Metal Gear Solid 3
Developer: Kojima Productions
Article by Anthony Rogers | November 2, 2009
A little more that halfway through Metal Gear Solid 3, you finally leave the jungle and enter mountainous terrain. There's a small military outpost there that you must pass through before you can continue. Through various playthroughs and restarts -- both of my own free will and because I was killed -- I've probably been through the area more times than anyone outside of Konami has.
I have crawled through the area undetected, my camouflage rendering me invisible. I have been discovered by Russian peons and subsequently been gunned down by the helicopters that patrol the area. I have taken a sentry hostage and used him as a human shield as I forced my way through his comrades. I have heroically pierced every skull in the area at a safe distance with my sniper rifle, and valiantly hidden in caves to save my own skin. I've slit a soldier's throat, only to have his comrades alerted to his death when a vulture began feasting on his remains. (I've also proceeded to eat said vulture.) I've stripped off Snake's shirt, commandeered a mounted gun turret, and shot down both a helicopter and the legions of armed guards that swarmed me.
Once -- and only once -- I managed to perfectly snipe the pilot of one of the helicopters, causing it to take a nose dive into the ravine below. I'm the only person I've ever encountered, online or off, that's done this, but I swear to you it's both possible and totally rad.
The best thing about the area, though, is how ordinary it feels in the game. It's not a premiere set piece; rather, it's just one of many distinct areas like that. It's ordinary simply because every other area is just as fun to be in. Sure, you're going to have to tuck away your green camouflage in lieu of something with a more earthy tone, and vintage Russian helicopters aren't everywhere (admittedly, they'd be pretty useless in a jungle anyway), but rest assured their absence makes little difference. This is largely due to the fact that almost every action I described above can also be done in every other area. You're free to play the game however you like.
Of course, "freedom" is a feature touted on the back of just about every video game box; you'd be hard-pressed to find a word used more often in the industry. Metal Gear Solid 3 kind of puts most other games -- including every previous installments in the franchise -- to shame in that category, though. In fact, it was probably the shift in setting from its predecessors -- from the claustrophobic indoor environments of Shadow Moses and the Big Shell to the open environments of the Russian jungle -- that brought about this change in the first place. Either the jungle setting was a byproduct of the addition of the camo system, or it was the other way around; either way, suddenly Snake could (given the right camouflage, of course) hide literally anywhere in environments far larger than anything seen in the series so far. For the first time since the original Metal Gear, the formula was forced to evolve.
Luckily -- and this is key -- the game was built to handle that freedom. There's no single way to clear an area, but rather dozens. Any method of play is a completely viable option at any given time, but more importantly, the game remains fun no matter how it's tackled. Want to slither through the whole game undetected? Go for it. Want to take a hilariously convoluted route by blowing up enemy food supplies, and then leaving spoiled food around to poison them? That's… well, yeah, you can do that, too. And much, much moreso than those other Metal Gear games -- and heck, just about any other game in the stealth genre, for that matter -- being a total badass that marches in and slaughters everything in sight is entirely possible to do, too. There's a tradeoff in dealing with more enemies swarming you vs. the difficulty of sneaking past them without being caught, of course, but miraculously neither method breaks the game, only changes it. After all, you are the world's premiere super soldier, so why shouldn't you get to act like it?
This does raise the one major complaint that can be lobbed at Metal Gear Solid 3, though: the control scheme. You have a lot of options in the game, but with options comes complexity, and in a world where accessibility is king, the game's interface has taken its fair share of critical lumps. Detractors will berate it for the way it requires players to hold no less than four buttons simultaneously in order to shoot around a corner; apologists will overlook occasionally convoluted mechanics in exchange for the sheer number of possibilities crammed into one control scheme. There's something to be said for the latter opinion; it's entirely possible Snake has the highest number of moves available out of any videogame protagonist to date, and it's all rooted in player interaction. All kinds of badass moves -- slamming a dude's head into the ground, slitting a guy's throat (or pushing your knife against his throat to interrogate), snapping necks -- are there to do whenever you want. There's no crazy animation sequence you sit and watch, no Quick Time Events where Snake kills his foes in a spectacular display of agility and super-human strength. Snake's moves are completely in your hands, and entirely grounded in reality.
Of course, the same doesn't necessarily hold for all of the bad guys he faces. But then, what fun would only fighting normal guys be? That's the Metal Gear Solid series' bread and butter. Nobody was expecting (or wanted) a straight-up realistic experience after cyborg ninjas and Psycho Mantis anyway. And in following that tradition, the bosses in Metal Gear Solid 3 are, dare I say it, perhaps more impressive than anything else in the game. They're certainly imaginative; expect to see everything from a man that uses African bees to bombard you with grenades to a deranged astronaut with a flamethrower. They're as outstanding to fight for more than just originality, too. A great boss is one that forces the player to incorporate the practiced gameplay mechanics in interesting ways, serving as both a test of those skills and a new way to play with them. The bosses in Metal Gear Solid 3 were almost uniformly designed with this approach in mind.
