18 September, 2015

Review - Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

The Phantom Pain is the kind of game that I just can’t help but talk about, there’s so much going on here; core gameplay, mechanics, narrative, it’s all so different from the industry norm. It’s because of that, the time needed to properly digest the story, and my own reluctance to proofread this volume of text, that this review is so tardy. While I’ve endeavoured to not spoil anything related to the plot or characters, I do discuss the quality of the game’s later hours in some detail, and spoil parts of Ground Zeroes, the game that sets up The Phantom Pain. 

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain review

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

The Phantom Pain is a Peace Walker game, with a budget - though not all the budget. It’s an open world role-playing game; you don’t level your character, nor make dialogue choices, but make no mistake it is exactly that. As a sequel to Peace Walker the menus are heavy, the cutscenes are few, and you’ll revisit areas several times over completing objectives of varying length and complexity. There’s a sad scarcity of Vocaloid mechs I’m afraid, but plenty of ‘Idol Girl’ posters and 80s music tapes to make up for it!

Metal Gear Solid V (MGSV) offers a markedly different open world from the industry norm, it is a space where both stealth and action meet surprisingly harmoniously. Main missions adopt a smaller scale and are limited to only a proportion of the sizeable open world map, which could easily been seen as a negative, but it’s a nonissue; you really don’t need more space than they give you. You can jump into the full map any time to complete Side Ops; generally smaller objectives achievable in the open world, though there are exceptions, including character interactions at Mother Base and full-blown missions in disguise. There are two – three if you include Mother Base – large areas; Afghanistan and Angola. As you would expect they are both quite distinct; Afghanistan is very rocky, in places a maze of valleys, whereas Angola is far flatter, with swamps and some denser areas of trees.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain angola

MGSV is in some regards similar in structure to Dragon Age: Inquisition, in that you jump into the different areas from a personalized hub; Mother Base, however, Dragon Age has far more, very different and more interesting open world areas. I never explored MGSV’s open world, and usually didn’t travel far, not even between Side Ops locations. You could if you had the time; land somewhere, then systematically secure every outpost and snatch every resource on one of the maps, but why would you? The next time you jumped into the open world the enemies and their resources will be back, only with better equipment; helmets with facemasks, gas masks, riot shields, equipment suited to counter whichever strategy favoured. Because of this, the game encourages experimentation, it nudges the player to different strategies and weapons in a very natural way; the silent tranquiliser pistol will only serve your every need so long. There are non-lethal versions of most types of weapon and equipment, but going loud and lethal is no less viable and equally enjoyable. There are only a handful of missions that demand any amount of stealth and these will frequently adjust if things do turn explosive. For example; tailing an interrogator to a prisoner, if you kill or capture the interrogator before discovering the prisoner’s location, you’ll just have to locate them another way, perhaps by finding Intel documents, interrogating guards, or simply searching every building in the area yourself.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain d walker night

While there’s no real reason I can find to spend time aimlessly in the open world, laying siege to enemy outposts with Kids In America or Gloria blasting out is more than a little awesome – but you can do exactly that in the main missions. I don’t view the lack of reasons to explore the open world as a weakness, a flaw, it is simply how this game chooses to operate. The open world is a vehicle for MGSV’s other systems and strengths, they are the reason you play and want to continue playing, unlike many modern games, where the open world itself is intended to provide that compulsion.

Fundamentally it plays like Ground Zeroes, the teaser game that released last year, and that’s excellent; the shooting, a mix of third and first-person, is tight and precise. The controls allow you carry and use a score of weapons and gadgets with ease, and you have good control over your characters body – key for a stealth game. Unlike Ground Zeroes you benefit from the full support of Mother Base and its staff; there was at least a gadget and a handful of weapons for every combat situation I encountered. Before dropping into a Mission or Side Op, you select who you will play as; Snake (the protagonist) or a member of the Diamond Dogs Combat Team (his private army), what clothes you’ll wear (yes ‘naked’ is still an option for Snake), which weapons and gear you’ll be carrying, a specific vehicle if you want one, and a buddy to accompany you. Any equipment; weapons, gear, clothing, and vehicles, can be air dropped into the open world, buddies can also be swapped out.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain afghanistan armored vehicle

