IGN Review of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Twenty-one years ago, the gaming world was introduced to a hero: a soldier that fought alone against impossible odds to save the world. Over time, the hero grew into a legend that changed the gaming landscape and redefined stealth action games with his epic battles. After more than two decades of service, Solid Snake is finally receiving an honorable discharge in the latest chapter in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. While this is Snake's final mission, he isn't going quietly into that good night, nor is he being constrained by previous titles. Indeed, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots shatters the proverbial bar, becoming a technical, cinematic and gaming standard that future action and stealth titles will be judged by. It's been a long time coming, but this game is a true classic and a masterpiece from Hideo Kojima, Kojima Productions and Konami.
The world of Metal Gear Solid 4 is quite a bleak one. In fact, in many ways, it's precisely the one that Solid Snake and Otacon have been hoping to avoid. Set six years in the future, war and conflict are no longer a sporadic occurrence with hot spots around the globe; instead, the entire planet is engulfed in constant battle. War has become its own self-sustaining industry, replacing the overall global economy with the contracts of private military corporations, or PMCs, that sell their services to the highest bidder. These mercenaries constantly try to prove their effectiveness on the battlefield to gain even more contracts, which causes more and more destruction as nanomachine-enhanced soldiers clash in cities, in buildings and on the streets. With such a chaotic environment, not even civilians are safe from the constant fighting, as skirmishes can break out at any point.
This is the setting that Solid Snake has been called out of retirement for: one final mission issued by Col. Campbell to save the world from one last threat. Snake is initially inserted into the war zone of the Middle East undercover as a UN PMC inspector to gauge how the situation on the ground is being handled by troops there. Of course, he has a more direct task that takes advantage of his specialized skills: he must find and assassinate Liquid Ocelot, who has become the head of five of the largest PMCs in the world. That's definitely easier said than done, as Ocelot has surrounded himself with a group of deadly comrades -- including a quartet of deadly females known as the Beauty and the Beast Corps who appear to be half woman, half machine -- to eliminate Solid Snake.
Or perhaps we should say Old Snake? You see, the legendary soldier is suffering from accelerated aging due to cellular degeneration. This is much more harmful than his multiple pack-a-day smoking addiction, making him physically older than his years and hampering his movements every so often. To accomplish his toughest mission yet, Solid Snake will need to pull a couple of new tricks from his camouflaged sleeves. Fortunately, there are plenty of them to go around in Metal Gear Solid 4, which is easily the deepest and most expansive title in the series.
Fans familiar with previous Metal Gear Solid games are aware that each title has introduced new gameplay mechanics for Snake to take advantage of. The incredible part about Metal Gear Solid 4 is there are tons of additional features added to this title, and even when you run into a system or mechanic that you wouldn't think would fit in the Metal Gear Universe, Kojima and his team have figured out a way to make it blend seamlessly with the gameplay, which easily allays any fears or concerns you have. Not only are they well balanced and quite layered, each one adds to the scope of MGS4, which can be considered epic. From the first action sequence in the Middle East where you and a squad of militiamen fight against PMCs, to escorting Meryl and her Rat Patrol squad through a fierce gunfight with The Frogs (Liquid's private army), to the climactic battle at the end of the title, you'll be amazed at the sheer depth included within the game.
Take for example the new twist to Snake's classic on-site procurement orders, which plays a major role within the title. In previous games, Snake would be deployed with a minimal amount of equipment, and would have to find his weapons scattered around installations he was infiltrating. This would allow him to stealthily enter and exit a location, using the enemy's weapons against them without leaving a trace. That concept doesn't apply in this new world, as each soldier's nanomachines restrict weapons to their ID-coded owners, preventing anyone else from using them against their owner. Thanks to these new technological restrictions, Snake will have to rely on the services of a gun launderer named Drebin. A mysterious character that seems to be everywhere at all times, Drebin (and his comical hairless monkey known as Little Gray) will remove all firearm safeguards as well as sell new weapons, accessories and ammunition. While the price of his services will vary based on the demand of specific weapons as well as the day of the week (even offering 20 percent off sales), Drebin will always be available to supply Snake with what he needs.
This expands Snake's arsenal and his methods significantly. Not only can he instantly purchase new arms or unlock collected weapons that can be immediately used in battle, he can also customize some of his firearms, adding everything from laser scopes and fore grips to noise suppressors and grenade launchers, which will affect the statistics and tactics used for the weapons. For example, if you add a fore grip to an assault rifle, you increase its stability and improve your chances for accurate shots. Adding a flashlight, by contrast, allows you to blind soldiers, giving you a chance to perform CQC moves or hold them up for items. What's more, if Snake runs out of ammunition for a particular weapon in the middle of battle, he can immediately purchase additional rounds that can sustain a fight.
