Discussion Review: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

MGS4_PS3_2D_FOB_psd_jpgcopy.jpg Here it is, here it is, here it is! Over the past week and a half, Zach and I have been diligently playing through Metal Gear Solid 4 and chatting away behind the scenes to bring you this, our comprehensive discussion review of this generation’s grandest game yet. It’s a long read, so I’ll forgo any further opening remarks and just let you dive right in.

Matt: After a shade over 20 hours of play time, I’ve finally finished the gaming masterpiece that is Metal Gear Solid 4 (I’m already halfway through my second play through on Big Boss Hard, too), and man, all’s I can say is “WOW!” MGS4 had such high expectations to live up to, what with it being the closing chapter of Solid Snake’s story and the game everyone has been looking at to showcase the true capabilities of the PS3. Not only did it meet those expectations, it has somehow even managed to surpass them, at least to this long-time Metal Gear fan it has.

Kojima had a tough task to pull off with MGS4‘s storyline, announcing from the jump that it would indeed mark the end of the road for Snake. Having finished the game, it’s finally sunk in that I’ll never again see Solid Snake in another MGS game. Just think about that for a second. He’s done, for good. How many other gaming icons with the status and fan base of a Solid Snake have been killed off (in a manner of speaking)? It’s of the same magnitude if, for example, Miyamoto were to come out and say there’d be no more Mario or Link or Sega pulled the plug on Sonic. Snake is every bit as much of an icon as these characters (in my book at least), so it took a lot of guts for Kojima to lay to rest the legendary character he brought into the gaming world oh so many years ago.

But hey, he couldn’t have gone out on a higher note, and honestly, the fact that this was Snake’s swan song is the main reason why it leaves such a tremendous impact. I don’t want to get into any spoilers here, but let me just say that all the loose ends and story arcs that have been left unanswered by the previous MG games finally get resolved, and I couldn’t have asked for a more rewarding climax.

MGS4 truly blurs the line between video game and cinema more than ever before. It is every bit as much a cinematic experience that you watch as it is an actual hands-on game that you play. Of the 20 hours it took me to complete, I’d say it was probably a 50/50 split between watching and playing, but to me it never felt that way. Some cut scenes can get a bit long-winded (the mission briefings in particular), but I actually found the pacing to be the best it’s ever been. I remember many sections in MGS2 where it was like “play for 10 minutes, watch a cut scene, play another 10 minutes, watch another cut scene.” It had sort of a disjointed flow to it that became REAL annoying. But to me MGS4 is much more balanced and smooth-flowing overall. The long cut scenes are spaced out by far longer stretches of gameplay, so when the cut scenes did come I was psyched up to watch them, not pleading with the game to “just let me play, dammit!” like I remember doing quite often throughout MGS2. So many of the cut scenes are all-time memorable, too. Like Raiden and Vamp’s duel, I’d watch it all the time if I could. I’d kill for a movie theater option in this game…

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Zach: I too am a long-time fan of the Metal Gear saga. If you’d like to get a brief taste of the past five Metal Gear games which have graced the consoles, take a look at this article I wrote for a local paper.

All kidding aside, I’ve had a love/hate relationship with Metal Gear over the years. It seems as if every even iteration (which, before this one would have been Snake’s Revenge for the NES and Metal Gear Solid 2) has left me very disappointed. I’m glad to say that I was very pleased with Metal Gear Solid 4 though as again, being a fan of the series, Hideo Kojima was able to tie up all of the loose ends that were found throughout the series. Heck, he even made Metal Gear Solid 2‘s ending scenes make sense, which is an accomplishment in itself! And while this is the end of Solid Snake’s journey, let’s not forget that his “father”, Naked Snake (aka Big Boss), still has about 20 – 30 years of story left between Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, and the original Metal Gear. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next Metal Gear is again a prequel, much like MGS3.

This does lead me to something that may be troublesome to some gamers. If this is your first Metal Gear title, you may be left very confused, especially from the third act and beyond. Since much of the events and characters in the previous Metal Gear games are referenced in this one, you may not really care (or know) about The Philosophers, or the events that transpired between Zero and Big Boss (Naked Snake). I can definitely see someone that is coming to the Metal Gear series for the first time being put-off by the long cut scenes.

Anyway, that’s one of the few bad things I can say about this game. The gameplay is much improved, even over Metal Gear Solid 3. If you’re wondering if they got rid of the camouflage system from MGS3, they did. Now you have “OctoCamo” which, when pressed against a wall or the ground, changes its pattern dynamically to provide the optimum coverage given your environment.

