My first experience playing Metal Gear Solid was the $59.99 prologue to this week’s Phantom Pain, Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. Fortunately, I downloaded it for free via PS+, but the game ruffled many feathers by being $60 despite having barely an hour’s worth of content. Having only passive familiarity with the (extremely long) story, I decided to try and see what the fuss was about. As soon as I was in control of protagonist Big Boss (who at the time I thought was Solid Snake…because christ the story is all over the place) I literally took ten steps, got spotted by a guard who alerted the entire camp, and was shot dead. I quit in rage and never looked back.
Flash forward many months later – Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is getting 10/10 reviews across the board. I, having a best friend who I continually disappoint by not playing the games, decided to check it out. Three days later I’m counting down the seconds until I can get home and ignore my laundry for a third straight day. I’ve personally found it gripping in a way few games have been in a long time. Even when playing Batman: Arkham Knight, a game I adored, I was able to comfortably wait to play at the end of the day.
I’m about 12 hours into The Phantom Pain which is, to my understanding, barely scratching the surface; nevertheless, here are my initial impressions:
Big Boss Is Frustratingly Quiet
A few years ago Keifer Sutherland infamously replaced David Hayter as longtime voice of series’ protagonist Big Boss. Hayter’s voice acting for the character of Snake and Big Boss is iconic among video gamers, so his replacement at the end of the series would be like Morgan Freeman suddenly voicing Woody in Toy Story 3. For many this is a problem, but not me. Sutherland is a great actor and his voice work is by no means a weak point in the game. That being said I understand why so many are unhappy.
Of course none of this is a real problem since Big Boss says practically nothing. I wish that was an exaggeration but it’s a problem at this point. Metal Gear Solid has always been self-indulgent with ridiculously long cut scenes, but they’ve become awkwardly and frustratingly one-sided. Characters will talk to Big Boss for long stretches and, if you’re lucky, Boss will say something back. It’s strange that they would make such a splash and incur fan wrath for replacing the actor if they don’t intend to use him to his full capabilities. It’s a small criticism, but it is frustratingly noticeable.
True Player Freedom
This is a point that every other review has emphasized, but it deserves to be brought up again: your hands are not held in this game. You aren’t told how to complete a mission unless there is a specific rule to follow. Each incursion into Afghanistan and Africa is an exercise in throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. Let’s take one of the early missions for example.
You are tasked with assassinating three Soviet generals. I can’t say why – I ignored the briefing to get straight to the killing.
Do you want to land in the area of operations at dawn or dusk? Are you going to sneak into the camps and silently kill the men or are you going to go full Rambo killing everyone? If the camp is too crowded with enemies, do you want to risk a firefight or call in an aerial strike? Do you want to be lethal or non-lethal or a mix of both? Do you want to land North and work your way South, or do you want to head from West to East? There is a guarded outpost between you and your target. Do you want to blow it up or skip it? If you blow it up you’ll alert everybody to look for you, but if you skip it they could prove to be an unwelcome obstacle during an escape. When starting the mission you can choose to ride a horse or have video gaming’s most adorable dog tag along. You can even choose what 1980’s pop song your helicopter plays when it comes to pick you up (I chose “Kids of America”)!
It isn’t freedom just in how you choose to go about missions, it’s freedom from a pre-determined outcome. The AI in Phantom Pain truly feels alive and unpredictable. I snuck into a camp but couldn’t find my target. Instead of going full Rambo (my new favorite phrase) I decided to plant C4 on the camp’s power generator. After that, I climbed into the mountains for a good overview of the camp. I detonated the C4 which put the entire camp on alert. All the guards came out to figure out the problem. Within a few seconds, I spotted my target. I pulled out a sniper rifle and shot him and immediately was high-tailing it back to my extraction while the guards frantically tried to figure out where the shot came from. Yet anybody else who plays this will go about it a different way.
Metal Gear Solid 5 just happens. The missions don’t have a default response to your actions. It is natural and organic in a way that is truly impressive. You can choose how to approach a situation, but that doesn’t mean the game will choose to respond the way you might expect.
This Is The Best Stealth Game Since Splinter Cell: Blacklist
The best possible outcome from the release of Phantom Pain would be that it motivates production of a sequel to 2013’s under-appreciated Splinter Cell: Blacklist. Blacklist made similar waves in 2013 as it recast long-time Sam Fisher voice actor Michael Ironside as they reinvented the formula to an extent. But that small controversy aside, Blacklist was incredible. The game gave you great environments and three ways to play. You could either go in guns blazing, quiet as a church mouse, or something in between. In addition, the multi-player combat and co-op missions gave you more reasons to get back in. It’s a shame that Blacklist producers Ubisoft have put seemingly all of their energies into increasingly forgettable Assassin’s Creed entries, but I’m hoping Phantom Pain gives gamers that itch again to stealthily take out bad guys.
