Grand Theft Auto IV: Guns of the Patriots is the most technically stunning video game ever made. It's also a fine example of storytelling prowess within its medium, combining gameplay and narrative so slickly and beautifully that it's impossible to extricate one from the other. It's likely you will emerge awestruck from your first play-through, wishing the experience would continue yet nonetheless satisfied with its conclusion. It's difficult not to sound hyperbolic when discussing MGS4 because every part of its design seemingly fulfills its vision, without compromise. There is no halfway.
Fully realized, lengthy story sequences will come as no surprise to anyone who has played a Metal Gear game. You'll spend a good half of MGS4 watching cinematics, but it would be a grave misinterpretation to assume that great gameplay takes a backseat to the story. Rather, these two elements are tightly intertwined, and this tapestry is held together by an important technical thread: Cutscenes that are rendered fully in real time within the game engine. It's impressive enough that these scenes look as good as any prerendered cinematic you've ever watched. It's even more amazing when those same scenes transition without pause into gameplay, and the same hulking mech you watched lumber about in the cinematic is looming above you. The subtle animations, the lush environments, and the rich textures are the same in and out of story sequences, and the effect is so seamless it may take your breath away. You can skip past the scenes if you prefer, but doing so would soften the experience. The story sequences carry more weight because of the intense gameplay that precedes them--and the gameplay feels more compelling because the story gives you powerful reasons to care about your mission. The high point of this fusion occurs in an exciting and memorable split-screen sequence that simply must be experienced.
Talking about what, exactly, is going on in the plot in the midst of MGS4's grand sweeping gestures is to risk spoiling each little surprise as it emerges. Snake, suffering from the rapid onset of aging, now must cope with stiff joints in addition to the looming specter of Liquid Ocelot's newest plans. This is Snake's final hurrah; yet as the story reaches one height after another, the juxtaposition of huge set piece battles and formidable bosses with Snake's deteriorating body creates tension and gravity even beyond the series' usual pretensions. Some new plot strands emerge while others get tied up, and old friends (and enemies) refuse to be forgotten. You'll also bear witness to a few reunions--some bloody, some teary, and some legitimately shocking. Parts of it are overblown, to be sure. The musical score gets heavy-handed and the voice acting and writing are frequently dogmatic, so while there are plenty of subtle moments, subtlety isn't really MGS4's strong suit. But it doesn't need to be. After all, the fate of the world hangs in the balance, and judging from a few silly attempts at humor that don't work, developer Kojima Productions was wise to err on the side of melodrama.
The gameplay proper is familiar to fans, but it's been cleaned up and expanded, holding as many twists and surprises as the story. For starters, both gunplay and close-quarters combat are more satisfying. Regarding melee, the controls have been streamlined, making it less cumbersome to grab an enemy soldier or perform a stealthy blade kill. Shooting mechanics are even more improved, so much so that shooting your way out of a pickle is just as enjoyable as sneaking around it. There are a huge number of weapons to play with; so many that you'll probably finish the campaign without using many of them. Yet, quality wasn't sacrificed for quantity: Every weapon feels just right, from your handy operator sidearm (best when upgraded with a silencer) and standard issue assault rifles to a powerful railgun. The standard over-the-shoulder view is fine for the most part, but you can gaze down the sights from a first-person perspective. Both views can be further improved with various enhancements, such as laser sights and scopes.
Not that you don't have all the tools for completely avoiding your enemies if you choose that route. Snake's got the basics covered: crawling, hugging walls, peeking around corners, and hanging from ledges, for example. Cover mechanics are tighter than ever, so you can crouch and take potshots from behind cover with ease. There are also a number of important gadgets that will make your life easier in this regard. The most obvious of these is your OctoCamo suit, which takes on the texture of your surroundings when you're prone or pressed against cover. Not only does this make it simpler to avoid watchful eyes, but it's also a cool visual effect. Eventually, you'll be able to camouflage Snake's head, and a few of the available camo options are bound to stir some fans' nostalgia. The Solid Eye is your other major tool, as it expands your compass into a sonic-sensitive radar and allows you to use night vision and a tactical first-person view. These are helpful gadgets indeed, even during boss fights, like a stirring encounter in a blinding blizzard.
Other gadgets, such as portable hiding places (cardboard boxes and rusty barrels) and the Metal Gear Mk. II (a stealthed robot that you can command as a scouting device), are useful to anyone who prefers the sneaky approach. Not every gadget is a welcome addition, though. For example, the much-ballyhooed iPod is a neat touch, but to use it, you cannot have another gadget equipped, so you'll quickly forget the option even exists. But aside from these nitpicks, one of the things that makes the core gameplay so enjoyable is that you're rarely strapped into a single style of play. Shooting your way through requires more thought and care than you'd put into a standard action game, but you never feel as though the gun mechanics are stuffed uncomfortably into a stealth game. If you'd rather sneak, you never have the impression that stealth was shoehorned into a game that's meant to be played as a shooter. Sure, you're Solid Snake--you're not supposed to get caught. But if you're stuck in a jam, breaking stealth isn't a death sentence, and in fact, facing certain enemies head-on is often a heart-pounding, challenging experience. The few levels that do force you into one style, such as one in which you shadow your target through an Eastern European city, are still great, if not quite as impactful.
