Sunday, May 8, 2011

Retrospective REVIEW - Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

Whenever someone asks me what I think of Metal Gear Solid 4, the question I must pose to them is "have you played the other Metal Gear Solid games?"

I may be entirely unable to level critical judgment at it outside of that context. It's possible that I would loathe this game if I hadn't become so absorbed in its predecessors - but perhaps that's pessimistic of me. After all, 4 is still a hugely ambitious and interesting title. There's an exceptional degree of depth to the gameplay that's still, to this day, unique within the stealth and action/shooter genres.

Ever since the first Solid, Kojima Productions has loved giving players a variety of means to mess with unwitting enemies, and 4 has an intimidatingly massive arsenal of potential annoyances to unleash. Throughout the series' history they've layered on more and more mechanics to the point that 4 boasts a dizzying array of tools, weapons and options for negotiating its world, and allowing the player to defeat the game in the manner of their choosing

There is, I feel, a very real argument to be made for someone with zero Metal Gear experience falling in love with 4. It's a smooth action game with a degree of choice that would make a western RPG blush, a Japanese-produced title that shatters the triple-A standard of presentation, a richly-realized world and - if nothing else - it's got a story that will either grip you tight or efficiently render your comatose.

The duration of the cutscenes is, to put it plainly, obscene. Metal Gear Solid 4 can be completed in five hours - but if you watch the cutscenes and listen to all the codec conversations that pop up, it will take you around thirty.

I'm not kidding.

Hideo Kojima loves his characters and the world he's created - his fans do too - but there are only about a dozen times throughout the game where, on subsequent playthroughs, I don't skip the cutscenes. 4 remains a textbook example of a director who does not begin to subscribe to the less-is-more school of storytelling, but with that said, I love those choice scenes - and they're never less than gorgeous.

Even now, three years later, Metal Gear Solid 4 stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best presentation in the biz. It is a technical, visual, auditory and artistic triumph with sound design that remains the high water mark to this day - but that's simply what we've come to expect of Kojima Productions after they cracked cinematic presentation with the first Metal Gear Solid.

These games are always bar-raisers in terms of technology, but what really makes 4 an exceptional game is its incredible variety and structure of play - and how each and every twist, each globe-trotting change of venue recalls in some way, shape or form a classic moment from the series' past and manages to becomes a singular thrill all its own.

Act 4, in particular, is one long earth-shattering orgasm for any series fan. The best kind of thrill and release - the type that leaves you agape, able only to blurt out that classic refrain, "oh my God!"

The final chapter seems to be wrapping up the game with a boss encounter that directly recalls the single best boss fight the series has ever had - but that's just a warm-up.

The following gameplay sequence, as series hero Snake struggles to make it to his final destination, is not merely visually stunning, but is nothing short of the most emotionally gripping experience I've thus far experienced on the current generation of consoles. Subsequently, the game's ultimate confrontation is not just a perfect example of the title's exceptional marriage of art and technology, but an incredible, poignant, eloquent expression of the point and purpose of the entire game:

If you like Metal Gear Solid - any Metal Gear Solid - you're going to love this.

The game is punctuated with some of the most memorable moments of the current generation, and these spectacular vignettes of gameplay are built upon complex systems of liquid-smooth mechanics with a rock-solid core.

If you want to lock and load a gigantic light machine gun and kill every enemy in the game, you're free to. 4 easily has the best shooting of any entry in the series, thanks to easygoing mechanics liberally cribbed from developments in that genre. Meanwhile, you could play through the entire title without killing. I've always adored making my way through a Metal Gear Solid title without being seen once, and without harming a single enemy.

I love that. A triple-A action title where the player is encouraged to never hurt anyone.

Each play-style is abundantly rewarded, but most remarkable is how well-realized 4's myriad of mechanics are. It's not freakish or unusual for a game to get one style of play so deliciously right, but it's a monstrous mutant of a game which masters so much. The game's stealth system is likely the most complex variation of the genre ever produced.

For folks who aren't fans, or at least folks who never had the chance to play Metal Gear, Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, this is still a remarkable title. It boasts standard-setting presentation and a depth of play that is unmatched in its genre - and if (when) the epic-length cutscenes get to be too much, there is, happily, a pause-and-skip option. For folks who have history with the franchise, the entire game is Hideo Kojima pointing out over the crowd and shouting "this one's for the fans!" - and given that we're talking about one of the most rightfully celebrated series in all of gamedom, this results in a title that is nothing short of incredible from tip to tail.

Guns of the Patriots is an exceptional game from every angle - constantly, creatively riffing on its own mechanics and style of play, constantly ping-ponging you from one gorgeous location to the next, constantly surprising, engaging and thrilling, constantly a showcase of perfectly honed gameplay.

It's one of the single best games on the current generation, and - perhaps thanks to my own long history with the series - easily my favorite game of 2008.

-incredible graphics
-incredible art direction
-incredible sound design
-excellent voice work
-makes you feel like a total badass
-remarkable depth of play, building perfectly on what came before
-the controls are the best they've ever been
-twenty years later, Snake is still fucking awesome
-constantly switches things up, but never drops the ball
-the story is honestly a thrill to someone who's followed the series for twenty years
-The Microwave Hallway
-an earth-shattering orgasm of fan joy

-with three notable exceptions, the (gorgeous) boss fights are never as emotionally interesting as the series' past bosses - the ones with actual character
-the game runs lengthy installs between each chapter
-obscenely long cutscenes

One of the best of the best.

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