Are you one of the poor suckers who paid $30-40 for Ground Zeroes and were ready for The Phantom Pain to make up for your disappointment with what was little more than a glorified (and over-priced) demo? I wasn't, because I got Ground Zeroes for free from my PSPlus subscription around the same time that Phantom Pain was released. I was obviously disappointed with the demo's short length, and I didn't bother doing any of the side missions. But since I didn't pay for it, I wasn't as enraged as some other players might have been.
I actually really liked what little gameplay Ground Zeroes had to offer. The Guantanamo Bay arena was well-designed and offered some good infiltration challenge that tested my Metal Gear capabilities. The A.I. was surprisingly competent and adaptive - not so much that I couldn't exploit them occasionally, but still good. The graphics, lighting, and weather effects all looked outstanding. It was a fun experience. Not "forty dollars fun", but pretty fun. At least part of the battle at Mother Base should have been playable, and I didn't like that large elements of the story were hidden away in collectible audio tapes, but whatever.
I got Ground Zeroes for free on PSPlus, instead of paying $30-40 MSRP for a glorified demo.
Ground Zeroes gave me flashbacks to the phenomenal classic Sons of Liberty demo that came packaged with Zone of the Enders on the PS2. At least that only cost me a $3 rental, and I got to play Zone of the Enders too. After Ground Zeroes, I was looking forward to getting my hands on the much bigger Phantom Pain, and was optimistic that it would provide an equally good experience that would be worth the purchase price. Phantom Pain is a very long, very complicated, and very uneven game. So buckle up, friend. This is going to be a long review.
Table of Contents
After having written a lengthy blog post about how open world, sandbox game design almost necessarily puts the game's narrative in a state of limbo, I was amazed to start up Metal Gear Solid V and see the very first mission took my criticisms to heart. Of course, the game had already been released by the time I had written that opinion piece, so I can't take credit for having influenced its development, but it was still refreshing and gratifying. Anyway, in the very first mission, Ocelot tells you that Miller has been captured by Soviets in Afghanistan, has been tortured for intel, and has three days - tops - to live. You must rescue him before that time.
Ocelot gives the player three days to rescue Miller...
At first, I didn't put much stock in Ocelot's claim. After all, sandbox games are notorious for saying that something needs to be done ASAP, but they never have the balls to actually walk the walk and enforce that objective. Until now. When checking my map, I noticed something in the corner that I hadn't noticed in other sandbox games before: an "elapsed time" counter. The game was plainly tracking how long it was taking me to complete the primary mission objective. I treated this timer with a certain degree of skepticism. But sure enough, failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time actually results in a "Game Over"!
This is exactly how I feel that priority objectives in open world games should be handled: make it apparent to the player (through dialogue and/or explicit notification) that an objective is being timed or that it is otherwise a priority, and make sure that there are reasonable, perceivable consequences for failure to achieve that objective within the expected conditions. Then design some early-game quests or objectives such that the player is put in a position in which they can (or must) fail; thus, teaching the player that when the game says "do x or else", the game actually means it. I put down the controller and gave Hideo Kojima a standing ovation. But would this opening mission set a precedent that priority missions must actually be prioritized, and would that precedent stand throughout the rest of the game? Or was this just a one-off occurrence that would not be representative of the rest of the game? Regardless, a tone was plainly set for the rest of the game, and the stakes had been raised.
... Failure to rescue Miller within the allotted time results in his death and a Game Over.
Building a mercenary army
Would this refreshing precedent carry over into the rest of the game? Well, sort of. There is one series of missions in the middle of the campaign that pretty thoroughly lights a fire under your butt. Best of all, Kojima and company even found a way to achieve this without some contrived arbitrary countdown, and the consequences for dallying are made very perceivably obvious. I didn't care much for the missions themselves, but the segment as a whole should be something that all open world developers take a good, hard look at. But other than that, every mission is pretty much up to your whim. There's the occasional time-sensitive bonus objective in a given mission. Most of the game goes into almost full sandbox mode, but without many of the free-form, procedural gameplay that we come to expect from such designs.
Where the sandbox nature of the world starts to come into its own is in the base-building component of the game. In addition to scavenging materials and picking flowers in the environment, you can also recruit soldiers to join your private army. Well, you don't so much as "recruit" them as you kidnap them. If you come across a skilled soldier that you want to recruit, you can knock him out and tie a Fulton balloon to him, which sends him back to your base. And since you're the "legendary Big Boss", every soldier whom you kidnap is easily swayed to work for you, even though you're apparently not famous enough to just walk up to them, tap them on the shoulder, and say "Hey, I'm Big Boss. Wanna come work for me?"
On the one hand, the game has realistic effects like waiting for your character's eyes to adjust to changes in light...
This is where Kojima games start to break down for me. His games tend to be very rich in realistic detail, but then also do things that are ridiculously silly. There's never any consistent tone. On the one hand, you're playing a tactical stealth shooter in which accidentally kicking over a metal waste bin can alert nearby guards and possibly get you killed, and in which you have to wait for your character's eyes to adjust to changes in light when moving between indoors and the Afghanistani sun (or vice versa). But on the other hand, you are running around distracting guards by plastering posters of bikini-clad women to cardboard boxes, or by tying balloons to people, animals, and even vehicles, watching them float up into the air, and supposedly having them be recovered by your agents and sent back to Mother Base. Yes, the Fulton air recovery system is a real thing that actual militaries use. But this isn't how it is intended to work. It's like Winnie the Pooh logic...
... But on the other hand, you're doing unbelievably silly things like kidnapping soldiers by tying balloons to them.
