- Review Price: £35.72
From the first time you lay eyes on Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid 4, it’s tempting to take him as a metaphor for the game as a whole. Here we have an old warhorse taking one final outing, seemingly out of place in the new world, with a few new technologies at his disposal, but weighed down by aging parts and an awful lot of baggage. And its true that there will be times when MGS4 feels oddly antiquated, and times when you’ll wish it could have left a few old, bad habits behind. Yet, all the same, that doesn’t stop it being an exceptional game – one of the few must-have titles on PS3, and one of the finest on any platform so far this year.
Of course, there are going to be caveats, and we might as well get them out of the way right now. If you never played Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2 (and preferably 3 as well for the sake of background detail) then MGS4 might not be the best way into the series. It’s dense with references to the earlier games, chocka with old friends and enemies reappearing. Trying to make any sense of the spectacularly convoluted Metal Gear saga at this stage of its life is going to be a real struggle, and in terms of explaining the basic game mechanics, MGS4 makes few concessions to beginners.
Similarly, if you got heartily sick of Hideo Kojima’s post-modern, self-aware in-jokes and cinematic ambitions in MGS2 – let alone MGS3 – then there is a real danger that MGS4 will make your blood boil. Guns of the Patriots doesn’t just do cut-scenes; it does the Ben Hur or Ten Commandments of cut-scenes roughly every ten to twenty minutes of gameplay. If you could have skipped off and made a cup of tea during some of the cinematic sequences in MGS2, then there are cut-scenes here where you could comfortably have a three course meal and order coffee without your input being missed.
Of course these are probably the best cut-scenes in the business. The production values are ridiculously high, the shot construction and editing frequently breathtaking, and the performances and the score are always impressive. All the same, there will be times when you’re playing – well, watching – MGS4 when you’ll wonder whether the five minutes of nice domestic interlude or twenty-five minutes of solid exposition you’ve just sat through could have been, well, tightened up, maybe, just a little. I don’t want to moan too much about the fact that the cinematics sometimes overwhelm the action when, in MGS, the cinematics are practically inextricable from the action, but – blimey – there’s a lot of this stuff to work your way through. Oh, and some of it has the most bizarre sense of humour, as if diarrhoea and hairless monkeys in metallic pants are just another part of the Solid Snake world. And did I mention that not all of it makes an awful lot of sense?
Yet the miraculous thing about this game – a game that’s a hair’s breadth away from being an absolutely disastrous self-indulgent mess – is that a compelling fiction still emerges, and along with it some even more compelling gameplay. A huge part of the pleasure of MGS4, provided you’re an aficionado, lies in seeing how the whole Snake saga finally plays out, and in getting closer to our mysterious gravel-voiced hero than we have ever come before. This is an older, wiser, sadder and more vulnerable Snake; a man much better at making enemies than keeping friends, and a man who’s coming to terms with the fact that he’s a genetically engineered freak who is coming to the end of his lifespan.
And the more you play, the more you realise what a great and iconic cast of characters Konami has built up over the years, with so much more personality than you’d even find in Resident Evil – probably the only game series that bears comparison. It turns out that you’re glad to see these people one more time – from the tough beauty, Meryl, to the villainous Liquid Ocelot and the creepy, kinky Vamp. Even the much disliked Raiden gets his chance to shine. Does the plot really make any narrative or intellectual sense? No, not really. It’s too fragmented, too scattergun and too flimsy. But does it make an emotional sense? Yes. The more you play, the more it does.
The gameplay, meanwhile, is a mix of new delights and old frustrations. For a start we get some cool new toys. The Mk.II Metal Gear is a great idea; a little droid you can send in to scope out enemy positions, like a land-based version of the drones in GRAW. Meanwhile, the Solid Eye – a sort of vision-enhancing eye-patch – cleverly combines radar, night-vision, tracking and radar capabilities. The Octocamo suit, however, is the game’s signature gimmick – a cool, nanotech camouflage suit that, should you stand or lie still long enough, automatically blends to capture the textures and shadows of your surroundings. In effect, this blends the camouflage-based stealth of MGS3 with the more environmental approach of MGS2 quite brilliantly, and the game runs with it, rarely constraining the player to rooms and corridors like MGS2 did, but with the open spaces feeling more cleverly structured and less artificially limited than they did in MGS3. The fact that the first setting is a city helps, with plenty of alleys to skulk around, rooftops to climb up to and open buildings to sneak into. Yet even when the game heads out for more open territory, it still feels more assured than MGS3.
