[Editor’s note – PSU will be covering Metal Gear Online in a separate review in the near future]
As the latest installment in Konami’s critically acclaimed stealth franchise, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots arrives on the scene accompanied by a substantial weight. By this, I’m referring to the weight that manifests itself in the form of the sheer level of anticipation maintained by its adoring (if slightly rabid) fanbase, and indeed anyone consciously aware of the reputation this venerable series has sustained with each subsequent release. With that said, Metal Gear Solid 4 is unimaginably far from your rudimentary sequel.
It’s not just the importance of the game’s PS3 exclusivity; rather, that’s simply part and parcel of the whole Metal Gear Solid experience, which has remained virtually synonymous with the PlayStation brand for past decade. No, what MGS4 brings is something far more poignant, as the game represents the culmination of two decades worth of story telling chronicling the events of one of videogames’ most iconic stars in one spirited, mammoth globe-trotting finale. The question remains, however, can Kojima and his team possibly deliver on this seemingly insurmountable task?
Metal Gear Solid 4 kicks off approximately five years following the events of the Big Shell Incident, which was depicted in PS2’s Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Set in the year 2014, warfare has become like a well-oiled business transition, fueled by the dominance of Private Military Companies (PMCs) engaging in an endless series of proxy battles around the world, willing to sell themselves to the highest bidder. Enter Solid Snake — now referred as Old Snake, due to the effects of his accelerated aging process — who infiltrates a middle eastern battle zone posing as a UN PMC inspector in his attempt to neutralize the notorious Liquid Ocelot. While we won’t spoil what lies in wait, let us divulge that the events in the game aren’t restricted to the confines of this warn-torn, dilapidated combat zone; the wheels of fate soon begin to turn, and Snake is propelled on a journey which sees him reacquainted with a number of familiar faces — some friendly, others not — as he visit a variety of locations across the globe, including South America and Eastern Europe.
Fundamentally, Guns of the Patriots retains many of the core elements of previous Metal Gear Solid titles, rather than completely revamping the entire gameplay mechanics (as witnessed by other popular franchises such as Resident Evil). This design philosophy has allowed Hideo Kojima and his team to utilize the best elements of previous titles, creating a sequel that is instantly accessible to both fans and newcomers alike, as well as introducing some new components exclusively for this final chapter. At its heart, though, the basic concept remains the same; Snake must get from his starting position in a given environment and reach his objective by whatever means necessary.
This time around, things aren’t so clear-cut, as the majority of locations will place Snake in the middle of an on-going battle between the PMCs and local militia, making traversing the area an extremely difficult, and more often than not, a highly detrimental task. However, therein lies one of MGS4’s most rewarding elements, allowing players to chose the manner in which they accomplish their task. Players can opt for the traditional stealthy approach, sneaking quietly past the battle without attracting any unwanted attention, or can chose to aid the militia in their efforts by dispatching any nearby PMC soldiers. While you aren’t obligated to help out at all, the militia will more than often reciprocate your actions by handing you some extra ammunition or healing items to take with you, and will acknowledge your presence in future battles – a handy feature when you need to dispose of a large contingent of enemy soldiers. On the flip side, if you chose to remain indiscriminate about how you attack, Snake will find himself under attack from both parties, making his mission all the more difficult, which may appeal to gamers seeking a greater challenge.
Regardless of your preference — stealth or action-orientated — Snake has a wide variety of moves to facilitate whichever method you wish to go about your business. Making a return from previous installments is the Close Quarters Combat (CQC) mechanic, which allows Snake to grasp his foes and disable them surreptitiously via the left analogue stick and R1 button. The basic choke hold forms the template for this component, giving you access to a variety of maneuvers such as throwing the enemy to the floor, slitting his throat with your knife, choking him until he passes out and much more. You can also hold up enemies with your weapons and they’ll happily throw up whatever items they may possess allowing you to claim them for yourself. CQC is extremely satisfying although it can be tricky to employ when there are multiple enemies around; in the heat of battle, sometimes it’s better to switch to Snake’s arsenal of firearms to get by.
