Great Expectations: Review of The Phantom Pain

Preface

I spent three weeks with this game and have now completed the main story arc (as well as its “epilogue” arc, as some are describing it), and this review is intended as a dialogue to speak my mind about every aspect of the game post-completion. There is SO MUCH I want to talk about. I encourage you to turn away now if you don’t want any plot points revealed, because I will touch on a lot of things that could be considered spoilable.

Those of you that have completed the game, please take the time to hear out my opinion and provide your own in the comments section of the post, or drop me a link to your review… I would very much appreciate it.

——–SPOILERS!——–

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Great Expectations:

Metal Gear Solid V:

The Phantom Pain

Review & Rating

(una novella de mio!)

When you have a series that is beloved and respected by an enormous following of loyal fans, the idea of another installment being a change of pace is a very touchy subject. Sometimes just the anticipation alone can set things off on the wrong foot. Sometimes the beloved precursors of the series make for shoes so big, they are nearly impossible for another installment to fill. Sometimes the fans of the series find themselves so deeply rooted in the the lore — having grown up with it or known it for such a long time — that the mere mention of an update of that lore is cause for anxiety. The personal connection a fan develops to a story — or a world — can become a magical relationship. And when a premonition of change, or expansion of this world comes along, fans can take this as a threat to their sense of belonging to it… Thus creating something in the hostile landscape of fan territory can be quite a challenge — not only to please the fans, but not get steamrolled in the process.

Luckily for Konami, the fans of the Metal Gear Solid series were not so hostile. The Metal Gear lore is just as sacred as any you can name, but the majority of its fans were able to breathe a bit easier knowing that the next installment was in the hands of the one who has been by their side throughout their entire exposure to the series — the mastermind of Metal Gear, Hideo Kojima. When changes were speculated, fans were wary, but ultimately trusting and faithful to the director upstairs. With each new Metal Gear game, he had a new opportunity to spoil that magic… But it never happened. As consoles progressed and graphics updated, and even as the PSP came around, he and his Metal Gear baby progressed along with them leaving fans smiling at the end of the day. So why would he mess up now?

We trust you Kojima. We don’t know what you have in store for this next Metal Gear Solid, we just know it will be great.

***

Maybe we were wrong to put such faith in this man who, frankly, we knew nothing about. I am a fan of the Metal Gear Solid series. And in my opinion, Metal Gear Solid V is the worst release of the series.

The following is a dissection of my feelings towards The Phantom Pain — as well as some flat-out whining.

I. Kojima’s New Frontier

With this final installment to the Metal Gear Solid series, the director aimed for a new approach on gameplay and story. Whether it be for the sake of the series’ critics or for his own curiosity, this new game is committed to that different approach. Rather than isolated levels where the player progresses from point A to point B in a linear fashion promoting stealth action along the way, The Phantom Pain introduces wide-open spaces where the player is free to travel between any combination of points A through Q, inciting or avoiding stealth action along the way. We are given a massive slab of land with authentic-looking hills, vegetation, and rivers with which to explore and decorate with carnage as we see fit. The terrains also house a dynamic weather system, time-of-day lighting, and wildlife. With this, the series sees something it never has before — free roam delegation — as a vast new world of possibilities are opened up.

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a. Open-World

But this open world has an innate flaw that I think no one — not even developers — could have predicted. It gets boring. It gets dreadfully boring easily. The first time you get to infiltrate one of the small enemy-controlled camps, it’s a blast coming up with your own unique way of doing it, and it begs the intrigue of what it’ll be like to infiltrate the other more important, more complicated infrastructures further down the line. But more important infrastructures hardly come, while camps continue to be objectives and obstacles. So you continue enjoying the base camp infiltrations, for what enjoyment they do provide, extracting soldiers and stealing resource cases… After the twentieth time you capture a little base camp, you realize, this is what this game is. It’s infiltrating base camps during the down time between far-spaced and short-lived unique moments. It’s also around this time that the helicopter rides are feeling longer and longer, the terrain is starting to seem like the same thing over and over, and if you see one more rocky cliff, you’re going to hurl. That sensation of intrigue and excitement from feeling like you have really been dropped into Africa alone and must fight to survive… fades quickly. What was once a slow walk to your objective taking in every sight, examining the each blade of grass as snake’s boots pass over, quickly becomes a sprint to the marker in an attempt to make up for how far away your drop off point was — and ultimately how much time this is taking out of your life. This environment, with its expert graphics and authentic build, truly is wonderful at a time. But there comes a point where you’ve seen a ghastly amount of it, yet are still expected to continue enjoying it.

