Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater - It's Not Over Yet!

If the Metal Gear series proves anything, it's that success will generate a new installment with near certainty. Such is the case with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, released for the PlayStation 2 in 2004, three years after the previous installment, Sons of Liberty. While Metal Gear Solid 2 moved the story further into a rather unexpected territory, to say nothing of its infamous ending, the idea behind Metal Gear Solid 3, if my research is correct, was to respond to criticism of the previous game and bring the series into a more comfortable state. To accomplish this, it takes the rather bold move of being a prequel to the entire Metal Gear franchise, utilizing a new protagonist and setting while exploring a new core theme and setting. The idea is certainly intriguing and one in which the end result displays a wonderfully brilliant execution.

In 1964, during the Cold War, a FOX agent with the code name Naked Snake is sent on a mission, dubbed the Virtuous Mission, to the Soviet Union to rescue a Soviet scientist named Sokolov who had been working on a nuclear-equipped tank known as the Shagohod, which would have enough power to turn the tide of the Cold War. With assistance from other FOX members, Snake manages to get Sokolov out of a secret base without incident, until he hits a serious snag. Just as he and Sokolov are about to make their escape, The Boss, Snake's lifelong mentor and mother figure, takes Sokolov and defects to the Soviet Union along with the fellow members of her Cobra Unit. The Boss then beats the snot out of Snake and has him plunge to his supposed death off a rope bridge. As if that wasn't enough, she had also given two Davy Crockett nuclear missile shells to Colonel Volgin, who then uses one to blow the base they were stolen from as a cover up. Two years later, Snake is sent back to the Soviet Union by the FOX unit to clear its name and prevent World War III. This new mission, dubbed Operation Snake Eater, is to take out Volgin, the Shagohod, all of Cobra Unit and The Boss. Left with little choice, as well as an opportunity to redeem himself from his previous failure, Snake sets out to complete his mission.
The Shagohod
The plot this time around is much less convoluted than Sons of Liberty, which takes an incredible burden off the player's shoulders. Placing the time frame in the final years of the Cold War provides an interesting perspective on the franchise as the player witnesses how Naked Snake eventually becomes the ever important Big Boss that influences the events of the series. Although the string of events hits familiar territory, it's in this simplicity that I found it easy to take in what was going on, which thankfully didn't sacrifice any depth or storytelling capability. The main theme is how one's identity can be affected by the time and place someone lives in as well as how politics change with the times, though it is spread out pretty well across the very twist-laden game and interwoven with a look at the motivations, backgrounds and relationships of every important character (it even explains a little bit about the Patriots, who were introduced in the previous installment). This I liked, particularly for how memorable the events become as a result.

What helps the memorability are the bosses of the game, though most of them don't necessarily contribute anything to the plot or exploration of the core theme. However, they all still manage to have an identity that is unique to themselves. While it's a little difficult to speak of them individually from the whole, this becomes easier when you consider that they are each part of a group, since they are known for being from either the Cobra Unit or one of the major players around Volgin: Colonel Volgin himself, Ocelot and The Boss.

Cobra Unit (from left to right): The Pain, The Fear, The End,
The Boss/The Joy, The Sorrow and The Fury
Thus begins my discussion of the bosses, if you'll allow it, starting with the Cobra Unit. Originally assembled to combat the Axis Powers in World War II, each member has a code name that is symbolic of the emotion that they each carry into battle. The first that you fight is The Pain (Gregg Berger), aka the "Hornet Soldier", who attacks Snake in a cave by controlling a large swarm of hornets that he can assemble in any shape and use for any purpose, including, among other things, a Tommy Gun made of hornets that fires hornets as bullets while he uses assault armor made of hornets. As he is situated on a small island of rock, it is up to Snake to swim between two points and break the armor before he can inflict any damage to The Pain. The nature of this fight clues the player in on the fact that Snake must use his surroundings to his advantage in order to avoid taking a serious hit, in this case water, which will become an increasing necessity for each Cobra Unit member.

