Sunday, February 25, 2007

Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence

I'll tell the truth: when I first caught a glimpse of this game's direction, I wasn't thrilled. While one of its big selling points was its return to familiar territory - an escape from the technological espionage of the first two Metal Gear Solids and a revisitation of the jungle-themed environmental warfare of the very earliest Metal Gears - I was never much of a fan of the earlier games in the series to begin with. The 8-bit games were all too detailed, too slow-paced and too faceless to really grab my attention. They were the kind of games that required you to do some heavy reading to fully comprehend, and just didn't interest me with their setting nor their method of storytelling. I didn't like the idea of constantly monitoring your wardrobe to fade into the surroundings, I didn't like the concept of keeping your character fed in the wild, and I didn't like the repetitive environments - trees in all directions. I could identify with the surroundings of an urban warzone. I liked the variety of moods, personalities and surveillance devices present in a modern building or complex. I could identify them in my everyday life, and in a way that allowed me to identify a bit more with the game itself. I'd sometimes find myself unconsciously documenting all of the good hiding spots in my office, which meant the games were succeeding spectacularly at capturing my imagination. I've never been to a jungle. I've never had a desire to visit a jungle. I'm an indoor person at heart, I like being in the city much more than I like being isolated, out in the wild. I've never been more than fifteen minutes away from a supermarket. I can't empathize with the need to hunt and kill a wild animal every day to keep going. In a way, I allowed those early impression to jade my opinion of the game before it had even been released.

I don't think it's any kind of secret that the story of Snake Eater is not that of Solid Snake, the face of the franchise up to this point. Instead, it digs into the first few long-reaching missions in the career of Big Boss, godfather to both Solid and Liquid Snake. Set in 1960s Russia at the height of the Cold War, there's an underlying sense of uncertainty and impending doom that shadows every instruction you're given by your superiors. For his part, Big Boss (throughout the game answering to the handle of "Snake," both for clarity's sake and, assumedly, for familiarity) plays the part of an ignorant, squeaky-clean new recruit from moment one - basically assuming the role of the player himself. As the bitterness, backstabbing and political positioning of the individuals involved in the situation becomes apparent, you'll find yourself going through a set of emotions almost directly parallel to those of your on-screen representation and beginning to feel a little compassion for what he's been through. After all, it isn't every day you get a chance to set your own broken bones from the edge of a lonely river, only to suddenly witness the slow, vertical climb of a nuclear mushroom... even if you ARE a covert government agent.

It's beneath that hauntingly familiar cloud of war that Metal Gear Solid 3 begins its story. I have to admit - despite the thousands of hours I've already spent behind the reigns of a controller, even I was taken aback by the magnitude of that opening scene. Maybe an hour into the game and already the protagonist has endured a nuclear assault. It was enough to shake some of those cobwebs and allow me to take in the rest of the game from a clear mind. A lot of the preconceived notions I had developed about what the game was about, how it would play and what kind of a story it would contain, those were thrown right out the door when that fiery holocaust climbed toward the sky and Snake shook in his boots at the sight.

Eventually, Snake becomes a major player in the unfolding drama, a world-threatening chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union that's dangerously close to checkmate. While I think the game believes itself to be a little more "insider" and intelligent than it really is, that shroud of intellect is pulled tightly enough to convince most gamers that it's for real, and ultimately to succeed. The main plot is kept simple enough, with a clearly defined set of goals and interactions, so the meat of the story is easy to comprehend. Snake's been dropped into the dense jungles of southwest Russia, he's meant to convene with an undercover agent and follow their instructions, and he's asked to deal with any unanticipated situations as he sees fit. Perhaps more importantly, if he's discovered in the field by the Russians it means intercontinental nuclear war. His failure in the mission at the beginning of the game has put considerable strain on international relations between the US and the Soviets, and any action that could be perceived as even remotely offensive (such as dropping a special agent into the field) could cause a catastrophic chain of events. It carries a little more weight than "if you're caught, you'll die" and makes your actions feel much more important as you progress through the game.

