Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Metal Gear Solid 4

I laid in supplies: a case of Maruchan cup o' noodles (beef flavor), two frozen pizzas (pepperoni), a case of beer, a case of Monster. I explained to my wife that I would be totally unavailable for somewhere between three and five days, that she should consider it an act of worship, of art appreciation, of sublime religious observance. Something akin to watching Wagner's Ring Cycle.

Ever since I'd heard that Hideo Kojima would be recanting his promise that MGS3 would be the last Metal Gear, I was excited, ecstatic. I just knew that after the perfection of Snake Eater, Kojima would produce nothing short of digital nirvana on the PS3. I wallowed in the hype, slavering over every screenshot and trailer that trickled out of Kojima Productions.

On June 12th, I wandered into the local WalMart at 0600, grinning like an idiot and walking with purpose and speed to the electronics section. "Sell me a copy of Metal Gear Solid 4, please," I said to the raggedly tired man behind the counter. Two minutes later, I was walking back out the door with the translucent-boxed electronic bliss in my sweaty hands. I drove home at breakneck speed, drifting my Subaru through the turns I was too excited to stop for.

At home, I fired up the sound system and my TV. I carefully tuned the EQ for maximum bass and checked to be sure the PS3 and TV agreed that 1080p was a viable resolution. I inserted the disk.

Knowing Kojima, I ignored the title screen's insistence that I press start. I watched the camera drift around through the graveyard from MGS3, the nostalgia building. BAM! The gunshot. "So Snake dies," I thought to myself, "A tragedy. I'm in love already."

I started a new game. Sat through the caching-to-disk screen, chortling at the smoking and health warnings, tips, trivia and in-jokes they'd so thoughtfully provided for my amusement. Then I watched the introductory cutscene.

And then I played for ten minutes.

And then I watched another cutscene. Another five minutes' play. And another cutscene. Twenty minutes of play. Fifteen minutes of cutscene. Maybe forty-five minutes of play. And then forty-five minutes of cutscene, except this time I got to drive around a robot while the cutscene played in a little window.

And that's the problem with MGS4. The thing that ruined it. Cheapened the whole enterprise. The cutscenes. The endless, blathering, pseudo-philosophical cutscenes. Unskipped because of the reward for mashing X at the right times to activate cascades of single-frame "flashbacks" from previous MGS games. Made mildly, marginally entertaining only by the ability to zoom in on Otacon's ass or Eva's wrinkly tits--or in the mission briefings, the chance to drive the robot around and look for loot.

Don't get me wrong, MGS4 does a lot of things right. For one, it's beautiful. Kojima managed to pull off smooth in-game 1080p, and then proceeded to fill that ungodly resolution with gorgeous motion captured actors and gritty, lived-in, war-torn locales.

There are a bevy of unique weapons available for use, many of which can be outfitted with a variety of attachments and doodads to improve or tailor them. Unfortunately, the number of non-lethal weapons is very low. So if you're playing in true MGS-style and going for a no-kill run, you'll likely ignore all but a half dozen of the guns available.

Gone is the pointlessly complex and unrealistic "Recovery Screen" from MGS3, replaced with the more familiar rations/noodles/compress health-bar system of previous MGS games. There are a number of other recovery items added, but all of them function essentially identically by refilling some portion of either the stamina or health bars (or both).

The camouflage system is revamped, doing away with manual selections in favor of an automatic "adaptive" system. I especially liked this, since the camo selection screen in MGS3 already removed all guesswork from which pattern to choose by showing the difference in camo index directly on the selection screen. Unfortunately, due to the trend toward interior and urban environments, the camo in MGS4 doesn't look like it functions as well as in MGS3. That is, I never found that I visually disappeared on screen like I did in the previous game.

The locales and settings are varied and well-designed. I especially loved revisiting Shadow Moses from MGS1, and Arsenal Gear is a fun level as well.

But the game doesn't feel like a game. It feels like a movie with occasional interactive playscenes. There are no memorable moments of gameplay, no playable scenes that stick in the mind. There is no analog of climbing the well shaft, or of the tense, methodical, tragic battle with Sniper Wolf. Every plot point, emotionally charged moment, or plot revelation comes jammed in the middle of some fifteen minute smokebreakcutscene.

And the cutscenes are just straight up embarrassing. Since I was monopolizing the TV, my wife watched me play. She laughed at every single cutscene, teasing me for daring to call this art. And I had to agree, blushing deeply and feebly protesting only that "the older games didn't have nearly so much of this bullshit".

