I played the MGS4 demo yesterday, and I found myself really, really enjoying the baroque stealth gameplay. I liked the fact that the radar is a bit confusing and that there are a bunch of readers to keep track of to know everything you must know in order to tackle the moment. I like the feeling of hiding in plain sight and outsmarting my enemies not because I can deal more damage than they do and aim slightly better, but because I’m better at parsing the available information.
The sheer amount of screen furniture and read-outs didn’t turn me off at all, it rather brought me closer to the game because finally I had full disclosure in terms of what was going on in the game mechanics at any given moment. Since there’s so much going on, I get really pulled into the weird brand of simulation that MGS has been sporting since the second game. The realistic and strangely nuanced actions and reactions of the enemies gives me a feeling of really influencing my surroundings, of something happening, like really happening apart from people dying because I pointed my gun at them. It feels incredibly fresh and different from all the other tactical shooters out there and, in a way, it feels more like an RPG than for instance Fallout 3 ever did. I feel like my abilities, the amount of information presented to me and my capabilities in relation to my enemies really invites experimentation and toying around with the game’s malleable but minimal sandboxes. I have no idea whether the play style I arrived at is the one the game demands, or if there’s a wealth viable tactics, but it felt like I got to express myself and develop my own take on every situation I was presented with.
Sure, I was frustrated initially because I couldn’t get what was going on and the camo system felt arbitrary and the gunplay awkward, but then I started trying to feel what was going on, sink into the game instead of expecting it to feed me rewards (I had played Ratchet & Clank Future just a few minutes prior, which force-fed my brain saccharine junk for absolutely every action I performed). So, weirdly, I get the same vibe from this as from Crysis and STALKER: Egregiously convoluted, but for a reason. There’s not just feature heaped upon feature to satisfy the expectations of an audience who thinks every game should aspire to be The Game to End All Games.
It’s a set of restrictions and expectations imposed on the player because they will force the player’s thoughts and behaviors into the mode intended by the game designer. Or maybe it’s just dumb, silly luck and my brain has a bunch of Crysis, STALKER, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Disgaea-shaped slots that no-one else has that causes me to overdose on happy hormones when I submit to their peculiar dynamics? In any case, I get the feeling MGS4 is something special, and that I’m willing to endure Kojima’s schizophrenic storytelling to see what it’s really about.
Or am I getting it all wrong? Did I just stumble upon a moment of bliss playing the demo, a moment that’s unlikely to reemerge from the full game? Does the game collapse into self-indulgent bouts of dreadful storytelling that eventually drowns out what I thought was pristine gameplay?