In addition to that main plot, there are also half a dozen sub-stories going on which tie further into the international dealings and threats that should make this mission feel weightier than all of the others. For the most part, they just feel like excess - they're so detailed and wordy that it's hard to follow their progression and differentiate one from the other. You're given dozens and dozens of names of men who are supposedly major players in these political wheelings and dealings, but because they're often mentioned at length in your radio communications and never actually represented in person, it's hard to differentiate one from the other. Eventually, I found myself skipping over the lengthier radio chats - not just because they were too wordy and hard to follow, but because they were so frequent. I wanted to get to the action, and didn't like the idea of watching a stagnant screen of Snake kneeling, hand to ear, listening to a general who wants to talk his ear off.

The existence of more modern technological innovations does cast a shroud of doubt over the timeliness of the story, although I'll trust Team Kojima's historical accuracy above my own suspicions. I have trouble believing that a portable, hand-operated nuclear missile launch-system, an active-camo suit or heat-sensitive visors were around and in active use throughout the sixties, and while it's nice to suspend that disbelief for the sake of a good story, such things do tend to stick out like a sore thumb alongside the game's established dedication to realism and simulation. Don't get me wrong, you aren't outfitted with a bevy of lasers and robotic limbs or anything, but many of your tools are modern enough to raise a few flags about their authenticity.

The characters haven't quite returned to the form they enjoyed in the first Metal Gear Solid, but they're an improvement from the ho-hum cast of MGS2. Where the first game offered a lineup that would've looked right at home in the pages of a modern comic book and the second took the "realism" approach just a bit too far, Snake Eater's roster is a little bit of both. The enemy crew comes fully equipped with a handful of individually-specific special abilities, but their personalities are a little less eclectic and more believably human. The bosses in particular are superbly defined and personified. You'll do battle with a retired Russian cosmonaut who can't let go of the past, constantly radios mission control and comes at you in an insulated, rocket pack-equipped space suit. You'll meet the "greatest sniper in the world," virtually invisible to the naked eye, who's spent his entire life honing his craft. He's so dedicated to his pursuit of the perfect kill that when he's not stalking his prey, he's unconscious. His comrades escort him from killzone to killzone in a wheelchair. It's these little splashes of color and personality that really made the cast of MGS1 so memorable, and it's nice to see them recognizing that and even attempting to replicate and improve upon it here.

Another carry-over from the previous games in the MGS lineage is the series' trademarked gallows humor and self-deprecating sense of comedic timing. You wouldn't think a war zone would be an appropriate place to crack some jokes and make puns, but it's exactly that tension and serious setting that makes them so successfully funny. Some of the costumes you're asked to wear are just silly, as are the soldiers' reactions to them, and many of the verbal jokes don't even register as such until Snake's wry smile or glance directly into the camera gives it away. It wouldn't have felt like a Metal Gear without them, and I'm grateful not just for their inclusion, but for their continued quality and evolution. There's also an unintentionally hilarious James Bond-homage during the intro credits that had me rolling, and an accompanying theme song that's so cheesy I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

Of course, the main attraction in MGS3, or in any non-PSP Metal Gear release, is stealthy infiltration. The overall goal is to move throughout the entire game, start to finish, without being detected by foot soldiers or surveillance apparatus, which is clearly no easy task. You're slowly provided with more and more gadgets and weapons to aid you in that goal as the game carries on, which meet various degrees of success in their trial by fire. The heat-sensor goggles, for example, are invaluable in later levels, as the last few sub-bosses are nearly impossible to spot in the dense foliage, while the series' famous cardboard boxes are almost completely useless. You can feel welcome to lay down in them and presume safety, but every single guard in the game seems to have an extra sense warning him that there's something warranting inspection about the one box you happen to be crouched beneath.

On the inevitable occasions that you are detected and confronted by the enemy, you can stand and fight, potentially alerting more guards to your whereabouts, or try to run off and hide before approaching again. True to my form throughout the series, for the first three or four hours, I would always attempt the second technique. After all, the purpose of the game is to move stealthily and cautiously, and to hurl yourself into battle would contradict the idea the developers were trying to introduce. After that point, however, I quickly found myself jaded to the concept and relying more and more on hand-to-hand and armed combat. It's a nice idea the first dozen times you spend fifteen minutes determining the best route of action, waiting for your opportunity, slowly crawling through the grass and finally having your plan foiled by a surprise animal attack at the moment of truth. After that first handful of hours are wasted on planning, the concept wears thin.

