Metal Gear Solid is the kind of game that's difficult to take seriously, even though it really wants to be serious sometimes. It's so campy and self-indulgent and chock-full of references and pointlessly wacky humor that when it puts on its game face and tries to deliver a serious moral about nuclear weapons or societal control or the nature of warfare, it's difficult for me to care. In addition, its "serious morals" rely on incredibly contrived setups, thus reducing their applicability to real life; this is fine when you're just making a campy action game, but less so when you're trying to be serious.
Regardless of its flaws, Metal Gear Solid 3 is one of my favorite games ever. The reason for this is simple: it's a game where you're left to your own devices a lot more than in any other MGS game. There are so many mechanics that are just based around letting the player figure things out that if the trend had continued to MGS4, MGS4 would have been a legitimately good game. Instead, they dialed back on the freedom and attempted to make up for it with scripting, setpieces, and cutscenes. But rather than be bitter about that, let me illustrate some things that I really liked about Metal Gear Solid 3.
Like every Metal Gear game, the setup of MGS3 is this: you're dumped in an area with minimal equipment, and you have an objective to fulfill. The path ahead is linear, but in general this is a believable setup because it's something that makes sense for Snake to carry out. As you make progress through the game, the setup helps you feel like you're making progress towards something, although if there's too much extraneous stuff in the way it's hard to keep track of what that "something" is: rescuing hostages, destroying superweapons, assassinating enemies of the state, whatever.
In MGS3's case, the objective of the main part of the game is to reach Groznyj Grad, the mountain fortress that serves as Colonel Volgin's seat of power. I'm singling out Groznyj Grad as the objective, and not, say, the Boss or the Shaghod, because it's actually possible to see evidence of major routes to the fortress, and realize that Snake is being forced to take the back route. There's river travel, there's helicopter travel, there's large gates that are closed off to Snake, etcetera. There were a lot of moments where I could look at my surroundings and say "hey, this must be how they x"; the game is a complex labyrinth, but on some level there's a believable infrastructure in place that supports the fortress.
What this does for the overall objective is remind the player that what they're doing is going to Groznyj Grad. It serves as a constant reinforcement, for an attentive player, that there is a long-term goal they are moving towards, and all the areas that they are in are part of that same environment. They're not just messing around in some random part of the jungle, or climbing some pointless ladder; they're going to the area they're supposed to go. It's all connected by visual cues, and it makes the world feel more functional.
In addition, when you reached Groznyj Grad itself, it was an actual compound - i.e. walls with buildings inside it, rather than a meandering set of tunnels. Comparatively, MGS1 had a long, disjointed base that ended up not making a whole lot of sense in design terms. Like MGS3, there were some areas that were inaccessible to Snake, but the whole thing felt small and oddly designed. It's the difference between an area being a natural zone that the player-character simply doesn't have total access to, and an area being a specifically-designed level for a player to traverse. MGS2, in general, should have had the best area, since Big Shell's size was small enough to be detailed properly, but the scripted nature of the game and how access to new areas was gained made it feel more fake.
In contrast, MGS4's focus on jet-setting around the world to trigger story events made it feel a lot less sensible, in my opinion. Sure, there were occasional bases and outposts, as well as barred-off gates to inaccessible areas, but the focus on larger, more open zones made the artificial walls seem more noticeable. There were times when the story required a linear path, and this occasionally resulted in scenarios and situations where things just felt totally orchestrated (as they were). The objectives felt like short-term "go here" rather than a larger objective centered around the place you were going to. Go to the Middle East, do this thing. Go to South America, do that thing. It could've all been done in one centralized zone, but they scattered it around to make it feel like a larger scale. It didn't give each act enough time to develop itself as an area, with different nooks and crannies, and thus reduced the scale of the whole thing despite attempting the opposite.
One of my favorite aspects of MGS3 was how many things you could do in it. There were so many actions that could be taken that made sense when you thought about it, and it was just through the use of the items you had available to interact with the environment. You could blow up armories and supply depots with C4. You could throw snakes at people. You could use specific items on bosses that were based either on information you could gather or logical analysis of the boss' patterns. It wasn't totally all-encompassing, but it allowed information-usage and guesswork based on observable properties.
The reason that this was interesting was that it rewarded players trying out new things by making a diverse set of options available, and allowed them more options to interact with the environment. The fact that item availability was connected to difficulty was a neat touch, because it meant that on harder difficulties "improvising with whatever's available", as well as collecting items in the first place, was more of a concern. Ammo was rarer and you could hold less of it at a time, suppressors wear out faster, etc. There's logistical concerns that act as a factor to the player's decision-making, and the introduction of reduced supplies forces the player into situations where they are made to use whatever techniques and items are available to them.
