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April 19, 2005

Review: Metal Gear Solid 3 Snake Eater - Once bitten, twice sly...

The air thick, the trees moist, and the foliage damp. Snakes slither stealthily through the weeds, and tree frogs croak , while the bellows of crocodillian beats echo through the jungle. Silence falls upon the audience of beast and bird as one man, makes his trek through the bowels of the swampy marshland, and bushy thicket that lies forgotten somewhere in the Soviet Union. They said it was going to be survival of the fittest, but what you didn't know, is that you aren't necessarily the fit and limber survivor they spoke of. The year is 1964, and you play Jack, aka, Naked Snake, aka John. Your mission, is to retrieve one Dr. Nikolai Stepanovich Sokolov (say it three times fast, I dare ya!), and prevent the KGB or Brezchnev faction from utilizing his artillery designing prowess from completing and implimenting the new top-secret weapon, the Shagohod (no, not a metal gear).

The forests are vivid, and lush with plant-life of all sorts. The braying of a markhor, and chirping of a bird in the distance, serve as the ambience that prefaces Snakes journey into each new area. With increased polygon counts, and motion capture that rivals even the best CGI animation, MGS3 is that much closer to being an actual event, and not just an experience. Everything makes unique sounds. The scratching of bark, the creaking of falling lumber, crepitating plantlife, and exuberant death cries of enemy soldiers as you get a pot shot off in the distance, bathing in your own glory as your unmatched skill, outwits the jungle itself. Hideo Kojima does it again, with supreme presentation, and recreating a jungle environment, without making it seem forced. There is so much life in the jungle habitat of MGS3, that were you heavily intoxified, would seem as absolute and perceptible as the real thing.

The basic premise of Metal Gear Solid 3 is in essence, survival and exploration. Hand-in-hand, stealth accompanies survival, and together, they form a totally choesive experience, that truly immerses the player into what is heralded as easily one of the best experiences on the Ps2; and for good reason. Being one of the few people who actually dug Raiden in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, I feel as though a burden has been lifted. MGS2 was by far, one of the greatest gaming experiences I've ever had, and I can safely say, I was somehow ashamed that I actually enjoyed Raiden, despite his personal shortcomings. To be affectionate of a metrosexual girl-man, speaks for itself. With Hideo Kojima's newest work of art, I can safely retire back into my seat of comfort and satisfaction, as the new greatest gaming experience I have, no longer involves said girly-man, and no longer tugs at my heart strings everytime someone takes a jab at poor ol' Raiden.

When MGS3 kicks off, you're treated to a phenomenally cinematic HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) jump, as Snake is deployed into the jungle of Tselinoyarsk, where he must entreat the jungle for his own survival. The trees crash, leaves rustle, and Snake ejects himself from his parachute, landing messianically, removing his gear, lending his mug to an introductory close-up. Bathing in the sunlight peaking through the trees, Snake tosses himself into the fray. This is where it gets interesting. Snake's must sneak his way through a vast jungle, obscurely laid out as most jungles typically are. Each blade of grass is animated and given it's own set of real-time physics. While the landscape crawls with life, from birds, to snakes, to frogs, to crabs, all the way up to padfoot rabbits, cloven hoof markhor and jowel snapping crocodiles. All of which are entirely edible. Yes, edible.

