This time we’re headed to 1964 in the series’ first prequel, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (something something blowjobs…) MGS3 has you filling the boots of legendary soldier Big Boss, the antagonist of the first two games and the person of which ordinary protagonist, Solid Snake, was cloned from. MGS3 introduced a number of changes and departed from a lot of the series’ conventions. It was met with a somewhat smaller hype train during its release period, likely because a lot of fans were left puzzled by the sheer mindfuck that was MGS2. Still, it amassed significant critical acclaim and was generally taken as a return to form, with a lot of people considering it the best game in the series.
As a change of pace I’m going to start by going into the most radically different aspect of MGS3 and that is, simply, atmosphere. The MGS series until now has always been set a couple of years ahead of its release date, creating a sort of light sci-fi tone all wrapped up in a futuristic spy-fiction aesthetic. The big inspirations for the series were films like Escape from L.A., The Terminator, Total Recall, and others. MGS3, on the other hand, brings us back to the Cold War and instead takes its inspiration from older spy fiction, the likes of the early James Bond films and action flicks like The Deer Hunter. The whole feel of the game shifted from the heavy blues and weird oranges of the futuristic high tech facilities to mostly greens and browns in dense jungles and military research buildings. It’s a welcome change of pace.
It’s an interesting choice given the philosophical antics of its predecessor. The game almost plays like an apology for upsetting the core fanbase, with the cutscenes toned back in favour of longer more deliberate periods of uninterrupted gameplay and there’s even some playful jabs at the unpopularity of the last protagonist, Raiden. There is still the occasional fourth wall break and some suggestive themes if you want to go looking for them, but its very much the side pallet rather than the meaty mind-food the last game spent all of its free time throwing at you. An early example is that one of the first bits of dialogue has an exchange between Big Boss, under the codename Naked Snake (I genuinely can’t tell if this innuendo is purposeful) and Major Zero. Zero says the “Virtuous mission” and Snake replies “Virtual Mission?” It’s a playful throwback to MGS2. Kojima continues to expand and develop a fictional video game universe with it’s own sort of logical consistency.
See, the previous games were science fiction and speculated on technologies and potential dynamics that could spur the conflicts of the game, but this is set in the Cold War, which as we know, actually happened. So at some point in the game, the history that we’re aware of shifted to allow for the events of the Metal Gear games. Before MGS3 came out, it would have been assumed that this happened around 1995 with the development of the first Metal Gear, the TX-55. (That thing.) But with MGS3, Kojima extends the lore of his universe all the way back to the 60’s. It’s a really daring and ambitious move. It’s still a video game, and its still speculative fiction, but fleshing out Big Boss’s backstory adds layers of depth to the mythology of the world that wasn’t there before. And you know, you could argue that the series didn’t exactly need more complexity (*cough*) but if you’re into that sort of thing (and if you’ve made it this far, I assume you are) it’s a really great direction to take the series.
Right about now I hear you begging for my evidence to support my hypothesis that even MGS3 carries the theme that everything is just a big video game world that the characters are ironically unaware of. Well, this one is actually a lot simpler, in a lot of ways. For starters there are no tropical rainforests in Russia. (Seriously, this blew my mind). The whole setting is fictitious, and I think, designed to represent the disparity between the Metal Gear universe and ours. Second, there’s a dude who makes a gun out of bees and uses it to shoot bees at you. I top-loaded this write-up with the philosophy stuff suggested in the game because frankly there isn’t much to work with. It seems like the criticisms levelled at MGS2 really gave Kojima quite a fright because MGS3 sticks mostly to the more traditional areas of world-building and, well, plot, as opposed to all that postmodernism stuff. Although, honestly, this game may be grounded more in realism than any of the others and yet it still waves the banner of batshit insanity prouder and more unashamedly than any of them. If you took even a cursory look at the thematic underpinnings of MGS2 you’d have to conclude that all of this isn’t coincidental, but rather a concerted effort to continue and extend the themes of the previous games… Or you know, maybe Kojima is just a bloody lunatic who really likes messing with people. Either way, let’s move onto the technical changes before I give myself an aneurysm.
Firstly, graphics. You’d be hard pressed to find a game with better graphics on the PS2. This game looks impeccable, probably better than quite a few games from the next generation of consoles. The cutscenes utilize motion capture so everybody moves believably (erm… mostly) and there’s actually a decent amount of expressiveness in the facial models. The voice acting is pretty solid, particularly fan-favourite David Hayter who manages to convince us that we are playing a different Snake, but my seal of approval goes to Lori Alan for her role as The Boss. There’s a decent variation in setting too, from jungles to deserts to factories. The GUI is nice and suitably retro. The game just has a really interesting visual style that acts as a neat contrast to the other Metal Gear games.
However good the graphics are, the really outstanding part of this game’s technical achievements is the soundtrack. It really feels like a labour of love, with Harry Gregson-Williams returning in top form to compose some truly amazing pieces of music. Have a listen to how cleverly it evokes the setting and mood of the game, while subtly referencing spy-themes from the 60’s.
