When Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater took a bow at E3 last year, it wasn't quite the showstopper everyone expected. Although the PS2 specialist press wet themselves (bless), the rest of us were far more interested in some game being shown off on the other side of the LA Convention Center. Something to do with spindly legged aliens, or something; we've sort of forgotten about it. Anybody remember it? In light of such a dramatic upstaging though, at the time we remarked that MGS had lost some of its influence.
However anybody doubting Hideo Kojima's ability to bounce back into the public eye with his third game was plainly fooling themselves. This is the man who virtually invented stealth-action, and certainly crafted it into what we've now come to expect from the genre. You can claim Splinter Cell was that much better than MGS until you're blue in the face (or have three supposedly invisible green torches sprouting from your forehead), but without MGS there wouldn't even be a Splinter Cell. Think about that. In fact, don't dwell on it too long - it's a sentence we might need to drag out again when we're discussing Snake Eater's influence in years to come...
Smoke and mirrors
Still, when the ranks of US press crowded into a San Franciscan press conference recently to discuss the game with its creator, they must have felt more than a little uncertain. Had Kojima finally lost his grip on the genre he pioneered, or did he have something lurking up his sleeve? Wasn't his new game just some jungle romp with no radar? So we can hang from trees and drop down to snap necks in this one - oh, and we can eat snakes - but so what? Were we not destined for another light stealth adventure with mostly the same elements and another slew of whimsical cut-scenes full of clumsy jokes about Vice City? And then up popped Kojima with a sleeve full of bombshells to tickle our gaming taste buds. Nobody saw him coming. Up to now he was almost invisible, lurking below the radar. And therein lies the key: he was well camouflaged.
Hideo Kojima has been a busy chap. For a start he's found a new setting - the jungle - that allows us to play outdoors without sacrificing the environmental diversity key to his character's stealth exploits. Apart from just-plain-jungle we also have rivers, caves full of bats, bridges, snowy areas, rocky slopes and foothills, and within each there's the potential afforded by trees, long grass, muddy bogs, boulders, and plenty more besides. And while we've already seen Snake (or is it Snake?) hanging from a tree with one arm and sniping with another, dropping down to snap the necks of roaming henchmen and generally doing his usual routine, what we haven't previously seen has actually occupied an enormous amount of the development focus this time out. The new "Camouflage Index" has been presented as the bulk of the gameplay, and last month Kojima was most concerned about expounding its virtues to what turned out to be an increasingly receptive audience.
What not to wear
As a gameplay concept it's not hard to see why the Camouflage Index is getting people excited. Simply put it is a very, very solid method of expressing and affecting stealth in outdoors environments. Although on a fundamental level it sounds similar to Sam Fisher's stealth meter - a percentage bar in the top corner of the screen that ranges from minus scores (completely in the open) right up to 100 per cent (almost imperceptible) - it's the way that score is collated that serves to impress. Light and shadow will play a part, but the key factors here are the environment - whether that's the long grass, branches of a tree, a body of water or whatever - and within that our hero's posture, costume and face paint.
Adopting a stealthier posture, to begin with, is the most obvious way of evading detection. When he's standing around in tall grass wearing a fairly well matched olive-patterned camouflage outfit, Snake will be 45 per cent camouflaged. Crouching down in the same outfit will up that figure to 65 per cent, and going completely prone will take the figure up to 80. Throw on some face paint and you might take it up another 5 per cent or so.
However the key to obtaining 100 per cent camouflage is not only to go prone with a bit of face paint, but to make sure you're decked out in the right threads. Over the course of the game Snake will collect all manner of outfits including some the colour of grass or dead leaves, with shades of dark brown, tiger stripes, black stripes, and even fire and snow stripes to occupy his mobile wardrobe. He won't have all these suits from the start of course, but once obtained the changing process will be swift and dynamic. Snake can even run around with his shirt off, but this will affect something else: stamina.
What not to eat
Stamina is another key aspect of MGS3 gameplay, but in keeping with tradition Kojima preferred to focus on one particular component at one particular press briefing. As such stamina was almost completely off the menu. All we know for now - other than we can expect to hear much, much more about it at E3 in May - is that all sorts of factors will contribute to the stamina rating, including physical exertion and the loss of body heat, so if you feel like taking his shirt off all the time, girls, you might run into trouble, particularly in the snow. However stamina also ties in to Snake's oft-mentioned snake-eating antics, as his very survival from hour to hour will depend on consumption of all sorts of jungle fauna - birds, fish, alligators, even mushrooms (although in deference to good friend Shigeru Miyamoto, Kojima is keeping turtles off the menu).
And catching those creatures brings us back to the pursuit of stealth via camouflage, something that will probably keep Konami's PR ushers happy at the very least. Animals, you see, aren't quite as susceptible to the effects of the Camo Index, and if Snake's enemies break out the dogs he could very well be in a spot of bother. Other jungle creatures however are a bit less alert, and Snake could very well snare a bird, for example, by lurking very quietly with an exceptionally advanced layer of camouflage and then pouncing when it strays within grabbing distance.
