Since he first appeared on PlayStation in 1999, Solid Snake has been through a lot. Like the time on Shadow Moses, where he was captured and electrocuted by Revolver Ocelot, only to escape and discover that he had been infected with the deadly FoxDie virus, all while trying to prevent the launch of a nuclear weapon.
And then there was the time he got caught in a battle between a group of Russian terrorists under the control of Sergei Gurlukovich and Revolver Ocelot, who is possessed by the late Liquid Snake, and has to escape a sinking oil tanker.
With its Dickensian cast of characters, expert dialogue and unpredictable plots, few game series have the rich mythology of Metal Gear Solid. Though not necessarily the last in the saga, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is Solid Snake's last mission, and to say he bows out dramatically is an understatement.
World at war
In 2014, five years after the events of Metal Gear Solid 2, the world is a bleaker place. The rise to prominence of nanotechnology and the relaxation of restrictions to military intervention on foreign soil has led to an uprising of private military companies (PMCs) fighting proxy wars for businesses. The nanomachines controlling the PMCs are operated by Liquid Ocelot, who has amassed a private army rivalling that of the United States and is planning an armed insurrection. With time running out, Roy Campbell deploys a prematurely ageing and increasingly disillusioned Solid Snake into the Middle East to assassinate Liquid...
In gameplay terms, MGS 4 retains the trademark sneaking of its predecessors and transports it to a new arena: the theatre of war. Silent corridors are replaced with active battlefields, where rebel fighters are warring with PMCs. To escape detection, the player needs to know not only the location of PMC soldiers, but the general flow of battle. For example, at one stage Snake approaches a PMC roadblock under attack from rebel troops. The player has options: they can hope the rebels distract the PMCs long enough for Snake to pass through; they can join the attack, helping the rebels in exchange for protection; or they can take to the rooftops and run the risk of being spotted and attacked from the air.
Sneaking is almost always the best option, but there are times when Snake has no choice but to turn to his gun and the game doesn't disappoint on this front either. The targeting system has been tweaked and there are lots of weapons available, either lying around the battlefield or available to buy from Drebin, the weapons dealer. And if you're wondering where Snake gets his cash from, you can sell any spare weapons you collect along the way.
It's important to mention that all of this happens in the game's first of six acts, and later on the gameplay undergoes several brilliant changes that ought to be experienced first hand, and so will not be mentioned here. It suffices to say that stunning gameplay tweaks are tossed around like confetti in the latter stages of the game; the third act in particular is a master stroke from Hideo Kojima and his team.
And then there are those details not yet mentioned: the Octocamo suit, which automatically mimics any wall or ground texture that Snake presses himself against, like a chameleon; the small stealth-enabled robot, Metal Gear Mk. 2, which Snake can send ahead on reconnaissance; the excellent weapon customisation system; the atmospheric score by Harry Gregson-Williams; and the way that sound captures the level of tension being felt by the player.
There's the self aware humour, where dialogue breaks the metaphysical fourth wall and acknowledges that you are playing a videogame; the reptilian Metal Gears that appear from nowhere and make you leap out of your seat; the engrossing boss fights, each one totally different and requiring great imagination to beat; and the fact that Metal Gear Solid 4 is easily one of the best looking games on PlayStation 3.
It's a staggering technical and creative achievement, and a fitting end for a PlayStation icon. Experience is a term often used when describing games, and never has it been more apt than here; rarely does a title join storyline, addictive gameplay and a sense of fun together so harmoniously.
Snake, you will be missed. Metal Gear games won't be the same without their grumpy protagonist, but as long as Kojima and his team are at the helm you can be sure that any forthcoming titles will be as groundbreaking as this one. He will always be remembered for his softly softly approach, but Snake is leaving us with a bang.