This retrospective was published a few months ago when Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots became the last-ever Playstation Plus game for PS3. It's no longer available on PS+ but, as today marks the game's eleventh anniversary, we thought we'd give the piece another airing.
The final Playstation 3 game that will be offered to Playstation Plus members is Metal Gear Solid 4. It's available until Friday, March 8, and is the most appropriate choice Sony could have made in saying farewell to the last generation. Of every game I ever played on that machine, MGS4 is the most inextricable from that hardware, and that era.
I began writing about games just as the Playstation 2 era was ending. I don't mention the Gamecube or Xbox because, as great as those machines were, Sony dominated that generation in every sense. The last sales figures Sony gave for the Playstation 2 were in 2013, and showed the company had sold an incredible 155 million consoles, making it the best-selling video game hardware ever released. Not a little of this was down to the fact that Playstation 2 had the most extensive and richest choice of software, and prime amongst its exclusives was the Metal Gear Solid series: the first game had released for the original Playstation, and in its day Metal Gear Solid 2 was the most anticipated game around.
And it didn't half live up to the hype. I'm not going to go on with a potted history of the Metal Gear games, but want to emphasise how crucial a part they played in the first decade of Playstation. These games sold enormously well and, just as importantly, were critical darlings. Elsewhere I've called Metal Gear Solid the first modern video game, its sequel the first postmodern game, and I'm far from alone in thinking that Kojima Productions' work was of an exceptional, industry-leading standard. Metal Gear Solid wasn't just a commercially important series for Sony: it was a key part of Playstation's overall strategy, because it was brilliance that couldn't be had on other platforms. Sony might not have been able to compete with Nintendo's firstparty output (at least, not in those days), but Nintendo couldn't make games like this either.
Funnily enough, you can see this in the way Microsoft and Nintendo scrambled to try and get Metal Gear, any kind of Metal Gear, on their systems. Nintendo managed to get a Game Boy Color game (Metal Gear: Ghost Babel) in 2000, before funding a remake of the original (Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes was developed by Silicon Knights rather than Kojima Productions and came out in 2004, the same year Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was released exclusively for Playstation 2). The Xbox division had a slightly bigger chequebook, and so was able to get Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance (a director's cut) released on Xbox and Windows a year after the game's original release on Playstation 2. Hilariously, Microsoft also paid for a few months of exclusivity before Substance was released on PS2.
One wonders, however, if that shot across the bows was what woke Sony up. After Substance, Metal Gear Solid 3 would remain a Playstation 2 exclusive (at least until the release of the MGS HD Collection on 360 many years later). And Metal Gear Solid 4 would be secured as not only another Playstation exclusive, but one of the core selling points for Sony's next generation: Playstation 3. In a way that even its predecessors were not, Metal Gear Solid 4 would be so tied to Playstation 3 that, 11 years later, it has never been released on another platform. It can't be. This is a game where, for once, the interview cliché was true: Metal Gear Solid 4 really was built for Playstation 3 from the ground-up.
The game was conceptualised as a showcase. Not just the greatest Metal Gear Solid game yet, but a technical tour-de-force of Sony's newest hardware, delivered as soon as possible after the console's release. At first that meant 2007 (PS3 was released in Japan in late 2006). The game was delayed, a feeling familiar to any longtime Kojima-fancier, and would eventually release worldwide on June 12 2008. Kojima's track record meant he had the budget to do almost anything he wanted, and this defines so much of the final product. The Metal Gear Solid games always have a 'theme' word: GENE for MGS, MEME for MGS2, and SCENE for MGS3. Kojima said that MGS4's core idea could be summed up as SENSE, which we'll come back to, but I'd suggest an alternative: INDULGENCE.
Metal Gear Solid 4 is one of the weirdest mainstream games I've ever played, and this clearly comes from the circumstances of its creation. Let's take the first manifestation of that enormous budget: the game opens with four different TV shows that the player can flick between, each of which is a highly polished and complete insight into MGS4's war-dependent vision of the near future. Each of the game's five chapters is bookended by enormously long cutscenes, some of which the player can move around in full 3D. Lead character Solid Snake has his own iPod, which is controlled using the device's click wheel, onto which you can download dozens of MGS-themed songs and a series of (excellent) podcasts from within Kojima Productions that were periodically released from launch until summer 2009. None of these things, you will note, are an essential or even necessary element of a stealth video game.
But that kind of luxurious, high-end production is what comes to define MGS4. If a game ever suited the console it was developed for, this is the perfect example. Following the PS2's success Sony over-estimated its follow-up's appeal and under-estimated the Xbox division's determination to make an impact: the most emblematic moment came at E3 2006, where Sony's Kaz Hirai declared that "the next generation doesn't start until we say so." Consumers didn't agree and the Xbox 360 stole a march on Sony, while Nintendo was busy over there finding a new audience with DS and Wii. The Playstation 3, at launch, was over-priced, lacked high-quality software, and was second choice for any thirdparty title.