That isn't to say that human guards are completely brain dead, though. Not a bit of it. Although they will be initially fooled by Snake's camouflage, they will hear him if he's rustling in the bushes, snapping twigs or scaring birds into taking flight. They will also see parted grass if he runs through it to get away, and they are hardly likely to walk right over him obliviously. If they brush against him or actually stand on him, which is a possibility, they will realise that something's wrong and closely inspect their surroundings, at which point no amount of crafty face paint and suits made out of bark will suffice to keep danger at bay. Fortunately, this being a jungle, alerting the enemies can always be countered by just pegging it in the opposite direction before swinging up into a tree at safe distance and clinging to a branch. Enemies don't seem to have the presence of mind to use the environment in the same way as Snake, either, so they ought to be easy to spot even if you aren't.
Boss characters, on the other hand. Well, they're just as well aware of the natural advantages of the jungle as you are, or so Kojima intimated. He's a devilish tease, that Kojima.
Call it a hunch
The Camo Index is doubtless a complex beast, and we're still trying to get our head round all its subtleties (like the way gunshot wounds and streaming blood can affect the rating), but Kojima was also understandably keen to relate his presentation to the familiar tenets of a Metal Gear Solid game. As such there are some more traditional things to consider - the first-person view, bundling fallen guards out of the way (tossing them in a stream for example), and even the odd indoor section, at which point the game returns to a more familiar feel with context-sensitive radar features. In the "new abilities" department we were also introduced to Snake's new "stalking" move, which allows him to creep around hunched over a bit like Sam Fisher, giving him a 45 per cent stealth rating compared to a mere 20 per cent while walking, and a rather unhelpful minus-five per cent while running. Stalking will have to be used sparingly though, as while it will certainly help evade (and hopefully slaughter) the odd enemy, the feat of remaining in such an awkward posture also feasts on our hero's stamina.
MGS fans can also expect the familiar sight of a jaw-dropping intro sequence, and it should be all the more familiar for the continued involvement of Kyle Cooper. Although in-game cut sequences will be directed by Kojima himself (little surprise given his well-known love of films), Cooper will return to lend a hand on the intro sequence, which will apparently be interactive this time to boot - optionally interactive. According to Kojima you can expect to either watch the sequence or, if you like, to dabble in the things that Snake is doing on-screen. It sounds like a lot of fun.
And it wouldn't be much of an MGS outing without spades and spades of whimsical Kojima-style humour. We've already seen the alligator head disguise used to sneak downriver in the E3 trailer, but now we've also seen MGS3's answer to MGS2's lockers: logs. Nip inside a log and Snake can hide without much problem, and use his little alligator mask to frighten the life out of any guard stupid enough to stick his head inside...
Get the crowd involved
Although there are many questions still left unanswered by our latest glimpse of Metal Gear Solid 3, there's nothing like a bit of background to give those prized trailers new poignancy. Unsurprisingly like MGS2 (some would say "despite MGS2", but I liked it, okay?) Konami and Kojima are aiming to build up further exposure to the game over the coming months in a number of ways. E3 will obviously expand our knowledge particularly of the stamina system, and Kojima has hinted that there "might" be a demo (which, if they're keeping with tradition, would ship with another probably slightly obscure Konami title which it needs to give a sales boost to) before the game's release in late 2004.
Kojima also confirmed plans for another gamer participation competition called the Camo Campaign, which will see players sending their own ideas for camouflage concepts to Konami, who will judge them based on a mixture of effectiveness, humour, and just plain coolness, with the best actually making it into the game. Unfortunately it doesn't sound like we'll be able to get our rather complicated "dig a hole" routine in there, but it's entirely possible Kojima is planning something like this anyway. For the whole game. [That was a bit below the belt, wasn't it? I thought you liked MGS? -Ed] [I'm just bitter because they won't send us a copy of Twin Snakes. -Tom] Kojima's suggested camouflage was a suit made out of little duck faces for use in a pond, so they're clearly looking for a mixture of outfits and jungle elements that might offer some advantage. Details of how to enter the Camo Campaign should be forthcoming in the next few months.
Talk of the Camo Campaign also drew attention to MGS3's online options. Before you do yourself a mischief though, MGS3 will not feature online play (Kojima has separate plans for MGS Online), but it will allow you to upload and download camouflage designs using the Network Adapter, which sounds like a neat add-on for those of us who bought a Network Adapter and still haven't found a particularly viable excuse for owning one...
Back in Gear
All of which just about wraps up this instalment of Snake Eater, then. We hope you're a bit more excited than you were before you clicked the link. All that remains to say is that Kojima still hasn't confirmed that the 1960s version of Snake we're playing with in MGS3 is the one familiar to us. All he would say, with a hint of a smile, is that dear old Snake hasn't merely leapt in a time machine on his way to the jungle. To be honest though, if we had a time machine at this point, we'd probably jet back to E3 last year and soak up that gigantic trailer with renewed gusto. It may not have a radar itself, but MGS3 is definitely back on ours.