Due to DmC Devil May Cry interrupting my play session however, I'll admit that, while they are still very good boss fights, I used a couple of shortcuts to get past two of the Cobra Unit members (specifically the next two), if only due to my impatience at the point I continued playing. I regret doing so now, but what's done is done; I'll still try to discuss why they are great bosses anyway, with the shortcut in white text.

Following The Pain is The Fear (Michael Bell), aka the "Spider Solider", who is all about instilling fear into his enemies, which he does by shooting Snake with a poison crossbow immediately before the battle begins. When the fight becomes controllable, Snake has to cure himself and then try to somehow track The Fear's movements between the trees as he fires off salvo after salvo of crossbow bolts. From my research on the bosses, it appears that he has the most ways that people have come up with for easily beating him non-lethally, although trying to take him out lethally can still be a challenge that requires great tracking and aiming skills (the way I did the fight was, in order: Cure, Fake Death Pill, Revival Pill when he looks away, Stun Grenade without alerting him, AK-47 now that lethal weapons in this small window can drain stamina instead).

The next Cobra Unit member to face however is The End (Grant Albrecht), aka the "Ancient Sniper", who is easily one of the best bosses from the entire game since now it is heavily strategy-oriented as Snake now has to track him down across three areas of a particularly large area of the jungle. Being able to find him and deal damage is rewarding in itself, its length dependent on the player's patience and nerves as he tries to kill you with tranquilizer rounds (in my impatience however, I instead decided to use the trick of putting the system clock forward enough to make him die of old age. Like Snake, I really regret not giving the old man a good fight).

As I got more engrossed in the story again, I fought The Fury (Richard Doyle), aka the "Flame Solider", a former cosmonaut who attacks Snake with pure fire. His battle takes place in a darkened set of hallways in which you must attack by sneaking around to shoot him, the mere sight of you being enough to provoke him into a full on fire fight (pun intended). This becomes a test of sneaking ability as well as the power to react quickly to run away and recover before trying to attack again. Later on is the next fight, which is against The Sorrow (David Thomas), aka the "Spirit Medium Soldier". His fight is easily the most unique in that inflicting physical damage to him isn't exactly the entire point. Explaining this however, would be a potential spoiler, but I will say that your play style may come back to bite you.

Colonel "Thunderbolt" Volgin
Two of the other bosses, Ocelot (Joshua Keaton) and Volgin (Neil Ross), are also very interesting, mainly in terms of character. Every time Snake comes face to face with Ocelot, there's always something the former has to say about the latter's gunplay, which ends up influencing the latter eventually becoming known as Revolver Ocelot of the future FOXHOUND unit. Ocelot's main boss fight emphasizes his growing love of the revolver and is interesting in that the two fight from across a small gorge. Volgin, on the other hand, is very content with fighting Snake in closed off areas, using his ability to channel electricity as a way to burn or even shoot Snake until he falls dead. Each of these fights, which emphasis reflexive ability, in the end game can get pretty intense and his character is especially fleshed out in these encounters.

All of this comes to a close however when Snake reaches the final encounter against The Boss (Lori Alan), aka The Joy aka "The Legendary Soldier". The fight against her requires Snake to take advantage of every skill he has spent the game honing in order to win. What makes this boss particularly memorable however is just how emotional it really is. As The Boss discusses the core theme of the game and her relationship with Naked Snake, the fight gains more meaning, particularly from its location, and it becomes more of a sign of just how Snake has grown throughout the entire mission. When it's all over though and the ending starts to play, the impact of her words as well as one specific moment are enough to make anyone cry from sadness, as I did.

While the gameplay remains largely the same from Sons of Liberty, it does improve upon what was introduced in that game by introducing the new Camouflage system. By changing the fatigues that Snake is wearing, the player is able to increase his Camo Index, the percentage of invisibility that he currently has depending on how he blends in with the background. Moving will momentarily drop the Camo Index and certain actions will determine how high the percentage goes, with crawling and wall hugging usually yielding the highest ones. This is a very interesting system that adds a whole new level to the stealth gameplay and I'm impressed that the game was able to pull it off well. However, I do have a couple of complaints about it. For one thing, it gets pretty annoying after a while to have to constantly go to the Survival Viewer and go through a couple of menus to switch what Snake is wearing, especially once the environments have a few different types blended into each other; in one instance I had to switch from a leaf camo to a brick camo and then an indoor camo. It is in these situations that players find a good camo shortcut that will work with most surfaces to save time (apparently people are most complacent with the Splitter face paint and Tiger Stripe uniform combination). The other thing is that, despite the immersion created by the system, the number didn't really prevent me from saving time by enacting yet another strategy: run through the environments and hope that not too many bullets hit me.

