Editor's Note: Columnist Wayne Santos is a dedicated gamer from the infancy of the medium. He is a contributor at IGN and associate editor of Southeast Asian gaming publication GameAxis. His columns for High-Def Digest examine the world of High-Def Gaming.
By Wayne Santos
This article is going to be a bit different from previous ones because it’s only going to look at one game. It’s not a review, more of a discussion. Games available on other consoles may also get this “spotlight” treatment in the future. It’s the first “classic franchise” to finally make its debut on a High-Definition console, and amongst the elder statesmen of console gaming, it’s also one of the oldest. Now spanning just a little over 20 years (not to mention seven different kinds of hardware before coming to the Playstation 3) the Metal Gear series is one of those rare intellectual properties in console gaming that manages to create a life, fanbase and mythology all its own. Its creator, Hideo Kojima, is often regarded as one of the elite creators in the industry, with a singular, unique vision that some critics have cited as making contributions in advancing the idea of Games As Art. His newest game, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is the latest-- and supposedly final -- in a series and genre of gaming that has had a huge impact on both game design and gamers themselves.
Of course, it wouldn’t do to simply look at MGS4 itself without properly putting it in context. Telling the whole story, in depth, would take sometime, but a quick summary is good for those readers who may be unfamiliar with the rich history of the series, and are coming to the game with fresh eyes. It all starts, of course, with the creator Hideo Kojima.
Hideo Kojima was born in 1963 in Tokyo, Japan. His parents both had careers which meant that young Kojima spent much of his youth as a latch-key kid, coming home to an empty house with television – and the programs and movies on it – as his friend. This close attachment to film and television initially forged an ambition in Kojima to become a director, but in his fourth year in university, he came to a decision; having enjoyed Famicom (The original Japanese name for the Nintendo Entertainment System) games such as Super Mario Bros. he felt he would rather create videogames. Because the industry was still in its relative infancy at this time, he had little difficulty in obtaining a position as a Designer & Planner for the company Konami, in 1986. It was his responsibility to work on games for the MSX, another of the many brands of home computers that flourished in the pre-PC/Mac era. Most of his ideas and proposals however, got shot down, and Kojima himself began to feel a sense of frustration with his job, until he finally hit on the concept that would forever be associated with him. He conceived of an American military hero who would fight against nuclear terrorism not through brute force, but through stealth. The code-name of that hero would be Solid Snake, and the name of the game would be Metal Gear, released in 1987.
Metal Gear was released to much acclaim in Japan and Europe though Konami’s limited distribution and marketing prowess in North America at the time hurt the game’s reception in that region. The game was hailed as an innovative title for taking the emphasis off pure, confrontational gun combat and putting it on sneaking, hiding, and not alerting opponents to the presence of Snake. The game managed to prove a modest enough success that Ultra, the publishers for the game in North America, actually created their own sequel without any involvement from Kojima. Dubbed Snake’s Revenge this NES sequel released in 1990, although officially, it’s not considered a canonical addition to the series, which would only come to the MSX2 computers in the same year. Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake was created when Kojima was informed of the sequel developed by Ultra, and urged to do his own, “real” version, but this title wouldn’t actually make it to any console outside of the MSX2 for 16 years, until it was included in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence in 2006.
The two titles were notable for their high praise in the small circles of critics for games at the time, but it wouldn’t be until 1998 that the series – and Kojima himself – would be elevated to auteur status within the medium of gaming. It was eight years after MG2 that Kojima, working on the Playstation console, created a classic in gaming in the form of Metal Gear Solid a game that set a new high watermark for graphics, gameplay and narrative in gaming at the time. No other title looked as good, had so many innovative mechanics, played with the medium in such daring ways, or was bold enough to thematically address real world concerns like nuclear proliferation, the consequences of the post-Cold War political climate, or the ethics and implications of cloning. In terms of the maturity of games, it’s not unreasonable to measure the advancement of the medium as before and after Metal Gear Solid, because it’s influence on gamers – and even more importantly, game developers, who themselves still largely regarded their profession as juvenile entertainment incapable of social or political commentary until this title was released – would resonate for years to come. With this trail-blazing title, Kojima would move on to the Playstation 2 and release Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in 2001, and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater in 2004, both of which would continue the critical acclaim and commercial success of Metal Gear Solid and forge an iconic story and character for the rapidly growing circle of enthusiasts for games. Ancillary titles in the Metal Gear universe would also be released for various hand held gaming systems such as the Playstation Portable, Game Boy and even cellular phones. Which brings us where we are today with recent June 12 release of the latest – and final – adventure for Solid Snake.
