Monday, December 23, 2019

Review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain [2015]

The 32 year old Metal Gear franchise, brainchild of Japanese developer Hideo Kojima, spans over 20 games and is often referred to as one of the most complex narratives in video game history. It's also a predominantly console-oriented affair with only about five of them being ported to the PC. I never played any of them because more often than not, console games are crud when ported to the PC and I dislike playing franchise sequels without playing the original. The mouthful of a title Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain however, the last in the series, was really pushed for the PC more than any MG title before it and as I got it free with my GPU when MG fans were paying €50 for it so I felt it would be rude not to try it.

I've played games which one completes and indicates you're done in the form of an end credit sequence and only offers you to reload your last save, likely the last one made before the game ends. Some games offer the ability to go through the whole thing again on harder difficulty, only now you have all the weapons and gear you picked up along the way. Others offer some sort of continuation to online multiplayer, while most genuine online or MMO types of games offer the promise of continuation and "the grind" until content is updated. In the Autumn I self-imposed a completion of MGSV, easily one of the most interesting, rewarding and addictive gaming experiences ever. It felt strange uninstalling this as while I had finished all the main missions and seen the story to it's conclusion, there was still hundreds of hours of game to get lost in. I guess I didn't feel I was entirely finished with it yet; but after 589 hours (according to Steam) I figured that I probably should be, so that I can play others, so I had to forcefully pull myself out.

My initial thoughts were mixed. The first hour of the game is heavily scripted, with little by way of gameplay. Without spoiling anything, you're escaping from a hospital being invaded by a paramilitary force and you've just woken up from a coma, so you're not yet "at your best". It's filled with scripted events, blocked exits, fake doors, and you're lethargically following a bandaged man unmistakably voiced by Kiefer Sutherland (which somehow is also your own voice?) in a backless hospital gown telling you to do everything. That said it was exciting and spectacularly directed in terms of visuals but it makes no sense until the end of the game about 50 missions later!

Prepare yourself for a whopping 4 hours or so of cutscenes and scripted sequences spread throughout the game where Kojima advances the bizarre story, which does have some exceptional dramatic moments, one of which I had I can only describe as "traumatic". It certainly makes me appreciate the level of following the franchise has and perhaps justifies the adoration for Kojima I've seen online. Sadly while the game satisfactorily ends it's story, there was a few threads that were left unfinished but this was because publisher Konami put pressure on Kojima to finish it up and thus did not have time to complete everything including the most major thread which should have been "Mission 51" - the details of which can be viewed on Youtube. However I must stress that MGSV:TPP does not have a KOTOR2 situation to the ending, where the publisher demanded the developer cease development, tack on an ending and release it in that state, leaving a plethora of unanswered questions. In MGSV the main ending to the game is intact and was likely completed at the same time as the start, so various Internet musings on the game being "unfinished" are inaccurate, it's just not 100% complete. I can't speak for it addressing all the plot points that the overall lore of the whole 20-game MG series demands but unlike KOTOR2, the ending is paced adequately and the game is bookended satisfactorily.

While the 50 or so story missions are the driving force behind the game, one would have a difficult time as you progress through the story without completing Side Ops - similar to side-quests in any bog-standard RPG - which are the real meat of the game, more so than the story missions. This is certainly where one would sink most of their time into as one really has the freedom to complete Side Ops in which ever way you choose as there is only a single win condition. They can take as long as you like, use whatever tactics and resources you want and it's all good so long as you eliminate (kill or extract) a target or rescue a prisoner etc. There are 150 of these missions throughout the game and often you find yourself repeating them for the rewards in order to build up your military strength. The list of Side Ops available changes every time you complete some and return to the helo and are often updated with new ones as you complete story missions so one must always check them out after a main mission as some of them needed to be completed before a main mission will unlock and vice versa.

Building up your military strength is a crucial component of MGSV and one I particularly enjoyed. One can't really progress in the game without doing it because the enemy begins to develop countermeasures to your attacks and you need to stay ahead of the curve by developing better weapons and equipment. You eventually get a Fulton recovery device which you attach a balloon to a person or animal that you have incapacitated (not killed), a container or a vehicle and it's magically added to your resources. The person is brainwashed into joining your team, you get a reward for rescuing the animal, the container translates into resources needed for development and the vehicle becomes yours to drive later or sell.

This brings me to Mother-base - your base of operations which you really need to build up so you can hold more staff, develop more and more weapons and equipment and thus can complete missions faster, easier and with higher chances of success.  Mother-base can be visited (a lot of the the plot points force you to return too) and there are some training missions to be had there. It does get rather big (35 separate platforms when fully developed) but you can drive between platforms in a jeep (if you have the time), fly on a helicopter (of you have the money) or my favourite: sit in a cardboard box on a delivery area and Fed-Ex yourself to another site!

