Review by T0by_the_great

"MGS 4 is like a quirky movie with interactive segments."

Reviewers have been praising Metal Gear Solid 4 as a fitting and dramatic end to the series, with a sublime storyline and taut game play. Reception has been overwhelmingly positive, with the game receiving maximum scores from several major video game magazines. Hideo Kojima, the director, clearly wants to deliver a magnum opus, and many feel he has. You're about to read a minority viewpoint.

This is not to say MGS4 is a bad game. It's not an above average game. MGS4 is an excellent game plagued with a few glaring, striking faults. Yet even is imperfections will have their fans, who enjoy and are attracted to the elements I find aggravating. However, a game should be nearly flawless to earn a perfect score. Unfortunately, MGS4 is far from that.

As the send-off for one of gaming's most beloved anti-heroes, Solid Snake, MGS4 brings the entire cast of the MGS line along for the farewell. Called upon for one final mission, an aged Snake dons his gear one more time for an explosive ending to his saga. MGS4 is set only a few years after the events of MGS2, a game which depicted a much younger Snake as one of its two protagonists. Snake's apparent age is explained very early and becomes a central theme of the game's storyline. Snake continues to suffer ill effects throughout his struggle from his earlier trials, most notably those of MGS1.

However, despite his frailty, Snake retains his lethal instincts and remains fluid and easily controlled throughout the mission. In game, this is explained through his use of a suit containing artificial muscles. The control is wonderfully crisp and responsive. Snake is able to maneuver through the game world quickly and easily. Most of Snake's moves will be familiar to long-term players of the series, with very few new moves. The responsive controls and tight handling is a welcome feature and an absolute must for any action title. Most of the game is presented from a top down view with a camera under the player's control. When readying a weapon, the player's view enters an over-the-shoulder perspective with a targeting ring, though the player may switch to first person perspective using the weapon's sights. This gives MGS4 game play elements from third person stealth, third person run and gun, and first person shooters. It does none of these extremely well; in each genre there have been games that handled each style of play better. Where MGS4 excels is in its quick transitions between the three. The pastiche is very effective, even if none of the individual elements are anything to write home about. There is a short vehicle section that is pure fan service but is still great fun. Two few brief rail-shooting sections also provide a little bit more variety for the player.

Unfortunately, one of the MGS series' most fun aspects has completely fallen by the wayside. The game is perfectly linear. At times, Snake explores different routes through a small area or looks for new ways to overcome obstacles, but there is no open exploration. At all times, the player is headed for a clearly marked goal and only has to come up with the means to bypass the obstacles immediately in front before continuing on. During one part of the game, Snake is given a large section of a city to wander through, with guards stationed throughout. The feeling of relief is immediate, as finally the player remembers what fun it was trying to elude enemies in a giant, open map. However, almost as soon as this happens, Snake is ordered to tail an individual through the map, immediately eliminating the prospect of exploration. Snake follows his quarry through a linear string of encounters, occasionally secretly helping him out of a tight spot. Once again the game simply guides the player from point to point. There is nothing inherently wrong with linear games, but it is unfortunate that the MGS series should adopt it for the entirety of its latest incarnation. Sneaking through the chaotic mazes of the older games was a fun challenge for the player, sadly missing in MGS4.

MGS4 boasts solid graphics, with character models showing excellent detail (though Raiden is a likely candidate for the Uncanny Valley). Lighting, atmosphere, and animation are all very sharp. Especially impressive was the attention to detail given to the characters equipment, with each combatant drawn wearing highly detailed uniforms, chest racks, firearms, and other gear. Snake's suit deserves special mention. The suit changes color and texture to resemble the ground or walls Snake rests against, significantly boosting his stealthiness. However, the game itself offers no real stunning visuals. The environments are often rather dull and feel as if they're cut-and-pasted from other games. For example, one level finds Snake sneaking his way through a war-torn, unnamed city in the Middle East. The dirt, grime, trash, and debris are certainly well done, but there's nothing to see here not already presented in dozens of other titles. The other levels are no different, with the aforementioned city level looking particularly weak. There's no equivalent to the jaw-dropping, immersive images in other recent titles. Anyone who remembers their first glance of the Citadel from the Normandy or a rampaging Big Daddy will understand immediately the difference between seeing good graphics and feeling absorbed by a visual. MGS4 reminds one of F.E.A.R., where an excellent graphics engine is used to display levels which are quite dull.