And thus we come, inexorably, to one of the most significant changes to the Metal Gear Solid formula in the form of the game’s weapons system. With past titles, procuring weapons and ammunition on site was an essential ingredient in Snake’s survival, allowing him to bolsters his arsenal by obtaining weapons from fallen enemies. This time, however, the majority of weapons will be rendered useless thanks to an ID lock, meaning you’ll have to find some other means of acquiring new weaponry, or removing the ID lock on any firearms salvaged. Enter Drebin, who, conveniently for Snake, will allow him to purchase various weapons, equipment and ammo via a special currency system known as Drebin Points.
Snake can acquire Drebin Points in a number of ways, the most common of which is weapon retrieval. Simply acquire a weapon that is already in your possession, and it will be immediately sent to Drebin in exchange for points – any ammunition is added to your total cache. Further points can also be unlocked by meeting specific requirements such as viewing certain flashbacks in cut-scenes, killing certain enemies and so forth. The more points you have, the more goods you are able to purchase, and all the more potent they’ll be. Access to your virtual ‘shop’ is opened via the menu screen, where you can chose from dozens of different weapons, upgrades and equipment, including pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, grenades, silencers, stocks and more. All of these can be purchased on the fly, so if you find yourself running low on ammunition in battle, simply call up the menu screen to purchase some additional rounds. Furthermore, Drebin can also remove the ID tag on any weapons you salvage (for a small price) allowing you to use them any time you want.
The Drebin Points system proves instrumental in complimenting your playing style, allowing you to kit your weapons out to reflect how you chose to tackle the game. For example, those who favor engaging in heated battles with the PMC may wish to upgrade their assault rifle with a scope to improve its aiming functionality, while others may kit their gear out with a Grenade Launcher or Shotgun add-on for extra firepower. On the other hand, the stealthier player can improve upon their performance by supplementing their existing weapons with a silencer, allowing you to dispose of enemies without fear of attracting any unwanted attention. Although you could argue that Drebin’s services are perhaps a little too convenient, it offers a rewarding incentive to salvage as much as possible off the battlefield, and you’ll be thankful later when you find yourself facing off against seemingly endless reinforcements of PMC troops. It’s not cheap either, so you’ll have to spend quite some time collecting as much as possible, and unearthing all the hidden points up for grabs – all the while expanding your playtime by a substantial margin. Combat itself is effortless and highly responsive, with Snake now able to switch to an over-the-shoulder viewpoint when aiming, in addition to targeting from a first person perspective. The former affords a greater sense of freedom and maneuverability, with players now able to strafe left and right to avoid enemy gunfire and other harmful projectiles with ease. Snake can also utilize virtually any object or structure to take cover behind, allowing him to then lean over (depending on the weapon you have equipped) to take a few pot shots at his foes. Furthermore, despite age catching up with him, the legendary warrior is still highly agile, capable of performing a number of evasive techniques, including forward and sideways rolls, in addition to rolling on his back and stomach when in the crawl position to escape from danger.
Make no mistake, although the game contains some heated action segments, MGS4 doesn’t abandon its stealth roots in the least, and remaining undetected undoubtedly remains the safest method available. An intrinsic part of this comes in the form of Snake’s innovative camouflage system, Octocam. Utilizing this technology, players are able to adapt to their surroundings in mere seconds, simply by pinning Snake against a particular object of surface; the Octocam will then replicate that particular pattern, allowing Snake to blend into his environment, decreasing his chances of being discovered. Additionally, all patterns are saved into the camouflage menu, allowing Snake to adapt to any condition necessary. Naturally, wearing the wrong type of camouflage in certain areas can cause incongruous results, thus greatly increasing chances of you being detected. Amusingly, Snake can still take refuge in his trusty cardboard box, although this time, he’ll also have access to a battered drum can, affording him better protection against bullets, as well as the ability to roll into his enemies, knocking them over briefly, which is ideal for when you need to make a quick getaway in the event your position is compromised. Rather than have Snake risk being spotted, you can instead play it safe and chose to scout the area ahead with the Metal Gear Mk II; a robotic drone that can also be used to scan the area ahead, in addition to briefly neutralizing any nearby enemies using a small electrical discharge. Although fragile and not capable of wondering off too far, it’s a handy tool for pin-pointing the location of a group of nearby foes, as well as scouting out any alternative routes Snake can take to circumvent a major threat. Still, you may find it a somewhat forgettable asset in the games more heated moments, and I myself admit it was rarely used, choosing instead to scout out the local area using the Solid Eye’s zoom functionality.
