Review by Malapropism

"MGS4: Cringe-worthy melodrama at its finest!"

Metal Gear Solid 4 has finally arrived. It marks the end of Hideo Kojima's ground-breaking Metal Gear Solid franchise. A decade of gaming excellence has reached it's end. Kojima's trademark melodrama is back, but is this one too many outings for the MGS series? Has the formula become stale over the years? Well…

Note: I haven't included Metal Gear Solid: Online as part of this review.

Graphics:

Without a doubt the PS3s finest to date. It's a technical marvel, with solid texturing, expert animation and stunning effects. While Uncharted proved that the PS3 was capable of producing visuals that rivalled (and even surpassed) the 360's finest, this is the first title to really demonstrate the console's power. I wouldn't go so far as to say that this game, visually-speaking, could not be produced on the 360, just that it hasn't yet. The quality on display is truly astonishing from start to finish.

Immediately obvious is the boost in production values. The opening cinematic manages to be beautiful and suitably frantic, while also conveying emotion. The scale of the battle, coupled with the seamless transition from cut-scene to gameplay, left me awe-inspired. The first cut-scene is by no means the game's best, but the boost given to a series always limited by the PS2 hardware is enough to leave any MGS fan salivating with excitement.

Cut-scene direction has become more experimental in MGS4. I never found fault with the previous titles, but MGS4 attempts to create a greater sense of interaction. There are couple of fantastic split-screen moments, and the mission briefings are entirely interactive (not necessarily a good thing). MGS4 proves the game medium is still far behind the film medium as far as direction is concerned, but what has been accomplished is impressive nonetheless.

The animation, unfortunately, has not seen such a marked improvement. In fact, it's all rather PS2-esque, at least initially. A slightly less than smooth frame rate makes character movements appear stilted, the lip-syncing is often out and the character's faces never emote as much as they should. In a game with so many cut-scenes it comes as no surprise that they are not all Heavenly Sword-quality, but the PS3 has undoubtedly achieved finer. However, I must give credit where it's due, Otacon's robot, Mk. II, is animated superbly. I was frequently reminded of WALL-E while watching it scatter about the screen. It's charming and a source of humour in some of the longer cut-scenes. Equally of note is the fantastic fight-scene choreography. Sure, most of what's accomplished is physically impossible, but the battles are stunningly stylistic, borrowing much from anime. They're flat-out cool to watch, and get the adrenaline pumping.

MGS has come along way from dull, intrusive codec cut-scenes, and while there are still plenty of them in MGS4, they're used appropriately. My biggest gripe with the visuals is both a positive and negative. The cut-scenes are often so stunning that it makes their lack of interactivity gut-wrenching. The playable moments are not especially cinematic and tend to jar against the more striking hands-off moments. There are a few exceptions where the game merges cinema with gameplay superbly but, on the whole, this game is much less interesting visually once you pick up the controller.

Conclusion: MGS4 is the perfect demonstration of what the PS3 can accomplish. It lacks some visual polish, and the facial-animation is decidedly last-gen, but the game holds together remarkably well considering how high it has set the bar. Highly varied and often awe-inspiring.

9/10

Story:

I feel rather mixed about the MGS saga's convoluted plot-line. In fact, in terms of content alone, MGS has never offered much of a plot. MGS4 is no different in this regard. The plot is disjointed, poorly paced, badly written and spends too much time nasal-gazing. It's shamefully melodramatic, too pretentious for its own good, trite and manages to handle interesting themes ham-fistedly. But for some reason, I love it!

Make no mistake there are far better stories out there (video-game stories even), but MGS has always evoked some kind of masochistic pleasure in me. The cut-scenes can be painfully long, the plot threads mangled and the character interaction contrived, but there is something really quite special beneath all the guff. I'd rate MGS4 as the best yet for it's tale. It manages to bring all the previous game's stories to a head. Even if you haven't played an MGS game before, MGS4 manages to recap previous events just enough to make the game understandable. It's definitely advisable to play through the previous games before touching this one, but it's not a must.

