Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Review - Metal Gear Solid 4

You’re eating a delicious sandwich. It’s full of flavourful filling, it’s satisfying, and the bread is toasted to an ideal crispness. But every time you take a couple of bites, the makers of the sandwich take it away from you. They then give you a lecture on how the sandwich was made, why the sandwich holds together, and how important the sandwich is. They talk and talk and eventually give back the sandwich. You take a few wonderful bites and then they take it away again. The proceeding lecture is all well and good but you thought that you’d bought a sandwich. You bought it so that you could eat a sandwich.

Metal Gear Solid 4 is that sandwich. Since its release, people have said that it is a great game. And I agree with the first part of that judgement: it is great. It just doesn’t seem to be a game. For every twenty minutes of good, solid gameplay, there’s forty-five minutes of cutscenes, dialogue, and exposition. The previous Metal Gear games tread a fine line between gameplay and story but they always managed to balance the two. Metal Gear Solid 4 doesn’t.

There are two key components to a good video game: gameplay and story. An intricate, well-thought-out, and well-written story alone does not make a game. Mass Effect and Knights of the Old Republic are examples of game with too much story and mediocre gameplay. Conversely good gameplay alone merely makes a fun game; not necessarily a great one. Assassin’s Creed, Super Mario Galaxy, and (for me at least) racing games prove this. The trick is to balance the two: good gameplay and a good story in a perfect equilibrium where the two cohere and the game isn’t too heavily weighted towards either one. Where the player keeps playing for two reasons: a desire to play the game and a desire to hear the story. Shadow of the Colossus, Call of Duty 4, Valve games, Braid, Psychonauts; all examples of fun and innovative gameplay combined with interesting, engaging stories well-suited to the videogame medium.

Metal Gear Solid 4 has a good story: it’s intricate, complex, intelligent, meaningful, and important. The dialogue is a bit bad (for example most of Snake’s lines seem to consist of him repeating names in a husky, questioning, surprised way: “Guns of the Patriots?... Big Boss?... Liquid?...etc.”) and the experience’s overall feel is interminably Japanese (ninjas, mechas, lingering slow-motion, heavily choreographed fight scenes and over-dramatisation) but the characters are developed and the plot is quite original. But fundamentally, MGS4 is a video game and not a movie or novel. I bought a game to play not to watch cutscenes after cutscene.

The game was overhyped. It’s got fun gameplay but the story is overwrought and bogs down everything. The game is not perfect and it’s certainly not the PS3’s killer app. It’s just OK.

As usual ‘Tycho’ at Penny Arcade delivered concentrated doses of truth in his inimitably poetic style. The loading/installing has bothered me. When the game isn’t forcing another cutscene down your throat, it’s loading or installing. Why do a mandatory install after every act if the game is broken up into chunks that need to be loaded anyway? Surely the PS3 has a better technical capacity than that?

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