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This review contains spoilers
kojima mad with power. a total fucking mess but a fascinating one. cant with good conscience say its better than snake eater but i will say this: the first two acts are very easy for me to defend and showcase how mechanically mgs4 pretty handily surpasses its predecessor. it fixes almost every major issue with snake eater’s core gameplay - octocamo and the stress meter particularly are strokes of genius that somehow both deepen the survival mechanics while also massively streamlining them, and a wealth of new ways to express yourself have been added on top of that. i particularly love how much you can do when crawling now, especially since you spend so much of both mgs3 and 4 doing exactly that. rolling across the battlefield from cover to cover, dodging gunfire and explosions, feels incredible. i suppose i can understand those who feel that the active warzone setting feels gimmicky and i do think it could’ve been fleshed out better (i’d have liked it if there was more incentive to side with the armed forces, especially since you start out on the side of the rebels), and i think people would’ve looked at it more favorably if there was more of snake eater’s predator gameplay to balance it out, but on the whole i think it’s a novel and fun idea that is certainly executed with a lot more depth than, say, the wildlife system in mgs3. the gun selling mechanic, coupled with the narrative information that these conflicts are meaningless proxy battles free from ideology, does also incentivize you to play both sides in a fun little way – i often found myself picking off rebels with anesthetic rounds when no one would notice, and not even feeling any narrative dissonance from it since usually these were rebels who were about to run into gunfire and senselessly die anyway; the way i saw it, snake was doing them a favor. it’s always special when a game’s mechanics can spontaneously generate personal narratives like this. cqc is another thing carried over from mgs3 that is massively improved – not only is it much easier to get to grips with and more useful, but it’s also a lot more robust. aiming also feels good for the first time in this series which i think is a blessing but also a bit of a curse insofar as aiming is more emphasized in gameplay (parts of this game undeniably feel a little too military shooter-y; though to play devil’s advocate i’ll say that it does feel like part of a deliberate point that kojima’s making). lastly i’ll just mention that this is the first time in the series i went with the hardest difficulty available on my first playthrough, and that it was a choice that paid off in dividends – it’s expertly balanced and feels very fitting, what with snake’s more fragile body.
narratively the game is a mixed bag. i think thematically its pretty interesting, an early entry into the “metamodern” trend of sequels about series iconography collapsing in on itself as metaphor for the cultural decay of postmodernism (see also: dark souls 3, rebuild of evangelion). that said as willing as i am to interpret something like metal gear on a primarily subtextual level i can’t say i’m ready to push plot and character to the wayside entirely; ideas are worth little without proper execution to back it up, and this is definitely where mgs4 becomes a tough game to appreciate. it’s an unfortunate paradox – the game is clearly a for-the-fans affair but it also can’t help but spit in their faces with how much it retcons the previous titles. the reveal of who the patriots are is definitely the choice that stings the most – both for fans of mgs2 like myself (who will likely not appreciate the demystification of the patriots, no longer an undead, ageless and formless digital consciousness embodying the hegemony of american empire and the immutable ubiquity of capitalism) and also for fans of mgs3 (who will be surprised to learn that naked snake’s wacky codec team actually turned out to be a gang of hitlers – plot twist!). the bb corps are also… just not good. like, uncharacteristically bad. i appreciate the fact that them being a mix of all the previous bosses in the series is clearly feeding into the main theme but the hamfisted “beauty” aspect of it – and its accompanying utterly shameless leering shots – woof, it’s bad. it’s not good. honestly even kind of passes into heinous territory with the stupid torture porn backstories. at least the sound design in their second phases, as they walk towards you increasingly faster, is genuinely kind of unnerving. for what its worth, there are also moment where the main theme of decay is well elaborated on, with little accompanying baggage – returning to a run-down shadow moses, devoid of non-artificial life, after being told the archipelago is slowly sinking into the sea, is simple and effective. most of the game’s callbacks are not this elegant, though, however well-meaning they might be.
another issue is that the game kind of looks like shit; graphically it’s impressive for an early ps3 title but it’s infected with the malignant 7th gen disease that made every game look like brown sludge. again, there’s the question of whether by pointing this out we’re actually stumbling upon The Point – it’s always a little hard to tell with kojima but it’s a notion that at least has to be entertained. we could also dismiss the auteur angle entirely and simply accept that it’s a part of the game whether intentional or not and should be discussed on those terms alone. on that note i’ll say that there is a nice thematic ring to the game having the look of a generic military shooter, but i’d still prefer if it, y’know, actually looked good. it’s a shame too because the designs in this game rule. gekkos and scarabs? raiden’s new cyborg body? the mk ii? the solid eye? all very cool. i’ve still yet to discuss the elephant in the room which is how fucking long these cutscenes are and yeeeeahhh it gets grating. i expect long cutscenes between gameplay by now with kojima and it’s not really the length i mind so much as the excruciating levels of exposition and superfluous information, this stuff really could’ve been trimmed down. but things like raiden vs vamp and the gekkos, or ocelot going sicko mode on a boat i have no beef with.
