|I'll admit it, I'm an MGS hater. But I want to change|
I've never understood the big deal with the Metal Gear series. Despite being a major Nintendo whore throughout my childhood, I didn't get around to playing the old 8-bit game for some reason. Likewise when the Playstation "Solid" series showed up much later in 1998, I was knee deep in PC fanboyism, and thus followed the misguided path of avoiding "all that kiddie console shite". I even heard that Metal Gear fans themselves were a little peeved by its follow-up Metal Gear Solid 2. I've kind of avoided this series over the years as a result, and never therefore had the decades of emotional investment so many do.
Never the less, when Metal Gear Solid 3 came out in 2004, the world seemed to go absolutely mental for it. "Game of the Year" they proclaimed. "Snake could beat Sam Fisher's arse any day!" they boasted. Surely not? What have I been missing out on, I pondered? My interest was peaked, thus I grabbed the sucker immediately and dived straight in, prepared to be wowed.
It never happened. While pretty, the game felt dated, frustrating and an absolute bitch to control. I'll be honest, I turned it off after two hours of pure aggravation, then melted down the discs to create my own life-size Sam Fisher visor of defiance.
Due to that disappointing experience, my previous indifference to the series slowly turned more to flat out hatred. I just couldn't understand why the hell gamers around the world were holding this series in such high regard. What were they smoking? And please...Snake versus Fisher? That'd be like squaring Darth Maul off against the Star Wars kid.
Flash forward to today, and the Playstation 3 is slowly beginning to approach our collective radars. More importantly, its first killer title looks set to be Metal Gear Solid 4 - supposedly the last of the series. Even more importantly than that, its various trailers and teasers look un-friggin-believable
. When even a hater like me is spunking in his shorts at the all-too brief sight of Raiden going ape-shit on a bunch of Metal Gears, you know something's up.
I've studied those MGS4 clips over and over, wanked dry each and every time. To me these are no mere video game trailers, more short films, by some crazy undiscovered indie talent working on a Hollywood sized multi-billion dollar budget. The shorts belay their video game origins by a mile, and even if were CGI, would still impress on a level games seldom do. So - dear lord - to be running in real-time? Oh my.
As a result, a decision was made. I had to give Metal Gear one last chance. You see, I wanna go into MGS4 a die-hard fan like the masses. I wanna know first hand what an utter bad arse Solid Snake really is. I wanna know who the fuck Otacon, Ocelot and Meryl are. I'll be honest, I didn't even know what a Metal Gear was 'til recently. Sorry. That's how far removed I've been from this series...but the MGS4 trailer has made me wanna find out more.
|Subsistence includes a new online multiplayer mode. Like most though, I've never bothered hooking my PS2 up online|
As luck would have it, MGS3 - the most recent game on the current gen consoles - just had a re-release to coincide with this change of heart, subtitled Subsistence. Not only does Subsistence include the full version of MGS3 and tons of extras, but thankfully also includes a revamped camera system for the core game designed to make navigation and visibility considerably easier. This pleased me instantly, as in just my two hour stint with the game back on release, I couldn't help but notice that you can't see, well...pretty much a single thing. Calm down, fanboys, I'm kidding.
But I'm not.
Metal Gear Solid 3 is actually a prequel from what I understand, one that takes place before all four other Metal Gear games, setting up just who Snake is as well as some of the other characters from the later games. As a result, it sounded like the ideal place to jump onboard this moving train. It was time to go to Metal Gear land...and I promised myself I wasn't gonna return until I'd conquered it from beginning to end.
So what happened? As an outsider taking his first (real) steps into this universe here in 2006 - without the memories and baggage of the older games - did MGS3 capture my heart? Does Dig have new found respect for this long-running console series that so many swear by? Is Sam Fisher out of my life, replaced with Snake and chums forever? Read on and find out.
15 Hours Later
|Expecting realism-based jungle stealth? Well...think again|
Having now finished MGS3, I'm a little bewildered, to be honest. The game really isn't what I expected at all. From what limited experience I'd had so far - not to mention the never ending comparisons on the interweb - I was expecting pure realistic stealthy spy shenanigans of the Splinter Cell vein. More specifically, I presumed this series was set in something vaguely resembling the real world. Boy was I wrong.
Sure, it starts out that way. A fabulous intro sets up Snake as a CIA operative sent in on a solo mission to Russia, where he must rescue a defecting scientist from a small jungle outpost. As Snake, you're given a tranquiliser gun, some limited gadgets and told to remain stealthily hidden in the shadows at all times without being seen. So far, so Sam Fisher.
