Before I begin talking about Metal Gear Solid 4, I need to discuss my opinion on spin off games.
The reason I won’t review Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops is partially because I never played it, but also because I don’t feel like it has a place in the main series. See, I don’t think that you should have to go outside of your chosen console to get the full story, in the same way that you didn’t need to be caught up on the Agents of Shield TV series to get the story of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And apparently Hideo Kojima supports me on this as far as Portable Ops is concerned, to the extent of knocking it in the latest game Ground Zeroes (ironically in the same game that requires you to have played Peace Walker to get the full emotional impact of it’s story). So I won’t do a “Spin off game” unless I feel like it has an impact on the overall series or story (which is why I will be talking about Peace Walker and Metal Gear Rising as part of TIR). With that said, let’s move on to MGS4.
Released in 2008 for the PS4, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is the game that many people bought as their introduction to the Metal Gear series.
Huge mistake, because this game is pretty much banking on the fact that you’ve played the games proceeding it.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing however, since the games purpose is to be the conclusion to three very long and complex storylines. People’s complaint about the finale of Lost wasn’t that it didn’t catch you up to everything that happened before the final episode (there were apparently a lot of other reasons why that finale sucked, though I don’t see it. It was fine, and I was satisfied).
With that said, Guns of the Patriots does a great job of wrapping up all loose ends in the previous games; closure on Meryl’s relationship with Campbell, Raiden’s life after discovering that he’s apparently a credible protagonist in the final act of his own game, and even what happened to the surviving characters of Snake Eater. At the same time it has its own story and characters to both introduce and wrap up their stories. It does this well and provides closure to everything that came before it. It does have the stink of Retcon about it, especially regarding the identity of the games villain, though since it’s Retconing something that was stupid back in MGS2 then I feel lenient. Besides, with things like this the end of the story is rarely thought up back in the first game, first chapter of a comic, or even the first episode of a TV show. Provided the Retcon doesn’t contradict anything, which MGS4 doesn’t do thankfully.
But onto the story itself; Solid Snake is aging rapidly due to his artificial origins as a clone of the legendary solider Big Boss and is on the verge of death. However he embarks on his final mission to assassinate his brother Liquid Snake, now known as Liquid Ocelot, before he can launch his plan to highjack the nano-machine system used to control all soldiers on the planet, rendering their weapons useless and allowing him to take over the world without anyone being able to fight back. That’s the abridged version of the plot however; there are too many sub-plots and character backstories to even list. You have to really be playing attention and be engaged in the story to get any enjoyment.
I do find it worth noting that this is the game that got me to like Raiden. Seriously, this guy went from a whiny bitch to a badass ninja who earned his own spin off game, Metal Gear Rising. It just goes to show that even a character that I hate and find irritating can still win me over if you actually write him competently. His tragic past coupled with his transformation into a cyborg engine of destruction actually makes him a compelling character. Not to say that you can’t try and get into the series this way; I won’t lie to you about your chances, but you have my sympathy. I admire it’s purity…
However there is a lot of story here, so there’s a lot of cutscenes, even by Metal Gear Solid standards. In the past however, I never felt like the game suffered as a result of the story, which it does here I’m sad to say.
It isn’t shorter than Metal Gear Solid 3; they can both be done in 5 hours, but in Snake Eater the game flowed continuously. In Guns of the Patriots the game is littered with loading screens and has to install between levels, unless you do a full install, which was patched in later (which my tiny PS3 hard drive doesn’t even support). And this honestly wouldn’t be so bad, if you’re playing though the game and watching all the cutscenes they don’t bother me so much.
HOWEVER the game includes emblem challenges which, if you try to obtain all of, requires a minimum of 8 playthroughs, which as a result you’ll be playing through and skipping these cutscenes, multiple times, dragging the whole experience out. And this wouldn’t be so bad, it honestly wouldn’t, but the different playthroughs require you to play the game in asinine ways, with 8 different combinations of kills, alerts and continues; so one emblem requires you to get over 250 kills, but under 25 continues and over 75 alerts, while another is the same but wants you get less that 75 alerts, and it’s just combinations of these three things, and requires you to grind either alerts or continues to get the desired emblem. It’s the bad kind of replayability, whereas Splinter Cell Blacklist had you play the game in multiple different play styles and as a result each playthough feels different.
