Although players had infiltrated several enemy fortresses as Solid Snake since Metal Gear in 1987, Big Boss seems to be the center of its universe. Nearly every game uses Snake to drive its plot, but Big Boss is the focus of it, which became more prominent by Metal Gear Solid in 1998 when the PlayStation hardware successfully allowed for a more theatrical perspective in games. I revisit my favorite entry in this series in glorious high definition and an impressive 60 frames per second.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is the debut of Big Boss as a highly-trained CIA operative code-named Naked Snake, whose assignment is to rescue a defecting Russian scientist in 1964 Russia, which means the Cold War serves as a backdrop. When the game is booted up for the very first time, you see the menu feature Snake using a technique to bring an enemy soldier down, the screen surrounded in a color and camouflage pattern. What’s great is that the menu tells you just about everything you need to know about the game. The opening scene of Snake performing a HALO jump plays, describing the events that lead us to where we are in the present: the scientist Dr. Sokolov wants to defect, Washington, D.C. wants his talents, and altered Cold War history to fit the plot of the game with references to Yuri Gagarin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and John Kennedy’s assassination. The first chapter of the game is known as the “Virtuous Mission,” which not only sets up the story but helps the player become familiar with the features of Snake Eater.
There are features in Snake Eater not seen in then previous installments of Metal Gear Solid, all of which are part of what helps the player stay drawn in to the mission. The first is camouflage. Most of the game takes place outdoors, and so Snake is given a set of patterns to help blend into the flora of the jungle and helps to sneak past patrolling enemies, depending on how well he blends in as marked by a percentage index of 0 to 100%. Second is close-quarters combat, or simply CQC, which allows the player to take down enemies in a variation of judo and stun them, or implement a chokehold and demand information that could aid the player, or simply slit the enemy’s throat with the knife. This is a bit more evolved from the previous games’ punch, punch, kick combination in order to deal with enemies.
The two features that help drive the theme of survival are the concepts of healing and stamina fulfillment. In Metal Gear Solid 2, if a character had taken enough hits, the player might see an orange bar in the health bar that indicated severe wounds that would prevent a full recovery (by consuming a ration). Applying a bandage “stopped” the bleeding and healing could resume as necessary. Snake Eater requires removing bullets with a knife, applying disinfectant, bandaging cuts and using splints on a broken bone if the player even found themselves in that situation. If stamina is lost as a result, Snake could eat a number of animals or mushrooms in the environment, where Snake’s tastes determine how much stamina is recovered, which allows for improved health.
Healing wounds, changing camouflage patterns, and recovering stamina all require pausing the game and navigating to their respective menus. This should absolutely sound like a chore and a turn-off, but it isn’t. I suppose it’s the idea of the player having an opportunity to change the situation as they see fit and still giving input to the circumstances of the mission. It is rather akin to customizing equipment, items, and spells in role-playing games, like managing inventory. The player can customize Snake as they see fit. We also tend to learn what exactly Snake is willing to consume (ramen noodles and most snakes) and what will make him puke (Russian MREs and any type of frog).
The Virtuous Mission does a fantastic job of serving as a tutorial and to understand overall what players are in for and also serves as an effective prologue that helps demonstrate what is at stake in the game. Here we meet its antagonists, the rather legendary Cobra Unit, a group of soldiers with superhuman abilities (at this point a Metal Gear staple) who have a plan in mind with a secret weapon, which requires kidnapping Dr. Sokolov, yet the bigger point at hand is the betrayal of Snake’s mentor, a ridiculously skilled soldier simply known as The Boss, who finds herself in collusion with these warriors-turned-terrorists. The wrench in these gears, we soon see, is the second-in-command Colonel Volgin firing an American made nuclear weapon over into Russian territory. This sparks an international incident between the U.S. and the Soviet Union… and then we get a theme song and opening credits as if a James Bond film had just begun.
Snake Eater is a game filled with conspiracy, Cold War tensions, and a number of great moments. Whether I have missed this discussion in 2004 or not, one reason it stands out as a noteworthy and great game is the character of The Boss. It is true that games have seen their share of women who exist with a far more crucial role than as something to ogle at for a few hours, but my instincts will tell me the ratio of, for example, Lara Crofts to The Bosses is rather high. The Boss has a somewhat plain design, not particularly exaggerated in terms of looks. More importantly, The Boss is one of three primary women that appear in Snake Eater, yet she undoubtedly demonstrates the largest presence of authority, dignity, and rationale even with a character as power-hungry, sociopathic and authoritative as Colonel Volgin, who fears and respects her. Everything that is The Boss is not particularly political, either. Although actual history may say otherwise, the world of Snake Eater treats a female highly-skilled warrior of the 1960s as something that just is, especially since she was a World War II veteran. The Boss is given perhaps the most characterization because of her relationship with Naked Snake, who she refers to as “Jack,” as a term of endearment. Her story has been seen as rather emotional in the face of typical Kojima style of plotting, and I agree.
