Sunday, December 18, 2016

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain - A Hideo Kojima Game

I played the PS3 Day One Edition.

Note: The following review contains spoilers related to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes.

For one reason or another, I never really got around to reviewing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain when it first came out. Looking back, however, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t considering the controversy surrounding the dissolving relationship between Konami and Hideo Kojima at the time, which led to less than friendly discussion about the game and its shortcomings, both real and imagined, as a result of the fallout. Since it’s been over a year since the game released, and to celebrate the sixth anniversary of this blog, I figured it was now about time to share my thoughts on this game. I will say now, however, that this review is based mostly on memory and retrospection, since it took me nearly a month to beat it before and I won’t have that same pocket of time to play it for that long again. In addition, I will not be talking about the Kojima/Konami fallout apart from this paragraph, nor will I talk about what may or may not have been cut from the game. I will discuss it for what it is, not what it isn’t.

In the year 1984, nine years after the events of fall of Mother Base at the end of Ground Zeroes, Snake wakes up from a coma and, with the aid of the mysterious Ishmael, escapes a hospital as it is overrun by soldiers looking to capture him. After his successful escape from the hospital, and an ambulance he rode off in that got overturned, he receives aid from Revolver Ocelot in getting to safety. Ocelot helps Snake recover enough to rescue Kazuhira Miller, who has forced new armed force named Diamond Dogs. Together, the three of them work to both rebuild Mother Base and take revenge on the mysterious organization known as Cipher by defeating their leader, Skull Face.

The Prologue also introduces the mysterious Man on Fire.

The rest of the story which follows is actually very compelling and impactful, as it tackles the main themes of Race and Revenge (as explained by Kojima) rather well, though ultimately it feels somewhat unfulfilling thanks to some lingering loose ends. After the prologue chapter, Awakening, a good bulk of the story is contained within the first chapter, Revenge, and the second chapter, Race, has a fairly uneven pace. The length of time it takes to complete Revenge makes it feel like a whole game on its own, and while Race does answer some lingering questions, it is much shorter and requires some interesting conditions to unlock the ending, where you replay the Prologue mission, but with some additional scenes and dialogue added to fill in some of the story gaps and reach a rather controversial twist ending.

In the interest of avoiding spoilers, since it’s the kind of game that’s difficult to talk about otherwise, I will end up having to forgo specifying which questions remain unanswered, but I will address the twist ending, or at least my own reaction to it. Initially, I wasn’t sure how to feel about it and I can understand why some people would be put off by it, especially since it can feel reminiscent of another game in the franchise. However, now that I have had time to reflect on it, it actually makes a lot of sense to the overall story of the franchise, since I’ve come to realize that the entire game basically exists solely to fill in a plot hole from all the way back in Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake.

During the story, the characters all go through some interesting development, in that players get to see them reveal some of the darker aspects of their personality and how they react to what’s been thrown at them in the past. Kazuhira Miller in particular is much more revenge-driven to where Ocelot acts as a foil for his actions and would much rather be diplomatic about their decisions, though Ocelot does have a sadistic side. Snake, as well, displays a more pacifist approach in his treatment of the Diamond Dogs members, but is also capable of displaying a darker part of himself. These personalities and how they conflict with each other and other characters they encounter help drive the story forward toward their final encounter with Skull Face and with the ultimate decision regarding their conflicting levels of trust with Huey Emmerich.

Skull Face, as a villain, has a plan that’s over-the-top enough for Metal Gear, even revealing the development of the deadly Metal Gear Sahelanthropus, but he’s not as intriguing as previous villains in the series overall. He’ll certainly be talked about within Metal Gear discussions, but despite his importance to some of the later events in the series, he does not capture the imagination in the same way as Big Boss, Liquid Snake, Revolver Ocelot, the Cobra Unit, The Patriots (mainly their involvement in MGS2) or the Winds of Destruction.

Skull Face as he appears in The Phantom Pain.