In order to capitalize on your chances of sneaking by opponents unnoticed, players must also keep an eye trained on the Threat Ring, located in the upper right hand corner of the screen. This feature tracks where your enemies are in relation to your position, and also keeps track on how ‘alert’ they are at the time. As with previous games, if an enemy spots Snake, he will be required to evade on-going patrols for a set amount of time before the alert phase is canceled. The game’s artificial intelligence is extremely competent, and will search ruthlessly for Snake during this time, turning over objects, checking in dustbins, lockers and any other conceivable hiding place in an effort to locate him at all costs. Unlike previous installments, enemies no longer follow a specific pattern, and this arbitrary method of patrolling can lead to some nasty surprises for Snake if he isn’t quick to take action. It also proves highly effective in cranking up the tension as you wait with baited breath for your enemies to finally abandon the search. As with previous installments, your adversaries don’t have to actually spot Snake in order to initiate a search; soldiers will generally react to anything suspicious, such as the sound of footsteps, gunfire, sudden movement, and proceed to radio HQ and commence search operations. Needless to say, this makes it all the more gratifying when you successful infiltrate enemy territory unnoticed under the watch of such intelligent foes, especially in some of the quieter moments when you’ll be encouraged not to engage the enemy.
In another Guns of the Patriots addition, Snake must also now cope with the stress of battle, which can negatively affect his performance if not carefully monitored. If Snake is exposed to intense combat for prolonged periods of time, his stress level will raise, which ultimately lowers his Psyche Gauge. When this happens, Snake will begin to exhibit decreased performance in battle, such as an inability to aim properly, as well as his Life Gauge recovering far slower than normal. These attributes must be carefully balanced, and can only be recovered by consuming various healing items, or removing Snake from the battle zone, where he will have a chance to recover from the stress of combat. In these situations, it pays to employ a stealthier approach to the situation, allowing you to avoid confrontation and maintain Snake’s well-being. Being consciously aware of this, I found myself thinking twice on more than several occasions in regards to engaging the enemy, and chose instead to opt for a stealthier approach to complete my objectives. It’s a clever system, and expands on the strategic elements of MGS4’s core gameplay ensuring that players are constantly weighing up the best course of action depending on Snake’s current status.
While the PMC/Militia-based battles take up a substantial portion of the game, Guns of the Patriots shifts gears more than enough times to keep things fresh, splicing in a number of different tasks to perform as you progress. This includes anything from tracking someone’s footprints using the Night Vision functionality on your Solid Eye (a handy tool which combines Snakes old Night Vision goggles and scope into one), eavesdropping on enemy radio chatter in order to ascertain the whereabouts of a resistance member (which you’ll then have to pursue whilst avoiding enemy contact) to numerous action-packed set pieces, such as aiding Meryl and her squad of troops in eliminating a pack of Liquid’s elite FROG unit, or fending off hordes of Gekkos and PMCs from the back of Drebin’s Armoured Personnel Carrier.
Then of course there’s the series trademark boss encounters, of which MGS4 is no exception. The majority of these twisted adversaries come in the form of members of the Beauty and the Beast Corp. Traumatized by war, these psychotic individuals provide some memorable battles, with each member possessing various traits and abilities completely disparate from the other, leading to unique and varied confrontations. For example, Laughing Octopus utilizes a camouflage system similar to Snake’s, allowing her to transform into objects and even characters in an effort to fool the player. Elsewhere, the extremely agile Crying Wolf rides atop a large mechanical suite capable of pinning Snake to the floor in an instant. Each opponent has a unique set of attack patterns that must be observed if you stand a chance of taking them down, although those who breezed through Snake Eater’s bosses may find the majority of these encounters a little disappointing in terms of difficulty, although they are absolutely the most aesthetically pleasing in the series to date.