There’s also a new gameplay element called “Drebin Points” that adds a new dynamic to the game. For every piece of duplicate weaponry that you find throughout the game’s five acts, you can sell them to a gun launderer named Drebin who will award you points to spend at his shop. These points can be used to purchase new weapons, additional ammo, weapon upgrade parts, and some special items once you complete the game for the first time. What I loved about this Drebin Points system is that you can purchase items whenever you want. Low on rockets during a tough boss fight? Give Drebin a call and he’ll immediately hook you up.

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Matt: I think you are dead on with your thinking on where the series will go from here. In fact, in a recent interview with 1UP Kojima Production’s Ryan Payton even mentioned the fact that there are a lot of gaps to fill in regarding Big Boss. So MGS5, whenever it does come along, will more likely than not be another MGS3/Portable Ops-style prequel, and I’d be all for it. Still though, Solid Snake is done with, so other than cameo appearances and who knows, maybe even some remakes or ports (there’s been some rumoring of a possible MGS1 XBLA/PSN port, which would be cool to see), he’s retired for good. I don’t know, it makes me sad…

But back to the game at hand… MGS4 certainly is not the best game for newcomers to turn to for their first visit into the Metal Gear saga, at least in regard to the storyline. I concur with you on that all the way. The game is chock full of flashback scenes, character reappearances, references to every single game in the series, confusing acronyms, and a TON of clever easter eggs and subtle gags that only fans of the series are going to understand and appreciate.

That said, it’s hard for me to really say that the fourth game in a series not being widely accessible is a “problem”. I can’t really think of any continuing game series that would be as good if you just jumped into it in the middle (or end in this case). Like Halo, for example. The storyline is pretty run-of-the-mill sci-fi material, but if you jumped straight to Halo 3 without playing the first two it wouldn’t have the same impact. Besides, I think the gameplay itself in MGS4 is strong enough to entertain more action-driven gamers who just want to play a stellar stealth/action game and skip the lengthy narrative composition. Cutting through many of the cut scenes still leaves you with a solid 10 hours worth of exquisite gaming.

And speaking of gameplay, MGS4 marks the single-most significant evolutionary upgrade the series has seen since the jump from the old NES games to MGS1. While a lot of the concepts at work are pulled from MGS3 and its Subsistence director’s cut version, the execution of it all has been tuned to perfection. Take the camo system, continuing off your starting point. It was an exciting new element that MGS3 brought to the table, but in actuality it came over as more of a neat idea than a fully functional game mechanic. Before, the camo system was so unintuitive that I found myself simply not using it half the time. But now with the OctoCamo suit, Snake is able to mimic the appearance of whatever his body comes in contact with in a matter of a second or two. It’s such a subtle improvement, but one that truly revolutionizes the stealth gaming experience. I actually stopped on numerous occasions just to play with its pattern recognition. I couldn’t find a texture or pattern the suit couldn’t mimic. That’s pretty remarkable!

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More than anything, though, it is the gunplay that has finally come of age. Thanks to the new 3D camera system (carried over from Subsistence), swappable over-the-shoulder aiming perspective (with one of the best targeting reticules ever, I might add), and a robust weapon customization system, taking enemies down by force is actually now a viable method of completing the game. And that’s what I think has to be MGS4‘s strongest feature. No longer are you tied down with using one style of play and following one set path to reach your goal. Want to go with somewhat of a run-and-gun style? You can. It makes the game more difficult, especially considering the smart AI you are going up against, but if that’s the way you choose to play it, it definitely gets the job done. Or, of course, you can choose to take the stealthy approach and sneak your way quietly along avoiding enemy contact at all costs, which is the safest way to go, not to mention more rewarding.

Then there is the new battlefield dynamic that has you thrust into the middle of a war zone with two factions going at it (for the first two acts at least). You can choose to sneak through and avoid contact with either side or try to blend in with the rebel forces and aid their push in order to carve a quicker path through the area. Having started my second play, I’ve noticed that the surrounding battles are pretty scripted, but that doesn’t take away from the intense “constantly looking over your shoulder” atmosphere they infuse the game with. The whole stress system that ties into this war zone dynamic, though, seemed fairly pointless to me overall. If Snake’s stress becomes too much he’ll start holding is aching back and aiming will become jittery, but it’s easy to take a shot or some other form of pick-me-up to lower his stress so none of it ever becomes a factor really.

Something I have also very much enjoyed is the environmental diversity the game offers. Each of the five acts takes you to a new locale, from the Middle-East to South America to Europe and to a couple other places that are better left as surprises for those of you reading this who haven’t played the game yet. Within each location, the game takes on a different play style. I’m not sure if you noticed this, but I actually found that each act sort of hearkened back to the style of a previous game. The first and third acts definitely bring Snake to places he’s never been before, but the other three acts each seemed to pay homage to MGS1, 2 and 3 with their setting and theme.