Throw in some exceptional enemy AI and a few neat tricks, including this year’s cardboard box – the oil drum – and you have probably the most fluid and enjoyable sneaking experience I’ve ever come across. It’s perhaps frustrating that Snake doesn’t have all the acrobatic manoeuvres of a Sam Fisher or an Altair of Assassin’s Creed fame. There will be occasions when you’ll wonder why he can’t simply climb that wall or hoist himself onto a balcony, like any true super-spy would. All the same, the thin line between giving you enough threats to raise the tension and not being so unforgiving as to spoil the fun is better trod here than in any of Snake’s rivals’ games. Or MGS3, for that matter.
There’s some room to complain about the action, too. After all these years Snake still doesn’t feel quite fast enough with a gun in his hand, and this is only more noticeable after the responsive duck and cover systems of Gears of War and Uncharted. Has that stopped MGS4 containing at least one, if not two, of the most exhilarating action sequences I’ve played this year? Not one bit. The combination of the music, the pacing, the awesome smorgasbord of available weaponry, the enemy AI, the level design and all the cinematic gloss can be fantastically exciting.
And that’s before we even get to the boss battles. These were the undoubted high points of MGS3, with the epic, multi-scene sniper confrontation against The End arguably the best of the series. MGS4 might not top that, but it certainly has some masterful efforts. The bosses, mostly drawn from the Beauty and the Beast squad – a group of battle-traumatised woman soldiers with bio-mechanical bestial identities – are as weird, idiosyncratic and challenging as just about anything the series has thrown in before. Just the first fight – a super-charged hide and seek confrontation – knocks any other boss battle I’ve had this year into a cocked hat. Again, it’s all about how cleverly Hideo Kojima can orchestrate suspense and tension. As they used to say about another author’s even more famous spy, nobody does it better.
What’s more, MGS4 really does give you an unbeatable sense of the way your story is taking place in a wider battlefield, as private military and insurgent forces clash, and the rattle of gunfire reverberates through the streets all around you. The effect is primarily atmospheric, but the conflict has its gameplay implications too. Your loyal sidekick, Otacon, recommends early on that you avoid getting involved in the fighting, and he’s not always wrong. Start causing trouble yourself, and you’re more likely to bring additional troops and tanks onto the scene, making things more difficult for you. However, there are also times when stirring up the ants can provide you with the distraction you need to get to the next objective. In either case, the way the AI, the visuals and the audio continually work together make this war-torn world a hugely convincing place.
Technically, MGS4 needed to be a PS3 showcase, and while the finished effort doesn’t deliver quite as much awe as the early videos, the amount of environmental detail, the richness of texture and lighting and the overall quality of the character rendering and animation is pretty much unmatched by anything else this generation, with the possible exception of Gears of War and Uncharted. It’s as big a step forward over MGS3 as MGS2 was over the first. If you’re a Metal Gear fan, then this is Metal Gear as you always dreamt it might one day be. Frankly, it’s practically impossible to tell the cut-scenes and the in-game footage apart, presumably because both are being done with the same assets and engine.
This is a big game, and one that will take you many hours to get through (not least because of all the cut-scenes). And as with any MGS game, it’s so riddled with secret spots and weird little tricks to try that you may be tempted to play through more than once. Don’t forget, either, that it also bundles in the first installment of the much-anticipated Metal Gear Online. Sadly, I haven’t got time or space to go into more detail on that here, so we’ll come back to that for a separate look.
To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from MGS4. After several years of hype and my own mild disappointment at MGS3, I wasn’t sure that Snake would get the send-off he deserved. Well, he has. MGS4 isn’t perfect, and to some extent it’s preaching to the converted rather than making any real attempt to reach out to the masses, yet part of me feels grateful that Kojima and co. haven’t tried to compete with Splinter Cell or Assassin’s Creed. Instead they have simply tried to make MGS4 the ultimate Solid Snake game. For all its flaws, for all its painfully epic cut-scenes, that’s exactly what they’ve managed to do.
The cut-scenes are too long and portions of the gameplay feel antiquated, but this is a dazzling last stand for Solid Snake, and one of the most compelling action games you’ll play this year.
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