VIDEO: The trailer for Metal Gear Solid 4
“War has changed,” Solid Snake tells us, both at the beginning and at the end of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. He would know. Over the course of several decades within the Metal Gear Solid canon, he’s been the key player in every armed conflict the world has had to offer. This fourth installment is the final one, both in the real world and in series chronology. Its core mission seems to be to wrap up all the dangling threads from a series that has long since grown unwieldy. Instead of providing a rich, satisfying conclusion, MGS4 piles one pat resolution on top of another, complete with tearful reunions, didactic speeches, and — I kid you not — a happily-ever-after wedding scene. War may have changed, but MGS’s style hasn’t — and, after 10 years, it’s starting to look shopworn.
Things weren’t always this way. True, if there’s one point of contention fans and critics have had with the series since the earth-shaking Metal Gear Solid launched on the PlayStation in 1998, it’s been the length of the cutscenes. The gameplay has been punctuated with long, verbose cinematic sequences. I remember being late to work on at least one occasion when I first played MGS. It could seem you were being held hostage to the developers’ whims. But the gameplay was so enthralling, and the story line so involving, that gamers felt they were in the care of an auteur without peer.
Now, it seems as if MGS’s driving creative force, Hideo Kojima, had let his genius get away from him. The cutscenes have become ever more bloated and prolix, and they come at the expensive of immersive gameplay sequences. The series’s mythology has overgrown like kudzu: characters spend half their time explaining to one another what’s happened in past games. And they spout this information without a spark of vitality or individuality — they might be reading a plot synopsis straight from a Wikipedia entry. If you’ve played MGS, none of this exposition is necessary. If you haven’t, it’s too dense to follow, packed as it is with acronyms and jargon.
This would be forgivable if the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid 4 showed the verve and invention of its predecessors, but it does so only in fits and starts. The tag line is “Tactical espionage action,” and at its best, the game delivers a suspenseful, cerebral spying experience. A sustained sequence midway through compels Snake to follow a civilian through the military-occupied streets of an unnamed Eastern European city. Everything works here: the atmosphere, the stealth gameplay, and the stakes. To be discovered by either the civilian or the armored sentries is to bring the fury of an army down on your head. It’s a masterful scenario, marked by the telltale whistling that distinguishes Solid Snake’s quarry — a slightly off-key rendering of the MGS overture.