What I wasn't expecting were crazy human henchmen made out of bees, super bullets bouncing off walls and thousand meter plummets of death resulting in little more than an "ouch". Turns out the Metal Gear universe is a ridiculously over the top sci-fi world where realism goes straight out the window and Snake is well, pretty much a superhero, one who can withstand rocket explosions to the face. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing either. In fact - and this is something I'll go on to preach from here on out - MGS3's plot is pretty bloody brilliant. From about hour two onwards - where The Boss and her cronies show up and Snake starts having to make some tough decisions - I was bloody captivated in fact.
I'm oh so glad this game is a prequel that essentially starts from scratch, as I can't even begin to imagine jumping smack bang into the middle of this story and expecting to know just what the frack is going on...'cos believe me, this is some convoluted shit right here. But I have to say...it works.
What the Fuck?! I Didn't Expect That
|Thumb stamp screenshots don't do it justice, but boy, Subsistence is a looker|
MGS3 really is half game, half movie. You almost spend more time - particularly in its opening quarter - simply watching cut-scenes than playing. Not just any cut-scenes either, these are stylish, beautifully crafted storylines, battles, plot twists and climaxes all but non-existent in any other game. Hideo Kojima - Metal Gear's granddaddy - has an incredible sense of vision and flare if this title is anything to go by, and as a result he's crafted an all-too rare video game where the cut-scene is the reward, not the annoyance.
It goes beyond simple scripted sequences though, Snake's interactive communicator is a fabulously understated tool that goes a long way towards involving you in the game's colourful cast of characters too. By a single press of the Select button, you can call it up at any time, and thus radio in any of your contacts for advice on the situation at hand. Or just for a chat.
This is all remarkably detailed and expansive, considering the sheer wealth of situations and battles Snake finds himself in. At one point for instance, a chopper appears overhead, complete with missiles and fully armed gat-cannon. A quick hunch down behind some cover and a call to your arms expert though, reveals some handy advice on how to avoid its fire. Neat.
At another point I got bitten by a snake, contracting a deadly poison that started to zap my health at an alarming rate. A quick call to me super hot medic pal had me decked out in a cure moments later though. These interactions are rarely planned or forced upon you, it's more of an interactive hint system that you can fall back on when needed, or just when bored. Whenever you're stuck, you call up your team and they'll talk you through it, while simultaneously engaging in some (often humorous) banter that enhances them all as characters. It's a very cool concept indeed.
Another area that deserves some immense love are the visuals. The previously touched upon in-engine cut-scenes which drive the story are absolutely magnificent in particular...works of art mixed with genius technical know how that almost stubbornly drag every last inch of meagre power from the still-refusing-to-die PS2, with stunning results to show for it. To see computer generated characters emote and act is all but impossible on a good day, yet to witness a five year old system pulling it off better than pretty much all others, is really deserving of a reach-around.
|MGS3 really is a beautiful looking game. The PS2 sure has some staying power|
It's more than just the pixels and the polygons though. There's genuine artistry behind this game, with shots and camera moves many a movie could do well to study. The animation is also eerily realistic, but not in that ridiculous "motion captured then pasted onto fake gaming toons" kinda way like, say, Grand Theft Auto. Here I genuinely buy that this is how Snake would look and move, and likewise all the other characters. They are, for all intents and purposes, living, breathing characters in this universe. I'm kinda flawed by how good it all comes across.
When the cut-scenes end and the gameplay kicks in, admittedly the visuals take a minor nose dive, and it's subsequently become something that I've all but accepted MGS4 will similarly do on the PS3, but even with this in mind, Subsistence is still right up there as one of the better looking PS2 titles ever made. I'd put it pretty much neck and neck with Shadow of the Colossus in the visual department actually...no small words for the massive arse ramming fan of that game that I am. Trees and jungles are rendered impeccably well, there's some fabulous views on offer - particularly with this new camera system - and slowdown proves seldom a problem too. I also have to say, the final stages involving crazy real-time motorbike chases, pretty much blow away anything and everything I've ever seen on the Xbox and Gamecube. Heck, I've even seen worse visuals on recent PC games (Sin Episodes, I look your way).
True, as a jungle-heavy game, this is no Far Cry. It pretty much forces you down small, tight, linear corridors most of the time, while simultaneously piling on big helpings of trees and bushes in an attempt to disguise it, but you don't really notice this because it all looks so bloody gorgeous.
On the whole I really was impressed with MGS3's cut-scenes, characters and storyline. Most pleasingly, I've noticed that on this re-released version of the game, you can watch all those kick arse cut-scenes bolted together sans actual game via a bonus disc.
