I slowly and carefully crawled through the foliage of the thick and green African forest. Making sure my steps were lighter than the flutter of a butterfly’s wing. Again and again my arms reached out and my feet moved forward eventually reaching the tip of a cliff. Then a bolt of wind violently rushed past by my side. Quiet, a sniper more precise than any other, flew past the cliff I laid on into the village that it overlooked, a slum.
One by one she flew past every soldier that was in the village, pointing them out, giving me the advantage just before I rush in to capture the found crates of resources. Eventually she jumped, an overwhelming height, and laid on top the parallel cliff right in front of me. Then rain fell. Pitter-patter. An opportunity revealed itself to me.
I slid down from the top of the cliff onto the bottom feeling the mud splashing onto my face and latching itself onto the back of my armor. The rain covered the noise I made. As soon as I landed on the bottom I hid behind a wall of a broken home and then I spotted him. A secondary target. Quiet might be a good sniper but she’s no D-Dog when it comes to reconnaissance. So I interrogated him finding out every position of the soldiers posted in the slum. With a gun at his back he didn’t hesitate to even leave a single detail to the intelligence he gave to me. Figures, unlike a Diamond Dog, he doesn’t even have loyalty for the commanders he works for. But he may yet be honed to make a good soldier. So I grabbed his shoulder then swung his body to the ground. He slept like a baby. He didn’t even wake up after I attached a Fulton recovery system on his body, sending him flying back to my Mother Base.
After then, as quietly as I could, I crawled through the slum using the broken buildings and walls as my silent guardian from the sight of my enemies. Eventually I was in reach of the resource crates I wanted, then I heard a noise that changed the course of my mission. It was a soldier. Teaching a group of children. Children holding guns. The sight widened my eyes and my heart raced. My priorities changed. There was only one singular thought that crossed my mind: get those children out of this battlefield. Or they will undoubtedly die or grow to kill others.
Forgetting my original objective I ordered Quiet to tranquillize everyone in the slum. If I am to help these children I must avoid injuring them. Like dominoes, the patrol units went down again and again. None even had the chance to draw fire at us – we were invisible. Eventually all we heard was the sound of the soldiers sleeping. Snoring as well…
Then I rushed to the bodies of the child soldiers. Suddenly Ocelot warned me that I could not use the Fulton Recovery System as the bodies of the children could not take the force of its pull. So I called in a helicopter (that when it enters the mission area plays “Flight Of The Valkyries“) to a landing zone and one by one I carried the weight of those children on my back transferring them into the chopper.
After all was done with the children the sight of the crates struck me. I had forgotten about them. So I “Fultoned” them back to Mother Base and with Quiet I headed back there as well. That is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. A video game that truly understands on how to craft a “cinematic” experience (snake oil term) by simply trusting the player with its provided tools and their intelligence. All without restricting interactivity in the heat of a set piece, as with those you’ll create on your own.
The Phantom Pain was published by Konami and developed by Kojima Productions (Yes it didn’t just take Hideo Kojima to make this game as much as he deserves the credit to managing its development) a development studio which I’m sure needs no introduction. The same could be said to its now infamous publisher…
It is a sad fact that this game was completely overshadowed with negative press regarding the malicious actions that Konami has had the gall to make recently. With industry icons (not pointing any fingers) stating that the Konami controversy is more interesting than the game itself (this is paraphrased). But this game is not only interesting but also what I believe to be a masterpiece of video game design and in an unconventional way the same could be said of how it tells stories. And the way it creates personal ones for the player.
I think its important to note that I am not a veteran of the Metal Gear series having only played a bit of Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater and avoiding Ground Zeroes due to the reported paltry amount of content. I actually found the narrative of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to be relatively easy to follow. The overall plot is simple enough to understand, along with the motivations of the characters even without playing its prologue Ground Zeroes. As at the beginning of the game this seems to be explained away. So fear not newcomers it’s not as intimidating as it might seem at first. But of course pay offs to big reveals and even subtle hints to the previous games might give vets the narrative-relation tingle newcomers will not get. The plot itself seems self-contained enough that I wasn’t lost at any point of the story.
Set nine years after the events of its brief predecessor: Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, known to be The Phantom Pain’s prologue, The Big Boss finds himself awoken from his coma in a hospital on March 11 1984. Now in search of revenge after what happened nine years ago, alongside his companions such as Kazuhira Miller and Shalashaska Ocelot with many more others. Those who were responsible for the tragic events of the past will be brought down by the newly formed Diamond Dogs.
