Ok, so Metal Gear Solid 4 came out last summer for the PS3, but some of us didn’t get a chance to finish the darn thing until recently, so sue me. I wanted to take some time away to reflect on finishing this epic saga that spanned multiple console generations, and review it without the hype of the story itself weighing me down.
For me, Metal Gear Solid ranks as one of my favorite series in gaming history. The PSX game grabbed me in some kind of vicious chokehold, and still hasn’t let go to this day.
The combination of stealth gameplay and big-budget Hollywood action, not to mention an entangled plot really struck me back in those days, awakening me to the potential that video games had as a medium. Over the years, there have been stumbles and triumphs for this series, moments that leave you shaking your head in embarrassment (naked Raiden, anyone), or raise your fist in victory (defeating The End). So, how does Metal Gear Solid 4 stand up to its predecessors?
A game like MGS4: Guns of the Patriots is hard to review without giving away spoilers, but I will do my best. The first thing I should get out of the way is that the cut scenes in this game are nothing short of technical wizardry. They’re also not short, but we all knew that would be the case.
Even from the game’s opening moments, it becomes clear that Hideo Kojima means to send Solid Snake out in old man style, and the game’s cinematics are often breathtaking, action-packed, and jaw-dropping. What’s even more remarkable is that they are all done using the game’s real-time engine, a fact I really had trouble believing by the end of the title.
This becomes readily apparent early on, when the first time you take control of Snake is when the camera flies into him at the end of the cutscene, and suddenly, you’re walking him through the middle of a huge desert city battle. Yeah. Kind of awesome.
I’d have to say one of my biggest gripes and praises for the game would have to be the same thing- the controls. While the game’s developers really went above and beyond to re-vamp the controls to give shooting a much more fluid feel (you can now shoot AND run- eat your heart out Resident Evil), some other maneuvers have become so overly complicated that it’s hard to know exactly how to do what you want to do.
Pulling off some of Snake’s moveset is buried within so many layers and layers of button pushing that it really gets a little irritating to try and pull off the most badass sneaking moves. Hence, it was easier to go with the run-and-gun, Gears of War style play, which pulls the camera over Snake’s shoulder. And this is still fun. It just seems to me that a next gen MGS needed some next gen controls, but overall, they were completely forgivable, if a tad outdated.
After getting used to the controls, it’s up to you to start your tactical espionage action, and the first couple of acts has it in freaking bucketfuls. As Snake, you climb, dodge, sneak, and super roll your way through raging battles, both in an urban setting as well as the jungles of one of those other Americas. Your mission is to get to Liquid Snake, who is now controlling a private military group that has come in to fight for the highest bidder.
The cool thing about this dynamic is that you can choose who to fight for. Kill enough of one side, and they start to let you through their ranks without a care in the world. I was hoping there would be a little more to this dynamic, perhaps a slightly branching storyline, but in the end, it doesn’t matter who you kill so long as you make it from point A to point B. In the end, the game’s strongest gameplay was in these first two acts (out of five), putting you in the shoes of a soldier sneaking through carnage, with bullets flying, mortars hitting all around you, and armored vehicles grinding past. It really is some of the most fun I’ve had in gaming, and I couldn’t wait to see where the rest of the game went.
And that’s when things took a turn. While the story was still riveting to watch despite the numerous lengthy cutscenes, it was ok for me in the first two acts because I was enjoying the game I was getting to experience in between them. But starting with act three, which has you following a man through an empty street for about an hour (wtf Konami), the gameplay seemed to be lacking. Really, after the second act, playing the video game was really just a function of turning the wheel of the story, and you and poor old Snake are the tiny hamster inside of this wheel keeping it in motion.
That said, despite the short gameplay, the game still mixes it up with huge on-rails sequences, like riding a motorcycle with Big Mama through a European city, as well as the classic MGS boss battles, causing you to rely on your wits and your arsenal to make it through. As always, the bosses are rather memorable, and always kept me on the edge of my seat.
By the game’s fourth and fifth act, the charade of the video game has all but faded completely, but if you’re a Metal Gear fan like myself, it doesn’t even matter anymore. The fourth act is one giant reach around from Kojima (I think I owe him dinner still) to MGS fanboys like myself, placing Snake back in Shadow Moses with the nostalgia heaped on like nobody’s business. And the fifth and final act is just epic beyond all belief, and is one of the crowning technical achievements in gaming to date. The sequences throughout the climax are astounding, particularly the split-screen of Snake crawling through a heated tunnel while a battle rages outside. I was overwhelmed (in a good way), by all that was happening on the screen, and it really was powerful.
All in all, it’s really hard to rate a game like Metal Gear Solid 4. Clearly, by the end of it, nobody told Kojima it was supposed to be a video game anymore. But when the gameplay is strong, it’s damn near perfect, and fun as hell to play. The first two acts should be experienced for their solid play, and the fifth might just blow your mind. In the end, it wraps up all of the loose ends left standing in the series, from Vamp to Solidus and even Ocelot’s crazy Liquid Snake hand, and acts as a fine farewell to our old friend Solid Snake.
NOTE 12/06/09: In hindsight, I’ve been forced to re-review this game. While I originally gave it an A-, its lasting impressions have really faded, and I tend to remember more of what the game did poorly than what it did well. While it has some unbelievable moments, it has some even bigger letdowns that, months later, I can’t quite forgive it for. It’s a good game that should be experienced, but I wouldn’t recommend playing it over any number of other, better titles out there.
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