The last Metal Gear Solid game, Sons of Liberty, was a great game but had two major flaws. One was the horrible philosophical babble weaved throughout the entire storyline, and the other was that gruff cigar chomping man's man Solid Snake disappeared halfway through the game.
Series creator Hideo Kojima obviously listened to our cries, as Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater ditches the heavy dollops of philosophy and wisely sticks us back in Snake's calloused hands for the whole game. There's still plenty of exposition to sit through, but the more engrossing storyline and great additions to gameplay make Snake Eater the most accomplished title so far in the Metal Gear Solid (MGS) series.
Story is what drives Snake Eater, and to reveal too much about the various twists and turns of the plot would ruin what many would consider the best part of the game. Suffice it to say that the game, which is set in 1964, takes real world events and spins them into a Cold War epic involving super weapons, captured scientists, warring Russian army factions, traitorous defectors, and of course, the end of the world as we know it. And since it is a prequel, fans of the MGS series will find plenty of detail about many of the characters and situations they've previously seen. One of the standouts is a young Revolver Ocelot, who Snake Eater first introduces as a cocky but naïve army officer. You'll also find out plenty of interesting details about our gruff protagonist Snake, including how he got the unusual moniker of Solid Snake to begin with.
The game's storyline is progressed through several methods, such as full video cutscenes, in game cutscenes and lengthy radio conversations. For those frustrated by the amount of exposition in Metal Gear Solid 2, relief is unfortunately not at hand with Snake Eater. If anything, MGS3 bumps up the storytelling quotient from the previous games. We estimated that for the first hour of gameplay in Snake Eater, at least 40 minutes was spent on cutscenes and radio conversations back to base (luckily that ratio drops significantly as the game progresses). So much story focus could have been detrimental, but thankfully Snake Eater's involving plot and its many well executed cutscenes keep you hooked even when the controller is not in use.
It's a jungle out there
And when you do have controller in hand, Snake Eater rewards you with the best MSG gameplay experience to date. To start off with, the game has for the most part dispensed with the narrow corridors and claustrophobic environments that were the hallmark of the series. While there are still several indoor locations you'll have to traverse, large swathes of Snake Eater take place outdoors in jungle and swamp environments, meaning a completely new strategy is needed to avoid the attention of the many guards. Instead of sneaking along corridors or hiding in lockers, you'll need to use the terrain and whatever natural cover you can find to stay hidden.
To aid you in your sneaking, Snake Eater has introduced a new camouflage system, which helps Snake blend into his environments and become virtually undetectable to guards. There are several different types of camouflage available, with some working better than others in specific environments. Players can change their camouflage at any time, with a percentage rating in the right hand corner of the screen signifying how well Snake is currently blending in. Moving too much can also affect Snake's visibility to guards. If Snake is unmoving, lying flat on his stomach in a tuft of grass with woodland camo on, then he's practically invisible. But run around wearing all black in a well lit environment and he'll stand out more than John Howard in a rave.
Another new addition to the series is the stamina system. Snake now has a stamina gauge below his health meter, which determines how fast his wounds heal and how steady he is with firearms. Let your stamina drop and Snake's health will replenish much slower and his hands will shake when aiming a gun. To keep his stamina up, Snake must regularly eat, but instead of rations you'll be forced to rely on whatever food you can catch in the jungle. This can be anything from rats and crabs to wild mushrooms and various species of snakes, each of which have different nutrition values. Luckily, there's always plenty of critters running about with you, so finding food and keeping that stamina gauge up should never be a problem.
The amazing Snake
As is now usual for the Metal Gear series, the amount of actions you can perform as Snake is mind boggling. You can run, crawl, swim, climb trees, hang off ledges, take guards as hostage, stick them up with your gun, interrogate people, engage them in hand to hand combat and much more. Guards are also as clever as ever. They'll notice sounds such as grass rustling and investigate, call for backup and generally are pretty good at tracking you down if you haven't covered your tracks well enough.
The amount of actions available to you as Snake along with the open environments and intelligent AI all add up to a game where there are numerous ways to get past any given situation. If a guard's in your way, you can easily hide in some bushes and pop a cap in him with your silenced pistol and no-one's the wiser. Or you can lure him out by making some noise, sneak up behind him, grab him in a headlock and drag him somewhere quite to knock him unconscious. Or you can explore a bit more and find a small tunnel you can use to get by the guard. Or you can throw a live python at him. Or you can well, you see what we mean.
This choice is welcome, particularly as Snake Eater is by far the hardest game in the series so far. A great amount of that difficulty comes from the fact that the trusty radar of the previous games, which showed you where guards were and what direction they were facing, has been omitted. You do get individual pieces of equipment that can do a similar job (such as the sonar and motion detector) but they tend to find everything in your vicinity, including animals. The result is you'll have to rely on your sense of sight and sound far more than in previous Metal Gear games, and really adds to the stealth component of Snake Eater.
But while sneaking is harder, fighting has been made easier. Snake's close combat abilities are formidable, and together with the fact that enemy bullets don't seem to do too much damage and that your health is constantly regenerating means that there's no real penalty for getting discovered. Snake for the most part is a one-man army that can easily take any of the guards thrown at him. The notable exception to this are the many amazing boss fights you'll come across. Each of the bosses will push your skill and pump up the adrenalin - they're one of the real highlights of the game.
By far the most disappointing aspect of Snake Eater is the camera, which hasn't progressed much at all since MGS2. You can't manually position the camera in the environments, meaning there'll be lots of instances where you're forced to shift into first person mode to scout an area properly. Even then, there were plenty of occasions where we were spotted by enemies off-screen that we couldn't see, simply because the camera was so clunky to use.
And while we applaud the game's strong emphasis on story, its jackhammer insistence of drawing parallels between film and games became wearying. Characters (one in particular) constantly refer to real films, with Snake at one point even bringing up James Bond and how much he dislikes being compared to him. OK, Snake Eater is a cinematic gaming experience, we get it - bringing it up so much just breaks the illusion.
Despite these reservations, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is an outstanding gaming experience that sucks you into its expansive storyline. And best of all, there's so much choice and freedom within the game that second or third play throughs to find different solutions to obstacles are almost mandatory.
Keep up to date with the latest games news, reviews and features by signing up to CNET.com.au's free Games Spotlight weekly newsletter. Sign up now!