Wake Me When it's Over
It's impossible to give a brief summation of the backstory which is incredibly complex and spans two decades, so I'll assume you're already somewhat familiar with the plot of the series. If you're not and you give a damn, feel free to wikipedia the franchise's history (prepare for three hours of reading followed by a migraine). For the uninitiated MGS4 is essentially a third-person stealth shooter starring an ill-fated hero by the name of Solid Snake. The series has a major emphasis on plot development and cinematic cutscenes. The controls are adequate and reasonably responsive, and though still somewhat cluttered are an overall improvement on previous installments.
Before I begin tearing MGS4 to shreds, I have to say that it is a very pretty game, but like most very pretty people I've met in life, it's severely lacking in other important areas, and the Achilles Heel of the MGS series has always been the writing, and with eight hours of voice acting and cutscenes this is the one aspect of the game you would hope they'd get right. MS4 is a game absolutely dripping with pretension and "message," yet the messages are delivered with such absurd dialogue, redundant exposition, and ridiculous metaphor that it makes you want to take a large-bore drill to your skull. Our tough and grizzled hero seems to have some sort of verbal disability that forces him to repeat whatever phrase was last uttered in front of him, half the characters are impossible to care about and yet are treated as if the balance of the universe hangs on them resolving personal problems in the middle of a battleground, and some character motivations are inconsistent at best and completely schizophrenic at worst.
Let's talk about one example of bad storytelling: In the game Snake encounters a team of four bosses he must defeat, each suffering from their own set of psychological problems brought about by a traumatic childhood where they were forced to both do and suffer inhuman acts of war. This is powerful storytelling the first time you encounter one of said psychotics and have to listen to her life story which takes ten agonizing minutes after you end her pain. By the fourth fucking time you have to suffer through this you start to feel traumatized and just cease to care about how this person was anally raped by chimpanzees and forced to drown midget babies or whatever when she was a toddler, and thus became some sort of frenzied psychopathic war machine. Why not counseling?
This is the biggest problem with MS4 - it's far too cluttered and tries to do too much, thus reducing the impact of the game as a whole. You just stop giving a shit after the 6th hour of cutscenes. The game also loads you out with far more firearms than you'd ever possibly need (who needs a dozen different pistols to get the job done??), one-trick-pony boss fights that remove all replay value, and a level of fan-service that detracts from the overall effectiveness of the storyline. And let me tell you, these cutscenes I keep bitching about? They drag on, and on, and on. I was warned about their length before playing, so at one point I actually timed how long it took to go from Act II to Act III: 49 fucking minutes. Some scenes are so long Konami actually provides save points in the middle of them.
The worst part is it could have been a brilliant game. When I finished playing it I was left with the same uneasy feeling I had when watching the new Star Wars movies. With some severe editing and substantive rewrites it could have been succinct, lucid, and powerful with a razor-sharp plot, leaving the player with that rare euphoric feeling one gets after experiencing a masterpiece of fiction. So much needless dialogue could have been cut, redundant exposition could have been removed, and those 8+ hours of cutscenes could have been reduced to 3 which would still provide an cinematic experience lengthier than a feature film and yet not have outstayed its welcome. But enough about the cutscenes. The gameplay itself is a mixed bag. Apart from the aforementioned control issues, the sneaking aspect is fun but wholely unnecessary as it's usually quite possible (and sometimes easier) to kill or subdue everything in sight, or simply run past enemies who engage and attack you with all the fervor of a geriatric who's overdosed on kolonapin. In fact, MGS4 is a very easy game, which only serves to throw the entire stealth mechanic out the window.
This isn't to say that there aren't moments of pure bliss in MGS4. A few of the vehicle sequences are absolute gold, and the final boss fight is a work of genius that blends cinematic sequences with hands-on player interaction flawlessly. The voice acting is incredible, but you can't help but lament the fact that all of this vocal talent was handed a script that an 8th grader could have produced. I suppose the reason I'm being so critical of MGS4 is due to the history of the series and the anticipation and hype raised by it. It also puts me in an awkward position because of the perplexing consensus by the professional reviewing community that MGS4 is the game that will finally liberate us from our tired, tragic little lives and lead us away to the promised land. Here's a taste from Metacritic:
Playstation Official Magazine US/UK: 100
Game Informer: 100
G4 TV: 100
Giant Bomb (for shame): 100
I haven't seen that many zeros since my last college senate meeting. I'd be less harsh if this was an underground game without 200 developers and a PR campaign behind it of size and scope that rivals Germany circa 1933.
To wrap up, if you're a fan, then you'll either love it, or convince yourself that you love it despite a sense of doubt that gnaws at your heart while you try and tell your friends with a straight face why MGS4 is the best work of philosophy since Descartes. For those of you who are contemplating buying it, remember that playing a Metal Gear game is akin to making a deal with series creator Kojima where he so aptly states, "I'll give you a game, but in return you have to watch and listen to all my bullshit."