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A Phoenix Factory Review – Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

September 24, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

There are some fictional works I consume where there is a striking moment early on where my attitude towards it goes from “this seems interesting and I should finish it” to “this is awesome and I must finish it”. If not for the fact that I have already been fond of the Metal Gear Solid franchise since the first game came out, that moment for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain probably occurred as the main character, Venom Snake, is riding a helicopter on a story mission to destroy the enemy regional communications base rather early in the game. I had previously spent hours freely roaming the enemy-occupied countryside, understanding the lay of the land, warming up to the game by raiding enemy bases and outposts, but I figured it was time to move the story along. As my helicopter flew inexorably towards my landing zone, Kazuhira “Kaz” Miller, my mission coordinator, is explaining my mission to me through the radio and telling me how I have to sabotage the base’s communications infrastructure. Suddenly, Revolver Ocelot, my intelligence officer, interrupts and informs Miller the enemy communications infrastructure has already been destroyed. As it turned out, while wandering around the map, I had already taken out the antennas and satellite dishes in the base without understanding its significance. But the game knew I did this already, so this was reflected in how the mission was already over before it started; I never even got the chance to jump off my helicopter before Miller, as perplexed as I am, utters, “Mission complete. I guess it all worked out in the end.”

And that was how I completed a mission in less than thirty seconds.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a stealth-based third-person shooter sandbox game, the last entry into the twenty-eight-year-old franchise developed by Hideo Kojima, arguably the pioneer in stealth-based video games, and functionally a farewell letter to the franchise as his contract with the intellectual property expires. In many ways, it is a game that’s very different from its predecessors, both in terms of gameplay and narrative style. It also comes burdened with twenty-eight years of backstory and lore, making it intimidating – if not outright confusing – for newcomers to get into as Kojima ties up the last loose ends that connects the Cold War lore to its 20th century storyline. But as a game, The Phantom Pain proves that Kojima still has his chops as the man who revolutionized the stealth genre in gaming, and who can keep up with the times as technologies and gaming changes with the times.

Put aside the fact that I have been waiting for a serious (and good) military-themed sandbox games since Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction came out for the PS2 back in 2005 (the sequel was horrible). Fundamentally, The Phantom Pain – already a solid third-person shooter with good game mechanics – understands what makes a sandbox game tick and why it’s fun. It’s about tactical freedom, giving meaning to your direction and method of approach, understanding the dynamics of three-dimensional space, granting importance to things like concealment and cover. It’s something that a lot of sandbox games have failed to do, such as Dragon Age: Inquisition, a game which looks like a sandbox, but is in reality mostly a series of scripted battles engaged from one direction in a large map that serves mostly as a pretty setting, to pad space, and to put time and distance between one event and battle from another. The Phantom Pain, on the other hand, intimately understands why three-dimensional space is important, and how to combat linearity from a design perspective.

And while this is arguably applicable in how people approach many sandbox games such as Grand Theft Auto V or even Far Cry 4, this is only really apparent in free roam; rare is the game that actually applies this method of thinking to the story missions themselves. The common complaint about sandbox games is that although the world is open in theory, when a mission actually begins, you are actually forced to follow a very narrow path from point A to point B. Don’t go beyond this mission area. Don’t stray too far from your escort target. Do this with that exact tool. Yet The Phantom Pain commits none of these sins. It’s true that The Phantom Pain also has its invisible boundaries when you go on a mission, the point where the game assumes you’re aborting your operation, but these boundaries are almost invariably so large and so wide, it really doesn’t matter.

Most importantly, I have never played a sandbox game that respected your initiative and intelligence the way The Phantom Pain does. From a fundamental design perspective, it is impossible to grant players complete freedom in a game, but it is important to conceal this behind the illusion of freedom, and The Phantom Pain does it splendidly. About a third of the way through the game, you’re tasked with infiltrating a camp where your enemies are holding multiple hostages in different holding areas, all to rescue a very specific hostage. As the captives and captors speak different languages, you are advised by your mission support to quietly follow the interpreter who is on-site to help facilitate the interrogations until he leads you to the hostage you need to rescue, at which point you should extract both the hostage for information and the interpreter for his abilities. You can do as your mission support tells you, of course…but I had just watched the enemy officers interrogate their first hostage when, just by chance, far in the distance, I saw movement. I pulled out a pair of binoculars, zoomed in, and as the interpreter rode off in a jeep with his commanding officer in the opposite direction to put the screws to another set of hostages, I realized that I was looking at the man I was supposed to rescue, being escorted at gunpoint by a guard from halfway across the map. Once I realized this, I ignored the interpreter, ran over to the hostage, knocked out the guard, and saved my target. Yes, my mission support initially asked me why I was abandoning the interpreter, but I did not fail my mission by deviating from the script, and I was then free to go back and kidnap the interpreter without him ever having had a chance to interrogate the man I just saved.