And that's barely even the beginning of the silliness in this game. The opening prologue chapter involves Snake being attacked by baby-Psycho Mantis and the Human Torch on horseback. So Kojima didn't even wait till the opening credits to dial the wacky meter up to eleven! And speaking of credits, every single mission has opening and closing credits! What the heck? Is this overcompensation for Konami taking your name off of the cover and posters, Kojima? You had to plaster your name and the Kojima Productions logo on the screen every hour of gameplay in case the players genuinely started to think that this isn't your game? Oh, and spoiler alert: the Skulls will be in this mission! Sigh...
Every single mission has opening and closing credits. Every. Single. One.
And if credits weren't bad enough, every time I boot up the game, I have to page through roughly a dozen notifications of online updates, ranging from rule changes, to balance fixes, to special events. And I wasn't even play Metal Gear Online ... yet. I wouldn't mind giving a single screen or two summarizing updates to the game in general popping up when I boot up the game. But why do I have to sit through all these online multiplayer update notifications if I'm just trying to load up my single-player game? Save these notifications for when I load up MG Online and stop barraging me with meaningless update info! The options screen even asks me to set whether I want to boot up MGSV or MGO when the software loads up, so it's not like it doesn't know my preference. I don't even know what "FOB" means yet, so stop bothering me about it!
Every time I boot up the game, I have to page through a dozen notifications of online updates and rule changes.
Wow, that was a long tangential rant...
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Anyway, back to Mother Base
Developing Mother Base comes close to being an engaging, game-long endeavor. Early in the game, it's important to scavenge resources in order to unlock new weapons, so there's a real feeling of importance to rebuilding the base (which was destroyed in Ground Zeroes seemingly solely for the purpose of forcing the player to have to rebuild it from scratch in this game, rather than having it already existing from Peace Waker). Further, the desire to capture high-skill soldiers to work at the base provides a real gameplay incentive to play stealthily and not just go in guns-a-blazing and kill everyone.
And since the actual story does revolve around Ocelot, Miller, and Big Boss rebuilding Mother Base, recruiting soldiers and procuring supplies to rebuild Mother Base and the reputation of Soldiers Without Borders, and getting revenge on the organization that blew up the original Mother Base, there's actually a pretty strong ludonarrative harmony within the Mother Base mechanics. In the meantime, you'll also be sending your recruited soldiers out on missions of their own in order to recruit new soldiers and make money, and you'll have to even recruit new soldiers to replace ones that get killed in action or which you dismiss due to their incompetence. You can even play main game missions and side ops as the very soldiers that you recruit! It's actually quite brilliant how tightly focused the game is, and how so many elements of design interplay with the other elements of design, from core gameplay, to mission structure, to base-management, all the way down to the story. Kojima has been criticized before for making movies instead of games, but in this case, he really nails "telling a story through gameplay"!
It's an open world game, so of course you'll be
stopping to pick flowers every five seconds.
Scavenging around the game map and performing dispatch missions has almost the same sense of utility as pillaging trade routes and capturing ships in the open world of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. But soon, I had all the primary Mother Base modules built and had developed most of the core weapons and equipment. At this point I started to lose interest in further base development. The base itself doesn't feel like a very living place. There's not much to do there other than the occasional awkward training exercise. And you can't even go there to talk to other characters like Ocelot or Miller, so there's not even a story motivation to visit the base every now and then.
Fortunately, the game is well enough paced (for the first half) that every time I started to lose interest, the game threw a curve ball at me. The first one was the addition of a whole new map region loaded with soldiers with better ratings. But then I started to feel like developing new weapons was moot because I never used any of them except the basic tranquilizer gun, empty magazines, EM mines, and the cardboard boxes. I also filled Mother Base to its staff capacity and so recruiting new soldiers started to feel pointless, and I had little incentive to expand the base to make room for more soldiers. But then the game threw yet another curve ball at me that opened up additional expansion and provided a whole new sense of utility to the base as a whole. I guess I should give credit to Kojima for expertly pacing the base development.
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Mother Base is large, empty, and boring for most of the game.
Rebuilding it occasionally feels like a contrivance and a waste of time.
Sometimes, sacrifices must be made for the greater good
Very early in this game, I started to really miss the old analog PS2 controllers. I can understand why Sony decided to ditch such controls, since they made the controllers more expensive, and very few developers actually used them. Aside from driving games (which benefit tremendously from analog control), Metal Gear Solid games were pretty much the only games that I played in the PlayStation library that actually used the pressure-sensitivity of the face and shoulder buttons. Many mechanics felt more comfortable with the pressure-sensitive buttons, and the controller could have more function built into it since similar functions could be overloaded to the same button. A good example is the roll / dive command. In the older, PS2 games (that had pressure-sensitive controller buttons), rolling could be accomplished by firmly pressing the crouch button while running. Now, there needs to be a whole face button dedicated to that one task. Pressure-sensitive controls also allowed for more variety in attacks, such as gently tapping attack to swing a knife, or firmly pressing it to go for a killing stab. You could also gently hold the weapon button to run-and-gun while in third person, which you can't do at all in Phantom Pain. I also really miss having a button dedicated to sticking to walls. There are times when I try to peek around the corner, and Snake decides to run out of cover, and suddenly I'm in reflex mode. I just prefer having the extra level of user control. I can't really blame Konami or Kojima for this, since they don't control the hardware that the console creators produce, but it definitely exposes the advantages and potential that the old analog controllers enabled.
I am, however, disappointed that Kojima didn't come up with a more creative use for the PS4's touchpad. This can probably be chalked up to the cross-platform development and design of the game, which required it to work with both a PS4 and XBox controller, so the unique functionality of one controller or the other couldn't really be utilized. Instead, the touchpad is just used as a makeshift "menu" button, which seems to be what developers have settled on as being the fall-back use for the touchpad.
There's no radar, so recon, careful observation, and planning are necessary for infiltration.