The story of how Sony turned this around is another article, but suffice to say that both MGS4 and the Playstation 3 share certain qualities: they're bloated, over-confident, over-designed and yet somehow, by the end, were still brilliant. There is a grandeur to this game that, even now, slightly takes one aback. And such is the design skill of Kojima Productions that every failing this game has, and there are a few, would later inform the stunning and transformative swansong of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (one could even draw a parallel here to how PS3's failings led to the outstanding PS4 design).
That might seem a big claim but, when you look at how MGS4 is constructed, you start to see that Kojima and his team were chafing at elements of the series. Money may have been no object but this is still a linear stealth-action game, and it's obvious in the first chapter that it wants to be something else. This is a warzone, one occupied by two opposing groups and a bunch of modern military hardware (including the terrifying Geckos, freaky mechs with large semi-organic legs). It is one of the most detail-rich environments I've ever seen in a game, to this day, and it feels like every single paving slab, drain and balustrade has been crafted and placed and tweaked with an exquisite degree of care.
This is an environment, in other words, designed to be luxuriated in. Players should move through slowly, and realise that this is nothing like the repetitive and boxy cities typical of the genre. As Snake moves through the environment he encounters flashpoints between the two warring factions, and can choose to intervene (if you do so the rebels will, of course, respond with bespoke animations and voice lines thanking you). The threat level gradually increases, as does your range of options for avoiding them.
There's a weird feeling to this first chapter, and for me what encapsulates it is a bar you find near the end. This room doesn't serve much of a function the first time you go through it. There are no enemies, a few items but nothing of real significance, and I imagine the vast majority of players run right through. It has a U-shaped bar area in the middle, atop which are lots of bottles. There are bottles all around the edge as well, dozens and dozens of them. I spent so long in this room, listening to my iPod and admiring the detail (the sinks and fridge and oven at the back, the pictures dotting the walls, the payphones in the corner). Then one-by-one I shot every single bottle, just to see them shatter.
I told a developer about this room once, and he wasn't very impressed, pointing out that once you have a bottle asset you can simply duplicate it. But the whole point is that these bottles are different. I'm not saying there are no duplicates, there almost definitely are, but this bar doesn't stock one bottle of generic booze: it has whiskey bottles, vodka, wine, what looks like Cointreau, beer, and I guess whatever else mercenaries like to drink.
I've always felt this otherwise-unremarkable room encapsulates MGS4. After you've either run through it in ten seconds, or spent half an hour shooting bottles, there's a (long) cutscene, after which you return through the area but now with enemies firing in: so if you haven't popped the glassware, you'll be treated to the awesome spectacle of stray bullets shattering them as you move around in cover. It's not a particularly big fight, but that stylish touch is pure Kojima Productions, and the detail in this one room and the opening area in general, for me, shows why after this game Metal Gear would go open-world. Building an environment like this for players to run through once? When you're getting to this level of polish, that can only seem like a waste.
You can see this in the game's structure. Despite the huge budget and the delays, MGS4 has sections that feel out-of-place and under-baked, most notably the European setting and its later propensity towards spectacular but on-rails shooting sections. The environments never again feel as pored-over, or frankly as interesting, as in that opening area.
This is probably because Kojima Productions set itself the not-inconsiderable task of making the first conventional sequel in the MGS series. MGS2 re-presented and de-constructed the first game, its ultimate act of rug-pulling being to replace player favourite Solid Snake with the rookie prettyboy Raiden after a brief intro. MGS3 was a prequel. Kojima doesn't like straight sequels, and until MGS4 had successfully resisted the pressure to make one. But when he gave in, he did so on his own terms.
The fans get what they want, but with a pretty remarkable twist. One of the aspects of Kojima I admire is that his concepts are ballsy, whether that's MGS2's pitch document saying that "the evil in MGS2 is the American government", black sites like Guantanamo (Ground Zeroes) or the exploitation of child soldiers (Raiden's character generally as well as MGSV). And what he comes up with in MGS4 is a near-future where war is business-like and conducted almost entirely by PMCs that use nanomachine-injected soldiers with barcoded weapons. "War has changed" says Snake in the opening crawl. War is routine. War is a commodity. And in that kind of context, heroes don't matter.
So yes, Solid Snake is back: but the gruff super-soldier we remember so fondly is now a geriatric with a bad back, who coughs and splutters his way through moments of high exertion. And the change in Snake is part of MGS4's subterranean genius, the reason so many players consider this to be an all-timer. We identify with our avatars, especially those in games as good as Metal Gear Solid. This game released ten years later, and so much happens in your life in such a space of time. By prematurely ageing Snake, Kojima hasn't just got a plot device: he's making the player think about our own relationship with the game, and what has changed in that time.
