TOKYO--You may have heard of Metal Gear Solid 4 by now. It's one of the PlayStation 3's most important exclusive games in the race for next-generation dominance. It is also creator/director Hideo Kojima's purported last outing with his seminal stealth series. And it's playable here at the Tokyo Game Show. We were lucky enough to sit down with illustrious Kojima Productions producer Ryan Payton for an all-too-brief 90 minutes with the game, during which we found that many familiar mechanics have changed. But the heart of Metal Gear Solid is definitely still beating here.
First, it's worth pointing out that the demo of the game we played is essentially the same one Kojima Productions began demonstrating publicly back in July. So if you haven't seen that video yet, take a look to see everything we're talking about here. Luckily, Payton contextualized the action we played in the demo and filled us in on the initial story of the game. As it turns out, that gameplay demo is set only about 15 minutes into Metal Gear Solid 4, so you'll basically watch the intro sequence and play a very brief section. Then you'll end up right in that dusty village setting that we've seen so much of during the past two years. Payton confirmed during our demo that this Middle Eastern area is just one of the locales you'll visit throughout the course of the game. Just because that's all we've seen of MGS4 so far, don't think the entire game--or even the majority of it--takes place there. Payton let slip that you'll also travel to South America later in the game, among other places.
Before we jumped into the demo, we stepped back and got the scoop on the storyline at the outset of MGS4. The game will begin with Col. Campbell contacting Solid Snake to deliver the disturbing intelligence that Liquid Snake is alive and running Outer Heaven. This is a dummy corporation that oversees and controls private military companies all over the world. The PMCs will essentially act as Liquid's private army throughout the game, so they'll be the on-the-ground enemy forces you'll be fighting against. The PMCs will also vary between areas. For instance, the company in the Middle East was called Praying Mantis, but the one in South America will have a different name and appearance.
Further intelligence indicates that Liquid is currently operating in the Middle East, so Campbell essentially hires Snake to travel there to perform a contract hit on Liquid and put an end to his machinations. It's important to note that the villain we're talking about here is actually Liquid Ocelot--Revolver Ocelot's body with Liquid Snake's attached arm and consciousness. So the bad guy will look like Ocelot, but there's nothing of Ocelot left in there: The personality is 100 percent Liquid Snake. However, you'll hear Ocelot's voice actor delivering the English voice-over in the forthcoming TGS trailer and in the final game, so no more Cam Clarke here (sorry Ninja Turtles fans).
At any rate, Snake's first objective on the ground in the Middle East was to meet up with a group of informants that have been tracking Liquid's movements, which we found out through a dialogue scene with longstanding support character Otacon via codec transmission. The codec interface has come a long way since the minimal, 2D talking heads in the first MGS. Now, it's been overhauled to show a video window of the speaker that takes up a much larger portion of the screen (though you don't see Snake during codec scenes anymore). Otacon was sitting in a fully 3D-modeled room that we could move the camera around in a limited fashion, so you'll get some visual context on where your codec buddies are physically located every time you talk to them. Another nice feature is that you can fast-forward by hitting the triangle button--complete with superfast dialogue delivery and sped-up animation. Then you can let off the button to let the conversation resume with full spoken dialogue. Payton confirmed that the lips will be synced to the audio in MGS4 rather than tuned by hand, so the lip sync should be much more believable in the English and other localized versions of the game.
To find the informants, we had to move down a length of streets and nearly demolished houses to reach the rendezvous point. You can watch that gameplay demo from July to essentially track our progress through the area, although like much of the game, this section had more than one path. For instance, in the starting area, we could move down the street itself on the left, but that route was blocked by a number of Praying Mantis soldiers and a large armored vehicle with a top-mounted gun turret (which Payton said will replace the security cameras of previous games). So we chose to break to the right to cut through some ruined buildings, which afforded us a number of crawlspaces and blast holes. In these areas, we could slink through and avoid most of the soldiers in the area.
So how does the game play? As mentioned, it's different yet the same, in that the actions you perform--things like taking cover and pulling close-quarters combat moves on unsuspecting soldiers--are still in here. But the control methods you use to perform them are different and largely streamlined over past games. The "action" interface--that is, anything you make Snake do that isn't combat-related--is now assigned solely to the triangle button. That ranges from climbing up ladders and vaulting over low barriers to simply walking up to a wall and taking cover against it (which you used to do by running Snake headfirst into the wall). Anytime there's an available contextual action, you'll get a small icon at the bottom indicating what you can do by hitting the triangle button. We saw one exception to this rule when Snake climbed into a garbage container, which puts you into first-person view: You'll have to flick the Sixaxis upward forcefully to push the lid open and climb back out.
