30 Years of Snake – The Phantom Pain Review

The intertwined complex saga of Solid Snake and Big Boss through the years
30 years of Metal Gear stealth genre evolution brings us to The Phantom Pain

With 30 years of Metal Gear gaming under the belt, this month Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain released, together with the prequel chapter Ground Zeroes, Hideo Kojima ties up once again, more loose ends for Big Boss, this time in the 1980s on one of the largest stages ever set for a stealth game. While on one hand this is just another game being released, it isn’t. The grandfather of stealth games deserves the deep historical tour before getting to what is perhaps one of the greatest stealth games ever released. It is the culmination and refinement of nearly thirty years of Metal Gear’ing. Is it Hideo Kojima’s magnum opus. To put it simply it is, this is his best work. It’s magnificent. It comes to PC gamers without its multiplayer component (arrives in 2016, and we will review it separately), but I can still tell you it’s wonderful and its scope is like nothing ever experienced in a stealth game.

This isn't your grandfather's MGS game, forget screen to screen you have an entire countryside to explore
This isn’t your grandfather’s MGS game, forget screen to screen you have an entire countryside to explore
Night vision. Fulton Extraction System. Horseback riding. Floating psychic soldiers  in Afghanistan. Now that's the 1981 I remember.
Night vision. Fulton Extraction System. Horseback riding. Floating psychic soldiers in Afghanistan. Now that’s the 1981 I remember.
There is no difference between cutscene and gameplay graphical detail. It's an amazing visual and auditory treat.
There is no difference between cutscene and gameplay graphical detail. It’s an amazing visual and auditory treat.

 

What apparently brought about his latest entry into the series was sometime after Metal Gear Solid 4, Hideo Kojima disappeared from the horizon entirely, speaking cryptically of a new project. It began with the idea of making the “best game engine” ever created, according to Kojima. FoxEngine, lovingly named after Metal Gear’s primary rogue faction, was created to harness much of the next generation gaming technology on the market today. For the first time ever, a Metal Gear game was released on PC at the same time as consoles. FoxEngine looks amazing on any system, but on PC it clearly outshines every other version out there. What I will note is that PC machines are much more scalable than consoles. PC versions of MGSV have the ability to utilize better resolutions, higher texture processing, than it’s console cousins, yet PC graphical abilities go beyond resolution and texture speeds. FoxEngine on PC doesn’t add more to the PC version than it does for consoles. Again the game is beautiful as it is, but perhaps a small opportunity to further showcase the scope of FoxEngine on the most advanced and scalable platform on the market today, was missed.

Open world stealth has been attempted before, it was the original game concept for Splinter Cell: Conviction, but Ubisoft cut the funding and instead revamped the title as the same tried-and-true mostly linear presentation for stealth games since Metal Gear Solid in 1998. Thief and Dishonored, also makes an attempt at open world but it is severely limited in how “open” it really is; it’s open in the few city blocks you can creep around in per mission before you have to stop, wait, and load the next part of the map. FoxEngine’s standout quality goes beyond its graphical fidelity, and creates a more realistic living and breathing game world you must survive in. With Ground Zeroes, you infiltrate a U.S. military base in Cuba, good ol’ Guantanamo. Gamers were treated to a complete military base layout, with units that move from one side of the base to the other. Calling in your support helicopter to rescue prisoners. Carefully staking out the surrounding areas to plan your point of attack or infiltration. Effectively using smoke grenades, tranquilizers and other gadgets to complete multiple objectives within this large map, with no set order.

The detailed military base reacts as one entity. If you raise the alarm the entire base goes on alert. You would lose some of your surprise stealth and capture abilities as soldiers are waiting for you to strike. AI soldiers communicate your last known position and will begin a search for you. It also seamlessly transitioned between cutscenes and gameplay action, with both aspects looking much more cinematic than ever. What began as a tech demo years ago, is clearly Kojima’s path towards “a perfect game” that MGS4 was not able to attain. Moreover, the people you rescue in MGS:GZ can join your cause in the full scale The Phantom Pain release. Including Hideo Kojima himself, if you did not rescue him first, I highly recommend you do so. The mission itself is extremely fourth wall abusing, but a fantastic and fun mission. Regardless Ground Zeroes feels as another part of The Phantom Pain, not a separate game, with its events and inventory translating directly into the other.

 

Rescue Hideo Kojima in Ground Zeroes, and he will join your base and expel all the Konamites.
Rescue Hideo Kojima in Ground Zeroes, and he will join your base and expel all the Konamites.

