MGSV: THE PHANTOM PAIN
SOLID SNAKE'S OPEN WORLD ADVENTURE REVIEWED!
S nake is a master of reinvention, each new Meta Gear release shedding the skin that coated its predecessor. While the wider outlook vision has remained constant since the series shot to global fame and adoration with 1998’s PS1 release, the finer details of sneaking, incapacitating and Cold War intrigue have been twisted and warped to met the ever-changing demands and desires of what has become a fervent and expectant fan base.
If luminary director Hideo Kojima is attempting to prove his mastery over the medium by demonstrating that he is capable of designing new concepts around old ideas then he’s making a grand case for himself. Phantom Pain continues the traditional of alteration and partial reinvention, doing away with the strict and protracted narrative sequencing of Metal Gear Solid IV and replacing it with something altogether more adaptable. While Phantom Pain’s vision of ‘open-world gameplay’ isn’t quite in keeping with the likes of Skyrim and Grand Theft Auto, it’s certainly more diverse and expansive than anything this series has come close to in the past.
Gone is the strictly linear progression that has hitherto been so essential to Kojima’s vision of how narrative should be presented to the player. While the core plot threads are set in stone and immovable, many of the periphery twists and turns can be approached and influenced in a way that suits you and your playing style. This is predominantly thanks to an open world arena within which missions can be tackled in an order of your choosing.
At any one time you have access to a handful of essential narrative missions, as well as hordes of optional side quests. It pays mightily to keep track of the potential rewards related to each mission as the early acquisition of certain skills makes for a smoother ride later. For instance, whether or not to launch a mission to gain the services of a translator is entirely your decision. However, without one, and in light of Snake’s inability to speak the lingo local to the Middle East and Africa, your understanding of the finer plot points will be found wanting. Additionally, and perhaps
more importantly, not understanding enemy soldiers prevents you from interrogating them for further info on the location of prisoners and resources.
The backbone of the narrative can’t be influenced, however. This should come as no surprise given Kojima’s dedication to providing an authored story. Metal Gear is Kojima’s most prized creation and, as such, it’s too valuable to allow the player power over the vision.
Blending an authored narrative with the particular realities of openworld game design is not an area that games, as a whole, have been wholly successful in the past. By definition, positioning a narrative that is closed to influence within the unreserved space of an open world is difficult. The openness tends to undermine the narrative, while the narrative restricts the potential of the open world to be fully explored.
Only in Phantom Pain’s closing moments does Kojima’s attempt at this most difficult of balancing acts come unstuck. Until the final two hours of what is, at a mad rush, a 40 hour journey, the storytelling ranks amongst the finest seen in an open world game. The characters, events, locations and ideological differences might be as typically bizarre and caricatured as we’ve come to expect from this series, but there’s no denying the skill with which they are woven together. Kojima concedes defeat over the course of the game’s climax by ripping down the fourth wall and enhancing a pacing required to communicate the proper tension. Until that point, though, there can be no complaining as to Kojima’s ability to tell a story within an open-world.
The same ideal can be applied to the gameplay itself, which manages to retain the series’ talent for providing masterfully designed levels despite the move to a comparatively limitless environment. Such a combination is performed by locking major enemy strongholds away from each other using the contours of the land. Bases are often located at one end of a canyon or at the foot of a cliff, geographically separated from instant reinforcements.
This allows level designers to design enemy camps, forts and outposts as isolated locales that deliver the same degree of purpose and ambition as anything else bearing the Metal Gear name. One of the things that has made Metal Gear great is the care and attention afforded to the layout of environments. In the wrong hands, complete freedom to craft regions within an open-world can lead to a lack of personality and cohesion to missions.
Sectioning off areas solves this problem, albeit by cutting up the environment into sectors that are, for all intents and purposes, levels unto themselves. Again, this is not openworld in the same sense as Grand Theft Auto or Skyrim. The open-world effect is achieved through the fact that you can simply ride your horse from one mission to the next, completing side missions and gathering resources along the way, but certain areas of the map require you tread a very linear path to access them.
Said resources collected during downtime are used to upgrade your equipment via Mother Base, an offshore oil rig that acts as your camp of operations. You can visit Mother Base at any time in order to change which
gadgets and weapons you take into the field, as well as expand the structure itself. The more platforms you build, the more equipment you can develop and enhance... although the catch is that the construction of new platforms is very expensive. Developing new equipment in this way helps envelop the entire experience under a single blanket of progression, with every resource found and every post-mission point adding to the improvement of Mother Base and the diversity of your arsenal. So long as you keep finding Mother Base the right resources it will respond by growing bigger and stronger and, in turn, gift you more ways to succeed.
It’s here that much of Phantom Pain’s potential for customisation is found. What to develop and when is entirely down to you, the acquisition of those resources required to build your dream new toy directing influencing which missions you choose to do and when. Simply ignoring Mother Base’s offering and going through the entire narrative using basic equipment is an option, of course, but to be so Spartan in your approach is to miss out on the opportunities created by some of the game’s more elaborate gadgets.
What Kojima has achieved is a balance between so many elements that it’s difficult to pigeon-hole Phantom Pain into a definitive genre. It’s an RPG, stealth ‘em up, shoot ‘em up and base management simulation wrapped into a single project. The fact that it not only works, but actively redefines what we should expect from a narrative-driven open-world offering, is testament to Kojima’s continued brilliance as a designer.
It would have been easy to simply continue on the same successful path and craft a Metal Gear that hits all the familiar buttons. Phantom Pain does that, but manages to do so within a context that was previously ignorant of. In a landscape that is becoming increasingly populated with copy-cat sequels and regurgitated ideas, it’s refreshing to see a series as venerated as this one take a risk in an attempt to stay relevant.
Cybernetic jazz hands
Snake desperately needs a shave