Metal Gear Solid 4 is a game whose potential influence on the current state of gaming is nothing short of tectonic.

Metal Gear Solid 4 represents an artistic triumph for its director, game design legend Hideo Kojima, as well as an enormous coup for Sony and its PlayStation 3. Metal Gear Solid 4 is a masterpiece, an unforgettable game that shines like a beacon amidst a sea of mediocrity.

It is not only the best Metal Gear game, but one of the best games ever made, period.

If you own a PlayStation 3, put this at the top of your to-buy list. If you don't own a PS3, well, chances are you will buy one soon just to play this game.

Metal Gear Solid 4

Long time no see

One of Metal Gear Solid 4's chief pleasures is its sweeping storyline, a tale that redefines the term "epic" yet remains grounded by its intensely personal, human side. If you're new to the Metal Gear Solid series, don't worry: MGS4 takes great pains to tell an accessible story that will enthrall newcomers while providing plenty of surprises for hardcore series veterans.

In many ways, Metal Gear Solid 4 is the true sequel to 1998's groundbreaking Metal Gear Solid. The game shifts the focus back to Solid Snake, a legendary stealth operative and hardened combat veteran. But these days, things are different. Snake is dying, ravaged by a case of premature aging that's resulted as a side effect of his modified DNA.

Not only has the condition taken a toll on his abilities but on his confidence as well. The masterful storytelling portrays Snake as a tragic yet noble figure who grows increasingly disillusioned as the world crumbles around him. Snake isn't depicted as a one-dimensional superhero in Metal Gear Solid 4, but as an old man who's grown exasperated with the harsh realities of war. This stylistic shift gives the game some serious emotional weight - it's impossible not to be touched by Snake's dilemma.

As he stares his own mortality in the face, players are forced to do the same. This game explores some heavy issues: death, aging, war, terrorism and even the role of the US military. Even more surprising is that it handles these themes without heavy-handed preaching or grandstanding. This is remarkable stuff, particularly for a video game. Atmosphere is a great strength of Metal Gear Solid 4: from its opening moments to the final scenes, the game paints a grim world that's at the mercy of an out-of-control war economy, a ruthless form of capitalism that thrives on bloodshed and weapon dealing.

Metal Gear Solid 4

Snake's journey to the Middle East starts out as a simple assassination mission, but quickly evolves into a far more personal quest. Past games in the series have been rightfully criticised for their ridiculously long cinematic cutscenes and self-indulgent speeches. Luckily, Kojima has learned his lesson. The cinemas in Metal Gear Solid 4 are utterly magnetic and, with only one or two exceptions, devoid of the bewildering and bloated lectures that weighed down the earlier games.

Voice acting is another strength here, with David Hayter's role as the gravel-throated Solid Snake being a performance for the ages. This is video game storytelling at its absolute best, and represents a new high water mark for the craft, easily surpassing the superb BioShock and the subversive Grand Theft Auto IV.

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Metal Gear Solid 4 is a game whose potential influence on the current state of gaming is nothing short of tectonic.

War has changed

First, erase all expectations of what you think Metal Gear is and how it plays. Kojima and company have gone back to the drawing board to craft a radically improved interface, and the result feels like a mix of Gears of War and Call of Duty 4, with a dash of classic Metal Gear stealth for flavor. This is an intense action game, but you'll need to think fast and stay cool to survive.

The beauty of Metal Gear Solid 4's gameplay is that it gives the player options. As in the other Metal Gear games, you'll be charged with infiltrating heavily defended enemy installations and the method you use is entirely up to you. You can choose the direct approach (shoot first, hide later), the indirect (hide always, shoot when you must) and everything in between. There's no "wrong" way to play Metal Gear Solid 4.

If you want to play the game as a Gears of War-style shooter, prepare yourself for one of the best shooters you've ever played. If you'd rather creep and crawl to avoid enemies as in the earlier Metal Gear games, you'll be overjoyed by the game's tactical depth.

