Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
I have beaten Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. I know what happens with the characters. I know the twists and turns of the plot. I have conquered the bosses. I know what really happens to Snake. I can say this because last month over a three-day period in the mountains of Japan, I played through the final chapter in the Metal Gear Saga in its entirety.
And sadly, for now, I can only talk about the first section of the game I played.
Along with five other North American and 10 European journalists, I got the chance of a lifetime in the middle of March -- to travel to Japan to participate in the Metal Gear Solid 4 Boot Camp. All we knew going in was that we would be able to play through the entire game someplace away from Tokyo. It was made clear to us that this was actually for Kojima Productions' benefit, and while we could report on some facets of the experience, we were there mainly to give feedback the team could use in the final tuning process.
We all met on Tuesday, March 11 at a hotel in downtown Tokyo to travel together via Shinkansen (the bullet train) to a place called Nasu. We were told we were going to Konami's Super Campus, and after the train we would travel by bus. To be quite honest, we really didn't understand why we were going all the way out to this place rather than just simply playing the game at a hotel somewhere in Japan or having a demo at Kojima Productions. For all of the Metal Gear fans that were going out to Nasu, I think any of us would probably have just as readily played through the game while being held upside down and beaten with a golf club.
Konami's Super Campus is beyond description. As the bus rolled up, we were shown the entire compound. On the side of this mountain Konami has basically created their own mini-city made up of a few main buildings including the hotel, the office building, and a museum dedicated to the company's original president, Kagemasa Kozuki (and current CEO and Chairman of the Board), called Spirit of Kozuki. We were also informed that if the campus lost power, we'd be fine, as the place could also be powered by solar and wind power. While still covered in some spring snow, there was a pond, tennis courts and fields where we were told Kojima Productions held their military and CQC training. As Kojima-san told us later that evening, they decided to hold the Boot Camp in Nasu because this is where the team gets away from it all to focus on the game. We could all quickly understand why.
As we arrived to the hotel, we were instructed to dump our bags, have lunch, and then immediately leave the hotel to board a bus to the office area where we would have our briefing. Upon entering the office space, it was as if we stepped into a James Bond movie and we were deep inside one of the nemesis' lairs. Everything was completely state-of-the-art and modern, with a clean, white, sterile appearance. We slid into slippers as we entered, as no normal footwear was allowed inside the premises. After being lead into a circular meeting room, our eyes were fixed on the monitors at each station that glowed with a message stating our ultimate goal.
"YOUR MISSION: CLEAR MGS4 IN ONLY THREE DAYS!"
Kojima Productions' Ryan Payton, MGS4 Producer Ken Imaizumi and Konami Japan's Aki Saito gave us the lowdown on what to expect in our three days at the Super Campus. On the first day we would play MGS4 for five hours until a welcome party dinner. We were instructed to choose a PlayStation 3 station that would be ours for the next three days, play the game on "Solid" mode (which Kojima Productions had named the main normal mode of the game) and play the game as a gamer -- not as a tester. This build of the game was almost final but still not finished, and certain things such as text and lip-sync elements were still being tweaked, along with the difficulty of the mode.
Spoiler Warning: Most of the stuff I'll be talking about in this feature is a deeper look into things that you could have learned from reading other coverage, playing the demo at E For All or the Tokyo Game Show, or watching the trailers. However, if you've stayed abreast of everything MGS4, you shouldn't be concerned -- most of what Konami has shown in the past few years takes place in the first portion of the game. I'm going to do my best to keep this as spoiler-free as possible, but depending on what constitutes a spoiler for you, be advised.
We chose our spots, fired up the game, and put on our headsets, which were hooked into sound processors that allowed for Dolby Surround. MGS4 is rumble-enabled and we played the game using the new DualShock 3 controllers. Upon beginning, users can select from the following options: new game, load game, mission briefing, options, photo album, virtual range, MGO and extras. Currently there are three difficulty levels -- Liquid Easy, Naked Normal and Big Boss Hard. As Kojima Productions is still finalizing difficulty settings and naming conventions, we're not entirely sure how these will come into play, and after you complete the game the first time there may be other difficulty levels that unlock. There won't be a European Extreme difficulty, as found in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, since the game will be releasing across all territories simultaneously. However, given the popularity of that mode for the hardcore players, that's not to say something like that mode won't be in the final product.
Act 1: Liquid Sun
While I'm going to leave out discussion of the actual opening sequences of the game, if you've watched the trailers, you'll have a good idea of why Snake is heading to the Middle East. MGS4 is broken into acts, and the gameplay in Act 1 starts out in a dingy, war-torn city that the Colonel calls Ground Zero. Everything is happening in-engine, and as the credits roll, Snake arrives. As MGS fans are well aware, cut scenes can be quite lengthy and users finally have the ability to pause them. Also, much like in previous MGS titles, users can cut away at times to see a different viewpoint of the action, such as zooming in on certain areas or elements. Considering much of the game is answering many old questions, Kojima Productions has instilled a new flashback system, and in moments that old characters or events are described, with a quick press of a button you can flip through a series of pictures to better explain a situation.
