The War Epilogue: Shagohad

The War Epilogue is a series focussing on the Metal Gear Solid Series, from 1, through to 4, in release date order. I’ll analyze where the series used to be, all the way up to where it went, and the themes that lay behind the games. Metal Gear Solid, much like it’s creator, is a larger than life series with layers of complexities that flood the veins of gaming culture, even to this day. With the controversial final entry The Phantom Pain firmly lodged in my mind, I will journal my experiences with these groundbreaking, genre-defining titles having never played a single one. I am currently approaching the thick jungle canopy known as Snake Eater, and i’m pretty damn excited.

In 2004, the Metal Gear series would turn a spritely 17 years old, which means it would nearly be old enough to smoke and drink (except it won’t, because it’s a game, duh.) It also means that it would be old enough to have successfully traversed several eras of gaming relatively unscathed. Entering a new era that was now confident with 3D gaming, Metal Gear Solid 3 needed to start switching it up a bit. Though admittedly, I won’t mind letting you know how secretly excited I was to approach Snake Eater. Having now played through both Metal Gear Solid and then Sons of Liberty, I was impressed with how each title felt distinct in their own right, so going into the third entry in the series I was expecting a similar shift. Despite my excitement, booting up Snake Eater for the first time was slightly daunting. I’d heard of Big Boss’s influence over the years. I was well aware that, previously, this was the pinnacle of the series. The apex of storytelling to which the fans will constantly compare other Metal Gear games against. Booting it up for the first time and hearing that soaring James Bond style theme tune (which I truly believe is un-ironically excellent) I couldn’t help but feel giddy excitement. In a lot of ways, this is what the series was leading up to for me, thanks in large part to its reputation. I approached the jungle with a huge heart, combat knife in hand, and warpaint caked on my cheeks.

Snake Eater brings with it a raft of new systems and unique, ahead-of-their-time design elements and manages to pull off some impressively open level design to boot. Stepping away from the convoluted cleverness of Sons of Liberty, the story here is hammed up all the way to 11 with corny one-liners and your typical James Bond tropes with the intention of being a return to form. A classic Metal Gear game with gadgets, stealth and a ridiculously camp story set on backdrop of 60’s political tension where the Cuban missile crisis is fresh in the minds of the world, and where divisive east vs west politics dominated almost everything. We reprise the role of… Snake. Or at least it’s a sort of Snake. In reality, you’re here playing as Big Boss, the character who then goes on to be the defacto villain of the series and the original form that all future versions of Snake are based on (look, don’t ask, it’s the crazy Metal Gear timeline) and actually, the ashes of this Snake is what the genome soldiers are looking to take back in the set up to the original Metal Gear Solid. A Russian scientist who specializes in rocket development (hinting at future Metal Gear projects) is looking to defect to the US, and of course Snake has been sent in to facilitate the transfer. As you’d imagine, this barely goes to plan and Snake finds himself embroiled in Soviet in-fighting and western spy games, all in the dreary, sweltering heat of a Russian controlled Rainforest, which, inexplicably, is somehow placed in Russia (oh, Kojima…)

Snake, in camouflage flavour.

With that in mind, the game instantly has to operate as a period piece first and foremost. Gone is the codex, instead you get a good old-fashioned radio to send messages over. Gone is the silly nanomachine science between codec conversations of past games and back to good old analogue radio frequencies. Because of the time period, this puts an interesting demand on the level of believability in events in Snake Eater, something that I think Kojima skirts the edges of very cleanly, and we get feasible science fiction meanderings that just about fit the strict confines of 60’s world politics. There’s Shagohads and Metal Gears, sure, but here they’re prototyped, in their infancy. It’s a stretch, sure, but I’ll take it.

A new setting means the game has to adapt it’s traditional style to fit inside the breathing, crawling rainforest that Snake is dropped into. The levels are no longer static environmental layouts that are populated with bad guys. Now they are alive with flora, fauna, with wildlife, with dangerous insects and beasts of all kinds. One of the first lessons you’ll learn in Snake Eater is that absolutely everything in every corner of the maps, from the tall grass to the walls to rocks, are crawling with poisonous beasties that will happily sting you to death. Snakes (actual snakes, not Snake snake) slither through tall grass, and rear their heads as you approach looking for warm flesh to sink their teeth into. Spiders crawl on tree trunks, waiting for a body to infect as you pass, frogs leap from swamps, flies blight your vision, fish swim in murky swamp water and eagles perch on tree branches, waiting for you to become nice and dead so they can have a meal. The world feels physically alive here in Snake Eater and much more than being simple set dressing they actually have a purpose to the game. This feeds back into the systems within the game, too, as this new instalment of Metal Gear implements soft survival elements that add a whole host of worldly problems to Snakes already huge laundry list of issues. You’ll need to monitor your food levels (amongst other things) to prevent Snake from becoming a frail, shaking wreck when hungry. Not only does your stomach rumble, it does so audibly, alerting nearby enemies to your presence. Your aim will be wonky too and you’ll just take more damage the hungrier you get, so you’ll need those snakes and frogs and rats you meet along the way – that’s your dinner. But don’t eat the poisonous frogs though. You’ll get sick.

