The soldier had been watching his post admirably, one of his fellow soldiers had wandered over and tried to spark up a conversation but was cut short and told his post needed his attention. After a few minutes he decided to patrol the fence which followed the perimeter of the small camp he was guarding, one more patrol before the night shift took over. As he walked his thoughts were intermittently interrupted by his radio beeping on his belt: 'low battery already, I thought these things were meant to last three days'. This was by far the worst tour of duty he'd ever been assigned to, the CO was a right wanker and the heat was so intense it had melted the Tarmac near the comms building. 'Speak of the devil' he thought as Staff Sergeant Jones walked towards him at speed. This meant a bollocking for something because the fat prick would never leave his office to chat or bolster moral. Then a flash and nothing. As the solider came around for the last few minutes of his life three things occurred to him: the first was that the lower part of his body was no longer there; the second was that he could see the CO's body a few feet away with a look of surprise on his motionless face; but the third thing that was now racing through his mind as it began to shut down.. that beeping hadn't been his fucking radio had it ...?
It's a fact of modern day gaming that the job of most developers (and publishers) is to razzle dazzle gamers into buying their game and, even better, pre-order their game with a pricy season pass. We've all seen them sizzle clips and developer led 'gameplay' demos that look too good to be true and most of the time they are (Watchdogs - I'm looking at you). However, within the crowd of fakers and disappointments there will always be the games that fulfil their pre-release hype; every once in a blue moon we find a game that surpasses it.
With a game legacy as big as Metal Gear (MG) it's difficult to know where to start, the series of games spans generations and decades. In researching the history of the series it's clear that the convoluted and complex story arcs are part of why so many gamers love these games; because they have lived through the confusion, spent time unwrapping each narrative and now have an understanding that isn't easily gained. I have no qualms about admitting right off the bat that I'm a tourist in this world but that doesn't deter me from wanting to know more and it shouldn't put you off either. It's true that there are many elements and layers to MG and what is fascinating is how many times it changed tempo, not through a misstep but through a very purposeful decision by the games creator Hideo Kojima. It's funny, I've known of this legendary game designer my whole life but only now as we broach his greatest masterpiece am I starting to become aware of the brilliance of this man. I feel sad that I didn't play the games when they were released but very glad indeed that even now at this late stage I can enter the fascinating world Hideo Kojima created and enjoy it regardless of my ignorance. It is exactly because MGS:5 The Phantom Pain is such an astounding game that I (and many other gamers) will be able to step into the shoes of Snake and enjoy his final adventure.
Seeing is believing
If I'm honest the first aspect of MGS:5 that grabbed my attention was the visuals, obviously this was initially Ground Zeroes (GZ) and then later The Phantom Pain (PP). By developing a brand new engine (Fox engine) Hideo and his team were already putting themselves in total control of how the game would look and move. One aspect of GZ that really stood out was how different weather conditions and time of day would change the look and feel of what was exactly the same map. Outstanding textures, well executed depth of field and post processing all work in symphony to create a gorgeous looking game. As the Phantom Pain opens up from its explosive introduction the beautiful spectacle of a photorealistic Afghanistan pours into your eyes; many times in my gaming career I've seen the graphical envelope pushed back in front of me and you know this has set the bar very high for other developers.
As I have been playing the game there is also something else I can't quite put my finger on, the way the game moves just makes you feel epic. Every time you enter a mission zone Snake opens the door and sits over the edge waiting to get low enough to jump out. Even this simple action looks great, surveying the Afghan countryside as the morning sun illuminates the hill tops is sublime.
As always, looks are no good to anyone if that's all it is and so it's here that the Fox Engine comes into its own. After a few years of seeing some truly unstable and glitchy games it's so refreshing to see an engine run as good as this: forgive me for the pun but it's rock solid. This is shown off when the game's weather changes or when you accelerate time with the Phantom Cigar - the Fox engine makes it look effortless and seems to be able to handle anything you throw at it. While the fps is locked at 60 on PC I've not seen it dip under 55 once six days of play. Hideo also clearly loves good cinematography as there are so many moments in the game that satisfy the soul, like when Quiet leaps up into the chopper as you take off but doesn't just get in but hangs there for a minute taking in the view.
