Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Review: Metal Gear Solid 4

Metal Gear Solid 4 is the long awaited final instalment in Hideo Kojima’s seminal stealth action game and serves as the concluding chapter in the story of Solid Snake. MGS4 attempts to make sense of the complex and convoluted story by answering the numerous questions and providing a definitive conclusion to many issues that have until now been the subject of conjecture and speculation by series fans. Anyone familiar with the series can appreciate how lofty an ambition this is but by drawing on nearly every game in the series Kojima has managed to craft a story that provides closure and a satisfying conclusion to one of the greatest video game characters of all time, it may even bring tears to your eyes.
The story begins some years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 2, no longer the young and healthy soldier he once was Solid Snake is once again called into action and returns to the battlefield to finish the long running feud with his brother Liquid Snake and put a stop to his imminent insurrection, however along with the numerous enhanced soldiers, various disturbed bosses and the technologically hostile battle conditions Snake must also fight against his old age and deteriorating health in order to get the job done.
The most striking aspect of this game is the presentation, it’s evident that every facet of the game has had the utmost care and attention given to it, the visuals are a technical marvel with detailed and lush textures used to recreate environments such as the middle-east with astounding accuracy as well as producing highly detailed character and weapon models. The series is known for its high quality audio and MGS4 carries on the tradition with the return of long time score composer Harry Gregson-Williams and Metal Gear Acid composer Nobuko Toda. Another series staple is the top notch voice acting and for the most part the voice acting is superb, David Hayter once again provides the iconic voice for Old Snake and a number of other series favorites return to reprise their roles, while the majority of characters manage to pull of flawless performances there are some characters who sound a little awkward and forced, but this drop in quality is more than offset by the overall high quality in the voice acting. Working in unison these aspects combine to provide an authentic cinematic experience delivered through both the gameplay and the lengthy but awe-inspiring cut-scenes, since the cut-scenes are rendered using the in game engine Metal Gear Solid is the first example of a truly seamless transition between cut-scene and gameplay, it’ll take your breath away. The presentation also extends to storytelling and what results is the most sophisticated method of storytelling gaming has ever seen, it is something that just has to be experienced, there is no doubt that Metal Gear Solid 4 has fantastic visuals and great gameplay but what it will be remembered for is the storytelling.

The cut-scenes have long been the object of criticism in the Metal Gear Solid series with particular attention being given to their length, MGS4 doesn’t do anything to address these criticisms, while the inclusion of a pause function softens the blow somewhat it doesn’t mask the fact that the cut-scenes are just as long if not longer, the lengthy codec sequences have been removed but the cut-scenes have been extended to compensate for this, for some this will be a point of criticisms but for those looking for closure these cut-scenes provide answers to many of the series’ long standing questions, for those not looking for answers the high production values are likely to be engaging enough to keep you from hammering on the skip button. One of the most satisfying aspects of the cut-scenes is the small amount of interactivity within them, at various points during the cut-scenes players may be prompted to press L1 to look through Snake’s eyes or to press X to view flashbacks, while these sound insignificant they are integral to the story-telling and also contribute to the nostalgic theme of the game.

The gameplay in Metal Gear Solid 4 will feel familiar to anyone that has played the previous games, each iteration in the series has refined the gameplay (with the exception of the CQC controls in Snake Eater) and MGS4 has refined the gameplay to near perfection, the once cumbersome controls have been given an overhaul and now feel natural to the point that even the most complex maneuvers can be easily performed in the heat of battle. Taking a cue from the western approach to shooting controls the game features the Resident Evil 4/Gears of War over-the-shoulder view for aiming, along with the first-person viewpoint this provides a more satisfying and precise way to dispatch with enemies and is flexible enough to let you shoot yourself out of any situation, those choosing to run and gun their way through Metal Gear Solid 4 will find the controls to be more than accommodating. The sneaking has also been streamlined, actions such as pressing up against walls are now contextual button presses which means that the players fingers are free to do other tasks such as peeking out of corners and shooting, there has also been the addition of a stage of movement between standing and crawling, whereas in previous games pressing ‘X’ from a standing position would effectively take Snake into a crawl now Snake transitions into a crouched sneaking mode, this allows players to Sneak silently without enduring the mind numbingly slow pace of crawling. Snake is also equipped with a suite known as OctoCamo, this suite takes on the texture of any surface Snake presses up against, as well as being visually pleasing it eliminates the menu dependent camouflage system used in Snake Eater, by automatically changing camouflage and dispatching with the menu the player remains immersed in the game and sneaking is far more satisfying. In addition to the traditional sneaking and shooting gameplay there are also a number of unfamiliar gameplay types, while it is tempting to talk about them they may be considered a spoiler to many people, it’s safe to say that MGS4 doesn’t just stick to what it knows, it varies the gameplay and adds some new elements, the only problems is that they’re quite brief and since they occur just before the game goes into full on narrative mode you probably won’t get to spend as much time as you’d like with them.
Unlike the previous games where Snake was thrown head-first into the battlefield as a lone agent in a remote island, floating plant or military base, a large portion of this game is spent in expansive open environments in scenarios where rebels are engaging Private Military Corporations, this means that Snake can choose to befriend rebels and work alongside them, the interesting aspect of this is that as you assist the rebels your notoriety amongst them grows and you will become somewhat of a hero to them, this means that Snake can use the cover provided by the rebels to facilitate his sneaking. These large scale firefights are uncommon territory for the series but are done exceptionally well, the rebels exhibit comradery amongst each other and with you, PMC’s are constantly adapting their tactics to your movements and the firefights have an epic feel to them; bullets are whizzing around, vehicles are exploding and buildings in the distance are being toppled, it creates a very tense atmosphere.

