Review by Donald Love 87
"All good things must come to an end"
Few videogame series has managed to build up such a universe as Metal Gear. Usually games in a series isn't connected at all or just have loose references thrown in, or they are on the other side of the spectrum and rehash the same story over and over again. But then there are the great exceptions; Metal Gear pretty much needs you to know about what happened in the previous installments to be able to know what's going on at the moment. So while it might be hard for newcomers to keep up with it, the veterans will appreciate it more. When it was released back in 2008, Metal Gear Solid 4 was probably the most longed-for game of the series - since the events MGS3 took place many years before the other games this would become the true follow-up to MGS2 which was released seven years earlier. Both 2 and 3 left us with quite a few loose ends, and the question was pretty much if MGS4 would be able to tie everything together?
Before going on to the story, let's start off with the technical bits of the game. While the game, at the time this review is written, has already been out for four years it still manage to be one of the most impressive games for the console when it comes to graphics. Especially two things stand out - the motion capture and the directing style. What's making the motion capture good is especially the facial expressions; not only the lip synching which is pretty far ahead of most games but also more subtle things like eye movements are excellent. Overall, the entire characters have very smooth movements and the bodies seem to be of really high-resolution. The directing style is mostly seen in cutscenes, obviously since otherwise you control the camera, but there has been some real work put into it to really show things from interesting and fitting angels - it's a bit hard to describe but it just feels like everything has been so well thought-out. What's also nice is that most of the cutscenes are using the ingame engine, as evidenced by Snake still using the same disguise/camo as you had on when entering the scene and also that you have slight camera controls. The scenes which are not rendered in real-time by the game engine were still drawn using the same graphics quality, maybe only with a few extra lighting effects thrown in. To have cutscenes look like gameplay has a huge effect on the immersion and also allows for very smooth transitions between the two.
Having such detailed characters come at a price however - slowdowns. It's not very common, maybe one or two times per playthrough and it happens when the game has to deal with a lot of smoke effects together with a huge number of characters present, but it is there so if you're very picky about your games keeping hi-FPS all the time this might not be for you. But that's the only bad thing about the graphics; while the textures (on objects, not the highly detailed characters) might seem a bit repeated, possibly due to a gameplay functions, the level design surely is not. Unlike many other games where you're likely to think that "here I am running past Shed A-1 for the 29'th time" here every area has a feeling of being unique. All in all, the graphics still manage to hold up pretty well for the standards of today (2012), but were extremely impressive back when this was released.
Sound effects and music
Again let's start on a strong point - the voice acting. Ever since Metal Gear Solid for the PS1 the series has always had the honor of being the benchmark when it comes to voice acting in videogames, and this one is no different. Most of the actors return to do their roles from the previous games, and while some may have changed their voices a bit that's nothing you'll think that much about, especially since it's probably since those who've done so have gained more understanding about the character instead of just going with the first stereotypical voice that popped up in their head. Overall it's a very good point that most of the actors seems to really know what the game is about and really "be" their characters - it's sadly too common to feel that voice actors in games have no love for the story or that no effort has been made to match the voices in a conversation, but here it is top notch. It is also very good purely sound quality-wise, which is most likely due to the fact that the audio is uncompressed. While slight compression versus uncompressed might not be hearably different, it's entirely possible for too much compression to totally ruin the voice acting in a game (take a look at Final Fantasy XII) so it's surely the way to go since there's so much space on the blu-ray anyways.
The music is also of good quality, though the older games had better songs than this one. First of all to leave out the theme of Metal Gear Solid 2/3 - which is a legendary song and an icon of the entire series - in the game which is supposed to sum up the story and take it to and endpoint is a pretty big mistake, even if it were a bit similar to some other composition. But the game also lacks it's own good vocal theme like 1 and 3 had - the first game had the great Gaelic sounding ballad "The Best is Yet to Come" and MGS3 had the Bond-parody feeling "Snake Eater". While this game has a song called "Love Theme" it's nowhere near as memorable as the two others, and the vocal song that's played over the credits at the end might be good but it doesn't stand out as much. But there's a good side of these things - with the exception of the main theme, due to the copyright issue, a lot of old Metal Gear songs return so you can unlock and listen to them on an iPod Snake carries with him. Of course it leaves you a bit vulnerable since it takes up the item spot, but it's still pretty cool, and it's not only songs from this series but also from other Kojima/Konami games.
