Still Playing: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots

Metal Gear Solid 4

How did it come to this? I’m huddled in a dark flat, the last flickers of electricity long sucked away thanks to an arthritic Solid Snake. Actually, I know exactly how I ended up here; Metal Gear Solid 4 has been on for eight straight hours while I was at work, and has frittered away the last of my top-up electricity. Snaaaaake!

First, some much needed context: I like PS3 trophies. I also like Metal Gear Solid. I’ve finished each entry in Hideo Kojima’s gleefully esoteric franchise at least five times since the series went solid. So when Old Snake’s poignant swansong finally received a trophy patch four years after its 2008 release, I just couldn’t help myself: I had to claim its platinum pot. Cue a self-inflicted three week bout of virtual torture that involves finishing Guns of the Patriots – brace yourselves – eight times.

I’m halfway through a 35-hour playthrough of MGS4, my fifth run over the course of ten increasingly maddening days. The mental plate-spinning that’s gone into planning the raid on its imaginary silverware has been harrowing, leaving me emotionally battered and mentally spent. And it’s all the fault of one piddling little bronze pot labelled ‘Songs of the Battlefield’.

At first it doesn’t seem overly intimidating; you merely have to collect every iPod track in the game. No problem, there are only 34 of them. Wait, what’s this? The Big Boss track requires you earn each of the game’s 40 emblems, a feat you can only accomplish by finishing Snake’s reflective espionage adventure the embarrassing amount of times I listed above.

These emblems are based on completion criteria, with many contradicting each other, requiring a specific of number of kills or alerts raised which demand their own playthrough. Enter the ‘chicken’ badge, and its 35 plus hour mandatory completion time. To artificially pad the game out, my glacial runthrough includes leaving the controller unguarded for hours at a time with Snake concealed in a bullet-peppered metallic drum or iconic cardboard container.

Now, Guns of the Patriots isn’t particularly long if you’re playing this inventive sneaker with even the thinnest sliver of sanity. Such is Kojima’s love for eroding your eardrums through marathon narrative sequences, there’s probably only around three hours of actual gameplay in MGS4 if you really rifle through it. While the opening Middle Eastern and South American acts cleverly subvert the series’ stealth conventions by throwing your rapidly aging agent into bustling warzones, the remaining three chapters barely qualify as a game at all.

A moody moonlit detour through an unspecified, but vaguely Parisian city feels alarmingly linear after MGS3’s gloriously freeform evasion. Tasking you with retracing a resistance member’s steps, act three is essentially a straightforward stalker sim. The penultimate mission then whisks Snake back to the PS1 original’s Shadow Moses island. Gripped by biting storms, returning to the decaying base perfectly encapsulates the hero’s rapidly decomposing state, even if little actual stealth is required as you navigate the largely deserted shell of the former military base.

Yet the return to Shadow Moses remains a wonderful sustained setpiece of mournful introspection. As you approach the remnants of blizzard-choked helipad that once seemed so intimidating on PS1, Rika Muranaka’s The Best is Yet to Come (a gentle melody that plays during the original’s end credits) dances on the wind of a strikingly vibrant snowstorm. Two fan-pleasing boss skirmishes then cutely evoke the spirit of past enemy encounters to round off a largely passive, if brilliantly judged section. That the final act is essentially one large glorified corridor undoubtedly sours the experience after such a thoroughly nourishing passage of reflection.

The piecemeal nature of this globe-trotting adventure feels frustratingly bitty compared to predecessor Snake Eater’s focused singular locale. Yet there’s a reason MGS4 has eked such wilful obsession from me. For all its structural blunders, this remains an intoxicatingly playful hide-and-seek simulator.

More than any other stealth game, the control system here constantly encourages and rewards experimentation. Supple, deep and thoughtful, Snake’s array of rolls, chokeholds and stickup techniques make hunting the game’s pleasingly pliable AI soldiers as invigorating on the first playthrough as the eighth. Well, almost.

Sexy, stupid and wistfully impenetrable to those who don’t know their La Li Lu Le Lo from their Liquids, no other game is simultaneously so eager to please those in its inner circle and comfortable in excluding those outside it. The bosses dazzle with wry inventiveness (try finding an invisible octopus woman who hides in framed paintings). The stealth constantly subverts expectations. Even the ending somehow manages to put a satisfying full stop on a saga about nuclear robots with a poignant shared puff over a cigar.

Just take my advice: don’t let your sanity slowly trot off the reserve trying to collect a ridiculous, make believe trinket.