The following article comes from the pen of TheOneYeti, an avid gamer and one of my choicest friends. I have told him that he’s welcome to write a post for my blog anytime, and readers among my audience will appreciate certainly his views and sense of humor. You might catch him on his twitch channel or on Steam, where his handle is simply Yeti.
Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain starts sleepily with protagonist Punished “Venom” Snake nine years after the events of Ground Zeroes, waking up, finally, after a coma. The introduction can hardly be called action packed, with 45 minutes of cut scenes which establish that Snake was, indeed, in a coma and that the bad guys from the last game are still after him. It is not until after a painfully patronizing tutorial section, which lasts far too long, and one or two missions later, that the open world and Motherbase really open up to the player.
Phantom Pain is more of a large sandbox than a traditional open world – like, say, Skyrim. Those who played Ground Zeroes will find that the minute to minute action of the gameplay is largely unchanged. Snake sneaks around and avoids detection by staying out of line of site, moving quietly, or crawling in grass using camouflage, which is similar also to Metal Gear Solid 3 – though less time is spent in menus, thankfully. Snake also has an array of combat options, if the player chooses a more direct route. A diverse set of tools for sneaking and fighting allow Snake many options in how to approach a mission, and the possibilities for a clever and cool approach are impressive. Snake can use a silenced tranquillizer pistol like in previous games or an assault rifle; but, access to more unconventional tactics, such as using supply drops to knock out guards, or his buddies’ abilities, give players an entertaining toolbox for accomplishing the many side-operations or main missions. Add in those “Metal Gear Touches,” small details that made previous entries shine out, and the Phantom Pain provides interesting and finely tuned gameplay.
Great AI helps here as well. For one, guards have a large field of vision, making the approach slow but tense, and elevating the stakes during an escape. Search lights, watch towers, cameras, and lights typically require some recon and thought to traverse, and for those trying to “ghost” levels, help build the tension as the mission progresses.
One problem, however, is that the minute to minute actions suffer from a “been there done that” feeling. There are many similar games to Phantom Pain: open world games with objective markers that allow for sneaking, driving, and shooting. Far Cry 2, 3, and 4 – in fact any Ubisoft game since Assassin’s Creed – are just marginally different than Phantom Pain. Previous entries in series, on the other hand, were trail blazers. While Metal Gear Solid was not the first stealth-action game, nor even the first in the series, the over the top wide camera angle and fast pace differentiated it from other stealth games released in the same period – namely Thief. The second metal gear contrasted well with the first Splinter Cell, both released at the same time, because it was more-or-less an extension of the gameplay in Metal Gear Solid–whereas Splinter Cell is more similar to Phantom Pain. Metal Gear Solid 3 contrasted with previous titles, especially with the Subsistence re-released, by providing large levels wherein stealth was about crawling through grass in camouflage. The gameplay in the Phantom Pain is an extension of Metal Gear Solid 3 (and 4, Peace Walker, and Zeroes), but in a time where many titles are an extension of Metal Gear Solid 3. Stealth action is a well-established genre now, with so many games pulling influences from previous Metal Gear games, that the Phantom Pain feels, while not stagnate, standard in the genre.
The open world does not alleviate this feeling. By now, so many games have “gone open world” that the style feels similarly standard. (In fact, many other stealth-action games have “gone open world”.) Metal Gear’s open world is by no means the worst, but is suffers from several small issues that grate over time. Impassible mountains in Afghanistan make Snake’s travel much longer than they should. In order to reach a power plant I was funneled down one road and ended up walking half-way across the map, taking about half an hour, when I should have been able to climb a chest high wall, cross the mountain, and only spend five minutes walking.
