Renowned game director Hideo Kojima delivers a bang-up swan song for the “Metal Gear Solid” franchise in his hallmark style, wrapping up the series’ intricately detailed loose ends in a cinematic coup that will blow fans away. Dabblers and newbies will find the convoluted, metaphor-driven storyline as baffling as ever, but the tight controls and unparalleled production values should draw enough of them to make this Playstation 3 exclusive not just a big hit, but a system seller.
It’s a natural that Sony Pictures is developing “Metal Gear Solid,” since Kojima’s vision for games cleaves so closely to that of film. In fact, “Metal Gear Solid 4” is arguably closer to a “movie experience” than any videogame yet. Its numerous pre-animated cinematics are frequent and can run as long as half an hour — the experience of “playing” the game is actually about 40% watching.
These cutscenes look phenomenal and have some interactive elements, such as optional flashbacks from previous games, but it’s undeniable that fully immersing oneself requires huge amounts of concentration. No matter how much this game’s surefire critical and commercial success will stoke the studio’s fires, its sheer narrative density makes pulling off a film that pleases fans and the general public an even greater feat.
“Guns of the Patriots” sees seminal hero Solid Snake, now grizzled and ailing, return to the battlefield one last time to infiltrate complex war zones in pursuit of his ultimate enemy and twin brother, Liquid.
In a comment on the state of modern day war, Solid Snake’s landscape has changed dramatically from previous “Metal Gear” installments. The game is set in a world where a massive artificial intelligence controls the human soldiers, who are little more than automatons controlled via nanomachines in their blood. The aged Snake stands in contrast to this soulless state of affairs both metaphorically and literally as he tries to prevent Liquid from taking control of the AI. (Of course, the experience of controlling Snake via a top-end videogame console adds another layer of meaning to this mission.)
If that sounds perplexing, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Critics have called Kojima’s style the videogame equivalent of literary postmodernism, and it very well may be — the storyline, gameplay and imagery all blend together in seamless, often stunning metaphor and allegory. This final installment represents Kojima’s finest work in wrangling a veritable Bible of backstory to address unanswered questions and unresolved issues. The game is simply massive, though the stunning quality of every visual and audio detail makes the scale more breathtaking than intimidating.
Solid Snake is a covert operative, and the fourth installment, as with all its predecessors, prioritizes stealth and sneaking over guns-blazing combat. One of the key themes of “Metal Gear Solid 4,” however, is that war has changed, and this title makes it much more difficult to avoid firefights. It’s the first “Metal Gear” game where killing seems almost inevitable, and this surrender of the familiar ideals dovetails nicely with Snake’s sense of self-loss. To help with the fighting, the game’s controls resemble modern trigger-finger titles more closely than in the past and are thus more accessible to newcomers.
Each installment of the series provides new spy paraphernalia, and “Metal Gear 4’s” OctoCamo tops them all. The full-body stealth suit actually changes its color, texture and pattern to match whatever surface Snake is touching after only a moment’s pause. Factors like shadow, noise on the battlefield and whether or not the enemy has been alerted to an intrusion also affect the likelihood of detection, forcing players to be as careful on their couch as they would be on the battlefield.
Despite his cool new gizmos, Snake is an old man — kneel too long and he’ll groan and pound a crick in his back — which can be disconcerting. But the aging enhances the character and creates empathy, giving a visceral impression of someone who fights all the harder even while his star is waning.