Which might be a good thing, because...
I Must Be Seeing Things
In terms of playability, my opening hours with MGS3 were met with pure frustration. This is one of those mind-bogglingly annoying titles that decides to wait an age before decking you out in all the decent weaponry, with your newbie tranquilizer gun nothing more a single shot tool of the devil who's sedative effect takes an age to kick in, unless you can make an all-important headshot (which with them PS2 analogue sticks, ain't too easy).
|Snake has some sweet close quarter take downs, but pulling them off is incredibly tricky, particularly as a newbie|
That said, in the stealth genre, combat should always be a last resort shouldn't it? These games ain't about the full frontal combat, they're about laying low and not getting seen. Playing an all-but invisible shadow who passes by without a trace. Sadly this really ties in directly with my core problem with Metal Gear Solid as a whole...as a stealth game, it really is fundamentally flawed. This isn't the hater talking either, nor some misguided sense of not knowing "how to play the game" properly. Simply speaking as a long time gamer who's played and completed hundreds of titles in his years...it just really ain't a very good stealth game I'm afraid.
The problem is, while it gives you a radar and a neat little camouflage system - one which helps you dissolve into your surroundings a little better - that's pretty much it. There's precious little else to help you avoid being seen in this game - particularly in the first half - and Snake's limited moves and archaic control system are far from up to the task too. You can't even duck and move at the same time, which for a stealth 'em up, is one big huge no no.
Let's tackle this head on, shall we? The reason Splinter Cell works so well as a stealth title is the concept of light. There are no shades of grey in that universe, every room, every wall, every street of the game is either bright or dark. If you're in darkness, you can't be seen, if you're in the light, you're exposed. It's a simple concept, which the game organises itself around beautifully, and does some fun and interesting tricks with. Need to get through that brightly lit room full of guards? Simple...shoot the lights out, then sneak past them in the confusion of darkness.
|The camo system is your most genuinely useful tool in evading guards, and includes many comedy costumes like this croc head|
That's the sort of stealth I like, where the need to lay low and avoid being seen is built directly into the environments and becomes more like a puzzle to be solved. None of this is exclusive to the Splinter Cell series either, look at Thief 3 or Riddick...similar stealth titles built entirely around the same emphasis on shadow. And you know what? These are great games too. Nothing beats disposing of a corpse by dragging it into the darkness as Riddick, or blowing out a candle in someone's bedroom as you rummage through their possessions in Thief.
MGS3 has absolutely none of that. Not a single shred. You're thrown into this brightly lit forest and told to infiltrate a base, but have little to no means to actually do it. It's all the worst parts of stealth without any of the fun. I've heard so many people say they don't wanna play games like this and Splinter Cell because they "hate stealth games", and in all honesty, if the Metal Gear series had been my only experience with the genre, I'd probably agree with them.
Sure, as the game progresses, you do pick up some minor toys to alleviate this ever so slightly. You can drop porno mags on the floor to amuse the guards while you tip toe past, or hide in Snake's trademark cardboard box, and I do like the way your inventory works and the extra depth some of this stuff adds. Let's be honest though, eh? Compared to Sam Fisher's optic cables, vision modes and diversion cams there's absolutely zero comparison. Snake really needs some decent kit, and even more importantly, he needs it for these opening couple of hours...'cos he sure as hell doesn't have any real weaponry to fall back on.
When coupled with MGS3's lack of shadows and dynamic lighting too, Snake is essentially left holding his dick in the wind here, nowhere to hide but behind the occasional tree. Gotta feel sorry for him really.
I think this is why my opening hours with the game were so frustrating. I felt forced into playing a stealth game, without the means to actually pull it off. This resulted in little to no success on my part; I'd constantly get seen, alarms would go off, reinforcements would swarm in, I'd try and hide, get seen again, run around like a headless spastic, and ultimately die...meanwhile reaching across for another valium and an additional swig of vodka.
Stop & Pop
But here's the rub. Towards the end of the first level I snagged a proper pistol and nice phat shotgun. "Hmmm, these are probably a bit loud" I thought at the time - still stuck in the stealth mindset - thus I cast them aside to the nether regions of my backpack. However it did spark some curiousity as to what the hell they were doing smack bang in the middle of a stealth mission.
What really turned it all around for me though, was the aquisition of a 500 round heavy machine gun a little later on. The more I started experimenting (read: slaughtering) with this more high calibre weaponry, the more I realised...this really isn't as much of a stealth game as it thinks it is. In fact, I seemed to have instant success the second I dragged my mind out of that stealth gutter, ignored the alarms, and just charged in like a maniac gunning everyone down.
