Guest Author - James Shea
The final installment of Hideo Kojima's "Metal Gear" series has a lot to live up to. Besides its innovations in gameplay, Metal Gear Solid 4 has to worry about wrapping up and connecting the stories of 5 different Metal Gear games. As such, this long-awaited finale has its work cut out for it, but does it pull it off?
The story in this game is all but impenetrable if you haven't played every other game in the series, including the PSP-only Portable Ops. The game relies heavily on references and flashbacks from old games to tell its story, drawing from every other game to wrap up the series as a finished product. As a result, people who haven't played any of the games in the series before would do well to avoid the game and perhaps get the MGS Essential Collection for the PS2 first.
The new theme in this Metal Gear Solid game is "the battlefield". Working against mercenaries employed by various Private Military Companies, you attempt to sneak (or fight) through warzones as the PMCs engage rebel and militia forces. Instead of the simpler and quieter job of sneaking through areas where your enemies are not engaged, you must instead brave gunfire from either side and avoid being detected. In many areas it's possible to aid the rebels by attacking PMCs; since the PMCs are always your enemies, it's useful to have people on your side who are fighting them. Doing so will make the rebels friendly to you and make your job easier. If you choose to attack the rebels, or not fight the PMCs, you'll have a tough time moving through rebel-controlled areas as well as PMC-controlled areas because both sides will be hostile towards you. Your participation in the battle is not required, though depending on your style of play, the game may get easier or harder depending on how you "use" the rebels. There are many pitched battles in the game, often involving armored vehicles and heavy weapons being used by both sides, with artillery raining down from above. Atmospherically, these sections definitely have the feel of a dangerous warzone, where any cover can be destroyed and an ambush can come from any side.
Your main tool to avoid enemies is OctoCamo. A development of the camouflage system in MGS3, OctoCamo blends in automatically with any background you press against, granting you near-invisibility in almost any setting. Defeating the game's first boss grants you a mask addition that allows you to either camouflage your face (increasing your invisibility even further) or put on masks of human faces to use as disguises (it's purely a cosmetic change, though). Furthermore, there are certain uniforms that allows you to blend in with the crowds of militiamen and rebels and reduces the likelihood that Snake will personally be spotted. It also makes an ally out of any rebels that you happen to meet, since they assume you're on their side.
Another item introduced in the game is the Solid Eye, a multipurpose "eyepatch" that allows you an extra heads-up display over your regular one. This HUD highlights items for you to collect, adds informative statistics to NPCs within range (specifically things like their mental status, health, and how they feel about you). Furthermore, it also includes a binocular and night-vision/thermal vision mode, both of which are useful at spotting enemies at long range.
There are two "health" bars in the game - the first represents physical health, while the second represents your state of mind. Being in stressful situations, such as being pursued, being shot at, or having killed a lot of enemies, will raise your stress a great deal and lower your state of mind. The lower your "psyche" bar is, the less accurately you will shoot, and furthermore Snake will breathe heavily and move sluggishly. The health bar is restored by items like rations, while the psyche bar is recovered either through certain food items or by staying out of combat for a certain amount of time to gather your wits. The Psyche bar may be a relatively annoying development, based on how you play; if you are a gung-ho soldier who intends to run around and shoot everything, then the psyche bar will hinder you fairly often. If you avoid combat, move slowly, and don't get caught in major fights, it isn't much of a problem.
Weapons in this game are handled differently than previous games. In the past, weapons had to be found "clean" - you couldn't take weapons from enemies, but instead had to find them in certain areas at different parts of the game. In MGS4, a new character called Drebin is introduced. Drebin is a gun launderer - in exchange for "Drebin Points" accumulated by selling him weapons found on the battlefield, Drebin will remove the personal ID of any gun you find, which will allow you to use the formerly locked weapon. He will also sell you guns and ammo directly, though this tends to be more expensive. The sheer number of weapons is far greater than any other Metal Gear game: pistols, submachine guns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, rocket launchers, grenade launchers, and anti-tank missiles are all included in the game's arsenal. The weapons in this game are in many cases customizable with a variety of items, including scopes, silencers, grips, laser sights, flashlights, and a wide variety of ammunition, both lethal and non-lethal. The effect of both the shop and the number of available weapons is to remind you that you are in a warzone, not a clean sneaking environment. As such, combat is often much more frantic and intense, and justifies the use of an RPG or a guided anti-tank missile.
