From the prologue, to its one and only chapter transition, to the prologue again, and to the annoying against-all-odds stand-off that actually ends the game after the credits have already rolled twice, Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain is so very Kojima. And just to remind you, there will be a title card and interim credits every half hour or so.
After the jump, written and directed by Hideo Kojima.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Hideo Kojima proudly branding this installment of the franchise. I have no idea how dyed-in-the-wool Metal Gear fans will react, specifically to one of the final reveals, but as a sometime Metal Gear player, this is easily as good as the series has ever been (here’s my one-star review of Metal Gear Solid 4 if you want to get a sense for what my deal is). Kojima and his team deserve a lot of credit for at last balancing all the Metal Gear nonsense with actual gameplay. This is the Metal Gear game us non-Metal Gear fans have waited almost thirty years to play.
The supposedly new approach to gameplay isn’t unprecedented. The basic pattern of a feedback loop between the stealth action and base management will be familiar to anyone who played Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on the PSP. As will be the absurd concept of ferrying new manpower via balloons. Not since Up have balloons been so relevant to a plot. The more men you kidnap via balloons to work at your base, the better your base and therefore your weapons research, which makes it easier to kidnap more men via balloons, which makes your base better, and so on. That was the basic pattern of Peace Walker and it’s now the basic pattern of Phantom Pain. The man harvesting is a familiar and effective way to drive the gameplay.
What’s new is that this Metal Gear has achieved a compromise between stealth and action. When the sneaking fails, or if you just can’t be bothered to sneak, Phantom Pain will let you Call of Duty your way along. This is where stealth games belong. Splinter Cell: Blacklist has brought Sam Fisher to the same place. The idea is to reward the meticulous sneakers and let the rest of us shoot our way out. This is, of course, also a gadget game. Snake gets a spread of weapons and toys that would make Batman jealous. He also gets upgradeable sidekicks with unique powers and personalities. In the age of Ellie and Elizabeth and Chumbucket and whoever that guy was with Sam Fisher in the last game, the whole “working alone” thing is so passe.
Also new is the open-world. Peace Walker was a set of missions. But now Konami and Kojima have dragged Snake into the era of Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim by presenting a wide-open swathe of Afghanistan, and then some. You can do the usual roaming and flower picking and fast-travel set-ups (Snake can FedEx himself in those silly boxes he uses to hide, but only once you discover the delivery points). You can do side missions. You can collect animals. You can harvest men for your base. When it comes time to do story missions, the requisite scripting kicks in, but in the same places you’re been traversing all this while. You’ll get to know places like the Lamar Khaate Palace, the Nova Braga Airport, and others.
It’s a seamless world, but as far as living worlds go, it’s fairly limited. You won’t swim or fly. The world doesn’t breathe so much as rattle to life. Sometimes guards shift at dawn. Sometimes a truck trundles down the road to presumably deliver something. But there is no activity beyond the sporadic camps and outposts. There are no regular convoys and very few patrols. There are no civilians. The animals are never larger than a dingo. The day/night cycle is more of a bright/slightly less bright cycle. The weather makes occasional atmospheric appearances for a few minutes at a time. This is no Far Cry 4 or Just Cause or Grand Theft Auto V. This isn’t the overbusy wasteland of Mad Max or an Ubisoft map crammed with Ubistuff to do. It most closely resembles Far Cry 2’s generous expanses.
What sets Phantom Pain apart from a lot of other open world games is that it changes. Not radically. This isn’t a matter of skyscrapers collapsing or giant statues being erected or poison gas shrouding the world. The changes aren’t even apparent at first. You might have no idea they’re happening. In fact, if you’re one of the people who whined about checkpoints repopulating in Far Cry 2, get ready to whine some more at being unable to Rambo down the entire Soviet military. Snake can clear an outpost of every last Russian soldier and even get a heroism bonus for capturing it. Tomorrow, it’s just going to get more Russians. This isn’t a world to unfog and conquer. It’s a world to visit and disrupt.
Because the change comes about in the way the Russians react to Snake’s disruptions. To the right of the map are a series of icons that you might not even notice if you’re not the type to pore over help screens (Phantom Pain is very well documented). As you play, depending on how you play, these icons gradually turn bright red. This represents increased readiness on the part of the soldiers you’ll face. They’ll start adding security cameras if you use stealth a lot. They’ll equip better weapons if you’re frequently Call of Dutying it. If you hit them during the night, they’ll be more inclined to wear night vision goggles. You like headshots, don’t you? Who doesn’t. The more you headshot, the more the Russians wear helmets.
