June 15th, 2008
Over the past few days Metal Gear Solid 4 has been a completely immersive and unreal experience for me personally, one that I never would have imagined possible, at least at this stage of life in video games. This title, is a landmark title; significant to the Playstation 3, more so to evolution of the industry. MGS4 concludes the long running franchise in the perfectly problematic way the series is known for yet in the process it represents the first foot into a new wave of interactive entertainment. Make no marks about it, Metal Gear Solid 4 is all of the photo realistic graphics, apt gameplay and mind sprawling story telling that the Playstation 3 was hyped to be. Looks like the console has finally found its feet, welcome home.
There is just so much for me to say about this game so I am going to attempt to condense it down as much as possible. On this final edit I’m at roughly 4500 words, don’t let that scare you away (..no please come back!). Everything is under neat, little headings and is as well written as I can possible write. So please, read on. This is also a spoiler free zone so feel free to read all the way through without any worries.
Answering the Rumours
Just to get some of those pesky rumours out of the way, according to the manual the install is “at least” 4.6gb and these are portioned out over each act (getting progressively smaller) and there is no 90 minute cut scene.
Game Frame Work
Metal Gear Solid 4 works a little differently but much the same to the other titles in the series. Unlike in the majority of the past games you don’t consistently traverse one large, linear area on a fixed route instead the game is broken up across multiple continents each one having its own act. Between each act is a rather extensive mission briefing to provide context on the changing situation.
From the main menu there is a slew of neat features, including a VR testing area which acts as a muck around tutorial for you to practice in. I strongly recommend trying this out before you dive straight into combat as even for a veteran player like myself, it can be hard to come to grips with the new moves and button layout right away.
Metal Gear Online is also accessible from the main menu and contrary to my original assumption it’s not its own disc. Overall for one standard play through Guns of the Patriots took me 23hrs to complete. As planned I was extremely thorough in my approach and explored each environment endlessly. I’m unsure if this includes cut scene time though although presumably it does making the game about 12hrs long. Then there are also plenty of goodies and easter eggs to sought out, multiple difficulties and Metal Gear Online. So suffice to say the length is more than adequate. In the grand scheme of things this makes MGS4 about a lengthy as the original MGS but considerably shorter than MGS2 and 3. Still some extras (eg. Downloadable extra podcast for your iPod) are unknown at this stage.
On the topic of cut scenes, there are lots of them! I mean heaps! Half the game is inexcusably cut scene which is pretty ridiculous and why I want to talk about this before what is usually regarded as the more important features (ie. the gameplay).
For the most part the cut scenes in MGS4 are all worthwhile and relevant to the story. If not then often they are simply there as a medium for Kojima Productions to flex their cinematic muscles. Unfortunately a few, old, nagging storyline grips still remain such as some downright melodramatic sequences and worthless banter. This isn’t as tiresome as MGS2 but you still wish that they’d cut the fat a little more.
MGS4 has consistently high production values that just don’t let down for the whole game. The cut scenes highlight this incredibly well and are a real triumph for digital cinematography. The camera angles are extremely cinematic capturing the best shot almost every time.
You can pause the cut scenes (as well as press start to prompt finished loading screens) which is a godsend. There are also a few but not too many quick time events. For those who are not interested in the cut scenes (why wouldn’t you be? You should only be playing these games after understanding the context anyways in which case you’ll be all over them!) you can play around in the mission briefing scenes (before each act) with the Mark II. to hunt out goodies on the plane.
Interestingly, cut scenes have been used to move away from the codec system which was used extensively (read: over used) in MGS2. This definitely makes new information feeds much more digestible. Also many of the less important tidbits of speech now stream during gameplay which allows the game to flow much more smoothly.
I think that with MGS2 many players got frustrated with how frequently cut scenes interrupted gameplay and hence labeled them as a menace. Fortunately this has been addressed, cut scenes are now used sparingly during the main game and are more dense around the starts and ends of acts. This was a great design move but unfortunately creates its own issues of having long sessions with no play time.
