Snake is in for another richly cinematic, occasionally convoluted, and ultimately satisfying adventure in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, the latest installment in Konami designer Hideo Kojima's long-running stealth action series. Much like its predecessors, Metal Gear Solid 3 begs to be talked about, if nothing else. After all, during the course of the game, you'll experience a story dense with detail and intrigue, one that's often presented using some of the most dramatically staged video game cutscenes to date. You'll also spend about half your time with the game just watching (or listening to) the story unfold, and for every sequence that's extremely exciting and thought-provoking, there's a part that seems needlessly drawn out. Meanwhile, the gameplay itself--despite an all-new setting in a Soviet jungle during the 1960s--really hasn't changed much since the last installment, and it's aged noticeably during these past few years. Consequently, the mechanics of Metal Gear Solid 3 can be just as confounding as the storyline--but also just as rewarding, especially once you reach some of the game's memorable, dramatic confrontations. In short, this is a great game that embodies both the impressive style and the one-of-a-kind spirit of its predecessors.
There's much that needs to be said about Metal Gear Solid 3's story, mostly because it's such a huge part of the game. Of course, there's much about the story that ought to be experienced firsthand. So suffice it to say that the plot here is very much in the same vein as that of the previous two Metal Gear Solids. It's better than the second, in that it ties up its loose ends and ultimately delivers a strong sense of closure. Yet it'll still keep you guessing and second-guessing till the bitter end. Unfortunately, the story gets off to an almost painfully slow start--you'll have to put up with a lot of wordy, sometimes tedious exposition in the first couple of hours, and these hours are almost literally devoid of gameplay. Another possible impediment is the game's highly self-aware and self-deprecating sense of humor, which should appeal to the series' hardcore fans but nevertheless takes you out of the moment, oftentimes on purpose. Playful anachronisms are plentiful, and there are more than a few jokes at the expense of Metal Gear Solid 2's effete protagonist, Raiden. Some of this humor is rather lofty and clever, while some of it falls flat, as if lost in translation from the Japanese. So it's fortunate that the game seems to simply abandon the goofy aspect of its personality somewhere around the halfway point.
Make no mistake: This is a serious story, filled with some shocking scenes of graphic violence, and a helping of strong language and sexual references for good measure. You've never seen any game pull off some of the stunts that this one does. Fairly early on, the high stakes of Snake's mission are plainly exposed. You're introduced to the game's central villain, a sadomasochistic Russian colonel named Volgin, and you also catch a glimpse of the Cobras, a gaggle of bizarre military commandos whom you'll face one by one in some of the game's biggest showdowns. These characters make pretty good foes, but with maybe a couple of exceptions, they're just straightforward comic book bad guys. It's Metal Gear Solid 3's other key characters (and the events they manage to stir up) that are especially interesting.
Much of the story revolves around Snake's complex relationship with a woman known only as the Boss, who apparently trained him to become the elite operative and deadly fighter that he is. The Boss turns out to be a great character, and in many ways Metal Gear Solid 3 is her story as much as it is Snake's, so it's fortunate that she's as endearing as he is. Another major player in the story is Ocelot, whom Metal Gear Solid fans will remember as the eccentric Russian gunslinger with a penchant for torturing his victims. Of course, he's depicted here in his formative years--he's presented as an extremely talented marksman who's still impressionable, despite an arrogant streak. The rivalry that develops between Ocelot and Snake is pretty remarkable: They seem to be at each other's throats less like mortal enemies and more like bitter siblings. Another character, Eva, fills the token "Bond girl" role in the story. Her sultry appearance leaves little to the imagination, but of course there's more to her than meets the eye.
In addition to these key characters, Snake will frequently communicate via radio with an off-site support staff. The most notable voice on the radio belongs to Major Zero, Snake's commanding officer, who sounds perfectly official, thanks partly to his British accent. The radio conversations you'll be listening to are functionally identical to the codec conversations from previous Metal Gear Solid games, in that they're sometimes too numerous and not nearly as interesting as the game's also-numerous cinematic cutscenes. Nevertheless, they help flesh out and tie together important elements of the story, and they thankfully drop off in frequency as you press further into the game.
