Following our Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty rewind, we’re going to visit the third iteration and earliest chronological release of the series, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Like Metal Gear Solid 2 before it, Snake Eater sees the protagonist Solid Snake replaced by another character. This time, players take the role of sort-of-father of Solid Snake, Naked Snake aka Big Boss.
Set during the Cold War in 1964, Metal Gear Solid 3 sees Naked Snake infiltrate Soviet Union territory to rescue rocket scientist Sokolov from working on a new, nuclear launch capable battle tank: the Shagohod. Unfortunately, this mission goes awry when Snake’s mentor and World War II hero, The Boss, defects to the Soviet GRU faction. Her defection results in GRU colonol Volgin launching a nuclear missile at a USSR research facility, sparking a major international incident. Soviet leader Khrushchev offers the United States a chance to prove its innocence: they must slay both The Boss and colonol Volgin. Additionally, the CIA still wish to acquire Sokolov and put the Shagohod out of action. Despite still recovering, Snake is sent back into the jungles of Tselinoyarsk.
Following the “meme” and “gene” themes of the previous two Metal Gear Solid titles, Metal Gear Solid 3 explores the theme of “scene” through the relationship between Naked Snake and The Boss. The story is far more emotionally driven, and is subject to more nuance between characters than one would expect from a game directed by Hideo Kojima. The tale follows Naked Snake’s struggle to come to terms with what being a soldier is, and to whom his loyalties lie, and how context of the present affects these very things. It’s a simpler tale than that of Metal Gear Solid 2, but it is still rich in detail. In fact, it can be argued that the very bosses faced through the title are a depiction of Snake’s own inner conflict, as he faces and resolves each one.
The gameplay itself isn’t as littered with codec sequences as its predecessor, and the scale is much larger. Rather than being set in a confined urban space, players must sneak through a varied range of terrain to accomplish their mission. The change in scenery is also reflected in the gameplay, which now has a focus on survival in the wilderness. Snake can receive and tend to his injuries, eat food to keep his stamina for better performance, and change his fatigues to have better camouflage with his surroundings. While these new features aren’t entirely intuitive–requiring the player to traverse through multiple menus when swapping from grass to dirt, or trying to run while injured–they’re another evolution of the stealth in the series.
Previous Metal Gear Solid games would supply bosses to challenge the player to master their new tools. In Metal Gear Solid 3, the bosses are instead designed to challenge players to master these new elements of survival, with The Boss designed to a mastery of all. There’s a subtly that’s not entirely common in a Kojima game at play here. Each Boss carries an emotion that depicts a conflict in Snake regarding The Boss’ defection, but overcoming each boss is more than that. Snake’s growth isn’t Snake’s alone, as the player must also develop their own skill in preparation for the final battle. Each conflict is polished, challenging, and fair.
In particular, the camouflage is a significant addition to the series. From this point, every Metal Gear Solid game has included camouflage as a gameplay element. It also establishes the most frequent protagonist in Metal Gear Solid, if you exclude Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Big Boss is unlike Solid Snake. He’s more human, and it’s reflected in the improved technical performance of the engine both Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 use. Each character’s face is no longer plastic. It shows expression, and David Hayter’s depiction of Naked Snake also provides more variety in emotion. Solid Snake is a product of humanity, but Naked Snake is natural. Kind of like the new setting, actually.
Unfortunately, the change in environment also comes at a cost. The enemy AI isn’t as tight as the previous title, and the individual maps aren’t always as memorable. While Metal Gear Solid 2 uses small spaces to its advantage, creating a strong identity in each strut, many of Metal Gear Solid 3‘s environments simply bleed into each other. There are distinct features to each map, for sure, but it doesn’t come as clear as it did before. The map design and patrol routes don’t feel as tight as before, and the loss of the clearance mode removes some of the tension upon being detected. Guards will not often run to exactly where the player might be, but will not look around carefully. To further add to the potential frustration of these wild, open maps, the camera in the original Snake Eater release was fixed in a fixed position, only able to change angle from one point. Fortunately, the Subsistence and HD releases addressed this with a more freely controlled camera.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is noticeably different in terms of tone in comparison to the other games of the series. While the previous and subsequent titles aren’t afraid to be quirky, it is in Metal Gear Solid 3 where some of the more crazy things are put in the forefront with a wink or a nod. These silly moments are rarely presented straight, and the title is fairly self-aware that it is being absurd. Above all, though, it still retains a dramatic story that can evoke strong emotions in the player. The title just a stronger balance between the bizarre and the serious.
It’s also worth noting that Metal Gear Solid 3 does not disappoint in its attention to detail that provides its own fair share of charm to the series. The codec offers a vast amount of information or entertaining dialogue exchanges between characters, and there’s a lot of interesting stuff to be found around the jungle. There’s even some exceptional additional methods of dealing with one of the bosses before and after the confrontation with them. There’s a lot of heart and soul in this title, and the experience is drenched in it from start to finish.
Metal Gear Solid 3 may not have included the answer to the final mystery of Metal Gear Solid 2, instead avoiding the issue by being a prequel, but it certainly fleshes out the back-story to the series while continuing to deliver a high quality experience. In a way, that would have been a preferable end to the series than what Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots attempted to deliver, but consumerism sometimes comes at detriment to creativity. We’ll be looking at that next.
Edit – 18/09/15: Updated the article, because re-reading things a while after I’ve published them always makes me want to fix it up more. This is why things never get published.