‘Metal Gear Solid 4’

Each year a number of triple-A titles are released to much fanfare, developers trumpeting them as watershed games that signal radical progress for the video game medium. “Halo 3,” Grand Theft Auto IV,” “Call of Duty 4” – basically, a lot of fours masquerading as the Second Coming. “Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” is the most recent self-proclaimed revolutionary game to make such a claim.

And “Metal Gear Solid 4” is not the return of Jesus Christ.

It is, however, the fourth and final main installment in Hideo Kojima’s wildly popular and decidedly unique stealth action franchise, lending closure to a decade of espionage and adventure for protagonist Solid Snake.

Our story begins with Solid Snake – resembling an octogenarian capable of running a marathon – embroiled in yet another stealth mission, this time amidst a conflict between a private military contractor and a rebel militia.

Those PMCs play a major role in the game’s plot, making up Kojima’s not-so-subtle social commentary chiding the impersonal nature of modern warfare. In fact, the “war economy” is such a salient theme in “MGS4″s story that you’ll hear the phrase “war economy” echoed relentlessly as if repeating it made the commentary more meaningful (it doesn’t).

Kojima explores a number of themes that are sophisticated for a video game story, but with the bar set so low by most space-marine shooters out there, that isn’t saying much. Themes are explored and dropped just as quickly; the script lacks follow-through, which is a real shame.

“Metal Gear” has always struck a clumsy balance between tense game play and expository cut scene, granting players a modicum of release after fearing discovery by an enemy sentry. The first and third in the series somehow managed to balance the two elements evenly, while the second and now the fourth seem to have no idea how to hire an editor.

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While many of the cinematics in “MGS4” can indeed be described as bona fide badass, for every mind-blowing action scene there are two to five dialogue sequences that are so poorly conceived and awkwardly written that eye-rolling alone won’t satisfy your need to cleanse the filth from your mind.

Then you’ve got the traditional yet archaic explanations of minute plot details, beating you over the head with the trivial. No one needs a 15-minute documentary about what a PMC is (they’re mercenaries, we get it already) to understand its importance in the story. It’s all so excessive.

The ending – no spoilers, I swear – suffers from the same lack of restraint. After 20 minutes of cut scene showing what happens to characters no one (except, of course, Kojima) seems to care about, there’s a logical and artful closure point that is followed by the credits. Good move, right? End it there and leave a few questions unanswered in the name of artistic ellipsis.

NO! The credits are a ruse and you must bear another half hour of needless answers and the Hollywood treatment: tying everything up in a neat little bow with a caviar garnish and superb presentation. That guy you thought was bad? Yeah, he had good intentions and was, um, undercover the whole time.

Really? You can’t just leave it open for some interpretation and let the story end gracefully and with some dignity intact? “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” knew when to end better than “MGS4” does. That’s not a compliment.

Luckily, the bitter taste of the inconsistent story is countered by sweeping advancements in game play. Controls are more fluid and Westernized than ever, and the cumbersome camouflage system of “MGS3” has been replaced with an automated camouflage suit that keeps you in the game and out of menus.

Shooting is also easier and more viable an option than ever, especially since supporting militia in their battles against the PMC troops affords Snake a few much-needed allies. Excepting some faulty enemy AI and pacing in the third act, “MGS4” drags the series’ game play kicking and screaming into the 21st century.

The new streamlined controls allow the multiplayer offering, “Metal Gear Online,” an enormous amount of depth. The new game play modes are refreshingly original, and it is more than enough to keep “MGS4” in your PS3 for some time.

“Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots” is frustratingly schizophrenic. So quickly does it shift between genius and schlock that it pains me to evaluate it with stars – even text. Simply put, there is plenty there to be enjoyed, but its missed potential is worthy of the utmost attention.

To herald “MGS4” as a bar-raising game is a half-truth. As a story to be considered among other video game plots, it’s well above average with a few minor flaws.

But as a piece of more sophisticated fiction, it suffers from crippling exposition issues and ultimately disappoints. That said, nothing is quite like “Metal Gear” in the video game world, and “4” should not be missed.