There does come a few times throughout the course of the game that an environment is introduced that nearly meets our wildest expectations: like the mansion in the jungle of Africa (complete with a waterfall, rope-bridge, and underground cellar). Another example is the ruin in Afghanistan where we first meet Quiet. Both settings are beautiful, unique to all other locations, and highlights of the game. Moving into them and seeing them for the first time, all of a sudden we feel that sensation again — the feeling of discovery and awe — even if moments ago we were fed up. Unfortunately, locations with this level of intrigue are so few and far between. I can only pick out a handful of them in my memory of the game, and with the amount of time I spent on the game, that’s not enough! The rewarding sensation and emotional investment comes back so easily given the introduction of an environment that is truly interesting… It’s a shame the game did not include more of that.

b. I Want to Feel the Danger

I think it’s worth pointing out that both the mansion and the ruin are isolated environments — meaning they were surrounded by uncrossable rock walls and had only two points of entry: an A and a B… Hmm, it’s almost as if it were a level and not just another location on the free-roam spectrum. It is my opinion that this has MUCH to do with how successfully these missions came across. When an environment is completely open, it loses something… There’s a sense of mystery about what lies beyond uncrossable walls. And where there’s mystery, there’s unease. I think when there’s no sense of what exactly lies beyond a level’s boundaries, the environment in the players mind starts to seem way larger than a large open-world ever could. I think that quality of boundaries keeping you isloated in an environment that could never be completely knowable makes the environment feel more threatening, which is a very good thing for a stealth game. An environment that feels dangerous keeps the player on edge and heightens their awareness resulting in a more thrilling and palpable gaming experience. This brings me to an important point about the game’s environment: the experiences of infiltrating small camps in wide-open free-roam spaces eventually results in feeling like you are the master of your environment. When the helicopter drops Snake down in either setting, I’m not immediately hunching down and checking my surroundings for enemies… I’m taking off for a casual jog towards my objective. The standard setting of the game eventually loses all sense of danger, thus allows the gameplay to feel very casual… and dull! But keep this in mind: it wouldn’t matter how repetitive the gameplay was… If it somehow, throughout that repetition, was able to retain the intensity that results from fearing for your character’s life, it would not ever get old. Alien Isolation is a good example of this: the player does the same thing quite often, but it is always the OPPOSITE of DULL!

c. Everything’s Outdoors

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And did you notice all the gameplay is outside? With the exception of the mansion in Africa, every mission takes place outdoors in wide-open spaces. Would it have been so hard to theorize a reason for a fortress in this story and design a freaking base interior to serve as a setting for a mission? Complex, metallic interiors have traditionally been where Snake has done all of his espionage action — it’s what the series is known for. Interiors work better with stealth, too, what with there being rooms, doorways, hallways, and hiding places like lockers and bathroom stalls. You can knock on a wall and then run around to get behind an enemy; you can surprise the enemy by popping out behind a corner; etc. Without interior spaces, we don’t have much to go on stealth-wise besides avoiding line-of-sight, sticking to shadows, and laying prone in the grass. And with all the enemies standing out in the open in view of each other, CQC becomes a lot less sensible, and there’s only a few logical choices left — either shoot them from far away, or use some kind of throwable object. Again, this gets old.

d. Incentive to Explore

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Another thing that bothered me about the environment, yet took me a long time to realize it was bothering me, is this: Open-worlds in other games always offer opportunities to seek out and reach vistas. A vista is a high-point in the map’s elevation that usually allows for an immaculate scenic view. Recall the scene in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater where Snake reaches the lookout over Gronzyj Grad? Though Snake Eater was not an open-world game, it’s an example of what a great vista is. There’s a weight to it; it feels important and meaningful — usually resulting from a treacherous climb or difficult task. In an open world game, it is usually very compelling to take time away from progressing the story to seek out these spots and enjoy them. It’s often the first thing I try to do when unleashed in an Elder Scrolls map. Other good examples are recent Grand Theft Auto installments and the Assassin’s Creed series in which there are always opportunities to test your limits of height and take in the sights as a reward for your vertical exploration. The Phantom Pain offers little that compares to a vista. The environment is typically only seen from a ground level, or slightly below or above. Even the helicopter doesn’t get that high — often hovering close to the ground when arriving or leaving an area. The environment clearly wasn’t designed to be seen from the sky. But it’s not exactly the lack of height that bothers me… It’s the lack of incentive to explore the environment. In The Phantom Pain, there’s not really any hidden locations or special lookouts, and the most unique areas are ones you will eventually cross during the main story anyway. So the only incentive to explore is to come across more resources. But that’s dull. I think the idea of taking in sights of the environment that you would otherwise not see unless you branched away from the where the story is leading is an important aspect for the open world concept. That aspect is not present in The Phantom Pain’s Africa and Afghanistan. What would Skyrim be like without the caves, temples, and mountains that could be found along the way? It would just be an unnecessarily large space to travel through.

II. The Phantom Objective

a. Busywork

Despite the gameplay spiraling into a dazing vortex of monotony, we continue to follow where it leads. Somehow, extracting a soldier with an “A” rank in medical skill seems like enough of a reward. The game presents the materials containers, soldiers, vehicles, mounted guns, medicinal plants, and raw diamonds as if they matter. And we buy into it — to the point where we will go out of our way and subject ourselves to the same exact gameplay we’ve already experienced countless times. Once its over, we’ve gained some extra GMP, which we can use to build some extra base platforms, which we can stock with extra soldiers, which we can dispatch on extra deployment missions, which will gain us some extra GMP again… and so on. It may seem compelling to keep advancing and leveling up, but other Metal Gear titles needed not be concerned with this kind of stuff. The Phantom Pain uses this busywork to trick the player into thinking he/she is doing something meaningful when really he/she is just helping the game mask its lack of meaningful content. What is the objective, really, when springing for that materials container or diamond?

