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SummaryCan’t explain the pain away.
The GoodThe Metal Gear Solid narrative is really starting to wear on me. Perhaps playing the games in the series back to back was a bad idea, because it has been a constant string of stories full of bloated exposition, overblown dialogue, and horrendous endings that seem to go on forever. Worse yet, the game’s narratives are all remarkably similar, and many of the same themes have been hammered on throughout. Thinking about going into Metal Gear Solid 4 actually gave me anxiety. It’s a game that holds a reputation for extraordinarily long cutscenes, even in comparison to the previous titles in the series. To continue on, I had to remind myself of two things: the Metal Gear series has, with some exceptions, provided enjoyable gameplay, and this is the last core game of the series I have to tackle before I can give it a rest.
To my surprise, Metal Gear Solid 4 begins without a single mention of nuclear weapons (stick around, they do show up). According to Snake’s introductory narration, war has changed and is becoming routine. He’s sent into the middle of a “proxy war” with the mission to kill the bizarre amalgam of Liquid Snake and Revolver Ocelot, now abbreviated to Liquid Ocelot. It’s a strangely straightforward task compared to his previous missions, but to complicate things, premature aging has set in for him and he’s slowly dying. Faced with becoming obsolete in a changing world, Snake has to keep things together for long enough to finish the job so he can finally rest.
While the wilderness setting of Snake Eater has been dropped in favour of a globetrotting adventure, a few of the mechanics introduced in the previous game have been retained in slightly altered states. Most notably is the camouflage system, made possible by Snake’s new Octo-camo suit. Lying on the ground or pressing against a wall changes the colour and texture of the suit to mimic the environment around Snake, and allows him to hide in plain sight. It’s actually a pretty interesting adaptation of the camouflage system, and adds greatly to the stealth gameplay.
The change of setting is also an interesting one. While the environments lack the personality of the locations in previous Metal Gear games, the battlefields that Snake must traverse add another interesting layer onto the sneaking gameplay. The proxy wars that go on around you are left largely unexplained – just another routine battle in the war that has changed so much, according to Snake. With no background to the ongoing battles, it creates this surreal sensation like you’re crawling past some entirely different game. It’s as though Snake is passing through some multiplayer skirmish in a modern war game; it’s an interesting sensation.
Unfortunately, even more than any previous game in the series, the gameplay isn’t the focus of Metal Gear Solid 4, and any interesting ideas it brought with it is left bleeding out in a ditch by the beginning of the third act.
The BadMetal Gear Solid 4 sits as an attempt to bring conclusion to Solid Snake’s storyarc, and there’s an attempt to tie up all the lingering loose ends. Perhaps fittingly this means it’s also the most verbally cluttered of all the Metal Gear Solid storylines. The culmination of all the conspiracies, character arcs, and soft science is a tough load to carry, and having sat through every single game in this series, my mind was ready to buckle under the weight of contradictions, retcons, and mangled continuity. I wouldn’t know where to begin in fully analyzing the narrative’s problems; it’s such a tremendous mess that it’s difficult to process.
Even if you were somehow able to swallow every drop of farfetched information that’s constantly poured out of the game’s cutscenes, the series still hasn’t evolved past its inability to convey its story in any sort of succinct or interesting way. It tries, at least. Codec sequences have been cut down significantly, and through the use of setpiece action sequences, the gameplay seems to be reaching out to meet the narrative halfway, but the cutscenes won’t be upstaged. The length of the cinematics have ballooned to such extremes that the game now features mid-cutscene save points, controllable picture-in-picture, and the much needed ability to pause during them. Worse yet, most aren’t even told in an interesting fashion, consisting of nothing more than characters pacing around the room, touching their faces thoughtfully, which is only marginally better than the codec sequences that plagued earlier games.
Pretty much any character who hasn’t died (and even some who have) reappears in Guns of the Patriots to get their storyarcs tied up. Each is given a significant chunk of screen time, whether the role they play in the plot is significant or not, and the result is some of the worst dialogue in the series. Few conversations carry on for long before a switch goes off in somebody’s head and they start talking in sickeningly bad metaphors about some nonsense like lightening shining through the darkness. Some characters pop up for no reason, only to die for sometimes contrived reasons later on, complete with the series’ standard death monologues. Stick around for the very end where every surviving character’s arc is tied up in one super-massive, disgustingly happy ending. Wow, it is really bad and it goes on forever.
What’s worse is that it doesn’t have the same laid back attitude of Snake Eater or the self-awareness of Sons of Liberty. There are clever moments of breaking the forth wall, but most of the time it doesn’t seem to know how ludicrous it really is. The writing seems to be totally in love with itself, devoting a disproportionately massive amount of screen time to blatant fan service and heavy-handed visual metaphor. In such a mad rush to appreciate the series’ long history, it has the inability to focus on any message, theme, or character arc. It doesn’t even provide an appropriate send-off to some key characters. Instead, it constantly props them up for some glorious heroic sequence with no actual purpose for their sacrifice, while less interesting characters are resurrected for some hollow redemption. The writing in general sometimes emits the whiff of fan fiction; far too wrapped up in making its favourite characters look cool to actually tell a fully cohesive story.
Yet even if I discount the storyline entirely from my critique, the gameplay itself suffers from its own problems. It’s insanely schizophrenic, loading you down with tonnes of stealth and combat options before spending over half the game pushing you through action setpieces. From the third chapter onward, Octo-camo might as well have been thrown in a bin since sneaking is rarely required. It’s baffling to see the game suddenly taken up by restrictive objectives and on-rails sections; reduced to gameplay that is barely more interactive than its cutscenes. The whole second half of the game winds up feeling like moments of mindless action sandwiched between excruciatingly long cutscenes, while the game’s stellar stealth is left buried by the onslaught of mind-numbing exposition.