"What the hell?" Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty's apt final line left many players--those who didn't abandon the series in disgust--aching for answers. Yet as development drew to a close, series creator Hideo Kojima was the one speculating that it might be the last Metal Gear he worked on in such a hands-on capacity. Ultimately, Kojima would change his mind and helm Metal Gear Solid 3 for the Sony PlayStation 2, but the result would still not address any of the baffling questions raised at the end of Sons of Liberty. 2004's Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater would instead be a prequel to the entire series up to that point.
Once again, Solid Snake would not be the player character, a non-canonical mini-game appearance notwithstanding. In this story set during the 1960s, the protagonist would be none other than Big Boss, or as he was known then, "Naked Snake." The curious code name struck me as rather a tragic misfire. Japanese Kanji characters can be read a number of different ways, lending multiple meanings to a name, but Kojima has repeatedly insisted on applying the wordplay to English as well. Although the in-game explanation was that Naked Snake was "naked" in the sense that he carried almost no supplies with him into the mission, the hidden significance was that Naked Snake was the "bare" or "basic" Snake, no Solid or Liquid modifiers, since this was the original. Except that reading didn't really work, because "naked" was a modifier. (Perhaps "just Snake" was The Boss?) In any case, Naked Snake looked and sounded just like Solid Snake, which was good enough that most players could simply think of him as the same guy.
While the new player character provided a pleasingly familiar return to the form of the first Metal Gear Solid, the gameplay of Snake Eater was a significant yet incomplete departure from its predecessors. Naked Snake's mission came with a number of extraneous new systems, including camouflage, the stamina bar, injury treatment via a menu, and expanded grapple mechanics.
By far the most cumbersome of the many cumbersome systems was the camouflage mechanic. Sentries were no longer limited to tiny cone-shaped fields of vision, and, in the more organic jungle setting, there were fewer corners to hide around, so Snake would have to slip beneath his enemies' visibility by donning appropriate camo. The problem was that the best camo for the job could change rapidly as Snake walked just a few steps from the grass to the dirt. If the player was determined to keep up, it would mean going into the menu to equip different fatigues and/or face paint every few seconds. This would have been tedious at best, but Snake Eater was afflicted by some egregious load times when accessing menus.
Sneaking was further burdened by the loss of the old radar. Some weak alternatives came in the forms of the sonar, the motion detector, and MGS2's vibrating enemy sensor. Switching back and forth between these three imperfect substitutes was such a hassle that I didn't even bother. Without the added vision of the radar, the traditional overhead camera became a huge detriment, and progress became slow going, as I found myself inching along and constantly switching to first-person view to scan my surroundings. If I spotted a guard, I would, as I had in Sons of Liberty, take him down first with the silenced tranquilizer gun, then put him to sleep permanently to keep him from troubling me later. This was made somewhat more difficult by the vintage weapons, which had no laser sights, but I still made it through with minimal direct confrontation. If I did get spotted, I would just make a dash for the next area.
Slightly less annoying was the new stamina gauge. As Snake exerted himself, the meter would deplete and his performance would be negatively affected, afflicting him with shaky hands and stomach grumbles. In order to restore it, Snake would have to hunt down and devour the flora and fauna available throughout the jungle environment. The system had limited impact. I would just refill the meter every once in a while, usually with hoarded non-perishables like rations and instant noodles.
If you felt disinclined to indulge the new mechanics, you could play the "Very Easy" difficulty. This considerate mode equipped Snake with the awesome "EZ Gun," which raised his camo rating, kept his stamina full, and came equipped with an exaggerated laser pointer. The only sub-system that could not be entirely ignored was the "Cure" system. If Snake fell ill or suffered an injury, the player would have to treat him using items via the pause menu. This was a simple process, and, as long as you kept out of trouble, it happened infrequently.
The new "close-quarters combat" or "CQC" system was actually a prominent part of the plot, as it was the almighty fighting style practiced by Snake and his mentor, The Boss. In cut scenes, it took the form of vaguely defined Bourne Identity-style martial arts, but the gameplay applications were nothing like that. In practice, CQC just added a few new options to the old grapple move. With knife in hand as you held a guy, you could, for example, threaten him for info and/or slit his throat.
The load times even discouraged me from consulting my support team over the radio as frequently as I had in past games. Then again, they also had less to say compared to previous crews. Para-Medic, the save game keeper, was the chattiest, and she would provide levity with discussions of real sci-fi and horror movies of the time. The other characters mostly stuck to the mission. Snake's commanding officer, the former British SAS agent Major Zero (whom everybody would remember as "Major Tom," since that was the name he used in the trailer and demo), had particularly little to say, which was a shame, because, when he did contribute, the results were usually hilarious.
