It’s all over: MGS4, or the New Gen?

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.

12 thoughts on “It’s all over: MGS4, or the New Gen?”

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with what you’ve said about new franchises being important. I look at Capcom’s outings of Dead Rising and Lost Planet as examples for this gen. Not only are they new franchises, but they also have amazing engines that take advantage of this gen’s hardware. They look amazing, are fun, have advanced physics and dozens of AI routines running at once, and most importantly are innovative & new!

    Also, XBLA is another great thing ushered in by this gen that wasn’t really available previously. That’s where you’ll find alot of your innovative new ideas, on a platform that’s an innovative idea (for a console) in itself.

    You just gotta know where to look.

  2. Live Arcade (As well as PSN) have some great games, but no one is paying attention to them. Not to mention that most of Live Arcade’s best games are old arcade titles and electronic versions of classic board games.

    Games like Everyday Shooter, Echochrome and Lost Winds are a breath of fresh air, but they often get largely ignored a week after release. So while they need more attention, we also need more ideas like that in the retail space.

  3. I wouldn’t say “no one is paying attention to them”. Stuff like N+ has sold dozens of thousands of copies. For a game made by 3 people, I would consider that a success.

    Besides, does it matter if crap games are popular as long as the unique titles like the ones you mentioned are still being made? There will always be a market for them.

  4. N+, like Fl0w, kind of bother me. Both were once free games rendered in flash, and after playing them both in their free iterations I don’t find myself itching to pay, no matter how much content they add.

  5. Good article. I want to extend a special thanks for keeping the write up spoiler free. It might well be a frustrating game, but I can’t help but think I’ll love it anyway, particularly if I don’t know anything going in. Time will hopefully bear witness to all sorts of quality industry expanding stuff available on this current generation of consoles, and I’m not sure looking at franchises with as much baggage as Metal Gear Solid is an effective means of judging what the 360 and PS3 have to offer. It’s true that Kojima and company have tried to shake things up in the past, but a (supposedly) final entry has too large a laundry list of expectations to break the mold in the way you’re looking for. Like you and Wesley, it makes the most sense to me to expect new ideas where they are most profitable to the people putting them together (new franchises): Alpha Protocol might make secret agent RPGs workable because Obsidian is sick of doing other peoples licenses and wants to take a shot at something of their own, inFAMOUS shows promise because Sucker Punch is visibly trying to shift direction (and demographics) after successfully closing out the Sly Cooper series, etc.

    Did you ever get the feeling that you would LIKE to pay the creators of a free game if you could, though, Christian? I’m kind of happy that I can shell out actual money for Blast Factor after all the time I sank into Tumiki Fighters in the hope that it gives Kenta Cho a greater incentive to bring his work to the masses. The same goes for N+ or Braid (if that ever actually gets released). I’m not so crazy as to say that even if I’ve played them before they deserve my money just because they’re different, but I’m more than willing to INVEST that money in a great game (though I’ve played it before) so an even greater game can be born down the road.

  6. For me, the dozens hours I got out of online co-op with my buddies in N+ was well worth my $10. That’s cool if you don’t want to buy it, though, nobody’s forcing you to.

    I was merely trying to exemplify that there’s a market for those quirky, creative games, that still have the benefits of the HD consoles’ processing power and graphical capabilities. Those markets are XBLA & PSN. Hell, XBLA has become so popular that IGN just created a seperate channel for it on their site.

    I used to be really jaded & disappointed with this generation, but it turns out I just wasn’t looking hard enough for the creative, fun, NEW games. It’s all there, on every system.

  7. When it comes to smaller games, I have no problem paying for a good product. I might expect a professiona looking interface and installer, but I think that’s fair. In any case, what I was trying to get at with N+ is not that it isn’t worth money. I simply don’t look at it as an example of how XBLA will help me get out of the doldrums of gaming. The indie PC market is where N+ was born, and so I’d rather give that area credit for its help in creating fun games through labors of love. On the same token, I will credit PSN for giving me Everyday Shooter, and XBLA for Undertow.

    And thankfully Braid is apparently going through Live Arcade approval now, so a release date should be imminent.

  8. Thanks for the good news on Braid. It’s about time. Perhaps you’ve heard some choice tidbit about Castle Crashers as well…?

  9. What I notice is that people feel that video games should not be anything other than video games. I view it as a medium. IF a director wants to be artistic with the game then so be it. It is the 4th game in the series and the one that answers plotline questions that have been building up. If you don’t know the game by now on the 4th installment then why bother purchase it. The cutscenes are integral to the story telling process because quite frankly…. it would be boring to play most of them anyway. But at least most are interactive. Recently Cliffy B. of Gears fame remarked about how much he liked MGS4 and at the same time pointed towards his own games to describe his stance on cutscenes. Thanks cliffy… I couldn’t have made the point better even if I tried.

  10. Static – good points, points that are similar to some I was thinking about today after reading this miserable piece over on the Joystiq network:

    Essentially, there are people that cannot play a fighting game without a story. So they wax philosophical about how games have to give them a reason to play, because they fail to understand that games (or at least some games) are closer to sports than to drama. An athlete doesn’t need a backdrop or setting to play their sport; they compete to be the best, and great stories come from their performances, rather than having them written out for them. This is why a great match in Virtua Fighter 5 is going to be more thrilling than anything the pre written story in Soul Calibur IV offers.

  11. There you go! But the issue about a fighting game is personal. Some people do it for the sake of competition. But it goes to another level if people want to role play their characters. Take for instance I use Vanessa lewis all the time in the VF series but only fights between dural and sarah get me really riled up. Its fun when the rivalry ceases to be between you and another person but more about the characters in game history themselves. If I am playing King of Fighters I choose Iori Yagami then heavens help you if you choose Kyo ( or vice versa). Using the epic battles of the characters story themselves I change my playstyle. With those two characters I become ruthless and uber aggressive. And its Fun to play characters as how you would imagine their personality would dictate.

    Story IMO amounts to alot. Except for certain sports, puzzles and platformers. For everything else a good story is better than none.

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