Worldwide release of the 4th and allegedly final installment of the venerable (and at times mystifyingly bizarre) “Metal Gear Solid” series is set for June 12. If there is ever to be a game release that can rival the likes of that green giant, Master Chief, Kojima’s mega opus MGS4 is it. From what little we actually know — aside from screenshots, video snippets, and interviews — the game certainly looks and sounds AAA. Indeed, like what MGS2 did for its predecessor, MGS4 stands to define the power and potential of the PlayStation 3 in the eyes of undecided consumers. Sony hopes MGS4 can also serve as THE game to finally convert reluctant PS2 gen holdouts (such as myself — though admittedly, it’s the school loans and lack of free time that’ll hold me back for at least another year or more — even these entries exist solely based on my unwavering passion for this industry and the spirited creativity it can stand for).

This, however, is a question worth some conversation. Sony seems to have made up its mind already — well, actually, it isn’t as if there is much of a selection from which the company can choose from. Outside MGS4, PS3’s next round of major hits aren’t due for awhile (Final Fantasy 13, GT5 – I mean the real sequel, Ratchet Future 2, to name a few). Unfortunately, the rest, while sounding awesome — GTA4, Soul Calibur 4, Resident Evil 5 — are platform agnostic, meaning they’ll probably be great games but not ones Sony can tout as distinguishing markers of its platform.

So this brings us back to MGS4 and Sony’s intention to make it the face of its console, at least for the Summer and quite possible for the rest of the year. There is the US bundle, and today word came that Sony would even release a limited edition silver bundle. While bundles have become commonplace, this is still somewhat of a big deal. Why? Well, when was the last time Sony bundled software with the PlayStation 2? Or even with the original PSOne? Sure, there were retailer bundles — but official Sony ones? If you’re having trouble remembering any, that’s because there were none. And that’s mostly because Sony didn’t have to. We all know who won those generations.

The story is very different today. In North America, the PS3 remains in third place, and the sight of number one is (if not already gone) fading fast. While the 360 has lost a lot of its momentum, the console’s headstart in building a viable online community remains a factor Sony hasn’t quite cracked on its platform. Whatever grand promises HOME still holds are also fizzling out as more and more demo-testers discover its limitations, bugs, and, well, mediocrity. May be, deep down, Phil Harrison knew that.

The story isn’t all doom and gloom. The future of the PS3 is promising but whether MGS4 can be a title that turns the charts around might be too much even for a beautifully rendered Solid Snake to handle. The Metal Gear series was undeniably at its peak during the PSOne years. The two-disc wonder grabbed the attention of gamers and Press alike as it merged together gameplay with a truly cinematic and compelling storyline. MGS2 — despite its sales — probably deflated the hype. With its borderline insane ending and “deep” dialogue, Kojima essentially took the series away from the casual gamer, deciding instead to stick with his hardcore devotees. Though I too scratched my head more than a couple times finishing MGS2, my respect for Kojima only grew with MGS2; artists sometimes do things people don’t understand; taking those risks without fear of commercial consequences takes guts — even if you’re Hideo Kojima.

MGS2 played a huge roll in helping the PS2 run away from the competition, but that success came at a cost. The attention to MGS2 brought out the critics, many of whom to which gaming was a casual affair — and most of them panned MGS2’s storyline. And they were right in some respect, piecing together roadkill might be easier than deciphering MGS2.

But nowhere has the impact of MGS2 been felt greater than on the series’ sales. Compared to MGS2 and the original PSOne release, MGS3 was — as Konami put it — “moderately successful.” In other words, the game never met sales expectations. It’s an unfortunate outcome, given MGS3’s storyline was almost entirely coherent. It was, I suppose, what consumers wanted in MGS2 but never got.

MGS3 still went on to sell millions, but only after a price cut and a visit to the clearance bin. There’s something almost unfitting about seeing a Kojima game sitting alongside Backyard Wrestling 2 for $9.99 at Best Buy. I think it says a couple things: One, MGS2 drove away a lot of people, and two, those people never really came back.

So what does all that mean? It means MGS4 — for all the attention Sony is giving it — may not be the system seller it believes it to be. And I won’t be at all surprised when MGS4 sells well, but ultimately, doesn’t drive new system sales. Sure, there will be a bump, but that bump probably won’t be anything to write home about. Factor in the reality that Metal Gear has always been more of a Western attraction (i.e the Japanese gamers frankly don’t care much about it) and you suddenly realize that the real potential for MGS4 to move systems is actually pretty average, if not low.

In other words, Sony is probably more likely to move systems by packing Sly, Jak, or Ratchet. Snake isn’t going to do much more than convert hardcores who waited. Yeah, those gamers who probably have a 360 sitting at home, too. Ultimately, bundling MGS4 — at best –will probably get Sony to finally get those hardcore players who complained about the PS3’s price tag and library. But that too is a tough sell — because the fact is the PS3’s library still isn’t much to Toyota! about.

So is that all MGS4 can do for the brand on which it was born? Probably. Expect some amazing sales figures but system sales probably will fall off real quick. In an economy like this one, outside of the hardcores, not many are going to jump on a $400+ console for one AAA game.

In a way, the end result of MGS4’s role on the PS3 will be much like the game’s protagonist. In a trailer, an aged Solid Snake says, “War has changed. Our time has ended. Our war is over.” At the time, some writers suggested this was a sly way for Sony to tell its competition it would reign supreme yet again. However, now several years later, after nightmare delays, laser shortages, the Wii, that phrase means something very different.

Kutaragi is gone. Nintendo is #1. Dante swings on the 360. And so does Rockstar and pretty much everyone else. MGS4 may ultimately serve to remind everyone that Sony’s time as king is over and that the traditional console war waged over the last few generations is no longer the same kind of war. Now it’s about digital downloads, online functionality, and casual gaming contraptions (Scene It anyone?). In that sense, Solid Snake’s adieu on the PS3 marks more of an end than a beginning, a way to say thanks, good-bye and good luck, though with an understanding that down the road, should Metal Gear ever emerge again on any console, it might well be on more than just the one bearing the Sony logo. **