Metal Gear Solid is gaming's greatest contradiction: Each episode wraps superbly disciplined gameplay in the medium's most indulgent storyline. Creator and director Hideo Kojima engenders a bizarre disconnect between narrative cinematics and actual gameplay—levels can feel like mere bridges between operatic story arcs. Strip away the dross, however, and the stealth-based game within is as compelling as the very best the medium has to offer.

Consider the story almost a total teardown. In the fourth and (presumably) final chapter, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots, Solid Snake has to defeat human war machines and thwart the biggest global military conspiracy William Gibson never dreamed of. Embedded are ruminations on self-sustaining war economies, privatized military forces, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But pesky contradictions persist. A conversation will detail the painfully damaged history of a defeated female boss, but only after we check out her tits. At length. Thankfully, the many hours of storytelling can all be skipped to get to the playable game.

In the past, Snake's movement and interactions could feel stilted. Guns Of The Patriots feels slightly less artificial, thanks to better hand-to-hand combat and an improved (though still optional) first-person camera. Stealth remains the dominant tactic, abetted by beautiful adaptive camouflage and a goofy remote-controlled robot, but customizable weapons encourage experimentation with run-and-gun action. Indulge in gunplay or fight in ugly conditions, and Snake's stress level might rocket, leading to missed shots and brief physical breakdowns. It isn't a great combat-fatigue model, but it's a good start. Just don't look forward to groundbreaking boss fights. One final fight aside, these are fairly routine encounters, entertaining but easily beaten.

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Beyond the game: The backstory is almost impenetrably dense. This chapter tries to recount, revise, and clarify past events, but the parade of code names may only confuse players with less-than-encyclopedic knowledge of the storyline.

Worth playing for: The many viable paths through each level. Your first playthrough serves as an introduction, after which earned weapons, special items, and tougher AI merit further exploration. It's possible to complete the game in less than five hours, but doing so without notching a kill, alerting an enemy, or using a recovery item is one of 2008's most difficult game challenges.

Frustration sets in when: You end up hooked on the weirdest story aspects, fourth-wall breaks, and gaming meta-gags, but must endure dozens of overwrought conversations to see them all.

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Final judgment: Hours of concentrated narrative abuse can't obscure or dilute the detailed game within.