It’s funny, but with every Metal Gear Solid release (bar the first) there’s a general consensus that the game is amazing – despite some major flaw. MGS 2 was the bait-and-switch with Raiden, MGS3 had horrible controls until the Subsistence re-release, MGS 4 had more cutscenes than gameplay, Peace Walker was on PSP, Ground Zeroes was an overblown tech-demo, and then there’s The Phantom Pain. We’ll be talking about how incredible the gameplay is for years, and then how Hideo Kojima’s vision for the series was unfortunately neutered. At least the gameplay side of things got the full treatment, as this iteration of Snake is definitely the most fun to play of the whole series.
Set in 1984 after the events of Ground Zeroes, Snakes militia force from Peace Walker has been destroyed and Snake himself is left in a coma for nine years – sans his left arm. He wakes up to find he is being hunted by an organisation called Cypher and makes his escape. The introductory hospital scene is the most directed part of the game and also serves as an excellent tutorial while also throwing up mountains of the MGS craziness we’ve come to expect. Snake is soon reunited with Peace Walker comrade Kaz (who lost and arm and leg in the attack on their base) and old foe-now-friend Ocelot, who then set a course to rebuild their militia (now called Diamond Dogs) to have their revenge against Cypher. They begin their search in Afghanistan during the tail end of the Soviet Union’s invasion and later to Central Africa in the middle of a civil war. The Phantom Pain’s themes are darker than previous instalments and certainly bloodier with vengeance, pain and loss being the main motivations for characters throughout the game.
Snake/Big Boss, or Punished “Venom” Snake as he’s called this time around, is a man of few words and even fewer reactions. Kiefer Sutherland replaces series hallmark David Hayter, but not his verbosity, adding a level of gravel brooding to the character we’re not used to. In many creative activities it’s quite often your limitations that lead to inspiration, and I think in this case having a big-name voice actor with a presumably hefty price-tag finally convinced Kojima to reign in the marathon length codec conversations of the past. Most conversations occur through cassette tapes that can be played at any time while cutscenes are short and sharp. Snake will often have you begging him to just say something damn it to everything going on around him, as he’ll generally respond to most situations with a brooding stare or grunt. Kaz, on the other hand (sorry), acts as the voice of anger and revenge. It seems strange that Snake wouldn’t have more to say about his experiences, but I for one am glad to see the back of the endless call-and-response the previous games had, explaining every minutiae of the story.
After release, it was discovered that an entire chapter had been cut from the game that apparently would have rounded off the story nicely and tied off loose ends. It becomes clear after finishing the marathon first chapter that a hasty patch-up job was made to try and give the game an ending that made sense. There’s a definite pacing issue with the story’s delivery with only small nuggets of exposition being doled out with each main mission. It takes the entire first chapter to get an actual idea of what it is Snake is fighting against, which could take 30 hours to complete, before moving onto what is best described as the end-game chapter. Given the series’ reputation for epic stories, it’s a shame this one had to fizzle out. While the story may require a Metal Gear Solid Encyclopaedia on hand for some, it’s still a thrilling ride with plenty of gripping moments. While the minimalist narrative style was a breath of fresh air, The Phantom Pain strayed a little too far the other way.
The Quiet Thing: So, if you were following the Phantom Pain’s development, it’s quite likely you heard about the character Quiet, the female sniper who gets around in a bikini and g-string. Kojima said there was a good reason for her design (aside from being “sexy” as he was quoted saying) and that we’d feel ashamed for judging it. There is a reason, and it’s shit. The reason is story based so I won’t spoil it, but it’s poor justification to have her virtually naked. Kojima has a history of sexualising both female and male characters in MGS games, but it’s women the games objectify the most. Her design isn’t the whole issue (but is certainly aa major factor), it’s the way the camera treats her. One example is a scene on Mother Base the camera sweeps up her body and lingers on her breasts before rising to her face, a treatment not given to any male character plus she’s constantly posed in titillating positions for the camera. It’s the most disappoint part of The Phantom Pain, and such a shame that in a game that covers the horrors of war and child soldiers, the director’s seem to be fine with this shallow and creepy objectification of women.
