The year is 1964 – the height of the Cold War. Having previously smuggled Sokolov, a Russian weapons designer, out of the USSR, the CIA is forced to give him up in order to defuse the Cuban Missile Crisis, thus providing the Soviets with all they need to complete their experimental nuclear battle tank, the Shagohod. In a desperate attempt to stop the Russians from turning the Cold War into a blazing hot one, the newly-established FOX unit sends Naked Snake, an ex-Green Beret, to rescue Sokolov again, this time from the depths of the jungle. What follows is a 'sneak-em-up' that improves in numerous ways upon the standards set by the previous Metal Gear Solid video games, and yet stands out as a game in its own right.
Please note that this Entry contains some spoilers.
Released in 2004 for the PlayStation 21, Snake Eater is in fact a prequel to all the video games of the Metal Gear universe to date – perhaps this section should be titled 'The Foreground' instead. Fans of the series will be familiar with the adventures of Solid Snake, an anti-hero who has been fated to a life of combat ever since he killed his father, Big Boss, to prevent him from using the walking battle tank Metal Gear to turn the world into an eternal battlefield. This part of the storyline took place in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, games which were released for the MSX games system in the late 1980s.
It was the release of Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation in 1998 that brought the series forwards into the modern world of 3D gaming, and in doing so the Metal Gear universe was expanded greatly. Forced to return from retirement, Solid Snake destroys Metal Gear Rex in order to prevent his twin brother Liquid, and his accomplice Revolver Ocelot, from using the weapon to force the USA to hand over the remains of Big Boss. It transpires that both Solid Snake and his brother Liquid are sons of Big Boss, cloned in an attempt to produce the perfect soldier, and the pair fight it out to the death.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of the Patriots was released for the PlayStation 2 in 2001. Despite Solid Snake's efforts, the blueprints for Metal Gear Rex have escaped and variants of the walking battle tank have appeared around the world. Acting independently, Solid Snake attempts to board a US Navy ship transporting the new Metal Gear Ray and take a photograph to prove its existence, but things go wrong when Ocelot appears with Russian forces to 'reclaim' Ray. The remainder of the game then focuses on a different character, Raiden, and his long, tedious mission to prevent the Big Shell chemical plant from being destroyed by terrorist bombs. In the process, Raiden discovers more and more twists in the increasingly-complicated plot, while looking far too effeminate to possibly replace the game's main protagonist.
Fry Me a Snake, I'll Be Back for Breakfast
It was naturally a relief for fans that, when Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater was released, Raiden was nowhere to be seen2. Instead, the clock was turned all the way back to 1964 and players were treated to an entire game playing the reluctant anti-hero, Naked Snake (aka Big Boss before he turned bad3). The move to the Russian jungle was quite revolutionary, what with the previous games being set in large grey buildings with set-square corners and lots of walls to peek around. The levels seemed less constrained, the sneaking more real, and guards could actually be difficult to spot. Furthermore, with the addition of Close-Quarters Combat (CQC), a camouflage index, a healing system and of course the need to eat snakes and other wildlife to maintain stamina, the game hit something of a series peak in terms of playability4. The downside of all this was the multiple trips into the Survival Viewer (read 'menu screens') every time Snake stubbed his toe, but it never became monotonous.
The two previous Metal Gear Solid games had a rather cinematic feel to them, and so Snake Eater naturally followed suit. The first part of the game deals with Snake's first foray into the jungle as he attempts to rescue rocket scientist Sokolov from the grasp of Chairman Khrushchev's KGB. Unfortunately Brezhnev, the leader of a faction threatening to rival Khrushchev's government, has sent the rival GRU after Sokolov. Worse still, the GRU's Colonel Volgin is backed up by Snake's old mentor, the Boss, who has defected and brought with her a pair of 'Davy Crockett' miniature nuclear warheads. Things go badly for Snake, the USA gets blamed for a nuclear attack on Soviet soil, and one week later Snake is sent back to clear up the mess. Snake must now rescue Sokolov, defeat Volgin and the Boss, and stop the Shagohod from 'unleashing Armageddon' (what else would you expect from a rocket-powered nuclear tank, anyway?)
