I didn’t get a chance to play MGS4 until this past Sunday, and only for 20-30 minutes at most. That was enough time, however, for me to get pretty bent out of shape about it.
I wrote this at the time, in a forum thread that somehow is still alive and kicking 3 days later:
I’ve only played about 20 minutes of MGS4, but I defy anybody to explain to me how a game franchise that is so deliberately obtuse, pretentious and self-indulgent can get such consistently high scores – especially when the actual game part of the game isn’t necessarily that ground-breaking. It’s true that the game is a bit easier to get into – the controls are still somewhat non-intuitive (especially compared to every other 3rd person action game) but at least they do all the things you need to do… But it’s also true that after 8 minutes of installation, and then another 5 minutes of completely bizarre and unexplained television footage, and then another 5 minutes of in-engine cutscenes that explain what you’re doing (as much as such a thing is possible), you spend exactly 20 seconds moving Snake around before you figure out you need to crawl under a truck and then there’s another 3 minutes of cutscene.
…So, then. Why am I still playing it? This game has its head shoved so far up its own ass that it’s almost painful to watch, and yet there’s something oddly compelling about it. I don’t get it. How does a game that’s so incredibly divisive get such good scores? Every positive review out there – and there are tons – all make some sort of mention about how if you don’t like the MGS series, you won’t like MGS4, and that there are perfectly valid reasons for people to NOT like these games (the incredibly convoluted story, the uneven pacing between gameplay and cutscenes, the unintuitive controls, the just-plain-WEIRDNESS), and then they give out a 10 in spite of all of it.
I’ve got nothing wrong with cutscenes. If that’s how your story has to be told, then I hope you make good use of it. My problem with the MGS4 cutscenes is that they’re used self-indulgently and without any thought given to pacing or rhythm. The beginning of MGS4 – there’s no reason to have that many breaks in the action, especially when you’re still trying to get used to the controls, and ESPECIALLY when most of the stuff that Snake is doing in those first few cutscenes are things that you could very easily be doing yourself.
I wouldn’t have bought the game in the first place if I was determined to hate it. What I was hoping for was someone to tell me why MGS4 is so awesome, and to explain what it is that I’m not getting, instead of someone telling me my opinion is for shit. It’s true that I think that the MGS franchise is the most overrated franchise in the entire history of gaming, and that could maybe even extend to cover movies, art, books, and any other works of art with multiple sequels out there. But I was still ready to give MGS4 a chance – hell, I still am. I own a PS3, this is arguably the biggest exclusive title the PS3 is going to get this year, I want to enjoy it. I’m not giving up on it. I just want to know what it is that I’m not getting. I consider myself a reasonably intelligent and informed person, and yet I remain totally in the dark as to why people love this series so much, especially since the first 20 minutes of the game do as much to alienate a newcomer to the series as they do to give fanboys multiple orgasms.
I think that’s my biggest question. I understand why GTA4 got 10s. I can respect why a great RTS game will get great reviews, even if I don’t know how to play RTSs and haven’t ever really cared about them. What I don’t understand is that pretty much every review that’s come out for MGS4 has had at least one clause where they say that if you hate the series already, you’ll continue to hate MGS4. Shouldn’t a great work of art be something that doesn’t alienate a large percentage of the people who experience it? How does something so divisive get such universal praise? I know I’m stepping into dangerous waters here, which is why I specifically used the word “alienate”. Lots of great works of art have been controversial; lots of great works of art have been hated. MGS4, on the other hand… is it really something that is only accessible to fans of the franchise? And if so, how does that make it great?
The fact that this game has very clearly defined areas where one could find fault (and [Caro‘s term] “Kojima–ness” is as close as any other term there is to describe what I’m referring to) is something that raises a red flag, as far as I’m concerned, in terms of any sort of discussion about how awesome this game is. If any other game, made by any other developer, had this much Kojima–ness, I’m not sure it would get the same sort of fawning treatment in the gaming press. The fact that this game has SO MUCH Kojima–ness is being labeled a benefit. This is also what I mean when I said earlier that this franchise has its head stuck as far up its own ass as it possibly can go.
If people like it, that’s awesome, and good for them. I remain not only unconvinced, but dumbfounded.
Again, this was written on Monday, when I was still a neophyte, when I had barely dipped my toes in the vast pool of insanity that is MGS4.
I put in about 90 minutes tonight. Well, it’s hard to say for sure – my PS3 was on for 90 minutes or so, and MGS4 was spinning in the drive, but I was really only in control of Snake for about half of that. But I think I’m starting to get it.
I won’t be spoiling anything by revealing where I am – I’m barely in Act 1. I just got to the first new area after you get the barrel, which occurs right after you meet the soda-swilling arms dealer and his soda-swilling monkey, who happen to be in a room directly next to a room that, moments before, had been swarming with bad guys, who I happened to kill.
The cutscene with the arms dealer very much epitomizes this “Kojima–ness” that is so problematic. The scene itself serves several specific and necessary functions:
- it occurs right after a somewhat lengthy sequence where you are sneaking around in some underground bunkers, and so it offers the player a break and a reward;
- it introduces you to a key character (the unfortunately named “Drebin“, because every time I hear that name I can only think of Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun movies, but every time I actually see him I can’t help but think of Zach, the flamboyant black man from the Dead or Alive games);
- it introduces a crucial gameplay mechanic (i.e., how you acquire new guns and modifications); and
- it fleshes out some of the backstory (something about the “war economy”, nanotechnology and the arms trade).
Relatively straightforward, right? Except this scene is at least twice as long as it needs to be, with a script so hokey it would make a 10th grade English teacher blush, and, as said above, it prominently features a monkey who drinks soda. This is also leaving aside the quality of the voice-acting, which is obviously a subjective point of discussion but I have to say that for the most part, the voice-acting in this game is beyond stupid. The guy doing Snake is trying so hard to be an old, grizzled badass but instead he sounds like a very constipated man who is constantly being annoyed. The entire scene is a series of non-sequiturs. The scene is so ridiculous in its conception that it ends up distracting the player from what its actual purpose is.
Any other game would have gotten killed for this kind of storytelling, but somehow this game gets away with it. And the truth of it is, once I stopped being a critical observer and instead let the silliness wash over me like a wave, I kinda got sucked into it. I don’t quite understand how that happened. It’s like Kojima is a goddamned magician.
I was trying to explain this “Kojima-ness” to my wife, who didn’t quite understand. But then I asked her to imagine if Star Wars: A New Hope was released for the very first time right now, in its exact same form, with the same silly dialog and hammy acting and melodramatic story, and how stupid it would seem. She said, “But hold on, Star Wars is a great movie.” And I said, “Now you understand what I’ve been going through, explaining why I think the Metal Gear series is so overrated to a bunch of Metal Gear fans.”
I have to admit – I’m ready to keep playing. I still don’t understand how I got sucked in, but it’s starting to happen, and it’s weird.