Crouching is less awkward than it used to be, as well. Previously, you had to tap the X button multiple times--first to crouch and then to go prone--which as often as not made you end up in a position other than the one you wanted. Now you can hit X once to drop to a crouch or hold X to go straight to prone, which ought to eliminate the confusion. Better, you can now move around in the crouch position, instead of dropping to a crawl as soon as you started moving forward. This will make Snake less visible and make less noise as you move around. It didn't seem like he moved much more slowly than in a full running position, so this will probably be the default stance for many players as they move around the game.
From what we could tell, the biggest changes to MGS4's gameplay are in the shooting controls, which have never been the strongest point in the MGS series. The game uses a low third-person camera like the one first seen in MGS3: Subsistence, so it's already more like a third-person shooter than the previous, predominantly stealth-oriented outings. Furthermore, you'll have an auto-aim setting that you can turn on, which will essentially lock your aim to the enemy most directly in Snake's line of sight. (You'll see a small hovering icon indicating which enemy you're locked on to.) Then you'll hold L1 to engage the lock so that you can fire at and strafe around that enemy while you're running around.
More-skilled players will be able to toggle the auto-aim with a tap of the square button, which makes Snake unable to fire from the hip. Why would you want to do that? Because with auto-aim off, holding L1 will bring the camera down to a Gears of War-style over-the-shoulder firing mode that lets you aim precisely for headshots and the like. You can also switch which of Snake's shoulders you're looking over, depending on the surrounding cover. You lose the advantage of being able to kill enemies on the run with the auto-aim turned off, but we found the manual-aim mode let us kill enemies much more quickly by aiming for the head. You'll also get quite a satisfying rag doll effect when you take troops down this way; they look like they go down hard with the impact of your bullets.
That's when you actually want to shoot at your foes, anyway. It will still behoove you to remain hidden and neutralize your enemies silently--or it wouldn't be a Metal Gear game. We gained a better understanding of Metal Gear's new threat warning indicators as we played. Kojima Productions has done away with the alert levels in previous games; now, the intensity with which enemies are searching for you will primarily be indicated by contextual means, such as the background music. You'll also have a translucent ring around Snake that will act as a combination of the old radar and alert indicator. The ring will be still when you're not in danger at all, but it will become rippled and turn red when enemies are gunning for you. Each ripple will point in the direction of a nearby enemy, and the size of the ripple will indicate how close they are to you. Payton said this change was made to keep your eyes focused directly on the action, rather than making you stare at a small radar map in the corner of the screen to avoid pursuit.
There will be more battlefield influences on Snake for you to contend with in MGS4, though we only got the bare overview of them in our demo (Payton said the team doesn't want to give too much away about these mechanics yet). Directly underneath the health bar is your psych meter, which is broken into four segments. Your psych meter will diminish in extreme heat or other adverse weather conditions (temperature, weather, and wind direction are indicated in the map screen). It can even go down due to the stench when you climb into a dumpster. To raise your psych once it's gone down...why, you whip out your favorite nudie magazine, of course. This process is surprisingly involved. You'll bring the magazine up in first-person view to see the lovely, mostly bikini-clad ladies within, and each new picture will rapidly replenish your psych for a few seconds. The rub (ahem) is Snake will quickly tire of each picture, so you'll have to keep flipping through the issue to keep getting psych back. We're sure committed players (cough) will make a point of recovering all the magazines in the game. Alas, Payton didn't talk much about what psych will influence, other than to say that Snake can pass out when the meter is fully depleted.
Then there's the stress indicator, which is expressed as a percentage underneath the psych bar. This one is influenced more directly by battle conditions. When you're safely hidden in the shadows, it will sit at zero. When you're being pursued, it may go up a few points. When you're running down a street in a hail of gunfire with bombs exploding around you, your stress level will soar. It's at these times that you'll achieve a sort of "combat high," which will increase your firing accuracy and halve the damage you take from enemies. This boon only lasts for about 15 seconds, though, after which you'll crash from the high. Then your accuracy and such will actually go down. It's not clear yet whether you'll be able to control the use of this effect, or whether it will simply kick in when the conditions are right.
