I have so many issues with Snake Eater that I probably should hate it. Instead, I have a deep affection for Kojima's bizarre, talky Cold War saga. I'm certain that I shouldn't have warm and fuzzy feelings for a game that made me roll my eyes so often and had me cursing at the screen on an hourly basis, but after the credits of MGS3 rolled, all that I seemed to remember were the highlights.
Kojima lost me with Sons of Liberty. I'm not alone in this regard. It wasn't the bait-and-switch that had us playing for 80% of the game as Raiden--I thought that was a bold move, and I have a soft spot for Quinton Flynn (who once voiced Jonny Quest, and would later go on to be Reno in Advent Children and Axel in Kingdom Hearts--who are, let's face it, pretty much the same character). It wasn't the fact that the villains went from over-the-top to over-the-over-the-top. (I rather liked Fortune, though I found Vamp less than compelling. I mean, a real vampire? That's just--Ugh, never mind. Kojima.) It wasn't even the end of the game, where all semblance of proportion and balance are tossed to the side and you are forced to fight wave after wave of Metal Gear Rays.
Okay, maybe it was a little bit of all those things. Mostly it was the La Li Lu Le Lo.
I really enjoyed my time with Sons of Liberty. I may even have played through it twice; I can't recall. When compared with the original Metal Gear Solid, however, which delivered a mostly coherent (though admittedly melodramatic) narrative, the plot of MGS2 was a nightmare labyrinth of absurdity and incoherence.
Consequently, when Snake Eater was announced a couple of years later, I was no longer as invested in tactical stealth espionage action, and felt I could give the game a pass. Even when some friends of mine played it and declared it the best in the series, I didn't feel obliged to give it a go.
It was probably a couple of years ago, when I embarked upon my quest to fill in the gaps in my gaming history and become "well played," that I finally picked up a copy of Snake Eater, and even then it sat on my shelf for a long time. Finally, in a bid to clear out some of the titles in my backlog, I loaded the game up and sat down to play it in earnest.
There's a lot about the game that's hard to swallow. Perhaps the most vexing element is how vague and wishy-washy the stealth is--there's been some talk in the gaming community about how stealth is a difficult thing to pull off in a game because of the challenge of presenting complex systems while still clearly communicating information to the player in a way that makes play feel "fair." Klei's Mark of the Ninja, in particular, which I haven't played outside of the demo, has been recently put forward as an example of how well this can be done--though part of what allows Mark of the Ninja to succeed in this regard is a restriction of perspective: in two dimensions, it's a lot easier to communicate everything that surrounds your player.
Snake Eater, on the other hand, feels more akin to another recent offering: Assassin's Creed III. Though I've been effusive in my love for Ubisoft's latest entry into its series of historical murder simulators, I'll be the first to admit that the game often asks you to do things without being seen and then proceeds to deny you critical, need-to-know information. The result is that you are often seen by bad guys and immediately forced to murder dozens of men.
This happens a lot in Snake Eater.
Kojima's team at Konami made the decision to remove the radar that served, in the first two MGS titles, as your best means of evaluating which actions would result in you being discovered. Instead, you're given a handful of other tools that provide you with incomplete information--the locations of moving enemies (but not their field of view), the location of all living organisms (in a way that gives away your position), your relative proximity to bad guys (but not their location)--and the result is that sneaking involves an absurd amount of guesswork.
This is mitigated by the inclusion of the camouflage system, which allows you to change your clothes and receive bonuses to your stealth--but even this system doesn't give you discrete information on which you can act. Sure, I know that being 50% camouflaged is better than being 35% camouflaged, but what am I supposed to DO with that info? Not once in the game did my camouflage allow me to change my strategy and act with confidence and certitude. Instead, I had to make do with vague assurance that I was in a better position for having hopped into the menu and changed my equipment. Maybe.
Did that guy see me? Damn! I thought I was 80% camouflaged! How close can I GET to a guy who can see 20% of me without alerting him?
I did a lot less sneaking in MGS3 than I did in either of its predecessors. I did a lot more judo.
I'll happily admit that using the Close Quarters Combat system feels delightful. Throwing a guy to the floor is immensely satisfying. It was a little weird that the most viable strategy often seemed to be charging a guard who was filling me with AK47 rounds and knocking him out with kung fu.
Unfortunately, the result of the loosey-goosey stealth in the game is that a lot of the environments either feel too full or too empty. One of the final areas, a giant warehouse in which you must plant a number of explosives on fuel tanks, felt so empty that it wasn't a challenge. In areas with lots of enemies, it's impossible to make your way through without being noticed and being forced to kill a bunch of dudes. In areas without many enemies, one doesn't feel as though much is being asked of them. I kept wishing, throughout the game, that there would be areas chock full of baddies that I was able to navigate without ever sounding the alarm. I don't think that ever happened.
Part of my frustration stems from the combination of overheard perspective and first-person shooting. Jumping back to a nearly ten-year-old game from an era of over-the-shoulder shooters, I found being forced to move in one camera position and shoot in another (a system which felt liberating and empowering when it was first introduced in Sons of Liberty!) jarring and uncomfortable. Likewise, gathering information about your environment in the first person and then popping back to the overhead camera in order to move is a very disorienting business.
And those are just gameplay elements. The narrative, well... The narrative is just as absurd as a story told by Hideo Kojima has always been. There's some gratuitous sexuality, fetishization of weaponry, and plenty of long, (theoretically) meaningful glances between characters in which not much is really communicated. The plot doesn't run completely off the rails in the same way as the plot of Sons of Liberty, but there are still a dozen times when characters improbably monologue about Cold War politics and half-baked philosophy for the benefit(?) of the player and not the other characters.
One doesn't expect a narrative about a walking, nuclear-capable supertank to be particularly grounded, but come on.
And yet--and yet. I forgive it. I acknowledge the weaknesses, the absurdities, the broken elements, and I set them aside and love the game anyway. Why? Why, when a game has frustrated me and made me roll my eyes, when I am frequently kicked out of the narrative by the producer's bizarre predilections, do I still think of my time with it fondly?
I think, probably, it's because of how clearly Kojima loves what he's doing, and how clearly it shows in every aspect of the game. The dude loves the characters he's created, and he wants us to love them too. He loves dramatic showdowns, and he packs his game full of absurd, awesome boss fights. He loves pop culture and a good laugh, and so there are dozens and dozens of conversations Snake can have over the codec that are patently absurd. Kojima loves self-reference, and breaks the fourth wall often to wink at his audience and remind us that we should be having fun; after all, it's just a game.
So what did I take away from Snake Eater? I remember the first time I did kung fu on a guy. I remember each time I ate a python and Snake's comments about how delicious they were. I remember the sniper duel with The End. I remember eating glowing mushrooms to restore my batteries. I remember Snake revealing to Para-Medic that he was terrified of vampires, and Major Zero's indignation upon learning that Snake wasn't a fan of James Bond. I remember how many times we got to laugh at how much of a dork Revolver Ocelot is, and how he turned out to be pretty cool when all was said and done.
I remember the fight with The Boss.
So, nine years out from its release, is it worth it to go back and revisit Metal Gear Solid 3? It depends, in large part, on your ability to forgive a game for its faults. There are parts of Snake Eater that feel old and creaky as it approaches its tenth anniversary, and Kojima's rambly melodrama has always been an acquired taste. But the game is a labor of love, and if you can pick up a controller and feel that love, well... it's hard to step into the shoes of Naked Snake and not feel like a badass, even when the game conspires in so many ways to undermine it. And when you get to that final showdown in the field of flowers, it's a hardened gamer indeed that won't be thrilled.