Kojima delivers the final piece of a 20-year-old puzzle
Metal Gear Solid 3 is one of the hardest acts to follow in the history of videogames. An instant classic, it demonstrated how master game designer Hideo Kojima could come back from the many criticisms of the prior game to produce an incredible adventure, with one of the best settings ever commited to disk and a now iconic soundtrack. With one game he introduced both close-quarters combat and the camoflage system which was sadly hindered by current technology and a clunky interface. With Metal Gear Solid 4, Kojima is not aiming to reinvogorate the franchise in the way he felt MGS3 needed to. Instead, MGS4 is here to finally answer the questions posed at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2.
To play, MGS4 feels like an evolution of the gameplay systems pioneered in Metal Gear Solid 3. The new camouflage suit, titled Octocamo, improves upon the camouflage system in MGS3. Previously, if the player wanted to change camouflage pattern, the gameplay needed to be paused and a new pattern selected from the start menu - now, the system is entirely automated and the pattern will dynamically change just by momentarilly pressing Snake's body against a surface.
By not having it pause the game to change camouflage, Octocamo prevents the immersion of the game from shattering like it did previously. It's just a pity that along with this massively improved system, another annoying relic of Metal Gear Solid 3 is simultaneously brought with it - having to take weapons and items out of the storage bag and add them to the inventory. It only slows down the action and ruins the instant gratification of finding a new weapon: before you can use it, you're going to have take it out the bag and equip it. Why not simply go back to MGS2's inventory system where the weapons are also organised horizontally by type, like a XrossMediaBar?
Controls in Metal Gear Solid 4 have been changed arguably for the better. Aiming is now over-the-shoulder and the controllable camera seen in Subsistence makes a welcome return. Close-quarters combat has now been assigned to the R1 button to make shooting while choke-holding an enemy easier. This allows that tactic to come into play more often without the pain inducing finger yoga. Players new to the series will feel much more welcome in MGS4, but for a minority of diehard fans the old, quirky gameplay systems and more traditional cinematic camera angles will be missed dearly. Navigating the various bombed out battlefields is entertaining, and in line with series tradition there are still multiple routes to the objective and a variety of ways to dispatch enemies.
Technically Kojima Productions has created an impressive disappointment: one able to stand strong with every other game out today; yet sadly a tremendous downgrade from its triumphant Tokyo Game Show unvieling, which was running on hardware much higher than final PS3 spec. Kojima's team has put in a respectable effort trying to approximate this ambitious but ultimately impossible goal. A consistent, flawless art style once again created by series veteran Yoji Shinkawa assists them in trying to achieve this. The artists could easily break their usual modesty and boast the most detailed character modelling of all time - they would not be wrong in their assertion.
Downgrades aside, if there is one part of Kojima's vision which has been fully realised by technology, it's almost certainly the surround sound mix. The warzones in Metal Gear Solid 4 feel aurally immersive and demonstrate truly convincing special effects, punctuated throughout by strong vocal performances from the cast and another excellent soundtrack from Harry Gregson Williams, Norihiko Hibino and Nobuko Toda (although sadly due to legal reasons the famous theme tune has had to be omitted). The repeated soldier chatter which has sloppily been recorded in American accents and some embarrassing cutscene dialogue do little to detract from the overall experience.
Many of the percieved 'flaws' in Metal Gear Solid 4 are consistent with the rest of the series - at times characters can ramble for what seems like an eternity, so much so that in a few cases the point trying to be made gets partially lost along the way. The worst example of this is in the ending, which if more focused could have possessed some real impact. Many scenes can also feel unnecessarily long and in need of better editing, including the finale. And of course, being a Metal Gear Solid game, expect to sit through gushings of exposition.
But these 'flaws' are what fans of the series love about it. For their sake, it cannot, and should not be made any differently. Love it or loathe it, Metal Gear Solid's odd storytelling technique distinguishes it from every other videogame franchise ever made, the very flaws of its execution perhaps being its greatest differentiator. Indeed, it's almost like it's meant to be semi-broken like that, meant to make the player wade through the tangled, retconned mess of a storyline - otherwise it would just be like every other anime or sci-fi series ever made. Hopefully, like an old dog refusing to learn new tricks, Kojima will never cave in and adopt another storytelling technique, as the one he employs in Metal Gear Solid is simply the best. No one else can tear through the fourth wall like he can, or continue to add so much to the story while (mostly) remaining coherent.
In fact, the only giant flaw of Metal Gear Solid 4 is that it lacks its own identity in comparison with the rest of the series. The majority of the Acts merely mirror gameplay and thematic elements of previous games, while the character interactions within often feel like a forced get-together of all the old favourites; every one, even as far back as the original Metal Gear Solid, seemingly having a role to play in MGS4's affairs. The game is essentially a homage to three of the greatest games ever made rather than a seperate title which will be remembered for its own unique accomplishments; a Metal Gear with the sole objective of wrapping it all up in a neat bundle and providing an ending.