Of course when you complete building Mother-base, the building doesn't stop. The Forward Operating Base or FOB is the final type of content for MGSV. One develops a basic FOB (essentially a near identical copy of of Mother-base in other territorial waters) during the single player game but it's really for multiplayer or event driven content. Developing an FOB increases the limits you can expand your staff even more. This is needed if you want to develop a higher grade of weaponry than you have and also generate automatic materials procurement through automatic mining, which in turn allows you to expand even more, and build even more FOBs, to expand more staff limits, to get higher levels of staff, to get higher levels of weapons and so on. I didn't get to the maximum level, I don't know what it is but I had 109 platforms which cost filled with 2800 unique staff when I called it quits.

There is a con to the FOB though. As your FOB (containing a percentage of your resources - even though you collect as part of the single-player story game) is permanently online, it is actually vulnerable to attack from other online players! Other players can actually land on your base - and if they're good enough - kill or abduct your staff and steal your raw materials! Unless you're good enough to retaliate, the only real defence against this is to not develop an FOB which severely limits the military level you can achieve and you would find it more difficult to complete. While I'm confident the issue was serious a year or two into the game's release - four years on I was only invaded once losing a mere 13 staff which were replaced instantly with staff from the base's "waiting room". It would be prudent to develop security devices and adjust the security level as high as you can so that only vets could ever attack your base and not some random noob!

In addition to a kit that might take you a while to decide what to bring from dozens (later hundreds) of available options - each of which can be customised to your liking - you also can take an AI 'buddy' to aid you in your mission. You start out with a horse first, it's good for getting around but it's limited. The buddies I used most often were D-Dog, a dog, a good dog that can sniff out weapons, vehicles, enemies, wildlife, resources and medicinal plants or Quiet a sexy semi-naked expert sniper for which no expense was spared on the movement physics of her breasts - remember the game was developed in Japan and they're a bit strange over there. I spent about 100,000GMP in game to develop clothing for her, thus treating her like a soldier and not the Dutch underwear model that provided her motion capture. Quiet's a dab hand with the sniper rifle and can actually be sent on command in to an area and methodically eliminate enemies while you leave the game to go and take a shit. She's actually a good quarter of the story to the game too so don't kill her when you first meet her.

I will say graphically the game is top tier. The Kojima Productions FOX engine is easily the most optimised graphics engine I've seen in years netting me a steady 45+ FPS at 4K Ultra detail. I needed to drop to 2K during the hot summer due to heat but FPS rose to 60 which I limit manually. This is much better performance than any Western-produced game in it's class. Character modelling is impressive for the main characters, but secondary characters not so much. Animations aren't the best either with some of the characters stances looking a bit constipated but environments are astonishingly detailed even though there are really only two regions; rocky and sand-brown Afghanistan or swampy green yet more brown Zaire. This game proves that there is indeed beauty in the mundane but it would have been nice if there had been a reason to have more temperate, arctic environments or even coastal regions.

I need to mention the game's soundtrack because it's certainly the most impressive I've heard since World in Conflict. The game is set in a version of 1984, and the soundtrack reflects that exceptionally. Midge Ure's "The Man Who Sold The World" is sort of the game's theme, and there are other offering from Kim Wilde, a-Ha, Hall & Oates, The Cure, Ultravox, Billy Idol and many more. As you invade installations you can take tapes of the songs out of the cassette players and they'll be available to listen to on your own in-game Walkman as you play or there's an option to choose your "helicopter music" - So I challenge anyone to say they have lived until they ride in a helo that's blaring Kajagoogoo's "Too Shy" on it's loudspeakers! Additionally, the in game score by Swedish composer Ludvig Forssell with Justin Dungeons & Dragons Burnett and Daniel Call Of Duty: Black Ops III and IV James deservingly earned them the best score at the Game Awards. 

Bring a trained Force Recon Marine allows me to appreciate it when game designers understand the value of a tactical approach to warfare. Often such designers and Hollywood directors are of the idea that "Special Operations Forces" means "louder bangs with less men", and while it certainly can be, more often than not it's the completion of an objective before the enemy realises you've been there. What MGSV:TPP allows, is for you to take any approach, from any direction, from any distance, in daytime or night, lethal or not and complete the military objective by killing everyone loudly, neutralising everyone silently or vanishing without ever being discovered. Games like Call of Duty rely on scripted sequences to convey stealth but it's eventually just an exercise on who you kill first and how many, while the Splinter Cell franchise is built on stealth and penalises you for going loud or being discovered. MGSV in contrast gives you to the freedom to adapt to do whatever you want to do to the point where I'm sure many other games will now feel a little hollow or too constricting, even "ruined" by comparison to such a free-form experience.

I have no issue recommanding Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to anyone who appreciates shooters and stealth games but this is not for casual gamers. The only way to progress is by spending time doing some legwork and that takes serious man-hours, but I feel the rewards are worth it in the long run.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is worth the €29.99 you'd pay on Steam but you can find it bundled with it's prequel episode Ground Zeroes as METAL GEAR SOLID V: The Definitive Experience for the same price but as with all you can wait for a sale and get it all for about €6.99.

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