Sunday, November 28

Snake in the Grass

Yesterday, I did something that I haven't done in months. Perhaps even in a year or two. I stayed at home and played a videogame the whole day. Back in the days of the PS1 and the halcyon days of gaming, these marathons were rife in the Sanctum. In recent years though, with mediocre games aplenty (despite often having great graphics) and the hectic pace of life muscling in, it's been hard to devote any large amount of time to any game.

That is, unless the game is something really special. Something like a new Final Fantasy. A new Dead or Alive, Tekken or Virtua Fighter game. Or, a Metal Gear Solid game.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater once again puts intrepid gamers into the sneaking suit of Snake, a one-man army and stealth commando working for the U.S.A. Unlike previous MGS games though, the hero of the third game lives in the 1960s, during the height of the Cold War. A group of power-hungry Russian soldiers, allied with some key defectors, is plotting to change the balance of power in the Soviet Union, using a powerful new weapon known as The Shagohod. Snake is sent in to extract the scientist in charge of the project and stop the villains' plot for world domination.
However, since this IS a Metal Gear game, you just know that nothing will go as planned. Snake has to deal with double crosses, double-dealings, a twisting plot and LOTS of historical references (and oddly enough, lots of old movie references too). He'll also face squads and squads of heavily-armed guards, booby traps and yet another crew of oddball bosses to deal with before all the drama is over.

I started playing just after lunch, and got right into the sneaking. MGS3 controls pretty much like the previous games, though it seems to be a lot easier now. There's still a bit of irritating lag time between switching from a crouched position back to standing, but perhaps that's just me. Otherwise, controlling Snake is pretty precised and slick.

Whereas the first two MGS games were set primarily in industrial, indoor areas, the majority of Snake Eater's story and gameplay takes place outdoors, in jungles, forests and swamps. As you have been dropped behind enemy lines, the game takes great pains to dramatize the need to 'survive' in a hostile environment. This includes the need to forage and hunt for food- which is basically anything organic that has the misfortune of walking or crawling in a hungry commando's way (this does not, thankfully, include the enemy guards). Stick an animal or edible-looking plant with your knife, and it's turn into a nice canned ration for you to eat. And you WILL eat, since MGS3 now has a 'Stamina' meter along with your usual Life gauge. The life meter needs to be kept up and high or your performance will be impeded, and healing with not come as quick. You'll eat everything from bugs to rabbits to mushrooms- in fact, after a while you'll be carrying a whole ZOO in your backpack to munch on.
Aside from the more detailed eating mechanic, healing has also been given a more detailed treatment. Often when you're injured, the injuries need to be 'treated' in the Cure menu- you have to use supplies like Sutures, Bandages, Disinfectants and other medicine to treat your wounds. It's a nice mechanic at first, but in the end it kinda slows the action down (since you can do it anytime). I guess in the 60s they didn't have Instant-Heal Rations yet. While it dramatizes the gritty need to survive well, in the end it's pretty tedious and I hope they streamline it better next time.

Otherwise, the game moves with gamer-friendly pacing. This also seems to be one of the more forgiving MGS games- though there is a constant need to be stealthy and invisible, you CAN actually fight your way out of most encounters if you're too clumsy (like me). Snake seems to have an incredible capacity to withstand torrents of bullets, and ammo and weaponry is in abundant supply. Guards usually aren't inexhaustible, so there's really nothing stopping you from mowing down the hapless sentinels in your way.
The Boss fights are still the high points of MGS3's gameplay. Snake Eater's band of misfit bosses are members of the Cobra Unit, each of whom seems to be named after the emotion they sow in combat; The Pain, The Fear, The End, The Fury... these guys are pretty weird even for MGS standards, but they're actually pretty fun to fight. The most unusual just HAS to be The End- a hundred-year old sniper (who looks like Santa Claus in combat gear) who engages you in a lethal game of tag in a forest stage.

LIke the past games, MGS3 also presents a long, involved storyline... as I've always said, producer Hideo Kojima has aspirations for cinema, and his latest game reflects this once again. Complete with a James Bond-like theme song, love interests, and long, long cut scenes presenting the convoluted story, MGS3 is pretty much an interactive movie you watch as much as play. While this may turn off some gamers, it suits me just fine... though some of the exposition parts are just too hokey (Yeah, let's talk about old movies while I'm in the middle of a firefight with some KGB troops!). In fact, the game doesn't really take itself too seriously, even ribbing itself with some references to elements of ill-repute from the previous chapter.

Before I knew it, the clock was at 4 AM... THE HELL??! I had been playing over 13 hours. And I haven't finished yet. This game definitely warrants a second playing, to enjoy it more thoroughly and discover stuff I missed on the way. I have to say that the old magic is still here, and the franchise is still alive and well. MGS fans will eat this up like... well, a nice snake steak, bloody raw and yummy tasty. And we'll probably be hungry for more.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is available now for the PS2. Go get it!

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