Of all my gaming purchases throughout 2012 deciding to take a chance on the Metal Gear Solid series was probably my best purchasing decision. Its given me characters I've come to deeply love along with ones that I deeply hate, its given me one of my favourite games of all time whilst also giving me one of my most disappointing games of all time. The best thing though is whether one of the games be good or bad I always found myself with so much to say and talk about, it's a series I've been thinking about non-stop.
With this in mind I was cautiously excited when diving into Metal Gear Solid 4, those who had shared my opinions regarding the other 3 games appeared to voice not so great fondness of this entry and that if I didn't like MGS2 then I probably wouldn't be on board with this one much either. With this in mind and then coupled with the fact I had an insanely good time with MGS3 and struggled to see how Kojima could top my love and experience with it the most I hoped for was that it at least wouldn't be an MGS2 situation all over for me again.
I was right about it not rivalling my love for MGS3, however much to my delight it also wasn't an MGS2 moment for me all over again. In fact in many ways MGS4 is the most interesting entry out of the entire franchise of which I've played so far, it does many things that I found irritating or things that I found to be outright abysmal. Now usually with these Metal Gear pieces I've been doing I like to outline what I've adored and hated about each game, and although I have much to complain about I'm putting that aside as there's something incredibly more compelling for me to speak about.
Throughout these ups and downs one common powerful theme remained from start to finish. The feeling of oppression, the weight, burden and soul crushing power of oppression. This is something that is not only put in practice with the story and narrative but also with the gameplay. So let me take you on a whirlwind ride of my distant valleys of thoughts of Metal Gear Solid 4.
I'll be honest, I did not enjoy this game at all at first, this was really upsetting me and I was scared it would only get worse for me. I didn't like how hectic the gameplay and environment had become, enemy soldiers are everywhere and explosions and gun fires are going off left and right. The previous Metal Gear games had trained me into a mindset of which being over run to such a manic degree was only the result of YOU making a mistake, of YOU messing up and getting caught.
So to be sneaking around uncaught with all hell breaking out loose around me was conflicting with everything I thought I knew and loved about the Metal Gear games, there was a clash going on within my mind. However I was determined to give this game a fair chance and set aside my discomfort and initial upset as best I could. Quickly I began to adjust to this change and gained a better handle on the feel and gameplay which allowed me to enjoy the game much, much more.
This is then extended to your arsenal of weaponry, in the previous Metal Gear games I would almost always be using my tranquillizer gun on enemy soldiers. You could usually use it with a silencer ensuring my continued unnoticed presence, the only times I would end up using full on weaponry such as a shotgun or a rifle would be either when I got caught which is when things get hectic and suddenly there's enemy soldiers everywhere or during a boss fight. The games taught me to only use heavy fire power in the most desperate and pressurizing of times.
To me this speaks to the levels of how authentically Kojima and his team were able to re-create war torn like environments and gameplay. In many ways the enemy soldiers are the exact same as the enemy soldiers I've encountered before but suddenly I no longer feel safe, I can't risk the unconscious body being found, I don't feel safe knowing there's live enemy soldiers all around me, I must dispose of those that pose a threat to me. This adds a somewhat heavier action element to the non-boss battle sections of the game but it does it in a way that never detracts from the stealth gameplay aspect.
These elements give a whole new feeling to the settings and environments we take play in, to a certain degree I usually felt control in my immediate surroundings in the Metal Gear games and had little to worry about. Here I feel little to no control over my surroundings, suddenly the field I take play in is unpredictable and deadly, suddenly I feel dominated and oppressed by the environment I'm in, I no longer feel safe.
One could assume though that being able to easily kill of enemy soldiers due to my preference for heavy fire power would lighten the oppressive theme going on, luckily the game combats this and raises the weight of oppression upon me with the inclusion of some new enemies.
First of all we have the Haven Troopers or known more commonly as 'FROGS', and they have a few more skills then the regular troops. I'm generally quite use to enemy soldiers not moving or running around too much but the FROGS are unlikely to stay in one place unmoved for too long, instead they run around at blazing speeds, jumping around the environment with great agile grace. They can even plant themselves upon walls and ceilings just to make you panic even more as to where the gunfire is coming from. They also take a lot more bullets and fire power to take them down and they're nearly always dispatched in teams so that you really have your hands full upon they're arrival.
This contributes to the overall theme of oppression especially since you never truly know when they're going to turn up, they can turn up completely out of the blue landing you in some sticky situations but they're also much harder to sneak around in later portions of the game.
Then we have the Scarabs, though one by its self is easily dealt with and doesn't take much to destroy it you always come across them in large numbers. Numbers that make it incredibly difficult to sneak your way around a room as they are eternally perched on walls keeping an eye out for intruders, then we have ones on the floors constantly on the moving seeking out you. This makes things insanely tense for what are essentially little balls with hands.
But when you are spotted things take a turn for the worse as they will crowd around you in huge numbers very quickly, this gave me a real genuine sense of claustrophobia made even worse by the fact when you kill them they explode which can send you flying across the room and then you watch them swarm around you once more as you barely pick yourself back up from the initial blast.
