Friday, August 17, 2012

Review - Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

In 2008, four years after Metal Gear Solid 3, Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was released on the PS3. It was one of the first huge exclusive titles released on the console, and certainly one of my main motivations for buying it. There was a ton of hype for this game, with years worth of trailers leading up to its release, and like most games with this level of hype, it received nearly perfect reviews and was looked at with a completely uncritical eye by critics before being hit by a fan backlash. Serving as a finale to Solid Snake's story, MGS4 is a very good game, but it has a lot of heavy flaws, mostly to do with the game's pacing.

 Metal Gear Solid 4 is divided into five acts. In the first two acts, Solid Snake (now Old Snake) must sneak through a war zone as fighting breaks out between local rebels and Private Military Companies, first in the Middle East and then in South America. You can side with the rebels (but not the PMCs), fight both factions, or stay out of the conflict all together. It's good to have this freedom, but ultimately none of these options affect the story even slightly. These two acts are the longest, and focus on traditional Metal Gear stealth more so than the rest of the game.

In act three, Snake visits Eastern Europe, where he must follow a member of a local resistance movement to his home base while remaining unseen. This stage is gorgeous, with soft, golden lighting filling the rainy, lonely city that Snake wanders through. There are only a few guards to avoid here. Most of the focus is on following your mark and remaining unseen rather than action. It's a great concept, but the execution is kind of sloppy and if you lose sight of your mark it can be very hard to find him again.

Act four revisits a major location from earlier in the series, devoid of any human presence. You sneak around avoiding automated weaponry, which presents a totally different challenge from avoiding human guards, but obnoxiously, these weapons spawn infinitely and are very hard to hide from. The mission's easier if you just go in shooting, especially since you don't have to worry about not killing anything here. This act is punctuated by a series of extremely fun boss fights, including one that I won't spoil but will say is a moment I've been hoping for in Metal Gear since Metal Gear Solid.

The final act of the game is quite short as far as gameplay goes, but absolutely drowned in cutscenes to the point that its gameplay feels like an afterthought. Earlier chapters are maybe 50/50 gameplay to cutscene, act five is maybe 20/80 at best. There are two boss fights, the final of which is one of my favorite in the series even if it controls awkwardly, but most of the mission involves sneaking across a very small area while every guard in the area knows to look for you. This is the hardest part of the series to sneak through unseen.

Gameplay is largely the same in concept as the rest of the series, in that you sneak around, crawl, and punch guards. More weapons are available this time if you would rather be violent, but you're still rewarded for completing the game non-lethally. Controls feel more like a modern shooter and less like a traditional Metal Gear; move with the left stick, aim with the right. For the first time in the series, you have total camera control. You can safely stun enemies with the use of a tiny, remote controlled Metal Gear that moves like chicken. This little guy's a lot of fun to play with. Instead of MGS3's menu based camouflage system, you now simply have to lay down to change your suit's texture and color to match the environment, using a new octopus-inspired bodysuit. There's no longer a hunger gauge, but there is a stress meter which goes up or down depending on nearby dangers, and this is used for some good visual gags.

I don't mind long cutscenes, otherwise I wouldn't be a Metal Gear or Yakuza fan, but game makers need to understand pacing. Having a forty minute cutscene followed by ten minutes of gameplay followed by an hour long cutscene is a terrible, terrible idea. The game is fairly good about avoiding this in acts one and four, but two and three both have enormously long information dumps and five has hardly any gameplay at all. I enjoy most of the game's cutscenes; I like seeing the characters I've grown to love interact with each other. I don't enjoy the ones that are entirely exposition. It's terrible storytelling, not fun to watch, and sometimes (in the case of the very last cutscene in the game) repeats or changes information you've already had dumped on you earlier. The action heavy cutscenes are great, as are the character driven ones, but no, we don't need eighty minutes explaining the history of The Patriots. They're an obtuse but not super complicated concept, you could tell everything that needs to be told in ten minutes.

The story this time involves Ocelot planning to destroy the existing Patriots AI network and liberate/take control of the world. It's not too different from Solidus's plan in Metal Gear Solid 2, though Ocelot's methods are a bit more horrific as he experiments with his own attempts to control the machines that at this point in the story's world regulate nearly all functions of society and warfare. In the years between MGS2 and 4, all soldiers and at least some civilians are implanted with nanomachines that eliminate emotion and add computerized functions to their brains, creating an more efficient, more predictable human being.

The Patriots AI system now fully controls government, commerce, and warfare, destroying what it means to be free and perverting human nature. The system even has a word filter enabled, preventing people under Patriot control from hearing or saying the term The Patriots, instead hearing La Li Lu Le Lo. It must make New England football pretty confusing. The Patriots have regulated war to the point that PMCs have begun to outnumber traditional armies, and war exists purely to keep the world economy running.

Snake is contacted by Colonel Campbell and called out of "retirement" (again) to stop Ocelot, since having him in control of the Patriots system would be worse than just letting the AIs continue to run amok. Ocelot is still channeling Liquid Snake, though the reasons how and why he can do this have changed from MGS2 to 3 to 4. Enough about the Patriots has changed as well that it's pretty clear Kojima's making it up as he goes along. Snake's body has begun to age terribly, and he doesn't have much time to live. His cloned DNA is beginning to break down, causing him to age prematurely. He knows this is probably going to be his final mission.

