REVIEW / Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PS4)

 

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Paint feels palpably strained by corporate anxieties. You get the strong sense that higher-ups at Konami – maybe including Hideo Kojima himself – were worried about keeping the twenty-eight-year-old Metal Gear franchise “relevant and new.” That’s a shame, considering I’d wager most people would have been fine with a more traditional MGS game.

Instead, we get The Phantom Pain – a game that chases trends rather than creating them. “Oh, the kids want open world games? We’ll give em an open world game. They’ll pay for an edge against the competition in online multiplayer, according to this research? We’ll throw that option in too.” Those are the imagined Konami staff conversations that come to mind while playing this game.

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Metal Geezer Solid

What we’re left with, after all that tinkering and morphing, is a game that feels like an identity crisis in motion. A well designed and fun to play identity crisis…but an identity crisis all the same. Is MGS in 2015 a Saint’s Row meets Mercenaries open world sandbox game? A pseudo-online game, complete with micro-transactions and competitive multiplayer? A return-to-form “spies and conspiracies” MGS title? The big show to Peace Walker‘s dress rehearsal?

The answer is that MGSV attempts to be all of these at various points, pulling off none of them in the process. Each of these concepts clash with the others, yet they are all presented together within the same game as an amorphous blob of ideas and design choices. Though the gameplay itself is fun as hell, immaculately designed with an impressive attention to detail, and shockingly open ended; most of the detritus swirling around Phantom Pain‘s basic mechanics fail to connect. There were several key design choices and conceptual decisions apparent in MGSV that left me scratching my head. I’d say it feels unfinished, but in all honesty most of the problems with MGSV are pretty intrinsic. I’m not sure more time would have improved this concept, executed in this fashion.

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Identity Crisis

Nearly every key component of The Phantom Pain clashes against another in some way or another. MGSV is a zany, open world pseudo-TV series with customizable gear, insignias, and play styles. It’s also a dramatic tale about child soldiers, the Soviet War in Afghanistan, and most of all the destructive power of revenge. Making matters even more hopelessly convoluted, The Phantom Pain is also set up to reveal what happened between Peace Walker and the original Metal Gear (1987). Having all these different balls in the air is a big mistake.

Just one of these ideas would have been fine on their own as a central game concept. When Phantom Pain mashes them all together, in a half-assed fashion mind you, it makes for a very disconnected and uneven experience. From a structural perspective, overall the game feels more like a spinoff like MGS: VR Missions (PSX), rather than an MGS game with a proper number at the end of its title. It’s a game I do recommend for those who are interested in “tactical espionage operations”, albeit with some major qualifications.

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Venom-ently Repetitious 

In The Phantom Pain, you play as Punished “Venom” Snake; a man ostensibly consumed with a thirst for revenge. Throughout the game, Snake plots this revenge by building up his private mercenary force: which is accomplished both by extracting recruits out of war zones as well as developing weaponry. This general process should be very familiar to fans of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (PSP). Yet several of the features The Phantom Pain imports over from Peace Walker would have been better off left in a PSP game. The biggest example? Reusing mission areas.

In Peace Walker, revisiting an old area to complete a new mission felt like an ingenious method of building a big game out of the PSP’s limited resources. And the frequent quasi-boss battles of Peace Walker gave the player an actual reason to develop an assortment of lethal, as well as non-lethal, weaponry. Yet in MGSV, there’s less of a legitimate reason for how frequently areas are reused. And the little to no boss battles in the game render the heavy duty weaponry optional about 98% of the time.

The level of repetition in this game is high: sometimes it works, but other times the process of returning to old areas and old missions feels like pure filler. I was pretty angry to discover how many late game MGSV missions were simply beefed up versions of older ones. After having already spent countless hours revisiting those same locations across multiple assignments, I felt little urge to do these.  Cutting out the game’s redundant bloat might have shaven off anywhere from five to twenty hours off The Phantom Pain, depending on how often you play the side-ops missions. (Side-ops became extremely repetitive, to a mind numbing degree, for me. I’m sad to say that Peace Walker was actually far better in this department.)

