Monday, December 06, 2004

Review: Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (PS2)
Posted by Shocker :: 7:24 PM

"Snake is Dead"? You don't say...

I loved Metal Gear Solid (PS). Back in 1998, I bought (okay, back then my parents bought) a Playstation for me, and, hearing MGS was the official Next Big Thing, I went out and rented it immediately. What I played was nothing short of innovative. Tense, solid stealth gameplay that defined the genre. Interactivity with the music, dual-shock controllers (still new at the time) and innovative boss battles (remember Psycho Mantis?). I loved listening to and reading a story that played out over the course of a few hours of superlative gameplay.


What happened?

Granted, I didn't play Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (PS2), because after hearing about the story from Ariel, who's cursed with a much better memory than I am, I was instantly put off. As he told me all the twists and turns and inconsistencies, I started thinking he was messing with me. When Metal Gear Solid 2: Substance came out for the XBox, I went ahead and rented it to try it out. What I was met with was a wall of cutscenes, and, by 2002, gameplay that just didn't seem all that innovative anymore, in light of all of its imitators.

I'll say it right now, up front: Splinter Cell is a far better game than this. Not just because of the story (which I'll not spoil, Lord knows why, though), but because of the gameplay. While I don't really particularly like SC's stealthy missions, I recognize how effectively they're pulled off, and I'm thankful for all the excellent control they give you to implement Sam Fisher's missions. Moreover, compared to Metal Gear Solid 2, which looked like a slight upgrade from MGS1, Splinter Cell sported nearly photorealistic graphics and lighting effects that set a standard that most games wish they could achieve.

So when MGS3 was coming out, with me in my (patented) anti-hype chamber, I waited for its release tentatively. Recalling how much I enjoyed MGS1, and how I'd only played MGS2 for 10 minutes or so, I tried to give this a fair shot. Here's what I found:

Metal Gear Solid 3 sucks. I don't mean "It's an average game", I don't mean "It's a good game that I just don't like". I mean anyone not hooked into an IV pumping pure hype into their veins should run away, far and fast while you still have good memories of what this series used to be. I mean anyone will be hard pressed to have me take them seriously for liking this game.

Man, where do I begin? ... Let's begin with the most important aspect: Gameplay. Metal Gear Solid 3 plays exactly like you'd expect a 6-year-old game to play. Yes, they added in a "close quarter combat" (CQC) system, that lets Snake pull off a "variety" of moves once you're close enough to your opponent to engage in hand-to-hand combat. But for a game that's supposed to be a stealth game, why am I engaging in so much hand-to-hand combat? Why can I run up to enemies who have guns trained on me, who are shooting me, and casually engage them in a fist-fight? Why, for all the hype, is this so-called CQC system so unintuitive? If I am standing over a downed guard with my hands bare, what would you want to do? Punch the air or snap the prone guard's neck? What do you think the game has you do?

Then there's the game's "Stealth" play. Splinter Cell requires you to, in some missions, maintain complete stealth. That is, if you are seen, and the guard who sees you is able to call for help, end of mission. This is done because some crazy radical government is going to destabalize the world if they find out America is sending operatives in to disrupt thier coup (or whatever the story is in Tom Clancy's mind). Splinter Cell has caught a lot of flack for this; not because it's unrealistic, but because it makes for a bad game (lots of restarting), goes the claim. Yet in MGS3, I was told nearly 6 times within the first 40 minutes (and not because of me breaking stealth, but because of all the cutscenes) that this is a "sneaking mission" or a "stealth mission". Why is it a stealth mission? Because MGS3 is set in the middle of the Cold War, with Snake being thrown into the middle of Russia to rescue some regretful scientist/engineer who's building the Uberweapon, which, if Russia finds out about Snake's presence, will trigger a full-on nuclear war. Please tell me which makes more sense to have the mission restart if you get caught?

There are no serious consequences for being seen here. The Caution meter lasts for a fair bit longer than it did in MGS1, which keeps the guards on alert, but once it goes out, the guards go "Oh. I guess everything's okay." and move back into regular positions.

Another gameplay enhancement in MGS3 is the ability to change camouflage. For the first time in the MGS series, a stealth meter has been added. The meter is pretty straight forward: the more camouflaged you are, the less likely you'll be seen. You can change outfits on the fly; Snake initally starts with 5 or 6 different outfits and 5 or 6 different facepaints. Rather than making the process trial-and-error, though, the game tells you exactly which outfits will work best given whereever you are (this costume decreases your visibility by 20%, this facepaint by -5%). Their choice to do so renders what could have been a cool feature into mandatory exercise: as soon as you move to a new area, you're switching clothes again. This gets old before the first mission ends.

Running through the menus is an exercise in frustration by itself. Rather than using X to advance, and either circle or triangle to back up, now circle is advance, and pressing X backs up. This seemingly minor change goes counter to every game ever released on the XBox or PS2, and is another frustrating point in an already frustrating game. If I step away from MGS3 for more than 2 minutes and come back, I'm guaranteed to screw up entering or leaving a menu more than once.

Speaking of menus, let's talk about another "realism" aspect added to MGS3: As Snake is basically dropped into the world with no weapons, no supplies, etc, he has to procure all this. For the first time in series history, you actually have to feed Snake. This is done by killing local fauna, then picking up little, floating boxes that represent the fully edible meals that come from them, and going into a menu to eat it. This was added to make the game more realistic. The other beautiful addition is that Snake can get wounded seriously and have to stop, go through a menu, and administer first aid to himself. Not only is the implementation poor (It's the equivalent of pressing three buttons), but simply putting a broken, say, leg, into a splint in the middle of a firefight is not only unrealistic, but is completely unlikely to do anything to help anything for a period of, say, 4 weeks. It raises the question that recurs with this game: Why bother?