Snake can now eat snakes, is the title making sense yet?

Which reminds me, did I mention that every inch of the levels want to kill you? There’s a rudimentary medical care system, too. It’s very basic, but essentially, If you get hurt, diseased or poisoned at any time during the game it’s no longer good enough to just ingest some rations to restore health (in fact, rations is one of the poorest foods in the game) you’ll now need to investigate each wound individually. Gunshots, for example, ask you to remove the bullet with a knife before applying ointment and medicine to the cut, then stopping the bleeding with a suture before finally bandaging the wound. Diseases require you to take the appropriate medicine (if you have it) to cure it and even environmental hazards can be fixed here. Wading through thick swamp, for example, more often than not leads to a few blood sucking leeches getting stuck to you. You can burn them off with your cigar.

It’s a pretty basic system, and so far I have never run out of supplies to deal with each danger, so it doesn’t make you feel as frail or vulnerable like I think it was intended to, but it underpins some of the newer systems here in Snake Eater and actually, it’s just good fun trying to figure out how to fix your various ailments and adds to the feeling of being lost in a hostile environment. The jungle of Snake Eater is uncaring and natural – your presence there is a disturbance, and the local wildlife is there to kill you. That and the fact you’re operating behind enemy lines means that anything that happens to you in that dark, swampy place is on you. You need to fix it yourself. And it really adds to the sense that Snake, or Big Boss, is this legendary hero that fought off a hostile environment, disease, hunger, burns, poison and gunshot wounds single-handed. So no, it doesn’t make you feel vulnerable like modern survival simulators do, and it doesn’t feel as meaningful to clear a deadly disease or save yourself from hunger because you’re rarely low on supplies, but it also doesn’t make you a slave to its systems like Survival Sims do. It’s just good fun, and it adds to the mythos of Big Boss in the process.

Level design is still confined to small areas, linked together one after the other which at this point, and especially with the brand new additions, starts to feel quite limiting. This is somewhat soothed to a certain extent thanks to the new survival elements, traversing each map with its own unique environmental hazards and dangerous, poisonous animals makes each little instance of the maps feel great to move around. You won’t just be speeding through all your known shortcuts here like you were with Sons of Liberty. You’ll have to take your time. You’ll be avoiding quick sand, deadly snakes, cleverly camouflaged mines and not to mention the local soviet soldiers. Snake Eater manages to avoid the bland level structure thanks in large part to its new systems. On top of that, in quite a few areas there’s more than one way around the levels, and moments in the game that require you to infiltrate a location can usually be done through a variety of different ways. Being able to crawl under a fence, for example, rather than knocking out the guards at the gate and walking in. Even though these tiny levels at this point are starting to feel a bit old, it’s offset by excellently constructed areas that encourage exploration and experimentation, as well as environmental hazards that put the new survival elements through their paces, and they contribute to the overall feeling that Snake is not in his usual military compounds here, he’s out of his element in a deadly jungle but if you’re clever, and you have your eyes peeled, you can survive.

Learning to survive the elements is a core concept in Snake Eaters design.

Snake Eater is a strange side step for the series. It doesn’t necessarily innovate so much as just introduce ‘more’. The graphics are great, but hardware limitations of the time mean that textures are incredibly low resolution and geometry bends sharply in ways that feel unnatural, a quirk of its time more than any design choice but still – it feels like the basic ideas of Metal Gear Solid are starting to outgrow it’s technical limitations, and with this in mind maybe this is why The Phantom Pain was the vast, expensive beast that it was. Maybe it was time to seriously innovate the series. Despite the side steps, Snake Eater feels tightly compacted and well designed. All of its systems operate at an extremely high level, and everything, despite the above concerns, feels polished to a tee. The mood setting and the new design elements brought in to accommodate for that feel militaristic in a child’s play sense. Everything is camouflage and claymores. Russians versus Americans. Almost cowboys and Indians. At the half way point, I feel like I have a lot more to see and a lot more opinion to write, but for now, Snake Eater feels like a logical progression, and a welcome home into more familiar, warmer territory.

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