The Pain, for example, not only pits you against your likely fear of insects, but tests evasive and combat skills; hardly impressive-sounding, though an important thing to ready yourself with before the bosses that follow. The Fear takes these skills and matches them with being cognizant of the surrounding environment, lest Snake should set off any of the deadly booby traps in the area. Amusingly, this boss fight is also a test of an understanding of the stamina gauge and, yes, the food mechanics -- The Fear tires himself out so much that it's possible to lure him with spoiled food or poisonous mushrooms into defeat without pulling out a weapon. Of course there are a couple clunkers -- the Volgin fights (yes, plural) drag on for too long to be anything but a big showpiece, and the battle with The Fury, while visually impressive, just replaces the standard camouflage mechanics with hide ‘n' seek in the dark. (Although the fight can be ended with a few slashes of your knife, if you're patient. That's something.)
Of course, some boss fights are inevitably going to pale in comparison to what are probably the two best in any game, period. The End is a geriatric sniper whose battle spans across environments filled with trees, a stream, and tons of hills and outcroppings to snipe from: perfect to put your survival skills to the test. You may go 15 minutes without even finding the guy, though being impatient is a good way to end up shot. While it's possible to force the (surprisingly speedy) old man to run with your shotgun if you do stumble upon him, playing it straight leads to one of the best examples of what a boss fight should be. Every skill, every item Snake has in his arsenal -- camouflage, stamina, weapons, vintage '60s super spy gadgets -- are necessary for victory. Intense sniper duel aside, though, The End is also representative of one of the most important aspects of what makes the Metal Gear franchise stand out amongst its peers: the fact that it never misses a chance to be lighthearted. You may spend the better part of an hour fighting and tracking The End, only to find him sleeping when you do get the jump on him. Shooting (and eating) his parrot will provoke satisfyingly crushed dialogue from him. And yes, you can cheat in a couple ways to avoid the fight altogether: Setting your system clock seven days ahead after reaching him results in a cutscene of Snake finding him dead from old age. There's even an opportunity to shoot him several hours before reaching the boss fight. Just remember to duck.
On the whole, Metal Gear Solid 3's plot is good stuff. It's fun and exciting because it's a melodramatic espionage tale, a videogame, and a good ol' fashioned James Bond film (completely with requisite opening credits and a hot girl on a motorcycle) all mixed together. Yes, there's a Russian commander who shoots lightning out of his hands, and the bosses are pretty much the X-Men circa World War II. At its heart, though, it is a story about the relationship between mentor and student, about passing on a legacy -- quite literally, in one case. There are echoes of this through Snake's interactions with a young Revolver Ocelot, but the heart of this tale is Snake's struggle with his old mentor, The Boss... who, appropriately enough, is the last boss.
And like any good mentor, she's going to make you earn her acceptance. Similarly to The End, everything from IR goggles to proper camouflage is necessary to win. This isn't a fight against a stationary geezer, though. The Boss is no slouch. She blends into the environment effectively, will open fire if she spots you, will duck behind trees for cover, and most importantly, she will use the same CQC that's saved your neck countless times against you. If you're quick and get the timing just so, though, you can turn the tables on her every time, but it isn't easy. The fight with The Boss is, in effect, using your honed skills to take down someone with the exact same skills, resulting in a far more interesting fight than any number of bees or shirtless dudes fused with tanks could ever hope to produce. As is always the case in these kinds of matters, Snake's maturity into a warrior -- as evidenced by your own mastery of the gameplay systems -- cannot be fully realized until he has defeated her.
Perhaps that's actually the most impressive thing about the game: The gameplay has been married to the narrative in a way that even Super Metroid failed to do. It isn't until the player has built up the sufficient skills that Snake is able to overcome The Boss. Remember, you're always free to play how you like -- mines, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers, and anything else acquired along the way are all fair game here. The fastest method, however -- which, as this is the only battle with a time limit, makes it the best method -- is to fully embrace the very gameplay mechanic she mentored Snake on in the first place. As clichéd as it sounds, the student must inevitably prove he has surpassed the master to continue.
Any write-up of an entry in the Metal Gear Solid universe would be remiss without mentioning Hideo Kojima, the series' director. Kojima may be notorious for hopping back and forth between game designer and amateur film director, for wrestling away player control on a whim; but when he nails it, he really nails it, and Metal Gear Solid 3 is the finest example of that. Few directors have shown a better understanding of the potential the medium offers, let alone utilized the relationship between the game and the player so effectively. (Of course, few have also shown such a blatant disregard for such a relationship, too, but I digress.) To not only go to such lengths to craft a narrative that specifically draws upon the gameplay for support, but to draw upon the particular strengths of the medium to personalize the emotional apex of the plot, is something few directors are capable of. In one of those rare cases of everything coming together, Kojima's flair for the dramatic and willingness to try something new in a burgeoning medium ended up creating not only the best story in a game to date, but perhaps the premiere example of just what videogames have to offer.