The story takes place in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis, and involves Snake's attempts to rescue a brilliant Russian weapons specialist--someone who's developed a machine so dangerous that it could disrupt the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, and shift the balance of power squarely into the hands of people like Colonel Volgin. Snake's mission is ostensibly to rescue the scientist, but if you've played previous Metal Gear Solids, then you'll rightly expect that his mission won't be so cut-and-dried. At any rate, Snake's encounters behind enemy lines will take him through everything from dense jungles, leech-infested swamps, and quicksand to heavily guarded military complexes. The game's setting is cohesive and believable, and it offers a good amount of variety and plenty of tactical opportunity. In the jungle, Snake is forced to be a survivalist and use the environment to his advantage. This leads to the game's new elements of play.
These include having to use camouflage to remain well hidden, the ability to mend broken bones and treat other serious injuries, and the necessity of eating anything that's even remotely nutritional to recover stamina. The camouflage system is the most important and best implemented of these. Basically, at any time, you can access a menu to choose from various uniforms and face-paint schemes, different combinations of which can help you blend in better with your surroundings. More types of camouflage can be found hidden throughout the game. The optimal camouflage for any situation tends to be pretty intuitive, but you needn't rely on intuition, since there's a percentage indicator onscreen to explicitly tell you how well hidden you are. If you lie prone while decked out in the right camo, you'll be virtually undetectable. Conversely, if you go running around, guards will either see or hear you. So you'll need to move carefully and slowly to avoid detection, especially since you don't have access to a fancy radar like you did in the previous games. You'll need to actually look and listen for signs of foes in your vicinity, which gives the game a very deliberate pace. This may not sound exciting, but the environments are so convincing from an audiovisual standpoint that it's easy to become immersed in the hunt.
Snake's a one-man army, so even if he is detected, he can usually fight his way out of a bind. He's a master of "CQC," which simply stands for "close-quarters combat," a fighting style that lets him use a pistol and a knife simultaneously to capably deal with any threats. Among other things, CQC lets Snake take hostages and use them as human shields while returning fire at their cohorts. However, getting into out-and-out firefights really isn't desirable, and it's usually avoidable. For one thing, it's quite easy to take down your foes with a well-placed shot to the head from a silenced firearm (or any of the game's numerous real-world weapons, for that matter). For another thing, even if you are caught, you can often simply run right past your enemies, whose AK-47s and other weapons cause surprisingly little damage to Snake at the normal and even the hard difficulty settings. So, in contrast with the game's realistic looks, its action really isn't realistic at all, and the consequence of failing to be stealthy tends to be more of an inconvenience than a penalty. This isn't necessarily a bad thing in gameplay terms, but it dampens the sense of danger that the game tries to evoke, since it's so easy to gun down or simply evade droves of enemies.
It's fairly easy to recover from all the injuries you'll sustain, too. You'll notice that, unlike in previous Metal Gear Solid games, there aren't tons of life-giving rations lying around this time. Instead, you'll gradually recover your health through natural healing. For best results, you'll want to keep your stamina meter maxed out, as well as quickly treat any serious injuries you've sustained. Snake will sometimes suffer deep cuts, fractures, burns, or other major injuries, indicated by part of his health meter turning red. You can treat these injuries literally at any time by going into your menu and using a combination of healing items like disinfectants, sutures, and bandages, all of which you'll usually have in ample supply. The idea of having to use survival medicine is a good one, but the abstract way in which you administer the treatments and the fact that you can heal yourself even in the middle of a firefight makes this system hard to swallow. It mostly just serves to interrupt the pacing of some of the game's major battles, since you'll find yourself switching to your cure menu each time you're hit.
As for recovering your stamina, which gradually dwindles as you go about your business, that's where eating comes in. The game's jungle settings are teeming with critters like snakes, rats, spiders, birds, and more, and all these are fair game. You'll have to kill or tranquilize them first, though.