Name of the game
The Phantom Pain is an extraordinary game and leaves me exhilarated every time I play: this is in part due to how well the combat is designed and the powerful AI that runs under the hood: enemy soldiers have genuinely surprising intelligence. They will often call in suspicious activity, report on missing resources and do unscripted things which keep you on your toes. I remember hearing a guard in a tower calling in enemy activity, HQ advised him it would be investigated and so I had to quietly dispatch the guard who came snooping around. The same tower guard then called in a suspicious sound but this time HQ advised there were no free guards, so he clambered down himself to check. In previous titles stealth was key and while you could certainly escape alerts combat was a last resort. This changes a good deal in PP and when you end up making a mistake some of the best moments are when chaos erupts into an fully fledged firefight. In one such engagement my target was heading towards a pickup point where he would then be airlifted away by an attack helicopter; I had no choice but to engage it en route to the pickup.
Only after opening fire did I realise I had no direct means of bringing it down but then - enlightenment! My crack sniper Quiet was now super loyal due to me spending many missions with her and, as a result of that increased loyalty, had unlocked the ability to shoot thrown items in mid air. So after giving her the prompt that this is what I was going to do I pitched my last rusty pineapple skyward and watched Quiet expertly clip it right at the deadly chopper: BOOM! Moments like this are gold - I had used my knowledge of the battlefield and planned ahead of the enemy. The target was now stranded and could only watch helplessly as Quiet and I dispatched his entire bodyguard Leon style. One element of missions is the replay value in that the game actively encourages you to come back to missions later and try other tactics, equipment and side objectives which become clear after your first attempt.
A few weeks before release I read that events in Ground Zeros would also be carried over to the Phantom Pain and this has been honoured in ways I wasn't expecting. For a start, enemy soldiers who you were sent to kill in one of the side missions now appear at your motherbase, providing you extracted them as opposed to blowing their brains out like instructed. I was also able to research a special sneaking suit and golden prosthetic arm as a result of the progress I made in the prologue. There are even side missions for you to head out into the wilderness to find soldiers from the base who have been wandering lost since events in GZ transpired. This and many other ways is how Hideo connects the dots and rewards you with surprising results; the type of 'what if?' moments you get once or twice in other games are hourly events here. After a few hours of play I did notice soldiers started appearing to wear gas masks to avoid my heavy use of smoke grenades and sleeping gas - this reaction to your play style is very cool: cause and effect happening in front of your eyes. What blew my mind is that you can counteract this by sending your combat troops on their own missions while you play, raiding warehouses and destroying equipment. In one advanced mission my men required an armoured vehicle to start the mission, so I actually had to go out into the gameworld and airlift one back to base.
Another example of the game surprising me was when I was in a fairly large hillside town early on in the game. I'd managed to find the prisoner I was sent to rescue and we surprised by a guard I'd missed. I ended up surrounded in a small shack, outgunned and badly injured. Just as I was on my last clip and considering my options there was a deafening noise from above - the chopper I had called to the nearest landing zone just before the chaos had seen I was in trouble and had lifted off to assist me. The high calibre rounds blazed into concrete and flesh leaving the remaining soldiers either down or pinned. I threw down a covering line of smoke grenades, picked up my mission and ran with almost superhuman speed. With bullets still whistling over my head as I pushed the prisoner into the chopper I wheeled around on my pursuers with the side mini gun and turned them into Swiss cheese as we lifted off to safety. Some heavily choreographed games could not manage this, let alone one running open and free; emergent gameplay is around every corner and offers players an almost endless toy box of possibilities.
Most big games these days do a great job in the sound department but again here we see this being taken to new highs; as you play you may notice that if you are near a solider calling into HQ on the radio you can actually hear his real voice as well. Every single bullet ricochet and explosion is exquisite, even situational effects such as being inside a warehouse or in the floorspace of a command centre have been given special treatment.
