It begins with... well, we can't tell you how Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots begins. We can't, and we won't. Can't, because we promised Konami we wouldn't; having generously granted us three days to play through the whole thing, the publisher is understandably paranoid about spoilers, with the game still six weeks from release. Won't, because we want you to feel exactly the same delicious, hair-raising mix of bemused awe and shock-of-the-new that we did when you turn it on for the first time. Metal Gear Solid 4, it is instantly apparent, is special. It's not like other games.
That's not quite true, of course. There are a handful of other games it is like: its three predecessors, and, to some extent, the PSP's Portable Ops. Like its gruff hero Solid Snake, the series has always preferred to work alone. It may have been tremendously influential in establishing stealth gameplay, but none have ever dared imitate its bizarre and occasionally awkward blend of cinema and videogames, sneaking and soap opera, conspiracy and sex, bombast and self-deprecation, self-referential silliness and deadly earnest seriousness.
You couldn't even if you tried. And on this occasion, in a heroic effort to draw a line for once and all under Snake's story and give the Metal Gear Solid series the grand finale it deserves, Hideo Kojima and his team really have outdone themselves. 'Extravagant' doesn't cover it. Nor do 'dramatic', 'spectacular', 'sentimental', 'surprising', 'long-winded', 'final', 'painstaking' or 'polished'. Guns of the Patriots is Metal Gear Solid in excelsis.
Anyone who's familiar with the series - and any less than a rabid fan - will know that this is a mixed blessing. You have to put up with a lot to appreciate the fruits of Kojima's very personal and stubborn brand of auteur genius. This was never more true than it is of Metal Gear Solid 4. You have to subvert or repress many of your natural gaming instincts to safely negotiate its coldly exacting gameplay, and you have to leave the pad untouched through hour after hour of exposition and sermonising in cut-scenes and codec conversations. The latter take up a quite staggering proportion of the game's length; think the infamous MGS2: Sons of Liberty, and you won't be far wrong.
However, that's not the whole story. These cinematic episodes take on a different character in MGS4. For starters, they're all - with the exception of some fried eggs - rendered in real time by the game engine, allowing for some extremely slick transitions as the camera slips down to Snake's shoulder and plunges you into the scene.
Only once you appreciate this do you understand what a great visual achievement the game is, because only in the cut-scenes do you get close enough to truly appreciate how flawless, gorgeous and magnetically charismatic the in-game character models are, how exquisitely animated and well-rooted in their world. Yes, some textures are surprisingly low-resolution; yes there are aliasing issues and flickering shadows. But overall, Guns of the Patriots is handsome, moody and achingly cool, a real swoon-inducing matinee idol of a game. There's some terrific music, too.
Cut-scenes are also spiced with a little light interactivity. We discussed the flashback button on X, which gives fuzzy memory-flashes of moments in Metal Gears past when prompted, in our last preview. At other times, L1 provides a quick snap to an alternative, or first-person camera perspective. At one point in the first level, a drop of blood lands on Snake's shoulder, he looks up, and L1 gives you a startling close-quarters look at a Gekko - MGS4's terrifying breed of bioengineered, lowing bipedal mechs - with a soldier's corpse in its feelers.
Then there is the mission briefing that comes after the end of the game's first act. Taking place aboard Otacon's transport aircraft - effectively a base for the shy scientist and Snake, accompanied by child genius Sunny from MGS2 - this twenty-minute epic of plot exposition and subtle character development allows you to switch at will between a cinematic camera, the plane's CCTV circuit and a camera on board the Metal Gear Mk II, Otacon's remote-control robot alter ego. The Mk II can even be controlled, scooting around inside the cut-scene itself to find secrets or observe the tiny behavioural details of "off-camera" characters.
The mission briefing is a kind of interactive entertainment that only Hideo Kojima could have come up with. It's pointless and overlong but also a strangely spellbinding kind of downtime for player and writers alike, giving the game's characters time to breathe with some gentle comic interplay and moments of tenderness, and bridging the gap between cut-scene and game. You might end up frustrated with the amount of time you spend just watching Metal Gear Solid 4, but its cinematic side is so deeply embedded in the game this time that it makes for a much more coherent whole.
