Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a video game that has been mired in controversy, gossip spoken both in hushed whispers and loud speculation across the internet. With Kojima and slave camp Konami looking to part ways and the latter buckling down to deliver beloved Pachinko slot machines. Konami promises this won’t be the last Metal Gear, though it probably should be, in fact that probably should have happened 8 games ago with Kojima instead focusing his energy on new IPs or a few of his other half finished ones (Zone of Enders anyone?).
For better or for worse this very well may be Kojima’s last Metal Gear, a forced end for a series he refused to end naturally. This is a true ‘for better or for worse’ at that, as the Metal Gear series has been a bit inconsistent in quality. I was once a hardcore dedicated fan, with the Metal Gear Solid series easily in my top five of game franchises, along with Silent Hill and Final Fantasy. Yes. This was all a long time ago. In fact I stood in line for an entire day just to get Kojima’s autograph, the same day as my sister’s graduation, I’m not making this up as my fellow editor Michael can confirm. I do feel as though the Big Boss saga has been marginally better than the Solid Snake entries. If you disagree you can feel free to call me slurs in the comments or on Facebook, send me hatemail and speculate as to how much of an asshole I am on N4G and NeoGAF, but for now, my article, my opinion. Does Phantom Pain give Big Boss one more leg up on Solid Snake? Or does it go the way of Portable Ops and Guns of the Patriots?
We in collective society have already had a preview of this game’s mechanics in the form of Ground Zeroes. Essentially nothing has changed, save you now start with a horse where in Ground Zeroes you had no such beast of burden. Big Boss, “Venom Punished Snake Esquire” controls well and his interaction with cover is still contextual. The gunplay still reminds of Far Cry and Call of Duty. In fact I’d say of all the open world titles in existence, Far Cry is where Phantom pain takes most its cues, although, thankfully there is very little in the way of climbing towers. You’ll collect fuel, wild grown herbs, animals and blood diamonds as you explore the open world we’ve all been expecting in video games since the Bush Jr administration: Afghanistan. In contrast to Afghanistan’s single palette mountains and deserts you get to explore Angola’s… dual palette grasslands.
I seriously applaud Phantom Pain’s gameplay. Japanese titles tend to stick to well outdated mechanics because they feel “comfortable” to their audience and sell well. However Phantom Pain is not only untouchable by many Japanese titles, it exceeds where even western developers have failed. Where games like Assassin’s Creed use stealth and AI that’s a decade old, Phantom Pain reinvents the wheel with mechanics that should have been obvious to everyone from the get go. Having no ‘forced’ stealth objectives and being free to engage combat in the ways I want also gives a great amount of player agency. Fair enough the game bribed me a bit with ‘Heroism’ points for sticking to stealth and punished my wallet for being loud, but it’s still a better system than Creed’s “you have to stealth because we said so” and even Metal Gear’s prior “we know this is gunporn but we really don’t want you using guns.” The ease in which Snake could move, fire weapons, blend into stealth and take down enemies all felt great. Even horse riding feels even better than in the Witcher 3 or Skyrim with its ‘clipptiy clops’ and breakneck tireless speed.
Kojima seems pretty attached to a lot of those “build a treefort/develop cool items” systems he introduced in Portable Ops and Peace Walker. They return yet again in Phantom Pain where you must capture soldiers, assign them duties and research the weapons and equipment you might otherwise ‘procure on site.” This is the first time however that you could visit each shell of your oil rig for shenanigans. For each mission you get a loadout screen where you get to select not only your weapons, but your buddy and your gear. Load times could be a huge problem, mostly due to faulty server issues. Sometimes opening up your Mother Base menu screen where you perform your iOS app micro-management could cause the game to hang on loading screens so long they’ll trick you into thinking your game has crashed.
I want to touch on the Buddy System, which for me personally was one of the game’s saving graces. As you progress through the game you acquire partners that can join you on the field, starting with a horse, later getting a dog and a certain sniper. Buddies make your life easier throughout the game as they can get you from point A to point B relatively quick on Phantom’s Pain barren landscapes, suss out targets and prisoners, and deal with certain enemies for you. As your affinity level rises with your buddy you can develop more gear for them and they’ll adapt different behaviors. As much as I felt like a badass playing the legendary soldier, teaming up with a buddy felt pretty God Mode and made the game that much more fun. There was no serious penalty for using a buddy and their skills either unlike a few of the game’s other “toys.”
