Of the entire Metal Gear Solid series, "Metal Gear Solid 3" seems to be that one real hit, the one game that everybody has on the tip of their tongue when asked "what is the best Metal Gear game you've ever played?" Interestingly, it actually is by far the worst selling console Metal Gear Solid game, selling about half the numbers of "Metal Gear Solid 2", and several million less than "Metal Gear Solid 4". Yet while this game had about half the audience of the other Metal Gear games, it still stands out as the true classic. After the dada nightmare that was "Metal Gear Solid 2" everybody from Hideo Kojima down just wanted to make a simple fun Cold War spy game. And that's what he did, and everybody loved it.
For my own viewpoint, "Snake Eater" does actually do particular thing far better than any other segment of this series: story. "Metal Gear Solid 1" perfectly captured the mood of a modern action hero SciFi soldier, basically conquering forcing every other game starring Solid Snake to be either an homage or a parody to that first classic. "Metal Gear Solid 3", however, doesn't need to walk in the footsteps of anything, since its so far removed from the other titles in the series, taking place some fifty years before every other event, we're effectively seeing a whole original mythology being born. Even better, this James Bond-gone-wild stylized view of 1963's spy world grounds Kojima in a way that the other games could not. We don't have any cloning, no nanomachines, no designer viruses, and nobody has the final boss of the last game living inside their right arm*. There is a dude who keeps an entire colony of bees inside his lungs and uses them as a machine gun, but that's just part of the fun. We've finally left the increasingly nonsensical web of Metal Gear Solid plotting to push into brave new ground. It won't be until "Metal Gear Solid 4" that the relatively simple story of "Snake Eater" gets pulled into the bullshit and is completely torn apart in endless last-minute ideas.
I'm not going to say that "Snake Eater" is a bad game. It is a satisfying experience of Tactical Espionage Action, with a great adventurous pace that is as close as Kojima has gotten to equating the brilliance of the original. However, the raw gameplay mechanics are considerably worse than "Metal Gear Solid 2", with an indoors stealth engine being thrown right in the middle of the jungle, a place it was never born to experience. It just didn't know how to cope, it wound up hiding under a tree for a few hours, got malaria, and was then devoured by a crocodile.
Personally I made the mistake of playing "Metal Gear Solid 3" first, which is definitely not recommended. "Metal Gear Solid 1" is the title that brilliant acculturates its player to the rhythms of stealth action, slowly dropping the player in piece by piece to the mechanics of the adventure. "Metal Gear Solid 2" even has a vast tutorial portion, only curiously sitting several hours deep into the game. As for "Metal Gear Solid 3", you get dropped in Russia with a ten thousand pieces of spy equipment, and find yourself moving right into a swamp location where every first time player is guaranteed to drown. Who knew Snake couldn't swim? (Well... he can, just not in that particular location for some reason.) Then the next screen you have six bad guys, are given the completely false impression that you can hide from them using camouflage, and after several deaths, discover that you need to shoot every guy with the tranq gun, otherwise the Cold War will be over before you ever reach your target.
It took me some three days of gameplay before I got anywhere near understanding how this game was meant to be played, and even then, I sucked horribly on every step. The massive difference between "Metal Gear Solid 3" and the first two games is really down to one mechanic: no radar. Where before stealth was a relatively simple puzzle of hiding around corners and out-flanking the relatively stupid soldiers, "Metal Gear Solid 3" is a slow methodical slog of massive environments, desperately hoping to avoid being detected, using every trick in your spy bag* to try to sneak by. Or if you're me, you get caught in every single patch of forest and kill everything. Good thing there's plenty of ammo. Basically the loss of the radar changes everything about Metal Gear Solid's strategy and pacing, but the gameplay didn't evolve enough to keep pace. More on that in a bit.
