Metal Gear Hands-on: Delays Have Been Kind to Snake Eater 3D, But… «

Metal Gear Solid 3 is, to my thinking, one of the finest games ever created. I’m hardly alone in this opinion, so the announcement that the game would be converted to Nintendo 3DS seemed like an amazing coup for the system. How times have changed. Since then, Sony has announced its own new portable system; Konami has announced its intention to port the game to Vita; and Snake Eater 3D demoed at E3 2011 and broke our hearts with its poor quality.
As we near the final release of the game — pushed back from a tentative fall 2011 release to the middle of next month — Konami has published a playable demo on the Japanese eShop. This new demo covers much of the same territory as the E3 playable build, yet it goes a long way to soothe our concerns over the conversion’s quality. Why no U.S. counterpart yet? Probably because one of the biggest new additions, support for the Circle Pad Pro peripheral, isn’t especially practical; the add-on launched in Japan in December but won’t be out here until next month.

Click the image above to check out all Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D screens.
Even besides Circle Pad Pro support, the latest revision of Snake Eater 3D represents a huge jump in quality over the shuddery mess we played last summer. The frame rate has been greatly stabilized — no longer dipping to slide show levels any time you turn the camera toward an area with an open layout. Snake’s movement feels smoother, too, and he’s now capable of moving around in a crouched position for a moderate camo bonus — something previously impossible. A few new 3DS-specific features have been added, including (obviously) 3D visuals, and the need to use the game’s accelerometer in order to cross the rickety bridge immediately before reaching the base where Russian scientist Sokolov is holed up. We’re not fans. This exact same gimmick is annoying in Uncharted: Golden Abyss, and it’s annoying here.

Support for the Circle Pad Pro makes a huge difference to the game’s playability. The fussy imprecision of using the face buttons to aim was bad enough in Peace Walker for PSP, but on the lower-resolution 3DS screen it turned the original demo into an exercise in frustration (especially in light of the twitchy animation). Adding a right stick for camera controls along with shoulder buttons for quick access to weapons and equipment completely changes the way the game plays. Mapping the aim and fire buttons to real triggers as opposed to the 3DS’s stumpy shoulder chiclets is a nice touch, too. I’m also a fan of what this version of the game removes: Namely, the often-infuriating close-quarter-combat (CQC) controls that made (poor) use of the PlayStation 2’s pressure-sensitive buttons. Anyone who’s played the original version of MGS3 knows well the frustration of sneaking in for a non-lethal hold-up only to press a button ever-so-slightly too hard and kill the victim instead of simply capturing them. That’s no longer possible, and it’s a welcome change for the best.

(And while this is probably a given to most people, it probably bears mentioning that even though this version is called “Snake Eater 3D,” the camera is situated and controlled more like the Subsistence rerelease of the game rather than the original Snake Eater version.)

But are these improvements enough? Snake Eater 3D may well be the single most refined version of this spy-thriller classic, and it’s come a long way since its last outing, but there’s no addressing the significant underlying problem with this game: It’s on 3DS.

This is by no means an indictment of the 3DS hardware (so put away the pitchforks and torches, fanboys). The 3DS is a solid piece of hardware made even better by the Circle Pad Pro add-on. And Metal Gear Solid 3 is a great game. But is the 3DS the right hardware for this particular game? You may love your two best friends but also realize that they’d be a terrible couple, and we’re not convinced that the marriage of this particular Metal Gear to this specific piece of hardware is the best possible match. From what I’ve played, possibly not. The problem is simply a matter of screen resolution. The 3D’s top screen, where the action takes place, isn’t simply small. Its effective pixel resolution is considerably lower than the original PS2 version of the game; it’s lower than Peace Walker on PSP; and it feels downright minuscule next to the HD edition released a few months ago. It also launches here almost simultaneously with Uncharted for Vita, a game that does many of the same things as MGS3 but with far more visual panache.

The screen problems aren’t simply a matter of a superficial desire for prettier pictures. The visual limitations affect the playability of Snake Eater 3D; even with the Circle Pad Pro, lining up a shot at middle range is much trickier than it ought to be because a somewhat distant foe quickly turns into an indistinct blur of a few moving pixels. The game’s earthy color doesn’t help, either, causing targets to disappear into the background. So while this may well turn out to be the best version of MGS3 in terms of design and mechanics, the presentation and technical limitations seem likely to undermine its appeal — especially with an HD conversion for Vita lurking somewhere on the horizon.

Obviously, we’ll give Snake Eater 3D a fair chance once we get our hands on the final version of the game. But as many concerns as the eShop alleviated, we still have plenty of misgivings about this return trip to the jungle with Naked Snake.


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