Having always been a thoroughly linear affair, the series’ jump to open-world gameplay could have been a flat-out disaster. For the most part, it’s not! Missions are handed out on Snake’s iDroid, which he can only accept when in his helicopter (and occasionally when on the ground), to then go to a specified area on the overall map to then start sneaking and shooting. It’s a bit clunky, but it works. The open-world side of things doesn’t offer much more than guard-posts and bases dotted around an otherwise lifeless (aside from animals) landscape. Random patrols go between bases but otherwise it feels like everyone’s waiting for Snake to come to the party. Where’s the faction v faction battles like in MGS 4? Armoured convoys to hijack or evade? While it’s nice to not have an endless shopping list of tasks to do al-la The Witcher 3, a little variety would have been nice. Same goes for the missions too, as most are variations of target eliminations or hostage rescue.
Once boots are on the ground, you’re free to tackle the objective however you’d like with whatever gear that’s available while dealing with whatever conditions are added on by Kaz. Here the true brilliance of The Phantom Pain shines thanks to the sheer level of detail and design crammed into the game’s core mechanics. Snake is smooth as butter to control and it seems at long last the finger-gymnastics required to play an MGS game have almost been eliminated. There’s enough variety in weapons and equipment that pretty much any playstyle is catered for, and full-frontal attack is now a viable option. Day and night cycles also change up enemy behaviour while weather effects both help and hinder Snake and the enemy, and there are a plethora of different tactics that only require a box – it will be fun to see what fun strategies start to pop on YouTube in the coming months. Boss fights are the big let-down here, especially as they tend to be a signature of the series. The bosses are not particularly memorable or numerous, and the fights themselves just aren’t fun. At least we don’t have to sit through a 20-minute sob-story after each one like the previous games.
Sneaking in and interrogating enemies for supply locations and mission information is advantageous but not entirely necessary, plus you’ll want to kidnap as many soldiers as possible (more on that later). To interrogate enemies Snake needs to kidnap an interpreter, as the Soviet soldiers he’s engaging can’t speak English, which is a nice touch. Enemies start to adapt to your behaviour such wearing helmets if you make a lot of headshots or wearing more body armour. Soldiers will react to seeing any fulton/kidnap balloons taking their equipment/friends, and will call in support if they’re alerted to anything suspicious. Snake can destroy radio equipment to stop other guard posts in the area also going on alert, or create more helicopter landing zones by destroying their anti-air radar. “Buddies” start to become available starting with D-Horse, then D-D the dog (best dog) and sniper Quiet, who all come with unique abilities that also alter the way you play. D-D can spot and distract enemies, Quiet provides cover fire and the horse poops on command. Metal Gear ladies and gentlemen.
The other side to The Phantom Pain is building up the new Mother Base. Here Snake’s army grows through kidnapping soldiers from the field and from volunteers, plus weapons and equipment are developed for use on missions. Here you’re in charge of expanding the base and issuing build orders, sending the combat team on missions for funds and supplies, and fine-tuning Mother Base’s staffing – all through a somewhat clunky menu system. Staff have different levels of abilities plus unique skills that open up options for more development, as does increasing staff numbers. Mother Base itself huge and sprawling, but ultimately lifeless. Diamond Dog soldiers patrol the base and have conversations, but the base is otherwise a sterile, boring experience. Missions can’t even be selected here, Snake has to hop on his chopper to get anything done. There is a zoo, though, full of all the animals taken from the battlefields, which is a small saving grace.
The Fox Engine, designed alongside The Phantom Pain, works incredibly well. It appears most cutscenes are rendered in-engine meaning the transition from cutscene to gameplay is almost unnoticeable. Characters models are incredibly detailed and motion captured, with NPC soldiers seeming to act in realistic ways – especially their startled reactions when Snake is discovered. It looks especially gorgeous in rain scenes when clothing texts really look soaked and the environment starts to take on a muddy sheen. The actual variety of environments is limited to desert and sparsely vegetated jungle, so there’re not many impressive views to be had. Most of the detail heavy textures are saved for buildings and vehicles that help make each outpost feel unique. The game is also incredibly well optimised for PC with barely a stutter on high settings, even on my humble rig. The overall art design of The Phantom Pain does a great job of keeping you in the game, even when you’re navigating menus. Outside of missions Snake spends his time onboard the helicopters filled with his current gear and an ever-growing number of photos and cuttings, which is a nice touch.
In a strange way, “The Phantom Pain” turns out to be quite an apt description for this game. We’re profoundly aware there’s something missing here, and it’s possible we won’t be truly satisfied. There are a few glaring issues in The Phantom Pain that could have sunk it, but in the end the incredible sandbox gameplay is just too good to dismiss. The series has always been about bombastic plots and super-refined gameplay, so the sting here is that Kojima’s swan song had to be compromised for the worse. Don’t get me wrong: The Phantom Pain is a brilliant game – I’m just grieving what could have been.