Around four years ago, the gaming press and fans alike were almost ubiquitously mesmerized by Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots when it released on the PS3. Hyperbole was tossed around like a pigskin on a Sunday afternoon and it wasn’t long before it was topping lists for the year, if not of all time. I’m not distancing myself from that crowd, as I was definitely part of it. However, standards quickly change along with the presence of looking back at a once good game with a newly found disdainful disposition. With a brand new patch to enable trophies and full install option, jumping back into Metal Gear Solid 4 not only will bring players back, but it might also welcome a chance to step away from the hype and view it in a more critical light. Strangely enough, even after stepping off the hype train, Metal Gear Solid 4 is a rare game capable of not only being a timeless entry in the series, but significantly upping the standard of gaming as a whole.
Not many franchises can rival the importance that Metal Gear Solid has placed on its story. Chronologically following MGS2, Liquid is still free, but is now in charge of a large PMC group, taking advantage of the new war economy fueling the world. Snake, now aging rapidly, has been hired by his old chum Colonel Campbell to put an end to Liquid before his catastrophic plan unfolds.
Boiling the introductory sequences down to a few sentences may be easy, but after that the story opens up and becomes much more complex. Complex isn’t analogous to convoluted (although to newcomers, it might be), but more of a synonym for plot twists and thorough explanations. Betrayals, nostalgia boners, new characters, and more pop up at a moment’s notice and weave themselves intelligently within the plot. Remember X from Metal Gear Y? Yeah, there it is and its relevance has come full circle, recalling back to prior games but relevant to the story right in front of you.
Stakes are astronomically high within said story, something our hero Snake is forced to deal with. Snake has carried us through multiple games, being a mascot far beyond the realm of the series, and we’ve grown incredibly attached to him during the many years we’ve spent together. An attachment like this really makes us feel for Snake in MGS4. He’s old. He’s being held together by a muscle suit and he’s probably got liver spots and a bad hip, but he’s still an icon because of his commitment. Yes, a man finally not scared of the dreaded “c-word.” Anyway, his mission comes first and his determination to see it through is an interesting character thread. The theme of selflessness pervades through as we see Snake on a literal suicide mission to accomplish his goal and despite the odds stacked against him and continual setbacks, he keeps on trucking. A trait like that is something truly worth rooting for even if he does develop a sarcastic, negative sense of humor by the end (which works well as comic relief).
The vast amount of personas surrounding Snake put forth convincing roles as well. Familiar faces like Meryl and Colonel Campbell return, but there are even a few new bodies carefully placed in to widen the scope of the narrative. Even with the vast variety of important characters, none feel rushed or underdeveloped. Each has a role and plays it well, which is, again, helped by the fantastic script, phenomenal voice acting, and the wonderful animation put into anything and everything that moves.
Speaking strictly about gaming, there is one big red button you can push to grate my nerves in regards to Metal Gear Solid. Referring to it “your favorite movie” will be an easy indication that most people can disregard your opinion on Metal Gear as a whole. It’s an overly cynical approach to the amount of cutscenes present in the series, especially MGS4. Kojima’s vision was made with cutscenes in mind and with their quality, it would be very petty to complain about the minute count on each cutscene. Scenes are orchestrated with the care and precision that almost has no equal within this medium. Fluid animations carry action sequences that can rival any movie and the stellar voice acting from the game’s cast make every scene worth the attention needed. The game just looks so damn good on what it is trying to do and all scenes are so expertly shot, that even today, four years later, it blows almost everything else out of the water. Seeing how performance capture has rapidly evolved as of late, this is a huge accomplishment.
There were long stretches of time where I would seldom touch the controller during the cutscenes, yet my engagement and interest remained high due to all the individual pieces that make it up. Everything mentioned above feels like it just fit splendidly together, each factor boosting off the other’s finesse. These all connect together and form some truly unforgettable scenes. Goosebumps came rushing to me as I typed that, as I reminisced on said scenes, most of which I’ve witnessed multiple times. Of course, you’ll have to find out what those are for yourself (and we might even differ), but there are some scenes that far transcend anything I’ve ever seen. It’s one of those games where you’ll sit down with a fellow player and constantly shout at each other, “Remember when this happened? Oh man! And then that?!?” and get continually giddy and excited as more moments come back to you.
Events like these string together to create a fairly accurate mental summation of the game from beginning to end, leaving no gap for lackluster parts. The first three acts are spectacular in their own right, but the last two acts separate it from the rest of the pack. The sense of urgency is palpable, with misery and gloom being the elephant in the room, but this tension adds tremendously to the experience. I’ve never felt so incredibly fucked within a game’s setting before, yet still remained hopeful because I wanted to win. Wait, no; I wanted Snake to win. His dire dedication that I mentioned earlier comes in full force within the final hours and the nigh flawless cinematography of the scenes collaborate for some moments that can define an entire game. All of this leads up to an finale that ties up every single loose end throughout the series and is an ending that always keeps me on the edge of my seat. “The edge of my seat” gets thrown around a lot, but in this case, it is literal. Few games leave me physically and mentally exhausted at the end and yet MGS4 does it every time because of the ride it is.
Despite the prevalent gray hairs in Snake’s mustache, the gameplay is a stark contrast. The Metal Gear Solid titles have always been scrutinized for being a bit behind the times in the gameplay area. Holding odd button combinations to do simple tasks, fixed camera angles, and unorthodox mechanics might have been tolerable for fans, but didn’t help welcome newcomers into the fray.