The result is that many functions of Metal Gear Solid had to be "streamlined" in order to conform to the limitations of the hardware. Kojima has experience with this, since similar sacrifices had to be made for the portable versions of the Metal Gear games (of which I only briefly played). The good news, though, is that all the necessary functionality that you expect is there, and it's all comfortable to use. I do get hung up on pieces of rocky terrain every now and then, which leads to the occasional cheap alert or death, but it's tolerable. I rarely feel like there's anything that I simply can't do. Most of what's removed is wacky stuff like the silly "slither crawl" from Guns of the Patriots. Other commands (such as "knocking", the active sonar ping, calling for your horse, and enemy interrogation questions) have been lumped into a single "command wheel", which - I guess - is an elegant enough solution.
Without a radar or mini-map, marking enemies and learning the layout of an area are all up to the player.
Instead of having radar, you have the ability to "mark" enemies by focusing on them with your binoculars (similar to Assassin's Creed or Farcry). Once marked, you can track enemies on your iDroid map, and they can be tracked through walls. I really like this mechanic, since it really encourages the player to do some reconnaissance and planning before entering an engagement area. You'll want to find some high ground from which to scout the environment with your binoculars to determine the positions and patrol routes of enemies and to mark them for tracking. You might even want to find multiple vantage points in order to ensure that someone wasn't hiding behind an obstacle. Then you'll want to try to come up with an infiltration plan before moving in, as the open arenas allow for lots of different ways to approach virtually every mission. You'll still need to be very vigilant, since unmarked enemies can still come out of buildings or other areas that weren't visible during your recon. And the highlights of the enemies' bodies fades in and out as they move about, so you're knowledge of them is left at least partially ambiguous, unlike the outright x-ray vision that characters in other games are often given.
This focus on reconnaissance and planning is Phantom Pain's greatest strength compared to its predecessors - at least until you unlock D-Dog and Quiet, who increasingly do your recon job for you. Many of the previous Metal Gear games were designed like puzzle games that had one or two pre-planned solutions. There might be some wacky solutions that you could come up with that the developers didn't foresee, but a lot of situations severely limited your options. You would enter a narrow corridor through one door, get past the guards, and go out the other door. Phantom Pain gives the player a lot more sense of freedom and agency to make your infiltration plan your own! You infiltrate enemy compounds and dispatch or avoid the guards in pretty much whatever method that you see fit. And often, half the challenge is trying to get out, which is something that older Metal Gear Solid games rarely required you to do, since the whole games were usually designed as fairly linear corridor-crawls with the occasional backtracking. It's a natural culmination of the design principles that started with Snake Eater, and it's great!
Night vision goggles are only useful with the thermal upgrades, since it's never dark enough to impede your visibility.
Enemies' range of vision seems further than in some previous games, but the large, open environments can still leave you feeling like you can walk right in front of their faces without being seen. This is especially true at night, which is apparently dark enough to make the enemies virtually blind, but not dark enough to impede the player's visibility. Seriously, there's no point to having night-vision goggles, since the game is never dark enough for you to need them. They only become useful when upgraded to thermal goggles - and even then, are more useful for thermal vision during daytime duststorms or as a landmine-detector than as actual night-vision goggles.
And during one of the game's frequent sandstorms, visibility can be reduced to almost nothing. The game wants you to think that this is a double-edged sword, as it makes you just as deaf and blind as your opponents. But that isn't actually the case. Your enemy markings still work during sandstorms, so you'll have no trouble tracking enemies even though you can't see six inches in front of you or hear anything over the deafening gusts of wind. Since there's no other detriment to sandstorms (that I'm aware of), they basically just feel like a free pass to do whatever you want. I often use them to quickly incapacitate and then carry away any high-skill soldiers that I want to capture. I stash them away somewhere secluded, then Fulton them back to base once the storm clears.
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Sand storms can be a godsend or an annoyance, as they leave both you and the enemy deaf and blind.
More assertive stealth
The Phantom Pain also suffers from the same core problem that has plagued Metal Gear Solid games from the beginning: it's still far too easy to just tranquilize everyone and then walk through the level with no resistance. Kojima is apparently aware of this, and so your tranquilizer capacity is really low, and the gun's suppressor is as durable as a cardboard box in a monsoon. But it's still usually plenty good enough to get you through a level. Perimeter guards can be easily dispatched by sneaking up behind them and stunning them, leaving only the handful of interior guards needing to be tranquilized, and you can call in a supply drop of more ammo and suppressors if you run out. It's a shame too, because the game gives you so many tools that could be useful if it weren't always just easier to tranquilize someone and go on your merry way.
The only downside to tranquilizing is that the effect is temporary, and the guards will eventually wake up. This is one of the few elements of design that actually utilizes the overworld. A guard that you tranquilized in a guard post half a mile away can wake up, radio into base, and put every other outpost on alert. This is a far cry from previous MGS games, in which once you left a particular zone, everything resets.
Threatening guards into indefinitely going prone requires more assertive action than tranquilizing them from a distance.
For longer missions that will have you trekking through multiple outposts, permanently neutralizing guards is far more important than it was in previous games - in fact, it's almost essential. You have to either kill them (and hide the body), Fulton them back to base, or threaten them into laying down and shutting up. If you sneak up behind a guard and pull your gun, you can do the traditional MGS "hold up" on that guard. You can interrogate him for information (just like in previous games), and you can also command him to "get down". That will cause him to lay face down on the ground with his hands on his head indefinitely. They won't get up, alert other guards, or provide any other resistance unless another guard finds them.