Level design suffers from two serious flaws. Frequently, Snake must detour around barriers which should be passable except that the game designers don't allow it. For example, if a wall is waist high, Snake can easily vault it. However, if the wall is chest high, then it might as well be ten stories as he cannot manage to scramble over it. Likewise, Snake often runs into concertina wire or other minor barricades which should be passable with careful effort, or at least explosives, but because of the designer's fiat, they stop all progress. It seems a bit incongruous when a four foot wall of sandbags and debris can force a missile-toting superman like Solid Snake to backtrack halfway through a level to find another route. Anything that serves as an impassable wall in-game should at least look like one or the fourth wall is broken. Level design is also hampered because a simple glimpse at the map reveals all the likely choke points which enemy troops will occupy, allowing Snake to bypass almost all encounters easily. A few seconds studying the on screen map can remove much of the game's challenge when the player can deduce enemy positions in just a few seconds, then run through the level almost unopposed.

Combat with enemy troopers is generally simple run-and-gun play. After being spotted, Snake usually takes down a few enemies and then avoids direct line of sight long enough for the enemies to return to their usual state of obliviousness. The enemies in MGS4 continue the delightful tradition of being less intelligent than the average gopher, with troopers doing little more than shooting if they spot Snake and running towards where they last saw him. Evading these goons is disappointingly easy, and they spend only a few seconds hunting Snake before moving on to bigger and better things than finding the man who just killed five or six of their comrades. After a roughly twenty seconds of increased vigilance, the guards go back to manning their previous positions. One has to imagine even the most undisciplined soldiers would get their act together after finding some of their number in pools of blood, but the enemies of MGS4 are far too unconcerned with their own survival to display a notable increase in awareness. In addition to being amusing, this can be fun for the player can slug it out a bit after being discovered and give it another go in a minute or two. Compared to the controller-throwing frustration of a Splinter Cell game, where enemy guards quickly don heavy gear and bear down when they start seeing evidence of the player, MGS4's simplistic play provides a quick, light-hearted action fix before returning to a stealth game experience. Players may actually enjoy being discovered simply for the chance to start shooting. The game has very few types of enemies, including generic troopers, slightly enhanced troopers, bipedal walkers with dual machine guns, and little robotic spheres with light weapons. With so few enemies, fighting becomes fairly formulaic, as the tactics which work on one type of enemy will continue to do so throughout the game.

Ironically, despite the paucity of enemy types, there is an abundance of ways to kill them. Snake comes across dozens of types of guns, many of them upgradeable. Snake has an odd ability to store dozens of weapons and items where he can instantly grab them (don't bother emailing; the Mark II and III are not big enough to carry them and wouldn't be able to fetch and retrieve them instantly) but can only carry five weapons at once. This seems an arbitrary limitation; carrying two pistols is easier than carrying a machine gun and an anti-tank weapon, after all. Furthermore, since Snake can produce any weapon he has and place it in one of his five slots at will, this limitation doesn't make any sense. It only forces the player to break away from the action to change out items. Fortunately, between the smooth controls and many items, the game offers players perhaps endless ways of solving most of its encounters. It's often hard to tell what's the best way through any given area; often, there is no single best way. Snake, however, has enough moves and gear that an imaginative player can likely come up with a dozen routes through most areas. It creates one of the most flexible totally linear games ever.