Snake can hoard a ton of food in his backpack, to the point where it seems like he's carrying around a zoo instead of just enough food to stay alive. While it's pretty fun to experiment with eating all the different types of plants and animals you can find, if only to hear Snake's reactions at having to sample each of them, the food system ultimately isn't a big deal--it's easy to find enough food to keep your stamina gauge nice and high at all times. If you let it dwindle, your healing rate will slow down and your aim will grow unsteady, but you'll rarely find yourself low on stamina unless you let it drop on purpose. If nothing else, though, all these new features do help give a sense that Snake really is out there all by himself, trying to survive in the harsh jungle.
Like Metal Gear Solid 2 before it, Metal Gear Solid 3 features a tremendous amount of detail in its gameplay, but most of it is purely optional, and so subtle that you might never notice it unless you look for it. There's tons of stuff you can do in this gameworld, such as catch poisonous snakes and fling them at your unsuspecting enemies, shoot beehives out of trees and cause them to drop on hapless victims below, contract a bad stomach virus from eating spoiled food, and even fake your own death. Many previous Metal Gear Solid gameplay elements, such as the ability to stick up a guard with a gun to his back, shoot out his radio to prevent him from signaling for reinforcements, and sneak around while hiding in an inconspicuous cardboard box, are also intact.
All this stuff is there for you to play around with if you like, though the numerous battles against boss opponents are where Metal Gear Solid 3 does the best job of actually encouraging you to experiment. Metal Gear Solid's boss battles have always been one of the series' best aspects, and Metal Gear Solid 3 certainly continues this tradition. In one especially protracted and challenging battle of cat and mouse against an enemy sniper, you'll need to use such tools as sonar, a directional microphone, and thermal goggles--not to mention weapons like an M16, an AK-47, and a Dragunov SVD--to kill your foe before he kills you. Most of the boss battles present you with several viable paths to victory, although Major Zero is always there to clue you in if you can't figure it out. In short, the boss battles are the highlight of Metal Gear Solid 3's gameplay. With a couple of exceptions, they're not difficult, but they're dynamic and exciting encounters nonetheless. The game's climactic confrontations are especially memorable and intense. The earlier battles are enjoyable as well, though not all the characters you'll be fighting in them are well developed, so these sequences are relatively lacking in dramatic impact.
As mentioned, Metal Gear Solid 3 mostly plays like Metal Gear Solid 2. This means you'll be moving Snake mostly from an overhead third-person perspective and frequently switching to a first-person viewpoint for looking, aiming, and shooting. You're given very limited control over the game's camera, so you often feel like you're running blind in the game's environments, which tend to contain enemies who can see or hear you even when they're offscreen. In addition, the game makes use of the PS2 controller's pressure-sensitive buttons, so different actions (such as putting a foe into a choke hold or slitting his throat with Snake's survival knife) are triggered depending on how hard you push down. All this is done in the signature style of Metal Gear Solid, so it's tried and true. But by today's standards, it's rather awkward--so if you've been playing other first-person or third-person action or adventure games lately, get ready to spend at least a good hour getting accustomed to this game's particular way of doing things.
Actually, a great way to learn the ropes of Metal Gear Solid 3 is by practicing in the Snake vs. Monkey mode, a funny little extra that best exemplifies the game's sense of humor and its sneaking-and-shooting gameplay.
In Snake vs. Monkey mode, Snake is given a lengthy, convoluted mission briefing about how he's expected to, well, capture a bunch of monkeys--monkeys that bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the Ape Escape series. Catching monkeys involves sneaking up on them, blasting them unconscious either with a special pistol or with stun grenades, and then just running into them--you'll hear Snake enthusiastically shout "Gotcha!" with each successful monkey capture. There are several different, progressively tougher Snake vs. Monkey levels (each one with better-hidden monkeys than the last), and the game challenges you to beat these stages as quickly as you can. Beyond this neat extra, Metal Gear Solid 3 also invites you to download additional camouflage patterns online, though this is the extent of the game's networking features.