Another way this game maintains the illusion that it’s loaded with content is by adding filler missions. The side ops such as “Extract the Wandering Mother Base Soldier” or “Capture the Legendary Brown Bear” are clearly not adding anything to the story — thus why they are side ops. But while progressing through the list of main story missions, you’ll find that many of them have you completing objectives not any more interesting than those of the side ops. Like sneaking into an enemy controlled camp to extract a prisoner, then sneaking out to exfiltrate. That’s a main story mission?? That’s just more busywork.

b. Customization

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The Phantom Pain also includes various customization options — a feature new to the series. The player can customize weapons with different mechanical parts, choose colors and patterns of weapons, vehicles, and the base, and create their own personal logo to be used around the base and as an arm-patch. Like free-roaming and mission choice, this is for the purpose of giving the player more control over the experience. But I have to say, I’m more of an advocate for the way the series was traditionally presented, and this change doesn’t sit well with me. This isn’t a comment on how successful or unsuccessful the customization aspect is; I’m just commenting that it’s not fitting for the series. Even with a degree of tolerance and respect for the director’s new vision, I believe customization to be such a trivial aspect considering everything else a Metal Gear game potentially has to offer. Previous installments (MGS 1 through 4) are presented like a film, and the player is simply along for the ride — filling the part of gameplay where it is needed. All the customization was done by the characters themselves, and we never second-guessed it. Snake’s tranq gun looked the way it did in previous games, because that’s Snake’s gun and that’s the way he likes it. We never said, “Hey Snake, I wish your tranq gun was blue with a stripe pattern, that’d be cooler”.

c. The Man Who Sold the World

“The Man Who Sold the World” by David Bowie is a song reprised in various spots throughout the game… In my mind, it’s become a symbol of Kojima who gave his Metal Gear creation up to the popular tropes of modern games, like open-world and customization. Kojima has said in the past he desired to be a film director, and it shows with prior games. So why does he suddenly have the mindset of a game developer more than a film maker? He has left the experience up to the player more than ever before, reducing the importance of his own directorial taste, and the gameplay now reigns supreme nearly leaving the story in the dust… This is not the Kojima nor the Metal Gear I knew.

Which brings me to my most important complaint.

III. The End of Storytime

The presentation of story in The Phantom Pain is the most consistently criticized feature of the game among fans thus far. Before getting into exactly why I think that is, let me say there are moments during The Phantom Pain when the story is actually arriving at a place we desire from it. The moments do exist and are enjoyable. But, these moments are too few, require a task-heavy hike to reach them, and are rarely touching the big picture.

a. The Big Picture

This is the last Metal Gear Solid game. Knowing Kojima’s antics, we have the right to be skeptical, but as of now we have no reason to think otherwise. So knowing this is the last game, what do you think should be expected of it? For the conclusion of a series as long and complicated as Metal Gear, I would expect answers. I would expect loose ends to be tied and characters to be resolved as well as a great tie-in to the rest of the series’ installments…

The Phantom Pain has these things sparsely, but more often is branching out into new topics, avoiding the mention of plot lines from previous games, filling the already stuffed canon with more lore, adding more complicated ideas, and creating more loose ends. I had in mind the story points I wanted touched on in this game — things connecting the Big Boss half of the story to the Solid Snake half, such as the evolution of Liquid, the upbringing of David, the transition from Huey to Hal, etc. But instead we have to sit through so much content that feels like a sidetrack! Stuff like Skull Face and his revenge plan, Code Talker’s biologic sooth-saying, the damn parasites, and fucking Sahelanthropus! It wasn’t until the story was over that I realized not only were my wishes for the story not fulfilled, but there was no excuse not to deliver these things! Why would it not touch on Solid Snake at all? Why would it not take the opportunity to show Hal or Meryl as children? And was a fucking Gray Fox cameo too much to ask for? I KNOW he was around during this time; a part of me was sure he would show up eventually. And what about Raiden? He was a child soldier — IN AFRICA — IN THE LATE 80s! Doesn’t it seem like a mention of him is bound to be included? I feel like a lot of opportunities to relate this game to the others was missed out on. But clearly Kojima did not feel the need to cater to fans in that way. Perhaps that was just too easy? Rather than inside jokes and nostalgic references that make us feel warm inside, he chose to make The Phantom Pain its own thing. It’s almost as if he tried with every Metal Gear installment to start fresh and make a new, better version of a futuristic espionage thriller — because if you notice, every Metal Gear game kind of has its own isloated plot along with attempting to keep its foothold within the complete story. Maybe that was perfectly fine for a game like Peacewalker. But for the last of the series, I think it should have had more to do with the grand design… than with parasites.

