(PlayStation 2 Review) Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater

Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami
Genre: Stealth / Action
Players: 1
ESRB: Mature
Reviewer: Matt Warner

Overall: 10 = Classic

I was about halfway through Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and I’d just wrapped up one of the game’s most intense boss battles. I was elated, and also a little tired and looking to save the game and get some sleep, but I figured I’d press on just a little longer to see what I was going to be playing through tomorrow. So, I forged ahead through the dense foliage until I found my way into the next area, which was a small cave in the side of the cliff. Inside the cave was a long iron ladder leading upwards though a vertical concrete pipeline into the mountains.

I won’t ruin what happens next, but it made me grin, as I’m sure it will do to anyone who plays the game and reaches that point, exhausted and probably injured, but too enraptured to call it quits just yet. When you get there, remember: it’s just Hideo Kojima having a little fun with you is all, so keep climbing and enjoy it. He, being the mastermind behind the recent three games in the Metal Gear Solid series, has quickly become a legend in many gaming circles. An avid film aficionado, he was one of the first people to attempt to blur the lines between what you could do in a game and what you could do in a movie. Better still, he actually made it work.

The PS1 Metal Gear Solid is generally regarded as the best game available for the console. It combined a tight, modern-day script revolving initially around a terrorist nuclear threat with some truly bizarre “game-only” elements, like boss characters with borderline-magical abilities and a robotic ninja who would show up periodically to wreak havoc. As crazy as it sounds, it all came together just right and managed a perfect blend of serious and silly. You took the plot seriously, but you could still have fun within it. It helped that Kojima and his team threw the rulebook straight out the window. They used only in-game graphics for all the cinemas (of which there were many) so as to keep a constant feel for the entire experience. No sudden jumps to high-resolution CGI imagery, only to be plopped back into the chunky polygons of the actual game—everything was done with the same engine, nonexistent facial features on the characters be damned. They were also unafraid to do something quite novel at the time and shell out the money to hire truly talented English voice actors who took the material seriously, delivering Engrish-y names like “Decoy Octopus” with as much straight-faced intensity as they could. Because the characters took the game seriously, so too did the players, bringing the suspension of disbelief far higher than the fairly rudimentary graphics of the PS1 would have normally allowed.

Probably the most significant thing introduced by Kojima and his team was the idea of breaking the Fourth Wall of the television screen, if just a little. In-game characters would give the protagonist, Solid Snake (and by extension, the player) instructions like “Press the action button to climb a ladder,” or even more outlandish requests like “Hold the controller up against your arm.” Many people’s fondest memory of the game is when boss Psycho Mantis reads the savegames on your PS1’s memory card and reports them back, in character. Lines like “You like Castlevania, don’t you?” dropped jaws all over the country and have stayed in people’s memories for years. Brave stuff, made even better because the game never once broke character.

Then came Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, the PS2 sequel. Pretty much everything that worked in the first game was re-applied here and cranked up to 11, including the already dangerously teetering story elements. While MGS1 had just the right amount of craziness mixed in to keep things fun, MGS2 botched the formula pretty bad. The end result was a game that, while a technical marvel, was so thoroughly mired in its own whack-job plot that the suspension of disbelief was completely shattered by the final third of the game.

To give you an idea if you didn’t see it for yourself: the game ended with a Virtual-Reality-trained supersoldier named Raiden fighting a genetically created-but-real-life-trained supersoldier named Solidus (who was also a former president of the United States) with ninja swords, on top of a massive submersible doomsday machine as it crashed into downtown Manhattan. All of this, coincidentally, was engineered by the dead minds of 12 dead “philosophers” (who had somehow continued to live on in the primordial soup of telecommunications that exist beneath the White House) as a means of re-enacting the events from the previous game for vague reasons I won’t get into here. Also, all of it may very well have been a dream. Or a VR mission. Or both.

Yeah.

Some people loved it. A lot more people hated it. Some of those who hated it at first later reversed their stance and tried to defend it, but the general consensus was that Mr. Kojima had seriously lost his marbles at some point in development, and that MGS1 had been a fluke, never to be repeated.