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The problem with R&D

Without the numerous mech or boss battles of Peace Walker in place, there’s a rift between how MGSV is designed to be played on the field versus how it seems designed to function from a base building perspective. Sure, there are two bona fide boss fights and three skippable, quasi-boss encounters: but those pale in comparison to Peace Walker‘s numerous tanks, helicopters, and mechs. Which is to say nothing of MGS1 or MGS3, which featured some of the most memorable bosses ever as far as I’m concerned.

Phantom Pain provided too many incentives to use stealth and non-lethal weapons for me to ever want to deviate. Since every threat I run into is a potential new employee or vehicle, where’s the sense in bringing along assault rifles, RPGs, or light machine guns into the hotzone? There’s only one enemy encounter in The Phantom Pain that really requires heavy duty weapons – aside from attack helicopters, virtually all other enemies can be fulton balloon-ed out or tranquilized. So why is there so much variety and emphasis placed on lethal weapons? It’s not that I can’t appreciate the work that went into this game’s countless number of rifles, shotguns, and what have you: it’s that the game never game me much of a reason to want to use any of them.

 

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I got through the entire game without changing out Snake’s loadout more than a handful of times – though, I suppose Phantom Pain deserves credit for allowing an indefinite number of approaches. Still though: there’s no gameplay advantage to using most of the arsenal available to research, apart from having permanently one less guard to worry about. Kills hurt your ranking score, they raise Snake’s so-called ‘demon points’, and they eliminate potential staff members.

Though there are a number of missions involving Snake wiping out as many roving tanks as possible, these can be beaten through use of the Fulton parachute. And if you do bring along a rocket launcher, even the weakest ones can take out a tank or chopper with a couple shots. Why spend the time grinding out GMP and resources to make a better, stronger RPG when the one you have is cheaper and works fine on its own? Especially since, again, the times you run into tanks or heavy military machinery of any type are extremely limited in Phantom Pain.

 

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More problems with R&D, Base Building

This disjunct between your R&D department and your activity in the field somewhat tanks the whole ‘build up Mother Base’ mechanic. If you don’t need any of the heavier weapons, you don’t really need too many staff members. Which means you can kill more people, but in order to kill people more effectively, you’ll need more staff members…which means playing stealthily and only using non-lethal weapons…do you see the problem here?

I found myself, more often than not, focusing on achieving an S ranking on a given mission then on extracting out skilled staff personnel. Clearly though, this will vary from person to person depending on their play style or enjoyment of the lethal toys at Venom’s disposal. I’m also sad to say that the bar for S ranking has gone down significantly since those MGS3 days of heart-pounding tension and aggravating restarts. (As somewhat of an MGS challenge junkie, Phantom Pain just didn’t provide me with enough of a fix. I once spent an entire month working on ‘FOXHOUND’ rank in Snake Eater. There’s no equivalent level challenge in this game, since you can only play certain missions on a harder difficulty.)

 

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This Open World Isn’t So Open

Why is The Phantom Pain trying half-heartedly to be open world game? I can’t understand it. It jars so harshly against the game’s own central concept: you’re the leader of an elite mercenary group, active all over the globe, who conducts 100% of your business either in a stretch of land somewhere in Africa or a stretch of land somewhere in the Middle East. (Sure, you technically can send troops to missions scattered around the world…through a menu.) I would have loved this same number of bases, outposts, and fortresses stretched across a wider geographical area, a la Dragon Age: Inquisition. Who cares if the enemy areas don’t connect together? I would take variety and newness over this so-called ‘open world’ design any day in a game like The Phantom Pain. You already use a helicopter to get around, don’t you?

It would have been best to pick one concept or the other: either make MGSV a base building game with little to no main story and no ‘open world’ maps, or make it with open world maps and a center-piece story but without the off-site Mother Base. Splicing elements together from both, as Phantom Pain does, ensures neither idea works properly.

