Review: Metal Gear Solid 4
+++ Astonishing level of graphics, sound and presentation
++ Lots of options for both stealth and action gameplay
+ Unique and challenging boss battles
+ Two of the most intense and well crafted on-rails sequences in the history of games
+ Once the controls are mastered they prove to be very well done
+ Powerful and satisfying end to the MGS series
-- Too many cutscenes, not enough gameplay
-- Design of the game seems to favor gunning down everyone over being stealthy
-- The later three "Acts" seemed watered down in terms of gameplay
- Frequent and annoying load screens, and install times for each Act
- Controls have a bit of a learning curve
- Absurd level of fan service can alienate a non-MGS hardcore
Metal Gear Solid 4 is the final chapter in the story of Solid Snake. Snake's got a lot of expectations on his shoulders - people are touting MGS4 as the flagship exclusive title for the Playstation 3 and the one that will put it over and beyond the Xbox 360. It has been hyped since before the console was even released with numerous trailers showcasing its groundbreaking presentation values and teasing at vital story points. But does it live up to the hype?
It depends on what you expect out of the game.
Snake's final chapter starts off with his monologue about how "war has changed" with his stealthy entrance into a battlefield in the Middle East. From the beginning it is obvious just how spectacular the game's production values are. Everything from the textures to the motion capture to the realistic movement of cloth showcases an astonishing level of realism. There are moments where a character looks Snake in the eyes and I could almost swear I was looking at a real person. The level of realism brings about a powerful sense of immersion in the game.
What breaks this level of immersion, however, is what happens right when the opening scene of the game ends. After Snake finishes his monologue and gets off the truck he snuck onto, the game displays your health bar and finally gives me command of Snake. I'm more than excited to start after that 15 minute cutscene prepped me on my objectives and all that was at stake. I walk around to get a feel of the controls and crawl under a truck to progress...and watch as the screen fades into another cutscene. The 10 minute cutscene to 2 minutes of gameplay to another cutscene cycle happens numerous times in the first act, which just proved to be frustrating. Not only are cutscenes long, but they are frequent do a nice job of cutting up gameplay and taking you out of the experience. I don't mind a long cutscene after an intense firefight to help me relax and prepare for the next sequence, but a lot of times simply walking half-way toward your next checkpoint will cue the next cutscene. I had a number of "why can't I do that?" moments as I watched Snake tactically take out guards in a cutscene, where I was playing just a moment ago.
Another way the game removed me from the experience is the frequent load screens. Before and after each aforementioned cutscene there is usually a loading screen, which can take anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds to complete. Perhaps I've been spoiled by no-loading games like Grand Theft Auto 4 and Burnout Paradise, but it still felt like it jarred me out of the moment for a few seconds. What worsens these load screens are the mandatory installs. Now the Playstation 3 is notorious for forcing the user to install parts of the game when you first play - that's annoying enough as is. But MGS4 prompts an install screen on EVERY ACT. These install screens can range from 3 minutes to 15. Since pretty much every act ends on a large cliffhanger, having to deal with a long wait screen to see what happens next can be painful.
The loads screens particularly took me out of the experience during one of the best parts of the game. An on-rails type shooter sequence, two in fact, that are executed just about flawlessly. They felt like chase sequences right out of a movie - intense, well choreographed, and down-to-the-wire. During one sequence the player must protect himself while protecting another car while shooting down both land and air-bombing enemies - it was just fantastic. But again, after every minute or so of gameplay the game would fade into another 10 second load screen, which just hurt the experience.
These sequences worked so well in part thanks to the new control system. While it takes a bit of getting used to (in particular with close-quarters-combat), once broken in the system works fluently. Aiming felt accurate and easy to target with, especially with the semi-auto-targeting system.
As for the gameplay, I felt that it could really be a mixed bag. The game still gives you a lot of options for being stealthy, a staple of the MGS series. You can hide in barrels, throw playboy magazines to distract enemies, play dead, or just tranq the guys before they spot you. Snake's new OctoCamo system allows him to blend in with whatever he's pressed against by merely standing still for a few seconds. While this system is a great overhaul from MGS3's camo system, where you had to shift through menus every time you wanted to blend in with your surroundings, I felt it made things a bit too easy. Whenever I was in danger I could just lay down, blend in with the ground, get a 85% camo index, and the enemies would never see me unless they literally walked into me. And if they got too close, I could just pop them before they could radio in reinforcements.
