Metal Gear Solid 4 is nothing if not a difficult, frustrating, and absolutely strange experience. A vanguard in some ways but a throwback in most, this latest work fits Hideo Kojima's canon in that the final shape of the creation isn't quite what was expected, yet the shocking unevenness at its core sets it apart. Guns of the Patriots lacks the dynamic energy of the master at his craft so typical of his greatest works... Missing the mad genius, the bravado and boldness that has always defined a Kojima game, Guns of the Patriots is not the finale that Solid Snake deserves.
For an exclusive title that currently represents the primary reason to own a PlayStation 3, Metal Gear Solid 4's structural framework is surprisingly archaic underneath the absurdly refined sheen and stunning layers of graphical excellence. However, though the game looks leaps and bounds ahead of the competition (and it really does), it doesn't play that way.
In terms of game design, Guns of the Patriots is just like the last two Metal Gear games with little to differentiate them outside of small tweaks and a control scheme that finally feels comparable to the current standard. Though I didn't expect Kojima to reinvent the Metal Gear formula, what I did expect was an updating and revitalization of the "tactical espionage action" the game purports to deliver.
For example, Solid Snake is still constrained by artificial barriers that many other games of the current age have left behind. For a battle-scarred veteran with decades of experience, how is it that small boxes and low obstructions are completely insurmountable, guiding the player like a rat through a maze with a dubious level of believability? How is it that a rocket launcher still can't open a wooden door? With the amount of horsepower under the PS3's hood, why can't Solid Snake walk up mildly sloping hills and interact with his environment outside of specifically prescribed actions?
In another example of outdated design, a heated battle raged in a small compound. After being thrust into the middle of the conflict, my instinct was to take the fight to the enemy and eliminate all opposition. I started with a stealthy approach and took out the peripheral guards before moving towards full-on assault screaming from behind a chaingun. Having the freedom to guide my own actions in this environment was a spectacular experience until I realized that the enemy army was infinitely respawning because I wasn't doing what Kojima wanted me to. In that moment, my level of immersion was completely destroyed. An endless stream of enemies because I didn't trip the right trigger? The game itself makes several references to being technologically advanced and leaving the limitations of the PS2 behind, but with design decisions like this, I fail to see what Kojima's talking about.
In what is perhaps the most offensive of all the outdated choices, Kojima devotes an unbelievably massive portion of the game's play time to non-interactive cutscenes.
Although I respect his creativity and craft as a director, the simple fact is that a videogame is not a film. Though the two mediums do share some of the same elements, many recent titles have proven that game storytelling is most successful when it capitalizes on the unique ability to involve players in ways film never could. Guns of the Patriots possesses certain scenes that had the potential to be some of the greatest of my gameplay career, yet by forcing me to be nothing more than an observer, I literally felt robbed of opportunities I should have taken part in. Rather than having memories of "being there" and "doing that", all I'll remember is that I was bored to death watching too many movies that ran on for too long.
The most baffling thing is that there are countless examples of other games which don't have a fraction of the drama that Kojima is able to create, yet their methods of making players feel a part of the events are far more successful than anything Guns of the Patriots achieves. Even something as simple as a button-pushing quick-time events would have done much to reduce the feeling of the player being completely nonessential. Unbelievably, this commonplace technique was completely ignored throughout the length of the game, until two short sequences at the end. Much too little, much too late.
Some may raise the point that the Metal Gear series has such a convoluted history and had so many loose ends to wrap up that the game needs to go places where gameplay can't follow; certain themes are too abstract or cerebral to translate into a concrete action able to be taken by a player, and I respect that. However, Guns of the Patriots indulges this side of its identity to unbelievable excess. Quite honestly, Kojima would have been better served by simply making a film and delivering the kind of experience he so obviously wants to, and not letting the problem of integrating gameplay hold him back.
Outdated design aside, I take serious issue with the content presented by Metal Gear Solid 4. The series has always been known as eccentric, but there has ever been a method to its madness—some sense of genius and purpose underneath all the confusing elements and bizarre plot twists. Not so with Guns of the Patriots. Kojima has been quoted in the press countless times as saying that he's tired of working on Metal Gear games, and that message comes through loud and clear.
More than anything, I get the sense that there was a focused effort put towards simply ending the series and wrapping up all loose ends, regardless of the quality of the final effort. Perhaps it was Kojima's way of making sure that he won't be forced to work on another Metal Gear game, but a lot of the nonsensical bits, absurd dialogue, tedious choices and absolutely missed opportunities feel jarringly out of step with what the last three games in this saga have been driving towards.
There was one particular scene at the end of the game that I felt could be a true milestone; a new high water mark in the kind of emotional impact that a videogame could have. The gravitas; the sheer emotional weight onscreen at that moment had intensity beyond words. At that instant, I was prepared to forgive many of the game's sins outright. Sadly, that potential for ultimate greatness was pathetically pissed away, just like so many other things that fail to crystallize over the course of what will likely be Snake's last mission. I have a hard time imagining that the Hideo Kojima of old would have allowed such a catastrophic misstep to happen, yet there it was.
So, where does all this leave Guns of the Patriots? The gameplay (what precious little of it there is) is still stuck in PS2-era levels of sophistication. A huge chunk of the total running time is non-interactive cutscenes, and these long segments of cinema are of questionable quality, filled with plot holes, nonsensical choices and fan service that undercuts its legitimacy. Is this a revolutionary, cutting-edge experience, or unchecked excess and failure to meet the standard of its contemporaries? To me, the answer is obvious.
Believe it or not, I do call myself a fan of Solid Snake, of Metal Gear, and most of all, of Hideo Kojima. These games are without a doubt significant, important titles that will not be forgotten. Kojima himself is absolutely brilliant, often blazing trails that others feared to tread and leading the way for lesser developers to follow in his footsteps. However, as much as I admire the man and his work, even the greatest of us can tire and falter. Even the greatest of us can make mistakes. I would love to have a chance to sit down with one of the industry's most well-known, well-respected auteurs and find out exactly what significance Guns of the Patriots holds for him because, quite honestly, it's a shadow of what it could, and should have been.