With Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater 3D sneaking up on the Nintendo 3DS this March, Peter Willington argues that Metal Gear Solid 3 (MGS3) is the best game in the critically acclaimed series.
WARNING: There are a lot of spoilers ahead for all four MGS games. Best stop reading now if you're planning on picking them up for the first time.
It's possible to make a strong argument for any of the numbered entries in the Metal Gear Solid series being the best the franchise has to offer.
Whether it's the groundbreaking (yet retrospectively basic) fare of the original, Metal Gear Solid 2 (MGS2)'s exploration of repetition with its divisive lead character switch, or Metal Gear Solid 4 (MGS4)'s bombastic conclusion to Solid's story that veered into fan service territory: all of these games have a shot at the title.
Hell, even Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker has an outside chance, though its team construction and connectivity were hampered by the PSP's controls.
But, with the 3DS and Vita both getting a port of MGS3 in the not-too-distant future, I want to make the case for why it's the high point of the series.
Like a boss
MGS3 is the first game in the franchise to finally grasp how to set up an innovative boss battle. There had been impressive encounters with antagonists before - you only need look at Solid Snake confrontations with Psycho Mantis or Gray Fox in the original for evidence of this - but, for the most part, each would boil down to little more than understanding a pattern and then breaking it.
With MGS3, each fight is both inventive and a reflection of the situations in which the characters taking part find themselves. The most frequently cited example of this is the trudge upstream through a river filled with living beings you have destroyed on your journey thus far - a near-death experience orchestrated by The Sorrow.
The confrontation with The End is a favourite of fans, too: a drawn-out sniper battle in which the veteran elite marksman toys with Naked Snake over a massive area. Only with patience - a quality crucial to a sniper - can our hero defeat him in this battle, either through vigilance while moving slowly through the thick Soviet jungle, or in real time by quitting the game and returning a week later to find the ancient veteran dead from old age.
Perhaps it's The Fury that encapsulates this best though. Trapped within his own psychotic mind and hidden in the darkness of a flame resistant space suit, Snake himself is ensnared by this hulking ex-cosmonaut, attempting to evade the flames of The Fury's rage in the pitch black of claustrophobic halls. As Snake's eyes adjust to the pervading gloom, so to does he come to see through the darkness of his own fury towards his old mentor: The Boss.
Metal Gear Solid 3 is also the game to break away from the conventions of the right angle. The 90 degree crutch players could lean on almost incessantly throughout the previous two outings. With the predominantly indoor areas of Shadow Moses, the Tanker and Big Shell, staying hidden was a doddle as you hugged walls and peered round corners.
In the jungle, it's a very different habitat. Naked Snake uses camouflage to blend in, daubing his face with browns and greens, changing his outfit to match his surroundings. Whenever possible, he creeps behind fallen tree trunks, or nestles himself amongst long grass, daring not move a muscle as the well equipped groups of soldiers parole past him just metres away.
This heightened awareness of the effectiveness of your environment, the limitations and advantages this brings to the human being in the situation, the reliance on quick thinking and outsmarting your opponents is, however, the key to why MGS3 is the very best in the series.
No such thing as miracles or the supernatural
Looking at the oeuvre as a whole, there's one motif that runs through the veins of them all: the importance of technology above everything else. The Shadow Moses Incident is marked by unstoppable bipedal walking tanks, cybernetic ninjas and Genome Soldiers patrolling the icy perimeter of Alaska's Fox Archipelago.
Much of MGS2 takes place within an incredibly sophisticated simulation, the plot revolving around the control of data. MGS4 places the importance of nanomachines and the AI based Patriots front and centre. More than that, all three of those releases were graphical and technological show pieces for all three PlayStation systems, much like the ultra connected Peace Walker was for the PSP's online infrastructure.
Snake Eater is different, it's a far more natural, very human tale. Yes Metal Gear Solid 3 featured a reworked engine to cope with how characters interacted with the undulating environment around them, and yes the systems that went to control the fundamentals of the game were much more sophisticated.
However none of this was particularly obvious to the untrained eye: it still looked great, it still played great, but it wasn't a massive leap over Sons Of Liberty.
Thematically the third outing is less focused on the high tech too. The Shagohod - a prototype vehicle that would form the basis of the Metal Gears that would come later - is only a modified tank at heart, not too far into the realms of science fiction.
Nuclear weapons are key to Volgin's plans, though again this technology is nothing new. Enemies are human beings, many with extremely heightened or outlandish abilities, but they're not clones or robots, and they certainly don't have FOXDIE in them.
No, MGS3 is about nature and it's all the better for it.
Snake must survive in the wilderness, a human being against the wild, attempting to work with it rather than overcome it through technological means.
Hunting for food to keep your energy levels up and stopping your stomach from rumbling is essential, and with this added intimacy on such a basic primal level, you become closer to Snake, you feel his pain.
Understanding that a digital agent on screen must eat makes them feel that much closer to a thing that is alive, which is a far more complex form of verisimilitude than that seen in the rest of the series.
Nature is your friend and it can be your foe, replacing environmental allies and enemies of other MGS entries. Gone are the security cameras and remote detonated mines, replaced by vicious crocodiles and hornet's nests. Suddenly things are less predictable, more dangerous, more exciting.
Since you no longer have the Soliton Radar to provide a comprehensive summary of your enemy's position and field of view, you're left to rely on - that's right - your instincts. Staying focused, remaining constantly on the lookout and listening carefully for signs of combatants are the only ways to succeed in Snake Eater. Completion of Snake's mission is for the first time down to the senses, not wires and circuitry.
But I'd also argue that this is the entry where Kojima's heroes and villains are at their most relatable. Vamp, Fatman, the Beauty and the Beast Unit, Snake's genetic doubles: they're all interesting characters but difficult to empathise with.
Either too pantomime or so fantastical as to be unrelatable, when their tales of heartbreak inevitably pour forth in extended monologue, you have little in common with them, or have spent such a small amount of time with them that you haven't built up an ability to care for them.
In MGS3 you spend the entire time with the series' main villain: Big Boss. You come to understand the thought process of the man who created Outer Heaven, the hardships he faced as a human being. You can piece together the rational of a man who - from the first Metal Gear on the MSX - is seen as a military extremist hell bent on controlling the world.
Revolver Ocelot, another staple villain, is much younger, less experienced here too. His part in The Patriots is better understood through playing Snake Eater, his relationship with Solid Snake becomes more mixed because of it, adding depth to the rest of the franchise and even empathy for him as the two meet for the final time in MGS4.
We can leave behind much more than just DNA
It's the closing action of Snake Eater that reinforces this point the hardest though. Each closing of the Metal Gear Solid titles have had high concept technology at their core: the battle with REX, the fight against Solidus and the chemically lengthened scrap against Liquid Ocelot atop Outer Haven. But not here.
Here it's Naked Snake and The Boss, human being against human being with no escape for either, save victory over the other. It's the ingenuity - both physically and mentally - of two souls locked in combat that provides the full stop to the story of Jack and Groznyj Grad.
As the final curtain falls, marked by the sound of a single bullet, it is your decision to pull the trigger. You are the living, breathing, thinking being that has controlled Snake's destiny thus far, and as you squeeze out the shot that will cause a chain reaction in the Metal Gear universe, you are reminded that it's ultimately humans that are responsible for everything that will come after.
Kojima warns us in his third Metal Gear Solid, that it's people that start wars, it's people that end them, and no amount of genetic engineering, walking death machines, or sentient AIs will ever change that. MGS3 is his most powerful statement on war, and in his humanising of the inhuman, we understand the horrors of combat just a little bit more.