August 4th, 2008
It’s been well over a month since I first finished Metal Gear Solid 4 (you can read my original impressions here). Since then the constructive discussion regarding the game has been limited to the “IT’S ART!!!!” versus “tHE story SUX!!” argument evading any attempt to define this complicated title. Most notably though a few bloggers shared their own opinions on the matter, although there are so few of us to make any real difference.
Basically that’s my excuse to plug away at a few more ideas about the game that have developed over my time away.
Past, Present, Future
Before I get into it though, I ought to contextualize MGS4 within the scope of the previous games. I personally regard the original MGS, MGS3 and Metal Gear II as my three favourite titles in the series. Each of these games finds a steady equilibrium, harmoniously balancing the numerous gameplay constituents that the series is famous for, such as action, stealth and non interactive narrative.
The other main benefactor of these games comes from the storyline which is ambitious but never to the point of harmful. In each of these games, the story is generally comprehensible, believable and balanced well with the gameplay. While ‘fantasty’ based elements are a rarely discussed staple of the series, these games use it only for metaphoric purposes and never to conclude storyline plot holes (ie. the magic fairy did it). For example; Psycho Mantis is a psychic who can do all sorts of unreal actions (floating, controlling minds) while it’s not real, it by no means damages the game in any way, only enhancing the experience.
MGS2 and MGS4 meet at the other end of the scale. They are a kaleidoscope of heightened excellence and awkward stumbles through a largely unbalanced experience created by the breadth of ambition by series creator Hideo Kojima. While these games showcase some of the best work within the franchise (namely cinematography, emotional directive), this work is then tarnished by almost equally misplaced moments of tedium. These games are generally harder to follow, draw out longer conclusions which are never properly explained, left for hand wavy assumptions. The connections are there but the mental ‘click’ is absent. I also found the boss battles to be better in the former three games.
The MGS series has been strongly criticized for its archaic control scheme. A criticism that until brought to my attention never really affected my experience with the games (with the exclusion of CQC in MGS3 — dexterity nightmare!). Therefore my transition over to MGS4 was mostly smooth, well…initially it wasn’t as I manually disabled the square button in the options (which is used to move between perspectives) and could not figure it out what I’d done, all my fault, don’t hold it against the game.
Explorative quibbles aside, MGS4’s multifaceted control scheme is incredibly intuitive as it brings together multiple styles of the action adventure genre under the one roof in a mostly seamless fashion. You move through 3rd person to over the shoulder view to first person all by the push of a button, each transition working effectively for different purposes. Contrast this against other successful action adventure titles which are predominately set around a single play mechanic (Resident Evil 4 for example) and MGS4 feels like a much more technical yet versatile action game. This is made progressively smoother with the streamlining of CQC (close quarters combat) and other series mechanics.
This is then coupled with branching paths, native environments from around the world and a wider assortment of weapons – MGS4’s scope is unbelievable. There are just so many ways to play this game and so many details to seek out and explore.
Unfortunately this scope foreshadows the amount of available content to play within. While I clocked in at about 23hrs with my first playthrough, a good chunk of that was (lets face it) non interactive narrative. It can be said that Snake has more tools at his disposal than game available for him to practice, learn and master the usages of each piece of equipment, a significant difference from Metal Gear Solid which called upon almost every item in the game.
Can’t Say Goodbye to Yesterday
There is a common misconception that links Metal Gear’s complicated story (particularly MGS2 and MGS4) with the often long winded length of its cutscenes, used as the medium to narrate that story. In reality though, this could not be further from the truth. You only need to do a search for Metal Gear on this site to discover that I’m a complete nutter about the Metal Gear history and lore. Yet of all the hours of cutscene and codec in MGS4 (maybe 10hrs), less than an hour of it actually advances the story, the rest is just mindless filler and that’s coming from someone who reads heavily into the story.
In MGS2, codec was used to advance the two dimensional story of Jack (Raiden) and Rosemary and for Kojima himself to push a message about digital information which blew everything logical about the series into the stratosphere. In MGS4 it’s war economy and nanomachines. I genuinely appreciate how games push important messages like these and the MGS series has done an incredible job at this, arguably one of the only games to do this. Unfortunately though when Kojima wants us to know about important issues X, he does so forcefully and uses the characters that we know and love as puppets to bash his messages into your brain.
The other thing which boggles me about MGS4 are the long rants regarding ‘the system’, its AIs and how the protagonists can defeat it. They spend literally hours talking about this technology which is mostly fiction just to further complicate the story, when all they have to say is: the bad guy is here and he plans on doing this and here is how we are going to stop him. Metal Gear Solid and MGS3 managed to be fantastic games with deeply engaging stories without all of this depth, so why include all of this arbitrary nonsense? The same uselessness applies for other parts of the game such as Mei Ling’s character being totally abused by silly Japanese cultural quirks (that’s of the developers, Mei Ling is Chinese).
The other bothersome feature of the cut scenes is how superfluously length they are. MGS4 (and MGS2) seem like playgroundS, in place only to quench Kojima’s desire of direct movies. Too often the controller is taken out of your hand and you are forced to play the ‘sucky’ part. This isn’t the Metal Gear Solid that I grew up with, back then you worked hard and then the game rewarded you with stylish cutscenes to reward. Such as in the first battle with Ocelot in MGS, for a newbie beating Ocelot was a little tough, so when it was over you got to watch a kick-ass sequence where Ocelot’s hand got chopped off by Ninja. In MGS4 though, the cut scene exchange roles with the gameplay.
Who Am I Really?
What makes all of this so difficult to swallow is how Kojima Productions could have created another masterpiece. They’d proven so with MGS3, then, Hideo Kojima’s ambitions, much like the Patriot’s, became big and bloated. That’s not to say that MGS4 is a failure because it simply isn’t, it is one of the best produced pieces of media of our time which so happens to be under the control of a mad man.