Although the progression in the game boils down to ‘get from point A to point B’ and is ultimately linear there are a number of alternate routes and approaches that can be taken to reach the designated goal and the environments are open enough to facilitate exploration, the routes are suited to different playing styles, players can opt to blast their way through the middle, sneak their way through the battlefield by sticking to the outskirts, or get to higher ground for a mixed approach, exploration is rewarded through weapon and ammo pickups as well as the occasional special item such as costumes.

The Metal Gear Solid series has had some of the most creative boss battles in video game history and while the bosses in MGS4 aren’t on the same level as Psycho Mantis or The End they are still a cut above most boss battles. While some battles can boil down to finding the boss and then shooting it others require far more finesse with factors such as wind direction and footprints in play, other battles may require the player to utilize various items in order to figure out the trick behind beating a boss. The boss fights while enjoyable (and in some cases quite memorable) are a bit unnecessary; the bosses are all given different personalities and a tragic back story, these feel like an afterthought and ultimately take a backseat to the overarching Metal Gear storyline.
Another major addition to the game is the shop system, in the game the world has become one where weapons are ID-locked, anyone who isn’t registered to that weapon is unable to use it, after meeting a weapons launderer you are given the ability to utilize his services and have him unlock weapons for usage, in return any weapons already acquired by you that are collected on the battlefield are traded to him in exchange for points, these points can be used to buy additional weapons, ammo or used for unlocking. The shop is available to Snake at all points in the game via the start menu, this means that as long as you have points you can keep buying ammo and guns, while this seems to encourage people to blast their way through the game there are other factors at play. The war economy runs on a war price, prices of weapons and ammo change according to the prevalence of fighting and war at the time and the need for weaponry, this means that If you kill everyone and regularly create situations of conflict the war price will increase and as a result the prices of guns and ammo will increase.

Metal Gear Solid 4’s biggest achievement is in storytelling, Kojima has created an incredible story that manages to tie up all the loose ends and address all the unanswered questions (yes, even the arm) but it also serves as Kojima’s mouthpiece and this is the game only real flaw. It successfully provides closure on the series but does so at a cost, the balance of gameplay and storytelling takes a serious hit towards the second half of the game, in order to provide said closure Kojima uses the majority of the second-half of the game to tie up the loose ends; so players will find themselves mostly watching cut-scenes, and while there is a reasonable amount of gameplay it isn’t the type of gameplay that players have become accustomed to up until this point, it is restrictively linear gameplay focused entirely on narrative, to some this will be to the games detriment but to others this will be exactly what they play the Metal Gear Solid games for, these small bits of gameplay are synergy between gaming and storytelling at its best and are compelling and engaging enough to have you jump out of your seat and scream at the TV.Metal Gear Solid 4 is quite simply a masterpiece, both as a technical achievement and in terms of storytelling and narrative. The game continues the tradition of having one of the most intricate and complicated stories but the way it tells the story is truly amazing. Kojima manages to create a connection between the player and Snake in a way that will have you feeling the pain and desperation Snake feels during his journey, a journey that ends with one of the most memorable sequences in video gaming history, Metal Gear Solid 4 is an emotional experience unlike anything the video game world has seen before.

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