So what about the gameplay? It’s different. I will say that MGS3 was definitely the cleanest game up to this point. The mechanics are very intuitive, easily understood, consistent and generally it just makes fewer mistakes than its predecessors. Having said that (*raises controversy shield*) I preferred the feel of MGS2. MGS2 (and MGS1) took place mostly indoors, so you spent a lot of your time with your back to walls, peeking around corners, carefully planning your movements to sprint to your next cover point. In MGS3 you spend most of your time on your belly, hidden in some grass. You have a camouflage index that tells you how well you’ve blended into your environment and you can change your camo pattern at any time. It makes for some very cautious, methodical gameplay. Which is great, I love MGS3. Don’t get me wrong, I just prefer the indoor infiltration. MGS3 certainly works as something different though, it still feels like a Metal Gear game, you still get those wonderful moments of tension when somebody patrols very close to your hiding-spot. The absence of the Soliton radar was also a great decision, it’s a lot more engaging when you manually have to scope out your adversaries with your binoculars rather than having all the information handed to you. I will also say that the level design is endlessly better. The areas are larger and in general, laid out a lot better. There are always multiple ways to progress creating mini sandboxes that forces you to stay on your toes and cleverly navigate areas with a decent variety of options available to you. Maybe you want to crawl through the airvents to stay away from the danger, maybe you want to risk a detour to a supply shed to restock your ammunition, maybe you want to take a more hands on approach and sneak your way to a light machine gun installation. Also, the game finally has a sensible difficulty curve. It took them five attempts but this is the first Metal Gear game that gets more difficult as you progress through the game, utilizing continuously clever and varied level design.
Like I said, in general there’s just fewer mistakes. The optional side-quest now involves shooting little hidden plastic frogs, which is a minor and reasonably easy excursion (much better than those godawful dogtags from MGS2). Going through the game without killing anybody is now a totally valid playstyle, which is a really nice touch. Mechanically, not much has changed except that you now have a much better range of abilities when it comes to melee combat. Snake utilizes what’s called CQC (close-quarters combat) so beyond the usual punch-punch-kick combo and chokehold you can now throw enemies to the ground, knocking them out, and you have more options available once you enter a chokehold. It’s very cool, everything from the stance to the judo throws become really iconic aspects of the series from this point on. However, I also think the sheer mechanics of the game favour indoor infiltration. It’s incredibly frustrating and totally illogical that Snake is unable to move while crouched. You didn’t really need that feature in the urban environments but when stalking through the grass it’s silly that you have to be either very vulnerable and fully standing up or completely prone and moving at a snail’s pace. The camera was originally the same top down camera of the earlier games but this was thankfully updated to a more sensible third-person camera in all of the re-releases. I also thought the equip system started to show its age here, tapping the weapon or item equip button instantly removes or equips whatever the last thing you were using, meaning you can instantly dematerialize and rematerialize an RPG launcher, notably also removing the need to ever manually reload. A rare lapse in immersion (well, at least as far as the gameplay is concerned).
There’s also a new stamina bar that you need to top up by eating food that you can hunt from your environment. I loved this system. It helped to develop Snake’s character as a sort of rugged outdoorsman too, and I really love when gameplay marries nicely with narrative. There’s also a cure system that lets you treat serious injuries by using suture kits, disinfectant, styptic, bandages etc. It didn’t add much depth but it was still a pretty neat feature. The radio cast were also really helpful this time around, you definitely use them more in this game because they serve a useful function outside of exposition and plot. Para-medic tells you which foods are poisonous and gives you advice on navigating the environment. Sigint helps you out with camouflage and weaponry.
Before I go onto the plot, the boss-battles in this game definitely deserve some attention. These are not only some of the best bosses in the series, but some of the best of all time. Snake faces off against the Cobra Unit, the former comrades of his old mentor, The Boss. Throughout the game you will shoot an invisible, crossbow wielding spider-man down from the treetops, battle an angry cosmonaut with a flamethrower, drift by the ghosts of all the people you have murdered in an eerie river, wrestle a sadistic colonel who can shoot lightning out of his hands and, my personal favourite, engage in a lengthy sniper battle with an old man and his parrot. Remember when I said this game is grounded in realism? Look, I think MGS1 probably has the most memorable bosses and general atmosphere. The jaded FOXHOUND unit you go up against introduced a strange, almost supernatural element, and it really worked. It suited the campy, spy-movie style they were going for. MGS3 also has good bosses, but it does push things a little far. I mean, there’s camp and then there’s a man lifting a contortionist holding a scientist onto a helicopter with a cloud of bees. I just… *sigh* I like MGS3. A lot. And I love the boss battles. But it fills me with the same sort of ambivalence that MG2 did. I’m on board with a fist-fight on top of minefield but poisonous Zanzibar hamsters are taking things too far dammit!
