Thursday, August 29, 2013
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
Okay, "Metal Gear Solid 4" is not a baaaad game per se. As in, its playable, the parts for the most part all add up to a decent-enough experience, and maybe if you're never played a Metal Gear game before, it will feel fresh and interesting. But then again, if you're never played a Metal Gear game before, you won't have the foggiest idea of who anybody is, what is going on, why its going on, how any of this matters, and who this old dude is instead of Solid Snake. The game doesn't even attempt to let new players in, it is completely obsessed with its own mythology, filling itself to the brim with references, cameos, reappearances, and plottwists, all to create some finale to mythos. A mythos that was basically made up as Hideo Kojima went along, requiring various sloppy retcons and fudged math to create a Grand Unifying Theory of Metal Gear. And it just doesn't add up.
At this point, the ridiculousness of the plotline is so bad its surreal. There are points in this game's narrative that come off as perhaps an experimental satire so far removed from reality that its hard to tell what level of irony we're working on here. If any. Curiously, at the same time, the game jumps head first into an array of curious design decisions, all with the apparent intention of wiping out the stealth part of Metal Gear. The gamepaly simply feels wrong: my early attempts to follow the letter in the law of Tactical Espionage resulted in numerous deaths, until frustration wore in and I bought a shogun and destroyed every enemy in my least subtle impression of a Solid Snake Terminator that I could manage. Only a serious hardcore fan could find much of anything in the plotline defensible, and the core gameplay is all bells and whistles, with very little substance. "Metal Gear Solid 4" feels like a franchise trying its very hardest to self-destruct, and for better or worse, failing even at that, because "Metal Gear Solid 5" is coming out soon enough.
The immediate change with "Metal Gear Solid 4"'s design over the previous three games is that this one is taking place at a far vaster scale. Every Metal Gear game has pretty much been about saving the world form some ridiculous giant robot monster with nuclear bombs for feet, but their stories have been largely self-contained onto a single location and a single mission. This one, however, is a huge globe-trotting adventure across five levels, five different moods, five different styles, and five different locations. You start fighting in the middle of the Iraq War right in the middle of a full-scale street battle, and you'll end in the midst of a titanic doom warship fighting the largest battle in the series history. Nearly every character from the previous games who are still alive come back for a significant role in the story. But don't feel bad for those dead dudes, a lot of them come back too. This was a game built with the express purpose of ending the series with a huge explosion of drama, and I guess, it worked.
However, "Metal Gear Solid 4" in order to achieve its goals to build a massive storyline, has the small problem of doing too many things at once. There is a cast of dozens, all of whom have their own storylines, several of whom go off on their own romances, their own rivalries, and their own dramas, to the point that Solid Snake at some points winds up seeming like a weird extra in a game built to be the final send-off to his glorious superspy career. He's still the main character and the sole playable character, but there are bizarre moments where the game transforms into a movie. We have entirely non-interactive giant fight scenes, entirely in cutscene, which do not involve Solid Snake at all. It gets to the point that the game even sometimes goes split screen, filling up half the screen with a movie, and the other half with the actual game part of the game. That the cutscenes are enormous and endless and often times hideously padded doesn't really add to the experience either.
Here's my question for Hideo Kojima: why isn't this a movie?
The answer, of course, is that Metal Gear Solid is a video game franchise. But "Metal Gear Solid 4" basically wants to do both. Maybe half of its running time is actually gameplay, and that's simply unacceptable for a video game, an interactive medium where the story should be organically experienced by the player as they move forward. Its impossible to feel personally invested in a cutscene involving Snake's ex-girlfriend and some other dude proposing to each other while they fight off endless swarms of cyber ninjas*, when I'm not playing the game and the character I'm playing as isn't even here! You'll note in the other Metal Gear games, just about every cutscene had the player character personally in the moment, or watching it from a distance. Not this time. Yeah, Raiden showing off his robot ninja powers against a horde of mooing mechs (don't ask) is impressively choreographed, but its just extra fluff. It would be fine in a movie, but this isn't a movie, this is a game! Keep the player and his or her character involved!
But even if this were a movie, that wouldn't really solve anything. "Metal Gear Solid 4" suffers from the "end of franchise syndrome". The last movie in a film franchise is almost never any good, or is noticeably inferior to the other two, especially in modern adventures. There's an obvious reason for this: you have to wrap everything up. Everything. You have to rope together a huge, massive cast and have them show up, bow for the audience, do a thing, and go home. So ultimately we have a cast of thousands, all in the place of hanging around and the director has to "give them something to do". This is why "Pirates of the Caribbean 3" feels ungainly and false, "X-Men 3" was little more than a disaster", even "The Dark Knight Rises" was too big for its own good**. "Metal Gear Metal 4" has the unfortunate position of sitting at the end of a franchise full of plot twists, turns, ridiculous conspiracies, science nonsense, and a few deeply varied tones.
