Though Metal Gear Solid 3 didn’t sell as many copies as its two direct predecessors, it would go on to become one of the most critically acclaimed games of the 2000s. Many fans have since declared it the best game in the series for striking a good balance between the relatively grounded feel of Metal Gear Solid and the unbridled ambition displayed in its sequel. As good as it was, and still is, some were decidedly unsatisfied with the decision to make Metal Gear Solid 3 a prequel, as Metal Gear Solid 2 left many plot threads unresolved, and they felt that retreating into the past was an easy way to avoid having to address any of them. Coupled with the success this franchise enjoyed, many began clamoring for the series to continue.
The pleas did not fall on deaf ears, for in 2005, Metal Gear Solid 4 was unveiled at a Sony press conference just before E3. Hideo Kojima, the series’ creator, was initially uninterested in directing this game, and intended to pass the torch to another. As a joke, the director was announced as “Alan Smithee,” an official pseudonym used by those in the film industry who wish to disown a project. This development was deemed unacceptable by a select group of fans who subsequently made their disapproval known by sending death threats to Mr. Kojima himself. Likely as a response to this, it was during E3 proper that Mr. Kojima revealed that he would be writing, producing, and directing the game himself.
A year later, Sony released their third PlayStation console. Considering how successful the previous two iterations of their signature console were, it came as some surprise that it originally received a lukewarm reception. This failure can be attributed to a combination of the success of Nintendo’s Wii console along with having few noteworthy titles upon launch. Whatever the case may have been, it was decided that Metal Gear Solid 4 would be released on the PlayStation 3 as a console exclusive title. Using the new console’s capabilities to their greatest effect, Mr. Kojima set forth to create what was intended to be the concluding chapter of the Metal Gear saga. To this end, the staff went as far as undergoing military training and traveling the world to help develop the environments that would be implemented in the final product. After three long years of development, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots saw a worldwide release in 2008. The response to this game was overwhelmingly positive, receiving perfect scores in various publications such as Famitsu, Game Informer, and IGN. Indeed, many people who had reservations about the PlayStation 3 were convinced to buy one just to play this game. The question now is: what exactly what about Metal Gear Solid 4 was so good that it achieved all these accolades?
Playing the Game
The main series of Konami’s famous stealth franchise had become progressively more action-oriented with each entry starting with Metal Gear Solid 2. Metal Gear Solid 4 marks the completion of this gradual metamorphosis, as the controls wouldn’t be out of place in a Gears of War game, making the experience come across more like a third-person shooter with stealth elements than the other way around. When readying a weapon, the camera moves to an over-the-shoulder shot that can be changed to a first person view if desired, and your character can even move while shooting. Furthermore, the camera is fully controllable with the right analog stick, and there is a far greater array of firearms available to you than in any installment in the series thus far.
To complement this change, the first two acts of this game take place on an active battlefield. Although it may sound like a modern military shooter wherein the player character represents one side of a conflict, the protagonist of Metal Gear Solid 4 is a neutral force. These skirmishes pit the antagonist’s forces against the local militia. Although you cannot directly join their cause, you have the ability to aid the local militiamen to gain their trust. You can accomplish this by rescuing their members, defeating their opposition, or offering supplies such as bandages and rations to them. Once you have their trust, they will no longer attack you and may even provide cover as you make your way to the current objective.
Enemy soldiers in this game function similarly to their predecessors. Getting spotted triggers an alert phase, causing reinforcements to arrive on the scene in an effort to eradicate your character. If you successfully deal with them, whether it’s by incapacitating them or hiding from their sight, the game enters the evasion phase. During this time, soldiers will investigate your last known location until the onscreen timer reaches zero. Preforming an action that arouses suspicion will cause the timer to stop until they determine the anomaly. If they are still unable to pinpoint your location, enemies will enter the caution phase, meaning that the soldiers will resume their normal behavior backed up with the reinforcements called from earlier. Once the caution phase ends, the reinforcements will leave, allowing you another chance at slipping past the enemy blockade.
There is a second meter in addition to the standard health gauge. This is called the psyche gauge, and it reflects the protagonist’s mental wellbeing. At higher levels, the protagonist has a steadier aim when firing guns and can regenerate health at a fairly quick rate. When the meter is low, his marksmanship suffers and his health meter will not restore on its own. Engaging the enemy in combat, equipping a heavy loadout, and prolonged exposure to harsh environments decrease the meter. Simply leaving a dangerous situation is enough to refill the psyche gauge, but smoking cigarettes, hiding in a cardboard box, or using an aromatic herb can expedite the process. Because of this, it’s still a better long-term strategy to not engage the enemy unless absolutely necessary. Not only does it allow you to save resources, but it also keeps your character’s combat performance at an optimal level.