For those moments when you do transition into head-first combat, the hand-to-hand system has been completely remodeled and revamped, with extra attention paid to pressure sensitivity and subtle movement. If you grab hold of a guard with a single-hand weapon, for instance, you can use the poor soul as a human shield, (continuing to fire over his shoulder, naturally) use your weaponry to interrogate him in a secluded location or kill him in whatever manner you deem to be appropriate. Of course, if you kill him or knock him unconscious, you run the risk of his buddies discovering the corpse, alerting the troops and bringing hell down on your current position. No action is without ramifications, immediate or eventual.

The problems with lengthy monologues and non-interactive cutscenes that inundated Metal Gear Solid 2 have reached near-epidemic stage in chapter three. You'll constantly find yourself sitting through well over twenty minutes of film, conversation and action, none of which are you invited to take part in. It's incredibly frustrating to see the potential for all of these ultra cool, action-heroic moments in gameplay, just to have them taken out of the player's hands and wasted on cinematic interruptions. I'm as big a fan of the cutscene as the next, in fact I'd probably consider myself to be one of their larger proponents, but their use in Snake Eater crosses the line, even from my perspective.

Likewise, the jungle scenes go on for way too long. That's my main complaint with this game - they took a series that had been reinvented successfully on the PSone. The two preceding chapters were, up to this point, entirely based in urban and technological locations. They uprooted the whole operation, moved it to a jungle setting and hurt its identity as a result. Where I'd rather have been hiding behind boxes or rushing from alley to alley, I found myself climbing through tall grasses and hanging from trees. It feels like a tremendous handicap that's imposed upon the player, and there's no great payoff at the end to make it worth the hassle.

One of the more intuitive and attractive new features introduced in Snake Eater is the camouflage index, which teaches the player to select appropriate face paint and wardrobe depending on their surroundings. Climbing through dense foliage, for example, requires a dark green camo, combined with a striped green face paint. If it's after sundown or indoors, you may be better off completely coating your face in black polish and donning a much darker wardrobe. Wearing the wrong colors for a situation will make your job all the more difficult, while successfully implementing these techniques makes life much more rewarding and interesting. On the occasion that you do achieve that rare moment of a 100% on the camo index, (signifying complete invisibility) it's a crowning moment in the gameplay experience. There's nothing quite like slowly crawling directly in front of a guard patrol, never raising his suspicions for an instant, then continuing through checkpoint after checkpoint without recognition. Of course, this raises another feasibility question of where, exactly, Snake hides all those extra pairs of pants when he isn't using them, but you're asked to conveniently overlook such trivialities.

As anyone with more than even a passing interest in the game should already know, a large part of its progress lies in Snake's ability to trap or kill wild animals and fauna, eventually eating them as a means of self-sustenance. Really, this sounds like more of a headache than it really is, although I'll readily admit to occasionally yearning for the days of instantly devouring a ration pack mid-stride. Actually chewing down a meal doesn't even refill your life, as one would imagine it would, but instead replenishes your stamina gauge.

Your health regenerates automatically over time, assuming you aren't injured, but by maintaining a full stamina reading, you can recover from wounds much more quickly. If, in fact, you are injured, it's time to open up Snake's handy-dandy first aid menu, within which he can perform any number of tasks. If you've been swimming in the jungle, you can grab a lit cigar and burn off the handful of leeches that have affixed themselves to Snake's skin. Taken a few bullets? You'll need to dig the thing out of your body with a knife, apply some disinfectant, bandage the wound and wrap it. Broken arms, burns, stab wounds, poisons, and similar ailments are also treated within this menu. If it seems like a lot of needless detail and extra effort, that's because it is. Really, excessive particulars and over-analyzation are the names of the game in Snake's second PS2 adventure. If you've ever wanted to know just how miserable life was for special forces agents, lost in the jungles in the mid '60s, well, here's your chance. While it's a cool idea to focus on an area-specific injury and its treatment, rather than the simple, black and white "you were shot" or "you were not shot" standards of the previous games in the series, I'm not really all that interested in playing through a medical treatment simulation and understanding when and where to apply a splint after a lengthy fall. In this regard, Metal Gear 3 is half espionage and war emulation and half Boy Scout seminar.

