Dispatches: Metal Gear Solid 4, Part Two; Or: Peace Is Our Profession

A slight misunderstanding?
Today on the Dispatches, we cover the next stretch of Snake’s journey, all the way from the jungles of South America to the darkness of Shadow Moses, with a little bit of Eastern Europe along the way, and explore how Kojima manages to save this game from his own poor plotting with good old fashioned hunting and surrealism.

Mind you, when I say that Kojima is employing poor plotting, I don’t mean to say that the story itself is poor in any way– in fact, I’ve found the narrative, even the super-expository portions, to all be pretty interesting and entertaining so far. What I’ve found frustrating, instead, is the way that he’s decided to parcel out all the information, and not even necessarily because he’s been doing it in a bad way, but rather because it’s somewhat inconsistent with the rest of the Metal Gear series.

If you’re a veteran to the adventures of Solid Snake and Big Boss, you’re not about to flinch at the idea of epic-sized cut-scenes or lengthy radio conversations in the middle of a mission. Furthermore, ever since the beginning of his series, back on the MSX, the radio/Codec mechanics played a large role of what defines the Metal Gear experience, in gameplay as well as scenario. I’ve frequently stated that one of my favorite challenges of any game, new or old, were the traps set by Big Boss over the radio in the original game, and how the player had to learn that a video-game could lie to them.

There haven’t really been any moments like that in any other Metal Gear games– either your radio contacts have helpful information, or they don’t, but they haven’t gone out of their way to offer harmful hints. Even the “crazy Colonel” transmissions of MGS2 didn’t give you any misleading advice that could lead you into an enemy’s trap. What the radio has been used for, instead, has been a kind of interactive component to the narrative, by making a large amount of character development participatory, rather than obligatory. Sure, in any of the games you’re going to have the big plot twists– the return of Gray Fox and Big Boss in Metal Gear 2, the turncoat revelations of Naomi Hunter and Master Miller in Metal Gear Solid— but a lot of the smaller stuff of character histories and location backstories will often go unsaid unless you go out of your way to call up on a regular basis. That’s why you could play the entire breadth of MGS3 without finding out about Revolver Ocelot’s birth, and why that information becomes so much more valuable, even after the true identity of his parents– having to call up on the radio to find it out made allowed it to be its own little game.

The sad thing about MGS4 is that little game is no longer there. Sure, you have the Codec, but really only in name only. All the spirit is gone.

Nostalgia. By Viedt.

See, in the Metal Gear Mk. II version of the Codec you have in MGS4, you only ever have two people you can actually call yourself– Otacon, and Rosemary, a psychologist who’s mostly irrelevant to the gameplay and only peripherally tied to the actual story. Occasionally other people will call you– Raiden doing his best Gray Fox impersonation, or the gun-launderer Drebin, who apparently keeps detailed histories of all the sordid backstories for each and every one of the game’s bosses in his spare time– but you can’t call them. Now, sure, in the other games there were plenty of people who’d call you but wouldn’t answer to your transmissions, but having them on your list of contacts provided the nice illusion that they were actually out there, and not merely scripted game events. It’s the sort of thing that makes the world of the game seem that much smaller– more on that later.

The other thing the game’s rather shallow Codec system does is rob you of the sense of discovery you had in previous games when you’d call up and find out valuable information on the plot of your mission. In MGS4, each chunk of the game is preceded by a lengthy briefing, that basically serves not only as a background for the stuff you’re actually going to be doing in the level and exposition for the game’s story, but also does a lot of character development that otherwise would’ve been handled somehow in the Codec. Sure, it’s cute to see Naomi give li’l Sunny give pointers on how to cook eggs, but isn’t that something we could’ve gotten from them as radio backup? If Sunny is a child prodigy at hacking, wouldn’t she be a useful member of the team on a mission, or at the very least a cool person to have yell at Snake for smoking?