Magnificent is the word you’re looking for here. At least thats how it seemed to me. Keeping in mind that this is the first (non-Wii) ‘next’ generation game that I have completed. Still this seems unanimous across the board.
Let’s start with Photorealism, shall we? I want to use this word specifically because it falls in line with many of the claims made back in 2005 regarding the Playstation 3.
What makes MGS4 so much more realistic than other next generation games is the attention to detail and the care taken in crafting human emotion through the animation of characters (particularly the face). Wrinkles, smile lines, fabrics, hair, tears are just some examples of graphical features often too difficult to digitally replicate, all of which MGS4 does and does beautifully. It’s a breath of fresh air to see them finally be put to good use. These features help make the MGS4 world so incredibly believable.
Often when we play games, particularly newer games graphical blemishes often put us back in our place and out of the immersive world of the game. Fortunately there are rarely any blemishes presentation wise instead plenty of those aforementioned details which suck you in. This realism factor cannot be understated, it really does aid the game in many ways (in all fields such as narrative, gameplay and immersion).
Beyond the visuals the soundtrack deserves a special mention (I have mine on order). I usually pay less attention to the music in games unless something really grabs me and there were numerous tracks in MGS4 which really overpowered the senses. Particularly the main theme which played in the E3 2005 trailer and the attack theme played in the TGS 2007 trailer. A few reworkings of some franchise favourite songs are included which are simply majestic. If these songs don’t tickle your nostalgic fancy then just equip the iPod and listen to the in game podcast.
(Just going to venture off into the iPod and in game advertisements for a second)
The iPod is just so Hideo and I suspect thanks to this game we will see more of this in games. You can collected hidden songs in the level and later on in a firmware update you will be able to play ripped music on the PS3’s HDD through the iPod. I love playing the old tracks, it creates a real change in pace and is a welcomed addition.
The previously complained about in game advertisements really are completely unnoticeable. The cel phones have about a minute of air time, the Japanese energy drink mean nothing to me, not really fussed that the girly mags are now PlayBoys and the featured music (iPod) and the posters of this Japanese chick Hideo likes..meh.
(Back on Track)
As you have likely noticed in the trailers, the user interface is very clean utilizing lots of legible symbols for actions and easy to read type. The navigation menu is slick and works well to the game’s advantage. A lot of design ingenuity has been shown off here and it works to the games favour.
Gameplay Frame Work
Now that all of the safe bet material is finished (I mean c’mon the visuals and the Harry-Gregson Williams Soundtrack were a given) it is time to get down to the nity grity.
That design ingenuity doesn’t just end there though, MGS4 raises the franchise’s often criticized gameplay mechanics above and beyond. Even as a fan of this franchise, I can honestly confess that the MGS series is polarizing it its nature, the perplexing story, stealth (and not action) gameplay and sometimes difficult to master controls definitely has the potential to turn a lot of people away from the series. This is without a doubt the series’s biggest strength and weakness. Each Metal Gear game has limited itself severely by only changing the gameplay mechanics enough to extend the shelf life of the overhanging, anarchic play system. If you were raised by these games or are tolerate of these issues then no dramas but MGS4 in many ways breaks free of this weight by reinventing the series staples in multiple ways.
Namely choice, players of MGS4 have so, so, so much choice and I seriously mean bucket loads of choice. I originally wrote about 500 words documenting these changes only to find that I still had so much more to discuss. So to do a MGS4 for a second, I will streamline all of this into the following list of options:
- Play Orientation – Stealth, Action or a Mix of Both
- Camera – Third Person (Auto aim), Over the Shoulder (Manual), First Person (Manual)
- Attack – Weapons (Around 90, most customizable), CQC (close quarters combat), Items (Magazines, Cardboard Boxes etc.)