Two other major characters introduced are Code Talker, an elderly Diné (Navajo) scientist, and Quiet, a scantily-clad mute sniper. Code Talker is important to the story and is an effective character when he is necessary, but in retrospect I only remember him for his optional cassette tape recordings, in which he discusses his past as well as the faults he sees in the ethics and politics of America. I also remember the cassette tapes where despite being critical of America, he unironically, and hypocritically, wants to eat a hamburger. As for Quiet, she came off as the most interesting of the new characters, as she is written in a way that comes off as mysterious, but not in a way that the mystery is tiring. The more the game reveals aspects of her past, the more intriguing she becomes, including the reason why she wears what she does in the first place.

One highlight of the game is the voice acting. Even though Venom Snake doesn’t say very much in the game compared to previous Snakes, Kiefer Sutherland gave an amazing performance by not only conveying the proper emotion in his voice, but also his rather subtle facial expressions. As a result, I couldn’t really imagine anyone else doing Venom Snake, as I had gotten used to Kiefer Sutherland’s fitting delivery. Troy Baker is also good in his role as Revolver Ocelot, serving as a good voice for the character at that chronological point in time and displaying a good range as Ocelot displays a number of emotions. Rounding off the main trio, Robin Atkin Downes provides a memorable performance for Kazuhira Miller. Although he’s prone to hamming up the anger every once in a while, he also shows a good capacity for humor during a particular set of cassette tapes where he interacts with Code Talker in relation to hamburger recipes. As for Skull Face, despite the shortcomings of the character, James Horan delivers a spectacular vocal performance that helps him stand out when he is relevant.

Kiefer Sutherland delivers in the role of Venom Snake.

Now that I’ve mentioned it a couple times, this is probably a good time to mention that The Phantom Pain has a large volume of cassette tapes to collect, be they automatically gathered from story progression or manually gathered out in the field. While it can be fun to collect some of the tapes, particularly ones which increase the selection of music you can listen to, a good majority of them are relevant to the story in some form or another. In retrospect, I have some mixed feelings about this. On one hand, this reduces the amount of time spent the player has to spend viewing cutscenes at various points across the story, an aspect of the franchise which garnered mixed feelings over time and came to a head with MGS4’s nine hours of cutscenes. On the other hand, this means that most of the development, both major and minor, for the story and characters is instead placed within the cassette tapes, meaning that players may have to sit through up to six hours of optional tapes just to learn everything. This is somewhat mitigated by only a certain number being required for story progression, but it can be a damper on things depending on how attached you are to the traditionally lengthy cutscenes of the Metal Gear franchise.

While the execution of the story is uneven, the actual gameplay is simply phenomenal and easily the best in the entire Metal Gear series. For one thing, the shift to Open World gameplay was handled better than expected, with a map that easily dwarfs Ground Zeroes, as well as all of the other Metal Gear games put together. There are a lot of touches of realism which help to sell the open world, including the presence of a day-and-night cycle and dynamic weather, with both systems actually affecting various aspects of the gameplay. For example, nighttime operations will more involve the use of enemy searchlights and the occasional sandstorm can decrease visibility for both enemies and the player. Rain can also help disguise your footsteps and daytime makes it easier to spot enemies, but also for enemies to spot you. There’s a lot to take into consideration as players are encouraged to find the style and approach that works for them. In this sense, it is truly an open world with great freedom of choice.

Of course, there is a downside to the open world. There are two maps the player can explore, one based on Northern Kabul, Afghanistan and one based on the Angola-Zaire Border Region in Africa. The latter is more densely populated by foliage and has a lot of places to hide while the former is vast and more sparsely populated. When not doing any missions, it is possible to freely explore either of these two areas, but due to the placement of everything, it is possible to go for quite a while and not really find anything worthwhile unless you had an exact idea of where to find a particular resource or you wanted to get to side missions the hard way. The only other reason to explore outside of missions, then, is to see the incredible amount of detail put into the world.