In MGS4, one of the things that made me the most upset (from a purely gameplay standpoint) was the introduction of the Drebin store, i.e. a menu accessible at any time where the player can buy new weapons and ammo using money from scavenged weapons or items. This meant that one of the most important aspects of the series since its very beginning, namely the obtaining of items and weapons on the battlefield, was reduced and in some cases eliminated. The existence of the Drebin store as a readily available resource meant that running out of ammo was never a problem, and this was coupled with the fact that at the beginning of the game Snake is given a tranquilizer pistol with a permanent silencer. You can win the game with only that gun because it's a sneaking game (with the exception of boss fights). Why would you need anything else?
In essence, it felt like a lot of MGS4's items were taking the concept in the wrong direction. There were like 70 different guns in the game, from assault rifles to shotguns to sniper rifles to heavy weapons, but this undermines the fact that it's a stealth game. Even the boss battles aren't particularly suited to most of the weapons; there's less options than there were for comparable battles in MGS3, and the majority of the weapons are really just normal guns anyways. Sure, you want to have choice, but I think MGS3 did better with each weapon having a specific role (even if it was the difference between the loud AK47 and the suppressable M16) than MGS4 did with "there's a bunch of weapons with minor differences". There's even weapon customization, but it's not for every weapon, and it just makes the non-customizable weapons that much more useless.
MGS3's use of the radio made up for the traditional usage of codec conversations as "cutscenes, but less visually exciting". This was because, while there were a lot of really tedious mandatory conversations, the main usage of the radio for the player was to call people about things. You could do that in the other games, too, but no other game had the sheer breadth of MGS3 when it came to context. They were a player resource, and one that made sense in-universe: if Snake wanted help with something, it makes sense for him to call his support team.
It also has the role of making Snake feel like part of an operation by constantly reminding the player that Snake isn't the only individual involved. It creates an information network, just as it did in Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid 1. It creates a dynamic between Snake and the team, although this varies depending on the quality of the support the team provides. If it's just little tidbits, as in MG2, then it's questionable. A developed team with lots of contextual, helpful information makes the player use and rely upon them more, thus deepening their value.
MGS3 did a decent job of providing actual advice in situations where the player would reasonably want to ask for help; one particularly niche conversation takes place if the player finds a dead body in one area and decides to call the Major. It's an oddity that people might not find (although it's not totally out of the way), but the fact that Snake's address to the Major after the fact is "I found this dead body, what the heck is going on" rather than a totally irrelevant piece of information is neat. Basically, I got used to the fact that if I wanted someone's thoughts on a recent event, I could call them and they'd have something to say about that recent event. It might even have spoiled me a bit, since one can hardly expect that from every game.
You can see why, therefore, I was annoyed that the radio in MGS4 consisted basically of Otacon and Rosemary, and Rosemary was almost never useful in any fashion. There's a few different conversations, but that's like 4 or 5 tops, compared to almost everything in MGS3 having a contextual conversation. Mostly the radio in MGS4 is used to restate mission objectives and to have story-advancing cutscenes. It's another tool being eliminated: a resource for the player to use being taken out of the game in favor of more uninteractive movies.
MGS3 isn't a perfect game. It's not absolutely believable by any stretch of the imagination. It includes believable gameplay elements and connects it to a linear action-thriller storyline, and depending on your perspective that can be enough or it can be not enough. But here's a few things that I think would have improved the in-depth aspects of the game a bit more: The most important of these things, in my opinion, is the nature of the survival gameplay and how it reflects on the more "action-based" parts of the game.
The pause menu is the biggest offender. Eating, healing, managing inventory, changing camouflage and so on all happen from the pause menu. Making radio calls also takes place in a stasis zone. The issue is that this takes away a part of "the game": MGS is a stealth game, and stealth implies staying away from guards. Yet the time-freezing of MGS3, and every other MGS game, means that the things you do in the pause menu aren't part of the "stealth" gameplay. You don't have to frantically bandage yourself up while guards hunt you down, you don't have to set up a camp in a safe location where patrols won't find you, you don't have to make a drop-area for your gear that you can come back to. It's just the pause menu. While this is fine in terms of an action game, it also takes out a part of the gameplay.
I'll let Gary Gygax make my point for me:
You may ask why time is so important if it causes such difficulties with record-keeping, dictates who can or can not go adventuring during a game session, and disperses player characters to the four winds by its strictures. Well, as initially pointed out, it is a necessary penalty imposed on characters for certain activities. Beyond that, it also gives players yet another interesting set of choices and consequences. The latter tends to bring more true-to-life quality to the game, as some characters will use precious time to the utmost advantage, some will treat it lightly, and some will be constantly wasting it to their complete detriment. Time is yet another facet which helps to separate the superior players from the lesser ones.
MGS4 never pretended to have the sort of survival gameplay that MGS3 had, instead opting for the vaguer, more questionable "psyche meter". Therefore, the fact that it was "action as all get out" wasn't a conflict. Instead, MGS4 is just straight-up a dumb shooter with some stealth bits tacked on, removing all the parts of the game that involve using or altering the environment and replacing it with setpieces and staged battles. Even the few halfhearted attempts at detail, like the ability to befriend local militia units, was underplayed by the lack of choices given in the scenario. In every way, MGS4 just felt like a step back from what could have been a tighter, more detailed gameplay experience.