There are a few significant things to understand here. First, in the sandbox genre where most similar games would fail you for having strayed too far from the interpreter, I was allowed to go off-script so long as I got the job done. Second, this is made possible by the fact that the prisoner I was supposed to rescue isn’t someone who spontaneously shows up only when it’s his turn to be interrogated; he exists from the moment the mission starts, and how I want to rescue him and when is entirely up to me. In fact, despite the initial objections of your mission support, the game tacitly encourages this; when I replayed that mission, I realized that there’s an intel file hidden away on a desk that I can scan, revealing where they were holding all the hostages and the route my target was being escorted through. The game understands that once I acquired a different lead, a different advantage, I was under no obligation to follow my previous lead to the end. It gave me a huge playground and it allowed me to complete story missions exactly the way I wanted to. The game also ensured that the enemy responded intelligently to my actions. Early on in that same mission, my mission support told me not to delay or capture the interpreter, because if I did, then the enemy will have no means with which to interrogate their captives, and they won’t hesitate to dispose of hostages they no longer have any use for. Just for fun, I did it anyways, and was delighted that my adventure didn’t end with a “mission failed” screen; after all, it wasn’t as if I still can’t rescue the hostages. And, sure enough, minutes later, with the absence of their interpreter, the guards were radioing their headquarters to ask for permission to execute their hostages. And that was utterly delightful.

The game also catered to my sniper biases. The game not only features two sniper duels, it also features a repeat of those two mission with greatly upped difficulty. One of these duels pits you against a total of four enemy miniboss snipers in a foggy jungle, and I spent twelve in-game hours taking them down with a sniper rifle that fires tranquilizer darts. I spent at least ninety percent of that duel crawling across the ground, hiding behind rocks, scanning the landscape for the enemy, patiently waiting for any sign of their positions in the fog, moving with painstaking slowness to ensure I wouldn’t be seen. And it was glorious. But it also responded well to my sniper tactics as well: While wandering around the map, I was discovered while launching a long-range assault on an enemy outpost. The enemy did not have sniper rifles and thus could not reliably engage me with their small arms unless they closed the distance, but they laid down effective suppressing fire with their machine guns, someone got on a mortar and began bracketing my position, and the remaining guards made a flanking maneuver while I was pinned down. With most enemies in shooter games generally reacting very poorly to sniper fire, The Phantom Pain does a very good job at responding to my usually foolproof tactics.

The development team also clearly designed their system meticulously on a massive whiteboard to sure they got it all right, because a very important aspect of The Phantom Pain – at least by the standards of an open-world game – is that everything is interconnected, and nothing ever feels gimmicky. There are virtually no sequences in the game where you perform quick-time events or one-off actions that are denied to you in later missions. You deploy by helicopter with your weapons and gear into a combat zone, which costs money and resources that increase in amount as you sport more advanced gear. You sneak around, either permanently wounding your enemies with lethal weaponry or lining up more difficult shots with tranquilizer darts. For disabled enemies, you use the Fulton surface-to-air recovery device, a small hot air balloons you attach onto humans and animals – and, later on, even armored vehicles and tanks – to send them flying into the sky to be picked up by your support helicopter. People you kidnap via Fulton balloons are then brainwashed into joining your private military force, named Diamond Dogs, where they perform a massive amount of functions. Combat teams help you earn side income, collect extra resources, and sabotage warehouses where your enemies receive gear such as gas masks, shields, body armor, helmets, nightvision goggles, and machine guns. Security teams defend your forward operating bases from rival players in the game’s multiplayer mode. Your research and development team help you create better weapons and more gear. Your base development tea, processes raw resources you pick up in the field and transforms them into refined materials you can use to build new gear and expand your base to do everything better. Your support team provides real-time interpretation of the non-English languages spoken in the field, picks up the people you attack Fulton balloons to, drops in new weapons and extra ammo when you are running low, and drops air strikes on your enemies on request. Your intelligence team tells you the rough locations of enemies and warns you of changes in the weather in advance. And your medical team patches up people wounded in the middle of their duties. The enemy weapon emplacements you extract is used by your security teams against rival players infiltrating your FOBs, and the enemy vehicles you pick up can be deployed onto the map for extra firepower. In an age in gaming where open-world games are often criticized for feature bloat, The Phantom Pain features a system where everything has meaning and folds right back into what the game is trying to do and how you play it.