 

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain becomes exactly what Ground Zeroes began, an open world map, with multiple objectives but on an even bigger scale. Towns, highways, bridges, rivers, all on one country side and all of its enemy combatants in essence, work as one to keep you from completing your objectives. You will need to think like an actual seasoned espionage operative and military combatant in this game. Rushing in guns blazing is one option but highly ineffective one, as raising too many alarms and creating havoc affects your current mission and it will maintain bases and towns on high alert for subsequent raids. So many objects and little details in each town and base, that you may dismiss them all as “scenery” but many things can be used for your tactical advantage. On one mission, thanks in part to my frantic hellish driving I ran into an electrical pole outside of an outpost. The towering power column veered over and collapsed- not revolutionary in open world gaming terms per se, but the cables snapped and the lights went out in the nearby outpost. Such a nice little touch. The entire outpost was cloaked in darkness ready for my stealthy assault. The larger spinning radar dishes can be destroyed if you are patient, which allows your helicopter to pick up and drop you off for sorties closer to the bases. The smaller dishes, and the control equipment in tents can also be destroyed with C4 leaving the base unable to call for reinforcements. May not seem like much, but some missions have you trying to rescue injured comrades amidst a hail of gunfire Platoon style that one little detail suddenly becomes an important strategic decision.

I have learned to love the high ground. It provides a great way to survey enemy movements, potential infiltration points into a base or outpost, important objects that can either keep me hidden, or allow for the quickest way back out to safety. My first desert mission, I made it a point to wait and scan with my binoculars as many enemy soldiers as I could. Spotted and scanned soldiers are then tracked on your iDroid mapping device, which helps with planning your approach. This device also serves many other purposes, but suffice it to say, it is your lifeline for managing every aspect of your tactical espionage exploits. I mean, when was recon and analyzing a base or city from every angle so important in a tactical espionage game? It really hasn’t until know, and I love the layer of depth it adds.

During my first sortie, I scoped a Russian jeep drive away with two soldiers inside. As I carried out my first assignment I was surprised by the return of that same jeep nearly 8 hours later at the end of the “day.”  One of the soldier’s got out, talked to his fellow compatriots, climbed back into the jeep and they drove off to another town. I have also tracked that jeep as it goes about it’s business. It actually does in fact go to another town, then to another, delivering information, cargo or whatever it is these soldiers are doing throughout their Metal Gear enemy day. An amazing little detail but one of many that denote how “living” The Phantom Pain’s open world design really is. These events are not as common as I would have liked, considering the constant reminder that this engine is capable of managing and rotating numerous elements in and out of combat. For example, you can pick the time of day you insert into any mission. This aspect affects your choice of combat suit and the gear you would want to bring. Daytime suits require camouflaged clothing to blend in with the sands, or desert buildings (yes there are different daylight textures that make a difference in your surroundings). This was something that was seen in MGS3 but executed on a larger scale with many different backgrounds to camouflaged with. You are reminded via radio that soldiers change shift, so you can take advantage of the movement of soldiers in and out of that location. Clear out an outpost of 4-10 guards at the wrong time, and the morning shift will waltz in and start shooting. However there are limits to how much rotation will actually happen, clear out a whole base and no one will come asking what happened until the next shift, and even so they will come in under low alert status instead of heightened security as one would logically expect.

Metal Gear Solid V, features the same fluid stealth gameplay featured in MGS4, but with further refinements. Yes, the AI can be exploited, it is not composed of numerous Albert Einsteins with protractors and laser guided smart missiles aimed at your behind. However while it is easy to exploit a single soldier into submission, there are many triggers that keep you in check, and always moving, always hiding, always scouting. Switch off a generator and a solider will come to inspect why half the lights in his town just shut off. Take him out, and his friends will come looking for Officer Niet, wondering why he isn’t as his post. If enemies spot bodies, or you land yourself in a searchlight’s path, and the entire base or town will go on alert. Keep on being careless, and soldiers will fortify themselves and start shooting flares. giving you no where to hide. Mortars, vehicles, and other dangerous elements will converge on you. These combat escalation deployments never increase to the ludicrous levels of other open world games, which is kind of shocking. Still, all of these delicious details are wonderful to play around in. Even allowing yourself to be spotted and chased so you can double back is a viable strategy.

