Dispatches: Metal Gear Solid 4, Part Three; Or: Dulce Et Decorum Est

Today on the Dispatches, we reach the end of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, and perhaps the end of the Solid Snake’s story, altogether. But just because the Metal Gear saga’s over doesn’t mean the series isn’t about to continue, in all likelihood.

Now, there’s already sites all over the internets where you can go looking to find exact descriptions of the game’s storyline, its cinematics and ultimate ending, but I’m not going to do that. It’s not because I want to avoid posting spoilers, or because I’m afraid of looking like a Kojima fanboy by fawning over his latest installment. No, it’s because as a posting on a blog dedicated to game design, the storyline itself isn’t one-hundred percent relevant to my considerations as a critic, here. That doesn’t mean, however, that I’m going to spare any of my criticism in regards to the presentation of Kojima’s narrative, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the narrative itself.

See, Kojima’s fantastic at two things– creating a game design, and creating a story. But there’s a big difference between creating a great story and being a great storyteller, and unfortunately throughout MGS4, Kojima keeps losing his footing in the latter category.

Now, maybe it’s because he keeps saying that this is supposed to be the last game in the series that he’s directing– sure, he said that about all the other MGS games, but this time he seems to be putting his money where his mouth is. While each of the previous Metal Gear games left us with dozens of unanswered questions for every dramatic revelation we received, this time Kojima’s made damn sure to provide us with an explanation to every single, solitary plot strand he’s ever come up with, including a few that he’s basically invented for the purposes of wrapping up the series entirely. Nearly all the loose ends are tied up, and by the end of this game he has, like many a Corleone before him, settled all family business.

Now, some of it’s good and some of it’s frustrating, mostly involving the plot-twists that fill in several decades worth of backstory we barely even saw hinted in the prequel games of MGS3 and Portable Ops. Yes, it’s rewarding as a player to see so many of the hints and clues I’d picked up on pay off (especially considering that I was right about my “Man With the Same Codename as Null” theory) but at the same time it’s sad to see such a rich backstory being implied, but not actually fleshed out in the gameplay. Without giving up any real details, it’s sort of the feeling that I had playing the original MGS, and hearing about the backstory of Solid Snake, Big Boss and Gray Fox before Konami re-released the original MSX Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2. Sure, it’s nice to have a story like that left to your imagination, but in a game, it’s better to get your dirty little hands on it, yourself.

But hey– anything’s possible. Kojima’s said that MGS is likely to continue on the PSP, even with only his minimal involvement, so there’s still hope for all of the series’ newest plot holes to be filled in with more Portable Ops, which I’d be more than satisfied by. The real problem storytelling like this poses in MGS4, however, is that it falls into the gaming equivalent of the old “Show, Don’t Tell” adage– wherever possible, a player should be able to get to experience the conflict of a story directly themselves, instead of only being told about it secondhand. Sure, if you want to unspool conspiracy-ladden story more tangled up than the Gordian Knot, you’re going to need a fair amount of exposition just to make sure everybody’s on the same page, but after that’s done the least you can do is allow us to act out a role in the drama you’ve conjured up, instead of leaving us behind in the audience.

I would call it the “Let Us Fight the Bad Guy” rule. If you’re going to reveal the identity of an evil mastermind and retroactively recast the entire series as a war waged by said evil mastermind, please let us fight him. Please. I know we might very well be doing that, eventually, on our PSP’s, or something, but without directly experiencing a conflict for ourselves, we don’t really experience any emotional closure when that conflict is resolved. Kojima ought to know better by now, because in the rest of this game, he goes out of his way to provide us with emotional closure for newly resolved conflicts, and the way that he does that is simple:

He lets us play the game.