During many sections of the game, Snake will wander through a raging firefight between various militias in addition to the enemy soldiers. The militia soldiers will ignore Snake for the most part. If the player kills militia, they begin to turn hostile. The militias simply add to the volume of flying lead and serve as an excuse for more enemy soldiers than is reasonable to appear on screen. The militia members are no smarter than their enemies, frequently running straight into machine gun nests or other deadly crossfires with no thought of changing their tactics. For some reason, enemy soldiers will call an alert only if they spot Snake, even if they are being swarmed by enemy militias. Apparently, the sight of an old man in a special suit is worth reporting to command, even if a lemming-like human wave of stupids with assault rifles is not. Aiding the militias can be a welcome relief in the game, giving it another dimension of play, but there is no incentive to do so except for the sheer exhilaration of it. Snake never learns why the militias and the soldiers in any given level are fighting, as if the constant warfare surrounding him is inconsequential. This may be intentional on Kojima's part, illustrating his view of the pointlessness of war. However, all attempts at an intellectual view of the militias become impossible when they're as well-characterized as a redshirt and as thoroughly expendable.

The MGS series has always had hordes of expendable troopers and memorable, challenging bosses. MGS4 continues this tradition. Each boss presents a different, unique challenge to the player. The first boss encounters Snake in a small, cramped hut which results in a frantic, close-quarter scramble against a highly mobile enemy who employs hit and run tactics, while Snake faces another as they fly about a ruined tower and launch small, armed gliders at Snake. The boss battles occasionally drag, but are usually exciting and engage in different game play elements. However, fans of the earlier MGS games will find that the bosses of MGS4 are rather one-dimensional, entering the game with an explosive, over the top flash and being defeated soon after. The player is then treated to a lengthy exposition about the horrors that boss has suffered, each a little more grandiose than the last. These stories try to grant each boss more depth and generate some sense empathy, but Kojima's earlier MSG games did this much more effectively. In each game, boss battles were followed by often lengthy cut scenes that tied Snake intimately to each boss after they were defeated. Compared to such epic encounters as Snake's final scenes with Vulcan Raven, Sniper Wolf, and Olga, the droning tales of atrocity serving as an epitaph for the new bosses are much less bang, much more whimper.

Speaking of cut scenes, MGS4 has these in spades. Nearly every section of the game is bookended by lengthy cinematics. A first run-through of the game should take a player somewhere between twelve and eighteen hours, depending on individual patience, skill, and tolerance for interminable movies. Of this, about half will be spent watching the game rather than playing it. The cut scenes start and begin nearly every element in the game and often break up battles and sections. One particularly notorious section is over an hour and a half in length, during which the player does little more than occasionally respond to an optional quick-time event for a few extra perks. Fortunately, the scenes feature excellent voice acting, but many amount to endless streams of dialog while seated inside an a military transport plane or else lengthy conversations over communications. There are occasional moments of dry wit or emotional impact. Many other scenes, however, could easily have been excised from the game with no loss of content whatsoever. The result is that the game feels lengthened unnecessarily; for very long stretches the player is little more than a passive object being lectured by the game. Worse, many of the cut scenes are outright formulaic, where one character will make some point regarding Kojima's vision of the world. Snake will reply pithily in a questioning inflection, giving the other character a lead in to a ten minute slide show. These scenes don't just break flow; all the excitement between them fades away, leaving a player forever feeling as if he's reaching an exciting encounter before being forced to endure a long, long pause before the payoff of an excellent action sequence. Mercifully, each and every cut scene can be skipped, but if a player does this, then the game's disjointed action scenes will make no sense. The result is that action sequences feel episodic at best, sporadic at worst. When one drags MGS4 kicking and screaming away from exposition, the game is still fun, but terribly short. A player with a decent memory should replay the single player game in about five to nine hours if skipping all cut scenes. Furthermore, each part of the exposition seems lengthened, and could probably be just as well expressed in half the time. At many points, MGS4 feels more like an anime with terrible pacing than a video game.

