As I feared, the majority of reviews of Metal Gear Solid 4 are disappointing to say the least. Unfortunately, too many critics are interested in remarking about the length and quality of the cutscenes, which really means they like to make the obvious observations that they are “too long” and “too silly.” Rare is the review that compares them to the past entries in the series, which would show you that past cutscenes were less drawn out, and that dialogue in MGS1 sounded much more natural.
Kojima is like a novel writer who refuses to use an editor, and as a result we have scenes in MGS4 where characters can’t utter an important name without five lines of setup dialogue that could only possibly benefit new players (while making the characters look stupid and veteran players feel bored). In any other medium he wouldn’t be able to get away with this and be considered one of the best in his trade. But when it comes to narrative, gaming is still a wild west, where our best isn’t nearly good enough. There are scenes in MGS4 that are great, and others that could be great if only they were roped in.
We have known for four games that Kojima loves cinema. Telling me again does nothing. Take a look at the countless pages of story analysis on the web, and it isn’t too hard to see that much of the whole MGS story was made up as they went along. Kojima wrote himself into a corner, and since MGS4 had to answer every last question, he had to cobble together even more ridiculous explanations for everything that went down. As a result, the resolutions to several major plot points are ridiculous, and others don’t make sense at all. If you don’t think too hard about it, it still works as a crazy postmodern tale, but attempt to understand every last bit of MGS lore, and you will come to think much less of it and its creator.
Long ago there was an interview with MGS1 translator Jeremy Blaustein, who had some rough words for Kojima and his message. Some were quick to call it sour grapes, but it’s hard now to believe it is all bullshit. Kojima is a bit too much of a control freak, averse to the thought of someone changing his vision, and ballsy enough to put himself in the credits as the “Voice of God.”
There is one excellent piece of criticism that a few reviews have mentioned, and that is that MGS4 is underwhelming from a technical standpoint. Each level is still separated into small, bite sized areas to ease load times. This worked in the past when Snake was sneaking room by room through an enemy compound. We tolerated it in MGS3 because it was a technical marvel on the aging PS2. Here, where Snake is supposed to be roaming across large battlefields, the constant loading not only removes much of the tension, but resets the alarm state (which I had thought we had gotten over). What should be a living, dynamic battlefield once again feels like a string of setpieces, as the battlefield the game wants to paint is held back by technical limitations. MGS4’s visuals are good without being better than the competition – not with lingering low res textures abound, and stiff character animations outside of the cutscenes.
Guns of the Patriots is a beefed up MGS game, and that is enough to keep me occupied, but there’s a sinking feeling that I should expect more from the mighty Cell chip and the Playstation 3. The same feeling goes for the 360. Maybe I fell too much for the hype, but after hearing the promises of just how powerful these consoles can be, I want their games to be more than last generation’s offerings with HD modes. Physics models are still often goofy, AI is still poor, and you can still find all sorts of tricks behind even the best graphics engines. This generation feels entirely too underwhelming, and if even Kojima and crew can’t show us the future, that may be a sign that developers really are struggling to work with these complicated, multi core setups.
Perhaps the problem shouldn’t be blamed on console hardware, but with what we are making with it. Sequels to decades old franchises are becoming the bread and butter of a console’s lineup. If this generation wants to strut its stuff, maybe it has to do so via something that doesn’t end in a 4, 5, or 6. I hesitate to say this however, as history may or may not have my back. After all, haven’t Mario and Link introduced us to new generations in the past? Haven’t they also shown us later (ie Ocarina of Time) what a console can really do?
Then again, some of the most memorable (as well as once memorable) franchises of recent memory began as new ideas on the Playstation. The PS2 was bolstered by the reinvention of GTA. The Xbox benefited from the same affect with Halo. Franchise sequels are a nice way to comfortably introduce us to a new gen, but it seems that the truly new names are the movers and shakers (since relatively few played the original GTAs, we can count 3 as a once new face).
So when the next Metal Gear Solid comes around, let us hope that Kojima takes the best ideas from Guns of the Patriots, and uses them to paint on a clean slate. I am sure there are many fans that would love to see Snake come back with some ridiculous MacGuffin. Then again, Metal Gear Solid 3 was a radical (but not complete) departure from the series’ roots, and it is arguably the best in the series. If pushed even further, I can see Kojima and company impressing us in a way not seen since MGS1. Maybe, just maybe, there is some hope for this generation after all.