Ah, the turbulent 60’s: First man to walk on the moon, the rise and fall of JFK, Martin Luther King, The Beatles becoming bigger than Jesus, the death of Walt Disney, Vietnam and the Cold War.
Everyone has a tendency to return to their roots when they feel lost or unsure of where to go, or what to do next. Hideo Kojima has done just that with Metal Gear Solid 3, after Sons of Liberty repelled just as many as it enraptured. MGS2 was so dense with themes of morality, and drowning in dialogue, that an extreme reaction seemed to be the only way to clarify your own thoughts on the title – love it or hate it.
Though some may expect the universal panning of Raiden to cause Kojima to shift focus, the reverse is actually true. You only need to probe ten minutes into MGS3 to see that this is just as much a character study, and introduces as many new faces as any of his previous works.
Centred very much around the Cold War ‘us VS them’ mindset, which was prevalent at the time, MGS3 doesn’t attempt to skirt defining events in history, but rather weaves them into the story by way of an unseen espionage. Thought you knew everything about the Cuban Missile Crisis? Think again, there are unspoken technologies and wild theories bubbling here, all ready to be communicated via Codec and through filmic cut-scenes.
Big Boss is your avatar now, and although he is designated Snake, and resembles the familiar character in appearance and tone, avid fans know his real identity. The first half an hour or so of MGS3 is played out in a prologue of sorts, introducing you to new gameplay elements whilst firmly cementing the story to come.
Your initial mission is to retrieve a weapons technician named Sokolov, who attempted to defect to the U.S, but through a tangled web of red-tape and covert dealings, found his way back into Soviet hands. The initial volume of cut-scenes and dialogue sounds out like a warning siren, sparking fears that Kojima is either unwilling or unable to haul in his worst excesses, although thankfully these ease off considerably after an hour or two of play.
Changes are immediately evident, and make for an encouraging range of possibilities. There’s no radar, only a battery powered ‘sonar’ device which, in the easier modes, can be used as a replacement scanner, but emits an enemy alerting noise and will eventually run out of power. Select your pistol and switch to first-person aiming to notice another welcome addition, or, rather, subtraction; there is no laser targeting. Landing tranquiliser darts effectively is no longer such a simple task, although those clouseu-esque spies playing on ‘very easy’ will find themselves equipped with a laser-sighted, electric tazer.
Silencers now degrade with each shot; another touch which will please those who know their weapons. This can provide an interesting trade-off between tranquilising enemies at a distance, or saving the silencer’s condition for trickier times, attempting to utilize your skill and the new camo index to get within a knife’s reach.
Camouflage itself is a simple process. Even on the highest difficulty level, the camo index will inform you how much of a plus or minus percentage alteration various paints or clothing will make from your current selection. The result of these combinations remains displayed in the top right corner of the screen, altering depending on your stance and surroundings. New uniforms are to be made available online, and there are those which remain well hidden within the game itself, for completists to seek out.
Much has also been made of the food system; rations in MGS3 are few and far between, and unlike before, they won’t replenish your health, but rather the new stamina gauge. Stamina will decrease gradually over time, or more quickly depending on your physical exertions, the length of the gauge influencing (among other things) how long you can grip to a ledge or swim underwater. When the gauge is full your health will gradually replenish, while allowing it to fall too low will affect Snake’s vision and the stability of his aiming, so you’ll want to keep a ready supply of food.
This is easily done, with snakes, frogs, rabbits, birds and fruit littering the landscape, but be careful to capture animals alive with a tranquiliser dart, otherwise the food will quickly spoil, leaving you with lasting nausea rather than a stamina boost. Some will taste better than others, of course, but rather than eating a Tarantula or Scorpion, you could throw them into a guard’s path and watch the resulting mayhem.
In another of Kojima’s innovative touches, time you spend away after saving the game can still influence factors within the gaming world, so don’t be surprised if you load up a week later and find yourself with a backpack of spoiled food.
The same also goes for injuries; if you find yourself too badly damaged and without sufficient medical supplies, save the game and load up a few days later to find your wounds if not healed, then certainly less severe. Like the food and camouflage systems before it, the injury system provides an interesting new dimension to play, without hampering the core MGS experience.
As you suffer injuries, your life gauge will be split into white and red, the red indicating wounds which need attention before life can be restored, even at a high stamina level. Entering the ‘Cure’ menu displays a standing figure of Snake with the wounds highlighted around his body by circles. You can move between these and treat each one according to the injury and your supplies: splints for a broken leg, ointment and bandages for burns, a knife to dig out a bullet, then disinfectant and a suturing kit to close the wound.
While it sounds drastic, the actual influence on gameplay is quite small; you can perform such surgery even during a battle, and will suffer no ill effects for walking around with a splint supported leg. The entire system merely helps add to the flavour of basic survival and isolation in a harsh environment.
Close combat has been tweaked with a new system known as CQC, making good use of the Dualshock2’s analogue buttons. When grabbing an enemy from behind, applying gentle pressure will keep your hold on them, but a firm press of the circle button will command Snake to mercilessly slash their throat, while pushing away with the stick then jabbing circle will cause him to throw them.
These are the most basic commands, but those adept with the system will be able to interrogate enemies for information, use them as human shields, and snap necks with the best of them.
All of which presents a very rosy picture, of course. Especially considering that the vast majority of these new systems, stamina, food, and CQC, are brought to bear in boss battles, leading to some decidedly interesting experiences with extended play.
An issue many will have with the game, however, is not one that requires you to look beyond the surface – indeed, it makes itself fully known the instant you start to play. Simply put, MGS3 has an unfriendly camera. It favours a North view, which means that if you are heading in any direction other than that you may find yourself running against the edge of the screen, and unless you periodically switch into FPS view, charging into the unknown. Some degree of control can be exerted via the right control stick, a press of the stick then locking the view in position when you’ve found the right angle. Disconcerting though it is for a AAA title like MGS3 to have such an ill-judged camera system, and this is an issue which chiefly affects gameplay, though you do learn to strike a truce with it over time – although this coupled with the first narrative heavy two hours may turn an unfair number away, never to sample the heights which this title later hits.
Initial impressions certainly suggest that fans of the series will find much to enjoy here, and those who were soured by Sons of Liberty may also find their plaudits swaying back to Kojima’s corner. The jungle environment is alive and interesting, a distant cousin to MGS2’s often criticized Big Shell locale, and it seems likely that this may help Snake Eater become the most ‘mainstream’ MGS title yet – not by virtue of being a revolution, but rather by breathing much needed new life back into the series.