Young Major Ocelot and the mysterious double agent Eva made for a more entertaining supporting cast during cut scenes. The criminally forgotten Colonel Volgin merits special mention. The lightning-casting, bisexual sadist was the most menacing antagonist in the entire series, and his relationship with Major Ivan Raidenovitch Raikov provided some classic Kojima humor. The other villains, the Cobra unit, were, by design, devoid of personality. In response to complaints about previous series bosses, who would agonizingly recite their entire life stories as they took eternities to expire, Kojima filled Snake Eater with foes who had no stories and barely spoke. As they fell in battle, they would instead yell out their own names before literally exploding. I don't know that that approach was better, as it reduced the Cobra unit to just a set of gameplay obstacles, and I was never in it for the fighting.
Speaking of which, Snake Eater's boss battles were the most epic and open-ended the series had seen up to that point, with special recognition going to the "classic" fight with The End. I initially mistook it for a snipers' duel a la the battle against Sniper Wolf in Metal Gear Solid, and the result was one frustrating hour as I could not locate him at all with my scope in that dense jungle. In reality, the easiest and most logical way to proceed was to simply follow the tracks he left and sneak up behind him. It was a testament to the game's depth, however, that some players apparently did manage to outsnipe The End. I've also heard of players beating him by anticipating his sniping points and laying down mines for him. Additionally, Kojima's team inserted, not one, but two unthinkable options. You could actually bypass the fight altogether by blowing up the defenseless wheelchair-bound old man at an earlier point in the game. Alternatively, you could wait for him to die of old age during the fight by saving in the middle of it and waiting a week to come back. I still didn't enjoy fighting The End, but I had to admit that no other game had ever included a battle like it.
Given my disenchantment with the mechanics of Snake Eater, I was surprised to find that many fans listed it as their favorite Metal Gear, above even Metal Gear Solid. Although I had considered it an essential experience for its story and cinematics alone, playing it through a second time in anticipation of Metal Gear Solid 4, I gained a greater appreciation for it within the context of the entire series. While the hammy dialogue and excessively long-winded speeches were still there, the game definitely exhibited a growth and maturity in Kojima's direction. Although I found the playable portions to be mostly aggravating, Snake Eater did include some fantastic interactive set pieces. The infamous ladder sequence was particularly awe-inspiring for how it sneaked up on the player; I didn't realize I was experiencing a "moment" until I found myself in the middle of it, with the solo rendition of the vocal title theme kicking in as I scaled the interminable ladder one rung at a time.
My other favorite moment was the walk down the river of ghosts, although, the second time around, I recognized that it was a flawed scene. In this "boss fight" against The Sorrow, Snake had to slowly tread past the ghosts of all the soldiers the player had killed up to that point during the game. If you had, as I had during my first playthrough, eliminated hundreds of enemies, the walk would take a very long time, and the morbid sequence would perhaps leave you feeling some remorse over your actions. On my second playthrough, I avoided killing anybody, so the only ghosts were those of the bosses that Snake could not avoid fighting. The walk became very short and uneventful as a result. The sequence was stripped of all power when the player performed "correctly" by avoiding lethal violence, and, in my opinion, there was a better way to convey a message.
As was the case with its predecessors, the best reason to play Snake Eater remained the story. In developing MGS3 as a prequel, Kojima sought to reshape players' understanding of series antagonist Big Boss, who, in the time of Snake Eater, had been an American hero. Had the man himself changed and become corrupt, or was it the world and the times? The message may have been complicated by the reality that most players would only have known Big Boss through secondhand accounts in the last two games, and Sons of Liberty had imbued us with a distrust of hearsay. Accordingly, his arc from Naked Snake to Big Boss would be conveyed indirectly through the like story of The Boss, who, once America's proudest warrior, had somehow become its most bitter enemy. On the surface, Snake Eater was more straightforward than Sons of Liberty, but it was still full of innumerable twists, and the storytelling--so forceful yet so ambiguous--continually challenged players' perceptions of The Boss.
Even after the credits had rolled, I couldn't figure out what The Boss had been trying to communicate to Snake. Some players believed what Eva reported--that The Boss was loyal to the end and playing the villain under secret orders from her country. But Eva was unreliable at best, and that explanation didn't seem to build toward Naked Snake's transformation into Big Boss, which I thought had to be the point of the prequel. I considered that, in forcing him to kill her, The Boss was giving the disillusioned Snake his mission to carry on the fight that she no longer had the will to undertake against those who had taken more from her than should be asked of even the most loyal patriot. Given how things turned out, that seemed at least to be how Snake took it. But I still couldn't be sure if it was the truth. It only seemed appropriate when, in Metal Gear Solid 4, it was revealed that the characters themselves could not agree on what she stood for.
I did not enjoy Snake Eater as much as the first two Metal Gear Solid titles, but there was no denying the power of the story. Although I found it a chore to play, it was a rich game full of beautiful and inventive moments. If it was not quite so fresh as its predecessors, it nevertheless included amazing bits like the ladder, which immersed the player in the narrative in an unexpectedly more artful and organic manner than the previous games.
In 2006, Konami released Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence, an enhanced version of Snake Eater for the Sony PlayStation 2. While it did not boast as much additional playable content as Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance, Subsistence was overall a more meaningful upgrade that sought to repair some of the issues with the original Snake Eater release.
