Thursday, January 31, 2013

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots - This is Good, Isn't it?

Since the faraway days of 1987, the Metal Gear franchise, created by Hideo Kojima, has been able to stand the test of time as it continues to become more and more relevant to the modern gamer. The first real exposure a lot of people had came in 1998, with Metal Gear Solid, a PlayStation title that has since been regarded as a true classic of video gaming and, thanks to its text recaps of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, a true testament for the ability to tell a really gripping story with memorable scenes and characters that reverberate to the present day. The saga would not end there of course, with the arrival of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in 2001. It introduced a new character of questionable quality as well as a host of new questions for the series that mostly revolve around either the Patriots or just what the hell was going on in that ending, while also taking the series to new heights by creating the first postmodern game. To help ease the confusion, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was given life in 2003 and took place before every other game in the series, making it chronologically the first game in the series. The story for this entry took place in the final years of the Cold War and centered around Naked Snake and his eventual rise to the rank of Big Boss. It also attempted to answer some lingering questions, bringing some incomplete closure and sense to revelations from Sons of Liberty. Each entry in the Metal Gear Solid portion of the story line has managed to keep up with the standard set by the original game, occasionally even surpassing it in terms of both gameplay and story.

This brings us to the year 2008, the release of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Hideo Kojima was once again roped into doing another Metal Gear game, despite his subtle, sometimes more blatant, hints in previous games that would indicate exactly how he felt about the idea (hint: he really doesn't want to). While another director was to handle the game, very vocally negative fan reaction, to the point of death threats, would get Konami to force Kojima into the role of co-director and influence how it would play out. The end result is a game that manages to not only bring a sense of finality to the events of the series, but also stand on its own as a masterpiece of storytelling and an example of how video games can be a form of art.

It is the year 2014, nine years after the Shadow Moses incident and five since the Big Shell incident. The world has since plunged into an economy fueled purely by war, its war zones controlled by private military groups (PMCs) fighting proxy wars for the highest bidder. Soldiers are connected to the Sons of the Patriots (SOP) network, which can grant them superior skills and abilities through the use of nanomachines, making the PMCs the pinnacle of military training and efficiency. To top it off, Liquid Ocelot, Revolver Ocelot possessed by the spirit of Liquid Snake, wishes to hijack the system for his own purposes and take over the world through military might. For this reason, Solid Snake, who is now rapidly aging and living with Otacon and Sunny Gurlukovich, is brought out of retirement by Roy Campbell to terminate Liquid once and for all. With assistance from Otacon and Sunny, Snake is dropped into the Middle East to begin his mission, where he eventually runs into a group known as the Beauty and the Beast (B&B) Unit. Witnessing their abilities firsthand, Snake quickly figures out that the mission won't be as easy as they had first assumed.

Solid Snake (aka "Old Snake") as he appears in Guns of the Patriots

If there's one thing I absolutely love about Guns of the Patriots, it would be its ability to tell a story. I know I already brought it up a couple of times in the introduction, but it bears repeating. While Snake Eater was able to answer at least a couple of questions about the series, mainly regarding the Patriots, Guns of the Patriots goes out of its way to be ambitious and answer every single lingering question that the player may have about the series overall. This includes the identity of the Patriots, why the ending of Sons of Liberty happened and what the Patriots' goals were among others that you may or may not have thought about until you heard an explanation about it. It may be mildly apparent that Hideo Kojima really wants the series to end as events unfold and the story is noticeably darker and more depressing in tonality this time around, but that doesn't prevent it from having some of the funniest and most awesome moments in the entire series, perhaps arguably  in all of gaming. There are also plenty of tear jerking moments, which are pulled off with such poignancy and grace that you not only care for the characters involved, but are genuinely sad to see any of them go.

That said, it should be noted that due to how much is put into a single story, as well as explaining away the ending of Sons of Liberty, this game has around nine hours of cut scenes. Even for a Metal Gear game, this seems like a gratuitous amount of cut scenes. Sometimes I would actually get tired from seeing particularly long strings of them, especially in the second or third act (of five), so I would actually press the PS button to pause it (thank god you can do that) and then grab a Diet Coke to keep me awake or take a quick nap and then press the PS button again to resume. It is because of the sheer length of these scenes that the game has earned the nickname "Movie Gear Solid," but after a while I actually didn't care how long they got thanks to how brilliantly executed they can be pulled off and for the fact that as it gets closer to the end game, the cut scenes actually get more and more interesting. The political commentary is still very much present, but they also go out of their way to have certain characters discuss the state of the world as well as the main theme of Sense, which is the unique sense a person has about the world around them and how it's lost when they die, such as their primary goals becoming distorted or misinterpreted over time. I enjoyed these discussions, as they fleshed out the Metal Gear universe in a more in-depth fashion and actually made them intriguing to listen to.

