263. TMTF Reviews: Metal Gear Solid 3

The year is 1964. The Cold War, a state of political tension between the US and the Soviet Union, has pushed the world’s greatest military powers to the brink of nuclear warfare. All it will take to ignite a third World War is one wrong move.

When America’s most legendary soldier, The Boss, defects to the Soviet Union and hands over a nuclear weapon to a renegade Soviet colonel, things look pretty grim. The rogue colonel promptly nukes a Soviet installation, kidnaps a rocket scientist and develops an experimental tank known as the Shagohod. The USSR blames the US for these incidents, and World War III seems inevitable.

Then the Soviet Union gives America one chance to prove its innocence and avert nuclear war. A lone American operative must rescue the rocket scientist, destroy the Shagohod and kill The Boss. Only Naked Snake, The Boss’s tough-as-nails apprentice, can kill her and prevent nuclear catastrophe from consuming the world.

So, you know, no pressure.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a prequel to Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, games I reviewed for this blog. It’s been fun, and it seems appropriate to end this blog’s run of Metal Gear reviews with the story that starts it all. (There are more Metal Gear games, but I’ll spare my readers further reviews.)

How does MGS3 stack up to its predecessors? Is it the same delightful mix of sneaking, shooting and hiding in cardboard boxes? Does its director, Hideo Kojima, give us the same storytelling problems, gameplay frustrations and pointless sexual objectification?

MGS3

It has its share of problems, yet Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is an exceptionally brilliant game.

Naked Snake, forebear to Solid Snake from previous games in the series, is probably the toughest son of a gun I’ve seen in any video game—and speaking of guns, the game has its share of them. The older Snake uses the same weapons, equipment and moves as his successor… including hiding in cardboard boxes, those bastions of battlefield invisibility.

In a neat twist, MGS3 strips away many of the high-tech “luxuries” of previous games. There is no radar, for example, and silencers on guns wear out quickly. Naked Snake has to sneak around the old-fashioned way. Fortunately, he has a new trick—or an old one, technically speaking—up his sleeve: camouflage. Uniforms and face paints can be used to blend into environments.

This brings me to the next point of interest: MGS3 takes place mostly outdoors. Previous games took place in military bases and industrial plants. I was delighted to trade dreary hallways for swamps, jungles and mountains. It’s no longer enough for players to sneak around—they must survive.

To this end, MGS3 introduces two neat gameplay mechanics to the familiar Metal Gear formula of sneaking and shooting.

The first is a Stamina Gauge, which depletes slowly over time. Low Stamina prevents Snake from aiming steadily or recovering from injuries. He must scour his environments for food, eating everything from mushrooms to serpents. (The game is called Snake Eater. What did you expect?) Before you ask: Yes, Snake can feed on a tree frog.

The second clever gameplay twist is a Cure System. Players can no longer simply restore health—they must treat Snake’s individual injuries. Bullet wound? Dig out the bullet with a survival knife, disinfect the wound, stop the bleeding and put on a bandage. Severe burn? Apply ointment. Broken bone? Use a splint.

I loved the Stamina Gauge. It encouraged me to pay attention to my surroundings, searching for potential sources of food. The Cure System was a mixed bag. As much as I appreciated the (relative) realism of treating injuries over simply restoring health with items, it was a pain—especially during boss battles—to open up the Cure System screen repeatedly.

As for those boss battles, MGS3 has by far the best yet. Every Metal Gear game has its own band of memorable, supervillain-esque baddies. This game has the Cobra Unit, whose members are equal parts terrifying, ridiculous and that word I can’t use.

Cobra UnitEach battle is wonderfully different and totally absurd. Whether a deranged beekeeper was spitting bees at me or a Soviet cosmonaut was trying to burn me to ashes, I had a blast fighting the Cobras.

The best (and worst) battle was against The End: the old man with the sniper rifle in the picture above. It was probably the most creative boss fight I’ve ever experienced.

Most boss encounters are quick, spectacular and confined to small arenas. By contrast, The End disappears into a huge forest and attacks from great distances. There is no music, no obvious target and no clear strategy for winning. It’s a long game of hide-and-seek in which the player has only faint hints of where The End may be hiding: fading footprints, faint breathing, the glint from a rifle scope. It was frustrating to fight The End, but also totally unlike anything I’d ever played in a video game.

Previous Metal Gear games felt like futuristic Tom Clancy thrillers, packed with nanomachines and political conspiracies. MGS3 feels more like a classic James Bond movie, with larger-than-life villains, femme fatales and an oddly nostalgic atmosphere. I found the Cold War setting and numerous historical allusions fascinating.

MGS1 had a plot packed with twists and turns. MGS2 boasted a narrative that spun off in daring, postmodern and—dare I say?—incomprehensible directions. MGS3 outdoes both its predecessors. Its story is straightforward and occasionally laughable—equal parts James Bond films, Marvel comics and eighties action movies—yet ends with surprising poignancy. As a prequel to the Metal Gear series, it’s a fine place for players to start.

MGS3 certainly has its flaws. Like every other game by Hideo Kojima, the story gets unnecessarily complicated. There are objectionable elements such as drunkenness, skimpy outfits and mild vulgarity. The learning curve is steep. Oh, and in case you hadn’t guessed it, the game is kind of violent.

All the same, I enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater tremendously. It has enough history to be interesting, enough absurdity to be hilarious and enough good level design and brilliant gameplay to keep players engaged from beginning to end. MGS3 is a fine story and an even better game, so long as you have an appetite for snakes and tree frogs.

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