Opinion: Metal Gear Solid 3's moments are the franchise's pinnacle
The re-release of Metal Gear Solid 3 in HD's given me the opportunity to revisit what might actually be my favorite video game. It's earned that designation partially through a handful of hard-to-quantify sentimental reasons, and partially because of the sheer elegance and restraint it displays as an entry in a series known for overt and often strange authorial self-indulgence.
One of the reasons I love the Metal Gear Solid series as a whole is its deceptive yet satisfying complexity. The sprawling meta-narratives are understandably controversial to some, but from a gameplay standpoint it offers progressions of clear objectives which are usually as basic as "reach one location from another." In terms of my personal taste, I tend to best enjoy game mechanics that challenge players to master and maximize a constrained space (see also: Portal's traditional test chambers), and MGS3 achieves this.
All the series' games offer players continually more elaborate toolkits for accomplishing goals -- weapons that range from silent and nonlethal to brutal, distraction techniques, and hiding places within the environment -- which means that two players' approaches to exploring the same facility undetected may be completely different. Controls, as well as elements of the environment, are often context-sensitive, so that the array of behaviors one can perform often become quite elaborate.
MGS3 showcases the best of this sort of design without some of the hangups the franchise had seen up to that point; the first two games, for example, contained missions that asked players to repeatedly traverse the same areas for tedious hunt-and-fetch, and location design was occasionally less than intuitive.
Although the world of MGS3 isn't particularly large (the first third or so of the game is spent in the same few areas), it's lush and savage, as the series had aimed to take gameplay out of the facility and into the wild of the Russian outdoors. Dead logs, thick grasses and muddy trenches, combined with a diverse camouflage system, offer plenty of options, and rolling terrain and sheer cliffs can be either advantage or challenge, depending.
Players have the opportunity to become just familiar enough with maps that finding various strategies for each is satisfying. One of the most satisfying feelings video games offer players is sense of mastery, and with its customizable strategies and the sense that no one path is universally "optimal", MGS3 offers an incredible feeling of control and excellence, the feeling that one can become expert at dialoguing with it in a self-elected way.
MGS3 is also the entry in the series that makes the best use of dramatic tension. If as a "stealth action" game the franchise has a weakness, it's that in past games detection could be disastrous, triggering an escalating chain of direct confrontations -- so even the slightest misstep feels like a punishable error. To an extent stealth games should absolutely incorporate a certain degree of low-grade stress, but playing MGS2 in particular can very easily feel like cumulative hours spent hiding inside a locker, waiting for minutes-long detection counters to expire.
By contrast the third game is designed to allow for more dramatic tension, better pacing and fewer unsolvable situations -- playing it generally feels considered, meditative, intellectually engaging even in times of breathlessly careful, inch-by-inch progress.
During the game, no more clearly is its brilliance on display than during one wildly innovative boss fight, deservedly famous among fans.
In the narrative, a Cold War-era Snake (predecessor of Solid Snake, protagonist of the rest of the console MGS games to date) is tasked with assassinating his mentor, The Boss, who has ostensibly defected to the Soviet Union.
To get to her, Snake needs to defeat her cohort, a set of surreal freaks called the Cobra Unit (the game isn't subtitled "Snake Eater" just because that's literally how the protagonist dines to survive in the woods). Each of these are for the most part particularly well-designed battles that allow the player to use the environment against a boss with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses.
Each boss is named, according to the story, after the sentiment he brings into battle with him; after Snake defeats The Pain and The Fear, he meets The End, a startlingly ancient man who's known to be the most legendary sniper of all time.
The End is approaching death, and lives largely in a deep sleep, planning to awaken only for his final battle. Liver-spotted and swathed in a fantastic moss-hung camouflage uniform that keeps him alive through photosynthesis, and gifted with unsettling, frog-like eyes that rotate independently like scopes, the old man is one with the dense, smoggy wood where he awaits Snake, tasked with stopping him from progressing any further.
Even aside from the creative decision to make an enfeebled old man one of the game's most forbidding enemies, there's a great deal about the fight against The End that hasn't been widely done if ever in games: The player has an opportunity early on in the game to kill The End without ever facing him in proper combat, during the first glimpse the game offers to introduce the character.
After an introductory scene, The End is being brought inside in his wheelchair -- and for less than a minute or so, his health bar appears beneath Snake's, a clue to his vulnerability that can be tough for the unobservant to note. It takes a speedy, clear shot and near-perfect aim, but it can be done, meaning the player will never have to face him again later.
Even more notably, director Hideo Kojima's acute awareness that he is working on a gaming hardware platform (remember that players were made to swap controller ports in order to defeat Psycho Mantis in the first MGS) strikes again -- when the player meets The End on his battlefield, saving the game and then waiting a week, or simply setting the PlayStation's clock forward a week, will result in a scenario in which The End simply died in wait for Snake.
But although there are ways to skip the fight, no one who loves a breathtaking boss battle would want to. We're accustomed to thinking of boss fights as linear stages, closed spaces with a looming challenge front and center on the screen. The fight against The End is nearly opposite, staged across no less than three sprawling jungle areas. It's a showpiece of the game's eloquent pacing -- at first, the player won't know the environment or its complex, forested routes to any of the dozens of sniping points on which The End will lie silently in wait.
The sensation of being hunted is gripping and immediate; sometimes a silvereen muzzle flash far off in the distance will be the only precursor to a harsh sniper shot's bark, echoing through the seemingly-endless, phosphorescent jungle in a masterful architecture of audio.
The battle quickly becomes a tense, psychological game of cat-and-mouse -- find The End before his preternatural sniper's eye finds you, the pair of you stalking one another across massive areas. The best boss fights ask the player to make use of skills he or she has accumulated thus far in the game and this one's no exception: Players will have had to master the camouflage system and hunting for stamina in order to survive what can become a battle across realtime hours, and use tools like thermal goggles and a directional mic to stalk The End's location.
The weather even changes; The End's footsteps, the heat signals of which can be tracked with the goggles, will fade away faster in the rain, but it seems Snake is also less visible to the sniper in bad weather. Lying in a thicket of tall grass, listening to the far-off enemy's slow breathing on an advanced directional mic alongside the muted hush of rain is almost poetic.
The longer the battle lasts, the more adept the player becomes at navigating the environment and tracking The End; the more the player is able to get near him, the more likely the fight is to become a foot chase among rock outcroppings and precarious slopes, the tide of favor palpably shifting to the player just by virtue of his or her own developing skills.
Using the utmost stealth, intrepid players can even eventually sneak up silently behind The End and hold him up at gunpoint -- the reward is his set of photosynthetic camouflage, a significant gift that devoted fans embrace the challenge of attaining.
Last but hardly least, there's the entirely implicit, unspoken narrative of The Boss' youngest protege in silent standoff with her eldest and arguably most lethal defender. This battle characterizes The End so subtly and so absolutely that the player experiences real fear and absolute vulnerability give way to grim determination.
It is not necessarily a pleasure to bring about the death of such a complex adversary, nor to cross such a sad milestone for Snake -- who through victory becomes one step closer to final confrontation with The Boss, his admired mentor. But The End's defeat is always uniquely satisfying, and even the most seasoned player is likely to finish at long last with trembling hands, watching the old man fade away like leaves at the season's end, in tandem with the ebb of adrenaline rush.
Beyond being one of the best and most beloved boss battles in gaming history, the fight against The End is Metal Gear Solid at its absolute finest, a masterfully-crafted experience that balances the cerebral, emotional and mechanical to a degree of harmony rarely attained in any video game.