Monday, April 21, 2014

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots review

    Nine hours of cutscenes.

    This is going to remembered as the game's most distinguishing feature. In a world where the majority of games tend to cap about eight hours, the vast majority of this being game play, the lengthy cutscenes in Metal Gear Solid 4 have become infamous. One holds a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for length, extending to the length of a short movie.

    This would all be justifiable if the game play (as well as storytelling) were worthwhile. Unfortunately, the former is decent at best while the latter is crippled by the need to address each and every little plot point point brought up by the previous three games. Hideo Kojima has always been an idea man rather than a figure known for coherent storytelling. Thus, it must have been a daunting prospect when he was hired to create a game to answer all the questions raised in the previous games.

    And by previous games, I mean Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.

The transformation of Solid Snake to Old Snake is terrible but moving.
    I'll get to this later but Metal Gear Solid 2 was created as sort of an affectionate middle-finger to the fans and meant to tear apart expectations for sequels. It created a vast conspiracy, quadruple agents, secret programs for dominating the world, and the set-up for a grand battle between various powers. The thing was, Hideo Kojima never actually intended to answer any of these questions. The next volume in the series was Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and was a prequel to the events in previous games. Fans wanted answers, though, and applied enormous pressure to get a game where they received them.

    Did they get them? Well, sort of.

    The massive number of cutscenes attempt to answer such questions as "Who are the Patriots?" "Is Liquid Snake possessing Revolver Ocelot?" "Who was Solid Snake's mother?" "What happened to Meryl?" "What happened to Eva?" and so on. This requires them explaining who a large number of these characters are to new audiences. It gets a bit recursive as after all the explanation, the stories actors have to repeat themselves because their points have gotten lost in digression.

The grim war-torn battlefields are some of my favorite parts of the game. Sadly, they become rather generic with time.
     Much as can be expected, the actual answers are less satisfying than the questions posed. The Patriots are a bunch of soulless artificial intelligences (learned early on), Revolver Ocelot is possessed by Liquid (though there's a twist), and almost every character from previous games has survived only to become a much grimmer person. The sheer amount of continuity in the game is something only a die-hard Metal Gear Solid fan can appreciate. As a self-described member of this fraternity, I appreciated the fanservice but it was at the expense of the series' trademark tactical stealth. I can't imagine the game being very enjoyable to regular gamers and it's probably totally incomprehensible to those who haven't been fans of the series from beginning.

    The actual game play itself is improved from Snake Eater but I can't say in such a way as to be amazingly memorable. When events are happening like the Raiden fight against Vamp, you can't help but think it would have been more enjoyable to BE the cyborg ninja versus just watching the character go to town. The Solid Eye and Mark 2 are useful but I can't help but think this was made as a movie (or miniseries) first and a game second.

The return of old favorites should be cause for celebration but their characterization leaves much to be desired.
    Even the bosses are perfunctory. The Beauty and the Beast Unit is composed of four beautiful women who have been traumatized by war but who engage with the plot only to the extent of providing boss battles. The exceptionally well written novelization of the game by Project Itoh eliminates the Beauty and Beast bosses entirely and nothing is lost for it.

    Really, the most interesting storytelling device is the rapid aging of protagonist Solid Snake. Established in previous games as a clone, his genetics start breaking down  Seeing a character go from a man in his mid-thirties to somewhere approaching seventy is a heart-breaking experience. It also "seals the deal" that we're seeing the final adventure of Snake as there's no going back from this.

    If I had any real approval to the story, it's the extensive use of cyberpunk elements. Snake is the lone rebel left in a world which has been hopelessly compromised by technology designed to oppress, control, and kill human beings. Worse, the people who might normally be stopping this have been compromised by the system itself. While it ends on a semi-happy note, the themes of oppression through misapplied science are at their strongest since Sons of Liberty.

    Overall, I've got to say that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is just not that good. Its primary purpose is to wrap up the hydra-like plot of previous games and provide a definitive ending for the character of Solid Snake. This, at least, it achieves with gusto. Still, I can't help but wonder what Kojima would have written if he hadn't had to explain himself.


    Addendum: I would actually argue reading the novelization would be more satisfying to fans of the series. It not only manages to trim the story in several places but it contains all of the massive amount of information you need to know in order to appreciate the game's plot given in a concise fashion. It verges on the melodramatic at times but I'm okay with that and give it an 8/10.

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