"Now THIS is how you close out a series."

The obvious disclaimer here is do not jump into the Metal Gear Solid series with 4. Kojima himself said he wanted to close the series out with 3, and only made 4 to end the series and Solid Snake's character on the right note for fans. And it's true. If you're not already a big fan of the series, there's a ton of information and even gameplay in this that will fly over your head and you'll come out disappointed. The joke about this game having hour-long cutscenes and playing out like an interactive movie are rooted in truth. The ending is over 75 minutes long, counting the credits. A ton of old characters pop up who will mean nothing to you if you don't already know who they are in advance. There's other examples, of course, but you get the point. This series is the preeminent example of needing to play the earlier games so you get the full experience. Even then, it may not happen for you if you didn't grow up with Solid Snake as one of your favorite characters. It's much easier to appreciate this if you go back and play the first three games first, and whether or not that makes Metal Gear Solid 4 a bad game is up to you. Just as a warning, the game's cutscenes are really bizarre early and have almost nothing to do with Metal Gear Solid. The install screen movie shows Snake smoking like a chimney with a no smoking ad plastered on top of him, and then after that you get these weird commercials during the intro loading screen.

Then you get to stare at some hot chicks, so it's all good.

In Metal Gear Solid 4 Snake has Verner's Syndrome, which is an incurable accelerated aging. When the events of the game begin, Snake will be lucky if his life has more than a year left. His body is old and broken, but his mind is that of a hardened middle-aged war veteran that's survived thousands of battles. He's also still saddled with the FOXDIE virus from the original game, so he's stuck with two ways of dying any second and doesn't know when or where or how it'll happen.

Even worse is the world itself -- "torn apart" does not even begin to describe it. Chronologically, this game takes place after the events of 2. In 2, The Patriots are beginning to put their worldwide control grid in place. By the time you plug in 4, it's already done. Everything on the entire planet is tightly controlled, and the entire world's economy is based on the propagation of war -- the War Economy, as the story puts it. Unless you're plugged into the Patriots' system, you can't even fire a pop gun. This leads to various proxy wars and rebel militia fighting the system all over the world, which is remarkably similar to the current state of American foreign policy.

And on top of all that, Snake never was able to catch Liquid at the end of MGS2, so now Liquid is going all over the world commanding his own private armies to mop up in proxy wars. Your only real mission in the entire game is to find and kill Liquid, and this isn't the only thing that was toned down a bit. Due to complaints about the massive amount of codec conversations in past games, there's very little codec to be done in this one. You'll still get some other mission objectives and codec conversations, but it's nothing like past games at all.

It's impossible to discuss plot and gameplay intertwined since both are so massive, but plot is best experienced yourself. It's almost impossible to discuss it without spoiling the entire series and getting into massive detail, so anyone reading this gets the "play it and see" explanation. You'll find that a lot of people who dislike MGS4 don't understand the plot or didn't play the first three games first, which is no accident. Hideo Kojima doesn't just bookend the series; he ties up every single loose end and uses tons of terminology and characters from past games. Yeah there's some retcons and plot holes (most of which are filled with nanomachines), but if you take everything at face value you'll be fine.

In terms of gameplay, MGS4 is still tactical espionage action at heart, although it'll take you awhile to realize it at first. Because while you were a solo sneaking god through three games, in 4 you're thrown right into the middle of a war zone. You WILL be seen, although you're able to score the approval of the rebel militia which leads to a host of benefits. You'll still have to sneak around the real bad guys while getting to where you need to go, but effectively cutting down the amount of trouble you're able to get in by half is huge. That's the bulk of the gameplay in the first two acts, while the final two are more standard MGS fare. Act 3's gameplay is.... weird. There's really no other way to put it, and it's hard to describe without spoiling things. Just be prepared for a long, dumb escort mission followed by an equally dumb motorcycle ride.

Most of the gameplay is standard fare from past MGS games; sneak around, handle guards and enemies however you want, fight some bosses and generally go through the game your own way. There's the added twist here of potentially having allies, but the solo sneaking mission aspect is still in play. This game however does deviate from past ones in some key areas.