There are four buddies you can acquire, outfit, and deploy; D Horse, D Dog, D Walker, and Quite. D Walker is surprisingly the odd one out, being a small bipedal mech. D Walker can be equipped with a host upgrades and armaments, such as; flamethrowers, Gatling guns, or rocket launchers. It also has a ‘stealth mode’, which makes its bounding legs retract in favour of quieter wheels, and naturally, hidden within its body for just such an occasion are two pistols, by default silent tranquilisers. D Horse is a horse; by hanging over the saddle you can ‘sneak’ while mounted, it also defecates on demand, because of course it does. D Dog, or just DD, is in fact not a dog, but rather some kind of wolf you rescue as a puppy. Aside from being face-melting cute, DD is a great tracker, able to spot enemies at great distances, as well as take them down. Quiet is the only human buddy, a sniper with supernatural abilities, but no voice and very little clothing. I’m not going to launch into a rant for or against Quiet’s scantily-clad body, nor the scenes that luxuriate in it; you spend the first hour of the game on your hands and knees staring intently at a dude’s bare-naked butt crack after all – that’s just Metal Gear as far as I’m concerned. What I will say is that Quiet is awesome in the field; she’s able to scout out enemy positions and provide extremely useful sniper fire. She has some of the most badass cutscenes in the game, and by the same token, she features in some of the most harrowing ones too. The resolution of Quiet’s story, while I can’t describe it has ‘pleasing’, was interesting – easily one of the best parts of MGSV’s narrative in my opinion.

Earlier I called The Phantom Pain a role-playing game, and went on to drop the name ‘Mother Base’ multiple times; Mother Base is a series of platforms in the Seychelles, home to the Diamond Dogs, built in the image of the Militaires Sans Frontiere’s Mother Base destroyed nine years before, in Ground Zeroes. Like in Peace Walker, you capture soldiers and equipment (vehicles, gun emplacements, materials) in the field, using the ridiculous Fulton Recovery System balloons to return them to Mother Base. Captured soldiers are then persuaded to join your cause, becoming staff, else they find themselves confined to the brig. This recruitment system encourages nonlethal play which can feel restricting over time, especially given how significantly the lethal weapons outnumber their nonlethal cousins. However, the game will gorge your Mother Base on volunteers, it’s easy to have more people than available posts – never fear, Mother Base has a waiting room so you won’t miss out on talent. As I progressed further into the game, the need to recruit every soldier I encountered dried up; their skills and stats matter far more than raw numbers, fortunately you can upgrade your scanner to reveal that information.

Staff are assigned to one of several teams depending upon their stats, each team requires their own platform to be built, as the platforms are expanded and the team grows, they become more proficient and unlock new abilities. For example, the Support Team receives the Fulton-ed materials and arranges supply drops when you’re in the field, however grow the team and their facilities and you’ll be able to call down artillery strikes, smoke cover, and far more. The teams also become more proficient at their passive roles, in the Support Team’s case; retrieving objects extracted via Fulton, which can prove tricky during poor weather, or if an extracted person is injured.

All of the teams are important, but the Research and Development Team is one of the more glamorous; R&D is effectively a crafting system, providing you with new weapons and equipment, including different coloured cardboard boxes – which are in my eyes, vital for getting around Mother Base.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain mother base night

Mother Base itself is huge and sadly, empty. You can move between platforms via helicopter, jeep, or by hiding in a cardbox box in a designated pickup area – this can also be done in the field, ironically it’s the fastest way to get around. There are few reasons to return to Mother Base; to see cutscenes, increase staff morale, and to relieve the strain of the battlefield (taking a shower and washing the gore from your clothing). Unfortunately, Mother Base cutscenes are few and far between, there are plenty of doors but almost all are sealed up tight. There is some customisation of Mother Base; changing its colour and emblem, but that’s it. Watching it grow and being able to visit any part of it is a powerful feeling, for a while; as a form of progression its far more inspiring than just a character level, but it seems so underutilised.

Combat Team staff can die when sent out on missions, but it never stings quite as much as losing them to another player; die as one of your soldiers in multiplayer and they’re gone forever, but that’s not the only way to lose your people. The Security Team is used to guard your FOBs (Forward Operating Bases, other Mother Bases around the world basically) and can be killed or captured while performing that duty. FOBs are created using Mother Base Coins, a currency you pay real-world money for, though the first is free, you expand your FOBs using resources and GMP (the in-game currency) in the same way as Mother Base. You do not appear to earn Mother Base Coins at any point, though they are sometimes granted as a daily reward (for logging into the game). These Coins also allow you to rush online Dispatch Missions (which you assign your Combat Team), these take much longer than offline Dispatch Missions, however the online ones play out regardless of whether you are playing the game, unlike their offline counterparts. The rewards seem the comparable, though the cost of rushing a day’s worth of waiting (a common amount of time) is astronomical, paying-to-win really isn’t all that feasible – I know myself well enough to be sure I would have engaged with it if it were.