That might explain the semi-lukewarm reception the third game initially received when it was announced. Although it was dutifully covered by the mainstream press, there was nothing of the hysterics that had met with the announcement of the second game. Everyone just kind of went “Hmm, another Metal Gear game, eh? Is it going to be all crazy like the last one?”

Well, guess what? Not only is Snake Eater easily the most mentally stable installment of the entire trilogy, it’s also the most polished, the most technically competent, and the most sure of itself—and coming from a line of games that redefined almost all of those terms, that’s saying something. There are no hiccups, no flies in the ointment, not a single damn blemish on the entire thing. It’s raw craft from opening cinematic to credit roll, and there isn’t a dull moment in-between. To put it simply, this is the game we’ve all been waiting for.

This is the big one.

I’m not sure what happened over at Konami. Maybe Mr. Kojima just needed a breather or something, but whatever it was, I’m glad he got it, because this game is the Metal Gear I’ve always wanted to play.

Perhaps it’s the change of setting that brought the series back to its core elements. Snake Eater takes us to the thick jungles of the Southeast USSR circa 1964, right in the middle of the Cold War. A full-on prequel to MGS1 and 2, Snake Eater‘s plot revolves around the defection of one of the top U.S. soldiers to Russia. The soldier, a mysterious blonde woman called simply “The Boss,” has uprooted from the States and taken herself, her personally trained strike force team (The Cobras), and a pair of stolen miniature nuclear warheads and allied herself with Colonel Volgin, a Russian commander looking to overthrow the current government of the Socialist Republic and install himself as the new leader.

Enter Snake, an ex-Green Beret special operative sent to infiltrate Volgin’s command center with two mission objectives: extract a key Russian scientists looking to defect to the U.S., and then terminate The Boss … his former commander.

If this all sounds very James-Bond-by-way-of-Tom-Clancy, it’s because it’s like that intentionally, something made quite clear early on. For all its stern bravado, Snake Eater is laugh-out-loud funny in places, and much of the time the jokes are at its own expense—a breath of fresh air after the mostly humorless Sons of Liberty.

As Snake makes his way through the jungle, we’re reintroduced to many of the same elements that have always been present in the Metal Gear games. Snake goes into his mission alone, but support is just a radio call away (this being 1964, the Codec communication system from the previous two games hasn’t been invented yet). Movement and combat are standard-issue fare for the series, with a few notable additions. Close combat is far more advanced now, with Snake able to throw enemies to the ground, take them hostage, slit their throats silently, or even interrogate them for useful information. The Solitron Radar from the previous games has been dumbed down by forty years to become a personal sonar system (which enemies can hear if they’re close enough when you set it off) as well as the usual assortment of night and heat vision goggles, mine detectors, and other assorted spy gadgets.

The biggest gameplay changes come from the surroundings Snake is placed in. In keeping with the survivalist theme of the game, Snake must now constantly hunt for food to keep his energy level up. If he doesn’t eat, his wounds will recover more slowly and he’ll become sluggish. On top of that, his constantly grumbling stomach will alert nearby enemy troops to his presence, meaning it’s best to keep him fed. Injuries are now handled in a completely separate menu as well, where different treatments must be administered individually. Broken bone? You’ll need a splint and bandages, or you’ll be limping around and your life bar will never completely fill. Gunshot wound? Dig the bullet out with your knife. Leech? Burn it off with a cigar.

This might seem trivial—do we really need to open a separate menu up to treat specific injuries? Can’t the game just do it automatically if we have the supplies? Well, yeah, but that’s missing the point, which is to immerse the player as much as possible without making it a chore. Healing Snake doesn’t take very long and is hardly ever a real hindrance, but it provides those “Oh, crap!” moments when you realize you just broke a bone falling out of that tree and now you need to fix it.

Ditto for the food. One of the numerous running jokes in the game is Snake’s reaction to what he eats, and it gets to the point where you’ll feed him anything even remotely edible just to get his reaction to it. In a clever little twist, food will decay in real time, even when the console is off. So, those fish you shot out of the river four days ago might not be so fresh anymore when you finally go to eat them. But, don’t toss them out quite yet; rotten food, it turns out, is rather useful for taking down one of the bosses.

