Isn’t it weird how no one ever talks about Metal Gear Solid 4 anymore? How many people reading this article right now who have played Metal Gear Solid 4 can even remember its subtitle?
MGS4 was a huge deal when it came out. It wasn’t just the epic conclusion to one of the most famous series in all of gaming, it was a flagship title in a new console generation, and without a doubt the most technically advanced game to date. It was Hideo Kojima’s follow up to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, arguably the high point of the whole series and one of the most well-regarded PS2 games in the console’s storied history. It’s hard to find exact budget figures, but MGS4 was probably one of the five most expensive video games ever produced at its launch date in 2008, largely due to Kojima’s insistence on building a brand new game engine to handle MGS4’s ambitious technical dimensions (which allegedly were so advanced that the game couldn’t even fit on an Xbox 360). The game’s hype was subsequently reflected in its stellar launch, with 3 million copies sold within the first few weeks, thereby establishing the PS3’s first mega-hit.
And yet MGS4 is strangely all but forgotten today, or at least it seems to have fallen to the unenviable status of being the least memorable game of the console-based Metal Gear Solids. Granted, I have no empirical evidence to back this up. As a lifelong Metal Gear fanatic who regularly frequents forums and reads every drop of Metal Gear commentary I can get my hands on, it only recently dawned on me that I hear so little about the series’ chronological conclusion. Time has granted MGS 1, 2, and 3 their unique legacies both within the Metal Gear series and in gaming history as a whole. Though MGSV is too new to accurately establish its long term reputation, I am confident that the game’s stark virtues and vices will be excruciatingly analyzed over the coming years and it will at least garner a sense of misguided appreciation, if not reverence in its own right. But MGS4… no one seems to care about MGS4.
So why is MGS4 largely forgotten?
I think the answer to that question lies in MGS4’s unique failure to create an identity for itself in a series which is known for its overwhelming personality above all else. Every game in the series may be linked by a common timeline and lore, but each game still packs its own instantly recognizable style. A single glance at a level environment, a single clip of music, or the voice of a key character should instantly transport any Metal Gear fan to the individual game from which the asset comes. But rather than carve out its own aesthetic style, MGS4 became a somewhat bland mishmash of already well-worn Metal Gear trappings.
Consider each of the individual Metal Gear Solid games…
The original Metal Gear Solid is the classic. Though it’s not technically the first game in the Metal Gear cannon, it’s the game which brought most people into the series and therefore scores an enormous amount of nostalgia points. Shadow Moses Island, with its dark and wet corridors, its icy concrete, and its desolate isolation is still the iconic Metal Gear setting. Psycho Mantis is still the iconic boss, Metal Gear Rex is still the iconic metal gear, and Solid Snake’s growling dialogue still nails the iconic attitude for a Metal Gear hero. Though the game’s story wasn’t as gloriously twisted as its sequels, MGS was most players’ first dose of specially Kojima flavored insanity.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is the crazy one. It’s the one where Kojima literally lied to everyone about the protagonist’s identity for years. It’s the one where you have a sword fight with the ex-president of the United States on top of Federal Hall. It’s the one where you can get peed on. It’s the one where you run around butt-ass naked for a while. It’s the one where you get yelled at for shooting seagulls or beating up defenseless hostages. It’s the one where you get made fun of for going in the women’s bathroom. It’s the one where you can listen to a guy talk about his diarrhea (OK, that’s in every Metal Gear game). And it’s the one where this happens. It’s the one where Kojima went full Kojima and wrote perhaps the most ambitious and least understood video game narrative in history. And though the game caught a lot of flak at its release and subsequently garnered a somewhat negative reputation, it has since been rehabilitated by obsessive fans and stunned on-lookers who simply can’t believe that someone made a video game which tried to do what it did.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is generally considered the best one. It was the apex showcase of Kojima’s best qualities as a video game creator without any of his worst ones. It brought back Snake as the player-protagonist (sort of), transported the setting out of dark military bases and techno-punk existential loneliness to a brightly lit jungle. The story perfectly balanced Kojima’s eccentricity with a new (for the series) sense of light-hearted fun, while keeping the seemingly nihilistic post-modern gobly-gook to a minimum. This is where many Metal Gear fans spent their finest hours. Everyone recalls using the new stealth-walk to lightly step over twigs and grass to sneak up on a shockingly-well camouflaged enemy solider in a dense and immaculately realized forest. Everyone loves the interplay between legendary Metal Gear characters like Big Boss and Ocelot in their youths, providing fans with gleeful insights into how they became the characters known in the modern canon. MGS3 was the masterpiece everyone knew Kojima had in him but had never seen fully realized.
Skipping ahead briefly, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s legacy is still under construction. The game undoubtedly has a lot to overcome in the minds of many fans, given its “unorthodox” approach to storytelling (which many consider to be “barebones,” a frighteningly uncharacteristic trait for Kojima) and the perception that it failed to deliver the narrative content promised by Kojima during its development. Part of the problem is that MGSV is so different from any other Metal Gear game that fans aren’t really sure what to make of it. There is no doubt that MGSV will continue to be praised for its gameplay, which is far and away the best in the series, and in my mind, without a doubt the best core mechanics ever seen in a stealth game. Ultimately, I predict MGSV will be remembered as an incomplete game which had the potential to be a true masterpiece, but was ultimately hamstrung by whatever the hell was going on behind the scenes at Konami during the game’s arduous development period. But regardless of how MGSV is remembered, I am confident that it will be.