So how do you scale back this readiness so you can, for example, get back to headshotting the guards? You don’t. You might expect the higher level of alertness should settle down after a while, just as the alert guards at a base stop searching if you crouch in the grass long enough. But that’s not what’s going on here. These new alert levels, effectively this world’s upgrades, are permanent. They change the way the game is played and there’s no resetting. As you upgrade, the enemy soldiers upgrade. You won’t go back to mowing down trash mobs with your basic assault rifle or just sniping an outpost clean with impunity. So you better start using your newly unlocked weapons and toys, not to mention upgrading them to keep up with the power curve.
But then a strange thing happens. The game ends. You’ll be, all, like, “Wait, what about the (insert name of some cool thing that was introduced but never used)? Wasn’t I supposed to get to use that?”
Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, this is one of those games with so much content that you’ll never see it all in one playthrough. Theoretically, you could take your time to unlock and enjoy more of the toys. You could draw out the process by holding off on story missions while you research and upgrade weapons. If you want those advanced doo-dads — I never got beyond rank three research out of a possible six ranks — just don’t run the narrative game clock. Alternatively, you can finesse the spreadsheet of your base staff to focus on specific unlockables, which I suspect is what we’re supposed to do. Even then, after the final cutscene, you’re probably going to have so many upgrades and weapons untouched or still locked, so many toys yet to play with. Which means you can keep playing, right?
One of the design mandates of an open world game is to never close the box. Open worlds should also be worlds without end. Not according to Phantom Pain. Once the story is over, the game is unconcerned with sustaining itself. A few missions can be replayed with harder parameters, but only a few and with no flexibility to the parameters at all. Maybe do some of those side missions to hunt down a legendary ibex so you can, I don’t know, equip an ibex bandana or something. You can also grind away at online invasions of other players’ oil rigs, where many of your doo-dads are utterly useless or not even allowed (this is where Konami has slipped in a microtransaction boondoggle, which I suspect you’ll bump up against if you try to research everything). Either chunks of Phantom Pain were cut or Kojima is a real cocktease. Because you’re left to dink around in the open world, effectively spinning your wheels wondering where that cool game you were just playing went. New game plus mode? Not here. Harder difficulty level? You just played it.
I’m okay with this. You might complain that Metal Gear Solid V is incomplete, but you cannot complain that it’s insufficient. This is a long, deep, broad game, the sort of package that will swallow days and even weeks at a time. But in the end, I don’t mind that Metal Gear Solid V is done with me before I’m done with it. It’s not like I don’t have other things to do after fifty hours. It’s not like I don’t have a stack of games without end still pending. The Metal Gear Solid series has always been preoccupied with story over gameplay, and even if it’s cut short, I couldn’t be happier with the amount of gameplay this Metal Gear Solid offers.
This story is a lot less coherent than Peace Walker, which eventually coalesced into a borrowed but trenchant point about the madness of the Cold War. Phantom Pain jumps ahead into the 80s and even begins in a separately sold pre-game, Ground Zero, that I’m told goes a long way to explaining what the hell is going on. I didn’t play Ground Zero, so I had no idea who the main villain was and why the characters were in the situations they were in or how we got the the phantom pain motif, but I’ve been assured I would be less confused if I had played Ground Zero. My bad. I didn’t know there was homework.
But even what I understood of the story is a confused blend of stuff that feels like it was jammed together from two or three different games, one of which was a Resident Evil. A lot of it is relegated to audio tapes. And I mean a lot. Forget playing Ground Zero to clear up the whys and wherefores; set aside some time to stay awhile and listen. The series has been ridiculed for long cutscenes, and that’s not really the case here. Instead, all the drawn-out storytelling is in the form of a sliced and diced radio play, doled out bit by bit after the story missions. You can get the highlights by just listening to the tapes marked important, but that’s still a whole lot of staying awhile and listening. But if you want things to make sense, if you want crucial questions answered, if you want the maximum narrative payoff, you’re going to have to do that staying awhile and listening. I mostly opted out. I got the gist of it, thanks.
The 80s don’t provide the Metal Gear universe with nearly as much fodder as the 60s in Snake Eater and the 70s in Peace Walker. It hardly feels like the 80s in Phantom Pain. The only reason you’d know it’s the 80s is by the dozen or so pop songs you can find on tape players. The guards in that outpost are listening to “You Spin Me Round” so it must be 1985! It doesn’t help that Snake’s iDroid (aka, the main game interface) is about as 2015+ a device as you’ll ever use, with it’s holographic projection hovering over Snake’s hand as he adroitly thumbrolls and press-clicks and tabs from screen to screen. Here is all your map and base management stuff, and here too is a missed opportunity for some 80s-style controls. You know how Fallout’s Pip-Boy is very much a part of the game world? This is nothing like that.