In the Middle East, the militia is battling a PMC group called the Praying Mantis, and Snake's initial objective is to make his way through the battlefield and meet up with a contact that knows where Liquid Snake is located. There is no in-game tutorial for the move set, and the second you take control of Snake -- or "Old Snake," as the game refers to him -- you are seconds away from battle. If you need a refresher on special moves, the new rolling techniques or CQC, there is a briefing section that will display both the simple and advanced moves. There are also a few new elements in the HUD of which to be aware. The stress meter (shown as a percentage) is displayed next to the life bar, and things like Old Snake's sore back, firefights and adverse weather conditions can affect Snake's stress levels. You'll want to keep Snake's stress at a minimum; otherwise, it drains the Psyche Gauge. The Psyche Gauge replaces the Stamina Gauge from MGS3; if your Psyche Gauge is low, you'll be less accurate in shooting and have a harder time aiming. The threat ring around Snake is still intact, and when Snake is hiding you can tell where enemies are lurking with a disruption wave on the threat ring.
Snake's new "sneaking suit" is comprised of Octocamo -- a new type of camouflage that copies the colors and textures immediate to Snake. There are no button presses to activate this camouflage; if you lie still on the ground or press Snake up against a wall for a few seconds, the Octocamo will automatically copy the surroundings. As in MGS3, there's a camo index that displays via percentage how well you are blending into the environment, and even though areas around the Middle East are generally quite bright and open, it's still pretty simple to find solid hiding spots.
The first section is nearly identical to the demo that was playable at TGS/E For All. As Snake moves into the battlefield, militia are getting pinned down by the PMCs, and anyone who spots you -- whether they're militia or PMC -- will target you as an enemy. As you weave your way in and out of cover, you have the option of helping out the Militia, and by doing so, you'll earn their trust, and they'll help you out later on. Since everything is so frantic and sometimes difficult to distinguish who is Militia or PMC, one flick of L2 brings up your Solid Eye to reveal information such as the side on which the target is and other details such as their health level. While you're basically trying to get from point A to point B, there are generally multiple ways throughout the Middle East. In fact, I found a route that I had never seen before that netted me a few extra rations and other goods.
Unlike previous Metal Gear games, you can't initially use weaponry you get off enemies you kill. Weapons are coded to soldiers via Nanomachines that are imbedded in them, and to be able to use a weapon you find on the battlefield, you have to have the correct ID or it's basically worthless. So, it's nice that Otacon delivers you a few gifts early via your new robotic friend -- Metal Gear Mk. II. The Mk. II can be used to scout out in front of Snake, and although it can turn invisible, if it's spotted it will also sound the alert system. Just make sure you shock and knock out opponents before the PMC soldiers know what's going on, for safety's sake.
Ducking and slinking your way through the battlefield, it feels almost natural to pop a few PMCs while you're in first-person, but in third-person view you have a few options. There's a semi-lock-on system that you can use, but we found it most times to be inconsistent, especially if there are multiple targets around you. CQC is back and has been deepened, and you now can CQC attack enemies with one-handed and two-handed weapons. Two-handed weapons give you a smaller move set, and takedowns take more time to pull off. Since Snake uses cover quite often, especially leaning around buildings or pillars, you have the option of switching to either an over-the-shoulder view from the right side or the left side, which will help you see around many obstructions.
Since Snake became friendly with the Militia, later on in the level he had a much easier time getting through their Base. Cruising through the base, Snake encounters two extremely mysterious characters -- Drebin and Little Gray. While Snake isn't sure whether or not to be able to trust Drebin or his creepy soda-drinking monkey, Drebin is a gun launderer who plays a key role. He's got his hands in the ID chip process and can modify weaponry so Snake can use weapons that aren't linked to him. When searching bodies of soldiers, if Snake comes across duplicate weapons, the Mk. II will automatically deliver those weapons to Drebin in exchange for Drebin points. Earned points can be spent on unlocking weapons and purchasing weapons and ammunition -- which can be done at any time. Many of the weapons that you come across or purchase from Drebin can now also be modified. Want to add a different scope or a grenade launcher? Want to use different ammunition rounds or grenades? All it will take is having enough Drebin points to close the deal. Upon leaving, Drebin hands you an M4 -- a rifle that's heavily modifiable. The M4 was one of my new weapons of choice, since it has the ability to change firing modes from semi-automatic, to three-shot burst, to full auto-fire.
As Snake arrives at the building where his contact is, he gets held up by an extremely nervous soldier. When that soldier's squadmates show up to assist, Snake notices that the woman soldier in the group has a Foxhound logo on her chest. That woman -- Meryl -- turns out to be the contact who knows where Liquid is. She explains that this new Foxhound unit, which is comprised of Ed, Jonathan and series joke Akiba, is called Rat Patrol 01. As everyone becomes acquainted, Meryl tells Snake that the Nanomachines in each of the soldiers work together in a new SOP (Sons of the Patriots) system, which is something that allows each member of a squad to share senses and health status.