MGS 4: The Achievement
One of the first things that is immediately apparent to viewers and players of the game from the outset is the technical achievement of MGS 4. As with previous MGS titles that have appeared on earlier generations of consoles, MGS 4 once again sets new standards for what can be done on a console in terms of both graphical prowess and, perhaps more importantly, art direction. While the lush visuals of this 720p game are considered amongst the best of the current generation of consoles, this doesn’t mean that they’re perfect. A scrutinizing eye, actively on the hunt for flaws will notice slight dips in frame rate during intense action, and lower quality textures for less critical visual elements such as environmental props like chairs, telephones, and other peripheral objects. These minor nitpicks aside however, the sheer attention to detail in both characters, environments, and scope make MGS 4 one of the elite titles this generation that delivers on the promise of what gamers should expect in High-Def gaming. There are a few reasons for this, such as the fact that Konami is using their own custom graphics engine built from the ground up specifically for this game. Another major factor is the actual exclusive nature of the title. Since MGS 4 was developed strictly for use on the Playstation 3, the combination of larger storage capacity of Blu-Ray, being able to take advantage of built in hard drives in every model and – perhaps most importantly of all – being able to optimize the game to operate with the cell processor system architecture without having to immediately prioritize easy translation over to other consoles, means that Kojima and his team were able to flex the muscles of the PS3 to the best of their ability at this time. Whereas other titles destined for operation across multiple platforms have to make concessions right from the start to ensure that games maintain a certain visual consistency and “ease of use” for developers when bringing games from one console or another, MGS 4 had no such constraints, and so was free to simply go as far as the hardware would allow.
The end result, at least visually, is easily one of the best looking games around. When the first images of the game began to surface a few years ago, some doubted whether the visuals would actually live up to trailers, so spectacular were the images that some wondered if they were pre-rendered. However, in the wake of its release, it’s obvious the promise has been kept, with spectacular cut-scenes rendered in real time, proving themselves to be so with little tricks like allowing players to manipulate the camera as cut-scenes play, or showing off the exact outfit the player was wearing before the cut-scenes began to further dispel any doubt that this is simply full motion video being spun off the disc. Combined with a high-standard of voice acting that includes veterans of gaming, anime and even celebrities like Lee Merriwether, and a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound audio set up and the whole game comes together to provide an experience that is – in more than ways than one – one of the most cinematic to ever grace a console.
The real stars of the show here are the characters. Large, ridiculously detailed, and fully motion captured for both gameplay and cut-scenes, Kojima has gone to great lengths to ensure a fidelity of character design not previously seen in real time graphics for games. Snake and his allies have a life and motion to them that manages to avoid falling into the “uncanny valley” trap of near life-like characters that disturb viewers more than engage them, and the fight choreography during some cut-scenes is easily the equal of the best that a Hollywood summer blockbuster can offer. Even little details like water droplets splashing on a virtual camera lens, or dust and dirt scratching the same lens during explosions are taken into account over the course of the game. As if that weren’t enough, a group of models was used as the basis of the chief villains of the game, the “Beauty & the Beast” unit, and their likeness has been meticulously captured with startling results. The visual world of MGS 4 is in many ways a male adolescent fantasy come true, providing high tech, glossy looking military technology, chop socky fighting taken to the extreme, and a digital appreciation of the female form so unapologetic that even a virtual (though it features clothed models) copy of Playboy Magazine is available for flipping through.
In short, for people that are into the technical prowess, art direction and visual lushness of games in High-Def, MGS 4 is an easy defacto demo piece to show off what HD gaming can look like.
MGS 4: The Movie
One of the defining characteristics of the entire Metal Gear saga has been its bold adherence to plot. It’s one of the few franchises in gaming that places its story on a pedestal of equal – some would argue greater -- height than gameplay. As a result, over the last 20 years, the game’s plot has grown into something of almost labyrinthine complexity, and MGS 4 is the title where all the questions raised during the series’ life are finally answered. This, of course, means that the game has a lot of explaining to do. And it does. Which leads to one of the more controversial features of the game, and one that will be hotly debated by fans and detractors of the series, the abundance of cut-scenes found within the game. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the game teeters right on the cusp of having 50% game and 50% cut-scene, and a lot of this story-telling in the cut-scenes has been told with the assumption that the player is a fan of the series that has a basic familiarity with the twists, turns and betrayals that have occurred in previous games. While anyone can play the game and get the basic gist of the story — that being, Snake is trying to stop a villain named Liquid Ocelot – that’s much like bringing a newcomer to a Star Trek movie with no knowledge of the franchise and saying “That’s Captain Kirk and he fights Klingons” without any explanation of the vast fictional history that lurks behind the simple summary.