Aside from expanding your organisation, FOBs provide access to the multiplayer; players can invade another’s FOB, stealing Security staff and resources. You can jump in and defend your FOBs if you’re online at the time of an attack, you can also support other players, and supporting players can defend each other’s platforms. The attacking player lands on a platform of their choice, at a time of their choice and has roughly half an hour to infiltrate the platform’s control room. The control room can only be accessed if the defenders are not actively pursuing the attacker, furthermore, when the alarms trip more defenders will flood the platform.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain fob alarm

FOBs with upgraded platforms have a distinct advantage; the attacker will have to cross the sub-platforms to reach the main platform with the control room. Each has its own defenders; Security Team members, you can set the gear they use (long, medium, or short range weapons), where they patrol and so forth. Or just tell the game how much you’re willing to pay for defences on each platform (or all) and it’ll sort the rest. Additional defences can be developed and deployed; laser grids, UAV drones, and nuclear weapons. I have no actual experience with nukes, while I have the resources to build a nuclear weapon, I’m standing strong to my morals. They are I believe, a deterrence; having one means only other players with nukes of their own (or a high enough heroism rating) can attack you. I’ve heard you can use nukes against other player’s FOBs – which seems super messed up – though I’m not entirely certain what effect that actually has. Nukes can be stolen like any other resource – also somewhat messed up, because they are pricey – and disposed of. Despite the game being out as long as it has been, information surrounding nuclear weapons is surprisingly vague and unreliable. However the fact that the game lets you choose, a pro or anti-nuclear stance, to build or dispose of nuclear weapons, is extremely interesting to me, especially in a multiplayer setting such as this.

While I have enjoyed interacting with the FOB multiplayer, it has issues; chiefly there is currently no way of contact your friends, to either invade or support one another. Furthermore, the servers remain flaky, they were completely inaccessible for me for the first four days after the game’s release. In addition to frequently being disconnected, even this far from launch, I can usually not find an FOB to attack; you can’t attack players already under attack or those who have just been attacked (for six to twenty-four hours depending upon the damage inflicted). The game surfacing players I can’t interact with is disappointing, but the cooldown period on being attacked again is a great thing, because having your resources and staff stolen is more than a little irritating; the cost of the theft isn’t paid by the game, it’s paid by you. This adds a coating of actual risk to engaging with the multiplayer at all and that’s really interesting, but it doesn’t make it fun. On balance I think I like the FOB multiplayer more than I dislike it, I think, but not facilitating friend interaction is hugely disappointing.

With the exception of the launch week server issues, my MGSV experience was a smooth one. It’s a good looking game for the most part, though there are some rough looking textures – no, I don’t mean in a texile sense –, characters and their clothing mostly. These are not complaints I had about Grounds Zeroes, but the version I spent most time with was the PlayStation 4, while I played The Phantom Pain on the Xbox One.  Grounds Zeroes on the PlayStation 4 runs at a higher resolution than the Xbox One version of The Phantom Pain, and Ground Zeroes is set almost entirely at night. So it’s hardly a fair comparison, but unlike Ground Zeroes I was not blown away by the graphical prowess of The Phantom Pain – but its liberal use of horizontal lens flare is still very much appreciated. The framerate is solid, which is arguably more important; I experienced only a couple noticeable dips, both while very close large explosions.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain xof lens flare

Thus far this review has done its best to avoid the story, which coincidentally, is the primary reason this review took me so long to write. So much of this game hangs on the narrative and this is only natural for a Metal Gear Solid title, but unlike the previous game in the series, Metal Gear Solid 4, there’s not a great deal of it, at least not in terms of traditional cutscenes. Instead the hours of exposition surrounding PMCs, I'm sorry ‘PF’s (Private Forces), takes the form of cassettes. In that sense the cassettes replace the Codec calls too, you can still call home for advice or ‘intel’, though its actual usefulness is questionable. It is the same system introduced in Ground Zeroes, which I recommend you play before picking up The Phantom Pain if you choose to do so, otherwise you risk missing a great deal of context. The cassettes will fill you in on the events of Ground Zeroes, but I would argue to truly understand why characters have become who they now are, the events have to be seen first-hand. Ground Zeroes foreshadows the tone of The Phantom Pain and introduces you to your quarry, Skull Face.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain skull face xof helicopter