this is the most I’ve fluctuated between feeling that kojima’s a genius and feeling that he’s the biggest hack of all time. there is dreadful stuff here, often side by side with some of the biggest kino in the series (right before that amazing split screen sequence leading into an even better final boss, we get johnny and meryl proposing to each other). i’m teetering on giving this 3 stars to be totally honest but you do pilot metal gear rex and duel ray and then the game ends on a fight with shirtless ocelot where one of his moves is tenderly - erotically even - kissing you on the cheek so i think i’m duty-bound to give this at least four stars if only for that alone
This review contains spoilers
let’s get the obvious out of the way first: whenever the snake eater theme is playing, this is the greatest game of all time. whenever it’s not, though - well…
it’s a bit of a mess. with mgs2, these games touched the sky, but having played the series chronologically up to that point, it was clear as day to me that it was in dire need of reinvention. mgs2 represented not just the apex of the classic top-down stealth gameplay, but also the point of exhaustion for the narrative formula that had seen reuse with each entry up until that point. mgs2’s narrative sleight of hand – its utilizing of familiar, repeating motifs throughout the series to deliver an earth-shattering twist in its final hours – was a brilliant one, but it’s not a trick that can be played more than once. if metal gear as a series was to go anywhere from there, kojima had to make the next entry feel like an authentic departure from its norms. mgs3 is certainly a respectable attempt at that, but it’s not without growing pains.
to be sure, when this game is at its mechanical peak, i feel pretty comfortable saying it eclipses all previous entries. slithering unseen like the animal you take your name from, picking off enemies before crawling back into bushes or tight spaces where you lie in wait for your next prey – it’s not just the freedom offered to you as a player or the depth of the interactions that’s satisfying – there’s a thematic wholeness to it. for my money, the game is, perhaps surprisingly, not actually at its best in the jungle or military base(s), but in the mountaintop region, with its mixture of flat, wide-open arenas, vertical environments filled with hidden nooks and crannies and cramped, snake-like winding trenches. helicopters also routinely survey levels, adding an extra consideration to traversal. it all adds up to one of the more challenging parts of the game that nonetheless allows you to really flex your mechanical mastery of it, overcoming the odds in all sorts of interesting ways. this area also happens to follow what is probably the best boss fight in the series up to this point with the end, where you’re asked to cautiously keep track of a sniper’s movements as he travels from nest to nest across a large jungle area in an attempt to weed you out. during this middle stretch of the game, i really grasped why it is that so many seem to hold this game as the pinnacle of the series.
however! however. most of the time the game is not this good. in fact, it’s the most uneven game in the solid series so far. but why is that?
gameplay wise, it’s a death of a thousand cuts. aiming gets an emphasized role in this game which is unfortunate because it feels as bad as ever; i really wish i was playing these games with gyro enabled. at least this issue is not unique to this game, unlike movement which feels frankly unbearably stiff a lot of the time. mgs3 sought to shed its 2d roots for good and embrace the spaciousness of 3d, which was the correct choice, and as outlined above pays off in various ways. the version of this game i played graciously bestows you a different camera system to accommodate this fundamental change in gameplay, but snake still controls like he’s been ripped out of one of the previous cramped top-down entries and thrown into a context which he’s unequipped to deal with. crawling (which you do A LOT OF in this game) will force you into a 1st person view when you enter foliage (which most of the time is where you wanna be when crawling) and it controls so unbearably that it could probably be classified as a torture method. cqc, though it contains cool options, is overly complicated and contextual and kind of conditions you to either just sneak up on enemies and choke them out or beat them up with the boring (and awkward looking) three hit combo. that is, if you ever actually manage to get in range for cqc, because a lot of the time enemies will simply turn around before you get to them and once they spot you every single enemy in a 5000 yard radius knows your precise location. this is not like mgs2 where you can get out of a hairy situation when spotted by a single enemy if you think and act quickly. this game faces a bit of a weird issue where you can camp out in front of a bunch of enemies, a couple of centimeters away, headshot them all and they wont even know what hit them, but also get spotted while on the move by an enemy lightyears away and have the entire army descending upon you in a couple of seconds. this is not helped by the stiff movement and camera control – it can often feel like there’s little you could have realistically done to avoid detection. the issue is not that the game is difficult, though; naked snake acts as an absolute bullet sponge and basically every encounter can be trivialized by mowing down enemies and running off, either into hiding (where you need to wait like 5 minutes for things to calm down because unlike previous games it’s not really advisable to go out during evasion/caution phases) or just the next area. i found myself chomping down the death pills with high frequency, not because my attempt was doomed once spotted, but because i knew there was little fun to be had at that point.
