Metal Gear Solid 4 is a masterpiece, arguably the best in the series and – though many will fiercely disagree – ever so slightly disappointing. About 40% through, our notepad was scarred with breathless superlatives like 'Genius', 'Amazing' and 'Wow!!!' but by the game's conclusion, they'd given way to considered criticism and stark cries of 'WTF?'. Will you enjoy it? Yes, definitely, but while most hardcore fans will adore it, a tiny minority may be left slightly deflated by the weight of their expectations, despite the game's unarguable quality.
First, a disclaimer: this isn't a 'standard' review. Kojima Productions are so obsessed with spoilers, there's a two page document outlining what we can't say, covering basic plot developments, plus a bullet-point list of forbidden items. Restrictive? Certainly, so excuse the lack of detail. There's also insufficient room, or merit, in explaining control nuances, or button presses. Note that we've finished MGS4 twice: once on 95% complete code in Japan, and again on retail code – trust us, no one's played it more.
Oddly, we liked it more second time around – cut-scenes we initially hated reveal self-referential depth that borders on third-level genius. Or perhaps we're over-thinking it. And that's MGS4's triumph – the game is so layered, the question isn't whether you should buy it, but how you'll debate it when the credits finally roll on gaming's most philosophical, frustrating and inspired series.
MGS4 operates on so many levels, it's easy to forget the dumbest of all – as a beautiful-looking, gung-ho shoot-'em-up. On one hand, it's a game where a likeable, ageing soldier shoots countless enemies in some of the most exciting console action sequences ever; on the other, a meditation on war, society, politics, technology and, well, everything.
The game's so rich and contentious, we've had five separate 30-minute discussions about MGS4's merits and failings. One journalist, who played the game stone-faced, turned around at the end and blurted "I think it's amazing", waxing lyrical about how Producer Hideo Kojima is the master of the medium, and how all talk of Kojima being a frustrated film director is rubbish. Another reviewer, a former film student who'd studied scriptwriting, tore into the wasteful dialogue, despite conceding the game's overall quality. Another, like us, was mumbling about giving the game a perfect '10' for two days, but was so incensed by the final act, he wanted to slash the score and physically confront Kojima.
Our problem? <Don’t read on if you want to go in totally blind> The game doesn't conclude on an emotional swell, but fades out in a way that makes the 'Gandalf on a boat' finale to Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King look like flash-frame editing. Some themes from the early trailers – like Snake choking on his pistol, aren't fully developed, and appear almost in obligation. Kojima has to resolve too many character arcs and plot threads, so the conclusion feels like it's happening around you, rather than *through* you. Given that it's the last chapter in our favourite game series ever, we expected to be moved to tears – but it's got far less impact than, say, the intensely personal, shocking ending of Half Life: Episode 2. <Potential spoilers end>
MGS4, as ever, is mired in huge cut-scenes – you can skip or fast-forward them, but that's missing the point. You want to know what's going on, but don't want to endure clumsy scripting, or needless exposition. MGS4 could be hours shorter, and be considerably better for it. While we adore Kojima's unflinching vision, and attention to detail, if someone had bravely asked him to edit more carefully, we wouldn't be talking about MGS4 as a contentious masterpiece, but the greatest game ever. More confusingly, it might be just that – but only time will reveal its depths, or place its eccentricity in context.
Damn, maybe that is MGS4's genius – its uncompromising peaks and troughs, tied to a level of self-awareness that verges on brilliance. Some of its overarching themes are that of power, responsibility and corruption; which could be read as a veiled confession that Kojima – with a position of almost unparalleled creativity in the games industry – is wilfully abusing his power, but mindful of doing so.
Typically, the game you expect – of Snake battling side-by-side with Militia/PMCs – ceases to exist a third into the plot. It apexes with an assault on a Power Station in South America (with you sniping distant PMCs and firing RPGs at enemy choppers), then, suddenly, it's gone. After a sequence of three or four epic, breathless, set pieces that perfect everything MGS3 set out to achieve, the game downshifts into Europe with a stunning return to core MGS values. We can't reveal where it goes from there – diehard fans could guess – but, let's say, one nostalgic moment is perfectly handled, you get to live out a fantasy and your deadliest foes aren't PMCs, but robot bowling balls.
