Hideo Kojima loves movies. After all, he's already made one on the PlayStation, overseen a Director's Cut on the GameCube (digitally remastered), and now has favoured the PS2 with his second magnum opus on that system.
It's a familiar war cry from his detractors; the man doesn't make games, he makes movies masquerading as games. Lengthy codec screens dictate convoluted plot, chirping in every five steps, while the seething player hammers their 'X' button in search of another slice of actual gameplay. Elaborate cutscenes revel in thematic excesses; swooping angles, slow motion and wannabe cool sound bytes demand to be admired. We are battered by a thousand trite speeches all aching to be quoted, discussed and immortally remembered.
While it might be premature to say that Kojima has tempered his enthusiasm, it can be said that much has been improved here; unfortunately, you'll need to endure the first two hours or so to see it. Rather than peppering the game with constant Codec conversations like MGS2, Kojima throws as much exposition as he possibly can at you in the first act; ten minute conversations can and do happen, lengthy cutscenes leave you paralyzed with a 'I want to skip, but this might be important' mindset, indignation rises and enthusiasm falls away.
This first act, the so called 'Virtuous Mission', is a test of patience and resolve in gameplay terms as well. Even though you may understand that this game requires a different approach to others in the series, it can be difficult to shrug off old habits and work with the new tools you are given. Both MGS1 and 2 relied on using the radar to gauge movements of guards then setting up your ambushes or stealthy bypasses accordingly, but no such luxury is present here. Replacement devices such as the sonar or motion detector fulfil a similar use, of course, but are limited by battery life and can potentially alert enemies with their audible workings.
Okay then, so you're limited technologically, which means you have to get back to what MGS was all about in the first place, right? Well, yes, in the best case scenario stealth in Snake Eater relies on shrewd observation, nerve, and use of the environment; in the worst case it means trying to move the camera just one more bloody inch up the screen so you have the opportunity to plan, let alone execute.
Snake Eater employs a fixed camera nearly identical to those used in its predecessors, except the crucial difference here is that both MGS 1 & 2 had very few large, open areas, plus the radar was able to gloss over any remaining problems by giving the player a constant advantage. It would be no exaggeration to say that, at times, Snake Eater is near crippled by adopting the same viewpoint; you can find yourself resorting to violence simply because stealth is so damn difficult in certain places.
Some have argued that this is a deliberate move, intended to represent limited visibility in a jungle environment. The only flaw with this logic is that sometimes Snake Eater does pull off this trick, preventing you from seeing an enemy until he's emerged from behind a tree or mound of foliage, yet it's only possible to see such neat tricks in the first-person view, which is limited to aiming. Confused? You're not the only one - it's akin to someone downing pints to get drunk while at the same time dosing themselves up on black coffee.
Thankfully, once these initial hurdles are accepted, Snake Eater more than makes up for the slow start. The new elements, such as Close Quarter Combat (or CQC as it is referred to in-game), rationing, stamina and camouflage, don't feel like the gimmicks that you may have expected. Rather than standing alone and compartmentalized, the new elements bleed into one another to create a far more solid and interesting framework.
Stamina, for example, is directly related to rationing; if you don't kill or tranquilise various animals to feed upon then your energy will steadily decline. While running, jumping, fighting and other strenuous exercise depletes the bar more quickly, it will still gradually decline even if you avoid these activities. The best part about this is that your enemies can become exhausted as well, destroy one of their food stores with C-4 and not only will their performance in combat be affected but it makes it far easier to tempt them off patrol using rations as bait.
The same goes for ammo dumps. Wreck one of these and enemy soldiers will become far more reluctant to pin you under a barrage of now precious bullets. With these two elements alone Kojima has taken a significant step closer to justifying that familiar tagline 'Tactical Espionage Action', and they are just the tip of the iceberg. No more endless reinforcements during an alarm period, no more bosses with perpetual energy, no more everlasting silencers or chains of drab industrial mazes. Nope, no more.
After the Big Shell of MGS2, enthusiasm towards Snake Eater was dulled significantly. The gaming public had forgiven Kojima's excesses in MGS1 simply because the rest of the game held together so well, yet for many MGS2 failed on two accounts: The Gaming world and Codec.
Although it could still be argued that the jungle presented in Snake Eater is very linear (usually two paths out of an area, with foliage penning you in every other way), it presents a vibrancy which brings to mind the first time Snake stepped out of that elevator in MGS, snowflakes drifting down and surrounded by long stretches of brilliant white which crunched under your combat boots. The environment is your enemy as much as the soldiers you face; diving into knee-high grass to avoid a patrol and finding yourself face to face with a coiled Python makes you realise Snake can't afford to take anything for granted, and by extension, neither can you.
Wisely, Snake Eater plays to the PlayStation 2's strengths (or tricks, for the cynical out there), avoiding the rough edges of earlier times by making extensive use of 'bloom', a more advanced version of the technique used on so many N64 titles. This works very well here, giving a feeling of heat haze and humidity, and Snake Eater doesn't slack in the areas of character detail or draw distance either. Although the PAL version doesn't feature 60hz support, the bordering is hardly obtrusive and Snake Eater retains the Dolby Pro Logic II of its U.S equivalent.
