Developer: Kojima Productions
As an unapologetic fan of the Metal Gear Solid franchise and all things Kojima, I was delighted to learn that Metal Gear Solid 3 was being rebuilt from the ground-up as a 3DS title; packed with all the functionality of its big brother without any attempt to cut corners. But as the delays mounted up and more details emerged, I couldn't help becoming rather concerned about Snake's latest handheld outing. Snake Eater and the 3DS make for strange bedfellows, and it's an uneasy partnership that never quite comes together.
For those of you who don't know, Metal Gear Solid 3 is the very first canonical entry in the venerable series, taking place before the events of the first two games. 'Naked Snake' has been deployed into Russia on a deniable mission to secure the services of a defector, but as you'd expect, allegiances become blurred and events take a turn for the thoroughly unpredictable. Snake soon finds himself alone in the jungle with little more than his wits to survive; preying on his enemies like a nightmarish jungle legend made flesh. Since this is a rebuilt version of an eight year old title, I'm going to briefly outline the mechanics before moving onto the new features.
Snake Eater is still arguably peerless as a stealth sandbox, and Metal Gear Solid 3D uncompromisingly crams absolutely every feature, every level and every delicious morsel of functionality onto Nintendo's handheld. It's a uniquely deep and rich stealth experience that offers genuine gameplay choice at every turn, allowing you to engage the enemy on your terms. You can sneak through levels without being detected by a single guard, exploiting multiple entry points and vision cones to infiltrate like a ghost. You can tranquilise or kill guards at long range, making a tradeoff between permanent peace of mind and a subtler, quiet approach. Getting close enough to unaware enemies lets you hold them at gunpoint, giving you the option to kill, incapacitate or interrogate them for useful intel. If spotted, reinforcements will deploy in a fight-or-flight scenario - will you run and hide or engage them in the hopes of a quick resolution? And even then, will you risk using your limited ammo or take them on in brutal Close Quarters Combat?
It's up to you. Snake is a vulnerable yet incredibly versatile protagonist, and when coupled with the enormous set piece arenas, provides you with a meaningful decisions to make at every gameplay level.
Of course, Metal Gear Solid 3 is infinitely more than just a run-of-the-mill stealth 'em up. The focus on jungle survival means that you'll have to scavenge food from dangerous jungle critters and exotic fauna, tasting them and sampling the surprising benefits they bring. Heston has nothing on Naked Snake. Camouflage can be equipped to help blend into different backgrounds, and even augmented by camera functionality that converts 3DS photots into wearable outfits. And, most importantly, Kojima has spoiled us with an unforgettable cast of characters that present unlikely allies and stupendous boss fights, many of which can be dealt with in myriad different ways.
The sprawling plot is advanced by enormous cutscenes and the ever-reliable Codec, bombarding you with information to take in and plot twists aplenty. Snake can optionally spend countless hours chatting away with his support time over the time-halting communicator, gaining important gameplay tips, bolstering character development and even enjoying some smooth jazz if it takes your fancy. Kojima's games brim with reckless, quirky personality and Snake Eater is arguably the most memorable of the bunch.
Though chances are you already know that Metal Gear Solid 3 is great. Hell, you probably knew it since 2004. It's time we touched upon the new features... and discussed how this dream partnership nearly falls through.
Metal Gear Solid 3D's controls are a seriously mixed bag - and we'll start with what Konami got right. The 3DS' touchscreen has been brilliantly implemented into the core gameplay by allowing you to equip weapons, items and sound suppressors on the fly with chunky icons; and gives you immediate access to the once-clunky series of item and camouflage menus. Konami has also revamped the clunky aiming controls to bring it in line with the Subsistence re-release, with much more intuitive dual-stick inputs feeling natural using the Circle Pad Pro peripheral.
But only if you have a Circle Pad Pro. Without one, you'll need to aim with the face buttons - which is an exercise in abject frustration when netting the perfect tranquiliser headshot can make the difference between success and abject failure (not to mention a sure-fire way of developing crippling hand cramp).
The biggest control gaffe, however, comes in the form of gyroscopic balance sections. There aren't too many of them, but when crossing a rickety bridge or stealthily walking along a tree branch, you'll have to rotate the 3DS in order to maintain your tenuous foothold. An enormous onscreen indicator completely scuppers immersion, and worse, it's impossible to maintain any sense of situational awareness. Put simply, this was a flawed concept from the start and works as poorly as we expected it to.
Visuals are also rather inconsistent, which isn't to say that Metal Gear Solid 3D looks bad. Far from it: this ground-up remake is seriously impressive from a raw graphical standpoint, bringing the lush environments to life with a pleasing sense of genuine depth when you push up the slider. Sadly, this raw quality comes at the price of a woefully unreliable frame rate that chugs along during in-engine cutscenes and pitched battles. More importantly, though, the 3DS' tiny screen just doesn't do the experience justice: essentially it's akin to watching a beautiful tableau on the other side of a keyhole. Guards were hard to spot through the dense foliage on a large television, but on such a small screen, the drab colours can just merge together into an impenetrable brown mess. Especially if you disable the 3D.
Unfortunately, Metal Gear Solid 3D's biggest problem is more fundamental than any criticisms about visuals or control inputs. Snake Eater and the 3DS are both sensational in their own right, but together, they simply don't work as well as they should. The core gameplay is not suited for a handheld game - the reliance on massive cutscenes and grinding exposition means that you'll need to immerse yourself for countless hours just to get anywhere. Playing it on the move is a uniquely unsatisfying proposition (your journey will come to an end or the battery will cut out just as you're finally making progress), and more to the point, it's an experience that you'll want to leap into headfirst for marathon sessions. Not squint at through a keyhole for a couple of hours here and there. Peace Walker and Portable Ops circumvented this problem by offering bite-size chunks of MGS action that were compartmentalised for easy pick-up-and-play action, but Snake Eater's lengthy immersive and meaty campaign is cheapened if you can't enjoy it the way Kojima intended. It's an unavoidable flaw that neither Konami nor Nintendo could realistically do anything about.
Konami also screwed the pooch somewhat by releasing the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection before this 3D version. For a similar RRP - or cheaper - you'll be able to play Snake Eater (not to mention MGS 2 and Peace Walker) with retouched visuals in your living room, safe from any potential battery lapses or potential muggers on the train. Sure, you could play Metal Gear Solid 3D tethered to a power point, but you'd be better served by just picking up a regular controller.
The quality and quantity of Metal Gear Solid 3 ultimately wins through, and allows me to give it a tentative recommendation to 3DS owners. You absolutely should play through Snake Eater at least once in your life, but sadly, I'd recommend it not be on the 3DS.
- Phenomenal and uncompromising stealth gameplay
- Outstanding storyline and characters
- Excellent graphical quality
- Inconsistent frame rate, small screen stops visuals from impressing
- Awkward controls without Circle Pad Pro, abysmal gyro balance sections
- Core experience is not - and never was - a natural choice for a handheld title
The Short Version: Metal Gear Solid 3 is as deep, immersive, quirky and brilliant as it ever was... but never feels at home on the 3DS despite Konami's best efforts. Control gripes and stuttering frame rate aside, the cutscene-driven experience is a fundamentally poor fit for handheld gaming, and the gameplay is best enjoyed in marathon sessions on a home console rather than becoming a slave to the 3DS' woeful battery life and tiny keyhole screen.
With the HD Collection already released - at a cheaper price, no less - it's difficult to recommend Metal Gear Solid 3D to anyone save those who enjoy stealth gaming, own a 3DS yet don't already have a home console. I fear that market may be incredibly small.