Saturday, February 11, 2012

Gamegaddon: Metal Gear Solid 4

Breakfastman’s Gamegadon: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
It was supposed to be the end of one of the most beloved series of all time. It wasn’t, but is it any good regardless?
Metal Gear Solid 4 is a stealth-action game released in 2008 by Konami, and is the sixth in the “Metal Gear” series, which was started with the release of “Metal Gear” on the MSX2 15 years ago. My own experience with the series begins a bit more recently. A year or two back, I was in a used book store, browsing their used games shelve. I saw a copy of “Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance” for the original X-Box. I had always wanted to try the series, so I decided to purchase it. This turned out to be a great idea, and I quite enjoyed the game. About a month or so later, I purchased a copy of “Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence”. By the time I was finished, the game had become one of my favorite games on the PS2, and indeed, of all time. Unfortunately, it was not until recently that I finally managed to get a hold of a copy of MGS4, the game that marks the end to the series plot. Was it what I the epic end to the series I had hoped for? Kind of.

Metal Gear Solid 4 takes place five years after the previous game in the timeline, Metal Gear Solid 2 (Metal Gear Solid 3 being a prequel). Snake is rapidly aging because of his status as a clone, nanomachines are everywhere, and all parts of the world are in a state of constant war, with battles largely being fought by PMCs. The economy of the world is now intrinsically linked with war. Snake travels to the middle east to investigate reports of activity by creepy arm spirit possession man Liquid Ocelot. What he finds is that Liquid is testing a mysterious new weapon on soldiers. This starts a global race against time to find and stop Liquids plan for this weapon, hopefully saving the world in the progress. Snake meets many familiar characters along the way (in fact, anyone who wasn’t dead by the end of the previous games show up in some form or another), visiting a couple new environments, and meeting a couple of new characters along the way (only one of whom is any good).

            If you thought Metal Gear Solid did not have homoerotic undertones, well, have I got news for you!
The story is, to put it bluntly, pure Kojima, for better or worse. Yes, that does mean hideously bloated, way too long cutscenes, terribly overwritten dialog, an ending that goes for far longer than it should, unneeded characters that the game could have done without, and silliness. It also means tragic backstories, loads of great characters, a ton of good ideas (a lot of which actually work), and piles of memorable moments. It won’t win over anyone who hated the stories before, but for those who actually liked them, they will feel right at home.

This does not mean that everything is all sunshine and roses. There are still a few problems that seem to be unique to this game (or at least, pose much more of a problem in this game than in previous games). The main problem being that Kojima thinks the audience is a collection of idiots. There is also the issue of some awfully big plot-holes one could drive a truck through.

                    In game advertising does not get much more blatant than this.

Far too much time is devoted to explaining bits of history that I learned in highschool. This also happened in MGS3 (I know what happened in the Bay of Pigs, thank you very much), but it appears much more here. Yes, I do know what the cold war was. Thank you for explaining game. Oh wait, you want to explain the politics of the last 40 years? You do that. I am going to go get snack.

Too much time is also devoted to explain, in exhaustive detail, the events of previous games. This could have easily been accomplished with a “previously on MGS” option in the main menu that explained the events of the previous games (hell, they even have a mechanic that helps explain who characters are without interrupting the cutscenes), not the piles upon piles of cutscenes that we get in the game. They exhaustively detail every single plot twist, character arc, and relationship between the characters. It gets so damn distracting that I ended up tuning most of the dialog out, in order to avoid listening to characters explain to me things that I already experienced. They are distracting and break up the flow of the game considerably.

 Robotic tanks that walk around and two feet and moo. In case you couldn’t tell, this game can be a bit silly. Just a bit.

Far too much of the cutscenes are devoted to explaining things we have already figured out for ourselves. I cannot begin to count the times that a character revealed “startling revelation” that I had figured out at least a half hour prior. It is not even that I am incredibly smart and can spot twist a mile away (which I can, by the way); these twists are so screamingly obvious that the only way they could possibly be a surprise was if the player was high throughout the entire game.