Crucially, Codec now functions just as it should. After being harassed by many transmissions in the first act, your advisors scale back their attentions and only report when something important has occurred. It works far better than ever before. You'll find yourself calling up Paramedic to enjoy more of her knowledge of seminal 60's movies, to get information on a species you've just killed or caught, or contacting Sigint to get more technical details on a weapon you just picked up.
Voice-acting is mostly very good, with Lori Alan in particular putting in an excellent turn as Snake's mentor 'Boss'. David Hayter returns and although he 'is' Snake, it has become difficult to tell whether he's playing the role tongue in cheek or unintentionally hamming it up, with much of his delivery frequently being too amusing for the kind of grim messages Kojima is trying to convey.
That isn't to say the creator himself is without humour, Kojima plays with the 1960s setting and recreates it in his own image, suspiciously high-tech devices exist next to pivotal events like the 'world's first H.A.L.O jump', and Snake is as much existing in a pastiche of a Bond movie (as the introduction demonstrates) as he is a tale of global espionage. Snake's role as the straight man in conversations, having had his funny bone surgically removed, provides much of the game's levity, and his Codec conversations with others who mercilessly rib him can draw out laughs from even the most jaded gamer.
Plot-wise, such levity is needed. Snake Eater dangerously walks the line between carry-on fun and bleak sermons on the horror of war. Sometimes the latter is pulled off extremely well, but sometimes the two existing together can grate. It is also easy to become frustrated with Snake; for a well-trained Spy he seems painfully dense at times, blinking vacantly and just repeating what a character has told him in an amazed voice. Perhaps this is to reflect the player's first exposure to such ideas or events, but even in extreme situations the average games-player would credit themselves to maintain a little more intelligence; perhaps it's time Kojima gave them that credit too.
In some ways, the plot itself is inconsequential. The raw nature of combat is put across most effectively in the majority of boss fights, as these are shown to be not only tense and sparking adrenaline, but also rewarding a number of creative approaches. In particular, the stamina bar opens up a new range of tactics, and if players can find a way to defeat the bosses by outlasting rather than outgunning them they will be not only rewarded by a sense of achievement, but by the game itself. Although one or two of these fights bring back memories and feel overly familiar, there are a number which are so fresh and unique that they have already secured their place in the gaming hall of fame.
Battling against The End, a veteran sniper, will immerse you in a battle of wits which stretches across a number of different areas, invites many varying tactics, and presents a use for every piece of equipment you possess. You may need to force yourself to stop and consider just how far Kojima has come - in comparison to this the Sniper Wolf battle from MGS1 feels like a primitive shooting gallery. Even the new fights which may feel familiar provide evolutions. The Fury, for example, is a blistering update of the cat and mouse battle with Vulcan Raven, tweaked to an eerie perfection.
There is no wrestling with the controls during these sequences, as very little has been changed from before. Tweaks have been made, but only in common-sense ways; for example, holding down the X button now drops you straight to a prone position, and likewise for moving from a prone to standing posture. Both camouflage and first-aid screens are accessed via the select button, and their usage is explained to you in the Virtuous Mission.
Content wise, the PAL version benefits from a few additional extras over the US release: new camouflage, a new difficulty mode, a demo-theatre and Dual-mode. The camouflage consists of face paints which include 'flag' motifs for various countries, and the winners of the worldwide competition Konami ran last year for new designs. The extra-difficulty level, named 'European Extreme', will astonish you with a Game Over screen the instant you are spotted by an enemy, then again, there must be some players out there who are willing to take up the challenge.
Demo-theatre enables you to revisit cut-scenes you have already unlocked, and also hints at extra sequences that you may have missed. The final addition is 'Dual-mode', which allows the player to replay boss encounters in either normal or special modes. Special mode limits your weapons, ensuring a harder fight, but rewards you with special items in the game if you are successful.
It would not be stretching things to call Snake Eater, if not near perfection of the MGS formula, a markedly bold step in the right direction. Whilst gamers accused Kojima of arrogantly ignoring their concerns, it turns out that he was listening all along, taking notes and making changes, and the result cannot be denied. Taking the new moves and tricks of MGS2, anchoring them in a game which matches the spirit of MGS1 and doubles if not triples its length, whilst adding systems that expand the formula still more, produces a result few die-hard fans suspected was possible.
Yet, technical issues conspire to bring Snake Eater back down to earth, painfully lodged in-between the genius like poisonous barbs. Excuses can be made, but the camera perspective remains a significant mistake, a dated holdover which hamstrings too many potentially brilliant stealth sequences. Though the rest of the game shines, to agree with the view that this only enhances the experience is to grant licence for it to happen again. Similarly for the bulging dialogue of the Virtuous Mission; it's necessary exposition, but near fatal for a player's initial enthusiasm, belying the huge steps taken in the majority of this game.
With Snake Eater Kojima has found his way back into many people's affections, and so the urge is to congratulate and praise, to let him and his team know, in the strongest possible fashion, that they are now making just the right moves. However, for all its strengths, Snake Eater is not perfect, yet what it proves is that Kojima is capable of perfection. If any of us wish to see the day when he delivers a product that truly reflects this then we must also exercise tough love, pointing out the remaining problems almost as strongly as we do the brilliant new additions. Only then will you see an MGS title on these pages with a '10' standing proudly next to it.