The dialog sounds like Kojima cribbed it from Snake/Meryl fan fiction, blathering on forever about a "soldier's heart" and "duty" and "I'm not a hero, never was, never will be". And then there's the endless background exposition on the Patriots, who turn out to be nothing more intriguing than a men's club for folks who failed macroeconomics. And the endless foreground exposition about the nanomachines injected in every soldier, complete with luddite protestations against technological progress--these, at least, were amusing, coming from a man who makes games for toaster-sized supercomputers.

The cutscenes make up the bulk of the "play time". When I first played the game, watching every minute of content presented to me, it took me three days to get through. When I played the game again last week for this review, I skipped almost all of the cutscenes, and finished in an afternoon--before supper. I suppose the play time is longer if you don't have all of the gear and don't know where to go. But, even then, you spend way more time eating popcorn than you do wiggling thumbsticks.

Even without the issue of the cutscenes, MGS4 is by far the weakest game in the franchise. For starters, it's damn near impossible to achieve a no-kill run. In the very first act, you're expected to repel a commando assault while sticking close to a team of friendly soldiers. You can't sneak off and hide yourself without your friends croaking, and there are far too many bad guys in too many weird places doing far too much damage for the tranquilizer pistol to be a viable option. I tried several times, and each time wound up eating it. While I'm sure it's possible, I can pretty much guarantee you'll whip out an assault rifle and murder those commandos.

The whole game is fraught with these situations, where run-and-gun FPS-style play is rewarded over sneaking. It's invariably easier to snipe every guard and advance to the next area before the bodies are discovered than it is to avoid conflict. I tended to do this with the tranq pistol, but since I'd already killed a dozen people in the first act, there was very little incentive not to use my lethal (silenced) sniper rifle at every opportunity.

Except, of course, for the most annoying level ever to grace a Metal Gear Solid game. In some Eastern European ghetto, you're expected to shadow a member of "the resistance" while also avoiding patrols. Get too close, and you spook the resistance guy into taking a longer and more circuitous route. Get popped by the patrols, and you'll totally lose your mark as you run to evade the troops. This scene took me about an hour the first time I played it; and twenty minutes the second. And I hated every goddamn minute of it both times. Technically, I suppose that it does qualify as sneaking, but you aren't free to plan your approach or study guards' movement... let the guy get too far ahead of you, and Otacon informs you that you've lost him, game over.

The boss battles are weak and uninspired. I do like the bosses themselves, as their psychodrama backstories are intriguing. But the battles require no more strategy or thought than "equip the biggest gun you have and shoot when you see them." The secondary battles, after the bosses' power armor is stripped away, consist of nothing more than slowly backpeddling while trying over and over again to land tranq pistol hits--it was creepy the first time, but immediately falls flat afterward.

Also missing from MGS4 is the signature Kojima wit and meta. All of the humor seemed to consist of rehashing played-out jokes from earlier games--yes, he shit himself, how droll--and the only bit of meta in the whole game is a scene where you briefly play the opening area of MGS1. The abrupt, sloppy transition to which had me convinced and enraged for fifteen seconds that my fairly new television had crapped out. Since it was the MGS1 Psycho Mantis battle and the MGS2 You Are Dead scene that cemented Kojima as a great artist in my mind, it would be a vast understatement to say that I was disappointed.

Basically, what I'm saying is that Kojima should have kept his promise and quit after MGS3. And I sure as hell hope he keeps his promise that this is the last one, 'cause I don't think my respect for Hideo Kojima can take another blow like this.

[Oh fuck me with a pine tree... google has hints that there might be an MGS5.]


  1. Do you think I should replace my Xbox 360 with a PS3? Also, italic tags get displayed in the browser title bar. May be possible to define the font-style: italic; property in CSS for post titles.

  2. I would say, no, don't replace the 360. There are more decent games for the 360, including some that I'd really like to play. Left4Dead for instance. On PS3, you get the big cross-platform releases and a few exclusives.

    Also, the quality of PS3 ports varies wildly. The Bioshock port is way better than the XBox version, graphically. The Orange Box port is fucking TERRIBLE, with mad slowdown and frequent stutter--plus it fucking SPEWS STATIC on the audio track.

    Also, italic tags get displayed in the browser title bar. May be possible to define the font-style: italic; property in CSS for post titles.

    I was like, "Who cares if the titlebar has some italic text in it, you pedantic perfectionist!" And then I looked up at the top of this page. The tags literally show up.

    I guess I'll just de-italic everything. Be done in a jiffy.


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