Suddenly Ed picks up word that Liquid's private army of Haven Troopers, the Frogs, have located Snake and the Rat Patrol, and the game's pace of stealth immediately switches into a run-and-gun event. As you work your way through the building with the squad, waves of Frogs leap in and out of cover, sticking to walls and peppering you with gunfire. Even though you're traveling through the area with the Rat Patrol, you're not included in their SOP. The Rat Patrol members also do a good job of not getting in your way, and while the introduction of the SOP system is cool, it would have been pretty interesting to have included it in the single-player story instead of just being a reference to how Metal Gear Online will work.
After getting through the Frogs, Snake and the Rat Patrol split up, and the game slows back into stealth mode where Snake infiltrates the Praying Mantis compound to locate and kill Liquid. Upon arrival, Liquid has a little surprise waiting for Snake and the soldiers. Suddenly all of the soldiers and Rat Pack members begin to drop to the ground and lose bodily functions. Some soldiers attack other soldiers and some collapse in pain. It seems that Liquid has discovered the ability to violently disrupt the soldiers' Nanomachines, and as Snake moves in to take a shot at Liquid he too becomes affected. Inches from successfully completing his mission, he fades into unconsciousness as Act 1 concludes.
At the end of each act, your in-game statistics are displayed. The game tracks such information as your total play time, continues, alert phases, kills, recovery and special items used, number of weapon types procured, and flashbacks watched. You can also earn bonus Drebin points in certain areas, including continues used, weapons procured, flashbacks watched, and use of special items. This means that making the most of your time using stealth, CQC and holding up soldiers will keep you fat with Drebin points.
Snake wakes up on Otacon's ship, and while I can't explain anything further with what happens in the game, I can say that between each of the acts Snake will be briefed on his next mission. Mission briefings are laid out in a unique multi-window view, and you can toggle between a number of different camera views as the briefing takes place. When all of the windows are open, a ticker gives you updates on other in-game stats as crawling time, crouch-walking time, time spent in the metal drum or box, and more. You can also pilot the Mk. II through the ship to find items, switch stations on a radio, and find other little secrets. Since these briefings are quite lengthy scenes, the interactive qualities make the experience much more interesting, yet we quickly learned that trying to focus on the story while fishing for hidden elements proved tricky at times.
Ultimately, for the next two days, we'd play the game from 8 a.m. until around 11 p.m., with two breaks for lunch and dinner. After dinner each night we could either go back and play, or relax, enjoy the onsen -- a lava-heated underground hot spring -- grab a cocktail, or go to bed early. Yet except for the first night, everyone blew off enjoying the surroundings and boarded the bus to go return and play until late in the evening. No one could get enough.
When originally shown in trailer form at Tokyo Game Show 2005, MGS4 more or less set the bar for what people could potentially expect from the PlayStation 3. From the first act alone, it's apparent that Kojima Productions has gotten a good handle on PlayStation 3 development. Everything in the Middle East oozes with atmosphere even though the environments are primarily brown, crumbly and drab. Snake looks phenomenal, and whether switching from a crouched position into dive, rolling into a lying-down state, then rolling onto his back to inch closer to an enemy -- whom he puts out flat with a CQC move -- everything comes together seamlessly. Sounds are crisp, and I often found myself lifting my headphones to check if sound was in-game or happening in the actual world around me. Fans of the previous Harry Gregson-Williams' music will also be in for a treat, as the soundtrack's score is brilliant.
As we boarded the bus to head back to the hotel late that first night, instead of being exhausted like we should have been from jet lag, everyone's heads were still reeling in what had transpired that day, and wanted to discuss their thoughts about the first act. A majority of us stayed up that night and had a few drinks with Kojima-san and got to ask him his philosophies behind certain game elements -- which was an incredible way to finish off the first day. All in all, it was obvious that Kojima-san was quite pleased to see us all enjoying ourselves.
As a big fan of the series, I have to say I was pretty blown away with just my first hours with the game. Even though it is paced quite well with intense stealth, action, deep plot points and comedic relief, the amount of revelations that unfold in the first act is remarkable. For someone who is very familiar with the lore, I was quite happy with all of the little touches and fan service elements that are sprinkled throughout the first portion of the game.
With only two months until launch, it's time to dust off your old MGS games, dig out your memory cards, and become reacquainted with your old friend Snake. While I've already played through the game, I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the final version to see what suggestions that people submitted actually made a difference -- plus, there's all of Metal Gear Online still to be explored. Based on the first act alone, Kojima Productions has set the stage for Snake's finale to play out in nothing short of epic style. Get ready Metal Gear fans ? June 12 can't come soon enough.
This preview was based on a development build of the game.