Alright, let me set the record straight: if Guns of the Patriots had never existed, then Metal Gear Solid 3 would not only have been the best Metal Gear game I’ve ever reviewed, but it also would have gone on my “Top Ten Greatest Games” list. In hindsight, I probably should have gone back to Snake Eater sooner and considered this.
It’s a testament to Kojima Productions’ talent in game design that a now nine-year-old game can withstand the times (a fitting point, given), especially with an HD makeover. It truly was, and is, one of the best examples of stealth action gameplay at its finest – not to mention it sports some of the most impressive production values and most polished storytelling of its series.
It all begins with a jump, a carefully calculated drop into the world of 1964. America and the Soviet Union are on thin ice, dancing around the issue of nuclear armament and international conflict. At the heart of it all is a single man: the CIA operative codenamed “Naked Snake”. Snake, a young soldier with the associated naivete to boot, is sent into the heart of the USSR to retrieve a man of interest to the CIA, a scientist whose work may tilt the balance of the Cold War in either side’s favour.
However, this so-called “Virtuous Mission” does not end in heroic glory like the title would suggest; rather, Snake is witness to both betrayal and notable disaster. With the odds against him and the world pointing fingers at America, Snake is sent on one mission more: head back into the Soviet Union, find the traitor – his own mentor, and the mother of America’s special forces, The Boss – and kill her before time runs out. Thus, a tale of espionage, loyalty, comradeship and duty ensues.
If it isn’t clear, this feels very much like the best of the Bond films, or just good spy thrillers in general. A single soldier enters a distant land, his goal to infiltrate and prevent global disaster. The side characters and antagonists add their individual quirks to the story, presenting Snake with a broader view of the situation. The love interest – who I won’t detail further for fear of offending the spoiler police – plays the moral field, managing to remain respectable yet intriguing (and more than a little attractive).
Snake Eater also has the advantage of being a gradually escalating spy thriller, with a string of action sequences in the finale that could match or surpass the best of Hollywood. In terms of its place in the Metal Gear franchise, a number of characters and plot threads – particularly those that come into play in the game’s final minutes – add to the ongoing continuity, to an extent that later mysteries in the series slowly start to clear up.
So, all in all, the story is masterfully told, paced, acted and presented. If there’s one complaint with it, it’s over the clunky nature of the script and the resulting slow start. If you thought Sons of Liberty‘s constant and unnecessary Codec conversations were starting to get on your nerves, the first twenty minutes of exposition with occasional jargon thrown in won’t help matters. Luckily, this problem mostly clears up by the end of the game’s first hour.
As for its gameplay… okay, this will sound very much un-critic-like, but there’s nothing wrong with the gameplay. There’s nothing I can critique – there’s nothing bad I can say about it. Kojima and company went into the development process knowing what they wanted and knowing what to do, and the result is a sleek, focused yet immersive and expansive experience.
Playing the HD version means you get the third-person camera as the default option, which absolutely defines this as the best way to play Snake Eater. I refuse to play the 3DS port or the original PS2 release out of a lack of certainty over the former’s controls and a distaste for the over-head camera in the latter – trust me, third-person is the way to play.
What, you may ask, will that play entail? The player will guide Snake through a variety of detailed environments, ranging from mountains to jungles to stark military complexes, to complete his current objectives while deciding how to deal with the wide-spread squads of enemy soldiers patrolling each area.
Since this is a stealth game, it needs its own mechanic for helping Snake sneak around. This comes in the form of the Camo system, relying on uniforms and masks or face-paint the player may come across to blend in with their surroundings. The Camo system uses a percentile index to measures how well Snake is hidden, creating an active desire to find the best camo and the best hiding places to get that ever-coveted 100% Camouflage rating.
It also helps that controlling Snake is quite smooth, compared to the default ridged movement from Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2. Transitioning from running to squatting to crawling is swift, requiring just the push of a button. Snake’s movement speed and direction can also be changed easily thanks to a well-focused camera and a tight digital control scheme.
