Five by Five – Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

The final chapter of Snake’s adventures (and this Metal Gear retrospective) approaches. In the not-too-distant future war has become routine, and PMCs form the cornerstone of the new world economy. One man is gathering numerous PMCs under his command with an agenda of world domination, and it’s up to Snake to stop him. As was true in the past, the arrival of the latest Metal Gear was my purpose for getting the latest model of Playstation. Will Snake succeed at his final mission? Will this grand finale bring satisfying closure to the Metal Gear saga? Will they stop bothering Kojima to make more Metal Gear games so he can get on with the other cool ideas he’s been wanting to try? Stay tuned to find out.

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Ability for mobility and invisibility – Movement controls are as solid as ever, and the changes to the detection system are interesting. There’s no more soliton radar, but a gadget you get a little ways in called the Solid Eye shows a handy sound/motion/heat/etc. tracker, as well as other info when you target soldiers in the field. I like that it also shows how obvious your presence is, factoring in your camo index (back again from MGS3, more on that in a moment), your movement, and the current level of battlefield chaos. The updated controls will throw you off a bit with the shift away from old ways, but the new ways are far more conducive to shooting. Still a bit sticky compared to the average 3rd-person shooter, but another step in the right direction. I also like the addition of the new threat ring, which is a little hard to use but I enjoy it in context. When you crouch, go prone, or enter an alert state, a ring appears around Snake with waves showing the proximity and severity of nearby threats to represent sensing his surroundings. Essentially, if you stop to focus (or your adrenaline is kicked up by being on the run) you’re picking up sounds and motion and other subtle clues of unseen dangers nearby. The tutorial gameplay is also pretty well made, to the point that I’m not even sure there was a tutorial. They don’t sit you down and make you go down a checklist, but you do most of the actions you’ll need to learn within the first ten minutes of gameplay with minimal guidance.

Mobile stealth – This latest entry greatly refines what MGS3 began with a move towards mobile stealth. You can still sometimes try to find a safe place to wait out the clock, but often you’re much better off staying on the run and using the chaos of the battlefield to hide in plain sight. The PMCs are often doing battle with local rebels, and by helping the rebels (or at least stirring up conflict) you can make it far too noisy for that PMC trooper to notice a certain legendary soldier sneaking in for the kill. Another new addition, the octocamo, absorbs camo patterns from whatever you stop and press up against for a few seconds (ditching the flow-breaking camo menu from the previous game), allowing you to be more stealthy on the go. It also adds a neat little metagame of collecting rare camo patterns.

Oh, the places you’ll go – Rather than one big base to assault over the course of the game, the show is broken up into five acts. The last mostly involves going down a hallway to the final confrontation, but the four leading up to it are all really well made. Small linear sections connect large open areas with numerous possibe angles of attack. Though you don’t have the time to build up a connection to the locations like you did with Shadow Moses or old Outer Heaven, the changes in scenery give you some pretty diverse experiences. Each locale has a few unique traits that change the way you need to hide and fight and move about.

War has changed – As always, Metal Gear is not just a war game but a game about war. If you do things right you don’t have to kill anyone to complete your mission, but if things go wrong (and they generally will) a bit of messy business may help save your skin. The rebels and PMCs are pretty concerned with fighting each other and may not immediately notice you trying to slip by. If you help the rebels enough they’ll recognize you as an ally and help you fight your way through. Or you could just stir up trouble and use them as cover to complete your mission. For that matter it’s difficult to say for sure that the PMCs are ‘evil’. In a way they’re just working stiffs doing what they do to pay the bills. And they never really say what the rebels are rebelling against. Anti-government? Pro-government? It’s unknown and unsaid. Perhaps that’s the point; you don’t know what they’re fighting over because it’s not your war, you’re just passing through it.

The end is near – It wasn’t until this most recent playthrough that I really saw how this is a game about old age. And not just in the way Old Snake will frequently have to stop to cough or catch his breath or work out a kink in his back from going about crouching all the time. To reiterate the above point, it’s not your war and it’s not your world anymore. The technology has improved, but you stick with the old ways and the old tech because it’s what you know. There’s several dozen guns in the game but I found myself sticking by the old SOCOM and the Stinger whenever possible because I just like the old familiar feel. Also as time goes on you find that you have less and less interest in the future because of how little future you have left (for reasons I won’t spoil here). This is the end.

