Today, Solid Snake accepts his most difficult mission ever.
The latest (and likely final) installment of Hideo Kojima's monumentally successful Metal Gear saga hits store shelves today in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. And series protagonist Solid Snake should finish the story arc he started on the 8-bit NES two decades ago.
But the true mission of MGS4 is shilling the slow-selling PlayStation 3, a challenge that not even Solid Snake may be able to complete.
It's Sony's hope that this penultimate installment will boost sales that saw a slight rise with Grand Theft Auto IV's release this spring but levelled after the PS3 version of the game was plagued with freeze-up issues. It was another gut punch for a system staggering from the three strikes of a high introduction price, late entry into the next-gen console market, and a weak catalog of games. Even the console's inclusion of Blu-Ray, which triumphed over HD-DVD, may not be enough to help.
"There are few software brands that directly move hardware units and, in our estimation, Metal Gear Solid is one of those brands," Scott Steinberg, vice president of product marketing for Sony Computer Entertainment of America, told the Wall Street Journal last week. "It's possibly the biggest exclusive for 2008."
Don't tell that to Microsoft, which is working with Epic for a November release of Gears of War 2, just in time for the holidays. Or Nintendo, which is enjoying such a comfortable sales lead with its family-friendly Wii that consoles are still in short supply, despite a dearth of good third-party support.
But the Metal Gear series is anything but shovelware. This PS3 exclusive is a culmination of 20 years of gaming that have shaped an entire medium, its stealth-based gameplay and cinematic presentation molding countless imitators since its first appearance on U.S. shores in 1988. The plot has evolved, reflecting both the headlines of the times and fears about the future.
These storylines have always used themes of personal loyalty, government black-bagging and the ever-encroaching shadow of technology on humanity. In every game, a character drones on in entertaining but often overwrought dialogue about ideologies. But Metal Gear differed from other adventure games in that the plot was the reason for the gameplay, not just a conceit for it.
With G4's X-Play spreading rumors of 90-minute cutscenes, the storyline is more central to the gameplay than any newfangled multiplayer ever could be. That may undercut Guns of the Patriots' status as a box-mover more than anything, despite Sony's and publisher Konami's insistence otherwise.
"It helps you to know who the characters are but, just for the layman picking up the game, you're going to get a great experience," Anthony Crouts, Konami's U.S. veep of marketing, told the Journal. "It's a different experience but still just as rewarding."
Somehow, if you don't understand that Liquid Snake's arm was grafted onto Revolver Ocelot's body, creating returning MGS4 villain Liquid Ocelot; or are curious why Meryl Silverburgh returns as the leader of FOXHOUND; or remember that Naked Snake became Big Boss; or chuckle that Snake (now called Old Snake) is still smoking those health-meter-draining cigarettes; it just seems like you won't be getting the same experience. Sony will be hard-pressed to prove any different to people on the fence about a PS3.
But Crouts is right: It should be a fun ride for the rest of us.