Outside of exploration, there are two other ways to interact with the two regions: Main Ops and Side Ops. Main Ops are the ones which propel the story forward and Side Ops are optional, but can help get some extra GMP (Gross Military Product; the currency of the game) or rescue useful soldiers to boost Mother Base’s forces. The Side Ops can feel repetitive at times, but the gains are still mostly worth the effort in the long run. There are even a few Side Ops that are required to continue the story. The Main Ops are generally very good, although Chapter 2 has been, perhaps fairly, criticized for featuring duplicates of Main Ops from Chapter 1, but with different difficulty setting or modifiers placed on them, making these missions feel like filler meant to artificially lengthen the game. Fortunately, none of these duplicate missions are required to advance the story and can be skipped entirely.

However, there is a sort of unevenness to the overall difficulty. By this, I mean that there is a sort of baseline difficulty the game runs on which is fairly manageable, but then there are times when the game feels next to impossible. One standout moment in particular for me was the end of Mission 12, “Hellbound,” in which you have to outrun and sneak away from the new Metal Gear, Metal Gear Sahelanthropus, and escape on a helicopter. Sahelanthropus’ abilities made it feel unnecessarily difficult to escape detection and I was unable to finish the mission until I managed to find a perfect window of opportunity to board the chopper, and even then Sahelanthropus was less than a second away from blowing everything. The inevitable fight against Sahelanthropus was also difficult, but somehow felt more satisfying to outsmart it and achieve victory.

Metal Gear Sahelanthropus

That said, this game still has an unprecedented amount of freedom for a stealth game. During missions, players are capable of approaching the situation with either non-lethal stealth or lethal run-and-gun options based on the loadout they choose to go into the field with. Both approaches alter the skills required from the player and greatly change how they deal with enemy forces. The weapons and tools the player uses also change how they can disrupt enemy technology, one example being a radar; you can short circuit it with water, shoot it with guns or plant an explosive and remotely detonate it. While these choices are present for most of the game, there are times when you will be forced to go on the full offensive in order to survive, including the fight against Metal Gear Sahelanthropus.

As an example of this freedom, my personal loadout worked with my playstyle, emphasizing non-lethal stealth. Just looking at weapons, I used a RENOV-ICKX TP tranquilizing sniper rifle (Grade 3) customized with a suppressor, a UN-ARC-NL non-lethal assault rifle (Grade 3), a Water Pistol (Grade 4) and the Stun Arm (Grade 4); I would also equip Venom Snake with the Sneaking Suit for the health recovery bonus. With this loadout, I could tranquilize enemies from long-range, fire non-lethal rounds at a rapid pace at close range and channel electricity or summon lightning to stun enemies at close range to conserve ammo. The Water Pistol is actually far more versatile than it sounds, especially since it has infinite ammo, as it can put out campfires, temporarily blind enemies with a shot to the face or short out sensitive equipment. This weapons loadout is just one way of approaching the game and you may find something else which works well for you.

Another factor which can alter your approach is the addition of enemies who adapt to your playstyle. What this means is that if you do a lot of headshots, then enemies will start wearing more helmets, or if you attack at night a lot, enemies will start wearing night vision goggles. These are just two examples, but the results really force the player to consider how they may need to change tactics or if they should start mixing up the time of day in which they go after enemies. You can disrupt these tactics by sending your own soldiers out on missions to destroy supplies, a measure which may only be temporary, but is nevertheless effective. Similarly, if you destroy certain equipment within the environment, the game will remember it and when you return to the same area later, the equipment will still be destroyed. After about 72 in-game hours the destruction will be reverted, but this is still something to keep in mind.