- Hiding – Octocamo (textures, clothing), Crawling, Sneaking, Item Use, Back to wall, Play Dead
Let’s take a look at these in some more detail. MGS4 includes the new and trendy over the shoulder mechanic. Switching between over the shoulder, third and first person can all be done on the fly by pressing square (triangle for FP). This is in contrast to previous games where square actually fired the weapon, in MGS4 R1 does that action while L1 targets (and then you can press square as you target).
What occurs within this mechanic is really something quite special. Instead of forcing you to play in one way, diversity is alloted right into the core playing system and not asynchronously either, you can switch in and out of these play modes on the fly. This creates a unique synergy between play styles that I have never quite experienced before. Before long you are seeminglessly adapting the play styles of Call of Duty 4, Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War as well as the overlying Metal Gear game design all into one, jumping back and forth between multiple styles of action. This is quite an interesting melding of genres going on and is very much in tune with modern game design.
MGS4 never forces you to play in a certain way, environments are open enough for you to pass through with alternating routes. You can sneak in the shadows, through rooftops and corridors to get behind and eliminate your enemy or go in “through the front door” winning over rebel soldiers whom aid in your disposal of the PMCs.
The control mechanics have all been streamlined significantly. CQC has seen several less useful features removed which was for some gamers a deal breaker for MGS3. Camouflage returns but is no longer a trivial process of menus, now all you have to do is lean against a wall and your sneaking suit automatically adjusts to the texture, mapping it to the suit. Incredible huh? Corner peaking has also been reworked so that the camera remains stationary when you are pressed against a wall. You can still manually adjust the camera as normal but this time you can choose exactly how to utilize, matching the given scenario. Even rolling is much more smoother as you can side step, jump backwards and even lie on your back. When you are on the ground you can also play dead which is another new, highly useful feature.
These new tweaks work in well with the changing environment. Each act is set in its own environment meaning that each act has its own set of environmental rules, geography and layout. This adds to the array of freshness that MGS4 brings. More items and weapons are introduced as well. Roughly 90 weapons (which is huge!) ranging from well….everything you’d ever need, the same applies with items and quirks such as detonating sleeping gas, the tin barrel and new girly mags. There is also a new, remotely controlled Metal Gear (really small though) called Mark II which Snake can also activate to steal items and zap soldiers with an electric shock.
These items can now be accessed through Drebin’s store (new and very well depicted character) where you can buy and unlock guns, ammo, items and upgrades. This all works around the new Drebin Point (DP) system that you get when collected guns of other soldiers.
So I am about 900 words through and I think that I have covered everything that is new in MGS4. There is just so much that it is almost overwhelming. No wonder new players have so much trouble. With this stop gap lets proceed.
To conclude on the general gameplay construction. The previously listed slew of features make playing MGS4 so appealing and while on the whole this is a shorter experience than MGS3, there is so much temptation to simply replay your favourite areas again with a new approach. As someone whom has throughly enjoyed utilizing as many styles of play as possible, it is fantastic to see just how diverse MGS4 is in its options.
Even though the gameplay construction is well separated from the previous titles, series staples such as incredible chase scenes and bosses remain as prevalent as ever. You have the Four Beauties of the Beauty and the Beast Unit to contend with as well as some expected showdowns with long time favourites. Each of the BB members brings something new and in some cases surprisingly familiar (but still different) to the table. These battles are refreshing and well produced that hold the stature of the series nice and high.
For a couple of battles (for example the third of the four) I found it difficult to actually find the boss (yes I know, bizarre). This occurred throughout the majority of the BB Unit battles actually and while they kept an exciting pace I kinda felt like I was wandering around waiting for something in the game to click or for the boss to get closer to my position. In another encounter the game’s auto targeting was way too slow for my liking causing a little bit of frustration (the auto target doesn’t work too well on distant objects).
Also two of the boss battles (one of them isn’t too bad though) are set up like riddles in which there is only one way to defeat the boss and you need to flex your brain considerably to figure this out. I ended up snooping around on the net for answers for both of these. While not completely impossible they were quite problematic and I think a lot of people will do the same thing.
