Posted on June 28, 2008, Jonathan Metal Gear Solid 4 is More Movie Than Game
I’ve been saying it for over a year now: “The day Metal Gear Solid 4 comes out is the day I buy a PS3.” So on Thursday, June 12th, that’s exactly what I did. I even drove an hour to a Wal-Mart in a small town at 6 AM to make sure I could secure the special system bundle. Being a huge fan of the series, I wanted to savor the experience, so I waited until the weekend to start playing, when I could really devote my time to the game. In the meantime, I perused reviews praising the game for its brilliant gameplay and for fixing problems that had plagued the series from the beginning. Naturally, I was even more excited to begin playing. So imagine my dissapointment when I actually popped in the disc and found it to be more movie than game.
It’s easy to see why Konami didn’t want reviewers to discuss the length of the game’s cut scenes, because they take up more than half of the full play time. You thought the 45-minute cinematic near the end of MGS2 was stretching things a bit? Well Hideo Kojima was just getting warmed up. I finished the whole game in about 20 hours, and I’d estimate — since I didn’t have a stop watch handy — that most of that time was spent with the controller resting in my lap, unused. Hell, even if my estimation is wrong, it certainly felt that way by the game’s end. Rumors were flying around before the game’s release that there was at least one cut scene that approached 90 minutes in length. Konami and even other reviewers were quick to deny this, and, technically, they were telling the truth. If you put a load screen or something up every half hour, then I guess you could say no single cut scene is that long. But the point is there are looooooong stretches of time where you don’t need to touch the controller at all; several are over an hour. Sure, sometimes you’re given the option to press a button to expose and alternate viewpoint of flashback, but this is about as thrilling as pressing the “Alternate Angle” button on the DVD remote.
You may be thinking, “But I saw the trailers before, and the cut scenes looked awesome!” Well yes, there are several action-packed cut scenes that are highly entertaining to watch. Unfortunately though, most of the cut scenes are much more mundane. You’ll get a chance to hear every character’s take on war (spoiler: it’s bad), their dreams, their past, and *ugh* their inner turmoil. You wanted explanations on some things from past games? Well, they explain the CRAP out of them. You’ll find out what happened to almost every single character that ever appeared in the series from the 1960′s to the present. Remember that one character from the original Metal Gear Solid that had almost no impact on the story at all? Don’t worry, you’ll find out exactly what they’ve been up to since. And then they throw out new twists and explain the crap out of them too. Characters are literally introduced, wax poetic about the harshness of war, and then disappear forever.
But you can’t skip them, because every so often, they’ll throw in a plot twist just to shake things up. The problem is, there’s so many of them that they get less and less dramatic as the story goes on. Besides that, half of these are revealed partway through some characters over-elaborate explanations of some conflict, technology, conspiracy, etc. After awhile, I started listening for some dramatic music just to cue me on when something important was happening.
With this fourth installment, it seems Kojima has accomplished his ultimate goal of nudging the series into being a movie with a video game tagged on. He’s never been shy about his aspirations for being a film director; he was even the first game designer to actually call himself a “director.” But clearly the man needs to learn a thing or two about editing. All I kept spotting throughout the cut scenes and dialogue were bits that were completely unnecessary. For instance, we do NOT need to hear a discussion of the military industrial complex for the fifth time; we got it the first time. And we definitely don’t need cheesy, cliche metaphors shoe-horned into every other cut scene. Subtlety seems be an unfamiliar concept to Kojima. Even Michael Moore isn’t this wordy when it comes to political issues.
What amazes me the most though — and the main reason I’m writing a whole article on this one aspect of the game — is the fact that few people out there seem to see this as a problem. Ever since I finished the game, I’ve been going back and reading previous reviews more thoroughly, looking for people that found the same problems I did. Strangely, I’ve found a lot of reviewers who thought the cut scenes were too long, but brushed that aside as being necessary to reveal the story. I don’t buy that logic. Few people relented on Assassin’s Creed’s arduous conversations, so why are they letting this slide here? They’re quick to point out issues that have been fixed from past Metal Gear Solid games — notably with fewer codec messages — but gloss over the issues that have now been compunded even further. Sure, the long codec conversations may be gone, but that’s only because they’ve put those conversations into cut scenes and threw in a few flashy multimedia presentations to go with them. It’s the equivalent of listening to a political podcast while staring at the visualizer on Windows Media Player. This is one of those glaring facts that changes the game from “recommend to everyone” to “recommend to only fans of the series.” About the only review I’ve seen that called out all this problems loudly was from Yahtzee Croshaw, a man whom I normally disagree with. Metal Gear Solid 4 most certainly isn’t the next evolution of storytelling; if anything, it’s a step backwards.
What really, really annoys me about all this though is the fact that the gameplay portions are sublime. Those parts ARE the game we were promised and more. The controls have been fine-tuned to perfection, the graphics rival any game on the market today, and your objectives are varied enough to keep you interested throughout — and that’s only scratching the surface. About the only negative thing I can say about these portions is that there’s not much of a penalty for being spotted by enemies, since shooting your way out is much easier now; but that’s only something fans of the past games would notice. And this makes the cut scenes so much more unbearable, because once one starts, you know you’ve still got a half hour to go before you can go back to doing some fun stuff.
Don’t get me wrong, the game still deserves many of the review scores it got (though the perfect 10′s might be debatable). I’m just disturbed that so few people made a point of mentioning the ridiculously long cinematics, and that may be due to Konami’s restrictions. Metal Gear Solid 4 is a great game and definitely worth playing if you have the patience to sit through the long non-interactive portions. I just hope future developers take their inspiration from the gameplay rather than the storytelling.