Last month, Three Speech was held captive in a Paris hotel by Konami and forced to play their new PS3-exclusive Metal Gear Solid IV: Guns Of The Patriots for three days solid. It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it!
As everyone who’s familiar with the ten-year game franchise will know, the Metal Gear games centre around the tough, genetically-modified super-soldier Solid Snake. The first MGS introduced tactical play, sneaking and complex, immersive storylines into console gaming when it came out on the PSOne in 1998. Now Snake is back for the next gen of Sony console, and it’s promising amazing things.
Watching the movie-like credits roll at the start gives you a sense of how the power of the PS3 is being utilised. The game’s graphics are beautiful, its animations seamless and its physics hyper-realistic. Creator Hideo Kojima has taken the terrain and weather effects that he first mastered on MGS 2 to the next level. As military trucks roll into a middle-eastern warzone, dust hits the screen, debris blows about and it feels as though you’re right in the thick of it.
First off, you play as an old man. Your character is still recognisably Solid Snake, but his genetically enhanced physiology has had some side effects – mainly premature ageing. Luckily, his combat suit is keeping him together, enabling you to move Snake around like a super-fit teenager. He’s a cool old duffer, though (think Indiana Jones in the new film, or old Clint Eastwood) as he smokes and croaks his way cynically through the action.
Movement wise, Snake runs, crouches, jumps and can take cover behind pretty much anything. He can also sneak, roll, crawl and even play dead. The combat and cover system is intuitive and effective, and the stealth kills are an integral part of the gameplay. Sneaking up behind an enemy, Snake can grab the unsuspecting foe and use him as a shield, or simply kill him or render him unconscious.
The first level places you in a warzone in the middle-east of the not-too-distant future – privatised troops with state-of-the-art weapons and genetic mods are fighting militia through the streets of a bombed-out, Iraqi-style city.
Your own mission – basically to find and kill Snake’s old nemesis, Liquid Ocelot - requires you to cross the warzone. Both sides are busy fighting, but they will of course shoot you if they see you. Although the level is relatively linear, how you reach your destination is up to you, and will be different every time you play.
Thanks to a brilliant camouflage suit that changes, chameleon-like, to replicate whatever you’re taking cover against (check out the crazy harlequin effect if you do it next to a tiled wall!), you can sneak relatively unseen through much of the carnage.
As in previous games, enemies have their alert status over their heads (question marks or exclamation marks) and thankfully they’re not too smart at this point.
As soon as they clock you, though, your alert countdown will begin. There are three stages of alertness – ‘alert’, when they will come straight at you, guns blazing; ‘evasion’ when they will actively hunt you; and ‘caution’, when they’re still aware of your presence somewhere nearby. You will also be surrounded by a sort of red mist if you’re visible to enemies. You can either hide until the countdown has stopped or simply eliminate your hunters – problem, solution!
At certain points, even if you’re intent on sneaking past everything, you will need to intervene in the fighting. There’s no real advantage in choosing to take one side over the other, but by doing so you can move the fight away from the area you want to get to. Handily placed roof-top mortars will take care of any tanks or wipe out barricades. These are a joy to watch as you target the area you want to hit, send up the mortar and watch it come down and blow stuff to smithereens. Much of the environment is gratifyingly destructible, and this plus the independent war action around you and decent AI of the two sets of protagonists give the game a really immersive feel.
As with previous Metal Gear games, there are a lot of cutscenes here, particularly as the plot unfolds and characters are introduced. They are all beautifully done, including the ones in the game engine, and the plot – much of it about there constantly being a war going on, and something called a ‘war price’ affecting where it’s happening – is pretty clever. When you’re not playing, it’s like watching a really smart animated movie.
There’s a good novels’ worth of characters in this game, all deeply drawn and integral to the plot. Amongst these, you’ve got a few handy allies watching your back. First off there’s Otacon, the techy fella assisting you from his constantly airborne plane. He’s kitted you out with a hi-tech eyepatch that enables you to interface with weapons systems, night vision etc, and a small robot companion – Otacon’s eyes in the battlefield – that has invisible camouflage.
There are a lot of pull-down menus to get to grips with, but after a little time it will become second nature. Weapons can be picked up from fallen enemies, but the privateers’ guns are locked to each soldier’s genetic code. That’s where the arms dealer Drebin comes in. This cool customer tours the world’s warzones in a private armoured vehicle with his Y-front-wearing monkey companion, and for a price he can re-program found weaponry for you to use. Any spare gear you pick up can be traded in for credit against new weapon purchases. There’s a huge array of weaponry to be had, but essentially the main types are all there – pistols, shotguns, assault rifles, sniper rifles, rocket launchers etc. Plus there’s Snake’s knife which can be very effective in pulling off those stealth kills.
Then there’s Meryl. This flame-haired vixen is in charge of a kind of UN peace-keeping force, in the warzone to monitor the private army doesn’t get out of hand. She and her squad (including one fella who seems to be having a few toilet troubles) are right in the thick of it, and central to one of the best early scenes.
Snake is required to help the team escape from a bombed out hotel under siege from ‘Frogs’ – deadly, leaping, genetically enhanced lady soldiers. The way the action unfolds in scenes like this keeps the story edgy and vital. There’s no same-ness about the many levels; each one has a different feel to it, every plot twist keeps you interested.
For example, after the middle-east bit the action moves to a Prague-like city where you have to contact an elusive resistance leader. Disguised with camouflage suit technology to look like your old self (or rather your young self), and wearing a Cold War-style trenchcoat, you have to negotiate the night streets during curfew, avoiding patrols and following a suspected resistance member.
Aside from Ocelot, there are four main bosses in the game, and without wanting to spoil the surprise, all are beautifully rendered and imaginative, and challenging without being impossible to beat.
All in all, MGS 4 promises to be a fantastic, filmic gaming experience for fans of the old games and those new to Solid Snake, and it’s especially nice that we PS3 owners have got this one to ourselves.