The system also encourages that you vary the way you play. Going lethal as easy and satisfying, compared to the meticulous care that you’d need to knock an enemy unconscious instead, but every man you kill is wasted potential manpower for your own army. You need to consider your lethal and non-lethal options. And then eventually, the enemy will come up with ways to counter those. Their machine guns and mortars will suppress you if you’re discovered. Their gas mask will make them impervious to your sleeping gas and smoke. Their helmets make headshots all the more difficult, especially if you’re trying to knock them out instantly with a tranquilizer dart. Riot suits and shield up their defensive capabilities. Nightvision goggles eliminate the advantage you’d have sneaking around at night. Taking all of this into account forces you to adjust your tactics, use different equipment, take on new experiences. It helps that you are given a very wide assortment of gadgets to aid in your infiltrations, including landmines, sleeping gas, balloon decoys of yourself, nightvision goggles, rocket-powered flying prosthetic arms, and – of course – the traditional cardboard box. Virtually none of the equipment that you develop and field feels like it swiftly becomes obsolete once you develop something else.

And I’m not kidding when I say that the gameplay is non-gimmicky, that in the vast majority of the game, you can do anything that the game allows you to do at any given time. There is a mini-boss squad that result in traditional HP sink battles; in a game that offers you a great deal of tactical freedom, in the freedom of choice to approach your problems, the mini-boss squad devolves gameplay into a shooting match for which stealth no longer plays a critical role. For many other players, it’s a massive weak link in the gameplay. Then I discovered that you can fight those same mini-boss battles using your very own mini-mecha – the same mini-mecha that you can summon almost anywhere once you develop it – and suddenly a battle of attrition turned into a high-speed fast-maneuvering supernatural mecha chain gun zombie ninja dogfight straight out of Code Geass, and one of the best gameplay moments in the game that I had. The Phantom Pain allows you to change the way you play parts of the game that you don’t like, and that’s absolutely great.

The story, as per the best traditions of Metal Gear Solid, is something of a love-it-or-hate-it affair. It carries the hallmarks of Kojima’s writing: Supernatural elements and incredible – and often incredulous – plot twists set against the backdrop of real world scenarios. Melodramatic dialogue accompanying a great deal of exposition about everything from biology to history to mechanical engineering. Emotive characters and over-the-top villains. Lady-boobs and man-butts. Compared to the massively long cutscenes of previous installments, however, The Phantom Pain is surprisingly sparse on those; most of the explanations and exposition on the game’s story are covered through a series of cassette tapes that can be played (and fast-forwarded) at will. Compared to other games in the franchise, I felt that The Phantom Pain respected my time, understood that I wanted to do things. But while opinion will likely remain divided as to whether or not Kojima’s writing is any good, one thing I can certainly grant Kojima is that he’s a great director when it comes to building atmosphere in his cutscenes. The game includes two very dramatic missions that are incredibly suspenseful, captivating, and terrifying in the sort of way that makes it some of gaming’s most memorable sequences. And while Kojima has incurred the ire of the social justice community through the treatment of women in his games, it is interesting to see how he treats issues of culture with a surprisingly delicate touch. People who remember Kojima writing about the Inuit back in the nineties at a time when Native American/First Nations issues – about how they were constantly screwed over by white governments – were not part of the public awareness even in North America may not be as surprised. Still, it is intriguing to listen to a Japanese game director – an outsider looking in, an Asian looking at North American issues – write about, of all things, the injustices committed by the United States government against Native Americans, from issues ranging from “Indian boarding schools” (where children from Native American and First Nations tribes were torn from their parents by American and Canadian governments, forced to speak only English and abused in a horrible, misguided attempt to “civilize” entire ethnic groups) to uranium mining (Native Americans were made to mine uranium at meager pay without being warned of the dangers of handling radioactive materials).

