Reviewed – Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots – PS3

17 min read

By Etienne VlokYes, I feel lucky. Do you, punk?

This is going to be a hard review to write. Considering that I have five A4 pages of notes to get through, (although I will admit that certain sections read like a stream-of-consciousness rant by someone suffering from ADD – “Chase scene – holy $*&@!” reads one memorable line on page 3), it’s going to be a long haul. More than that, it’s the fact that Metal Gear, as a series, tends to be very polarising. Either one gets onboard with Hideo Kojima’s vision of games – action and cutscenes in almost equal measure – or you don’t. But one thing is for sure: the PS 3 finally has its flagship exclusive title. Barring none, this is the most polished and well-conceived game released exclusively for the PS3 this year, and it would be a crime to not at the least consider buying it if you are a PS3 owner.

From the start, it’s clear that Kojima’s vision for Guns of the Patriots was to accomplish two things: firstly, to make full use of the PS3 hardware to blur the line between game and film even more; secondly, to finally close off a plot that has been in the making for more than 20 years. As such, the game is probably the most ambitious title you’ll play this year. The amazing thing, however, is that it manages to hit the mark nearly every time, resulting in a blend of highly cinematic action-adventure gaming, the likes of which has never been achieved before.

Loaded for bear is an accurated description

The plot revolves around the aging protagonist of the original Metal Gear Solid, Solid Snake – now known as Old Snake. Only five years have passed since the events of MGS2, but with his body literally beginning to shut down (for reasons that are revealed in the game), he’s adopted a fatalistic attitude to life, accepting that his own death is imminent. As he notes in the intro to the game, war has changed. No longer fought between nations, war has become an economy unto itself, with private military companies (PMCs) fighting proxy battles for profit across the globe. The advances in technology that controls warfare has also kept pace, with each soldier being injected with nanomachines that heighten combat performance while enforcing loyalty. This system – called Sons of the Patriots – is nearly all-encompassing: even weapons are ID-locked to the nanomachines in each individual soldier’s body, meaning that their weapons are technically controlled by the PMCs. It’s pretty much an Orwellian nightmare on the battlefield, with total control being the ultimate objective.

Snake’s nemesis, Liquid Ocelot (previously Liquid Snake and Revolver Ocelot) is the man behind the five largest PMCs in the world. His combined private military might rivals even that of the United States, and he plans to use this force to stage a worldwide insurrection, completely redrawing the map in terms of political and military power. Despite his age, Snake is asked by his previous commanding officer, Roy Campbell, to infiltrate Liquid’s Middle Eastern base of operations, with the ultimate goal of assassinating Liquid before he can put his plan into effect.

Of course, this is the scene set merely at the outset of the game. As you progress, you’ll find that MGS4 does indeed reach all the way back to the very first title in the series, released in 1987, and drags (sometimes kicking and screaming) nearly every plot point and mystery ever posed by the games into this narrative, which finally provides the answers long-time fans have been waiting to see answered for a few years now. What is notable is that the explanations mostly make sense, with a few clever twists and reveals coherently tying the narrative together. That said, the story is filled with deus ex machina moments, with whole swathes of the history being explained away by one particular (and recurring) fallback answer. While it makes sense, it’s akin to arguing with a Star Wars fan who replies to each inconsistency found in the films with “it was the Force that did it.” Still, the entire plot is basically recast as a multi-generational difference of ideology and ideal, with Old Snake fulfilling the Messiah role, while simultaneously attempting to atone for his own sins.

Big, explosive action scenes are the order of the day.

The game certainly aspires to be a big budget Hollywood-style finale to the series, and it doesn’t disappoint. Divided into 5 acts and an epilogue (which is pretty much one uber-long cutscene, but we’ll get to that later), the game breaks the formula of the previous games that saw the action taking place in a single location. Snake now travels the globe to accomplish his goals, and each act has a very different atmosphere – and in some cases, style of play – to the previous. In a conscious move, each act also pays homage to a previous Metal Gear title, with act 4 being the most obvious one. For fear of spoiling the surprise, let me simply say that I totally called it in my final retrospective.

The fact that each act differs almost radically from the preceding one leads to some very interesting gameplay choices. While you would expect that a Metal Gear game – practically the game that invented the stealth action genre – would stick exclusively to sneaking formula, MGS4 throws that notion to the wind. One act will see you skulking around a locked-down Eastern European city (that looks very much like Prague) at night in an attempt to find an informant; another will see you literally track people through the jungle by looking for footprints and broken branches or listening for variations in animal noises. There’s an action-packed assault on an enemy compound (along with AI-controlled allies), and an adrenaline-fuelled chase scene, which is certainly one of the most jaw-dropping, dynamic and simply kick-ass sequences ever committed to disc, ever.