And when he does, the results are breathtaking. Especially in the later stages of the game, where every sequence knowingly builds off of Metal Gear history to create an escalation of bigger and more over-the-top moments that mean so much more because they’re bound to remind the player of things they’ve done in the past. I already mentioned how much I dug the Crying Wolf boss-battle for how much it felt like a balanced compromise between the gameplay of The End and The Boss in MGS3, but I didn’t mention how it also builds off of the Sniper Wolf sequences from MGS1. Sure, it’s obvious in the same way that they’re all sniper-battles, essentially, but the level design of the battleground is smartly ripped from the original PSX game, having you fight the newest Sniper Wolf clone in the same places you fought the original Sniper Wolf, with enough revisions and additions made to the environment’s layout to keep it from feeling like a mere retread.

This sort of thing is done throughout the entire Shadow Moses sequence in MGS4, and it’s one of the reasons why it’s one of the most satisfying sequences Kojima’s ever worked on. It builds off of your nostalgia for the original game, while also serves as a dramatically appropriate reprise of old themes, echoing MGS the same way Lucas or Coppola sprinkled echoing shots and sequences in episodes of Star Wars or The Godfather. Furthermore, it manages to reinvent many of the old locations with new twists and challenges which also incorporate echoes of the old themes– the further you descend into the depths of Shadow Moses, the more and more Metal Gear Gekko you have to sneak past, which finally makes good on linking the two main aspects of the Metal Gear gameplay experience– sneaking past enemies undetected, and fighting giant fucking robots.

And heck, if you like fighting giant fucking robots, the Shadow Moses sequence delivers some of the finest giant fucking robot fights you’re likely to play through, especially in Metal Gear. One of my favorite sequences from the series was always the army of Metal Gear RAYs in MGS2— there really is nothing like fighting wave after wave of a seemingly endless supply of Metal Gears, and it’s a sequence I always hoped would be repeated in another game of the series. Thankfully, that’s exactly what you have towards the end of the Shadow Moses sequence, where Snake must battle a seemingly endless supply of Gekko while Raiden duels with Vamp atop Metal Gear REX.

The only problem with the sequence is that Kojima decided to go splitscreen, and show the player Vamp and Raiden’s fight while you’re in the middle of Snake’s fight against the Gekko. It’s painfully distracting to have half of the screen cut off in the middle of a fight where being able to see your enemies is a major part of the battle. The only reason I can really condone the split-screen of the Vamp fight is because the player actually does have something of a stake in the battle, and not just because they remember fighting Vamp in MGS2. Right before the battle royale of Metal Gear units, Snake has to take on the seemingly immortal Vamp, and the way in which the player has to beat the boss is pretty clever, both for being one of the classic Kojimian thinking-outside-the-cardboard-box moments and for being a test of exactly how much attention you’ve been paying to the game’s byzantine plot.

Furthermore, it’s also a preparation for a solution you have to use again in the game’s penultimate boss-battle with Screaming Mantis in the game’s Outer Haven finale, a sequence that’s entertaining for how it ties together the fourth-wall breaking attitude of MGS1‘s Psycho Mantis and the spiritual-consequences aspect of MGS3‘s The Sorrow. When you factor in the Vamp-trick as another thinking-your-way-out-of-the-enemy’s-reach gesture, and learn the boss’s true weakpoint, the Screaming Mantis battle winds up having equal amounts of resonance, challenge and demand.

If this were the last boss-battle in the game, it would be satisfying as far as gameplay goes, but certainly not in terms of the narrative. Obviously, if Liquid Ocelot is the evil mastermind in this particular save-the-world story, the last person you fight has to be Liquid Ocelot, and he is. The problem is, you fight him twice in the game, once at the end of Shadow Moses, and again at the end of Outer Haven, and awkwardly, the first time you fight him is much more fun than the second time. Part of this is just the way that the MGS series has always worked, structurally– at the end of every game, you fight a Metal Gear, then you fight the evil mastermind one-on-one, and with few exceptions, the fight with Metal Gear is usually the more fun encounter of the two. MGS4 is no different, as in Shadow Moses you fight Liquid Ocelot while he pilots Metal Gear RAY, while in Outer Haven you faceoff in a fist-fight, and it’s pretty much a no brainer as to which one is going to be more viscerally enjoyable to experience. Thing is, Kojima makes the contrast even more apparent with exactly how he stages the Shadow Moses fight, and does so in a way that both provides ample amounts of series-wide echoes and reprisals, nostalgia and fanservice, not to mention good-old-fashioned Saturday Morning appeal–