b. Cassette Tapes

The reveal of Psycho Mantis early on got me excited about the story. It seemed to tell of the kind of relating I was looking for. But you eventually realize, despite how much Psycho Mantis is shown throughout the game, there’s no development there — just more of the same one-note treatment every single time he is shown, which was disappointing. But then I realized his development is actually there, but present in cassette tapes. There are three or more cassette tapes that describe how he was created and how his powers work. This is a bit of a relief, but they are still cassette tapes! Cassette tapes are the single worst thing about the game, if you ask me. The series is known for its immaculate cinematics where characters make a big dramatic stink about their history or heritage or vengeful motives. But in this one, supposedly a reaction to players’ criticisms regarding the lengthy cinematics injecting themselves into the campaign and creating large spaces of down-time (which never bothered me), Kojima introduces this cassette tape system where the injected cinematics are kept short, and more information is available via audio log to those who want it. Well I wanted all the information! And the problem with cassette tapes is they aren’t as convenient as they would seem… Oh, you can just play them in the background and return to gameplay while listening to them — sounds simple enough, right? But I never found a good time to listen to them. If I played them and tried to resume doing something important, not being able to hear the environment around me would impede my ability to perform my tasks; also, trying to perform my tasks would impede my ability to properly take in all the information the tape contained. So I quickly realized, the only way to listen to them is to just sit there while it played. That’s the only way I could understand them. Maybe I’m just not good at doing multiple things at once… But still that would never compare to watching a character speak the words. The cassette tapes feel like such a hassle to me. Especially since they are not organized in any sensible way. You have this long list of cassette sets, and some of the sets have multiple tapes, but then again some topics have multiple sets, like “Questioning Emmerich 1”, “Qestioning Emmerich 2”, in which one of them would have multiple tapes in it. What’s the logic? Plus, the sets are not in alphabetical order, and don’t seem to be in any kind of timeline order. It’s really confusing, and the most annoying way of revealing plot-points I can imagine.

c. Antagonist Characters

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Most of the plot-points regarding inter-title connections like Emmerich and Liquid are thrusted onto the responsibility of the tapes, whereas the pieces of story relating only to The Phantom Pain — like Skull Face and the parasites — are given cinematics to shine. But these pieces of the story are not very… what’s the word… good. Skull Face as a creation feels easy. He is a cowboy-hat and spur-wearing villain with a face that looks skullish — hence the name Skull Face. Every word out of his mouth is spoken the same way — with a flat, generically bad-guy tone. And of course he’s got a plan for revenge on the world, and the reasoning for this is never more detailed than, “He lost is language and his home… He lost everything”. That doesn’t exactly make his character palpable. Considering the description put into backstories of Crying Wolf, and Laughing Octopus, etc. from Metal Gear Solid 4, it seems like the writing has lost a step. There’s also, “the man on fire”, who is eventually revealed to have connections to Big Boss from several games ago. But his connection, and entire concept, feels shoe-horned in. With all the potential in the Metal Gear canon, that’s the best we can do?!

d. Protagonist Characters

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I must mention all the Mother Base characters too. There’s Kaz, of course, who is probably the flatest of character of the series. He’s always, “Snake! Don’t!” and then stands there while Snake does it. He brings literally nothing to the table other than someone to pass judgement and bounce Big Boss’s ideas off of. There’s Ocelot, who I didn’t much of a problem with; although, he’s not nearly the charismatic flame he was in Snake Eater, nor is he the sinister brute he was in Metal Gear Solid 1. He’s just kind of there in The Phantom Pain. There’s Huey, who is just as pathetic as usual (I enjoyed the reprise of that voice actor — such an iconic voice for a character who’s been with the series since the PS1 days). But I could never understand where his character was coming from or the other characters’ relationship with him. They do nothing but torture him in all his scenes, and Huey provides nothing but acceptable reasons why he’s not the monster they make him out to be… still his relationship with the crew doesn’t evolve… And I’m kind of disappointed he didn’t lose any female friends in this one, as he does in every other game of the series.

Then there’s Paz, who was supposed to have died but is brought back to life through re-writing magic. I actually liked the development of Paz though. I thought her part in Ground Zeroes was great, and her slightly continued story in The Phantom Pain I appreciate. Although, it did not go as far as I would have expected, and certainly not as far as I hoped for. Keep in mind, I have not yet experienced all the game’s Easter eggs. Some would say the fact of Paz being there at all was an Easter egg. But it’s not very hard to find her if you explore your base a bit.

e. Quiet

The character of “Quiet” gets a pass from me in every way, except one. I’ll describe that in my next paragraph. But Quiet, overall, is a great addition to the game providing a much needed mechanism for emotional connection. If not for her, there would essentially be no emotional connection anywhere. Big Boss and his cronies are pretty cold, and the villains are too underdeveloped to sympathize with. So Quiet is a blessing on this game. Her character is deep and complex in the expected Metal Gear fashion, and she’s got a great slice of story-development backing her. She is given some awesome cinematics to shine in, and there’s a weight to her presence whenever she’s on screen. To put it short, she is compelling. She’s compelling at a time when almost nothing else is, and I think she’s the best-conceived aspect of the game .

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My only problem with Quiet is her character design… I admire the work Stephanie Joosten put into voice and motion-capture, and Quiet’s face during pivotal moments is what made the character as relatable as she was; but that’s not the part I’m referring to. The model design of everything lower than the head is a tad aggrivating. Kojima and crew will state they are aware of the over-the-top “sexiness” of the character, and explanations on that topic will always result in describing her as having a secret reason for dressing the way she does, and players should look forward to the reveal of such reasoning… I just laugh. Let’s not kid ourselves here, okay, pretending like this is more intellectual than it is. Yes, Quiet has a reason for dressing the way she does involving her biology, the parasites, and photosynthesis and all that, and it makes sense. But the reasoning clearly came after the design of character was thought up. At some point, a character artist (or the director himself, I don’t know) came up with that design and thought, wouldn’t it be cool if they could give this design an explanation as an excuse to really put her in the game like that. And that’s what they did. But Metal Gear being so far-fetched already, it probably wouldn’t have required an explanation for most fans — just an explanation for the feminists. Either way, the majority of players are going to fall in love with her just because she’s hot. Am I the only one who thinks mystery is more sexy than big boobs and lots of exposed skin? Her dress was very distracting for me during this story (in an ticked way, not an aroused way). And if they were so intent on the reasoning that she must expose “as much skin as possible” for survival, why wouldn’t she be completely naked? Or at least not wearing heavy boots, a belt, and leg coverings. I guess she had to have someplace to store her sniper rounds… someplace that didn’t require a wicked imagination.

