Okay, I got the game a while ago. Right when it came out, actually. I chucked it into my newly purchased PS3, sat down and clicked on the 'Start' button, ready for the best gaming experience the world had ever seen.
Actually, that's a lie. I chucked it in, say through seven minutes of installation, then clicked on the 'Start' button, ready for the best gaming experience the world had ever seen.
And to be honest, I was underwhelmed. Not that I'm criticising it - it's a great game. It's full of all the innovation, excellent direction and general awesomeness which we've come to expect. But that's all it is. It doesn't jump out of the screen and tear your face off with the sheer power of its epicness like you feel it should - it just sits there being very good. And it was good - good enough to make me sit up for twenty straight hours completing it, then freaking my friends out with minor insomnia induced hallucinations of Liquid whispering into my ear - but it wasn't nearly as good as it should have been. This is the final instalment in the MGS series - bringing everything in the series together in one big slab of great. What we wanted was an apotheosis of everything that made the series great - what we got was Return of the Jedi.
So, maybe I had unrealistically high expectations. Nonetheless, here's a top-ten style list of things that Kojima could have done to make the game the single best thing ever created by anyone, but with one more! As for the lateness - I just needed some time to process things. Also, this will probably contain spoilers, but I'll try to keep away from anything major. So, you know - fair warning.
1. More, shorter levels
A pretty basic point, but it's important nonetheless. Back in earlier MGS games, you had to sneak your way through room after room. The result? Every new screen posed a new challenge, and every completion left you with a small feeling of victory and satisfaction before you made your way forward, not to mention making the game feel much, much bigger.
Here, though, the game seems to consist of a small number of huge areas to play through. Now, you don't get that feeling of having completed another bit of the game so often, and when you do, it's somewhat reduced by the realisation that you've just thudded a big chunk closer to the end of a chapter - and end you don't feel ready to meet untill you've performed some more really daring acts of stealth.
2. Disguised loading screens
Yeah, loading screens and installations are to be expected on this system. Even so, it'd be nice to have some ingenious way of softening their blow - you'd think that Kojima could come up with something. Maybe a room with a locked door which doesn't open untill the game is loaded, or something.
Also, the occasional between - level loads tend to break up the gameplay - another thing which could be reduced by having shorter levels. Loading screens were disguised nicely enough in MGS3 - why not here?
3. Less boring briefings
Some people see terms like 'interactive movie' as criticisms. Personally, I see them as healthy extensions of a form of media. Nonetheless, the pre-mission briefings seem a little overly drawn out considering the gameplay that follows. Maybe if the game itself were a little longer you could justify sitting through an hour of plot which could be summed up in a quick codec call, but in this case they just seem excessive, and make the game seem slightly pretentious.
Anyway, if they'd have taken the time put into those briefings to develop some more actual gameplay areas, I'd be much happier.
4. More checkpoints and tougher challenges
Sort of tied in with point one - the game's main problem is that getting from one point to another consists of easy-easy-easy-easy-easy-oopsdead! Almost as if to balance the easiness of it all out, the game doesn't provide you with much in the way of checkpoints to come back to when you die - it's just a matter of replaying a big chunk of level.
I'd much prefer if the challenge was condensed into some smaller zones - maybe some indoor scenes requiring creative evasion of the guards, and stuff like that - with frequent checkpoints. Again, you'd get a small sense of victory with each new screen reached, with a rewarding challenge but no annoying deaths. As it is, getting killed often loses you a big stack of stealthily captured weapons and progress, and there's not a whole lot in the way of reward from completing big but generally easy areas.
5. A non-annoying secondary health bar system
Stamina was a great innovation in the last game - well-tied in with your character's performance, pretty easy to manage, and allowing for a whole new dimension of survival in the jungle.
This game's version - Psyche - seems more annoying than anything else. It's the least self-explanatory concept in the game - it depletes if you fart too loudly, takes forever to bring back up, and effects of keeping it at zero include getting knocked out if you land too sharply, and back pain (seriously!).
