Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the latest game in Hideo Kojima’s blockbuster Metal Gear franchise (which in the interest of transparency I must admit I’ve watched but never actually played) and may be the final chapter of the series. You play as Punished “Venom” Naked “Big Boss” Snake, protagonist of a number of previous entries in the series and later antagonist. After his offshore oilrig home was destroyed in the previous game, killing many of his comrades and putting Snake in a coma for nine years, he awakens in hospital in 1984 understandably a little annoyed. After a daring escape he starts to put the band back together on his quest for revenge. His journey takes him to Afghanistan and later the Angola-Zaire border region in pursuit of valuable contracts and intel on his enemies.
The change in subtitle reflects what the game is trying to achieve, “Tactical Espionage Operations” in which the player is involved in as much of the process as possible, as opposed to “Tactical Espionage Action” and linear set-pieces. Ludicrous production values and technical expertise are used to create an open world third person action game full of interesting features. It’s a shame then that a series of strange decisions and compromises reign in the freedoms the game tries to offer, often playing different parts of the game against themselves and hampering the overall experience.
And yet, when it works, what an experience it is. A well-executed stealth operation, the result of real planning and reconnaissance by the player, is both satisfying and extremely tense. The enemy A.I. and patrol routes offer a reasonable challenge and the enemy forces frequently receive new equipment to keep you on your toes. The tools and abilities at your disposal favour a patient mind-set, yet for those more eager to get stuck in the addition of a slow motion “reflex mode” makes a slightly more headstrong approach to infiltration viable. Which is not to say that abandoning the plan is without its appeal. Discovery does not necessarily equal failure. In fact, some of the most exciting moments in the game are the acts of desperation such as heading for the hills with a prisoner over your shoulder or attempting to improvise a way out of a tricky situation armed with the least appropriate equipment possible.
The tools, interface and mechanics make a good effort to put you in Snake’s boots. Your smartphone-esque iDroid device is used to manage Snake’s private army (Diamond Dogs) remotely and to deploy ordnance in the field. Using it’s initially slightly daunting but well organised interface Snake can call in ammo or weapon drops or request fire support or an extraction chopper at locations of your choosing. The iDroid also provides intel, the quality of which depends on the technical proficiencies of the relevant units back at base.
Those wishing to get a more direct idea of the scale of their operations can fly by helicopter to Mother Base, Snake and company’s new base which is once again an off shore oil-rig. You can fill up the ranks of your base by attaching stunned or sleeping soldiers in the areas of operation to balloons and firing them into the sky to join your team like a highly unorthodox hiring manager. Admittedly there is little of consequence to do at the base but it does provide a visual impression of the scale of your operations within the story.
Snake’s not alone in the field as there are four buddies that can be brought with you, each opening up new avenues and tactics. D-Horse is a horse that’s well suited to manoeuvring uneven terrain at speed. D-Dog (a dog, woulda thunk?) can sniff out things of interest and distract guards, favouring those who prefer not to spend too much time on recon. D-Walker is a bipedal mech that provides additional fire support but has the downside of being kind of useless. Finally, there’s an underdressed sniper called Quiet (not, surprisingly, D-Sniper). Quiet can watch your back, mark enemies for you or take out specific targets.
Clearly it’s an enormous and ambitious game. But arguably, a lot of its size is bloat or else window dressing: content that props up an illusion but is only for show.
While organically figuring out how to get to high ground to survey a base is rewarding, navigating Afghanistan between missions is often a map-driven and frustrating affair. In practice, I called in my helicopter between missions to get around. Both environments are largely devoid of things to do outside of enemy outposts. At times, you have to wonder what was the point of this open-world design when you’re effectively fast travelling over barren valleys and fields.
The weapon development options are similarly compromised. Opening the R&D menu brings up a wall of possible development options, like looking at a doomsday preppers wishlist. As well as the usual array of lethal and non-lethal weaponry there are a wide variety of other items (such as the series’ classic cardboard box) you can bring with you into field. But a number of factors make many of these projects kind of pointless.
For all the talk about freedom and different play styles my attempts at a more gung-ho style were mostly short lived. While it’s possible to shoot your way out if you’re discovered late on in a mission, a base with a full complement of troops, several of whom are wearing body armour will make short work of you. In this way you’re steered to an infiltration and stealth strategy, making the dozens of guns which don’t immediately offer a suppressor and arguably the explosives of little use. In a change to previous games, Snake can only carry a semi-realistic arsenal of weapons with him: a pistol or small gun, one larger weapon at his hip, another on his back and an admittedly generous number of other items like mines and grenades. Only having a single slot for handguns is especially constraining, while there’s an array of different ammo types for pistols the silenced tranquiliser pistols were, for me at least, indispensable and too adaptable to let me consider bringing anything else with me. The bizzare balloon based take on procurement further incentivises you to leave enemies alive (gosh, imagine that in a videogame!), further nudging you toward the limited number of non-lethal weapons. All of these factors steer you away from deviating much from the basic load-out you start with of a silenced tranq gun and a silenced assault rifle for emergencies. Boss battles, typically standout moments in the series, require explosive weapons as well, further going against the play it your way ethos.