This is one of the best things about the series: it always seems like there’s something else to do that you haven’t tried yet, be it hiding in a cardboard box to have yourself shipped to other parts of the level, shooting birds out of the sky, whatever. Kojima and company are the masters of pointless-but-cool details strewn all over the place, and Snake Eater is rife with them. One of the best (and one that I didn’t figure out until my third time through the game) is that you can actually blow up the enemies’ supply depots. There are some subtle clues, of course. Dynamite is often provided right there for you, and if you interrogate some soldiers, they’ll often say things like “Food supply depot … to … to the Northeast …” but it didn’t dawn on me when I first got there to just drop dynamite on the floor and blow the whole shack to bits. Imagine my delight when soldiers could be heard muttering “I’m so hungry … I haven’t eaten in so long …” to themselves later in the level.

The other key aspect of the franchise has always been the boss battles. Snake Eater takes a little bit of a departure here, which some people will like more than others. The bosses in this game are all members of The Boss’ Cobra Unit. While each one has their own specific power as usual, there’s a relative lack of plot surrounding any of them. They’re just kind of there in the background much of the time up until you actually fight them, and they hardly play into the plot at all. You’re told a general reasoning behind their particular specialties, but it’s extremely vague, and the game never bothers to explain how or why these people can do what they do, even when it’s something as outlandish as being able to control swarms of hornets to do your bidding. This isn’t really detrimental to the plot; if anything, it saves time that would have normally been spent on a ton of individual back stories for people who aren’t really in the game very long before you kill them. It’s just a little weird, especially if you’ve played the first game, where the bosses’ personal histories were a major part of the conversations Snake has in the game.

This isn’t to say that the boss fights themselves aren’t memorable. While you may not get an earful from any of them, all the major boss characters will be more than happy to show their stuff in some incredibly clever fights that will test your wits and, in one instance, leave your nerves quite fried by the end of it.

In easily the most memorable fight (and, depending on how you look at it, the most dreaded for repeat playthroughs), you take on The End, a 100-year-old master sniper. The battle is spread out over three gigantic maps full of hills, trees, rivers, and hidey-holes while the two of you navigate around and try to find each other. It’s here that the game truly forces you to use the new camouflage system, where you can change Snake’s clothes to match the terrain and blend in to make yourself a harder target. If you’re not well hidden, you’ll be knifing sniper shots out of your backside for upwards of an hour while the old bastard runs around and taunts you before hiding himself somewhere and shooting you again. However, if you use his own tricks against him (stay low, move slowly, and stay as camouflaged as possible), you can turn the tables by actually sneaking behind him and holding him up with a gun against his back—a difficult but rewarding task that grants you his personal camouflage.

It’s satisfying stuff, to say the least.

Interestingly, however, you can get through the game using very little tact if you want, boss battles included. While Metal Gear has always been synonymous with “stealth gameplay,” it’s a little surprising that the stealth here is very much voluntary. If your idea of fun doesn’t include lying in wait for your prey in the tall grass with green facepaint smeared on, then don’t do it! This is the only game in the series where the brute force approach works just as well as stealth. The game even gives you a shotgun and numerous machine guns if that’s more your bag. You still get all the plot and all the other good stuff besides, and there’s no real penalty for going in like Rambo, though a high body count just might come back to bite you a little bit towards the end of the game, so be careful about going on any protracted kill-crazy rampages.

On that note, it’s also worth mentioning that this is far and away the most violent release in the series. There’s always been something a little mean spirited in some of the things the game allows you to do (like shoot unarmed guards in the knees and watch them try to limp away), but the gore factor is taken up a few notches here. Slit a soldier’s throat and you’re treated to a nasty sliced-meat sound effect and a ridiculous arterial fountain all over the place. Worse, this can be done to non-combatants, whom you run across fairly regularly. My girlfriend walked in on me “accidentally” slicing the throat of a scientist after interrogating him and got quite upset. To be fair, it’s an easy mistake to make. Enemies are grabbed and held using the circle button; press the button too hard, and you’ll trigger a throat-slitting, which means that until you get used to the sensitivity, you’re going to be hacking up a lot of necks even if you didn’t mean to—which makes for a lot of messy interrogation attempts.