It doesn't need getting rid of, but it feels like a wasted opportunity. A little scattered, non-score-reducing medication, or possibly bringing back the last game's concept of eating small animals would have improved things. Better yet - apply some of that classic MGS innovation, but make psych affect you in different ways. For example, there're no physical penalties for being low on it, but staying down could cause the screen to wobble slightly, hallucinations to distract you, and voices to freak you out. You UI could start to dribble, and you could get prompted to take part in pointless exercises like running in circles, and be told that you'd picked up imaginary weapons like sheep cannons and raddish swords. In fact, why not really mess things up and give enemy soldiers afros of various sizes depending on the sorry state of your psyche.
All in all, I'm surprised that the best concept Kojima could come up with was low psyche leading you to pulling muscles and aiming like a chimp with ADHD.
6. Some interesting secondary villains
OK, first off, the B&Bs were an excellent idea for boss battles. Interesting, pretty cool looking, and they freaked the hell out of me. Laughing Octopus in particular had a really impressive character, and all of them had some surprising depth.
The problem was the lack of any real bosses of character significance. All of the main boss fights in the game were with the B&Bs, which while fun didn't really act as pivots to the story or anything like that. The fight with Vamp was more of an exercise in lateral thinking than a true boss, and the two fights with Liquid (not wanting to give too much away) seem respectively like a novelty segment and an interactive (although still really impressive) cut-scene.
Take MGS3, for example. There you had a perfect balance - the Cobras on the one hand occupied a space filled by the B&Bs - pure, solid boss fights with crazy characters which were great to watch and play but didn't really impact the story. To support those, though, you also had an array of plot-significant fights - Ocelot, Volgin, the Shagohad, the Boss... All in all, Kojima had things balanced out perfectly - the Cobras acted as impressive and fun space-fillers so the game didn't go too long without any interesting fights, and the plot battles served to involve you in the game to a greater extent.
The problem with MGS4 is that the battles were entirely space fillers. Plot-significant fights didn't really feel like bosses at all (in fact, the only one played in the game's main engine - Vamp's - didn't seem to have any interesting attacks to speak of). Having some new characters standing by Liquid would have sorted this out - I'm sure that Kojima could have thought some up. Even failing that - would one early, real fight with Vamp and one real battle with Liquid Ocelot have been two much to ask? Possibly two? The whole first chapter of the game was sorely missing at least one fight with a higher level henchman of some description - you infiltrate Liquid's camp, for Christ's sake! Are all of his generals on their day off or something?
I could overdo this point, but the whole end of the game felt like it was sorely missing a climactic boss battle (not to mention some climactic stealth infiltration). As I've said, the final battle felt more like an interactive cut-scene (albeit a really impressive and epic one), so the game proper essentially ended where you defeat Screaming Mantis. The last boss battle in the game ends with some semi-comedic appearance from the original Mantis, after what was essentially another fun and impressive, but plot-hollow, space filler battle! Is that any kind of swansong for a legendary hero like Solid Snake?
7. Stop trying to appeal to your audience of idiots
MGS3 had this problem, but here it seems much worse. I can feel for Kojima - having so much to address in the way of plot points and junk, but he seems to have tried to satisfy everyone in the world with internet access.
I feel bad. Like I should have gone back in time to counter everyone making forum posts telling Kojima how to end the series. If only someone had made the following points:
- You don't need to go back and find explanations for every supernatural element in previous games. Psychics - Ocelot getting possessed by an arm - a sensible audience is capable of suspending disbelief when it comes to stuff like that. We're prepared to accept walking tanks - we can sure as hell take haunted limbs!
- Don't try to rewrite characters established in previous games. MGS2 was the last game to really make sense with Ocelot's character - MGS3 was passable since it covered his youth. The plot twist in MGS4, though, just seems exceptionally contrived. I didn't even think the human mind was capable of holding a quintuple-cross :/
- Some characters are best left in the past. Johnny made decent comic relief, but he doesn't need a legitimate character just because he's been in the series for more than one game. And Meryl? Her coming back is a great big slap in the face for people like me who were too crap to survive Ocelot's torture. I didn't even know there was an alternate ending to MGS1! This is a complete shock to me.
