Swan song for Snake?
Published in The Student, University of Edinburgh’s oldest student newspaper
There are two kinds of man in this world: those that look good with a moustache, and those that don’t. Luckily elder statesman of gaming Solid Snake has joined the ranks of Mario, Tom Selleck and… that’s about it really, in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
In Metal Gear Solid 4, Snake has returned to complete his final mission: settle the score with his ‘brother’ Liquid Ocelot and stop him from conquering the world. I say ‘brother’ because Liquid is comprised of Snake’s cloned brother’s arm grafted onto the body of a former Russian army major, who for some unexplained reason speaks with a South American drawl. Confused? You should be. Metal Gear Solid 4 doesn’t bother to provide a back-story, dumping you right into a dense, convoluted and fourth wall-breaking plot that makes very little sense at the best of times. Of course, it is possible to make sense of Metal Gear. It’s also possible to chew through a coconut with your teeth, but that doesn’t mean you should do it.
There is but one target audience for Metal Gear Solid 4; people who have played every previous game in the series. It’s like traveling back to 1998 when you were expected to read through the instructions before playing a game. It borders on unacceptable when a game of this calibre lacks any kind of handholding for newcomers- if you think I’m being harsh here, two games that do provide a comprehensive back-story are Metal Gear Solid and its sequel. However, where Metal Gear Solid was a collection of clever set pieces connected with cut-scenes, Metal Gear Solid 4 is collection of lengthy cut-scenes stapled together with fragments of game.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is so heavy on narrative that it squashes the underlying game like a fat man riding a child’s bicycle. There are at least 12 hours of cut-scenes here; many of them dull and some with little bearing on the plot. The worst part is that the game teases you with fleeting moments of action before thrusting you headlong into hours of cinematic tedium.
When you get to play the game, you’ll find Metal Gear Solid 4 is actually very enjoyable. On the surface it seems like a lot has changed: much-needed improvements in the weapon aiming and camera system turns it into Metal Gears of War, complete with cover mechanics and grenade lobbing fun. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here; Metal Gear on MSX2 was the grandfather of the stealth genre and Metal Gear Solid 4 still emphasises ‘tactical espionage action’ above all else. Snake has a myriad of gadgets to achieve this ranging from the Octocamo, camouflaging Snake in any nearby surface, to the wonderful Mk2 robot, which is controlled in a stroke of genius by a Playstation controller. The problem is that due the ease of tackling enemies with guns, there’s plenty of emphasis on action but not nearly enough on tactical espionage.
There is a constant juxtaposition of cutting edge technology with dated game mechanics. Metal Gear Solid 4 puts heavy emphasis on how your actions mould the battlefield. Except… they don’t. Soldiers will spawn in the middle of doorways constantly until you run out of ammunition or patience; blow up a helicopter with a rocket launcher and another will rise up to take its place. With the mind-boggling stupidity of the game’s artificial ‘intelligence’ and inconsistent approaches to level design like invisible walls and invincible enemies, Metal Gear Solid 4 feels like a 1998 game stuffed into a 2008 graphics engine.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is not the best game ever made. It’s not even the best Metal Gear game ever made. It’s a shame to see some genuinely thrilling and entertaining action lost in a tribute to the majesty of one man’s ego. Ask yourself the question: do you like playing games? Or would you rather sit and watch a very long movie instead? If you answered with the latter, Metal Gear Solid 4 is the game for you. Everyone else should approach with caution, or perhaps just hide under a cardboard box until the hype subsides.