You'll need to keep an eye on Snake's stress levels and psyche. Though these aspects are more peripheral than health levels, they fit nicely within the plot. When Snake gets stressed (if he gets cold or encumbered, for example), his psyche gauge starts to deplete. The lower the gauge, the slower you will move and the less quickly you replenish health. Generally speaking, the psyche meter is rarely a factor, and should you notice Snake groaning a bit more, there are items like compresses you can use for a pick-me-up. Should the meter get too low, you won't be able to hold up your weapon or rush for cover. This doesn't happen often though, and while you'll need to keep a close eye on your health for obvious reasons, you won't need to pay too much heed to psyche.
Regardless of the tactics you use, the level design and enemy artificial intelligence work in tandem to create unparalleled gameplay. If you go stealth, hiding in that rusty barrel isn't a perfect solution. Your foe may look at it suspiciously, kick it a few times, and eventually blow your cover, so don't expect to be able to trick your way through as you might in other stealth games. In full-on firefights, enemy teams will flank you, use cover to their advantage, and throw grenades with precision to force you out of hiding. Most of your surroundings, inside and out, are littered with objects and cover opportunities, from a trek through a South American jungle to a nostalgic journey through a snowy island base. Each level is more-or-less linear, but within the confines of these areas, you still have remarkable room to explore the various gameplay options and test the limits of your foes. Some enemies are standard soldiers, though many others are wonderfully imaginative. The colossal mechanical Gekkos, for example, are unpredictable and keep you on your toes, while female operatives that pounce from wall to wall intensify an early escape scene.
Later in the game, a few set piece battles deepen the core gameplay even further, including a few peerless on-rails sequences. One of these, a motorcycle chase, is as close as any game has gotten to translating the excitement of similar moments in films to a game format. Another level, which features a gigantic automaton, showcases destructible environments where walkways collapse on top of each other and the screen fills with smoke. In all of these cases, the controls are excellent, with the exception of that same mech's third-person view a bit later on (the first-person view works infinitely better). The interpretation of Metal Gear Solid as an interactive film still applies, but in a way you may not have expected: These levels make you feel like the star of your own action movie.
Boss battles are stimulating, though they aren't all that difficult. Nevertheless, a few of them are tricky and require you to put some thought into your tactics because just riddling the boss with bullets isn't going to ensure victory. Early on, it's clear that you'll be encountering the four members of the Beauty and the Beast unit--female supersoldiers that are as psychologically complex as they are fun to battle. These battles are long and normally require you to fight other enemies in addition to your primary target. In one of them, you can use your night vision to track your target's footprints and use the wind direction to your advantage. In another, you'll dodge missiles from flying creatures while taking on the main boss.
The gameplay and story would, perhaps, not be as effective if Grand Theft Auto IV did not look and sound so impressive, but truth be told, it's an amazing piece of technology. From the gritty textures of concrete walls to the effective lighting and shadowing, there are few aspects you could reasonably fault. In the biggest battles, billows of smoke fill the screen and blood splatters against the camera--all while meticulously designed helicopters fly overhead and ad-hoc team members take potshots from behind grungy dilapidated vehicles. Yet in the midst of the visual drama, it's the little things that are likely to provoke awe. Small details, such as how Snake rubs his sore back when his stress levels get high or the authentic manner in which he ascends staircases, create as much atmosphere as cluttered underground tunnels and war-torn Middle Eastern cities. You will have to wait through some scattered install periods (just under 20 minutes worth, in total) and the occasional loading screen, and you may find some frame rate drops and low-res textures here and there, but these aren't issues in light of MGS4's impressive graphical accomplishments.
The sound design comes together nearly as well. The soundtrack on its own is rather pompous, but in context, it works just fine to create the appropriate mood for any given cutscene or battle. The voice acting follows suit but succeeds far better. Because the growling voice of David Hayter's Solid Snake is so good, the rare hamming from the mostly excellent supporting cast is easily forgotten. But the sound effects are unforgettable and excellent across the board. The Gekkos emit blood-curdling moos like gargantuan cows, explosions are outstandingly obnoxious, and everything from the clicks of the Solid Eye to the laughter and screams of the beastly bosses are top-notch.
On top of it all, Grand Theft Auto IV offers some enjoyable online 16-player action to complement its superb single-player experience. Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch are represented, of course, and they play just fine, assuming you don't approach the online component as a standard shooter. The maps are beautifully rendered and packed with detail, and while not every mechanic is as wonderful in multiplayer as it is in single-player (hiding in your cardboard box won't usually get you far, for example), it's all good fun once you adjust to the pace. The multiplayer star, however, is sneaking mode, a Team Deathmatch variant in which one player plays as Snake and another supports him as the Metal Gear Mk II. Shooting others is amusing--but sneaking enthusiasts will enjoy the violent, stealthy game of hide and seek you play as Snake. Playing support is equally entertaining because as Mk. II, you can go invisible, creep up on other players, and zap them with your electronic tentacle. It's a blast. Other modes include base mission, in which teams compete to conquer bases; a capture and defend mode; and rescue mission, which is similar to the same mode in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. Unfortunately, the process of creating an online account is laborious, so expect to take a few minutes to enter a litany of information (a pain if you aren't using a keyboard). Thankfully, the variety of customization options and sheer numbers of players online mean that this process is quickly forgotten.
If the story-heavy presentation of previous Metal Gear games taxed your patience, Grand Theft Auto IV won't change your mind. For anyone who appreciates games that rise above the simple act of pushing a few buttons and pulling a few triggers, Grand Theft Auto IV is a stimulating ride that you won't soon forget. You'll want to see what happens next, yet when its long campaign draws to a close, you'll wish it would continue. That's not just because it's a well-told tale, but because that tale is woven through a thoroughly impressive game that tops its predecessors.
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