If you’re a Metal Gear Solid fan, this review is not for you. Frankly, you don’t need a review. Metal Gear Solid 4 is between you, Hideo Kojima, and whatever bond the two of you have formed over the last ten years of Metal Gear games. I might as well come to your house, root around in your shoebox of old love letters, and comment on their grammar, punctuation, imagery, and literary merit.
After the jump, a review for everyone else.
This review is for everyone else. It’s partly for those who, like me, dabbled in the previous games. It’s mostly for those who might have had their interest piqued by the marketing or who fell for the “tactical espionage action” tagline on the box (only one of the three is true, and only occasionally). For you, I cannot stress enough that this is a terrible terrible game.
There are two parts to a Metal Gear: the gameplay and the cutscenes. Over progressive titles, those parts have come unglued from each other, and it’s obvious where developer Hideo Kojima’s heart is. In Metal Gear Solid 4, gameplay and cutscenes have finally reversed their traditional roles of substance and filler. If you don’t count having to replay the parts where you’ll invariably get stuck, there’s more here to watch than there is to play.
This might not be so bad if you were watching something interesting, or even comprehensible. Instead, you’re watching an indulgent series finale that exhaustively reiterates details and piles nonsensical twist on top of nonsensical twist. Without a degree in Metal Gear Solidology, you will be hopelessly lost. And by the time it’s over, you will have long since ceased to care.
You will endure literally hours of glacially paced G.I. Emo. There are pointless 1-, 2-, or even 3-second pauses between lines. Characters grunt and pace and look at each other and sit and think and grunt again and pace some more. Someone even gets cancer before it’s over. Metal Gear Solid 4 is an example of videogame narrative at its absolute worst: juvenile, absurd, tedious, and self-important. Many games might survive two or even three of these. But all four are deadly.
Kojima references child soldiers, post-traumatic stress disorder, the neoconservative movement, gun control, electronic battlefields, military contractors, and the economics of war. Recurring eggs and apples touch on Immaculate Conception and Original Sin. Various characters go through mommy and daddy issues. Without fail they all have bad haircuts. And in the end, Metal Gear Solid 4 fails to make any meaningful point beyond that the military/industrial complex is bad. In other words, old news. Eisenhower already mentioned this when he stepped out of office fifty years ago.
But Kojima’s main problem isn’t the clot of facile political nonsense. More damning is that his characters are so unconvincingly comic book. At one point, an estranged child confesses that he thinks his father is cool because he “reminds [him] of a comic book superhero”. You ain’t kidding, kid. Because there is no sign of the human condition in this mess. Even Snake’s aging is a sci-fi plot twist. There is one exhilarating pay-off the Johnny/Akiba confession that would have been more exhilarating if it weren’t lifted wholesale from Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It’s almost as if Kojima’s gunplay-as-coitus riff is an accident. The way two characters slap clips into each other’s guns is probably the closest a Metal Gear Solid game has gotten to an authentic human moment. It is then buried under nearly two-hours of exposition that follows the final boss battle.
Okay, but what about the gameplay? There is, after all, an option to skip the cutscenes. What are you left with? Unfortunately, not much. Metal Gear Solid 4 opens with two promising acts, introducing a new “living battlefield” system. Rebels are battling government troops. As Snake, you can jump in guns blazing to help one side out, or just stay clear and sneak around amid the gunfire and explosions. But just as it seems to be getting underway, it’s forgotten. The third act is an abandoned base with a few robots (this will thrill Metal Gear Solid fans the same way the ending of System Shock 2 thrilled System Shock fans). The fourth act is a terrible drawn-out tailing mission followed by a vehicle sequence on rails. And the fifth act is a short straight-up combat slog. There are, of course, boss battles throughout, including at least one which pretty much requires Googling “MGS4 boss battle stuck”.
Throughout it all, you can unlock and buy guns, and there are plenty of gadgets that will probably be necessary if you want to play through the harder difficulty levels (on normal, it’s entirely possible to bypass many areas by just running to the exit). This time around, Metal Gear Solid 4 has a newfound fetishistic regard for guns that will please some shooter fans. It also ships with Metal Gear Online, a rote multiplayer shooter made more interesting by a skill system resembling the perks in Call of Duty 4. Unfortunately, it’s locked behind a fussy registration process, presumably so that Konami can hit you up for micropayments in the near future.
But for the most part, the gameplay is the same tired and dated stealth gimmick. Despite the tease of the living battlefield, Kojima shows little interest in actually designing a game. The stealth and gunplay are at odds, and the war price system is barely used, which means the gun purchases are a formality. Necessary guns are rolled out with the plot anyway. Mix in a few on-rail vehicle sequences, some old-school boss battles, and one terrible door chokepoint. As a game, this is a collection of poorly related fragments.
Perhaps most disappointing is that Kojima seems to have lost some of his playfulness. Metal Gear Solid 4 opens with a disarming set of TV show gags (including one with an on-camera David Hayter joining the fun). But then it gets earnest and mostly stays there. At one point, you defeat a boss simply because you’re not on a Playstation 2. There’s a wonderful Playstation 1 dream sequence. Perhaps more of this humor might have kept the story from being such a wet blanket. Like Lucas, sometimes Spielberg, and the Siblings Wachowski, Kojima seems shut inside an echo chamber where no one tells him ‘no’ and devoted fans scream ‘yes’ no matter what he does. I mean no malice when I say they get what they deserve. The rest of us are better off steering clear.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is the final chapter in the saga of Solid Snake which sends him around the world in pursuit of his arch nemesis, Liquid Ocelot. Armed with new gadgets and abilities, Solid Snake must shift the tides of war into his favor, using the chaos of the battlefield to infiltrate deep into enemy territory. In his globetrotting final mission, Snake must sneak deep into enemy locations in the Middle East, South America, and other corners of the earth to foil Liquid Ocelot's plans for total world domination blah blah blah Kojima blah blah.