The Beginning of the End – a Review of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

My name is Big Boss. It’s night time and I’m skulking through a village in Afghanistan occupied by Soviet forces.

At least, I think I’m Big Boss. I’ve just come out of a 9-year coma and there were some strange things that went on at the hospital when I woke up. There was a guy with a bandaged face who said “I was talking to myself”, so I guess he could be Big Boss and I’m a fake with amnesia, or something. It’s a long story. I had to make a face for myself while in the hospital (I went with combat sideburns) and this “avatar” face is hidden in the menu system constantly poking me into being unsure of who I am.

Also I’ve renamed my mercenary outfit the “Sons of Whiskey” and changed our emblem to a half-full glass of whiskey which doesn’t sound like something Big Boss would do but I’m willing to give myself the benefit of the doubt.

Look, that’s not important. I’m Big Boss for the moment, and right now I’m looking for a Soviet commander and his squadron of tanks. The briefing suggested that I should probably bring a rocket launcher but I’m a bit of a wild-card and I’m hoping that, using a little bit of video game knowledge, I might be able to procure such a thing during the mission. Worst case scenario, I’ve got four C4 plastic explosive charges so I can always hope that the tanks might park up somewhere and let me get close enough to use them.

The village is something to see – it’s built into the side of a mountain and looks like something out of Lord of the Rings. There’s a rocky embankment that runs alongside the buildings so I’ve been crawling my way up past the village.

It’s not gone too well so far. A concentration of men at the village entrance made knocking them all out with tranq darts difficult – one guard would keep waking up the other two. I’ve burned through the silencer on my pistol just trying to knock them out. In frustration I had to plug the third guard with a bullet through the back of the skull via means of a sniper rifle. The gunshot has alerted some of the guards, two of which are climbing the rocks behind me to investigate the source of the noise. This is quite alarming, as guards in Metal Gear Solid are historically easily distracted and suffer from an attention-deficit disorder. I quickly secrete myself behind a rock and wait for the search party.

They edge just a bit too close – I break cover and unleash a CQC throw on the first, grabbing the second immediately after. I interrogate him and he points out the intel room on my map. I choke him unconscious and strap Fulton recovery balloons to both guards – they’ll make fine recruits back at base.

Continuing up the cliff, the rest of the village appears to be deserted. I break into the intel room and scan a document left on a table. It turns out that the Soviet commander has left early to collect his tank unit, and they will be driving past the village within minutes. Leaving the building, I can see them on the road down below in the distance from the balcony where I’m currently stood. Bollocks.

My gut instinct is to pelt it out of the village, grab my horse and take off after them in pursuit, hopefully following them to a village where I can strike once they’ve parked up. However, looking out over the village something catches my eye on top of one of the buildings.

A mortar emplacement.

I make like Daniel Craig in the opening to Casino Royale, sprinting across the rooftops, clambering over building and leaping across gaps. I clamber up the ladder just in time to see the convoy drive past in the distance – it might be too late! Getting on the mortar, it take a few seconds to work out the alignment. Seconds later a shell is hurtling in the direction of the last tank in the convoy. It misses, but causes enough alarm to stop the convoy for a few seconds while they try and work out what the hell is going on. Just enough time to line up the mortar for the first tank in the convoy…

Three shells later, the tank is toast. The convoy had tried to continue onwards to escape, but a barrage of shelling is taking its toll. I’m vaguely aware of guards nearby trying to find the source of the commotion, but I have no time to worry about them. The commander’s truck is avoiding my shells-

-a lucky hit blows the truck to pieces. I swear I can see bodies flying out of the vehicle but it might just be debris. The third tank, now stuck behind the remains of another tank and a truck, is a sitting duck. It takes a few shells and goes up like the others.

Mission complete. I just need to get out of the “Hot Zone” alive. Aware of alerted guards edging closer, I leap from the roof and sprint out of town, staying out of the lights as much as possible.

At the town entrance, I throw myself to the ground as a single guard comes running along the main road. He’s going to investigate the wreckage, but sees a figure taking pot shots at him and comes running towards me and my eager trigger finger. A tranquilliser dart to the head knocks him out, and another balloon drafts him into my army. Welcome to the team, soldier!

I call for my horse and we’re both away into the night before reinforcements can find us. The debriefing shows that I didn’t make the neatest job of the mission, but I don’t care. That was f*cking awesome1.

We celebrate the victory by renaming our merc outfit to “Tactical Whiskey” and creating new, stronger whiskeys in our “advanced weapons development lab”. To be fair most of our whiskeys contravene the Geneva Convention already as “unethical biological warfare”. Bloody lightweights.

This review comes in two parts – I am going to do a spoiler-free bit of gushing here and then in this article over here I will be spoiling everything as I discuss the bitter-sweet revelations at the core of the game.

I have been a Metal Gear fan ever since the PlayStation era2 and, to come this far, it has been a long, thrilling ride. I have always loved the over-the-top melodrama and faux-realism of the series – the way it plays off as being a realistic scenario while at the same time proposing a world where every major country has an army made of bipedal walking death machines and psychics can be possessed by the spirit of the previous owner of their brand new arm transplant (long story).