This is offset a bit by virtue of the fact that the game never actually forces Snake to kill anyone. If there’s any scripted fighting that takes place, nobody will technically die by Snake’s hand. Even the bosses can be defeated using tranquilizer shots or other non-lethal methods, meaning it’s perfectly feasible, if tricky, to make it through the entire game without killing a single human being. I tested this my second time through, and while it’s tricky, it can be done without too much effort. Admittedly, it doesn’t sound all that exciting, but it’s an excellent way to make a repeat play that much more interesting for yourself, something the game will take note of after the end credits.

Also keep in mind that even if you go the pacifist route, the game is still extremely violent in spots, particularly in the final act where the brutality ramps up significantly once Colonel Volgin starts to play a bigger part in the story.

It helps that Volgin is a no-joke psychopath, and the sequences with him are often in stark contrast to the wink-n’-nod humor elsewhere. With a huge scar running down his face and the useful ability to generate massive amounts of electricity at will, it’s a safe bet that he got struck by lightning at some point and managed to keep a good amount of the charge from it. What keeps this from being silly is how deadly serious the game takes it; when he electrocutes someone, which happens often, the game goes to great lengths to make it look as painful as possible. People scream, bodies twitch, and stockings melt. Not coincidentally, he’s also the most memorable character in the entire game.

Running a close second for that title is returning series cast member Revolver Ocelot, last seen getting possessed by a severed hand in Sons of Liberty. He technically makes his “first” appearance here as a cocky young gunslinger in the service of Spetznaz, sort of the Russian secret police. Young Ocelot is the game’s huge tie-in to the two future installments, and much of the dialogue between him and Snake is loaded with pokes and jabs at the events that will follow forty years down the timeline. This is sort of the big payoff for fans of the series as a whole. Quite a bit is explained in the dialogue between these two, and more than once I was a little dumbstruck by just how well Ocelot’s lines had been written; there’s a ton of stuff he references, and much of it is quite subtle. If possible, I’d recommend a quick play through of MGS1 if you want to catch it all.

I’m not ruining anything by saying Ocelot lives to the end of the game. In fact, the game won’t let you kill him! Go ahead and try, it’s sort of funny. What does happen to Ocelot is that he gets his ass handed to him in nearly every encounter you have. He gets smacked sideways on no less than three separate occasions, but always shows up later down the line, which makes his tenacity throughout the game almost endearing. The guy just doesn’t give up. It’s also incredibly entertaining when you already know what’s going to happen and where he’s going to end up. Sadly, if you’ve never played the other two games, a vast majority of everything involving Ocelot will be completely lost on you.

Other than that, Snake Eater is good about being a self-contained game. Everyone else—The Boss, a cunning female spy named Eva, Colonel Volgin, and a pair of Scientists you meet down the road—are all new to the story, and their individual plots can be followed with no knowledge outside of that presented in the game itself. Even so, the plot of Snake Eater isn’t simple to follow, and anyone who doesn’t pay reasonably close attention will be hopelessly lost by the end. The key distinction is that for all the triple-crossing going on, the plot stays thankfully outside of the vague existentialist nonsense that bogged down Sons of Liberty. The Cold War setting is a perfect fit for this game, allowing for all kinds of political intrigue while neatly sidestepping the need to directly deal with the mired mess from the end of Sons.

Considering all the balls in the air at the same time plot wise, it’s impressive and ultimately gratifying that none are dropped. It all wraps up in the absolutely beautiful, bittersweet ending that ties up all major questions with a bow, but leaves just enough unanswered that you immediately want to play through the game again to see what you missed. And again. And probably again, because it’s just as fun the fourth time as it is the first. It really is that good.

On to the more technical aspects.

Back when the Sons of Liberty trailer hit the E3 floor a few years ago, people absolutely could not believe that what they were seeing were real-time graphics. It beat the stuffing out of high-end PC games at the time, and to this day, it still looks fantastic.

Snake Eater outdoes it handily.

I have a hard time believing this is a PS2 game, particularly running on one of the super-slim 7000 series consoles. It’s almost too ridiculous to reconcile the visual treat on the screen with this tiny little black box sitting there. This game would be a task for the Xbox to pull off, let alone the aging PS2.