Along for the ride are Otacon and Sunny, the daughter of a woman killed in Metal Gear Solid 2, who was rescued from a Patriots indoctrination camp by Raiden between MGS2 and 4. She's around ten years old and is the brightest character around, better with computers than even Otacon. In spite of being a child genius, she's never obnoxious, and her lack of contact with the outside world has stunted her social growth. She's a tragic character, cooped up in a flying fortress and raised by Otacon and Snake, an unlikely couple with absolutely no tact for raising a child. Otacon, being the shut-in he is, is horrified at the idea of letting her leave the confines of their plane and explore the outside world.

Raiden returns as a non-playable character, his body almost entirely replaced by machine parts. It's ironic that the most mechanical character in the game is also the one most free of Patriot control. Raiden has abandoned his wife and child to live a life addicted to war, and he can take down small, Metal Gear-type machines far easier than Snake ever could. His nemesis is Vamp, the immortal killer from MGS2 whose mysticism is removed in a really dumb technobabble plot twist in act 4.

During act one, Snake is reunited with Meryl Silverburgh for the first time since the first Metal Gear Solid. She now leads a newly resurrected FOXHOUND unit against Ocelot, and is somehow accompanied by Johnny/Akiba, a throwaway joke character from previous games most known for his bowel problems.

Snake also forms an uneasy alliance with Drebin, a gun launderer who helps him buy and use weapons without needing to meet the proper ID checks. He loves soda and is constantly followed by a monkey in a diaper. Drebin feeds Snake information on the Beauty and the Beast Corp, a group of four women who serve as boss characters. Each was traumatized by war and transformed into a machine that fights using each member's strongest emotion, like the Cobra Unit in MGS3. Their stories are pretty much all the same, and are all told in the same way, which gets old quick.

The actual fights are mostly quite good, although the shots of them outside of their metal suits are embarrassingly trashy. I understand that Kojima was trying to go for a combination of sexual and macabre, but he's not very good at it and it comes off as tacky. Less tacky than being able to jiggle your controller to bounce the breasts of Raiden's ex-wife, though. Yes, that actually is a function in the game.

A major theme of this game is growing obsolete in a changing world. Meryl mocks Snake, asking if his "Age of heroes is finally over," now that human emotion has been supplanted by machine control. Snake says he's never been a hero; the truth is, the Age of Heroes ended before he was born, with the death of The Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3. His birth marked the beginning of the end society as we know it, and now he, as an organic but artificially created lifeform, is seeing his own age end and be supplanted by synthetic and cyborg life. With the rise of the Patriots, a new species has taken control of the Earth. Big Boss's Outer Heaven was once a dream of a world where soldiers would never be obsolete; the threat here is bigger. Soldiers will never be unneeded, but humanity itself has become just another resource.

This also ties into another central theme, the dehumanization of war. It's a topic that resonates in today's world every time we hear about another drone strike gone wrong. The most effective soldiers in this game are as successful as they are because they've been stripped of the emotional consequences of killing and operate as pieces of a greater machine. Meryl and company are no longer human beings using guns, they've become guns with human handles. They're effectively no different from the B&B Corp or the biomechanical Gekkos. No one expresses this as deeply as Raiden, who has willingly cut himself off from any emotion to become a killing machine. With no sense of death, there is no appreciation for life.

Death and how we deal with it is a major theme, most noticeably with the way Solid Snake treats his condition and how he takes the news about how long he has to live. Even as he fights as if he has a death wish, Snake still shows more humanity than the rest of the cast. Each member of the B&B Corp gets a short story after she's defeated, expressing how she dealt with her terrible encounter with death, and how this reshaped them into the monsters they became. It's a little too blunt there, but I think it's handled well when it comes to Snake's story. There's also a lot about history repeating, but this isn't as interesting to me as the above themes.

The story is solid and the characters are generally well developed, with Ocelot's bizarre antics being the absolute stand-out best. The pacing just wrecks what could otherwise be stronger scenes, and I don't like that Mei Ling returns as a bumbling dummy, but nothing works worse than the ending. No spoilers here, but there's a main, 45+ minute ending, and then a credits roll. This ending is dark, but it works well. Midway through the credits, you get another 25 or so minutes of ending, dumping huge swaths of information on you and throwing in yet another major late game twist or two. Everything shown between these two parts of the ending would be just as effective in 15 minutes rather than an hour plus.

My favorite moment in the game's story is actually its opening. The game begins with one of several randomly selected live action TV show segments made for this game. They're bizarre, creepy, and give you a perfect insight into what the world has become post Metal Gear Solid 2, and only take a couple of minutes to do so. The execution of these scenes is perfect, and they're a great example of show, don't tell. I don't know how these could be so good and the later info dumps so bad.

Ultimately, this is a game you play to see where everyone you've been following for 20 years ends up. The gameplay is a lot of fun, but there isn't a ton of it. The world is less interactive than MGS3's, and the story much less approachable, but it's still a good time. This game does not deserve a perfect score, but it's still a strong title if you can look beyond its terrible pacing. I don't think it should be missed, but definitely don't play it without being familiar with the story and characters of the series up to this point.

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