a review of Metal Gear Solid 3 : Snake Eater
a videogame developed by hideo kojima and kojima productions
and published by konami
for the microsoft xbox 360, the nintendo 3ds, the sony playstation 2 computer entertainment system, the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system and the sony playstation vita
text by Ario Barzan
On a pouring, 2001 Saturday, a bearded guy some of my friends knew lugged his then-seemingly dog-sized PlayStation 2 over to the regular meeting place. It was kind of a big deal to have such an expensive, monolithic system to toy with. Powering it on, Bearded Guy first showed off Red Faction, which I don’t remember much of, except that you could blast the hell out of walls with rocket launchers and mole your way into the holes. When a friend was dominating hard enough in multiplayer to invoke frothing anger in others, Bearded Guy put in a demo disc. As a panning view of George Washington Bridge and the words METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY appeared on the television, Bearded Guy drooled, “This is going to be the best game ever.”
Metal Gear Solid 2 was going to banish hate, discover another planet with life, properly disperse adequate food rations for all corners of the Earth, and bring our consciousness regarding pretty much everything up so high we’d have to invent devices to keep our heads from exploding because Snake was BACK. Of course, we know what happened – it was a grand lie. Everyone gave it glowing reviews, regardless, perhaps not wanting to look the fools. Only Snake’s face was on the American case’s cover, and the back was an advertisement for the demo – not the game, wherein players guided a platinum-haired, unsure Bishounen who received phone calls from his girlfriend. Yes, Metal Gear Solid 2 was where people asked Hideo Kojima for a sports car, and Kojima handed out a Hot Wheels toy.
With none of that hype to ride on prior to its arrival, I played MGS2 a couple years after its release, whose concepts interested me more than the game itself. It was only in the end that things got decently paced and intriguing, and, dare I say it, humorously post-modern. Our avatar was naked, cupping his genitals and doing cartwheels past ninjas in the bowels of a submersible super-vessel. Most tend to regard this section as horrifying and sacrilegious. This was when MGS2 backhanded them, stole their clothes, flipped the hell out, acknowledged its own existence, and asserted Raiden as its protagonist, fo’ real. It was strangely poignant, hysterical, and a little ****ed. As someone with no fetishized fixation on Snake’s character, I think I handled the twist with more good-humor than I was probably expected to.
When the demo disc of MGS2 had been properly dispersed with the help of Zone of the Enders, a.k.a. “That Game that Came with the MGS2 Demo”, the collective gaming media and players alike could hardly contain themselves. They wrote volcanic orgasms of articles that made readers wash their hands off and then promptly climax in their own pants. Most writers highlighted things like how holy stuff, you can totally shoot the glasses and bottles in the bar section of the boat and watch them break, praising the Extraordinary Realism, which really was just weird, because the ice cubes from the glasses didn’t melt realistically, or in real time – they didn’t even leave behind puddles of water. And still, people flipped out.
That odd excitement transferred itself over to Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a game wherein you can crouch down, viciously stab a frog with a knife, get up, watch it evaporate with a wooosh, and then, plink, turn into a container labeled FROG for you to run over, collect, and eat if your stamina so demands it. You couldn’t get by any impression without being told JUST LIKE BEING IN THE JUNGLE IN REAL LIFE! REALLY!! Snake Eater’s issues revolve around its more-silly-than-bad abstractions. At a point, the disjointedness of pausing the action, navigating a clunky menu to select a suit, exiting, and watching your camo index increase by ten percent every couple minutes so a guard doesn’t see you reveals itself as Not Too Much Fun. It’s a Feature ™ to put on the back of a box. It’s also a little ironic, seeing how Kojima’s games have exquisite menu presentation (leading me to think he didn’t have much to do with the idea, or its execution, at least). So we stick to a leafy pattern and call it good. That animal/ration eating deal isn’t bad. It’s kind of cute, is what it is. Leave your stash untouched for several days and it’ll rot. Of course, we appreciate there being no flashing text or obtrusive icons telling us to get with the damn program if Snake’s stamina wanes. Weaker movements and stomach growls perform that function (other games could take a hell of a hint from this). But there’s a curious healing system which feels like a morbid version of Operation, or another one of Kojima’s “jokes.” We get a rotate-able model of Snake from which we can burn off leeches, extract explosive hornets, stitch up wounds, and dig out bullets via knife blade. Its inclusion might be argued for on account of hilarious possibilities, like breaking your femur, wrapping it up, and moving on. Though, why not just make those explosive bees do damage to Snake and have it be done? Let us go on without pausing, going into the menu, picking at the Snake model, and exiting. Why give us cursor-based micromanagement?
