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‘Metal Gear Solid v: The Phantom Pain’: A Marriage Of Worlds, A Finale Without Finish

‘Metal Gear Solid v: The Phantom Pain’: A Marriage Of Worlds, A Finale Without Finish

Filed inside: Reviews

I’ve long been a proponent of the well-paced narrative.

Contrary to the ever-growing opinion that some of the most powerful single player experiences these days have become little more than hand-guided tours down well-dressed hallways, there remains a significant and vocal group of players who have yet to turn their backs on the more classical version of the action-adventure game—one that takes you on a journey that cannot so dramatically be departed from, as the Skyrims, Mass Effects, or their ilk have.

The Metal Gear series has long been a bannerman of this ideology. Less a bannerman than a juggernaut, really, presenting a more unique take on action by adding a heavy dose of stealth to the formula, but also by delving into its often heavy themes with protracted sessions of ham-fisted dialogue between surprisingly deep (most of the time) characters. The series is famous for growing into what was often described as a movie that you occasionally got to play—but remains a fan favorite for its dedication to quality and theme, as well as its ability to combine severity with sass, marrying message with kitsch.

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And now, along comes Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the long-awaited next (and quite possibly final) chapter in the saga. Longtime fans have been speculating on the game’s substance for many months, and champing at the bit to experience it for themselves after the prologue chapter, Ground Zeroes, was released in March of 2013.

The game boasts a new engine that series creator Hideo Kojima has touted as allowing him to finally make the game he’d always desired. Whether that translates into the game the fans wanted might be another story, but one thing is clear: Phantom Pain is an incredible experience when considered in a vacuum, but die-hard fans might be left feeling a little emptier than usual.

Previous Metal Gear games have followed a sort of Metroidvania-esque feeling—there’s a large web of areas to access, but the means to move through several areas (often in the form of coded key cards) is locked to various story events. While you might be mostly free to “explore”, the game essentially follows a single path—although you can engage the challenges presented to you in a multitude of ways to suit your style.

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Phantom Pain doesn’t skimp on the engagement variety—that’s better than ever. What’s changed is the adoption of a major open-world style of play, combined with a basic mission structure that was popularized in the most recent portable Metal Gear: Peace Walker. The system worked well to make a Metal Gear game function on limited hardware (the PSP, in this case), but the play style is definitely at odds with the older games in the series, and it starts to show by the end: outside of some powerful moments in several missions (43 comes to mind), I feel that the game lacked a certain catharsis that came in the others.

After the events of Ground Zeroes, Big Boss fell into a nine year coma. After coming to, a highly-trained group of assassins attempts to end him for good, but his network of supporters protect and extract him—eventually organizing a rescue attempt for his partner and Mother Base XO, Kazuhira Miller.

The narrative nicely fits its way into Metal Gear‘s ever-complicating web, connecting itself in myriad ways while narrowly avoiding The Phantom Menace syndrome (attempting to connect every aspect of a prequel to its successors, resulting in little more than severe confusion). There are a few characters that we’ve encountered in other entries in the series, some insight into other characters’ origins and motivations, but also a bit of disconnect with some series mainstays that don’t feel like themselves in this instance.

The game’s themes are mainly focused on loss and “the fall”, Big Boss was first introduced as a villain in the original Metal Gear games, after all, but was portrayed as a hero in MGS3 and Peace Walker, quickly becoming a fan favorite. The loss comes in the form of seeing something you’d built destroyed (your base from Peace Walker), exemplified in Boss’s lost arm (replaced by a fancy bionic prosthetic), and Miller’s lost arm and leg—analogues for the soldiers that died under their supervision. These themes are often hammered home with a very large and obvious hammer in between long sessions of inactivity—hardly a way to carry someone along a narrative journey.

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Combine that with the fact that the story of this particular Metal Gear feels a little more confused than previous entries, and I was left initially questioning if the last eighty hours I spent on this Metal Gear game were worth it. I definitely felt more compelled, say, to complete MGS4, than this entry.

But then I thought about how I’d played the game, and can definitely say the time was merited. In a strange way, I don’t consider this a Metal Gear game by the strictest standards. Sure, I’m still crawling along to ground, putting guards to sleep, raiding enemy supplies, and “knocking” on walls to get guards’ attention. This time, though, it’s more like it’s done on your own terms.

If you’ve ever wanted a game that offered you “choice”, this is it. The game successfully combines well-tuned shooting and action, a simple—but clever—system in which enemies learn to counter your tactics, and a solid, stripped-down RPG system to make you feel not only as though you’re involved in a large-scale conflict, but that you’re a real player in the world at large.