Particularly it has to somehow 1) end Solid Snake's career, 2) somehow make sense of the cliffhanger and silliness that ended "Metal Gear Solid 2", 3) rope in the characters of "Metal Gear Solid 3" into the main plot, and 4) give a final send-off to every character the author can remember. This isn't exactly an easy writing position, I sure as Hell wouldn't have wanted to be the guy tasked to do all these things. Maybe a truly brilliant creative mind could do it - the kind of impossible author that is born only of the mating of woman and pagan deity. So its a mess. The storyline this time is pretty much indefensible, desperately relying upon retcons, leaps in logic, plotholes, and entirely unexplained character changes in the backstory in order to work.
Here I am, this deep into this review and I haven't even started to explain what the plot even is! So let's start with that. In what is perhaps a metaphor for his own exhaustion and desperation to retire, Hideo Kojima has turned Solid Snake into an old man, dying of various silly science diseases which has prematurely aged him, and filled him to the brim with a crazy virus that might wipe out the planet if he's not deep in a few months. Meanwhile, the Earth has been conquered by the Patriots, those evil AI folk who dominated the plot of "Metal Gear Solid 2" and have perverted the world economy so badly that warfare has become a necessity for nations to function. The biggest industry is now that great boogie man of the Seventh Generation of Gaming, Private Military Corporations. However, Snake doesn't really care too much to save the world from machine domination, instead he's out to kill Liquid Sanke, his clone brother who died of that science virus in the first game, who now lives on in the arm of Revolver Ocelot, a former Patriots ally and career traitor. (See how ridiculous this shit is already?) Liquid Ocelot wants to take over the Patriots and be... evil. I don't really see how he would be any worse, but we have to kill him.
Already we have a huge problem: Liquid Snake isn't really all that big of a threat compared to the damn Patriots. In fact, the whole game, we're in this weird position of actually fighting to protect them. Yeah, Snake and Liquid and even Ocelot have a lot of history together, but I really don't remember what Liquid did to Snake that was bad that he is willing to spend the rest of his short life fighting in a failing body to finish him off. Remember "Metal Gear Solid 2"? Which ended with you fighting another villain who was - again - not nearly as evil as the Patriots? How unsatisfying that was? That's pretty much the whole game here, but don't worry, there are enough plottwists to kill off the Patriots entirely incidentally.
Horrible plot decisions are pretty much the norm rather than the exceptions this time around. For example: the charming and quirky supporting cast from "Metal Gear Solid 3" have been reverse engineered into the supervillains behind the evil Patriots. That evil traitor from "Metal Gear Solid 1" who originally poisoned Snake with a cyber-virus is back, repeatedly switches sides, has sex with Otacon just to betray him, to the ultimate point of not really making much sense at all. I have no idea why this character does anything in this game. Big Boss comes back as a zombie built out of parts of his dead clones just to deliver an endless John Galtian speech in a desperate attempt to explain away everything that happened. Turns out Revolver Ocelot wasn't actually possessed by Liquid, he was just pretending because.... you know what? I'm done. This shit is bananas. This plot is so preposterous it borders on the experimental. I've seen episodes of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" that have made more sense. For awhile part of the charm of Metal Gear Solid was the rolling cheerfulness by which is blasts the player in the face with spinning nonsense, twists, and counter-twists. It was wonderfully silly at one point. But this is too much, its either a really subtle self-satire, or just... bad.
I guess now that we've moved past the atrocity that is the story, we can finally dabble in the gameplay. Unfortunately, here again, it just doesn't work. There's definitely been a great deal of work that's gone into this title, developing an adventure notably longer than the previous Metal Gear games. But this never really feels like a Metal Gear game.
There are a few advances, I must admit. Snake has finally learned how to aim and walk at the same time, allowing for an over-the-shoulders third-person-shooter experience which has never existed before. The combat and aiming flow much easier, allowing for mobility to the action that "Metal Gear Solid 3" lacked... but which the previous games simply didn't need. There is a massive array of weapons, including finally a shotgun***, which allow for all manner of combat options. In fact, the weaponry array is unbelievable, to the point of being fetishistic. Solid Snake is now walking around with an armory equaled only by crazy men in Montana who will keep on stockpiling weapons until they see Obama's birth certificate. But for the first time ever since the Soliton Radar disappeared, a change which really completely undermined the meaning of this franchise as far as I'm concerned, the gameplay feels natural again.
