Metal Gear Solid is a big deal for a lot of people. Cinematic gaming probably wouldn't be where it is today if Hideo Kojima and his team hadn't brought us the original PlayStation game and for many the series stands way ahead of the pack. It's been far from a smooth ride though. Awkward controls and a convoluted, often overacted story made the PlayStation 2 games an acquired taste. The question looming over the head of MGS4, then, isn't if it'll please hardcore fans (it unquestionably does) but if Kojima has seen where the series needed improving. The fact that this is the single best PS3 exclusive released to date should answer that question for you.
A huge part of the Metal Gear Solid series is its story. It's often criticised for being too convoluted and told through excessive cut scenes, but for fans it's a big deal. We won't spoil anything here, but sleep easy knowing that Kojima delivers the goods and then some. Sure, at times the mixture of comedic elements, political comments and despair sit uneasily with one another, but familiar characters return, plot twists surprise and jaws hit the floor. It's typical Kojima storytelling, for better or worse.
The voice acting is top class, the direction is brilliant and it's not too difficult to follow the basic storyline. Some things are definitely hard to work out (I don't believe for a second that I full understood exactly what was going on in every facet of the storyline), but it in no way hurt my enjoyment of the game. And yes, the cut scenes are at times exceedingly long, and no, you can't save during the middle of them. This is one of MGS4's most disappointing aspects. I can't help but feel that with a harsher edit and a quicker pace the cut scenes could have been something really special. There's also an abundance of lengthy codec conversations and quite dull explanations that really needed to be re-worked into entertaining cut scenes. These moments hurt the flow of the game, as do the unfortunate loading screens in the middle of intense sequences - forgivable only because they often look so spectacular.
One of the most significant changes to Metal Gear Solid 4 is the control system. I played a few hours of MGS3 the night before getting my hands on MGS4 and the changes make for a far more playable game. For many the stop and shoot gameplay felt rather dated by the time MGS3 arrived, with the rooted to the spot first-person viewpoint feeling incredibly restrictive. This has been completely changed in MGS4, which allows you to move and shoot from either a first or third-person point of view.
L1 brings up your targeting reticule in a third-person perspective and from here you can move and shoot, albeit slower than when moving without a weapon drawn. MGS4 features a GTA-style auto-aim system, but you're able to disable this and use free-aiming if you wish. A tap on the triangle button while your weapon is drawn changes the action to a first-person perspective, giving you a more precise aim. You're still rather limited as far as movement speed goes, but are no longer forced to stand still, which will come as a huge relief to many gamers.
Elsewhere much remains the same. There's no jump button (which takes some getting used to) and L2 operates the item inventory while R2 handles weapons. As in previous games, these on-screen menus only show what's been equipped from the pause menu and your slots are limited. The first 20 minutes or so will prove to be quite difficult to newcomers even with the changes to the control scheme. MGS4 still plays rather differently to your average action title so you'll probably see the game over screen fairly frequently during the first act. You'll settle into it though, learning how best to move through each environment and avoid the patrolling enemies.
Early on in the game Snake is given a tactical eyepiece which allows him to use a radar and view threatening soldiers. The game uses an ally system, where you can help out rebels in order to win favour and easier passage. Blue icons represent friends, while red represents enemies. If you're seen to be taking out enemies you'll be able to move through a level without facing an onslaught from both sides of the war. It's easier said than done, as rebels will attack you if they don't know who you are, but worth the effort.
To make the most of the game's new-found gun prowess Snake has access to a black market gun retailer. Drebin appears early on in the game (along with his coke drinking, silver pant wearing monkey) and from that point on you're able to trade any collected weapons for points, redeemable for new weapons and ammo. All the weapons dropped by soldiers in the game are hard coded to each soldier and Drebin is able to unlock them and offer you a selection of side arms, rifles, machine guns and heavy duty weapons. At no point in the game after I'd met Drebin did I have a shortage of ammo. It might be a tad unrealistic to enter a shop while in the middle of a battle, but it makes the game more enjoyable to play.