Additionally, plot-holes. There are quite a bit of them. These are not small ones that one only realizes are there a week after when thinking about the game. No, these are “scream at your TV because it refuses to make sense” plot-holes. Multiple times characters make decisions that make absolutely no sense and do nothing but put their lives in danger when other alternatives exist that would not endanger their lives. Characters survive massive amounts of bullets, and characters that were pretty much dead as a doornail somehow manage to come back to life, then die a minute later, accomplishing nothing. It is all insanely distracting.

                                   Snake, morning the end of his relevance as a game character. :'(

But, every cloud has a silver lining; while there are stuff that outright craps all over the story, there are also many good ideas and interesting themes present. Chief among these themes is the theme of growing old. Since Snake is aging at an accelerated rate, he is now the physical age of a man well into his 70’s. He longs for the good old days, as seen in a later level of the game when sounds of his memories play in the background as he wanders around the area. He also suffers from “seizures” of a sort; these seizures really help to illustrate the pain that he is going through. Yet, the game never gets hopeless. Despite Snake’s age, he is still treated as an equal among his peers, and is even shown as being revered in a few circumstances. He is never seen as useless.

The game also has a rather heavy-handed anti-war message. Yet, despite how often the game bangs the player over the head with this (characters spout complaints about “the horrors of war” at every turn), it still manages to convey its message in some fairly interesting and subtle ways. Chief amongst these is the treatment of returning character, “Raiden”. In his youth, Raiden was a child soldier. This massively damaged his psyche, and as a result of that, he has a hard time connecting with people. He retreats from society to the only thing he knows: war. This has the effect of literally making him an inhuman killing machine. He is still seen as sympathetic; a man of unfortunate circumstances forced to become a monster because of forces beyond his control. Only when war has ended does he get his redemption, and the scene where he does is fairly poignant and moving.

                                   Nobody told Snake that you shouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight.

The game uses a variety of interesting ways to tell its story and keep the player interacting. Every now and then, an “X” will appear in the corner of the screen; when pressed, this button shows a screen from previous game, reminding the player of the character/actions being mentioned. In the same vein, the player can sometimes press L1 to show the view from Snakes eyes. Additionally, there are other nice little touches, like well-placed quick-time events, some small deviations from the typical mode of gameplay, and other nice uses of interactivity to heighten the player’s involvement with the story. In light of this, it really is a shame that Kojima seemingly can’t recognize a good thing when he has it.

Unlike the story, the gameplay has received some fairly substantial improvements in this game. The MGS series never had the best gunplay. The player either had to shoot from a top-down camera with no way to aim, or go into first person, making it easier to aim but removed the ability to move. MGS4 changes all that. The player can now fire down over the soldier, or aim down the sites at will. The game also allows the player to move and shoot at the same time. The ability to move while crouched or take cover behind walls is also added, and both are a god-send and improve the gunplay substantially. It is finally fun to shoot enemies in the face, and blows every other game in the series out of the water.

The tranq gun makes its triumphant return. Unfortunately, it has limited ammo, so no more acting like the sandman.

The camera has also seen a big change. Instead of the terrible, isometric top-down camera that nearly every single other game except the special addition of 3 had, they implement a camera that is controlled by the player. The player can now use the right-thumb stick to move the camera and look at whatever they so desire, without having to bother to go into first-person. This gives the action and the stealth a kick in the pants and change the way the player plays both.

The control scheme has received a number of improvements, but it is still not good enough to call it “good”. The player no longer uses the Codec to save, which is nice. But, the terrible inventory system from the previous games is still present. Pressing L2 and R2 bring up the item and weapon inventory respectively, and the player can flip through the selections on the screen. This has the unfortunate effect of breaking up the action whenever the player wants to use a health item or change to another weapon. It would have been easier to let the player map favorite weapons/items to hotkeys, but no such luck. Drawing a weapon with L1 and firing with R1 feels fine, but having to hit Triangle to go into first person feels sloppy. Crouching and going prone with X also feels fine, but if the player wants to roll while moving, God help them. Too often I found myself trying to roll away from danger, only to go prone or crouch at the end of the roll. Stuff like that should not happen; I should not be doing things I did not mean to do, through no fault of my own.

