Well, that was certainly an experience.
In the last year, I have played all the numbered Metal Gear Solid games (MGS, MGS2, MGS3), ostensibly to see what the big deal was. After finishing Metal Gear Solid 4, my feelings on the game itself are largely ambivalent, but my feelings on the entire franchise are generally positive. (spoilers follow)
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is Hideo Kojima’s attempt to tie up all the loose ends in the series and I think he accomplished his goal. I say “I think” because the already unnecessarily convoluted story-line got even more complex in this game, which was odd since we were supposed to be receiving answers rather than asking new questions. I thought I had a pretty good handle on things going into this game, but after playing it, I am pretty much okay with just not knowing what the hell is going on and focusing on the personal narratives of the characters I have come to care about during the past year.
To start with, the game begins with a totally WTF moment where I actually questioned if I put the wrong disc in my PS3. A cooking show plays at the beginning, in which a chef prepares a snake for food…I think? I honestly don’t remember because I was too busy examining myself for head trauma. Kojima seemed bound and determined to make the series jump the shark even higher than he did in Metal Gear Solid 2 and I think he succeeded. There were moments of this game where I literally laughed out loud and other moments where I just shook my head and perused the Metal Gear Wiki to cut through the mountains of BS, red herrings and poppycock (that’s right: I said it) that were being flung at me.
The game just has too many cut-scenes, which for a Metal Gear Solid game, is saying something. The thing that makes this so frustrating is that the gameplay is fantastic, easily the best in the series. But the longer you play, the more control is taken away from you. As a game, it is the best MGS ever. As something you watch, it is super annoying. For the first time in the series, you can play it straight up like a 3rd-person shooter if you desire. Not that you should: this is a stealth game and is best experienced as such. But it doesn’t feel like the game punishes you if you are spotted, as the gunplay allows you to take down the guards quickly and efficiently, so you can retreat back to the shadows. This is what I have always yearned for in MGS and it delivers.
Until the numerous cut-scenes kick in. And not just the number, but the length. My play-time was 18.5 hours and about 7 of that was gameplay, I imagine. The longest cut-scene, the final one, was over an hour long and I fell asleep. For real. I had to jump on Youtube to see what I missed and while the emotion of the scenes were strong, I was just exhausted by it all. For anyone that complained about Return of the King’s many (necessary, in my view) endings, don’t play this game because characters that don’t even deserve rousing send-offs receive them.
Case in point: Meryl and Akiba, AKA Johnny Sasuke. You remember Johnny, right? The guard who Meryl beat and stole his clothes to escape in the first game? The guy who had the constant bouts of diarrhea throughout the entire series, demonstrating the paradox between sophisticated narrative and juvenile humor that the series is known for? Yeah, well he shows up and is revealed to be the one guy in the series without nanomachines (because he hates needles), which is just moronic. The military and the Patriots made sure everyone under their power was implanted with them and yet this guy was overlooked because he had a fear of needles? I have to say, that doesn’t make the Patriots very impressive if they can overlook a guy in one of their squads (because Meryl’s Rat Patrol squad was actually enlisted by the Patriots themselves) as not having nanomachines. Just one of the many leaps this game takes.
Anyhoo, Johnny and Meryl declare their love for each other while cornered by the Frogs (the bad guy goons of the game) and each asks the other to marry. All of this while Snake and Raiden are separately going through through some incredibly dramatic and moving trials. The whole thing took the focus off the two protagonists of the series and was either fan-service or an indulgence by Kojima. I guess I should credit him for not cutting any corners when it comes to things like this, but it was highly unneeded in my estimation. As for Meryl, it was cool to see her again, but since she had not been seen since the first game, I honestly didn’t really have much feeling for anymore, outside of nostalgia. Maybe I am just cold-hearted, but this whole arc did nothing for me.
Something else I want to address is the Drebin system, introduced in the game’s first act, through a cut-scene that takes far too long and involves a soda-drinking monkey. Drebin is an arms dealer, who thanks to the “war economy” (drink every time you hear that term and you will be dead in under an hour), has a booming business unlocking weapons for soldiers like Snake. See, in the future, all weapons are locked to the biometric signature of the soldier the weapon is assigned to. Drebin strips those locks, which allows Snake to utilize any weapons he scavenges on the battlefield. Every weapon Snake finds is used as money to buy weapons from Drebin. So far, so good, right?
