When it comes to the Metal Gear franchise, I have a strange love-hate relationship with it. On one hand I've never been a huge fan of stealth based game-play, yet I've played and enjoyed each of the Metal Gear games to some extent. MGS4 marks a return to the console platform for the series after a few unique titles on the PsP with the Acid and Tactical Ops spin offs. With MGS 4, Kojima Productions injected some new designs into the formula and while they were interesting, however I can't help but feel that some of it clashes with the MGS formula.
I'm going to say something about the story that may be surprising. Having played all the MGS games to come out I have to say that the story of MGS 4 pissed me off and I'm not completely sure why. Kojima attempted to bring the plot points from the previous titles but instead it felt like instead he invalidated the previous games.
This is hard to explain as I don't know how knowledgeable everyone is on the MGS mythos so I can't cite specific examples. Imagine if in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that we learn half way through the last book that every person that Frodo met was actually an agent of Sauron (the bad guy) and that there was no reason for the fellowship to travel to Mordor.
MGS4 just seems like lazy writing to me, with cut scenes that have stupid plot holes. I think we need a new definition for a cut scene that goes over 20 minutes. I hope that someone who is more skilled in storytelling analysis did examine MGS 4 as in my opinion this is an example of how not to do a cinematic game. To be fair I liked the beginning and thought the final ending was well done, but those two points feel undervalued due to the convoluted and just messed up story.
With that rant out of my system we can talk about the game-play. As in previous MGS titles your time will be spent split between being stealthy and fighting. There are two new game-play elements in MGS 4, first is the concept of being stealthy during a war.
In previous MGS titles Snake was always the lone person in a conflict, one against an army. In MGS 4 he's infiltrating areas while there is a battle going on. I find the concept of performing operations in a war-zone while not actually fighting in the war interesting. You can get involve with the local conflict or just use it as cover.
Second is being able to buy new weapons. Early on into the first act you'll meet a gun launderer who will exchange guns you pick up for points that can be used at his shop. Every gun is rated in different categories such as reload speed or damage and many of them can be modify with parts like scopes and silencers. I do wish that there were more things to upgrade such as enhancing the attributes of your guns as eventually you'll have your preferred weapons and won't really need to get anything else.
With those positives mentioned there are a few problems. MGS 4's design is both bloated and simplistic at the same time. In the game you have an overload of items, multiple types of recovery items, at least 3 different grenades, several types of mines, all those guns I talked about and more. The issue is that the majority of these items you will never need nor will the game challenge you to use them.
Your second gun found is a tranquilizer shooting silenced pistol, with that gun you won't need to use anything else to knock someone out. The next step is getting a silenced weapon that does damage, with that you are set. I don't see any reason to use claymore mines or C4 when they just over complicate the situation. Every MGS game has magazines you can put on the ground to distract the guards, yet I have never used one of them in all the times I've played as I didn't need them.
With all the guns you have access to; a lot of them are just plain useless next to guns with better stats. If you have a gun that is rated D and a gun that is rated B, which one would you pick? So much of MGS 4's design feels unneeded and underused. The boss fights this time around weren't as memorable as previous games, except for three fights which were done very well.
On the matter of simplistic, the game design doesn't seem to be able to keep up with everything. The stealth elements are haphazard. There were plenty of times that I was discovered when a few minutes ago I did the same thing and was fine. Mechanics such as holding up a guard or hiding bodies are not needed since leaving an area removes any worry about having your actions found.
The concept of fighting during a war zone was a good idea but it never goes anywhere. In fact past Act 3 you won't be doing that anymore. Enemies infinitely re-spawn unless you actually push forward which ruins any sense of momentum in combat. Even more frustrating is that fighting in a war zone still uses the same less than stellar stealth mechanics.
During a huge battle with bullets and explosions flying around, if I poke my head up next to allies, if the enemy sees Snake they go into alert. Another example is during a huge fight I use a non silenced gun to kill a guard and that puts them into caution status, because they could recognize the gunshot being different then the other twenty guns being fired at the same time.
Another problem I have which has carried itself from previous Metal Gear titles is the fact that there is no reason to do anything in each area other than going from point A to point B. In MGS 3 as you are going through the areas you will come across military bases that you could destroy (however I don't remember if the game tells you that you could do that). The problem is that the affects from doing this only last for the rest of the section and once again aren't worth the time or effort.
I know that I'm coming down hard on MGS 4 which is odd since I enjoyed MGS 3. I was expecting more to do instead of spending the majority of my time watching cut scenes. The boss fights and locales were more varied in Snake Eater and even though there were still some bloated design with the items there was more game-play.
For example every Metal Gear has at least one section that is supposed to be the culmination of stealth to challenge the player. In MGS 2 it was controlling Raiden when he is strip of his weapons. In MGS 4 however the final stealth section was poorly done in my opinion. There was only one way to go and thanks to enemies spawning you are required to fight your way in.
Both MGS 3 and MGS 4 feature a "sniper fight" and in Snake Eater I thought that fight was one of the best boss fights in the entire MGS series and I may just write up an analysis solely on that encounter. In MGS 4 however the fight didn't feel as epic with the one trick of the boss and the re-spawning enemies amounting to an annoyance.
Also it could be me but MGS 4 also feels shorter than previous games in the series. Skipping the cut scenes leaves very little game time, I think the third act minus cut scenes amounts to about 20-25 minutes of actual play.
I would say that MGS 4 is strictly a fan's only experience but being at least 3 years late I think my message is a little past due. For me my two favorites would be MGS 3 and Peace Walker for the PsP. MGS 3 for having the most variety in my opinion and Peacewalker for trimming the fat out of MGS's design.