Mother Base gives you a cause worth fighting for
As open worlds grow ever larger, they run the risk of dwarfing their heroes or, more damagingly, losing the sense of what it is they’re out to achieve. The increasingly popular solution is to task players with gradually seizing control of a map, their behaviour in the world clearly charted by a sea of outpost/abandoned-village/magical-rift icons turning from red to green. This appeals to the mind’s love of order, but can reduce your revolution/quest/revenge to a list of cartographic chores, a campaign of map tidying that just so happens to accomplish narrative goals you’ve long since forgotten about. Can you name even a single landmark claimed for Dragon Age’s Inquisition? Doubtful, since commandeering points was little beyond a way to declutter your minimap.
We can, however, name our favourite soldiers on The Phantom Pain’s Mother Base. It helps that Big Boss’s conscription process sees untitled goons branded with Kojima’s trademark ‘adjective plus animal’ monikers – we work alongside Vile Tiger, Sinister Ox and Rancid Python – but their continual reinforcement has as much to do with the way Big Boss’s HQ provides a focal point with which to contextualise his adventure.
On the most superficial level, it’s a representation of your growing fortunes. What starts as a single Command Deck, little more than a helipad and portable shower (fail to wash and flies eventually buzz around your head) can be expanded using the Gross Military Product (GMP) earned on missions. Invest and Mother Base branches out to become a serpentine network of sub-platforms so vast that it requires a jeep to explore.
The idea of freshening up a dilapidated building isn’t new, seen before in Assassin’s Creed II’s Monteriggioni and Saints Row 2’ s various cribs. What separates Mother Base is that it is also at the heart of the story. Tired of being used by the east and west, Big Boss and his Diamond Dogs are building their own military haven; every coin you invest becomes one in the eye for their enemies. The very act of constructing a second Mother Base, after the first one was destroyed in Ground Zeroes, feels wilfully antagonistic, but Big Boss’s lieutenants also push him towards deadlier countermeasures. By the time the primary revenge mission concludes, Mother Base has grown so powerful that the game requires a second act to resolve all the implications.
Of course, it would be easy to let these ideas reside in Kojima’s patented cinematics. Yet having a hand in Mother Base’s day-to-day operations allows the angst and issues of the cutscenes to bleed into the gameplay. You’ll hear supporting cast members arguing about the value of violent retaliation versus the softer touch, only then to have to assign your manpower between combat teams, Intel squads or the medical bay that bandages up all of the above. It’s not signposted as a moral crossroad of any kind – compared to Inquisition’s panel of advisors, for example – but your decisions do have implications about the kind of soldier you can be in the field, which is a far more pertinent comment on military organisations than a clearly plotted branching story path could throw up.
The risk, then, is that not all players will engage with those management systems. Playing the role of head of human resources is less obviously appealing than darting around military compounds shooting people in the head. Yet Kojima finds surprising ways to pull Mother Base into the thick of the action. A mission might be interrupted by word of the base being under attack, for example, forcing a hasty extraction to deal with the intruder. In the first instance, it turns out to be a tutorial for the game’s Forward Operating Base (a Dark Souls- style online invasion mode), but having the fight spill into your perceived ‘safe space’ strengthens your desire to protect it. Smaller side ops back at Mother Base – sparring with a hostile captive, or receiving a birthday surprise – only reinforce the idea of life at the outpost ticking along in the background.
This blurring of hub area and warzone is at its murkiest late in the story, when (mild spoilers ahead) an act of biological sabotage interrupts base operations and continues to eat away at its infrastructure until the cause is remedied in the main campaign. We’re used to seeing virtual loved ones held ransom, but it’s rare to find a designer who’s willing to allow your handiwork to be undone. The more time you’ve invested in crafting your Diamond Dogs by poaching talent and piecing together efficient teams, the harder the setback hits. As a set-piece, it’s up there with some of Kojima’s most devious. That it plays out almost entirely within menu screens reminds you of the ingenuity the series might struggle to replicate without its creator.
And underneath it all, Mother Base is still a classic Kojima creation, housing grand ideas while maintaining an offbeat sense of fun. For all that it’s easy to obsess over its deeper implications for Big Boss’s quest, it remains the Seychelles’ number one tourist destination, packed with smaller, sillier moments: plastering it with an obnoxious logo of your own making, navigating networks of scalable pipes to locate the glint of a hidden diamond stash, visiting the onboard zoo to observe the specimens you’ve caught, or listening to two soldiers gossip over how much they like Diamond Dog’s soft paws. Where so many other games tell you something is important and worth fighting for, The Phantom Pain lets you develop that bond with Mother Base for yourself. The entire game is richer for it.
The very act of constructing a second Mother Base after the first one was destroyed feels wilfully antagonistic