                                                                Eh, Snake can take them, I think.

The game includes a new item customization system. The player can attach a variety of sights, silencers, flashlights, laser pointers, grenade launchers, shotguns, and more to most of the weapons. These changes not only show up on the guns in game (a nice aesthetic touch), but make a huge difference in how they work and how the player can use them. I ended up converting an M4 given to me in game into a silent bringer of death on par with my sniper rifle. This was probably my favorite new feature of the game, and it is implemented superbly.

A new shop system is also implemented. When wandering around the battlefield, Snake will pick up new weapons, the first version of which is kept, and all subsequent pickups are sold to the shop for points. These points can be used to unlock weapons (since the weapons Snake pick up on the field are locked for a certain individual and cannot be used immediately), or to purchase new weapons, items, ammo, or upgrades. The player will never want for points either, since enemies drop weapons whenever they die, and each weapon gives a rather large amount of points. I had over one hundred thousand by the end of the game, and had all the weapons, ammo, items, and upgrades I could ever want.

                                                                        Most useless. Metal Gear. Ever.

Stealth is much less of a focus in this game. Oh, don’t get me wrong; it is still a stealth game and stealth is still a viable option. It just so happens that blowing away enemies is also a viable option. The ultimate result of this is that the player has more options than ever. They can snipe enemies from afar, sneak around without killing anyone (and if they do get caught, they can fight their way out), or run in guns blazing. The end result is a game that offers more options than previous iterations and is more satisfying than ever, whether capping fools with a sniper rifle, sneaking behind enemies’ backs, or killing the hell out of everything that moves.

A MGS game would not be complete without memorable boss battles, and this game delivers, most of the time. All bosses are every different, both in tactics and overall appearance. Problem solving skills are still as important as they ever where; the player needs to be just as clever as they are aggressive to take them down, since many bosses have a trick to fighting them that is not always immediately obvious. I really don’t want to talk any more about them than that, since half the fun of every MGS game is the unique bosses that get thrown at the player.

                                     Someone is in for a load of pain. Hint: it is not guy pressed against the wall. 

While the gameplay is fantastic, the graphics in the game are good, but nothing special. There is a bit of nice texture work, everything animates beautifully, and the foliage and hair effects are nice, but nothing really stood out. The character models all look incredibly unrealistic, but it does not really clash with the rest of the game since it was not going for realism to begin with (the presence of giant walking tanks that can swim through the water pretty much destroys any hope for realism one might have had). The game does feature some absolutely brilliant use of particle effects that really help to make the game look nice.

The level design is also nice, but nothing special and frequently has problems. The first two levels offer the player many ways to approach a situation, but they don’t look that different from each other. The third level has an interesting premise and looks really neat, but it pretty much abandons much of what it had going for it after about a half hour. The 4th level is also good, but does not have nearly enough gameplay. The final level has about as little actual gameplay as possible. Additionally, the game never stays in one place long enough for the player to get acquainted with it, unlike the previous games, which certainly don’t help. It is not up to the high standards set by the previous game.

                                 Snake’s favorite past-time: blowing stuff up. Hey, a man’s gotta have a hobby.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is a solid entry in the series, but not the best. The story has a lot of good ideas, many of which work, but ends up being too hampered by a ton of terrible decisions. The gameplay has certainly received a bump in quality, resulting in gunplay and stealth that is more satisfying than ever. Metal Gear Solid fans will probably enjoy the game, and those who couldn’t stand the gameplay from previous entries in the series should check this one out. Anyone who didn’t like the others for the story shouldn’t bother. I would also not recommend this one to anyone looking to get into the series either; if you really want to get into the series, play MGS3: Subsistence.

Breakfastman is an amateur reviewer, student, and all around cool guy. Questions, comments, constructive criticisms, rants, rages? Feel free to post them below. All images blatantly stolen from Google.

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