Each Metal Gear game gives players new ways to hide, and compensates by making the guards a little smarter; more conscious of their surroundings. It’s a good direction to trend in. In the first game, you just had to avoid being directly in front of someone. In MGS2, you had to be pretty light on the analog stick even when you were directly behind a guard. In Snake Eater, even this seems impossible, and to get right up behind someone without them sensing anything, you have to use the ultra-light D-pad stalking controls, moving even slower.
Getting the drop on somebody is harder in MGS3’s jungle environments, even if there are no cameras this time, because the areas are more open, and the movement patterns of guards seem less clear than they did in MGS2’s hallways and catwalks. You often have to crawl through the brush. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with getting a guard’s attention in controlled circumstances, especially when a lone guard wants to investigate a moving cardboard box.
Though cover can be vague in the jungle, there’s the helpful new addition of the camo index, telling players exactly how well-hidden Snake is by a number in the corner of the screen. It’s informed by whether Snake is moving, and by how low he is to the ground, but also by a system of disguises and camo patterns to suit the situation. If your camo index is high enough, even bosses will have trouble finding you in the middle of a fight.
The game doesn’t entirely take place in the thick of the jungle — there’s the infiltration of the enemy stronghold Groznyj Grad, and some high-altitude environments — but there are a lot of jungle maps, and I did start to get tired of them. The level design may be an improvement over MGS2 in some respects, but it still suffers from the limitations of highly broken-up environments with screen transitions, where you can just tackle someone and leave before they get up and sound an alert. Groznyj Grad is quite fun in spite of this; it’s like seeing a precursor form of Ground Zeroes.
The next new big thing is survival. The more work Snake does, the hungrier he gets. You don’t have to worry about starving outright, but hunger affects the recovery of your health, the steadiness of your aim, how long you can hold your breath, and even makes Snake’s stomach growl loudly. I found it trivially easy to keep my inventory full of fresh food, but it’s a nice complication to have to stay on top of while infiltrating. It’s fun to try eating new animals to see what Snake thinks they taste like, and some can even be captured alive, allowing you to throw fish or poisonous scorpions at people. There was a risk that a hunger mechanic would be a tedious distraction more than anything else, as it has been in various other games, but it’s funny here, and it meshes well with the other systems, so it feels like a good move.
The other half of survival is first-aid treatment, meaning actually digging bullets out of your leg with a knife, suturing cuts, treating poison, and so on. It doesn’t add a lot to the gameplay in terms of fun factor, and it would have been a lot cooler and more impacting if you had to hide behind cover and do this stuff in real time rather than from a pause menu. But as a ludonarrative device, it’s already very good. It makes the difficulty of long-term survival in a hostile environment feel that much more real. When Snake is really badly hurt after a cutscene, having to actually patch yourself up makes it go from generic and thoughtless game damage — something that doesn’t actually happen, like desync in Assassin’s Creed — to something real, more reminiscent of John McClane walking through broken glass in Die Hard. It’s also used creatively in special cases, like having to dig a transmitter out of your body.
The “Subsistence” edition of the game also added a new camera angle, allowing the player to toggle to a new third-person view from behind, similar to where other modern stealth games put it, instead of using the series’ traditional view from above. You’d think after coming straight from every other Metal Gear, I’d be used to it, or would even prefer it, but every time I toggled to it, I just got confused. Maybe it just doesn’t work so well in jungles or 3D environments, but in any case it was a relic from 1987, and it was good of them to get rid of it. But it can’t be easy to work new camera angles into a rerelease of an existing game, and I still found myself annoyed by the camera at times. Snake’s directional facing when entering first-person view was a problem, as were the sudden disorienting shifts to what I would have called “vent-crawling mode” in MGS1 or 2, which seem to happen arbitrarily while crawling through the brush. It looks like the regular first-person view, but you aren’t holding the view button down as you normally would be, and you lose the ability to “pop up” with the shoulder buttons, even though you can still stand up whenever you want.
The MGS controls have always been awkward, though, more interested in preserving vestigial forms than in trying to cooperate with what every other game in the world might be doing. Snake Eater in particular makes a new misstep by assigning some awkwardly critical roles to the Dualshock 2’s pressure-sensitive face buttons, which were wisely removed from the Dualshock 4. Not only did this control scheme have to be revised for the Xbox 360 port, but I don’t even like it when games put anything more significant than “toggle minimap” onto a thumb stick, given how easy it can be to press those by accident when you’re in a tense situation. Pressure-sensitive face buttons that can kill someone during a no-kills run? Get the hell out of here.