It's also smoother and easier to get along with - if not exactly more forgiving - when it's fully interactive. As we've mentioned before, Guns of the Patriots is the first MGS designed from the ground up for a free third-person camera and twin-stick controls, and we're happy to report that the sticky sluggishness we first experienced has been tuned out. This is now a crisp and satisfying game to manipulate, even using auto-aim, although you'll quickly abandon that for the over-the-shoulder aiming view, or the tight Call of Duty-style first-person view using the iron gun sights.
It's not a shooter and it never will be, but MGS4 serves up the best gunplay in the series by some distance, effectively shown off by a confrontation with Haven Troopers, also known as Frogs, in the first act. These genetically-modified female soldiers can jump vast distances and cling to walls, and are Liquid Snake's private guard (the act has Snake hunting down Liquid in a Middle Eastern city destroyed by war between a local militia and a military contractor).
They're fast and wily - though nothing like as intimidating as the astonishing, goosebump-raising Gekkos - and the running battle with them through a ruined hotel, Snake fighting alongside MGS1's Meryl Silverburgh and her Rat Patrol squad, makes for a memorable set-piece. However, it's giving nothing away to say that it's overshadowed many times over by some later episodes in the game.
MGS4's weapon trading system also goes a long way to improving the viability and survivability of pitched combat. A huge range of guns and ammo can be bought and sold through the arms trader Drebin, a peroxide lounge cat, part-time magician and wartime philosopher. He turns up at several points with his inexplicable pet monkey in an APC, but his services are available at any time from the pause menu, and many of the game's best armaments are here, such as the sniper tranq gun. He'll unlock coded enemy weapons for you, and you automatically sell him any spares you pick up, which, along with some performance-related end-of-mission bonuses, is how you fund your shopping sprees.
Guns of the Patriots' concessions to ease-of-use don't end there. The chameleon-like OctoCamo suit allows the game to include Metal Gear Solid 3's camouflage system but entirely automate it, bypassing that game's laborious menu browsing. It's a brilliant toy that will prove invaluable throughout the game. There are more traditional forms of disguise, too. Snake can change costume to a militia outfit - a hooded robe that bears a striking resemblance to that worn by a certain other master of evasion - which helps him infiltrate the militia's lair. Ultimately he will win enough of their trust to fight alongside them without this disguise.
The Solid Eye, Snake's high-tech eyepatch, is more of a mixed blessing. It unites night vision and scope with a radar-like threat detector in "normal" mode that you'll want to keep on permanently, but can't, due to its limited battery life. Oddly, we found we didn't use Snake's most instantly appealing new gadget - the Metal Gear Mk II itself - as much as we expected we would, though it is a useful scout and can even incapacitate guards.
The options are there - Metal Gear Solid 4, while hardly free-form or non-linear, almost overwhelms you with choice when it comes to the nitty-gritty detail of progress. The ease of use is there in the design, the controls, the display, the new gadgets and systems. The rarefied thrill of a new Kojima Productions game on new PlayStation hardware, every stage of it lavished with crazy ideas, post-modern jokes and sumptuous production values, is most definitely there.
But don't get ideas. Guns of the Patriots is still best enjoyed as a glacially slow-paced stealth game, and still features plenty of bewildering elaboration that takes some time to reveal its logic, such as the new Stress and Psyche meters that affect Snake's performance in combat. As you follow the prematurely ageing Snake through the powerfully atmospheric Middle East stage towards an encounter with Liquid - and a glimpse of the Beauty & Beast team of assassins, you'll still be showered in more clumsy dialogue, arcane plotting and overwrought rhetoric than you'd like, or can even understand.
That's Metal Gear Solid for you. No-one ever suggested this one would be fundamentally different, and nor should it be; we should have the good grace to let Old Snake see his story through to its conclusion in his inimitable style. To know how satisfying that conclusion is overall, and how well the game stands up in the long run, you'll have to wait for our review. But we still won't tell you what happens in it, because that would spoil everything that's special about this most remarkable, highly unusual gaming event.
Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots is due out for PS3 on 12th June.