Makes chain smoking cool again.
Like everyone’s favorite drunk uncle, the Metal Gear Solid series can make you laugh at a disgustingly crass joke or cry in drink-addled despair. But also, just as it breaks your heart to see your beloved sauce-loving uncle piss all over himself in the wake of a roaring binge, the Metal Gear Solid series has lately been spiraling into painful self-indulgence and has been in need of serious change. And Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots shows that it’s never too late to make such a serious change for the better.
Just as the first entry in the Metal Gear Solid series defined the stealth action genre, MGS4 redefines the genre more than any other stealth action game since its legendary progenitor hit the original Playstation in 1998. The first Metal Gear Solid didn’t just establish the rules for all stealth action games to follow, but it also showed the world just how much story and play variety could be packed into a video game. Unfortunately, each successive release has seen Kojima and crew fall deeper and deeper in love with their over-inflated egos and fall farther from what made the first game so great in the first place: fun and innovation. Until now.
As the Metal Gear Solid mythos has grown over the years, it’s become all too baroque for my tastes. It requires far too many flow charts, timelines, and family trees to keep track of it all (hence the recent MGS database download through PSN). Worse, MGS2 tried to make cheap philosophical points about the nature of “identity” that were on par with the kinds of psychobabble mumbo-jumbo that gets passed around with the dutchie at a music festival. MGS 3 took a slightly different—but no less awkward and indulgent—tactic by giving us a twisted family drama with all the force and emotion of a daytime talk show and all too often sacrificed innovative gameplay for leaden cinematics.
But MGS4 surprised me. I found myself actually caring this time around. Yes, the story is still ridiculous and the goofy philosophy is still there, but I didn’t mind. It takes itself less seriously than the stories of the prior games and decides to do something that hasn’t been done since the first MGS game: Have fun. And that makes all the difference.
Like the series at its worst, the storyline in MGS4 quickly begins twisting and turning, but instead of opting for painful obviousness and trite commentary about the nature of existence, it goes the route of the first game. Its complexity comes from a carefully wrought tale of political corruption, military abuses, and a good-old-fashioned super-villain.
But the best changes aren’t in the storytelling. I’ve found myself growing more and more frustrated with the play controls in the MGS series. Through MGS2 and 3, very few of the core mechanics—movement, stealth, crawling, gunplay—changed. MGS2 presented a few minor additions to the control scheme, but never bothered to improve its predecessor’s core controls. MGS3 added some useless details like the ability to kill and eat vermin, but most of the title’s play additions were pointless and distracting. Eating snakes isn’t cool, Mr. Kojima, no matter how much you might sing about it.
In contrast, MGS4 keeps the same basic control concepts, but finally reworks many of the most troublesome mechanics. Everything will feel familiar to veterans of the series, and you still have access to most of the same kinds of movements and actions, but they’re executed and integrated so much more smoothly into the experience that I couldn’t help but sigh with relief. Crawling is no longer a frustrating mess, and your running, walking, and sneaking movements no longer feel like they’re still on the old PS1 pad.
Gunplay is an entirely different beast altogether. You can turn the auto-aim function on and off, and you have the new ability to switch seamlessly between an over-the-shoulder view and a first-person view. All of these perspectives have their distinct uses depending on the situation and the weapon you’re using.
The new “threat ring” is a wonderful compliment to the more typical radar setup. Now, when in a crouch or a crawl, a subtle ring will appear around you. Peaks will rise along the surface of the circle indicating the direction of an enemy. The closer the enemy, the higher the peak. It isn’t a substitute for radar, but it keeps you from having to glance in the upper-right corner of the screen all the time.
There are a few awkward aspects with the controls, but they’re not a result of holding onto outdated mechanics. Running feels sluggish at times and the cover mechanics aren’t nearly as smooth as what’s found in Gears of War or Uncharted, but considering just how many other things you can do in this game, it’s surprisingly decent. The major problem with cover mechanics is balancing the "stickiness", but I found far fewer problems with the cover system than with other recent games like GTA4.
The best gameplay improvements, however, have to do with the war atmosphere. Each act puts you in the middle of an active war between a Private Military Corporation (PMC) and local rebels. You can play off one side against the other to your advantage. You’re like cupid, only instead of arrow-shaped hearts, you fire high-precision bullets; and instead of making people fall in love, you make them blow one another’s skulls off. Meanwhile, you sneak past them while they’re busy “loving” one another.
As part of the ongoing war environment, weapon and ammo prices fluctuate according to the degree of conflict. This forces you to choose carefully how you manipulate soldiers into fighting each other. Getting them to fight helps you to sneak around unnoticed, but it also affects the “war price” of weapons, ammo, and modifications. Also, the implementation of “war price” also keeps you from overindulging on the impulse to charge blindly from checkpoint to checkpoint as you could often do in prior MGS games. This time, if you attract too much attention, the conflict level goes up, and so do weapon costs.
The included Metal Gear Online starter pack takes some finagling to get up and running. The sign up process is unnecessarily complex, but luckily—as Bill said to Hillary—you only have to do it once. Since it’s technically a “starter pack”, the online game promises more than it delivers. What’s there is fun, though: Up to 16 players over 5 well-designed maps playing solid—if predictable—game types; but what really sells it is that Konami will obviously be following up on this initial bit with a fuller game in the future.
The art direction is superb, and the game maintains the very familiar MGS color palette of military greens, browns, and grays. The cinematic sequences are brilliantly choreographed and arranged. And even though individual textures are often very plain and flat-looking, you usually won’t notice since everything’s presented so beautifully as a whole. The game also suffers from occasional framerate drops, especially during those cinematic sequences, but nothing that will affect your enjoyment. Adding to the superb sense of atmosphere, the sounds of the battlefield, like bullets whizzing by you in all directions, give even Call of Duty 4 a run for its money.
Compared to the other recent fourth entry in another high-profile series, MGS4 shows how a sequel can both capture the feeling of its predecessors and radically improve on them. As with GTA4, you’ll find many fun, pointless details (like the use of an in-game iPod), but unlike GTA4, you’ll also find many more purposeful details that fundamentally change the way the game is played.
In contrast to Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, MGS4 doesn’t mistake complexity for intelligence. If a schizophrenic person were trying to tell me a story, it’d be plenty complex but I’d have a hard time calling it intelligently structured. But in MGS4, the story is both crazy and crazy smart. It not only takes the stealth action genre to all new heights, but it is also one of the best tactical shooters ever. You’ll not find better cinematics anywhere, and you’re not likely to find a story with more substantial payoffs than this game. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is the best in the series, the best in its genre, and the best game on the PS3.