The plot this time is once again classic spy action. Those damn Commie bastards are building a giant robot in the midst of a freakishly lush tropical Russian rainforest, and Snake (later known as Big Boss, the final boss of "Metal Gear" and "Metal Gear 2") has to stop them. But even worse, his old mentor, the Boss, with whom he has maternal self-worth issues up the ass, has abandoned America and has joined up with the Russians. So now Snake has to kill his adopted mother, her superpowered unit of freaks, a rogue Russian colonel with lightning powers, a bratty young appearance of Revolver Ocelot, all his own, without a radar. Along the way he'll fight crocodiles, meet a sexy Bond Girl who never zips up her blouse, and have an exciting super spy adventure, which is nothing but a two scoops of extra syrupy fun for everybody.
So there you go, you got your villain, you got your tone - classic James Bond including a rocking Bond theme song - you got your rambling anti-war message combined with a needlessly complex plot**. Shockingly most of the double crosses and back stabs actually come together this time into a single logical chain of events, even explaining away why your Mommy-Boss betrayed you with a damn good reason. Well... there is a small plot point that the entire world economy is controlled by a conspiracy of American, Russian, and Chinese businessmen*** called the Philosophers who have a 100 billion dollar cache which the bad thunder Russian dude is using to pay for his evil robot experiments. Yeah, that's a huge matzo ball to drop in the middle of the player's soup without any further explanation, which is why Kojima gives no further explanation, and even better: this is where the Patriots come from. So one stupid impossible plot point explains another stupid impossible plot point, get used to this kind of writing for "Metal Gear Solid 4".
My main gripe isn't really the Philosophers though, its that NOBODY IN THIS GAME HAS A RUSSIAN ACCENT!!! What the Hell! You can't make a cheesy spy adventure without some classic cheesy Russian accents. I was expecting everybody in this game to be voiced by the units from "Command and Conquer: Red Alert", instead they're speaking in boring old American accents. Inexcusable, dubbing team, it completely kills the mood.
With the new jungle setting of Metal Gear, came a whole new variety of mechanics. First of all, since the tight corners, hide behind the walls, soliton radar system of "Metal Gear Solid" had been abandoned, most of the stealth action revolved around simply not getting caught by the enemies. Since you're typically out in the open, you have to use a variety of camouflage suits to avoid detection, but they... well suck. Honestly, they enemy will spot you no matter what color shirt you're wearing, you just have to be very quiet
Unfortunately, the combat is as stiff as ever. "Snake Eater" is running on "Metal Gear Solid 2"'s engine, which was optimized for a tight low-combat run through, not a slow methodical slog through the forest. For whatever sick reason, you still cannot aim and move at the same time, and your movement options are limited to pathetically slow crawl on the ground or running upright in full view of every Russian-speaker in the Eastern Bloc. I also will offer a bounty of gold equal to the mass of a T-34 tank if somebody can explain to me why there are two different aim buttons, and why you aim certain guns with L1 and other guns with R1. This is tailor made to be confusing, making your juggle your fingers in tight spots, almost always picking the wrong aim button.
The other new mechanics are based around "Snake Eater''s extensive survivalist jungle adventure theme. No longer do you recover health with Rations, instead you have a set single health bar, and your health automatically recovers... very slowly. Snake has a stamina bar which is kept up by foraging in the forest for various flora and fauna, when your stamina depletes, you can no longer aim straight, and your health crawls back up. The foraging mechanic does give a great deal of depth giving the sense of actually being out in the midst of Russia's lone inexplicable rainforest, actually surviving out in the elements. The other big addition is an injury system, where occasional wounds will cause physical effects, such as a broken bone, a bleeding bullet wound, which you have to heal using a variety of items to start recovering health. You have to cut the bullet out, sew the wound shut, put a bandage on it, and disinfect the wound. Somehow all of this is happening inside the main menu while you're fighting a cosmonaut boss with a flamethrower. Ultimately, however, neither the foraging mechanic or the self-surgery business actually come up as a real threat. You can always find a rabbit or something in every location and eat that, and you're given so many healing items that the self-surgery is never a threat.
