And so it ends. Exactly 10 years after “Metal Gear Solid” debuted on the Playstation, Kojima puts an end to his most beloved saga with “MGS4: Guns of The Patriots”. What to expect from the final chapter on such a riveting saga: a glorious goodbye or a cynic “see you soon”?
The game splits in 5 acts (plus prologue and epilogue); 5 acts, as defined in classical drama: each posing as a logical narrative unit, with beginning and end, occurring in different places in time and space, and in this case, with a different art and gameplay style. Each act tends to echo a different MGS, which adds a sense of closure and nostalgia to the saga, placing the player in different emotional states that connect with past experiences. Overall, the game plays like an evolved MGS3, with smoother controls, a decent camera angle that facilitates both combat and stealth, and with a lot more action sequences. Stealth is still key, and the game entices you to use it, while at the same time, refrains from penalizing you when you don’t. The first 2 acts are the most interesting gameplay-wise, as they put the player in the midst of a war, allowing you to either take advantage of it, sneaking by unseen and unheard while the 2 sides fight each other, or to simply join a side and start waging combat with your newly found war buddies. Everything works well, adding to the sense of a real war, and the levels are designed in a more streamlined way, that favors of a more slick and linear experience, thus simplifying the somewhat cumbersome nature of MGS3’s mechanics. The only letdown lies in the game’s bosses, that mirror almost precisely those of the first MGS. They’re uninteresting, shallow replicas that are never embodied as fully developed characters and their battles rely too much on straight forward shooting, lacking the brilliant, twisted mechanics of MGS1and 3’s bosses (Psycho Mantis, The End, etc…).
But let’s face it, the only reason for playing “MGS” is the story, all else falls secondary. It’s what has guaranteed the saga’s place in the hall of greatest videogames in history. This is thanks to its unique blend of traditional Hollywood action blockbusters’ spirit, ripe with plot twists and over the top cinematics, with its anime-like aesthethic (courtesy of Yoji Shinkawa), and a lot of philosophical/socio-political ramblings to please the more intellectual players. Still, the premise in MGS4, to wrap things up once and for all, ending the gigantic plot conundrum of “Sons of Liberty”, always sounded overly ambitious and very hard to achieve. There was just so much left to unveil: the true identity of the patriots, their relationship with Liquid, Solidus and Ocelot, the meaning behind the whole back story of MGS3, and even the ultimate purpose of the actions of the player throughout the series – what was Solid Snake really fighting for? Let me reassure you that Hideo Kojima answers this questions with the style and grace we’ve come to know him for. Yet, he does this in subservient fashion, as a slave to a greedy mob, trying at all costs to wrap things up in a tidy, simple, pleasant way that won’t upset any fans. Every character, regardless of its importance (or lack thereof), makes a comeback, all with their complete storyarchs, but zero risks are taken, and every petty, insignificant detail is fleshed out explicitly; a remembrance of what George Lucas tried to accomplish in the second “Star Wars” trilogy. It’s a shame, because players have imagination and intellect to fill in gaps, and should be more often greeted to do so, specially when it’s obvious that Kojima has the ability to make you think about important matters in subtler, nuanced ways. In the end, the pleasing fan-game ends up shattering most of the mystery in Kojima’s insanely mad world, in similar fashion to a magician who reveals his tricks in the end of his act, transforming wondrous, mystical magic into a form of elegant trickery. Because that’s what remains in the end, a sense of deceit, as you learn that Kojima, as a lying Hitchcock, has tricked you once again into believing a strain of lies which he now unveils. But if some are riveting and change the way you view certain characters and even past events (begging you to play previous entries one last time), some just feel cheap and idiotic, showing lack of premeditated thought. Of course, all these twists result in a series of plot holes, that range from the insignificant to the blatantly obvious, adding to the unwelcome sense of malicious deceit that settles in. In “Guns of the Patriots”, even dead characters make a comeback from the dead to please the fans… Sure, if you’re a big fan of “Metal Gear”, you’ll probably dismiss this, as you’ll be engrossed in the narrative weaving, adoring every fan tailored reference, but if you’re really interested in narrative depth, you’ll be left somewhat disappointed that the series ends (?) in such a hasty, incongruous way.
Continuing with the pretentious nature of the overarching plot of the series, there are a lot of interesting themes underlying MGS4’s depiction of the future, and most of them with a controversial nature: capitalism and its impact on state’s sovereignty and global power structures, war and its shadowy motivations, genetics and the ethics of science, cultural and family legacy and its impact in the world, just to name a few. As always, expect long dialogs, though fortunately, unlike previous works, the Codec medium is almost completely absent, relinquishing its seat to fully acted, technically stunning animation sequences. Yet, like in every magic act, substance can be of little importance, as style and form can often determine the impact a work has on its audience, and thus, its perception and efficacy. And this is where Kojima’s act vanishes in smoke: MGS4’s cinematic tone, instead of going back to the subtlety and seriousness of the first MGS, opts for the grand, operatic, flamboyant style of MGS2 and 3, completely in tune with modern wacky japanimations. Well, in reality, it surpasses his predecessors, as “Guns of the Patriots” tries to encompass even more styles, genres and tones than any other game/movie/book known to Man. You’ll get sad, dramatic scenes followed by cute monkeys burping from drinking coke and coughing from smoking tobacco; bittersweet, nurturing moments of bonding followed by the most outrageous action sequences with coreographies that make “Advent Children” and “Devil May Cry” look like slow ballets; you’ll get fart jokes in between “Private Ryan” war sets – if you can name a style, then most likely, “Guns of the Patriots” has it: from comedy to tragedy, drama to action; sci-fi to noir. The problem with this virtuoso fruit salad is that all of its elements lose their ability to attain their objectives, as the players’ mindset becomes too fragmented to sink in such a wide array of emotions. Eventually, this murders characters in the eye of the spectator, as you’ll never know if you’re supposed to take things seriously or not. It’ becomes hard to watch such multifaceted characters treated in such a dictatorial way, destroying their credibility and connection with the audience just for the sake of a few laughs or sentimental sighs.
Above all, the game fails when compared to its long legacy. Looking back at the first “Metal Gear Solid”, with its consistently dark aesthetic, and its wonderful cast of morally torn characters, it’s hard not to wish MGS4 would be different. Remember the sobriety of MGS’s tragic tale – a group of people forced to wage war with one another, played like human puppets, suffering at the hands of fate and powers they could never understand. The depth of its storytelling, the great use of sound and cutscenes, the revolutionary gameplay and AI.. Sure, there were some crazy anime elements (Mantis’ flying around comes to mind), but they were toned down, and usually served as ways of rendering character’s inner struggles and beliefs, a meaningful hyperbole of what passed inside them, if you will. In 4, every eccentricity is hollow and out of context. Balance and focus are what MGS4 lacks the most: its outrageous tone and fan pleasing desire just ruin the delicate narrative structure other Metal Gears’ possessed. It’s still a brilliant game, and certainly one of the best to have been released since “Bioshock”, but it poses as a mere shadow of its ancestors. In a way, it’s a good thing “MGS4” ends the saga, for it was becoming a titan larger than its own author; but on the other hand, it is a bittersweet farewell, as you look back and acknowledge the differences between this iteration and what “MGS” once meant for a small, artistically poor medium. Let’s just hope that Kojima can impress us with his magic in the future, as he breaks free from the shackles of Big Boss’ legacy.