f. Big Boss

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Then there’s Big Boss. In this installment, he’s more of an idea than a character. Over the course of the story, he appears not to have much personality, which isn’t uncommon compared to previous Big Bosses and even Solid Snake. In the past David Hayter’s voicework was enough to make them both at least a little interesting. But with Sutherland stepping in as the character’s voice, Big Boss feels dryer and older. This isn’t a bad thing; where Big Boss’s story has brought him would resonate with a more raw and tired persona. We get the persona of Big Boss — mostly his image — rather than a character-study, and all his description comes mostly through other characters who refer to him. But I suppose we don’t get to learn much about his character is because the character in question is not actually present, which is the main reason I say he’s more of an idea than a character…

During the final story mission (episode 50), it is revealed that the player character, who we’ve known as Big Boss all this time, is actually just a loyal soldier under a crisis of identity due to an elaborate scheme by the real Big Boss and Ocelot. So this facade Big Boss operates the warfront believing he is actually the leader of Diamond Dogs, while the true Big Boss continues his most valued objective behind the scenes. I am actually content with this concept. I think that little tidbit of info says more about the character of Big Boss than anything “Punished Snake” (the decoy leader) ever said or could have said about him. I also think it fits well into Big Boss’s transition into the main villain of the first Metal Gear. This conniving plan paints him to be less relatable and more diabolic than ever before. With that, he finally becomes the legend, and not just the soldier.

The only thing that doesn’t sit well with me in this aftermath, is the knowledge that throughout the final installment of Metal Gear, which was supposed to be the conclusion to the story of Big Boss, we don’t get to play as the real Big Boss. That doesn’t seem right. And it brings the idea of busywork to a more prevalent state than ever since the real Big Boss’s purpose for the decoy was to have someone to take care of all the busywork for him.

g. Length

After all is said and done, the story took a long time to get through. That’s the way it’s designed. As opposed to something like Metal Gear Solid 4, which one can run through in only several hours if skipping cinematics, The Phantom Pain makes us do a lot of stuff before revealing plot points. For the record, I like long games. I like a game that takes about seventy hours to complete. It makes it feel more substantial; more like a real adventure. But though The Phantom Pain required this hefty amount of time from its player in order to complete, it still felt short to me. The reason is because of the amount of valuable content that length included, which was hardly any – not nearly enough to merit such a lengthy experience. I kept saying to myself, “No, this game hasn’t really gotten started yet, I haven’t gotten to the main part yet…” because it didn’t seem like anything important was happening. And I was saying this all the way to the very end.

Rarely did a plot point feel substantial in the traditional Metal Gear way. And what lite story this game has is spread out across a grueling list of tasks. And the task-list, like I stated before, seems less than important in the grand scheme. It feels like these missions were deliberately included just to add length to the campaign. Not substance — but length. That’s all it is. As opposed to something like Metal Gear Solid 4, again, which has a brief gameplay runtime, yet packs so much story, different locations, exciting ideas, and cool moments into it. That’s why I was able to see past MGS4’s lacking gameplay and give it a good score.

IV. New Features

The PS4 generation of Metal Gear installments made great strides in the aspect of gameplay. Along with better mechanics and feel, The Phantom Pain includes a vast array of features to make gameplay interesting — more than just a selection of weird items like Pentazemin and chaff grenades. With The Phantom Pain, the series for the first time ever allows the player do things like ride a horse, command a partner in combat, request supply drops of things like ammunition and vehicles, and use weather and time-of-day to their advantage. The game’s new gameplay features are almost a saving grace — if not for the ones that didn’t work.

a. Buddy System

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When considering The Phantom Pain’s new features, the one that comes to mind most prominently is the buddy system. The player is given the choice before each outing to bring a buddy to have present during the mission. Metal Gear games have almost always been a solo experience, so bringing a buddy is lax towards the traditional Metal Gear experience, but judging from many other aspects, we already knew this game was going to be way different. The use of buddies end up being pretty fun. And what keeps this new feature feeling fresh is the huge gap in purpose and usefulness between your buddies. Considering how each buddy functions, their abilities, and how they can provide assistance becomes a new way to strategize before heading into enemy territory. And what’s more, each of the buddies performs their purpose very well, with good character models and animations I might add. They eventually become a very valued aspect of the game. It’s easy to tell the buddies weren’t just a thing the developers threw together. The buddy concept was well thought out and had no trouble making a successful transition from idea to realization. I could even imagine how more buddies would have been enjoyable. Eli would have been fun to bring on a mission. Or how about D-Falcon?! Possibly in future downloadable content?

