Metal Gear Solid 4 Review
Konami and Kojima have been teasing fans for years with Metal Gear Solid 4; barely whetting the appetite of the franchise’s faithful following with the occasional trailer or screen, they’ve managed to keep the title on the minds of gamers since it was first announced at E3 in 2005. Now, three year’s later, we finally get our hands on this potential PS3 system-seller, and find out why the hell Solid Snake is so damn old.
Of course, the source of the mulleted (and now mustachioed) hero’s geriatric state is just one of multiple questions this series has posed over the years. It’s with these many mysteries, as well as the twisty narrative that spawned them, the seminal series has polarized players. While the franchise is respected and adored like few others in the industry, it’s slowly separated the hardcore from the super-hardcore since its debut on the PlayStation. The first game was a must-play for any PS1 owner, but the second began to lose some less faithful fans with its lengthy cutscenes and pretty boy protagonist Raiden. The third continued the love-it-or-hate-it trend; a backstory set in the 60s and some unconventional gameplay tweaks had some claiming it was the best entry yet, while others couldn’t get into the deep camo system, and despised the sound of Snake’s grumbling stomach signaling a tedious hunt for stamina-sustaining wildlife.
As a fan of Metal Gear long before “Solid” was in the title (NES Metal Gear was one of my favorites of the 8-bit era), I can say not only was MGS4 worth the wait, but it delivers the series’ crowning achievement and the best PS3 exclusive to date. That said, it’s also unapologetically continued on a path unwelcome to newcomers; if you’ve never played a MGS title before, don’t start here if you have any intention of knowing what’s going on. And, if setting your gamepad aside for large chunks at a time while mind-melting cutscenes unfold onscreen pissed you off in passed entries, then you may want to skip this one. In a time when even the most hardcore games are bending to appease the ever-expanding casual audience—like Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution--MGS4‘s giving fresh fans the finger. So, if you don’t know Liquid Snake from Solid Snake, Foxhound from Darpa, or the importance of an empty cardboard box, go out and play the original MGS (good luck with Psycho Mantis). Everyone else, keep reading.
MGS4’s visual presentation is just as striking as all those pre-release trailers we saw. Everything looks fantastic, and you really get the impression the game is pushing the PS3 to its full potential. We’ve already seen countless shots of Snake traversing a war-torn Middle East, but this is only the beginning. His journey takes him all over the globe, and no locale disappoints in beauty or architecture. From deserts to jungles, cramped corridors to wide-open battlefields, all environments are easy on the eyes. This goes for the incredible character representations as well; not since Heavenly Sword have I been so impressed by detailed facial expressions and accurate lip-syncing. While many aspects of MGS4 will leave you breathless, its graphics are the most “wow” worthy. Obviously, the visual splendor extends to the all-important, story-driving cutscenes as well, making these often too-long breaks from the action a bit more tolerable for itchy trigger-fingered players.
Speaking of gun-loving gamers, MGS4 packs more firearms into its arsenal than all the series’ past games combined. Looting, purchasing and finding new death-dealers is a big part of Snake’s quest this time out, and upgrading his extensive array of ass-kickers is a blast. Scopes, silencers, stocks, laser sights and grenade launchers can be outfitted onto different weapons in various combinations. Why hunt down a sniper rifle—as most games would have you do—when you can attach a scope and silencer to a standard rifle, and build your own stealthy killer? Upgrading and managing Snake’s large arsenal is also a breeze, as an arms dealer you’ll meet early on can be accessed at any time with a touch of a button. MGS4’s selection of weapons and ammo, as well as the easy upgrading, actually change up the series stealth formula a bit; while sneaking is still a big part of Snake’s repertoire, he can now take a more run-and-gun approach if the player chooses. While old school MGS players might see this as a bit of a sellout to shooter fans, it actually adds a great degree of freedom to the experience. You can still sneak and snap necks—and hide in cardboard boxes—all you like, but if you prefer, a more Gears of War-like experience is also on the table.
