Metal Gear Solid 4

I finished MGS4 a short while ago. I haven't mentioned anything about it yet because I wanted to get an overall feel for the experience, especially since my opinion on the game has changed so drastically over the course of the past couple of weeks. Coming off my first session I was convinced I wouldn't be able to play it due to the amount of movement in the camera (neccessary movement in order to check and negotiate your environment constantly). That was somewhat disappointing to say the least. Luckily the constant positive feedback I was getting about it from various people encouraged me to try it again, and lo and behold - either I got used to it or something about it changed, but I didn't have a problem since.

As I've mentioned previously, I'm a huge fan of the original MGS (its high placement in my top 100 is testament to that), but the subsequent instalments on the home systems never quite gripped me the same way. However, finishing MGS2 was a hollow experience - not, as you might expect, because of Raiden. I didn't mind the character at all. It was more my feeling cheated by what I saw as a lazy retread story and a largely bland location. Looking back on it I did have plenty of fun in small doses, but I can't shake the overall disappointment.

MGS3 I've just never been able to get into. I've tried both the original and the Subsistence versions, and never gotten more than a few hours into it. I think I just lost the patience for stealth gameplay, and losing patience in MGS3 almost invariably leads to a frustrating death.

In MGS4 you're given enough backup in terms of equipment to take the game on in your own style. Sneaking or guns blazing are both viable options. Early on I found myself trying to take the stealth route, but in the end I found it much more satisfying to play as an action game... mostly (there are a few occasions where that isn't an option).

The game is heavily weighted towards cutscenes, which is a given for an MGS title. I don't have a problem with this, as I'm heavily invested in these returning characters and their story. What it did was bring about a curious state of mind while playing, though. I found the opening sections of the game fairly unengaging. Something about the location maybe, but it came off as another military shooter. Something I have absolutely no interest in. I found myself wanting to skip the gameplay sections to get to the cutscenes, and every time I was given control of Snake it became almost a chore. There are a few clever moments, but on the whole I felt that the opening act was quite lacking.

Luckily it picks up quite splendidly in act two, and continues to build from there. Act four in particular is magnificent. At some points I found myself gobsmacked by what I was seeing onscreen - it's a real technical tour de force, possibly the most visually impressive game I've ever played in fact. It's not all in the big moments though, there's something particularly impressive about the facial rendering on the characters; it's managed to leapfrog the uncanny valley and present a cast of totally believable digital actors. Not quite perfectly real, but rendered with such flair and attention to detail that they become genuine personalities.

The big moments are out in force too, though, and it's here that my main gripes about the game are to be found. There are few things as deflating in a videogame as being treated to a tremendously exciting cutscene full of action, then being given control in order to perform a rudimentary task. There are occasions where, between scripted events, you are given control of Snake and simply have to run down some stairs, or turn a corner. On the flip side you do get to perform some pretty thrilling sections, but they are few in a game of (for me) around 15 hours. I have to admit that what kept me interested in playing through was the story, and that did live up to my expectations as a sometime fan of the saga.

Having said that, I think there is more 'game' to be found in there, and subsequent plays will turn up more interesting and fun ways to interact. Playing it stealthily for example, or going for a no-kills game. Also, I barely scratched the surface of the equipment side of things, or seeing what I could do with Metal Gear Mk.II - a small robot companion that can stealth, knock out enemies and interface with equipment. I was only ever reminded of its existence when it turned up in cutscenes. I replayed the Playstation game many times, refining my game until I could tackle it on the hardest difficulty with a good rating. I'm not so sure this one will tempt me to do the same but it will certainly get another play or two.

Spoilery bit:

Surprisingly, the game actually does tie up the whole story and give satisfying conclusions for all the major characters. I suspect a hefty chunk of it is down to retconning, but it works. The biggest impact on me was the return to Shadow Moses. It serves a function in the plot, but it also covers the bases of fan service and being a commentary of one of the themes of the game. The effects of age on the location and on Snake himself, the push forward of technology - which is presented to you in no uncertain terms at a couple of points. Curious how the undoubted highlight of the game should be a chapter harkening back to an older title. Nostalgia obviously plays a part, but there's also a heavy melancholy about it, like revisiting the house you grew up in and finding it derelict.

In dealing with the characters the game stumbles a little on the emotional side, tending towards the overwrought and melodramatic. I tend to find this with Japanese media, so generally I put it down to cultural differences. Everyone has their moment to shine, the game going out of its way in particular in order to win audience favour for Raiden (who, it has to be said, shows up to save the day a little too often).

End of spoilery bit..

Overall MGS4 is an undeniably thrilling experience. One that I can recommend without hesitation to anyone interested in the series. It won't convert you if you don't care for the others, and it certainly won't hold nearly as much appeal for someone for whom this is the first taste of Metal Gear (it won't be completely impenetrable, but so much of it is anchored to knowledge of the past games much would be missed). It houses some definitively 'next gen' moments, and is put together with an unparalleled level of professionalism and passion. An arthouse blockbuster of a videogame.

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