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Bring popcorn – The cutscenes sure don’t end though. It probably won’t surprise any longtime Metal Gear fans to hear that the cutscenes in this game are bafflingly long. Most (but not all) of the cutscenes can be paused and skipped, but if you don’t skip anything you’re in for a good half hour of passive watching before you get to play the game proper. Sure for a moment you get to go crawl under a truck and then you run down an alleyway but early on it seems like you can’t take two steps without stumbling across another cutscene. It’s like they’re random encounters in a Final Fantasy game, except they can only be defeated by staring at them for several minutes. I like the story that’s being told but someone needs to go at the excessive dialogue with a nuclear chainsaw. Adding to the vexation is that it seems they were a bit aware of this problem, but perhaps not in time to really do anything about it before shipping day; towards the end of the game there’s occasional segments where they go splitscreen with gameplay on one side and cutscene on the other. It should also be noted that the great heavy storyline sitting on this game’s chest is aimed squarely at longtime MGS fans. The plot is a tad impenetrable at times even if you’ve been following the story from the beginning; newcomers who pick it up hoping for an addition to their collection of action shooter games will likely be utterly baffled.

Friends in low places – Snake’s phone book has shrunk to basically just Otacon this time around (later on you can call Rose, but who would want to?). Perhaps that’s another statement on old age, but it limits the flavor a bit I think. Otacon has a ton to say on a wide variety of topics, but it’s a bit tricky to get him to chime in on a particular topic at a particular time. Without a seperate channel for a weapons expert or nuclear scientist or survivalist, Otacon just has to make his best guess as to what you’re calling about this time. The info he dispenses is pretty interesting if you’re hungering for more game world lore, but I’d just like if there were more varied dispensers.

Nanotech solves everything – So there was that whole business with the arm in MGS2 that utterly failed to make a lick of sense. Then in MGS3 they did a rather good job of making it make some sense and adding some flavor to the game world lore in the process. Well in MGS4 they basically throw all that out the window and say nope it was nanotech all along. The last game managed a heroic effort to climb back up onto the ledge of logic, and then this one goes bungee jumping. I don’t know if their intent was to wrangle the plot towards their big plan for the ending but it doesn’t seem like they saved themself any work compared to sticking with the ideas they’d already set up.

Who are you and why should I care? – Something I liked a lot about the last three games was that they put a good bit of work into getting to know the boss characters before you faced them. The four main bosses this time around are largely without personality beyond being violent sociopaths. After they’re defeated Drebin calls you up and tells you their backstories, but this infodump is hardly a replacement for getting to know the people you’re fighting.

Not quite there yet – Included with MGS4 is a second attempt at the Metal Gear Online ideas that first appeared alongside MGS3:S. This was very nearly a positive point because I like a lot of what they tried to do. In particular I find the new Snake VS mode quite interesting. In a nod to the situation in singleplayer, two armies face off on the battlefield while Snake attempts to complete his own objectives. There’s quite a thrill in hiding amongst the surroundings waiting for someone to take a wrong turn and get separated from his teammates, then slink off after him to go upside his head. There’s also the general fun that the ‘rules’ of Metal Gear carry over into multiplayer with cardboard boxes and CQC and ‘magazines’ and such. As much as I want to like it though there’s two big roadblocks in the way. For one, it’s a bit of a pain to actually get into a game (even if PSN weren’t on fire at time of writing). For another, the controls are a bit of a barrier to entry considering most of the modes involve shooting-centric objectives. This more or less evens out in singleplayer becauce the a.i. is balanced for it, but in multiplayer a tactical mind for the situation at hand may be overshadowed by superior familiarity with the controls, which lend themselves more to movement and melee than shooting. That may not be a negative for some but for me I’d rather the challenge be in the play of the game itself, rather than in making the controls behave. Overall it’s not the MGO I dream of yet and I don’t think you’ll spend much time there, but it’s another step in the right direction.

The Final Word

While it could have benefitted from another few months of polish and editing, overall I like the final product. I enjoyed the stealth on the run, seeing everything wrapped up (even if I wasn’t completely thrilled with how it was wrapped up), and going back every once in awhile to see what new stones I can turn over. As with most Metal Gear games before I’m even halfway through I’m looking forward to playing again to try different approaches. The big question I suppose is whether or not you already like Metal Gear. If you’re just in it for some good stealth action and you’re gonna ignore the story anyway then it’s an alright game with solid mechanics, though you won’t get the in-jokes. If you aren’t an MGS fan but you’d like to be I’d reccomend going back at least as far as MGS1. If you are a long-time MGS veteran… well you probably got this on launch day anyway. Overall it held up better than I thought it would after all this time, and it’s still my favorite flavor of stealth action currently on the market.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is available only on the Playstation 3. Original retail price was $59.99; average price at time of writing is $10-$15. Metal Gear Solid 4 has been rated M for Mature for Blood, Crude Humor, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes, and Violence. Metal Gear Solid 4 is developed by Kojima Productions and published by Konami. All copyrights property their respective owners.

(Warning: may contain spoilers.)

(Warning: may contain silliness.)

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