The game's masterstroke lies in Snake's octo-camo armour, an active camouflage suit that mimics Snake's surroundings. Octo-camo makes basic hiding and sneaking an automatic affair, and lets trigger-happy players focus on the action while still maintaining a semblance of stealth.

Kojima deserves major credit for updating the classic Metal Gear gameplay with so many modern elements, from the over-the-shoulder aiming style to the optional first-person camera, and integrating them seamlessly with a control scheme that's simple yet deep. To play the core of the game, you need only to use four main buttons: aim, shoot, crawl, and use. That the game squeezes so much functionality out of such a simple interface is one of its crowning achievements.

Metal Gear Solid 4

Who's the boss?

Of course, no Metal Gear game would be complete without an array of memorable boss battles, and even here Metal Gear Solid 4 surpasses the loftiest expectations. The chief villain is Solid Snake's brother, Liquid Snake, who is residing in the body of another classic foe, Revolver Ocelot.

But the most prominent boss battles are between Snake and The Beauty & The Beast Unit, a squad of grotesque cyborg abominations who are more than they first seem. You'll need more than raw firepower to take out these metal-clad monsters, and each battle plays out in entirely unique, unexpected ways; thankfully, the element of frustration that plagued past MGS boss fights has been eliminated.

And by the end of the game, the boss battles become so epic and so shocking that you'll literally be pumping your fist in the air, wide-eyed and delighted by the spectacle. These are the moments that will have Hollywood directors like Michael Bay shifting uncomfortably in their seats. Why watch the latest big-budget action movie when you can play a game as powerful as this?

If the core shooting and sneaking is the steak of Metal Gear Solid 4, then the weapon customization is the gravy. Kojima is a Pokemon addict who has reportedly collected every Pokemon in every game ever, and you can see that influence extend to MGS4's extensive suite of weapons.

You can find over 70 guns in Metal Gear Solid 4, from non-lethal tranquiliser pistols to grenade launchers and double-barrel shotguns. Some guns are literally handed to you, others are hidden, and still more are scooped off enemies or unlocked at the end of the game. Shopping is convenient, too, after you meet a weapons launderer who will supply Snake with high-end firearms and ammo - for a price, of course.

In order to purchase these exotic weapons, you'll need to scoop up the fallen guns of enemies and allies and cash them in for "Drebin Points". But it doesn't end with weapons. You can buy dozens of modifications, from laser sights and flashlights to under-barrel grenade launchers and recoil-control grips.

This weapon customisation system is brilliant for two reasons. First, it allows you to convert sub-par firearms into more specialised weapons, such as adding a rifle scope and silencer to a stock carbine to create a silent sniper rifle.

Second, it encourages you to replay the game again and again - not that you need to be encouraged - in order to unlock the highest-end weapons that cost literally millions of Drebin Points. Even scooping weapons off of fallen enemies is addictive, and it's often tempting to dart out of safety to grab nearby guns.

Metal Gear Solid 4

Raising hell with Cell

But as impressive as Metal Gear Solid 4 is on a gameplay level, it also amazes on a technical level. MGS4 is one of the most visually striking games ever released, and also the first game to show off the hidden power of the PlayStation 3. Technically speaking, the game is a marvel of production. Artistically speaking, it's a triumph.

You won't need an HD TV to appreciate the game, either. Kojima has always famously downplayed the importance of hi-def visuals, once telling me that he wasn't interested in HD because he prefers a "dirty" look, which he feels gives his games a livelier atmosphere. This is probably why Metal Gear Solid 4 goes in the complete opposite direction of other new-gen games whose graphics look almost too clean and clinical.

The world of Metal Gear Solid 4 is smeared with dust, soot, and grime, giving the game a rich, tactile texture that plays well on even standard definition TVs. Colour is also used to great effect, with post-production filters that saturate the game in deep greys, greens, and golds. This is a visually striking game, even if you're stuck with a standard-def TV.