The story's of course, completely laughable. It's not initially as awful as the Metal Gear Solid 2 storyline, but you still have to climb Mt. Exposition after every three feet you walk in the game. You'll get calls from people telling you how to walk, how to shoot, how to climb trees, how to save the game, how to use your menu to change your clothes, how to interpret the story... Moreover, you'll get lectures from people during inappropriate and unrealistic times (the middle of a fight is not the appropriate time to tell me about the importance of Godzilla), meet up with old friends/enemies, get lectured on the art of being a warrior after being told it is impossible to tell someone how to be a warrior... The codec scenes (Snake talks to people over a radio, during which any action on screen pauses while they talk) can at least be read and skipped through. The cutscenes, which make up a giant bulk of this game, are the ones you can't skip because you'll not be able to understand anything that's going on if you do.

Much of the voice acting here is laughable. The dialogue is corny, and contrived, and David Hayter, playing Naked Snake (who is not Solid Snake but has the same voice), sounds like he's forcing 60% of his lines through his "cool" voice. Dialogue seems like it's intended for people who are stupid; an example: Colonel: Our operatives inside Russia have leaked information that says Russia is very close to developing the next stage in nuclear weaponry. Snake: The next stage...? Colonel: Yes, a weapon so powerful it could change the course of history. Snake: Change the course of history...? Colonel: Indeed. You will be going to Russia. You will meet up with a very important scientist. Snake: A very important scientist...? - you get the idea. Stretch this out over 40 minutes and see how eager you are to play.

That's really the problem with this game. It relies on the conventions it invented 6 years ago when MGS came out as though other games haven't made innovations in the genre. Can you imagine how terrible Mario Sunshine would have been, even with the same gameplay, if it forced you to control the camera as much as Mario 64 did? These things don't detract from the original experience, both MGS and Mario 64 are both classics. But there's so many smarter, better ways to do what MGS3 is trying to do. For instance, if the people in your head want to talk and advance the story, let them. But don't stop the action in order to do so. Don't tell me everything in the game manual, have a training mode. One of the best points elcyberGoth at made in his hilarious Metal Gear Solid 2 review was that a game should never remind me that it's a game. Especially one that's actively pissing me off, because once it does that, it's going directly off.

The sacrifices made, supposedly, in the name of realism here detract mightily from the game. MGS 2 was playable despite its aging gameplay because you at least still had a radar that functioned, and could move around tight environments with it. MGS3's open, random forest environments lack a clear direction or a suitable radar ... In fact, you're given a battery powered one that resolves to uselessness because it lacks any ability to see how far enemies can see. The camera, hung high over Snake, makes it hard to see around obstacles or corners. While MGS2 had clearly defined points for you to execute your stealth moves, MGS3 has trees, sticks and grass to see from. When you are crawling around in grass, the camera forces you into a first person mode that makes it impossible to peer above the grass without exposing yourself. Realistic? I suppose. Fun? God no.

MGS3 is inherently inconsistent everywhere. Does the game want to be a movie? Fine, but how many rambly, pseudo-historic, self-important 20 hour long movies have you watched? Does it want to be a game? Then let me walk for more than 10 seconds without having to hear an essay on the Magna Carta and how it's importance shapes modern history. It's a game that desperately wants to be something more than it is, when what it could be wouldbe more than sufficient. For all that I knock the series, Solid Snake is instantly more marketable than Sam Fischer is, yet Kojima and company continually squander what could have been: a standard-bearing, standard-setting game that shapes the course of the genre for years to come. It's happened before with games like Halo 2, and Resident Evil 4 (potentially). This isn't where the stealth genre is going. Even series devotees would likely not want to see a ton of clones of this. Frankly, it's a god damn terrible movie, and somehow, an even worse game.

I tried to play. Dan knows I did. But after playing Splinter Cell and SC:PT in between playing MGS2 and MGS3 I couldn't take MGS3. I just couldn't.

Jehova's Witnesses came to my house as I was watching a cutscene and we had a conversation for about 10-15 minutes. When I said goodbye and sat backdown the cutscene WAS STILL GOING. You don't play MGS anymore, you watch it. This started happening in MGS2 but what happened here was just awful.

Why does a decorated soldier need to be told how to be a soldier as they send him on a critical mission? SC had a training level so you could get the hang of things before throwing you out. And when they were explaining stuff you could still move. None of that go to a menu and have them run a video showing the other menus, they'd go "Slide along a wall, and make sure to look before you leap out" pop up says [Press (picture of the black button) to put your back to a wall].

Snake might be tougher than Sam Fisher but Sam has the skills to pay the bills. Snake is dead broke. Sam handles like a true soldier, trained and ready to execute the mission. Snake handled like a stumbling punk that doesn't even know what being a soldier is.

And the top down perspective drove me nuts. How the hell am I supposed to be stealthy if I can't even look ahead of me AND move at the same time? How the hell can I hide if I can't observe without being observed?

So after watching the game for 1 and 1/2 hours and playing it for about 7 minutes, I couldn't take it anymore. I just couldn't take it.
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