The camouflage mechanic makes its return for this installment. The higher the camo index, represented by a percentage on the top-right portion of the screen, the closer the enemy needs to be in order to identify your character. In Metal Gear Solid 3, the game in which this concept was first introduced, you had to pause whenever you moved onto a differently colored section of the ground in order to determine which set of fatigues decreased the chances of the enemy spotting you from afar. This time around, your character has been equipped with a state-of-the-art sneaking suit that changes colors to better match the terrain he finds himself on. To activate it, one needs only to wait for a few seconds, meaning that you no longer have to interrupt the game’s flow as often should you wish to be completely stealthy.
Once again, I have to marvel at Mr. Kojima’s willingness to take the series in an entirely new direction while retaining what makes it so enjoyable. I like the ability to make temporary allies of the militiamen. Electing to side with them effectively provides a more pensive take on a subgenre that was gaining popularity at the time, and you are actively punished should you give into your natural gaming instincts and gun everything down with reckless abandon. After killing a certain number of soldiers in an act, the protagonist will throw up from the gore, and his psyche gauge will decrease. It’s an effective way of encouraging players to resolve conflicts with minimal violence, and the militiamen will move forward as long as the enemy is incapacitated – whether they’re unconscious or dead doesn’t matter.
Another touch I enjoyed is that, for the first time in the series, there is nothing stopping you from taking the enemies’ firearms or their ammunition. Even if you have no immediate use for them, it ensures that their owners will be left defenseless when they wake up. Even better is how, after a certain plot development, you are rewarded for performing certain actions such as collecting enemy weapons and eradicating war machines with points that you can use to purchase new firearms, ammunition, and other useful items. You can even use these points to upgrade weapons with attachments such as stocks, flashlights, and noise suppressors.
Perhaps what I admire most about this game is the sheer number of options available to the player at almost any given moment. Maybe at first, you’ll play the game as a gun-and-run third-person shooter while the next time has you attempting to uphold the series’ tradition by leaving the combatants to their own devices, leaving no trace of your activities. This even extends to the boss battles where you’re given an impressive arsenal to deal with them, yet you can attempt to take them out with your handy tranquilizer pistol for an extra reward. These little touches go a long way in adding a lot of replay value to what would otherwise have been a rather static experience.
On the surface, Metal Gear Solid 4 would appear to be yet another step forward for the series. However, despite all of the good things I, and many other reviewers, have to say about this game, it’s not quite that straightforward. Regrettably, it’s a common practice for developers to dump all of their worst ideas at the end of their game. This can be attributed to the fact that reviewers and even a significant chunk of players never actually complete the games they start. Therefore, this would incentivize creators to place all of their sound ideas within the first half of the game to amass critical acclaim and placate most of the fanbase.
How does that aside relate back to this game specifically? Although I wouldn’t go as far as saying that Metal Gear Solid 4 becomes outright bad at any point, I felt the best parts about it were decidedly short-lived. Starting from the third act, the game ceases taking place on a battlefield. |The third act centers around a tailing mission where the person you’re following has zero common sense and will happily grab the attention of the armed forces, necessitating you to assume the role of his guardian angel. The rest of the game doesn’t fare much better because by that point in the plot, the constant warfare that engulfed the planet was forcibly stopped. Although it could have made for a nice change of pace, the fourth act features primarily mechanical enemies that are unsatisfying to deal with while the final chapter only has one area to explore before reaching the endgame.| Removing the presence of the local militiamen took away an entire dimension of gameplay. It wasn’t to the extent where the game ever became a mindless shooter, but it seemed to make the rest of the experience feel hollow by comparison.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section of the review will contain minor unmarked spoilers for the first three Metal Gear Solid installments. If you’re interested in playing any of these games, I recommend skipping to the conclusion.
In 2005, a rebellion against the United States helmed by the special forces unit stationed on Shadow Moses Island, FOXHOUND, was subdued by a lone agent codenamed Solid Snake. The leader of this insurrection was his twin brother, Liquid Snake. It was during this operation that Solid Snake learned the two of them were clones of Big Boss, considered by many to be the greatest soldier in history having prevented a full-scale war between the world’s superpowers in 1964.