It’s a shame that there is little to see off of the beaten path. While Skyrim is by no means perfect, one thing it did very well was encourage players to explore and even to just wonder about the open world. It was a joy to walk in one direction, finding unmarked alters and shrines that help build the atmosphere and player’s experience. Phantom Pain lacks such areas, and the outposts between larger areas where missions most often take place are often just an encampment with some roadblocks, tents, a watch tower, and 4-8 guards. The result is that Afghanistan and Africa do not feel lived in. Comparing these levels to Metal Gear Solid 3, one sees a shocking and stark contrast. Rivers had frogs and fish, there were insects buzzing in the forests, and a huge variety of species to eat – beyond just sheep and wolves.
Snake cannot simply board his helicopter and have it travel to a new landing zone, instead the fastest method was to hit start, click return to ACC, then go through a loading screen, select a new landing area (costing deployment resources), go through another loading screen, then watch a minute long unskippable landing cutscene, before finally heading to the next area. All in all, this equates to about four minutes per landing in which the player is doing or seeing nothing. There is no gameplay, and no plot, during this time. While there are unlockable fast travel points where Snake can hide in a cardboard box and warp to another large outpost, it takes time to get to these points, and they are very sparse throughout the map. I found that most of my time was spent walking, riding, or driving a barren landscape to reach the next waypoint, when it should have been spent sneaking, shooting, or exploring. Snake later visits Africa, and the more open nature of the map does help alleviate this problem.
The mission objectives do not help, especially in the side operations. All missions boil down to “kill X”, “extract X”, or “free X”. The side-ops often repeat areas Snake has been too, either in a main mission or another Side Op, which results in the map quickly becoming familiar and eventually stagnate. The open nature of the gameplay, ironically, limits the player’s traversal of the various military installations when compared to other stealth games, such as the recently released Styx: Master of Shadows, Deus Ex Human Revolution, or the older Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. In all three, levels presented many options for players to traverse the levels. There were many pipes to climb, rafters to crawl through, and many novel ways of avoiding detection. In other words, the player had a variety of horizontal and vertical movement options. The structured approach to missions and levels allowed for less freedom on a macro-level, you couldn’t traverse a wide map, but more freedom to navigate each level how you saw fit. There are some vertical options in Phantom Pain, but nothing to the extent of the alternatives mentions above. The indoors areas, which could have provided this type of tighter and more focused gameplay, are typically single room hiding spots with no guards inside. It is a real shame, because this contrast would have added much needed variety to the action-stealth gameplay, and made the level design more interesting and vibrant.
The second part of the game, building Motherbase, will be familiar to fans returning from Peace Walker. Snake, while out on the mission, can take resources, such as plants, fuel, or metals, and kidnaps soldier’s via Fulton extraction balloons. Motherbase grows and expands overtime, with medical, command, combat, R&D, intel, and other units, including a zoo for extracted wildlife, such as bears. There are a few hidden cutscenes, resources, and collectables here, but otherwise Motherbase does not have much going on. The meat of the gameplay here is a management sim, where players assign staff to different teams, develop new items, like sniper rifles, which can be dropped in the field during missions. For players who do not want to micro-manage hundreds of soldiers, an auto-assign option is available. I found myself typically using this option until I got close to developing an item I really wanted, moving staff around so that I could develop, and then using the auto-assign.
While Motherbase and the Open world are a little disjointed, they complement each other well. In an early mission that involved killing a Spetnaz Commander, my R&D team had just completed a sniper rifle, which I used to kill the commander without triggering a combat alert. During the course of the game, there is a cruel twist involving the traits of extracted soldiers and Motherbase that will frustrate many players, but was very beneficial to the game and motivated me to see the plot through to the end. Ammo, different weapons or buddies, or even airstrikes can be called from Motherbase during missions, and while the menu-use and time it takes to have these items drop breaks up the pace, they are a nice addition.
In fact, the best part of Phantom Pain was how guards adapted to Big Boss, and how Big Boss could undermine their attempts to foil him. Over time, guards will equip themselves with helmets, flashlights, or better weapons depending on Boss’ tactics. Strike at night, and they’ll start to carry flashlights. Keep striking at night, and they’ll ship in Nightvision goggles for themselves. It is a nice idea that was well executed, and more importantly allows for players to control their own difficulty – something the series is good at doing.
