This review originally appeared in E190, July 2008.
For much of an opening act which is arguably its best, Metal Gear Solid 4 is less a sneaking mission than a cowering mission. Alone on a new-age battlefield, made to take orders from a man he barely knows – himself – Solid Snake is scrabbling for a bearing, doing the best he can to keep his body upright, his mind intact. Trampled by athletic mechs, chased by nihilistic soldiers, and forced to ally himself with faceless militias, he is outnumbered and outgunned, but above all outmoded.
How much of this is really Hideo Kojima, staggering into a new age of gaming, awed and overwhelmed by its inventions, is for the man himself to answer. But if each successive Snake reflects a part of its creator, or a mindset, then Old Snake is surely the most affecting. He is, like this final MGS, a mixture of great agility and sloth, drive and resignation. For all the incredible technology he brings to the battle, all the abilities and charisma, he feels throughout like a species on the brink of extinction.
The year is 2014, and global warfare has been privatized, creating five military companies that constitute the world’s newest superpowers. Chairman of every board is Liquid Ocelot, Snake’s arch rival and now owner of over half the world’s armed forces. Worse, he’s managed to commander SOP, a system designed to control, through nanomachines, every weapon and soldier on the battlefield. Once again, Snake is pulled out of retirement to neutralize the threat – even though his body, bred from the genes of the legendary Big Boss, is dying on its feet.
Be warned if you need to ask who these people are: this is not a game for Metal Gear outsiders. Though every mention of a name, event or entity raises a button prompt, which in turn triggers a momentary flashback, these simply exist to refresh the memory, not stock it with new information. Being a kind of farewell tour, MGS4 is not a story that spikes where you expect it to, either – more a collection of emotional triggers, each attached to a known person or place.
Nor is it one that seeks to appease the critics, specifically those who lost consciousness during hour two of MGS2’s finale. The cutscenes here are sure to invoke that thousand-yard stare, two in particular coming perilously close to the 90-minute mark. But that’s the price of admission – they can be paused and skipped now, but at the cost of half the experience – which for fans will seem more like a gift. If you’ve sat in lockers while footsteps came and went, basked in the glow of Codec chats without once checking your watch, or taken time to learn the difference between patriots and Patriots, MGS4 is your just reward.
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