 

2015-09-14_00002
As you gain heroism, staff, equipment, and GMP you can customize your base further and expand it

 

 

What you destroy and who you capture begins to matter. Want to shroud a base in darkness? Take out generators and light sources, power lines, and whatever else you can think of to give you freer movement and it will happen. Abuse this, and enemies will start wearing night vision goggles forcing you to change tactics. Need to extract numerous prisoners? You may want to take out any anti-aircraft radar and weapons to allow your chopper to come in closer. Worried that chopper will set off alarms and have reinforcements arrive at the base before you are finished with your extractions? Destroy the radio communications dishes scattered around. From a tactical and exploration standpoint this game is every stealth fans wet dream. There are tons of rooms, houses, trucks, bases, sewers, dams, bridges, and other areas to dig around in looking for resources, suppressors, diamonds and more. Why would you need to hunt for such resources when stealth games are usually about making it to the end undetected you may ask? Well in Phantom Pain, you are not just stealthing around, you are building an army.

Mother Base, or your forward operating base (FOB) is an ocean-based platform where you begin recruiting and staffing your operations. Most of the elements will pertain to the multiplayer component that is not available yet. Early gameplay videos show that what you build, defenses, and worthy staff you recruit will make it harder for human players to infiltrate you and steal what you have. In the meantime, for your single player campaign it is your primary management entity. You will earn funds titled GMP in the game, which can be applied in a variety of ways. You can research better equipment. You can expand your base. It also helps fund all of your off base missions. Need a supply drop? It costs GMP. You keep using the fulton balloon device to capture soldiers and air mail them to your base? Well, base space is limited by department so you’ll need to upgrade sections, that costs a lot of GMP. Run out of GMP? Your soldiers will quarrel and end up in the brig. Without those men for the time being, your stats go down, meaning you cannot research that next tier of weaponry and so forth. Since what you uncover and take back with you on your missions affects your base building, everything matters. It helps greatly if you are not wasteful. Getting spotted means more bullets, so waging guerrilla warfare is not really the best option, I say always because sometimes I found it helpful to lay to waste an entire base leaving its detection and radar equipment destroyed than to simply take out enemies and let them rebuild.

In later missions, recon becomes more crucial and harder to pull off without help, since enemies are hidden in rooms or behind structures
In later missions, recon becomes more crucial and harder to pull off without help, since enemies are hidden in rooms or behind structures

 

The game runs flawlessly and does not crash; with all settings maxed it runs as fluid as the sweat and blood running down Big Boss’s face. I am actually impressed how extremely polished the game engine is on PC. The open world stages are immense, and can be traversed from one end to the other without having to stop and start missions like most open world games require. Or you can request a helicopter pickup and have it airlift you to another region. This ends up being my preferred way of travel, as there is a whole lot of nothing between towns. Many mountains and canyons are so inaccessible; they act as virtual walls,  forcing you to go around the many winding paths. Which is a tad disappointing; you’d think master agent Big Boss would get some mountain gear developed (I would prefer the ultimate high ground, thank you). There are rare occasions scout teams pair off and leave one base to walk to another. They’ll spot you and ruin your stealth run as you reckless gallop from one town to the next. I would have preferred there be more to it than the rare recon team or stray jeep. The potential is there to have a more intricate military schedule to try and penetrate. In some ways the Cuban base you toy with in Ground Zeroes is larger and more advanced than anything in The Phantom Pain, which I found a tad confusing. What keeps you hooked and intrigued with MGSV:PP is  the scope and scale of the game, and the constant base building and troop management, the recon prior to any mission. Which is important because the middle areas of the game drag on, reminiscent of the last chapter of MGS games.

The opening story elements of this game are the best parts of the game, all the way up to your first missions. The cutscenes are unbelievable, the action elements visceral with haunting eerie audio to keep your genuinely worried about what in the hell is unfolding all around you. Your first taste of the ghoulish and crazed enemies hits you on your first extraction mission and keeps you begging for more. More however doesn’t come until about 10 missions later, and even then the Kojima-cheese elements begin to show up. In true Kojima style your arch-nemesis will capture you or have you at a complete disadvantage, and instead of flat out killing you as a normal psychopath would, he talks for a bit and walks away, letting his lesser (albeit kind of scary) psycho minions feast on you. You undoubtedly get away, but its 2015, the comic book style exposition could use refinement or abandonment all together. There are a couple of awkward cutscene moments as well, a lot has been said of Quiet, female sniper you encounter mid-game. I think her description and execution was clumsy and uneven at times. Like a teenage kid who’s voice is cracking every few moments as he’s trying to ask for something in a hushed library. There are plenty of elements that do not add up to the makeup of what I would consider a hardened female assassin with invisibility powers and parasite issues. She’s just “there;” a forced romantic entity shoved in head first to provide an additional layer to the story.

