I'd intended to review Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (MGS3) when it originally came out. A longtime fan of the series, I was interested to see what Kojima would do with a prequel. I found myself oddly underwhelmed by the game. As attractive as the graphics were, and no matter how polished the mechanics, playing the game left me cold. It wasn't any mystery why, either—frankly, half a decade after certain camera problems presented themselves in Metal Gear Solid (MGS), I didn't understand why I still had to spend ten hours worth of gameplay fighting to see what was going on around me.
For all his virtues, sometimes it seems that Hideo Kojima is stuck in an 8-bit mindset. The restrictive top-down view, the confined areas—it's like he's never stopped making games for the MSX computer system. Heck, general critical consensus agrees that the best game in the entire series is Metal Gear Solid: Ghost Babel for the Game Boy Colour. The decision to remain so retro was barely even noticed, let alone criticized until Snake Eater. As Brad pointed out in his second opinion, Kojima's desire to create a more realistic, natural environment, along with massively heightened enemy AI and awareness, made the game's eight-foot viewing range something of a crippling flaw.
Well, it appears that someone upstairs (at Konami headquarters) was listening, because now Metal Gear Solid 3 has been rereleased as Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. In addition to a new online mode, and a wealth of supplemental material, only one substantive change has been made to the actual game: A controllable camera. I went into the game expecting to absolutely love this 'fixed' version of a flawed classic, but the controllable camera just ended up letting me discover new flaws.
The first of these flaws is the amazingly awkward menu system. By limiting the quick-use bar to only eight items or weapons at any one time, the player is forced to go through two different menus and juggle their inventory every time they come across an unexpected obstacle. How this is an improvement over Sons of Liberty's simple and easy-to-use inventory system I'm not sure—it seems like a pretty big step backwards.
The same problem goes for the game's 'camouflage' system. While I appreciate the idea behind forcing the player to use camo to blend in with the various surroundings, the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Part of the problem is how frequently and suddenly Snake's camouflage needs change. If I lean against a tree, I need one form of camo to stay hidden. On top of leaves and grass, I need to switch to a second. If I crawl over a patch of dirt, I have to change into a third suit—all within a matter of seconds. If there were some strategy involved with the camo—players actually had to judge which is best in a given situation—maybe this would be forgivable. There isn't, though—it's just a numbers game. Players are told what their camo value is, and all they have to do is go into the camouflage screen and select whatever costume gets that number the highest. If it's going to be simplified that much, why not just give me a button that automatically switches Snake into the best camo for whatever surface he's against?
A much larger problem is the difficulty level. Now that the camera is fully controllable, I discovered something surprising: Snake Eater wasn't actually a hard game. It was an easy game with a bad camera. Where I once had to crawl slowly from patch of grass to patch of grass, desperately trying to observe guard movement patters, now I could avoid my enemies dynamically. While this certainly makes the game a lot less frustrating, it also makes it a whole lot simpler. Now enemy guards can, by and large, be avoided without too much trouble, and the game suddenly seemed far shorter than I remembered it. Even a few of the boss fights are simplified by this new camera. It's much faster and safer to move while looking for one of the game's many camouflage-loving bosses, making them far easier to kill—a problem the developers seem to have noticed, as the controllable camera is suspiciously absent from the game's climactic fight scene. It's almost as if someone was worried that the drama of the scene would be undercut if the boss could be defeated without too much fuss.
As always with Metal Gear games, Subsistence is richly detailed and complex, offering literally hundreds of ways of interacting with the environment and messing with the guards, but none of them are required of the player. Playing through a second time and skipping the cutscenes, I realized just how little gameplay Subsistence offered beyond the boss fights. Where are the action setpieces like MGS's helicopter rappelling, or vicious elevator battle? The challenging puzzles, like MGS2's bomb defusal sequence? Compared to the other games in the series, it's actually structured pretty simply: Sneak past guards for ten minutes (or kill them all in five), Boss fight, repeat. Add in three and a half hours of codec dialogue and massively over the top cinema sequences, and the sum of the parts is MGS3: Subsistence.
For all the problems the main game has, the extras are well-represented. Although there's nothing here that compares to the scope and brilliance MGS2: Substance's VR mode and Snake Tales, the game does all right for itself with an extensive selection of humorous parody videos, a boss fight mode, and the entire games Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. Those two titles alone make the purchase worthwhile. The first is one of the finest 8-bit action games of all time, and this is the first time the second has been available outside of Japan.
The big selling point of the bonus disc is something called Metal Gear Online, and for a big selling point, it's a bit of a letdown. This is mostly because the Metal Gear Solid controls really aren't suited for the kind of fast action people seem to expect from multiplayer online gaming. Old standbys like capture the flag and team deathmatch play as well as they possibly can given those restrictions, but aren't especially satisfying or fun. The one standout is an infiltration mode, where up to seven guards have to protect an objective while a single player, controlling Snake, must try to steal it. It's a riff on Splinter Cell's multiplayer mode, and while it's interesting to be sure, the developers would have done well to copy that game's decision to give the sentries a first-person perspective. Having to stop and switch viewpoints before firing may be fine in a single player stealth game, but it just doesn't cut it online.
While this might seem like an overwhelmingly negative review, don't think for a second that I don't believe there are plenty of good points to be found in Metal Gear Solid 3: Subsistence. It's just that they've already been covered very well in GameCritics.com's coverage of Snake Eater. This is still a very good game, and the volumes of supplemental material have kept me form lowering the score any farther than I have, but it has too many flaws to overlook. Critical flaws that keep it from being anywhere near the perfect game that many were hoping for, and continue to expect from Kojima.