The cut-scenes are back. In fact, MGS4 is probably the most cut-scene heavy of the series. Actually, scrap that, it's probably the most cut-scene heavy game I have ever played, and I usually make a habit of playing cut-scene heavy games. From the half-way point onwards there is very little play time. The game is divided into 5 chapters, with a prologue and epilogue. Each of the chapters takes place in a different setting. Unfortunately from chapter 3 onwards there is considerably less playtime than there should be. I'm usually one to dispute people's comments that “there are more hours of cut-scenes than gameplay”, but I think MGS4 manages to satisfy that, and then some. It's woefully anti-climatic to be approaching the end of the game and to have less and less interactivity. Admittedly some of the problem is a consequence of how bloated the plot is. Hideo Kojima's direction is bittersweet. On the one hand we experience an attention to detail very few games ever achieve, but on the other, there's a whole lot that should have been cut-out. The cut-scenes early on are sluggish; the forced attempts at humour are unneeded and the voice acting is laughably laboured. The second half of the game is more interesting in this respect. Had the early moments been replaced with actual story development (rather than watching a monkey ‘trying' to be funny), and the latter stages amended with more gameplay this game would have felt tighter.

I enjoyed the cut-scenes, but appreciate many will feel frustrated and cheated. Unfortunately, I'm not quite sure what MGS4 is trying to be. As a game it is more filmic than any other title in the industry, but as a film it would be terrible. I wouldn't ordinarily compare a game to a film, but I get the impression that MGS4 is attempting to be a film with interaction. When this game contains so many cut-scenes I wonder whether it should be considered a game at all. It's lamentable then that MGS4 shows how immature the gaming industry is - it has a long way to go before it produces anything near the artistic quality that films have achieved. All being said, MGS4 is fantastic as a game-movie hybrid, it's just not especially good as either one.

Conclusion: MGS4 has a dreadful story, but it's the impressive set-pieces and characters that make it a story worth experiencing. In many ways it's unrivalled in the gaming industry, and yet it's leagues behind what it wants to be. There are better video-game stories to be sure, but no game has done it so outlandishly, and with such attention to detail. It's awful, but it's leagues beyond its direct competition. It deserves a 4 as much as it does a 10. Any mark I'd assign would just be arbitrary. So, I give it a…

??/10

Gameplay:

Putting the issues of gameplay quantity to one side, this MGS doesn't play half bad. It is without a doubt a huge step forward over MGS3. With the new generation comes an entirely new take on the stealth genre. This game gives a level of choice that the previous titles could only hint at. In fact, you need not play MGS4 as a stealth game at all, on mid to low difficulties it can be played as a shooter with stealth elements. The new in-game shop pioneers this new approach. Points are accrued through a variety of means, equally favouring the killing and sneaking approaches. The shop allows you to spend your points on unlocking guns, buying ammo and new guns and lets you sell your current equipment. The system rewards you for being skilful and is not far removed from the RPG-like systems in games like Devil May Cry. It gives the impression that snake is progressing in power throughout the game and lets less skilled players buy their way out of trouble. A few expensive goodies are also on sale for those with the patience to earn the points.

The camera is similar to that incorporated into MGS3: Subsistence. The third person perspective is user-friendly and a new auto-target function makes shooting a gun accurately simple. The function can be turned off and on quickly for when a more accurate shooting attempt is required. The new controls are a dream come true. The refined camera system, coupled with a (slightly) more reliable crawl mechanic makes the game more accessible to the more trigger-happy. Whereas I had to battle the controls of previous MGS games on occasion, I had very little problem with MGS4.

Boss battles are back, and are more ingenious than ever. While their back stories feel somewhat contrived they often put up a decent fight. A lot of the bosses in MGS4 are puzzle-orientated and require a certain technique to take them down. I'm not usually a fan of boss battles in games but I truly enjoyed those in MGS4. The AI is fairly decent and so advanced tactics can be used effectively.