So what’s it all about? Well it basically follows the same formula as all the other games, although you may not have noticed the extent to which it does. Essentially MG2 established the structure, MGS1 rehashed it in a 3D in environment, MGS2 copied it for plot purposes (SSS plan) and MGS3 just uses the same basic structure for the sake of familiarity and nostalgia but introduces enough new elements to make it seem very fresh and novel. The gist of it is Snake is sent on a mission, equipment is procured on site, your main mission is to investigate and destroy a newly developed nuclear-armed tank, but you also have to rescue the scientist who designed it. Along the way you meet a feisty girl character who you have to escort at some point and there’s also a loose cannon character who helps you sometimes but there’s also a rivalry going on. There’s also a final confrontation with somebody who you have a close relationship with.
MGS3 moves storytelling to the forefront in a way the others didn’t. It actually works as a standalone game, although there are still plenty of references for the fans, especially one scene where you meet a Russian weapons designer with blueprints for his theoretical bipedal tanks. MGS4 actually goes quite a long way towards tying MGS3 really satisfyingly into the other games, to the point where almost every character in MGS3 becomes significant later on. It’s also a lot of fun to see Ocelot as a young guy. In MGS2 you find out he’s a quadruple agent, it’s so crazy it gets to the point where it seems like he just gets a kick out of adding numbers to his agent status. I mean he becomes a quadruple agent to achieve the same goals as he would have had he remained a double agent! (Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking about MGS2) It’s neat to see him so young because it characterises him as somebody who you really can’t work out his motives. Does he just like double-crossing people? Maybe he’s just crazy, but who cares? He’s a great character. He’s so unpredictable it’s hard not to love him.
What really makes MGS3 shine are the characters. Naked Snake is appreciably different from Solid Snake. Having played the first four games, it’s interesting to see Solid Snake’s transformation. At his inception, Kojima had very little to work with in terms of the limitations of the MSX. When the most you can give your character is a four line synopsis in the instruction manual “grim mercenary with a dark and mysterious past” is about as much as you can do. MG2 fleshed him out a bit more, made him more altruistic. MGS1 saw him voice acted for the first time so he really developed a personality, he was dark and mysterious but also quite funny at times, and never afraid to fight for what he believed in. MGS2 brought him forward quite a bit, when you have an impeccable super-spy what can you really do with that character? Well, you can kill him off or you can turn him into more of a mentor character, Kojima opting for the latter. Naked Snake is different. Kojima was able to give him more of a backstory and develop his personality right out of the gate. I think the fact that with time Kojima has become a better writer, combined with the fact that a character like Big Boss is easier to write for than Solid Snake just led to a winning combination. He’s more conventionally masculine, he’s a gun fanatic and he loves the survival aspects of the mission. But he also subverts certain masculine tropes in important ways, particularly how he remains stoic in the face of seduction. In fact, one of the things I really like about this game is how it evokes all of the best parts of old timey spy fiction but leaves all the negative parts behind. The main villain, for instance, happens to be bisexual, strangely one of the most level-headed approaches to sexuality I’ve seen in video games. The classic femme fatale is also given a fresh spin, she constantly tries to seduce Snake but at the conclusion it’s revealed that it was an act, she was a double agent under orders the entire time. Suddenly the scantily clad eye candy is shown as being completely in control. Most significant of all is The Boss. She’s a spectacular female heroine who is highly respected and considered the greatest soldier of her time. In fact her gender doesn’t really come into it. She’s one of my favourite characters in the series.
This is the first time I’ve played MGS3 having already played MG1 and MG2. One of the things I was curious about was how Kojima would shape the character of Big Boss into the cartoony, one-dimensional villain of the original games. And I was surprised, it’s actually very well written. The Boss’s speech at the end evokes Big Boss’s speech at the end of MG2. (“Whoever wins, our battle does not end. The loser is free from the battlefield, but the winner must remain there and the survivor must live his life as a warrior until he dies.” ) You start to see the gears of change turning in Big Boss, seeing how he may someday seek to preserve the integrity of soldiers at all costs. Boss talks about how soldiers can change sides like the winds change, today’s ally is tomorrow’s enemy. Countries change allegiances all the time, so can you ever call somebody a true enemy? She challenges the concept of patriotism. After, Snake finds out that she was true to her country until the very end, she goes down as a war criminal and a traitor when in truth she was a war hero and a patriot. It’s a very poignant moment and you can see it having a profound effect on Big Boss. Admittedly it’s simpler thematically than it’s predecessors but it’s so emotional and well told it’s hard to criticize it. It’s one of the high points in terms of sheer craft in the entire Metal Gear timeline.
That about sums up my thoughts on MGS3. I thought it was a really clever direction to bring the series, even though being the only person on the planet (besides Kojima) who actually liked Raiden I found some of the MGS2 bashing to be an oddly personal dig. I understand why he left the philosophical leanings behind him but MGS3 is still immensely satisfying as a nostalgia-tastic Bond-style spy game. It’s clever, progressive and represents a massive leap forwards in terms of tight, tidy gameplay and exceedingly well designed levels. I had a few nitpicky problems with it but overall I still think it’s a hell of a game. Now, onwards to a game that I’ve never actually played all the way through, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. Looking forward to this one. I leave you with the strange and wonderful theme song to MGS3, proudly embracing all of the campy goodness!