The bulk of the game's replay value lies in the single-player campaign itself, which should take you 15 or more hours to complete the first time, provided you don't skip the cutscenes. It's a good game to go back through a second time, since you'll pick up on some nuances in the story that you originally missed, and you'll also get to play around with some of the obscurer elements of the gameplay (as well as some new items you'll unlock once you finish the game for the first time). Like its predecessors, Metal Gear Solid 3 contains a distinctly limited number of gameplay sequences, but it also feels noticeably bigger than the previous games, partly because many of the environments you'll explore are, in fact, a lot bigger than the claustrophobic corridors that are the series' hallmark. At any rate, there's no filler here--every single gameplay sequence is a set piece of some sort. There's always some sort of tactical twist to each new area or encounter.
Of course, each area is simply beautiful to behold. Metal Gear Solid has always been on the cutting edge of video game graphics, and this third chapter is no exception. The visuals on display this time are less of a shock to the system than Metal Gear Solid 2's were back in 2001, partly because few games have since managed to squeeze much more visual fidelity out of the PS2, and partly because Metal Gear Solid 3's bigger, more complex environments trigger the occasional drop in frame rate. Also, the game noticeably recycles some of the character animations from its predecessor. However, it still looks superb by any standard. Impressive little details abound, such as how gunfire causes the dense jungle underbrush to violently sway and tatter, how blood soaks through Snake's uniform when he's injured, and how the jungle's various indigenous creatures move just as fluidly and realistically as the game's human characters.
The game's cutscenes are by far the most impressive aspect of its visuals, though. They all feature incredible motion-capture work, as well as camerawork, choreography, and a sense of spectacle that are on par with what you've come to expect from big-budget action movies. Metal Gear Solid 3 also sports some of the best, most expressive 3D character models in the business--the lip synching leaves something to be desired, but amazingly enough, the game's character models sometimes do an even better job of emoting than the professional voice actors attempting to lend the characters their personalities. And even though you mostly just sit back and watch the cutscenes, some minor interactive elements really help sell the experience as being part of a game. These are things such as how Snake's appearance always mimics whichever camouflage pattern you're wearing, how you can zoom in on a cutscene at any time, how the controller's rumble feature is used to give tactile feedback during key moments, and how you can occasionally switch to a first-person viewpoint at the touch of a button. Metal Gear Solid 3 truly feels like an interactive movie.
An impeccable audio presentation certainly helps. Metal Gear Solid 3 sounds even better than it looks, thanks largely to some incredibly authentic ambient effects, as well as an excellent dynamic soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams, whose previous work includes the soundtracks for Metal Gear Solid 2 and a bunch of Hollywood productions. The musical score perfectly captures the tension and intensity that the game's action sequences attempt to convey. Meanwhile, the voice acting in Metal Gear Solid 3 is good, and of similar quality to that of its predecessors. That is to say, it's closer in quality to what you'd expect from a cartoon than from a movie. Some of the characters, such as Colonel Volgin, sound way too over-the-top, which undermines their personalities a little, since their voices seem as unbelievable as their appearances. However, most of the main actors do a fine job, and it's great to hear David Hayter reprising his role as the game's gravelly-voiced main character. Yet what's most surprising about Metal Gear Solid 3's audio is the inclusion of a couple of songs at certain points in the story. The brassy, James Bond-style Snake Eater theme turns out to be an incredibly catchy piece of music that's used to wonderful effect during the game.
Metal Gear Solid has always aspired to be more than just an action adventure game. The series has pushed the envelope in terms of storytelling through the video game medium, and it's also concocted some downright postmodern plot twists that are about as thought-provoking as games get. Yet these types of things have come at the expense of pure gameplay, which sometimes takes a backseat to the story and to the high concept. All this continues to be true of Metal Gear Solid 3, which contains more than a few moments that are worth the price of admission all by themselves, and which offers a free-form gameplay experience that can be seen as either a polite formality or a sandbox in which you and your imagination can run wild. At any rate, times have changed since Metal Gear Solid's last major outing, which is why some of the game's imperfections are harder to swallow today than they were in years past. Nevertheless, this is still a great achievement, one that fans of the series will love and vividly remember long after most of 2004's other games are forgotten.