Sound effects are good too, and as usual in these games they really matter - if you walk too fast and make audible footsteps guards will hear you and come and check out, and you can also use audio clues to find out where enemies are located and what is going on around you. The weapons also sound good and not too over the top like they run the risk of doing in many action games. Overall, the sound in this game is very good, and while the songs might be a bit weak it's weighed out by quantity and the quality of the sound itself.
Here it is; it's what the Metal Gear Solid series is famous for, and this one is no exception as it goes through five different acts in vastly different parts of the world. In the MGS universe, it's the year 2014 and a truck is carrying rebels through a town somewhere in the Middle East. War has changed; from being between people with strong ideologies taking a fight against what they see as enemies to nowadays when it's all about the pay. People get into wars that really mean nothing to them because they get paid well or are forced to participate by other reasons, and the big corporations see a way to profit on it with the demand of Private Military Companies (PMC) and much of the global economy is dependant on wars being fought. Technology has marched forwards too, with machines somewhat related to Metal Gears actually walking around the battlefield acting as hard-hitting weaponry. Nanomachines and sneaking suits have changed from experimental secrets to being used every day on the battlefield.
But on that truck is a man who has something personal to gain from this. This man is Solid Snake, the war hero who got labeled a terrorist after the events of Metal Gear Solid 2, who has been sent here to track down and terminate an old foe who's been spotted in this area - Liquid. While Solid Snake has aged at an extreme rate in only a few years due to an unknown disease, he just has to go on this final, personal mission. As usual things don't go as planned so it ends up taking Snake and the player all over the world - from than Middle Eastern town to the jungles of South America to a big city somewhere in a former Soviet State. The game really takes you on a journey, and considering Snake's age you really feel it's coming towards the end of everything, and that's why some things really hit you much harder because if you've been along since the first MGS in 1999 or even longer you really feel like these games have traveled with you alongside your own life.
As already mentioned the game has some really great camera work in the cutscenes, and the writing is for the most part good too. Of course there are some poop-humor in the game which really feel like it doesn't belong, but considering that the rest of the game is really epic I think it's okay for some crap (!) to slip through; at least it shows that humans still have bodily functions in this universe. ...and yes, I used the word epic, and this is one of the few instances where it really is fitting, even though Snake himself probably wouldn't agree with me. Some scenes also come across as cheesy or a bit odd when watching them on repeated playthroughs, but for most of your first playthrough you'll just sit there amazed at what's going on. It's just when you start to deep-analyze things you notice it, but then that also gets compensated by some scenes actually making more sense when you analyze them, so everything is a tradeoff.
Overall, I'd say this game, no, this series, is probably among the best story you can find in videogames. Sure, it's got both bad and good points but now let me get personal - I very rarely care for game characters. I wish I did, but I usually don't. But in this game, it feels like I've grown up with them and at the end I was crying, something that has never happened to me before or after this. That means this game really pulled some emotional strings, and that's really what the story and characters are about. Obviously, a game with half-hour cutscenes might not be for everyone, but if you're in the mood to appreciate it you really will.
Since there are so many possibilities in this game - if you encounter enemies you can fire guns while in first or third person perspective, or you can choose to flee a battle by crawling away on the ground or you can even play dead - obviously the control scheme is a bit difficult to master. Since you're also often thrown into situations where your controls either get limited, expanded or completely changed of course it can be hard to keep up with it. To add to it, all of these third person games seems to have their own unique control schemes, so how easy or hard you find these controls might very well be a result of the last game you played before this. The game is doing a good job to remedy the possible problems by always giving you access to a controls explanation menu and the options menu is also full of small things for you to tweak to make the game fit your preferences as good as possible.
The most normal controls are the ones for moving and looking around/aiming, which is done with the left stick and right stick respectively. All shooting is done with the shoulder buttons - you aim with L1 and fire with R1. The two "2" buttons are used for item and weapons management - tapping them makes you swap or unequip (depending on your settings) what you're currently using, and by holding them down you'll get be able to scroll through the menus. Sometimes in the heat of the battle it can be a bit difficult to get taps right to just unequip something, but most of the time it's working good. Shooting is done really easily through first person, and many guns also have laser sights which make it easy to aim even in third person mode. Series lovers will also be happy to know that CQC returns from Metal Gear Solid 3, but is a bit too in-depth to take up here.
