I come to you this morning torn, upset, and a little hungry. The latter matters the least. However, I want to talk about arguably one of the most important video games of 2015: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I’m no where near finished, my completion percentage sits at 15% right now, but I have thoughts and feelings about MGSV I wish to share.
We talked about this a little bit on this week’s episode of The Bear Vs. Man Cast (which I know you all listened to, right? Right? Ahem.) MGSV is an amazing feat of the culmination of what is nearly thirty years for the series, I can’t deny that. But to what end? Things are set up in MGSV, plot things. The previous game Peace Walker puts into motion a lot of the things that take place during MGSV. As well with Ground Zeroes, MGSV and its events happen in a period of Metal Gear history that is pretty extensive, almost ten years. All of the things that Big Boss does before he ascends to the head of FOXHOUND in the 90’s. All of these big, important, character shaping events. You would think, just like the Metal Gear games that came before it, MGSV would provide hours of engaging cut scenes, endless Codec chats with a roster of characters. You know, the things that Metal Gear has done for plot advancement since Metal Gear Solid.
The Phantom Pain does none of this.
There are new systems to replace these in MGSV; the cassette tapes you receive serve to be your codec conversations. There are some story drive cut scenes, but not that many. Not really. I’m ten or so hours in at this point, and most of that has been playing a game. The cassette tapes are, at best, some small clips of Big Boss talking to Ocelot or Miller, with a few details about the topic at hand. At worse? It’s one character leaving Big Boss an audio diary of something that happened that day. Big Boss, formerly somewhat of a “Chatty Kathy” in Metal Gear Solid 3, has nearly nothing to say the majority of the time. In those story cut scenes I mentioned earlier, a character will often be having a deep, emotional monologue, that could easily by replied to by Big Boss, but instead actually is a monologue, as Big Boss stands there, silent and stoic. These characters may as well be talking to rocks, because that’s all Big Boss is good for when you’re having troubles. Every Snake character, in every Metal Gear game, has a lot to say. Whether it’s Naked Snake in MGS3, talking with Paramedic about fucking Godzilla or any other movie that pre-dates 1950 every time you save, or Raiden complaining about being shitty and new half the time in MGS2. Solid Snake was always talkative in all of his games. Big Boss in MGSV has nothing meaningful to contribute to any conversation that takes place in the game.
I have a few theories. I mostly blame Kiefer Sutherland, but he’s not entirely to blame. I’m sure every word Mr. Sutherland spoke cost the studio many hundreds of dollars, to the point where they would have to make Big Boss have way less to say in order for the game to be financially feasible. (Rumor is Kojima spent a lot of money making MGSV.)
After the opening sequence of MGSV, which had a lot of the things I was looking for from this game; a blissful 45 minutes or so of “What is going on? Oh god, oh god. Please send help this is brutal.” You’re dumped in Afghanistan, with a horse, a couple of guns, and a pair of binoculars. You get a mission, do it. Explore to your heart’s content, or don’t. Who cares. This game is not the linear Metal Gear experience you may have come to expect. This game doesn’t do much that the previous games did. Whether it be the whole systemic upgrade tree and recruitment nonsense that is Mother Base, or just down to the fundamental stealth elements. This isn’t your mama’s Metal Gear.
The Phantom Pain gets a lot right. I think so far this is a really fantastic stealth-action game. When you arrive and put boots to soil from your sweet customizable helicopter that is purple and play’s Rebel Yell as it flies away, the game is fully realized. You walk close to your objective, trying to get to a high overlooking point somewhere near by. You analyze the situation with your binoculars, trying to tag enemies, determine your plan, and then it’s up to you to execute it. Very rarely does the game tell you how to do a mission. Sometimes it may recommend a certain weapon. But it’s really up to you to determine the best weapons, the most effective Buddy, and how to tackle the situation you’re in. The Phantom Pain does this very well. The control is seemingly flawless. Every bit of the UI is intuitive and natural, and the open world action is solid. The way the enemy AI responds to you is excellently executed. It’s your ability to be stealthy that keeps you safe. And if you’re spotted, the way the enemy chooses to react is a constant source of intrigue when I’m playing this game. MGSV does a really great job of making you think you’re outsmarting your enemy. “That guy in the watch tower? He will probably radio another outpost if I’m spotted. I should take him out.”
There are no camouflage percentages, no real indicator of how hidden you are, but it’s okay. The game forces you to be smart about it. Every time I’ve been spotted, I never think “How did he possibly see me?!” It’s always been because I wasn’t being careful, I missed an enemy to tag. Point is, it’s always my fault. You get to actually be stealthy. Someone could see you? Duck behind a rock. Wanna sneak up on an enemy? Better walk slow, and crouch. Want to be hidden? Better pick a good camo pattern, lay low, and hope for the best. The Phantom Pain does an incredible job of giving you a big box to play in, with only a small selection of rules to adhere by. Everything else is up to you, and this is truly where the game shines.
The really big, glaring issue I have with The Phantom Pain is I don’t think it’s a Metal Gear game. Is this an excellent stealth-action game? Yes. Could this game be 24: The Game? Unfortunately the answer is yes. The things that I look for in a Metal Gear game are seemingly absent. The absurd character development and interaction, the humor, the action movie tropes. The Phantom Pain with a few changed assets could be pretty much anything. Metal Gear games are full of heart and you know when you’re playing one. The Phantom Pain feels really empty in this regard. Maybe this will change as I get deeper in, but I can’t see it. The way the game is set up I don’t think that those systems are suddenly going to change, and give way to the Metal Gear that I want. To me, it’s a little like the last thing Kojima did was kill Metal Gear as an idea by presenting us with something like The Phantom Pain. Which to me sounds like a very Kojima thing to do.