Review by Evil Dave

"A Metal Gear masterpiece."

Even amongst the pantheon of elite videogame franchises, the Metal Gear series occupies a particularly venerated ground. The brainchild of a Japanese game designer named Hideo Kojima, this Konami-published venture grew from a well-regarded, modestly successful pair of 80s-era titles into one of the most seminal and instantly recognizable properties in the era of 3D gaming. Due in large part to Kojima's vigilant direction, the series has unflinchingly embraced radical approaches to game design at every opportunity, and over the course of its lifespan Metal Gear has managed to implant its indelible influence upon multiple generations of gamers and developers alike.

And still, even with many of the titles spawned under the Metal Gear moniker recognized today as classics of the medium, not even this emblematic franchise is immune to the ‘what-have-you-done-for-me-lately' reality of the videogame business. During the seemingly interminable four-year wait for MGS4, the title was subjected to endless scrutiny, both from fans in thrall to its machinations and a gaming press eager to get under its hood. In addition to that onerous burden, Konami (for reasons still unbeknownst to those outside the company) poked a proverbial hornet's nest by keeping the game exclusive to the PlayStation 3 platform, despite the console's lack of market penetration in juxtaposition with its competitors.

Now, though, with the game in players' hands, the Sturm und Drang that threatened to eclipse the series' tremendous legacy can finally be shirked to the margins of Metal Gear lore. In virtually every way, Metal Gear Solid 4 delivers on the promise of its years-long gestational period, bringing together a singular, powerfully conveyed vision of everything the franchise has always stood for in the eyes of its fans. Guns of the Patriots weaves a tightly paced and introspectively narrated tale, and in coupling it with a understated -yet-effective evolution of the series' trademark stealth-based action gameplay, it manages present an experience that will leave anyone who has ever uttered the phrase ‘la-li-lu-le-lo' wholly satisfied with Kojima's vision.

The first question on the minds of most Metal Gear fans is sure to invoke Mr. Kojima's pledged resolution to the franchise's engrossingly convoluted plot. Without giving anything away, these gamers can now finally rest assured, as MGS4 does indeed deliver answers to every last one of the series' most pressing questions (and some more perfunctory ones, as well). Among other fascinating tidbits, you'll finally learn who the Patriots really are, where Ocelot's loyalties truly lie, and what's got Snake so prematurely geriatric. You'll even finally learn what the deal is with Vamp – and, as an added bonus, it actually makes sense, in a Metal Gear kind of way. Regardless, the game's plot manages to captivate thoroughly, thanks in large part to the series' trademark amalgamation of slickly produced cutscenes and garrulous Codec conversations. Of course, if you've never played any of the prior Metal Gear games – or, if you tended to skip that Codec banter when you did – you're not liable to have even the slightest inkling what the characters mean by some of the terms they'll bandy about (Les Enfants Terribles? FOXDIE?). The developers were kind enough to include inchoate plot primers in the course of the dialogue, but those snippets don't really cover some of the more esoteric references that are aimed squarely at longtime fans.

Not everyone who picks up a copy of the game is sure to care about the status of Raiden's relationship with Rose, though, and for such monologue-averse players, MGS4's gameplay provides ample reason to give the title a try. While thoroughly upgraded for the current hardware generation, MGS4's core is still comprised of the stealth-based experience that Metal Gear has always embodied. That's not to say that this new Metal Gear is simply a reprisal of titles past; indeed, while the fact that Snake is on a sneaking mission hasn't changed, the nature of his mission itself has undergone a drastic makeover. This time around, you won't spend all of your time skulking about some secluded fortress guarded by static enemies. Snake's battle has changed, and it's taken him right into the middle of the conflicts of others.

Of course, some portions of the game's five acts will still let Snake do the solo sneaking thing, as is his wont. MGS4 holds plenty of surprises throughout the course of its narrative – ‘sneaking' can be achieved in a number of ways, after all – and regardless of the circumstances, the game keeps up a taut pace from beginning to end. Most of that tension is derived from the superb staging of events during gameplay. Whether you're in a war-torn Middle Eastern village, on the streets of a European city, or infiltrating yet another isolated fortress to stop an imminent attack of Ocelot's, the game constantly presents players with challenging and enthralling scenarios that will keep you immersed in the moment. Enemy A.I. establishes a consistently tough opposition, although your opponents still suffer from selective amnesia at times, as has been a long-established point of contention for the Metal Gear series. Bosses comport themselves in a much savvier manner, although they do lapse into ‘spot-the-pattern' drudgery at times, and feel a bit on the easy side (on the lower difficulty levels, at least).

And what would a Metal Gear game be without a retinue of outlandish bosses? Naturally, MGS4 throws a new set of homicidal loonies at Snake, and each new encounter brings with it a uniquely memorable aura. The main attractions (literally) are the quartet of pulchritudinous psychopaths known as the Beauty and the Beast Corps – women who've been emotionally scarred by some maudlin plot device in their past to justify their pathological desire to rip Snake to shreds. Each of the ladies comes with her own gimmick, and your clashes with them are always interesting and tense. There are no The End-quality clashes here, but the BB fights (and a few other surprises you'll face along the way) add a welcome dash of elan to the at-times-staid sneaking. One disappointment to note, though: the final boss fight (against whom, you'll have to play to find out) serves as a bit too much of a trip down memory lane, shirking the awesome new additions to the gameplay in favor of what feels like a deus ex machina. By then, you'll probably be in the throes of the plot's conclusion, but it'll eventually register that you've been hosed.

