Retro Review: ‘Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots’

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The Metal Gear Solid series’ unique traits make it work so incredibly well. It is able to deliver on a unique cinematically pleasing game that often avoids the issues that many other game franchises generally fall into. It’s fantastic delivery of long and convoluted narratives while having enough twists and turns makes playing one of these games an entire experience that is hard to forget and even harder to categorize. Last month I took a look at Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. I praised the game for it’s brilliance in balancing every aspect of gameplay and in it’s stellar and entertaining narrative. That game was in a way an improvement on what came before it and was a narrative that was self-contained prequel to the entire series. While it was a great diversion to go and play as Big Boss there was a want to play as Solid Snake again. Outside of returning to controlling Solid I had no clue what to expect from Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. I expected the game to be a step up graphically and I had expected it to end the narrative of Solid Snake. What I didn’t expect was getting an experience that was less gameplay and much more story, but still works in every conceivable way. This is one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had playing a game and it was also one of the most satisfying experiences as well. Hideo Kojima’s goal with this was to conclude the series and make a Metal Gear game for fans and in that regard he absolutely succeeded. It’s a densely narrative driven experience where the quirkiness of the series is certainly turned all the way up. It’s a game worthy of review and dissection even 10 years after it’s initial release. The main portion of this review will be spoiler-free, but it’s impossible to talk about this game without going into depth and there will be a Spoiler section discussing the intricacies and convoluted nature of this incredibly unique game. Here is my review of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

Story

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In a similar fashion to the rest of the series this game is heavily narrative focused. This one in particular has the majority of its focus on the story. This means that there is a lot to digest. One of the ways the game breaks up it’s story is to separating it into 5 Acts. Each Act represents a new chapter and a new level that Snake gets to explore and sneak in. Unlike the previous two games where there are 2 sections to the story, this game is one continuous mission stretched over these 5 acts meant to wrap up many of the series’ overall mysteries and intricacies. It’s meant to be an end to the main storyline and it does a great job at conveying it.

The plot follows Solid Snake 9 years after the Shadow Moses Incident. Snake now appears to be older has contracted a rare disease that is rapidly aging him to the point where he doesn’t have very long to live. At the same time the World’s economy has been shaped into a War Economy where several PMC’s (Private Military Companies) fight endless proxy wars. Combatants are now injected with nanomachines that operate under the control of the Sons of the Patriots (SOP) system. The Patriots at this point is an AI system which monitors everything and still has a massive grip on the War economy. These nanomachines are used to accelerate soldier performance in the battlefield. Snake is contacted by Roy Campbell to be brought back into action because of Liquid Ocelot’s return whose goal is to seize control over the SOP system. With the help of Otacon and several returning and surprise characters Snake must go back for one final mission. It’s up to him to stop Liquid before his body gives out on him.

The Game’s story is so complicated and convoluted that revealing anything other than this would inevitably be a spoiler and if you have yet to play the game I suggest you go into it without knowing anything. With that being said the game’s story is front and center here in this game. It’s the majority of the game and there is way more cutscenes than there are moments of gameplay, which could easily dissuade a lot of people. This isn’t a game made for new players. It’s made purely for fans of the Metal Gear series and it absolutely shows. As a fan I can’t help but love every minute of this complicated and overly long narrative. It was put out as the last entry in the franchise and while obviously more games were made this game does a great job at bringing the characters’ stories to a close in a satisfying and grand manner. Hideo Kojima’s mastery at storytelling is on full display here and while a lot of it is strange and complicated it answers so many questions. There is a lot to love with the cutscenes in that graphically they took a step up. I do miss the more vibrant cutscenes from Snake Eater, but the dark overall tone works hand in hand with the very serious story.

One of the best things about the narrative is that it’s able to find a way to balance telling relevant plot information and also give plenty of room for fan service and callbacks. These moments easily could have been annoying or distracting, but they are often beautifully handled and make you feel something. There’s a grandiose approach to the narrative and it makes you feel as if this is the ultimate culmination of everything that transpired before it. It’s an extremely satisfying and complicated story while also giving enough room for the sillier moments the series is known for. It’s a perfect blend of styles that could feel off, but Kojima’s direction makes everything sync up where it needs to be. A great example of how to handle storytelling in games.