Sadly, after South America, the game ceases to flow, and instead becomes a staccato showreel of bite-sized gameplay chunks, glued together by mammoth cut-scenes. The components are impeccable – and the game does return to relatively seamless action – but the disconnection is somewhat jarring. You end up shunted between locations and gameplay styles in a fashion that betrays everything the epic five-minute ladder climb in MGS3 set out to achieve in terms of pacing, continuity and scale.
The core sneaking/shooting mechanics are relatively intuitive, but fiddly for newcomers, and abruptly introduced. It isn't until about six hours in that you feel any mastery, and in our first two completions, we largely neglected stealth and the variety of sleeping gas mines, evasion items (like sexy magazines) and the remote-control Mk II. When you finish the game, you're awarded ranks like 'Pig' (for using multiple health items), but, tellingly, we've only unlocked six of the 40. The ultimate reward is for finishing the game with no kills, tripping only three alerts. When you consider we killed 518 people, tripping 110 alerts on our second completion, you begin to understand the game's gargantuan scale and depth.
The PMC/Militia side-switching dynamic works well, but changing allegiance is as simple as who you shot last. The weapon customisation is superb – just adding a Grip to your M4 makes a dramatic improvement to stability. The later weapons – again, protected by spoilers – are immensely satisfying, reducing once-impossible battles to one-shot takedowns. Finish the game, and you'll unlock even more amazing weapons – including some very special tranquilizer darts.
It's easier than MGS3, with some disappointingly literal, if atmospheric, early boss battles. Despite some incredible use of sound, and cute touches, the first encounter with Laughing Octopus is an elaborate shoot-'em-up. There's nothing to rival the scale, or invention of, say, the battles with The End or The Sorrow in MGS3. Two climactic scraps come close – the last is especially thrilling, for reasons that'll become clear – but we'd have appreciated more oblique solutions, or ingenious shortcuts.
Still, with a game this exceptional, it feels like criticising the Venus de Milo for having no arms. The mechanics are fine-tuned to perfection (bar the wonky auto lock-on), the production values are unprecedented (the intro movie is stunning, while certain 'on-rails' sections made our skin prickle with sheer cinematic glee) and the story sporadically leaves you reeling, or hanging on every word. The frustration – and it bites harder given the breathless pace of earlier scenes – is that all the brilliant gameplay, plotting, philosophy and detail gets swamped in the 'noise' of unnecessary content. For every killer line, there's ten of filler, and the conclusion feels like an "Oh, and another thing…" fan-pleasing trawl, rather than the bold finale we hoped for.
By the end, it's like Hideo Kojima is writing from his deathbed and insisting the notes be published unedited. To its credit, the game touches on the most important themes of human existence – not a claim you could level at Saints Row 2 – but would benefit from stern self-inspection and bolder choices. Kojima hinted that the game's original ending was vetoed by staff members, but we suspect it was truer to his original vision. The 'new' ending suffers under the obligation of tying up all the loose ends, and some needless indulgence.
The most anticipated game in history isn't perfect. It isn't even as good as we hoped. But... we wanted it to be the Best Game Ever, and anything less was always going to be a comedown. Truth is, if we've reduced your expectations, if not made you a little sad about MGS4: good. No game could survive such a hideous weight of expectation. MGS4's final judgement won't – or rather, can't – be passed today, by knee-jerk critics or fans, but by history.
When Hideo Kojima is no longer around to make games of this calibre, then this wilfully rambling, frustratingly piecemeal, lovingly crafted, rallying cry for 'hardcore' games, will receive the inspection, and potential reverence, it deserves. It's at once forward-looking and nostalgic. And endings don't come much finer than that. As MGS's biggest fans, if we owe the series anything, it's unburdening it from the weight of expectation and our own hype. Nothing, nothing, would make us happier than being told we're wrong – in fact, we're resenting our gut reaction as we type, and keen to finish it again despite all our minor grievances – but either way, it's a journey we implore every gamer to take, regardless of their feelings for the series – because while the destination won't be to everyone's taste, the route is paved with gold. Damn. Now we're sad.
This review is taken from PSM3 Issue 102, on sale in the UK this Thursday (5 June)