All of these purchases, of course, are based on whether Snake has enough Drebin Points to purchase the item or weapon that he wants. Snake acquires these points in a variety of ways. First of all, he can provide the gun dealer with any extra weapons he doesn't need so that Drebin can maintain his business around the world. This means that any dropped weapons from incapacitated or killed enemies are fair game to loot for points. You'll also receive different Drebin Point bonuses for flashbacks that will pop up here and there during cutscenes, certain story moments, and for eliminating specific enemies. Players can even receive certain bonuses based on how they play through the title. The system is incredibly expansive, and players will be surprised at how it affects their experience.
Granted, some critics will say that such widespread influence of the Drebin system and its points makes the game too easy and eschews the traditional stealth roots of the title in favor of an action focus. This is an extremely shallow way to view what this new mechanic provides, which allows players to pick and choose exactly how they would like to play the title. Purists to the covert aspects of the franchise can sneak and crawl through the game with a focus on stealth, restricting their purchases of ammunition or completely avoiding the Drebin system entirely. These players will find plenty of new features to support them in their clandestine moves.
For one thing, the Octocamo system and threat ring gives players a new way to infiltrate areas because of the ease with which Snake can blend into the environment and detect enemies. An obvious evolution of the camouflage system from MGS3, Snake's body suit instantly takes on the appearance of whatever surface he's up against or lying on, helping him blend into his surroundings. Any pattern can instantly be saved and recalled at any point, effectively turning Snake into the ultimate chameleon. This is coupled with the threat ring, which alerts players to the directional position that opponents happen to be in. The more alert the soldier, the higher (and redder) the spike gets on the threat ring.
Using these two effectively is extremely important because Snake will go up against the most intelligent grunts that he's ever encountered. The enemy AI is extremely smart and won't follow set patterns of patrolling or searching. In fact, during non-alert phases, they'll interact with fellow soldiers, talking and passing whatever time they can while they wait for action. However, when the caution or alert phase has been raised, they actively search for trouble, which will include taking out any possible hiding places, such as cardboard boxes or drum cans. They'll also immediately call for back up and perform intelligent flanking maneuvers to take out their targets. As a result, you may need to use everything from playing dead to rolling on the ground to evade visual contact to new CQC attacks, such as lying atop an enemy and choking them silently to incapacitate opponents. However, even the most covert players will need to unleash some bullets here and there, relying on firepower to make it through specific fights.
Now, players that lean more towards action can go full out with their firepower and blast their way through enemy soldiers much easier than before. Obviously, the ability to acquire and customize new weapons from Drebin helps with this. However, depending on the location that you happen to be in, you can also take advantage of mortars or fixed machine guns. This allows you to shell positions or spray an enemy location with a large number of rounds, eliminating anyone within the weapon's killzone. Players also have new tactical ways of eliminating soldiers, such as performing rolls to avoid incoming fire and even shooting from your back if you're knocked off your feet.
However, even rampant run-and-gun tactics has been balanced thanks to the inclusion of the Psyche and Stress meters that govern and influence Snake's mental state in the middle of battle. The Psyche meter is directly below Snake's health gauge and affects his physical abilities and his accuracy with weapons. The lower the Psyche meter, the harder it is for Snake to remain effective in combat. In fact, he'll start to feel the effects of his age, grasping for his back or having other pains hamper him for a few seconds. While this will slowly replenish over time, the meter can be further impacted by his Stress meter, which gauges the tension that Snake is feeling at any point in time. Snake doesn't like certain conditions because they are less conducive to his mission, such as being out in the open instead of the shadows, being in areas that are too hot or too cold, or being spotted by enemies. The higher his stress, the sharper the decline will be in Snake's Psyche.
The only twist is that every now and then, particularly when you are in the midst of battle during an alert phase and your levels have spiked, you can enter a combat high. During this stage, your Psyche will be stabilized, and Snake will take less damage, but there is a serious caveat – once the high is over, his Stress and Psyche gauges will bottom out to represent the drop in adrenaline he undergoes. This leaves Snake extremely vulnerable to attacks, so players will need to balance this state carefully. This tightrope balance between Stress and Psyche encourages balance between stealth and action and helps MGS4 appeal to stealth and action fans, as well as a wider audience of players, engaging many of them with its varied gameplay.
