, it too satisfies. Casual fans may find the story disjointed, hard to follow, and cumbersome at the best of times, unfortunately, but this does not affect the gameplay one bit, and even with a slightly underwhelming online component and some odd technical quirks, MGS4 is THE reason to own a PS3, and is one of the best GAMES this year, no question.

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