That Unsettling Feeling

Trying to find the best word to describe Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is proving to be an infuriating exercise. How can a game so good make so many fundamental mistakes, yet almost seem to unapologetically frolic in them?

I almost want to compare the game to a young child playing in the mud on a rainy day, leaving any passing bystander to wonder whether he is seeing a good day in bad weather, or something made possible precisely because of the conditions.

Rhythm of Play

The flow in MGS4 is bewildering in its approach, inevitably favoring the idea behind the design rather than the actual execution and “fun factor” of it. What starts out as a big, wide-open game – like an older cousin to MGS3 – is eventually choked down into a lifeless corridor hunt of old memories and story jukes. Artistically, it’s a brave choice. Fitting for the main character and his journey. But in terms of gameplay? The game comes off seeming unfinished.

What bugs me the most, though, is the inconsistency in handling. For a series that prides itself on real-time story telling, I’m sure I’m not the only one to seem a little confused every time I’m thrust into a gameplay situation that is less fun than what is going on around me.

Some of the most exciting moments in the game are carried on with cutscenes, or relegated to the “other side” during a split-screen battle, and yet just when you think you can predict what you can play…suddenly you are playing instead of watching, and almost unprepared to actually do something with the controller.

Surprise! Time to play the game again. (I think.)

Uneven Excess

There is no doubt, MGS4 is a game of excess. There are nearly a dozen handguns and almost seventy weapons, many of which seem only aesthetically different – I mean, are you really going to use the Five-Seven over the Desert Eagle – and the sheer number of items and music tracks just pushes the collection factor over the top. It’s an interesting and perhaps understandable evolution from MGS3, but clearly indicative of a game with a long development cycle.

Yet, something is missing.

Do you remember that sense of experience layering previous games used? MGS1 had us finding different ways out of a cell, or experiencing different endings. MGS2 had dog tags, ice cubes, electric razors. MGS3 had frogs. Bases to blow up. Bosses to kill before ever encountering them in person. All things that gave the series an attention to detail you couldn’t find anywhere else.

When I look at MGS4, that same feeling is hollow. There are alternate paths to follow, but only for short bursts. Many of the unlockables are for purchase, not for finding. And the codec system – once the series’ bread and butter of storytelling – is inexplicably empty despite the most advanced implementation in the history of the series. (You know something is up when you have 500 frequencies and only two people to talk to. Funny or not, that’s pretty empty.)

Delightfully Undecided

Still, I think the saving grace of Guns of the Patriots is that same sense of puddle-wallowing I mentioned earlier. For all of the trouble the game causes, you can’t help but acknowledge what it does right, because all of those elements are presented with a sense of confidence that has perhaps never been seen before in a video game. No feature was implemented without thought or purpose.

“Delightfully Undecided.” I think that’s what I’ll go with. The game design is unsettling, but the presentation and highs are unparalleled.

I want to wonder how a game could be so good despite so many flaws…but I have a sneaking suspicion people have discussed this before.