One feature I've secretly wished for in gaming for a while now is the ability to just put a walkman on in game and listen to music, not the game score but actual tracks I know and love. Not only has Hideo given this feature to me but he's also chosen some of my favourite tracks from when I was growing up in the 80's. I can't tell you how cool it is slugging it out with a battalion of hostile soldiers while listening to Take on Me by Aha.
The walkman is built into your iDroid and is also a great way of fleshing out the game's backstory and lore. As you explore the gameworld you come across new tapes with music or voice recordings for you to listen to at your leisure: this is not compulsory but highly recommended for new and old players. My only real complaint is the accessibility of these tapes - as I will mention in the PC port section there is no mouse support for this game when it comes to menus and no quick key for play and stop. This means often you'll be digging the music when some dialog will start and by the time you have gone through the menus to turn it off you've missed half of it. My fingers are crossed for a clever mod or an official update from Konami.
One big mother
One thing all good open world games need is a sense of progression and The Phantom Pain answers this requirement with Motherbase, a platform out in the ocean where all your resources and soldiers can exist in safety. Resources you liberate actually appear there including gun turrets, freight containers and vehicles. All soldiers have their own names, stats and skills: they also (after a spell in the brig) get assigned to an area of the base that best fits them. As you can imagine combat troops on a guard shift can be seen patrolling the base and interacted with in various ways: I love how they will salute you whenever they see you and you can even boost morale with a little love tap. As you absorb resources from the field and you have enough GMP (money) you can build new platforms with specific roles, these then affect the game in a myriad of ways. Research and development for example allow you to research new weapons and gadgets, support will give you mission information on the fly such as the predicted presence of the enemy and resource locations: they can even give you the option to call in air strikes in various flavours. Once you get these units, pretty high unexpected benefits start to appear, for example if you upgrade Snakes prosthetic arm he can use it to scale cliffs with vertical cracks. These are not as frequently placed as I personally would have liked but an advanced intel unit can actually plot climbing points on your map making planning and sneaking far easier if you want to utilise this approach.
Each new platform is an actual place in the game which you can drive across to with connective bridges, you can even jump in your cardboard box and mail yourself around using the logistics staff. One very cool feature is that you can visit the animal sanctuary platform, where all the animals you extract are taken. Everything from birds in the aviary to donkeys in the pens, it's well thought out details like this that makes the game bigger than a sum of its parts. Collecting all the animals in the game also gives you bonuses such as new logo options, which can be customised and then appear on your base and also on your uniform. While I initially found Snake a little cumbersome after spending some time on Motherbase exploring it starts to click, learning to drop down from hanging ledges or shimmy up pipes feels almost secret because the game doesn't spell these things out. Oh and in case you were wondering like a friend of mine was, leaping off the side into the breach will insta-kill you.
I'd be remiss not to mention the FOB system while talking about Motherbase because so far it's the most intriguing part of this game for me. In addition to your sprawling main base you have the option to construct a Forward Operating Base (FOB) which looks and acts very much like your main set-up. The big difference is that these are open to attack from other players who can steal your resources and soldiers while you sleep. It’s up to you to research and fund security for you FOB and if you are online you will be notified when one is under attack. You then have the option to be whisked away from whatever you’re doing and face the thief head on. I know many players have been panicking about their hard earned resources being snaffled but in reality it’s only the products you have generated at that FOB and also stolen from others that can be pilfered. This system is separate to the actual multiplayer which comes out on PC in February so I shall report on that then but for now FOB’s add yet another exciting layer to The Phantom Pain: check out the video below to see it in action.
Everyone needs a buddy
As the opening adrenaline ride finishes you transition seamlessly from cut scene to game, it just so happens you're sat on your first buddy in the game: D-horse. There are four buddies: each one has its own skills, tactical setups and customisable aesthetics. If this was anyone else's game there would be a ranger, medic etc but not Hideo Kojima. You have a crack sniper called Quiet, a deadly canine called D-Dog, a walker droid and the aforementioned D horse. I don't think I can get across in words how much I love the buddies as each one opens up a whole other raft of options and ways to approach any given situation: apart from D-horse they all have their own unique way of becoming your ally.