The story missions, without strictly meaning to, also encourage you to stick to a plain yet reliable arsenal. You are aware that somewhere in the mission area there are people with valuable skills and blue-prints that you can’t find elsewhere. Securing these assets is key to opening up new development avenues at the base. With so many objectives the task can be a little overwhelming: Kaz (your best pal) is blabbering in your ear about the mission, you’re trying to spot side objectives and valuable recruits while also trying to figure out what you’re supposed to be doing or what you’ll be asked to do next, the iDroid is informing you that a prisoner you haven’t even seen yet has died and Ocelot (your other pal and maybe love interest) is once again explaining what a gunship’s round can do to the human body. In all this noise it’s hard to plan out strange new ways to utilise your equipment and you slide into default stealth mode. Replaying missions alleviates this somewhat as you’ll generally have a better idea of what your goals are and the rules of the mission but there’s so many of them and they’re so long that completing the story while actually seeing all the game has to offer in terms of development is a mammoth task.
Side ops are a different story altogether. While some have, quite rightly, described them as being repetitive in my opinion this actually worked in their favour. The numerous variations of the same basic ideas, in familiar surroundings provide the sort of clarity that the at times disorientating story missions do not. Side ops are much shorter than the long haul story missions, unless of course you choose to take your time with them. That’s the appeal of these straightforward tasks, without the pressure to complete a number of other side objectives in a limited time frame you’re free to approach them how you like, from any angle with whatever weird equipment combination that you see fit.
Many have described this as the game in which Kojima takes a step back and stops shepherding the player from point to point and I think this is most apparent in these relaxed side ops. Elsewhere, cut-scenes are kept to a minimum and Snake’s trademark confusion (confusion huh?) is generally reigned in — possibly because in this game he’s generally in an instigating role rather than a reactionary one (as discussed on the VideoGamer podcast number 128). Most of the story is now delivered either over the radio during missions or on cassette tapes that you’re free to play at any time from your iDroid. These tapes are lavishly produced and there’s some quality voice acting throughout. The team do insist on showing their work with regards the research they’ve done, one of the classic Kojima-isms. The “I’m no snail,” moment in particular jumps out as a line included just so the writers can explain it to you. That being said, you can simply skip those particular tapes if you choose. There are problems with how the tapes are implemented too: if you start one in the chopper or in the field on the way to the extraction point you have to finish it otherwise you’ll lose your place when you change environments. Radio conversations will play over the cassettes and the tape controls are one menu too deep to be convenient if you’re discovered by the enemy halfway through a lecture on nuclear proliferation, Maneater by Hall and Oates or one of the other pieces of eighties music you can unlock.
A lot has been made of the story’s conclusion, or the lack thereof. The game is divided into two chapters. Chapter One takes up the majority of the game and covers Snake’s quest for revenge whereas Chapter Two resembles an epilogue. Two has only a handful of fresh missions, (the rest are old missions with a twist such as tougher enemies or no equipment) and most of the cut scenes are triggered at seemingly random intervals. The endings come out of nowhere and leave one very obvious thread hanging. It’s a shame too because, while the pacing was strange, I much preferred the story of Chapter Two. The greater focus on characters and the growing tensions on Mother Base were much more engaging than Chapter One, much of which consists of Miller barking acronyms at you and talking about shell companies while the villain makes grand speeches.
Much of the above is nit-picking but there are other problems that aren’t so easily dismissed.
What Snake can and can’t climb over is anyone’s guess and tough as nails military legend Snake stubbornly refuses to crawl over small rocks, thus having to stand up (and risk detection) to navigate them is a constant annoyance. Towards the middle of the game there’s a moment where you’ll have to manually go through the staff list of your base which comes dangerously close to doing real life admin. One of the last missions can’t be quit out of once it’s started and requires well developed explosive weaponry. I had the funds available, purely by chance, but other players could potentially be stuck for a long time without the means to develop this equipment.
The moments where it falters or fails to be the experience you once thought it could be sting sharply because it raised the bar so very high. At times Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain appears to be The Stealth Game, the one that we imagine every time we hear of a new entry in the genre, the one that accommodates any desires of the player and then realistically plays out these decisions. What a shame then that oversights, occasional balancing issues and rare terrible decisions stop it from achieving that goal. But when it comes this close, isn’t that enough?
Bonus Round: Let’s have a moment of Quiet
The way the character of Quiet is handled has also been widely criticised. For those that don’t know Quiet is the only significant female character in the game, doesn’t speak and spends most of the game in her underpants because no one in the development team said that sentence aloud. Or maybe they did and… The reason she wears next to nothing comes off like the team had the concept art made and then had to jump through hoops to rationalise it, Kojima’s memorable omen that we would be “ashamed of [our] words and deeds” having failed to come to pass. At some point, Ocelot just calls you back to base and explains it to you. There’s no special cutscene, no production values, no real significance to the story, just his character model rooted in one spot delivering the exposition to get it out of the way.