The basic story is about Solid Snake, hero of the previous games, and his final mission. Having been born as a clone of the perfect soldier, he now finds that his fail-safe mechanism – a limited lifespan – has activated itself and his body is undergoing an accelerated aging process. But before he can allow himself to live out his few remaining months peacefully, there is one last job left to do. His long time nemesis, going by the bizarre moniker of Liquid Ocelot, has risen from being a simple operative to heading a parent corporation that controls the five largest private military corporations in the world. That domination of the war economy however, is just the prelude to a greater plan and Snake, despite his failing body, must step into action once more to try and put a stop to the scheme and whatever ultimate agenda it is in pursuit of.
It’s here that the game can potentially run into problems, particularly for those unfamiliar with either the style or the story of a Metal Gear game. Experienced gamers who’ve never played an MGS title may find themselves balking at the length of time they are expected to put the controller down and simply watch what unfolds, as in a standard movie. The cut-scenes, while phenomenally done, can be excessive, and the ending of game clocks in at over 60 minutes all by itself. For the less patient who aren’t comfortable with not actually playing their game for more than a few minutes at a time, this can prove intolerable. While these cut-scenes can be skipped, this can make for a disjointed, confusing experience as players suddenly find themselves thrust into the middle of action, and expected to know what to do next because they were informed of their objective in the elaborate, overly long cut-scene that was just skipped.
The other side of this equation is the actual comprehension of these cut-scenes. Kojima has repeatedly stated in interviews that this game is a swan song of sorts to the fans (some of whom actually sent death threats to Kojima if he didn’t work on another MGS game) to answer lingering questions that have persisted in the years since the release of the various titles. While the game makes a minimal effort to at least try to explain some of the nuances of the plot, there’s only so much one can do in trying to explain away six previous titles, most of which ran several hours in length with complex turns of plot. It’s pretty much guaranteed by the girth of the series mythos that while a barely functional understanding of past events can be gleaned, the wealth of names, locations and events referenced during these lengthy cut-scenes will be lost on the unfamiliar, which is a shame because for those that ARE familiar with the series, Kojima has created a potent mix of nostalgia, familiarity and closure that can really only be fully appreciated by those who have been with the series for years. This also means that newcomers playing MGS 4 for the first time are invariably “ruining” the previous games for themselves in terms of plot. While Snake’s accelerated clone aging is something revealed straight out of the gates at the start of MGS 4, for example, the discovery that Snake was actually a clone was a major plot twist of the original Metal Gear Solid, and this continues in similar fashion with references to the Patriots, and the fate of characters such as Meryl and Raiden, all of which are elements of previous games that are more meaningful and richer, experiencing them properly within the context of their own games and stories, rather than being hastily told second-hand by MGS 4 in order to keep the audience up to speed with the vagaries of the current plot.
And of course, for those gamers that have been with the series since Metal Gear Solid or, in some cases, as far back as the 1987’s original Metal Gear, the game’s story is one of the few that actually warrants the dictionary definition usage of the word epic. Fans with a long time emotional investment in the series and characters will not be disappointed, as there is a rich, nuanced and lovingly crafted tale waiting for them to experience. For those with a taste for complex plots and an affection for characters built up over the years, MGS 4 is an easy contender for one of the best stories told in this generation of consoles. In the same way that Metal Gear Solid is still regarded as one of the highlights in narrative for the fifth generation of consoles, MGS 4 is likely to garner a similar position for the current 7th generation of HD consoles. Few games are able to tell a story that actually taps into a sense of nostalgia, invoke a sense of shock, or pay through on an emotional investment placed in characters, but MGS 4 does all of these things for anyone sufficiently familiar enough with the series to recognize and enjoy all the story elements Kojima has lovingly placed throughout explicitly for the fans.
MGS 4: The Experiment & Commentary
Out of all the characteristics that comprise the Metal Gear series, probably the one that is most beloved (and most unusual) of all is the experimental nature of the games. Kojima, in this sense, runs completely counter to the conventional wisdom in gaming that states the goal of the medium is to immerse players in the virtual worlds being created, and make them forget that they’re playing a game. In this sense, Kojima has a mischievous side that willfully does the opposite, often for humorous effect and uses a technique known on the stage as “breaking the fourth wall.” In essence, normal dramatic theater pretends that the audience isn’t out there and the events are taking place as natural occurrences, but breaking the fourth wall means characters are aware of the audience, can address them directly and manipulate the knowledge of the artifice they are in. It’s a risky business to break the immersion for audiences in such a manner, and very few people pull it off with any kind of effectiveness. Kojima is one of those people.
