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METAL GEAR SOLID 3 / Konami / PS2
When you see people write (unfavorably) about Hideo Kojima on the Interbutts, you almost inevitably see someone say something like "Why doesn't he just go make movies, that's what he really wants to do!" You can see where that sentiment comes from given his penchant for cut-scenes and dialogue sequences that equal (or sometimes exceed) the amount of gameplay time in his games. But I'm pretty sure the man is actually doing exactly what he wants to do - making game/cinema hybrids that really aren't quite like anything else in either medium.
Metal Gear Solid 3 certainly isn't shy about cut-scenes and non-interactive sequences, but it does the best job out of all the games of the series of balancing these with actual player interactivity and control. Perhaps more importantly, it takes the story back into the past, making it a prequel to the entirety of the Metal Gear series - and sidestepping, at least for one game, having to tie up the mess created by Metal Gear Solid 2's convoluted and "experimental" plot.
MGS3 takes you back to 1964 and puts you in the shoes of Big Boss, the genetic progenitor of Snake and his seemingly inexhaustible supply of brothers. At the outset of the story, though, he's not Big Boss yet - just a skilled but inexperienced U.S. soldier being asked to rescue a Russian scientist who wants to defect, along with his plans for an all-terrain nuclear tank that's sort of a primitive ancestor of Metal Gear. Of course, in typical Kojima style, there's backstabbings and triple-crossings and things get far more complex from there, plus a team of mutant super-hero villains will be worked into the story somehow.
The story actually dumbs down a little bit from the previous games, and takes a more action-movie approach, but this is actually greatly to the game's benefit. It's more interesting - and ultimately much more emotionally effecting and memorable - because it has great characters, something MGS2 sorely lacked. Perhaps more importantly, boss battles are back as a showpiece of the game and something to look forward to, as the best encounters of the first MGS were.
Also to the game's benefit is three extra years of experience with programming the PS2, which allows the game to expand from the entirely urban/industrial focus of the first two games to an outdoors environment. The small territory in Russia that you end up sneaking through is a sub-tropical jungle, but you'll also explore a cave system, cross a high and dusty mountain, and infiltrate several buildings, including a Russian military base at the end. To compensate for the lack of stuff to hide behind, a "camoflauge system" has been implemented - you've got a rating constantly present in the upper-right of the screen that tells you how visible you are, and you change camo patterns and face paint (more and more of which are acquired as you explore the game, and some can be downloaded over an internet connection) in different environments to boost this rating as much as possible. The guards are generally a bit sharper than Metal Gear guards of old, and you're also without the Soliton Radar system of the previous two games - the game now resembles the Hard modes of the previous games, with no more automatic tracking of enemy position and cones of vision on any difficulty level, and the guards are a little sharper and can hear you sneaking up on them more easily thanks to foliage and such being crushed underfoot. The tradeoff is that, with good camoflauge and a little high grass to lay in, an enemy can literally walk by right next to you and not see you. I found creeping around and looking everywhere cautiously to be fun, and the control layout is easy to learn and comfortable, but this might be a little too slow and tiresome for some gamers (namely the FPS and Madden crowd) - the game makes a few concessions by giving you some tools that act like a limited form of radar, and you can also play the game in Easy mode with a special gun that has a laser sight, never runs out of tranquilizer darts or silencers, and gives you automatic 80% camoflauge in all situations if you need to ease into the stealth mechanics of this one.
In addition to camo and cautious movement, you also need to hunt and eat food to keep your stamina bar up. When it decreases to the halfway point, your stomach starts grumbling, vision gradually dims, and performance in general slows down (aim becomes shaky, slower movement, etc.) I found hunting food and eating to be inobtrusive and actually add to the richness of the game, but the final new edition - the "Cure" menu - doesn't come off so well. The idea is that major wounds, like broken bones and deep cuts from a close-up knife slashing, have to be attended to by using a series of items on them, or else they impair movement and bleed your health and stamina off slowly. The practical effect of this, however, is mostly just to totally break up the pace of some boss battles. The otherwise highly entertaining and tense battle against tree-hopping enemy The Fear is the worst example of this mechanic interfering with gameplay - Fear rattles off attacks constantly, and all of them either poison, burn or cut you, requiring you to constantly pause the game and go into the Survival Viewer to deal with the wounds he's inflicted.
Aside from the ill-implemented "cure" system, however, there's only one other thing wrong with the game - some of the jank in Snake's general movement is retained in this one, and made a little worse by the greater degree and variety of elevation changes in the outdoor terrain. Snake particularly handles like a tank when you're trying to crawl around in any direction but straight ahead, and likes to automatically pop up to his knees when he hits any kind of an obstacle - not good when you're trying not to be noticed! Pressing X is supposed to make you kneel, then crawl, then pressing it again while crawling is supposed to bring you back to the kneeling posture, but Snake sometimes just pops straight to his feet from a crawl when pressing X only once! Also not good when laying low in grass and trying to remain low-profile, as you spend most of the game doing.
Neither of these things is enough to bring down what is otherwise an exceptional game in all other respects, however. For the PS2 the character models are about as good as it gets, and some of the cut-scenes are visually incredible. Harry Gregson-Williams returns for the soundtrack, but his generic techno-symphonic boringness is tempered by the fact that most of the in-game music was actually handed off to a couple of Japanese composers who do a much better job and contribute some really memorable tunes. Aside from the crouching/crawling/uneven terrain issues, the gameplay is smooth and really well thought out, and common foes have more of an arsenal and more tactics at their disposal than before. The story is actually engrossing and even touching at the end, and really fleshes out a character (Big Boss) that was sort of a distant and underdeveloped villain prior to this, and also makes the plot a lot more interesting going into the final installment (?) of the series. There's even a really cute mini-game tie-in with Sony's Ape Escape series (an underappreciated platformer series that I'm actually happy to see pimped in this game.) While the previous two MGS games left me a little exhausted at their conclusion and in no big hurry to play them again, I actually couldn't wait to start another run of MGS3 to unlock stuff and just generally see what else I could do with the game engine and uncover in the game's environments. The game is what a blockbuster, huge-budget game should be; it hooks you, consistently impresses you, and sets the bar higher for cinematic games and action games in general. A must have for the PS2, even if you're iffy on the other Metal Gear games.
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