You expect the boss battles to take a starring role in Metal Gear Solid, and the encounters with the Beauty and the Beast team of psychotic femmes fatales in robot animal suits don't disappoint - how could they? All different, all very well-staged, all with a slightly disturbing and mournful edge. But in this case it's actually the early parts of the game's chapters that leave your jaw hanging open with their audacity and invention; it's the Gekko confrontations that strike fear into your heart; it's the visually staggering on-rails set-pieces that provide the biggest bang per buck.
Despite Kojima's downbeat sentiments on the PS3, he has produced a technical and presentational tour-de-force. The visuals do have rough edges but the art, especially the character art, is flawless, somehow maintaining extravagance and understated cool simultaneously. Harry Gregson Williams' music, whether providing scripted excitement or dynamic accompaniment, hits all the right cues, and musters a memorable, delicate theme. And the surround soundtrack is clearly a labour of love and extreme dedication, probably the best in gaming to date, lacking nothing in either pin-sharp precision or rib-shaking impact.
(Take note, however, that there are several minutes of install time to be endured, not just at the start, but before each act - albeit graced with a fantastic animated graphic of Snake smoking next to some health warnings.)
It won't ease the pain of the cut-scene haters one bit, but the interactive elements to the in-engine cinematics are hugely impressive nonetheless, and do much to paper over the cracks and make MGS4 feel a little more like a whole and less like a split-personality hybrid of movie and game. You would certainly skip the interminable mission briefings if it weren't for the ability to explore Otacon's flying headquarters via Metal Gear Mk II and CCTV while the talk rumbles on; the flashbacks and camera changes add less than you'd think, but the sense that cut-scenes and gameplay are taking place in the same world, heightened by some gorgeous camera transitions, adds a whole lot more.
There are even split-screen sections that provide simultaneous feeds of game and movie. In Guns of the Patriots' incredible, cathartic, climactic scenes, the lines are blurred so much that you can barely tell whether you're playing a videogame or watching a film. To some that might sound like an insult, but to Kojima and his fans, it's nirvana, something for which the series has been striving for ten years, and it could not be a more appropriate note to end on.
If only MGS4 did end there. An unbelievably lengthy and self-indulgent epilogue - you can't call it a cut-scene, it's an entire film in its own right, and a deeply boring one too - is how Solid Snake's career comes to a close. Too bad, but no hard feelings; you can ignore it if you wish. The drawn-out sentimentality is fitting, in a way. Snake may have started out as a gruff, two-dimensional clich, but he bows out very gracefully in Metal Gear Solid 4, assuming the mantle of the world-weary samurai, or the enigmatic nameless cowboy from a spaghetti western, as if it were always his. David Hayter's voice performance isn't much more than an attempt to create the gravelliest, throatiest croak ever recorded by man, but as such, it's heroic.
You're sorry to see Snake go. But should you be? Guns of the Patriots is a frustrating, fractured game that turns Metal Gear Solid's world upside down several times over, but never changes it. It just burrows deeper into what fans love and detractors hate than ever before, and it will make few converts. It's a crying shame, given how many genuinely classic gaming moments there are here, given the countless exquisite creative touches, but Metal Gear Solid 4 is its own worst enemy. You could not ask for a funnier, cleverer, more ambitious or inspired or over-the-top conclusion to the Metal Gear Solid series, but it's definitely time to move on.
We love you, Snake. Don't come back.
8 / 10