Review by Crofty
A superb end to one of videogame's greatest characters.
Lets just get this out of the way first: If you hated Metal Gear Solid before, youll still hate it now.
Dont get me wrong, I didnt mean that to sound harsh as in to say if you dont like MGS, then go to hell, as I am perfectly aware, and completely understand, why some people generally just dont like what MGS has to offer. Extremely complex and lengthy cut-scenes, along with some questionable stealth mechanics and some dodgy control methods have been the main sources of criticism for the series from non-MGS fans since the PS1 was kicking about.
Of course, to fans, the complex and lengthy cut-scenes are one of the many reasons why they adore MGS so much. And, until MGS4, Kojima Productions have remained pretty reluctant to satisfy anybody but fans of MGS for all previous games, with each installment maintaining the same style of gameplay and use of long cut-scenes as what weve come to expect. However, it is actually fair to say that, while it still uses the same methods as previous games (which will undoubtedly be more than enough for some), MGS4 does give some leeway to those people who are curious about what MGS is actually about.
For one thing, the controls are infinitely better in Metal Gear Solid 4 than they have been in previous games. Its not likely youll end up on the floor crawling around with a pack of cigarettes equipped while being completely plastered with bullets, when all you were trying to do was make a run for the nearest exit with your gun equipped. In MGS4 the buttons and general controls have been laid out much more intelligently so that readying yourself for any event shouldnt be too much hassle.
A good example of this is the gunplay, which is handled much better as the game uses an over-the-shoulder view when you select aim, giving you full advantage in any combat situation (you can still flick to first-person, too, if youre after a particularly accurate shot). This should immediately help non-MGS players into the experience, and better yet, itll at least give them a sound way to play the entire game if other aspects of gameplay seem unfavourable.
See, its actually possible to play the majority of MGS4 by just killing everyone (or thing) you see and playing it like a general third-person shooter (even a first-person shooter, for that matter). But dont worry, that doesnt mean the game has completely changed from the *Tactical Espionage Action* genre the game is best known for, if anything, playing the game like a shooter probably wont work so well on the Big Boss Hard/Extreme difficulties. But still, having the option to shoot to your hearts content is only a good thing if it lets, at the very least, some new players experience the excellence of what MGS4 is.
The best part of the gameplay overhaul, though, is the stealth part. In my experience, playing a MGS is something that is best experienced when you play it without trying to be spotted, or even reducing the amount of foes you kill. The problem with past games is that the camera somewhat restricted your stealth antics, to the point where trial and error seemed to work best, and, as said, the controls made things harder than they should have been. But in MGS4 the camera is now a fully controllable third-person affair (much like the one used in MGS3: Subsistence), so having a go at sneaking isnt an annoying prospect any longer. Just to help, though, Solid Snake also has a very advanced and very cool camouflage suit (known as OctoCamo) that sports any nearby textures to the exact detail if he stays still long enough. It truly is something you need to see for it to be believed, and it really does add so much to the game in the way of stealth, and takes much of the pain out of sneaking in general.
Tranquilizer guns and other non-lethal weapons also make a return too, so that a full stealth experience can be chosen for the entire game. But probably the most interesting new addition to Snakes general stealth-aiding inventory is the Metal Gear Mk. II, a small robot device created by Otacon, that can be used to safely scout out areas, or also as a weapon to electrocute unsuspecting enemies (much to satisfaction, I might add). You can even use the Mk. II to look around Snakes headquarters during the mission briefing cut-scenes, which is just one of the many areas where Metal Gear Solid 4s huge attention to detail is present.
Even if you choose one gameplay method over another, you wont feel like youre missing out either. The game is extremely balanced in all aspects, so that youll likely have as much fun playing the game in one way, than trying it in another. In fact, the vast array of gameplay styles only helps to add some much needed replay value to the game.
The balance between cut-scenes and gameplay seems to be handled well (more so than MGS2, but maybe not as well as MGS3), with the cut-scenes altogether lasting somewhere around the 7 hour mark, and gameplay ranging from (roughly) 8-14 hours depending on how you play the game. Even though that sounds like a competent amount of gameplay, there are so many weapons, items and general things to see and do in MGS4, that playing the game once doesnt yield the amount of experiences clearly available. On the one hand, the huge amount of gameplay functions and less linear design is to be applauded, but on the other, the length of the game doesnt accommodate those aspects so well. Of course, you can solve the issues by simply playing the game again, but because its such a rich, vibrant and enjoyable experience the first time round, you wish that most of the best parts could have been packaged into one play-through. Simply put, you just dont want the game to end, which is probably one of the best compliments I can give a game (especially one thats not even a role-playing game).