The graphics also look fantastic and further prove you don’t have to lock your frames for a “cinematic” feel. Movies are a different medium from video games, and no matter how much you try and ape the style of other genres a video game will still be a video game. Phantom Pain feels cinematic and yet video game-y at the same time, its camera angles and action scenes are an awareness of the format it’s in. It’s not using extreme close ups because it saw Michael Bay do it or the wide shots of Martin Scorsese (okay so it does like that JJ Abrams lens flare), Phantom Pain instead smartly uses the camera to give us an overview of the action to set up a proper video game tension. It realizes this camera is capable of 360 degree movement and is allowed to go anywhere. I see that tank hurtling towards me and I know I gotta run, I don’t need a close up of Snake’s scared face to know that this is a scary moment.
While it promotes “open world” the mission structure isn’t much different from Peace Walker. The only thing that’s changed is instead of Peace Walker’s corridor levels, you have Afghanistan’s boxing you in or Angola’s long, empty grasslands to traverse. I will say I at least enjoyed Angola a smidgen more than Afghanistan but the entire game felt about as on-rails as the old PSP title. It doesn’t really matter that this game is open world because you’ll be proceeding to one small section and completing a few simple objectives.
You’ll also have to traverse the same areas repeatedly as you go back to clean up side ops and gather materials, so it all gets rather old quick. Additionally when I think “Open World” I think “Toys to play with in my sandbox”, and though Phantom Pain gave you plenty of toys it discourages their usage with high currency costs and score deterioration. It’s almost like a ruler bearing Catholic school teacher placing you in the middle of a sandbox only to have her slap you and take away a gold star each time you reach for a toy…before she shoves you to the ground and steals your lunch money. I did at least enjoy taking my reprieves to Mother Base to hang with da boyz, handful of ladies, and one dog. I can also say the missions were a bit more varied and fun than Ground Zeroes, with one of my favorites running around on horseback destroying vehicles as fast as possible, though repetition did set in for several “types” of quests.
Additionally for touting open world there sure is a lot of waiting and about one too many unnecessary steps in getting from one mission area to the next. You have to call your helicopter, wait on your helicopter, get in your helicopter and load its hub. Sometimes you might want to return to your Mother Base hub (and it’s suggested you go back to Mother Base for the sake of team ‘morale’ every so often), in which case it’s more helicopter calling and waiting. Then for each mission there’s a load out screen, or maybe I’ll have to wait on a supply drop to equip some new shiny items. Wait. Wait. Wait. I could purchase upgrades to reduce the wait time on my helicopter, but even then I was still waiting on the game’s load screens. I will state this was more of an annoyance than a major detriment, but an annoyance that likely could have been avoided.
Now I want to say the parts of the open world gameplay that worked for me really worked. Fultoning out animals and tanks was both worthwhile and hilarious. Calling in a sleeping gas strike and taking out an entire base camp between my custom tranq rifle and my sniper’s crack shot was a blast (and the source of many inappropriate war time photos). Thankfully many of Mother Base’s functions could be handled remotely. During one very James Bond inspired moment I had Snake running around shirtless with animal print pants, my sniper painted gold, a bunch of blue and purple vehicles raining down on the field and a ton of orange weaponry equipped. Diamond Dogs looked absolutely ridiculous and I loved it.
The online on the other hand was completely attrocious. As of this writing I can’t tell you what PvP looks like because I can never find a server that works. The game will also make sure the online component is always running in the background, even when you go it solo, and given Konami’s server load this would lag the hell out of the single player campaign. It was easier for me to just decline the ToS so I could get on with my gaming life. The only two things I got from the online were 1. Loading time hang and 2. The potential kidnappings of my Mother Base staff. No thanks Konami. You can keep that part.