And then there’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It was the game that was supposed to wrap up the stunningly convoluted mess of plot threads created in the previous games and in the process of doing so, Kojima neglected to give the game any story of its own. It largely plays out as Solid Snake and Otacon flying to various exotic locations around the world chasing Liquid Ocelot (the most Metal Gear-y of all Metal Gear villains. Seriously, he’s two classic Metal Gear antagonists stapled together by psychic powers and genetics) while various crucial plot points are dropped to answer the big questions posed by MGS2. The player learns who the Patriots are, why they were started, what they are doing now, and eventually why Ocelot concocted all of his Machiavellian plots during the previous games.
None of it is bad, but MGS4 is left with nothing to call its own. The game spends all of its time dealing with past events, and usually not in an interesting way that develops or redefines characters, but rather in a way that hastily wraps them up into some sort of conclusion. This pattern is reflected in virtually every component of the game. For instance, MGS4’s environments never come close to capturing a setting as iconic as MGS2’s Tanker and Plant, or MGS3’s jungles. Instead the player is thrown between five different locations, all of which last only a single three hour-ish act and are therefore never thoroughly explored. Of course, the most memorable environment is Shadow Moses itself, which makes a surprise reappearance, but has the unfortunate consequence of highlighting just how forgettable “Eastern Europe’s” city and “South America’s” plantations are (though they are both gorgeously rendered).
Even new characters are almost non-existent. One of the best things about the Metal Gear canon is that every game brings back old characters in different times and places to interact with wacky new characters whose importance is contextually significant. So we get to see a 20-something, cocky, hot-shot Revolver Ocelot get his ass kicked by Big Boss throughout the entirety of MGS3, and then we see him forty years later in MGS1 as a grizzled veteran tricking Solid Snake. While we get plenty of returning characters in MGS4 (pretty much every still living character makes an appearance), we get no one new for them to interact with, except Drebin, and I guess Johnny (sort of, he technically appears in other games) if the stupid comic relief counts. Perhaps the single most emblematic instance of this issue is the Beauty and the Beast Corps, which despite having some of the damn coolest physical designs in the series, has next to no characterization. They are supposed to be the stand ins for the “boss squad” in every Metal Gear game, but instead of getting the memorable characters in Foxhound, Dead Cell, or the Cobras, we are left with what amounts to a bunch of brain dead cyborgs.
The same trend is found in the gameplay. MGS4 completely reinvented the classic top-down Metal Gear camera and patrol-oriented stealth system for a refreshingly modern third-person, over the shoulder movement scheme which was far better oriented for combat than its predecessors. Unfortunately, Kojima seemingly couldn’t figure out what the hell to do with his new mechanics. The first two acts use a rather intriguing twist on the classic stealth set-up, but forcing the player to sneak through an active battlefield, thereby providing the memorable spectacle of crawling through a no man’s land between two rival military factions while bullets whiz overhead and explosions shake the ground. But after two measly acts, the new set up is abandoned and the game loses all sense of mechanical coherency as it devolves into a series of short pure stealth sections and action set pieces.
Seriously, three fifths of MGS4 have no consistent mechanics. First you tail a guy through a city, then you have a vehicular rail shooting section, then a boss fight, then briefly sneaking through an empty base, then a boss fight, then more brief sneaking, then another boss fight, then a borderline rail shooter section, then another boss fight, then one final sneaking section, then another boss fight, then button mashing, and then finally the last boss fight. Looking back at the game eight years after its release, the legacy of MGS4’s mechanics seems to be as a testing grounds for MGSV’s vastly improved and more interesting gameplay rather than stand on their own in any valuable way.
(Likewise, the currency/weapon unlock system was a lot of fun to play around with, but ultimately felt superfluous in a stealth game. It would also be enormously improved upon in MGSV.)
Even the music is unmemorable. It doesn’t have the haunting atmosphere of MGS1, the classic 007-inspired ballads of MGS3, nor the dark emotiveness of MGSV. MGS4’s music is closest in spirit to the manic synth beats of MGS2, but fails to grasp the latter’s surreal effect. Instead MGS4’s music is oddly generic for a Metal Gear game. Like with everything else in the game, it’s not bad, it just fails to stand out, aside from its signature guitar plucking. Despite running through the game a million times, no memorable tracks come to mind except maybe the opening score or the song that plays during the first Raiden-Vamp fight.
Aside from the revamped mechanics, most of the novel ideas MGS4 brought to the table ended up getting buried under the weight of the series’ baggage. For instance, the game’s global-temporal setting is actually really cool. MGS4 takes place in 2018, at the very end of the entire series timeline (unless you count Metal Gear Rising) and the entire in-game world has taken a massive divergence from the real world. Private military companies (PMCs) have become have become the new super powers and engage in endless, pointless proxy wars to sustain the “war economy” for the benefit of a few and at the expense of the many. I would have loved to see the dynamics of this new world play out in more detail, but instead the names of the five major PMCs are barely mentioned, and an intriguing global economic-political-military system becomes nothing more than a component of Liquid Ocelot’s excessively vague plan for global domination.
With all of that said, I kind of feel bad for Metal Gear Solid 4. As with every Metal Gear game, I love it to death, even though I recognize it as the weakest game in the series. In a series where every game is an incredibly ambitious leap forward in terms of narrative, technicals, and mechanics, I think there’s an argument to be made that MGS4 was the most ambitious in a certain sense. It certainly didn’t reach as far narratively as MGS2, but the action oriented mechanical-revamp, the multiple locations, and even the massive scope of the story were all instances of virgin territory for the Metal Gear series. Unfortunately Kojima spent so much time juggling lore obligations that he didn’t get a chance to imbue these new aspects with his special sauce of wonderful craziness.