But relating this back to the loading screens; when you’re playing through and neglecting the story then these faults become very annoying, very fast. If you’re playing just for the story then it won’t be such a huge deal, the install times are kind of like the shut off point, or a toilet break on long playthroughs. However if you’re a completionist and will be playing the game to unlock everything, it really works against the game and become even more obvious.
To put this another, much shorter way; I played Metal Gear Solid 3 about 10 times in a row because I loved it and wanted to play more, and not because my OCD demanded I did!
But what about the gameplay itself?
MGS4 is the turning point for the series and dramatically changes how the game is played by introducing action elements, letting gamers play it as a shooter rather than a stealth game, if they choose to. It doesn’t force you to play the game like a FPS, though it does have action segments that you have to fight in. However unlike in Metal Gear Solid where this type of scenario suffered from it’s restricted control scheme, Metal Gear Solid 4 allows you to use your weapons efficiently and doesn’t feel out of place, which is a lesson lost on both the first Metal Gear Solid, as well as the first Splinter Cell. You can aim your gun and fire it freely, switching to a first person view to use the iron sights or a scope if you equip it.
And in the running theme of Metal Gear Solid running parallel to Castlevania, we have a fourth installment which changes how the player controls their weapon more effectively as opposed to a previous system of limiting the players control over either their whip or their gun.
Though since MGS5 won’t be out in time to be part of TIR and will be it’s own review, I will point out now that the next game takes place on a free roaming map, similar to the Symphony of the Night’s approach to it’s level design with a fully explorable castle….Just saying.
The CQC system is largely unchanged; you can judo throw, get them in a hold and choke them out, use them as a human shield etc, and fits well with the new control scheme. This new hybrid stealth system is still in its infancy here however (well, more adolescence if the system in Splinter Cell could be considered the infancy of hybrid stealth games), and lacks a lot things that you take for granted in a 3rd person shooter. Cover firing is awkward; you can only peek round the side and not over the top and it works very slowly. You also move slowly while aiming your gun, but it does lead way to lowering your weapon to spin around and raising it to start firing, while retaining accuracy; like if the sensitivity while aiming increased when you need it to, but slows down when the time comes to actually pull the trigger. These elements would later be perfected in Ground Zeroes and the most recent entries in the Splinter Cell series, but as for this game it’s a little quirky and you’ll either adapt or hate it.
Stealth wise you have a new suit known as Octocamo, which allows you blend in with your surroundings; it’s pretty much the next stage of development regarding MGS3’s camo system, which no longer has you changing uniforms from the pause menu, but instead allows you to adapt to changing environments on the fly. But you do have to keep an eye on your surroundings; you can move from sand to dirt pretty quickly, giving away your position without you even realizing that you slipped up!
However the enemy AI seems unsuited for complex combat scenarios, and will often just stand out in the open and soak up gunfire. They do employ efficient hunting tactics; for example they will keep their distances from corners to avoid getting blind sighted and will attempt flanking maneuvers, but these are elements that worked in previous stealth based games, and not so much when you have a player who is now capable of putting up a decent fight. Essentially the game has evolved to this new way of thinking, but the AI is still stuck in the old mind set and hasn’t adapted properly.
The biggest changes however involve psyche and the Drebin store.
Psyche replaces stamina as the secondary health bar, and involves Snake’s mental well being. When put under stress and in the heat of battle, the pressure can get to the character and cause him to perform inadequately. It does drop pretty quickly in most high stress situations, but it fits in the with the theme of Snake getting older. It does put you in the mind set of an old man, and the need to take it a little easier.
Lots of things affect your psyche, like exposure to heat or extreme cold, elements in cutscenes will cause Snake’s mood to drop to; if he’s reminded of his age in a cutscene, it’s reflected when you return to gameplay. You can decrease this by just lying in the shade with a quick cigarette; smokes have been in every Metal Gear game and there has rarely been a reason to use them outside of MGS4, since it does have a calming affect and I found myself looking for excuses to use them to calm the character down a bit. There are of course items that help (if you’re weak!), or a syringe which helps boost your nanomachines, though these lose their effectiveness if overused.
You can also trigger a combat high in battle, meaning that you can run a fight on adrenaline if you have too. It’s all about balance and keeping an eye on your mood.