The plot does manage to do most of what it sets out to do, with the finale involving a particularly gruelling sequence that really stands out as the climax of the tension of the game, if not the series. Interestingly, it employs a split-screen technique (think 24 here) that only serves to actually show how high the stakes are, while still keeping the focus squarely on the almost torturous exertion faced by a single character.

Other than this, the game features some laughs as well, a lot being self referential and utterly fourth wall-shattering. Surprisingly for a game that enables you to sneak up on someone and slit their throat, the game is very critical of the type of ‘social control’ that war-based video games offer, claiming that (at least in the Metal Gear universe) it was used as a tool to get the youth thinking that war is glamorous and exciting. I’m almost 100% sure that the game featured brief footage of Call of Duty 4 at this point, although I’ll have to replay to make sure.

While I’ve seen local players who weren’t long-time fans of the series posting to the contrary, I do think that the ultimate revelations will be a bit too convoluted and may lead to some confusion for people playing a MGS game for the first time. The finale of the game is very much a tribute to the long time fans, although this can be said for most of the game. Most of the characters ever mentioned in the series are either referenced by name or make an appearance to tie up their part in the greater plot – although some are completely stretching credibility with their mere appearance. Still, rest assured that before the end, you’ll say farewell to a number of prominent characters from the series.

Ultimately, the story is epic and satisfying, if a little too complex for its’ own good. The over-the-top drama is sometimes played too seriously, but by this point, that’s a staple of the franchise, so I’m willing to forgive it.

The game looks absolutely beautiful.

On a technical side, there is simply nothing on the PS3 that can touch Guns of the Patriots. The sound is probably the best use of 5.1 surround sound I’ve ever experienced in a game, with the crack of gunfire or rustle of tall grass being instrumental to keep you aware of what’s happening in your environment. The soundtrack, composed by series regular and film score veteran Harry Gregson-Williams, probably represents his best work in any genre, and there is certainly no shortage of memorable themes on hand. His reworking of the classic Metal Gear theme into the version used for Old Snake’s physical decline, as well as the revved-up action cue that serves as an anthem for the entire saga are both brilliant. There’s also a haunting melody that seems reminiscent of Black Hawk Down that crops up frequently. It all adds up to create a feeling of overwhelming fatalism – that this is very much Snake on his last legs; an old man trying to fulfil his final duty. The game also features numerous instances where it outright uses classic themes from earlier instalments, although I’ll leave it up to you to discover where this occurs.

The voice acting is pretty much top notch, with David Hayter reprising Snake. Notably, his performance is gruff and filled with hacking coughs and unusual breathing pauses, all contributing to the perception of Snake as a man who is slowly dying from the inside. Other characters are for the most part reprised by their respective voice actors, who deliver solid and convincing performance, if you don’t mind one or two chewing on the scenery from time to time.

Graphically, MGS4 is a marvel. While there are a few low resolution textures to be found in the game, the facial modelling is unsurpassed. The game features probably the most realistically rendered hair I’ve ever seen in a game. The only problem I detected was with the lip synching, which didn’t always match up. There is also a noticeable drop in frame-rate when there are big explosions onscreen, but this doesn’t occur frequently. Regardless, the environments are filled to the brim with small details: you screen will get dirt blown on it if you leave Snake and the camera waiting in the same position long enough; leave Snake outdoors in the snow long enough, and you see frost forming on his gear – even his moustache.

The cutscenes also look amazing, with the amount of detail and attention to high-quality motion capture going a long way to provide an effective platform for the story to be told. Often, the scenes will stretch out for ten to twenty minutes. The oft-cited figure of a 90-minute final cutscene is somewhat overstated – it’s much closer to 60 minutes. That said, the game features an enormous amount of exposition via cutscenes. My first playthrough was just shy of 23 hours (at the hardest difficulty level available for a first playthrough) and I estimate at least 9 hours was spent watching cutscenes. While I didn’t mind this at all, it’s worth considering that I’m part of the demographic these cutscenes were created to please. Newcomers may find the ratio of actual gameplay to cutscenes overwhelming. However, the quality of these cutscenes may be enough to win you over so that the running time doesn’t bother you as much. Another nice touch is that Konami added a pause feature to the game, which means you’re free to pause a particularly long cutscene to go grab some coffee or take smoke/bathroom break.

The most basic gameplay consists of stealthily guiding Snake through his environment without raising too much hell, although the latter option is certainly a viable approach to completing the game. Your task is aided by way of a technology called OctoCamo, which is basically a simplified version of the camouflage system of MGS3 that makes a return. In short, the camouflage will adapt to any environment Snake comes into contact with, making switching camo a lot easier than the system in MGS3. This makes for some incredibly tense moments where you are literally hiding in plain sight, with enemies actively searching for you not two metres away.

