Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
It’s Christmas! I’m back living with my parents for a few weeks over the holidays, so I decided to follow up last year’s life-changing playthrough of Metal Gear Solid 3 with a very solemn game of Metal Gear Solid 4. I had been waiting all year for this and it was everything I could have hoped for, and more! Coming in the middle of my NO ALARMS, NO RATIONS, (ALMOST) NO KILLS playthrough of Metal Gear Solid and just a few days after the reveal of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, I’m really Metal Geared up to my eyeballs right now.
MGS4 is a story split into five acts. Here is a brief overview of the plot: While struggling with the effects of a government-developed biological weapon that has left him with less a year to live, grizzled superspy Solid Snake travels the world in a last-ditch attempt to foil the ambitions of his evil – and dead – clone brother, who has re-emerged from the genetic memories locked within his severed arm after it was transplanted onto one of his former henchmen and plans to utilise a stolen supercomputer to hijack the international network of Artificial Intelligences that monitor and control every private military contractor and their equipment on every battlefield around the world. If you think that sounds ridiculous, I don’t think I want to know you.
Even if it’s not the last game in the series, MGS4 is very much the conclusion of the main Metal Gear story. I’d say it’s really not worth playing unless you’ve at least played Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2, and you may as well add Metal Gear Solid 3 to your list anyway since it’s the best in the series. I’m sure the likes of MGS: Portable Ops and Peace Walker are great in their own right, and the old Metal Gear games would help give some context to the relationship between Solid Snake and Big Boss, but for now I’d file them under ‘Further Reading’. If you’re not already up to speed with the series, think very carefully before reading the rest of this review, because I’m going to discuss the four main games with reckless abandon.
Coming out of the Cold War setting of MGS3, adjusting to the battlefield of the near-future felt pretty weird! The nine virtual years since the events of MGS alone seem to have witnessed huge social and technological change. Gene therapy has been supplemented by nanomachines and interpersonal networking, popular media makes light entertainment of the rolling wars being fought by private military companies in the third world, and Snake has started carrying an iPod in his kitbag. It’s a far cry from the way he smuggled cigarettes in his stomach in the original game – a weird blend of warfare and consumerism.
That’s really the main theme of the game – war as a commercial exercise; as an industry. Much is said about the “war economy” during the first half of the game, as the PMCs and their proxy wars fuel not just the military-industrial complex, but much of the western world’s economy. As Snake notes in his opening monologue, war has become routine. Speaking as someone who’s been pretty disgusted with Western society’s real-world military endeavours in the last ten years, who’s followed the stories of companies like Blackwater and mercenaries like Simon Mann, it’s a message that really resonates with me. The fictional TV channels shown at the start of the game (a game show and an interview with voice-of-Snake David Hayter, amongst other things) do a lot to show how the endless conflict has been repackaged by the media, permeating all levels of life. (Now that I think I think about it, we’ve seen that before…)
As you would expect, it carries over into the gameplay. Halfway through the first act you bump into an arms dealer who delivers to the battlefield; from that point on you can buy weapons, ammo and other equipment at any time, from the comfort of your Pause menu. Considering that MGS3 was so realistic that you had to hunt and eat jungle wildlife to stave off hunger, this is intensely weird. I actually hated my first visit to the shop menu, until I realised it was all part of the business of war. Of course I can shop online for ammo! Of course I can accessorise my weapons with different grips and scopes! Of course I can trade unwanted guns for store credit! The arms trade is a market like any other, and Snake is just another consumer.
I think my problem with this, as a player, is that there’s a huge range of guns and ammo and accessories on offer, but only two tranquilising weapons: the Mk.2 pistol and the Mosin-Nagant rifle, neither of which have any available accessories. Speaking as someone who plays these games as a militant pacifist, this doesn’t give me a lot to work with. It’s not that I’m jealous – the Mk.2 is a silenced weapon, which is really the only special feature I ever need – but it means I never really needed to engage with the shopping system. I think I bought a job lot of silencers for my M4 rifle during the Raging Raven fight, only to discover that my life was easier if I ignored her drones altogether. Aside from the Mosin-Nagant, my only really big purchase was to fill my pockets with enough tranquiliser ammo to last the whole game.
Similarly, the value of weapons bought and sold fluctuates depending on the current ‘war price’, which sounds like it’s supposed to change depending on how much havoc you cause on the battlefield – how much demand you create for guns and ammo. But again, since I ghosted through with minimal fuss, I never noticed any of this coming into play. Possibly it’s not really as involving as it sounds, and I didn’t miss out on anything? That’s not the point. I really liked the idea of a changing market for violence, but it seems to go against the grain of encouraging stealth and mercy. On the flipside, one of the side-effects of replacing soldiers with synthetic weapon platforms (the Gekkos and Scarabs that become commonplace in acts four and five) is that you can whip out the lethal weapons you’ve been stockpiling and blow them to pieces without ‘killing’ anyone. With serendipitous timing I read an article about the ethics of using robots in war just last week, but as far as this game is concerned I was quite glad for the chance to test out some new guns.
One other thing that I think was really underexplored in the game was Snake’s use of the nanomachine-suppressing syringe. Provided by Naomi during the second act, the syringe becomes an essential tool during the later stages of the game, but since I never had much call for it in-game (I think it restores your Psyche bar, but I managed to keep Snake quite happy without it). As with the consumerist theme, it’s an idea that seem to work much more effectively if the player is crashing about like a bull in a china shop – if I had more of a reason to use the syringe during the game, I wouldn’t have been so blindsided when I had to start using it to solve certain puzzles.