Next is the Drebin system, which is simultaneously awesome and nearly breaks the game. You can pick up weapons in the field for points, and get them unlocked for further use, as well as buying ammo and attachments. These give you a lot of options in combat; lets take the custom M4 for example with all possible mods added. From the L2 menu you can change the fire rate, turn the torch off and switch the grenade type in the under slung launcher, all for one weapon. It really does open up a lot of options for you to use. However there is a catch; weapons and points carry over across all playthroughs, so you can farm ammo and points in easier playthroughs for your harder ones, taking away the aspect of find your own weapons which has been a staple of the series.
There is also little variation between weapons, and as a result you will just ignore most of your guns in favor of the starting rifle, which fits nearly every role. And most aren’t even customizable at all. It feels cluttered and unfocused, serving as little more than usable collectables.
Both systems do seem to fit into the themes of the story however; emotions play a huge part in the story, as they are controlled by the nanomachines system that Liquid seeks to highjack and are the focus of the games bosses. And the whole story revolves around this idea of a war economy; that the countries of the world have started using war to help drive it’s financial status, employing private military corporations in place of traditional armies, having them fight on their behalf. The weapons you collect and sell are tied into this idea, that your part of this economy in a way. Both of these give MGS4 it’s own place in the series.
The act system bares mention, with five acts to make up the games story. What’s interesting is that each game in the series is introduced to the audience in each of the first three acts; the first act introduces characters from the first Metal Gear Solid game, the second is the first time that a character from the second game is even mentioned, and the third naturally looks at the characters from the third game. Thankfully this convoluted plot has the common sense to ease us into each previous story, as opposed to dumping them all on the audience at once.
Using acts is a huge departure from the standard formula, which would focus on a single facility and have the player navigate it over the course of the entire game. An exception would be the third game, which had the player travel across different environments, though this was presented as a one long journey with the player moving from environment to environment themselves as part of one, long, flowing setting, rather than jumping from forest to desert in different parts of the world. This does have the advantage of creating very different scenarios; the first act is set in a chaotic Middle Eastern war zone, the second includes sneaky guerilla warfare in South America and the third represents the espionage tone of the third game by following a resistance member back to their hideout while avoid detection yourself the fourth is little more than fan service, having you return to Shadow Moses from the first game years later, with lots of flashbacks and references to that game.
I don’t see how someone who didn’t play the original game would enjoy this, and is another example that this is a fan game through and through. The fifth is the conclusion to the game and wraps everything up, though this is at the expense of gameplay. The entire last level is little more than a short, linear path, leading to a boss battle and then the final battle. This could have been the defining moment of the game, with one final sneaking mission across Liquid’s Outer Haven, with allied forces sieging over the walls, shells exploding entire walls. Instead it’s all side lines in favor of the story. Granted I like the story but there does have to be a limit. Each section is broken up by it’s own action set pieces too; the first has a firefight against an enemy unit, while the second has you tracking the enemies footprints followed by a turret section on the back of an APC while traumatized soldiers try to climb the sides and swarm you like zombies.
The third has the aforementioned escort mission, followed by a motorcycle chase through the streets. The fourth is a little different in that you actually get to pilot a Metal Gear! Namely Metal Gear Rex from the first game. It’s little more than a charge through an enemy infested corridor, but it is followed up against a duel with Metal Gear Ray from the second game which does give me that warm fuzzy feeling that only mecha on mecha combat can provide. And in the fifth level, there’s barely anything. But what it lacks in gameplay it makes up for in atmosphere, leading up to a final trek down a corridor of microwaves, as Snake gets weaker and weaker, leading to a slow crawl, as the other half of the screen shows the other characters in their own battles, falling one by one as time runs out to save the world!
There are a few new enemy types to break up the standard grunts; the first new type of enemy is the Frog Elite soldiers, who are more skilled, can track you by the noise made by your night vision and can even counter your CGC. Then there are Dwarf Gecko; a ball with three arms that swarm your position and act as mini sentries. The final new enemy is the Gecko mech, which is essentially a smaller version of Metal Gear Rex and prove to be the greater threat in the game; they can kick you without warning, are tough to bring down without the right equipment and can move pretty fast too. The latter two units were even reused in Metal Gear Rising, though are less of a threat when you’re playing as a cyborg ninja.