What of the story? It’s everyone’s absolute favorite heartfelt premise, Revenge. If you haven’t been keeping track Big Boss felt betrayed by his mentor and his country for making him the pawn in a James Bondian type play to stop a spoiled Russian brat from unleashing his doomsday weapon on the world. Snake and his field commander, Zero, end up at odds due to something the franchise never quite defines, perhaps one cheated the other at a bridge match? Zero then goes off to form ‘Cipher.’ Portable Ops had some stuff to do with the CIA further betraying Snake but that game has appropriately been retconned to the abyss. Peace Walker was then about Zero dangling some Costa Rican Jailbait and a cool fort in front of Snake because Zero’s a practical joker, while Ground Zeroes was about blowing up said jailbait and the cool fort. Kaz and Snake have had enough of that cheeky cunt Zero and his constant japes, so now it’s time to build Snake’s second… third? Fourth army? And get revenge once and for all.
A lot of people show up in Phantom Pain to kill Snake. Then to join his team, as if war is simply an NBA draft. There’s a lot of double and triple and quadruple crossing and teaming up with Snake because, well, he just happens to be a pretty neat guy. Weird Shit ™ happens as well. I feel there was a time as weird as Metal Gear got, there was some kind of explanation semi-grounded in the real world. This plot is one of the silliest, if not the silliest, I’ve seen in the franchise.
As much as I’m able to say Kojima’s matured as a game designer, his writing on this series borders towards fanfiction.You just have to grip on to the story’s handlebars and go for the ride hoping the roller coaster cars don’t fully derail. While it still offers up “explanations” of the some of the Weird Shit ™ that happens, it feels more like a cop-out than an actual answer. I suspect some of this is the fault of Konami cutting content, but the story was kind of hopeless from the start. I can’t imagine anyone is still playing Metal Gear for its deep and complex narrative (read: bloated and convoluted). While my praise for the story is nonexistent, I can say I’m very thankful the needlessly textbook long codec conversations and pointless 40 minute cutscenes have been nixed.
The expectations set up by Konami and Kojima pre-release and the ultimate delivery of Phantom Pain remind me a bit of Tomb Raider. Before Tomb Raider was released, there was a ton of press that made folks worry their beloved Lara would be some meek Barbie doll play thing, and when the game was released we found out she was a character with some agency and a strong arc. Phantom Pain pitched itself as a dark game where all the shit in the Metal Gear universe has hit the fan, rife with torture and war crimes, offering grim reflections on ourselves and society.
It’s a violent game, but I’m not sure it can claim to take that dark, serious, so much-edge-it-slices-tomatoes tone Kojima and his press would have you believe. With Tarantino buckets of blood everywhere and deaths with complex Rube Goldberg setups that would make Final Destination blush, at times the violence was just enough visceral and raw enough I would grimace, then cross that threshold that made me laugh. There’s a flaming humpback whale at one point followed by a screaming Pegasus all for the sake of blowing up a chopper. Aggressively 80’s, yes. Violent, yes. Serious? Eeeeh. It ended up being pretty camp and over the top, with zombies, lost boys and cuddly animals. I’m actually fine with Phantom Pain’s final package, in fact I prefer camp to dark, more Snake Eater than Spec Ops the Line. I feel the more tongue in cheek this franchise is the better (Paz piloting a Metal Gear to pop music or EVA and Snake’s ‘wrestling’ match were highlights for me in prior games.) Though make no mistake; while at times the absurdity of the story was intentional there were other times it would present the unintentionally goofy in an incredibly sincere fashion, causing the narrative to face plant as a result.
Snake Eater, despite not having aged all that well, continues to carry a few charms I believe will keep that game firmly planted as my favorite Metal Gear of all time, similarly I enjoyed Peace Walker a great deal for its bite sized gameplay and reserved (by Metal Gear standards) story. Phantom Pain for lack of a more deft description is Peace Walker on weights and steroids. Metal Gear Solid’s story is loaded and Phantom Pain suffers from that a bit, carrying a story so heavy in magical realism it becomes whimsical and laughable. I wasn’t really a fan of the returning Mother Base menus, the mostly bland open world and the load times related to slow servers.
That being said gameplay-wise this could very well be the best Metal Gear of the franchise. The graphics and controls not only topping prior Metal Gear games, but beating out other heavy hitter franchise we’ve seen. Kojima has greatly matured as a game developer, no, I don’t necessarily refer to the torture and the violence, that’s not a sign of maturity, but in terms of being able to step back and hand over a greater deal of control and trust to the player displays a man who has really come along in his talent and ability as a developer. This may be the last we see of Kojima’s Metal Gear, but damn is it a high note to go out on.