Though Solid Snake prevented a Third World War, one of FOXHOUND’s members managed to escape: the team’s interrogation expert, Revolver Ocelot. However, the latter did not emerge from his encounter with Snake unscathed, for a third party severed his arm shortly after the two engaged in combat. As a solution to this problem, Ocelot decided to graft the arm of his former superior, Liquid Snake onto his stump. An unforeseen consequence to this action occurred in 2007 and 2009 when Liquid’s spirit began to influence Ocelot’s actions from beyond the grave. It was after an incident in Manhattan that Liquid’s psyche completely dominated Ocelot’s mind, giving him a new identity: Liquid Ocelot.
The year is now 2014, and the world is in chaos. A global economic structure which emerged in the 2010s has turned war into a lucrative business. All over the world, internal conflicts are being fought, not for the sake of any ideology or any deeper motive than to make the profits rise. This fueled the need for PMCs (private military companies) – the five largest of which are owned by a single mother company called Outer Heaven. This mother company is a force that easily rivals the power entire United States Army, and the man commanding it is none other than Liquid Ocelot.
In the five years following the conclusion of the Manhattan Incident, which saw the death of the President of the United States, Solid Snake’s body began to age rapidly, giving him the appearance of a man in his seventies despite being in his early forties. His closest ally, Hal “Otacon” Emmerich, a scientist he met during the incident on Shadow Moses, is unable to determine the cause of this mysterious affliction, but he estimates that Snake has only a year left to live. While visiting an unmarked grave in Arlington National Cemetery, he is approached by his former commanding officer, Roy Campbell, for one final mission: to assassinate Liquid Ocelot and put an end to his plans before he can use his military might to achieve global domination. Knowing that this mission is likely going to be his last, Snake accepts, and is subsequently dropped in a Middle Eastern warzone. Whether the world shall know peace once more hinges on his success.
To properly put this game in context, a big draw of Metal Gear Solid 4 was finally getting to witness how Mr. Kojima would resolve the lingering plot threads left open by its predecessors. It is widely accepted that Metal Gear Solid 2 was an attempt to get people to stop caring about the series and move onto something else. To achieve this goal, he created a narrative which ended in a barely cohesive manner that raised an innumerable number of questions he had no intentions of answering. Instead, he left it to his audience to figure out things for themselves, and leave the story at that. Naturally, they did not take this well, for the conclusion of Metal Gear Solid 2 was more of an unintentional cliffhanger than an open ending that was up for interpretation.
Moreover, because the next installment was a prequel to the entire series, this meant that Mr. Kojima was now saddled with the daunting task of resolving every single loose end the previous titles set up in the span of a single game. Was he successful? I would say just barely because it involved an extensive reinterpretation of the ending of Metal Gear Solid 2 while having to address the new characters introduced in Metal Gear Solid 3. That the narrative of this installment actually made sense of the bizarre plot of Metal Gear Solid 2 is a miracle in of itself, but managing to provide decent explanations for many of the other inexplicable elements was truly remarkable. It also helps that this game was a major step forward from a presentation standpoint. Cutscenes this well-rendered eventually became commonplace in the AAA industry, but back in 2008, Metal Gear Solid 4 was practically peerless in this regard.
I found that most of the twists present in this game provide a far more satisfying sense of closure to the series than Metal Gear Solid 2. A subtle touch I enjoyed about the story was how events in previous games were alluded to when they became relevant in this installment rather than dedicating entire paragraphs to explaining something the audience should know by this point. It felt like a nice reward for keeping up with an amazing series.
However, there was a dark side to these revelations. It should surprise precisely nobody that death threats are a poor way to get someone to feel enthusiastic about being a part of a creative project, and the ill effects from such a scenario are made all too evident in the final product. Due to his body having broken down in a short five years, Solid Snake is a shell of his former self. He chooses to fulfill his mission purely out of obligation, and it’s obvious he just wants to get it over with so he finally know peace – even if it’s in death. Gone is the philosophy he preached in Metal Gear Solid 2, and in its stead is a mixture of contempt and apathy. Other than his deteriorating physical health, there is no in-game explanation for him rejecting his beliefs, leading some fans to conclude that he is a reflection of Mr. Kojima himself. As a result, the experience of playing this game is meant to be depressing, and it’s clear that by making Solid Snake an old man, any prospects of a sequel would be impossible without extensive retconning.