Zach: I’d have to agree with you that I really liked the change in scenery. Having each act take place in a completely different location really forced the developers to come up with new situations for the player to get through and different obstacles to overcome. Plus, they couldn’t rely on reusing buildings and environments that you may have already ventured through before. So this isn’t like MGS 1, 2, and 3 in that respect.

I wanted to briefly mention one thing that stuck out right in the beginning as I tried out the virtual training ground. In MGS4, Snake now has an iPod as an accessory. While this may seem odd, what you can do with it is change the music that plays during your tactical espionage. Additionally, while you sneak through enemy buildings you may find additional tracks for the iPod from past Metal Gear games. These can not only be used in the iPod, but also while you play Metal Gear Online.

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That brings me to another great part of the Metal Gear Solid 4 package. The retail version of the game comes with Metal Gear Online. This adds a completely different dynamic to the game, now adding replay value to a series that I usually stopped playing after the first or second run through.

When talking about Metal Gear Online a few nights back, you mentioned to me that it’s somewhat akin to SOCOM online and I can agree with that. Think of having everything in Metal Gear Solid 4 available to you, but playing online against other individuals. Of course, you don’t have the OctoCamo (unless in one particular instance that I’ll get into later) but you can sneak around and/or run-n-gun just like in the main game.

Metal Gear Online also has a slight RPG element to it as well. With each play you get a certain number of points. After X amount of points, you’ll increase in level and improve special skills you’ve equipped. The Drebin Points system carries over as well, and when activated you earn points during play that can be used to buy better weapons and attach upgrades, such as the a laser sight or grenade launcher attachments you can find in the core game. Therefore, the more you play the more technologically superior you will be to the enemy.

As with many of the online shooters that are out there today, you have your standard free-for-all and team matches such as capture the flag, deathmatch, and defend the base. There is one that’s unique to Metal Gear Online, though, that I wanted to touch on and that is Sneaking Mission. All of the players are split into two teams, however one lucky individual gets to play as Solid Snake. It’s this individual’s job to knock out players on either team and collect three dog tags from them. What’s more, you have the OctoCamo suit available to you, so in a moment’s notice you can become nearly invisible while a player runs past, then jump up and knock them senseless to steal their dog tag. Also, if enough players join a second random individual can play as Metal Gear Mark II and help snake retrieve tags.

Matt: Yeah man, the iPod accessory is such a cool little bonus, I don’t even care that it’s blatant in-game advertising. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to search every nook and cranny of each environment just to find all the hidden tunes. Tracks from all past Metal Gear titles (including the Acid games) are available to listen to, plus some cameo music from other Kojima games like Zone of the Enders. There’s also an exclusive in-game podcast to check out, and supposedly there will be future episodes released via downloadable content, which is very cool. I’m not sure if you noticed this, but the iPod also works as a form of stress relief for Snake, so it has functionality within the game. These are the types of small features that in my mind make Kojima such a master game designer and give the MGS series an attention to detail that other games don’t even come close to matching.

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While on the subject of music, let’s talk about the game’s soundtrack real quick. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score here is his best work yet, composing music that easily rivals that of any big-budget film. I am so glad that I went ahead and bought the Limited Edition version to get the standalone soundtrack CD. I’ve copied it onto my own iPod and can’t stop listening to it, especially Old Snake’s theme and the “Metal Gear Saga” track. Brilliant stuff!

As for Metal Gear Online, I’m completely in love with it. The registration process is a total mess (seriously Konami, what were you thinking?) and there are a few things that need to and inevitably will be balanced out and expanded, but overall I find it to be a very compelling online experience. To me it does closely resemble the tactical, team-oriented style of the SOCOM games, as I mentioned to you before, but it’s also very, very different in a lot of ways.

Personally, I like the fact that the game caters to varying tastes in play style more than other online shooters. You can run and gun, sneak around or use a mix of both, the choice is yours. The SOP system is what really gives MGO that unique MGS feel though. By pressing the triangle button nearby a teammate, you become linked into a team network of sorts that enables you to identify squad mates across the map and share important data. Like if a nearby teammate gets shot or killed, an indicator will point you to the attacking enemy so you can make a rescue attempt or seek revenge for your fallen comrade in a hurry.

Taking a page out of Call of Duty 4‘s Perks system, MGO also offers a similar skill upgrade system. At any given time you can equip your avatar with four points worth of skills, such as weapon specializations that reduce recoil and reload time, faster running speed, longer throwing distance with grenades, various SOP benefits and so on. When you start, each skill at level 1 costs only one point, so you can equip four skills. But as you level up skills by using them in battle, they cost more points to equip. So you can equip two level 2 skills, one level 3 skill and one level 1 skills, etc. Thusly there’s no issue with more advanced players running around with unfairly balanced skills sets.

