War of words

The final Metal Gear Solid doesn’t go down quietly
By MITCH KRPATA  |  July 1, 2008
2.5 2.5 Stars

Such sequences are rare. Each of the five acts offers just a few bursts of uninterrupted play time. In fact, MGS4 is top-loaded, starting off with wonderful stretches of gameplay before descending into a morass of cutscenes in its second half. The first two acts boast vibrant battlefields, dropping Snake into the middle of pitched battles between rebel troops and private military contractors. In the last two acts, these lively environments give way to austere surroundings populated mostly by drones. Even the full-contact fan service of the fourth act can’t disguise a lack of innovation in the basic play mechanics. There are also a couple of shooting-gallery levels, in which Snake mans the turret of a moving vehicle. It’s nothing that hasn’t been done before, and it isn’t presented here in a noteworthy style.

Worse still are the pedestrian boss battles. Consider such past high points as the fistfight against an invisible Gray Fox in the original and the protracted sniper fight against the End in MGS3. These engagements encouraged lateral thinking and taking full advantage of your surroundings. In MGS4, most of the bosses can be defeated by running around and shooting at them. There may be sexier strategies, but the game provides no incentive to formulate them.

One big reason the boss battles seem underwhelming is that there’s no vendetta established between Snake and his foes this time around. Although two major bosses — Liquid Ocelot and Vamp — return from past games with all their baggage in tow, the new baddies are four bio-mechanical monstrosities known collectively as the “Beauty and the Beast Corps.” You see each one only in glimpses before you fight them; you haven’t forged an antagonistic relationship. Comparison with past MGS incarnations is again instructive. Those games introduced their foes slyly, providing plenty of interaction with Snake before the big battles, which then delivered a visceral and emotional payoff. Here, it’s only after defeating members of the BB Corps that you discover anything about them. And you discover it in the most boring manner imaginable — listening to people describe their life stories over your codec.

Given that MGS4 has abandoned the dramatic flourishes, you may wonder whether the concluding chapter at least makes a cogent philosophical point. It starts promisingly. In the near future, big business has co-opted war so thoroughly that most of the world’s weapons are ID-locked — meaning they can be used only when nanomachines in the wielder’s body transmit a “go” code to them. Were someone to gain control of this private system, as Liquid intends to do, he would command all of the world’s armed forces. So easy — and all thanks to that pesky gun registration! You’re not reading this wrong: a series noted for its pacifist stance has taken a hard-right turn in support of gun rights disguised as an anti-corporate message.

Maybe the themes wouldn’t seem so muddled if the execution of those cutscenes weren’t so botched. Kojima’s cinematic eye is above reproach, but as a writer, he needs someone to rein him in. Characters don’t have conversations in MGS4 — they trade soliloquies. Everybody in this fictional world seems to feel that the height of a firefight is a dandy time to delve into the deepest philosophical questions. People make their points; then they make them again. Unprompted, they’ll relay detailed stories of their past exploits. There’s not one cutscene in this game that doesn’t feel too long by half. I just watched a video on YouTube in which someone beat the game in under three hours by skipping all the cinemas. That is not a point in its favor.

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