Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – First Impressions

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The first thing of note I have to say about Hideo Kojima’s MGSV is that I am over 11 hours into the game and I still feel barely qualified to offer a “first impression.” MGSV is big. It’s bold. It’s daring. It’s amazing. It’s unlike anything we have ever seen, and I’m not sure how to wrap my head around it. The closest thing to an encapsulating description of MGSV I can offer is that the game consists of:

  • One part of stripped-down-to-bare-essentials-but-still-classic Metal Gear storytelling, and
  • Two parts of Sim Warlord

Where do I even begin? MGSV feels radically different from its predecessors in every way save for retaining the basic base building and recruitment structure started in Portable Ops and continued in Peace Walker. The game’s scale is blown to epic proportions, the series’s normally neutron star-dense story is converted to a mood piece, the linear level design is now an open world sandbox, somehow the realism and surrealism of the series have both been cranked up, and all of these elements are wrapped up in a package which plays like no other game before it, both within and without the series. I am simply blown away by MGSV.

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The opening hour of the game is devoted to Big Boss’s (AKA Snake’s) extensively teased escape from a hospital after waking up from a nine-year coma. The sequence of Snake’s awakening, discovery of his horrific injuries, and flight from the hospital as it comes under attack from two brutal forces is without a doubt one of the greatest achievements in video game cinematography history. Every second of every scene is crafted and refined down to the smallest detail with an unparalleled level of skill and ingenuity. This opening will be watched over and over again, studied, and broken down by game developers and commentators for years to come in the hopes of extracting whatever it is that allowed Hideo Kojima to create such a masterpiece.

Not long after this linear, sharply directed sequence, Snake finds himself in the middle of the Afghan desert (in 1984) and is tasked with rebuilding the private army he lost nine years ago during the events of Ground Zeroes so he can destroy Cypher and avenge his many fallen comrades. To accomplish this task, Snake must directly complete a dizzying array of tasks including recruiting soldiers, rescuing hostages, performing assassinations, rescuing animals, clearing mines, destroying enemy equipment, and helping the Mujahedeen against the Soviets, as well as directing operations at his central base like deciding what new structures to build, what equipment to develop, where crew members should be assigned, and what mercenary contracts to accept. Being a warlord must be exhausting.

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The transition from the game’s opening to its central mechanics is… jarring, to say the least. The intro is explosive, exciting, and perhaps most of all, surreal. A barely conscious Snake and a comrade who is almost certainly imaginary run away from mysterious men in gas masks, a psychic child, and a Colonel Volgin-esque figure who can control fire, until they escape from the hospital and see a helicopter get eaten by a giant, flaming whale. Then Snake and his reunited rival, Ocelot, go to a real place in the world, and assist a real life insurgency against a real life invading force. And while it’s all pretty arcadey, Snake has spent most of his time in my game thus far engaged with the very real and gritty concerns of a soldier/warlord. Then again, maybe MGSV is even bigger than I thought, and the intro sequence will eventually make thematic and tonal sense in the greater context of the game later on, or at least I really hope it will.

Speaking of MGSV’s scope, I have to say it again: MGSV is big. I can’t possibly say how big it is for sure; I am still doing various primary and side missions in Afghanistan, though I strongly suspect I will eventually be going to other locales, if not building other bases too. Perhaps the best illustration of how much bigger MGSV is than its predecessors is the simple fact that during my first playthroughs, I beat MGS1 in 9 hours, MGS2 in 10.5 hours, MGS3 in 11.5 hours, and MGS4 in 16 hours. Granted, Portable Ops and Peace Walker are both a lot longer and a lot more similar to MGSV in terms of structure, but both games are definitely shorter than MGSV, and were greatly constrained in scope and technicals by being on the PSP. In contrast, not only is MGSV an enormous expansion and improvement upon the core gameplay of Peace Walker, it also manages to render the highest fidelity open world I have ever seen by a massive margin. Granted, the dessert setting thus far doesn’t need or permit the same level of detail as GTAV’s open world, but every foot of sand and dilapidated village is exquisitely crafted.