I think that these issues lower the caliber of the boss battles slightly. Which is a little disappointing considering how fantastically well presented they are. Still this isn’t in anyway a major nuisance just a little troubling and many of the boss fights are, of course, right up there with the best in the series.
An example of a boss fight done well (and to the game’s strengths) is the first boss encounter where you and Rat Patrol Team 01 (lead by Meryl) face off against the FROGS. These are a group of armored, super soldiers; part of Liquid’s army. The two teams face off in a multistory building creating an incredible atmosphere. The team members are all calling commands to one another, covering each other’s back while moving together through kitchens, hall ways and toilets. The action is high paced and you will need to switch between the various perspectives and weapons to keep up to pace.
The chase sequences are truly something to behold and make up some of my most memorable Metal Gear moments ever. MGS4 undoubtedly impressed me from start to finish but it was these sequences where cinematic flair is ingrain right into the gameplay like never before and what amazed me about these scenes was that no gameplay was sacrificed. That is you can still switch perspectives in these sequences.
Several other gameplay additions, due directly to the new technology must be mentioned. Destructible walls are a good example, in some areas of the game walls just crumble away affecting where you can hide and attack.. Geckos were another stand out feature, the animal noises that they make, how they bleed and the way they walk just strikes terror into your heart. In these sequences I felt the upper half of my body slowly paralyze with intensity, they really are maddening creatures.
Just on a last note about the Geckos I remember in the first scene of the game where a couple of Geckos jump in and start attacking the rebel soldiers. It’s a scary situation forcing you go stealthy to avoid these walking behemoths. What I learnt from the trailers was that you can actually destroy the Geckos by shooting that semi circle “eyeball” on their head. So I thought that I would be clever and ignore Otacon’s smart advice and attack the Geckos. So I climbed to the top of one building and started firing away. The Gecko began to edge itself closer to the building, so in return I advanced, keeping him in eye’s path. When he got to the corner of the building, the Gecko lifted his back leg over his head and began climbing the building placing one foot onto the platform I was on. I assumed that because I was on top of a building I was safe (you know those cheap video game weaknesses you exploit ^_^). I decided not to stick around and simply made a run for it. Although this is a small variable in the grand scheme of things, it just impressed me how natural this game can be.
NB: There are some light spoilers in the form of story construction ahead but no actual content spoilers.
MGS4 is deeply embedded with story, much like the other games in the series but on a more elaborate scale. The cut scenes are the vehicle for this and hence why they are so abundant. Once again, stressing a point; you won’t be able to follow the story line coherently without the context of the other games.
I don’t intend to crash anyones party here but I feel strongly that for a lot of people wanting to catch up there is no real substitute to playing the original games. Sure Wikipedia and YouTube are useful streams, no doubt. What you will find though is that without being deeply engaged in the story beforehand it will be difficult to keep up with everything the game throws at you.
More importantly though is you will also lose a lot of the significant, deeper meaning behind what is going on. The Metal Gear franchise has such a web of stories and personalities, more so than most other games. What happens in MGS4 is that all of that source material is then drawn upon. As such the game is packed with obvious and minute (like really subtle) references to the past games, these metaphorical entities are embedded not just in easter eggs or hidden surprises but in the relationships of characters, the symbolic situations that occur, the themes embedded in the story and the use of language all throughout MGS4. This sort of detail, even for someone like me (whom obsesses over the story) doesn’t always click. Think of the similarities between Colonel Campbell’s briefing and that of the original PSone title (“I’m counting on you Snake”), what about the references to Dr Madnar or the of orphans of war. MGS4’s greatest strength is the lore that it brings with it and Kojima has been gracious enough to utilize such ideals in this way. MGS4 is a reference to itself and the games that have stood before it on many different levels.