Is this how everyone else plays the game? Am I "playing it wrong" as they say? I guess that's for you to decide, but I do know it's a heck of a lot more fun when you're running and gunning instead of hiding in the grass, falling asleep. Unlike the aforementioned stealth games, Snake can take more than one or two hits before he's out for the count here you see, so in a way, there's no real reason to stay hidden once you have some big meaty fuck-off guns backing you up. Snake kinda soaks up damage like a sponge.
It's odd because it plays way easier this way too, meaning MGS3 gets less and less challenging as you build up your arsenal and progress through the game, as opposed to vice versa like most.
|You've gotta love Snake really, silly voice with perverse boob gawping and all|
Don't get me wrong, as an all-out third person shooter, MGS3 is still far from perfect. There's no aiming reticule in third person view, and switching to first person mode means you can't move, so there's no circle strafing or the like either. It really is just a case of charging straight into wide open spaces while firing randomly all around you - with the odd bit of first person sniping thrown in for good measure - but it's oddly fun though, and kinda satisfying on top. It's nice to see a mountain of bodies surrounding you after a battle, then hearing the alarms die off and knowing full well no more reinforcements are coming 'cos, well, you killed them all.
This emphasis on crazy action kinda surprised me, and there's no better example of that than the seemingly never ending supply of boss fights the game tosses your way on a regular basis too. These 1 on 1 showdowns are really quite impressive actually. The Boss has a gang of crazy super mutants known as The Cobras you see, and needless to say you find yourself squaring off against each and every one over the course of the game. One or two went on a little too long for my tastes, but all come off as exciting and imaginative, and are also pleasingly easy and thus far more enjoyable than your average end of level showdown.
I'd say my favourite was the somewhat epic sniper duel against a chap calling himself "The End". Taking place solely within a huge forest, the crazy old bastard regularly shifts locations and lays in wait for you to cross his sniper sights from afar. Tracking down his location, approaching from behind, then unloading 100 rounds right up his dookie shooter was immensely satisfying and really seemed to play completely differently to your average boss battle.
I could similarly spooge all over the fire tinged hallway battle with The Fury though, or the beautifully surreal and utterly original showdown with The Sorrow. Some good times to be had right here, and they are almost worth playing through the entire game for alone.
What's the Deal Then, Yo?
So as I said earlier then, this really wasn't the game I was expecting. Its crazy plotline and emphasis on action over stealth really took me by surprise, as did the ridiculously over the top comic book end of level bad guys complete with their stupidly barmy super powers. It's funny, if you look back at my thoughts
on the last Splinter Cell game, you'll notice my only real gripe with it as a whole was the mundane storyline. MSG3 - for all its faults - is the exact opposite...it's the storyline which drives
the game and keeps you transfixed, so much so that you can almost completely overlook its gameplay shortcomings. Is this the secret to the game's success?
|Next stop: Metal Gear Solid - Twin Snakes for the Gamecube|
It's way more hardcore than I expected too; this is most definitely not a mainstream game like your GTAs and your Halos. I know it has its heavily installed fan base, but as a franchise I dunno if it's enough of a system seller to convince regular old Joe Public to shell out over ?400 for a PS3. Then again, is any game? While the Metal Gear Solid universe - at least judging from what I've seen - is way too artistic and "out there" to ever be accepted on the same mainstream level as those two blockbusters, that's kinda one of the things I like about it though; it's different, it's bonkers, it's beautiful and it never patronises the player. It's got a wonderful story to tell, and it does it in an extremely stylish and adult manner. That goes a long way.
Playing this game from start to finish has exercised some demons for me, that's for sure. I've gone from hating Metal Gear to really sorta liking it. I still say Splinter Cell is a far better game in all areas but story, but to be honest, if there's one thing I've learned throughout this experience, it's that neither game is really comparable to the other anyway. There's plenty of space for Sam and Snake in this world...apples and oranges, my friend.
I still have some issues with this game from a playable stand point - in particular its control scheme - but in a way, it doesn't matter. The story now has me, and I'm desperate to see what happens next...frustrations and nonsensical design choices be damned. I'll be digging out the Gamecube and Xbox remakes of the other Metal Gear games next, and continuing to progress through Snake's really rather riveting back-story in preparation for the all powerful MGS4. I look forward to seeing how those games fare in comparison to this one, and who knows, just maybe I'll document each of 'em on here for you people too.
Is this the start of a beautiful new friendship? I honestly don't know. But I'm gonna find out.