The Metal Gear video game franchise has a reputation for excellence in storytelling and innovative gameplay. It is also comically difficult. Join Deadshirt Editor-in-Chief and absolutely terrible video gamer Dylan Roth as he plays through the entire Metal Gear canon in preparation for the long-awaited Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, out this week.
Well, the day has finally arrived and The Phantom Pain is out in stores. I’ve got my Day One Edition sitting here at my desk, and…and I still have three more games to finish before I can start playing. BUT, while you’re all out there enjoying what’s already being hailed as a masterpiece, I’ll be continuing this journey through the Metal Gear saga on your behalf. You’re welcome.
Coming off of my Snake Eater high, I had high hopes but measured expectations for the final chapter in Solid Snake’s story, Guns of the Patriots. Metal Gear Solid 4 has a reputation for being more of an interactive movie than a video game, and for being absolutely batshit insane. In both of these respects, Guns of the Patriots did not disappoint. The experience of playing MGS4 is less like completing a long video game campaign and more like bingeing a season of an extremely uneven television show.
Guns of the Patriots is a five-act story that dedicates more time to character development than any of its predecessors, but the drawback is that sometimes you’re sitting and watching characters talk for an hour and a half straight. Because the game features a single-track narrative, the player doesn’t get to participate in any of the many personal interactions. There are some truly stunning action sequences as well (the cutscene that closes Act Three of the game is unreal), but sometimes it’s hard not to wonder why you’re watching them instead of playing along.
In spite of being about 45% cutscenes (or perhaps because of it), Guns of the Patriots feels absolutely epic, fittingly enormous in scale, scope, and drama for a game that was clearly meant to close the core series. (Not that I’m complaining that we got more.) While the fate of the world has hung in the balance in every game of the series, Guns of the Patriots marks the first time it truly feels that way. It’s the final chronological appearance of nearly every character in the Metal Gear canon, and ties up all the loose ends—no small achievement for a mythology as tangled as this one.
Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots was released for the PlayStation 3 in 2008, and hasn’t been remastered or reissued for any other console to date. It’s currently available on disc by itself or as part of the Metal Gear Solid Legacy Collection, or as a download from the PlayStation network.
Guns of the Patriots picks up in 2014, and in the five short years since Sons of Liberty, the world has changed dramatically. The global economy is now based almost entirely on the military industrial complex, with national militaries being all but replaced by private military contractors (PMC). Nations wage war against each other primarily to keep the gears of industry turning, regardless of whether there’s actually a cause to fight for. At the same time, the battlefield has become strictly controlled using advanced nanotechnology, and the U.N.’s task forces are now tasked not with diffusing or preventing war but to make sure it’s being fought by the rules. Peace is no longer even a long-term objective.
This change has been put into motion by the Patriots, the shadowy entity that has been pulling the strings of the US government for decades. While the Patriots were initially a small international band of ideologues trying to bring the world together under one government, they’ve since been succeeded by a sentient computer program that aims to take direct control over every human being on the planet.
The other shocking change in the past five years is that Solid Snake, the hero of the first four games in the series, has been aging rapidly, and now appears to be a man in his seventies. His body, an imperfect clone of legendary solider Big Boss, is programmed to die, and there’s nothing he can do about it. What’s more, his cells are degrading in such a way that the guided nanovirus injected into him back in the first Metal Gear Solid will eventually forget its programming and start killing everyone. Even if Old Snake survives his next mission, humanity won’t truly be safe until he’s dead.
Now the Patriots’ control system—the ability to alter the minds of the world’s soldiers, to decide whose guns work and whose don’t—is within the grasp of Liquid Ocelot, the legendary mercenary/gunslinger whose body has been taken over by the amputated arm of Solid Snake’s evil twin.
You got all that? That’s, like, Act One.
Guns of the Patriots represents the best and the worst of what the Metal Gear franchise has to offer in terms of story. The plot is complex and intriguing, but tends to fall apart upon close examination, particularly after the final twist is revealed at the eleventh hour. The main characters each get interesting arcs that bring their personal stories to a close and make them feel more like fleshed-out, complete people, while the game’s main bosses, the Beauty & the Beast Unit, are ridiculously over the top female trauma victims upon whom the camera’s eye lingers to the point that it becomes truly gross. Writer/designer Hideo Kojima and company clearly aim for profundity and political relevance and make some important points about passing the right ideas down to the next generation, about our cultural dependence on war—hell, even about the potentially toxic consequences of violent video games—but by the end of the game the themes are pushed so far down the players’ throats that it becomes patronizing.
