Yes, Metal Gear Solid 4: Gun of the Patriots hit store shelves in 2008. It took me until now to get a PlayStation 3, though, and it took the Metal Gear Solid Legacy Collection for me to actually purchase a copy of the supposed coda to Solid Snake’s story.
I’d been reluctant because, despite the visibility of the title and the tremendous hype that preceded it, as well as the critical acclaim that followed its release, there were a lot of complaints I heard about how the game was structured. Overly long cinematics with expository and redundant conversations, nonsensical techno-wizardry to both hand-wave tricky plot elements and keep things as “grounded” as a Metal Gear Solid title can be. There was also the assertion that certain elements of the plot, sequences intended to be powerful and telling moments, only really worked if one threw away all sense of logic. But I bought it, and I played it.
Metal Gear Solid 4 may not be as well-rounded an entry as its predecessor, Snake Eater, but it certainly stands as one of the most affecting games I’ve played in recent memory. No, it isn’t a Heavy Rain with realistic and sympathetic characters. It doesn’t have the subtle hand of BioShock Infinite. On the contrary, this is a game that takes a direct, even awkward, approach to its storytelling. At times, it goes beyond that and teeters on the brink of outright insanity.
Given that, why did it still manage to pull me in? What makes Metal Gear Solid 4 uniquely effective, even within its own franchise?
From the moment you boot it up, it feels different. There’s this distinct vibe in Metal Gear Solid 4, one that resonates with finality. The plot line revels in this, drawing back characters from the first Metal Gear Solid, people who haven’t been involved in a Metal Gear Solid plot since that first game. It’s also our first time seeing many of those individuals in person, watching them physically interact with Snake (Naomi Hunter and Mei Ling stand out in particular).
This also means we get to see their reactions to the prematurely aged Solid Snake, his hair gray, skin wrinkled, body shrunken. Snake has had it tough before, but Guns of the Patriots really puts him through the wringer. Over the course of the game, he is mentally, emotionally, and physically worn down. It makes sense that all the loose plot threads, the overarching conspiracy that has always been suggested in other games in the series should now be made overt. Almost everything is resolved.
All of this combines with some choice gameplay mechanics to drive home that sense that this is not so much a sequel as a culmination. Cinematics are peppered with optional flashbacks, which briefly project still images of relevant plot elements or characters on-screen, all ripped from earlier games in the series. Echoes of the first game’s boss battles worm their way into each fight one has with the Beauty & Beast corps. A singular fistfight, though, stands atop it all as a worthy summary, a playable monument, to all that has transpired over the course of the Metal Gear Solid franchise.
So why are they bringing out a fifth game? Mind, there have been titles released since Guns of the Patriots. Peace Walker comes to mind, and was even included in the Legacy Collection. As a rule, those have largely been focused on Big Boss during the long gap between Snake Eater and the original MSX/NES Metal Gear, helping to flesh out the “father” of Solid Snake (Metal Gear Acid and its sequel serve as the exceptions, but it’s actually arguable as to whether they truly star Solid Snake). Now that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has been unveiled as a real thing, starring Big Boss, something feels off.
Main series Metal Gear Solid games can work without Solid Snake at the helm. Snake Eater was superb, and that starred Big Boss before he’d earned that moniker. Even Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, complaints about the Raiden/Rose dynamic notwithstanding, was a well-crafted, extremely enjoyable entry. The thing is, both of those, at the time they were released, helped to tell more of the story. They set the groundwork for MGS4, which drew upon their canon as a means of making itself seem even bigger, grander, and all-encompassing than it already was. Snake Eater, in particular, was important because it introduced us to characters who would play a role in setting into motion the events of the entire series. It’s the genesis, the point from the entire narrative kicks off.
Metal Gear Solid V? It’s looking like this will give us the formation of Outer Heaven, the independent nation of disillusioned soldiers to which Solid Snake laid waste in the original Metal Gear. This is definitely a notable moment in the franchise’s canon, even a seminal one, but it’s, at this point, something we can effectively take for granted. Barring any intensive twists that flip the script on the entire franchise (which is always a possibility, where Kojima is involved), this feels much like Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance: a potentially very enjoyable game that uses the Metal Gear Solid name more as a means of increasing its own visibility than truly contributing, in any meaningful way, to the series’ fiction.