The controls are kept fairly simple, almost mind-numbingly so. So much of this stuff is automated that I never really felt like I was entirely in control of Snake's actions. You can tell him when to walk or run, to take a knee and crawl or perform a spectacular somersault through a tiny opening in the fence, but when it comes to more elaborate operations, you're generally just pressing the action button and watching him do all the work.

First person mode has some problems, most notably the speed at which Snake looks around the field. This should've been something that was pressure-sensitive, reacting with some attention paid to how firmly or loosely the player moved their thumbstick. I mean, if a very light touch in the open field results in Snake moving extremely slowly, cautiously and stealthily, why couldn't a frantic, wild press to the right result in more than a slow, leisurely spin in first person mode? It's nice to have such precision, don't get me wrong, and in the few instances where I found myself sniping in MGS3, the extremely slow-moving controls were a godsend. Where you'll most find yourself employing this view, however, is in the heat of a close-quarters battle, guns blazing on both sides. In that kind of situation, exactly where your first shot lands isn't as important as how long it took you to put it there and how much time you gave the enemy to fire off a few rounds of their own.

I've read that one of the major overhauls for the release of Subsistence was with the overhead camera, but having never played the original version I can't really compare the two. I do know that the camerawork was very rarely obtrusive, and generally good enough that you won't even notice it's there. Ultimately, that should be the goal of any good angle - if you don't even detect its presence, that means you aren't regularly complaining about it and it's been properly developed.

Continuing where MGS2 left off, the Snake Eater's graphics are absolutely breathtaking, and one of the last true showpieces of the PS2's library. The greatest thing about the Metal Gear Solid series is its cinematic approach to every aspect of the game and meticulous attention to detail, and that overlying theme is inarguably visual. I remember the first time I popped in the original MGS, when I heard that opening monologue overlying the introductory movie and opening credits. I'd never seen anything like it before, a true blend of interactivity and professional cinematography. I couldn't wait for that short speech to end, I was so eager to start. I can also specifically remember the first time I saw Sons of Liberty in action, back when the PS2 was in its infancy. It was like I'd seen the future: incredible character models, obscenely detailed (not to mention interactive) environments, amazingly lifelike animations... it was all there, and it was all new.

MGS3 is more of the same, on all fronts. The environments, repetitive as they may seem, are truly quite varied. While it's easy to see a bunch of trees and assume it was an easy development, the jungles of this title are every bit as real and varied as the real thing. Just because you're looking at leaves, branches and vines doesn't make every alignment exactly the same, and it's immediately evident that this was a concern to the development team. No two board layouts are even remotely alike, and it makes the experience much more entertaining and explorative than I'd expected it to be.

The characters, too, are incredibly detailed and concepted, literally from head to toe. The cosmonaut character I mentioned earlier, for instance, could have very easily gone way over the top and harmed the game's image with its cartoonish tendencies. The way he's treated, however, is awe-inspiring - the visual distortions caused by the heat of his rocket pack, for instance, latch the whole scenario to reality. The fireballs he spews when he takes flight are graphically incredible. The reflections on the glass of his visor, the beads of sweat running down his pale features, everything imaginable is represented in incredible fashion, and it's not just limited to the one character. It's a theme for the entire game, with even the lowliest of foot soldiers enjoying the fruits of the development team's labors. It's a true showpiece.