Finally we then have the Gekko, an Unmanned Fighting Vehicle or to put it in better descriptive terms, giant walking tanks that will fuck you up considerably if they spot you and are close enough to kick your ribs in. These guys can be real mother fuckers to take down due to the fact you'll often have to be dealing with other enemy soldiers at the time or the Gekko its self will be running up to you to take out a chunk of your health. They dominate any battlefield they take place in and can be relentless in their pursuit of you. They hold a strong, powerful presence about them, just being in the company of them unnoticed will have you sweating bullets as you nervously crawl and tip toe around them.
What makes them all the more oppressive though is that they're used somewhat sparingly in the game, we do see them plenty of times in cutscenes but when we do they're usually taking down everyone in the battlefield and over-powering certain whiny cyborg individuals. At one point in the game you get to pilot Metal Gear REX, you know that big mother fucking robot from the first game that you just about took down? What was once an iconic powerful piece of machinery and tech is rendered powerless in the face of multiple Gekko's as they will whittle down your health bar rapidly if you aren't careful.
When it comes down to it though these new enemy additions not only contribute to some fresh new baddies to take down but also largely contribute to the ongoing oppressive theme, hammering home the notion that you really aren't safe no matter the situation or environment.
It wouldn't be a Metal Gear game though without a colorful selection of bosses ready to challenge your skills and delight your mind with their madness. This is something I'm really excited to talk about though, you see the first boss of this game 'Laughing Octopus' I can say with full confidence is without a doubt one of the best boss battles I have ever fucking played through, hands fucking down. You'll notice I'm using the word 'fucking' a lot because I can barely fucking describe the emotional state I was going through during this boss battle yet it epitomises and perfectly distils the theme of Oppression.
First of all the setting that the fight takes place in is supremely perfect. It takes place in a small hut like one floored building that's then filled to nearly every corner with laboratory equipment leaving only tight filled spaces and the narrow hallways circled around it all. This is the starting point of a true claustrophobic and oppressive experience. Then we have the boss herself, Laughing Octopus and I don't say this lightly she's pretty damn creepy. Just her design alone is unsettling, her feminine seductive body is outlined clearly giving a rather human element to it yet that body is suffocated and trapped in a grey skin tight suit with a large piece of mechanical machinery on top of her with four tentacles protruding out. Her face is covered by a mask with no defining features at all, in fact it looks a lot like a gimp mask adding to the suffocating uncomfortable look. She ends up alluring you whilst simultaneously repulsing you, brilliant!
Then throughout the entire battle whether she's close or far from you no matter what the distance you'll be able to hear her laughing as if her lips were inches away from your ears. (Especially due to the fact I was wearing headphones when I played this.) a laugh that strikes a great degree of discomfort to myself leaving me genuinely unnerved. Her voice its self is also terrifying, mixed with a female and male voice to give it a split off putting vibe to it making her seem not fully human. We can also hear her barging about smashing windows and various objects constantly so you know she's on the move, but you don't where from, she could be round that corner you're about to run around, maybe she's right behind you, maybe she's about to crash through that window to your left. You start feeling genuinely paranoid especially when halfway through the fight she'll curl up into a ball and come hurtling out of no way at you making me jump out of my skin and shit my pants.
Then of course is the stunning moment when she comes out of the suit and walks freely, she begins walking towards us as the world around us drains of all color, the only color that remains is faintly glowing from her. We some truly disturbing scenes from her past, the cries of murder and death which left me feeling quite unsettled yet utterly enraptured by what I had just played and witnessed.
This is a boss fight where I didn't feel calm or safe for a single second, I felt like i had absolutely zero control over the situation and this all came together in a gorgeous climax of perfection. I love this boss battle so much, it truly leaves me feeling utterly oppressed upon, instilling me with fear, paranoia, discomfort and panic. Rarely does a game conjure up such vivid unsettlingly emotions within myself yet this boss alone was able to do it.
Somewhat sadly however every single boss from there failed to impress me as much, I wasn't as hopelessly ensnared by the other ones however I was still able to appreciate them on what they contributed to the oppressive theme of the game. Crying Wolf's fight takes place in a snow covered and blizzard torn forest where not only do you have to try and seek out a large mechanical wolf that's constantly on the prowl for you with her ever watchful eye and massive electric firing rail gun, but you also have to deal with FROG troops constantly being deployed and hunting for you. This puts you in a rather interesting dilemma, on the one hand you want to take them out so you can avoid being found and having to deal with them on top of the insane psychotic wolf woman, but taking them out could draw more attention to you in which Crying Wolf will find you anyway. On top of all of this though you're also consistently left blinded by the ongoing blizzard storm leaving you to rely on the Solid Eye however that will run out of battery power quick leaving you to your own devices. Not for one moment will you feel safe and again a constant state of paranoia will be injected into you as the battle progresses.
The game manages to avoid what I feel was MGS2's greatest misstep and brings forward some genuinely unsettlingly whilst eerily beautiful bosses each leaving a distinct unforgettable impact upon you.
