Metal Gear Solid has always been a love it or hate it proposition. Millions love it for its involved, conspiratorial plotting, its arch sense of humour, its demanding stealth gameplay, its sprawling cinematic ambition, its preposterous stylishness and pretensions toward artistic weight. Millions hate it for exactly the same reasons.
Then there are those - this reviewer included - for whom Metal Gear Solid is a love it and hate it proposition. Flawed, intractable, unspeakably tedious at times, and yet blessed with incredible production values, imaginative design, and a brilliant, brave willingness to think and do the unexpected and impossible. At times they're barely videogames at all, but they're capable of moments of pure videogame genius, joy and shock that few other series can match.
So how do you review a new Metal Gear Solid? Do you assess it on its own terms, ones that its legion of fans will understand? Do you play the sceptic, and take Hideo Kojma and his team to task for their stubborn refusal to catch up with what the rest of the world expects of a videogame? Or do you walk the path of compromise, down the middle?
Well, if there's one thing Metal Gear Solid 4 isn't, it's compromising. Kojima has barred no holds in an extraordinary, kitchen-sink finale to the Solid Snake story. Plausibility is stretched to extremes as every character you can think of (and several you never would) makes a cameo appearance in this melancholy epic. Features that would be a tent-pole selling-point for other games are frittered away as Easter eggs and one-shot surprises. Such is the luxurious length and mind-numbing detail of the cut-scenes and codec conversations that you could put the pad down for almost half the game's ample length. (One character actually asks you to do so at one point, resulting in a typically self-aware and genuinely hilarious joke.)
There's almost too much going on. With a see-sawing episodic rhythm that visits some starkly different locations and play styles, a wealth of incidental and hidden detail, more gameplay mechanics than you can fully explore in a single playthrough - and above all, an epic, elegiac, arcane storyline that seeks to tie up every last loose thread and honour the passing of a classic videogame hero - Metal Gear Solid 4 is, in most senses, the biggest Metal Gear yet. But the best? Maybe not. If the super-slick thriller of the first Metal Gear Solid remains Kojima's masterpiece, then this operatic monster is his magnum opus.
Guns of the Patriots tells the story of Old Snake, the prematurely ageing, terminally ill and newly moustachioed covert agent, as he hunts down his genetically-engineered twin brother and nemesis, Liquid Snake (now inhabiting the body of Revolver Ocelot, of course, but we must gloss over such details or we'll still be here next week). Liquid is attempting to subvert and destroy the ruling Patriot conspiracy and bring the world - currently overrun with mood-controlled private armies fighting meaningless wars in the name of the war economy - into chaos.
Even keen students of Metal Gear lore are going to struggle to follow this tangled tale. Laden with sentimental sermons and metaphors for the evils of war, struggling under the weight of the resolving the plots of four previous games and the personal destinies of characters as diverse as Raiden, Meryl, Naomi, Vamp and Eva, it is in all honesty a mess. Motivation and consistency fall by the wayside and by the end it's totally unclear who is on which side, or what's at stake. Maybe that's deliberate, but it doesn't work, and the hours of talking-head exposition involved are too steep a price to pay for this muddled closure.