With this all said, MGS4’s story is just as brain bending as you would expect. Just like MGS2, MGS4 holds no shame in what it is doing and this is, much like the controls, the franchises biggest strength and weakness. Plot points unravel at an alarming rate forcing your celebrial cortex to retrace and rethink EVERYTHING that has ever happened in this long running series. You won’t understand it the first time around that is certain.
In terms of answering questions, MGS4 delivers. We find out the answers to our longing questions and there is no smoke and mirrors or magical fairies to force a conclusion. Everything is natural and makes logical sense. What MGS4 doesn’t do (much like MGS2) is go into depth concluding every last avenue of doubt. Is this disappointing, well….initially yes, more importantly is this intentional? Did Konami intentionally leave these gaps for fans to read into? Perhaps.
What I have experienced on reflection is that MGS4 provides enough resolution for fans to accurately piece every part together themselves. That is even though the story does not explain some minute details, there is enough context (utterances, personalities, situations) for fans to make obvious, logical ties. No long winded assumptions have to be made here. All that is required is a further analysis of the franchises tangled plot. This is very reassuring for myself which makes me believe that this was intentionally done. I’m not sure though.
Of course, if there is something that you yourself didn’t understand then please email me so we can discuss this.
MGS4’s story is the deepest game in the series regarding themes, in two ways; being metaphorical of the rest of the series themes and circumstances and with the addition of new issues such as the PMCs. Every Metal Gear game has dealt with certain issues regarding freedom and control, in MGS4 this is forcefully clear, clearer than ever before. This Ying Yang now plays a more significant role in that it is the fundamental storyline crux of this title.
Other themes such as private military cooperations (PMCs), the war economy, war trauma and understanding differences of opinions and interpretation make a strong and powerful appearance. These themes are woven into the story and also the gameplay.
The whole PMC and war economy situation affects the price of weapons you buy and the different waring factions that you meet within the game. These two buzz words (‘war economy’ and ‘PMCs’) are constantly used throughout the whole game, at times they feel shoved down your throat. You will soon get use to hearing about this issue and its implications. For the most part these issues are dealt with through the narrative.
War trauma does this differently through the BB unit, each Beast was designed around a certain kind of emotive action (crying, screaming etc.) and you will hear sounds of these actions while you do combat with them. Afterwards Drebin provides a back story, depicting their past stories, again raising themes of inexcusable acts created by war. These stories are quite confronting and uncomfortable, sometimes the game comes off too strong in that regard, drilling the horrors of war right into you head. It is a powerful topic and the message really hits home.
What really grabbed me out of all of these themes was the one of acceptance and differences of opinion. Which stripped down, is the basis for conflict and war. When it all draws to a close, you learn that all of this conflict was created by differences of interpretations which lead to misunderstanding, then fear and then war. This theme is implemented and addressed in the most beautifully metaphoric way, representing the foundations of the series and is without a doubt the most meaningful part of this game’s history.
Okay, this has all dragged on for a little too long now. >_< Feels good to get this out my system. I have a good week worth of posts in this one article so I hope you have enjoyed it.
Despite the efforts to rework this game into a more user friendly title, MGS4 has no place to hide and is through and through a title strictly for the fans. MGS4 is a reference to itself, ingrained with the very lore that birthed it, one that only fans will fully appreciate and understand.
With this said though, MGS4’s changes are significant and the largest step forward in this series’s evolution yet. This as well as the high production values demand high praise. MGS4 delivers a new level of cinematic, intense gameplay and complicated plot lines that pushes right up against the boundaries of photo realistic.
Love it or hate it, MGS4 represents a next progressive leap in video game story telling and gameplay, it is an intense, emotional ride into a world that metaphorically explains so much of our own. This sort of experience is really, like nothing you have ever played before and for this reason MGS4 alone, demands to be played, to be experienced. With the technology of the Playstation 3 behind it, crafting an even more realistic world, let’s hope that Hollywood and industry stands up and takes notice of this beautiful title we have crafted.
Thank you Snake, it was a pleasure.