The new gameplay and controls in the game have mostly been improved. Instead of previous MGS games' overhead camera, MGS4 allows either an auto-aim or a third person over-the-shoulder shooting scheme. The option for first person also exists, using scopes or iron sights. The over-the-shoulder camera should be familiar to anyone who's played Resident Evil 4, and is one of the most helpful additions, gameplay-wise, to the game. Snake can aim either from the right or from the left, which helps when peeking out around corners. The controls are different, but primarily intuitive. The option exists to press against certain walls, either to hide out of someone's line of sight or to blend in with OctoCamo. This also allows for the ability to lean out into doorways to shoot at enemies, a refined version of the ability used in MGS2 and MGS3.
In less gun-related combat, CQC has been brought over from MGS3, and for the most part it is the same. For some reason, it feels less smooth in operation, however. The option to hold enemies at gunpoint if they are caught unaware has been upgraded; instead of the somewhat nonsensical "point your gun at enemies and they will shake items out of their bodies" that previous games had, MGS4 goes with a more realistic "body check" as Snake pats down his enemies for weapons and ammunition. CQC and holding enemies up both can cause enemies to drop their weapons, unlike in previous games where enemies would hold on to their rifles and riddle you with bullets as soon as you dropped your guard. The items all feel much more realistic, and there are no more "floating item boxes". Some items are still contained in large boxes, but at the very least they no longer float and rotate anymore.
The main problem with the game, in terms of gameplay, is that there isn't enough of it. The game is divided into five acts. The first two are as I described above: fighting through a warzone populated by PMCs with the help of rebels. However, from the third act onwards, these features disappear. Only the first two acts of the game are really identifiable as "MGS4", while the rest is like a different game that uses MGS4's gameplay and engine. Act 3 has you tailing an informant through a PMC-controlled city, Act 4 consists almost entirely of fighting robots and unmanned vehicles, and Act 5 consists of only two areas.
For the most part, the game feels like wrestling with the cutscenes and story for control of the game. So many things happen in cutscenes that should have been done as actual gameplay sections. In fact, there are two cutscenes that occur while you are doing a gameplay segment, forcing you to rapidly move your eyes back and forth to the sides of the screen if you want to see what's going on in the cutscene. One character, returned from a previous game as a buffed-up cyborg ninja, has fight scenes that only occur in cinematics, and he never fights alongside you in actual gameplay. The sheer number and length of the cutscenes is overwhelming, as well. Early on I was willing to forgive it because MGS4 did have a lot of loose ends to tie up, but by the end it seems like unnecessary things were added or put in just so it would seem more like a Hollywood-style movie. I beat the game in 20 hours, and I estimate a third or a fourth of that was spent watching cutscenes. To be fair, they are well-directed and good overall, but they're just overwhelmingly long and poorly paced. The ending, for example, takes a good hour to complete, at least. Especially when you consider how many cutscenes would translate fine to regular gameplay, it seems way too excessive.
The bosses of the game - the "Beauty and the Beast" unit - are also somewhat disappointing. All four are meant to be shadows of earlier bosses - combining the animal names of FOXHOUND from MGS1 with the emotions of the Cobra Unit of MGS3 to create "Laughing Octopus", "Raging Raven", "Crying Wolf", and "Screaming Mantis". Out of all of these bosses, only Laughing Octopus is really enjoyable to fight, as she uses a lot of stealth and surprise tactics. The others are just gimmicky fights that tend to be more annoying than fun. The worst part is that these bosses have nothing to do with the storyline other than "they're an elite unit under the bad guy's control".
The graphics in the game are smooth and effective. The animation, in particular, seems very natural and realistic, with a lot more focus on how people actually move. There's no fault that can be found with the graphics; the characters and environments seem exactly as good and detailed as they need to be, and definitely help keep you immersed. The voice acting is great, with a lot of nostalgic returns from the original Metal Gear Solid's voice crew for characters that are returning in this new game. The music is usually understated, allowing the environmental noises - gunfire, yells, wind, and so on - to take center stage except in situations when Snake has been spotted, when tense and exciting music plays. The quality of the music is excellent, being thematic and evocative for each different area of the game. One of the items is an iPod that allows Snake to play songs that he has collected in the game. Some of these songs actually affect gameplay; certain battle themes will increase Snake's accuracy or health regeneration, while other songs will cause emotions in enemies that Snake has caught in a chokehold (presumably, that's where they have to be so that they are close enough to hear the music).
Overall, MGS4 is an incredible game, but there's not enough "game" to rate it that highly as a total package. The overwhelming presence of cutscenes was incredibly stifling, and the sections of the game that were working with the established rules of the game were remarkably short. It feels like the game got too caught up in the story and forgot it was supposed to be a game, deciding instead to spend almost all of its time expounding on philosophy and history from previous Metal Gear games. There were a lot of really good sections, but these were far too short and seemed more like exceptions to the norm. If it was being rated as a movie, it would deserve full marks, but to rate it as a game, it only deserves an 7 or 8 out of 10 at most.
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