Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots isn't an easy game for me to review. I've been a fan of the series for something like half my life and I'm willing to forgive a lot, especially with a game like MGS4, which wraps up close to 25 years of games in the only way possible – with immense amounts of fanservice. So it's more than a little difficult for me to give an even close to objective assessment of the game.
There's also the fact that it's the kind of game that I think people will either love or hate. The Metal Gear series has a particular style, and it's one that doesn't appeal to everyone, but for those who do like it, it's almost like the games are scripture. All I can really give are my own impressions on it, but in this case in particular, they won't be applicable to nearly everybody, especially since I really love the series but still manage not to slip into absolute raving zealotry about it.
And I'm sure I'll end up saying a few things that will piss off those most hardcore of fanboys.
Story, Setting, and Characters
Story, Setting, and Characters
|We missed you, Meryl|
The story and characters have always been a focus for the series, and this is no different in MGS4. One of my biggest gripes with the game, and one that I'm going to get out of the way before even talking about the quality of the story, is the sheer volume of cutscenes. The game shares a lot in common with MGS2 in the sense that, although the gameplay is excellent, there's hardly any of it, and the game's 15-20 hour duration is more than half cutscene. As was the case in MGS2, this really hurt my experience of the game as a player. I obviously expected a lot of time spent on cutscenes, it being a Metal Gear Solid game, but I was hoping it'd be a little bit more restrained, as was the first game in the series and more recently MGS3.
The story is interesting, if somewhat overly complicated, but I don't think it justifies this much time spent without control in the hands of the player. There were a whole lot of things that could've been explained more succinctly, thereby both resulting in better pacing and more tension and drama in the narrative, and in less time spent with the player just watching.
As is par for the course for the series (at least, since the first game, which was markedly better in this area) the voice acting in the game is (often hilariously) melodramatic and the performances are almost always incredibly hammy and unrealistic. I'm sure that sounds like a negative, but as a fan of the series, it's something that I've always felt has added to the charm of the games, and it fits in with the overall campy style.
The script flips between being almost perfect and almost irredeemably bad, sometimes to hilarious effect and other times just painfully. Some scenes are natural and dramatic, and others are absurdly over the top. There are also a few points where there's a whole lot of unnecessary exposition or repetition, or background information that I couldn't bring myself to care about, although generally MGS4 is nowhere near as painful as MGS2 in this regard. The over the top scenes, again, simply add to the game's charm in my opinion and I wouldn't want to go without them, even when the cheese is layered very thickly indeed.
|Another old friend.|
The characters in the game are mostly very well developed – in some cases I would say a little over-developed with superfluous information – and should largely be familiar to the fans of the series. There are a whole lot of them as well. In fact, it kind of seems like Kojima tried to write every character from the past three games into this one in some way, and it's very gratifying as a fan of the series to see almost every single one of the old favourites – even some we thought were dead and gone – make a come back.
The game's plot, as well, is extremely satisfying for me as a fan of the series. It very successfully ties up pretty much every loose end, and it ties the entire series together very competently and very satisfyingly. I think it's quite an achievement, the way in which five (including the first two Metal Gear games before Solid) extremely divergent games are tied together. There are only a few points that seem iffy or leave a bit of a sour taste in my mouth with the way characters' stories were resolved, and overall everything is handled extremely well. The game's complicated story is validated by the fact that it's really the story of over twenty years of games, all brought together flawlessly. I can't overstate how successful this game was as a conclusion to a series that spawned a massive cult of fans, and how expertly it resolves the story of Solid Snake. There are issues as I've mentioned above – the pacing being actually a pretty serious one – but for me, the overall effect outweighed all the bad.
In short, the game looks and sounds fantastic.
The graphics are very sharp and technically impressive, with very detailed scenery, superb lighting and effects, and expressive, detailed characters. The game has real style and a distinctive visual flair, as is the norm for the series, and the anime influenced art direction is really brought to life by the game's superb graphics engine.
Animation in the game is also extremely fluid and realistic – MGS4 features some of the best motion capture work in gaming, much like MGS3 before it, which lends a sense of real believability to the way characters in the game move and react.
The sound and music in the game are both outstanding. There are dozens upon dozens of weapons in the game, all of which sound unique and quite real, making using them very satisfying aurally. The music in the Metal Gear series has always been excellent, and this game is no exception, with a combination of emotional or dramatic orchestral music and some more hard-hitting electronic music, all of which augments the drama in the game perfectly.
Not much else to say here – the game's presentation is impeccable.
It's a real shame that the gameplay takes a back seat to the cutscenes in MGS4, because it plays phenomenally well. The core gameplay and mechanics are the best of the series, and that's saying a whole lot after MGS3, which also played incredibly well.
The shooting feels very good indeed (which is good because you'll probably be doing a lot of it this time around), and a smooth, solid control system makes sneaking around very rewarding and very immersive. My only real complaint in this area might be in terms of level design, but really it was just different from what I was expecting, not bad.
MGS4 is very heavy on action. Other games in the series have typically featured quite deliberate pacing as you carefully sneak around the areas, trying to avoid the waste of resources and fairly likely death that come with sounding an alarm. In MGS4, however, even when you are trying to be sneaky, you generally want to be moving quite quickly and focusing on slipping through momentary gaps in the enemies defences. It's pretty exhilarating, and in a way it's too bad that this time around it's quite easy to shoot your way through the game. That said, straight up combat in the game is a lot of fun, and there are many situations in which you'll be forced to engage in it, which is why the game feels pretty different from it's predecessors.
The gameplay is pretty varied in MGS4. As well as the open-area sneaking that is familiar in the series, there are a couple of areas that basically rely on tracking a specific target through an area packed with hostiles that change up the pacing a bit, and are in my opinion strongpoints of the game. It also features one of the best executed rail-shooting segments I've ever seen in a game, to the point where it was actually pretty exciting and enjoyable, instead of feeling very contrived and dull as is the case in most games with rail-shooting segments.
I wish that the game had been a little bit more open, like MGS3 was, and featured more of the typical stealth gameplay that veterans of the series like myself are accustomed to, but nonetheless, the game plays extremely well and is a lot of fun, it's just a real shame that there's so little actual gameplay.
Some of the issues with MGS4 are pretty severe, and might well be deal-breakers for a lot of people. The game has serious pacing issues, there isn't enough gameplay, and the script and acting can be really painful at times.
But from the point of view of a die-hard fan of the series? MGS4 is truly great. The script and acting become lovable quirks instead of shortcomings, the endless cutscenes... still annoying, and yet somehow an integral part of the Metal Gear experience we know and love. The melodrama is sometimes genuinely affecting, for all its cheese, and is almost always somewhat endearing even when it isn't really tugging at the heartstrings. The gameplay takes what was so great about the previous games and refines it even further into a really excellent package, and the story ties everything up really beautifully and feels like a truly fitting end to the story of a group of characters the player is highly invested in after years and years of these games.
As with all the major entries in the franchise, fans really can't miss this game, but MGS4 in particular, because it so beautifully sums up an entire generation of gaming goodness.