A few of the cut scenes are extremely well performed and great fun to watch, as we are treated to numerous high-energy, amazing fight scenes. Of course, one has to wonder why they couldn't be interactive. It is as if the director did not think the player could make the characters move with enough style to fit his vision. On occasion, the scenes border on art, such as Ronin-esque car chase sequences. At other times, they border on absurdity, such as when two characters are engaged in a highly choreographed firefight out of a Hong Kong movie and proceed to discuss their relationship with candor better suited to feel-good talk shows. Regardless, the scenes remain much too frequent, comprising half the content of the game and containing too many of its best moments, depriving the player of feeling they are in control of events at all. Skipping the scenes on replay helps, but each scene must be loaded before it can be skipped, so there still is an unnecessary break in the action first. Speaking of loading, load times seem much, much longer than a machine with the PS3's vaunted power should deliver. The game also demands installs between each act and at start-up; even skipping all cut scenes, the player can spend a significant amount of time waiting to play.

The voice acting is superb in MGS4, with very few lines flubbed. Fans of MGS1, however, may be disappointed to notice a glaring change in Mei Ling's speech patterns. Characterization is often hit, rarely miss, with even the much-maligned Raiden turning out to be halfway tolerable. On occasion, the characters besides Snake are displayed as being superhumanly adroit, leaving the player wondering why they are playing the geriatric instead of his more lethal comrades. The overall effect is that many parts seem too ostentatious for a game which takes itself so seriously; the writer's term Mary Sue comes straight to mind. It's too bad, given the usually excellent writing. However, this is a Hideo Kojima project, and for some reason in this milieu, it generally works in a way no one else could do.

Kojima seems unable to choose a direction. At times, MGS4 tries to play like a Tom Clancy novel adapted for screen and directed by Jerry Bruckheimer, delivering its action with the same seriousness those two would. At other times, an unmistakable anime influence pervades the game, ruining the mood just established. The attempts at humor, while sporadic, usually come across as immature gags and sloppy comic relief. Repetitive set pieces in the series reduce the tension Kojima tries so hard to build, as we are treated to yet another Cyborg Ninja, yet another sniper in a snow field, and so on.

The story tries to split the difference between realism and blatantly ignoring actual military matters, often failing. MGS4 often tries to carry itself with the seriousness of a dramatic military spy story, but falls flat when other conventions creep in. This is similar to an uncanny valley effect; if MGS4 didn't try so hard to be gritty, the weird world it showcases wouldn't seem too incongruous, but by trying so hard, it invites skepticism. For example, almost all small arms in Kojima's world is keyed to an ID and will not function for the wrong individuals. This necessitates 'gun launderers' who 'open' guns up. Now, set in its own world, this would not be an unusual assumption, but when one tries to apply it to a game playing off the horrors of modern, real war, it comes off as one part ignorance, one part madness. It's as if Kojima tried to display worldly knowledge of modern conflict and somehow forgot the millions of deadly weapons already in the hands of militias, armies, criminals, and the like throughout the world. Likewise, soldiers are depicted wearing known pieces of identifiable gear which are somehow given abilities to control the user non-existent in the real counterpart. For example, soldiers can use nanomachines to instantly share senses and gain inhuman powers. The overall effect is that of having some very bad soft sci-fi mixed with old copies of Soldier of Fortune. The effect is what one might imagine if a writer completely unfamiliar with warfare tried to write Black Hawk Down as an anime, using only technical readouts and Doctor Who episodes to guide the process. Commonplace military gear is treated as if it's unique and legendary. Snake receives a stripped down M4, the common rifle of the US Army, and it is treated as if it is a unique, priceless item. US soldiers use a weapon that was scrapped by the Army several years earlier. The incongruity is somewhat strange, given that the credits show a large military research team, and can only be assumed to be intentional. However, it is hard to take a military themed game seriously when its full of 'howlers.' For example, a man in a suit top, fatigue pants, and lots of bling meets Snake. He offers to sell guns between squabbles with his shaved monkey over soda and cigarettes. This arms dealer is a convenient game mechanic to let Snake acquire more weapons, but he also shatters the fourth wall and reminds the player they are very-much in a game. Likewise, elements such as mecha leaping through the sky and soldiers flying into action by being flung hundreds of feet to crash down on a metal deck uninjured really clashes harshly against the game's attempts at realism.

