[Review] Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

15 Sep

Thanks to Hurricane Gustav leaving me without power, even when school had opened back up, I had to stay at my brother’s house for a few days which, as far as this blog has been concerned over the last few months, is very much associated with a title that (according to Game Rankings) hasn’t scored anything less than an eight: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

I haven’t been very positive about my previous encounters with MGS4 despite my lost week of no-job-having, responsibility-lacking-sleep-schedule, tactical espionage action marathon, but I was compelled to complete Guns of the Patriots for one major reason: to prove that I was right and that everyone else was wrong.

It’s doubtful that anyone who has convinced themselves of just how great this game is will be persuaded to believe otherwise because of this review, but that won’t stop me from stating exactly why I think anyone who gives this game nothing but praise is obviously just caught up in Kojima’s web of epic storylines and ridiculous production values and not the actual gameplay.

I’ll cover the gameplay first then move onto the plot and presentation as the two are very different beasts.

Yes, the Metal Gear Solid series finally has something resembling a modern control scheme. My complaints about how ridiculous it is to fire with Square are no longer relevant in MGS4, and the very much appreciated 3D camera from MGS3: Subsistence returns to make its sequel playable* right from the start.

[* It actually takes quite a while before you can really play, but you know what I mean.]

You now fire from an over-the-shoulder view, ala Resident Evil 4, with accuracy from a helpful reticule. If that’s not enough, you can still go into a first-person view (with a slightly awkward control input compared to most games of this type). The best part of it all is that you fire weapons with R1, an actual trigger button. No more of Kojima’s subtle yet ineffective attempts at injected realism into his gameplay by having you release a (non-trigger, why I don’t know) button to fire.

To complement this new emphasis on armed combat, the player has constant access to a gun laundering shop where you can use points earned for completing various tasks (mostly kills) to purchase new weapons, custom parts, ammo, items, and more. The incredible number of weapons is a bit overwhelming at first, but as in the last game, you have a limited access to items and weapons that can be quickly equipped without going into the main menu. It’s usually best to concentrate on just a few different types of weapons. That way, you’ll avoid going in and out of menus and leave yourself quite a bit of replay value for your next time around.

On the subject of going in and out of menus, healing your wounds is out but camoflauge is back, and while it’s much easier to use, it’s not nearly as useful as it was in Snake Eater. Now, lying prone or against a wall will alter your camoflauge to that pattern. Your visibility is still represented up top, but the gameplay is so different this time around that you won’t find yourself always trying to minimize your visibility as much as possible.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is unlike any other game in the series in that it can be and is a legitimate action game. This results in a very different experience than fans of the series are used to. You’re no longer stalking through a jungle or military complex, but instead, you’re traversing a crowded battlefield inhabited not only by enemies but also potential allies. Stealth is still possible and often rewarded, but it’s no longer a requirement now that you’ve got a gun launderer following you across the globe.

That’s another major change of pace for the series: multiple environments. Each game featured some diversity as you progressed but none as much as MGS4 does. You’ll begin in a Middle Eastern war zone, move to a rocky wilderness, walk a city street, and more. The game is split into several acts, each with drastically different scenery. While the game begins in two relatively crowded war zones, you’ll soon find that the action (as far as the gameplay is concerned) winds down before the halfway point, often leaving you to follow the game’s path so it can relay its bloated and half-assed story.

Snake returns, this time under the code name of Old Snake. This is because of his dramatically older appearance, a result of the technology that made him the super solider he is. He gets recruited by Colonel Campbell for one last mission to take out Liquid Ocelot (a Revolver Ocelot occasionally possessed by Liquid Snake’s, Solid Snake’s twin clone brother, hand…) Ocelot is manipulating PMCs (private military corporations) to finally break free from the Patriots (the shadowy puppet masters pulling the strings in what now appears to be every aspect of human life.) These PMCs and the native freedom fighters engage one another across the globe and will take on the role of Snake’s enemies and allies (as long as he doesn’t mess with the rebels.)

It all escalates into something you probably won’t understand at first (because Kojima never planned it all out ahead of time) but you’ll eventually have a moment of clarity before being ultimately disappointed unless you’re an unwavering fan of the series or have been waiting to justify your PS3 purchase to other people.

MGS4 uses the same method of plot exposition that we’ve seen since the original Solid on PSX: Snake meets up with someone, they mention the name of some person or group or technology and Snake gets curious. That’s the signal for the game to activate a power-point presentation in which the other character, who is almost always hiding along with Snake from a very nearby threat, explains in great detail just what it is they were talking about. It all looks very nice and often does get the point across to the player, who is supposed to place themselves in Snake’s shoes.

The problem is that it doesn’t matter that a character managed to get a point across or reveal a major plot point or answer a major question. You’re playing a game, or at least trying to. If a game’s plot is so complex that it allows the player to set the controller down on a fairly consistent basis, that plot is either too complex or the game just needs editing. In the case of MGS4, it’s a bit of both.

Despite throwing in a few flashbacks (brief glimpses at screenshots and art from past games) that require a button press and the occasional access to the camera, you’ll find yourself spending more and more time with the controller in your lap as the game progresses. This might be fine if the gameplay at least continued at the same pace it started on, but you’ll find the balance shifts in favor of cutscenes as early as act 3, which is before the halfway point. Many fans will remind you that the custscenes can be skipped, but that’s pretty much a suggestion to make the game even less enjoyable to someone who wants to play an actual game.

It doesn’t help either that the plot really isn’t all that satisfying. Of course you can expect Kojima to throw in some twists here and there and take a rather unconventional approach to such an epic tale (especially with all the indication that this is the last installment in the Solid series), but the plot really falls flat at the end and even manages to make you lose a bit of respect you had for some of the series’ best characters.

Metal Gear Solid 4 just isn’t the game that it appears to be, from both a graphical and journalistic standpoint. The game is no doubt the most beautiful looking title ever made. The production values are just insane and are even better if you watch the special features from the bonus disc that detail just how much effort Kojima and his staff put into fine tuning the game’s appearance. For a game that Kojima never planned to make and rushed to meet its deadline, it’s simply stunning to look at and listen to. And depsite all of my complaints, it plays better than a lot of what you’ll find on store shelves right now. The press, however, will have your believe that this game descended from heaven and took Jesus’ place at the right hand of the father before giving the old man a sly grin and a confident wink.

Perhaps it’s a result of the infinitely flawed scored review systems that game journalists love to use, but something has caused people who get payed to tell you whether or not a game is fun to play that has caused them to forget what ‘play’ actually means.

Yes, MGS4 can be fun to experience if just for how incredibly cool it is to manipulate something that looks and sounds so good, but anyone who can get through the entire game without that initial novelty wearing off obviously doesn’t have much love for gameplay or substance in their games.

I find it hard to even refer to MGS4 as a game. It’s really just an interactive movie once you reach act 3, and though I’m sure it’d do quite well if released as a movie, it would only be commended for its impressive visuals and sound by critics as the plot is of no more than B movie quality.

It’s a pretty frustrating position to be in. I don’t want to complain about a game that is better than most others you’ll play this year, but I just can’t stand how blind the game media is to MGS4‘s flaws. Yes, Kojima is a very intelligent and creative game designer. Yes, he has pushed the limit of a what a game can be and especially what it can look like. No, he has not created art or even a good story to tell.

He wrote a love letter to his adoring fans who he tried to break up with once before. Thankfully, he’s done now. He created something special that lots of people blew out of proportion. Hopefully, he’ll make something completely new in the next few years. It probably won’t sell as well as the Metal Gear series has, but maybe that’ll be a good thing.

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