Gameplay

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The story is front and center with this game and it can often feel like you’re watching much more than playing, but the gameplay mechanics are certainly not overlooked. There is a lot of carry over from the last few games, but there is also a lot of significant changes. If you have played a Metal Gear game before it’s not all that different. It definitely feels like it’s similar, but it certainly takes a bit of time to get used to the new aspects.

The controls are similar, but button placement is slightly different especially when it comes to CQC. It works well, but you often don’t even need to use in unlike in Snake Eater. It’s there as a backup to the newly revised combat system which allows you to use guns in a third person over the shoulder view in addition to the first person view. This makes gun combat way easier than before allowing you to be more bold in combat. It’s entirely possible to play the game in a more action oriented method rather than just pure stealth and that’s backed up with the new and complicated weapon system. The character of Drebin is introduced in the story and is a weapons dealer. With every item you pick up and for enemies you dispatch you can earn points to purchase every weapon conceivable in addition to upgrades and ammunition. You can access this shop at any time in the pause menu, which in turn allows for an abundance of supplies. In the previous games it was easy to run out of supplies, but this shop makes things easier for the player. This certainly helps when it comes to the boss battles. The other new element is that unlike finding different camos in Snake Eater this game gives you a camo suit which can be used to blend into the environment automatically. It allows for easier stealth in certain sections especially when you’re going through areas that are in the midst of a war. While it may be a small thing it is worth mentioning that it is now possible to crouch walk for the first time and that makes stealth easier and smoother. All of these new elements and controls really do make this game feel a lot better and more modern than the previous games. It’s certainly a perfect blend of the old and the new.

The main elements of gameplay come to the forefront in the boss battles which have you face off against the Beauty and the Beast Unit which consists of 4 unique, but similar bosses which are honestly a lot of fun to play through seeing as the strategy to defeat each one is different. They all have their own personalities and while these bosses are fun they aren’t nearly as memorable as those in Snake Eater. The game’s new tech, mechanics and controls really make this game unique among the series. It changed enough while also remaining familiar with those that are fans of the series. All of these elements work well in serving the narrative and the gameplay shouldn’t be slept on because the story is the main focus of the game. It did a great job at modernizing the series and bringing it to the PS3 generation. It even decided to add some flair to the cutscenes with interactable mission briefing sections as well as flashback moments mid cutscene. The gameplay felt more modern and it certainly works in this game.

Deeper Themes  (SPOILERS)

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It’s impossible to talk about the story without expanding on it because this game takes all of the Metal Gear Solid traits and pushes it to the forefront. So it’s certainly impossible not to mention all of the details that culminate in the conclusion to the main storyline of the series. This section will have Spoilers not only for this game, but for the entire series so it’s best to have played those before reading this.

It’s a fair assessment to say that not only is Metal Gear Solid 4 the biggest narrative in the franchise, but it’s also the most convoluted and most wrapped up in it’s own canon. It expects you to have known everything about the Franchise up to this point and as someone who is playing them back to back it has made this experience extremely satisfying. This story is a Solid Snake story and it’s great to return to the character who started the franchise. His story is one of a bleak outlook with him dying due to his rapid aging. He’s forced back into the field to confront an old foe. He’s dealing with his death, but also his duty as a soldier which is a crucial theme throughout the franchise. Snake is the perfect representation of the soldier who has been shaped and molded by war. The series has a strong anti-war sentiment in that war is the cause of a lot of pain and it uses the soldiers duties in war as them losing who they are and needing to continue being in combat to handle being alone with themselves. It’s a big reason why Big Boss’ story is brought up again. Coming off of Metal Gear Solid 3 we learned in that game that Big Boss was someone who was thrown into battle and The Boss in a sense warns him how war turns people. It’s why we see Big Boss as a villain in the original Metal Gear games. It’s focused on his need for a safe place for soldiers to be soldiers. This theme is carried and executed in this game extremely well especially with the return of so many characters.

