Is "Metal Gear Solid 4" a game or an experience?
The answer is unclear in the latest installment of this epic franchise. Both masterful and bloated, "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots" (Konami, $59.99 for PlayStation 3) is less about interactivity and more about storytelling.
That's slightly unfortunate given how far the gaming medium has come since the first "Metal Gear Solid" was released in 1998.
Combining the concealed movement of "Assassin's Creed" with the gun-fueled combat of "Call of Duty 4," this tactical espionage game stays true to the series' stealth roots while allowing gamers to use more of a hands-on approach to dealing with foes.
However, the sleek gameplay is commandeered by an out-of-control bullet train of a narrative.
Once again, players don some form-fitting armor as chain-smoking mercenary Solid Snake, this time known as Old Snake because he's aging rapidly due to some genetic tinkering.
Set in the year 2014, the world economy of Snake's bleak universe is now dependent on foreign armed conflicts more than ever. And that's just the beginning.
With a surge in private military contractors causing havoc around the world and nanotechnology being used mostly for evil, war has changed, and so has Snake.
Underneath all that gray hair, he's become bitter and disillusioned, but Old Snake still has a classic mission — his final mission — to complete: Stop his brother from taking over the world.
Snake's globe-trotting quest will find him battling savvy enemies such as nimble military factions and fierce cyborg female supersoldiers.
One of the game's most climactic sequences finds Snake on the back of a motorcycle blasting away at enemies along the streets of Eastern Europe. Of course, sneaky Snake has tons of technology to aid him along the way.
At a moment's notice, Snake's suit can blend in with any surface while his Solid Eye monocle can be used as radar, night vision or as binoculars.
The adorable Metal Gear Mark II robot allows Snake to scout ahead for trouble, jolt enemies from afar, communicate with his techie sidekick Otacon and procure new munitions from an illegal arms dealer named Drebin.
When Snake finds unused weapons on battlefields, they are automatically converted into money that can be used to upgrade, unlock and purchase other armaments.
The system is convenient and embellishments like silencers and grenade launchers can pack a noticeable punch, allowing players to become as much or as little of a gunsmith as they desire.
The game's highly detailed cutscenes are usually melodramatic, sometimes funny and always way too long.
With some lengthy interstitials lasting 30 minutes — and an epilogue that clocks in at nearly an hour — the footage, always a "Metal Gear Solid" staple, begs the question: Why didn't creator Hideo Kojima just make a movie this time around!?
Impatient players who skip over the computer-generated cinematics will have no idea — or at least will not appreciate — what's happening in later stages of the game.
Worst of all, newcomers are likely to find themselves completely lost in the wordy dialogue and plots folded in from previous "Metal Gear Solid" games.
Despite the bombastic narrative, make no mistake that the graphics and gameplay in "Metal Gear Solid 4" are flawless.
Harnessing Old Snake and his new gadgets in exotic locales in the Middle East and South America is utterly fun — something that the rest of "Metal Gear Solid 4" unfortunately lacks. Three out of four stars.