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I think the gaming writers of the world need to place a moratorium on applying traditional review standards to Hideo Kojima’s games — particularly those of the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

The problem with comparing Metal Gear Solid 4 with other games is that it completely obliterates any other digitized attempts at storytelling. It’s almost an unfair comparison. Contrasting the hyper-nuanced, politically and spiritually weighted, continually surprising plot of this latest edition of the franchise to even the finest games in recent memory (say, Grand Theft Auto 4) is tantamount to comparisons between Uwe Boll’s Postal and the works of Stanley Kubrick.

That’s not simple hyperbole either.

While most games are content to present a rather straightforward plot in the vein of any Hollywood action flick, Metal Gear Solid, like Kubrick’s films, has always been defined by its circuitously branching plot details that almost always border on incomprehensible to those not taking detailed notes and consulting Wikipedia every 20 minutes. MGS4 does much to help tie up the vast number of loose ends created throughout the history of the series, but that feels like as much of a failing as a victory, given its predecessors.

By combining every relevant character and location from the last decade of MGS titles, Kojima has seemingly given into the cheap, immediate thrills of fan service. Whereas his games previously stood alone, MGS4 relies so heavily on past titles as to render its story much less poignant for those who missed any earlier entries.

Thankfully, the same issues don’t apply to the gameplay.

I won’t lie and say the controls are intuitive — they aren’t — but after an initial half hour of learning the more advanced maneuvers, you’ll be slitting throats and diving into cover like a pro. As a reward for learning the complex mechanisms, the game is filled with clever, inventive, resourceful uses of every single item and action in your inventory.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I can reveal that at one point in the game you’re tasked with trailing someone through the streets of a city that looks suspiciously like Prague by night. Not only do you have to stay out of sight of your target, but you’re also asked to avoid detection by randomly patrolling soldiers. Just when you think you’ve got the hang of that, your target is arrested and you’re forced to make snap judgements on how to free him.

Do you kill his captors from the shadows and risk blowing your cover? Do you stay hidden and hope for the best? The game is filled with these sorts of branching decisions, most of which have no “right” answer. By allowing players the freedom to make their own decisions during missions, the otherwise linear game provides a shockingly deep impersonation of open-endedness.

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For all of Kojima’s design brilliance, he is still at the mercy of his canvas, and in this case, the technological limitations of the PlayStation 3 are the most glaring fault in MGS4.

On initially starting the game you’re asked to install a file. It’s an eight minute install. “No sweat,” you think, as you wander off to have a sandwich. You return, play the game for an hour and half, are amazed by the first act, and are stunned when you hit another install screen. Throughout the course of the game, you’ll have to install data five times for a grand total of slightly under half an hour of data transfer time.

Coupled with “Now Loading” screens that pop up far too often – especially in fast-paced vehicle-based missions – and it’s almost enough to drag you completely out of the stunningly crafted story.

Almost.

With any other game, this sort of thing would be inexcusable, but it’s a testament to MGS4’s excellence and depth that I was never once tempted to walk away from an install screen to play another round of Smash Bros. Brawl.

As if all of that wasn’t enough, Konami also added Metal Gear Online to the disc. I’m still unconvinced that the precise, almost ponderous controls of Metal Gear Solid translate terribly well to what is otherwise a pretty standard third-person online shooter (a la SOCOM), but it does make for a pretty substantial addition to the gargantuan single-player mode.

Bottom Line: By combining the deepest story of this console generation with the finest technology so far revealed on the PlayStation 3, Metal Gear Solid 4 proves to be the greatest action game ever created (assuming you aren’t allergic to loading screens).

Recommendation: Buy it, rent it, steal it; if you have a PlayStation 3 you simply must own this game.

Earnest Cavalli is actually a small dog who was granted the gift of game criticism by a particularly useless Norse god.

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