The Beauty and the Beast Unit (from left to right): Laughing Octopus,
Screaming Mantis, Raging Raven, Crying Wolf

Another thing that Guns of The Patriots manages to do really well is make every single (named) character memorable. This is quite a feat, considering that it manages to bring back every single character that it possibly can from each of the previous games and have them all interact in some significant way with the core cast while at the same time introducing new, equally memorable characters like Sunny Gurlucovich and Drebin. The biggest praise I can give the new batch however would go to the villains, namely the previously mentioned B&B Unit (seen above), a group of four women who have all suffered from serious trauma in their lives and eventually decided they were more useful on the battlefield, adopting metallic beast shells to become machines of war.

While I have discussed boss battles in the Metal Gear series before, I'm going to try to take a more condensed approach this time compared to my separated discussions of the Cobra Unit from Snake Eater. The reason I'd like to talk about these bosses in the first place however is because they all manage to have something about them that makes them stand out from most other game bosses.

To begin, what's remarkable about this group is that they all require a unique strategy to take down and the fights are designed in a way that actually introduces a sense of tension to the fight. They will definitely get your blood running and the gears in your mind to spin quickly as you try to figure out the next best thing to do. The first of these fights, against Laughing Octopus, is genuinely creepy, with a certain atmosphere that can actually make you jump a little as you try to locate exactly where she is within an enclosed space, all the while listening to her laughter create a haunting chill in the air. The next, Raging Raven, is more in the open, but it requires a lot of shooting and hiding as she flies around a building, protected by unmanned drones. Crying Wolf is different, in that she fills the role of the team's sniper, but with the twist that she is constantly roaming around the battlefield, making one careful of their surroundings (unless you hide under a nearby truck and turn it into a waiting game). Then there's Screaming Mantis, who has one of the most unique boss fights ever thanks to it being similar to the legendary Psycho Mantis fight. That's all I'm going to say about this, since discussing it further would take away all of the fun of this particular encounter.

Then there's the big bad, Liquid Ocelot. He is by far one of the greatest villains in all of gaming, pulling off a grand and complex scheme smoothly and constantly holding the upper hand over his enemies in a way that is well-written with a rather unexpected payoff. Both of the fights the player has against him are incredibly satisfying, the first being forged of a blend of awesome and badass and the second also containing a hint of nostalgia. With someone as unique as Ocelot, his character arc is wrapped up in a way that feels like they did the character justice.

Liquid Ocelot
At this point, I think it would be a good idea to discuss the new gameplay mechanics. The first noticeable difference is a brand new camera system, one that is closer to Snake and fully controllable by the player. While I was able to get by pretty well in Snake Eater with the older camera system, I'll admit that the new system would have made it more convenient, so I'm glad that they were able to implement it here. It's very useful for seeing around the environment, which is given much more emphasis across the incredibly detailed levels. As a result, aiming now feels a bit more fluid and precise with more guarantee of a hit. This is helped by the new shooting controls, which make firing a gun more convenient, especially in First-Person view.

The Camouflage system has also been greatly improved thanks to the new OctoCamo suit that Snake wears, which blends in with his surroundings automatically to reduce the time it takes to switch between different camo patterns. There are also a few more tweaks that make the Camo Index more interesting, including environmental factors and the addition of FaceCamo to blend in even better than mere face paint. Other additions like a "threat ring" that appears around Snake when crouching, as well as the ability to move while crouching, make it all the more satisfying to sneak past groups of enemies undetected.

OctoCamo in action

The item and weapons systems are also handled a little differently. You can only hold a certain number of each at a time, which, while annoying at first, begins to make a lot more sense when considering the sheer number of types of each of them, as well as how weight can affect Snake's running speed and how quickly he gets tired. Usually, I was able to set a certain loadout of weapons and go through the game just fine, with an occasional need to swap around. While ammo can be found in the environment, it is possible to buy more at will from the character Drebin using Drebin Points gained from finding duplicate weapons or accomplishing certain tasks. While this does make finding ammo less of an issue, I don't think this cheapens the game at all, since stealth is still a large necessity and getting caught could easily be a death sentence no matter what difficulty you're playing on. The number of guns one can use is interesting, depending on whether or not they are attempting a pacifist run like I did, but I can almost guarantee that you won't be using all of them; it's just a matter of preference. You can also couple your actions with some CQC, though I didn't end up using it that often if only due to how much I generally suck at it.