Yet another wrinkle is the introduction of the Buddy System. Before going on a mission, you can select from one of four buddies to take with you into the field: D-Horse, D-Dog (aka DD), Quiet or D-Walker. Each has their own strengths that they can carry onto the battlefield, so it depends largely on personal playstyle. D-Horse can traverse long distances, serve as a mobile hiding spot for Venom Snake, distract enemy vehicles or even poop onto the road to cause vehicles to slip up. DD can scout the area via scent to discover items of interest, including enemy and weapon placements, and can even stun or kill enemies depending on what he is equipped with. Quiet can take advantage of various vantage points to scout for enemies by placing a marker on those she sees or she can be ordered to lethally or non-lethally snipe targets from afar. Lastly, D-Walker is a small bipedal robot Venom Snake can pilot, its exact usage being entirely dependent on how the player customizes its equipment.

Venom Snake with DD in the helicopter.

From my experience, D-Horse is useful in the beginning, as he is your only option at first, but as soon as I acquired DD and Quiet as buddies, I quickly shifted my focus to figuring out which of those two would be best suited for a particular mission, sometimes switching between them during a mission should the situation call for it, though more often than not I would choose DD, equipped with the Sneaking Suit (Stun version), for his versatility (plus I actually grew an emotional attachment to him). When I did use Quiet, I would always equip her with the Guilty Butterfly to fit in with my playstyle. I did use D-Walker occasionally, but found it to be more situational due to my playstyle prioritizing non-lethal stealth. I’m sure other players will feel differently about which one is their favorite to use, but I figured I would share my own experience to demonstrate how subjective this feature is.

Two additional gameplay aspects which are fully implemented in this game are the return of the Fulton Recovery System and the inclusion of a Supply Drop system. The Fulton balloons are once again used to extract enemy combatants for recruitment into the Diamond Dogs, but can also extract various wildlife and can also now be upgraded to extract weapon placements, vehicles and large resource containers. Should the player go through the effort to obtain the Wormhole Fulton option, they can even use this system indoors. This improvement to the system makes it more worthwhile to use and is a big step up from its use in Peace Walker.

As for the Supply Drop system, it makes it possible to request certain items, weapons or ammunition to be dropped onto the battlefield for easier access. However, you can also select where the item box will drop, which means you can also use it to knock out anyone unfortunate enough to be standing within the landing zone. This system is rather effective and I found myself using it every so often to change up my tactics and make sure I had plenty of ammo in a tense situation.

It should also be mentioned that this game has a huge wealth of customization options. To name a few, you can customize Mother Base with different colors or a customized Diamond Dogs emblem, customize D-Walker to your liking, alter your Buddy’s equipment, change up the helicopter’s weapons and effectiveness or create customized guns with various abilities based on the parts used. It can be fun to play around with the options from time to time, since this is a feature which allows you to change up the game to your liking, at least to an extent.

Naturally, the sea-based Mother Base makes a return from Peace Walker, although this time located by the Seychelles Archipelago off the coast of Africa. One notable difference from the Peace Walker version of Mother Base is that players can now explore Mother Base on foot and see everything for themselves, as opposed to mainly viewing Mother Base from a menu. This iteration of Mother Base is much larger than one can imagine, although exploring each strut entirely on the ground can take quite a while, as it would take a few minutes to drive across the bridges to each strut. The length of time it takes to travel can be mitigated by taking a helicopter to another strut’s landing zone in less time, though it still takes a while, or by crouching in a cardboard box on a delivery zone to warp to another delivery zone you have already discovered (this form of fast travel also works in the open world Afghanistan and Africa regions).

The game's Fast Travel system.

Each strut of Mother Base covers a different specialization of the Diamond Dogs, with plenty of secrets to be discovered as a reward for exploration. These secrets include hidden diamonds and posters, both of which automatically raise GMP, secret interactions and various challenges to test your skills. There is even a zoo you can visit which houses all of the animals you Fulton out of the battlefield. You are occasionally required to revisit Mother Base every so often, although frequent visits do have their benefits, such as boosting overall morale by passing fellow Diamond Dogs staff. One benefit in particular is returning to shower every so often, which helps Venom Snake feel physically and mentally refreshed. This makes it so Snake can’t be as easily detected by how bad he smells from the stench of blood, since blood can’t be removed unless you shower, and helps his reaction time in Reflex Mode. Visiting Mother Base under special conditions will also allow the player to view special cutscenes, which is its own reward.