The major addition was the new user-controlled camera. Finally replacing the limiting overhead view, the new camera mitigated many of the frustrations in sneaking without a radar, as you could now see ahead to spot guards without having to switch to first-person. Since maps and enemy routes were left unchanged from Snake Eater, the new mode perhaps made the game easier than originally intended, though I find it hard to believe that Konami could have intended for the original release to be as awkward as it was due to the camera.
Further upping the playability, Subsistence managed to eliminate all the old load times into menus. This was perhaps an even more welcome improvement than the camera, and the result was a better game all around.
Bonuses included an entire second disc, titled "Persistence," that contained the first iteration of "Metal Gear Online" (which I never played, so I can't comment), an expanded set of missions for the "Snake vs. Monkey" mini-game, ports of the two 8-bit MSX Metal Gear games, and a library of gag cinematics that had previously been posted on the official website.
A limited edition release added a third disc, "Existence," which presented the story of Snake Eater as a linear movie. The first disc already added a handy cut scene viewer allowing the player to watch any of the Snake Eater cinematics, but "Existence" was more than just all the scenes in order. Clearly, a lot of time had been spent in the editing room. The movie actually began with the final confrontation between Naked Snake and The Boss, before rewinding to the events that led up to it. Bridging the scripted sequences were clips of the interactive portions, presented as dramatically as possible, though they still stuck out badly due to the canned gameplay animations. I haven't actually watched the whole thing, but, at the very least, it's an interesting novelty.
After having answered a bunch of questions that nobody asked while raising several more, Snake Eater received a followup in 2006 in the form of Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops for the PlayStation Portable. Kojima would not direct the non-numbered installment, but he would continue to write for this canonical entry.
Employing the same camera as Subsistence, Portable Ops featured familiar Metal Gear gameplay broken down now into short missions for easy digestion on a handheld. The camo system of Snake Eater was done away with, and a new radar told the player vaguely how close and in what direction hostiles were. The major new addition was the "Comrade System," which allowed the player to take a squad of up to four troops into a mission. For the most part, Big Boss would have to acquire allies by turning enemies over to his side. It was amusing, if a little annoying, to knock guys out and drag their bodies to the back of your truck, whereupon they would undergo days of reprogramming to bring them over to your team. In practice, you didn't actually need that many allies, so it was unnecessary to spend too much time recruiting. Once you brought them on board, you could play as them instead of Big Boss. Although they were invariably weaker, they sometimes possessed unique abilities, and, if you brought the right type of soldier into a specific area, you could even infiltrate incognito. "Hidden" characters included almost the entire supporting cast of Snake Eater, and, while they sadly did not impact the plot, being able to assemble a team of Zero, Para-Medic, and Sigint provided one of the highlights of Portable Ops.
Big Boss's team would also include a young Campbell, marking the beginnings of FOXHOUND. But the assembling of a mercenary army of no nation was even more clearly laying the foundation for Outer Heaven. The story would not quite arrive there as Portable Ops ended, but these suggestions were about the extent of the entry's meaningful contributions to the overall Metal Gear story.
In place of the customary real-time cinematics, Portable Ops expanded upon 2006's Metal Gear Solid: Digital Graphic Novel for PSP by delivering its story via animated comic panels drawn by Ashley Wood, who had become attached to the series through his work on the 2004 comic book adaptation of the first Metal Gear Solid. Wood's explosive illustrations could be jarring for fans accustomed to Yoji Shinkawa's art, but it was good stuff, and, accompanied by voice acting of the same high caliber as the console titles, the animated drawings could be stunning.
Perhaps because of the new cut scene format, perhaps because it was a handheld game built for short play sessions, or perhaps because Kojima himself was less involved, the dialogue of Portable Ops was appreciably sharper than in the console installments. Mind you, there were still some long speeches and the plot was still convoluted, but it was less pretentious overall. The soldier characters were existentially distressed as ever, but most of them were warriors rather than schemers, and instead of dwelling on philosophical debates, they contented themselves by fighting. If this is how future Metal Gear titles could be without Kojima at the helm, that future wouldn't be bad at all.
Portable Ops also featured the best set of villains in the entire series, including a demented former friend/rival, good and evil psychic sisters, and the blade-swinging perfect soldier. Their leader, Gene, possessed charisma and persuasiveness for superpowers, but he was also programmed to succeed The Boss as commander of America's military. Voiced by prolific anime and video game voice actor Steve Blum (Spike in Cowboy Bebop, Roger Smith in The Big O, Vincent in the Compilation of Final Fantasy VII), he was definitely a worthy foe for David Hayter's Big Boss.
I bought my PSP primarily to play Portable Ops. For more casual fans of the series, I don't think its meager contributions to the saga justify the cost of the system. The gameplay, with its aging stealth mechanics and dodgy controls, is no great selling point. But the characters are cool, the story is solid if not transformational, and there is enough there to excite hardcore fans. If nothing else, it's worth watching the cut scenes on YouTube.
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