It’s almost as hard to review Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots on its own merits as it is to type out its full name. Kojima’s entry to the PlayStation 3 hardware may still be technically advanced but it’s also thematically trapped in the past. There’s a streak of bittersweet sorrow as you control the aged Snake (which is why he’s presumably no longer ‘Solid’) on what appears to be his last mission. Every victory and accomplishment is met with a sensation that this is THE END and presented with such nostalgia that at times you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re playing a high-res remake of the Hovis bread ad from 1973.
But age doesn’t just creep into a large thematic portion of Metal Gear 4, it’s also a central part of the game’s mechanics. Snake now gets back problems when lying prostrate for too long and there’s a stress meter which fills up when his body experiences the kind of shocks that affect old men, like watching young people walk near his lawn and hearing motorbikes ride past his house after 7pm. These additions may seem fairly clunky and annoying but so much effort has gone into making the control scheme more accessible than in previous iterations that you can’t help but smile at Kojima’s playful creativity.
In fact, many facets of MGS4 scream ‘best game ever!’ from the opening – and fairly prescient – scenes of civil war in the Middle East, where Snake can join the local resistance to combat mercenary aggressors and turn the tides of war, to the ‘Octo Cam’ suit that enables him to blend in with his surroundings. It’s a neat advancement from MG3 and, thankfully, its application is far less clunky.
Other welcome additions include a cute robot sidekick – three words that normally cause mild convulsions and sporadic vomiting, but, in this case, work very well in allowing you to map your surroundings and control the battlefield. You can now also collect, modify and enhance weapons, creating custom load-outs that allow you to tackle the game as you see fit. Even the opening levels themselves are a welcome addition – allowing you to finally see Snake the battle-born warrior, not just some gruff bloke in a mullet and spandex hiding in a ventilation shaft talking about the past.
But it’s not all plain sailing. While Kojima is undoubtedly a unique talent it seems there are few people willing to apply the brakes to his creative impulses. Basically, everything in MGS4 goes up to ‘11’. Sometimes that’s welcome, like the aforementioned game-play additions, but other times it stretches the patience. Cut-scenes spiral into mini epics; the story jumps all over the place, both geographically and narratively, and pretty much every single character from the previous games takes a bow. It’s hardly surprising that Konami released an interactive encyclopaedia to help you make some sense of all the plot threads and characters.
Basically, Snake’s swansong is something of a compendium: a collection of all that has gone before presented in shiny new packaging. There isn’t one area of the game that Kojima has undersold. But this also means that what delighted and infuriated in previous games is only more apparent in part 4. So while you can engage in some of the most refined and enjoyably creative stealth gameplay that has ever graced a console, you have that experience bookended with some of the most self-indulgent cutscenes to ever grace the saga – not to mention several change-ups in game-play that create a tone of inconsistency and don’t help to combat the feeling of bloat.
Clearly, Kojima was in something of a tough space in bringing the ‘modern’ Metal Gear saga to a close and in trying to please everyone he has both delighted and repelled in equal measure. Personally, it’s still one of my favourite games as I can appreciate Kojima’s unique voice despite not always enjoying what he says with it. That said, it seems like a good time to give ‘Dave’ a wee break. It’s almost like his decrepitude is a thinly veiled metaphor for Kojima’s weariness at having to top the previous few iterations whilst also dealing with completely new console architecture (for a thinly veiled illustration of this just check out the pre-patch install sequences where you’d have to watch Snake have a much-needed fag in real-time before you could play the game).
Ultimately, Metal Gear Solid 4 is a huge, epic creation filled with genius, contradiction and indulgence, but you walk away from it with a feeling that you’ve experienced something very special. And now Kojima has seemingly laid the ghost of Solid Snake to rest he can hopefully be free to pursue further adventures with less weight of expectation. Though since he seems forever tied to this universe it seems unlikely that he will ever be able to work without rampant expectation and supposition ever again. But what’s bad for him is good for us, I guess. Roll on, Ground Zeroes.
I’m going to cleanse my palate next with the adventures of the world’s second most famous Liberian girl, Raiden in Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. In the meantime please leave a comment to explain to me what exactly happened in MGS4.
Lancaster based writer, blogger and digital navel-gazer. Opinions are, sadly, all his own. Favourite games include: Streetfighter II, Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye, Tenchu, Red Dead Redemption, Deus-Ex and Granny’s Garden.