 

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Kojima’s visual style vs. Kojima’s writing style

The main story of The Phantom Pain – if it can even be called that – is yet another discordant element that I question the purpose and specifics of. Visually, Kojima has never been stronger of a visual storyteller then he has been in the past two years. The now-legendary Silent Hills demo P.T., alongside the first hour of Phantom Pain, demonstrate Kojima’s master level prowess with alloying together images and sound. Even mundane acts like boarding your chopper or riding a horse against the sunset feel majestic and visually compelling in Phantom Pain. For the first few days of play, I couldn’t stop messing around in free roam mode with my custom 1984 mix blasting. When the right period specific 80s track is married to the right sequence, The Phantom Pain feels truly magical. Kojima deserves immense praise for his sharp eye and attention to detail – all structure, story, and pacing issues aside, MGSV looks and plays amazingly well.

 

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Yet once characters start opening their mouths, I beg to go back to my would-be Metal Gear music video. The dialogue is awkward – every character other than Snake, Ocelot, or Quiet speaks in strange declarative statements that ostensibly drip with symbolism and meaning but, at least in English, sound unconvincing and melodramatic.

The story itself is underwhelming and basically invisible for the majority of the game, though fixing its presentation and pacing might have redeemed at least the Skull Face storyline.  The big twist at the end of the game isn’t earned, so its impact is pretty muted. Anybody who goes into MGSV expecting closure for the series, or for the intriguing story the game billed itself to have in trailer after trailer, is in for major disappointments. (You can see from the below screenshot, taken from a MGSV trailer, how Konami marketed the game.)

 

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This is…somewhat of an overstatement…

 

What’s more, keeping major story points relegated to cassette tapes is a somewhat mystifying decision on Kojima or Konami’s part, since it severely undercuts any kind of narrative impetus that might have been possible otherwise. You’re vulnerable listening to tapes in the field for the most part, so hearing crucial information often requires you to stop everything and stare off into space while men of differing vocal ranges bark and grunt at each other in your ear about the connections between language and nationalism. For a series that, long ago, was heralded as among the best video games around for story, sociopolitics and philosophy, this is a pretty disappointing turnaround. Then again, MGSV’s story is far more tolerable than MGS4’s Lord of the Rings-sized epic pretensions. I’ll take what I can get!

Addressing the game’s themes and “Quiet”

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Most of the ‘big ideas’ expressed in the game’s plot fall flat, unfortunately.  Perhaps if Kojima had not gotten expectations up with his mysterious tweets about how we will be “ashamed of our words and deeds” regarding the character design of Quiet, or if he had not expressly stated in numerous interviews and tweets that MGSV would address “taboo” and “dark” issues in a fresh and unique way, I wouldn’t have such high expectations.

Yet he did say and do those things, setting up promises which his paper thin characterizations and yawn-inducing attempts at edginess hardly fulfill. Most of the ‘big ideas’ we actually get in the game are little more than retreads of themes already explored ad nauseam in the last five MGS games. The concepts in Phantom Pain involving language are intriguing in their own right – but the man associated with them, Skull Face, is one of the game’s larger disappointments. Skull Face was written very poorly, from his dialogue to his goals to even his reasons for hating Big Boss. And his storyline is concluded in a very unsatisfying manner, that somewhat undermines his purpose in the game at all.

 

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Also, most of the ‘edgy’ stuff in MGSV is presented without much commentary or insight. People just get tortured, or you run into a pack of child soldiers, without any sort of payoff. It isn’t shocking or offensive. It’s just a little boring, and disappointing considering his tall talk of exploring taboos. Anyone who watched the trailer knows there’s child soldiers and torture in this game. But like many things in Phantom Pain, what you saw in the trailer is all there is. Why, or to what rhetorical end, these things are included in the game is never properly fleshed out.

In fact, it’s difficult not to feel a bit lied to from the pre-release trailers, which all seemed to tease a much larger story than what actually comes with the purchase price. Apart from the mysteries surrounding Quiet, most of the game’s plot is actually spoiled in those trailers. And even when Quiet’s backstory is revealed, it hardly makes me feel ‘ashamed of my words and deeds’.

 

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The only thing I’ll say about Quiet’s design is that it felt so on the nose as to be a parody. Is it possible that Quiet, who has literally been deprived of the ability to speak or wear clothing, is some kind of metaphor for how video games have treated women throughout the years? Could that be the taboo subject this game sets out to address?