Part of me wonders why the Codec has been drained of so much of its life, and why so much of that energy has been devoted to the mission briefings, which never did this much legwork in the character development department before. Is it because Kojima is tired of players who don’t use the Codec, and wants to make his story as obligatory as possible? That doesn’t quite fit, seeing as you’re still able to skip the mission briefings, and miss out on it anyway. If that’s the case, aren’t the mission briefings just as participatory as the Codec, especially since there’s such an emphasis on assuming control of the Mk. II during them, or switching camera angles to essentially direct them yourself? That might work, but it still isn’t right, because they don’t take place during the missions themselves, and take out a lot of the little work a player might have to do to piece each part of the puzzle together in their head. Is it because, at the end of the day, all this information just makes more sense being revealed during mission briefings, rather than over the radio, during the mission itself?

A family resemblance can be decieving.

That might be it, and the deeper reason for that lies with one of the other big changes with the game’s structure, as to how the player’s activities are divided up, themselves. See, in all the other Metal Gear games, Snake’s missions were all concentrated on one specific area in the world. The original MSX titles took place in Outer Heaven and Zanzibar Land, the South African and Central Asian military juntas of Big Boss. MGS and MG were notable for taking place on American soil, in the Alaskan base of Shadow Moses and a freighter & oil-rig called Big Shell just off Manhattan, respectively. MGS3‘s Russian jungles of Tselinoyarsk & military base of Groznyj Grad paired well with the Soviet installations throughout the San Hieronymo Peninsula of Portable Ops, and all together, each of the Metal Gear games until now has followed a pretty consistent sequence of events, that more or less summarizes as this:

(1) Snake infiltrates an enemy territory, usually to on a mission unrelated to Metal Gear.
(2) Snake discovers the existence of Metal Gear, or some other equally dangerous doomsday weapon.
(3) Snake continues to sneak around the base, fight bosses, get captured, etc. until he eventually singlehandedly fights Metal Gear and the base’s commander.
(4) Snake shoots his way out of the base. Here endeth the game.

MGS4, on the other hand, is not built like this. It does not take place on a single location, is not composed of a single mission, and does not feature a single Metal Gear. Instead, it’s stretched across multiple locations across the world, and while nominally it’s all held under the same umbrella of assassinating Ocelot, each section comes with its own set of narrative objectives, such as rendezvousing with Foxhound, rescuing Naomi Hunter, or finding the corpse of Big Boss. Furthermore, your encounters with the Metal Gear du jour, the peculiarly Bunuelian Gekko, are numerous that they don’t stand as the same climactic boss-battle as in the other games, but not frequent enough to truly become the same constant, everpresent menace that the rest of the game’s guards and hardware are.

Now, just like losing the Codec’s central role in the story takes away a lot of the focus in the narrative, taking away the one-man-on-one-mission aspect takes away a lot of focus in the gameplay. There was something beautiful about all the other Metal Gear games and how they were so tied down to their surroundings. To me, it was meaningful that they were these high-impact action-adventure games that stayed put in one place, and didn’t have to be globetrotting travelogues. Even when the MGS series strayed away from the Zelda-style design of a connected overworld in favor of a more linear series of set-pieces, the conceit that they were all tied to one location helped preserve the illusion that everything was tied together.

And that’s what’s lost, here. That sense that events of the greatest global importance can occur in just one spot, for a brief amount of time. In the old Metal Gear games, Kojima seemed to be saying, “Give me a military base, and I’ll show you the world.” In MGS4, instead, we have, “Give me the world, and I’ll show you a bunch of military bases.”

But then, that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? MGS4 is a game depicting the entire world bogged down in quagmires of warfare, so it makes sense that you’d have to string the player throughout the entire world to do that. From the beginning, the series was always about Big Boss’ dream to create a world of endless war for soldiers, and I’d always seen the series as an expression of that– a war that stretches from Outer Heaven and Zanzibar Land all the way to Shadow Moses and Manhattan. If MGS4 is meant to be a reprise of all the old themes before the curtain call, then it makes sense to let it be the globetrotting adventure no single installment ever was itself, but the series as a whole always was. It’s the entire Metal Gear experience reduced to a single game, and as such becomes more of a series of events rather than a singular event, itself.

