I played Metal Gear Solid 2 last year, and my feelings on Metal Gear Solid 3 are pretty similar, for better and for worse. I think it’s a superior — or at least more endearing — game in a lot of ways, but it’s also pretty rough from a gameplay perspective. I wouldn’t have enjoyed this game without the Hideo Kojima factor, but man do I really love the Hideo Kojima factor.
I played the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection (PS3) edition of the game, which is based on the Subsistence update. I’m not very clear on what this version changed, but I do know it added a proper third-person camera, and I can’t imagine playing the game without it. It’s dramatically more playable (and perhaps too easy as a result) when you can actually see what’s ahead of you without constantly swapping into first-person mode. I didn’t have a huge problem with the overhead camera in the first two Metal Gear Solid games because the Soliton Radar offered you a large degree of situational awareness. Spending half of your time in a game staring at a minimap was its own kind of problem, but it did at least feel fair. Removing the radar while retaining a camera angle that restricts your forward visibility to a few metres just doesn’t make sense.
That’s not to say the camera is perfect. Because of its fixed-camera-angle roots, Subsistence still isn’t a proper third-person shooter in the contemporary sense. Regardless of the camera’s direction, first-person mode still points the camera where Snake is looking. This mismatch between how the game works and how I expect a third-person game to work led to a lot of really awkward situations in which I would attempt to shoot an enemy I was looking directly at only to end up aiming 90 degrees away. While either stick can be used for first-person aiming, the SSA revolver (which at one point is your only weapon) performs a superfluous spinning animation when you move the right stick, which ruined an otherwise-dramatic sequence for me. When you’re crawling through grass, the camera insists on going into first-person mode, and while I get why that’s the case, it was never what I wanted.
The camera compounds some already-awkward combat mechanics to make any moderately demanding sequence way more frustrating than it needs to be. The controls feel overloaded — buttons are mapped to too many actions, and some of the maneuvers (like sidling and leaning) are super awkward and unintuitive to pull off under duress. I largely enjoyed sneaking around and taking out guards on my terms, but any sequence in which I was forced to fight enemies in direct combat would inevitably devolve into a fumbling, frustrating clusterfuck. I’d be trying to maneuver the ponderous first-person camera toward enemies I had been looking directly at, holding down the shoot button while trying to get Snake pointed at enemies, accidentally entering crawl mode, and generally not having a whole lot of fun. The boss battles (particularly the Boss battle) are more ambitious than they were fun. The camouflage, food, and medicine mechanics are tedious distractions. I like to think that I’m pretty good at calibrating my expectations for older games, but in the case of Metal Gear Solid 3, I’m not convinced the mechanics were substantially more acceptable in 2004. This game is a contemporary of Resident Evil 4 and Gears of War — there’s no excuse for how lame the action sequences are. I didn’t hate playing Metal Gear Solid 3, but I certainly didn’t enjoy the gameplay in and of itself.
Gameplay complaints aside, I think Metal Gear Solid 3 has a lot going for it. The production values are superb, and assuming the HD remake didn’t fundamentally overhaul very much, it holds up remarkably well today. The art direction, and even the technical implementation, can more-or-less stand up to games released a decade later, and in a lot of ways still exceeds them. The smooth framerate, which as I understand it is a massive step up from the often-chuggy PS2 original, helps a lot in that respect. As with the previous games, the sound design is amazing — this series has some of the best noises in the game, and the mix comes together in a really cohesive way. The score is great and appropriately evocative of the setting, though in a more cinematic way that doesn’t hold up as much for independent listening. There’s some great adaptive sneaking music, which sort of comes across here but isn’t very well-represented in the official soundtrack. There’s also some memorable boss themes (The Fury, Volgin, Shagohod), and, of course, the Snake Eater theme, which is in varying forms used to great effect at several points in the game:
In general, I think Snake Eater has a certain artistic flair to it that was lacking in Sons of Liberty, and its (relative) grounding in geography and history makes it a lot more memorable.
I was trying to explain to someone why I enjoy the narrative so much, and I realized it’s hard to justify in words. The story is kind of a mess, and only really makes sense if you suspend all disbelief and just let it wash over you on its own terms. If you want Metal Gear Solid to be serious, logical, or even reasonably coherent, you’re going to be disappointed, because that’s not what it is (nor, speaking as someone who played the original Metal Gear Solid pretty recently, has it ever been). If you go in expecting it to be ridiculous, cheeky, self-referential, and utterly uninhibited, you’ll find one of the most downright fun video game stories out there.
Why is everything Ocelot does (and every gesture he makes) utterly baffling until the revelation that he was secretly triple-crossing everyone on behalf of the CIA? Metal Gear! Why is building a giant walking tank in 1964 the only way to get an ICBM from Russia to the United States? Metal Gear! Why does Eva leave her jumpsuit unzipped to her pelvis at all times? Metal Gear! Who the hell are the Cobras, why do they have supernatural powers, and why does nobody seem to acknowledge this? Metal Gear! Why is the entire final sequence predicated on the idea that the idea that Ocelot’s added weight is enough to prevent a ground effect vehicle from flying? Metal Gear!
I don’t mean any of this in a condescending or ironic “it’s so bad it’s good!” way. I was on board with every ridiculous action scene, every overwritten line, every obvious pop culture reference, every ogling camera angle, every melodramatic monologue, every “what the fuck?” moment, and every Hideo Kojima indulgence. There’s an earnestness to practically every aspect of the Metal Gear Solid games that I find uniquely endearing.
Despite all of my problems with Metal Gear Solid 3, I gladly blew through it over the course of a few days in a very uncharacteristic way, and can’t wait to dive into Metal Gear Solid 4.