Glance over the videos of Metal Gear Solid 4 - and there have been plenty, including the hilarious new Tokyo Game Show addition - and you might be given the impression that it's a complicated game full of fiddly little controls. That's certainly how it looks when Kojima acts it out. Fortunately, it's not how it plays. In fact, judging by the playable demo here in Makuhari, it's gone from being slightly awkward to deceptively but welcomely simple. And let us not forget that it has a monkey in it.
Spawning into the familiar Middle East warzone from the trailers - where we learn that a PMC called Praying Mantis, run by Liquid Snake, is battling the locals - "Old Snake" finds himself on a familiar mission of run and hide, but with obvious improvements to his arsenal from bottom to top. On the most basic level, he's much easier to control. X cycles between crouch and standing while holding X has Snake fall flat. Triangle is a context-sensitive button that allows you to vault objects and adjust your body-suit's camouflage to match the terrain around you. A camo-meter in the top-right helps you keep track of its efficiency. After all the faffing of MGS3, this is welcome.
As Snake comes into contact with gun-toting enemies, he can opt to take them out, using a range of close-quarters combat manoeuvres, or shoot them, or dodge round. CQC now incorporates a range of new moves, all of which have been superbly animated no doubt with help from Hideo Kojima's usual military advisor, and will come naturally to those who chose to master the option in the last game. Interestingly, direct engagement with a projectile weapon is now a more realistic option. This is partly because it's so simple - there's the traditional manual aim, and a first-person option, but you can also toggle an auto-aim option that lets you hold L1 to lock onto an enemy and then fire with R1.
Your heightened propensity for confrontation is also partly because of Snake's camouflage, which allows him to hide virtually in plain sight. With no Soliton Radar viewing cones to worry about, players have to keep an eye on a sort of threat ring around Snake, which conveys the location of nearby enemies, along with the camo-meter, to maintain anonymity. As well as hiding, it's also good for pressing your advantage: if the enemy can't see you, and they're facing the wrong direction, suddenly coming to life behind them puts you in a handy position. Worth learning some of that CQC. One of our favourite moments, though, was lying on the floor face up, watching an advancing enemy bob Raptor-like through the dust, before gently popping a silenced bullet into his head as he started to suspect something was up.
In the demo's case, combat is certainly emphasised, but certainly not enforced. Snake's job is to navigate a handful of dusty, run-down buildings and streets after an APC poured troops into them, and you can do this entirely without alerting them if you prefer. Using a mixture of camouflage and well-timed, crouched runs you can evade their probing attention completely, even hiding in the odd bin or barrel, or - as Kojima rather enjoyed demonstrating recently - by standing on a plinth gripping a statue by the balls. Whether this sort of tactic will stand up to the bigger enemies, like the mechanical walkers witnessed in other trailers, seems unlikely, but it's fun to sleuth around such an oppressive environment - and MGS4 does a good job of making it so.
There will be further complexity to consider beyond the bounds of what the demo introduces, of course. For instance, Snake's stress levels and mental health will be impacted by various external pressures of the battlefield (no doubt accompanied by about 84 hours of wittering about it and how it relates to Godzilla films), and that's likely to play a more active role in the broader game. There are certainly times when he'll wish he had Vamp's resilience.
But, as with the controls, there are counterpoints to increased complexity, like a simplification of the alert state. Judging by the demo, enemies are either aware of your presence or not, and behave more believably as a result, rather than cycling through a range of blinking alert phases that reduce their intelligence to a sequence of gradually diminishing coloured bars. Not that they will be Halo-esque geniuses, mind - you can, after all, get away with lying down on the ground in front of them providing you're correctly camouflaged. Do they not have specs in the future? At least they call in their friends if they spot you or get sufficiently spooked.
What's more, while the graphics are less visually arresting than they seemed at TGS two years ago - when we scarcely believed we were watching an actual game - MGS4's certainly no slouch in this department either, delivering a terrifically engrossing dustbowl, full of swirls and windswept litter, and very clearly a place where only the crazy brave would dare to tread. Snake himself is as beautifully animated as ever, although we sort of hope some of the sneaking animations for him and the enemies are "beefed" up between now and release. Right now a train of machine-gun-wielding enemies ambles along rather comically.
Anyway, the demo (and the prancing) ends pretty much as soon as you're getting into it, and Konami doesn't love us enough to let us come round its house and play MGS4, so we have to make do with what's at the show. However, putting what we've seen into the context of Kojima's public demonstrations and the trailers released online, we get the feeling that the excitingly varied toolbox at Snake's disposal in MGS4 is backed up by a low end that will allow anybody with a basic knowledge of two-stick stealth games to get into it.
Whether the plot and storytelling style will be as penetrable is another matter (and judging by this week's trailer, it will not!), but in either case there's certainly cause enough here to raise your expectations ahead of the game's "early 2008" release on PlayStation 3. Let's just hope that Old Snake has finally picked up the adage about not having something important to say so not dialling Campbell up on the codec.
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