There are truly brilliant and bold narrative plot points in The Phantom Pain that struck my heart or made me widen my eye due to shock or anger, clenching my controller as I react to some points as well. It’s great that the game makes an attempt to touch on mature themes and try to discuss their moral challenges, as it were, like taking advantage at the inexperience and ignorance of younger children using them as soldiers in the battlefield. Even seeing this issue in the open world really hits a cord in my heart that no other game has, as this issue has never been so real to me until the moment I faced it. This is the same outside and inside cut-scenes which is the one of the game’s most impressive aspect as it this doesn’t happen in many games.
Even with its moral exploration through narrative is an intriguing feature, it doesn’t work as smoothly as Hideo Kojima seems to think it does. The inconsistent tone of the narrative breaks the mature and serious tone it tries to set. At one point you’ll experience an emotional and morally challenging game play sequence or cut-scene but then soon after you’ll encounter something that breaks that complex feeling by doing something out of the ordinary. Like showing a flaming whale swallowing a helicopter…
This sudden act of “ridiculousness” and a sudden need for the player to suspend their disbelief detriments the narrative pillar of mature themes in which the game’s narrative partly stands on. This is a problem found throughout the game as the deeper you dig into the story of the game more and more unusual events or things appear to suddenly shift the tone of the game. It’s plot is trying to things that just don’t combine to become a smooth narrative experience. It makes an attempt to represent real life political and ethical issues that parallels the real world but then wants to indulge in fun but unrealistic themes that delves into science fiction. Paralleling ideas like “zombified” ninjas and Jaeger’s from Pacifc Rim. Those two juxtaposed themes just clash because they put the player into very different mind sets with one requiring the suspension of disbelief to accept its fantasies. Something hard to relate to unlike real political and ethical issues.
The character’s, just like the game’s tone, are inconsistent. Some are more interesting than others. Big Boss, also known as Venom Snake, isn’t an interesting protagonist and he’s designed to be like that. He’s a character, someone like Geralt Of Rivia from The Witcher 3, in which the player imprints himself to. He’s usually quite mute in and out of cut-scenes like the player he seems to play the part of an observer most of the time. Though this convention breaks with some moments certain amounts of agency is given to the player, obvious or no, to which certain narrative paths can be taken depending on how the player handles the situation. This is a brilliant move as unlike so many games which show their cards so willfully when making decisions in the moment. The Phantom Pain diverts from this design and never tells you when or how your decisions will play out. Just like in life decisions have to be made, calculated or no, you will have to live with its consequences.
Your partners (in crime) Kazuhira Miller and Shalashaska Ocelot are both great when they’re on screen. Clashing in ideologies almost all the time. Their dialogue bounces of each other well giving them personality as a result. Miller filled with anger and with a passion to pursuit his goal of revenge and Ocelot being the voice of reason. Coupled with their great character motivations and development are the great voice actors behind them: Troy Baker as Ocelot and Cam Clarke as Miller. Both deliver their lines perfectly, with convincing emotions conveyed with every line. Unlike the more melodramatic antagonist Skull Face. Almost mimicking a James Bond villain both in performance and in his plan. Though not having the same charismatic flair. Skull Face felt flat as a villain mainly due to his lack of appearance as well as his lack of flair or charisma. The writing I had no issue with his lines were interesting as well as his cruel back story but he didn’t feel as involved as he should be in the plot, there was a lack of a sense of a threat as a villain. Never was I emotionally triggered, which some of the best villains in games do like: Saren, Joker or the Feds in Red Dead Redemption, which made his screen presence weak and just lacked any kind of effect on the player. Making him unmemorable. Or even just entertaining to watch.
Other supporting characters are notable but not that memorable. Quiet is a character I found intriguing, not because just because of her outer appearance, but her evolving relationship with the Snake I think if people give her a chance some may appreciate her underrated strength as a female character that’s unfortunately overshadowed by Kojima’s representation of her appearance. Other supporting characters have their own interesting back story with no real shining personality that really steal the scene.