And then there are the bosses; those infamous Metal Gear Solid boss battles.
I really want to sing the praises of this games rogue gallery, but they are just so underwhelming.
Not in the design aspect; the main bosses are a group of traumatized women, living in armoured suits and living only for war. Each is composed of elements relating to a previous boss too; the animalistic appearance of a member of Fox Hound from the first game, with the emotion of a member of the Cobras from the second game, and carrying a weapon representative of a member of Dead Cell from the Second game. Each has fable surrounding their origins (which may or may not be true, considering they’re told by someone who couldn’t possibly know about it, but they do still give each boss their own identity and tragic backstory), but despite all of this they still fall short in terms of actual gameplay.
The first being Laughing Octopus, who can blend into her environment. But she just waits and waits for you to shoot her, missing the opportunity to turn the level into a cat and mouse game, with surprise attacks from behind. There’s no fear or tension here. The second is a battle against the flying boss Raging Raven, which just feels lazy. She flies around waiting for you to pick her off; the helicopter battle from the PS1 game was tenser. The third is the only one I like, Crying Wolf. It takes place in a blizzard, against an enemy who uses your scent to track and kill you, so you need to not only watch your camo index, but also what direction the wind is blowing. The final of these Beauty and Beast corp members is Screaming Mantis, which was only really good the first time around when you don’t know how her abilities work. She controls not only your ally Meryl, but also the enemies you defeated in the fight before her. I won’t detail how she works, because that’s part of the fun, however each time afterwards you can beat her with very little effort.
After each battle the Beauty emerges from their suit, acting like complete maniacs and trying to hug you. This is basically your chance to either save or kill them, or if you wait long enough you can take pin up shots of them as they pose for your camera, or dance to a J-pop song you play on your in game iPod. They’re oddly sexualized, which is kind of the point when you’re supposed to be dealing with the literal beauty within the beast, but yeah it is a little off putting. Though that doesn’t stop me from being freaked out by them.
Misogyny aside, there are other bosses too.
The apparently immortal Vamp returns from the second game (you’ll have to figure out for yourself how to kill him off for good, since he keeps coming back to life), Ray of course in the Metal Gear duel, but the ultimate final battle is the fist fight against Liquid.
The game goes into a fighting game style, with controls designed around the fight itself with strikes, heavy strikes, throws, blocks, dodges, as set against the sunset. As the battle progresses the atmosphere changes; first we have music from Metal Gear Solid, in a very simplistic side camera, then it includes music from the second game, with a more cinematic camera and cut away animations to accompany strikes, then the theme from Snake Eater (which I love!) where throws can now be countered in classic CQC fashion. Each section even has a life bar representative of the game its paying tribute too. It’s like the final levels of Castlevania 4, where music from the previous games is played (I swear these comparisons just keep falling into my lap). And finally the MGS4 theme accompanies a tired slug fest, as all you can do is use the last of your strength to hit your opponent again and again, as the life gradually leaves your body, in a fight very reminiscent of the final battle in S-Cry-ed (apologies for ruining the ending to some Anime from 2001. If you haven’t seen it, watch S-Cry-ed. It’s pretty epic. Only one season too, with about 26 episodes).
I said back in my Metal Gear Solid 3 retrospective that things only got better when we got this game, but despite my bitching this game is a fantastic experience and incredibly ambitious in terms of gameplay. It set the standard for Stealth games to come, though still feels like it’s stuck in the old way of playing. It’s both a conclusion as well as the first in the new line of games, with a lot of the elements presented serving as the basis for what would become Metal Gear Solid 5. It’s scope and atmosphere makes this a fantastic climax to one of my favorite series of all time, even if it could have been a lot better in the gameplay department. More focus would have made it the best, but it fell short of greatness. It’s still awesome, but not perfect.
This is the end to the Metal gear Solid series to date; Metal Gear Solid V won’t be out until early 2015 at the time of typing this and the prequel game Ground Zeroes isn’t really worth a TIR (though I did review it for the site).
But there are some more games to look at; a portable game which is, as of Ground Zeroes, not only canon but crucial to the story (though it did get a console release, which is how I played it), and a spin off featuring our favorite break dancing ninja in the form of Metal Gear Rising.
So we’ll look at those next, starting with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.