Regardless of the method that you use to explore the game's environments, there are two gadgets that will help Snake immensely. The first one is the Solid Eye System, which frees him from the constant swapping back and forth between goggles and binoculars in the field. Not only does the Solid Eye System include night vision, thermal and binoculars, it identifies all personnel on the battlefield by their group affiliation, weapon carried and any items that they've dropped on the battlefield. This provides a large amount of tactical information that can be exploited by stealth or brute force.
The other gadget is the Mark II, the small robot that Otacon provides to Snake. The Mark II is an extremely versatile item because it can be used as an advance scout for Snake. Thanks to its small size and its ability to turn invisible, players can use the Mark II to get a sense of where enemies and other hazards may lie, which gives them an advantage in battle. It can also be used to incapacitate soldiers, as it can deploy a powerful shock similar to Snake's Stun Knife, which is another great way to quietly bypass guards. What's more, the Mark II can be used to collect weapons and items, and because the Mark II is a communication conduit that Snake can use to contact Drebin, any weapons it collects are instantly converted to Drebin points as well. This is a safe way to pick up guns in the midst of a firefight without exposing Snake to any undue fire, provided that he deploys the robot from a protected location.
Even more than the style of play and the various gadgets that can impact the overall experience during battle, the Drebin system touches a primal collection urge within players, where they get a sense that running out and gathering every single pistol, rifle and grenade is innately tied to their survival in the midst of battle. However, it also establishes Snake as another cog in the war economy, one who will exploit the system from the inside in order to protect the rest of the world from its ravages by any means necessary. In some ways, this extends to Snake's ability to gain allies on the battlefield. It may sound like a strange concept, but the fact that the world is engaged in factionalized warfare means that Snake can sometimes exploit this division to his advantage. As you move throughout the various environments in the game, you'll come across different militia troops that are fighting the PMCs for control of their locations. Players essentially are presented with two options in this situation: on one hand, players can retain a lone wolf focus, proceeding on their own, fighting PMC and militia alike. This is perhaps the most traditional way of fighting through a Metal Gear Solid title, and will add an extra challenge as just about every single person in the environment will be hostile to Snake.
On the other hand, they can attempt to gain the trust of these local troops by fighting alongside them, attempting to gain their trust by attacking the PMCs. By building a reputation as a freedom fighter that believes in their cause, the militiamen will aid you in your mission, providing additional fire support during skirmishes and even eliminating PMC soldiers for you. What's more, the PMCs will help Snake out by giving him different items, such as ammunition or health items in battle. However, you'll have to be careful with your aim in the middle of a fight. If you accidentally wind up endangering the militia troops, you can ruin your standing with them, turning them into enemies. That forces you to try to regain their trust after a while, or attempt to bypass their attacks with careful disguises that make you appear to be one of their organization.
All of the above elements contribute to the compelling plot of Metal Gear Solid 4, which is nothing short of incredible for two primary reasons. First of all, as the final chapter in the Solid series, it wraps up every single loose end that has been included within the franchise. Players that have been looking for answers to questions that may have been raised within previous games will find them within MGS4, which is an incredible feat. Many of the mission briefings not only explain where you're going in your next mission, but also cover large sections of topical information to the series. The Patriots, Foxdie, Metal Gear -- somehow, the Kojima Productions team managed to condense all of the franchise's obscure concepts into easily digestible plotlines that players can follow and understand. That's not to say that it will be perfectly clear for beginners, but it does its best to explain as much as possible. In a way, some of the cutscenes play out like CliffsNotes for the Metal Gear Solid universe, providing additional details for those players that have been actively following the franchise while summarizing and explaining what's going on for newcomers. In some ways, this provides more than enough impetus for franchise beginners to fully acquire and explore the previous games in the series, such as the Metal Gear Solid: Essential Collection.
Secondly, while Metal Gear Solid games have always been resonant with issues of the day, MGS4 is particularly layered with allegories and topics both to previous games in the series and the real world that reveal a subtle amount of depth. Kojima weaves a tale that explores complex elements such as the horrors of war and its effects on civilians, technology gone horribly awry, mental manipulation and control (whether by technology or an organization) and personal sacrifice into a tour de force experience. In many ways, the number of topics addressed within the title and how they are handled within the title and franchise are large enough to be worthy of a dissertation on its own. There is a caveat to the exploration of these topics, which is that the cutscenes or dialogue sequences that occur around the exposition of these plot pieces can be somewhat lengthy. In fact, the longest cutscene within the game clocks in around 45 minutes, which can be rather daunting by the numbers. However, the scenes themselves are engaging enough that most players won't pay attention to the clock, although you can pause the cutscenes if you need a break or life interrupts, which is an excellent addition for this title.