Basically what are these things? They're annoying busywork that you have to do in the middle of a battle. You have to go back into your menu, eat food, heal wounds, pick your weapons, and if you die, you have to repeat this entire process. But on the other hand, I'm conflicted. Yeah, its objectively awful, but it does add some realism to the game, giving you at least the illusion of being Rambo, pulling the arrows out of arm to defeat the entirety of a small town's police force.
It doesn't quite work, but its fun, that's I guess a good way to look at "Snake Eater". Speaking of which: CGC. In other games, you could punch enemies and maybe if the moons of Jupiter aligned in just the right way, you could flip them over. "Snake Eater" now has a whole large system of close-quarters combat. With the circle button you can grab enemies and either: let them go, flip them over to knock them out, break their necks, or cut their throats. Unfortunately, this is all mapped to the circle button and some vague action with the left stick, perhaps based upon what your Lucky Numbers were inside the Fortune Cooky you ate two months ago, perhaps based upon the election results in Somerset County in the 1988 Presidential Election, but definitely not based upon real player input. It is basically random. I have killed so many poor innocent scientists with an accidental slicing of their throat. Sorry, I was trying to be non-lethal superspy, not Jason Vorhees, I don't know how I screwed that up!
Importantly though, the game does shine through with its boss fights. Unlike more poorly-designed games, most of the bosses take actual thought and strategy to defeat. In fact, the game even rewards you for thinking outside the box. There is one boss who constantly loses stamina due to his invisibility superpower (which isn't as useful as you would think since you have thermogoggles) so he has to hunt for food every so often during the fight. Well, just keep some crab in your pocket for a few hours, and then throw it to him. He'll eat it, get horribly sick, and then he's an easy kill. See? Puzzle solving skills, actually rewarded! Yeah, this game happens to feature the very worst boss fight in the series, against a guy who keeps a beehive in his lungs, which is basically "swim around for five minutes then you get a chance to hit him". But there's also great boss fights, like a sniper duel against an ancient 1800s soldier taking place in a forest the size of a small town. And the final boss isn't a stupid fist fight like in "Metal Gear Solid 1" or a clunky sword fight using the fucking right-stick to swing as in "Metal Gear Solid 3". No, this is a super spy duel! You're using your actual weapons and gadgets and stealth and CGC to beat your mentor mommy. Its fantastic. So "Metal Gear Solid 4" took that lesson and made its final boss fight a fist fight. Progress.
I guess the point I'm making is that more than any other Metal Gear game, I never "got" "Metal Gear Solid 3". At no point during this adventure did I get the sense that I was really in full control and could handle what was being thrown at me. There's a reasonable possibility that I'm a crazy moron who just didn't understand how to play the game - which is funny since I was actually able to beat it - but maybe the controls could have been a lot better. This game exudes greatness, but there are little niggling faults that seem to damage every step. Yeah, we're out in the middle of the jungle, but its always such small locations with a enemies standing at every tight point during this linear adventure. I dunno.
But what cannot be argued is that "Metal Gear Solid 3" was a game made from the right direction. It barely has anything to do with the previous Metal Gear games, taking place so far in the past that it might as well be an entirely new adventure. Not everything needs to be a constant overlap of references, tying together every minor plot point and character. We can jump out in the middle of Russia, have some wacky codec conversations with our CO, eat a crocodile, and save the free world from socialist superweapons. Bed a sexy spy, beat up an electrical evildoer, and then have an exciting bike chase into the realm of lighthearted adventure. This is the essence of Metal Gear Solid. Which is funny, because the very next game got it so wrong.
* Except the anti-personal sensor, which doesn't work on the PS3. Why? Because it works by rumbling the controller - oh wait, the PS3 controllers don't rumble. What a waste.
** The Boss's motives take about an entire hour to explain as she tells her entire life story, then tells how she was the first person in outer space, then the Bay of Pigs, then she gave birth in the middle of fucking D-Day, and on and on and on it goes. Hilariously, right after you kill her, her motives are explained far more succinctly by Eva almost immediately during the ending, which actually does make sense.
*** Nobody invited the Brits?