I appreciate that tranquilizers are temporary, and that permanently neutralizing a guard requires more thought and risk than shooting them with a tranquilizer from a distance. But you can easily counter this by knocking them out, carrying them to an out-of-the-way hiding place, then waking them up and pulling your gun on them. It's also really easy in many locations to find a small, enclosed space, and lure guards into it one at a time, ambushing them at the doorway, and then threatening them to stay down. I feel like this method should have been a little more limited. Maybe Big Boss should have an inventory of zip-tie handcuffs that must be used to achieve this effect. Any guard that you don't zip-tie would eventually realize that you're gone, get up, and alert the others. And maybe guards that are left in close proximity could have tried to team up and overpower you. It would have forced you to be at least a little more judicious in how and where you hold them up, and maybe would have forced the player into using lethal force on guards that can't be handcuffed, which would have played into the Heroism mechanic.
Enemy A.I. can still be easily exploited
by luring them one at a time into an ambush.
The guard A.I. is hampered by some serious limitations that work in the player's favor. Even though they can notice when resource containers or gun emplacements are stolen, they never realize that their ranks are slowly being depleted or that other guards are not at their posts. Even though they can notice the sound of a bucket being accidentally knocked over, they don't ever seem to take notice of footprints (even during pursuit), or notice mysterious shadows. And if they do spot the player at the edge of their vision, they completely fail to track your movement once they obliviously move to investigate, which makes it trivially easy in most situations to circle around them and catch them by surprise. Most of these are things that guards were able to do in previous installments stretching all the way back to the first game on the PlayStation One!
You're also handed a pretty big bone in the form of the "reflex" mode. It's a similar concept to the death-saving quicktime events in Shadow of Mordor. It gives you a last-second opportunity to save yourself from detection if an enemy spots you. It can make the game too easy at times (especially once you've leveled it up a few times), but I think it's a nice feature. Having unlimited empty magazines to use to distract guards is a far more exploitative crutch.
The day / night cycle can also throw the occasional wrench in your plans. Guards will change shifts during the transitions from day to night and vice versa, which forces the player to adjust to changing patrol patterns, and can result in new guards finding incapacitated guards that you've already dispatched. Occasionally, guards will also stop to talk to each other or take a cigarette break, which throws their patrol timings off and may force the player to adjust your own plan of approach. It would be nice if they didn't keep talking about the same handful of things over and over again. This is all stuff that works well as emergent situations in an open world setting, but they could also have been easily implemented in a more linear, scripted design.
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Fluctuating mission quality
Being an open world game also creates new problems. One of the most significant problems is confusing or misleading instructions for the player, and occasional poor mission design. Probably the worst such mission was mission 8. I was instructed to obtain intelligence on the location of a specific enemy officer so that I can eliminate or extract him before he and his tank battalion reinforce a fortress. So I quickly try to recover the intel because I think that will give me more time to use the knowledge I earn to plan out where and how to attack the convoy. Instead, finding the intel instantly causes the convoy to start driving to their destination. Because the world map is so small, there is little time for you to react to this. This mission archetype recurs a few times over the course of the game (with some twists and deviations), and everytime, I hated it.
Setting up an ambush for an officer's convoy is fun if you have the foreknowledge necessary to execute it.
In a game that encourages the player to be so meticulous and deliberate, and to plan everything out to the "t", it's very frustrating to suddenly have all that thrown out the window without warning. This sort of mission feels like it should have been two missions: one to recover the intel, then another to actually deal with the officer and his tank escorts (now that you know where they are, where they're going, and the route they're taking to get there). Recovering the intel should be rewarding, as it should tell you the officer's route so that you can set up a trap or ambush or something to that effect. Instead, acquiring the intel feels like a punishment, as it suddenly forces you to race to the route with little idea of what you'll find when you get there.
To put this into perspective, when I went back and re-played the mission in order to extract the highly-skilled Soviet officer instead of killing him (which the game let's you do, further undercutting any sense of permanence and consequence in the overworld), I knew where the convoy was going to be, and I was able to capture a checkpoint and use it to set up an ambush to neutralize the tanks and capture the officer. This was actually fun! This is how the mission should have worked! But without foreknowledge of where the convoy comes from, you don't have the time to actually do that in your first playthrough.
Boss battles are also pretty bad - particularly the ones with the Skulls. There's nothing here as fun or interesting as the sniper duel with The End in Snake Eater, or the silly (but fun) brawl between Metal Gear Ray and Metal Gear Rex that took place in Guns of the Patriots. The game also seems to completely forget that it's a stealth game whenever it's time for a boss battle, as they invariably degrade into dodging hails of bullets and missiles. I'd even have settled for the repetitive trap-placement of the rollerblading Fatman battle from Sons of Liberty. No mission exemplifies this better than the "boss" mission called "A Quiet Exit", which is a stressful and frustrating battle against waves of tanks.
Boss fights generally disregard any pretense that this is a stealth game.
And lastly, the side ops are very hit-or-miss. They get very repetitive, and there isn't as much variety in them as I'd like. The only ones that I felt truly motivated to do was extracting Wandering Mother Base Staff. And that was only so that I could complete an optional (but important) side story, since the actual guards that you recover all have shit for stats. Anyway, all the side ops come down to sneaking into a place and either stealing something (or someone) or killing someone, and they're always in places that you've already been to in missions before, so they don't feel new or original. But worst of all, the game unlocks the side ops incrementally, spreading the available ones out across the map, and forcing you to have to trek back and forth with little-to-nothing to do in between. And I was usually stuck making those treks because the fast travel systems are almost worthless. The helicopter takes too long, and the box shipments are very sparse and always seem to drop you off in the middle of the most heavily-guarded area of a base.
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And then chapter 2 starts...
I really wish that I could have ended this review with that last paragraph...
