previews\ Oct 18, 2007 at 8:00 pm

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots - PS3 - Preview 3

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Metal Gear Solid 4 has been called the most important game for PlayStation 3. It received that title immediately after Konami began to release trailers of its mind-blowing graphics, the first of which didn’t even give a hint as to what the gameplay would be like.

Does it live up to the definition of PS3’s most significant release? I hope not. Because that would mean the system will peak next March, and I want this to be the beginning of next-gen greatness.

A more appropriate definition would label Metal Gear Solid 4 this generation’s most important action game. It is, like the first two games, a movie come to life. Unfortunately for most gamers, they won’t know it until they wrap their hands around the controller. If you can make it to LA this weekend, don’t waste another second. For this demo alone – a slightly tweaked build of the demo unveiled at TGS – the exorbitant admission price is worth every penny.

Stealth Action Redefined

Metal Gear Solid spent its first three adventures following one path: sneaky combat. It was great, innovative, and very exciting.

With Metal Gear Solid 4, Kojima began the game’s announcement with a trailer that warned of “no place to hide.” Those words seemed out of context – isn’t Metal Gear about hiding?

But what Kojima didn’t tell us is that the series would take a new road while staying within the espionage framework. You are Solid Snake. His classic moves are back, along with many new stealth-enhancing features that will blow your mind. But the world is unlike any he’s ever explored. Rather than carefully walk through narrow corridors, Snake’s next journey throws him into the middle of a ferocious battlefield.

Stealth. ACTION!

Snake’s controls are not necessarily what you’d expect. His general movements (running, rolling, stealth kills, etc.) haven’t changed much. The visuals have changed – Snake can stealth kill an enemy with his weapons as well as his bear hands. Mechanically, however, this portion felt the same.

Lean up against a wall and it’s a whole other story. The game no longer automatically adjusts the view for every object. Instead, you control the camera – every angle, high or low, is operated by the player. This is the beginning of Metal Gear Solid’s change from gameplay that is primarily stealth-based to a game that can be – when you want it to be – the most intense and action-packed single-player experience of the generation.

The camera work is genius. There are no funky glitches, odd transparencies, or any of the other problems that come with a manual camera. You could compare it to Gears of War, especially with the over-the-shoulder attack view. But if it’s possible, I think MGS4’s camera might be better.

As you adjust to examine the world, there is an instant moment where your eyes widen, your jaw falls, and you nearly drop the controller. Not only are graphics amazing, which was revealed long ago with the first trailer, but the scope, size and feel of this game is unlike any other. Sure, you’ve heard that before, and you’ve probably felt that before with each new console generation. But when is the last time you’ve played a shooter – yes, Metal Gear Solid can now be called a shooter – that was impressive not because it was a well-refined FPS, but because it was something more?

You won’t see it right away. Enemies are everywhere within the Middle Eastern area of the demo (which, according to Konami, will appear about 30 minutes into the final game). If I had this demo at home, I’m sure I would have listened to the in-game advice that urged Snake to avoid conflict. There’s a war going on, and Snake isn’t connected with either side – yet.

This demo, however, isn’t at home. It’s in the LA Convention Center. I wanted to see as much of the game as possible, especially after hearing from Konami that no one has been able to reach the end during the demo’s 20-minute sessions. After playing it cool for a minute or two, I dove into the battlefield to see what this game was made of.

Metal Gear at the Movies

The somewhat shaky and intense camera movement of shows like 24, and movies like Saving Private Ryan, are brought to MGS4 in a big way. The best part is that it’s not in the least bit disorienting, but instead brings you deeper into the game. It’s the closest thing to controlling a movie since the first Metal Gear Solid. The camera, through every screen-filling and screen-shaking explosion, is completely movable. You won’t believe your eyes.

After rushing through the battlefield (where I had to avoid armored vehicles with automatic weapons attached, as well as several soldiers), I managed to locate a pack of new weapons, including a PPG7 (rocket launcher). It takes a while to load – many of the weapons do. Snake now loads in real-time. But once in use, the results, gameplay and graphical, are incredible – the kind of incredible that makes that $600 you spent on a PS3 last year a bit easier to swallow.

Explosions are met with the most impressive array of debris, particles, smoke, fire, and other polygonal treats. These effects are enhanced with stellar sound and a killer soundtrack. The demo music (likely final for this area of the game, but you never know what Kojima’s planning till the game ships) was a faster, remixed version of the theme from MGS2. The sound effects are a mix of real-world sounds, some more startling than others. I shot up a van to see how its windows responded to gunfire. A few seconds after firing, the van – which I was standing very close to – exploded with impeccable graphics and realistic sounds that made me jump.

Death sequences are met with quick flashes of key characters from the game, including Otacon, Liquid Snake, and a girl whose identity was revealed in a previous trailer. For those of you who’d like to keep the story aspect secret, I’ll refrain from saying anything else.

Suit Up. Texture On.

Snake’s new auto-camouflage gives him an unprecedented level of suit manipulation. Crouch or crawl near any surface and the suit automatically changes to match the surface’s color and texture. It’s incredibly cool. I’m not sure how well it actually disguises Snake (you’re going to get noticed in an open battlefield regardless), but that’s likely something Konami is saving for the finished game.

Dual-Shock 3

Each of the 12 kiosks dedicated to MGS4 featured the next evolution in PS3 game control – the Dual-Shock 3.

Unfortunately, its functionality is not yet clear. The gameplay shakes were typical and minor. MGS1 and 2’s best vibration effects occurred during the movie sequences – there weren’t many of in this demo. Assuming Kojima has some cool force-feedback effects planned for next year, their absence from the demo will be a blessing. Though it would’ve been great to experience them now, some things have to be saved for the full game.

As for the controller itself, it felt really good. It’s not as heavy as the previous Dual-Shock controllers, but the motor (used for vibration) does make it slightly heavier than the light-as-air SIXAXIS. No release date has been set for the controller, but the time table is a no-brainer – if MGS4 is coming in March, it’d be crazy to release the Dual-Shock 3 any later.

March 2008…

…Can’t come soon enough. I hate to rush time, but it’s hard not to think about the future. There are still a couple things that need tweaking, like the graphics, which are amazing but slightly less polished than the trailer footage. Also, while the transition from close combat to the over-the-shoulder battle view is seamless, if you let go of the L1 button for any reason, the game jumps back to its third-person view. It’s not overly jumpy, but it is disempowering. Players may be so stunned by the attacks that it could take them a few seconds to get back into attack mode. You can switch to the attack view immediately, but your camera will be different, guaranteeing that at least one unnecessary shot will be received.

These issues are minor, and if they’re the only things to complain about, you can bet the final game will be close to the masterpiece we’ve been waiting for. Even with those flaws, Metal Gear Solid 4 has already achieved a new level of stealth action greatness.

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