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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?