The Metal Gear HD Collection re-introduced us to one of gaming's most beloved franchises, and Konami plan to go back to the series' roots on the 3DS. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater 3D is the very first episode of Kojima's sprawling canon, crunched down onto a mobile platform with all of its levels, features and glorious exposition intact. It's a cause for celebration, and a much-needed boost to the 3DS' software library. Speaking as a fan of the franchise since the original PlayStation era, I've been looking forward to this new version immensely, and was delighted that a demo is now freely available on the 3DS eShop.
I usually try to maintain professional, clinical detachment when approaching a preview build or developer walkthrough (with mixed success, admittedly), but demos are fair game. They're designed to showcase a game's potential and give gamers a taste of what to expect in the final version, and I'm duty bound to call it as I see it. Put simply: I am concerned to the point of being outright worried. Snake Eater 3D is probably going to be an incredibly hard sell for a number of reasons, not least because the HD trilogy is already going to be cheaper.
Do remember that this is a demo impressions piece. The final build could well be more impressive when it launches next month, and I genuinely hope that my misgivings are proven wrong.
Crunching down Metal Gear Solid 3 onto a handheld platform couldn't have been easy, and from the demo, it appears that Konami have made a decent fist of things. Featuring a few small sections from the Virtuous Mission (a prologue of sorts), the trial allows you to experience some of the sneaking first-hand; stalking through swamps, eating alligators, eluding guards and eventually infiltrating a factory. I'm not going to dwell on what the game actually involves - you can read any MGS3 review for that - but rather focus on what's new, different and downright bizarre.
Graphically, the experience holds up fairly well, but with a marked degree of jaggyness and washed-out colour palette paying testament to a few compromises along the way (especially visible in Snake's primitive character model that's well animated at a distance but jarringly unnatural up close). However, the lush environments seem to have been replicated well, and the 3D effect adds a pleasing element of depth to the proceedings that helps to make moving objects stand out. I'll explain why this is important in a second.
Of course, be aware that the final version will probably look better than the downloadable demo.
But there's a major problem. Metal Gear Solid 3's busy, lush and drab envionments added a wonderful sense of authenticity to the original and HD releases, but they aren't a good fit for the 3DS' tiny screen. If you thought that picking out an alligator or camouflaged guard through the lush foliage was difficult, imagine trying to do so while squinting through a keyhole. Switching the 3D effect off turns the jungle into a blurry, jagged mess that looks far worse than, frankly, it really is. This isn't a criticism of the game or platform, rather, I'm just worried that the two are mutually incompatible.
Snake Eater 3D is the second title to properly support the recently-released Circle Pad Pro peripheral, and it's a good thing too because the experience becomes an utter shambles without one. The standard camera and aiming controls are mapped to the face buttons, which didn't work on the PSP (Coded Arms, anyone?) and doesn't work particularly well now. It's rigid and inflexible; thoroughly unfit for task when you need to score a perfect tranquilliser headshot despite an optional auto-aim mode. CQC and combat rolls have been mapped to the right trigger, and putting it mildly, can become rather confusing to pull off in pitched combat.
Bolt on a Circle Pad Pro, however, and the action becomes infinitely more intuitive. Controlling the camera with the second analogue pad is a breeze, though having to go through a lengthy calibration sequence each time you want to use it is an aggravating hassle. Hopefully the retail release will only require a single calibration routine. Note that rotating the camera while glued to an object can result in Snake moving or even learning out of cover.
Thankfully, the secondary touchscreen has been implemented brilliantly. It provides a range of intuitive icons that allow you to switch weapons, equip suppressors and access sub-menus with a minimum of fuss. Just browsing the camo and item menus is a breeze, and cuts out a lot of the potential aggravation.
One of the 3DS version's most controversial new features are gyroscopic balancing sections that require you to rotate your 3DS when crossing narrow platforms. This was aptly demonstrated by a climbable tree and rickety rope bridge surrounded by patrolling guards... and manages to be one of the most shockingly obtrusive and obnoxious game mechanics I've ever witnessed. It's flow-breaking, immersion-crushing busywork at its least inspired, especially since the 3D effect has to be automatically disabled in order to avoid unsightly distortion as you move the console out of the 3D viewing area.
Worse, though, the great big icon completely compromises your situational awareness. Spotting a patrolling guard on the other side of a bridge on a tiny screen is hard enough, but nigh-on impossible when you're forced to concentrate on not falling off the bridge to begin with. We truly hope that this feature is either made optional or used very sparingly indeed.
That's enough naysaying. Metal Gear Solid 3 is one of my favourite games of all time (not quite up there with the original, mind), and the experience has been faithfully replicated here. Food can be scavenged and consumed for various bizarre bonuses. Camouflage can be equipped to deal with any situation, which will be augmented by a photo mode that allows players to create their own varied patterns using the 3DS' cameras. Guards can be fought, evaded, interrogated, confused and killed depending on your play style. Metal Gear's soulful exposition, its thought-provoking themes and unforgettable cast of characters will be back in full force, along with the beloved Codec to while away countless hours of optional chat and smooth jazz.
But none of that is in the demo. Sorry.
The Hard Sell?
Konami are arguably their own worst enemy. Snake Eater 3D would have been an essential purchase before the HD Collection released, but the continual delays mean that it's now somewhat redundant and competes with itself as part of a massive value package.
More than that, I'm personally not convinced that Metal Gear Solid 3 is a good fit for a handheld game. It's an experience you'll want to immerse yourself in for hours at a time, not stare at through a letterbox for a few minutes on the train - before the 3DS' battery inexorably fails. Sure, you can play it tethered to a power point, but you might as well just put down the 3DS and pick up your PS2, PS3 or Xbox 360 controller instead. Snake Eater 3D is going to have to fight hard for every inch of ground, and I can't wait to see whether the finished product is worth it.
But hey, it's only a demo. Right? If you own a 3DS, be sure to download it and let us know what you made of it!