Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater Updated Impressions

Hideo Kojima sheds a bit more light on the next PlayStation 2 entry in the Metal Gear franchise.

Konami has been pretty quiet about Hideo Kojima's latest installment in the acclaimed Metal Gear Solid franchise on the PlayStation 2 since the title's eye-popping debut at last year's E3. Aside from a few mentions here and there in the Japanese press, there hasn't been much in the way of information on the eagerly anticipated game. However, during a recent event in San Francisco, Kojima offered more information about Snake Eater and personally demoed the game to a select few. This early look at the game shed some light on the promising new twist on Metal Gear Solid 3's stealth mechanics and several other aspects of its gameplay.

Has Snake really gone back to the 1960s, or is there some sort of funny business going on? We'll have to wait to find out.

Kojima's presentation opened with a quick rundown of the concept behind the newest Metal Gear--"stealth" and "survival" are this year's buzz words--and touched on the three themes Kojima would be focusing on: the game's new era, gameplay, and setting. The new era, which has been highlighted in the trailers shown for the game, is the 1960s. While Kojima was vague about exactly how the main character (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Solid Snake) winds up in the '60s, he did note that Snake wouldn't make use of a time machine. The absence of any far-fetched temporal devices leaves a few other narrative options open, such as a Star Trek-like anomaly à la Onimusha 3 or maybe some spicy food before bedtime (provided the game is one big dream sequence), but time will tell as more information is revealed.

Kojima's next topic of discussion was the new gameplay that has been referred to in materials for the upcoming title. The first component of the new system covered was camouflage, which plays a major part in the game. One of the goals for the development team is to maximize the tension players will feel as they try to infiltrate enemy territory. This has resulted in a new twist to MGS's famous stealth mechanics with the inclusion of a "deep camouflage" system. The system, which is currently being refined as development on the game progresses, will require you to blend in with your environments in a number of ways.

You can keep from being seen by using your clothing, your environment, your posture, and even face paint. A camouflage index, shown in the upper right corner of the screen, will display a percentage that reflects your current visibility state and an indicator showing what you're currently wearing. The higher the percentage, the less likely you are to be seen by an enemy. Proximity factors into your being seen, though, so even if you're virtually invisible, an enemy may sense that something looks wrong and start poking around.

While the camo system is somewhat similar to the meter used in Splinter Cell to let you know how visible you are, Snake Eater's system is more complex. The index percentage is affected on the fly by several factors that you'll have to manage as you play the game. The four major components that appear to affect your index are Snake's camo pattern, his posture, his location in the environment, and the face paint he's wearing. The camo pattern system seems to be laid out pretty logically. As you go through the game you'll need to make sure Snake's camo pattern matches his surroundings so he can blend in. For example, you'll want to don a tree bark pattern when slinking around in the woods or a grass pattern when skulking around grassy areas.

Olive drab, no paint.
Tree bark camo, woodland paint.
Fire camo, no paint.
Black camo, black paint.

You'll have to be pretty quick on your feet as you go through the different environments, since your surroundings change pretty quickly and will require you to adjust your camo (which you can do freely at any time) accordingly. While Kojima showed off seven camo patterns you could use in the game, he stated there would be many more to choose from. In addition to the straightforward stuff like tree bark and grass patterns, you can expect to find a diverse range of other camouflage including fire and snow patterns and several varieties of leaf patterns. There does appear to be a catch to the system, however. It sounds as if you won't have access to the full selection of camo when you start the game.

Although choosing the right camo pattern is a good start toward not being seen, it's just one piece of the puzzle. Snake's posture will have a significant effect on the camo index, based on how you stand and move around. Kojima showed off a demo of the game to illustrate the ways that Snake's posture affected the index. The sequence started with Snake standing in grass, wearing an olive drab camo pattern with a camo index of 45 percent. Snake then went through several different actions that affected the percentage. Crouching raised the percentage to 65 percent, while lying down boosted it to 80 percent. Normal walking dropped the percentage down to 20 percent, and running moved it to negative 5 percent. A new move called stalking (which is essentially a way to move quietly) boosted the percentage back up to 45 percent. The catch to stalking is that it causes Snake's new stamina meter to run down. Kojima wouldn't elaborate on what effects the stamina meter will have, other than to say that you'll lose stamina as you engage in physical activities such as walking or climbing around mountains (or even taking your shirt off in poor weather), and you'll have to feed yourself to regain lost stamina. The system will be elaborated on at this year's E3.

The next element to affect your camo index is your location. As you'd expect, you'll rarely want to take a leisurely stroll out in the open in Snake Eater--unless you want to become intimately familiar with death, that is. The game's varied environments offer ample cover, if you choose to exploit it with careful positioning and use of camo patterns. Even if your camo pattern is reasonably high, you'll still be spotted if you're standing in the middle of a path in the forest or a cave. Your camo index merely reflects how likely it is that you'll be recognized by your enemies; it doesn't guarantee absolute safety. As a result you'll want to use every scrap of cover to your advantage. Even patches of dark earth are useful if you're wearing the right combination of camo and are lying down.

MGS3's stealth mechanics have been radically changed from previous games and now focus on camouflage.

The final component to your stealth index is face paint. No matter how perfectly attuned your attire is to your surroundings, the highest your camo index will normally go is 95 percent. The final five percent is gained by using face paint. You'll find a good range of variations in paint, similar to the camo you'll use in the game. If you manage to get the right combo of camo pattern, posture, location, and paint, your index will head up to 100 percent. While this isn't a guarantee of safety, it does ensure that you'll be virtually undetectable by your foes.

