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.