Still, The Phantom Pain is not without its faults. From a gameplay perspective, I could not help but feel that the game was incredibly easy. The second half of the game includes rehashes of earlier missions in three increased difficulty modes – Full Stealth (being discovered by the enemy is an instant mission failed), Extreme (greatly increased enemy stats and lethality), and Subsistence (you start the mission with zero gear, and must procure everything by stealing them from the enemy) – but they number only twelve missions out of fifty. Having a buddy in the field, especially all but the first one, can make the game a major cakewalk. Being able to select a difficulty level, a tradition of the Metal Gear Solid franchise, would’ve been very useful here, but it is tragically absent here. Part of my dissatisfaction in this department perhaps has to do with the fact that I take a very efficient methodology at warfare, choosing maximum effect at minimum risk, a healthy combination of shadows, range, and sniper rifles. Still, the game sometimes feels a little too forgiving. The HUD is quick to alert you whenever the suspicions of guards are being aroused. You’ll usually get ample warning when snipers spot you at range. But rather importantly, you can very easily run away from most engagements. In previous Metal Gear Solid titles, being discovered was a serious consequence because the levels – while not entirely linear – were somewhat restricted in size, and so there was a limit to where you can hide in a single building. Selecting a good hiding spot and evading pursuers was important in part because the density of guards ensured a thorough search pattern that challenged your capacity to hide. In The Phantom Pain, however, guards generally don’t stray very far from their outposts, which are sometimes located as far apart as half a kilomter; once you manage to get far away enough, they don’t really chase you down or do so very well. It has gotten to the point where I made a rule where I am not allowed to run away from an outpost or base once the guards discover me, that I must choose to hide and evade detection, at least until the enemy calls off their search.

And that reflects what I think is the most significant problem of The Phantom Pain in terms of gameplay: The world feels a little empty and disconnected. While it is exceedingly good at avoiding the pitfalls of most sandbox games by giving its missions excellent framework as opposed to railroading it, it falls a little flat in free roam, which is ironically the exact opposite dilemma of most sandbox games. The maps, although huge, are functionally self-contained outposts (ranging from three to a maximum of seven guards) to bases (which are manned by roughly a dozen guards). Bases call for reinforcements when they find you and you’re beating them back, but given that they don’t actually do so until you’ve clearly gained the upper hand, the small number of reinforcements they send are typically too little too late. Once you run away, there is a limit to their hunt-and-kill efforts, and this is where the open-world nature of the game works against it: The world is just so vast that their attempts to search for you are short in duration and small in range, especially when you take into account the fact that the space around bases is huge. The typical search party that comes after you when you run from a base consists of four guards, and they can really only cover a small fraction of the perimeter surrounding the base. This is alleviated when there are enemy tanks or gunships around that can outrun and outgun the unprepared, but their presence is very limited, appearing in a designated area during a side op. As I sneak into bases and outposts, I hear guards talk about how relieved they are that each outpost will eventually get tanks, that they will have the ability to call in gunship support, but I just haven’t seen that even after beating all the missions. Given that the game constantly reminds me that the equipment that the enemy uses is dependent on the tactics I use, maybe what I really need to do is drive around in a tank for a while and kill everything in a hail of fire, although outposts are often so sparsely manned that I can wipe out the opposition with one shot from a tank’s main gun.

All of this factors back into the fact that during free roam, maps are incredibly empty. They are ironically more populated during story missions, where the game is reasonably generous about putting armored vehicles that patrol the roads and gunships that reconnoiter from the sky. But once you complete a mission, enemy activity beyond outposts and bases don’t really go beyond a few unarmed trucks being driven around by two solders each. There are side ops – mini-missions that appear on the map – that feature armored vehicles, snipers, and gunships, but those are clearly marked as blue circles on the map, and they make no effort to leave those designated blue circles. Thus, I never have to worry about being ambushed on the road, nor do I ever need to worry about the enemy calling in armored or helicopter support to look for me as I disappear into the shadows. I think the game’s forgiving nature is very much an explicit design goal, and I understand why the developers may have wanted it to be so, but I really wanted more of a challenge. The open world map is great in facilitating strategies and tactics against individual outposts, but I just wish they put more in between them. Something to surprise me, soldiers to ambush me, a tank hidden around the corner or a sniper waiting for me to come by, an enemy that constantly keeps me on my toes and stops me from being complacent as I move from point-to-point. Enemy troops stationed at outposts still ultimately come with a fairly healthy variety of equipment, with assault rifles, shotguns, submachine guns, shields, riot suits, machine gun emplacements, and mortars. But The Phantom Pain clearly has the potential to do more with it, and it doesn’t.

