I've never read a Jane Austen novel. I've not watched The Maltese Falcon or Gone With the Wind, nor have I seen a single episode of The West Wing. And, while I'm confessing the gaps in my cultural CV, I've only just gotten around to playing Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
This lack of prior exposure is precisely the reason I've been chosen to handle this review. With the recent release of the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection, we've already had one retrospective critique – so why not get a fresh of eyes to assess the whole shebang for the first time? Obviously the quality of the port also needs to be taken into account, so for comparative purposes I've also spent some time with last month's high-def outing.
It's quite strange coming to a game like this for the first time. Hideo Kojima has his detractors, especially when discussing Metal Gear Solid 4, but the broad consensus is that Snake Eater is something of a masterpiece, the strongest entry in a vintage series. It's impossible to shrug off this reputation, as the case always is when you're dealing with a classic. Part of you worries that you won't like it, and that this will lead to bitter recrimination from your peers – eventually resulting in you moving to a tiny wooden shack on a cliff top somewhere, far from civilization. At the same time, another part of you actively hopes that the Emperor will show up without his clothes, just so you can knock him down to size. See? I knew it was rubbish all along! That's why I never bothered with it.
As a result of this neurosis, a good portion of my early time with Snake Eater 3DS consisted of me obsessing over every fresh item, enemy and gameplay feature I came across – and what with this being Hideo Kojima's work, there's an awful lot to take in. The game doesn't really begin until you've been playing for at least an hour, and in those first 60 minutes you're showered with mechanics, gadgets and plot exposition. Ostensibly, your job is to guide Naked Snake through a Russian jungle so he can rescue a defecting scientist; in practical terms, your real objective is to learn how to survive.
There are patrolling guards to evade and subdue, but even this relatively familiar task is complicated by dozens of combat options in various lethal and non-lethal flavours. There's a camouflage system that requires you to tweak your appearance every time the scenery changes. Aside from his health, Snake also has a separate stamina bar that must be topped up with food, which in turn must be gathered by hunting wild animals (which might attack you) or fruit (which probably won't). Some of these improvised snacks can make you ill, and even the digestible stuff varies in its nutritional value. Among other things, Snake Eater 3D has taught me that hornets nests are super delicious – but since it also features a character who can turn bees into a kind of insect-based assault rifle (a bee-bee gun, perhaps?), I'm not sure how far I'd trust this claim.
By today's standards the game doesn't do a particularly stellar job of explaining all these bells and whistles, one of the few shortfalls that underscores its identity as a product of the last generation. Now we're all used to being led by the nose through endless tutorials, and subsequently though challenges that escalate gently, only taxing us in their closing moments, if at all. Snake Eater largely leaves us to our own devices, and while there's a spread of verbose NPCs who'll happily dispense advice over Snake's radio, these conversations often have Lucky Dip-like qualities: they might shed light on the problem at hand, but they're just as likely to waffle on about something else entirely. The voice acting and characterisation is extremely well-done, but true to Kojima's notoriety, conversations tend to drag on. In practical terms, your best bet is to get on with things - to play around until you work out how and why Snake might use a microphone in the middle of a Soviet jungle.
But if this sounds like a criticism, think again. To an extent, Snake Eater is the story of a cocky young pup who learns what truly makes a soldier – and that lesson is as applicable to you as it is to our gravelly protagonist. As I say, the opening hour is somewhat lacking in true thrills, but shortly after that the game evolves into something wonderful, in the sincerest sense of the word. From this point on you're given increasingly free reign to approach your objectives as you wish. Do you want to play Snake as an angel of death – a nightmare who snipes lowly guards in the head, or blows them away with a point-blank shotgun blast? Or would you rather be a sneaky pacifist, putting your foes to sleep with tranquillisers? Destroying an ammo dump will make your foes wary, or you can starve them into a weakened state by blowing up their food supplies. If you're really mean, you can even capture tarantulas and throw them in someone's face.
Remarkably, this flexibility extends to the game's boss battles. Again, I'd been primed to expect great things from these encounters. I'd heard so much about the sniper battle with The End, so many breathless plaudits, that when I finally get to meet the old bugger it felt like I was about to meet the Queen. Or assassinate her, perhaps. Either way, I was surprised by just how engaging these fights turned out to be. It's not just the creativity of the set-ups involved, though that certainly contributes to their memorable nature; it's also the fact that there's usually a spread of ways to beat them. When confronted by The Fear – a tree-loving contortionist who hops about with a Predator-like cloak – you can choose to engage him head on, or lure him into a series of traps. Hell, you can even kill him with food poisoning, if you find the right approach.
And as outlandish as these characters seem with their freakshow demeanours, they ultimately fit within the universe. These X-Men rejects slot perfectly into Snake Eater's blend of Cold War history, anti-nuke sentiment and pop culture musings, accompanied by the odd (slightly uncomfortable) moment of irrelevant smut. I've no idea how Kojima keeps track of it all, but it works. And beyond that, he succeeds in telling a good story – not just good in the "acceptable for a video game" sense, but a genuinely decent yarn. There's a sense of cohesion here that surpasses the original Metal Gear Solid, the only previous entry in the series that I've played.