MGS3 employs a clever "Food" system, where the player must kill and capture animals to consume, in order to recover stamina. Contrary to rations, typical of the mainstream Metal Gear Solid series, MGS3 allows the characters health to recover naturally, so long as your stamina is full, or near-full. Stamina depletes as you climb trees, crawl through grass, scale mountains, traverse steep hillscapes, or get injured or thrown back by the KGB, and to a greater extent, the vile and hellion wildlife, that you should definitely stear clear of. Different animals have different effects on the amount of stamina that Snake recovers. Ironically, snakes of any kind are particularly great for stamina recovery, including the secret tree snakes during the final Boss fight. Typically, if it looks good, eat it. If it glows, or has the word "fungus" in the title, or it's symbol has flies scurrying about all over it, it's garbage, and should be used for good, not barfing. Rotten or "bad" food can be tossed near patrolling guards, where they'll pick up the food, eat it, and be overcome with diarrhea, sore stomach or nausea (in related news, there is no such thing as a Pepto Bismol plant to cure these internal afflictions). It's a great way to put that food you neglected for so long to good use. Assuming you've tranquilized the animal, and witheld the urge to knife it to death, you can even throw poisonous snakes at guards to scare them away. The capture-and-release program Hideo Kojima has formed, rivals most humaine societies for their tactical usefulness of animals caught (ha!). The Food system of Metal Gear Solid 3, though seemingly cumbersome from an outsider's perspective, is rather intuitive, and never really puts a damper on the stealth/action vibe that the game sets. The same can be said for the "Cure" system as well.

In the "Cure" menu, an X-Ray view of the Snake man himself, is seen in all it's gory detail. You can break bones, snap wrists, become poisoned, suffer from deep, gushing lacerations, and overwhelming burns and rashes. All due in part to the hostile environment you've been shoved head first into, but again, it isn't intrusive in the least. Each type of wound has it's particular set of "cures" that must be applied. Poisons must be cured with an injected antidote, fractured bones must be splinted and bandaged, burns covered and sanitized, cuts disinfected and clotted, and bullet wounds cleaned, styptic applied, and stitched up. While this all sounds complicated and over-zealous from a development stand-point, it's just as intuitive as the Food system, and is used so infrequently, that it's only use is momentous at regular intervals during boss fights, or when you so happen to trigger that trap you so cautiously avoided, but forgot was present when trying to evade a predator, or cascaded yourself down a cliff to avoid being spotted by enemy troops. When all is said and done, the Cure system truly makes this a "survival" game, and not just another Stealth game akin to it's ilk; adding realism and an unprecedented degree of caring for a game's main character. It also designates stealth as the games primary theme, and not "running-and-gunning", which will no doubt, get you killed in seconds, despite it being a laughably accomplishable task in previous Metal Gear Solid titles.

Standard gameplay mechanics make their comeback with the standard first person view shooting, kneeling, crawling, and "stealth-camouflaging", only to usher in new, and even more useful stealth elements. Snake is now the proud owner of a killer wardrobe of military-issue fatigues, and a handbag of facepaint. Blending into your surroundings, becoming one with the environment; that's what camouflage is all about. Equipping a leopard stripe pattern while standing in green bushels of weeds is not the best way to be stealthy. The effectiveness of your camouflage is determined by the Camo-index: a percentage based value, of how well the enemy can or can not see you. If the index is at 100%, as long as you remain still, you are virtually invisible to the enemy. Lying flat against the ground or against a wall also increase your camo-index. The lower the index, the further away enemies can spot you, and the higher it is...well, let's just say, enemy predation has never felt so satisfying. Appearingly invasive, and rather halting to the flow of the game, using camo in this game is quite the opposite. You'll likely only be forced to change camo every few areas. One camo will generally suffice for each area: Mossy or Woodland for forested areas, blocked or olive drab for bland indoor areas, and a few special camos that help in very very specific situations (and boss fights *hint hint*).

Aside fromt the immersive aspects of your own survival, interacting with the environments is key to completing the game. Triggering a trap, that releases a spiked-log at the right time, can bludgeon enemies senselessly, without triggering an area sweep, alerting the guards of your presence. Rolling barrels into enemies, as opposed to running up to them and punching their lights out is the far more effective way to stay hidden, without raising too many "!"s. Furthermore, walking up behind an enemy will no longer suffice, as even the subtle crackling of twigs and withered leaves beneath your feet will raise the suspicion of any nearby guard. Instead, you must stalk the enemy, as a lioness mother would stalk it's prey, before pouncing at the opportune moment embedding it's claws (or barrel-silenced handgun) into it's flesh. Using the d-pad allows Snake to move cautiously, stepping without commotion, however slowly. Stalking up behind an enemy has it's serious advantages for any player skilled enough to do it on a regular basis. You can grab a guard from behind, and interrogate him for clues or useful information, like radio frequencies you can call to cancel an alert, if you so happen to raise one (shame on you!). You can also perform stealth kills like body throws or a slitting of the throat. Holding a guard up against your body as a human shield during a gunfight is also just as useful, if not the least used of the close-quarters combat techniques (CQC as the game calls it).