When it comes to its plot MGSV’s biggest flaw is that it frequently loses its momentum and has an inconsistent pacing throughout the game. This is all due to the episodic structure and also the game’s open world nature. It’s new open world structure is a double-edged sword that really improves the game play, significantly. But in turn also breaks the pacing of its story. The game seems bursting with fantastic filler content in its main mission chapters (Yes that seems contradictory but bear with me) that is fun to play but doesn’t serve the story well as it breaks its progression. To Kojima’s credit he took advantage of an episodic structure to make the story more digestible by splitting each plot puzzle piece into an episode eventually making it a whole. Most sub-plots are fairly condensed and easy to digest bit by bit then piece together as the plot progresses to get a better picture of what’s going on. The problem is that there are some episodes where the plot doesn’t progress in a more significant way that makes it feel like cog in the plot machine. But more so like a time filler, fun but irrelevant to the story. A piece if cut won’t detriment its flow in any meaningful way.
Even with all its narrative flaws Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain in my mind is still a masterpiece due to the most important factor being so perfect: game play. The Phantom Pain is a genuinely intelligent game that under takes a task most game designers wouldn’t even dare to touch. To trust the players and their intelligence. The emergent game play is perfect because The Phantom Pain no matter what move you make never punishes you, it encourages players to adapt in changing situations. Improvisation is fun, getting caught is not a punishment but an excuse to go wild. Stealth is merely an option. This game is truly open both in its environment and in its game play.
The variety of options in gadgetry, movements, strategy, arsenal and vehicles is unmatched, unparalleled by any game I have ever played. You could make an argument to say that most of them are unnecessary but playing the easy is not always the fun way. There are so many ways, strategies in which the player could enact, giving them the freedom in not just how you go about missions assigned to you but how you use the items given to you. Creativity in battle is encouraged and items do not always have to be used in conventional methods making experimentation interesting and surprising. The Phantom Pain embraces all kinds of game play styles, though stealth being my usual method to completing an objective, this just gives it more variety and makes the game feel more dynamic in game play.
Every mission I have finished were all injected with so much tension as every movement I made was mine, the chances of success were all at the hands of my skills and plans. This made every movement I made consequential and kept me engaged in every mission I set off to complete as I had to really think about my actions as they can easily branch off and mutate triggering a certain situation that may be good or bad. It also helps that with every mission, main or a side op, the stakes feel so very real because they are. As real as they can be in a video game anyway. Your targets whether to be rescued, killed, captured etc. Are living and breathing their actions can be controlled by how you interact with the world: set off an alarm the target might start evacuating himself out of the mission area or the prisoner might be executed. Nothing feels truly set but yet I understand that they are. The illusion of true freedom in a video game has never felt so real and your agency has never felt so organic which is why the game play is so good. Because the world reacts to your actions in a very organic way. A way that feels dynamic avoiding repetition.
Player agency extends to many aspects of the game’s game play. Movement, planning, use of gadgetry but also in how you gather Intel. Such a simple yet brilliant concept is the ability to interrogate an enemy soldier for Intel such as: patrol locations, resource locations, prisoners being kept in the area etc. It helps create a secondary objective each time the player is out in the battlefield, if he or she finds the right soldier to interrogate with the right info, this helps keep you busy in the mission area and rewards players with a secondary reward like those mentioned.
The controls and the feel of the movement coupled with the gun play feels so precise and pitch perfect that even just the simple act of running or diving feels fun. The controls are reactionary which in turn makes them feel responsive playing a big part to why this game is so fun. It helps make you feel like Big Boss or Snake as you play due to the responsiveness of the controls an important aspect of immersing you into that role.
A big part of the game, which also helps you immerse yourself into the role of Big Boss, is building your own PMC. Private Military Company. The one that you run is named Diamond Dogs. This game play loop is what magnetized my hands to the controller and keeps me in the game. It is incredibly addicting to collect: resources, soldiers, animals (for the conservatory), weapons etc. All to build up your base.
