METAL GEAR SOLID 3: SUBSISTENCE (2006) – KOJIMA PRODUCTIONS
As a basic premise, Metal Gear Solid 3 should not work. The idea of taking a series that is known for its futuristic war based storyline and plonking it in the middle of the 1960’s was ludicrous. But never count out Hideo Kojima, the genius behind the Metal Gear Solid franchise, to make a game that blows everyone’s expectations out of the water. MGS3 (which confusingly is the first game in the entire Metal Gear chronology) is not just a great game in the MGS series, but it also stands as one of the very best experiences you can have on the PS2.
The original game came out in 2004, but the version that I am reviewing is the Subsistence version, a special edition version that came out later featuring the full game, bonus content, online multiplayer which was absent in the original, and a 3 hour DVD showing all the cutscenes in a movie like format.
One of the strange things about MGS3 is that by putting it in the past and basing it around real events, it made the story surprisingly believable and incredibly engaging…providing you were fine with a sledgehammer being taken to your prior knowledge of History. The game takes place at the height of the Cold War between Russia and the USA, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis. As the game starts, you take the role of Naked Snake, a member of the Fox Unit, who is sneaked into Soviet territory to retrieve Sokolov, a Russian nuclear scientist who was secretly traded by the US back to Russia as part of the terms of Russia pulling out of Cuba. Backed up by an support team, including Snake’s mentor, the legendary solider The Boss, you sneak through a jungle environment, and Snake eventually manages to find Sokolov. After surviving an ambush by the Ocelot unit (headed by a young Revolver Ocelot), Snake takes Sokolov to the extraction point. Upon getting there however, Snake finds The Boss waiting for him, where she reveals she is defecting to theSoviet Union and supporting General Volgin, an extreme rebel leader who wishes to displace Krushchev as the premier of Russia. After engaging Snake in close quarters combat, The Boss throws Snake off a bridge and leaves him for dead. Volgin then explodes a miniature nuke in the heart of the jungle, placing the blame on the Boss and putting the world on the brink of nuclear war again. Snake is retrieved by Fox Unit, and upon arriving back in America is told that he and the Unit will be given a chance to redeem their actions; but only if Snake infiltrates enemy territory, stops the Shagohod (a giant walking nuclear tank that Sokolov was working on), and kills The Boss. The mission is called Operation Snake Eater…
And that’s just the introduction to the main game.
In true MGS fashion, the story is a critical element to the game, and told in a masterful way. There is lashings of espionage and intrigue, the characters are a fleshed out and unique bunch and interact regularly with each other, and the game has a script that I feel could easily rival anything that has come out of Hollywood in the last ten years; the blend of true events and the fiction mesh together so well that come the end of the game, you could very well question everything you were taught about the Cold War in History class. Being a prequel to the events of all the games that had come beforehand also meant that Kojima could give us the backstory behind some of the characters and the events that occur; most prominently we see how Revolver Ocelot got his revolvers and his rivalry that develops with Naked Snake, how the plans for the Metal Gear project were originally formed, and the origins of both the Foxhound Unit and the Les Enfants Terrible project. I use this phrase quite often, but you really do need to play this engrossing game yourself to truly appreciate what a great story it has.
You also need to play this game to appreciate its status as the world’s premier ladder climbing simulator.
Gameplay wise, MGS3 is a clever cocktail of mechanics that we have come to know and love in the franchise, and new elements necessitated by the shift in time and location that provide a greater challenge as Snake proceeds through the game. The basic controls (which in a nice touch can be tailored to your own preference based on if you preferred MGS1 or MGS2) remain mostly intact: Snake can walk, run, crawl, climb ledges and trees to avoid being spotted, and can use a variety of weapons to help him out in a tight spot, including tranquilizer guns, assault rifles and shotguns (all of which can be fired in first person view). He can also use items, including series mainstays like cigars, thermal goggles and the famous cardboard box, to evade the enemy, and call his support team via radio for help. The main control that has been expanded is the use of CQC, as Snake can now perform a variety of holds and chokes by sneaking right behind the enemy and pressing the circle button. You can also interrogate enemies for vital information via a knife to the throat. Just don’t hold the button too long, or you’ll slit their throats and get claret all over your lovely uniform.
While the aim of the game is still to be as stealthy as possible and not alert the enemy guards as you proceed towards your objective, you now have to be a bit more subtle in the way you go about it. First off, it’s the 1960’s, meaning that you don’t have the benefit of a radar to tell you where the patrolling sentries are. Instead, you have to make do with Cold War espionage equipment, including a SONAR detector and motion detectors, which run on batteries and have to be recharged if used too often. The biggest change however is the introduction of three new elements; camouflage, stamina and injuries. Much of the game takes place in a jungle environment, and Snake can better disguise himself by applying face paint and wearing different uniforms. This is done via a pause screen, and the extent to which Snake is camouflaged is represented by a percentage in the top right hand corner of the screen; the higher the percentage, the less likely the enemy are going to spot you. Snake’s health is now also dependant on what is called a Stamina system; in the top left corner of the screen is a small bar split into five sections. By performing actions such as running and climbing, your stamina will slowly deplete, making you less able to perform actions like holding your gun steady. If your stamina runs out, you will start losing life. In order to recharge stamina, Snake must hunt animals in the jungle (of which there is quite a diverse amount, ranging from frogs and crocodiles to snakes and instant noodles) and eat them. Finally, Snake can be injured in battles, and the wounds and scars must now be healed if you want to stay alive. This is done in the same pause menu setup as camouflage, and by using a 3D viewer you can assess your injuries and take action (for example, if you get shot you will need to remove the bullet with a knife, and then disinfect and sow up the wound using items). These quite advanced changes to gameplay met a mixed reaction from the audience, divided into those who loved the new systems as it made the game feel more realistic, and those who detested it as it caused you to continually stop playing to heal and hunt, as well as to change your outfit depending on your environment. I personally found the system acceptable to use; because I spent a lot of time skulking around being as much of a ghost as possible, I welcomed the chance to change camouflage to get the upper hand on my enemies, although I must say having to heal your injuries can become very irritating in some of the later, more damaging boss battles. Overall then, a positive move for the series to take.