When you fight Liquid Ocelot in Shadow Moses, Snake is piloting Metal Gear REX. Just as everybody saw in the trailers, it’s a Metal Gear vs. Metal Gear fight, and it’s the sort of thing that pretty much reduces my personality to the mindset of a very-excited ten year old boy. The only other things that were able to do that for me were the Star Wars prequels, the trailer for the new X-Files movie and the news of Barack Obama clinching the Democratic nomination (I was pretty weird as a ten-year old).

I can’t say enough just how much I enjoy the REX vs. RAY battle, even though it marked a shift in direction for the way Kojima’s design worked. Aside from being able to take first-person and fire machine guns, combat in the sequence is pretty much dictated by kicking with the legs, which the game’s controls center around the MGS standard of punch-punch-kick combos. That part’s fine, because you’re used to that in the series already, but afterwards, you can do additional damage by following a Resident Evil 4 style timed button-press event, which allows you to do the really cool things like fire lasers, or rockets. Now, it’s really weird for such a different mechanic to be employed in the middle of a series that has never really used button-press events, but it’s excusable because you’re playing in a vehicle you’ve never played in during the other games, and right before the battle you’re given a short sequence of running through corridors and battling Gekko, which basically allows you to get used to the new control scheme.

Inconsistency in a series built on its very opposite can be condoned when you’re doing something completely and refreshingly alien– unfamiliarity is merely the side-effect of the new. However, when that same inconsistency exists in another sequence, where such originality is not present, then you have a problem. And it’s a problem the game has when you face Liquid Ocelot, MGS4‘s final boss.

Now, to me, the good boss-battles in the Metal Gear series have always been the ones that are built on either the rules of stealth-mechanics you learn throughout the bulk of the game, or on the rules of combat-mechanics that you learn throughout the game’s other boss-battles. The best ones are always a synthesis of the two, forcing you to learn stealth-combat, if you haven’t already by playing aggressively in the game. At a first glance, the Liquid Ocelot battle is one which does neither, however, and instead forces you to learn an entirely new form of combat-mechanics that exist seemingly in this boss battle, and this boss battle only, one that is largely based on stilted, reductionist controls and button-timed events. The first time I played through it, I absolutely hated it, and thought that Kojima had made a gross error in having this as the last boss-fight in the last game of the series.

Upon further playthroughs, however, I kept the lessons I’d learned from No More Heroes in mind– just because you’re not always having fun doesn’t mean you’re missing the point. So I played again, and thought about the feelings I had during the fight– yes, there was the frustration of figuring out the new controls, but also immense satisfaction when I was able to master them. Primarily, the thing I felt, and somewhat resented at first, was learning— specifically, the act of learning how to play a game. As much as the fight represented a challenge, it felt like it was basically teaching me this brand-new combat mechanic I had to learn in order to win. I might’ve gotten used to it a little bit during the REX vs. RAY battle, and maybe that was the point of that fight, preparing you unconsciously for the moment you’d have to fight that way outside of a Metal Gear. If I was learning this new mechanic, and I was being taught, then in that sense Ocelot was my teacher, and after realizing that, it was made clear that was exactly what Ocelot was all along.