On rails shooting elements have also weaned their way into MGS4. In a nutshell: They consist of destroying all enemies before they get to destroy you. The variety is nice, but the game doesn't benefit from their inclusion. I often found them getting rather same-y as they offer considerably less in terms of possible play options and do outstay their welcome. Frustratingly the first shooter moment requires a backtrack through a few of the areas you've previously explored, along with their respective load times. The load times make the battle seem disjointed and, as such, ruins the pace. There are a few similar throwaway moments later in the game. These moments aren't bad per se, they just failed to resonate with me.

The play environments are much larger than before. There are a huge amount of potential routes to take through each level. The lack of hand holding is a fantastic and while the objective is marked on the map, how you get there is player chosen. Unfortunately, as with much of the MGS4's series gameplay innovations, the exploration reduces over the course of the game. The last chapter is as linear as it gets, and the previous chapter doesn't offer much freedom either. In fact the freedom in chapter 3 is surprisingly superfluous as well as it discouraged by the course objective. It's a shame but most of MGS4's greatest gameplay moments are at the beginning. The previous stealth/shooter choice becomes arbitrary towards the end and the gameplay quality lacks the punch of the ever-more-outstanding cut-scenes. I hate to sound pessimistic but if the story does not grab you early on there is little incentive to play on after the half-way point.

Conclusion: MGS4 is the most playable MGS to date. The game has a more efficient inventory, easier to use controls and more choice than ever before. The game's failing is the lack of interactivity in the later stages. The story gets in the way of the gameplay innovations. The game doesn't introduce anything new, and the game is considerably less ambitious (gameplay-wise) at the end than at the beginning. It's a huge step forward, but there's not nearly enough hands-on time.

7/10

Sound:

MGS4's soundtrack is loaded with high-quality synth and great compositions. The music adds to the power of the cut-scenes and while the in-game music is slightly less impressive -it is sometimes repeated too often- the overall quality is as expected. Harry Gregson-Williams returned to compose a few tracks, and the new ‘Love Theme' is outstanding. I'm less pleased with the credits theme, despite being composed by Ennio Morricone.

The voice acting is decent. David Hayter reprises his role as Solid Snake and various other voice actors makes their return. I've never been a fan of Hayter's performances, but he's better this time around, even if his voice is too young for the older Snake. Drebin's voice actor leaves a bit to be desired, and Otacon overacts towards the end, but the overall quality is good. For a Japanese title it's especially impressive.

The sound effects are good at creating a mood, and some sound clips from previous MGS games are used to great effect.

8/10

Longevity:

This game should last about 15-20 hours on average. The early game exploration can greatly increase the length if you're willing to search for some the hidden items. There is a new game+ feature where Drebin Points and equipment are carried between playthroughs, and there are multiple difficulties on offer. All in all, a highly replayable game.

8/10

Conclusion:

MGS4 is the best entry in the MGS series. It has the most developed game mechanics, the best presented story and, of course, the power of the PS3 behind it. An overzealous approach to story pacing is really the game's only glaring flaw. While it can be argued that the story isn't especially good, it's the lack of gameplay in the later stages that harms this title the most. I also wonder whether the quality of this game is reliant upon its production values rather than anything deeper. It's definitely an experience worth watching and playing through, but it's only revolutionary in that it takes a cinematic approach to gaming. As a game it's lacking in quantity, as a film it's not particularly good. As a combination of the two, however, it's an epic, memorable experience that dwarfs the competition. It's a labour of love crafted by one of the greatest game developers of our time, but it's also uncompromising and disjointed. If that doesn't bother you, buy it now! In my opinion, it's the greatest game of this generation so far, but I wonder how many will feel the same way.

8/10 (Not an average)


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 08/25/08

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


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