You know what? I’m crazy. Quiet probably looks the way she does because Kojima is the video game world’s Russ Meyer. Metal Gear games have always featured campy and cheesy sexual content, so it’s hard to get too angry or even surprised about Quiet’s character design from my perspective. That being said, it’s never been this extreme before. The reasons provided for why Quiet dresses like that are flimsy (to put things nicely).

Granted, she has some awesome moments that are more about ‘Quiet as a badass’ than ‘Quiet as sex object’. But even with all the bad ass things about her, it’s hard to take Quiet as seriously as, say, Venom or Ocelot. They could have gone anywhere with this potentially awesome character, who remember was hyped up as some kind of bold step…but instead they just went the anime fan-service/ cosplay catering route. That’s why I consider Quiet yet another missed opportunity for the game.

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She Got A TV Eye on Me

 The one aspect of The Phantom Pain that really did interest me, even if its execution was a bit bungled, is the way MGSV styles itself as a 20th century action/spy TV series. It’s no coincidence that your character is voiced by 24‘s Jack Bauer, or that activating Snake’s prosthetic arm triggers the iconic sound effect from the Six Million Dollar ManMGSV draws from everything from the A-Team, to Night Rider, to The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Mission Impossible (the 60s TV series). If it’s a spy or action themed TV show made in the last 60 years, The Phantom Pain likely references it or feels reminiscent of it at some point or another.

In an era of games where movies are considered to be the medium to emulate, The Phantom Pain raises an excellent point about the current state of the medium. When games first began emulating movies, it was back when their run times were significantly shorter. Now, in the era of fifty plus hour gameplay experiences, it makes sense to change the point of reference from cinema to TV – at least for some games. The runtime of an average TV season is far more comparable to modern video games than your average two hour movie, right? Even if Phantom Pain doesn’t go far enough with this TV show concept, it’s certainly an interesting an even pioneering concept to put out there.

 

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Conclusion

Though it features incredible gameplay and an interesting TV show style, The Phantom Pain is something of a mess. If the game had released in, say, 2012 or ’13, perhaps it wouldn’t seem quite so underwhelming. But in this post-GTAV, post-Witcher 3 world, a triple A game billing itself as an ‘open world’ game should not have this level of repetitiveness. It has less filler than your average Ubisoft open world game, but at least in those games playing the filler was rarely necessary to progress in the game.

Not only is it far less enjoyable to unlock the true ending in MGSV than in Peace Walker, the big revelation at the end is a bit of a dud; whereas the Peace Walker ending felt (comparatively) worth that wait. MGSV treats its ending as some big, clever reveal, when really it’s just a rehash of what Kojima already achieved with MGS2: Sons of the Patriots.

 

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For a developer of Kojima’s talents and ingenuity, it should have been easier to provide players with a strong story, more locations to see, and less repetitive tasks to accomplish. Did he bite off more than he could chew, or is Phantom Pain a result of Konami’s meddling? Who can say for sure.

Particularly in the wake of this year’s The Witcher 3Phantom Pain looks borderline lazy in how little variety in offers in terms of sights and activities. Granted, both games are going for entirely separate styles, themes, and ideas…but when you bill your game as an ‘open world’ one, you have to expect it will be compared with other open world games. And, compared to even Arkham KnightMGSV just doesn’t have enough stuff to see and do to qualify as a great open world/sandbox title. What’s more, acquiring new weaponry should have been the frosting on this cake, not the dough.

 

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That being said, the raw gameplay itself is polished to an incredible degree. There are countless little details and fun easter eggs to discover, which becomes more apparent the more you play the game. Peg too many headshots? More guards start wearing helmets. Fulton rescue too many guards? The enemy is forewarned to shoot down all balloons on sight. These are just basic examples of a whole host of amazing touches that make the gameplay of MGSV such a delight.

And yet, the potential for an even better game here that simply went wasted is staggering. Even the stellar gameplay can get old, without an interesting narrative anchoring it down. The spaced out, episodic structure of the game again reminds me more of a half rate VR Missions than any ‘proper’ Metal Gear game other than Peace Walker. It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t the ideal note for Kojima to exit the franchise on, but the well oiled sneaking mechanics go a long way. So I’d recommend MGSV, even if your results will likely be mixed.

 

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