You gotta love a video game hero who swears he's not a hero and just wants to kick back, take in a cigarette and wait for the grave's warm embrace.
That describes Solid Snake, the protagonist in "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots," a stunning antiwar polemic that synthesizes political commentary with stealth action.
One of the year's most anticipated games, "MGS 4" is the supposed (although seriously doubtful) conclusion of Japanese game maker Hideo Kojima's landmark series that has spanned 21 years and several generations of consoles. The game's release is expected to propel sales of the PlayStation 3, giving the console enough momentum to race the better-selling Xbox 360 and Wii.
The game went on sale last week, but sales figures won't likely be announced until next month.
The story is overcomplicated but, in general: You have an aging warrior, afflicted with a condition that deteriorates his body at a pace that will leave him dead in a year, forced out of retirement to search out his twin brother, Liquid Ocelot, who fosters plans of world domination.
Voiced with seen-it-all fatalism by David Hayter, Solid Snake lumbers through his sneaking and shooting adventures with groaning reluctance, pausing every so often to rub his aching back. His nerves are frazzled and his mentality is unstable, gauged by onscreen meters. After harrowing firefights, you can call a counselor who can talk Snake back down. Fail to do so and your controls and aim get erratic.
In this brilliant spy game, war has been fully commoditized and is an industry that exists to propagate itself and enrich the string-pullers. Mercenaries sell their services to the highest bidders. In return, the contractors allow nanobots to be inserted in their blood. This technology controls their every move, sealing "loyalty." Their weapons are tied to IDs, so the weapons can't be used by the enemy. Of course, every system can be manipulated, and Snake finds an ally in a weapons dealer who unlocks firearms for him if Snake delivers munitions he finds on the battlefield.
The action unfolds not only as you complete missions but via lengthy interactive cinematics (some are longer than 30 minutes) that take you deeper into the tangled web.
"MGS 4" is a 25-hour movie in which you're an active participant, able to make choices that alter realities on the battlefield. For instance, you can befriend rebel soldiers battling PMCs who can help you find a safer way to your destination, or you can avoid contact with them entirely or try to lay waste to anyone in your path.
The narrative is as enthralling as any Hollywood epic, but the package weakens when you take your game online. The setup is a pain but seems to have the potential to grow with time. There's an agonizing sign-up that forces you to create two new sign-ons, and the somewhat lumbering speed doesn't lend itself to death-match shootouts. But the infrastructure seems designed to develop a sense of overall community and funnel players into clans.
The concept is interesting but doesn't quite jell with that of the solitary, burned-out warrior — fractured but still solid in the face of oblivion.
"Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots," available for the PlayStation 3, costs $60. The game is rated M and is suitable only for adults.