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How do you like to play? You’ll easily find a style that melds with yours. Suit up in a complex battle suit with ceramic plates for added protection, a high-capacity armor-piercing assault rifle, a pistol that fires shotgun shells, and a heavy machine gun? Call down a tank and have a sniper supporting you. Really bring the fight to the enemy.

Or dress in the proper fatigues, stay low, and move slow. Bring a silenced pistol that fires tranquilizer rounds and a custom-made rifle that fires rubber bullets for emergencies. Bring your trusty wolf companion to sniff out enemies for you, interrogate enemies for information before extracting them back to your base to convince them to fight for your side.

Or be really crazy: plant inflatable decoys that spout catch-phrases around an outpost to confuse the enemy. While they’re distracted, bring your walking tank and run into them to knock them out, use your heavily researched rocket arm to punch them in the face from forty meters, plant C4 on each guard’s back and set off the fireworks from a distance. Make them think they’re crazy by letting them think they’re seeing a cardboard box slowly moving around the base.

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Be careful, though. The enemy learns from your actions. I was surprised to find that despite there not really being a “difficulty” setting in the game, per se, I felt challenged not terribly far into the game. Turns out, my strategy of slowly luring a single guard into a vulnerable area at night (reduced visibility for the other soldiers) was raising some red flags—so guards began moving in pairs. The ones that remained had tranq darts in their heads, so they began wearing helmets. The attacks were happening at night, so night patrols were not only increased, but guards were more often equipped with flashlights. I began using more complex tactics to cut bases off from each other: destroying radio equipment to prevent soldiers from calling reinforcements or contacting HQ to put out alerts. So soldiers started patrolling the desert wearing mobile radio antennae. I worked around the helmets by engaging in hand-to-hand combat—so they started carrying shotguns to put me down quickly at close range.

When I was spotted, rather than engage with extreme prejudice, I’d disppear from sight and reengage from other angles or hole up and take guards out as they came. So when the alert was called, enemies stopped pursuing me immediately, but rather formed up, called for reinforcements with their fancy new radios, set off flares to light the area, and moved in large groups that faced in multiple directions.

By the end, I was regularly facing off against sizable units wearing full riot gear, supported by counter snipers (I’d started engaging from long distances when it got too dangerous to get in close), all of which were wearing thermal goggles. They’d started deploying cameras to cover their backs and carrying machine guns to keep me suppressed should I be discovered.

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But I wasn’t passive in all this. I’d been building an army of my own, researching new equipment, and deploying my own soldiers to disrupt enemy operations whenever possible. The result is what truly feels like a conflict between enemy forces. It may be that I was only one man against hundreds in the field (I was Big Boss—er—Venom Snake he’s called in this one), but I was supported by hundreds and hundreds of loyal soldiers conducting recon (giving me important reports on enemy locations and other valuable points of interest), providing support (dropping me weapons and ammunition when necessary or translating enemy communications so I could stay a step ahead), researching better weapons, gear, and other implements, or disrupting the enemy’s supply of riot shields, helmets, or specialized equipment.

As open worlds go, it’s one of the most dynamic and intriguing I’ve ever encountered. Too many sandbox games rely on unusual filler: collectibles to hunt for, the occasional patch of hostiles to burn through, and simple this-or-that events to push a good-or-evil meter one way or the other.

Phantom Pain does away with many of these tropes. Collectibles aren’t simply to advance a counter or unlock some device or power down the line—they’re critical resources Mother Base needs to continue to conduct their affairs. While there is little between outposts, I constantly felt as though I was moving with purpose, everything I’d pick up served an important and fairly immediate purpose  back at base. Every outpost could yield potential rewards in the form of materials or new recruits, but if something was really pressing, you can often find a way to pass unnoticed.

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All this dynamism is exemplified not only in the world but distilled in the gameplay and controls. Other Metal Gear games were stick-and-move affairs. A lot of time spent manipulating guard patrols to create openings, sidling across walls waiting for guards to pass, etc. The series slowly evolved a more action bent over time, especially once MGS4 had a fully player-controlled camera and began to play more as a third-person stealth shooter than its predecessors. That is fully realized now, with Snake able to climb and vault various surfaces, crawl, crouch, jog, sprint, or dive to avoid detection by any means, The game is incredibly responsive, and is one of the first I’ve encountered that had a cover system not tied to a button that actually worked (looking at you, Resident Evil: Umbrella Chronicles). My one complaint is that I couldn’t invert the axis on my rocket fist, so I often fly my first shot directly into the ground.