Note that we said "virtually." While it will no doubt be satisfying to hang out in a location as enemies slowly creep around looking for any sign of you, you shouldn't get cocky. Your foes may not be able to see you, but you do take up space and can be stepped on if you're on the ground or bumped into if you're against a tree at an awkward angle, which will certainly blow your cover. The third element Kojima touched on was the environments in the game, which are far more organic and varied than the previous entries in the series. The jungles and caves seen in the trailers for MGS3 are just some of the locales you'll be sneaking your way through. Over the course of the demo, Kojima mentioned a few other environments in passing, such as snowy locales, mountainous regions, and arid, desertlike areas. An interesting note about the environments is that while the game will encourage you to view your surroundings in terms of where to conceal yourself, you'll also have to take into account the fact that the areas are populated by more than just human foes. There are unique ecosystems in the game populated by birds, frogs, alligators, and snakes (which may be a problem if you run into the poisonous variety) that you can kill and eat. In addition, you'll find edible mushrooms, which ('60s setting notwithstanding) will probably not induce any psychedelic episodes as you play. The way that eating animals affects Snake will also be revealed at E3.

Though we've seen only jungle environments so far, Snake will also travel to snowy, arid, and mountainous regions.

Following the formal demo, Kojima revealed a few more tidbits on the game during a Q&A session. Snake Eater will support the PlayStation 2's network adapter by allowing players to download new camo patterns into the game. Kojima also revealed that Konami will be running a contest, currently scheduled to happen in the May-to-July time frame, which will encourage fans to submit their own designs for inclusion into the game. Kojima showed off a sample camo done by a member of the team that incorporated a popular duck mascot onto Snake's outfit, which managed to be both cool and disturbing. Another sample showed off the Konami logo emblazoned on Snake's shirt. The contest submissions will be judged by three criteria: their effectiveness in the game, their design (regardless of how effective they are in the game's context), and their sense of humor.

The camo index indicator seen in the demos, which sits in the upper right corner where the traditional MGS radar is usually situated, was revealed to be only one of several types of radar you'll be able to equip as you play. It also appears the game will start off Metroid-style, with Snake losing his backpack and having to regain it. Another interesting bit of information on the camo index is that the percentage applies to humans and certain animals. For example, dogs are less likely to be fooled, while birds can be duped more easily. In fact, it appears that you'll be able to capture birds, possibly for food, but your index needs to be exceptionally high to pull that off.

A potential trouble spot when it comes to camouflaging yourself is that getting shot will affect your camo pattern's effectiveness--the blood stains will naturally make you stand out. One of the challenges facing the team as they implement the camo system is ensuring that players will still be able to see Snake as he's concealing himself. Kojima also mentioned one camo pattern they opted to drop: a bloody pattern that would let Snake blend in with other corpses.

You'll have to keep up with a ton of variables to keep enemies from spotting you.

Another intriguing hint dropped by Kojima related to what your options will be when you're spotted. During the demo, Snake was spotted a few times--signaled as always by the trusty combo of incidental music and an exclamation mark--and he simply ran away. However, Kojima said that your options when spotted will depend on where you are. The game's stealth mechanics will also encompass your effect on the environment. We noticed that Snake affected the grass as he slunk through it, which naturally affected his camo index. Apparently, there's going to be quite a bit more to stay on top of than in previous games in the series.

In fact, careless players are going to find Metal Gear Solid 3 a vexing experience as they try to keep enemies from noticing them. For one thing, you'll have to keep tabs on your footprints depending on the environment. Walking on solid ground isn't that big a deal, although you'll kick up dust, which is something to be conscious of when enemies are about. Muddy ground is a lot more problematic, though, since you'll leave a trail as you plow through the mire. In some cases sound is more of a problem, such as when rustling through grass, which can potentially make enough noise to draw out your foes. Of course, when you take out an enemy it will be in your best interest to not leave your foes lying about. Thankfully, the environments offer you plenty of corpse-hiding options--you can lay bodies in tall grass, cram them into holes or tree trunks, or even dump them in rivers or streams. Speaking of foes, the demo we saw only featured garden-variety grunts that weren't very stealthy, but Kojima mentioned that boss characters will make use of a variety of unique techniques, including camo, that will keep you on your toes.

Snake Eater's intro sequence will be done in collaboration with Kyle Cooper, who worked on the intro in Metal Gear Solid 2, and it will incorporate a concept Kojima had hoped to use when the pair worked together previously: interactivity. The current plan is for you to have the chance to either watch the sequence in its original form or affect it by pressing buttons on the controller, although what these effects will be wasn't revealed. As for the in-game cutscenes, Kojima will be handling them himself. He also mentioned that there may be a playable demo of the game released before it ships to whet gamers' appetites.

Kojima is playing MGS3's story close to the vest--almost no details have been revealed so far.

The last bit of information to come out of the Q&A revolved around the notorious alligator hat seen in the first trailer for the game. While the hat doesn't affect the camo index, it can, in fact, be useful because you can use it to scare away enemies. Toward the end of the demo a segment showed a soldier being frightened off as what appeared to be a large alligator popped out of a log.

While Kojima's presentation offered some good bits of information on Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater's gameplay, it was pretty clear we were being shown just a fraction of what the experience is going to offer. Snake Eater appears to do more than just cover the same ground as the previous installments of the franchise, and it's offering some genuine bits of innovation that are very promising. Best of all, the rich gameplay is complemented by visuals that are well on their way to standing as some of the best on the PlayStation 2. The plethora of particle effects and lighting touches coupled with detailed models and interactive environments is an impressive marriage of style and substance we're anxious to see more of. Anyone looking for a potent reminder as to why the Metal Gear franchise is so respected should keep an eye on Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. The game is currently slated to ship later this year for the PlayStation 2. Look for more on the game at this year's E3 and in the months leading up to its release.

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