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Games of 2008: Metal Gear Solid 4

Metal Gear Solid 4 is a strange game to discuss. As a long-time fan of the series it is both a superb gaming experience and an absolutely infuriating one. The game presents itself to players as being almost two separate entities: the one the player is engaged in and the one that Hideo Kojima wants the player to watch.

For a game like Metal Gear Solid 4, franchise history is of paramount importance to any discourse regarding the game. Metal Gear Solid is a franchise that got its North American start back in 1998. The Playstation game was released to pretty wide critical acclaim and commercial success (shipping “six million units worldwide. The game made good on its tag line of “Tactical Espionage Action” by merging its action and stealth gameplay better than any game that preceded it — a feat that went unmatched until the release of Splinter Cell four years later. Metal Gear Solid was, above all else, a game with sublime pacing throughout its duration; the gameplay was the focus, the cut scenes were lengthy for the time, but rarely excessive. The game’s sequel, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, was released two and a half year later and, despite critical and commercial success exceeding the original game, is considered a misstep in the series due to the change in protagonist, a pronounced increase in tangential storylines (especially the romance of two main characters), and more and longer cinematics.

When Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was released in 2004, the gameplay, characters, overarching story, and level design were all better than they ever were before. And it was with Metal Gear Solid 3 that the franchise’s penchant for unnecessarily lengthy storytelling through non-interactive cut scenes was most pronounced. The increased length of the cut scenes (along with an increased number of them) seemed to also go hand-in-hand with a poorly-crafted script that seemed to rely on a pure bulk of dialogue to present information and storylines. The franchise was always fond of its own verbosity, but each game in the series took it one step further.

And in 2008 Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was released.

The core gameplay of a Metal Gear Solid game has always involved a conscious choice on the player’s part: does he/she want to kill a lot of people or does he want to never kill a single enemy (or set off a single alarm)? Metal Gear Solid 4 features the finest implementation of these series axioms to date. The stealth mechanics haven’t been drastically redesigned, but the iterative improvements in Metal Gear Solid 4 go a long way. Solid Snake’s camouflage that was introduced in MGS 3 required players to spend a few painful seconds of menu navigation to choose the best pattern for his current environment, in Metal Gear Solid 4 Snake has an active camouflage suit that seamlessly blends with his current environment if the player remains motionless for a few seconds. This process will give Snake a base camouflage value that is at its lowest when he is running and highest/best when he is stationary and prone. It’s a simple change to an old system, but the way it works now makes an already-fun/tactical mechanic from an old game less of a hassle.

My other favorite stealth-related introduction was the new “threat ring.” If a player crouched to the ground and remained stationary for a few seconds, a ring would appear around Snake’s mid-section that would indicate enemy positions/movement around him. If there was no enemy present in a given direction then that segment would be flat, if there was then the size of the hill/wave that was formed would depend on the distance of the enemy from Snake. The threat ring will also be colored based on an enemy’s state of awareness. I think this is an absolutely brilliant interface mechanic for representing the kind of locational and audio information a player would have in the same in-game situation (or out-of-game with a good speaker setup).

While the stealth gameplay was relegated to some iterative changes on the existing framework, the combat and shooting mechanics seemed to have been almost entirely redesigned. Metal Gear Solid 4 allows over-the-shoulder aiming with weapons and a first-person perspective that allows the user to move while aiming. In the original Metal Gear Solid, the only method of shooting guns was by aiming from an isometric-esque viewpoint while using a laser attached to the gun to give the player an idea of the bullet direction. It wasn’t until MGS2 that players were allowed to also shoot from a first-person perspective and, even then, movement was prohibited (the same is true of the non-Subsistence releases of MGS3). Most importantly, the gunplay of Metal Gear Solid 4 felt good. The weaponry all had proper heft, shooting from both the over-the-shoulder and the first-person perspective were both viable and enjoyable, and the controls were, ahem, solid. Also introduced was a weapon dealer that was accessible from anywhere and a fairly simplistic weapon customization system that allowed players to add scopes, grips, grenade launchers, laser sights, silencers and other basic features to the weaponry that supported them.

It’s, actually, the new found strength of the gunplay in Metal Gear Solid 4 that ruins the balance between stealth and action. While the stealth aspects of Snake’s repertoire received minor iterative improvements, it was still a bit archaic compared to the redesigned nature of the combat. There is no proper cover system which has a slight impact on the combat encounters but, primarily, prevents a stealth player from easily jumping from cover-to-cover amidst enemy patrols.

The gameplay of Metal Gear Solid 4 is, without a doubt in my mind, fantastic. It’s actually a shame it had to arrive as a Metal Gear Solid game as the series reaches the peak of its own self-infatuation. The cinematics are so prolific and so unnecessarily lengthy that even I, as a long-time fan of the series, started getting a bit weary of them from time-to-time. This particular game had the lofty task of wrapping up over twenty years worth of storylines (the Metal Gear games and the Metal Gear Solid ones) but, in some ways, so many of those storylines never needed more attention given to them; namely, the romance of Raiden and Rose (two protagonists from Metal Gear Solid 2) and a seemingly-random romance between two characters in Metal Gear Solid 4. The end-game cinematics alone take up the kind of time you’d expect from a feature-length film. As long-winded as Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3 got at times, Metal Gear Solid 4 is still worse.

The casualty of the cut scenes is pacing. Throughout my young adulthood I played through the original Metal Gear Solid about five or six times. I may have watched all of the cinematics during two of those play-throughs. The gameplay still held up through almost the entire game with the cutscenes and story removed entirely. The same simply cannot be said for Guns of the Patriots. In my attempt to play through the game recently the number of cut scenes ruined whatever groove I got into so often that, eventually, I gave up shortly before the third act. I gave up around that specific point because after the end of the first two acts, the amount of gameplay decreases rapidly in favor of more cut scenes. Act four, for instance, is probably going to be one of my greatest memories as a gamer but that is due entirely due to how well the levels and cut scenes touch upon my nostalgia for the franchise. The amount and quality of the playable segments throughout that act is nowhere near that of the first two acts; players are no longer in the middle of a war between two factions but, rather, avoiding annoying little robots. Or big robots. Neither of which are enjoyable to face off against.

It is amazing how Metal Gear Solid 4 manages to wrap up those twenty years of plot lines, though. When I finished the game, it was impressive to see such a complete end to one of my beloved series. I could not think of a single plot line that I felt was unresolved (or resolved poorly). But what I enjoy about games is rarely the storylines as they are dictated to me. As the foremost interactive form of media in the world, a game has the ability to make players the story in their predetermined premise (like one of my other games of 2008). Cutscenes as rewards for completing a gameplay segment successfully or particularly well are one thing, but what Metal Gear Solid 4 does is make the gameplay a reward for finishing a cut scene.

Solid Snake’s story comes to a close in Metal Gear Solid 4. It’s been ten years since I was first introduced to the Metal Gear Solid series (I was too young to enjoy the Metal Gear games) and for my first time through the game, MGS4 did an adequate, and necessary, job of closing the narrative threads that got their start back way back when. In that decade, games have advanced in an uncountable number of ways. Metal Gear Solid 4′s gameplay has managed to not only meet modern expectations, but in some ways it surpassed them. But with MGS4, Kojima Productions has alienated anyone not in their immediate fan base (and those like me who want to play through a game more than once) by not keeping the gameplay/narrative pacing tight and consistently relevant to player actions.