Metal Gear Solid 4 is a curious game. And it is best described as a game, despite the fact that perhaps half of its 20-hour campaign consists of cutscenes. It was released to universal critical acclaim in 2008, when it boasted some of the best graphics ever seen in a console game. Even now, seven years later in 2015, the visuals are hugely impressive and testament to the amount of money spent on producing the game as well as the talent and effort of its developers. Similarly, there are sections of the game that are inventive and satisfying from a gameplay point of view, even if they are bookended by preposterously long and long-winded cutscenes.
But played today, as a video game and as a piece of art, Metal Gear Solid 4 is a comprehensive failure. This is primarily due to its lack of artistic coherence and the absence of any identifiable or consistent sense of self. What is the game at heart? Is it a stealth game with shooter elements? A shooter with stealth elements? Through the course of its campaign the game introduces so many playstyles and gimmicks, and breaks up the action with so many cutscenes, that it never has the chance to establish the kind of rhythm that is pivotal to most satisfying videogame experiences. Whenever you are getting comfortable with either the stealth or combat mechanics, the game hits you with a half-hour cutscene, or a driving section, or something else. For a game so focused on story, the lack of immersion is striking.
The cutscenes wouldn’t rankle so much if it felt like your actions or decisions mattered in the sequences you do control. But even on normal difficulty, there are sections where you will do as well running through the midst of a crowd of enemies, as if you had expertly evaded all of them. Or when you’re shooting from the back of a motorbike in a nondescript Eastern European city; you might not hit a single enemy as you contend with the awkward aiming mechanics, but you’ll get through regardless. And for a game where getting caught should feel like it has consequences, to have effectively unlimited ammo and weapons capacity, as well as ample health and regen, detracts from any sense of threat.
In order to drag the game out, the game inflicts some of the most tortuous boss battles I’ve played in recent years. Several of these encounters require the player to utilize gameplay mechanics that are barely used or explained elsewhere in the game, effectively forcing you to rely on online forums to get through the fights. Rarely have I played a game where so many boss fights had me shouting at the television in frustration. Taken together, the fights seem intended more to showcase the ingenuity of the developer, rather than deliver a satisfying experience for the gamer. A fight against an invisible, high-speed, agile tank that shoots at you with a rapid fire grenade launcher was a particular lowlight for me. Who thought that would be fun?
MGS4 is distinctly lacking in atmosphere when compared to earlier installments in the series. This game’s globetrotting structure means the sense of place and atmosphere that was such a part of MGS1 is gone, replaced instead with Michael Bay-esque set-pieces and a script heavy on pastiche, camp melodrama and boring exposition; making for a joyless experience. This is especially apparent when re-treading iconic locations from earlier in the series.
You can’t discuss this game without discussing Hideo Kojima. It is impossible to avoid him; he literally inserts his name into the game and the user experience in obnoxious fashion, flashing it up on screen to distract you during a late-game boss fight. And of course, the fundamental artistic vision embodied in the game is Kojima’s. Lest you doubt that, his name crops up several times in the end credits to remind you. Kojima has had tremedous success over the last 20 years cultivating a reputation for himself as a kind of visionary and pioneer of video game narrative and story telling; but playing MGS4 now demonstrates the emptiness of any attribution to him of genius or even innovation.
Kojima’s approach in this game is the opposite of that paradigm of good storytelling: “Show, don’t tell.” It could be argued that the convoluted nature of the story and plot requires a great deal of exposition, which is true, but that rather begs the question why the story needs to be quite so convoluted in the first place. In 2008, MGS4’s hodge-podge of story and game mechanics could arguably have been looked at as something new–as a precursor of things to come, or even revolutionizing the genre. But with the benefit of hindsight, we can see that games have not developed along the lines MGS4 suggested. We have not seen ever-more complicated amalgamations of story and playstyle. If anything the trend has been for games to focus more narrowly on perfecting one or two elements of narrative and gameplay. Playing MGS4 now, it doesn’t feel radical or cutting-edge; it just seems like a bloated mess of a game.
The whole experience seems like it is there to put over the ingenuity of the product rather than to deliver an enjoyable or memorable experience; the ultimate ego-trip for one of gaming’s most egotistical designers. There are times when the game seems on the cusp of delivering effective drama or pathos, but then ruins it via deliberate editorial decisions. A character soils his pants, over and over again, to the amusement of no-one; women scientists and military leaders wear low-cut tops and no bras; characters declare love for each other and simulate sex during gunfights; and so on, ad nauseam.
Playing MGS4 these years later makes me sceptical of the plaudits that its sequel has received more recently. But if anything, I am more intrigued to play it now as an aspect of video game culture that looks to be drawing to a close. With criticism mounting over the ending of MGS5, Kojima’s break-up with Konami and the downsizing of his own studio perhaps signify chickens coming home to roost after all. But I wonder how much damage the lionization of this self-promoting guru of video game culture has done over the last decade, especially in Japan.
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