The game spends an inordinate amount of time setting this whole system up so that it makes sense in the game world. It feels like an attempt to reconcile gameplay mechanics with narrative, which is fine. Except while explaining how to access his shop, Drebin gives Snake directions that only the player would understand, such as, “Press the Start button and then access the Drebin Shop from the menu. Press X to…” and so on and so forth. Look, I understand the need to say game-y stuff to explain how things work. But don’t give me a 10 minute cut-scene, where you carefully build an immersive, narrative foundation for your shop system and then blow it all apart one second later. It makes the shift even more jarring than it would have been normally.
Speaking of jarring, the sudden return of Raiden is a welcome one. No longer the fresh-faced rookie of MGS 2, Raiden is now a bona-fide bad ass. Which is really weird, when you think about it. See, one of the reasons Raiden was the main character for the majority of MGS 2 was to allow Snake to look even more awesome in comparison. The player was meant to think Raiden was kind of lame when side by side with Solid Snake. But in this game, almost as a reaction to that, Raiden is an uber-asskicking ninja and Snake is a doddering old man who needs saving. The general fan reaction to Raiden is now one of universal acclaim, so much so that they basing a whole new game around him because players want to play as the former child soldier.
Here’s what I think is weird about this: it feels like an epic troll by Kojima. He made Raiden lame and Snake awesome in MGS 2 and now he makes Snake lame (not really lame, but not as cool) and makes Raiden the one players want to play as. It feels like a commentary on how much he can manipulate player desire and I’m kind of surprised at how successfully he was able to pull it off, with most people not even aware of Kojima pulling their strings to this day. One of the ways he does this is by having the NPC do all kinds of amazing things that the player character is not capable of doing during gameplay. Which makes me wonder if Raiden will still seem as cool in Revengeance, since the player will have to be able to perform some of his stylish moves in game and not just in a cutscene. Maybe I am reading too much into this, but with Kojima, one can never be too careful when reading the signs.
Finally, we come to one of the biggest complaints of MGS 4: the retcon. I had heard so much about the game’s lame attempts to walkback much of its more outlandish plot points, but most of the game seemed to pass without noticing much. Granted, I could have missed some miniscule details as my mind was numbed from the ceaseless bombardment of cutscenes, but everything largely looked to be overblown. Until the game’s final few hours. Wow. It just got silly. From the origins of FOXDIE (which had been targeted to specific people with specific DNA in MGS, but is now just for anyone with nanomachines, which is everyone except the guy who poops) to Big Boss being alive and despising war as opposed to loving it, (which is quite the 180 degree turn) Kojima goes backward so fast I think he time-traveled.
Some people complain about Vamp and his immortality being retconned to being due to nanomachines, but since they never explained this in MGS 2, I will give it a pass. However, the one thing I can’t let go is the backtracking of Liquid’s arm possessing Revolver Ocelot. This was an act of betrayal by Kojima, as far as I am concerned.
You see, when Ocelot lost his arm in MGS, he replaced it with the arm of the deceased Liquid Snake. In moments of high stress, Liquid’s personality would take over, in what I can only describe as my most favorite thing to ever happen ever. EVER. This is so silly and just so over the top that I laugh every single time I think about it. And now it turns out that Ocelot was only PRETENDING to be possessed by Liquid. LAME. I don’t care if it is unrealistic; it was the greatest video game twist of all time and it should have been embraced, not abandoned. I don’t know who Kojima was trying to please with this, but it sure as hell wasn’t me.
It’s been a fun year playing the Metal Gear Solid series. It started off as a lark, an attempt to understand why this series has so captivated gamers throughout the years. It ended with me becoming a full-fledged fan of Kojima’s wild, weird franchise and all its foibles. It’s a habit of mine to become a fan of something after its heyday has passed and it appears the loop remains open again with Metal Gear Solid. I loved playing these games and I look forward to whatever insanity Kojima has in store for us in the future. If you have ever thought about trying the series but for some reason have held off, my advice is not to wait any longer and jump right in. Metal Gear Solid is now one of my favorite franchises. That’s a statement I have no intention of retconning.