Rather than carry on a bad tradition to the realm of irrelevance, KojiPro made a necessary decision in westernizing the control scheme. No longer must you remain still, hold R1, move the left stick, and firmly press the square button to fire and hope for a good shot. Adopting the over-the-shoulder aiming view and free-roaming third-person camera, holding L1 lets you aim along with assigning R1 for firing (along with an optional, yet brilliant way to quickly switch to aim down the sights). Sticking to walls and climbing over objects has also been put on a button and the new crouch walk yields a medium speed way to sneakily navigate the environment. The camouflage system from MGS3 has also been sped up by the Octocamo suit, an automatic camo system that quickly changes to your surroundings. Rolling while prone and playing dead are also new basic moves that have been added to Old Snake’s repertoire.
Streamlining old techniques and adding new ones significantly makes the moment to moment action more engaging no matter what your playstyle is. Players like me who prefer sneaking will find that the crouch walk and Octocamo allow for faster stealth gameplay and the ease of aiming makes taking down sentries a task that doesn’t require much thought even though it is far from a cakewalk.
While there are many styles of play in between, players who are more apt for a shooter might be in luck as well. It is entirely possible to play this game like Splinter Cell: Conviction, that is, a fast-paced shooter with espionage elements. Or maybe you don’t even want to sneak at all. It’s all up to you and the systems (like the large, deep weapon purchasing system) and mechanics put into place let you make that decision. Level design is also as wide, with multiple paths and hidden areas to make each playthrough different like the recent Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Eagle-eyed players who want to move more methodically will find new areas more tailored to their style of play along with the occasional hidden item or iPod song.
Fighting the controls, as some would argue, lessens the value of a stealth game as, somehow, that is “part of the stealth experience.” That’s a ridiculous sentiment, right? Metal Gear Solid 4 is no less of a stealth game because of the advancements it has made in the gameplay area. Enemy intelligence is still smart on any setting, taking time to investigate, group up, and set traps, but the true stealth experience comes from elevating the difficulty. Rather than the usual “more health, less health” thing that every other game sloppily does, MGS4 chooses to go far beyond that. Enemies, both organic and mechanical, have heightened senses of sight and hearing to the point where slowly sliding through a well fortified area becomes required to survive, along with becoming a tense satisfaction. Ammo and item use are also restricted giving the player determined for full stealth an outlet for his or her ghost-like needs.
Since the dawn of MGS2, it has been possible to complete each game without committing a single murder for the few of us with a conscience. Boss fights are included in this statement, with each battle easily hanging up there with the best in all of gaming. Metal Gear Solid 4 continues this line of excellence with its own set of boss fights. The Beauty and the Beast unit skirmishes are all unique with different strategies for felling each. Thematically, each has a compelling set up but what really lends them to become truly great is how each encounter feels organic and unscripted. If the design document for a boss included “shooting the glowing red part,” it was thrown out. Even after multiple playthroughs, I never rested on my laurels and felt like I still had to think on my toes. Every fight has multiple layers of depth and, like everything else, will probably take more than a few tries to find every little secret. The last battle, while not spoiling anything, is a glorious mix of a new mechanic, cinematic moments, and whole mouthful of nostalgia that fittingly sends off the game. Well, there goes the goosebumps again.
Technology this generation, like most other pieces of hardware, has been stretched out and milked to show us that games can look sharper and sharper each year. Yet despite having a 2008 release date, MGS4 still remains to be one of the best looking games out there. The entire game has a slick art style and the technical prowess behind it to have every environment contain such a high fidelity, resulting in a consistently marvelous looking game. This even comes in spite of having whole battles going on in the background. Usually games will sacrifice quality for quantity but somehow MGS4 juggles both and does each splendidly with an alarming amount detail. Detail so intense that it makes it easy to ponder how this game ever came out. Debris flutters realistically, blood splatters after shots, environments crumble after explosions, and many, many other factors showcase the absurd attention to detail this team exhibits. The musical score is just as powerful as its predecessors, with the memorable guitar strings of “Old Snake” chiming in my brain long after powering off and boss fight music fitting the intense mood accordingly. The iPod seems like it was just put there to brag on how good the series’ soundtrack actually is. Sound design is also strong, being a key sense when stealthily climbing around the environment for both you and your opponent.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is one of the prime ways to end a series. Loose ends are tied up for the franchise as a whole, the ending is gratifying, the immediate story is an emotional thrill ride, and the gameplay has been overhauled for an overall pleasant interactive experience. Looking back, it makes Mass Effect 3 look incredibly shaky in comparison in the way it chose to end its trilogy. Calling a game a classic at the time of release is always a bold thing to do, so I’m glad I was given a few years to reflect on that bold statement. I still stand by such lofty words after this recent examination and have no doubt that I’ll be saying the same thing next time I put MGS4 under the microscope.
+Visually stunning game with a staggering attention to detail
+Voice acting is emotional and convincing, rounded out with a phenomenal, powerful score
+Wide, dynamic level design filled with secrets and alternate paths
+A plethora of different ways to tackle each scenario, yielding a bunch of replay value
+Unique, satisfying boss fights that top the series’ already high standard
+Gripping story that keeps you engaged all the way until the credits
Final Score: 10/10