But Metal Gear Solid 3 is a hell of a thing, a hell of a game that sparklingly succeeds in spite of quirks. You are guiding a grizzly man named Naked Snake though the Soviet Union, through forests, swamps, mountains, and facilities. This Snake will go on to become the eye-patched, later-revealed antagonist in the original Metal Gear. For now, during the 1960s, he is a CIA operative, charged with the task of locating and retrieving a defected scientist named Sokolov. This is the initial goal, anyhow; as Snake’s higher-up Major Zero dubs it, “Operation Virtuous Mission.” What this first scenario does is establish the basics of the whole. You could call it a tutorial, yet, what with recent titles’ pushing you to “Press A to jump!” ad nauseum, that word is something of a depressant. Still, there it is: an un-tutorial, perhaps. Snake has landed in the middle of a jungle after a HALO jump, and his backpack was caught on a branch as he parachuted through the foliage. Retrieving the back-pack shows players they can climb up certain trees. A spot beyond that opens with a brief cutscene where Snake pulls out a pair of binoculars and notices a hornet’s nest above a distant guard’s head. A devious smile crosses Snake’s face as he replaces the binoculars, and so we learn to pay attention above. Etcetera. This scenario succeeds, in part, because it remains an actual member of the game even while laying things out, enjoyable and cohesive your first or fifth time. Metal Gear Solid 2 knew that there was a disconnect between its tanker and plant sections, and let players choose if they wanted to begin on one or the other once they finished and selected a new file. The tanker, in a way, was for anyone who couldn’t stand Raiden and came in wanting an extension of the first MGS. Its game over sequence even had the same music and visual. Still, it was another “joke”: the tanker introduction is very short compared to the plant, and it’s mostly there to sharply drive home the gap between Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2. People who chose it were actually playing little more than what the official demo offered. This imbalance undoubtedly secured a burning rage in a number of souls. Snake Eater doesn’t offer a separation because there isn’t one. Instead, a choice is given at the start asking players to pick which game in the series they like. If MGS2 is selected, the game will hilariously open with Snake wearing a mask that looks like Raiden. After the parachute landing and a conversation with a higher-up, Snake tears off the mask and is reintroduced. Similar to MGS2’s finale, though with more tongue-in-cheek, it reinforces Snake as the protagonist and does away with Raiden. I’m sure, anyway, that those who chose “I like MGS2!” could laugh when the mask was removed.
In many ways, MGS3 shows the adulthood of Kojima’s craft. The plot in Sons of Liberty, a jittering, apocalyptic suicide, climaxed by way of implosion, and kept players along for the collapse. That mischief and overall cynicism was interesting; it was also a bother. If it were a book, countless asterisks would have guided us to countless footnotes, and URL addresses would be printed on the last pages, the corresponding sites being black screens with hidden links that led to scrambled theses by professors. And then our computers would’ve exploded. Alternately, Metal Gear Solid 3 has a “blockbuster” story. There are untrusting spies, political tensions, supernatural powers, gunfights, nuclear weapons, and chase scenes. Yet it is a greatly told story that accepts itself, and manages to squish its way into actual events. Even with Hayter’s funky intonation. The content and delivery is less abstract, more reigned in, more concrete, even funny (use the R1 button to see where Snake is looking when he meets a female spy – her breasts, duh (truth is the best comedy, right?)). It’s more of a Story than an experiment.