In MGS1 and MGS3, Ocelot is the first boss you face, and in both cases he’s by no means easy, but certainly not the most challenging opponent either game has to offer. In each game, he’s basically there to instruct you on the basic combat-mechanics you’ll need to survive the other boss battles, and as such is teaching you how to fight him as he fights you. That’s how your two fights with Ocelot work in MGS4 as well– the REX vs. RAY fight teaches you the basic control principles you’re going to use to fight Ocelot in the Outer Haven fistfight. Also, the Shadow Moses fight very consciously provides you with a fun atmosphere in which to learn the new gameplay, an atmosphere which is mostly absent from the final battle. Instead, you’ve only got Snake vs. Ocelot– not to mention some very nostalgia-minded HUD and musical accompaniment– which forces you to take this fight a bit more seriously than the sheer adrenaline rush of a giant fucking robot fight.

Even though Snake and Ocelot control like Metal Gear units, and very well symbolically are Metal Gear units themselves, in the end they’re just old warhorses, and in the end your top priority in that fight has to be about just winning, and not just having fun.

And besides, I guess there is a precedent for this last minute learning curve in the series. MGS2 had Raiden fighting Solidus with swords, even with only one level’s worth of enemies to get used to them. But the rest of the games forced you to play with some or all of the tactics you’d learned throughout the game, and the Ocelot battles are exactly the opposite– they force you to learn new tactics. As such, Kojima was figuring out a basic paradox in having Ocelot act as the final boss in the game, seeing as before he’d always been the first boss. By having you fight him twice, you’re technically doing the standard boss-fight effect of using the techniques you’ve learned before, but since the first time you fight him is so different in presentation from the second, the time that last boss battle rolls around you still feel as though you’re just beginning to learn the ropes.

While the craftsmanship of the fight might not work as elegantly or holistically as the previous encounters of the series, Kojima very clearly states his point– even an old enemy like Ocelot can be a teacher, passing on something new to the next generation. By allowing yourself to be taught, you learn something new, and even if it isn’t as immediately satisfying as the rest of the game, it’s a statement and lesson that deserves its place.

Finally, there’s the question of finality, as far as this game is concerned. Kojima’s stated the series will likely continue on the PSP, with or without his presence as the dominant creative force, and he’s apparently put his foot down as to this being the last console MGS game he’ll be involved with, and has done his best to wrap up all the storyline and pretty much make any sequel to be redundant, at best. But he’s said that before, of course, and as much closure as MGS4 has, it’s by no means definitive. All the doors are closed, yes, but none of them are locked, and even if there were, there’d be nothing to stop anybody from making more console prequels in the fashion of MGS3.

Furthermore, with the massive retcons undertaken in this game, there’s a fresh new world in the past for future games to take on, and not all of those have to be Portable Ops. Now that we’ve been told the “truth” about what happened over the course of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, it would be nice to be able to experience it firsthand, for ourselves– remember: play, don’t tell. Next-gen remakes of the MSX games would be the perfect way to wrap up the additional loose ends of the story untangled by this latest game, as well as bring back two classics in a format that most gamers would actually be willing to play. If I were part of Kojima’s team, it’s definitely something I’d recommend, even if it were to be handed down to one of his apprentices. You don’t need nanomachines running through your central-nervous system to tell you it’s a no-brainer.

Still, perhaps it’s best that Metal Gear be given the dignified ending that so few classic franchises are allowed nowadays, instead of being whored out and eventually decaying into mediocre shadows of their once-great selves. All I can say at this point is that the announcement of Metal Gear Solid 5 would probably be the last thing in the world to surprise me, and when and if that happens I’ll wait just as anxiously as everybody else to see whether or not the the fat lady should’ve sang here. Until then, all I can say is that Kojima’s certainly added a worthy and inventive installment to his series, and should it prove to be the end, as he threatens, at least he’s let the series go out with a bang, instead of a whimper.

Well, that’s it for now, ladies and gentlemen. Next time I’ll make good on my promise and begin the long, hard path into Suda 51’s Killer 7, which I’ll finish one way or another, and hopefully take less than half a year to do so. Until then, pleasant dreamers, here endeth the lesson…