A lot like what made a game like SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful Of Dirt so addicting is that there are so many meaningful game play aspects to manage and to upgrade all to keep you busy and engaged. The collection of resources, soldiers and animals as well as arsenal for the defense of Mother Base. Are all connected with your engagements on main and side op missions. Most of the time secondary objectives are made by the player, still prioritizing the main mission, but necessity to upgrade items is always at the back of the player’s head. Keeping him or her engaged in multi-tasking in the battlefield. This is what makes the game play loop so fun: It always keeps you busy and coming for more. With the use of psychological tricks like delayed gratification the game play loop is consistent throughout my experience because the game manages its currency (resources, soldiers, arsenal etc) so well. You’ll never have an abundance of these resources at any point in time because as well as the game never being too generous with its distribution the need to purchase upgrades and items to widen your abilities in the battlefield is always present. So you can efficiently complete the assigned side ops or main missions. What makes them such a pleasure to actually obtain, that being the upgrades and items, is that they’re meaningful. Their effects in the battlefield and on your abilities are instantly felt once used which in turn convinces the player to upgrade his or her current items or collect more to expand his or her play style and arsenal. The same also works for the games main currency to purchase upgrades and such: GMP. Gross Multinational Product. Which can be used to purchase or upgrade a wide variety of things such as new base facilities or items.
Staff management of Mother Base is also a fun mini-game, as it were, that truly makes you feel like a manager of a PMC. Bringing back the right kind of soldiers, using the Fulton recovery system that can also be used to collect crates, vehicles and animals throughout the battlefield, increases the level of your staff designations like: Security Teams. To enable for Mother Base to function to its fullest. But making sure the right staff are assigned to the perfect team is important to get maximum efficiency out of the recruited soldiers. As dynamic as its combat systems staff management will become a more complex system as you play through the game in which social issues have to be settled with soldiers etc.
As well as the ability to bring in soldiers you can also adopt companions, with only D-Horse being the compulsory companion given to you at the start of the game, others like D-Dog can be found throughout your journey and encounter them in the battlefield. They are a pleasant presence to have around in the battlefield that can aid you in battle. Each buddy has their own unique ability which they can use to help Snake: Recon, stun, silently gallop in the battlefield etc. All relevant and all useful in their own way adding depth to an already deep abyss of a combat system.
As dynamic as all the games systems it is needed to be said it’s environments are as well. Africa and Afghanistan have been recreated faithfully, in terms of the likeness of their terrains, foliage and climate. Peppered with outposts both maps have been well designed aesthetically and in terms of game play. A variety of environmental interaction opportunities are given to the player to expand the strategic options of the player. Africa and Afghanistan are huge in scale but also ambition in the recreation of each biomes. No single detail is left out making the player truly feel that him or her are really in those environments. The dynamic weather system also help both in game play and immersing you in its world. Rain can cover the sounds you make, Sandstorm can give both you and your enemies reduced visibility but can give you the opportunity to act.
Mother Base is, like Africa and Afghanistan, a changing environment and in its own way a living breathing environment. As you build more parts and rigs to your Base you get to explore more of its newly built corners but also see how your soldiers are fitting in Diamond Dogs. The same can be said with your gathered companions throughout the course of the story. That being Buddies. It’s always a good idea to come back to Mother Base to increase the motivation of your staff and do training programs for more GMP. But also some important secrets might be hidden away in Mother Base or cut-scenes so give it the Normandy treatment. You can truly feel the scale of Mother Base as it grows making the player feel more immersed to their role due to the spectacular view of their growing base.
The customization of the game, like its combat system, is an abyss. The range of things you can customize in the game like your: emblem, guns, Mother Base color etc. Is a great way to make the whole PMC feel more personal further immersing yourself to the role of Big Boss and the leader of Diamond Dogs.
The soundtrack to this game is notable but not fantastic. Due to the fact to how it’s utilized. The execution and the use of the fantastic song: Sins Of The Father sung by Donna Burke is nothing short of flaccid. Awkwardly used and disappointing. Other tracks like Quiets theme are utilized well adding a serene atmosphere in the scenes it was used as those were directed better than the scene in which Sins Of The Father was used.
Overall the game is a truly mesmerizing experience like no other. A game that understands the thrill of giving the players full control of the steering wheel in an action or stealth scene and completely takes advantage of the features which make video games great as a story telling medium. Whether it be directed or a set piece created by the player every bit of game play is tense to the point of exhilarating. With its disconnecting story being a small flaw. Kojima Production’s have created their magnum opus. A gem that has truly evolved the design of open world action.
The unfortunate and tragic fact that I couldn’t access the online aspects of Metal Gear Solid V (cue the sudden burst of laughter from the sarcasm) meant that I can’t review those aspects of the game so don’t expect that to be here. Konami’s servers has been relentlessly up and down. Incredibly unstable.
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