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Hideo Kojima's signature series return with the last mission of one of history's greatest action heroes, Solid Snake. The franchise that famously introduced video-games to an exciting new gameplay direction, with the inaugural title, and cinematic storytelling, with the original Metal Gear Solid, has deservedly gained legions of fans and "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots" was set to be the culmination of a great saga. One of my friends found out I've gotten my hands on an early copy and asked if he could come over and watch; "Sure", I replied; "I'll probably be idly watching about as much as you anyway".
Fate insists on dealing Solid Snake the cruellest of hands.
He is routinely dropped into nigh-impenetrable hostile fortresses, equipped with only a pack of cigarettes, and asked to single-handedly save the world from bi-pedal mechanical menaces, called the Metal Gears, capable of launching nuclear attacks. Further hindering his missions are the most wicked arrays of villains, who are lethal either by nature, being dazzling gunslingers or dead-shot snipers, either by virtue of piloting tanks, helicopters and even harrier jets. In order to accomplish his missions he eventually has to eliminate each and every one, even when some of them turn out to be his friends and family.
He's been shot and he's been bombed. Tortured physically and mentally. Double-crossed and quadruple-crossed. And now he is dying of accelerated ageing, before reaching his fifties. Even so, it falls to him to save the world one final time.
It is the year 2014 and his nemesis', Liquid Ocelot's, whereabouts have finally been traced to one of the countless battlegrounds open around the world. Snake and his team have clearly learned their lesson from their previous adventures so they decide no more fooling around: Liquid is clearly up to no good, so Solid is sent in to assassinate him, no questions asked. Of course, it is hardly ever that simple: twists keep happening, the stakes keep rising and you get a storyline that should flow well enough, at least in theory.
One of the bad things about the story is that it can't really drag you in; it can only carry you provided you've already been hooked by the previous Metal Gears. MGS/Twin Snakes is definitely mandatory but 2 and 3 are also on the curriculum. Even knowing these by heart, it takes an effort to keep up with what has to be the most irritating exposition ever put on a script.
I mean, it's okay for elements new to the story, like "battlefield control". But for things already introduced in previous Metal Gears, it is so mangled and cryptic you must already be fluent in Metal Gear lore to decipher it. So it is basically exposition for those who already know what is going on, which makes about as much sense as the ending in "Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty".
The support characters also suffer from pretty much the same thing. Most of them rest on their laurels from previous appearances and they don't really do anything to endear themselves to you, or at least become remotely interesting; and those who do, save it for late in the game. This results in a lot of the early drama being completely lost; when I tried to put myself in a new gamer's shoes, some of the cut-scenes were borderline ridiculous. "Who's Akiba and how long will I be watching him soil himself? Could that overgrown nerd be any more awkward? Where did that Goth ninja come from and who does his hair?"
Dramatic impact is also lessened for even the Metal Gear veterans with some classic storytelling faults, one of which is MGS4's approach to "killing blows". Seeing a smouldering blade pierce a man's chest in slow-motion is emotional. Seeing him survive only to be hit in similar manner again is a bit strange, but still it can work. See it enough times and it doesn't leave you with anything except, maybe, a slight appetite for skewered pork. Repetition is a basic form of comedy, not drama.
Finally, I found Snake's increasing dependence on a serum injection a bit worrying. It's not really anything sinister, it's a medicine countering something story-related, but, in the end, I expected him to overcome it through sheer power of will, like any good action hero. Because, even though he himself proclaims being no hero, he clearly is one of the best ever written.
In short, "Guns of the Patriots" offers a convoluted story revolving around a superbly intriguing character. Its high points are dulled by rookie mistakes and you must definitely be a Metal Gear fan to follow most of it. There is potential, but the execution is lacking, especially when taking the presentation into account.
On one hand, Metal Gear Solid 4 should get full marks for presentation, as it is a remarkable achievement in graphics, animation, sound, ambience, everything.