Camo Index (upper right)
Another system that's introduced is the Cure system, in which the player must heal all of Snake's wounds manually with supplies. As an extension, Snake can regenerate health, but the rate at which he does is entirely dependent on his Stamina, which can only be raised back up by eating food or saving and turning the game off for a little while. These are justified by the fact that the game takes place at the end of the Cold War and thus nanomachines haven't been invented yet in the timeline. However, like the camouflage system, you must flick through multiple screens in the Survival Viewer to heal Snake's wounds and eat the necessary food. After a while it too gets on my nerves a little, especially when I'm against someone like Volgin who hurts me practically every time he moves. Hopefully they improve upon these systems in a sequel.

One improvement is made to the ability to Stamina Kill bosses, which to say that you can defeat then non-lethally. While in Sons of Liberty this was merely an option so that the player can retain a pacifist run if they wish, Snake Eater actually rewards the player for doing so, usually in the form of a unique uniform for Snake, each with its own special ability. For example, defeating The Fear non-lethally awards the Spider Camo, which gives Snake an 80% Camo Index in most environments, but drains Stamina quickly. This actually gave me more of an incentive to do this, especially since finding Tranquilizer rounds is surprisingly easy, so I took advantage of it and stamina killed every boss (except The End) to reap the rewards.

Lastly, there's a new system known as CQC, aka Close Quarters Combat. CQC can be achieved while holding a weapon that will allow it, as indicated by the acronym being present on the scroll menu. Aside from full combat maneuvers, CQC has an advantage when sneaking up on an enemy, which can put them in a hold. While Snake has their defenses down, he can throw them to the ground, drag them as a human shield or even interrogate them for special information. CQC can even be used on some bosses, creating an opening for Snake to use whatever he wants against them. This addition was very helpful, since it expanded my tactical abilities well and generated new ideas on how to proceed through an area.

Instead of taking place in large complexes like the previous Metal Gear Solid titles, Snake Eater takes place in a very lush jungle with more varied environments. Admittedly the jungle is a very nice change of pace and puts Snake into new situations to alter the perspective of things, specifically that he is heading toward the enemy base rather than starting out in one. This helps maintain the intended feel of an early James Bond movie, in which Bond would encounter such scenery on his mission. What helps is that the environments are all impressively detailed, with the jungle in particular being rendered very realistically. It's not something you find all the time on a PS2 game and certainly not one as good looking. For this, Snake Eater does a really good job at pushing the limits of the system.

Lastly, the voice acting is top notch, with David Hayter voicing Naked Snake this time around in a performance that seems to top his Solid Snake from Sons of Liberty. The other voice actors, most of which I have listed, also do a fantastic job with really great performances that bring out the biggest traits of their characters. As for the music, Harry Gregson-Williams does it again in providing a score that matches the right tones at the right times. The oft-used Snake Eater theme song helps the Bond thing the game has going for itself, but I'll admit it was used maybe one too many times. It was interesting how it was used though, including its utilization in the part where Snake has to climb a really long ladder for about two (real time) minutes as a way to break the monotony.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a great improvement in the series. With a simpler but gripping and emotional story, good tweaks to certain features, memorable bosses and the introduction of a new interesting mechanic, it's a game that any fan of the Metal Gear franchise, or stealth games for that matter, will really enjoy. While a couple of things become a little annoying and the camouflage system is a little subjective in its execution, this game has certainly set its mark despite this as a true PS2 classic. Now I can't wait to play the next game to see if it will finally explain exactly who the Patriots are.

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