One of my favorite things about this game is the return of so many characters that made an impact on the series. We get to see what happened to Rose after Metal Gear Solid 2. We get to see Raiden return as a cyborg ninja similar to Gray Fox and we get a resolution of him reuniting with Rose and his son. We also get to continue with Naomi’s back and forth double crossing and how that in turn works to end the SOP system and destroy the Patriots. These are just some of the characters and moments that make a return, but it brings it all back for a full circle experience. We get a chance to learn about every significant character in the series and we get to see the ramifications of their lives and decisions. The game boasts the end of the series and it goes out of it’s way to have symmetry occur. It even isn’t afraid of touching on nostalgia especially when Act 4 of the game takes place at Shadow Moses Island and makes you go to the same areas you visited in the original game. I also have to mention that the final boss fight between Liquid Ocelot and Snake is one of the best in the series forcing you to go through different stages of the fight with each stage having the music and health bars change to that from each game starting with Metal Gear Solid  and ending up at Metal Gear Solid 4. It feels epic  and it certainly allows fans to have that moment of epic culmination and closure.

A fascinating aspect of the series that was touched upon in Metal Gear Solid 2, The Patriots is given a deeper explanation  in that it was the creation of Major Zero and the rest of the team from Metal Gear Solid 3. It was an interpretation of what they believe The Boss wanted. It split the line between Big Boss and Zero once the Les Enfants Terribles cloning process was put into place  causing both Zero and Big Boss to go their separate ways and inevitably be pitted against each other. The Patriots eventually get put into place as AI systems which causes the events of this gaming turning the World into a War based economy with its endless Proxy wars. This explanation gives way more depth and empathy to that of Big Boss and how Zero inevitably made many of the wrong decisions. This explanation comes from a surprise return of Eva known currently as Big Mama before she inevitably dies. The Patriots being AI isn’t treated in the same way that Metal Gear Solid 2 did, but at least it wasn’t ignored and it was handled very well in its light retcon. It’s given even more depth when Big Boss makes a surprise return at the end of the game.

When Big Boss returns we get a lot of exposition, but we learn that Ocelot was never really taken over by Liquid, but was hypnotized as part of the plan to take out the Patriots’ system. This means that Ocelot was the biggest manipulator in the series and him and Snake’s motivations were inevitably similar. This twist gives the story much more context and inevitably makes much more sense considering Ocelot’s role in the entire series. With the final sequence focusing on Zero’s death and then Big Boss’ death it nicely wraps up this franchise for both Snake and Big Boss. It gives every major protagonist a send off well and it leaves a lasting memory.

There is so much to unpack in this game that I can’t possibly cover, but what I will bring back around is that many of the series major themes of love, loyalty, duty and the horrors of War are all ever present in every sequence of the incredibly long and convoluted, but beautiful cutscenes. It even takes the time to throw in some interesting symbolism with a major example being the Blue Rose that appears. It not only signifies as something being man made, but it also is a callback to the film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, which is very obviously a huge influence on Hideo Kojima’s work. This game does what it needs to to tie everything up and allow for the series as a whole to have some closure and it does it beautifully. While it may not be perfect it certainly has moments of true brilliance.

Conclusion

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The Metal Gear Solid series has quickly earned a place as one of my favorite series in any medium and this game certainly strengthens that. It’s certainly not a perfect game and it doesn’t hit the same brilliant register as Metal Gear Solid 3, but it is brilliant in its own right. It works so well as a major conclusion for the franchise in terms of where it is placed chronologically. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is a masterful work of art that certainly deserves every bit of analysis and love. If you are a fan of the series then this is a must play. If you have yet to have played an entry I would not recommend this be your first experience with the series. I highly recommend this game to those who have fallen in love with the previous games. It certainly deserves your attention.

Score

9.3/10

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