Review by David Newton
Metal Gear Solid 4: The Last One, Definitely This Time
I've no idea how I managed to avoid spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 4 for this length of time, but after having left it at the opposite end of the country since two Christmases ago, we got it in the post and finally completed it last month. It would be a lie to say that I understood most of the plot - not too far in the future, war is treated as a global economy engineered by various shady organizations behind the scenes, and once again you're attempting to find Ocelot, who by now is a double double triple quadruple agent for everyone ever mentioned in the series, and your task is to prevent him from achieving whatever hidden agenda he might have. Especially with Snake's age having advanced so much since he was last seen, it has a very sort of "MGS: The Movie" feel about it, or possibly a Russell T Davies end-of-season Doctor Who special, with everyone that you've ever met over the course of the series coming back for one last giant fight, along with very few new arrivals such as magical Trevor McDonald.
I'm really not sure what to say about it from the point of view of gameplay, because even though I think I liked it slightly better than MGS3's truly idiotic level of management (no medicine screen and the camouflage has become automatic, which is a nice idea) it didn't really feel like there was much of it. The infamous cut-scenes have now evolved to ludicrous length - I realized by my IM timestamps at one point that I had been watching the game for fully one hour if you discount a brief set-piece minigame - but if you can find the game among them, you can see that it has once again evolved from the previous entry. You're armed with an array of specialist espionage tools (smoke grenades, binoculars, heartbeat detectors, Playboy magazines) that you'll never, ever use, and more effectively identical guns than you can shake another oversized gun at - being able to watch the AI deal with all these things is amazing, but in such a short game where they're never necessary it seems completely overthought.
What made the original MGS so special was that it felt like a completely new idea at the time - the stealth worked because the guards were at a perfectly amusing level of thick, every weapon and item had its unique characteristics, and each room felt like an individual puzzle to get through. Over time the gameplay of the series has changed gradually away from what I think made it work the first time round. In fact, ironically, it's now become quite a lot like Syphon Filter, the game that tried to imitate it years ago (and that I thought was also great, while I'm at it). The stealth mechanics in this game and the alert/evasion/caution clear stages still exist, and you can use them to your advantage if you want to, but they're positively secondary to the running around and shooting - the camera moves freely behind you instead of in a fixed top-down perspective as before (which is again welcome compared to MGS3 where you could only see where you were going if you were heading north), and even during the parts of the game where you're meant to remain unnoticed, the best tactic seems to be that of causing a giant conflagration and then dashing through while everybody's distracted. In addition to that, unlike the rest of the series which were set largely in one single place, this one has five individual chapters with Otacon, Snake and the crew jetting all over the world in their great big techno-plane like some sort of futuristic A-team.
For the most part the chapters are all rather different from each other, so there's not a whole lot of "normal" gameplay in which to get used to anything. After a couple of chapters of "sneaking about then giving up and shooting" gameplay, the third one is almost entirely based on minigames, opening with tracking down a member of the local Resistance, who is easily identified by his outrageous French accent, gendarme uniform and the knockwurst with a fuse coming out of it under his arm. No - the radio transmissions that you have to intercept. What follows after that is the dullest mission of the game, having to trail behind him while he shuffles along at the pace of an asthmatic tortoise whistling tunelessly to himself as he pokes his head round doorways in the world's worst act of looking inconspicuous. Then you get an on-rails shooter, a set-piece boss fight, and finally another miniature feature film showing the game's villain evading inevitable capture as the mass of certain-to-win armed forces around him flail spectacularly like some sort of Democratic supermajority.
Disappointingly the iconic musical theme of the series had to be left out, apparently to prevent war with Russia, and it has been replaced by the good but somewhat unfortunately-titled Metal Gear Saga. With the exception of that, though, it does its job in providing shovel-loads of internal references for the fans, including the obligatory David Hayter exclamation of "Metal Gear?!", which at this point is about the equivalent of getting Richard Wilson to say that he doesn't believe it.
The biggest of these fan-pleasing elements, and what I thought was the best moment by far, was in chapter four - it takes place on Shadow Moses Island, the location of the first MGS game. You begin among a set of frozen peaks, and eventually you stumble over a drift into the heliport from the first game, The Best Is Yet to Come starts playing in the background, and I seriously almost cried. As you wander among the frozen, deserted and decayed familiar buildings, the game is saying... you're older than you used to be as well, and all of this is nostalgia for you. Which it is - even though I still think of it as a fairly modern game, MGS was released eleven years ago, and I would have only been 14 when I was first hiding in a cardboard box and tying guards' shoelaces together when their backs were turned. They even pay tribute to one of the most accidentally memorable moments from the first game, the famous "surveillance camera?!" - as you approach it, a replay of the moment when you discovered it flashes up on the screen. Then, as the modern-day Snake watches it, it signals that those days are long gone by falling off its stand and smashing to bits on the ground in a pathetically tragic metaphor, which sadly for it I found utterly hysterical.
The reason I feel increasingly alienated by the MGS games is that I've no idea how to play them - I think that I'm honestly too constrained by my established thoughts about what you're supposed to be able to do in a game. After completing it I was finally able to do things like go around games sites and look at the TV Tropes article on it without my eyes closed, and found all sorts of questions about what people discovered in the game, asking things like "Did you discover the cheats on Otacon's computer?" - No, I didn't discover that, I didn't even realize that it was possible to get on to it. It was even a surprise to me that you could trundle the camera around and pick up items during the mission briefing sections. I suppose that means I still have about 99% of the game still to discover, even though I could go on about more moments from it for several hours. And I certainly have most of the storyline still to understand, even though the overall message was clear. It was "Please get rid of that mullet."
Rating: 3.5 - Good
Product Release: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (US, 06/12/08)
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