Metal Gear Solid 4 is broken down into five Acts, each of which serve to add to the ultimate conclusion weve been anticipating for a decade. The first two Acts introduce us to conflicts that are constantly being waged, with Snake having the opportunity to either help or hinder either sides progress. These Acts serve as the most non-linear out of the five available, and also look and feel very authentic due to the amount of things happening at once on screen (without any dip in performance, I might add). For example, the opening Act is set in the Middle-East, and has local militia constantly striving for victory over PMCs (private military companies) via shoot-outs on pretty much every street available. Youll see and hear explosions going off and dead bodies laid everywhere as you try to make your way to the objective, deciding whether you want to help the militia break through the PMC barricades (therefore helping yourself infiltrate otherwise heavily guarded PMC areas) or keep your head low and remove yourself from any conflict at all. The following Acts are still fun and enjoyable, too, but the first two Acts show how MGS4 can offer the gamer so many options to play the game, and find the one most suited to their tastes.
Eventually youll run into some boss battles, and Im glad to say that, once again, the encounters are incredibly fun, intense and above all unique. I dont want to go into details, as that would spoil the experience, but needless to say youll be facing off against all manner of foes who will echo thrills gained from the boss encounters of previous Metal Gears. I will say that the battles do seem somewhat easy, though. Even on the higher difficulties, you can usually stick to a sound strategy for the entire battle which is even more effective when you actually know how to defeat the boss youre against. The final boss encounter does more than make up for this though, and is easily up there with some of the best boss battles in any game Ive played.
On the visual side of things, MGS4 is nothing less than a showcase for what the PlayStation 3 can offer with the right development team. It really is a fine example of near-perfect visual achievement, with extremely high detailed character models, and vast, superbly designed environments ranging from a grassy South American setting, to the dark and gloomy streets of an Eastern Europe city. The variation in design helps to showcase the effort and skill put into such a magnificent looking game, and you feel nothing but admiration for the developers when MGS4 ends.
On the flip-side, to accommodate the high calibre technical achievements, MGS4 does make use of sectioned areas with loading times between each one, though youre not exactly waiting for too long. But the inclusion of loading screens is much preferred over the potential pop-up, tearing, texture and framerate-issues the game would most likely have if it followed most other 360/PS3 developers out there. The only time the loading screens become somewhat frequent is when youre moving quickly through areas via a vehicle (think: bike section in MGS3), though I wouldnt say they were long enough to induce annoyance.
Another factor that impatient players may want to take note of is that MGS4 uses installs before each chapter. The initial install is the most lengthy at around 8 minutes, with following installs ranging from 1 to 3 minutes apiece. Its not something to get too annoyed at, though it can become silly when you load different saves on different Acts, and then have to wait for the game to install again. Im not exactly aware if this is an issue with the game, or the PS3 itself, but either way I dont feel itd be fair to criticise the actual MGS4 experience because of it.
The chances of someone impatient wanting to play not only MGS4, but any MGS, seem slim anyway, due to the mentioned cut-scenes. Subtlety never was Metal Gear Solids strong point, but thats one of the reasons why we love it so much, and MGS4 doesnt disappoint. The cut-scenes are overblown, over-the-top, melodramatic and, above all, excellent. Every question, every character, every sub-plot and anything else relating to the story is pretty much resolved by MGS4s finish. Along with the fantastic musical score (the main theme for MGS4 is especially good), the story in MGS4 is a perfect fitting to Solid Snakes chapter in Metal Gear, and by the end you feel a huge amount of satisfaction at the conclusion, and honestly feel like you finally know and understand the game(s). Its just a shame that it has to end.
Its not all serious though, as I also want to point out that MGS4 also maintains the same amount of humour and general randomness that the previous games have offered. Like before, most of it is hit and miss depending on your stance, but without it MGS4 wouldnt be the same. One thing that cannot be denied is the attention to the detail though, which has been lavished upon nearly every aspect of the game. Youll play through the game several times and still notice new things each time, and wonder to yourself how many more things youve been missing.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is what fans have always dreamed of: A high performance stealth-action game with next-generation visuals, over-long cut-scenes, superb boss fights, and an ultimate ending to Solid Snakes story. It even manages to throw in an online multiplayer component on-top of a 20+ hour single-player experience; theres quite-literally nothing for die-hard fans to complain about.
For non-MGS players, the inclusion of more refined controls and combat will seem more appealing than in past games, but MGS4 simply wont do enough to convert haters into MGS-loving gamers. Itll gain some new fans, for sure, but the core MGS audience are the ones who will undoubtedly get the most out of MGS4, and that includes me.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (EU, 06/12/08)
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