In other words, it’s more The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie than The Exterminating Angel, to put it in terms as surreal as the game itself can be, at times.

Don't get me started on how this ties into the whole eye-patch thing...

Now, there’s a positive aspect about that, and that’s the fact that it really moves deeply into the sequential design that Kojima really started to get into with MGS2, and nearly perfected in MGS3. In Sons of Liberty‘s tanker chapter, players were given a fairly nice little introductory level that got newcomers used to the patterns of Metal Gear while providing enough challenge for practiced veterans. Snake Eater‘s excellent Virtuous Mission improved upon that with one of the finest tutorial levels ever, slowly introducing new gameplay concepts and mechanics into the mix and letting the player assume control of the same character they’d be playing as for the rest of the game.

MGS4‘s Middle East chapter does a lot of this, too, and does a lot of it right, introducing players to new threats like the all-powerful Gekkos and the gameplay mechanic of helping-or-evading rebel militias against your shared enemies of the PMC’s, and even throws in the game’s first encounter with Liquid’s FROG unit, which stands as one of the series’ best shoot-outs entirely. The problem, however, is the inconsistency that chapter and many of its elements has with the rest of the game– it isn’t that you aren’t prepared for things you’re forced to encounter along the way, but instead that you are often prepared for things you don’t, at least not all the way through.

For example, let’s take the Gekkos. When these lovely little Metal Gears were introduced in the first trailers for the game, I quaked with the anticipation of encountering them. I knew already it was going to be a change for the series’ structure, having that many bi-pedal robots that early in the game, but for some reason, it made sense. Metal Gear has never really been about fighting Metal Gears, after all– it’s really been about hiding from enemies behind enemy lines. If MGS4 was going to be about hiding from Metal Gears behind enemy lines, however, that would be perfect, and right in the very first level, that’s exactly what you’re doing– hiding from Metal Gears.

But that’s it. At least for the first part. From that point on, you don’t encounter a non-cut-scene Gekko until the end of the South American chapter, where you’re not so much hiding from Metal Gears as you are running away from them. I got killed so many times in the marketplace chase scene so many times trying to fight them instead of just escaping, because at that point I’d been waiting to interact with the Gekkos so long I just lost patience with the game. Besides that, all I’d been able to do was shoot the Gekkos down during one of the run-and-gun sequences atop Drebin’s tank, which doesn’t really feel as satisfying as taking on a Metal Gear one-on-one.

It wasn’t until the third chapter, a nostalgia-trip back to the abandoned Shadow Moses Island, that the game finally offered what its early trailers seemed to advertise– a Metal Gear game about playing hide-and-seek with Metal Gears. To the Kojima’s credit, by the time I actually got what I wanted, I wasn’t so much elated at the gameplay opportunity as I was intimidated by the sheer difficulty of evading the behemoths. By the time you actually get your hands on a piece of weaponry that can take a Gekko down and are given the chance to fight, I found myself impressed both by the delayed satisfactory fun of taking down a Metal Gear one-on-one, and by the location Kojima decided to set the action in (you’ll understand when you reach that point, pleasant dreamers).

And once again, it’s moments like those where Kojima rescues his game from the awkwardness of his structure, and somehow justifies it as the logical extension of the game’s expressive power. Because after all, if you forget the mere surface-value of the different locations around the world, just as you’re willing to forget the equally superficial depictions of a single military outpost in game after game, you’re going to find the same hide-and-seek mechanics played out in new and challenging ways. Besides that, you’ve also got a number of fine new challenges sprinkled throughout that create intriguing moments no matter where they’re set– tracking footprints in the jungle while evading enemy ambushes, tailing members of an underground resistance movement in the foggy streets of a film-noir style Eastern European police-state, or dreaming in 32-bits of an old, forgotten heliport.

And, of course, you’ve always got the boss-battles.