Apart from the Droid all of your buddies grow more loyal to you the more time you spend with them in the battlefield. As this happens they gain more skills and abilities: Quiet for example can be told to wait until you fire a round making setting up a double take down effortless (I can't tell you how satisfying this is). My favourite skill is how she can shoot grenades mid air at various enemies, even into the blades of attack choppers if you can get near enough. As will become obvious she isn't your average gal, but I won't go into the details for the sake of spoilers. I'll just say quickly that to save you some time finding out yourself there is an option to move Quiet around for scouting or attack positions in the map drop down menu.
You find D-Dog as a pup out in the wilderness, once back at Motherbase Ocelot trains him to do more than fetch the post. As you approach enemies D-Dog will sniff them out, distract them and can even kill with his own knife (no I'm not kidding). I love how when you are running together he keeps looking up at you for approval and for his next instruction, like everything in this game it seems near perfect. D-horse is my least used buddy so far because in terms of tactics he's more a mode of transport to get from A to B... unless you count the fact you can prompt him to defecate on the road and cause enemy vehicles to spin out of control: only in Metal Gear.
The last buddy and by far the most unconventional is the Droid: whilst it's bipedal it can also move into a wheeled mode and will creep slowly or drive at full pelt across the terrain. Riding on the back of this thing is fun, plain and simple. There is a whole list of different equipment from chain guns, flamethrowers and tranquilliser pistols. You can also use its arms to carry people and do CQC when up close. However by far the coolest trick is a stealth mode for when Snake jumps off and goes into enemy lines: I challenge you not to smile the first time you try this. On top of new skills each buddy can be upgraded for both function and aesthetics: this theme runs through much of the game from your base, Snake himself and even your weapons colour scheme, you can put your own stamp on everything.
Suspension of disbelief
The Metal Gear games are renowned for having insane and all out crazy plot devices. These aspects are core to what makes this game so remembered and loved and my advice for any new players is approach with a very open mind.
What is far more interesting is what happens when this whimsy meets the hyper realistic world which Phantom Pain occupies. The amount of realism and attention to detail is phenomenal, not just the terrain but also animation, the advanced physics and weapon ballistics, even the weather and wildlife: they all suspend your disbelief because they have been lavished with true next generation detail. So what happens when this collides with Hideo Kojima's imagination?
The Fulton is a perfect example of the crazy meets real. This allows you to lift animals, soldiers and as you upgrade even freight boxes and large vehicles like tanks. This process defies all known laws of physics and yet there you are sending all the valuables of recently subdued enemy base skyward. The idea is that everything you Fulton ends up back at Mother Base and is assimilated for the cause. The Fulton can lead to some hilarious moments: the very act of what you're doing is kind of ridiculous but sneaking right to the heart of an armoured unit and Fultoning their tank away and watching the horror on their faces is comedy gold. There are some 'realistic' aspects of this process, such as if you Fulton an injured person their percentage chance of making it back is some what smaller, in addition bad weather an also affect the flight but as always as your intel department improves and counters the negative factors. The balloon can even be shot before it hurtles away so this makes Fultoning under fire near impossible.
The famous cardboard box is another aspect of the MG universe that Hideo has transferred over from previous games and as mentioned above, there's a far greater contrast between this item and the troops that now have advanced AI and look near real: I love it and the practical applications are astounding. Obviously it acts as cover (better if you choose the right colour for the terrain you are in) and the way it folds and bends as you stand crouch and crawl is awesome. You can also jump and slide down hillsides in it which is a surprisingly effective way of gaining distance between you and enemies intent on plugging you. You can even paste posters you find onto the side and distract guards (super AI vs super dumb in contrast) with either a high ranking official or scantily clad glamour model. You can even box yourself up and use the game's mail system to post yourself to various other places on base or out in the field. All these bizarre game mechanics and conventions really do sit unabashedly in what is new ground for a Metal Gear game but somehow it all works blissfully well.