- There's always room for new major characters. The cast of MGS4 seemed kind of... stagnant. Like one of those crappy film sequels which includes everyone from previous instalments, even when there's no logical reason for doing so. Out with the old; in with the new, and such.
8. Make more of the codec system
It just felt last-minute in this game. Two contacts? Come on! Also, why are all calls so serious all of a sudden? Whatever happened to MGS3's topical humour based on where you were or what you had equipped? I want a full range of colourful characters on my codec!
9. Make Snake cough less!
Not much too this point. Snake's coughing fits just irritated me. I mean, I know how manly he is and all, but there's no reason to include all the symptoms of man-flu. Look at Naomi - she just gets on with her dying.
Anyway, I appreciate what Kojima was doing with Snake's age, and there are parts where it works really well. The bit towards the end with all the crawling (not wanting to give too much away again)... well, suffice to say it's the single most empathy I've ever felt with a fictional character in anything. If I was capable of tears, I'd have died of massive dehydration by the end of that section.
Even so, we don't need to see and old man coughing every five minutes!
10. Do more with the whole old-age and memory theme
As themes go, this one was pretty impressive. Pretty much all of Act 4 was dedicated towards memory, and is really felt quite intense. The problem was, though, that intense feeling was all it was. It didn't go anywhere, and the act itself was disappointingly short.
I was really expecting the game to end with some great revelation about all of the bits of memory and nostalgia - the flashbacks, the bosses being all combinations of people from the previous games, and so on - but I got nothing! The ending of the game itself tied up loose ends, but only physical ones. What about all the psychological stuff? What - does that just hang there? Why do you torture me with this promise of a cool plot twist? Why?
Anyway, I felt like the game was leading us towards a twist on the scale of the excellent revelations ending MGS2, but instead it went nowhere. As twists go, this is by far the series' tamest installment. And for a swansong, I feel that to be incredibly disappointing.
11. Less randomness!
While earlier games in the series felt nicely planned out and sorted, a lot of parts in this were just "WTF?" moments. And not the good "WTF?" weird out moments - just plain old "WTF?" director running out of ideas moments.
A lot of plot elements would have been fine if built up to, but the way they just get plopped onto our screens without any build up (ironically, since most of the rest of the plot has way too much build up) is irritating. Here's a summary of the biggest offenders:
"HEY! Liquid's head of all of these military companies somehow WEEEE and somehow he's working with Vamp even though the guy whos body he's squatting in killed most of his friends WEEEEEE and now Raiden's a cyborg ninja WEEE and EVA from the third game is also head of something or other WEEEEEEE and even though they were all relatively minor characters the guys from the third one all rebooted the organisation that controls the world WEEEEEEEEEE and somehow an ageing British major was able to construct a massively sophisticated network of AI computers from scratch capable of running the world WEEE and assumedly he did it on his own because he didn't trust other humans WEEEWEEEEWEEEE and his friends all managed to get relatively important jobs in the first game despite the odds of running into a particular person on a planet this size is several thousand to one even when you consider their specialist occupation WEEEE not to mention how it goes completely against their original personalities WEEEEEEE and look Mei Ling is in charge of her own ship WEEEEEEEEE and surprise surprise it's the only ship in the world that still works what a coincidence lol WEEEEEEEEE and look Liquid has pulled an Arsenal Gear prototype out of his sleeve WEEEEEEEEEEEE even though managing to steal and hide a ship of that size without anyone noticing would almost as much organisation as George Bush showed in orchestrating the 9/11 attacks WEEEEEEEWEEEWEEEE and now Psycho Mantis was back and he wasn't even a massively important character WEEEEEE but his boss battle was innovative enough lol WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEWEEEWEEEEEEEEEEE and best of all, for some reason the ship's designs included a long chamber of people-frying microwaves rather than just a simple locked door or wall to keep people out WEEEWEEEEEEWE EEEEWEWERWQEWE DBVSJ GHVAWYVGFLIGVBSAIVYG S OBYSTRDSUOY"
That's an incredibly unfair summary, but you get the idea. Maybe there's some sort of secret ending which explains all of this, but until I see it I'm just assuming that Kojima can't be arsed any more. And who can blame him? Money doesn't count itself.
Anyway, that's the list. Go outside.