This strange disconnect between the game's serious tone and its completely fouled military backdrop is nowhere more obvious than when the military characters start speaking. Characters mention CID in a context as if it is some equivalent of the CIA, and not a common part of military life. Another character has to enlighten Snake about the M4, this being like explaining a chisel to Michelangelo. CQC (usually called CQB in the States) refers in game exclusively to hand to hand fighting, and not to what the term really means. This 'knowledgeable ignorance' extends to the NPCs in combat. Characters charge without bothering to take cover, and no attempt to engage in anything like tactical movement is seen. In an early scene, a horde of militia rush at machine gun nests with no sense of self preservation. Supposedly, this is a reflection on the horror of war, except that when one street over there is a perfectly safe path to flank the nest but the militia would rather suicidally charge, the impression is less victims of war and more Darwin Award contenders. Flanking, maneuver, suppressive fire, combined arms? Forget them; MGS4 focuses far more on style than substance there. This may not bother those with no background in the subject, but players who do at least understand these principles will be left feeling as if they're the only half-way intelligent boots on the ground. It is almost enough to make one long for the Call of Duty player who speaks about the M203 as if they're Rambo.

Likewise, Kojima tries to shift the rare moments of supernatural events in the MGS4 series back into the realm of science fiction. He does this by using 'nanomachines' to explain away anything that was previously unexplained, with a few exceptions that go quietly unmentioned. On occasion, his rationals includes hard science fiction, but most of the time, the final explanations are pure soft science fiction. Depending on one's preferences, this may or may not be a problem; fans of hard sci-fi may wish he had just left it as 'magic' whereas others will be glad to see the supernatural almost entirely removed from the series. A few will wish everything remained 'magical.' Furthermore, Kojima uses his lengthy scenes to explain all aspects of the Metal Gear series, neatly ending all the subplots in a story that contains wheels within wheels within wheels. Some fans may be elated to see the closing chapter tie everything up in a confusing little package, while others may find the endless conspiracies and loops overload the plot and stretch suspension of disbelief past the breaking point. A chart with who was really working for whom is really in order.

The biggest problem with criticizing MSG4's plot is that it is hard to tell what is intentional and what isn't. The story behind the Metal Gear Solid series has always been one of warning - warning about the military-industrial complex, the dangerous of irresponsibly applying out technology, the loss of free will from genetic and computer technologies, the loss of self, and the amoral pursuit of science without humanity. These are heavy themes, but sacrificing storytelling or game play to make a point seems like a terrible way to produce a video game. Consequently, it isn't always easy to tell when the plot is absurd to make a dramatic point and when it's just gone silly. Both may occur at the same time. Each and every theme the MGS series explores has been better-done in other titles, but never done with such loopy panache as when Kojima does it. For all the things just said about the story and world of MGS4, and all the things left unsaid to not spoil plot points, the delivery comes across so sharp, so pronounced, that it is forgiven. There's a quirky artistry here, fairly dreamlike, where logical thinking is suspended for a gestalt which works even when the premises are completely unreasonable.

MGS4 is an excellent game, but is not for everyone. Fans of the realistic military adventure shouldn't go putting Call of Duty 4 and the Tom Clancy series back on the shelf just yet. Fans of a light, fast-moving action adventure with varied game play will certainly have a great time with MGS4 - when they are playing and not watching, at least. And of course, there will always be the fanboys who can't find a single fault with the series. MGS4 does serve as an end, a grand finale that powers through the convoluted storyline to tie up the fate of one of gaming's legendary characters. However, one can't help but feel the last act just lasts too long, indulging in flights of fancy that would not be tolerated of a less established series and milking its moments in the spotlight before reluctantly dropping the final curtain.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 06/25/08

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

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