METAL GEAR SOLID 4 (2008) – KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS
Five years after its initial release, Metal Gear Solid 4 remains one of the crowning glories of what the PS3 is capable of. It is however one of those titles which sadly, due to the personal lack of a PS3, has passed me by for several years. Happily, a friend of mine invited me to play the game over a series of weekends at the end of last year so I could see exactly what I’ve missed. The result was quite the experience, but even now as I write this review I can’t decide on what description best represents Hideo Kojima’s masterpiece – is it one of the most ambitious games ever made, or is it a Hollywood film with occasional player interaction?
MGS4 is located towards the end of the incredibly convoluted Metal Gear timeline, set in 2014. Five years have passed since the events of Metal Gear Solid 2, and the game opens with out hero Solid Snake creeping around a battlefield in the Middle East, where a new type of warfare has taken control – soldiers are controlled by nanomachines fighting conflicts for a war economy. This new type of warfare is juxtaposed with Snake himself, who has aged rapidly since we last saw him as a side effect of the Les Enfants Terrible project, and has been called out of retirement to deal with Liquid Ocelot, who wishes to take control of the Patriots.
If you are still following the plot, good job. It only gets more complex from thereon in, and due to a lack of infinite paragraphs in this review to explain it, it’s the sort of story to savour as you play through the game. Needless to say, fans of the series will lap it up – several faces from the past turn up to help Snake in his mission, including Octacon (arguably the star of the show in this narrative), Roy Campbell, Meryl, and Raiden (who by this point had gone full cyborg ninja and will be getting his own adventures in a weeks time when Metal Gear Rising comes out). The appearance of familiar faces is just the tip of the iceberg though; there are so many small clever references included as a celebration of the series’ past – Chapter 4 feels like a love letter to anyone who has played the first Metal Gear Solid, and is one of my favourite sequences that I have played in a game in a long time. You do get the feeling that Kojima considered this to be his magnum opus, and the result is compelling throughout.
Of course, the Metal Gear franchise isn’t just famous for its ludicrous story – gameplay, and in particular stealth, has always been a core feature of the series. The fourth instalment gives Snake plenty of new toys to play with in order to get past the enemy guards. First off he now has a suit with Octocamo – a device that when he is stationary against a wall or lying on the floor will allow his suit to change his colour to blend in with the surrounding environment. It’s a far less awkward system that the manual camo changing of MGS3, and it is a highly intuitive system; lie down next to a watermelon for example, and you’ll get the stripes on your suit. Another new toy is the Metal Gear Mk.II, a small portable robot that Octacon builds for you. The Mk.II can move around the battlefield in stealth camouflage, electrocute enemies into a daze, pick up ammo and scout the surrounding area using a selection of cameras; hilariously, Snake does all this by controlling the MK.II with an in game PS3 controller. Snake also has something called the Solid Eye system, which allows him to view the battlefield with a constant heads-up display that shows him enemy statuses amongst other things, and can be swapped at the press of a button to night vision or thermal goggles. Alongside these new gadgets, Snake has access to the usual set of equipment to survive, a multitude of guns from pistols to rocket launchers that can be upgraded through a shady weapons dealer called Drebin, as well as all the items fans of the series have become accustomed to: rations, cardboard boxes to sneak around in, and even an IPod to play music if you get bored.
The problem with MGS4 however is that while these gameplay additions function brilliantly, the game seems to betray its stealth orientated roots quite a bit. If you so choose, a run and gun style of play is entirely possible this time around thanks to some improved third person shooting mechanics, and half the time the set-pieces you get thrown into encourage you to fire off as many rounds as possible. This issue pales into comparison however with the element of gameplay that does split most opinions on MGS4 – the amount of time you actively play the game. Set over five different chapters, the amount of time where you actually control Snake’s movement slowly decreases over the course of the game to be replaced with on-rail sections and cut scenes….which sometimes go on for a good 30 minutes a pop. Now, don’t get me wrong, I loved the cut scenes; I felt they add a panache to MGS4 that other games simply don’t go near, but I can readily understand that some people may feel cheated by paying for a game that they are watching rather than playing half the time. So consider this a warning; if you want to play through MGS4, be prepared to put the kettle on quite a bit.
Whether it be gameplay or cutscenes though, MGS4 is a triumph for audiovisual presentation. It’s a gorgeous game, taking in several different theatres of war from a crumbling town in the Middle East to the gritty almost noir-streets of Eastern Europe and pulling them off in style. Aside from the occasional texture pop-in, it’s a fantastic achievement and remains a high standard for what the PS3 is capable of even now. Perhaps the most impressive displays of graphical prowess are the mission briefings before Snake heads out; while the cut scene is occurring, you can fire up the Mk.II and walk around the briefing area, watching the animation for several different angles or seeing what else is happening. For example, Snake and Octacon may be having a conversation downstairs, and meanwhile if you take the Mk.II upstairs you can watch Sunny cook eggs – the level of detail is quite outstanding.
It’s also matched by a top notch performance from the vocal cast. The Metal Gear series has always been very proud of its scripts and voice acting; the actors get name credits whenever a new game character appears for the first time for example. As you perhaps might expect, David Hayter delivers another excellent performance as the decaying Snake, but the cast around him is arguably better than ever. As previously mentioned, Christopher Randolph is captivating as Octacon, and there are solid performances by Debi Mae West, Quinton Flynn and Jennifer Hale as Meryl, Raiden and Naomi respectively. A quick mention should also be given to the soundtrack composed by Harry Gregson Williams – while not perhaps as immediately recognizable as past installments it’s still a blast.
Returning to the question I posed at the beginning – is MGS4 a game or a Hollywood film? The truth is it is neither; it’s Metal Gear Solid, an entirely different beast within itself. As such, it should be appreciated for what it really is, a game with ambitious Hollywood aspirations that ends up being the best of both worlds. It isn’t the strongest of the series gameplay wise – that honor belongs to MGS3 in my humble opinion. In every other respect however, this is Metal Gear Solid, and the PS3, at is very best. With the recent addition of trophies, there’s no better time to either go back and replay it or enter into the narrative for the first time.