The stealth options weren't the main problem I had - it was really the numerous options when you get in a firefight. Early on in the game you meet an arms dealer named Drebin, who gives you laundered guns and ammo in exchange for points. The problem here is you can access his shop ANYWHERE after you meet him - you simply pause the game and select his shop. Running low on ammo? Pause the game, buy 600 bullets, unpause, problem solved. Suppressor wearing out? You can buy some from him too. Need a sniper rifle to handle some far off enemies? Voila, 3 seconds later a sniper rifle appears in your hands.
What complicates the problem further is how you get points - you get them in exchange for enemies' weapons. In other words, the game pretty much rewards you for wonton enemy killing - you keep their ammo and sell their guns for points, which you can use to up your own arsenal. Kill enough enemies and Snake becomes a virtual Fort Knox and an unstoppable war machine - Drebin stocks everything from shotguns to grenade launchers to claymore mines. In past MGS games you had to be stealthy to preserve ammo and save it for tricky spots, but in MGS4 you're pretty much encouraged to kill all you want. You get no bonus for being stealthy except for a low amount of bonus points at the end of each act.
I was really discouraged by this system - it really killed the stealth aspect of the game for me. A simple remedy could have been Drebin only having a limited stock of items, or only being able to call him when not in a firefight, or having to rendezvous with him at an obscure part of the map to get supplied; any of these options would make the system less broken. It was not well thought out and pretty much allows the game to become a complete third person shooter if the player desires.
While the gameplay was strong in the first two acts, everything seemed much more watered down afterwards. Act three mostly consisted of one stealth sequence while stalking a person for far too long to be enjoyable,followed by a rail shooting sequence, followed by a boss fight. Act four had little gameplay and was the most massive piece of fan service I've ever seen (I will come back to this in a minute). Act five was literally two boss fights and a walking sequence. The first two acts were pretty large and had some interesting gameplay elements, such as befriending certain militia squads by helping them take out other squads. You could also get disguises to look like a squad to get their favor even easier.
One thing all the acts share in common are the amazing boss battles. While perhaps not the strongest set in the MGS series, these battles are well thought out and can be intense. In one fight the boss disguises himself as parts of the environment and, if you can't find him fast enough, will lunge at you viciously. It was one of the few moments in a game where I was legitimately a bit frightened. Several of the fights involve more than just gunning down the boss; it takes a bit of thought to figure out their weaknesses and defeat them proper. If you've played a MGS game you know there's at least one battle involving the giant Metal Gear mechs, and all I'll say is the one in this game is by far my favorite in the series.
What bothered me about the game a bit is the absurd level of fan service evident in it. While I'm a diehard MGS fan, the game proved to be self-aware and referenced itself and the 3 games before it too much for even me. In the first conversations in the game characters bring up plot points they seem to assume you know from the previous games. It made sense to me but I could see it really running circles around someone new to the series. By the end of the game things are explained well for the most part. This isn't before Act 4, however, which is the most over-done piece of fanservice I've ever seen. The entire area is modeled after a place visited before (I won't spoil it). Everything from the conversations to what I call "nostalgia triggers" - parts of the area that force Snake into a flashback narrative by simply stepping near it - is just going way too far. I feel that this excessive amount of self-reference would really alienate or confuse someone new to the series.
All that being said, this is definitely not a game for everyone. If you can't stand constant interruptions for cutscenes, loading screens, and install sequences, this game could very well drive you mad even with skipping the cutscenes. If you can look beyond the flaws, however, you can see that MGS4 is one of the best produced games this generation and is a gem in its own right. I recommend this completely to anyone who's played the first three - this game is pretty much custom tailored for just you. If you're new to the series get ready to be confused a little by the storyline, but give it time, it'll make sense by the end. The end in itself is a powerful and emotional ending that does the series the justice it deserves. I recommend playing the previous 3 games first to enjoy the ending to the fullest. I really want to say MGS4 is an amazing game, but I can only say that it is an amazing game in certain respects. There are just some crushing gameplay problems I had that prevent me from giving it the highest recommendation. If you have a PS3 or are a MGS fan, this is one experience you should at least give a try.
Overal Score: 8.2
Credits: Gametrailers.com for opening, IGN.com for images.