What keeps MGS4's average gameplay so fresh is the new take on Snake's ‘sneaking mission' employed in Acts I and II. During these chapters, the player is tasked with guiding Snake through the midst of honest-to-goodness war zones in pursuit of his objectives. When faced with this new paradigm, Snake is effectively given license to scrap the traditional sneaking that had always been a staple of his curriculum vitae in exchange for a more head-on approach. You see, each of the conflagrations you'll encounter is comprised of two distinct factions – PMC occupiers loyal to Ocelot, and rebel soldiers fighting for freedom (or something). In the thick of such bedlam, Snake suddenly has a plethora of options on how to proceed with his mission. The conventional method of slinking, stalking, and sliding past the combatants is always open, and at times it will remain your best bet to get from A to B; however, you will also be a presented a number of opportunities to inject Snake into the ongoing battles in the hopes of achieving mutual gain.

By choosing to assist one side during a firefight – and you'll only really help the rebels, since the PMC dudes, being Ocelot's coterie, are always hostile towards Snake – you can often swing the dynamics of the level layout into a configuration more palatable to your personal aims. This lends itself to a much more freeform style of sneaking mission than anything yet seen in a Metal Gear game, and leads to some genuinely exciting gameplay scenarios. Example: a PMC sniper has an alley locked down, and is picking off rebel fighters by the bushel. You need to get past him to reach your goal. Do you try to take him out with a frontal attack, sneak around for an alternative route and avoid him altogether, or try to get the drop on him to hold him up and steal his powerful weapon? Each possibility is viable, and with dozens of small encounters like this in each mission, the combat seems never to run out of new circumstances to confront you with.

That sniper rifle from the last example actually plays a larger role in MGS4 than you might think. Not the specific gun, mind you, but the concept of grabbing armaments dropped by defeated foes. Early in the first mission you're introduced to Drebin, an unctuous arms dealer accompanied by a belligerent pet monkey. Drebin serves as a sort of portable firearm shop, allowing Snake to exchange any excess weaponry he ‘acquires' on the battlefield for new guns and ammunition for his own use. All those ID-tagged guns that in the earlier Metal Gear Solid titles would sit uselessly on their owner's corpses now comprise a rather violent form of currency, and their omnipresence guarantees that you'll probably spend a fair amount of time pursuing such ‘income.' The Drebin system is very clever, and while it has its limitations, it proffers a good number of combat options to players without becoming a hassle.

All of your interfacing with Drebin is managed via a handy-dandy little helper robot named the Metal Gear Mk. II. This little runt follows Snake as he sneaks about and serves as a sort of universally functional utility-belt, performing tasks previously relegated to Snake's backpack in Metal Gear Solid 3 and the series' traditional Codec communication apparatus. Thankfully, unlike Snake Eater, inventory management is a significantly smaller emphasis this time around, and so it's possible to make your way through most of the game without even remembering that the Mk. II exists. One of Metal Gear Solid 3's other innovations, the camouflage system, sees a return engagement here, but it too has been reworked to largely eliminate menu visits. Thanks to the suit of all-purpose ‘OctoCamo' Snake now dons, his bodysuit now seamlessly assumes the look of any surface he presses himself to, allowing for on-the-fly concealment without the wardrobe visits. Of final note is Snake's new Solid Eye, a handy-dandy radar system, monocular, night vision goggles, and faction identifier all wrapped up into one cool-looking eyepatch. All of this new technology at Snake's disposal is simple to use, and each of the devices is implemented in such a manner that they accentuate the strengths of the stealth gameplay without feeling overpowered or cheap.

Matter of fact, most of the fundamental aspects of MGS4's design are of a similarly unobtrusive variety. The controls have been reworked a bit, and while they mostly adhere to the precedent of Metal Gear Solids past, an over-the-shoulder aiming view has been installed for weapon use. While this system is not quite on par with other shooters – this is, after all, a game about stealth – it works well with most firearms, and it's easy enough to get acclimated to. Purists can of course just enter first-person view for more precise shot placement, but the process is now a bit more cumbersome, requiring a second button press to initiate. CQC has also been tightened up to a point where it feels like an extension of the gunplay, rather than an appendix. With the series' old static camera angles now usurped by a behind-the-back vantage point, the game flows more smoothly than ever, so even die-hard veterans shouldn't find themselves yearning for the eye-in-the-sky view. Rumble functionality is realized here (with a bit of fanfare via the nostalgic reminiscence of a later boss), as well as one completely awesome use of the Sixaxis's tilt sensors towards the game's end.

