MGS-Tastic

This week I finally managed to finish a Metal Gear game on the first try. I tried and failed to play Metal Gear Solid 2. I also failed on my first try with Metal Gear Solid 3, although the second try was successful. If it had not been for my second playthrough of Subsistence I probably would not have even tried Metal Gear Solid 4. But I did, and for the most part I am happy that I did. Be warned though. All of my comments about the game assume that you are willing, for the most part, to take the MGS genre on its own terms. Except for some marginal gameplay improvements, this game is all MGS all the time. I think that as long as you are prepared for that, you can let go and enjoy the ride.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is a continuation of the events last chronicled in Metal Gear Solid 2. You will recall, or maybe you will not recall, that Metal Gear Solid 3 was an examination of events much earlier in the timeline of the MGS universe. The basic story here is that you are fighting guy who is using the name of “Liquid”, which is the same name as Solid Snake’s twin brother, and who like Sollid Snake is actually clone of some other guy named Big Boss, who was the Snake character in Metal Gear 3. But this guy isn’t really Liquid Snake because Liquid Snake is dead. Instead he is actually Ocelot being controlled by Liquid’s arm, and he is plotting to take over the world by crippling the satellite information systems that run the military industrial complex. The player, as Solid Snake, must thwart this plot. At this point it should be clear that even the surface of the narrative of this game is completely ludicrous. Don’t try to understand it, just let the cut scenes flow over you. They are strongest when they are fight scenes. They are at their cringe-inducing worst when they attempt to create an actual sense of “drama”. But they are part of the rhythm and atmosphere of the game, so it’s best just to accept them without absorbing them too much.

About half of the “play time” of the game is taken up in these cut scenes. Nearly every major character that appeared in any of the previous four games shows up here for a cameo. I think. I can’t keep track. All of the standard Kojima inside jokes and “style” are in full force. There are monkeys, boobs, fart jokes, diarrhea jokes, and Playboy Magazine.

When you actually do pick up the control pad and play the game, you will find that a lot of things are better. In particular, the game has moved into the 21st century by allowing you move and aim your gun at the same time. Both the third person and first person controls for guns actually work well. If you didn’t know any better, you would think you were playing Splinter Cell. This makes it much easier to “sneak” through areas by creeping around and sniping everyone you see. I also managed to actually sneak through some places without killing anyone, which I could never do in the previous games. The high tech camo-suit also makes this easier, as does the old standby: a cardboard box.

The action sequences are split between scripted set pieces and Boss fights. The Boss fights are generally boring, but since you can actually aim the gun, they are at least a lot easier. Environments vary from a hallway disguised as a city in the “Middle East” to hallways in a jungle to hallways in Eastern Europe at night. Just for good measure, the setting from the original Metal Gear Solid is brought back to life. And, you also get to sneak around on a ship again.

The basic flow of the game goes like this:

1. Install next mission.

2. Long cut scene to describe the next mission.

3. Long cut scene to begin the next mission.

4. Some gameplay.

5. Long cut scene. Maybe a Boss.

6. Long cut scene to end the mission.

There are five top-level missions. You have to do a mini-install before each one because Blu-Ray apparently sucks as a data streaming medium.

Gameplay varies from stealth areas to action set pieces to one bitchin’ bullet-time filled rail shooting sequence on a motorcycle. I have three main complaints about the gameplay:

1. Same stupid Metal Gear A.I.

2. Same stupid Metal Gear savepoints.

3. Not really quite enough of it. The last act seemed especially sparse. I had finally started to get the hang of things, and got stuck playing mostly an extended cut scene. But hey, this is MGS after all.

I can’t say that I’m unhappy with how things turned out. I could see myself going back and trying to do actually do the levels without killing anyone.

One thing I do find strange about this game is the critical reception that it has received. There appear to be two classes of reviews. On the one hand there are those put the Metal Gear series on high in the pantheon of human artistic achievement, on par with the great works of literature and film. On the other hand, there are the reviews that make the game out to be so self- indulgent and so poorly paced as to be unplayable trash.

I think both of these groups are making one critical mistake: they appear to be taking what Kojima is showing them at face value. They think that the content is meant to be taken seriously and literally. One group absorbs this information and proclaims that Kojima is the next Shakespeare. The other does the same thing and proclaims Kojima to be the next Ed Wood.

I think you can’t play the game this way, and I don’t think that Kojima really expects you to take the game and its convoluted plot seriously. As a nutty anime inspired action game with stealth elements, Metal Gear, at least in its fourth installment, is finally a game that can be played and enjoyed. Yes, the cut scenes are long and self-indulgent, but you don’t really have to pay close attention to them. And, for all of his verbal diarrhea, Kojima does manage to construct a few interesting characters and some visually arresting animation. Personally I found it more interesting than GTA 4, but that’s mostly because the camera wasn’t making me physically ill.

I say, turn your brain off, get that twitchy trigger finger going, and romp through the game like its the romp it is meant to be. The less you worry about how an arm can contain someone’s soul, or how genetically engineered nanomachines can end up enslaving humanity the better.