On the other hand, it should get a failing grade since it can't, by and large, provide immersion. All the "magic" preserved by seeing Snake's authentic
Pictures of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (PS3)
Keep the Psyche bar full and Snake has the steadiest hand in the universe
crawl, noticing the ashes of a cigarette, or examining realistic footprints, it all goes to waste when you hit a cut-scene: it soon becomes painfully clear that you are playing, or rather waiting to play, a game.Cut-scenes can certainly add to the experience when used in moderation. A short cut-scene showing off an enemy's best skills pumps you up, a quick narrative twist that leaves the characters shell-shocked gets you excited in exploring the new direction the story is taking. Just take a look at the original Metal Gear Solid for cinematic storytelling done correctly, even without the help of expressive faces and blockbuster soundtracks. But when they drag on and on even for trivial things, you just want to get on with it and are merely waiting for the signs that tip off your return behind the controls.
What's more, playing a video-game is not all about the escapism you feel watching a film. It's also about the sense of accomplishment you get from pulling off stunts you couldn't possibly do in real life, or finishing a particularly hard level. So the longer you aren't behind the wheel, the more you start to wonder if you being there makes any difference at all. In Metal Gear Solid 4, Kojima (Productions) just went way, way overboard with the cut-scenes and they end up breaking the atmosphere significantly more than they are building it.
There were a few streaks of excellence, particularly one where I literally shouted "come on Snake!", but I'll get on why they are, in retrospect, adding insult to injury in the next section.
The rest of the presentation isn't all sunshine and lollipops either, even if the nags are relatively minuscule. The colour palette draws from the industry standard of "realistically dull", something I never was a fan of. Sometimes Otacon's tips are simply wrong and some allies comment on your shooting skills when they haven't even spotted you. Also, "breaking the 4th wall" is a cherished part of the Metal Gear series, with things like a psychic foe reading your memory card and telling you "I see you've been playing "Suikoden"!", or putting the controller on your shoulder for a nanomachine massage. There are a few cute jabs at this in MGS4, but there is also one that particularly bothered me.
Halfway through, Otacon asks for a little patience as you insert the 2nd disc; but then remembers that PS3 uses the mighty Blu-Ray so there is no need for multiple discs! Yeah, only the Blu-Ray demands extended installations for games like this to work, which is at least as bothersome than spending half a minute changing a disc. What's more, these installations occur each time you replay the game, which is just absurd. Maybe they should have looked into that instead of making pretentious remarks. Also, the 2 to 8 minute long installation screens themselves show a few comments of varying humour while Snake smokes one cigarette after the other. I suspect that this would be the cruellest form of torture for smokers that have, or are trying to, quit.
One of the series' cornerstones that felt missing were the radio conversations. In previous Metal Gears you had a whole team backing you up from mission control, while you were on your solo sneaking mission. You had weapons' experts, medical support, tech junkies and master strategists you could call for advice whenever you felt stumped, or just needing a few laughs to break the tension. It was a clever way of conveying tons of information, all the while strengthening the player's immersion.
But here, there aren't any cases where you need to make a codec call and only a handful when an optional call results and hear something useful. Your contacts are much fewer than usual and they are all to eager to call you themselves and go on a tantrum for a good while.
That's the main problem of MGS4 right there. It forces the story too much, instead of letting you trigger and get to it at your own pace. In place of being subjected to hours upon hours of insanity about the Patriots while looking at retro documents too zoomed-out to actually make out what they say, wouldn't it be better if I could just call, say, the Colonel, whenever I felt the need for exposition? For best results, he could be talking while I was sneaking past giant, bi-pedal robot-sentries. But "'''no'''", MGS4 says, "I worked hard on these self-indulging cut-scenes, so stop playing and watch them intently"!
As I've mentioned earlier, Metal Gear was one of the first games that didn't rely on the "shoot everything and everyone" golden rule of NES-era video-gaming; instead it placed its emphasis on stealth, having your character sneak behind enemies' backs and hide inside cardboard boxes in order to survive. That said, action didn't take the back seat either and players were presented some grandiose, inescapable, "boss fights"; even then, it was "tactical action" more often than mindless shooting.
The series kept building up on that, tweaking existing mechanisms and having more and more options available, both for sneaking more effectively and fighting. Highlights include the Soliton Radar, which lets you see check an enemy's field of vision in the original MGS, First-Person-Aiming and tranquillizer guns, which effectively offered a way to "merge" combat and stealth, in MGS2: Sons of Liberty and '''C'''lose '''Q'''uarters '''C'''ombat, which provided a much needed revamp in hand-to-hand encounters, in "Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater".