I’m reminded of Blacklist in my favorite moments of Phantom Pain (coming from me that’s a huge compliment). Metal Gear expands on the stealth of Blacklist (with a healthy dose of Far Cry 3 as well) and practically perfects the stealth game. While most stealth games feel like puzzles that have a perfect way to be approached, Metal Gear, as I said before, feels more organic. You can sneak in any way you choose, there is no clear path the game wants you to take. Stealth is a style not a path.
Some Of The Touches I Like Now I Can See Getting Old Quickly
I’m still relatively early into the game, but there is a clear pattern emerging. You are at Mother Base and summon a helicopter pickup. The helicopter arrives approximately thirty seconds later and you board. It takes about a minute for you to get out of Mother Base airspace and the game takes you to a loading screen. When it’s loaded you are on the chopper and pull up a mission. Once you select a mission you go to a loadout screen, choose your gear, and then go to another loading screen. When you bounce back in you have another thirty-second ride to your drop off point and then finally are let loose.
Now, this is a weird complaint. One of the things I loved about Mass Effect was having a home base to come to. I always loved seeing my shiny spaceship arriving at the docks as I imagined various loved ones awaited my crew members to get off. I liked the idea of having long walks to the offices of my commanders as I thought about what I would say or what would happen next. But Mass Effect was never known for short load screens and sometimes the animation of the Normandy docking or undocking was insufferable. I feel similarly for Phantom Pain (though the load screens are forgivably short). I like that I have these moments on the chopper coming or going to base. I like the idea that Big Boss is going over the gameplan in his mind. But sometimes I just wish I could jump straight to Mother Base or to my LZ. For a game as long as Phantom Pain promises to be, these touches that I enjoy now could prove annoying long run. This could change however as the game progresses, but from what I understand these missions become padding after a while. It’s just incredibly fun padding.
Building Mother Base Is Awesome
Base management games aren’t anything new. In Assassin’s Creed II, for example, as you developed more money you could restore your family’s villa and over time the run down mansion would become a beautiful example of Italian architecture. Here you develop Mother Base, your home, and essentially floating island. When I first heard how you could expand Mother Base during the game, I imagined the physical expansions would still keep it rooted in one large structure. I imagined the base would grow outwards but that cosmetic changes would be the most noticeable difference. I expected better guns, more men, and generally the look of a command center that was level 5 compared to level 1. When I first had an expansion built for my Mother Base it took me two minutes to DRIVE across a narrow bridge that connected this hulking structure to my other one. Mother Base isn’t one massive building, it is a complex.
I’m still getting into staffing and developing the base which in turn develops upgrades for you. But even that is already proving tantalizingly addictive as I can see just how much research there is to do. And when you upgrade other things, like your intelligence team, you see a difference immediately. Now my intel team knows when I’m near valuable plants. I can’t imagine what else they’ll be able to tell me with more funding.
Red Dead Redemption Is Still The Gold Standard For Video Game Horseback Riding
This one still boggles my mind. It is 2015 and The Witcher III, Metal Gear Solid V, Skyrim, practically every video game with a horseback riding component is terrible in comparison. Phantom Pain is no exception. The horse isn’t fluid and steering is stiff. It doesn’t handle obstacles as well as Red Dead does. Why hasn’t anybody shamelessly copied Red Dead in this way yet? In Phantom Pain, you hope that you’re steering your horse in as obstacle free a direction as possible because any small obstacle will cause your horse’s momentum to stop completely.
Furthermore, there appears to be only one sound effect for your horse when it sprints, and Big Boss says the same thing each time. (Seriously, was Keifer paid by the syllable?) I quickly went insane hearing the exact same sequence of noises every time I hit sprint, which I had to frequently because my horse ran into a wall every other second. I now turn down the volume, if I have a long ride ahead of me.
Online Still Doesn’t Work
It’s 2015. Games are still hyped out the ass and allowed to arrive broken. Seemingly every release in this console cycle is plagued with some kind of day one issue and even a game as amazing as Phantom Pain, albeit aided by a long development cycle, is still unable to avoid day one woes. I’m just about done hoping for change.
I Desperately Need To Do My Laundry
At this point, I would pay somebody to come and do my laundry as right now I cannot tear myself away for non-essential chores like that.