Other new Snake Eater features include the limited durability of suppressors for firearms, and some iterative improvements to CQC melee combat techniques, including the ability to grab an enemy and make them tell you information as you hold a knife to their throat. There are more features for messing with guards, too, now that they go hungry and can get food poisoning. They can also be attacked by wasps when you knock a nest down. But the mechanical innovations and advancements are probably rather meager compared to everything MGS2 introduced. This entry in the series is more to slow down and apply what has been learned, I think. I prefer to see big ideas, but Snake Eater’s new asshole physics do help players to make their own fun. It doesn’t go as far as MGSV in this respect, obviously, but I always appreciate having some open-ended ridiculousness potential.
The bosses are a lot better this time around, in that they don’t arbitrarily abandon what works best about the gameplay just because those features aren’t typically associated with boss battles. You can usually hide from Snake Eater’s bosses, and in one instance even starve a boss out and throw him rotten food, which he’ll eat. One boss, Volgin, has to be fought out in the open, but even with him, there are all kinds of tricks and easter eggs for messing around. He reacts to Snake in numerous ways, such as becoming distracted or confused if the players puts a mask on, sets tree frogs loose in the arena, or eats a “fake death pill” (a particularly clever new tool in Snake’s arsenal).
Though most of the bosses were quite good, the endgame did get annoying with an unending series of shooting gallery segments from the sidecar of a motorcycle, including an obvious chase with a proto-Metal Gear, so the game regrettably doesn’t always live up to the “don’t abandon your own mechanics” rule. At least there were no forced “alerts”, even when the story put me in open combat.
Also of note is the sniper boss fight with “The End”, a man already so old and close to death that if you save in the middle of the fight and don’t play for a week (or if you set your system clock ahead), he dies of old age. It’s a tense and drawn-out encounter, and yet one that didn’t particularly impress me or live up to Kojima’s vision at all, which I can only say because I’ve been to the future. It’s fascinating how the MGS games have continued to reiterate and perfect on some of the same few ideas, all the while rarely seeing these ideas cross over into the works of other developers. When I was so moved by the fight with Quiet in MGSV, I had no idea I was experiencing the cumulative efforts of a series trying to create the perfect lonely “sniper duel” encounter, one that was in the works ever since outshooting Sniper Wolf on the PSX in 1998.
Reactivity can be found in the most amusing and unexpected places, which is one of the series’ best traditions. One of the game’s “boss fights”, The Sorrow, consists only of wading down a river as you’re confronted with all the people you’ve killed. It’s a very short sequence if you’ve only used nonlethal incapacitations, but I realized early into the game that I had no hope of finishing with a zero kill count, and decided to make liberal use of the lethal weapons in my inventory for once, so when I reached The Sorrow, I had to wade past one or two hundred wailing dead people. They appear in the manner they died in: guards stabbed in the throat have their heads rolled back and blood spurting from their necks, guards shot in the dicks clutch their crotches, guards burned alive still screaming and so on. There was one guard I killed up in the mountains, only to see a vulture descend and start eating the guy’s corpse. I shot the vulture and ate it, amusing myself at the indirect cannibalism, but not really expecting the game to ever make a point of it. I was wrong, as those obscure situations are reflected in the underworldly river too: the guard wades past, still being pecked at by vultures, shouting “You ate me!!”
The story is far more sensible and down-to-earth this time, at least by Kojima’s standards. Some things haven’t changed — the Cobra Unit is the latest menagerie of over-the-top freaks that need to be killed off one-by-one to give Snake something to do, just like with the members of “Dead Cell” in MGS2, and Liquid’s FOXHOUND renegades before that. But for the most part, things are more James Bond in style, evidenced by the gadgets, the romantic spy storyline, Snake’s British-accented advisor, and of course the game’s excellent theme song. Being a prequel set in the 1960s, it evades a lot of Metal Gear baggage. Instead of elaborate plots about clones and clownish villains screeching about nothing, the characters tend to talk about the Cold War, and about intelligence agencies hanging their special operatives out to dry. I don’t even care that much about James Bond, but I found it earnest and refreshing.
Many of the characters are great, but especially The Boss, Snake’s tragic mentor figure. She’s positioned as the villain, but more often than not, she’s seen trying to deescalate unnecessary violence, and even tries to keep Snake safe, by beating him up if necessary. I enjoyed Snake’s trope-subverting relationship with EVA, and Ocelot’s obsession with Snake. There are references to movies like The Predator and even The Fugitive, and there’s a great fakeout scene about how Snake ended up losing his eye, since Big Boss had to get his trademark eyepatch somehow.
I would call this the “best” MGS game I’ve played in terms of serving up a complete package, though MGSV had the benefit of countless iterative improvements and other new big ideas that resulted in a game with greater highs, but less consistency, and I still like it the most. But MGS3 has a strong and grounded storyline, and it provides a decent balance of solidifying the series’ foundations while exploring a few new ideas in its survival and camo mechanics, though these aren’t earth-shattering additions. It depends what you’re after, but I would say this is an excellent starting place for new players who don’t feel like going as far back as Metal Gear 2.