I only have two negative things to say about the buddies: 1) I never used D-Walker apart from first getting to know it, I just had no reason to; and 2) Quiet leaves at the end of the story eliminating her from the buddy list for good. This is a big deal, but I won’t spend time talking about it. Just go onto any forum on Metal Gear and search for “get Quiet back”; the community is almost unanimously upset about it; there’s even a petition going around. My issue with it is mainly this: why introduce such a fun, dynamic buddy to the gameplay just to limit the total time we get to spend with her? I guess it was deliberate by Kojima that she inflict that emotional damage on the player, and I almost respect that decision… but at the end of the day, video games are supposed to be an indulgence. If we enjoyed using Quiet (which I did), then we should be able to return to using her whenever we want. This was clearly a lapse in judgement by the director, and it’s already rumored that she will show up again via DLC.

b. Mother Base

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Another big new feature of The Phantom Pain is Mother Base, which serves as a stomping ground in between missions. Snake can visit in his downtime to say hello to his fellow Diamond Dogs, take a shower, practice gunslinging, run laps, visit friends, etc. Mother Base’s construction is not static either. The base will change shape depending on your development decisions, and soldiers and defense weapons will be present depending on your extractions in the field. So it’s kind of nice way to see first-hand the effects of your leadership.

Other than that, Mother Base is really boring. It’s such a drab looking place, and it’s so spread out. Why are the base platforms so freaking far from each other? I’m sure there’s a reason, but the thought of crossing one of those extremely long bridges makes me want to say “forget it, I’ll have the helicopter pick me up from this platform, and I’ll visit that other one some other time”. The layout of the buildings on each platform is super complicated too. That is one of those things I think was done specifically to make the multiplayer opportunities more interesting. But for single-player purposes, navigating the base totally drains my enthusiasm.

c. Multiplayer

Speaking of multiplayer, I should mention the “FOB Infiltration” missions. This is where you can hop from your base through a vortex to some other player’s base and attempt to steal their soldiers and/or supplies while the other player attempts to search and destroy you. I heard of this a few months before launch, and I had pretty much the same feelings I have now — I’m never going to do this. This is a Metal Gear game, not Counter Strike. I play these games for the adventure and rich story, not to blast noobs. So, okay, I’ll just not have anything to do with it. Simple. But no; actually, this feature is melded with the single player experience. Those materials containers you fought NPCs to obtain during a story mission, can now be taken by some human player in a different state whenever they feel like it — even when you are asleep! So you wake up to find that you are missing materials that were going to help you through the rest of the story? No, I’m not dealing with that shit; I played the whole story with internet connection turned off. And I’ve heard that’s not uncommon.

Perhaps online infiltration really is fun… It would certainly add value to the procurement of weapons and high-ranking soldiers, whereas without the online experience, there isn’t much point. And it would certainly add replay value as well. But I’m going to take my sweet time getting to a place in the game where I’m finally ready for that. We should have had that option anyway.

d. Rain and Sand

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This might be the only thing about the game that I feel unanimously positive about. There are two settings for action in The Phantom Pain (not including Mother Base): Afghanistan and Africa. The two settings provide different aesthetics — one of dry rocky plateaus, and one of grasslands and damp jungles. In addition, both of the settings have a weather feature unique to them. Afghanistan will periodically be hit by sandstorms which reduce visibility to nearly zilch and allow the player to run through wide-open spaces undetected for a short time. And Africa will have rainstorms every so often that make a clattering so loud on the muddy ground that footsteps become indistinguishable from rain drops. In the midst of a rainstorm, Snake can run up behind and enemy without having to worry about being silent. I have nothing negative to say! They are excellent concepts that translate well to strategy and look nice graphically, too.

e. Fulton

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Everyone’s favorite recruiting technique from Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker, the Fulton recovery system, makes a second appearance in The Phantom Pain, and players all over the world realize it wasn’t just a phase. Fulton recovery is a piece of equipment Snake can take into the field that allows him to extract soldiers, vehicles, animals, etc. by stringing them up by a balloon and sending them way up into the sky for an aircraft to recover… Yes it’s silly, but I understand its usefulness in a situation that has next to no alternatives. Are there any better ideas regarding how to take a captured soldier back to the base? Not really, other than dragging their ass back to the helicopter landing zone and taking them with you that way. But it would be very time consuming to do this with all the soldiers you wanted to take. What Kojima has done is devise a semi-plausible solution so that we can get the extraction process out of the way with minimal frustration and get back to the task at hand. Functioning strictly as a solution to the dilemma, I’m okay with Fultons.

