Written by Richard Brown
It’s easy to feel old as a console gamer. It’s not the march of technology, its when you realise that most of the real greats are now older than the average gamer, and I don’t mean stuff like Pacman. The Metal Gear series has been around for twenty odd years, although only available in English for ten. Now it seems to be ending, with a game based around the last days of its lead character. This could easily get depressing, but given the success of previous installments, how can it fail to be brilliant?
The Basic Plot
In the near future, the legendary soldier known as Solid Snake is dying. Premature aging is ravaging his body, but he was feeling old even before that. The weapons he fought to contain, the eponymous Metal Gears, are not only common, but yesterday’s news. War is no longer nuclear, but privatised, outsourced, and vital to the global economy. Private Military Companies (PMCs) fight on behalf of nations, kept in line by an elaborate security system, but trouble is brewing. Snake’s “brother” Liquid, de facto commander of the PMCs is moving to take control of the system, and Snake has been employed to put an end to his plans and life. But will Snake be able to stop a man who has already died once? And what of the Patriots, the shadowy group behind the system?
Games as Art
Let’s get something out of the way first. Generally speaking, I’m not fussed about a games production values. While I’ve always enjoyed a well-polished game, I’ve never placed that much importance on graphics, as I’m usually a generation behind in terms of hardware. How it looks is secondary to how it plays, and in the long run, ALL video games age badly if they only rely on graphics. With this game, we have a rare exception. While 2008 is looking to be an exceptionally good year for games on all formats, Metal Gear Solid 4 is possibly the biggest creative achievement. The graphics, sound and presentation are of a level I hadn’t encountered before. While this games predecessors have always been known for a having incredibly detailed locales, MGS4 takes things a step further by giving five environments, two of them fully fledged war zones. The actual characters are of a similar quality, and I have to commend the motion capture people and voice talent for what they’ve done.
In terms of gameplay, little has changed, but that’s no bad thing. This franchise pretty much invented the concept of stealth in video games, and its still something of an oddity years later. For those of you unfamiliar with the idea, in this particular game, the plan is to avoid attention, as much as you possibly can, as you cannot take on dozens on enemies in same way as in your average first person shooter. Its often an exercise in timing and nerves, encouraging caution and the use of terrain to avoid being seen. The the hide and sneak formula is as deep and enjoyable as it ever was, but there are some tweaks. Snake gets a few new gimmicks, such as an eye patch that acts as a sensor suite, camouflage that mimics the colour and texture of a surface, and a cute little robot. However, these fade into insignificance in the presence of an arms dealer called Drebin, who provides guns chipped to bypass the security system at the heart of the plot. The weapon selection in the game is simply huge, with a significant number of them customisable or having varying ammo types. This very nearly moves things into conventional action territory, but the game doesn’t exactly reward gung-ho types, as Snake can’t survive being discovered for long. What it is more likely to do is encourage you to collect every single gun you can, so you can afford that under-slung grenade launcher for your assault rifle and a Desert Eagle for indoor work. Of course, the game is in fact presenting you with a moral quandary; are you going to feed the war economy for a shiny toy, or will you use the non-lethal weapons you are freely provided with early on? A covert agent really shouldn’t be pulling a gun, and it’s possible to complete the game without taking a life. The question is, can you?
Monsters Who Love to Talk
The stealth elements are balanced out by the games inventive boss fights, which are legitimately tense affairs. In many ways these battles are old school stuff, requiring you to figure out an attack pattern, but the atmosphere is brilliant. The first real foe you face, Laughing Octopus, has near perfect camouflage, and a tendency to screech in a voice provided by two different people, which are deliberately out of harmony. Suffice to say, my experiences of this alternated between dread and panic, and things didn’t get much better once I’d succeeded in beating the cyborg. A recurring theme is the horrors of war, and as you fight against each of Liquid’s lieutenants, you soon start to wonder who the real victims are. However, what accompanies these battles is the one thing that always divides gamers across the globe, the tendency for the game to apply exposition in huge unwieldy chunks.
The criticism which is always levelled at the Metal Gear series is that it relies too much on cut scenes and talking heads to advance the plot, and this game is no different. While the radio conversations have been cut back, act 3 is dangerously close to be being more cut scene than actual gameplay, and trust me, the ending sequence takes a loooonnng time. The game is also very linear and you can feel that things are too tightly controlled. However, making this complaint is like complaining that a dog barks at the postman or a cat kills rodents for fun; remove that and you take away an essential part of its personality. The story in MGS4 is at least as important as the parts you actually control, and if you skip through it, your enjoyment will suffer. Some of the games best moments come when you merely watch rather than play. The unpopular antagonist from MGS2, Raiden, has his reputation completely turned around in the second act, and you don’t get to interact directly with him for the entire game. This is, after all, the pay off for a story that’s been grown over twenty years. It would be surprising if they didn’t try to tie things up and make it especially spectacular at the same time. Sadly, those seeking more immediate thrills will not be converted, but there’s still something on the bluray disk for them.
Snake Meets Team Fortress
While MSG4 is fairly short, Metal Gear Online is included with the game, which adds some welcome replay value. It’s almost a game in its own right, because while it’s based on the same mechanics, the way to actually plays is notably different from the rest of MGS4. While there are a variety of match styles, it’s mostly squad combat in contrast to the main game, with you playing the same mooks and PMCs from the main game. Its fun in its own way, but I found that the control scheme and third person view isn’t ideal in online play. Then again, I never really liked that style of game, and it brings me back to that cut scene issue I mentioned earlier. The strength of the series has always been a mix of stealth and narrative, and MGO just lacks this. It is however much quicker to play, and the possibilities for downloadable extras count for much.
Its difficult to review this game. You could spend days on the obsessive attention to detail. You could simply say it was awesome but short. You could giggle at the use of Playboy Magazines to distract soldiers, an entire room full. You could talk about the relationship between Snake, and his assistant Octacon, and imply much. You could also whine about the game’s chronic cut scene fixation. But it all boils down to this: if there is a game that your Play Station 3 was made for, it was this one.