Metal Gear Solid 4
Based on: Hideo Kojima's all-consuming desire to get Metal Gear fans to leave him the hell alone.
Article by Anthony Rogers | October 6, 2008
WARNING: This article features huge plot spoilers for Metal Gear Solid 4. Seriously, everything from plot twists to the last lines of the script are totally given away here. Why would you even want to read this if you haven't finished the game? Run away!
Hideo Kojima puts out his best work when heís not thinking of his fans. Those works -- Metal Gear Solid, Policenauts, Snatcher -- were all things he personally wanted to create. They're creative works demonstrating exuberant shoutouts to their maker's favorite works from other media. Iím a huge fan of his work, but playing through Metal Gear Solid 4 has made me confident in saying that I never want him to try to please me again.
Donít get me wrong; I enjoyed a good chunk of MGS4. Many parts of it were brilliant, even. But having given it a lot of thought since completing it, I find myself feeling...well, a little disappointed, overall. It doesnít make sense on the surface. Kojima worked hard to try and please his most diehard fans this time around. Metal Gear Solid 4 has every element that should have, in theory, made it the best entry in the series. So what was wrong with it? Itís hard to pinpoint, exactly. Some offenders are bigger than others, but ultimately itís a "greater than the sum of its parts" kind of problem.
So letís start with the basics: the graphics. Since Metal Gear Solid 2, thereís been a precedent for the MGS series to lead the industry in terms of graphical prowess. It wasnít uncommon to have uninformed watch a trailer and cry out: "That must be CG!" MGS4 doesn't disappoint in this respect. It's beautiful, no question about it. This is what fans (and PS3 supporters) wanted: for their beloved game to feature graphics that put all others to shame.
Unlike Kojimaís previous undertakings, however, the visual prowess came at a price; namely, the huge, mandatory installs at the beginning of each chapter, and significant load times between each area of the game. The installs honestly probably had more to do with the PS3 architecture than the game itself, but the in-game loading was something even the original MGS managed to avoid, or at least hide. Considering that every cutscene throughout the entire series has used in-game models to avoid taking the player out of the experience, itís a shame something so jarring as a load screen had to pop up and kill the pace -- and so often, at that. Not a game-breaker, certainly, but given the seriesí heritage, definitely irritating.
A great ("great") example of this is found late in the game, when you revisit the snowfield from the first MGS. Entering the adjacent bunker was the point in the original game where players had to switch discs. Upon reaching the same spot in MGS4, Otacon calls you and jokes about how incredible Blu-ray is, not needing to swap discs, etc. This might have brought a smile to the playerís face...if only those installs didnít exist, and especially if immediately after the little in-joke sequence a loading screen hadn't up for the next area in the game. It should be pointed out that no loading screen appeared after you swapped discs in MGS, and the entire process took less time than the load sequence here. Points for cheekiness, Kojima, but all things considered this joke fell depressingly flat -- if itís funny, it's for entirely unintentional reasons.
But don't worry, the gameplay falls just as flat. The Metal Gear series has always been about tactical espionage action -- stealth gameplay -- at its core, and MGS4 improves on its predecessors' core mechanics in two ways. Specifically, the game benefits from the addition of the Octocamo system -- Snakeís suit now camouflages itself to mimic the environment rather than forcing players to fuss around in a menu -- and a completely overhauled control scheme. The new controls are superb; anything that worked well in the older games was retained, while everything that felt clumsy the series moved into the third dimension was revamped or discarded. Itís hard to complain about the controls themselves, really.
Still, the new interface make it all the more galling that as the game progresses you're given fewer and fewer opportunities to use it. Internet rumors gave way to truth: the obscene length of many of MGS4's cutscenes can be problematic. Only one or two are genuinely excessive in lengthy, but the smaller scenes pop up much more often than anything resembling gameplay in the second half of the game. The game fails to play to its strengths, in other words. The combination of interface, environment and versatility really does make for the best game of hide and seek ever. (Unless you decide to shoot everyone. Whatever floats your boat -- that's part of the versatility, too.) With such refined mechanics and controls, itís really a shame that Kojima wrestles that control away from you so frequently; not coincidentally, this is also where Kojima's determination to please everyone all the time begins to become a problem. Think about just how many fans this series has gained over the years; now, imagine trying to satisfy all of them. Kojima apparently figured that what everyone really loves is tons of cutscenes. Itís an easy mistake to make; after all, the other MGS games had some lengthy story sequences, and fans seemed to eat them up. So why not give them even more, and make certain you cram in something for everybody in the process?
Truth be told, though, most Metal Gear fans were mostly just bracing themselves for the inevitable cutscenes long ago, though perhaps unconsciously. Kojima promised his game would tie up every last loose end of the series? Given its epic number of dangling threads, concision was out of the question. And Kojima was true to his word; no doubt he had penned a list of fansí wishes and expectations and checked off each box as he resolved them. A return to Shadow Moses? Check. A final, epic battle with Liquid/Ocelot, full of homages to the previous games? Check. Make even Raiden seem cool? Check. An emotionally-charged return and sendoff for Big Boss? Check. And therein lies the game's greatest problem: the plot of MGS4 reads like a slightly-better-than-average fanfiction, cobbled together by someone whose talents lie in game design and movie direction rather than plotting. Thereís nothing wrong with a bit of fanservice, but in MGS4 it often feels completely out of place and hogs a disproportionate share of the limelight...particularly towards the end. As happy as I was to see some of these questions resolved, a nagging voice in the back of my head began to wonder if maybe it wasnít all too much. Thereís a fine line between pleasing your fans and downright pandering, and MGS4 hops back and forth over it with glee.
