It is difficult to review a game like this, and especially difficult to find a place to start. After all, this is more of an experience than a game, though I know how cliché that sounds. I theorize that this is a result of it being the climax of a series I am deeply engrossed by, similarly to finishing a series of books or when I first wrote about Trials and Tribulations. Also, I fully expect to find the same issues when looking back at this as I did then: my head is swimming in the enormity of what I just experienced, and I cannot remember all of my good points and minute memories. But this time, I am sitting here dedicated to getting it all out there. I cannot promise you that I won’t spoil the small story points, but I will do what I can to avoid ruining anything for those who haven’t played yet.
Metal Gear Solid 4 picks up five years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 2. Keep in mind that MGS 3, Portable Ops, and Peace Walker all take place before Metal Gear Solid and pertain to the story of Big Boss and not Solid Snake. We discover that in the years after the Big Shell incident Snake has been aging at an extremely rapid rate due to being a clone. While he was trying to live a normal life, he gets called into duty one last time when Liquid, who opposed him in the first two games, resurfaces. He is sent into the Middle East (an anonymous country however) with new gear to confront him. Along the way we learn that much has changed since the Big Shell: innumerable proxy wars are being fought by private military corporations all around the world, and the mercenaries within are using nanomachines that are a part of the System that allows everything about them to be controlled and monitored. When Snake finally reaches Liquid, he discovers that he has entirely taken over the body of Ocelot, when in the MGS2 the simply shared the body unwillingly, and he discovers that Liquid’s plan is to gain control of the System, and thus the world’s military power.
From a gameplay standpoint the game behaves much more like Peace Walker than any of the Metal Gear Solid games before it. I think this can easily be attributed to the era we live in where every shooter needs to be similar or else the “hardcore gamer” might throw a tantrum. It’s stealth feels very similar, and its control scheme is difficult to tell apart. Though I have to say that I am very happy to see the return of the prone crawl, as I had become fond of it in my time with MGS3. I am also happy to report the return of the boss fights that the series is known for. I had grown painfully tired of shooting at vehicles in Peace Walker, so the bosses in 4 please me greatly. I have to say that not all of these bosses stuck out to me like the fights in the past. The first two are just long and drawn out without much difficulty, and the fourth is almost a complete knock-off of the Psycho Mantis fight from the first game. The third however was more enjoyable. It felt like a more concise rendition of the fight with The End in MGS3 due to its smaller environment, though it was less challenging by a landslide and had other weaklings running around. I have to raise a complaint in one area in regards to the gameplay however. Not once, but twice did it commit the same sin that the series loves to pull: throwing you into a new mechanic in difficult settings. The final sequence of MGS, the swordplay in MGS 2, and the vehicle section in Peace Walker. The first time MGS4 pulls this I made it out okay because the controls are relatively simple and the sequence isn’t actually all that difficult. The second time however was much harder because you have absolutely no idea what you are capable of in the mechanic because the game does nothing to instruct you.
Every Metal Gear Solid game I have played has made me feel very immersed in its gameplay, but has had a nasty habit of violently pulling me out of it by reminding me that I’m playing a video game. This game is no different, and really has me focused and involved in the missions until it goes and ruins it. Blatantly having the characters give controller commands out loud is just goofy, and in one part Otacon actually tells me to change the disk, and then remembers that I’m using a PS3 and that I don’t need to. That isn’t funny; it is a bad choice. Speaking of bad choices, early in the game one of the supporting characters actually poops their pants. No joke, you can even see the stain afterwards. I thought that the running gag of people peeing themselves was annoying, but this! And to make it even more absurd, the game tries to make this character seem impressive by the end of the game. I don’t care how many far-fetched explanations you give me game, nothing will let me see past something so stupid. Similarly, the game brings back Raiden, the protagonist of MGS2, and seems to be doing everything possible to convince me he isn’t the wussy he was back then. However, I have to admit that it did work. He is really cool in this game. But then again you could put the Duck Hunt Dog in the cut scenes Raiden is in and I would like even him.
In the end, in Metal Gear Solid the story is why we’re here. This game is do story heavy that I am convinced that the cutscene time outweighs the gameplay time. I am a story hound to the core, but this game is a bit ridiculous. The series is no stranger to long cutscenes, but they are much more plentiful in this edition. But I must admit that I still enjoyed it. The story is phenomenal, and does an extraordinary job of bringing me in. I care for the plight of Snake, and am drive to see him succeed. The story feels at times that it has too many facets, and is trying to weave too many different parts of the characters’ lives into it at once. In the end it works out alright, but I think it could have afforded to shed some of its girth. By far the greatest part of this game is the atmosphere it creates for Snake. What I mean by that is this: every video game pits its protagonist against great odds. They need to do this or else we don’t feel like we are accomplishing anything greater than what we could do in reality. In Metal Gear Solid 4 this is taken to a much higher level. The game is based around Snakes degrading condition, and as you get farther in the game he gets weaker and weaker. And yet he is facing entire armies or vicious enhanced soldiers, enormous AI tanks, and foes equipped much more thoroughly than he. You feel absolutely helpless, and let continue to keep on muscling through. I love the aged veteran trope in protagonists, so having a wrinkled, scared, and weary old man fight armies and disassemble enemy forces unseen under such circumstances is one of the greatest things I have seen in gaming.
Nothing explains this feeling more than the final sequence in the 5th and final act. I cannot go into detail for the sake of avoiding spoilers, but I can assure you that it was among the most jarring experiences in video gaming. Actually the entire 5th act had me at the edge of my seat, wondering how, if at all, the characters would get through. The final boss was a sort of monument to the series as a whole, and the epilogue really creates a feeling of conclusion. Not every loose end I have seen gets tied into a neat bow like Trials and Tribulations seems to have managed, but with the reveal of two more games we can expect Kojima to do a good job of solving that.
This game is another fine example of why I love stories in games. I feel something for each character, I want to resolve their conflicts, and I want to put an end to the overarching evil in front of me. And in the end, it is still one of the greatest tragedies I have seen in gaming. One line, issued my Otacon near the end had me nodding not only out of agreement, but out of real respect: “Snake has lived a hard life.” It moved me. Despite its flaws, Metal Gear Solid 4 has lived up to its reputation as a work of art in the world of gaming. By no means is it a game for everyone. It is here for people who want to feel the great accomplishments of a remarkable individual. For someone who wants to be a part of a story much larger than themselves. This is a game for me.