If, for some reason, you were annoyed with the second’s crew of misfits, including a homosexual vampire and a roller-skating bomb fetishist, you might be clawing at your face when you get to what’s in store, here. Ultimately, however, MGS3’s bosses are a Boss Lover’s crew of bosses. They are rock stars that live for the conflict. The majority of the fights involve the Cobras. The Cobras, in what has (I guess) become tradition, are the game’s antagonistic clan of weirdos, inserted a little after you’ve started and cut off somewhere near the last quarter. There’s The Pain, The Fear, The End, The Fury, and The Sorrow (technically, there is also The Joy), each a container of thick, meaty possibilities. Well, maybe not The Sorrow – though he makes up for that in his own way. If you’ve got smoke grenades, you’ll be able to blow the protective swarm of bees off of The Pain’s body and attack with, say, the shotgun you may have found (a definite contender for one of videogamedom’s most satisfying weapons). Or you can waste a few extra rounds on the shotgun to do the same job. If you’ve managed to grab the thermal goggles, you’ll be able to see the transparent body of The Fear as he jumps from tree to tree, in addition to instant-death pits on the ground. MGS3’s bosses are triumphs in how they offer so many angles to approach them while remaining vibrant and challenging (almost always challenging; I’m close to the exception). In this way, you aren’t screwed or frustrated if you’re without certain equipment. And you won’t necessarily have more fun with The Fear if you have those thermal goggles. By the same token – here’s the exception – it’s not preferable, really, to kill The End before the actual boss fight. Following your arrival at a warehouse, several characters near its dock speak as Snake views from a distance. The End is one of them, but he doesn’t talk. He is a hundred years-old, asleep and in a wheelchair, “hibernating” before he has to fight a last time. Once the scene has ended, you can quickly pull out your sniping rifle, headshot The End, then dodge a part of his exploding wheelchair that comes flying at you.
Alternately, the real battle – a sinewy microcosm, a boss battle to end all boss battles – can take you a half hour or more. You can bring it up down the line with a group of friends over a midnight dinner. It is set in a hilly forest where The End migrates to different spots and snipes at you. A lot of the challenge may just be getting to him to attack up close. It’s exhilarating, anticipatory as hell. The first time I fought The End, I had Snake lying on his stomach overlooking a cliff. I turned away for a second to get a drink, looked back to see him right behind Snake, and nearly fell over. The cutscene that follows such a situation shows a merciful The End who knocks Snake out. Snake later awakens to find that he’s been thrown into a lab’s prison. If you’re chasing The End, sometimes he’ll pause to catch his breath. You can try depleting his stamina to get his sniping rifle. Or you can hold him up to get his camouflage. He might oblige; he might not. Now and again, the camera will be presented from the view of his gun, and things get weirdly, er, out-of-body-ish. You, being the heartless bastard that you are, can shoot and eat his pet parrot. Or you can capture and release it to let it bother The End. There’s even another way to “kill” him: quit and save. Come back in a week and there’s a cutscene where Snake confronts The End, only to have The End collapse, dead from old age.
The Sorrow, though technically not a fight, might be the most significant of the pre-final bosses: a slow walk through a river with mangrove trees on either side. The man, literally a ghost, hovers around Snake as rain pours down. You cannot hurt The Sorrow, and The Sorrow does not have any health in his life bar. As you wade forward, ghosts of everyone you’ve killed materialize to groan and weakly grasp at you. Even the mountains of fish you grenaded to hear ten simultaneous plinks float by, text on the bottom of the screen exclaiming, “You FED on me!” Some of the guards might be clutching their bleeding crotches. Each Cobra appears, The End letting the current carry him along as his parrot hovers above, squawking. The experience is, at once, hilarious and fantastic, and the question most players ask themselves is, “Did I really kill this many people?” This quantifying of aggressiveness isn’t anything new; games have been tallying our violence since the early days. On the other hand, there’s never been a game that has exhibited it the way MGS3 does. It’s not Profound, and anyone who thinks it is is just jerking themselves off. There’s not enough connection between it and the game’s mechanics to make it be, and I don’t believe there’s supposed to be. The humor of what passes you by is too much of a conscious presence. But it is what it is, and it’s great. Some people have compared the way to “win” the “fight,” mouths foaming and foreheads pulsating, to the part in MGS2 where Raiden is in the basement of the Shell 1 Core, Ocelot is walking towards him, and there’s a ten second counter in the corner. The point was that you weren’t supposed to move for ten seconds. What those people are misunderstanding is that that was another of the game’s player-loathing inversions, one which Kojima might’ve found hilarious. The finish to The Sorrow’s fight isn’t a wry, semi-stupid reversal. It’s a climax that’s actually relevant to the narrative, simple to figure out – it’s time for you to “wake up” – and, really, the only way the fight can end (and, hey: if the bit’s not your cup of tea, use the fake death pill).