Given that I’m talking about a Metal Gear game, I had to discuss the narrative aspects first, but I don’t want to sell the gameplay short: it’s fantastic. MGSV’s core sneaking and infiltration is unparalleled in smart design and complexity by any other stealth game, let alone the myriad of recent AAA games which introduce token stealth elements. Snake moves at just the right speed while crawling, crouching or standing, and finally Snake can actually sprint to cover instead of lightly jogging as he did in previous Metal Gear games. The gunplay is crisp, the enemies are smart, and the environments are ingeniously designed to allow for dozens of potential infiltration routes and creative solutions. Despite spending about 80% of my current play time in side missions or main missions which feel a lot like side missions, MGSV never feels stale simply because the core gameplay is so dynamic and rewarding.

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Despite all of this gushing over the brilliance of MGSV, there are a few aspects of the game which I am uneasy about. That is not to say that I think these components of the game are badly designed, I simply haven’t played enough of MGSV to see how they operate over the lengthy of span of an extremely long game.

MGSV is slow. But it’s slow in a purposeful way designed to convey a real sense of scale, time, and distance as we watch Snake’s transformation from valiant freedom fighter to grim warlord. While that is all well and good over the long run, it can make playing MGSV a bit of a slog in the short run. For instance, when you want to fast travel, you can’t just open the mini-map, select a location, and zoom there after a brief loading screen like a player would in any Ubisoft game. Instead, you have to call your helicopter to one of a few select landing spots in the local area, wait about a minute for it to arrive, board the chopper, wait about 40 seconds for it to fly away, see a loading screen, sit in your chopper and select a new location, see another loading screen, and then watch snake fly in the helicopter for about 80 seconds as he arrives at the new landing zone. This process is absolutely brilliant at providing a sense of pacing. It enables the player to listen to audio logs in transit, to overlook his environment, and to really feel like he is travelling around a big place, but it can also be a drag when you just want to get out there and enjoy the game’s wonderful sandbox.

Then there is MGSV’s most surprising alteration to the series’s formula: its lack of explicit narrative. The Metal Gear series is notorious for wedging its gameplay in between lengthy, exposition-heavy cut scenes where most of the story unfolds. Despite being on the shorter side of AAA titles, the past Metal Gear games always packed enormously complex stories into their run times. There was always drama, romance, action, sci-fi, history, betrayal, Mcguffins, and every plot device known to man inside a byzantine story structure. MGSV not only has almost none of all that, it’s kind of hard to say what it has at all.

Snake barely speaks. About 90% of what I’ve heard him say so far was either spoken in the intro of the game by a figment of his imagination, or in audio log conversations. Keifer Sutherland does an excellent job as Snake, but it’s outright bizarre for a Metal Gear protagonist, especially one who is supposed to be angrily leading a vengeful revolution against those who wronged him, to say so little. What few story-oriented cut scenes exist in the game largely consist of one of Snake’s two advisers telling Snake what’s happening and what to do next. I know that the troubled relationship between the player-protagonist and his commanders has always been a point of focus in the Metal Gear games, but in MGSV, Snake isn’t annoyed by or enamored with his handlers, he just seems indifferent.

This is why I said that so far MGSV has only been one-third Metal Gear story and two-thirds Sim Warlord. The operations of Snake’s mercenary army take up vastly more time than the story, even when the player isn’t working at my slow, side quest-oriented pace. I don’t know what to make of this design at the time. I suspect with Kojima’s direction, it will cause MGSV to become a mood piece rather than the tight narrative that fans of the series are used to. If so, I can’t wait to see it play out.

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One thought on “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – First Impressions

  1. Pingback: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – Legends and Men | Theory of Objective Video Game Aesthetics

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