As credits roll post finale, viewing MGS4 as the self-indulgent incoherence of one man is far from challenging; a reluctance to allow this treasured series to rest without first wrapping up every loose fray a decade, countless games and almost ten hours of cut scenes in MGS4 alone have left flailing in their wake. For some characters this is detrimental, a disinclination to leave their stories free from the awkward shackles of ‘and they lived happily ever after’. I’m referring entirely to Raiden.
Raiden is just one example of an unwillingness to put down the pen, to let us decide for ourselves, or to at the very least, engage in a subtler method of storytelling. With a cinematic finale spanning two credit sequences, ninety minutes, and containing enough mortifyingly family friendly moments to satisfy the standards of a Christmas Day movie, Kojima’s force-feeding becomes too much.
As frequently intrusive and docile as they are electrifying and beautiful, dedicating the opening three paragraphs to the cinematic is by no means unwarranted. Here is a feature evidently geared directly toward the MGS faithful, and whilst no doubt satisfying one crowd, it’s simultaneously sacrificing another. Newcomers may never make it passed the opening scenes.
This is the ultimate chapter in Snake’s tale though, and it’s a pretty damn good climax. Witnessed through the eyes of a fragile, rapidly ageing Snake the opening chapter (arguably the best) is a memento to the quality of the franchise. The fusion of stealth and gunplay, caught amidst a battle between resistance factions and the stronger PMC army, is intoxicating and technically astounding. The sand swept Middle Eastern metropolis looks real, the subdued skirmishes between factions feel real, Snake, huddled and awkward in his movements, embezzled with wrinkles, stubble, his signature bandana swept with the wind, is real. Voiceovers, cut scenes and writing establish a tone the subsequent levels strive to maintain until a dramatic finale. Snake’s story starts and ends immaculately.
Start and end benefit from a spell of drama, and besides a brief descent during one level MGS4 is a thrill to play. Playing hopscotch across the globe, Europe, South America and Alaska all become theatres of war. Snake, staying true ideologically at least, maintains the mindset and tools to navigate levels silently, making use of non lethal weaponry and an Octocamo suit that mimics the surface he places himself against (in one of the games many technically marvellous attributes). Scrapping the stealthy notion, he can also utilise the hugely diverse range of lethal weapons to play the game in a contemporary action-orientated mode. More likely though, players will sit in the middle.
Strangely, despite an opening thirty minutes saturated in stealth based gameplay that consistently emphasises the effectiveness of CQC (close quarters combat) and patience, once the battles between PMC and militia ignite Snake gains an arsenal of pure noise. The game forces you into combat as the frequent stop-start notions of stealth based gameplay quickly tire whilst the joys of a fantastic combat system soon push the ‘tactical’ out of ‘tactical espionage action.’
Even more curiously, playing as the harbinger of death results in greater reward from the in-game weapon seller Drebin. Replica weapons gathered from the battlefield are automatically sold: more deaths equals more guns equals more money equals better guns.
Dispensing with the “tactical” early on is a mistake; the opening level is designed perfectly for silent infiltrations. Ladders often lead to apt sniping positions whilst shadowy alleys and strategically placed dumpsters make for pertinent routes around a battle, or an obliging means of losing Snake’s foes. Subsequent levels fail to flaunt such boastful design, occasionally feeling derivative and uninspired in comparison.
The levels rarely fail to immerse though, production values are unprecedented. Cut scene graphics are of a Hollywood standard; character animations in particular are nigh on flawless. Equally so, the voice acting shines, Snake and Otacon are phenomenal and Liquid is fantastic in his malevolence. Nothing lets up, the score and battlefield sound effects are dramatic and involving; bullets tear holes in a wall, artillery pounds the roof of a building, rifles release a flurry of metal from behind. Moments in the game where the screen separates are implemented with such desire to enhance the already dominating narrative that watching the correct screen becomes more of a challenge than any firefight or boss battle. Production is rarely this good.
This all makes Kojima’s reluctance to tell his story without resorting to hour long cut scenes all the harder to stomach. Overcoming the many boss battles only to engage in a conversation with Drebin is a huge anti-climax. These moments, as with the majority of conversations with Otacon, could have been placed over the gameplay, none of them feature moving imagery. Skipping them is to miss an interesting part to the narrative, but to watch is to put down the controller for up to twenty minutes in preperation for an audio account. With greater control over the length of cut-scenes, and a different take on the intrusive mid-level calls from Otacon, MGS4 could have combined cinematic prowess with a stunning gameplay experience and emerged stronger for it.
So, a masterpiece or the self-indulgence of a man not quite willing to part with his story? Both true. On a technical level MGS4 is a masterpiece, there’s no argument to be had against that. Similarly it’s a joy to actually play. And in between the clumsy exposition there’s enough wit, drama, and over the top writing to justly end this fantastic franchise and though convoluted at times, the final chapter in Snake’s story shines with moments of absolute perfection.