Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
War has changed. With Solid Snake battling the mysterious advances of massively accelerated aging, the re-emergence of his nefarious twin brother Liquid Snake (Liquid Ocelot) in the Middle East sees the greying hero called back into action one final time. As Solid progresses in his efforts to stop Liquid from gaining complete control of SOP, a battlefield mind and weaponry-control system, he travels through the foothills of South America, the misty streets of Eastern Europe, and even back to eerie snowbound installation Shadow Moses, on a path of destiny that will see demons exercised, foes vanquished, heroes return, and personal truths uncovered.
When it comes to videogame reviewing, critics should exercise a degree of professional subjectivity by not appraising games for the sake of peer conformity; nor should they review games while focusing only on appeasing the demands of hardcore franchise fanatics. However, by that token, reviewers should also resist the temptation to unfairly kneecap a high-profile release just for the sake of standing out from the critical crowd.
In short, videogame reviewers should be reviewing for all gamers, providing unbiased evaluations based solely on what is put before them while striving to avoid the often weighted influence of popular opinion. Which leaves this particular reviewer somewhat aghast at the current flood of rampant praise that is being heaped at the feet of Konami's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
Now, before disgruntled fanboys and/or critics look to vent spleen via their poison keyboards, understand this:
Guns of the Patriots is a beautiful game in an aesthetic sense, and it provides a fabulous showcase of the PlayStation 3's visual and aural attributes. Level environments are both varied and stunning to look at, character animation is unfailingly fluid and weighty, and atmospheric and elemental effects often pepper proceedings with added real-world authenticity.
The overall quality of voice acting is also excellent, with returning central protagonist David Hayter (here depicted as 'Old Snake') offering satisfyingly hammy Eastwood-esque throat growls at every available opportunity, while his supporting cast walks the tightrope of delivering performances on the right side of cheesy-clichéd melodrama. The game's musical score is similarly noteworthy in its execution, ebbing and flowing perfectly to unfolding events yet never overpowering the game's well-oiled visual prowess.
Gameplay, which has clearly been designed to please both shooter fans and stealth lovers alike, consists of exhilarating bullet-heavy confrontations before gradually shifting into the more familiar tension-friendly stealth territory that Metal Gear Solid is renowned for. In-game weaponry and equipment options are pleasingly vast in terms of variety and certainly hard to resist when on the battlefield, especially considering that any item picked up is instantly added to the player's expansive and fully customisable armoury. Of course, the ability to sneak past enemies or hand them their unsuspecting asses via CQC (close quarter combat) is core to the player's progression in Guns of the Patriots - yet it's often difficult to ignore the lure conjured up by a multitude of versatile weapons and explosives that lie only a tantalising button-press away.
At this point, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is fully deserving of the drooling adoration it's presently bathing in. And, in terms of graphics, audio, music, gameplay, options, variety, action and suspense, you'd be right. So, if all those contributing elements have been locked firmly in place by publisher Konami and series developer Kojima Productions, where's the problem with the series swansong?
Gameplay is king and, in that sense, Guns of the Patriots undoubtedly rules with an iron fist of longstanding expertise thanks to its thrilling gun fights, suspenseful sneaking, a gamut of enthralling gadgetry, and a depth of in-game immersion that most software titles can only dream of achieving. Yet, for all its impact and subtlety, its violent finesse and battlefield nuance, Guns of the Patriots is ruined, yes, that word is ruined, by a flagrantly over-indulgent director intent on losing the player in a near incessant stream of tedious techno-babble narrative that will mean absolutely nothing to those gamers not heavily invested in the ongoing Metal Gear series.
Such a destructive statement of dissatisfaction rightly requires concrete justification based on the sheer weight of positive praise carved by the game in other areas; and yet that justification arrives without struggle in the form of beautifully presented in-game narrative cut sequences that drag on, and on, and on, and on before, during and at the end of the game's five main missions (and don't even get me started on the software installation delays).
Granted, watching near-superhuman heroes and villains gloriously beat, slash, stab and shoot the living crap out of each other for 15 or 20 minutes while surrounded by exploding vehicles, decapitated biogenetic war machines, and psychotic soldiers is always entertaining. However, that willingness to be drawn through lengthy action-rich cut scenes quickly fades once characters begin repeatedly engaging in bouts of mind-numbingly preposterous exposition revolving around the horrors of war, political influences, world domination, nanotechnology, A.I. mind-control systems and the morality of genetics... that can last for upwards of 45 minutes at a time.
While many critics and gamers are applauding director Hideo Kojima for his supposedly masterful skills as a storyteller, Guns of the Patriots finds his wet-dream influence manifesting itself more in the guise of a hugely successful and self-absorbed novelist lauding themselves above the vital input of an editor. Whichever way you cut it after trying to pick the narrative thread from hours and hours of utterly confusing back story, Konami should not have allowed Kojima to relay the core story through dour face-to-face conversations and Codec communications, while papering over their pointlessness with the addition of token camera controls and button-prompted flashbacks.
Yet, and here comes the rub, if Konami had reined in Kojima's indulgences and forced a more defined focus on gameplay immediacy, Guns of the Patriots would be a veritable laughing stock in the gaming community. And why? Because, without its reliance on almost never-ending cut scenes, Metal Gear Solid 4 would merely be the promise of a great game, a skeletal outline of a studio's ongoing development towards a defining moment in videogame evolution. Indeed, without the nonsensical padding - that only serves to feed the desires of dedicated series fans while offering no such handle of association for casual first timers - Guns of the Patriots would be a woefully short gaming experience not worth the wait, not worth the hype, and certainly not worth the money.
Videogames cost considerably more than DVDs or Blu-ray movies and, despite the insistence of those fans calling Kojima's creation an interactive work of art, gamers pay far above the odds to play, not watch what's channelled through their expensive silver discs.
When a game's quotient of cut scenes begins to outweigh its actual gameplay content, and (albeit stunning) in-game action feels like half-baked filler designed to move the player from one dreary spell of exposition to the next, it's time to seriously question exactly what it is we're looking for from the publishers and developers we pump so much cash into.
Do we want to pay serious money to abandon the game controller in favour of watching a pseudo-interactive animated slice of anime that falls well short of modern movie animation standards and all-but deprives us of integral influence? Or do we want to lose ourselves in a videogame world of creative escapism where our interactions and decisions actually allow us the illusion of driving scripted narrative? This reviewer opts for the latter.
Beyond the annoyance of its overly long cut scenes, Guns of the Patriots also suffers from some surprisingly linear level design that only opens up to encourage a sense of exploration in the latter half of the game. Challenge is also fractured somewhat by such easy access to devastating weaponry, which can get the player out of any scrape without incurring any crippling gameplay penalties for suddenly raising alarms or blowing away guards. A.I. is also occasionally patchy, with enemy grunts guilty of standing static in clear line of sight and allowing the player to riddle them with lead rather than seeking cover. And, adding to the disappoint are the game's boss encounters, which are oddly predictable attack and defend exchanges that see bosses all-too quickly expose the player to their specific weaknesses.
While Guns of the Patriots boasts lashings of in-game invention and creativity that's largely wrapped up in superb style and execution, it's all so unforgivably tainted by jaw-dropping gameplay brevity that it's truly difficult to raise the many, many good points above what is, for the most part, a succession of cut scenes that leave the player with an overwhelming sense of disconnection from one of gaming's most compelling characters and interactive franchises. It's a sad way to bid farewell to Solid Snake, he - and we - deserved much more.
Also published on M&C