After about thirty years of being a mass medium, videogames have a few auteurs—people whose individual mark can be seen on a final product in spite of being created by a multi-person team. Undoubtedly, the big daddy of them all is Shigeru Miyamoto, who practically single-handedly saved the modern gaming industry from its downward swirl in the E.T.-laden toilet of the early 1980s. Some game makers insist that their moniker be in the title of the game, most recently Richard Garriott's Tabula Rasa. Others, like Castlevania's Koji Igarashi, can make one or two masterpieces, but then fall from grace, struggling to recapture their one spark of genius. Metal Gear's Hideo Kojima is definitely an auteur, one whose fame and notoriety continue to rise the longer he continues to work.
Metal Gear Solid (MGS) arrived in 1998, and truly changed the landscape of gaming as we now know it. Real-time cutscenes replaced fancy CGI (popular in titles like Final Fantasy VII and Soul Blade at the time). Every line of dialog was voice acted—well. Bosses were memorable and incredible—who doesn't remember the first time Psycho Mantis freaked the hell out of them? But best of all, for better or for worse, it tried to tell a real, honest-to-God story. Was it preachy at times? Yes, but this was the beginning of a man's attempt to convey a social message through a medium known for glorifying violence, no matter how ham-fisted the attempt.
Hideo Kojima's name was finally one that people paid attention to. With the arrival of the PS2 in 2000, all eyes were on Konami Japan to showcase what the new hardware could do. Sure enough, Metal Gear Solid 2 was released in 2001, and it did not disappoint…from a technical standpoint. In spite of being the most visually-stunning title seen on any console to date, and having a gorgeous musical score from famed composer Harry Gregson-Williams, the game created vast rifts in the gaming community with Solid Snake's replacement in Raiden. Add a convoluted, existential plot that is still under debate to this day, and you can begin to see the mind of Kojima at work. I'm certain that, had MGS1 not been as successful as it was, and Kojima not been at the helm, nobody would have green-lighted MGS2's plot. Still, MGS2 is the highest-selling title in the series to date. By MGS3, Kojima had become his own entity with Kojima Productions.
Make no mistake. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (MGS4) is Hideo Kojima's game. The question is: are you okay with that?
MGS4 is undoubtedly the culmination of everything Hideo Kojima ever dreamed his series could be. It is a technical triumph, finally realizing the longtime goal of "Toy Story In Real Time." Having been at the Sony E3 press conference in 2005 when the PS3 was first unveiled, I didn't believe that any developer could achieve the level of polish shown in the technical demonstration. MGS4 has it in spades. Even the initial installation has the most stunning model of Old Snake—our protagonist—looking very gruff, smoking and standing around in extreme close up. His gloves are webbed, his sneaking suit is composed of different materials, his skin is pale and spotted. Audio-wise, the score is probably the best that the series has ever produced, and the soundscapes are engrossing. Snake's enhanced moveset and controls are tight and precise. New gameplay mechanics like improved camouflage, radar and context-sensitive areas make the experience feel both familiar and fresh. The bosses in MGS4 are a blissful experience. Each one is a force to be reckoned with, and utterly unforgettable.
These are axioms for any MGS title.
The conundrum here is the rest of the game. Or rather, what isn't the game. It's hard to discuss any post-PS1 Metal Gear title without bringing up the issue of cut-scenes. Kojima is sometimes seen as a film-maker, roped into the wrong industry. Beyond their length (the ending clocks in at around 70-75 minutes), frequency and issues of non-interactivity, their content presents a major problem to anyone not incredibly well-versed in Metal Gear lore. Though I am a recovering Castlevania and Koji Igarashi addict, I am a full-borne Metal Gear fan. I love the story. I get it—even MGS2's messiness. For me, the cut-scenes in MGS4 were so utterly engrossing and explanatory that I never cared about how long or often they were. My wife, who has barely a passing knowledge of the Metal Gear story, continuously asked questions about what the heck was going on. People, events and past stories from every single canon Metal Gear title are referenced, or even reprised. Even within the game's own space, it continuously broke the fourth wall, explicitly showing a game's box art as a reference point.
Because of this, it often reaches the point of Kojima's self-indulgence. Kojima is keenly aware of the magnitude of his creation. His insistence of pointing this out to the player time and time again can get quite grating. What could have been a great game for the masses ends up being a very large inside story or joke. As someone who is "in" on it, I found myself smiling most of the time while watching these scenes. Erin was just befuddled.
Other times, the game just delves into places that Kojima wants us to go, but are truly unnecessary. Like previous MGS games, every boss has their sad, pathetic backstory, and like it or not, after you've pumped them full of lead, you'll have to hear it.
This being said, the cut-scenes are often staggering in scope, detail and choreography. Without spoiling anything major, one in particular is so well-crafted that it actually makes Raiden look cool. Seeing as the character was mocked in MGS3, this is quite an achievement.
The whole game feels like this. It is an undeniable achievement: Hideo Kojima's achievement. No other producer could have made this title, for better or for worse. The only determining factor about whether or not this is a "good" game is whether or not you want to hear what Kojima has to say. Sadly, for some, there's a good twenty years of listening that simply must be done to appreciate MGS4.
I've never played a game where playing the previous ones was a pre-requisite rather than an option. It is a big risk to take, one that only a true auteur with enormous confidence in himself, his product and his legacy could create. I've fulfilled Kojima's requirements, thus this game is for me. It's simply unfortunate that the degree to which this otherwise magnificent game succeeds will be dependant upon each individual.
According to ESRB, this game contains: blood, crude humor, strong language, suggestive themes and violence
Parents should not let their children play this game. Quite frankly, they won't understand it anyway. It is filled with beautifully-choreographed ballet-like violence, but it is still violence. There is a lot of spilling of blood, and, in a first for the series, someone drops the F-bomb.
Metal Gear fans will be right at home. Metal Gear newcomers may want to think twice before diving in. Fans of other stealth titles will enjoy the
Army aficionados will enjoy the fantastical array of gadgets and references to real-world entities like DARPA.
Film lovers will definitely enjoy the game's lavish, lengthy cut-scenes as well as dissecting the series's plots.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers have little to worry about in terms of the gameplay relying on audio cues. One gun beeps when it is fully-charged, but this can also be confirmed visually. There are options for subtitles in multiple languages.
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