Colonel Volgin himself features slightly progressive characterization. Much like The Boss’ gender not serving a political purpose, we come to discover at some point that Volgin is bisexual, with a fondness for a young major named Raikov. This relationship doesn’t seem to exist to send a message, and treats it as something that just is in 1964, however likely it was in our 1964 (minus Volgin’s ability to summon lightning and electricity). It does, interestingly enough, serve as a plot point to meet an objective. Treating this sexual identity as a normal thing in its setting perhaps sends a very strong and needed message, even if Volgin is portrayed as a psychopath.
The game tends to feature humorous call-backs (or call-forwards?) to previous games, including one of the bigger roles of the game, a young and hotheaded major code-named Ocelot, who is eager to prove himself and impress the heck out of Snake. One of my favorite jokes involves the idea of Godzilla movies still in production 50 years after the events of MGS3, with 2004 having been Godzilla’s 50th anniversary. Major Zero, Snake’s primary handler, goes from being a rather stoic military man to an overexcited fanboy when Snake talks down on the “authenticity” of James Bond movies. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they made 20 more of those films!” The balance between humor and drama is well-done, particularly if the player decides to explore the humor by contacting several handlers during the mission.
Side trivia: In 1964, three James Bond films released: Dr. No (1962), From Russia with Love (1963), and Goldfinger (1964). As of this writing, there are 22 James Bond films with the 23rd, Skyfall, currently filming.
The game also boasts some memorable characters. It wouldn’t be a Metal Gear Solid game without The Pain, for example. The Pain has the ability to manipulate hornets and use them as bullets and grenades. He is the second major battle of Snake Eater, and the one that tests your willingness to take this game’s style at face value. The Fear moves superhuman-like, able to manipulate his joints and jump around from tree to tree at high speeds. The Fury is a rather angry full-time pyromaniac and part-time cosmonaut that provides one of the game’s biggest WTF moments.
I had complained that Metal Gear Solid 2 failed to hold my interests in terms of grand boss battles, and Snake Eater made up for that by simply giving us The End. The End is a 100-year-old sniper who, according to one character, can be described as “photosynthetic.” You enter into a sniper duel with him across three different areas, where you must stalk and blend in and try and beat him at his own game. While The End is an expert sniper, he also has his vices to take advantage of. This is a fight that tests the player’s familiarity with the game, as well as patience and skill. This is a boss fight that challenges. Over the past few years, it has been praised as one of the greatest battles in games, because it’s not meant to be a difficult battle, but it creates a mood and creates tension you might only find in films. There is no actual bitterness in the battle. Just as The End wants to test Snake, he is also looking to test us. The fight can last 20 minutes or three hours. In a sort of black comedy, The End is able to be killed long before the actual battle is supposed to take place.
Then there is The Sorrow. Explaining The Sorrow spoils part of the story (and emotion), but fighting him is not so much a fight but a strange perspective in how the player has handled the game’s enemies. If you’ve killed enemies during your play, you’ll meet them again and watch their suffering as you dispensed it. A strange out-of-body experience if there ever was one.
The one character who probably should have made an impact for me but failed to do so was EVA, which is a bit disappointing. She is a double agent, and goes into what it is that causes a person to defect (her reasons are not very convincing), but it’s overshadowed by her role as Miss Fanservice. She is still somewhat interesting as EVA, if only because EVA is her actual competent if not aggressive personality versus her role as a damsel-in-distress type serving as Colonel Volgin’s mistress.
Metal Gear Solid 3 as a game has a lot to offer in terms of storytelling, hidden extras, inside jokes, different ways to meet an objective. It’s the emotion that makes it such a fan favorite, I think, as it features one of the most popular endings (and meme images) of the last generation into this one. Having played through it again, I find it to still be a fantastic experience. It combines wackiness with tension and emotion and does it well.
You thought I was going to paste the “salute” image, weren’t you?