Add to this the fact that the game is gorgeous. The proprietary Fox engine is incredible—textures are crisp and don’t suffer from pop-in problems. I found few to no artifacts, and every piece of the world felt deliberate, but natural. No corners were cut on presentation: plants are fully rendered (not two flat textures placed as an X shape), footsteps in the sand disappear if its windy, while not every piece of the environment can be destroyed, what can be does so in a spectacular show of physics, and even simple objects need to be watched out for when you’re trying to sneak around, as hitting most set dressing with enough force will make enough noise to attract attention.

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There’s more than enough to go around, as well. After over eighty hours my completion counter is resting comfortably at 65%. Even with all that, the game has even more to offer in a clandestine online mode that shares some parallels with Dark Souls. After establishing a Forward Operating Base (FOB), you’ll have the option to conduct some research and assign security staff to additional base platforms which can be assaulted by other players in an attempt to capture your staff or steal your resources.

Taking the Metal Gear formula online in this regard (Metal Gear Online is a whole other discussion) is a strangely compelling experience. After all, your actions in Peace Walker and Ground Zeroes have set the stage for the eventual state of the world in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, in which private military corporations conduct warfare on behalf of countries, creating a war economy. In Phantom Pain, you’ve become a PF (Private Force, the PMC precursor), and other players are essentially competing PFs. You can do battle with each other in order to further your own goals in many ways, either by reducing the size of effectiveness of the enemy’s force (killing them, a fair faux pas in the community, actually), recruiting them to your side, or stealing their resources for your own base building and research. Eventually, you can even build nuclear weapons that act as deterrents for all but the most heroic players, and the choice is yours to become a threat to the world by possessing these weapons, or a philanthropic force dedicated to a nuke-free world (I myself invaded the base of a nuclear weapon holder, stole it, and disarmed it—burying the waste in a bunker at the bottom of the ocean).

It’s not quite all competition, either. I support a few other PFs, and if their base is invaded while they’re offline, I can jump in for them and help their security force defend themselves. Running into another player while making an invasion is a rush I’ve not experienced in a very long time in gaming. It’s run the gamut from being spotted by a random guard and subsequently blown up by a rocket launcher, to jumping into my own base on defense, finding and knocking out my attacker, and extracting him, holding him for ransom and making s decent amount of extra money in the process.

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It cannot be denied, however, that even considering all the hype that surrounded the game and its release, that there’s something left to be desired here. This goes beyond the fact that some enterprising PC users have dug up partially completed custscenes that are linked to a mission cut from the game that was critically important to at least one leftover thread the game left hanging, and some text strings that indicated a whole extra chapter to the game that would appear to have little-to-no chance at surfacing, as Konami and Kojima have gone their separate ways after many years of conflict, but that Konami has apparently decided to bow out of AAA game development as a whole.

And while the game’s story isn’t particularly bad, it definitely feels out of place among the Metal Gear canon, relying fairly heavily on experience of previous titles in order to truly have an effect on the player. Without knowing what many of the characters were referring to cryptically at so many points, I’d think that well over half of the story either didn’t matter or made no sense at all. The gameplay is so strong that I don’t see an inexperienced player not having a good time—especially one that leans more in favor of an open world experience that doesn’t necessarily crux on a strictly paced story.

Even the manner in which the story was told has had a curious effect on how I perceived it. In MGS3 I didn’t bat an eye when a guy showed up that could control bees. Another character was basically a Russian electric eel in a person’s body, but that wasn’t a big deal. Phantom Pain felt more grounded in so many ways that it became harder to suspend disbelief when it came to the more supernatural elements in the game that were never really a big deal before. The open world style also removed one of the more memorable elements of the series as a whole: it lacked unique and interesting boss fights—only sporting a few important encounters that didn’t really feel like boss fights at all.

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So in a way, I’m at odds. I’m left feeling satisfied with my time, but unfulfilled in a broader spectrum. It’s like Phantom Pain was a great game, but a mediocre Metal Gear game. I’ve gone back and spent some time since then with the other games in the series and found that while there are so many little things in the game that are still surprising players, many of the other little things players used to love are curiously absent.

I assure you, however, that the game is something that must be experienced. A few aspects aside, it’s one of the rare instances of an open-world game that I still finished. Take one look at my several-hundred-hour Fallout or Elder Scrolls saves, and see that the main story remains almost wholly unfinished, but this game bears just enough structure that it’s easy to stay on track toward the end of the game, but offers plenty to distract and unlock.

It’s worth the money, and it’s certainly worth the time. It’s an experience quite unlike any other, so if you’ve been struggling to find a new game to occupy your time, this should be it. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was released September 8th on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.

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Written by Ray Allaire -The Reasonable Gamer

Writer, game designer, and gaming analyst. Practitioner of all nerdy arts: Games, tabletop, TCG, and all. Twitter: @mateusrayje

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