Sometimes there can be too much of a good thing and one begins to wonder if the greatness can hold its death grip on your senses for the whole trip. There's a fear that at the last moment the experience will take a drastically wrong turn and turn your favorite t-shirt into a dishrag. But put those fears aside because Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
manages to set a fantastic pace early on and keeps everything going right up to the closing credits and then some. Overall, this is the best Metal Gear Solid game that we've seen and, yes, it rules.
First of all, I have to come out and say that Metal Gear Solid was the previous titleholder for the Solid Snake crown. With the creative boss battles and innovative style it was well worth replaying over and over despite the naysayers who complain about its length. After all, the same thing can be said for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty with its incessant Codec conversations and movies. Strip away MGS2's story and there's a pretty short game there as well. As for its story itself there's little of interest unless you really want to spend a couple of late, smoky nights going over the details and putting all the pieces together, and they do fit together. While that's kind of interesting if you want a pleasant mind rutting, it was far from fun to watch a game eat itself.
Still, the one thing that MGS2 did right, fantastically right, was take the gold standard of stealth espionage action from MGS and update it beautifully for the current generation. The graphics were amazing to look at and with the new sets of moves and details to dig into, gamers kept going back again and again for more to try out a situation in a different way or collect all of the dog tags they could get. It was so slick and pulled off so well that it even helped the Metal Gear RAY battle go down nicely, or at least be stomached.
Pulling the trilogy nice and tight with the best ideas from both games is MGS3:SE, a game that takes the series to its fullest incarnation yet. Both the storytelling and the action have been improved to make a game that still has its fair share of movies to sit through as well as a healthy amount of different situations to work through. The biggest changes have obviously been in the raw mechanics of the game which have taken the franchise a full step forward in the evolutionary scale of games.
Snake's New Digs
MGS3:SE takes place in a Russian jungle in 1964 and the good old radar system that helped gamers creep through offices hasn't been invented yet. While that may put the fear of god into those who relied on that circular crutch in the previous games, the new
er... old system is revolutionary in that it makes the game more difficult to deal with at first. The main tools for getting a sense of one's surroundings are the active sonar, the motion detector and the anti-personnel sensor. These all use up battery power that charges up again when not in use so it's best to use them only when they're absolutely necessary.
Each of these devices works in a different way to get a view on things. The active sonar sends out a ping and reports the locations of all the living things in the area, including humans and other animals. The motion detector records anything moving and the anti-personnel sensor beeps faster when someone's getting close. Each one of these has its own merits and problems with the pinging of the active sonar bringing some unwanted attention from guards who get too close.
Put these devices together and you get a system that helps you get all the info you had from the previous games as long as you paid attention to get through. Just like the other games, it will also be crucial, oh so crucial, to find the thermal goggles early on so be on the lookout for those before you're too far off on your merry way. With the requirement of paying more attention to the surroundings MGS3:SE pulls off the feat of bringing the gameplay more to life than before.
Even more lifelike is the very jungle that Snake gets dropped into. Critters scurry around, snakes slither, and each and every blade of grass is done individually. Like the rest of the game, the look of the jungle is lush with an incredible amount of detail. Animals make the grass rustle as they move through it, as does Snake, and when shots are fired over the grass all of the blades in the path of the bullets will rustle as well. When taking shots from an off-screen enemy it's possible to find the source just by following the moving grass.
While these outdoor environments are still "rooms" with brief loading times between each one they can sometimes be absolutely huge, spanning several acres each. Since the alert status doesn't go down between areas it's key to keep a low profile and become a master at the art of the camouflage. Hiding out in the jungle is a matter of sneaking around like before, but it's all about the blend.
A crucial element of blending in is putting on the right camouflage to become invisible in the different areas of the game. Everything from the terrain to whether Snake is standing or lying down to the rain to how fast he's moving will affect the camouflage index that rates on a percentage scale. It's almost a hassle, but the system is worked out so that it's possible to pause the game, swap clothes for the best possible outfit (each outfit has a number indicating how it will change the index), and get back in the game with just a few seconds.
There are two other new systems as well and these are the Cure system and the eating. Both of these affect the game's depth in a similar way as the camouflage and both of them are just as smoothly integrated so that there's more of a feeling of realism without straying too far away from the fact that this is meant to be a videogame and a fun one at that. The health bar regenerates here as long as the stamina is kept up with a steady diet of critters and running around with wounds will prevent Snake from achieving full health.
Even more than health, the stamina affects Snake's running speed and the ability to aim as well as his lung capacity for swimming and his grip strength for holding onto ledges. In one fell swoop MGS3:SE has integrated several different parts of the game into one system and making it come alive and avoids the trap of making this Metal Gear Tamagotchi. There is the occasional syringe of Life Recovery that is discovered for a quick health boost, but the game is really about staying healthy and stealthy.
In terms of fighting the big change here is the CQC (close quarter combat) which is basically a new set of moves that Snake can pull off with enemies. With a knife and gun combo it's possible to hold a guard hostage and shoot another, just slit his throat, or even put the knife in his face and interrogate him. While it's entirely possible to skip the CQC as well as the new option to shoot while hanging from one hand, it's highly recommended to try it out. Useful information like radio stations that heal you can be found as well as info to get into certain rooms or find hidden items. It may be somewhat optional, but it's a blast to take hostages and get through groups of enemies with a human shield.
One final change that helps to manage all of the items is the change to the backpack system. There is one pack for the items and one for the weapons and each have a limited number of spaces available. This allows players to just have their needed items available within the game without having to dispose of everything else. Going light has another benefit as well since a heavy backpack will drain Snake's stamina faster as he runs around. It's awkward that new items that are picked up need to be entered in the pack manually, but with the elimination of item clutter it's definitely welcome.