But Mother Base is not the only place Venom Snake can be. You may spend a majority of your time away from the battlefield within the Aerial Command Center (ACC), where Snake can take a break in between missions. It also serves as a quieter place where you can listen to cassette tapes and manipulate various aspects of the Diamond Dogs through the iDroid, as well as the only place where you can decide what Ops you will tackle next and how you will go about them. Having this in-between zone is actually very useful and helps to establish a gameplay rhythm for yourself.

Venom Snake in the Aerial Command Center.

One iDroid feature you will use a lot, apart from sorting staff members and sending the Combat Unit on missions, is dealing with the R&D Unit to develop and upgrade various tools. While it is worth it to get that next item, upgrade or Mother Base expansion, the one thing a long-term player will need is commitment, a quality which many players may not be prepared for at first. You need to make sure you have all the requirements fulfilled before you can go through with development, but this may require you to do some grinding in a sense for GMP and resources. You may also need to do some shuffling around with staff members to make sure you have a high enough Staff Level, as well as making sure you Fultoned specific soldiers with specific skills or occasionally upgrade Mother Base strut sizes to make sure you can have the right Staff Level in the first place. Eventually you will need to care about and focus on Fultoning soldiers whose ratings in different areas match or exceed a high threshold, which may require quite a time commitment. In other words, R&D is very useful and a requirement to survival, but prepare for a large time commitment if you want the very best equipment you can get.

What easily deserves praise, however, is the Fox Engine, developed by Kojima Productions. This engine is capable of so much environmental and organic detail that it looks and feels close to real life, even when playing on seventh generation hardware (I played on the PS3 version). There is a lot to praise the engine for, including how it handles weather and lighting, but it would also be enough to say that it is a technical marvel that’s hard to beat.

Apart from the original score, which I found to be good at setting the mood, there are also 16 licensed songs you can listen to in the game by finding their cassette tapes. Since the game takes place in 1984, these are naturally mostly 1980s songs you can listen to through the iDroid. However, you can also use the cassettes to set what music you will hear when the helicopter arrives to assist or transport you. I found this to be a fun feature, since I set it so the helicopter played “The Final Countdown” by Europe (a selection which I personally found pretty fitting during a firefight). While I had played the PS3 version, as I had mentioned previously, I am aware that the PC version allows you to set the helicopter music using any song you happen to have on your computer.

There are a couple other complaints I remember having with the game which I couldn’t fit anywhere else in here. One is the fact that after a certain mission, the game forces you to create a Forward Operating Base, even if you never wanted to. The only way to avoid doing so is to play offline by never accepting the online terms and conditions that pop up whenever you start up the game (playing offline also speeds up the game anyway). The other is that despite making a big deal out of it and even allowing you to advance its progress by checking in on it, the Battle Gear is unusable, becoming more of a tease of something you’ll never be able to use. As a result, it feels like your time is otherwise wasted.

The Battle Gear ultimately goes nowhere.

One final thing to consider about The Phantom Pain is the length. As it is a very large game, it will take quite a while to complete the main story, let alone reach 100% completion (for those who are into that). At the time of this writing, my current playtime is 100:47:10 (aka 100 hours, 47 minutes and 10 seconds) and my completion percentage is 52%. Needless to say, there’s a lot to see and do.

Looking back on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, it definitely could have used a little more time to develop the story. It felt a little uneven and with a conclusion which leaves some plot threads open to speculation, although I have come to appreciate the twist ending a little more due to its role in filling in a plot hole from Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake. The gameplay, however, is simply the best I’ve ever played in any stealth game and its large amount of depth creates a very immersive and engaging experience. The game may be flawed, but I had a lot of fun and found it very hard to put the controller down. In the end, I think that’s what matters the most.

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