In MGS 4, Kojima does this a number of ways. He even pokes fun at the limitations of his previous games with joke references to asking the player to take out the disc and insert disc 2, only to remember the game is being played on a PS3 and no longer requires multiple discs. The game’s mechanic for purchasing weapons is tied into the calendar of the console it’s on, so that on Wednesdays and Sundays, 20% discounts are available for all items found in the virtual gun shop. This carries on a long tradition that’s been a hallmark ever since Metal Gear Solid that tasked players with bizarre mechanics such as beating a mind reading opponent by plugging the controller into another port, or MGS 3, in which an opponent could die of old age by simply readjusting the internal clock of the console to two weeks forward. While it would be improper to discuss all of the ways in which Kojima gleefully, willfully breaks the fourth wall in MGS 4, rest assured that he does it in original ways, and is never above poking fun at himself or the series he has created.
On the other end of the spectrum are the themes and social, political and global commentary that Kojima explores in MGS 4, and these are things he takes VERY seriously. Not content to simply tell a tale of military action, espionage and perhaps a little romance, Kojima uses the Metal Gear games to educate, debate, and provoke thought in a receptive audience. This time around, he has taken on the very timely theme of the privatization of military forces. Ironically, though it’s been known for years now that he was tackling this as a major theme in MGS 4, the long incubation period of MGS 4 ensured that it was one of the later games to explore the idea as lower quality “me too” titles such as Army of Two sought to claim that they also explored the theme, when in reality the idea of Private Military Corporations was a barely tacked on story element that had little to no relevance or depth at all. Where other games seek simply to thrill gamers with non-stop action, Kojima, perhaps even at the risk of alienating the audience, insists on establishing a dialog with the audience; he informs them of the theme, he discusses the implications of an increasing reliance of corporate rather than state armed forces, he provokes and challenges the audience with ideas about nanotechnology, the ethics of cloning, the proliferation of data management into individual lives. In the midst of all the explosions, ninja combat and heavy ordnance being fired, he very nearly clubs gamers over the head with his concerns about technological advancement without conscience, motivated solely for profit and control. So crucial are these themes to the game, that even the New York Times has sat up, taken notice and actually evaluated the game as piece of political commentary, a cautionary tale that may be a thinly veiled criticism of American military and political policy that evades any controversy by being merely a videogame. In this sense, while some may bemoan the overload of information and criticism on the possible future of world affairs and the military culture, MGS 4 is one of the few games in the medium that steadfastly refuses to ignore these topics and attempts to discuss them in an intelligent manner. Many games make the claim of utilizing flavor of the month themes in an attempt to gain more credibility as a game of substance, but nearly all of them fail to actually ask any real questions of these themes, using them instead as a backdrop with no actual consequence. MGS 4 is clearly not one of those games.
It would be easy to talk at length about MGS 4, but that would involve discussing many things that are best left for players to discover themselves. Like any game out there, there are definitely flaws in it depending on your tastes, or simply how determined you are to find them. But for most, the game represents many things. First and foremost, for fans of the series, this is a fitting conclusion that shows Kojima obviously cares for and respects his fanbase, taking great pains to give them something that would reward their loyalty to the series. However, that aside, it is one of the most beautiful looking games available on any console right now, with cut-scenes that will not easily be surpassed for sheer audacity and entertainment value ANY time soon, and a wide breadth of game mechanics and styles that allows players to tackle a situation in almost anyway they’d like, their only limits being their own imagination and deviousness.
For the hardcore or enthusiast gamers, those who own a PS3 likely already have the game, for those that don’t own a PS3, it’s another check to add to reasons to get the console. For those who have PS3 but use it strictly as a Blu-Ray player, this may be the title to convince you to use your machine for its gaming side; if you believe games can’t be as cinematic as movies, this will be the title that completely dispels that belief. As stated earlier, titles that carry the qualities of a classic are few and far between, but Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is one of those titles. While it’s still debatable whether MGS 4 is art, what can’t be argued is the incredible quality of the game, its visuals and its story. The other thing that can’t be argued is that while other titles in the PS3 library may or may not be worthy additions to a game collection, MGS 4 is, without a doubt, a Must Own title.
Wayne Santos's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.