Snake Eater actually introduced a strong variety of things, of which the Camouflage Index makes the most triumphant return in MGS4; a number that estimates how visible Snake is, depending on his outfit and surroundings. With a high enough number, he remains all but invisible, even while moving.
There was some unwelcome complexity with that system that is pretty much eliminated now that you are equipped with the OctoCamo suit, which automatically blends in with the background. Theoretically, you can even hide in plain sight, but it takes a moment of standing still for the "blend" to happen; in all, it's an exciting new feature and especially intriguing in places where the ground is made up of a multitude of different patterns in short spacing.
I suppose this MGS' "unique" addition would have to be the MG MkII, a small robot that can turn invisible, be remote controlled to scout areas and zap unaware, solitary, enemies, but I didn't spent more than a minute using it; in contrast, I was trying to blend in and keep my Camo Index high for virtually every moment I had the controls. Behind the scenes, the MkII also serves as a delivery boy, getting you in touch with a weapons wholesaler, which should be very welcome to the more trigger happy of gamers.
Anyway, MGS4 cuts down a bit on the free-roaming part of the series, so, more straight-forwardly than ever, it is a game where you get from point A to point B, then to point C, where you fight what we used to call "the level's boss". I found these "Boss Fights" pretty tame compared to previous iterations, even if they often add multiple combatants into the mix and despite the fact all villains had as fascinating a backstory as they ever had. All fights, except for the "_Raging Raven_" one, were adequate, but nothing that can possibly challenge some of the series' most memorable showdowns. As for the "Raging Raven" encounter, I am unfortunately not singling it out for praise. Despite having alliteration going for it, it's a broken mess, which is a pity since it climaxes one of the most enjoyable sections of the game.
Back on the "go from point A to point B" parts of the game; ideally, you want to pull it off without being seen, but there is nothing stopping you from going all Rambo and annihilating everyone on your path. Especially given that combat controls are tighter than ever and your arsenal huge, it's easier for an apt player to take enough waves of enemies to reach the next checkpoint and be saved by a cut-scene. Most gamers walk the middle road, trying to be stealthy, killing any enemies that spot them, then quickly going into hiding for a minute or two, until security laxes up again.
Personally, I insist on not only never being spotted, but also on not killing anyone and on not using any recovery items nor continues. It's certainly not because I am HARDCORE, rather because that's where Metal Gear is at its best; there are plenty of games for my combat "fix" after all, while the stealth parts are relatively unique and authentically fun.
It is also because resetting and replaying every time I break one of my "house rules" elongates the parts of the game I enjoy most: those where I actually play.
Out of the fifteen recorded hours it took me to finish MGS4, I spent about five of them actually in control of Snake. Adding a generous estimate of 2 hours of replaying gets us to 7 hours gameplay. So, even with my method I didn't play quite as much as I was watching cut-scenes.
I don't think I've ever seen a game so content to wrest the controls away from your hands. MGS4 uses pretty much every trick in the book to show a cut-scene. It has them for story and also for combat. They can be live-action, text-only or using the game engine. You get lengthy "Mission Briefings" before each act, but you also get extra doses at the beginning and end of each mission. It's crazy.
Couldn't we have some of the story unfold while you are actually controlling Snake? I understand that kung-fu moves look cooler than average combat, but is it not possible to make them at least a little bit more interactive?
Well, it turns out it is not only possible, it is gloriously demonstrated in a couple of instances during the final third and the action/theatre equilibrium finally finds some sort of balance. It's kind of sadistic actually: You are asking for it since the beginning and MGS4 delivers just before it ends; and then it ends for a few hours.
At least MGS4 is typically "replay-friendly". It keeps scores of your performances, allows for very different play-styles, there are a lot of hidden extras, the difficulty settings are very smartly scalable and it gives you some shrewd weapons to play with after your first completion. Also, the Metal Gear franchise has always been favoured for speed runs: I should, logically, be able to finish this one in about four hours, knowing my way around and, of course, skipping all the cut-scenes, but I wonder how shamefully faster the record will be.