Everyone seemed to be confused by why Konami and Kojima had such a sudden falling out. Well, I think that Phantom Pain's second chapter might give us a pretty good indication. After selling Ground Zeroes (effectively MGSV's prologue mission) in order to help pay for Phantom Pain's multi-year development, the entire second half of this game feels blatantly incomplete and half-assed. What happened? I think that Konami was getting impatient with how long it was taking to develop the game. Kojima kept throwing more and more into it, and the game kept getting pushed back and become more and more of a burden for Konami to afford. So they probably told Kojima to "just finish it" and imposed a strict deadline, instead of giving him the resources and time that he wanted in order to complete the vision that he had in his head for how the game should turn out.
Missions in chapter 2 are literal retreads of missions from chapter 1!!!
Here are mission 9 [LEFT] and mission 34 [RIGHT]. They are identical.
Since the overarching plot thread that was started by Ground Zeroes is resolved by the end of chapter one, this second act of the game comes off feeling almost like an outline for a sequel that just got stapled onto the end of an already complete game. Or perhaps Konami scoped it to be DLC, but Kojima decided to put it in the game anyway? That would certainly ruffle some feathers in corporate management! Was there supposed to be a third area of operations that just got cut due to time constraints? Instead, what players are stuck with is a set of chapter two cutscenes half-heartedly strung together by "important" side ops and by missions that are blatant re-uses of previous missions. And I'm not talking about simply going to the same places and doing similar things. They are literally the same missions again, with the same names, the same briefings, the same intel reports (if any are even provided to begin with), the same objectives, and even the same bookend cutscenes - all regardless of whether it works within the game's overarching narrative.
The only difference is that arbitrary and esoteric conditions are thrown on the player - with zero narrative justification! - that feel more appropriate to challenge tasks rather than necessities for story completion. It's bad enough having to repeat missions you've already completed (especially if side ops have forced you in and out of the same map areas multiple times already), but adding the "subsistence", "total stealth", and "extreme difficulty" modifiers as necessary conditions for mission completion just makes these missions an absolute pain! I'd much rather have just been given a quota of side ops to finish in order to progress the story; at leas that would have felt somewhat productive, and wouldn't have brought story progression to a grinding halt. Oh wait, they do that too, even further slowing down the story and artificially padding out game length! And there is still a lot of story happening here! This isn't just an epilogue chapter to tie up loose ends and enable "free play" for the player to finish side ops and grind to "100% completion". There are still significant character development, betrayals, and contrived plot twists ahead.
Every third mission or so in chapter 2 is new. The rest are annoying, verbatim "challenge" versions of old missions.
Every third mission or so is a genuine unique mission, and one mission, in particular, that takes place on the Quarantine Platform, is one of the best in the entire game! The remaining handful of chapter 2 missions that aren't recycles from earlier still feel alarmingly familiar, especially if you've been doing a lot of side ops and have had to revisit these same locations multiple times. In some cases, new missions come very close to feeling identical to old missions, except that objectives that were formerly optional bonus objectives have become the primary mission objective (such as rescuing a prisoner before he's executed). The grind of finishing these missions was the final nail in the coffin that killed my interest in continuing to do side ops, killed my interest in procuring further supplies or recruits for Mother Base, and killed my interest in the FOB ops that I had only barely begun to experiment with. It gradually ground away at my resolve to finish the game.
The end result is a game that takes place in an open world, but does little to actually utilize that open world. It's a game that feels great for the first act, but then turns into an absolutely miserable grind in the second act. It feels like content has been blatantly cut left and right, and the content that is present was copy-pasted and recycled in order to fill in the gaps and pad out a game that didn't need to be any longer.
Shadow of the Colossus's desolate world
contributes to its themes of emotional isolation.
Now, that isn't to say that an open world needs to be filled to the brim with content. I often complain about games like Skyrim and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag actually feeling too dense and crowded. Just look at a game like Shadow of the Colossus, which used a vast, desolate world to create a particular tone and to reinforce its themes. That was a very deliberate effort by Team Ico to create a specific emotional texture in that game, and it worked perfectly! The deadness of Metal Gear Solid V's world, on the other hand, does not feel deliberate, does not reinforce the game's themes, and does not create any sort of emotional isolationism.
There's just so much of the game that genuinely feels incomplete or poorly thought-out. There's virtually nothing to do in Mother Base other than target practice for almost half the game. The world is completely devoid of random or procedural activity, and since virtually every notable location on the map is explored by a mission at some point, and since you can farm resources and soldiers by replaying completed missions, there's absolutely no reason to just explore for the sake of exploring. Almost everything that you can do (other than collecting crafting materials) is handled via some kind of mission, which you can drop in and out of without having to traverse the space in between. You won't stumble onto a mission or ambient quest by just wandering around the way you could in, say Skyrim or The Witcher III. At best, you might run into a prisoner that you could rescue, but that's about it. Everything else is stuff that would happen in the main story anyway, but which you can trigger early by exploring the map. This would be fine if only there were more emergent missions that you could discover by exploring the game world. Instead, there's only two such events that I found, and they're both given to you as side ops or main missions if you haven't already found them.
Soldiers and mission briefings make frequent references to the Soviets' conflicts with the Hamid and Mujahideen, but other than the occasional prisoner rescue, these factions are completely absent from the game. Even the Africa map doesn't have any sort of procedural conflict between its different PFs. Remember that first chapter of Guns of the Patriots, in which Snake had to sneak through an active battlefield, and his actions towards each faction influenced their treatment of him? Yeah, there's none of that in Phantom Pain, and it would have been very appropriate to take that under-utilized mechanic of the previous game and flesh it out to work throughout the length of this game. Did Kojima plan to implement such a mechanic? Did it get cut due to time constraints imposed by Konami? There's no sense of the Soviets being in any sort of conflict; they're just standing guard in the desert, guarding Skull Face's base from, apparently, nobody. There aren't even any civilians or the risk of collateral damage to create some moral or ethical conflict or tension during missions.
