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New 'Metal Gear' will wow established fans

“Metal Gear Solid 4” is a landmark game in many respects. It’s just not a universally accessible one.
Image: Metal Gear Solid 4
Solid Snake is looking long in the tooth thanks to an accelerated aging condition. Don’t worry — he can still hold his own. Konami
/ Source: contributor

The “Metal Gear Solid” video game series generates fan fervor to rival any “Star Wars” movie or Apple iProduct. What started as an action-meets-sci-fi title for the Japanese MSX2 computer in 1987 has become a deeply beloved, multi-platinum hit machine. 

Expectations are insanely high for producer Hideo Kojima’s “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots,” which is a PlayStation 3-exclusive game. Sony is counting on the game to propel its PS3 to the front of the console arms race and fans have been poring over every screenshot and trailer for months.

“MGS4” is a landmark game in many respects. It’s just not a universally accessible one.

“MGS4” will wow established fans and experienced gamers with its groundbreaking presentation and gameplay advancements. But newcomers, especially casual players, may find the story bewildering and the pacing uncomfortably slow.

If you’ve never played a “Metal Gear” game before, it’s easy to determine if this is your kind of game. Do you geek out on things like adaptive camouflage and unmanned military assault ‘bots? Then you’re in the right place.

I’d highly recommend at least reading a summary of past “Metal Gear Solid” plotlines. Even better, dip back into “Metal Gear Solid” on the original PlayStation or “Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance” for Xbox and PS2. This is where the stealth action genre started and the games still look and play brilliantly.

I went into “MGS4” without heeding my own aforementioned advice. And despite having played through all the previous games, I was soon scratching my head. There are more flashbacks, plot twists and resurrected characters than all the episodes of “Lost” combined.

Fortunately, I was too enthralled by the presentation and familiar (but greatly rejuvenated)game mechanics to worry too much. I was in, and I couldn’t stop.

“MGS4” finds heroic covert operations agent Solid Snake, the protagonist of the series, suffering from a mysterious accelerated aging condition. Now he’s known simply as Old Snake on the in-game Heads-Up Display. Since the intricacies of the story are best left to be discovered as you play, suffice it to say that Snake is sent to investigate the rise of a conglomerate of Private Military Companies, or PMCs.

These PMCs together rival the size of the U.S. military and one man seems to be behind them all. In this near-future society all soldiers, including hired guns, are enhanced and monitored through a nanotechnology system called Sons of Patriots. If said nanotechnology fell into the wrong hands, the resulting military power could defeat any army in the world.

Image: Metal Gear Solid 4

The conspiracy theme, a common thread from earlier games, isn’t surprising, but “MGS4” also deals with some timely issues. PMCs such as Blackwater are real and controversial. The Middle East, where the game begins with insurgents battling PMC troops, looks like any news reel of the war in Iraq. “MGS4” may be science fiction fantasy, but it’s close enough to feel real.

That’s not to say that “MGS4” plays out like a dry Military Channel documentary. The science fiction elements are where “MGS4” shines the brightest. The main foes, or bosses, facing Snake are truly horrifying. Laughing Octopus has writhing mechanical tentacles and Screaming Mantis dangles creepy little marionettes from two of her four arms.

Snake’s new Octocamo active camouflage is utterly addictive to play around with. Whenever Snake is lying prone or pressed against a surface, his updated Sneaking Suit adapts to mimic the colors and patterns of the environment. I particularly liked the effect of the checkerboard tile floor. The percentage reading onscreen, a carry-over from “Metal Gear Solid 3,” tells you how effectively Snake is hidden from enemies.

My favorite new game feature is also one of the most subtle. Whenever Snake is stationary, an undulating ring of light surrounds him. This ingenious Threat Ring is a visible indicator of danger; a wave in the ring gets progressively taller as an enemy approaches. At a glance you can determine the direction and danger level facing Snake.

Other new tech in Snake’s arsenal includes the Solid Eye device and the Metal Gear Mk. II drone. The Solid Eye combines the previously separate night vision and binocular devices into one unit. The eye patch also supplies invaluable information on hidden pick-ups and soldiers in the field. The Mk. II is a remote control drone that’s a blast to play with. Imagine a radio-controlled robot that can scout hostile areas ahead, zap enemies and pick up health kits.

I was soon completely preoccupied with the overhauled weapon system in “MGS4.” Weapon mods, similar to the system in “Army of Two,” can be purchased and installed from the pause menu at any time using Drebin points. These points, named after the arms dealer you meet near the beginning of the game, are earned by scavenging for guns. Duplicates to weapons you already own are automatically sold to Drebin and converted into points. At first I felt guilty looting all the corpses in the streets, but it soon became an obsession. 

“MGS4” carries on the series’ tradition of immaculately produced cut-scenes and stellar graphics. You can always skip the lengthy cut-scenes if you find them to be excessive but I wouldn’t recommend that. Producer Kojima and his crew are rethinking the video game format by including first-rate animations with engrossing gameplay. Plus, who says the player has to be in control all the time?

The graphics are among the best on a console to date. The environments, from dust-choked streets in the Middle East to a wet, dark South American jungle, are full of finely detailed textures and striking details. Debris floats through the air and the screen becomes streaked with dirt.

I sunk pretty deep into “MGS4,” but others may not see the appeal. I know more recreational players that are put off by the slow, deliberate pace. Players that are accustomed to faster, Western shooters like “Halo 3” or “Call of Duty 4,” might well take a pass.

But I can’t help but think patience is a virtue here. “MGS4” may not guarantee Sony the number-one console spot but it’s an essential purchase (or reason to upgrade to a PS3) for any serious gamer.