In terms of actual tangible character and emotion, this game is chalk full of it. Snake is once again voiced by the great David Hayter, who has been the voice of Solid Snake since Kojima gave him vocal cords. He does just as an impressive job this time around, if not better than every other instance in MGS history. Naked Snake (Sorry ladies, no Solid this time around, though I'd assume "Naked" would come with just as much sexual connotation as "Solid" did) is escorted through the jungle by his mission commander, Major Tom, his "Save girl" Para-Medic, and his weaponry and arsenal expert, Signit. Though minor characters in an extravagant plot, they're all you have to work with for the initial portion of the game. Later, you meet up with Eva, a soviet spy helping you get to the fortified Grazniyj Grad to rescue Sokolov. Along the way, you'll face many "bosses", all of which are part of the elite Cobra Unit, headed by Snake's mentor, "The Boss". The hokey names given to the members of the Cobra Unit are strikingly contrasting to the emotions and personas they portray. The Pain, The Fear, The End, The Fury and The Sorrow are all members of this elite squadron, whose primary purpose, is to eliminate Snake, and protect the Shagohod (For the record, The Boss' "Cobra" name is "The Joy"). You'll be treated to a lengthy backstory surrounding the Cobras, and learn why they carry such auspicious nicknames.

Being generously challenging this time around, the boss fights will not be a walk in the park, and special tactics must be employed if you're going to escape unscathed. Bosses can now inflict status effects on Snake, including paralysis, which is pretty much Game Over if you're ever overcome by it. Not to mention stealth is now an integral part of fighting most bosses. Sneaking up on the End, during what is the epitome of sniper battles, is by far one of the most challenging tasks in MGS3, as his scope of vision has unlimited distance, and learning where he is, and then forming a plan of attack around him is a daunting and rewarding challenge. Interestingly enough, these bosses, have such unique characteristics, and have such anomalous quirks, that they completely ecclipse Dead Cell and FOXHOUND from previous MGS games, making the characters of MGS3 even more palpatating than any other game in it's genre.

Some of the bosses are tightly woven into the plotline as well, including the return of Ocelot. If MGS was the indicative game for Ocelot's devious nature, and MGS2 was testament to his role in the bigger picture, MGS3 (without giving too much away) further proves that Ocelot isn't just part of the show, he IS the show. It's the internal confliction between Ocelot, The Boss, and the new head honcho Colonel Volgin that truly cause the suspense and intrigue in this game's deep (and not so convoluted) plot. Along with stellar visuals, superb voice work, and an unwaivering framerate, MGS3 serves as one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments of our time, with nothing short of perfection on every end of the spectrum.

If there is one thing that cannot be questioned, it's that Kojima has shown us once again, that his mind is brimming with out of this world ideas, and he knows how to execute them in ways that make even the absurd seem remotely normal, and acceptable. His unabating skill has left me in awe, and I have truly been thrown back by how immersive this game is. It's a survival simulator at heart, but still a Metal Gear game, with the survival elements taking a back-seat to the stealth and Pulitzer worthy story. Even if you hate Metal Gear, one must acknowledge Hideo Kojima's intrepid and provocative story-telling. If there's one thing this game is not short on, it's life. Kojima has breathed life into what was becoming a stagnating genre. The bar has been raised, and if you're anybody who's anybody, you'll absolutely love Metal Gear Solid 3, at least in part. There's nothing more invigorating knowing you're a one man army, and the resolution of the Cold War could rest in the palm of your hands. Your comrades have questioble trustworthyness, being wary is second nature and you suspect everyone and everything. You aren't just immersed into this game, you're engrossed, engulfed, and engaged with it.




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