On the narrative side of the equation, the plot feels jumbled, confusing, and incomplete. Part of this has to do with last minute changes to the game’s structure; Kojima meant for the game to be at least twice as long, but executive meddling prevented that. While the franchise’s massively long cutscenes have been replaced by cassette tapes, this has in turn caused some of the cutscenes to lose a lot of the drama and tension that the previous games were known for, although I concede that I may have been colored by my own experiences with Kojima games. Part of this also feels like the game is a mission simulator, and many of the story missions thrown at you – while exciting – have little to do with the game’s metaplot at all; for a franchise known for dumping massive amounts of metaplot exposition at you, ten out of the first chapter’s thirty-one missions – very nearly an entire third of the chapter – has little to nothing to do with the metaplot. A third of the game’s metaplot thus functionally tells you that you’re a private military company (or private force, in this game’s terminology) and that you need to earn money from various random clients.

But what I think is more important, however, is that the game is weighed down by twenty-eight years of baggage. It is the final chapter that ties the Big Boss era games (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and Metal Gear Solid V: The Ground Zeroes) to the Solid Snake era games (Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots). The Phantom Pain has to explain everything, and while it does a reasonably good job at it with these restrictions, it is very restrictive to newcomers to the franchise. In the manner of all Metal Gear Solid games, The Phantom Pain indulges in a great deal of “as you know” exposition (although thankfully restricted to optional cassette recordings that can be fast-forwarded if you read faster than you listen), but so much of the game’s emotional impact is dependent on existing attachment and experiences with the characters. Newcomers will undoubtedly feel that in spite of the game’s attempts to explain everything, they have walked into a story just as it is coming to an end.

In spite of the relative incompleteness of the plot, however, I was reasonably appreciative of how the story resonated with its theme, summed up by the Mark Twain quote prominently used in the promotional materials: “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Without going into spoilers, a lot of the story is watching the characters we knew and loved becoming increasingly self-destructive, on-screen and off-screen, understanding that the characters are growing further and further away from each other, marching inexorably towards foregone conclusions as they take up their roles and fates in games set further down the chronology. The message of the game, I felt, is found not in the main narrative, but in the game’s subtext, and as a longtime Metal Gear Solid fan (although, to be fair, I have not played Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, or Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker), watching these characters develop while knowing their future fates was a depressing experience. But that, again, requires the understanding of the franchise’s pentalogy (although technically an octalogy, ennealogy, or even a decalogy depending on how you count it), and by itself, the game’s narrative has the potential of falling flat.

There are a few more minor shortcomings, small points of irritation in the game, things that I felt didn’t strongly detract from my experience, but are still worth pointing out. I personally felt the sound quality in the game was a little lackluster, using some of the same sound effects that the franchise has been using for years. This was particularly evident with the sound of footsteps, which felt almost cartoonish to me at times. Being forced into building a FOB and then having to defend it forces players into an online realm they might not want to have to deal with, and circumventing it limits research and development progress. Although the game is more forgiving of run-and-gun approaches, it is clearly still optimized for stealth playthroughs as per its roots, and trying to move out of that can sometimes be a somewhat underwhelming experience. Vehicles can be somewhat unwieldy to control, and Kojima’s first attempt at introducing armored vehicles into a Metal Gear Solid game gives the impression of a competent game designer tinkering with a concept with which he has little experience. And I am not wading into the debate about Quiet and her outfit beyond stating that I didn’t mind. But while Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is not a perfect game, its weaknesses are particularly glaring only because of how great it is. I have spent two weeks doing nothing with my free time except playing it, and I regret very little of it.

There is a timed story mission in the first act of the game where two factions are implied to be fighting in another part of the country beyond the scope of the game, and you are hired by one faction to intercept the armored vehicles of the other faction as they are sent towards the off-screen battlefield along a series of roads spanning three kilometers. In the subsequent fifteen minutes, I began dismantling the guard detail of the base that all enemy vehicles must eventually pass through to make my job easier, rescuing prisoners and stealing weapons that are being transported through the area, ambushing tanks that come down the roads and stealing them for my own private army, basically multitasking like mad. The enemy soldiers hear the explosions of the C4 packs I use to distract enemy vehicles just long enough for me to steal them, they radio their headquarters, they send search parties after me, but I disappear into the shadows, riding off on my horse to the next tank. Cutting loose a prisoner being escorted by guards, I extract him just in time to steal the next tank. In the lulls in between, I make enemy search parties sent after me disappear one-by-one. I listen to increasingly frantic enemy radio traffic, listening to soldiers cry out about gunfire and explosions they can hear but can’t locate, listening to enemy headquarters unable to contact search parties that I have just made disappear, listening to reports of enemy tanks disappearing from the face of the planet. I felt like a real war hero, a true freedom fighter, reveling in the escalating panic of my enemies. And as I do so, Miller radios me, summing up the massive appeal of the game as he declares, “Keep going, Boss! This is the stuff legends are made of!”

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