Generally speaking, it seems like a much easier game than MGS3. The fact you don’t have to scavenge for food or items certainly makes life more comfortable, although the urban warzones are so full of discarded equipment that you could probably cope just fine even without hitting the shop. Your Octocamo (a skin-tight suit that automatically adopts the colours and textures of your surroundings) streamlines the tedious process of going in and out of menus to change your appearance, but also means you never experience the joy of finding a new camouflage – or the pleasurable tension of sneaking into a new area without an appropriate outfit.
There’s a huge quantity of stray bullets and bombs clattering over your head as you crawl around, but once you realise it’s all just atmospheric scripting you stop worrying about it. Because each act lasts only a few hours, there’s no need to eat. Your growling stomach will never give your position away, although instead Snake must content with back pains if he spends too much time hunched over.
In fact, I think Old Snake’s stresses and strains are probably the best new features introduced to the series. The Psyche bar and the stress gauge really bring a new dimension to the action, as you have to monitor Snake’s mood and try to keep his spirits up as he slithers into live fire. There’s something really touching about bunkering down to smoke a cigarette and thumb through an issue of Playboy when times get tough! I can see the logic in presenting a tough-guy action hero like Snake as someone who is perfectly at home with being shot at, but introducing this layer of psychological vulnerability – a reality that soldiers and their commanders must deal with – makes him much more human, much more relatable.
Personally, I felt much more secure here than I did in Tselinoyarsk. I think this is my biggest critcism of the game – it felt too easy. The Beauty & Beast Corps were interesting opponents, but for all their references to boss fights from the previous games they come across as being much less dangerous. Laughing Octopus’s attacks can be nullified by hiding under a bed, Raging Raven and Crying Wolf can’t even see you if you camouflage yourself correctly, and Screaming Mantis represents more of a puzzle than a fight.
The other big thing going on in this game is that all of the ongoing storylines from the series come to an end. Well… most of them, anyway. Really I’d say that this whole game is more about giving fans of the series a satisfying conclusion than anything else, hence my earlier warning that it’s not worth playing without playing the earlier games. Meryl and Johnny get married (I loved the proposal scene), Raiden reclaims control of his life, Snake and Liquid finish their fight, and even Big Boss shows up to offer some paternal wisdom. I’m still a little confused by the way Ocelot seemed to have sacrificed his identity to create his Liquid persona (as Big Boss explains, that ‘hiding within the genetic memory of his arm’ story is too crazy to be true), but it mirrors the way The Boss – his mother – sacrificed herself by defecting to the Soviets as a double agent during the Cold War.
And then there’s the return to Shadow Moses! The whole of act four is spent revisiting the nuclear weapons base where the original MGS was set. I mentioned earlier than I’m halfway through playing the game right now, so its script and structure are very fresh in my mind right now. Without prompting, I did find myself going out of my way to retrace my old footsteps – such as crawling into the tank hangar through the first floor air duct instead of through the now-open front door – and I was rewarded with more cutscenes and flashbacks from Snake’s fading memories.
The base is derelict and falling apart. The old technologies you were once comfortable with – the lifts, PAN keys, and even the nuclear weapons and genome soldiers you were sent in to defeat – have either broken down or been removed, replaced with unnatural, AI-controlled cyborg horrors. A detachment of Scarabs are deployed into the crumbling base to bring it back up to spec for the modern world, much like the way Snake must be injected with Drebin’s nanomachines in order to use PMC equipment. Two old foes patched up for one last battle, but inescapably obsolete.
I loved the plot of Snake growing old and losing his touch. It reminded me of Unforgiven, in which Clint Eastwood plays a former outlaw who comes out of his quiet retirement to seek the bounty on two violent criminals. There’s one really memorable scene in which Clint and his pals confront one of their targets in a shootout. He shoots the guy repeatedly, but his aim has become so poor over the years that he can’t make a clean kill, so instead he inflicts a really slow and painful death… but old age hasn’t just weakened his sight, but also softened his heart. Once his victim is mortally wounded, Clint calls an end to the fight and instructs the other bandits to take him a drink of water and ease the pain of his final moments. If this show of mercy is lost in the analogy, it’s only because Metal Gear Solid players have been rewarded for minimising their kill count for years now.
To take a step back and look at Metal Gear Solid 4 in its own right, I’m not sure I’d rate it very highly. There’s a lot of excellent rule systems at play, but I think most of the game’s plot would go right over players’ heads if they weren’t Metal Gear veterans. The thing is, if you are a fan of the series – and I am – the second half the game spends hours revisiting all of your favourite memories and giving closure to the interwoven stories of this sprawling series. It is wonderful and I haven’t felt so simultaneously happy and sad since… well, since finishing Metal Gear Solid 3 last year, if we rule out normal human experiences shared with other people.
All that remains to be said is that this doesn’t mean I’m ruling out future games such as Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. In fact I’ve become even more excited about it – never mind the electrifying relaunch trailer, I’m more interested in seeing Raiden balance his work against his new family. I’m buzzing with anticipation for the return of the kind of relationship small-talk that drove players insane during Metal Gear Solid 2; hopefully Platinum Games won’t let me down.
Lastly, if anyone tries to tell you that Metal Gear Rising looks silly and over-to-top compared to the ‘serious’ Metal Gear Solid games, please show them this cut-scene from the end of act two, in which Raiden performs exactly the same level of cyborg ninja nonsense: