For the Man Who Sold the World
Ladies and gentlemen, this is it. After establishing a story over the course of almost three decades, the Metal Gear saga is probably seeing its last untold chapter, at least under the jurisdiction of Hideo Kojima. However, this is no ordinary swan song. The Phantom Pain is Kojima’s “Symphony No. 9,” a monumental finale before the series is put to rest. While the game may still isolate certain partitions of the fanbase, The Phantom Pain’s progressive take on open-world gameplay is so refined that it simultaneously makes it predecessors and influences almost obsolete as a result.
A lot news surrounding the troublesome state of Konami’s gaming division has surfaced recently; to point that it may be a bit hard to recall has this game came to life. Technically, it all came to life during Metal Gear’s 25th anniversary function where two main things were announced: a Metal Gear Solid movie produced by Avi Arad, and Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes (note that there’s no capital ‘V’ in that title). It wouldn’t be until Spike’s VGAs of that year that the actual title of “The Phantom Pain” would surface amongst the public, but it wasn’t advertised as a Metal Gear title at all. In fact, it was falsely produced to appear to be its own standalone game from a supposed new development team named “Moby Dick Studios.” After a plethora of press analysis and public speculation over the trailer, it was in fact deemed that The Phantom Pain was Metal Gear Solid...yet, so was Ground Zeroes. Of course, Ground Zeroes would serve as a sort of prologue to the main game that would be The Phantom Pain, but it was met its own form of critical response regarding its packaging: $30 for a physical copy and $20 digital. It was supposed to $40 and $30 respectively, but following public outcries it was dropped a few days before release. Overall, Ground Zeroes laid out the blueprint for the general format for what The Phantom Pain is. Not only did it outline the impressive nature of the Fox engine and the gameplay to come, but also began the foundations for a ‘solid’ story. A year and a half later, The Phantom Pain would be released.
Welcome to Afghanistan and Africa in 1984 - the open-world environments of The Phantom Pain. Contrary to the world design that’s seen in games like Grand Theft Auto, these areas aren’t necessarily meant for sandbox gameplay, but more so to act as a tool for stealth. Overall traversal is never too much of a major issue as you’ll usually drop in via helicopter near your objective, and each map consists of distinguishable regions if you were to ever lose track of your place on the map. Within each of these maps is an implemented dynamic weather system that is altered between the respective maps. When a sandstorm may spontaneously occur within the rocky mountain terrain of Afghanistan, a full-on thunderstorm may happen over the fields of Africa. I still feel the jungle and James Bond-esque setting of Snake Eater was captured better and serves to be the overall superior setting. That said, The Phantom Pain still manages to succeed in its attempts to adhere to certain mature themes during this period of the Soviet-Afghan War.
Following Ground Zeroes’ explosive finish after Big Boss’s extraction of Chico and Paz in 1975, MSF is now left completely destroyed by the hands of Cipher. Following the incident, Big Boss falls into a coma, not to awake for nine years. After narrowly escaping an assassination attempt and an extremely well-produced hospital mass homicide sequence, Punished “Venom” Snake must rebuild his army-without-a-nation - Diamond Dogs. Compared to previous Metal Gear Solid games, the story takes a significant backseat, even in comparison to Peace Walker. Gone are the days of annoying forum posts complaining that it’s more of a movie than an actual game, as the game’s cutscenes have never been anywhere near as infrequent. That said, this doesn’t bother me as much I thought it would prior to release. The Phantom Pain has a very unique structure, unlike anything I’ve ever played save maybe Peace Walker. Allotted time for cutscenes may seem low on the surface, but think back to what truly took up a majority of the info-dumps in those previous titles: the codec sequences. Surely like many others, I see the codec calls as part of what makes the franchise so iconic. However, even a huge Metal Gear fan like me has to admit that some those sequences just went on too long with their one second animation loop, particularly evident in MGS 2. To streamline this, The Phantom Pain instead utilizes an assortment of cassette tapes to fill in these side-lined narratives. What makes the implementation so great is that you can listen to these during any dead-air during gameplay. It proved to provide a good source of storytelling without possibly being intrusive. Now, the story itself may not appeal to everyone, even long-time fans. Much like nearly every Metal Gear title, the plot successfully manages to completely swipe the rug from underneath you, but the aftermath has been polarizing. Personally, I think the turns it takes are absolutely awesome, but it will honestly vary from player to player. All that said, the story does seem somewhat unfinished by the time of its conclusion. If you haven’t heard by now, Konami had an entire final chapter cut from the game, presumably to ship it out sooner. Is this the full extent of it all? Probably not, and chances are we won’t actually know the reasoning for years to come, but as it stands, this is still a worthy Metal Gear from a narrative perspective, even if it’s not fully complete.
Mechanically, The Phantom Pain plays nearly identically to Ground Zeroes. It’s action-stealth refined to a tee, allowing for a greater level of accessibility to multiple playstyles. Similar to previous Metal Gear Solid titles, you can crouch and crawl to sneak around guards and cameras to reach your objectives. The biggest deviation surfaces in the form of alerts, as the complications resulting are less severe and more adaptable than they have ever been. For me, I have always been a stealth player, so I went into every encounter with only the tranquilizer pistol and restarted each time I’d get spotted. For those of you who aren’t dedicated to a particular playstyle like that, the game still has you accounted for. Even if you manage to be unsuccessful with the game’s awesome implemented reflex mode, a sort of second-chance to take out a guard before an offical alert, you’re not immediately out of luck like you may have been in the other main series titles. Pure reaction becomes the name of the game, and no two players’ solutions to a given outpost or alert phase will be the same. Nothing ever grows to be frustrating at all, but rather continually impressive in light of the game’s outstanding level design and appropriate AI.