Consider the first three Alien movies, all with production designs that were iconic 80s sci-fi. The green CRT displays and dot matrix fonts. The bulky keypads. The LED displays and toggle switches. Just as the Alien prequel Prometheus couldn’t resist modern glass controls and holographic displays because they’re sexy, Phantom Pain misses an opportunity to evoke another time and is instead just the usual lists and scrolling map. You’ll spend a lot of time — I’d estimate at least 30% of your playing time — in the pleasant Caribbean blue holograph of your iDroid. It wouldn’t look out of place in Prometheus. The iDroid design is credited to Kyle Cooper, known for his title sequences, not his nods to 80s-style controls or smooth interfaces. Those moments when you’re fumbling to call in air support or trying to place a marker on a piece of information in a cluster of icons are as grueling as the title sequence for Se7en.
Kiefer Sutherland was brought in to replace longtime Snake voice actor David Hayter, who had previously given the character a ridiculous but distinctive husky whisper/growl, borrowed directly from the same place as Snake himself: Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken in Escape from New York. To their credit, Hayter and Kojima have gone a long way to making Snake their own. So swapping Sutherland in was an odd choice. I’m no Metal Gear aficionado, but it sounds strange even to me that every time Snake opens his mouth, Jack Bauer comes out. It doesn’t help that Kaz’s voice actor, Robin Atkin Downes, sounds a lot like Sutherland. This instance of celebrity stunt casting is a painfully failed stunt. Fortunately, Snake is laconic enough — nearly a mute protagonist — that Sutherland doesn’t take you out of the game very often.
My favorite thing about the story is its unlikely heroine. Earlier this year, George Miller brought the Mad Max series roaring back to life with Fury Road. And in a curious but entirely appropriate twist, he all but marginalized Max in the telling of Fury Road’s real story: Furiosa’s scheme to free a tyrant’s breeding women, leading them out of a desert wasteland and into a lush green matriarchy. It was a story about fertility. You might even say reproductive rights. Roe v. Immortan Joe. It’s no accident the title is Fury Road and the character’s name is Furiosa. And Charlize Theron’s Furiosa was a revelation for action movies, physically broken and almost stripped of gender, but unmistakably powerful and unwilling to be sidelined by the lead character. The entire movie is captured in a wonderful single moment: Max decides with a soft grunt to let her take the last sniper bullet while he serves as nothing more than an impromptu bipod.
Like Furiosa, Metal Gear’s sniper, Quiet, is physically broken in a different way in that she can’t speak. Unlike Furiosa, she is not stripped of gender. On the contrary, she’s dressed like a stripper and the camera leers accordingly to remind us. Kojima is nothing if not unabashed. I particularly appreciate that a character this over-the-top and top heavy is shamelessly flaunted at a time when a vocal group on the internet mistakes cheesecake for exploitation, completely missing the point that videogames are fantasies. Fantasies can be stupid, disrespectful, unrealistic, and divorced from social agendas, or even contrary to them. It’s as if some people have never seen movies or read books, yet to be weaned off their diet of innocuous 16-bit Zelda adventures or retro platformers, unable to acknowledge that bikini chainmail doesn’t have to be an insult because they wouldn’t know Frank Frazetta from Larry Flynt. Phantom Pain is a celebration of R-rated power fantasies and even a light sprinkling of grindhouse sex and violence, not the least bit inappropriate for a game with an M-rating. Here’s the only litmus test you need: if it’s good enough for movies, it’s good enough for videogames. Apply any other standard and you do a disservice to our maturing medium.
But Quiet is also unmistakably powerful — game-breakingly so — and unwilling to be sidelined by the lead character. Like Bayonetta, she is a cross between gratuitous sexuality and overwhelming supernatural power. In the two scenes in which she is sexually assaulted, one implied because Quiet is unable to speak and the other uncomfortably explicit, the consequences are exactly what the audience — I mean, the player — is cheering for. It’s shameless, effective, and very gratifying. The story of Quiet that emerges and eventually concludes the game is the most memorable part of Phantom Pain’s confusing plot stew. Yeah, yeah, Snake this, Big Boss that, fight a bipedal mech to save the world, you know the drill. In the end, Snake is more of a patsy than anything else. But Phantom Pain isn’t really over until it has resolved the storyline of this bad-ass sniper and how she figures into the plot as a tragic hero in the classic sense of the word. The rest is Quiet.
Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan has brought a new edge to the Cold War, and in 1984, a one-eyed man with a prosthetic arm appears in the country. Those who know him call him Snake; the legendary mercenary who was once swept from the stage of history and left in a coma by American private intelligence network Cipher. Snake is accompanied by Ocelot, an old friend who saved him from attack when he finally awoke. But wait, don't go! There's also new open world gameplay that's actually pretty good!