After years of playing "Metal Gear" games, I thought I knew the drill: Infiltrate the base, rescue someone, destroy "Metal Gear" and fight the last boss. This time-tested approach has won the hearts of gamers and earned "Metal Gear Solid" a spot on the industry's short list of premier franchises.

But for a game as ambitious and groundbreaking as the new "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots," sticking to the formula simply isn't good enough.

As the crowning achievement of the series' 20-year history, Hideo Kojima's final "Metal Gear Solid" title might not be what you expect, but it is everything you could hope for in a video game.

"MGS4" plays like the kind of game you always knew "Metal Gear" could be. The reinvented control scheme is the best thing that has happened to the series, giving combat a visceral and intuitive edge. Codec interactions are drastically reduced, which puts the focus on the stunning events happening right in front of you. Similar to games such as "Call of Duty 4" and "BioShock," "MGS4" makes excellent use of scripted events during game play, such as a rebel's execution or a robot crashing through a building. I doubt you'll even see them all in a single play-through.

This series has always showcased amazing depth, but "MGS4" accommodates a breed of player choices unlike anything I have ever seen, providing you with the tools to overcome obstacles in any way you choose. Many titles claim to have this feature, but its implementation in "MGS4" is truly remarkable. There is no longer just "stealth" or "not stealth" -- you devise your own solutions.

How do you bypass a robot blocking your path? How do you fend off a never-ending attack by a private army? The answers might seem obvious at the time, but when your friends tell you how they approached the situations differently, you realize the scope of the freedom the game provides.

This freedom even transfers over to the bigger fights. The Beauty and the Beast unit -- gorgeous women traumatized by atrocities of war -- is the most compelling and haunting collection of foes that the hero, Snake, has ever faced. Because you have more choice in how and when you acquire most guns, clashes with these disturbing women don't feel designed around particular weapons (with one awesome exception). They encourage you to experiment with your guns and your surroundings, leading to harrowing confrontations that leave your knuckles white.

If you're looking for faults, the only substantial ones involve what isn't there. There are a few missed opportunities where movie scenes could have been replaced with playable sequences, giving you more control over pivotal story points. But when a game already features an abundance of jaw-dropping moments, complaining about not having a few more feels petty.

Leveling criticism at the multiplayer mode is equally pointless, because the inclusion of the "Metal Gear Online" starter pack is really more of a bonus. The core component of "MGS4" is the 20-plus hours of single-player action polished to radiance.

As a longtime fan of the series, I'd love to discuss many plot revelations in detail, but any information is too much when it comes to the mind-blowing culmination of events. I'll just say I'm beyond satisfied and leave it at that.

Where the "Metal Gear" franchise goes from here is a mystery. Whatever happens, make no mistake: The story of Solid Snake ends here. With the series' last breath, Kojima's defining opus does more than just surpass the previous "Metal Gear" titles -- it creates a landmark gaming experience that continually astounds with its variety, depth and intelligence.

"Metal Gear Solid 4" is a masterpiece.