There are a few things that I hope are added or tweaked, however. For instance, I’m a bit disappointed that once you make your character you can’t go back and change up your outfit, other than to remove the clothing pieces you initially chose. Some type of reward system that unlocks new avatar customization options for certain play achievements is a feature I’m hoping and praying gets introduced down the road. Also, I’ve found CQC to be pretty overpowered, if you know how to be sneaky and use it properly that is. So many times I’ll be grabbed and put into a choke hold by an enemy that isn’t even close to touching me. I just run by and all the sudden I like warp backwards two or three steps and out of nowhere I’m having my throat slit or being put to sleep and capped in the head. It seems kinda unfair to me.

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What you have to keep in mind, though, is that this iteration of MGO is only what Konami calls a “Starter Pack,” meaning it’s just the starting point for a game that will be evolved through future updates and downloadable content. Currently, MGO offers five maps (and they are fantastic maps, by the way) and the modes you mentioned, which is more than enough to get started on and keep entertained with for a good while.

Zach: The last thing I wanted to mention which many players may not know about are the game’s install times. Being my first PS3 game, I was a little put-out by it to be honest. I know that some games require you to install some stuff before playing, and as long as that cuts down on the times it has to reference the disk to obtain information I’m fine with that. In Metal Gear Solid 4‘s case though, there is a long install right up front as well as a small load time (usually between 5 to 10 seconds) between each checkpoint. To top it off, between each act the game has to do another install which lasts anywhere between 2 to 5 minutes depending on which act you are going into, regardless if this is your first or subsequent play through of that act.

Matt: Ah yes, the load and install times, it was bound to come up eventually. Except for a couple chase scenes that were far more disjointed than need be due to frequent load times breaking up the flow, though, I didn’t mind any of it that much. I actually found the small installs between acts to serve as much-needed breaks to go hit the restroom and fill up on beverage. Every act closes with a long cut scene, and then there is a mission briefing for the next act and then a cut scene when you actually get into the next act, so I found it helpful to have the mandatory break in between all this. The install times are never more than three minutes either, so they basically serve as nothing more than virtual disc changes.

Zach: With that I believe we hit all there is to mention about Metal Gear Solid 4. It has everything that gamers could want in a shooter: accommodates to various play styles, an engaging story, awesome soundtrack, and a multiplayer mode that is good now and only promises to get better with time. I’m very glad that I chose to pick up the limited edition PS3 from Konami as MGS4 is the perfect introduction to the PS3. BUY IT!!

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Pros:
+ Excellent soundtrack
+ Engaging story, especially for gamers that are already fans of Metal Gear
+ Online mode keeps the replay value high

Cons:
– Cut scenes can be a bit long at times, but you can pause them
– Multiple loads and installs break up what would otherwise be a perfect gaming experience.

Matt: Whoa there, my friend. One topic we haven’t touched on yet that I can go ahead and cover myself right quick is the game’s supreme graphical quality. With MGS4, Kojima and his team were able to produce an extreme level of detail in every phase of graphics design that no other game for any platform can match (well except for Crysis when it’s on a PC that can run it at full speed). Small details like skin texture, hair and clothing are rendered with unbelievable realism. And the gun models, my goodness are they the most detailed virtual guns I’ve ever laid eyes on. All these details push the PS3 to its current limits (and are the reason behind the load/install times), and it’s going to be a long time before any console game will be able to top what MGS4 presents.

At this point, I don’t think there’s anything more we can say. Metal Gear Solid 4 truly is a game for the ages. It not only cements Hideo Kojima’s legacy as a master storyteller and game designer, but also sets so many benchmarks that console games from here on out can only dream of matching.

It was nice getting to know you these past 20 years Solid Snake. You will be missed!

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Pros:
+ Deep, compelling storyline that perfectly ties off all the series’ loose ends and brings an emotional climax to Solid Snake’s distinguished career.
+ Graphics show an attention to detail that dwarfs all other games in comparison.
+ A soundtrack so moving it’ll give you chills, maybe even make you teary eyed at times.
+ So many revolutionary new game mechanics that, united together, redefine stealth/action gaming.
+ With 20 hours of story, lots of unlockables and easter eggs, and the addictive Metal Gear Online, replay value is in abundance.

Cons:
– Long cut scenes and complicated story may not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially those new to the series.
– Metal Gear Online’s account registration process is a joke.
– Solid Snake’s saga has finally come to an end 🙁

Game Info:
Platform: PS3
Publisher: Konami
Developer: Kojima Productions
Release Date: 6/12/08
Genre: Stealth Action
Players: 1-16

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!