Close-quarters combat has also been enhanced for MGS4. You'll be able to do a basic melee move when you get up close to an enemy, and you have a two-handed weapon--like a rifle--equipped, but you'll get the best close-quarters combat moves when you're using a pistol or the new stun knife. As before, you can throw an enemy or cut his throat after you grapple with him, but there will be more complex moves available for advanced players. We pulled off a fairly difficult submission hold move of sorts that required us to first grapple, then crouch, then let off the hold button briefly, flick the analog stick to the side, and then press the hold button again. This forced the enemy onto the ground, where Snake quickly rendered him unconscious. It seems these advanced moves will be most useful for neutralizing enemies quickly and in a nonlethal way.
Sure, Metal Gear is all about sneaking, but some sections of MGS4 will actually encourage you to go nuts with all the those military toys you find in a Metal Gear Solid game. Payton referred to these sections as "warfare" levels, where you won't even have to worry about stealth; you'll just run straight into the fray and let loose with all your weapons. In the demo, we had access to a number of rifles, submachine guns, shotguns, pistols, sniper rifles (which you can now fire from the hip, rather than being locked into the scope view), and even the antitank javelin weapon, which we used to obliterate a couple of those turret-equipped armored vehicles.
It's in these warfare sections that you'll best be able to prove your mettle to the local militia fighting against Liquid's PMCs. To win their trust, you'll simply have to avoid killing them and focus on killing the PMC soldiers. You can also approach militiamen and use the triangle button to hand them healing items, such as rations. They'll verbally thank you and otherwise indicate that they're impressed with your help. Afterward, they'll refrain from attacking you and simply help you fight against Liquid's soldiers instead.
When you're fighting through the all-out warfare areas, you'll get to rely on the most diverse array of weaponry yet in a Metal Gear game. This is because you can now modify your weapons extensively as you acquire new gear for them. Each weapon will have multiple mount points, and you can attach new equipment to those points. In the example we saw, the M4 rifle had a top mount where we could stick a scope and a bottom mount that would accept a flashlight, grenade launcher, or several other pieces of gear. Almost every weapon will now have an alternate fire mode in the game, which is also how you'll use that interesting stun knife we mentioned earlier. Primarily, you'll slash with it, but it also has a taser integrated, so you can zap an enemy with the alt-fire instead if you want.
We also received a couple of entertaining toys from Otacon toward the end of the demo. The Metal Gear Mark II can be seen in the gameplay demo video, which you can use for battlefield recon and to zap unsuspecting enemies with its included taser weapon. The Mk. II can only go so far before it loses signal, though, and enemies can still take it out if they see it. We also got the "solid eye" eyepiece, which gives you a tactical battlefield readout that identifies other soldiers as either militia or PMC members, as well as shows you the location of weapons you can pick up in the field. The solid eye will also offer a zoom mode like the old scope, which will let you read this information from a distance, and an infrared mode that shows you highlighted human beings, as well as important battlefield features, set against a background of green video noise.
At the end of the demo, we finally reached the rendezvous point to find none other than redheaded Meryl Silverburgh and her new unit, Rat Patrol. This group is apparently a UN-sanctioned strike force tasked with keeping tabs on Liquid Ocelot's movements around the world. Meryl's Rat Patrol unit consists of the two burly characters (one bald, one with a Mohawk) that you can see in the latest trailer, as well as Johnny, the inept soldier with the weak stomach who's been showing up throughout the Metal Gear Solid series as comic relief. Too bad the demo ended there because we're really curious now to see where the story is going.
Finally, it's worth mentioning that we played MGS4 with the just-announced-this-morning Dual Shock 3, Sony's vibration-equipped PS3 controller. The thing looks just like the Sixaxis and from what we could tell, it weighs about the same as the old PlayStation 2 version of the Dual Shock. The rumble effects in the demo were also appropriate for the combat and traversal actions we were taking. There's really not much of a story here--it's just traditional force feedback that works like you'd expect--but we're glad all the same that Sony was able to integrate it into the PS3's controls before MGS4 ships because this is the sort of game that would really benefit from the inclusion of force feedback.
Frankly, an hour and a half felt like far too short a time with a demo we probably could have spent all day mining for details. There are even more mechanics at work in MGS4 that bear description. For instance, we learned that you'll be able to save patterns that you've acquired for Snake's octo-camouflage suit for later use in the game. We'll just have to wait until Konami opts to show more of the game to the press. Or if we're really unlucky, we'll have to wait until it ships to retail before we can report more of the new gameplay, as well as story details, that Kojima and its 200-strong team have poured into Metal Gear Solid 4.