The latest instalment opens up a whole sandbox world with a story that takes place over two expansive maps – one a rocky desert, the other a verdant African plain. Gameplay consists of open-ended sneaking around various outposts and installations within these maps, with a litany of missions and side-quests to perform. Most of the fun lies within customising your weapons loadout, what vehicles you want to take, what partner you want to assist you, where you want to infiltrate from, etc. The amount of replayability in this game is incredible, with possibly near-inifinite combinations of how to tackle any given scenario. Want to sneak in with a knife and take out the enemy one-by-one, Rambo style? You can do that. Want to hang back and pick off soldiers from a distance with a sniper rifle, then sneak in? Fine, that’s a valid tactic too. Alternatively you can always don some heavy armour and some big guns, directing your chopper to land right in the middle of enemy territory with intention of going in hard-and-heavy, guns blazing.

To nitpick, it could be argued that MGSV suffers from the same issue that many (including myself) have with the Assassin’s Creed series, in that many of the tasks you carry out are the same. Specifically, you extract a lot of things; extraction basically being the process of tying a balloon to something and watch it shoot off into the sky to be collected by an unseen aircraft to take back to base (very subtle!). Most objectives boil down to extracting soldiers, extracting prisoners, extracting animals, killing people and, occasionally, scanning random intel documents into your iPhone (because in the advanced alternate reality of MGSV, they already have iPhones in 1984 where the game takes place). However, it never feels like a chore – the amount of scenarios and means of tackling them always feels fresh, combined with the delight of how fluid the character moves.

MGSV Zombies
Case in point, the 10 or so zombie side missions. At this point I’m using a random peon dressed in a tuxedo during the daytime just to liven up something I’ve already done several times over.

To those who have only played the console-based MGS games, the mission-based structure of the game will feel new. Classically MGS has always been a series of linear objectives, so having a smorgasbord of objectives to pick and choose from will be new for many. For those who wisely made efforts to play MGS: Peace Walker, many of the concepts have been directly lifted (or continued, I suppose) from that hand-held instalment, except refined. The Fulton recovery extraction balloons, base development, money accumulation, missions, “side ops”, loadouts, sending out men to do missions and base staff assignment all make a return. In the case of the base development, a lot of it can now be automated which will come as a relief to those who, like me, would dread the end of every mission in Peace Walker as it would mean manually having to assign staff teams or sit through battle reports from the field – MGSV takes care of most of these competently with just a few button presses.

The story picks up immediately after the mini-episode MGSV: Ground Zeroes. Having seen his mercenary empire burned to the ground, legendary soldier Big Boss awakes from a 9-year coma to a world that has moved on. Rescued from hospital by long-time rival Revolver Ocelot, they rescue the Boss’ old compatriot Kaz Miller. Miller reveals that, in the Boss’ absence, he set up a new mercenary group called “Diamond Dogs”. Big Boss gets right back into the swing of things taking on contracts for various organisations, all the while slowly collecting the puzzle pieces to the conspiracy behind his previous downfall with intention of reaping his revenge against the men responsible: Major Zero and his number one man, the disfigured figure known only as “Skull Face”.

If you are into MGS for the story, you will find MGSV hard-going. The long cutscenes are gone, replaced with optional tape cassettes (another hangover from Peace Walker). Character interactions are sparse and often more physical than vocal, embodied entirely by the outrageous scantily-clad sniper Quiet. This is possibly the first game where Hideo Kojima has tried to make the very best game, and I do not mean that as an insult – previous games of his were a mashup of hide-and-seek gameplay that would often jar or underplay hours of epic non-interactive movie-style cutscenes. The gameplay was often simple mechanically and it was clear that time had been spent divided between story and game. In MGSV the story takes a back-seat to the game.

I found the length of the game frustrating, mostly because I was hungry for more story. Every few missions you would get a morsel, an appetiser or a titbit of what’s really going on, only to then be thrown into more missions involving nobodies. The game mostly consists of nobodies – every-man soldiers to rescue, faceless peons to interrogate and unremarkable prisoners to save. Each has a piece of the puzzle to solve towards the next big story reveal, but when that reveal comes it is often too little and you’re back to dealing with nobodies. In a game series where every instalment has had “star power” in having a well-defined cast of characters, the latest game offers five main players who don’t say a lot (except on cassette where they can’t bloody shut up) and a whole population of people who don’t matter in the big picture. It is frustrating and I remember actually complaining at one point to the effect of “damn it, I want more story but the game keeps getting in the way!”. Perhaps my priorities are askew.

Overall, MGSV is one of those games you just have to play though. Even with troubled development, it is a remarkable example of a dying genre of “triple-A” games not pumped out to maximise profit but instead just be the best that it can be while at the same time bringing some much needed closure on a massive story. Please, if you have any interest in action/adventure games, do yourself a favour and play MGSV. It really is the Diamond Dogs’ bollocks3.

…Alternatively, you can just read my spoileriffic analysis of the MGSV story in my next blog post coming next week.

MGSV Jeep wedged over the water
“…’ang on a minute lads, I’ve got a great idea! Erm…”4

  1. My one regret is not recording what transpired for posterity. D’oh!
  2. There were two games on earlier, more basic 8-bit consoles that I have never had the time or patience to play myself, but I know the general gist of what happens in them.
  3. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
  4. I swear bugs like this didn’t happen too often!

Post by | April 30, 2017 at 12:00 pm | Reviews, Video Games | No comment

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