Everything these days seems to be a sequel, and moreso than ever in the world of video games. Only look at some of the releases I’ve been looking forward to this past year or two:
Grand Theft Auto IV, Civilisation IV, Resident Evil 5, Neverwinter Nights 2 (though let’s not forget that Neverwinter Nights 1 was a sequel to Baldur’s Gate II), Gothic 3, Oblivion (The Elder Scrolls 4), Final Fantasy XIII (13, for fox sakes?). Those that don’t have numbers have colons. Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, Command and Conquer: Tiberium Sun. Some even have colons and numbers. Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2, anyone?
You know what you’ll get with sequels – old friends, familiar gameplay, better graphics, in jokes, plots that are incomprehensible unless you played the other twelve installments, and perhaps even then. And few sequels are quite as sequel-y as the keenly anticipated game I’ve just been playing – Metal Gear Solid 4, one of (and there would seem to be a dwindling number) the few good reasons to have a Playstation 3 (itself the third in the series, lest we forget).
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots (yes, it has a colon too) describes itself as Tactical Espionage Action. It’s one of those sneak-em-ups we get these days, where the emphasis is on slipping unnoticed like the breeze through war-torn warzones where wars are happening. Warrily. If you want you can go all rambo-styley, flinging grenades with wild abandon and blazing away with an M60, but the rewards tend to be higher for sneaky, sneaky, with occasional use of non-lethal force involving gas traps, silenced anaesthetic pistols, tapping on the walls to distract attention of guards, and perhaps the occasional use of a sleeper hold or good old punch in the nuts. Make sure you hide that corpse somewhere shady, though!
The only other entry in the series I’d played was the first, which I was slightly disappointed by, feeling the majority of the slightly hokey top-down gameplay let down its huge and often impressive ambitions to be something truly revolutionary. I guess this game finally fulfils the promise of manga-inspired tactical espionage action, and though perhaps a bit too late to be totally revolutionary, it’s still a beautifully slick and immersive experience.
The masterstroke is that the hero, Solid Snake, while still being an unstoppable special forces death machine, is now, due to accelerated aging, also a grumpy old chain-smoking duffer with a bad back, a dodgy ‘tache, and a voice like a washing machine full of gravel. Yesterday’s hero, out of his place and his depth in an age of nano-machines and remote control war robots, back to save the world one more time before he inevitably kneels at the grave of his fallen comrades and eats his own .45. That is just sweeeet, and with every mission he’s more of a coughing, oxygen mask using, drug injecting, hideously burned, physically and emotionally tortured mess, haunted by the piercing memories of dead friends and old failures. Why don’t we have more cynical old dying duffer heroes, I’d like to know?
The gameplay sometimes feels a touch clunky compared to free-flowing stuff like Prince of Persia (Just climb over the crates, Snake! Why can’t you climb over the crates?) or full-on shooters like Gears of War (He’s right next to you, Snake, turn and shoot you old bastard! Turn and shoot! Snaaaaaaaaake!!!!!!!) but the sneaking around is ace – the chameleon suit which blends into whatever you press yourself against is particularly cool. The enemy AI is ace – watching two man teams direct each other around searching for you gets the hairs standing up. The bossfights are pretty ace – surreal battles with octopus, raven, and wolf themed crazies that produce a genuine sense of drama. Above all, that indefinable something, the feel of the game, the world it creates, the sense of immersion, dare one even say emotion, is pretty damn ace.
The FMV sections are kind of ace, and kind of ludicrously overlong and self-indulgent. I mean, they look beautiful, the characters are well-voiced and acted and all that jazz, they just go on for half an hour. And I’m not kidding. You frequently find yourself watching the game more than playing it. Several times I’d think – ok, just a quick hour of Metal Gear before bed, then find myself still up at 2.00 in the morning waiting for the next absurd string of overly detailed waffle sequences to get done. Can you all stop talking so I can go to bed now, please? Granted I haven’t played the previous two games, and maybe that’d help, but the level of exposition seemed uttery unnecessary/incomprehensible at times, and left me with the feeling that I, the player, didn’t really have that much to contribute.
The ludicrous arsenal of weapons is pretty damn impressive, though the way in which each one is customisable, examinable, and lovingly rendered in superbly detailed 3d does seem slightly at odds with the ham-fisted anti-war messages frequently delivered with all the subtlety of, well, a combat shotgun blast to the face. “WAR IS WRONG!” the game seems to say. “Man, war is so wrong. Especially war conducted by sexy women in skin-tight camo-suits, with more figure-hugging webbing than seems decent, wielding maybe a P90 submachine gun in a really cool way, you know, the one lovingly moulded from low-weight ballistic polymer using NATO’s new standard five-seven round with the high muzzle velocity offering an excellent mixture of firepower and penetration, probably also fitted with laser sight, flashlight for low light conditions and suppressor for wet work. Holds fifty in the clip providing high rate of fire for point or suppression with minimal reloading. Holy shit, but that’s a nice gun! Oh. But war is so WRONG.”
Sneaking around the warzones, pursued by mercenaries and revolutionaries alike while they also spectacularly battle each other is very, very cool. But as the game goes on it seems to insist on showing off its more interesting game modes, kind of like Russel Crowe proving to the audience that he’s more than just an angry actor. Sneaking around irritating robots you can’t kill. Manning a gun on a jeep, or a bike, or etc. Controlling a giant robot. A lot of these feel a bit tagged on, and sometimes leave you wondering whether what you do with the pad makes any difference. They’re slightly, for want of a better word, rubbish. I just kept thinking, let’s be done with this nonsense so I can hide behind a crate, sneak up behind some guy and snap his neck like a twig again. Please. I was enjoying that.
Still, in the end, depite the meanderings, the self indulgence, the creaky philosophy, the weird sense of humour, and the occasional tedium, this game is overall a brilliant experience. A moving experience, even. The design, the way things look and feel, the music, the way the FMVs bleed into the action and back – it all builds to some truly memorable moments, and creates some truly memorable characters. Can’t say fairer than that.
So long, Snake, you grumpy old bastard. For you the war is over. Now you can blow your brains out in peace.