While there are many different items as well, one of the most useful is the Solid Eye that Snake is given to wear, which can read the environment for noise and enemies as well as scan them to reveal all kinds of information that may or may not be useful to you. If that wasn't enough, it also has two extra modes where it acts as Night Vision or Thermal goggles, which makes it most handy indeed. Its only disadvantage would be that it runs on batteries, which would require deactivating it for a while to recharge it. The other useful item is the, somehow very adorable, Metal Gear Mk. II, which can store some of your items (somehow) and provide access to the Codec screen. On that note, I think the Codec in Guns of the Patriots is my favorite of the series, since conversations are conducted using full video rather than static images, creating a more engaging atmosphere.

Metal Gear Mk. II
One other change to gameplay is replacing the Stamina gauge with a Psyche gauge. The Psyche gauge will decrease under stress, which is displayed underneath, and from certain attacks. The gauge also determines how quickly Snake gains his health back, but this time both gauges will automatically restore themselves as Snake's stress level goes down, which is accomplished by going away from combat into an area where he feels safe (thank you cardboard box). These are changes that I appreciated, as it made regaining health outside of Rations and Noodles less tedious to perform.

A major change to the game would definitely be the graphics. Thanks to the technology of the PS3, and the fact that Guns of the Patriots is the first game to use a 50 GB Dual Layer Blu-ray, everything looks much more improved with an incredible amount of detail. This is used to the game's advantage to help each of the unique environments stand out even more and create an experience that is much more immersive. Characters also look much more realistic, which fits the setting quite nicely, and the lighting actually contributes to such elements as how the OctoCamo operates and a true difference between day and night.

The voice acting is another aspect that I would highly praise. Everyone delivers an excellent performance, particularly David Hayter as Solid Snake and Patrick Zimmerman as Liquid Ocelot. These two in particular display incredible talent, though I don't mean to detract from the other voice actors; they help make this game one of the best casted in the entire medium. One surprise however was Fred Tatasciore, who voices the Beast forms of the B&B Unit marvelously. Also praise-worthy is the music, which is scored not unlike a really good movie and not only matches the events perfectly, but also puts a unique spin on some pieces from the previous installments. Overall it is one of the highest quality scores ever and I'd like to try and get it on CD if possible.

Before I end this review, I'd like to touch upon one final thing: continuity lockout. Simply put, whatever you do, try not to make this your first Metal Gear game, for it would be a grave error on part of the player. If you try to jump in here, you will not understand what's going on at all, for it makes so many references to previous games that only a fan that's been following the series would really get them. If this isn't going to stop you from trying to jump in, because you don't have a PS1 or PS2 in your possession, I'd like to present a couple of options (all of them will require owning a Sony handheld to play Portable Ops, though it isn't required to understand the events of Guns of the Patriots). 1) Own a PS1 and PS2 and play original copies of Metal Gear Solid 1-3 on their respective systems. 2) Play the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection for Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater and download Metal Gear Solid off PSN. 3) Skip trying to play the aforementioned games and, if you care not for spoilers, download the free Metal Gear Solid 4 Database, which contains all the information you could possibly need about the series (though it may not be totally perfect). Try and read it as in-depth as you possibly can, then play Guns of the Patriots. It's much better to have prior knowledge going in (you really can't just say "Solid Snake," "Giant robots" and "Cardboard box" and call it a day).

I'm serious. Read it.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is, in my opinion, one of the best video games ever created. It manages to wrap up every loose end of the series, have compelling characters and scenes and even make you think about human nature. While the gameplay may not be perfect, I feel it to be the best in the series, maybe in its entire genre. Some may be turned off by the nine hours of cut scenes, but they feel very necessary for the story to work (besides, it's not like the series is a stranger to long chains of cut scenes). Fans of the series will definitely love Guns of the Patriots and the way the game is now is the perfect opportunity for those fans to begin playing if they haven't already. Newcomers may try to make this their first game, but I would strongly encourage them to follow one of my suggestions from the previous paragraph before trying to dive right in. On its own the game is a masterpiece and, so far, time has been very kind to it. It feels like a really good finale to a great series.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try and get my hands on Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance.

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