Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is the fourth major instalment in the long running Metal Gear series from famed director Hideo Kojima. Published by Konami in 2008 for the PlayStation 3 it sets out to finish the story of Solid Snake – the bastard clone of Big Boss – and his attempts to rid the world of the Metal Gear War Machines.
Set in the altered-present history of the Metal Gear universe in 2014, the world has radically changed in the five years since Sons of Liberty and the reveal of a massive computer network known as the Patriots. Private military companies now command massive armies that wage constant wars for profit in various locations around the world through the use of an interconnected force of humans and robots called The Sons of the Patriots. Every soldier is linked into the system through ID tags and nanomachines to better control the ongoing wars that exploit weaker world governments.
Suffering from rapid aging due to the cloning process, and with little time left to live, Snake is called into action once again when his twin brother Liquid threatens the entire system. Liquid has been the primary antagonist of the series and he has grown tired of being a pawn to the Patriots system, so he seeks to hijack the system for himself to turn the world’s armies against their masters. This threat to the system has left the Patriots no choice but to turn to the ailing Solid Snake, who has long opposed their rule and been branded a traitor.
As the saying goes, the enemy of your enemy is your friend.
Guns of the Patriots sets out to conclude the many plotlines of Kojima’s long-running series and in doing so the story sees Snake travelling the globe as he searches for his brother. Kojima set out to revolutionize the franchise’s storytelling and gameplay mechanics to fully harness the power of the PlayStation 3, but the director’s characteristic eccentricities are perhaps more visible than ever.
If you aren’t already a fan of the series, then you may want to read through the extensive plot recap featured in MSG4, but for the best experience we recommend playing through the series in order as it is almost a necessity. The plot is dense, delivered in huge exposition dumps and cut-scenes, and even verterans of the series would do well to have a Wiki to hand. This isn’t a game made for newcomers then; rather, it’s a somewhat self-indulgent celebration of a series which originally began back in the 1980’s on the MSX.
Visually however, MSG4 still stands up well, despite some occasional low-res textures. Kojima’s team squeezed as much visual power out of the PlayStation 3 as was possible at the time, and combined with the director’s keen eye for cinematic angles, desaturated colors and believable environments, it remains an attractive game. It was easily the best looking title of 2008 when compared to other blockbusters such as Dead Space, Fallout 3, and even Grand Theft Auto 4 - Characters are incredibly detailed and convey a wide range of emotions through simple gestures and visual cues, surroundings are detailed and often expansive, and the lighting work is impressive throughout.
There are also amazingly seamless transitions between in engine cut-scenes and gameplay, much in the way that The Order: 1886 is trying to accomplish. This can sometimes lead to problems after some exceptionally lengthy scenes where you’ve sat the controller down and it quickly transitions into a shoot-out. But to help keep your hands active during long cut-scenes are frequent button prompts showing some of Snake’s visual memories.
While previous games in the series have preferred to frame their action via fixed camera angles, it is now possible to fully explore the world through use of the new free floating camera hovering over Snake’s shoulders. Much like in movies, the camera has a yellow filter and can pick up dirt and dust from explosions to increase the sense of immersion. Unfortunately, everything is a little too crisp and clear and nothing looks quite as dirty as it should when going through these war zones.
The new camera philosophy goes hand in hand with an increased focus on action, as Kojima tries to mimic other 3rd person shooters from the era. Aiming your weapon takes the form of the familiar over-the-shoulder view with a zoomed in camera made popular with Resident Evil 4, and Snake is now able to snap to walls with the push of a button – much like Marcus in Gears of War. But this doesn’t always work as intended, as Snake’s ability to stick to objects isn’t as reliable as it should be, and his aiming from cover will more often than not get you killed. Furthermore, while the camera is a marked improvement in freedom for the series, it still feels sluggish at time, and movement speed and aiming suffer because of it.
That’s not to say that the shooting isn’t fun and doesn’t work, though. While it never manages to reach the dizzy heights of Vanquish or the cathartic brutality of Gear of War, MGS 4 features the best shooting mechanics the series had seen at the time (since surpassed by Ground Zeroes). There are more options when faced with combat than ever before, a lot more guns to choose from – each with fully customizable attachments – and it’s often tempting to forgo stealth in favor of a more gung-ho approach to a given situation.
To do so, however, would be a mistake; you can’t run and gun your way through MSG4 the way you can in other 3rd person shooters. This is a Metal Gear game after all, and while the shooting mechanics certainly received a huge amount of focus, Snake is still vulnerable and unable to take much in the way of punishment. Most situations still require you to stealthily make your way through an area, quietly dispatching any guards that get in your way. Building on the stealth meter from MGS 3: Snake Eater, Snake is now equipped with a stealth-suit that blends into its surroundings when he is motionless. Think of it as a riff on the infamous cloaking device seen in classic 80’s flick Predator, and you’re a good way to understanding what we mean.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Metal Gear game without a bizarre menagerie of boss fights, and Metal Gear Solid 4 boasts plenty of memorable encounters, even if they don’t quite manage to hit the same dizzying heights as Psycho Mantis from Metal Gear Solid, or The End from Snake Eater. But Kojima’s seemingly endless imagination still results in some memorable fights which reward you for approaching them with stealth and deception. Many foes have humorous responses to your antics as well, which can raise a much-needed spot of comic relief amongst all the oh-so-serious proselytizing found during the (many) overly-long cutscenes.
