Metal Gear Solid 4 is a disaster. The plot goes beyond not making sense, to the point of parody. Retroactive continuity is stretched thin around the most bloated entertainment production since Caligula. Entire sections of the game are clumsily executed and are simply not fun to play. When it finally ends — after what seems like hours of false endings, nonsensical twists, and some truly, truly terrible dialogue — you want to strangle someone, but you're not entirely sure who you should be strangling.
But when people ask me what my favourite video game of this generation is? Depending on my mood, I usually say Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.
I love Metal Gear Solid 4. I love it with a passion that makes absolutely no sense. I love it for its ambition. I love it because it's a silly pretentious mess. I love it because others hate it. I love it because it's almost impossible to explain why Metal Gear Solid 4 is special, why it's still a landmark video game that people should care about.
I've spent years trying to convince people they should love Metal Gear Solid 4, so I have plenty of experience hearing the same complaints. The story is stupid — agreed. The cut-scenes are too long — absolutely. The third act is weird — yep. The ending... okay, let's not talk about the ending.
Yes, Metal Gear Solid 4 is silly, it's not cohesive. On some levels It's fundamentally broken.
But, crazy as it may seem, I'm going to ask you to forget about all of that. I'm going to ask you to pick up your PS3 controller, and play Metal Gear Solid 4. Just play it — the first two acts at least — play it and try your very best to see what I, and those who share my strange love for Metal Gear Solid 4, see.
"I like to play video games, not watch them."
I've heard this complaint.
"You like to play video games," I say. "You should totally play this video game. It's called Metal Gear Solid 4."
Metal Gear Solid 4 is strange. It's designed for the enthusiast. It's designed for human beings who play one single game obsessively to the exclusion of all others, but at no point does it ever encourage that kind of dedication, or hint at the rewards.
"I'm a run of the mill action game," it says with a shrug, "with some bonus cut-scenes to confuse you. Please blunder through and forget I ever existed. Then tell your friends I was a little bit shit."
I didn't truly love MGS4 until halfway through my third playthrough. It was only then, after having such dramatically different experiences each time, that I became fully aware of just how incredibly dynamic the game is, and how committed it is to allowing players to define their own playstyle.
Metal Gear Solid 4 goes the whole way. It is a game that laughs hysterically at design shortcuts, a game in which choice is truly meaningful. Chances are you've played Metal Gear Solid 4 as an action game with a choice sprinkling of stealth. Now try and play it as a pure shooter with squad mechanics. Your team mates will cheer as you slaughter the PMCs, they'll share gear with you, they'll pat you on the back. Metal Gear Solid 4 will provide you with an outcome that makes sense, it will respond to your presence in a way that most games don't.
Now play Metal Gear Solid 4 as a pacifist, on the hardest difficulty setting. Don't touch a single soldier on the battlefield, sneak your way past every single enemy. Now Metal Gear Solid 4 becomes the most delicately balanced game of hide and seek every committed to disc. You'll be amazed by the details — soldiers who trace your footsteps, who respond to sound. Try smoking a cigarette from your hiding spot — they'll smell the smoke. Every move you make will feel significant; every move elicits a response.
Now try again. Play Metal Gear Solid 4 as a troll. Attract enemies with a knock on the wall, sneak up behind them, aim your pistol at their testicles and scream freeze. Lay porno mags on the floor for unsuspecting pervs, knock them out cold with a well timed grab of their churlies. Experiment — you'll find sections you didn't know existed, entire layers of control you couldn't comprehend on your first playthrough.
Metal Gear Solid 4 dovetails from act to act, from cut-scene to cut-scene, but what happens in between is truly yours. It an experience that belongs to you and you alone — and you can shape that experience any way you damn well choose.
That's what gets lost — but it makes sense — those who criticise Metal Gear Solid 4 are the ones who spend the least amount of time with it. That's a fault of the game, undeniably, but making it less impenetrable would reduce the reward for people like me — the ones who persevere.
Prod Metal Gear Solid 4 and it'll prod you back. It's like a weird monolith, impenetrable at first. Most video games are designed to be played by monkeys with sticks — it caters to that lowest common denominator — but Metal Gear Solid 4 has to be unlocked. It's a delicate thing and it requires perseverance.
Take something as simple as control.
Nowadays video game controls have edged towards a streamlined ubiquity, and it renders most games flaccid and dull. Right trigger is shoot, X is jump, Square is reload, left trigger for iron sights, Circle is the action button — pick up a video game and there is nothing to learn. Instantly you understand, instantly you can move in this world. There is nothing to learn, nothing to be rewarded by. Predictable, banal, turgid. Blergh.
Metal Gear Solid 4 makes some moves towards accessibility — it's nowhere near as convoluted as Snake Eater — but it retains that spirit of discovery, the ability to learn a new skill, the ability to grow as a player within the game world. The intricacy of its control scheme allows for that, it allows players, on their third or fourth playthrough, to discover a new way to use CQC, a more efficient way to take out a boss. It allows for new dimensions of approach — incredibly varied ways in which to achieve a goal as simple as taking down one single soldier. MGS4's controls are tactile, inventive, difficult, endlessly frustrating — but above all else, they're worth learning, and they're worth mastering.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is worth mastering, perhaps that's the best way to put it. It feels like an actual skill as opposed to a process; as extraneous and pointless as juggling. But still, worthwhile.
But Metal Gear Solid 4 also works incredibly well as performance — all the best games do. Super Mario Bros., Street Fighter II — games that allow you to hone the most basic of skills are endlessly replayable because they allow for style, they allow you to perform in a way most games don't. You can blunder through Metal Gear Solid 4 like most players do on their first playthrough, but you also have the propensity to master it — and that mastery can be expressed in a variety of different ways.
It could mean utilising the broad arsenal of moves and weapons available in the most dramatic way possible; it could mean using none of them at all. It could mean headshotting every enemy in the game, or it could mean sending every guard to sleep with the Metal Gear Mk II. It could mean anything you want it to mean.
That's how truly dynamic Metal Gear Solid 4 is, and that's why it's a beautiful thing.