The War Epilogue: Cobra Eater

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’m approaching the end of Snake Eater – and I’ve been pleasantly surprised this time.

Something that Sneak Eater has hidden away in its hand is the freedom to let the player roam and play. Nagging by codec is kept to an absolute minimum here and cinematic sequences which used to constantly yank control from the player now act as more of a reward for completing long sections of play. And you know, I don’t miss the constant interruptions – at all. Snake Eater is so good that it accidentally highlights the key flaw in the series’ tendency of meandering for anything from 10, 20 or 30 minutes of unedited cinematic scenes. As great as the Kojima’s cut scenes are, being left alone to play Snake Eater was seriously welcome. You’re let off the leash early, and the game stops itself from pulling the player out of action with constant codec conversations and immersion murdering overbearing narratives something that Sons of Liberty did a hell of a lot of. This approach evidently works, as well. We get to fool around with the much more expanded AI in Snake Eater, fiddle with our various items and accoutrements and just generally get lost in the new survival – it’s great. A tiny, contained jungle themed playground where we can get on with the game. When you consider how much of Snake Eater (and the rest of the series from this point on) valued experimentation and emergent game play, this is a godsend.

That’s not to say that the narrative has suffered. It’s a step back in terms of literacy and Kojima seems quick to ditch the existential cleverness here, but it’s happy to pour its energy elsewhere. It dials the camp up to 11, and Snake is pushed into full blown James Bond territory. Snake Eater is Kojima riffing on spy movie conventions and just having a hell of a lot of fun with it, too. Snake, in classic spy movie tradition, is far more of a ladies’ man this time around, something which has always been teased in the background of all the games but here it’s explored with a lot of subtlety – strange when you consider how obsessive Kojima seems to be with sex in Metal Gear Solid games. It’s good that we see a side of snake that has his heart on his sleeve, that he gets to experience a little bit of romance, especially when it’s as well played as it is here. Turning the usual womanising spy conventions on its head, this time it’s the female lead, Eva, chasing after Snake, but years of spy work and soldiering has hardened Snakes resolve – Eva ends up digging past Snake’s cold exterior to get inside. It’s really well written, and progressive too. At no point does their story seem forced, or hammed up for cheap emotional thrills, it slowly develops naturally over time, and Eva has become one of my favourite characters not just in this game but across the series in general. The ending of Snake’s foray into romance is unforgettable.

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The pacing, in general is also as consistent as it is across the whole series so far. Kojima has a solid grasp on narrative ebb and flow, and events peak and trough exactly when they should. Elaborately explosive action scenes act as catharsis for hours of sneaking and espionage. Cut scenes, stripped back though they are, happen now in the right places, and codec conversations are now far more player orientated, mostly having to be triggered by the player. This means you can miss lots of detail if you aren’t constantly buzzing people on your radio, but that’s what repeat playthrough’s are for, isn’t it? And even though the narrative is pulled from focus it doesn’t change a thing – the final act and the build up to the end are absolutely stunning pieces of work, and for about 25 hours worth of sneaking, stabbing and crawling, the final moments of Snake Eater are an absolutely incredible pay off. Spoilers aside, the final closing moments are an incredibly well timed exclamation point that send Snake off in explosive style, and welcomes Big Boss into the frame. It has far reaching implications not just for Snake Eater but for all the other entries in the series. It’s a vastly important story, in that regard, and almost required if you’re a fan of Metal Gear. Frankly, I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to get around to.

Also restored to former glory are the boss battles which come in the form of the eponymous Cobra Unit (get it, Snake Eater, right?) which right the wrongs of the forgettable foes from Sons of Liberty by going all out on the wackiness. There isn’t any time for realism here. The Cobra Unit are just straight up super heroes turned bad, with each one possessing a unique trait (and name) that invokes a particular emotional response of war. The Fear, The Fury, The End, The Pain and The Sorrow. Each boss is designed to be unique from each other and the realism of the game starts to seriously disintegrate during these bouts, to the point where I almost think Kojima is completely insane, but they’re so well designed that it never particularly matters. They operate as Snake’s primary antagonistic force and each fight is an excellently conceived battle of wits with the absolute outstanding moment coming in the form of The End, a fight which could legitimately take you hours of crawling through muddy swamps and damp jungle fauna just to finally finish the bastard off, and every second of it is golden. I won’t spoil the other fights, as I think they are served much better when you don’t know what to expect but they are the highlight of the game. There wasn’t a boss I didn’t think was ill-placed or poorly designed at all.

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Snake Eater feels a lot like a really welcome change of direction for the series. It recognises it’s limits, identifies what it needed to do less of, and even pushed out new features and design ideas that, considering this was released in 2004 are wildly ahead of their time. It feels a lot like this is a prediction of what’s to come and from what I know the series only continues to innovate from here. There are several ideas that you see the seeds of in Snake Eater, for example, that are fully grown and blossoming in The Phantom Pain. It also pushes replay value quite far for a linear single player experience, adding unlockable items and score systems to challenge players to try it all over again but differently this time. With that in mind, I could easily see myself going back in future. It does stumble in places – the level design is showing its age now at this point. Though really strong for Metal Gear games, is really holding back a lot of the great ideas at play. Again, this is something that is well and truly fixed in The Phantom Pain, but sometimes I felt as though I was a rate in a maze. The levels are tiny diorama’s in comparison to what comes after.

Ignore my nitpicks, though. Metal Gear Solid 3 is an outstanding piece of work and is really required play for anyone who likes Metal Gear Solid.

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