Any Way You Like It
But enough about the mechanical aspects of the game because the real meat of the game is the game itself and there's so much to do here that many areas can trigger an onset of Option Overload that any PS2 owner should be familiar with this season. In each of the areas there are so many different ways of going about a situation that it's not only possible, but likely that a group of players will have unique experiences. This is not new for fans of the series, but it's just been pulled off to a more extreme degree than ever.
After playing through the entire game there was just one single urge that came to mind: the burning desire to start the game over right away and keep the party rocking. Even after sitting in Konami's office for three days and subsisting on pizza, finishing the game once was not nearly enough. Days later, daydreams started to happen in which ever more alternate strategies bubbled up from my subconscious. It would be easy to see people going through the game at least a couple of times if not several times over.
In just one scenario I had a heated discussion with David "Running Man" Clayman about the merits of several different strategies. After trying out many different approaches it dawned on us that we had a time limit and needed to get through the rest. Both of us have made a vow to get the game when it comes out and try out many more ideas.
Ready for the Close-Up
The devil is indeed in the details and MGS:SE spared absolutely no expense in piling in tons of tidbits to make the world a more living, breathing thing. There are several magazines lying around like Newsweek, GamePro, PSE, and even Playboy. There are plenty of different environments to explore from a swamp to a jungle to a warehouse to a rocky mountaintop and there's still more.
Like the grass described earlier, the level of detail in all of the environments and the characters is extremely well done. All of the people in MGS3:SE get a detailed treatment of their bodies and faces. This detail works in making the game pretty to look at and helps to enhance the emotional impact of the different cutscenes.
The storyline is a little complicated when trying to figure out who's working for who and it's fun to figure out what's going on, but even better is witnessing the personal interactions between the various characters in the game. The best one by far is Ocelot as we get to see him progress from a flamboyant soldier who prefers an automatic handgun to the beginnings of Revolver Ocelot. The Boss comes in as a close second in terms of a character that you really want to know more about.
In Ocelot there's a lightheartedness about his actions in that he gets frustrated and angry at Snake and has an ongoing rivalry, but it's obvious he has a ton of respect for him as well. This feeling runs throughout the rest of the game in the Codec conversations and the movies. The result is like a James Bond movie that provides lots of explosions and actions and plot twists yet still knows enough to not take itself too seriously and have plenty of good laughs along the way. Especially at Ocelot's expense.
Just like a blockbuster movie, the game begins to take off towards the end of the game with several battles and chase scenes that will bring to mind other movies as well. While it's not fair to give away any details it can still be said there are some ideas from both Return of the Jedi (note: not the Ewoks) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that get brought in to keep the adrenalin up. The last few hours keep up the action and keep bringing in surprise after surprise in a way that works with the story itself and doesn't get bogged down in an endless bit of philosophical rambling like in MGS2.
Snake and the Bossman
The soldiers are just as attentive as ever and will call in for support if Snake gets spotted, but the real emphasis is on the boss battles of which there are more than a half dozen to get through. Each one provides a different challenge and there are several ways to take them down. And that's not even counting the tricky part of taking them down with tranquilizer darts.
While it's possible to consistently take the bosses down with one single strategy for each there are plenty of ways of going about it and it can be as difficult as you want it to be. One of the more varied challenges is easily against a boss in a forest. Giving away details about the battle would be criminal, but it's safe to say that there are methods that could satisfactorily take an hour or more while another could finish the whole thing in just a few minutes. Still, just because the cheaper option is available doesn't mean that you have to take it and that's the beauty of the whole game. It's linear in terms of the storyline, but incredibly deep in the amount of options available.
Of all the things that are going so amazingly well with the rest of the game there is still an issue with the camera system. The top-down view is still in effect with the possibility of going motionless for a first-person view. While in the regular view it's possible to move the camera around with the right analog stick and lock it in place with the R3 button and this is a huge help, but it's still a drag to not have the option to move around with a first-person or third-person perspective. Since MGS2 came out we've also seen Sam Fisher getting sneaky in Splinter Cell.
With the new growth in other options for dealing with this type of gameplay the same camera system that's been in use for the past six years is looking dated. While the game manages to be the best form the game has taken of all three of the Solid games the new developments in other games show that there is still room for improvement overall. It's entirely possible that the current system is as good as the game can handle with all of the graphics and detail on the PS2 and that we'll have to wait for a PS3 Metal Gear Solid game. After seeing the hits in performance that the Splinter Cell series took when moving to the PS2 it's not too difficult to console one's self with all of the things that have been achieved here with MGS3:SE.
Another issue with the camera is that when Snake crawls into the grass he gets a forced first-person perspective with the view mostly of blades of grass and the obscured area beyond it. It makes sense in terms of providing the experience that when one is hiding in the weeds that's all they can see, but if that's true, then why isn't there a fog of war in the rest of the visuals as well? The top down view has always afforded peeks at the area that Snake couldn't possibly see by himself.
Again and Again and Again...
Like a bit of an unruly pet on a leash, the camera system can be tamed pretty easily and with so much other good, no, fantastic, stuff in the game it can be forgiven. So much so that beating the game once is just the beginning. As an extra bonus for the game, there is a little frog statue in each and every area of the game that has an uncanny resemblance to Kermit the Frog. He can be found behind rocks, underwater, up on ledges and several other places and by finding all of them and shooting those players will get something very cool. We'd love to tell you what it is, but we didn't have the time to find them all and Konami wasn't talking. And if it all gets to be too much there's always the Snake Vs. Monkey mini-game for snapping up the pesky bipeds from Ape Escape.
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