The world of 1960’s Soviet Russia, which might not sound that appealing, is actually a pretty damn fun environment to play through. The majority of the game is spent in the jungle, but Snake will also have to navigate caves and infiltrate military bases in order to complete his goals, as well as engage in large scale battles with plenty of adversaries. The areas that you play through are split up into easily manageable sections, and the loading times between areas is surprisingly minimal for such a big game. It also shares another trait with its predecessors: length. MGS3 is meant to be a tightly knit affair and can be completed in less than 15 hours when you know what you are doing. For me it has just the right amount of balance; there’s enough of a mix of action and stealth to keep you interested, and because you unlock different items depending on what rank you attain when you finish the game (of which there are a hell of a lot to achieve), the game has quite good re-playablity. MGS3 also happens to keep another excellent trait going from the first two games, and that is a sense of originality in the way you can go about doing things. Take for example the infamous boss battle with the legendary sniper, The End. This takes place over a huge area and can take up to two hours. Or alternatively, you can snipe him very early on in the game directly following a cutscene. Or, you can engage in battle, save, turn off the game, set the internal clock on your PS2 a week forward, load up your game and he will have died of old age. Games simply don’t have this level of cleverness in them, and its one of the reasons that I love the franchise. On this basis therefore, gameplay gets the thumbs up from me.
Kojima had originally wanted to develop MGS3 for the PS3, but because of the delay in the new console coming out, he made it for the PS2 instead, and one must say it does show up a bit in the graphical department. For the most part it is a wonderous technical achievement, the jungles are lush in…greens and browns and animals wander about on their own accord. Add to this an extensive amount of cut scenes (which include original and archive footage), and you wonder how on earth they fitted it all in one disc. Similar to what would happen to Rockstar with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas though, Kojima tried to push the hardware a bit too hard and had to compensate as a result. Many of the textures are noticeably polygons, enemy movement is quite stiff at times, and the game is running at 30fps for the majority of the time. Given the quality of the gameplay and story I’m willing to let them off in this respect, but I would advise that if you are looking for a smooth experience that you wait until this November for when Metal Gear Solid 3 gets remade in HD as part of the MGS Collection.
Happily, the game excels over the graphics department in the audio stakes. Harry Gregson Williams did an excellent job composing the game, managing to keep elements that are well known such as the evasion/alert themes and give them a twist to suit the jungle atmosphere. I also adore the main theme, ‘Snake Eater’, which could happily sit as the opening theme for a James Bond film…certainly it would be better than recent efforts (*shudders at the Quantum Of Solace theme*). The voice acting is also generally excellent, as David Hayter adopts a more gravely tone to voice Naked Snake (having of course voiced Solid Snake beforehand). In typical fashion, there are some superb Codec conversations to be had, including the merits of eating snakes, why sitting in a cardboard box can give a sense of inner peace, and why James Bond is the best thing to ever come out of England. My one problem with the voice acting is that at some moments that one may consider to be critical, say for example the middle of a boss fight, voices remain calm and seem out of place as a result. Still, a small complaint to make when I can hear about Sigint’s nightmares.
If I were reviewing the original release, I would wrap up and this point and probably give around a 9. However, lest we forget that this is the Subsistence version being reviewed, and that means there is plenty more to cover. Everything that was in the original game is here, but much stuff was added in Subsistence to make the game both more accessible and more fun. Mercifully, Kojima put a 3D camera into this game (the original has the set angle camera used in MGS1 and 2), which makes it so much easier to scout out where you are going, and also to admire the scenery if you so wish. You also get the ‘Snake vs. Monkey’ game (a crossover with Konami’s popular Ape Escape franchise) in its entirety, downloadable camouflage,boss duel mode, extreme difficulty level for ultra hardcore players, complete ports of the MSX games Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, as well as a full online multiplayer mode, pitting soldiers against each other in death match and capture the flag games using the weapons and items found in the main game. There are also a large set of parody cut scenes which are absolutely hilarious (including Raiden trying to eliminate Naked Snake from history thereby making him the protagonist of MGS4), and the aforementioned bonus disc which lets you watch every cut scene in the game as one continuous movie. Screw paltry DLC content, THIS is how to give gamers bonus stuff.
I think you can probably tell what the score for this game is going to be. There is no doubt in my mind that this is one of the great games of the last decade, and one of my absolute favourites for the PS2 platform. I would probably recommend holding out for the HD collection coming for PS3 and Xbox 360 to experience the game if you haven’t played it, because copies of Subsistence can sell for huge amounts of money, but make sure you play this game. Snake may be saluting on the boxart, but we should salute Kojima and his staff for a fantastic game.