Although, I do think they effect the experience negatively in a certain context. When you Fulton every enemy you incapacitate, which tends to be your first thought as soon as their head hits the ground, it eliminates that ever-compelling aspect of hiding the body. It used to be, in ANY stealth game, that you would need to hide a body if you took someone out. The added work of taking the body somewhere out of sight while trying to keep out of sight yourself gave the scene some extra tension, which is always a plus. The situation gets even stickier if the stunned enemy wakes up to find that they’ve been hidden… How exciting! But in The Phantom Pain, you need not worry about such things. Just shoot that soldier up into the sky and out of the equation!

f. Boss Battles

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When approaching a new installment from a series you’ve come to know, it’s sensible to expect the series’ staples to be present in the new one. When I think Metal Gear, I think of several things foremost: the oddball story, the bandanna in Snake’s hair, and some utterly fantastic bosses… I was very sad to notice the boss battles in The Phantom Pain did not compare in the slightest to previous Metal Gears. In fact… one could hardly say this game includes boss battles. There’s only one real boss battle in the whole game — Sahelanthropus. And it wasn’t real fun. Arguments can be made that there were several other boss battles present in the game, including Quiet, the “Skulls” parasite unit, and Eli. But the Quiet battle, despite being an awesome scene, is not with malicious intent — unless you really wanted to kill her. I was hellbent on getting her as a buddy as soon as possible, so the scene, in my eyes, was just an odd method of courting her. The duel with sniper-wielding parasite soldiers in the misty jungle was an awesome moment! But though these parasite soldiers displayed health bars and fought with unique powers, I wouldn’t consider them bosses in the traditional sense: There’s multiple of them at once, whereas a boss battle is supposed to be a one-on-one, intimate sort of thing. Also a boss is supposed to be a character and even have a backstory. A boss is supposed to have meaningful weight, whereas they do not. The parasite soldiers are just nameless brutes with powers – just an enhanced version of the soldiers we commonly meet in side ops. Eli is actually the next best thing to a boss. It’s a rather unique scene with a unique location and is a one-on-one fight. But again, having the objective to extract Eli, not kill him, it feels more like a courtship.

It’s really too bad this game didn’t involve boss battles to rival Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, 3, and 4. It’s one of my very favorite aspects of those games. And it’s not like there wasn’t opportunities! That’s what really gets under my skin. Skull Face (the main villain) meets his demise in a cutscene… A CUTSCENE! He could easily have been a boss battle the likes of the first Volgin battle from Snake Eater… The Man on Fire, as well, you would think would be a boss at some point. But not really. There is one scene where the player is given control of trying to escape the scene while The Man on Fire is wandering around trying to burn you… but there’s no bringing down his health or stamina, so that could never be considered a boss. Even Psycho Mantis could have provided a boss-like situation if we were given enough of a personal moment with him. Not all bosses require a resulting death to be considered a good boss. Since Psycho Mantis is in the future of this story, I can see where it could have been successful to exhibit him in some sort of temporary battle, such as the Ocelot battle from Snake Eater. Seems like they weren’t looking for too many opportunities to include bosses. But why not reprise such a beloved aspect?

g. And Another Thing…

I could think of no sly way to include this rant… or maybe I didn’t care to:

The hospital scene is fucking miserable — both times you play through it. Way too long and confusing. Some missions I’m certain were poorly designed and/or way too hard like trying to hide from Sahelanthropus after the chase ensues, escorting the dumbass kids through enemy territory, and trying to steal that truck driven by the Skulls unit. There were times I wondered if they test-played these missions enough. Or at all. Those Skulls units always knew where you were, even if you were supposedly hidden. They’d just start walking like a zombie in your direction… That doesn’t exactly make sense. And where’s my epic finale? Was the Sahelanthropus battle supposed to be it? At the time, I thought that’s a shitty ending if that’s really the ending… but as it turns out it was just the end of chapter 1! …Which turned out to be the end of the main story arc. Every mission post-that was just a jumbled bunch of random stuff I guess to make the game feel longer? Like the second break-out of the infection; what the hell was that? It’s like they came up with the idea last minute and decided to add it somewhere. This game’s conclusion is the most awkward thing I’ve ever come across in a game. I’m not claiming Kojima’s writing in the past was always super tight; MGS2 was a circus. But at least MGS2 was a wild, thrilling ride with a rising action, climax, falling action, and satisfying conclusion. But at the “end” of The Phantom Pain, we have less of a pleased exhale, and more of a confused look.

V. Compared to Ground Zeroes

A year and five months ago, I was playing Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. It’s amazing how time flies. But anyway, the most exciting thing about that game was not the plot or the gameplay, but imagining how the new look and feel could translate into a new epic installment of the Metal Gear franchise. Ground Zeroes was that brief gasp where the light of an intense explosion has reached you, but neither the sound nor the force yet has… The Phantom Pain would be that force. It was like peeking through a spyglass at the dazzling future. Ground Zeroes was so thrilling for that reason. Now that The Phantom Pain has shown its true colors, I can’t help but reflect on the feeling from back then… and what became of it.

I wrote an inspired review of Ground Zeroes after my first week with the game. I looked at every aspect of the game — what they changed, what they kept the same, what was good, what was bad, but mostly looking at how these things might translate into the next installment. In this section, I’m revisiting that review and quoting it now that I have seen the end of the tunnel…

a. Character Movement

The first thing I talked about was Kojima’s desire to finally create the perfect stealth game now that technology was up to par, and how that translated into to possibly the best stealth action I had ever seen; “To put it simply… Ground Zeroes’ gameplay is heaven.” Well, the overall gameplay experience of The Phantom Pain has been slightly less than heaven… But referring to the character movement and control, it is still sublimely refined, and that’s one saving grace about the The Phantom Pain. Despite the greatness of prior Metal Gear installments, there was usually some amount of clunk to the character movements and performing of actions. Sometimes it was not that bad (Snake Eater); sometimes it was really bad (MGS2: Sons of Liberty), but it was always present in some capacity. With the PS4 generation, the idiosyncratic movements that may have been frustrating before have been completely redesigned, and character movement is more intuitive. Whereas in previous games I would feel like I was slightly at the mercy of what Snake felt like doing in tense situations, now I feel total control over him and can manipulate his body with certainty of what will result.