The circle button reloads your weapon, and unlike other MGS games there's no reliable "quick way" to reload your weapon by unequipping and then equipping it, at least not as far as I know of. While it makes the game harder, it's also an understandable change towards realism. The X button is pretty versatile, but the common usage is to get Snake to change his posture - if tapped while standing he will crouch, if held he'll lie down on the ground. If tapped while running it'll lead to a roll. To have one button do many different things could be a problem, but in this case it always do what you want it to do. The same goes for the Triangle button, which is the most versatile of them all - this has no real common use but is assigned to take care of all odds and ends. Want to open a door? Triangle! Want to avoid an attack? Triangle! Want to search an enemy for items? Triangle! Thankfully, this is always accompanied by a symbol to let you know something is possible to do so you won't have to go over an entire area pressing Triangle searching for objects to interact with. While the symbol might only be there for a short time in some cases, it might sound something like Quick Time Events, but that's surely something I wouldn't call it since, well, it's always the same button.
That's pretty much the basics, but as mentioned it's a big game and there are much more depth to the controls than mentioned here. Sometimes you might have to look something up, but when you've learned the controls they really work well and respond accordingly.
Oh yeah, while the story is pretty much of the usual quality compared to other MGS games, the gameplay has been tweaked and improved on many levels. Of course the main objective is, as usual, to sneak past enemies to complete the mission, but you've always got the choice to use force. While the game plays out pretty much like a standard 3D third-person shooter, it's the special alignment to sneaking and the variety that sets it aside from the rest. Of course you need to be camouflaged to be able to sneak past enemies, but instead of having to navigate through a menu all the time here your suit itself picks up the color and pattern of the floor if you lie still on the ground for a second, and this of course affects the camo index that you have on the top right of your screen. The higher this is, the harder it is for the enemy to spot you. It's an ever-changing number, affected by everything from camouflage used, how fast you are moving and current battlefield conditions. Since much of the game takes place on battlefields you might come upon a situation where two parties are too busy fighting each other to notice you.
The wars going on isn't really of your business, but if you see it fit to help out one side you could do so, and in turn something might happen which gives you an advantage. These choices are what makes it possible to make each playthrough feel unique, and it's interesting how you after 10 playthroughs or more still can find out things you didn't know about the game. Anyways, to get back to the sneaking you've always got the choice to take out hostiles that you don't have any way of sneaking past, and this can be done either with lethal means or just by stunning them. Both have their pros and cons, with a stunned enemy waking up after a while, but other guards will take a killed teammate much more seriously than a sleeping one. Deciding which weapon to use can be hard, since this game give you almost 70 weapons to choose from, but unlike the other MGS games where you could only get your equipment on-site here it can be bought in a shop accessible from the pause menu. It comes with a drawback, however, and that is that most weapons you actually pick up still needs to be unlocked in the shop (this is explained by storyline), and while it's cheaper than buying it it's still more complicated than just plug&play. The shop might make a bit of an impact on the immersion, but considering the advantages it's easily worth it, and most of it ties in well with the story anyways, like how you get shop points for when you pick up a duplicate weapon you don't need or when you destroy a mechanical foe (to salvage parts from). But weapons isn't the only thing you need for a successful sneaking mission - items are just as crucial!
One great item you've got at your disposal is the Solid Eye; an eyepatch outfitted with something that could be mostly described as a radar (+ night vision and binoculars). When Snake has it equipped, a big circle appears near your camo index, and in this circle you can see people and their "aura". While it's worse than the radar in the other games since you can't really see the view cone of an enemy, it surely adds to the sneaking factor. Even when you don't have the Solid Eye equipped you always have a "threat ring" around Snake instead, which has a basic function of showing you enemies, but it's extremely limited since it's hard to pinpoint locations with it. Another item which you can use for most of the game is the Metal Gear Mark 2, which is a small (knee-high) robot with stealth technology, which you can use to stun enemies with. While it's really cool, it's got surprisingly few uses ingame where it's better than other stuff, but since you see it so much in cutscenes it's really nice and logical for you to be able to control it too. Other than that, there are healing items available just like in the earlier games. Sadly there isn't a healing menu as advanced as the one in MGS3, and even normal healing seems a bit dumbed down since you can just lie still on the floor to regain health, but at least it isn't as in other games where you can stop in the middle of a firefight to do that - if you try that here you'll be torn to pieces.