Directed by Major Zero and supported by Paramedic and Sigint, Snake is pitted against the Boss' unit, the Cobras, who fulfil the role of the band of misfits with inexplicable powers that make them well-suited to set piece boss fights. There's also a young Ocelot, who gains a great deal of back-story from this outing, and Eva, a female spy who spends the game suffering from an intentional chest-height wardrobe malfunction. After a while, it turns out that most of the characters are triple-crossing each other, their countries and perhaps even their pet dogs in order to get their hands on the Philosophers' Legacy, a sum of money accumulated by the big three powers during the Second World War. Even with such twists, the story plays out quite nicely and avoids the Russian doll-style plot that made Metal Gear Solid 2 difficult to follow5. Yes, Snake is being manipulated by all and ends up bitter about it, but the story itself makes sense and has a good ending.
Despite being a prequel, Snake Eater manages to include plenty of references to keep the fan base happy. There's the strictly canonical inclusion of a Russian weapons scientist talking about a 'Metal Gear' that would form the missing link between infantry and artillery, but he seems to have been inspired by the toy Metal Gear Rex and Metal Gear Ray that somehow fell through a hole in time and onto his bookshelf. Elsewhere, there's Volgin's 'friend' Major Ivan Raidenovitch Raikov – a character who not only looks like Raiden of MGS 2 fame, but also shares his name. There's even an MGS 2 poster in his locker – it's a great in-joke, but it harms the game's immersion somewhat.
Thankfully, some of the more important series staples also appear, allowing for a different type of immersion:
Sigint: A cardboard box? Why are you...?
Snake: I dunno. I was just looking at it and I suddenly got this urge to get inside. No, not just an urge – more than that. It was my destiny to be here; in the box.
Snake: Yeah. And then when I put it on, I suddenly got this feeling of inner peace. I can't put it into words. I feel... safe. Like this is where I was meant to be. Like I'd found the key to true happiness. Does any of that make sense?
Sigint: Not even a little.
– Snake calls Sigint while using the well-known cardboard box trick.
Snake, Naked Snake
One of the most appealing aspects of Snake Eater is its Cold War setting, allowing Snake to be compared (and contrasted) with a certain double-0 agent. Once the initial 'Virtuous Mission' has been completed, the player is treated to the game's theme song ('Snake Eater', of course), along with a montage that would fit nicely into any Bond movie save for the lack of scantily-clad ladies. This major difference in the opening credits reflects the fact that Snake is, as mentioned, a reluctant anti-hero rather than a swaggering spy, and much is made of this difference. Snake's relationship with Eva is played straight and gives both characters some depth, but elsewhere Snake is still confronted with gags, such as Major Zero's insistence that Snake would benefit from Bond-esque gadgets:
Major Zero: What exactly don't you like about James Bond? Is it the fantastic gadgets? The cars? The guns?
Major Zero: Snake, wouldn't you like to have a gun shaped like a pen?
Snake: What good is a pen going to do me in the jungle? I'd look like a fool.
Major Zero: Then what about a snake-shaped gun? You could make it look like you're grappling with a giant snake and then get a shot in on the enemy while they're distracted.
Snake: OK, now you're being ridiculous.
– The Major wades into Paramedic's CODEC conversation about the recent 007: From Russia with Love.
An extended version of the game, MGS 3: Subsistence was released in 2005, with limited editions including a feature film based on the cutscenes from the game. Also present were full versions of Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, plus an Ape Escape spin-off entitled 'Snake versus Monkey'6. The biggest addition was Metal Gear Online, an eight person multiplayer game based on Snake Eater's characters and settings, which was discontinued when the servers closed in 2007.
The Wider Picture
Overall, Snake Eater likely ranks in the top three Metal Gear games due to a combination of a genuinely interesting story-line and immersive gameplay. While MGS 4 is set firmly in the future and thus a sequel to MGS 2, Snake Eater has still gained not one, but two sequels in the form of PlayStation Portable games. The first, Portable Ops, drags Snake forcibly back into action as the CIA and Pentagon supposedly fight over the chance to nuke Russia using the first Metal Gear, and both Ocelot and the Philosophers' Legacy enter the picture once more. The second sequel, Peace Walker, almost ignores the events of Portable Ops, instead focusing on Snake's enduring memories of the Boss, as explored through the unlikely medium of making him kill an AI-driven Metal Gear (the Peace Walker) whose neural networks were created using the Boss' memories. While neither sequel truly cuts the mustard, their existence as spin-offs7 would suggest that Snake Eater enjoys an important spot in the Metal Gear canon.