But if you have access to an HD TV, Metal Gear Solid 4 will show you the bleeding edge of video game graphics. Leveraging the power of the PlayStation 3's octopus-like Cell processor, MGS4 renders some absolutely phenomenal environments.

The first act takes place in the dusty slums of the Middle East, and the second act moves to the sweltering jungles of South America. Visual variety is a hallmark here, and thanks to Snake's globe-trotting journey, the game never repeats the same look twice. The environments are not only shockingly detailed, but also massive in scope: when you see the soaring peaks of South America, you'll swear you're watching archival film footage.

Metal Gear Solid 4 has that effect on players, effectively blurring, if not erasing, the line that divides games and cinema. It's absolutely remarkable.

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Metal Gear Solid 4 is a game whose potential influence on the current state of gaming is nothing short of tectonic.

Full motion video

Even more impressive are the game's characters, which are modeled after real-life actors and animated by motion-capture techniques for an intensely realistic look. The facial expressions are particularly extraordinary because they manage to convey meaningful emotions beyond just rage and fear.

Seeing Metal Gear Solid 4's characters in action, you'll be struck by how empty, soulless, and one-dimensional most game characters really are.

Another new PlayStation 3 technology, Blu-ray disc, has proven to be an enormous asset in Metal Gear Solid 4. The massive 50GB of data storage means that the developers were free to create as much content as they wanted without any compromise in quality. This storage advantage is particularly evident in the game's striking use of audio.

Mastered by Skywalker Sound, the experts behind George Lucas's Star Wars films, Metal Gear Solid 4's in-game audio is endlessly varied: it paints a rich sonic palette that heightens the intensity of the action and the emotional resonance of the storyline. Gunshots sound eerily realistic, explosions rumble with low-frequency reverberations, and wildlife chitters nervously in the background. It's a feast for the ears and, like so much of Metal Gear Solid 4, a new high water mark.

The soundtrack deserves special mention. From the opening title screen to the end credits, MGS4's masterful score represents another soaring success. MGS4's soundtrack stirs up your emotions with ease, from passion to excitement to regret. The spine-tingly mournful "Love Theme" is a particular standout here, but everything from the battle anthems to the cinematic score is simple phenomenal. This is one soundtrack you won't forget - here's hoping it ends up on iTunes sooner rather than later.

Metal Gear Solid 4

Battle fatigue?

There are a few blemishes. A new feature called "Stress" isn't explained quite clearly enough. Here's how Stress works: intense combat or extreme conditions will raise Snake's Stress level, which negatively affects his "Psyche" meter, which in turn reduces his healing rate and weapon accuracy.

The confusion regarding Stress and Psyche is a minor issue, though, and their relationship becomes apparent as you progress through the game. And in the end, Stress and Psyche are effective ways to help you bond with Snake's emotional condition in any given scenario.

Another small shortcoming is that Metal Gear Solid 4 doesn't include a true tutorial or training mission, which might have been a wise choice given that Snake has a large repertoire of maneuvres. First-time players will want to pull up the "Briefing" menu to get acquainted with the controls, though the basic shooting and moving is self-explanatory. You'll also spend a good deal of time poking through your inventory in the middle of boss battles and protracted firefights, which can occasionally disrupt the dramatic flow. These are tiny, almost inconsequential quibbles, however, in an otherwise flawless game.

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Metal Gear Solid 4

PC ADVISOR VIDEO: Metal Gear Solid 4 - six-minute preview

Metal Gear Solid 4: Specs

  • PlayStation 3
  • PlayStation 3

OUR VERDICT

that succeeds hugely at everything it sets out to do. It sets new standards for graphics, sound, gameplay, and storytelling, and it may be years before it is equaled, let alone surpassed. You will not play a better game this year-maybe even this decade. If you own a PS3, buy this game immediately. And if you don't own a PlayStation 3, well, it's time to start saving those nickels and dimes. In the end, everyone's a winner. The PlayStation 3 finally gets its "saviour", Kojima gets his masterpiece, and gamers get one of the best games of all time. And they all lived happily ever after.

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