One big draw of the Solid Series for many players is the plot. Many, myself included, accused previous games of having bloated writing and indulgent cutscenes, but the Phantom Pain suffers from a different problem. The cutscenes and the long speeches that traditionally advance a metal gear plot and drama are sparse. No one character really shines here, and Quiet is a perfect example. When first revealed fans of the series assumed that there was some point to her skimpy and sexualized outfit. However, she speaks and interacts with Boss so little throughout the game that I never felt like I understood her character. Boss is another great example. Fans will be disappointed to find out that, because he hardly talks, Phantom Pain, billed as the game to explain how Boss fell, never shows how Boss fell. Almost all of the dialogue here is exposition – often exposition about characters that only appear in this game and the previous Ground Zeros or side and ancillary characters. Kojima uses cassette tapes to expand on the plot, but these consisted of almost entirely exposition. Phantom Pain does not fix the bloated writing – it is still there, just optional. The difference, however, was that in earlier installments, especially Metal Gear Solid, there was also character development going on that helped invest players in the events that were unfolding. Another thing present in earlier games, but lacking here, is the lighthearted and cheesy first half of these games that helped bring out the heavy hitting events later – especially in Metal Gear Solid 3.
Kojima has a reputation for breaking the fourth wall in his games. An instance of that occurs pretty early on as something of a joke, which I rather enjoyed, but the only other wall breaking sequence occurs in a hidden mission with a secret twist that many fans, wanting to know why Snake fell, will find irritating. Personally, I did not find this twist that insulting, but it was not well executed and, even after some reflection, I cannot see a clear reason why this twist existed other than to tie up some loose ends between Phantom Pain, Metal Gear, and Metal Gear Solid. While the character moments in Metal Gear Solid 2 were lacking, the writing was mincing, and the cutscenes interrupted the game to where the player was sometimes playing the game in minute spurts, the wall breaks and subversion of expectations made up for this – at least in the minds of many who enjoyed that game. The bad dialogue and interruptions served a purpose and helped delivered that game’s message – and while I didn’t enjoy MGS2, I still respect it. I cannot say the same for Phantom Pain, and it is because those qualities in story telling that made Kojima so beloved (or despised) by players suffer from the same problem the game play does – we have been there and seen that.
We expect some crazy twist, but while before it would have been shocking and novel, after eight games in the series, it has become expected. Metal Gear Solid 2’s big twist shocked everyone because so few games had ever told a reflexive and self-referential story, and few games had purposefully set out to toy with player expectations. This is 2015 however, and with hundreds of indie games and even AAA games, like Spec Ops: the Line, which have subverted expectations, or portrayed their gameplay as something that should not be enjoyed (This War of Mine), players are not going to be surprised by Phantom Pain’s attempts. While the series used to be unique for trying to comment on the “horrors of war”, and Phantom Pain continues in that tradition with child soldiers and the destruction of cultures, so many games include these elements that seeing them here serves to make the Phantom Pain indistinguishable from so many other games. Combined with the good, but not special (Motherbase, possibly, aside) gameplay, and I found Phantom Pain lacking in the identity that made previous games so special.
Perhaps that is the point. Kojima’s Metal Gear games have been about identity. Solid Snake learns that genes do not entirely determine his identity. Raiden goes through and identity crisis in realizing that he is in a game. Big Boss, in Metal Gear Solid 3, turns from a typical hero into a disillusioned soldier. Phantom Pain’s gameplay, plot, and protagonist lack an identity (the latter is intentionally so). Perhaps Kojima is a genius who has subtly, through repetitive and standard gameplay, shown how war grinds down the identity of humanity: Big Boss in Phantom is a phantom deprived of life and vibrancy. Or maybe it is a meta-commentary on how all the sequels that Kojima (allegedly) did not want to make grinded both him and his series down. There were ample clues to the “meta” in other games, however, and not in Phantom Pain, so the conclusion must be that it is a good but disappointing way to conclude the series, and it is a real shame.