There are no civilians, rival factions, ambient objectives, or procedural events to help make the world feel alive.
And there's a lot of little bread crumbs lying around that hint at more complex and complete feature sets. Little things like Ocelot and Miller telling you to revisit Mother Base periodically to meet with them and/or help raise the dog, and Diamond Dog soldiers asking you to train with them, and so on, all hint at plans for a more robust set of relationship-building, characterization features, and staff-management and training mechanics that should have been available in Mother Base. Even the open world itself feels constrained, as sheer cliffs in Afghanistan prevent you from travelling too far off of the roads and serve to functionally railroad the player towards the small set-piece outposts and villages (the Africa map is considerably more open). Towns and enemies seem to completely reset once you leave the area or start a new mission, making any attempts at clearing out an area prior to a mission non-effectual and moot. There's no permanance or consequences to actions in the overworld beyond the scope of your current mission or sortie. Even materials and specialists will respawn in areas, leaving you with little motivation to explore the nooks and crannies of the map for new crafting components or recruits, since you can just farm the same areas and missions.
Other mechanical details also imply an unfinished game. There's the "Heroism" meter that fills as you successfully complete missions using stealth and minimal violence, but which degrades as you are caught by the enemies or take damage. I get the feeling that this system was originally scoped to work along with civilians and collateral damage mechanics, so that Snake's heroism level would degrade if civilians were injured or property were damaged or destroyed during an op, and civilians would react differently to him based on his heroism. But there's no civilians or destructible environments to make this mechanic feel relevant, and it's easily maximize-able via exploits. It's a mostly superficial meter that modestly affects the quality of volunteer staff and has minor involvement in some online mechanics.
And then there's seemingly missing mechanics. When guards willingly go to sleep at night, you are virtually incapable of interacting with them. You can't grab or restrain them, or wake them up, or perform a coup de grace. You can hijack enemy vehicles, but enemies always instantly recognize you when you drive them, so you can't use them to drive through enemy outposts with impunity. You can't even honk the vehicle's horn as a distraction, even though enemies can honk at animals that block the road. And enemy tanks and helicopters lack actual pilots for you to kidnap and recruit. There's also absolutely no way to disguise yourself in any way.
There are exactly three things that you can do in Mother Base:
1.) interrogating your own troops for the location of hidden diamonds [LEFT],
2.) target practice [CENTER], 3.) perving on Quiet while she sunbathes [RIGHT].
All of these things were nagging annoyances from the start of the game, but the second half of the game really puts all the dirty laundry out for display. I know Kojima is a better designer and developer than this. Say what you will about his writing ability or maturity level, but the man is a genius and auteur when it comes to creating deep and robust games. The closest thing that I can think to another MGS game feeling even remotely as incomplete as this is the survival mechanics (eating, treating wounds, camouflage etc.) from Snake Eater. But the rest of that game was just so good that it was easy to overlook those under-realized mechanics, and Snake Eater remains my favorite MGS game for its strong narrative. Heck, even in Snake Eater, those mechanics felt like they were intentionally scaled back because the world couldn't be as open as the developers wanted it to be, and they wanted to maintain the game's playability as it became a more controlled, linear experience. The Phantom Pain achieves this goal of having an open, explorable environment, but doesn't excel in any particular category other than [maybe] the visual fidelity offered by the Fox Engine. It just feels pathetic by comparison.
However, the weaknesses of the open world can also act as a strength. It isn't filled to the brim with meaningless fluff content like other games. Yes, the bonus ops can get very repetitive, but you won't be running around doing menial fetch quests or collecting useless do-dads. When you're out in the world, you're there for a purpose. Everything that you do, and everything that you find and collect, has a purpose and a function in the game. Put simply, Phantom Pain's open world is tight and focused, but you don't live in it the way you do in a game like Skyrim, and it doesn't allow anything that wasn't already implemented as well - or better - in Snake Eater, Guns of the Patriots, or Peace Walker. It never feels like a real place; just a very large mission arena.
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... And then chapter 2 ends ...
And as bad as chapter 2 is, it also just kind of sputters to an end. A few missions pop up - seemingly at random - that close a couple plot threads, but so much of the game is left completely unresolved.
[Show Spoilers] [Hide Spoilers]
The plot twist that you aren't actually Big Boss, and the underlying concept that "anybody could become Big Boss", could have been a very clever twist if it weren't handled so clumsily, and if more of the game had actually hinted or lead up to it. It's a meta plot similar to what worked very well in Sons of Liberty, but which falls flat here. It also could have cleverly reframed the casting of Keifer Sutherland (rather than David Hayter) as a deliberate and legitimate narrative decision rather than some kind of bone-headed corporate "We need celebrity voice talent" kind of decision, or the result of some kind of petty personal dislike between Konami / Kojima and Hayter. But that isn't the case, since Sutherland provides the voice of the real Big Boss in both this game and in Ground Zeroes.
MGS2: Sons of Liberty built up to and earned its subversive, fourth-wall-breaking twist ending. Phantom Pain doesn't.
It also could have made the recruiting mechanic seem slightly less silly. The reason that you can't simply tap a soviet or PF soldier on the shoulder and say "Hey, I'm Big Boss. Come work for me." could have been reframed as being because you aren't Big Boss, and the other soldiers don't buy the lie. It even would have explained why the Wandering Mother Base Staff don't immediately recognize you and allow you to take them back to base. Perhaps the other Mother Base staff are even in on the gag, and they have to meet with the real Big Boss in a secret room at Mother Base in order to be convinced to join. But that isn't the case, since you seem to be treated indistinguishably from as if you really are Big Boss. It's also interesting that the same avatar that you make at the start of the game is the same face that ends up being used for both the original face of the nurse who replaces Big Boss, and as your Online avatar, and it can only be changed from within the single-player game. This sort of reframes your Online play as potentially being canonical within the single-player game's story: it was your life before you became Big Boss. This all could have been really clever, and would have even further extended the ludonarrative harmony to including MGO as well, but it's just never fully realized.
