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.
The really, truly massive addition to Subsistence also resides on the bonus disc - and that's Metal Gear Online, a selection of game modes using characters, weapons and environments adapted from MGS3 to create a number of online arenas. Now, before we start, let's be clear - this runs on the PS2 Online service, and as such it experiences many of the frustrations with the setup procedure and so on that all PS2 Online games do, for some users at least. However, we're reviewing MGS3 Subsistence here, not Sony's online efforts - so we're going to dispense with all mention of the time it took to get the online service set up, and so on, and just talk about the experience of playing Subsistence online.
That experience is worth talking about, too - because it's almost uniformly excellent. You may not expect it from a Japanese developer - and we have to confess that we didn't, really - but what Kojima Productions has created here is actually an extremely competent and well-balanced online shooter, which successfully combines the sneaking and manoeuvring of Metal Gear Solid with the kind of action that we've all come to expect from online shoot-'em-ups.
There are five core modes to the online game, each of which supports up to eight players. Deathmatch and team deathmatch are the two most basic modes, and by far the least interesting - they offer little opportunity to play around with the additional movement and sneaking abilities which Metal Gear offers over other shoot-'em-ups, and the action feels very random and disjointed due to the realistic levels of damage inflicted by weaponry. The other three modes are Capture Mission, Rescue Mission, and Sneaking Mission - each of which offers a very different style of gameplay and a very different challenge to players.
Capture Mission and Rescue Mission are both team-based games; the former sees each team trying to grab an objective item (a cute toy frog, actually) and drag it back to their base for as long as possible, while in the latter, one team is tasked with defending a rubber duck while the other team attempts to grab it and bring it back to their base. Although the two play modes sound quite similar, the tactics involved in each one are quite different - rescue mission is particularly interesting, because not only does it clearly define an attacking and a defending team, it also adopts the Counter-Strike mechanic of killing players permanently, so if you die, you sit out until the next round.
In each mode, you have a variety of very typically MGS moves available to you. The new camera (the third person one we talked about only a few brief paragraphs ago) is the default view, but you drop into first-person mode to aim and fire - an interesting mechanic which slows the game down appreciably and makes everything a bit more tactical than the frantic bullet-spray of something like Counter-Strike. You can also crawl around in the lush foliage which the game lifts from MGS3's various jungle stages, flatten yourself against walls to reduce your profile, camouflage yourself (which works surprisingly well against human adversaries, actually) and even hide in a cardboard box (which doesn't, because everyone just develops a psychotic habit of shooting the hell out of every cardboard box in sight) or drop porn mags to distract enemies (actually, this worked more than once, which is an unexpected bonus of the "my god, is everyone in this game a 14-year-old with ADHD and Tourettes?" online gaming syndrome).
The final mode in the online game is particularly interesting, because it pits one player against all of the others in a sneaking mission - where one player is "it", and plays Snake, while all of the others attempt to prevent him from grabbing a roll of microfilm and escaping with it before the timer runs out. Sounds a bit unbalanced, but actually, the odds are stacked quite evenly, because Snake is capable of camouflaging himself so effectively that he appears to be invisible when he's not holding either the film or a weapon. Obviously, you can all take turns at playing Snake in this scenario, and it's a particularly fun one to play if you can't get the numbers together for a decent team game of Capture or Rescue.
One crucial element of the multiplayer which Metal Gear Online gets very, very right is the wealth of options available to players, with the setup of your matches being incredibly customisable. If you're settling in to play with friends for a while, for example, a really useful option is the ability set up a playlist of scenarios which you work through - thus saving you from setting up a new game every time the old one finishes. The ability to see persistent statistics of your various accomplishments is also nice, and the game tracks everything in minute detail, giving reams of stats to look through when you're finished playing.
The final disc in the box is the least interesting - included as a bonus disc in the special edition of Subsistence in the USA, but available to everyone who buys it in Europe, it's a DVD with re-cut versions of the cut-scenes of the game, allowing you to effectively watch it as a somewhat disjointed movie. You also get the MGS4 footage from TGS 2005, which is nice - but then again, if you're a fan of the game you'll have seen that a dozen times already. Not terribly exciting, in other words, but a nice bonus disc to have.
The real question, then, is whether all of this justifies going out and buying Metal Gear Solid 3 again - to which the answer is "probably not". If the online modes appeal to you - and they really are very good fun, although obviously it helps if you have some friends to play against rather than hunting for pick-up games - then it's not a bad investment, and if you've never played MGS3 before it's a must-buy. That's what we've made our final judgement based on; while this may not be great value for someone who paid full price for the game previously, for collectors, online gaming fans or people who haven't played MGS3, this is absolutely the definitive version of one of the finest games on the PlayStation 2. If MGS3 scraped very close to a nine, then the addition of online modes and the vastly improved camera in Subsistence easily pushes it past that point in pure quality terms - but as a caveat to the dizzyingly high score, we would point out that the original game can, of course, be picked up cheaply now. Put it like this - if price is a big issue for you, then buying a two-year-old game with bonus content and a better camera for full price will probably sting. But if you simply want the best possible experience of one of the best games of the current generation, then this is the only option.
9 / 10