Sunday, September 14, 2008

Review: Metal Gear Solid 4

Kojima Productions


Fans of Hideo Kojima’s confusing, complex and downright compelling Metal Gear series will lap up every last overly cinematic second of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, although newcomers to the series may have an adverse reaction to the series’ final instalment.

It’s just over twenty years since Kojima’s first stealth game, and Guns of the Patriots is a worthy successor to the previous games in the series, as well as providing a capstone to Kojima’s career as he redefines not just a genre, but an entire medium. A grandiose statement, to be sure, but that’s exactly what he’s done – MGS4 is possibly the best example of an interactive movie that’s ever been produced. Just under half of the game, in terms of total play time, takes place in in-engine cutscenes. This is a hefty chunk of time to relinquish control of a game, particularly one retailing for upwards of a hundred dollars, but Kojima’s story carries quite an emotional weight, especially for players already invested in the series.

The game begins five years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 2, as a prematurely aged Solid Snake (now referred to as Old Snake) shuffles his bones along a dusty road with a militia convoy, and fights alongside them against one of many private military companies (PMC) owned by his (ridiculously named) arch-nemesis Liquid Ocelot. These PMCs fight an endless series of proxy battles on behalf of business interests – in effect a stock market of human lives and territories – and, coincidentally, provide a usefully obfuscating background of violence, weapons and dust for Snake to do his now-familiar sneaking. Called out of retirement for one last shot at assassinating Liquid Ocelot, Snake grumbles through the opening stages of the game, but for an old man, he’s remarkably agile, throwing himself into battle with aplomb and no small amount of panache.

Allegiances are fluid on the battlefield, and throughout the game Snake can win over separate militias by fighting alongside them against the better-equipped PMC soldiers. Players new to the series will likely have some difficulty taking the time to identify targets before attacking, as mistakes are punished very quickly, even on the easiest difficulty level, by hordes of hostile soldiers suddenly switching their allegiances and seeing you as a target.

Experienced players will be more comfortable with the idea of being between a rock and a hard place, but it’s a maddening feeling, have to hide in various darkened corners while endless streams of enemies file past. Try to pick them off one by one, as you would in any normal situation (for certain console-based values of the word ‘normal’), and they’ll switch to high alert mode and try to flush you out. Even if your retooled camouflage suit is doing its job and the PMC soldiers can’t find you, there’s a seemingly infinite number of them to replace the ones you’ve killed. Progress, then, is best made by timing short runs between hiding places, judicious use of grenades and petrol-filled bottles to kill, maim and confuse, and the familiar gaming fallback of dying enough times that you begin to learn the patrol patterns of enemy soldiers.

It’s infuriating. But what starts to happen, after the first dozen failed missions, is that your attitude towards the game starts to change – the PS3 controller becomes an extension of your hands, you mirror Snake’s stress meter, and become much more comfortable moving along at a snail’s pace. And the tension that bedevils you earlier on in the game will be released by the lengthy cutscenes. It all becomes very zen, really.

In terms of replay value, MGS4 is good for at least another two or three run-throughs, if only to catch the final plot points that sailed over your head the first time. It’s also remarkably fun skipping all the cutscenes and restricting your weapon use to the handy old tranquiliser gun – a hell of a challenge, but it stops you from treating the game like a garden-variety shooter. And for a stealth game, MGS4 does make a terrible shooter.

Judging apples against oranges is difficult enough in normal circumstances, but MGS4 is different again – difficult for some gamers to swallow, it’s truly its own strange fruit.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

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