In fact, if you do wish to rock it like Marcus Fenix, you’ll want to utilize MGS4’s decent cover system but also its fantastic camouflage, too. While the cover mechanics aren't nearly as polished as Gears, the OctoCamo offers a nice alternative ass-covering option. Thankfully, MGS3’s tedious camouflage management has been dropped in favor of this incredibly cool system that blends Snake into his environment after a few seconds of staying still. Whether old man Snake is hiding next to a cement wall or a tree trunk, his smart suit quickly adapts. It’s fun just standing or squatting in front of different environmental objects to witness the transformation. His slick camo isn’t the only new trick up his sleeve; Snake now uses a cybernetic eye patch that can zoom, use night vision and even identify different factions—comes in handy when you’re not sure who the bad guys are. The eye patch is a great addition to Snake’s bag of gadget goodies, and one that you’ll rely on frequently, especially if you’re playing it stealthy. Another cool addition is the MKII, a sort of mini Metal Gear bot you can use for reconnaissance. While it’s fun controlling the little guy remotely, I sadly found few opportunities to really use this potential-filled device. Where the eye patch seems like an integral addition, the MKII feels a bit gimmicky. It certainly doesn’t detract from the experience, I just wish there were reason to incorporate it more into the gameplay
MGS4’s most impressive gameplay moments—as with previous games in the franchise—are its epic boss battles. Visually stunning and strategically satisfying to take out, you’ll never tire of going toe-to-toe with the many beasts and freaks that lurk in MGS4’s world. The Beauty and Beast bosses—a group of women transformed by the horrors of war—are amazing, some of the best chapter-closing battles I’ve ever experienced. And without spoiling too much, these ladies of mass destruction are just a taste of what MGS4 is packing in the boss department (expect plenty of old foes to pop up as well.) Taking them on is no picnic, but figuring out their weaknesses fuels the fun, and ultimately bringing them to their knees yields a great sense of accomplishment.
Like everything else in this package, MGS4’s sound effects and score are top-notch. I’m as guilty as the next guy for tossing the term “cinematic” around in describing great games, and now I wish I’d reserved the term solely for MGS4. I’ve already gushed about the visuals, but the polished sound work contributes just as much to the movie-like experience. The actors, the gunshots, the crumbling structures, the Earth-shaking explosions, and everything in between all sound incredible, and they so successfully immerse you in the action those who’ve recently broken the bank on a surround sound system will feel justified. The score is equally impressive, driving the action, but also achieving levels of warmth and emotion rarely felt in games. The highly produced audio coupled with the stellar visuals make MGS4 a truly cinematic event.
Again, MGS4 is not for the uninitiated; there’s barely a gameplay tutorial and the story will even have seasoned fans occasionally scratching their heads. However, those who’ve been waiting for this one won’t be disappointed. The cutscenes are definitely long and will sometimes make you feel as though you’re watching a movie rather than playing a game. However, these scenes are mostly enjoyable and can be skipped if you don’t care about the story. I recommend sucking it up and sitting through them to enjoy the full experience, though. In fact, I also suggest you stick around until the end credits wrap; from beginning to end, MGS4 is packed with surprises and even a few jaw-dropping moments you’ll be thinking about long after you’ve completed Snake’s final mission. Upon conquering Kojima’s masterpiece, you’ll also want to check out MGS4’s online offerings. They are by no means groundbreaking, especially in light of the genre-shaping solo campaign, but the chance to play in the MGS world—including impressive maps and most of the solo play’s guns and gadgets—with buddies is not to be missed. There are a few interface issues that make finding games and even hosting them a bit clunky, but once in the online battlefield you’ll get a taste of what the supposed upcoming dedicated MGS online experience will offer.
Kojima claims MGS4 is Snake’s final chapter. And while I’m saddened to see one of gaming’s greatest protagonists retire, I’m thrilled he got such an outstanding swan song. I look forward to whatever form MGS takes next, and hope whoever’s behind it builds on Kojima’s sprawling series by both incorporating the technical and artistic advances of this final chapter, while also evolving them. Until next time: “Snaaaaaaaaaaaake!”