This is brought to the surface in the fourth chapter, which opens with an emulation of Metal Gear Solid's Shadow Moses: that is, for a few minutes, you literally played the original Playstation game. It transpires that this is Snake himself dreaming while travelling to the same location as a much older man, but the taster has exactly the desired effect. I remember being around 16 in my bedroom at home, and not even with the game either: for many months before I got hold of Metal Gear Solid, I sustained myself with an amazing Official Playstation Magazine demo CD that contained a decent chunk of the opening. I've never cherished a demo CD more.
Every single player of Metal Gear Solid will have their own madeleine moment when MGS4 pulls this trick, and the truly brilliant aspect is that it's a prelude to a re-imagining of Shadow Moses. So the player is first transported back into their own memories then, like Snake, jolts back awake into the present day. And it's not as dramatic for us as Snake, but those ten years contained so many key events in my life that it's impossible not to feel you, too, are some kind of wizened warrior by now. And Kojima being Kojima, the final reveal is that Shadow Moses is a dilapidated wreck: long-abandoned, patrolled by AI robots that mimic the original game's soldier behaviour, and like Snake himself a relic of another era. Kojima doesn't say that we should never retread past glories. He shows us.
There's so much more to go into with this aspect of MGS4, the way it synthesises various elements of the series' past into new forms, a technique used to emphasise the 'routine' nature of war. The game's bosses, the Beauty and the Beast unit, are an amalgam of old bosses and weapons: the 'trauma' that defines each is often an echo too, the brutal human cost inherent in these cycles. This synthetic characterisation is another demonstration of how the 'future' of a video game series can be unbearably constrained by the past.
The main promotional image for MGS4 showed Solid Snake, his body arched back in what looked like a scream of pain, with his lower half dissolving into tiny silhouettes of guns, items and characters. Snake's character is composed of his game history, and as a game character he is doomed to repeat himself.
Things like this are why MGS4 is such a hard game to get a handle on, because it's not like the game's surface-level story can really bear the load of all this symbolism. I've barely mentioned the cutscenes, but I didn't enjoy a lot of them, and the main pleasure I take from MGS4 is in untangling what it's saying about itself and the series. The plot can't really be taken seriously: it goes to ludicrous extremes in order to accommodate returning characters like Eva, blithely explain away plot holes and (eventually) resurrects the series' most iconic character after the credits have rolled. Big Boss returns from the dead, and this is Hideo Kojima's storytelling technique in a nutshell, then CQC-hugs his 'son' Snake, delivers a ten minute monologue, kills uber-baddie Zero, smokes a cigar, pops a salute, and then dies again.
On the face of it that's just crackers, but there are plenty of otherwise-sane people (including myself) who'll tell you that this final scene brought a tear to their eye. How do you explain that? It's the symbolism of this resolution, the salute and the feeling that, whatever else may happen, your journey as Solid Snake is over. Konami can do what they will with the character, but it will never be able to change his end.
There's so much more in this game to discuss: the fantastic throw-down mech fight it delivers (which also shows that the Metal Gears themselves are now obsolete), the never-bettered Octocamo suit implementation, the hours and hours and hours of codec conversations you can have everywhere in the game. It makes many tonal missteps too: the gross 'photography mode' where you can leer over the game's female bosses, in particular; the toilet humour of Johnny Sasaki; the mishandled jokes in the return of Psycho Mantis (he can't read your mind anymore, because there's no memory card with PS3 - a needless comic turn from an all-time great boss).
You could go on just listing things that are in this game for ages. There's so much stuff that it's almost too much for the game itself to handle: you never really need such an enormous range of weapons, but there they are. To say it's a brilliant or a bad experience is kind of pointless, because the truth is it has elements of both and at any given time you're never quite sure which one you've veered into.
At one point in the game you hear the voice of God (voice actor: Hideo Kojima). It's the kind of wink that this unique creator likes to put in his games, and it's funny because it's semi-true: when it comes to this universe, Kojima was for good or ill the presiding deity. Metal Gear Solid 4 is a bizarre creation nevertheless. Some parts are endlessly replayable, and some are terrible. The narrative concepts are quite brilliant, and the moment-to-moment story is dire. There are interactive sequences that leave your jaw on the floor, then long stretches where you're bored out of your mind.
In all this weird, outsize and sometimes pointless grandeur MGS4 fits its bloated home platform so well. The ambition, even now, makes most AAA games look like pygmies in comparison. The scale of it is amazing. And even if Mr Kojima might have too high an opinion of himself, though one still shared by Sony, there's no denying that at times, it touches outer heaven.