Warning: This review features spoilers.
There is a sequence in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater that encapsulates why Hideo Kojima is one of the best game designers working today. It's a sequence in which the protagonist, Snake, is having a near-death experience. Trapped in the twilight between life and death the player is visited by visions of everyone they have killed throughout the game. The player cannot hurt any of the ghosts, but the ghosts can hurt the player. Snake must simply endure all the pain and agony he has caused, facing each and every enemy soldier he has killed, all baring the scars of exactly the way the player chose to kill them.
More than anything else, a game designer has the unique ability to inflict pain on people. Whether this pain comes in terms of boredom or frustration or sadness is irrelevant. If a game designer can create dissonance, get the player to reflect on why they are experiencing it, and focus that reflection back into core mechanics of the game, he or she has just accomplished something that only videogames can do. Kojima does this regularly in his games, and Metal Gear Solid 3 is only the latest example of why his quirky style is still fresh after 17 years.
Snake Eater is Kojima's love letter to the 60's, taking most of its inspiration from the Connery-era Bond films. It's a bit of a departure from previous Metal Gear games. Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty both took place in the present, and drew most of their inspiration from contemporary Hollywood action epics like The Rock and Pearl Harbor. The era of Snake Eater is different, and the style has been reshaped to reflect the entertainment culture of four decades ago. Yet Kojima's signature touch remains unmistakable. All of Kojima's works use Hollywood genres as a departure-point to explore themes that would never be touched in the American mainstream. Metal Gear Solid was about a soldier who realized his enemies were not evil, but people who were exploited by selfish politicians. Sons of Liberty was about the U.S. government's desire to censor information and maintain its cultural superiority over the world. Kojima wrapped both these stories in a cloak of Hollywood gloss so thick that to the untrained eye they seemed like celebrations—not critiques—of American culture. But the beauty of Kojima, of all Kojima's work, is that they're both.
Players take control of Snake, decorated WWII vet and espionage specialist, as he is being air-dropped into a remote area of southern Russia in 1964. Snake's mission is to resolve an international incident quietly by rescuing a world-class weapons scientist from Soviet hands. Naturally, the mission gets more complicated as the plot becomes increasingly complex, but the core gameplay remains the same. Survival is the name of the game in Snake Eater. Snake begins with several outfits of camouflage which can be donned on the fly. Players will pick up additional types of camo as the game progresses, all of which have different levels of usefulness depending on what Snake's immediate surroundings are. This is a totally unique stealth system, and it works handsomely. It's an extremely satisfying feeling to be able to lie in plain view of an unsuspecting soldier and know that he'll never see you as long as you remain still. Of course, if you wish to make your presence known, there are a variety of attacks that will help you deal with your opponents. The standard equipment from previous Metal Gear games is there, including handguns, rifles, and various explosives. But the greatly expanded hand-to-hand combat is what sets Metal Gear Solid 3 apart. Snake can now grab opponents and choose to interrogate, disarm, or kill them in a myriad of ways. There's nothing quite like leaning against a tree in tree bark camo and surprising someone as they come around the corner with a quick disarm followed by a shakedown. This can literally be done to every soldier in the game, and the results are both gratifying and hilarious. Of course, if you want to simply kill everyone, there is nothing stopping you—except, perhaps, your conscience.
The gameplay in Metal Gear Solid 3 has a sandbox quality that is a rare achievement for Kojima. Many have criticized his limited gameplay spaces in previous games, and rightfully so. But Snake Eater is a leap beyond the cramped playgrounds of both Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty. The huge jungle-like environments of Metal Gear Solid 3 allow for endless variations of sneaking strategies. A single screen can take hours or minutes depending on how one chooses to use the plethora of items, weapons, and camo at Snake's disposal. As in previous games Snake has a radio support team that can be contacted at any time. They will comment on virtually every idiosyncrasy the game contains, from weapon information, to political backstory, to character information, to classic movie trivia. They also serve as Snake's guide to hunting. The world of Snake Eater is alive with endless varieties of animals and plants to discover, study, and eat. Eating is necessary to regain stamina, so hunting becomes a vital element of staying alive and keeping your aim steady. With all these elements working in unison, Metal Gear Solid 3 achieves a cohesive quality its predecessors lack. This is the one Metal Gear game where you could skip the story entirely and still feel like you got a meaty game.
Kojima doesn't just stop at making a fun game. He uses his gameplay as a foundation for the themes of the story he is telling. By now, everyone has heard criticisms of Kojima's pension for long cut-scenes, which are certainly justified to an extent. As much as I love his work, there are moments in Snake Eater that made me want to reach through the screen and slap Kojima in the face. You'd think that after a decade of making games with cut-scenes he'd realize how to condense expository information, but no. Kojima still likes to drop research papers on players at key moments, often at the expense of pacing. Fortunately, these moments are greatly reduced in Snake Eater. For the most part the cinematics are beautiful, concise, and poetic in how they transform the arrogance of American jingoism into somber meditations on right and wrong. Snake Eater embodies the contradiction that Kojima's been cultivating for years. War is both fun entertainment and horrific human tragedy at once. How the player chooses to participate in that tragedy, and how much enjoyment they get out of it, is up to them. When certain moments make the player aware of what choices they've made, it brings into focus the ethical dilemma of the plot. It encourages the player to reflect on the characters and their fates in ways they might not otherwise.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is not a perfect game. One thing I didn't touch on is how esoteric some of its design choices are. The camera, for example, is still based on conventions rooted in the classic 2D design of Kojima's original Metal Gear from 1987. Some players may find this awkward, but then again many people find Kojima's odd mix of Hollywood, Hong Kong, and Anime awkward. The bottom line is that Kojima is both retro and eccentric, and unless you're willing to accept that, his work won't fly for you. But if you are, if you are on his wave-length and able to appreciate all the witty touches that make his games sing, his work becomes rewarding in ways almost no other games are. In Metal Gear Solid 3 Kojima's artistic vision is rich, and he is in perfect control of his medium.