In that same respect, the voice acting within the MGS series is nearly legendary. The first game set the bar incredibly high with a wide cast of characters and personalities, all of them reflected flawlessly by both the vocal talent and script. While the second stumbled in places, the voice acting remained top notch, to the point that I felt like I'd be foolish to skip through some of the notoriously lengthy cutscenes. Where it would've been easy to just click my way through all of the radio conversations, the top notch spoken tracks had me setting the controller on my lap and just absorbing it all. In this regard, Snake Eater had some pretty big boots to fill, and it does so adequately if not spectacularly. It's not quite to the same level that the first game was - a lot of the emotion of the readings has been sapped away. It's like everyone with a speaking role is sullen, trying to look cool, and completely uninvolved in what's going on around them. I suppose a lot of that can be attributed to their training as cold-blooded super soldiers, men and women who have killed hundreds in the line of duty without regrets, but I think expecting that kind of an unspoken leap is asking a lot of your audience. When the action really picks up, so do the emotions, and that's when the game really shines. Any time Snake is surrounded by soldiers, with rockets firing over his head, he drops the facade and lets the emotions cut loose. When he's faced with an emotionally trying final battle, it provides some of the best dialog of the game. I suppose emotion isn't completely lacking from this game, it's just used very sparingly.

Also included in the Subsistence package is a second disc, overflowing with additional content and side-games utilizing the Snake Eater engine. As a whole, this disc is almost entirely comedic, and it's surprisingly very successful at it. There's a "Snake vs. Monkey" mini-game, in which Snake is asked to hunt down a horde of cartoon monkeys, (modeled after the chimps in the Ape Escape franchise) tranquilize them and capture them. There's something about the serious jungle setting that is forever misshapen by the presence of these overly cartoony creatures - I especially loved the final stages, in which they've created their own simian-themed Metal Gear apparatus. It's a fun little distraction, and upon completing it you're rewarded with a new costume for use in the main storyline. You'll find a collection of user-created, downloadable skins, which can also be implemented into the main storyline and used at your own discretion. I particularly enjoyed the naturally stealthy nature of the jolly red Santa Claus wardrobe. There's also a wide array of cutscenes, many lifted directly from the main story, which all skewed just enough to make them completely ridiculous and hilarious. Words can't even express what goes on in these things - there's a discussion about why Snake shouldn't eat horse meat in the wild, elderly men climbing along the ceiling of a torture chamber like Spider-Man, a scene in which Raiden (the protagonist of the second game) is, well... violated... by the villainous mastermind of Snake Eater - anything and everything you can imagine, and then a little bit more. I'm under the impression that most of these were originally created for internal purposes, to keep the team behind the game's creation from going insane and to keep them amused, but they wound up being too good to keep to themselves.

Also included in the package is an online feature, which I truthfully haven't even tried out (I have zero confidence in my ability to hang with the better players in the world) and an emulated copy of both the original Metal Gear and its direct sequel, heretofore unreleased in the United States. They're interesting looks back at the history of the series, but as I mentioned in the introduction, I didn't care for them upon their original release, and the years haven't exactly been kind to them. Still, it's nice to have a collection like this gathered into one place for the first time. Now I can trash the emulated copies that somehow found their way onto my hard drive.

But all of those extra features are nothing more than frosting. The real meat of the purchase lies on the first disc, on Snake Eater, and on its own the game isn't quite up to snuff. It inherits a lot of good things from its predecessors, but it also tries unsuccessfully to innovate upon them. Most of the game's best sections are features which were retained from those previous chapters, while many of its worst are brand new. I loved the main storyline, even if I never fully enjoyed the jungle setting, and both the camo index and the hunt / kill / eat functionality were bold steps in a new direction, but felt too much like work and too little like an enjoyable experience. Many of the action sequences which would've been an integral part of the game itself in earlier chapters were here relegated to a mere cutscene, taking away much of the action, suspense and excitement of the experience. As a whole, MGS3 is a good ways above average, but the new systems it introduces are as obsessively detail oriented as they come without rewarding the player for their studious use. It's like the newer innovations were introduced solely to handicap the player, and no amount of beautiful graphics, outstanding boss battles or storied history can overcome that kind of an impact. Good, but not great.

On a scale of 1 to 10, where 1 is poor and 10 is amazing...
Overall Score: 7.2

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