Monday, September 15, 2008

Completed Metal Gear Solid 4 Over The Weekend

Well, just finished playing Metal Gear Solid 4 for the PlayStation 3 over the weekend. It took me 2 weeks to complete -- well in advance of my normal 2-3 months for a game these days. The quick turnaround was due to two factors:

1) This is a very short game (though that's not a bad thing in my book); and

2) I took a week off from work and pretty much spent every waking moment engrossed in this game.

The last point should tell you how I feel about the experience. Because of my work AND writing schedule, I rarely get to devote more than 5 hours a week to gaming. And that's if I'm lucky. Some weeks I don't get to game at all. So a game that takes most teenagers a week or two to beat, takes me 12 weeks off and on to do the same. But I've been gaming since I was 8, so video games will never disappear from my life completely.

With MGS4, however, I got sucked into it early and it never let up until I was done. It helped that I was between writing projects at the time, of course. And the great storyline, graphics, and gameplay made it a cinch for me to stay interested for hours on end. Which, if you know me, is a feat in itself as I can no longer stay seated for more than 2 hours to play any game these days. I always need a break. Not so this time. On my week off, it was not uncommon for me to spend 4-5 hours in one sitting playing Kojima's latest masterpiece, only to spend another 2-3 hours later the same night. Sometimes I would replay older chapters just because they were so much fun!

All this started back in June when I bought the PS3 pictured below, which came bundled with MGS4. At the time I was in the middle of playing Grand Theft Auto 4 for my Xbox 360, so beyond doing the initial install of the PS3 and watching a few blu-ray movies, I left the console alone until the end of July when I completed GTA4. But aside from performing a few software upgrades, I spent all of the month of August doing rewrites and writing a new story, among other non-gaming things.

Finally, on September 1, I returned to the world of Metal Gear and began my epic journey. And what a journey it was! While MGS4 hearkens back to the intricate, muddled and loquacious plotlines which annoyed fans in the second installment, this time around the story was a lot more manageable, if perhaps a little bit of a letdown in the end (more on that later). MGS3 had done a lot to put the series back in order, but the 60s time setting did not allow for much in the way of technological progress in terms of the look and feel of the game. That game had players traipsing mostly through Asian jungles, relying on traditional painted camouflage and good ol' fashioned hand-to-hand combat to make it through to the end.

But in MGS4, we return back to the "present," with more advanced tech goodies at Snake's disposal than a trio of James Bond films put together. Chief among these being the Octo camo suit, which allows Snake to morph and blend almost-instantly into any background just by standing next to it for more than 5 seconds. So, unlike in MGS3, you no longer have to manually change into different camo gear to match your environment, and apply the appropriate face paint before commencing taking down enemy sentries -- the computer makes the adjustments for you. And in a cool graphical changeover not unlike the Predator alien from the movies. Nice!

The levels and chapters here flow smoothly and swiftly, with Snake never tarrying in one location for too long. This is a change from the previous games which usually had the player backtracking endlessly and staying put in the same general geographical location for the entire game. Not so here. In MGS4, players start off in a Middle Eastern setting, then quickly fly off to the South American plateau, then off to central Europe, back to the Arctic for a poignant return to the current series's roots, and finally aboard a mechanized, floating fortress which I won't name for fear of giving away some key plot elements. That's a lot of scenery changes, and something I appreciated a lot. I played the game very conservatively, so in my playthrough I did virtually no backtracking. It's amazing! MGS2 killed me with all the endless backtracking I had to do, and MGS3 wasn't too much of an improvement. Backtracking, of course, is a trick programmers use to get you to play the same areas multiple times rather than burn up valuable resources trying to generate new real estate. With the advanced capabilities of the PS3, and the ample room provided by the new Blu-ray discs, I guess this is no longer an issue. Or perhaps those boys at Kojima Productions are really just *that* good. Either way, it all amounts to a pretty good romp across the globe. Just the way I like it!

One thing I have to get off my chest, tho. I was a tad disappointed with the ending. Not only did I think all the loose threads were wrapped up a little *too* neatly (i.e., not plausible), I felt the main character, Solid Snake, was given the shaft (no innuendo intended). It just seemed an ignoble end for such a great hero and soldier. And no, I am *not* implying that he dies. I'm speaking of "end" as an end to his presence in the series, as all indications from Kojima is that this will be Snake's last outing, if not the last Metal Gear game period. I don't know, but it didn't gel with me the way Snake just gets screwed over and over in this final outing. And to make matters worse, the other characters get cookie-cutter, saccharine endings. I mean it doesn't get more cheesy than having your grim, militaristic game series end with both a teary father-daughter reunion AND a wedding! I think Kojima was watching too many soap operas or something. Or maybe this in an ingredient indigent to the Japanese psyche? Whatever the case may be, the ending left a little something more to be desired.

That said, I still love this game to death. It contained the least frustrations and most fun I had with this series, although MGS1 is still my all-time favorite. That will never change. Some people might say that MGS4 was too easy. And, yes, there is some basis to this charge. While not exactly easy per se, it was the the easiest of the series. The boss battles in particular were confusingly simple. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but it's the only way to describe these fights. I kept expecting something more to come out at me whenever I dropped one of the female heavies, only to be confused by their whimpering cries and fetal resting positions. WTF?

But despite this, the gameplay mechanics, superb graphics (best of this generation so far), and mind-blowingly deep story and cutscenes make this game impossible to rate below a 9 out of 10. What the actual decimal amount becomes is just picking hairs. Regardless of differing opinions on minor nitpicks, no one can play this game and say it is not a masterpiece. A fitting cap to an excellent series that began 10 years ago (for the current "solid" cycle).

I'm going to start the game again and play it on a higher difficulty level now.

Rating: 9.4/10

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