Visually, Guns of the Patriots is an absolute gem to behold, incorporating some of the most mesmerizing locations and cut-scenes seen on a home console, and a fine showcase for the PS3’s graphical prowess. Environments are vast and stretch as far as the eye can see, squeezing an almost incomprehensible amount of detail into them, whether it is the dusty, war-torn streets of the Middle East, or the ominous, foggy roads of Eastern Europe. Particle effects are second to none, with near photo-realistic water effects that undulate with amazing fluidity when Snake makes contact with it, as well as the dust that gets kicked up underfoot or thrown onto the camera following the impact of a nearby explosion. There are a few inconsistencies, however, most notably from the framerate, which undergoes the occasional hiccup when things get busy on screen, as well a couple of textures, which when scrutinized can look a little bland and washed out. Regardless, it’s evident that Kojima Productions has once again maintained the level of quality expected of the studio in this latest installment, and any flaws that do raise their head never amount to anything more than innocuous blips on MGS4’s extremely polished radar.
The cut-scenes themselves are simply stunning (and in typical MGS fashion, ever so slightly ostentatious), accentuating the meticulous level of detail put into the game’s unforgettable cast of characters to the point where you’re able to discern the very subtlest of expressions drawn across their troubled faces – quite an accomplishment to say the least. The cinematography exudes sophistication, and some of the latter cut-scenes in the game will literally take your breath away with the attention to detail put into them, many of which quite easily match or indeed even surpass some of Hollywood’s greatest blockbusters. Of course, it would be disingenuous to suggest that some gamers wouldn’t be put out by the abundance of cut-scenes on offer, although this time, Konami has taken steps to ensure that the user can get as much out of them as possible. For one, there’s a greater degree of interactivity, with a lot of cinematics allowing you to hit X when prompted to view various flashbacks relating to past titles when specific plot points are bought up, as well as the opportunity to hit L1 to look around from a different perspective. You can also pause cut scenes now in case you need to take a break, and code conversations can still be skipped or fast-forwarded at your discretion.
In addition to a compelling plotline that literally leaves no stone unturned, Guns of the Patriots also features an incredible aural presentation. First and foremost is the evocative soundtrack, helmed once again by the prestigious Harry Gregson-Williams, who has contributed to every major release in the series thus far. Gregson-Williams’ work has come up trumps again, delivering an evocative and emotionally-charged score that compliments the on-screen action perfectly, whether it be the desperation Snake faces when confronted by a patrol of PMCs out for his blood, or the solace found in some of the games quieter moments, your pursuers left behind. Some of the best compositions are utilized in conjunction with games more poignant on-screen cinematics, an amalgamation that transcends the boundaries of videogame cut-scenes so much so that you’ll feel as though you’ve transported into the local cinema rather than sitting in the comfort of your own home. Equally impressive is the games voice talent, which is comprised of a host of familiar faces (or rather voices) including David Hayter (Old Snake), Quinton Flynn (Raiden), Christopher Randolph (Hal “Octacon” Emmerich) and Patric Zimmerman (Liquid Ocelot), all of whom deliver their performances with utter conviction, especially during the game’s more critical moments, where they never fail to impress.
In conclusion, after spending the best part of 30 hours finishing this crucial release, I can confidently disclose my answer to the following; does MGS4 live up to the hype? The answer, unequivocally, is yes. Not only does it match up to the hype, it welcomes it with open arms, embraces it, proceeds to dazzle you with a whole lot more. From its gritty, visceral battle zones, compelling storyline to the amount of depth and satisfaction contained with its gameplay, Guns of the Patriots is a mesmerizing experience from start to finish that should be experienced by any self-respecting PS3 owner out there. More importantly, however, is the fact the latest entry in this extolled franchise succeeds in delivering its ultimate promise — to deliver an unforgettable closure to a legendary protagonist.
And for Snake, I’d certainly settle for nothing less.