When the end comes, so does the expectation that we are going to be the victor, because, yes, the game must allow the player to win. Snake eliminates The Boss as the final objective of his second mission. The Boss, once Snake’s mentor, defected after the Virtuous Mission for reasons unknown to him. These reasons are explained in the last moments of the game. Now, The Boss lies on the flowered field you fought her in, and as Snake kneels down, she asks him to kill her, to complete his mission. Snake takes her gun, stands up, and the letterbox fades to let the player take control. This is a moment that I’d call cruelly ingenious; it’s a moment where the player can’t do anything except shoot The Boss. Something we were doing so readily minutes before is isolated, and that new context causes hesitation and, against expectations, resentment towards the action. A similar idea appears in the close of Shadow of the Colossus, where players are allowed to manipulate Wander as they’re being drawn into a vortex. One of Action Button Dot Net’s readers happened to voice what I feel: that giving us the choice of forever resisting is an unnecessary liberty. It cheapens the narrative’s poignancy. As I see it, humans’ inherent mischievousness will remain a variable in video games’ intentions, and so it becomes a matter of how well designers can maintain integrity without being too tight or too free. In the respect of authorial control, then, Snake Eater gets it right: the gun will fire in a matter of time, no matter how stubborn the hands around the controller are: the drama is preserved.
So much of Metal Gear Solid 2, and even the first, was clinical, circular pit-pats of deja-vu. Do you remember all of those doors you couldn’t open, how many times you retraced your steps after cutscenes ended? In retrospect, both also had the disadvantage of static scenery. While there’s an argument to be made for abstracted relevance – in MGS2, Raiden’s lack of identity, thus the overt manipulation by the Colonel, blah, blah – MGS1 and 2, set next to Snake Eater, wither away when it comes down to sheer playability. Snake Eater‘s environments are more complex, and, in a wonderful twist of justice, impeccable in their flow. They are the game’s throbbing muscles. Flow, at its core, isn’t really much more than a matter of common sense. Make the player always feel like they’re doing something. Don’t overdo it. Leave room here and there for breathing. Have each “room” spaced so that the actions of the player interlock. These last parts might sound complex, but they aren’t! Take a stage in God Hand as a comparison. You run up a short hill and there’s a cage blocking access to a cave. Pull a bar out of the cage – you now have a space to walk through, as well as a weapon – and run forward. In front is a cowering hostage, and on your left is a mohawk-goon with a plank of wood. Hit the goon three times with the bar, and then twice, strong-attack, to kill him. Turn around: a woman is standing against a wall with a whip. Throw the pipe at her, instant kill, and pick up the wooden plank the guy dropped. Continue on to a tunnel with two more goons. Get the closest one’s attention by taunting, and when he’s close enough, do a strong-attack and follow it up with a throw when he rebounds. That guy will drop a sledgehammer. Chuck it at the remaining goon for a swift K.O. All of this simple and crunchy, and none of it mandatory.