The item and weapons management is a bit different than in earlier games, as in that the L2 and R2 buttons are just a shortcut to the ones you've preset from the pause menu beforehand. While you can have 5 kinds of weapons in your shortcut menu you can have many more items, though it'll make Snake stressed quicker if you have him carry around a load of luggage. Having items set up like this is good, since you can throw out things you don't use so you won't have to circle through a lot of items just to get to the one you want. The only thing this can be somewhat annoying is when the game auto-equips a weapon during a cutscene and it just HAS to replace the one you were currently using. Another thing, which was originally introduced in MGS3 but returns with a more expanded version here is a stamina gauge. Though it's now named psyche gauge, it pretty much takes on the same role. What affects your psyche the most is how stressed Snake is; stress shows up as a percentage below the psyche gauge and the higher that percentage is the faster you'll lose psyche. Stress is affected by things like extreme weather or stressful situations like being in the middle of a firefight. Some things can also affect your psyche gauge directly, like getting blinded by a stun grenade or hearing depressing news in a cutscene (it's true!). The psyche gauge affects aiming and health recovery speed, but can be easily raised by the use of items or, just as in the case with health, lie still in a calm, well-temperated area. Sadly, it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, since it's very rarely you really need to consider it a gameplay factor - you might get a small drop which affects the aim a bit, but not enough to mind, and then you come to a cutscene which refills it or somewhere where you have to lie in wait and then it's back on full again. It feels like a good idea, but it isn't pulled off nearly as well as the complex (in a good way) healing system of MGS3.
One thing which is actually pulled off worse than in the earlier games are the Codec calls. For those unfamiliar with the series', the Codec is a device which is used pretty much as a radio to transmit and receive both audio and video communications with your team. When used in cutscenes, the Codec works better than usual - since the video feed of the codec consist of only the faces of the people talking some cutscenes instead let you hear the conversation while still showing you the "real" area. If you're into it you didn't get bothered with the limited graphics of the Codec-calls in the earlier MGS games, but it's still nice to see characters actually do something when talking. The worse part is the optional calls. While the earlier games had many people you could call who would say something unique in pretty every much situation, this game limits them to two and one of them is just a psyche counselor which you don't really need since you have the gauges anyway. Sure, there are still some entertaining situations left, but while you could get some nice info on almost every weapon in the earlier games, here only the most odd items or situations lead to an interesting conversation, and mostly when you call up you just get the same info you just heard but worded differently. While it's just optional, it's really odd that this was a tradition that got removed from the game instead of expanded. Maybe not enough people actually used it?
But just like I mentioned in the controls section, there are more parts of the game than just the sneaking, but I prefer not to talk about them since it takes away from the surprise when you reach them, but the game has enough variety to not feel repetitive for the time you play it. The time you play it is a bit interesting, since your first playthrough might very well take about 15-20 hours if you watch all cutscenes and do some exploring, but on later playthroughs if you just run through the game it will only take about 2 and a half to 3 hours. The replay value of the game is great, especially since you get ranked at the end of each playthrough, and depending on which rank emblem you got you might unlock special items, and unlike the earlier games your ranks are actually remembered by the game and it's possible to fill up the entire emblem list. While there are 40 emblems you won't need to play through the game as many times since most of them are ones such as "rolled 100 times" or similar. One thing which also is interesting about the replayability is that this is one of very few games which is as interesting when it's fresh as when you've learned the mechanics. For an example; a game like Read Dead Redemption lose some of its appeal once you learn where random encounters might come up and how they will play out, a game like Final Fantasy XIII will be more fun once you get the hang of the system and mastered the mechanics. Here, it manage to be both, and mostly it's probably due to the already mentioned variation and the fact that there are so many hidden things in the game that you can miss for such a long time.
While the game certainly had no problem getting by without it, the Trophy patch that came out four years after the game is a nice little addition. While the trophy list might look a bit boring at first, with no trophy for getting the hardest emblem, that's just because the trophy is found further down the line, so to say - one trophy require you to get all iPod songs, and one song is unlocked by getting the hardest emblem. Other trophies, aside from story-related ones, mostly revolve around finding unusual stuff of the kind I've been talking about this whole review through. While some are really common knowledge, others seems to almost have been undiscovered before the patch.
To say it right out, this game is an obvious 10 out of 10 for me. It's got everything - beautiful graphics and environments, a soundtrack that's well-written and matches perfectly, responsive controls, a really great story and gameplay that keeps being amazing playthrough after playthrough. Sure, the controls might be a bit hard to learn but once you do so they are really great, and while the story might have some embarrassing scenes they are only small distractions. Even if it would've been even better without them it's not enough to stray from the fact that this is one of the best games of this generation. If you own a PS3, there's no reason for you not to own it.
Reviewer's Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Originally Posted: 01/04/13
Game Release: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (EU, 06/12/08)
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