b. Graphics

“They are pretty much godly. I’ve never seen a game with this few holes to poke through.” The graphics in The Phantom Pain overall are still as great as Ground Zeroes. But with such big environments in the new one, I’ve noticed the distance rendering is not always great. It’s pretty nitpicky to say that, since its distance rendering is still more adept than average. I wouldn’t mention it if it didn’t at times bother me, though. The way trees or ground texture looks through the scope did bother me at times. I guess we can’t expect the world from a PS4 system. Overall, though, the graphics are nothing short of stupendous. I’m particularly impressed by the lighting during sunrise/sunset in Afghanistan. The rocky cliffs get this pinkish-orange glow to them that really feels authentic.

c. Inventory

I noticed that Ground Zeroes gave the player minimal equipment to work with — just a tranq gun and a rifle pretty much — and while more is not really necessary, I was a bit let down at the thought that The Phantom Pain might not reprise the classic element of interesting items and gadgets that Metal Gear stealth action always offered. But it turns out it would. And while they are still not necessary, I like having them there. It reminds me of the old days when I had to scroll past the “fake-death pill” to activate snake’s “motion detector”.

d. Map

This is where I met a big clash between my enthusiasm for Ground Zeroes and my disappointment with The Phantom Pain. “The coolest thing to happen to the series’ stealth action is the map… …With a giant enclosed map to run around causing trouble in… ” It’s the “enclosed” part that, like I explained in section 1, contributes to the environment feeling more exciting. Enclosed areas are something that The Phantom Pain features only in a few missions. I would have liked to see more of it. As much as I love the concept of free-to-explore vast environments, I don’t like the way it translated to this game’s experience. In fact, I would have been happier if every single mission in the new one was some sort of enclosure, like the Ground Zeroes map. An enclosure can still be really really big! And it can still offer tons of options as far as route and planning. Often what you get when there is no emphasis on specific level-design and rather focus on making one huge map is a vague, fit-all aesthetic. That aesthetic ended up applying to 90% of the walkable area in The Phantom Pain. There’s just not enough interest-per-square-inch in most of these places. I feel like there was more visual interest in 3’s Dremuchij North than in all of 5’s Afghanistan.

e. Overall

I mentioned several other changes of the new generation in my Ground Zeroes review, such as the tagging system, reflex mode, the health system, and Snake’s new voice. Seeing and using these things in The Phantom Pain, I feel pretty much the same about them now as I did then — they morally take some getting used to, but I’m more accepting of them than not. What turned out to be the big surprise regarding the shift from Ground Zeroes to The Phantom Pain is this: I thought the open-world gameplay and rich story were somehow going to thrive together. Now, I see that not only did they not compliment each other, but neither of them worked as well individually as they should have…

“[The Phantom Pain] …will be more heaven” is how I closed my review.

VI. Aftermath

Ground Zeroes seemed to promise something wonderful. The canon up to that point seemed to do the same. As players and lovers of this series, we had years to think of all the possibilities — all the things that could happen — all the moments that would surely leave us breathless. I’ll admit, there’s plenty about The Phantom Pain worth forgiveness. There is plenty worth defending. If any player wanted to preach about how The Phantom Pain is a great game, I would listen with an open mind, because I truly desire to like it. But, while we can defend it all day, I think everyone can agree that this game turned out to be so much less than its potential.

Keep in mind, I write all this because I care. Not because I’m a nasty critic. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is my favorite video game of all time, and it’s brothers in the series I have a tight fondness for as well. Those games — in particular, Snake Eater and MGS1 — had so much MAGIC. Stepping into their world was gripping and emotionally consuming. I got so invested in their stories. It’s why I’ve played through Snake Eater six times now. When a game is truly great, it’s undeniable. And The Phantom Pain, unfortunately had to live in the shadow of those great titles. In a way it was destined for failure. Kojima probably knew that in such an unforgiving landscape, the only way to set this one apart would be to take drastic measures. That’s what he did. He sought to deliver a completely new experience and dazzle us with new concepts. The Phantom Pain tried to deliver so much to its player. In a way it did. But it also failed to come through on the things I most cherished about the series. The ambiance, the pace, the characters. These aspects suffered from the inclusion of drastic measures. The open-world, building up mother base, building an army, the weather system; all nice ideas. But at the end of the day, all I really wanted was inside jokes. Like the part when Ocelot says, “it’s got no tactical advantage whatsoever”, reiterating what Snake had told him twenty years earlier about his gun’s engraving. Simple things like were my secret desire.

If I’m looking deep inside myself, what I really wanted from this game was a light-hearted reminder of all my favorite things about the series and a warm feeling that the game has my best interest in mind as it guides me through the bittersweet realization that the series is actually… over.

 

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5 responses to “Great Expectations: Review of The Phantom Pain

  1. I came back to this amazing game yesterday,and what I found out is that if you haven’t played it in a while you will SUCK. At least in the first couple of missions. I’m re-reading your review and I love it,and I can’t wait to get back home and play some MGSV!

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