If you look carefully, however, you can see how they did it. It’s not that Snake Eater is really any more taxing, graphically, than any other image-intensive PS2 game, it’s that Konami knows the hardware inside and out by now and have an extremely good idea of where to spend their processor resources for maximum effect. So, places that the player spends the most time looking at—people’s faces, key characters’ uniforms, special effects like fire and lightning—are given the lion’s share of the detail, while the incidental stuff is kept simple and utilitarian without looking ugly. It’s the exact same tactic Konami used in the incredible-looking Silent Hill 3, and it works even better here.

Even though it’s something of a smoke-and-mirrors effect, it still makes for a game that stands toe-to-toe with any current generation console title, and in many cases outdoes them handily, even the ones running on superior hardware. The humans here are infinitely more convincing than the stiff mannequins in Halo 2, and the lush environments are on par with those seen in Fable, though Snake Eater actually has less slowdown, amazingly enough.

It just goes to show that it’s not how much graphics power you have, it’s how you use it.

Ditto for the sound. We get the now-standard Dolby ProLogic II, and if you’ve got the right receiver, the game sounds wonderful indeed. Ambient jungle sounds make up a majority of the background noise, with the music only kicking in if Snake is spotted or is engaged in combat. Things like gunfire and explosions are given their proper amount of oomph, something used to fantastic effect in the fight with The End. When you turn a corner and he shoots you point blank in the face with that rifle of his, you will jump clean out of your skin, have no doubt.

The music is a little weird at first. The action movie title theme from Sons of Liberty is gone, and in its place is a sort of James Bond-style lounge song that sounds a bit out of place, but which you’ll grow to love by the end of the game.

The voice acting, of course, is generally flawless. David Hayter reprises his role as Snake, though it must be said that he’s adopted a pretty pronounced growl in this game. A word like “war” comes out as “warrrgh” when Snake says it. I’m not sure where that growl came from, but I wish he wouldn’t do it, or at the very least tone it down a bit because it gets a little out of hand in places and Snake winds up sounding more like Wolverine. Still, I’ll chalk it up to director’s prerogative; for all I know, Snake was always supposed to sound like that.

Everyone else chips in flawlessly. Volgin’s voice in particular has just the right amount of menace without getting too corny and comes away with the best performance in the game, despite a number of difficult lines. He sounds like the best Bond villain ever, only ten times more evil. It’s perfect.

Interestingly, the voice of boss character The Fear, generally regarded as the worst voice in the game, was provided by none other than Michael Bell, whom you might know better as Raziel from Soul Reaver, in addition to a whole mess of other roles. This sort of further cements my theory that a lot of the “bad” voices in the game are actually like that on purpose. Obviously, Mr. Bell knows what he’s doing, so for simplicity’s sake I’ll say it’s safe to assume that everyone in the English cast sounded exactly how they were supposed to.

And that’s pretty much that. It’s really, truly rare that I get to say this, but there isn’t a single solitary thing I’m disappointed with in Snake Eater. In fact, I’ll go one step further and say there isn’t a single thing I find to be merely satisfactory; this game is about as perfect as I’ve seen a game get. The one possible complaint I could see would be some gripes about the camera, which is done ostensibly in the Metal Gear Solid tradition of top-down, three-quarters view with an optional switch to first-person for aiming. This can cause some trouble to those unused to it because it makes it difficult to see what’s far in front of you at times as opposed to a behind-the-player camera such as the one seen in Splinter Cell. Thing is, this isn’t a hindrance. The entire game was designed with that camera in mind, and it in no way negatively affects the gameplay experience. It takes a little bit of getting used to, sure, and it may not be some people’s favorite camera setup ever, but it can’t be called a flaw if it was purposely designed that way from the get-go, can it?

If you need to, think of it as another little joke on the part of Mr. Kojima. Why stick with that kind of limiting camera angle when Snake can clearly see farther in front of him than you can?

Because it’s a game, of course.


Overall:
10/10
Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater is the best game available on the PlayStation 2, and it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played in my life. I can’t really think of a more ringing endorsement than that. If you’re already a fan of the series, then that endorsement applies tenfold. This is the game you’ve been waiting for, make sure you play it.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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