In the end, the plot twist doesn't seem to be as deserved as Sons of Liberty's twist was. Everything in Sons of Liberty built up to that and reinforced it. At some point during the game, every player surely became aware that Sons of Liberty's situations, environments, and bosses were all starting to feel very similar to Metal Gear Solid 1. This time, any attempts at establishing the twist is basically dropped after the opening cutscene (except for one or two hints during missions in the first third of the game, and maybe Paz's storyline), and then just thrown on the player seemingly at random near the end of the game. There's no lead-up to it at all.
Was the Heroism mechanic supposed to be more significant?
Is your MGO play supposed to be seen as the player's canonical "past life"?
I get the feeling that chapter 2 wasn't even supposed to be the original ending of the game. I can easily see this game including three chapters, and some sources on the internet even claim that the original plan was to have five chapters! A third chapter (or more) would also almost certainly require at least one additional map region, or significant evolution of the existing two maps. And I can easily see the cut content of Mission 51 (the search for Eli and Sahelanthropous) being stretched out into an entire chapter by itself! In any case, "The Man Who Sold The World" clearly does not belong at this point in the game. I wouldn't be surprised if it was originally planned to occur midway through the game and allow the player to play the rest of the game with the knowledge that you are not the real Big Boss. I could even imagine Kojima originally intending for there to be some kind of complicated morality system in play (possibly further expansion and development of the existing Heroism mechanic) such that the player decides whether to create a more morally righteous version of Big Boss through your in-game actions. This could have occurred as Diamond Dogs transitions into being Outer Heaven, or it could mean that Diamond Dogs was a separate institution from Outer Heaven. But that didn't really happen, instead, we only get hints of such a system from the the tape recording during the mirror scene, and an ending that is completely unsatisfying.
These 1984 references go nowhere.
The ending is made even more unsatisfying by the lack of some narrative closure. There's never any proper conclusion to Eli's story thread. Diamond Dogs never goes after him, or even bothers to investigate. There's never any payoff for building up Mother Base and developing Diamond Dogs. You never use the full power of Diamond Dogs to support you in a mission or engage in all-out war - at least not unless you count the obscene amount of support you may have needed to call in for "A Quiet Exit". there's never a pay off for Snake's head shrapnel. The doctor comments in the beginning of the game (and again in "The Man Who Sold the World") that physical and cognitive impairments are unavoidable due to the shrapnel in Snake's head, but this never plays out in-game (or even in any cutscenes). There's some loose thread of paranoia at Mother Base, as implied by the 1984-esque "Big Boss is watching you!" signs that show up and then disappear without any reason or narrative justification. There's the child soldier subplot that goes nowhere and means nothing. There's the complete inability to ever do anything meaningful with Battle Gear. There's the pointless zoo/conservation platform on which nothing happens. And so on. There's just no sense of closure for so much of what this game builds and sets up.
Oh, and is there ever an explanation for why Ocelot is working with Big Boss to begin with?
End of Spoilers
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Online play influenced by ... Demon's Souls?
Perhaps part of the reason that the second half of the game feels so incomplete is because Kojima's team spent so much time trying to get the Forward Operating Base (FOB) and online components working correctly. Delays here probably cut into time that was supposed to be spent on the second half of the game - maybe even on a third campaign map region that had to get cut due to time constraints. And since the FOB mechanics are tied to the game's story, it wasn't a trivial thing to simply move those missions closer to the start of the game.
The actual FOB mechanics are actually surprisingly interesting, as they seem to take inspiration from my favorite PS3 game, Demon's Souls (or Dark Souls). Once you progress far enough into the game to set up your own FOB, other players can attack your bases, steal your resources, and kill or recruit your staff. You can chose to personally intervene and engage in PvP against the attacking player and his or her soldiers, or leave your own soldiers and security to its own devices. It's a mechanic similar to the invasion mechanics from the Souls game, and it's a neat idea.
Stealing resources and staff from other players' FOBs (and defending your own)
is supposed to be the payoff for building Mother Base.
The problem, however, is that since these invasions take place on automated bases, you don't physically have to be present in order for an attack to happen. Heck, you don't even have to be online or even playing the game! If you stop playing for a long period of time (weeks or months), you may return and boot up the game to find your FOBs have been decimated by attacking rival players, and there wasn't a damned thing you could do about it. As hard as Dark Souls can be, and as one-sided as many invasions in that game end up being, at least other players can't invade and murder my character while my console is turned off. Yes, you can conduct a retaliatory invasion to get your guys and stuff back, but that's assuming that you load up the game soon enough to be within the window of opportunity for retrieving your abducted soldiers.
You can try to practice against your own base staff, but if you don't understand how FOB defense works yet, you likely won't be providing yourself with a representative practice experience. What really sucks though is that engaging on FOB missions of your own costs GMP, so it costs money to practice enough to get good enough to be able to get any rewards. It's all very punitive, and I suspect that it will not be a very popular (or used) feature among all but the most hardcore, masochistic players. And the last insult is that this whole system gets unlocked just before the start of the one part of the single-player campaign that is actually urgent to resolve, and which can be a bit stressful. So good luck finding the time and opportunity to practice FOBs.