That's not to say the entire plot is a complete wash. On the contrary, bits and pieces of the story stand up to criticism quite well. Snakeís affected nonchalance towards his premature aging (and other charactersí reactions to his physical condition) demonstrate a level of muted emotion and characterization rarely seen in a videogame. Snakeís fear is often visible in his face, an impressive feat; never have a character's emotions been communicated so clearly in a game, and it's nearly as rare to see such expression outside the main protagonist. Thereís a tangible difference between, say, Master Chiefís stereotypical fearlessness and Snakeís inability to accept his own death not because of pure machismo but simply for fear. Act 4, Snake's return to Shadow Moses Island, continues this to great effect, with elements of the original MGS like the base's security cameras now rusted, broken down, and forgotten. It was no secret that Kojima was tired of being dragged back to do Metal Gear Solid after Metal Gear Solid, and so as early as two years before the gameís release Snake was revealed to be aging prematurely, with a trailer that ended with him sticking a gun in his mouth. Kojima made it perfectly clear that he was prepared to off his most popular character, and the parallels between Snake's feelings and his creator's sentiments were easy to see.
The return to Shadow Moses, then, serves to both remind the player of what initially made the series great, but also to show that time has moved on. Snakeís obsolescence mirrors that of the island. Everything from the first game's soundtrack to hidden rewards for revisiting old locations to optional banter between Snake and Otacon is used to great effect, and the way the playersí emotions are molded and capitalized on really shows Kojima at his best. Itís subtly done, and doesnít feel like pandering in the slightest. This, for me, was the high mark of the game.
Then you smash tons of robots, fight the immortal vampire Vamp, and beat the crap out of Metal Gear Ray (piloted by Liquid) with Metal Gear Rex, slapping you upside the head with the "the inferior one can win" theme the kids seem to eat up. In a way, the lack of subtlety in that regard was a throwback to the lack of subtlety seen in MGS, but I kind of doubt that was deliberate. Itís unfortunate that Kojima was ultimately persuaded to answer the cries of his fans, because the lightning-fast switch from "subtly brilliant" to "fanboy appeasement" in Act 4 throws into sharp relief just how disappointing the change in direction ultimately is.
Act 4 is mostly brilliant, but towards the end Kojima clearly loses the plot and never really goes to the trouble of finding it again. Sure, the last fight with Liquid Ocelot is satisfyingly epic, and Big Boss' role in the ending is sad (in a good way). But overall, too much time is devoted to tying up the narrative's loose ends. The conclusions provided ranged from over simplified ("Vamp was immortal because of nanomachines!") to the overly complicated ("Everyone was trying to stop The Patriots because of nanomachines!") to the unnecessary ("Ocelot isnít channeling Liquid through the arm, even though Ocelotís father clearly could in MGS3. No, he used psychotherapy to pretend to be Liquid to...uh...trick the Snake into tricking the Patriots. Also, nanomachines!"). Yes, every single damn question is answered, but the overall effect is far too drawn-out, and the conclusions we receive provide very little payoff. In particular, Kojimaís ultimate failure to kill off Solid Snake is a slight disappointment; was even gaming's brashest auteur afraid to kill off his cash cow completely? Viewed from the "Old Snake equals Kojima" angle, Snakeís inability to do what he thinks is right -- that is, to kill himself -- mirrors Kojimaís own. Not to say the game didnít end on a good note, but in light of some of the themes present, it could have been fantastic rather than merely good.
And really, thatís the best way to sum up MGS4 -- itís great, but only if you look at its components selectively. The gameplay is fantastic...as long as you donít mind not playing for long chunks of time. The graphics are phenomenal...as long as you ignore the sheer number of loading screens you have to stare at. The plot is emotionally moving...as long as you ignore the parts where Kojima goes overboard on the fanwank. Even the nostalgia ranged from "awesome" to "overbearing." Meanwhile, the stark lack of the Metal Gear Solid main theme gave the self-referentialism a hollow ring; sure, its melody was probably stolen from some Russian, but when youíre upending your entire multi-million-dollar production to appease your fans, shouldnít you include your most iconic piece of music as well? Youíre Metal frickiní Gear, man. Why not blow a little less of your budget on those (admittedly cool) PMC commercials and buy the guy off instead?
Kojimaís drive to lay this series to rest and silence every last question ultimately held his creation back from realizing its full potential. It falls short of the mark because the creator was too focused on making sure he was able to leave it all behind him. By trying to appease everyone, Kojima was looking to secure some rest. Itís fitting, then, that Big Bossí final words seem reflect Kojimaís own thoughts:
"This is good. Isnít it?"