Now, here’s where MGS4 truly had one of the finest Metal Gear moments, in my opinion. While Raging Raven, the boss capping the Eastern European chapter, boasted some nice Hitchcockian level-design in its set-piece of an aerial duel centered around a winding stair-case, I found the encounter a lot more by-the-numbers than Laughing Octopus, which was genuinely clever in its catch-me-if-you-can attention to detail. Raging Raven, a winged foe with an army of mechanical flying monkeys (for lack of a better term), was challenging and stealth-oriented in its system of shooting down enemies while staying out of searchlights and attracting the attention of the main boss enough to actually get a shot at her, but for the most part, this one was mostly about waiting for Raven to show up and then blasting her before she got a chance to blast me.

Granted, the multi-tiered level added some intrigue to a fight that was already much more demanding (and fair) than any of the enemies I faced in No More Heroes, but for my money, this was one case where challenge and intrigue weren’t enough. Too much was going on all at once here, and I longed for some of the simplicity found in the best matches from MGS3, the sniping-duel with The End and the CQC hide-and-sneak with The Boss. For a while, I wondered if those moments would stand as the high point in Kojima’s craftsmanship of designing boss-battles that correspond to the actual rules of Metal Gear itself, and asked myself how he’d find a way to match them.

The answer– by doing them both at once.

Crying Wolf is absolutely the most fun I’ve had in a Metal Gear boss fight, while also being one of the longest, most difficult ones I’ve faced, as well. Instead of adhering to the strained minimalism of The End, or the myopic claustrophobia of The Boss, Kojima turns the battle against Crying Wolf and her squad of hunters into a nicely honed balance between the two, matching the careful attention and patience of the former with the vigilance and threat of the latter.

While The End is frequently noted as a high-water mark for Kojima’s boss-battles, pitting the player against an expert sniper in a test of the best attributes of the Metal Gear experience– stealth, camo and careful aim– it also epitomizes some of the worst attributes, as well– endless waiting, instant-defeat and eye-rolling Kojimian gimmickry. The fact that the fight can last for hours on end isn’t necessarily because The End himself is the most difficult sniper in the world, but because he’s the only enemy out there. True, there’s an elegant kind of purity at work there– a real one-on-one battle of wits, ability and endurance– but there’s also a hell of a lot of boredom to be found if you don’t have the patience to win. I found myself able to beat The End by hiding inside logs, over and over again, and simply waiting for him to show up in my sights. Inside my log, The End couldn’t touch me, and as long as I waited long enough, he’d always show up in my sights again. Sure, if you want to beat him in less time you can dare moving through riskier territory, but what’s better in a game– to win smart, or win dangerously?

What I like about Crying Wolf is the fact that your boss isn’t the only enemy out there. It’d be as though you had to fight The End, and the Ocelot unit was patroling the same grounds anyway, even though you hadn’t shot him in the wheel-chair (which is still the most fun way to beat him, I say). Having enemies hunting for you while you’re hunting your boss creates opportunities for you to test your abilities by taking out the smaller guards without giving your position away. It epitomizes my favorite part of the Metal Gear experience– evasion. It’s exactly what you had to do against The Boss– constantly searching for her position in the blinding white field while doing your best to hide, neither of you remaining in constant motion– except you don’t have the artificial dilemma of the 10 minute time-limit, and you’ve got the constant question of which enemy is more important– the smaller enemy about to find you now, or the bigger enemy that’ll find you if you kill the smaller enemy.

Everything felt perfectly balanced in this fight– the variety of the terrain, the environmental conditions, the vigilance of the guards and the power of the boss itself. Thanks to the constant movement the additional enemies force, the Crying Wolf battle doesn’t go on for hours like The End, or cut off artificially after ten minutes like The Boss. For me, it lasted about an hour, and I’m guessing that the range should be about from as much as 90 minutes to as little as 20, perhaps. What I can say is that no matter how long you take, it’s one of the fullest stealth-gaming experiences you can find today, and it’s one of those moments that makes MGS4 worth playing.

That’s all for today, and it looks like that things ought to be concluding by my third playthrough. Next time, expect me to fill you in on all the pertinent details from that go-around, as well as some closing thoughts on the game, and the series as a whole. Until then, pleasant dreamers, if everything suddenly looks as though it has graphics from several generations ago or production values from the French studio system of the 70’s, remember to write everything down when you wake up…