Only one negative can really be culled from the production aspects of MGS4: load times. Be prepared to spend a good 15-30 seconds waiting for each new area to load once you reach it, and to sit through a number of hard drive installations during the course of the game. Yes, that's right, in addition to long load times, each act requires a two-minute installation of data (on top of the initial ten-minute setup). With all the magic attributed to the PlayStation 3's capabilities, it's frustrating to be faced with such persistent delays in the midst of such an enthralling game. It's not such a grave issue to turn players off from the game, but it's an irritant that feels as though it could have been avoided.

Once you've conquered the single-player game, there's still plenty to do in MGS4, even if you don't feel like perusing higher difficulty settings, tinkering around with your acquired arsenal in the virtual firing range, or chasing the multitude of unlockable goodies. For the first time in Metal Gear history, an online multiplayer component is available from day one on the same disc as the single-player content. Unfortunately, out of the box, Metal Gear Online (as the mode is so eloquently titled) consists of little more than what many multiplayer games would consider a bare-bones starter pack of five maps and a smattering of gear and skills, along with a wink and promise of more to come. It also requires a lengthy, text-heavy registration process to play, which players lacking a USB keyboard are sure to find frustrating.

In its previous iteration (from Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence), MGO was a very paradoxical game. It took what was arguably the least functional aspect of the single-player content – head-to-head combat – and built a competitive game out of it. What resulted was a love-it-or-hate-it affair that built a small, fervent fan base, but never caught on very widely. In MGS4, that gameplay returns largely unchanged, save for the upgrades in control and production of this latest release. Most of your staple competitive modes are represented: deathmatch, team deathmatch, ‘base mission' (king of the hill), ‘rescue mission' (capture the flag), etc., as well as MGO's proprietary ‘sneaking mission,' which employs one player as a powered-up Snake and everyone else as cannon fodder attempting to stop him.

Each of the game types clearly rewards players who stick together and play as a unit, which is a concept that most newcomers have difficulty grasping. Ultimately, your mileage from MGO's take on multiplayer will depend entirely on how patient you are with it. If you're willing to put up with the drudgery of gameplay in early levels, and you make some friends to assist you along the way, you'll be rewarded with a more robust experience later on. The change isn't drastic, though, so if you don't like it right away it's not likely to grow on you. Either way, the fact that a Metal Gear game includes some beyond-the-box content is sure to add value to what is already a very compelling package.

Whether multiplayer or single-player, MGS4 is one of the most spectacular-looking games out today. Beyond the stunning non-interactive content – all of which are rendered in the actual game engine, allowing Snake's countenance to reflect his combat accoutrements – the graphical engine realizes some of the richest visuals ever seen on a console. The environmental effects you'll contend with are as diverse as they are arresting, and the fluidity with which all of the characters traverse their surroundings lends the game a flair that easily trumps anything yet seen in the series. Of particular note is the new relationship between cutscenes and gameplay: where in Metal Gears past the transition from video to action was jarring, the camera now swoops slowly into perspective behind Snake as such scenes come to a close, providing a subtle, invigorating bridge between the two.

As you might expect, the game's audio production is of a similarly outstanding quality. Longtime series composer Harry Gregson-Williams has again provided much of the game's score, and his work once more manages to set just the right tone for all of the situations it accompanies. The voiceover work, for the most part, keeps itself in stride with that standard. All of the recognizable voice actors from earlier Metal Gear Solids reprise their roles in MGS4, and every last one of those main characters does a bang-up job of delivering their lines. Once again, though, the secondary voiceover work is a bit spotty, as all of the generic rebels and PMC goons feature the same handful of voices, and they never seem to nail their lines quite as well as the stars do. Their voices are also always in English, and never in the primary language of whatever region you're visiting; a minor quibble, yes, but the sound of pitch-perfect English coming from a Middle Eastern insurgent can be jarring. Dead-on sound effects round out the package, adding depth to the already astounding soundscape.

One of the most momentous aspects of Metal Gear Solid 4 is what it represents for the series. In ostensibly every way, this game is intended to serve as a denouement to the Metal Gear heritage so beloved to so many fans. And you know what? It succeeds, completely and exhaustively. By the time the final name of the credits has scrolled by, any player who has followed and enjoyed Mr. Kojima's magnum opus over the course of its existence can be forgiven for feeling a bit depressed. This really, truly feels like it: the end of Metal Gear as we know it, of Solid Snake and Otacon and Big Boss and all the charismatic names and places that have painted the lore of this hallowed universe. But players can also take heart, knowing that the whole thing went out on one heck of a high note, both celebrated and mourned over the course of one of the most gripping, exciting, and overwhelmingly fun stealth-action games ever published.

Anyone who has ever counted themselves among the legions of Metal Gear fans owes it to themselves to purchase and play MGS4, regardless of the expense or effort required to do so. PlayStation 3 owners who are fond of stealth or action games should also give this game a try, even if they haven't enjoyed previous titles in the series. Finally, anyone who has never been introduced to the Metal Gear franchise, or who has been tepid about adopting it in the past, should go out and give this game a try. Metal Gear has never been for everyone, but with MGS4, it's never been more approachable.

Score: 9/10

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Reviewer's Score: 9/10 | Originally Posted: 07/07/08

Game Release: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (US, 06/12/08)


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