the question of enemy detection leads naturally to talking about the camo system, which, on the face of it, does not seem like a bad idea. in theory, it promotes situational awareness and immerses you in the role of a stalking predator. in practice, the game basically plays itself with you as the medium. there’s no real decision to be made – there’s always a clear optimal camo to put on for each situation. so prepare for a lot of menu usage for just this alone, because staying hidden is very important when up against the eagle-eyed soldiers of this game. this is not the only mechanic that pads the game out with an excess of menu usage – the survival mechanics are the other side of that coin and this is the part where i’d discuss them if i had anything to say about them. the most i can muster is that they’re wide as an ocean and deep as a puddle, and that it's impressive – and a little depressing – how much effort was clearly put into them when they add so little substance to the game.
in my reviews of the other metal gear games i usually discuss the narrative before the gameplay, and it’s not a coincidence that it’s the other way around this time; i think it’s a downgrade from the previous two entries, mgs2 especially. it’s not bad, to be clear. kojima ultimately won me over with the thesis but it was a hard fought battle – what’s being dealt with just isn’t as immediately relatable or relevant as the thematic fixations of mgs1 and 2. most of us are not in fact soldiers, and our allegiances do not waver like the weather in accordance with changing political climates. in fact, as mgs2 points out, for most of us in the 21st century our worldview is incredibly entrenched and herd-like in both function and appearance. so, okay, it’s a bit more distanced in subject matter than previous games but the boss’s dilemma and vision of a world free from ideological strife is still plenty interesting. her adversarial student-mentor relationship with snake, probably the best iteration of this archetypal series staple, is quite well handled. so what’s the issue?
for one – it’s not what the bulk of the narrative time is spent on. now, every metal gear game meanders and goes on tangents and doesn't really come into focus until the final hours, but i found it especially hard to care about most of the plot here. beyond getting bogged down in prequelisms and lacking the speculative sci-fi edge of the present day titles, the real issue is that most of the supporting cast is just boring and shallow. kojima’s never been especially great at handling female characters or anything, but eva is honestly a pretty atrocious character and i found myself decidedly un-charmed by kojima’s neurotically fetishistic treatment of her. a little bit of perviness i can handle just fine (eva’s boob gag is funny enough the first time), and i have no qualms with eroticism when warranted (the campfire scene is not that bad!) but for most of her scenes i was wincing. it’s not like meryl was anything to write home about really, but at least there was some chemistry that was built up throughout the game between her and snake. eva’s entire character can be summed up as “sexy femme fatale with big boobs” - her and snake’s dynamic just isn’t interesting. the best thing that comes from her is the characterization of naked snake as kind of an awkward, walled-off, romantically inexperienced guy (he just like me frfr), which is a fun contrast to solid snake’s womanizing. impressively, volgin might be an even more shallow character than eva which is pretty disappointing in a series that prides itself on great villains. of course, there’s the boss, but her presence in the game is more reminiscent of the elusive ally characters of the previous games like grey fox and olga, leaving this third-rate villain to take up the spotlight. the cobra squad also disappoints – with the exception of the end and the sorrow, they’re barely elaborated on and not especially interesting in comparison to other villain lineups the series has seen.
when the time does come for mgs3 to make a big impact with its ending (which follows an incredibly bloated sequence where you confront volgin and the shagohod before escaping into the jungle), i also think some missteps are made. for once i feel like kojima actually could’ve benefitted from more exposition dumps here – i think the twist of what the boss’s real mission is should’ve been revealed before her fight for more pathos (as it is, it's kind of like if in mgs2 you fought solidus before his motivations were fully unveiled and the patriots revealed your lack of choice in the matter). and i also must admit to being a bit confused by how hard the game hammers home that the boss was a patriot who loved her nation – is the tragedy here not that she was used and discarded for the sake of state interests? is that not the entire reason why big boss ends up doing what he does? in any case, i’m sorry to say it folks but kojima? still not a super effective dramatist. believe me, i wanna cry over the boss, but the emotion just isn't hitting me. kojima makes a valiant attempt to have his characters grapple with things like “human emotions”, but his characters seem fated to speak in clichés. part of the issue might also be the english dub, which for the first time in the series i find myself decidedly unimpressed with, and wishing there was an option to switch over to japanese. of the many questionable casting choices – volgin and sokolov among them – david hayter returning to the lead role might be the worst one. his suave-to-the-point-of-parody performance just does not work as the gruffer, less assured “naked snake”. nor was it necessary to bring him back at all, given that each iteration of snake up to this point had been voiced by a different actor.
so where do i land on snake eater, ultimately? well, it’s not the best game in the series imo, but it may just have the highest highs. kojima’s reinvention of the series feels like a rough draft of something that could be refined into something very special, which is why i look forward to playing future titles, mgsv especially. and even though i don’t have much faith in konami to do it justice, i also find myself looking forward to the upcoming remake, if only because of potential qol improvements that might help draw out the game’s strengths.