Here's the word again. Unfortunately its all ruined by the fact that the obsession with guns has blown apart all the meaning to the stealth and tactics. You can purchase guns and ammo at any time during the combat, so its not like there's any kind of advantage to being stealthy. In previous games, the combat was so stiff that combat was best avoided or handled with proper strategy. Or at the very least, resources were so scarce and health was so thin that blasting away every enemy would leave you entirely helpless against the bosses. Now when you're out of shotgun shells or rockets, just call up and buy new ammo, no fuss at all. Yeah, you could stealth your way through the game, and using the Mk. 22 tranquilizer is the best way to handle most opponents as it quietly takes down every foe with a single hit, but if you get caught, who cares? Magic up a shotgun and make those enemies more familiar with the dirt.
Curiously, most of the game doesn't even take place in familiar Metal Gear situations. The game opens in the middle of a damn war, how the hell are you supposed to be stealthy there? This was the one time I had any particular trouble because I was under the mistaken impression that I was trying to avoid both sides of the conflict, when really the PMCs are your enemy for no particular reason. So I avoided everybody and got chopped to pieces in the middle of firefights. What ever happened to Solid Snake being the lone master of invisibility, ninja-ing his way against impossible odds all alone in the middle of a super fortress? That's over. Now he's in Iraq, fighting in broad daylight in the least subtle way possible. Look how far we've fallen. There are times when you're quietly moving alone against manageable numbers of enemies, actually avoiding their detection or taking them out before they call in for help, but its so rare that it feels like a minigame. There's about as much stealth in "Ocarina of Time" as this game. Of course, that's even when the game let's play. The other rest of the time you'll spend a half hour watching cutscenes for every ten minutes you get to have your adventure.
Bizarrely, "Metal Gear Solid 4" is so willing to accommodate those new to the franchise in gameplay terms, but the storyline is a dense of fog of internal references and in-jokes, impossible to fathom for those who have never played a Metal Gear before.
Oh yeah, the sun rises in the morning, the New Jersey Parkway is congested every weekend in the summer, and the close-quarters combat sucks in this Metal Gear Solid game. Which is why Hideo Kojima decided to end the game with a massive pretentious fist fight. Brilliant.
And really, was any of this necessary? Why did we have to wrap up the adventure in this silly box far too small to fill up everything? Who ever asked for Snake to be a dying old man, too sick to even enjoy a cigarette? We didn't want a dying defeated Metal Gear Solid, we wanted youthful exciting action, moving at its own natural pace. Not copying off of modern shooters and blockbusters, attempting far too many things at once. "Metal Gear Solid 4" isn't by any means a bad video game, it actually works, the boss fights are occasionally fun, and the adventure is big enough to impress those unwilling to really examine it critically. But like seemingly every long-running Japanese franchise in the last generation, it lost its way. It crawled up inside its own ass and mythology and disappeared up there, with nary a line for long-time fans and nothing but contempt for newbies. Its so damn serious with its own importance, like what was relatively simple spy adventures needed to end on the biggest most overblown video game ever made. But yet the game feels so small compared to its cutscenes, as if its not even as large as it thinks it is.
I wouldn't go so far as to say I hated "Metal Gear Solid 4", there are still shades of a gaming franchise I've loved here. But they are only shades. I'm not a fanboy deluded by nostalgia. Would I really be nostalgic for a game I played three weeks ago? Its a game that's made for its own damn importance, not to be played, not to be fun. I won't go for years carrying a grudge against this title as I have the atrocities that befell Metroid, Zelda, and especially Final Fantasy, I'll simply finish writing this review, feeling no anger at all. Only mourning.
Thank God for "Metal Gear Solid 5". Imagine if "Metal Gear Solid 4" was really where the series ended? What a nightmare.
* I'm reminded of the Will Turner and Elizabeth Swan wedding scene in the midst of the climax fight in "Pirates of the Caribbean: The World's End", a similarly bloated story struggling to juggle far too many plotlines at once. I guess the idea is to be charming, to have a lovey-dovey scene ironically thrown in the middle of a fight scene - though curiously this always seems to make the fight scene boring and unnecessary without any tension, and the romance lack any mood. That Pirates scene actually took place right as several other million plotlines were getting resolved too, basically ending up as a comic relief moment in the middle of high drama - so dull afterthoughts that ruin the tone. It didn't work there, it doesn't work here.
** Be afraid. Be very afraid of the day that Kingdom Hearts tries to conclude itself. If you think "Metal Gear Solid 4" is unruly, you have not seen anything yet.
*** There might have been shotguns before in this series, I just happened to never find any.