But if non-lethal tactics are more your playstyle, you will be rewarded with extra scenes of dialogue and a few perk items to show off your dedication – Guns of the Patriots is happy to accommodate both methods of play, though purists will eschew the direct approach and attempt a Ghost run. As is always the case with a Metal Gear game, it’s entirely possible to complete the story without being spotted or killing anyone, and doing so is immensely satisfying.
Guns of the Patriots features a massive soundtrack with lead composer Harry Gregson-Williams – working on his fourth game in the series – and Nobuko Toda, who had worked on the music for the PSP Metal Gear Acid and Acid 2, turning in yet another classic gaming soundtrack filled with memorable compositions. Konami also brought in many other of their in-house musical composers to help re-master and update previous themes. Unfortunately the main Metal Gear theme is absent due to a dispute with a Russian composer over the ownership rights, but it’s a small price to pay when what is on show is such a treat for ears.
Along with the impressive musical score is a massive cast of voice actors many of which are returning to characters they’ve not played in almost ten years. This might also be David Hayter’s best performance as Snake, and sadly possibly his last. Jennifer Hale of Femshep fame has returned along with other notable voice actors Christopher Randolph, Phil LaMarr, and Dave Fennoy to name a few. This was a huge ensemble cast needed to fill the massive cast of the entire franchise as Kojima leaves no stone unturned as he crafts his magnum opus.
This is Kojima’s culminating anti war message as he foretells what the future will bring, and you can tell he really cares about these characters as much as the fans do. MSG4 was supposed to be the last Metal Gear and he was trying to solve all the mysteries and answer any of the questions the fans had. Snake is an obvious allegory for Kojima as he’s now a little older and a little wiser, but he’s also tired and ready to be done with it. But Kojima was pulled back for just one more mission with Snake, and the pre-marketing and much of the game reflects this idea.
Kojima has always used his games as a platform to provoke discussion about the future and the nature of humanity, and MGS 4 is no exception. Many of the world governments have fallen to Private Military Companies and their powerful cyber-ized armies which fuel an endless war economy. The lines between human and robot are blurred in this vision of the future, and several characters come to terms with the Mind-Body Problem.
However, as amazing as most of the writing is and the serious themes and tones present through the course of the entire game there are some rather oddly-placed moments of inappropriate silliness. We’ve come to expect a certain level of weirdness to be present within any Kojima game, but MSG4 has some jarring moments of crudeness that feel out of place in the franchise. One character – Akiba – is introduced in such a way that many will assume he is little more than a comical character, but some of his actions present such a dramatic shift in tone that it can break the immersion.
On top of these shifts in tone is the sheer size of the story, spanning 5 chapters and 5 different locations as you cross the globe with Snake. While the result is certainly a game that feels more epic in scope, the story sometimes lacks a true central focus outside of hunting Liquid, and each chapter is essentially its own mini-story, only loosely tying into the next. Kojima infamously claimed that Metal Gear Solid 4 would be his last work on the series, and the attempt to tie up the considerable amount of plot threads from previous entries often leads to many characters feeling shoe-horned in, particularly when their inclusion is accompanied by yet another exposition-heavy cutscene.
Furthermore, many of the major plot beats are continuations of the stories from Metal Gear Acid and Acid 2 on the PSP – neither of which gained a particularly wide audience, thanks to their host platform and significant deviation from the series’ traditional gameplay. If you’ve only played the main series, you’ll often find yourself confused and wondering what the hell is going on. Metal Gear Solid 4 is something of a celebration of the series, but often its sojourns into the more obscure aspects of the franchise’s history risk alienating all but the most hardcore of fans and the story can often feel impenetrable as a result.
But despite its faults, Metal Gear 4 was a game changer upon its release. It redefined cinematic storytelling within the medium to a degree that would make David Cage envious, and its epic scope has rarely been equaled since.
Sure, it has its flaws, but many of those problems aren’t so much complaints as they are just small parts in the overall charm of the franchise, and many fans have grown accustomed to them. When you sit down to play a Metal Gear game you should already expect to sit through hour-long cutscenes pontificating on the nature of humanity in a digital world. You expect to see the overly-serious tone occasionally punctured with moments of bizarre absurdity. And you certainly expect to feel as though you need a Wiki on hand to make sense of its dense plotting.
But Metal Gear Solid 4 is a game made for the fans, Kojima’s love letter to the franchise; if you’ve never finished the story you started in Metal Gear Solid, you deserve to see how over-the-top the ending of MSG4 is. If you’ve never experienced any of the games in the series, then we highly recommend you start with Metal Gear Solid, because you won’t know where you are going until you know where you’ve been.
Just bring a book with you while you wait for the ridiculously long install time.