All of these features contribute to an excellent gameplay experience, but additionally striking are its visuals, which make MGS4 one of the best looking titles to date in gaming history. It's apparent that Guns of the Patriots squeezes every pixel possible out of the PS3 and renders them beautifully. As a result, players are witnesses to one of the finest games ever created on any console or PC. Character models are large and impressively rendered in real time, and transitions between cutscenes and gameplay are seamless and natural. What's more, certain action sequences are just as sharp and framed as well as many Hollywood action movies, and there are some moments in particular which surpass film in the way the story is told. Much of this has to do with camera angles that showcase the game action exquisitely – it's rather obvious that from Subsistence on, Kojima Productions has focused on creating a camera system that works exactly the way you want it to, allowing players to experience the entire game from first person if they so choose, or swapping between shoulders with a click of the right analog stick.
Environments pop with sharp details as well, and there are subtle little touches, like dirt that will settle on the camera lens or water droplets that will lightly cascade down the screen. Further helping the game showcase its heightened visuals is the fact that the title performs a large basic install for eight minutes, with individual act installs at the end of every chapter. These secondary installs take only a few minutes, but are quite important. Once one stage installs over another, the replaced textures, levels and environments cut down on load times and transitions. That's not to say that the visuals don't come without some issues. While a few textures are flat here and there (with some low res issues now and then) and light framerate drops during gigantic explosions, these issues are generally overwhelmed by the level of detail shown within the game and the cinematic scope of the title, which highlights what a masterpiece this game is.
This is also supported with an excellent soundtrack, such as "Love Theme" which is one of the best songs of the MGS4 series. Haunting and melodic with a tone that evokes loss and remembrance, this song feels rather appropriate for the sentiment of this title. The soundtrack also covers the entire breadth and depth of the MG universe thanks to the included iPod functionality, which plays various songs that you unlock once you've discovered the classic songs throughout the game. Further strengthening the title is the fact that Snake and every other character also sound phenomenal within the game, showcasing a masterful delivery with their dialogue.
I haven't gone over all of the features within the title, such as the photo gallery which stores and displays pictures taken by Snake with his camera, or the virtual range which lets you practice with the various firearms that you have within the title. Nor have I mentioned the exquisite evolution of the control scheme, which is the best one yet. But the one other significant feature of MGS4 is the inclusion of Metal Gear Online, which provides a multiplayer feature to a package that is already solid (no pun intended) with its single-player campaign. Technically, Kojima Productions didn't even need to include this section within the game, particularly because it's a starter pack and will be expanded into a full online product by itself. But what's included on the disc is a good sneak peek of what to expect from the multiplayer realm of Metal Gear.
Similar to that of the beta test, Metal Gear Online features five multiplayer maps for up to 16 players to blast their way across. The starter pack now includes two additional stages not seen in the beta, Urban Ultimatum and Ambush Alley. Urban Ultimatum is a large stage that's more impressive due to its verticality than its various nooks and crannies that you can explore – many players can climb the ladders attached to the buildings and take up positions as snipers on rooftops. Ambush Alley, by contrast, is all about stealth and surprise, as the bombed out rubble and smashed buildings provides quite a bit of cover for players to engage and eliminate unsuspecting enemies.
While you will have to register for a Konami ID and register one character for your online play (sorry Beta players, all of the old accounts have been reset and your progress has been lost), the process is infinitely easier and runs much smoother than it did in April. A few minor adjustments have been made to MGO, such as a change of skill names to more descriptive terms. For example, the Throwing Skill that governed how well you could throw grenades has changed to Quarterback, while the Fast Movement Skill has changed to Runner. It doesn't affect the skill itself; it's only to help you decide at a glance which trait you want to assign to Snake. Another change is with the Clan creation. Whereas you could be level 2 in the beta with a light number of hours invested, in the full game you need to be at least level 3 with 20 hours of play before you can create your own clan.
One final change that we noted was with the online music selection; players can pick and choose from two original tracks or from songs pulled from all 21 years of the MGS franchise. It's pretty sweet to blast someone in Groznyj Grad to the Tara track from Metal Gear. During Sneaking missions, only Snake can decide the music selection, but that seems appropriate considering that he is the target of both teams. We did have reservations with the first two downloadable selections, however. One of them is simply a codec pack that allows players to audibly make comments during games, while the other sells additional characters for your Konami ID. The codec pack isn't crucial or useful, and the price for extra soldiers seems a little high right now. But considering that you don't need to buy either one of them to experience the action that is raging across servers right now, that's a minor problem that can be addressed by Konami at any time.
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