So as game launches and critical reception go it doesn't get much better, most media sites having described it as a masterpiece; however, all is not fine and dandy. In the months leading up to release the relationship between Konami and Hideo Kojima had been strained at best with rumours about him leaving as soon as work on his latest Metal Gear was done. Then Konami started removing Hideo's name from the box art - saying this move angered fans and gamers is an understatement. It's clear that whatever happened this will be the last MG title Kojima has a hand in and the future of the IP lies in a very uncertain place (despite Konami saying they still wish to carry it on). What will happen to the Fox Engine which was build from scratch for this game? It would be a sin to never use it again. I feel that this is incredibly sad: with such a massive legacy and now this stellar game bringing the Metal Gear world into the next generation, how can it be that we are also probably saying goodbye in the same month?
Many have speculated that with new president Hideki Hayakawa at the helm (who has a clear love for mobile game development) Konami is pulling back from its mainstream gaming commitments. After all Konami don't just make games, they have a lot of other business interests to keep them busy: but where does this leave Metal Gear? While I've been thoroughly enjoying my time in this game, there is a sense of sadness at the same time with the sense that updates may not come, patches that fix bugs might not arrive and, more importantly, will the online aspects of the game ever get the support they need? Already the FOB mode has barely worked and I can't help wonder has Kojima handed the keys over to a company that quite simply doesn't know how to sail this ship?
Is it PC?
We knew the Fox Engine was pretty special because we'd already seen it in action, not only that but PC gamers could approach this game with some degree of confidence it would work - which is more than can be said by various other games this year. Obviously the PC version looks better, the textures can be ramped right up to 4k and overall the game is stunning with impressive frames per second thanks to a very well optimised engine. That said I do feel like PC gamers have not been given much consideration by the team that did the port. I never thought I'd say this but the second screen app for Phantom Pain sounds awesome, because you can listen to your audio cassettes and use it as a map while in game. I say sounds good because for some bizarre reason it doesn't work for PC.
In addition there is no mouse support for menu screens, considering how much time we spend in them it's insane this wasn't implemented. There is also no support for additional mouse buttons - that right, if you've invested in a mouse with extra buttons on the side, the game won't even recognise them. Also many of the on screen prompts and tutorials give me controller advice even though I'm using keyboard and mouse, which leaves you having to figure out which key does what. Even seemly obvious things like the scroll wheel zooming the map in and out just hasn't been thought of. These are all things we can live without and I guess it all depends on how much you're willing to compromise: that said I'm used to this system now and it doesn't detract much from the end experience.
It is refreshing how confident Hideo Kojima has been with his choices, he knows what he wants and makes sure that is exactly what we get. In many ways by taking Snake into a far more realistic setting Hideo has had to change a few other aspects of the game so that it is not out of whack. Changing the voice of Snake to Kiefer Sutherland was a brave move but I have no doubt it was the right one - Kiefer has a far more believable voice palette - but I know some die hard fans are beside themselves. The tempo of the story telling has also gone through a fairly hefty change, in that the dialogue we heard from Snake is almost gone and here I do think it's a shame. While the story isn't lacking I really would have loved to hear more banter and personality from this new Snake. That said, we have now been empowered with the ability to express ourselves through action in this truly open world.
Konami still own the rights to Metal Gear and that scares the shit out of me because without its creator at the helm the series may now fall into silence. As I've said, with such a buzz out there for this game right now it would be a crime to let it all slip away. Regardless of what happens The Phantom Pain is one of the best games we've seen this year and many are saying it's the best Metal Gear yet. As a newcomer I wouldn't presume to know if this is true but I do know this is one of the best games I've ever played.
The Phantom Pain is a big game and so I thought it deserved a big review! I didn't want to miss anything I thought you guys needed to know and so thank you for reading it and I hope you found it helpful and entertaining.