My fondness for the Souls games makes me really want to like this feature. It's a meaningful integration of the online mechanics into the single player game. The ludonarrative harmony that I praised earlier in this review is extended to a gameplay harmony between the single-player game and the online multiplayer, and that's great! And the infiltration missions themselves have a high skill floor and ceiling that results in a tough challenge of your mechanical mastery and perceptiveness. It also creates a sense of payoff for all the time and effort that you [hopefully] put into growing Mother Base - an effort that probably felt futile earlier in the game. But it just comes out of left field half-way through the game (just in time for the game to get bad). I think Kojima wanted to delay this feature until the player had a very well-developed Mother Base. That way, being attacked and losing some staff wouldn't be a game-breaker. This ends up backfiring since you likely won't be doing any FOB missions till the second act of the game, which already feels enough like a pointless grind.
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Metal Gear Online ... without the "Metal Gear"
I thought that maybe I could play Metal Gear Online as a sort of practice for the FOB multiplayer. But the Online experience doesn't translate very well into the single player game (not even FOB missions). I really liked the original Metal Gear Online that came packaged with Guns of the Patriots on the PS3. It was a much slower, more cerebral experience than many other online shooters - at least, I felt that way at the level of competition that I was playing on. I don't pretend that I'm even remotely good at online shooters, so I was always playing in the lower tiers of players. In that tier, I was able play the game similarly to how I played the single-player game and was still moderately successful. So I was excited to try out the new Online game.
MGO is a pretty lackluster suite of standard deathmatch and capture-the-flag multiplayer skirmishes.
I just haven't really gotten into the new version. It feels too fast and hectic for me, and I have no interest in playing a game about a bunch of naked characters running around like a bunch of buffoons. I get enough of that from Dark Souls. I also just don't like the new multiplayer modes. This is another area of the game that feels woefully incomplete. There's only really four modes (compared to the last game's ten), and they're all just simple variations of the deathmatch and capture-the-flag multiplayer modes that are in every action shooter's online mode. None of them seem to really encourage sneaking around. You don't even get the benefit of camouflaged uniforms anymore (though one mode gives one of the teams invisible stealth camo). Maybe it'll grow on me if I play it more (or if more modes are added down the line). But for now, there's nothing here that really stands out as novel, or even anything that stands out as distinctly "Metal Gear".
Where's a mode analogous to the "Sneaking Mission" mode from Guns of the Patriots' online? There's absolutely nothing along the lines of any kind of infiltration or guard patrol mission. I was expecting to see even more of that sort of mode; not less. It all just feels so bare-bones, stripped clean, and generally "safe" for casual audiences. This was probably another casualty of the hard development deadline set by Konami. And with Kojima Productions disbanded, it seems highly unlikely that any new modes will be added.
Hey Konami, here's a few ideas for Metal Gear online mission: How about a mode in which one or two players must sneak into an installation guarded by player-controlled guards (all on one team). The guards can be restricted from running unless they either spot and mark an enemy, are attacked by an enemy, or an alarm is sounded. The camera could also be restricted so that the guards can't easily look over their backs without going into first person. So they have to casually walk around, patrolling the base, keeping a lookout for infiltrators, and trying not to leave significant gaps in their patrol. The infiltrators would win by reaching a certain destination or assassinating an NPC target within a time limit; and the guards win by stopping both infiltrators.
Where's the novel sneaking and infiltration modes that were included in the PS3 version of MGO?
Another, simpler, idea would be a mode in which both teams have to secure and rescue a single prisoner, and both teams lose if the prisoner is killed. Heck, I might even have been interested to play some kind of huge, cat-and-mouse, single-elimination deathmatch game that just throws each player into one of the two main game maps. This would require players to spend twenty minutes to an hour (or more) using all the tools at their disposal to track each other, sneak up on each other, and try to assassinate each other - Hunger Games style! Sure, these might not be particularly popular among casual audiences, but they might appeal more to the players who actually play the game. It would at least feel a hell of a lot more like "Metal Gear" than what's actually offered!
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Destined to be Kojima's magnum opus? or his black sheep?
I'm a little unsure how to feel about Metal Gear Solid V. I want to love it, but I also want to hate it. During "A Quiet Exit", I'm pretty sure that I absolutely hated it. On the one hand, the things it does well, it does very well. On the other hand, parts of it do feel very unfinished and/or lazy. I'm willing to give Hideo Kojima a little bit of the benefit of the doubt on this one. At the same time, it can be very easy to blame Konami for being the big, evil corporate bad guy in all this (which is probably true), but that might not be doing proper justice to the situation. If Kojima was missing deadlines, or refusing to obey corporate commands, then at least some blame falls on him. While there are certainly weaknesses in the content that is included and [supposedly] complete, many of my problems with the game aren't necessarily criticisms with that content, but rather they come down to the game failing to meet some of my expectations. And it's hard to tell whether those failures are intentional within the game's design, or if they are further artifacts of the game's unfinished nature. Perhaps those expectations are too high, and it's unfair to judge the game based on criteria that it may not be trying to achieve. Previous games in the series simply set a very high benchmarks that this game (as good as it is) just fails to live up to.
Kojima probably wanted The Phantom Pain to be his magnum opus, but Konami didn't give him the time necessary to make it all work. Metal Gear Solid V reminds me a lot of Silent Hill 4. It's a brave, but somewhat botched effort that coincided with Konami disbanding the original creative team. If the series continues, it will likely be outsourced to third-party developers who will have to constantly struggle with living under the shadow of Snake Eater (just like third party Silent Hill developers have been stuck under the shadow of Silent Hill 2). Just like with SH4, Phantom Pain is mostly competent, but clumsy. It makes a lot of mistakes, but it also showed a willingness to break with tradition and go places and try things that the series hadn't been able to accomplish before. But it also hurts itself by its own unwillingness to retain the elements of the past games that would have worked. Just like with Silent Hill, it might be time to let Metal Gear Solid die with what dignity it has left.
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It appears there will be no triumphant ride off into the sunset for Metal Gear,
... unless this is all some elaborate ruse by Kojima and Konami, and there's something we're all missing.