 

I never get tied of managing my support helicopter, from sleeping gas bombardments, to supply drops, to Platoon style cinematic rescures
I never get tied of managing my support helicopter, from sleeping gas bombardments, to supply drops, to Platoon style cinematic rescures

 

Mission design is both interesting, engaging, and fun, but can at times be a little frustrating. I selected a couple of main missions expecting to advance the story, and be treated with the thrilling pieces from the start of the game. Only to rescue or take out a target and head back to base for a small introspective showing how the staff is becoming restless and staging their own version of Fight Club. Sometimes missions labeled as “main mission” feel like “side ops” and “side ops” which denote optional or off story missions are 1-2 hours to complete and span 2-3 “episodes” with impact endings that once again have you cheering for more. I do not mind the long missions, but when I’m planning on taking a quick “side” mission before I head off to run an errand, it would be nice if that side op mission wasn’t 2 hours long. It was mainly that long from all the travel you had to pull off on horse or on foot, which can be a whole lot of nothing while keeping your eyes peeled for the occasional guard patrolling outside of his outpost. The game’s design makes hitting each outpost for supplies, a necessary diversion. I found myself scanning each and every guard and when you come across that B or A rated R&D soldier… well! I’m going to have to choke someone and send them a balloon invite aren’t I? Stealing mortars, machine guns, containers, and vehicles is also a great way to fill voids. Especially when guards look up in surprise as their jeep is floating away and you move in behind them and knock them out and then float them away. It can be quite satisfying to hear the female iDroid state “Enemy Base… is secure”.

Metal Gear Solid V  rewards you for executing the stealthiest approach by awarding you the most GMP and heroism points to use in your base or for better equipment. It can be quite challenging to pull off an entire mission like this. Enemies change patterns upon detecting any disturbance and they adjust tactics to match what you commonly do. Your common soldier changes to avoid becoming tiresome, after a while you become glad when you spot them. As the game progresses, enemies are using better sniper gear, bipedal mini walkers with floodlights to quickly march and patrol larger areas. Battles with the games “bosses” or larger more outlandish vehicles turn into epic affairs that again will keep you coming back for more. I actually found MGSV’s soundtrack to be a bit on the lighter side; finding tapes of 80s songs to blast in your chopper to be more entertaining than the usual orchestral scores at times. What there is  in terms of musical accompaniment blends with the atmosphere and tone of the cutscenes well, or provides a haunting dreadful feel of an upcoming event or confrontation. Controls are superb, fluid and responsive, and yes, this is the kind of name you really need a good controller to play, couch and alcoholic cocktails are optional. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain at times feels like it will approach that once in a decade lightning strike of elite gaming goodness. The kind of game you lean back and realize it’s better than even the movies released that year. It’s almost that entertainment nirvana so few perfectly rated games achieve.

It left me wondering how I can go back to stealth games and view them the same way again. The Phantom Pain is the definitive bar by which all stealth and espionage games will be measured. Anything less than this from a triple A company will be a letdown. Some uneven performances, awkward elements, and numerous mediocre missions shouldn’t dissuade anyone from playing this game. On the contrary, this appears to be the final entry from Hideo Kojima into the Metal Gear Universe (Konami has pledged to continue without him), it would be a great time to dive back into this series and experience the ultimate version of this long and storied franchise.

Would you require prior knowledge to enjoy the game? Not exactly, it’s pretty clear what’s going on in the story, as it stands alone rather well. Would you really capture the essence of who Big Boss was in the grand scheme of the series, understand the subtle relevancy of building an oil rig style operations base, or the intricate makeup of Miller, Ocelot, and other long standing characters in this era of the MGS story? No, probably not. But in terms of the scope of this game, and the entertainment most will derive from this great game, for those that missed out on MGS titles here and there or entirely; it would be like going to a party eating cake, dancing with new people, and leaving without a party hat or knowing the names of all the songs. Who cares! It was a blast. Being able to play Snake since 1987, dodging little sprited soldiers, to ducking into vents on Shadow Moses, all the way to active camo espionage in the middle of a raging battle, and now to this, a grand open world espionage playground with high value cinematic cuts tying it all together. The MGS series is a massive gaming monument in itself, one the has helped shaped the entire stealth genre, and its latest entry seriously changes what these kind of espionage games can be

With 30 years of Metal Gear gaming under the belt, this month Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain released, together with the prequel chapter Ground Zeroes, Hideo Kojima ties up once again, more loose…

The Phantom Pain

Score - 9

9

Defining

This is an epic entry into the stealth genre arena, one of Hideo Kojima's best productions to date. It is still shy of being perfect, but boy did he nearly hit it this time.