Snake also has access to something called a threat ring, a transparent ring that appears around him whenever he is not moving when he crouches or lies prone. The ring is usually flat, but when enemies are detected, they are displayed as undulations on the line that forms the ring, almost like a sound wave. It’s a useful visual aid that helps you keep track of your environment, when your position doesn’t always allow you to see beyond your hiding place.

The game also introduces an option to buy and upgrade weapons. While you could pick up a limited amount of modifications for guns in the previous titles, this game takes it to a new level, with a weapons merchant being available via your in-game menu. There’s an absolute embarrassment of riches when it comes to the arsenal you can use, and the amount of modifications for most is also truly staggering. You can turn one assault rifle into a powerful rifle/grenade launcher combo, while another is equipped with an under-barrel shotgun for close quarters.

The general controls for MGS4 sees a major improvement from the previous titles, with the game playing much more easily. In previous titles, Snake was reduced to walking or crawling. Now, he can actually move while crouched. It sounds like a simple addition, but it makes a huge difference in how the game plays, especially when compared to previous entries in the series.

When it comes to combat, the game plays like an over-the-shoulder 3rd person shooter. To aim, however, you need to press the L1 button on the controller, which effectively means you can’t shoot from the hip – something that took me a long time to come to grips with. The reason for this is that the R1 button is used for hand to hand combat – or CQC, as the game calls it. While I understand the reasoning behind this choice, I still wish that I could fire from the hip – it would certainly have come in handy in several instances where I reflexively pushed the R1 button, only to see Snake perform a shoulder charge at an opponent that was at least 20 meters away.

In that regard, the controls become a bit clunky when you are forced into a protracted gun-battle. Quite a few times, I was incensed with the way enemy soldiers would repeatedly knock you down just as you get up to continue the fight. Yes, the game allows you to shoot while lying on your back, but sometimes, you simply need to get up and run for better position. I have no problem with penalizing the player when he has been detected by the AI, but at least give me the chance to make a clean getaway by allowing me to get up!

The AI in the game is very good, but doesn’t seem quite as rounded as previous entries in the series. It misses a few tricks, like the enemy looking under cars or objects to find you, like in MGS2. Essentially, if you hide under a truck and take out a silenced weapon, you can take down the enemy all day without them finding you.

The Beauty and the Beast Unit

The game features numerous of the series’ now famous boss battles, which are all varied and challenging. The final four boss battles of the game are certainly some of the most memorable of the series, while still managing to refer to some previous encounter in the saga.

As mentioned earlier, the gameplay regularly changes gears, with each chapter bringing up a new challenge or style of playing. When combining this with the large amount of unlockable content, the game features a lot of replayability, especially since you can basically approach any given situation with all guns blazing, or opt for a more stealthy approach. While the gameplay makes up about 60% of story time, there’s certainly a lot of incentive to replay the title. Additionally, while there is a fair amount of innovation here with regards to the main gameplay mechanics, MGS4 is more of a refinement of what has gone before, that a true revolutionary leap.

The game also ships with Metal Gear Online included, although I have not had time to play this mode extensively. Look for a review specifically regarding that in the near future, although my early feeling is that it does improve on several problematic aspects of the beta released in May.

Before summarizing, I would be in error if I failed to mention the install times. There’s a long one (8 minutes) at the start of the game, then several more between each act, although these latter don’t last longer than 3 minutes, mostly taking up only 1 or 2 minutes. However, it does mean that the levels are loaded super-fast. It’s a trade-off, but one which didn’t bother me too much, personally.

Steve Jobs will one day rule the world.

Ultimately, what makes Guns of the Patriots so special is the attention to detail. You even have an iPod in your inventory, which you can use to listen to music from previous entries in the series which you find throughout the game, and there’s a wealth of cool easter eggs to discover. Combined with unsurpassed technical prowess and satisfying plot that caps off the entire series, MGS4 is a game that can be enjoyed by everyone, although the Metal Gear faithful will likely enjoy it the most. However, it’s the first must-own PS3- exclusive title, and as such, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Gameplay: 9.5/10 [Constantly presents new challenges, but controls let it down here and there.] Presentation: 10/10 [Best looking game on the PS3, without a doubt.] Sound: 10/10 [Hollywood-level production values, with a smashing soundtrack] Value: 9.5/10 [Extra content for multiple playthroughs; each combat scenario can be solved via stealth or combat] Plot: 9.3/10 [Convoluted, but enjoyable in the payoff, especially to long-time fans.] Overall: 9.5/10 [Best PS3 exclusive to date.] Better Than: [Previous Metal Gear games] Worse Than: [Nothing in the action-adventure genre even comes close.] [Ed] This game is so big we reviewed it twice. Check Philip’s review here

Last Updated: June 17, 2008

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