I suppose it's kind of ironic that Guns of the Patriots' gameplay hides itself so much during the actual campaign. Yet, there is no escape from a concentrated dosage in Metal Gear Online, even if is obviously an affair of much different spirit than in the core Metal Gears.
You have the usual array of modes, Team and Solo Deathmatches, "Capture the Flag" and "Territory" variations, but while it's cool that you can customize your avatar with various skill sets and that cardboard boxes are littered all over the stages so you can take advantage of Metal Gear's most iconic item, it's a real let-down that you can't use the OctoCamo suit.
The Sneaking Mode is the only thing that can somewhat compete to proper multiplayer shooter games like "Halo" and "Call of Duty". One lucky player gets to play as Snake, one as MkII and they try to infiltrate as the rest of the server tries to find and stop them. It's pretty special, captures the true feeling of Metal Gear" and is entertaining enough as a result.
Overall, the multiplayer is relatively solid. Signing up is a bit of a hassle and I strongly advise in doing it from a PC. There is a lot of information to be entered and the site is confusing to navigate, but at least it isn't run by 5 corrupt AIs that aspire to world domination.
There is uncharacteristically little in the way of extras, the only tell-tale sign that despite its year-long delays, MGS4 had to cut corners to be released as soon as professionally possible. There is the "Mission Briefing" menu for those that not only like the cut-scenes but especially love those that feature zero-action; I find this quite amusing, considering that there is no "Boss Rush" mode to balance it out. There is also a basic "Shooting Range" mode where you can try out your weapons, but no "VR Training", a "Photo Viewer" and an "Extras" section that takes you online and allows you to download a few of "just for fun" things, like different standard patterns for the OctoCamo suit and songs for the in-game iPod. A "Previously on Metal Gear" section would have certainly been welcome.
The Limited Edition version of the game comes with a figurine of "Old" Snake, the MGS4 soundtrack and a "Making of" blu-ray disc.
The figurine's legs have some trouble moving so there's little luck in getting it to stand for long, without extra support. It also comes with a tricked-out M4 and a knife you can't actually sheath.
Harry-Gregson Williams composed the soundtrack for one more Metal Gear Solid and it is pretty good, even if understandingly melancholic. It surely is a more complete and balanced score than those he created for the previous games, yet their more pompous songs remain dearer to me; so it's no surprise that track 15 "Metal Gear Saga" is my favourite of the bunch.
The Blu-Ray offers a documentary-styled look at typical Hideo Kojima work days with "Guns of the Patriots" late in production, plenty of "Behind the Scenes" featurettes on the history of Metal Gear, voice acting and the like, and, finally, most of the weird TV-spots that randomly start up the main game. All content is pretty insightful and well worth a look.
~~~~~~~~~~~~ == OVERALL ==
In the end, MGS4 is what it was destined to be. As the Solid series progressed, they elevated its every aspect, from espionage action to tongue-in-cheek theatre. Unfortunately, the gameplay side of things only saw an increase of options and not of content: that is to say, they didn't start with the one level in the original Metal Gear Solid, where you have to sneak past using only large crates as cover, then added one where you can grab onto ledges for MGS2 and then another one where you can use camouflage for MGS3. Rather, you have all these options to begin with, but just one area to get past. Yet on the story side, they pretty much kept adding every new method of "cinematic storytelling" since 1998, without taking the older ones away, and also attended the "The Knottier the Better" school of scriptwriting. The experience became increasingly uneven, esoteric and confusing.
So, now that we've reached number 4, Guns of the Patriots is a game that unveils snippets of baffling plot in-between barrages of interminable cut-scenes, plays itself at every opportunity to show off how cool the technology behind it is, and sometimes, as a treat, lets you play it. It was inevitable.
I can't possibly recommend it to anyone who hasn't played the original MGS for the PlayStation, or the Twin Snakes remake for the GameCube, and I am honestly having qualms over recommending it to those that have, when a virtual stroll down the memory lane should prove more enjoyable, not to mention free. While it was interesting and at times emotional to see Snake's final mission, even though there were moments of true brilliance, I'd trade it all for another MGS remake, one that uses this technology.
That could be a perfect ten and something to recommend universally.