"No massive conspiracies revolving around a staged oil spill and its subsequent cleanup structure, no horribly wrong talk of genetics and cloning, just a cool backstory that gives you a reason for being there and a reason for kicking ass."
I didn't really have high hopes for Metal Gear Solid 3, and I can understand why so many people are reluctant to give it a try. Even if you can put aside your memories of the series' heavily flawed second entry, you can't deny the fact that video-game jungles have a long track record of sucking ass. From the wretched mural of puke that that Goldeneye developer Rare tried to pass off as Cuba to the bland, boring and dull forest toward the end of Contra: Shattered Soldier, they pretty much all blow. All I had to do was put two and two together, really; an MGS game comprised almost entirely of jungle had to suck.
Somehow, though, I was wrong. Snake Eater's forest is an entirely different beast than almost any other before it thanks to the fact that it isn't repetitive slop. Every little bit of the game has a distinct feel to it, from the less-than-sturdy rope bridges you encounter early on to the murky swamps and booby-trapped clearings that surround the Graniny Gorki (it's Russian) research complex. It all looks fantastic, too. Patches of grass hiding everything from pythons to frogs crinkle and snap when Snake crawls through them, while dirt and mulch fly into the air whenever a Soviet sentry's lifeless corpse slumps to the uneven ground. Also helping matters is the mess of critters littered about the landscape; MGS3's bestiary ranges from flying squirrels to white-rumped vultures (yes, the game specifies), and all of them can be captured by Snake for later feasting. Suffice to say, it's pretty far removed from that Goldeneye junk.
Backing up the suprisingly nuanced level design is an all-new combat system that's a massive improvement over that punch-punch-kick crap featured in past MGS games. The new close-quarters combat stuff, intuitively mapped around just one button, works fantastically; Snake can interrogate guards, slam them into the ground, slice their throats, use them as human shields... you name it, he can probably do it. The camouflage system is fun, too. Different decorations such as a snow facepaint or a desert outfit suit different locales perfectly, and nothing's more satisfying than a guard walking right by you thanks to your camo concealing you in plain sight. The items you can get are equally gratifying, like a revolver you can ricochet bullets off walls and into people with and a life-sized crocodile cap that... uh... that's really neat.
Also neat is the variety of ways in which you can employ your tools, as Snake Eater is a surprisingly freeform game despite masquerading as a stealth title. You could, for instance, deliberately work your way up the helicopter-patrolled mountain range, taking advantage of all the little nooks and crannies for cover and silently capping any in-the-way guards with your suppressed pistol. On the other hand, you could simply brandish your shotgun and smash your way to the top while an energetic 60s spy-movie type of tune blares in the background, reveling in your Rambo-esque "no camouflage" choice and utilizing heavy gun emplacements along the way to swat any annoying flies. Oh, and the white-rumped vultures I mentioned earlier? They're out in full force here, and will peck away at the innards of any Soviet lackey you send to an early grave. That, folks, is awesome.
Equally awesome is the oddball Cobra Unit, a team of psychotic supersoldiers lying in wait to ambush Snake. Consider The Fear: this freak maniacally hops around the thick, elevated foliage trying to snipe you with his poison-tipped crossbow bolts. If he hits you, you'd better dig the bolt out hastily or it might set in for good... it doesn't affect your abilities, but there's something demoralizing about the having a crossbow bolt lodged in your nuts for the entire game. Stopping him will require you to look closely and spot where he's knocking down the leaves or, preferably, have a "meal" of poison mushrooms waiting for him when his antics make him hungry. I'm sure you've read about elderly sniper The End by now, too; your musicless, hour-long duel with him is every bit as enthralling as it's made out to be, and allows for all sorts of clever tactics such as using your thermal goggles to track his footprints in the dirt.
My favorite Cobra, though, is The Fury, a deranged cosmonaut decked out with a flamethrower and a jetpack who's intent on making Snake feel "the burning flames of his rage". He assaults Snake in an eerie, dark aqueduct lit only by the gusts of fire spewing forth from this jet-black Major Tom's devices. It might not be possible to save the local mice from being roasted, and the Rambo approach may work all too well on Normal (you should play Hard your first time through if you think you're up to it), but higher difficulties will require you to develop a sleuthy plan of attack, slinking about the cavernous tunnel's pillars and ledges in an attempt to outwit him. Better yet is the music accompanying the duel, a haunting and subdued song that gradually becomes speedy yet still off-putting as the battle rages on.
Plus, he won't spew a bunch of philosophical bullshit when you beat him, as MGS3 sports a far more refined story than either of the two games preceding it. It may still be a bit overbearing, sure, but Snake Eater's tale of Cold War espionage is different from Sons of Liberty's in that one crucial way: it doesn't suck. You'll find no stepmom shtupping or talking arms in this game. Actually, its plot is quite simple: the newly formed FOX unit is tasked with destroying an experimental Soviet weapon, the "treading behemoth" capable of launching undetectable nukes known as the Shagohod, as well as rescuing the scientist who designed it and assassinating the man who wants to mass-produce it. The rugged commando codenamed Snake, of course, is the only guy who can pull it off.
That's it. No massive conspiracies revolving around a staged oil spill and its subsequent cleanup structure, no horribly wrong talk of genetics and cloning, just a cool backstory that gives you a reason for being there and a reason for kicking ass. It works well, and the plot's human aspect comes together in particularly fine form... a genuine surprise after MGS2's lot of pointless people. The sadistic GRU Colonel Volgin, who in one scene beats Snake around so hard that he vomits, is a way better villain than that bisexual vampire ninja was, and Revolver Ocelot's appearance as a young, idealistic sharpshooter is far more intriguing than his MGS2 role as an aged lackey of some secret society. While the story doesn't twist as much in past MGS games (a good thing), the engaging characters make it so that when unexpected things do happen -- and they will -- you'll actually care.
Unfortunately, not all is perfect in Snake Eater land. The camera angles, while certainly manageable, force you to go into first-person view a bit more often than should be necessary. The camouflage system, while rewarding, can occasionally become a chore due to the extraneous menu-diving it evokes (why no quick-select?). Having to cure your wounds, while initially amusing, will eventually become a bother when you have to SCUBA through the pause screen two or three times per battle to cure gunshot wounds. Basically, MGS3 suffers from a handful of minor flaws that can sometimes add up and make the experience a bit more jarring than it should have been (sort of like this paragraph); you'll get over them, sure, but they can be offputting nonetheless.
Despite such aggravations, though, this is such a polished, such a refined, such an immensely and unexpectedly improved game that I can't help but love it. The freeform gameplay, excellent level design, improved combat and exhilarating duels with the bizarre Cobra Unit add up to one hell of a time, and the sublime graphics, surprisingly entertaining story and spectacular music certainly don't hurt. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater might not be perfect, but it's still a fantastic game; don't make the mistake I almost did and not give it a well-deserved chance.
Staff review by John L (February 20, 2005)
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