Taken from Peace Walker, The Phantom Pain takes on a mission-based structure, separating into the two fields of “Main Missions” and “Side Ops.” After you finish each main mission, you earn yourself a rank all the way up to ‘S,’ determined based off your speed, stealth, and objective completion. When I played through Peace Walker, I never felt compelled to go back and obtain the S rank in each respective level. In The Phantom Pain, however, it would flat-out bother me if I left any of the mission un-S-ranked, as I would constantly find myself replaying levels to see if I can beat my time from a previous run. Side Ops are in a different spectrum, however, even though you don’t get ranked at the end of a Side Op’s completion, it is the prime way to gain a substantial amount of GMP (the game’s currency) and your buddy’s bond level. There are four different support buddies in The Phantom Pain, all of which are there to aid you in your endeavors through differing mechanisms. I personally used Quiet the most for general side ops and outpost takeovers, but all of them have their own sufficient uses. D-Horse is mainly useful for traversal ease and specific diversions, while D-Walker is good for pure action missions. Quiet and D-Dog, on the other hand, are useful for that core in-the-moment-stealth which usually occurs in the form of outpost and base takeovers. Carried over from Ground Zeroes, you can mark any given guard or key item to personally keep track of as many enemies as possible, and these buddies can help with those scenarios as well. This process is akin to the recent outpost capturing in recent Far Cry iterations, one of the best parts of those games, but the strategic stealth and near endless amount of possible approaches make The Phantom Pain’s take on the gameplay feature even more satisfying than Far Cry’s ever was.
Let’s say you have successfully taken over an outpost in a non-lethal manner, now you have the ability to Fulton extract each soldier to recruit them to Diamond Dogs - part of the game’s excellent overarching sub-game. Throughout The Phantom Pain, you are building an ever-growing army, and it’s your job to manage all attributes of the system; from the base’s composition to the development of the soldiers themselves. The base itself is composed of various subdivisions, which you improve through gaining certain resources while out in the field. Diamond Dog soldiers are automatically assigned to these partitions, and the divisions themselves level up along with the addition of generally higher skilled subjects. As Mother Base’s sections are further leveled, certain features open up to take advantage of, but the biggest is definitely R&D. The more advanced people within your research and development are, the better weaponry and gear you’ll be able to obtain, which is what you take with you during missions in the form of loadouts. With all of this comes a variety of customization options as well, even if it may not be the selling part of the package. You can change the color of the base, construct an original emblem, and even add a song to play each time you take a ride on the helicopter.
Despite my rather obvious affection for the gameplay, The Phantom Pain isn’t without its own issues. Above all, I found the helicopter animation to be extremely repetitive, as it is exactly the same every single time you utilize the helicopter; and you will probably utilize the helicopter hundreds of times throughout your playthrough, but that number will obviously fluctuate depending on your commitment to the optional content. Secondly, I flat-out disliked the full-on action missions. There are really only two in the entire game, but I found myself almost completely screwed at one point because I had nearly exclusively invested into only stealth gear. While “going Rambo” is better outfitted in this game over any other title in the series, stealth is still the priority, and these kind of sections don’t work as well. Though that notion is still kind of strange to me because I found all of the bosses, some of which require absolute action, to be incredibly fun, even if there are only a few in the final product. The only other issue I had was with the final story mission of the game. I’m not going to spoil anything, but I will say that even though there are different cutscenes and huge story moments, the actual block of the mission is a complete copy-and-paste from an earlier level. This was nothing but disappointing for me in this regard, as the story portion itself could have driven the gameplay side of the mission to awesome levels, but it was ultimately wasted; proving that at least some parts of this game were rushed out the door.
When Ground Zeroes was first release in early 2014, it was the best-looking I’d ever seen at the time. Like most games, it was much more visually appealing at night rather than during the daytime portions, but it was still outstanding to look at regardless. Since that initial release, other games have ultimately overtaken it graphically (see Assassin’s Creed Unity and The Order: 1886), but The Phantom Pain still looks good; it’s just not part of the elite. Sound design is the area of technicality that I feel the game truly shines in. Voice-acting is top-notch, and even though no one can completely replace David Hayter’s iconic voice, Kiefer Sutherland does a good job and fits the character of Big Boss well. I also felt Troy Baker had a decent performance as Ocelot, though I still feel they redesigned his character wrong as he does not look younger than an-almost fifty Big Boss. Aside from the voice acting, the music in the game is also great, boasting a mix of impressive symphonic tracks and fitting licensed songs from the 1980s. Exclusively on the PC, you can go into file directory and add in your own songs to the game. Naturally, I added a handful of my favorite songs from that era, and after all, is there anything more satisfying than taking an outpost to rhythm of “Panama” or “Master of Puppets?”
The Phantom Pain, despite some its apparent issues, is a watershed moment for the gaming industry. Metal Gear has typically been a set of linear stealth sequences between each lengthy story beat. Not only did they successfully manage to translate the core-stealth into its open-world playground, but they completely knocked it out of the park. Even though I enjoyed Peace Walker, this game outshines it in every aspect imaginable. It’s kind of amazing to think of just how well it all came out despite the troubled Konami development, and the result is a future legacy. A controversial prologue, needless over-sexualization, microtransactions, cut content from Konami, a rumored dismissal of Kojima, and a story that’s divided fans in all the right ways; and despite all of that, the acclaim this game has received has been through the roof. People will be talking this game ten years down the line, and still referring back to its effectiveness at open-world gameplay. Metal Gear Solid games have been called in the past “too much of a movie,” and this game officially deviates from that formula, even if this is the conclusion to the whole narrative. The Phantom Pain is in some ways referential to us as players of the franchise; we don’t want to see this series that we’ve come to know and love for probably most of our mature lifetime come to an end, but what an encore to go out on it is.