Skull Face is pretty great, he serves as the face of the complex web of enemies and organisations who seek to profit/control/free the world – you know in typical Metal Gear fashion. Like every character arguably, he doesn’t get quite as much screen time as he deserves, though it is more the effect he has and what he embodies that matters more than the character himself. Furthermore, as was the case in Ground Zeroes, some of Skull Face’s best moments are found in the cassette tapes. But the same can’t be said for all the characters, Eli for example – fear not, his name spoils nothing – is interesting for all sorts of reasons, but is barely explored and his arc is left completely unresolved – it’s unfathomable.

In fact, it’s remarkable that in a game with as many endings as this, that so much is left unresolved. The first, unsatisfying ending at least feels like an ending, to a chapter if not the actual game. Sure enough, once the credits have rolled, a short teaser plays showing snapshots of upcoming scenes, many of which have already made their way into trailers, so it really isn’t a huge surprise to find out the game isn’t over. It’s the best feeling; to have the sour taste of that first ending washed away by a torrent of shots from scenes that sent my mind positively racing with questions. That excitement was dashed about half an hour later when the game asked me to replay an earlier mission with no equipment, then to do another without being detected, and another...

It is immediately apparent that chapter 2 is not the equal of chapter 1, in fact the majority of chapter 2 missions are these rehashed variants from earlier in the game. There is no context or justification for why you are playing the same missions again, and in most cases the restrictions that accompany them detract from the previously excellent gameplay. I love the stealth in MGSV, but that’s because I choose to engage with it; force me into it and strip me of the resources I’ve spent hours acquiring, and I’m no longer interested in playing at all. There are subtle differences in these missions, like a character wearing different clothing for example, no doubt there is some dumb – I don’t mean that as a negative – explanation of why you’re watching the same cutscenes again with the most minor changes, but it really doesn’t matter. The result is disappointment all around. Chapter 2 features some of the best events and cutscenes in the game; the plot really moves and darkens in the handful of new missions that are scattered amongst the old. So much of that plot though you have to intuit, because the narrative steps between the few new missions simply don’t exist. Chapter 2 feels like it should have introduced a new landmass, that it doesn’t is fine, but feeding you story missions you have already completed is deplorable.

The rest of The Phantom Pain’s endings arrive in the closing hours of chapter 2, while I enjoyed them for what they were, none of them are the single satisfying ending to the game. Unlike previous Metal Gear Solid titles, where the ending is a rush to tie up loose ends, MGSV lets it all hang, and not because it’s in the middle of the series’ timeline; it just abandons plot points minor and monstrously major, and that’s the saddest thing. I loved, feverishly so, so much of what was there, but the game hits a point where it becomes painfully apparent it is unfinished, for whatever reason. From that point on, steps are taken to deliver what little it can in as little time and effort as possible, and everything suffers as a result. It’s a goddamn tragedy.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain cyprus hospital

MGSV has some truly masterful moments, both agonising and awesome. There were times I wanted to stop playing, not out of boredom, but rather I was struggled with the weight of the reprehensible acts that were becoming commonplace, the depths to which those wrapped in vengeance would descend. There is one plot point that is uniquely tied to how you have played the game that blew me away, and small touches you may never encounter that can transform how you perceive your own acts. But chapter 2 really is husk of what it seems it should have been and there’s no avoiding or ignoring that.  

metal gear solid v the phantom pain reviewThe Phantom Pain is an amazing game in many respects. Its open world plays host to some of the best third-person shooting action and it’s easily my favourite incarnation of stealth mechanics in any game. The role-playing game systems are more fully realised than in Peace Walker and every bit as rewarding. While MGSV doesn’t revel in cinematic cutscenes, I did thoroughly enjoy the story – I was caught up in digesting it for several days after seeing it through – but it does degenerate, undermined by the deficient second chapter. There’s so much to love here, but The Phantom Pain isn’t finished, not even close, and that’s profoundly disappointing.

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