Version tested: PlayStation 2
While it's not a delicacy that any of us have had the (mis)fortune to sample, snake eating turned out to be surprisingly palatable when it was served up as part of Hideo Kojima's third Metal Gear Solid instalment. We liked MGS3; rather a lot, in fact. It was almost everything that MGS2 should have been - stunning graphics, great combat, a flexible and entertaining stealth system, inspired boss battles and a storyline which didn't end with what might as well have been Raiden waking up and finding out that it was all a dream. Admittedly, it was still a bit too heavy on the codec dialogue sequences - including a particularly dreadful bit of pacing near the start of the game - but with genuinely great storytelling and gameplay on offer, it's hard not to be in a forgiving mood for such foibles.
Almost two years later - we originally reviewed the US version of Snake Eater in November 2004, although it didn't arrive in Europe for some time after that - we're back in the middle of Metal Gear hype. MGS4 has had three major trailers, each more impressive than the last, and even the shock of seeing "Old Snake" has worn down as anticipation builds for the series' first PS3 outing. Which makes it a little odd that Konami has chosen this moment to try and persuade gamers to buy Metal Gear Solid 3 - again.
MGS3: Subsistence is, to some extent, the director's cut of the game - or perhaps more appropriately, the DVD set full of mysterious additional discs of extras. Upon opening the box, no fewer than three discs come tumbling out of the package (literally, in the case of the somewhat flimsy cases our review copies were supplied in) - one bearing the original game, albeit slightly tarted up, and the other two being filled with extras, titbits and bonuses.
Insert Disc One
Let's talk about the original game first. We won't talk about it for long, because we already did that - two years ago. It was an eight out of ten then, and the benefit of hindsight still suggests that it's an eight with pretensions of being a nine - a flawed game, in other words, but nonetheless a genuinely great game. It remains one of the best-looking games on the PS2, and popping the disc into the system after being away for so long was a timely reminder of just how much Sony's humble system was capable of in the graphics department when it was truly pushed. The graphics of the game haven't changed one iota between Snake Eater and Subsistence, but it still looks great even now, with a level of detail both in the environments and the characters which is truly impressive irrespective of the hardware it runs on.
What has changed in Subistence, then? The biggest change is the addition of a new camera control system, which gives you the ability to move a third-person camera around the scene using semi-manual controls. That might not sound like much to players of other third-person action games, and indeed it'll be instantly familiar to any regular game player - but it actually changes quite a lot about the mechanics. No longer will you have to flick into first-person view to keep an eye out for enemies who are outside your current camera angle, for a start - and boss encounters, in particular, are much more entertaining and dynamic when you're not struggling with the camera all the time. The new camera is such an improvement that it's actually the default camera in Subsistence, and you need to go into the options screen to turn on the old-style fixed camera tracks.
That, however, is pretty much the only major improvement you'll find in the original game. Aside from that, and a few additions to the wardrobe of camouflage and face paint (none of them massively useful, although there's a certain gotta catch 'em all mentality about such costumes), Snake Eater is just as you recall it, or as you don't recall it if you've never played it. It's about 15 hours long, and after the pacing difficulties of the early sections, worth every minute. The new camera marks a definite improvement which fixes some of the key issues with the gameplay, so if you're going to play through - or replay - Snake Eater, this is definitely the version of choice for that purpose. Handily, you can even switch between the two at the touch of a button, giving you even more visual flexibility in tight situations. Aside from that - nothing much to see here. Move along.
The next disc is rather more interesting. It's here that you'll find the bonus content that makes Subsistence genuinely interesting - and while the comparison with DVD box sets is probably a bit unflattering (after all, when was the last time you actually watched the commentary track from the executive producer, the local butcher and the co-star's step-mum on a movie, or settled down to the one-hour documentary about how they hid the cellulite on the lead actress' legs or got Industrial Light and Magic to digitally remove the lead actor's unsightly back hair?), Konami has actually pulled out all the stops to ensure that there's genuine depth to the content on offer here.
Let's consider some of the smaller extras first - some of which you will have missed if you bought the US original and didn't wait for the bumper PAL edition of MGS3. These add in a number of modes which are basically designed to give you access to more interesting bits of MGS3 out of the context of the main game. So, for example, there's the demo theatre, which allows you to view any cut-scene in the game - a worthy addition in a game with so many excellent cinematic moments. Be warned, however, that the demo theatre makes no note of where you are in the game, so if you haven't played through the full single-player experience, it's perfectly possible to ruin the story for yourself by dipping into this option.
More interesting than that is the new duel mode, which allows you to take the boss battles from MGS3 out of context and play through them in order to be graded on your performance. These, too, were a major highlight of the game, and being able to try them out on their own - especially with the grading system in place - is a nice touch. It's also fun to try them with some of the more unusual weapons on offer, since you get the option of loading Snake out from a vast selection of weaponry before each engagement.
It wouldn't be Metal Gear Solid, though, without some slightly oddball humour - and perhaps predictably, the Snake Vs Monkey mini-game from the original MGS3 makes a return, with several new (and remarkably well designed) levels for you to run around capturing Ape Escape's siren-headed chimps. Thoughtfully, the team has also included the full set of MGS3 parody videos which were originally posted on the Internet - rendered in-engine, they're a perfect example of Kojima and his team's capacity for self-deprecation, and are also very, very funny in places. If nothing else, they're a handy reminder of why we're sometimes happy to indulge Kojima flights of pretension which we'd slam other game creators for - he may yammer on a bit about the meaning of war, but at least he knows he's being ridiculous.
As a final topic under the "titbits" category, albeit a somewhat incongruous one, it's worth mentioning another of Subsistence's brand new additions: the inclusion of the MSX versions of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, the games which kicked off the whole series. Never before seen in Europe - in fact, the second game has never been translated before, as far as we're aware - they're actually surprisingly good fun, especially Metal Gear 2, which really shows the origins of MGS' storytelling and characterisation. It's a bit harsh to call these titbits - they're both huge games, really, and you could sink dozens of hours into completing them - but we can't imagine that very many players will choose to do so. Although they're still fun, they're for the retro completist only - a nice addition to the pack, but arguably of interest only to a limited number of players.