Like the rest of the game, the story is full of so many nuances and subtleties that it'll take a good two or three full run-throughs to appreciate them all, and even then, you'll miss some references unless you've got a doctorate in Snake studies. Needless to say, after the Cold War diversion taken by MGS3 to give us the singular, more focused story behind Big Boss' fall from grace, MGS4's sweep is enormous, as it strives to complete the numerous threads thrown up by previous games. The result is a story arc potted and more piecemeal than MGS3's, more similar to the storyline in MGS2.
As you would expect, you'll spend a lot of time watching cutscenes, so if you found previous games' story exposition laborious, then you'd better find yourself a nice cushion and plenty of teabags in readiness for MGS4's. They can be skipped, but you'd be missing out on some of the most finely crafted examples of FMV footage anywhere in gaming.
Putting aside the fact you'd be missing out on all that plot, to skip through the cutscenes would be to lose a massive chunk of MGS4's iconic character. If you are a fan of Metal Gear, then you are generally inherently appreciative of its cutscenes; a good deal of Metal Gear's knowing humour is contained therein for starters.
And while Kojima has most definitely been at times self-indulgent, dwelling perhaps too long on one or two more minor aspects, the general effect is damned impressive. I only wish some of them could have been more interactive (see the Secret Art Stash panel).
Despite its significance, MGS4's story still very definitely plays second fiddle to its gameplay. This is no 'interactive movie', more a highly watchable game. Yet, much like the plot, it's initially bewildering, offering you a wide-ranging toolset to get the job done, however you see fit. It's so big that much of it can remain unused for the entire game.
Other games would instantly render much of its arsenal and inventory redundant by including so much - not so MGS4. There is so much variety that, allied to everything else that's so accomplished in the game, you'll be itching to start a brand new game as soon as the final credits have stopped rolling to try a different tack.
The initial MGS masterstroke is the stunning segueing of chaotic, shock-and-awe cutscene into chaotic, shock-and-awe gameplay. Here the full glory of MGS4's technical mastery is concentrated into those first few seconds of complete and utter disorientation.
You can hear the sound of multiple assault rifles cutting loose off to one side and the hum of hovering attack choppers off to another. You, in middle, are caught in a vortex of dust, debris, zinging lead and screams. More effective than that though, is the split-second of horror that descends as you realise that it's not a
cutscene; you've been dropped right into the action. You've got to do something.
And the first thing I did? Dropped to ground faster than Didier Drogba felled by sniper. Just for a second, to take in the dirtied-up visuals, slightly green in tint, and the overwhelming Dolby 5.1 surround soundtrack telling me that a gaggle of deadly Gekko were busily, noisily, crushing a band of militia in the streets to my right.
The second clever touch is the subtler-than-it-looks tutorial, which gives you the basics for survival without going so far as to mollycoddle you. There is so much going on and so much to take in from your own inventory that you can't escape the feeling that you're missing something, that you're blundering through that opening segment. You're left to figure it out for yourself for the most part, and one of the sweet things about this is knowing that that section will be much cooler to play through again, when you know how to get the most out of the game.