MGS3 is not similar to God Hand in what you exactly do, but how what you do feels in terms of momentum: how the set pieces have a ripple effect that crisply shuttles you along a current, and how, no matter what approach you take, you’re always occupied with something interesting. There’s that locomotion so many classic Konami titles used to have. Slide down a hill towards an unknowing guard – use the tranquilizer gun and dive attack for a knockout – run halfway across a wobbly bridge and pop two guards in the head on the end with your Mk22 – push on, round a bend and knife the last guy – go down a slope and sidle along a cliff’s edge to grab a new gun. Or: slow down, take as much time as you want, and still enjoy yourself. Lying in tufts of grass close to a group of unsuspecting soldiers invokes a certain glee that’s absent when hiding behind a wall or in a box. It feels as thrilling as hide and seek might have been when you were a kid. Similarly satisfying is going Rambo with your shirt off and shotgun in hand, determined to kill every last guard in an area so a pile of bodies forms outside of the storage room you’ve taken residence in. What’s more, the game remains fun even when you’re messing up. I can’t think of a time where I slipped and felt frustrated. I’ve had twenty minute shoot-outs where I’m about to die, where there’s a vague notion that I’ll finally groan when Snake keels over, and yet the game over screen comes and immediately retrying isn’t an issue. It’s not exactly that Snake Eater is the ultimate model of Tough-But-Fair, so much as the consequences of everything, including mistakes, branch out into a string of new, rollicking circumstances. Death is a chance to re-experiment – not a hateful penalty.
The world has a masterful weight and presence in spite of its video-game-y set pieces. Reaching settings’ boundaries doesn’t elicit a jarring sense that you’re existing in a land of heavy-handed contrivances, as if you could poke at the scenery and have it fall over like a Wild West prop. It’s all so good that you never really have to question it. One of the game’s most glittering examples of level design is the mountain base you go through on your way to Groznyj Grad, preceded by the Longest Ladder in Video Games ™. This ladder is just one of the game’s ways of pacing itself, though it’s the most memorable one partly because, well, it is the Longest Ladder in Video Games ™. And when the game’s Bond-esque theme fades in, it becomes the Most Gorgeous Ladder in Video Games ™. Then there’s the mountain itself, situations one-upping themselves one after another. A series of rocky hills with soldiers becomes zigzagging paths up a mountainside, which in turn leads to a complex of guarded trenches and shacks. These descriptions are simple, but a bundle of nuances and permutations make moving through it all compelling: the holes in the rock’s body leading to hiding places, the mounted machine guns, the Hind choppers circling overhead, the guard that arrives on a cliff to fire an RPG at you, the men with flamethrowers appearing after you exit a warehouse in the trenches – just how multilayered the architecture is. You could take almost any section of the game and present it as an iconic model for the whole. There’s a breathless arcade-y segment near the end of the game where you get on the passenger side of a motorcycle, gun in hand, and zoom around a military complex and runway, taking out pedestrian and mobile guards, escaping from a raging, nuclear equipped tank – and, after, speed through a rainy, dim forest with armed soldiers on hovering crafts.
Metal Gear Solid 3 is about as fun now as it was in 2004. I don’t expect it will worsen or improve by much in the future. I might as well say that it still looks great, even if it may not hold up as well as 2’s aesthetic (when in doubt of visual deterioration, leave as little to deteriorate as possible, I suppose). Anyway, pay attention to the characters’ eyes in cutscenes. They’re some of the best eyes in a video game – and they say eyes are the biggest gateway to human emotion. Well done, then, for realizing this, Snake Eater. Most of all, like Gears of War and God Hand, MGS3 serves as a modern, golden model of pacing and level design. It’s evident in nearly every crevice that it was something Hideo Kojima could get behind, bring up right, lovingly cultivate. It also might be the most hush-hush game yet. I swear, there’s a layer to scrape off of everything. And no matter how small the discoveries are, they always feel worthwhile and unexpectedly enlightening. Just a few days ago, I found out that I could throw glowcap mushrooms on the ground to absorb a boss’ electrical discharges. I mean, how fantastic is that? For the love of smiles and pumping hearts and contented fingers, people around the globe: take note. We need more of this beauty, please.