After being confronted by the uglier side of Metal Gear fandom, it’s difficult to blame him for crafting the story the way he did. Having said that, I also believe that purposely implementing a bad idea doesn’t spontaneously make it good. Playing a game that does whatever it can to depress the player as much as possible invariably creates a tedious experience which would be difficult to slog through even if the work in question was part of a non-interactive medium. This is because the emotional moments won’t resonate after a certain point due to the audience’s senses having been overloaded, rendering them unable or unwilling to care about the protagonist’s situation even if things improve.
What is doubtlessly this game’s Achilles heel is its overreliance on cinematic elements. Although the Metal Gear series has featured extensive, non-interactive cutscenes since the series first made the 3D leap, they were never to the extreme displayed in this installment where they seem to drag on for ages. Numerous sources claim that Metal Gear Solid 4 boasts over eight hours of cutscenes, and I believe this. Indeed, the epilogue awarded this game a Guinness World Record for having the longest sequence of cutscenes to ever exist in the medium at 71 minutes. This sequence even managed to break a second record by having an individual cutscene go on for 27 minutes. Although it may seem like an impressive feat, the reality is that many of these scenes were in desperate need of an editor. To be completely fair, the reason these cutscenes needed to be so long was because much of this game was spent backpedaling from Metal Gear Solid 2, but again, it doesn’t excuse the fact that this completely misses the point of the medium.
Drawing a Conclusion
Unfortunately, the success of Metal Gear Solid 4 may be responsible for hammering it into the AAA developers’ heads that games can never have good storytelling unless they become something they’re not: films. It’s an ethos that, throughout the 2010s, held mainstream creators back from pursuing avenues of storytelling more suited for the medium in a misguided attempt to make their industry seem more high-minded. When creating a story-heavy game, it is much better to embrace the oddities and conventions of the medium rather than push them away as countless big-budget developers do. With that in mind, I also don’t think that featuring a method of storytelling which complements the medium well automatically makes a game a masterpiece any more than developers choosing to resort to non-interactive cutscenes are doomed to failure from the start.
In fact, looking back at the many games I’ve played over the years, I can’t help but draw a parallel between Metal Gear Solid 4 and Mother 3. Both games have plots that dash any and all notions of subtlety while attempting to depress the player as much as possible. Although the authors behind these games had different motivations for doing so, both of them fell victim to similar traps, and they’re examples of works where it becomes difficult to shed tears because of how overwrought the angst is. The biggest difference between the two titles is how much of a negative impact the overbearing story has on the overall experience. Mother 3 was an example of a game whose story actively got in the way of the fun. This was, ironically enough, brought about by a desire to tie story elements into the gameplay, and it accidentally demonstrated that trying to meld them together by force only succeeds in creating a work with a wildly inconsistent quality. Metal Gear Solid 4, on the other hand, is the exact opposite; for all of the complaints one could form regarding its story and how much time the player spends staring at the screen with no input required from them, it has the courtesy to leave the gameplay alone for the most part. To put it another way, it is very much a product of the AAA industry in that the story and gameplay exist on opposite sides of a fence; the times they overlap are far and few in between.
At the end of the day, I find the task of recommending Metal Gear Solid 4 somewhat difficult even if it is a legitimately good game. I think it’s because a lot of its perceived quality depends on how engrossed you are in the series. For fans, it’s a solid installment that effectively gives the setting and its characters much more of a proper, dignified sendoff than any of the installments set chronologically earlier. On the other hand, anyone who hasn’t been won over by the series by this point probably wouldn’t find any value in this game either. From that, I can at least conclude that you should not play this game first because most of the plot wouldn’t make any sense to a newcomer.
One thing I can say for certain is that it is not deserving of the perfect scores those aforementioned gaming publications awarded it when it was first released. Part of me suspects the reason it managed to achieve all of these accolades is because reviewers were sure that it was to be the series’ final installment. What I find particularly fascinating is how unlike Metal Gear Solid 2, which is praised for providing a deconstructive commentary on the nature of video games long before the 2010s when such narratives became popular, this game hasn’t fared nearly as well in hindsight, with many of the plot twists becoming points of contention among the fanbase. Personally, I think this reevaluation can also be partially attributed to this method of storytelling overstaying its welcome while more developers, especially those from the indie crowd and often overlooked portions of the AAA industry, finally began to use the medium’s mechanics to tell stories rather than competing with each other to see who could last more than one day in Hollywood.
Final Score: 7/10