Being the series finale of sorts to the Solid Snake cycle, MGS4 leans hard into nostalgia, incorporating references and characters from each of the previous games, and even returning you to Shadow Moses Island, setting of the first Metal Gear Solid. The player’s sole interaction with most cutscenes is the ability to view (very brief) flashbacks, showing images from previous stories that pertain to whatever’s occurring in the present day. While the story most directly follows up on Sons of Liberty, there are numerous ties to the prequel Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and even to the first two Metal Gear games—whatever the player’s favorite chapter has been up to this point, it should be impossible not to get nostalgic. (For someone like me, who’s just burned through the previous six games in about a month, getting to see the threads all weave together was particularly exciting.)
While it certainly drags in places and features some truly boneheaded missteps (again, the four members of the B&B Unit each try to hug you to death), Guns of the Patriots is about as satisfying conclusion to the Metal Gear saga as anyone could ask for. It’s emotional, exciting, ocassionally goofy, frequently mind-boggling; it’s all the things fans love about Metal Gear, turned up to eleven.
While Old Snake still spends plenty of time crawling on his belly, Guns of the Patriots is by far the most combat-heavy chapter in the Metal Gear saga up to this point, aided by a slicker-than-ever game engine and an enormous library of weapons and equipment readily available. Rather than manually switching uniforms to optimize camouflage like in Snake Eater, Snake has been been outfitted with an OctoCamo sneak suit that will replicate his surroundings if he stands still for a few seconds. He’s also accompanied on his missions by a small, invisible robot sidekick called the Metal Gear Mk. II (and later, the Mk. III), which can serve as a scout and also fetch new guns and tech for you.
For the first time in the series, players can purchase specific weapons and ammo on demand instead of having to procure all of their equipment on site. This is an enormous change in the nature of the game, as managing your resources has always been one of the important skills to master in playing through a Metal Gear game. With this concern largely removed, the player is more free to experiment with various ways of sneaking past and/or defeating guards, and while the conservation element of strategy is removed, the freedom to be a little more creative about how you play is well worth the trade-off.
Normal infantry combat in MGS4 resembles Gears of War and Modern Warfare as much as it does Snake Eater, with an updated cover shooting system and the ability to modify weapons with custom scopes, sights, grips, or even an underbarrell shotgun or grenade launcher. Close-quarters combat has also been updated, but as most of the fighting in MGS4 is done in open spaces against larger groups of enemies, there aren’t as many opportunities for hand-to-hand fights or silent takedowns. Snake also frequently confronts advanced robots who don’t really have mouths to cover or necks to snap.
While there’s certainly a greater emphasis on gunplay, MGS4 does offer new challenges for fans of both sneaking and blowing stuff up. Players who enjoy the stealth and spying elements of the game are treated to a lengthy stage in which Snake dons a trenchcoat and tails a guy down a dark European street. Unlike straight-up infiltration missions, there’s no way to shoot your way through this challenge, stealth is the only thing that’ll get you there. For players who want more action: A GIANT ROBOT FIGHT. Yes, after twenty years of games in which Snake has to fight against giant bipedal tanks, Guns of the Patriots finally gives you the opportunity to pilot one, and to use it in a brawl against another giant bipedal tank. The REX vs. RAY fight, while brief, stands as one of the game’s most memorable gameplay highlights.
Though the main stage combat is slick and varied with a fair variety of opponents, the boss battles in Guns of the Patriots feel like something of an afterthought. While they each feature their own gimmick (Laughing Octopus is a camouflage expert, Crying Wolf is a sniper, etc.), the fights have a little too much in common, and they’re not any more difficult than fighting or sneaking through the normal course of the game. The story doesn’t do the bosses any favors, either—we don’t even learn anything about any of the Beauty and the Beast Unit bosses until after they’re already defeated. It’s hard to care what happens to them one way or another. The two most memorable fights in the game are the ones against already established characters: Vamp and Liquid Ocelot.
As slick as MGS4‘s gameplay is, it’s clearly not what the game is about. Play is interrupted by cutscenes so frequently and for such long periods of time that any time you actually get to play uninterrupted for an hour feels like an anomaly, a privilege. In the past, players had the opportunity to augment their gameplay experience with the multiplayer mode, Metal Gear Online, but the servers have since been shut down. (A new version of Metal Gear Online is included with The Phantom Pain.) If you’re the kind of player who just wants to beat the game and doesn’t really care about the story…well, I don’t understand why you’re playing Metal Gear Solid at all, but you should probably skip this installment altogether and move right ahead to Peace Walker, which boasts an average completion time of 36 hours.
God dammit, I am never gonna get to play The Phantom Pain.
SNAAAAAAAKE! will return…well, whenever I finish Peace Walker, I guess. In the meantime, please enjoy The Phantom Pain. (But if you spoil anything for me, we’re not friends anymore.)