The big ones of note are the control scheme and guns. "Guns" of the Patriots is an appropriate subtitle for this, because there are guns EVERYWHERE. Enemies and allies alike drop them like candy when they die, and before you're even halfway done with Act 1 you'll find yourself with several different types of handguns and machine guns, a rocket launcher, a tranq gun, tons of random items, and you even have a store that you can access at any time to buy even more guns, including stuff like tranquilizer sniper rifles and anti-air anti-tank missiles that laugh at enemy machinery. Then you get past the war zone section and you're left with enough weaponry to kill off everyone on the planet 10 times over. It's a weird balance, but it does fit the new "play however you want" style introduced in this. If you want to run through the game like a one man army, you can. If you want to kill no one, you can. If you want to run around like a headless chicken until some robot cuts your legs off, go for it. Nearly everything is in play.

Kojima was also clearly going for the perfect control scheme here, and he might have actually done too good a job. Everything about the game is controllable, to the point where it's possible to do a full playthrough without ever feeling comfortable. The big one here is the camera, which you have full control over and will fiddle with for the entire game until you find the perfect setup. There's no way around it. You also have this weird hold-L1-press-R1-to-shoot thing going on, which is a bizarre change given how MGS2 and 3 worked just fine. It all takes awhile to get used to, but once it becomes intuitive you have arguably the most fun control scheme in the series. Rather than holding R1 and mashing square to nuke everything, the game gives you this feeling of actually holding the gun while firing. I think. Or maybe Kojima was intoxicated when he thought of it, who knows.

Some other stuff is changed around for this, and most of it works. Early in the game you get something called the Solid Eye, which is an all-inclusive radar system that you'll basically never take off. But rather than making the radar TOO good like in past games, it reads noise and only gives you a general idea of where people are. Kind of like that part in MGS2 where Fatman's bombs would show up on the radar but you weren't able to see their exact location. Most of what's added was put in to fit with the full 3D spectrum of things, and it works well. Lastly with gameplay, Snake gets something called Octocamo. Remember how in MGS3 you kept having to go to the menu to change your stupid clothes? Well in this, you just press up on a wall or lie down, and bang, the camo changes to fit the environment. Takes like 2 seconds with no menu-hopping, and it's a way to have a camo index in an MGS game without it being stupid. The gameplay is a very daunting task when you add it all up, but if you play around with it long enough you'll be fine. It's nothing like the menagerie of fail that was controlling Wander or his dumb horse in Shadow of the Colossus, don't worry.

Finally, graphics and music are actually worth talking about here. Usually they mean nothing to how good a game is, but when they're on point they can really make a good game great. That's the effect MGS4's graphics and music have on the game. Almost every PS3 game has good graphics, of course, but the way the full 3D environments are done here is nothing short of masterful. You aren't just looking at the Middle East or subzero Alaska; you're there. And while this soundtrack is perhaps the worst of the four main games, it still has some gems on it. All the boss themes are good, and there's a part late in the game that will pull on your heart strings like nothing else. If you love MGS as a series, you'll know it when you get there.

Which leads to the final point. MGS4 plays on nostalgia a lot. If you aren't already in love with the series, Act 4 will mean nothing to you. The flashbacks will mean nothing to you. Snake's physical condition will mean nothing to you. Hell, the entire game itself will mean nothing to you. That's where most of the backlash comes from. MGS4 is perhaps the biggest example in gaming of needing to already be in love with a series before playing the latest installment, and if you don't already love the MGS series you're not going to like this game. There's no two ways around it.

But if you do, you're in for one hell of a ride. Worth noting here is the MGS series as a whole and where 4 fits in, since 4 all but ends everything. It's amazing, but it's not the absolute best. That honor still goes to 2, if only because some things are better left unknown. By this, 2 had a real mystery about it regarding the Patriots, Snake's future and where the world was going. In 4, everything is just handed to you. Which is good for ending a series, but would Pulp Fiction be nearly as good a movie if the audience knew what was inside the briefcase?

So in the end, MGS4 ends up being an outstanding game, but it's not the best game if that makes any sense.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/29/11

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

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