I feel it's important for me to highlight a certain event in the story that really drops the dread and oppression upon you once it all kicks off.
It's when Liquid Ocelot has gotten his hands on the corpse of Big Boss and has just beaten you to submission with ease. But then Meryl and an entire Army appear in the nick of time to save the day, with greater numbers and heavier fire power surely this means the end of Liquid's plans. Obviously this isn't how it works out, Liquid now has control of the system, the Armys weapons are now useless, he can make helicopters fall out of the sky and the only weapons that now function are his own, allowing him to reduce an entire Armys worth of soldiers to bullet ridden corpses. I really believed at first that maybe he was going to be captured here, sure it wouldn't work out but I couldn't see how he'd get out of it but by the end of it all he lays waste to them all and flips the odds on their head entirely.
It's hugely a dramatic scene that truly raises the stakes but above all leaves you feeling like there's almost no hope left for Snake to succeed. Liquid has completely dominated him and an entire army, what more can they do? Now this leads me to one of my favourite decisions done for MGS4, the decision to have Snake considerably aged to the point of being an old man.
This is a trope I've become somewhat fond of, take a legendary iconic figure who's typically associated with being powerful then age them so that suddenly they're vulnerable, they're out of their depth, times have changed. We see this used in recent movies such as the Dark Knight Rises and Skyfall so I was delighted to see it executed here, something about the trope just fascinates me. But with Snake it's much more serious, it's not just about he's not as skilled as he once was, it's more about the fact he has very little time left, six months in fact. This puts a rather powerful level of doom and dread over the entire story since it doesn't take place in a single day or night, the clock is ticking, Snake has to stop everything before he bites the dust but with each passing day his condition becomes increasingly worse.
Then he's told the FOXDIE virus he was injected with all the way back from MGS1 has now mutated into something that could become a worldwide pandemic, the only way to prevent that would be Snake dying which would kill off the virus. So even if Snake does somehow make his way through al these trials of war and battle the reward he'll be met with by the end of it all would be a bullet to the head. And after everything we witness in the game that he has to suffer through the reality of it all becomes increasingly depressing, he's put through utter hell by his enemies in this game all of which climaxes to a section of the game I found astonishingly hard to play through and witness. Snake is so close to ending it all, the key to ending it all is in a room so close by but first he must struggle his way through a microwave hallway.
This is on par with the torture scene in MGS3 for me where Volgin beats Big Boss to a pulp, except this moment was even more excruciating to witness. You don't just watch Snake suffer his way through this hallway slowly being burnt and crumbled down to near death, it's you who controls him throughout this all. You have to push him forward as he inevitably falls to his knees and is left to crawling along pitifully, it's you who has to frantically mash the triangle button to ensure he keeps on moving, even if it's just by the tips of his fingers that moves him you must push him through it. He barely gets out of it alive and one would imagine when he emerges from it back on his feet it would feel like a grand victorious moment, except it doesn't, so discomforting was it to play through and witness it was that it left an impact upon me that could not so easily be dispelled, to see a character you care for and like so dearly be subjected to absolute hell leaves you feeling very odd indeed.
This is a game where the hero never really gets his big win, I felt like after everything he had gone through he of all people deserved the greatest victory, yet the most he gains are the small fleeting victories that in the end mean nothing and take no effect in the grand scheme of things. He has to deal with the constant knowledge of how little time of life he has, and the time he has will most likely be spent with hardships and suffering. The inescapable loom of death is ever present throughout the entire game resulting in what for many people feel is one of life's greatest oppressive inevitabilities and fears, the fear of death, the mystery of what's beyond and missing out on parts of the future we've contributed to, whether it be good or bad.
I discovered halfway through writing this that the game was designed around the motto "No Place To Hide!" and this feels most appropriate to describe the game. You'll never feel truly safe and with every new situation and event you're met with an increasing amount of paranoia will be instilled upon you leading to great crushing weight of fear. I love this game for that, for me MGS2 didn't have a strong distinct feel to it, there was a dull, bland air to it all which made it even harder for me to forgive its missteps.
With MGS4 though it has such a potent unforgettable unique and distinct feeling to it, the theme of Oppression is pushed spectacularly in just the right places making me forgive and turn a blind eye to certain missteps as the overall feel of the content is just so perfect. Sure some things completely pissed me off like Meryl getting together with Johnny, possibly the stupidest thing I've witnessed happen in the MGS series so far and probably the most angry I've felt from a cutscene in my entire life as they propose to each other in truly horrendous displays of disgusting affection that doesn't have an ounce of genuine air to it and instead feels convoluted and forced, and in my eyes is a fucking insult to the character of Meryl. But that's a full fleshed out rant for another time...
Yes awful writing and choices aside I ended up really enjoying Metal Gear Solid 4, it just about ties things up in a mostly satisfying way but it gave me a ride unlike any other, and that's all I can really ask for. I can only hope Ground Zeroes will see a return of my wild erotic passion for the series in the same vein as I had for MGS3 and if not that, DO ANOTHER BOND-ESQUE TITLE SEQUENCE PLEASE! (I will never stop pushing this.)