Fortunately, stealth isn’t the only way to tackle this game. There’s a wide, wide range of weapons and items to collect, many of which have uses in both stealth and combat operations. Things like sniper rifles, assault rifles, pistols, various types of grenades, even accessories like silencers can be uncovered and used by the player. Some items even allow for non-lethal takedowns, though the limited amount of resources available (and the decreasing quality of silencers in use) promote a strategic approach to combat.
Speaking of combat, Snake Eater features a very particular form of melee action: the straight-forwardly-named CQC. Using the fire button while not wielding any weapons, Snake can simply punch and kick troops into unconsciousness, or he can grab them to interrogate, use as a human shield, force into a sleeper hold and grope for items or simply slit their throats. It’s a quite expansive system, adding to the non-linear nature of the gameplay.
That non-linear gameplay comes to a head in the boss battles … ah, those boss battles. Each pits Snake, and the player, against some of the oddest individuals (and machine) on the face of the planet. Facing most of said bosses (who won’t be spoiled further) doesn’t restrict the player to any one strategy; rather, there are many means to defeat nearly every boss, in both lethal and non-lethal manners. Some were rather innovative, others didn’t appeal to me quite as much, but I respect the high design quality overall.
Another mechanic Snake Eater manages without difficulty is its twist on Health and Stamina bars. See, Snake may be a trained soldier, but even he has his limits – some normal (like fatigue or starvation), others a little odder (like snake bites, bullet wounds, burns, injuries from leeches, et cetera). To combat this, the game allows the player to tend to Snake’s wounds and feed him via collected medical supplies and rations or hunted animals, thus keeping his Health and Stamina bars stable.
This idea of keeping Snake patched up and fed is really one of the most fun parts of the game for me, as it’s believable, it’s dynamic, and it’s fun to see how extreme things can get. Having Snake comment on how much he enjoys eating certain types of food, or seeing him extract bullets from an open wound with a f**king knife, makes trekking through the wilderness far less of a chore than it may sound.
Then we come to the environments, and I have to say, nothing Kojima has done before comes close to the amount of detail on display here. Again, the aforementioned items strewn everywhere is notable, but there’s also a surplus of complex military outposts with defensive measures spread throughout the terrain. Add to that an abundance of flora and fauna, the ability to access buildings in each area, and a strong sense of verticallity, and you have Snake Eater‘s level design – an immensely, almost obscenely detailed string of areas (but in a good way).
To say there’s many hours of content here is an understatement – my first playthrough took about 20 hours to complete, and that was Easy difficulty. In addition, there’s also a Demo Theatre to rewatch the game’s cutscene, a Duel Mode to replay the boss battles, and the original two Metal Gear games in remastered form. While I haven’t spent much time with any of these bonuses, I feel safe in assuming there’s gamers who will be addicted for hours on end.
I’ve commented briefly on the breathtaking nature of the visuals, but it warrants repeating that they truly are impressive. There’s a scene on a mountaintop where the sheer scale of the surroundings becomes clear, and it’s wondrous to behold. Despite running on an aged engine, with noticeable simplicity in the character models, the vast range of detail and variety in the art design makes the experience worthwhile in its own right.
Then factor in top-notch voice work. David Hayter gives the rookie-turned-hardened soldier Snake his usual blend of dry wit and dutiful focus, while Lori Alan matches him with a nuanced emotion-inducing performance as The Boss. The rest of the cast provides depth to their characters, as well as adding to the charm of this spy-thriller-esque tale.
It also helps that the soundtrack is incredibly strong as always, with a range of classic tunes and orchestral work to complement the action. Hints of Sons of Liberty‘s theme pop up from time to time, but players are likely to enjoy the Bond tribute that is “Snake Eater”, the game’s opening theme.
As they say, that’s all she wrote. Snake Eater was great back in the day, and its HD comeback upholds that legacy with ease. Even though it ever-so-slightly misses top marks, it remains both an excellent example of game design and proof of the industry’s growing thematic maturity. Like I said, without Guns of the Patriots, this would be the best. Period.
Recommendation: Buy It