Thoughts on My Second Playthrough of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

 

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(SPOILERS for Metal Gear Solid V.)

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has now been out for over six months, during which time its reception has been… mixed, to say the least. While the game’s mechanics have received universal praise, its narrative contributions to the overarching Metal Gear canon and structure have been strongly criticized, especially by longtime fans of the series. I, for one, absolutely love MGSV and pretty much haven’t stopped playing it since its release. After putting about 150 hours into my first save file, I recently decided to start a fresh file to relive the controversial story. The process has been rather enlightening in terms of showing me both the best and worst aspects of MGSV. Even after so many hours of play, I still can’t think of any grand, unifying thesis to encapsulate such a massive and innovative game, so I’m just going to list a bunch of random observations that stood out to me during my second playthough.

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MGSV Only Has Only One Save File

It’s crazy. I remember having to juggle three save spots in Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back in 1997 on the PS1, but this state of the art, $80 million game on the PS4 only has a single available save file. My guess is this has something to do with accommodating the omnipresent online features, but I don’t know enough about the technicals to say for sure. If you do want to start a new round of MGSV you either have to delete your old save file or create a whole new PSN account. The former would feel like murdering my own children. Actually that experience might not be too dissimilar to Big Boss’s loss of Militaires Sans Frontieres’s Mother Base in Ground Zeroes, so maybe that actually would be an interesting form of “method-game playing” to get into the head of the player-protagonist. Alternatively, I can just use my friend’s linked PS4 account. So I did that.

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Pure MGSV Gameplay Feels So So So Good

Not that I haven’t loved the last fifty hours of gameplay on my main MGSV file, but it wasn’t until I started a new game that I realized I had lost a certain sense of the game’s core mechanics. I was so used to putting on my level 6 Sneaking Suit (which blends into any environment and hides me from enemy thermal goggles), equipping my level 6 assault rifle, my level 6 fifty caliber sniper rifle (which can easily take down attack choppers and tanks in a few hits), and my level 6 tranquilizing pistol (with an extended silencer, 13 rounds per clip, and unlike every other tranquilizer gun in the game, is a full semi-automatic) to power crouch-walk through enemy strongholds and quickly headshot any enemy guard unlucky enough to see me, without the slightest bit of fear of losing, that I barely remembered what it was like to use “normal” equipment in the game.

Getting back to level 1 weapons and actually being cautious around enemy soldiers was a bit of an adjustment but a more than welcomed one. I stumbled a bit more than I’d like to admit during the first few levels as I readjusted, but I soon found myself having more fun sneaking through each mission in the way the game was “meant to be played” (using almost exclusively stealth except for emergencies, being far less powerful than enemy strike teams, etc.) that I was having a better time with the mechanics than I could remember for a long time.

Whatever else can be said about MGSV, I hold it as an empirically undeniable fact that it has the best gameplay of the entire Metal Gear series, and probably the best gameplay of any stealth game ever. Playing through the game again only reinforced that truth for me.

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Subsistence Missions are Really Fun

Missions 33 and 49 are “Subsistence” missions, meaning that they are exact copies of previous missions except the player doesn’t start with any weapons or items and has to wear the default olive drab camo. I talked about how fun it was for me to go “back to the basics” with the MGSV mechanics, and these two missions felt like going “back to the most basic of possible basics.” I found them to be arguably the two most singularly enjoyable missions in the entire game.

In fact, they were so much fun that I wish the game had created “Subsistence” versions of every mission, or at least every mission where it’s possible to win without specific items. Yes, I know I could just start every mission with no weapons or items and basically simulate “Subsistence” mode, but gameplay just isn’t as fun without some sort of in-game reward mechanism.

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The Tape Recorded Conversation Format is Terrible

In a certain sense I get why Kojima decided to tell the bulk of MGSV’s story through tape recorded conversations. They aren’t that different from the radio and nanocommunication conversations of every other Metal Gear game in the sense that they are passive, non-cutscene based means of delivering exposition and other story content without having to go through the extremely expensive process of creating a cutscene which requires motion capture, actors, and more advanced scripting to liven up the spectacle of three military guys sitting around talking about military stuff.

But even though I get that MGSV’s recordings aren’t that unusual for the series, I still think they are terrible. They’re a step back in every way. They feel far too dry and somehow even more passive than usual, probably because at least the old radio conversations were happening in real-time at the present, so the player was watching decisions get made and characters develop. But in MGSV the recordings all contain conversations that have already happened. We usually just listen to people explain things to a nearly mute Venom Snake, or at best we hear conversations between secondary characters which tend to be hit-or-miss. For instance, I  really like when Ocelot and Miller get into fights about Diamond Dog policy; it brings some much-needed characterization to the two most important characters in the story after Venom. But I don’t really care for Code Talker’s endless rambling about parasite biology, which somehow last for nearly half an hour, and were revealed to me (by some quick Googling) to be 90% bullshit.

Then there’s the problem with how to listen to the tapes. When I first played through the game I would usually just sit in my helicopter or on Mother Base and listen to the new tapes. That basically works, but it’s boring. It leave the player watching Venom standing around as he haplessly stares into the distance. The only alternative is to listen to the tapes while doing missions which takes care of the boredom problem, but it can be pretty distracting when more immediately interesting things are happening on-screen with the mechanics. Worse yet, every time Ocelot or Miller say anything in relation to the gameplay it blocks out the sound of the tapes, thereby forcing the player to open up the iDroid menu, scroll over to the cassette section, find the right tape, rewind the tape, and play it again. This could easily be fixed by the brain-dead obvious design choice to have the tapes pause whenever someone talks, but it’s not.

And on top of all of that, MGSV seems to have retreated from the series long-term trend of marginalizing the importance of radio/tape conversations to the story as a whole. As far as I know, radio conversations peaked in overall length in MGS2 and steadily declined after that, with barely any presence in MGS4. But unfortunately, they have come roaring back to prominence in MGSV in a more inferior form than ever. It gets especially bad in Act 2 of MGSV where seemingly every mission dumps ten minutes worth of new tapes on the player. Unfortunately, if there were ever a Metal Gear game which needed more cutscenes and dialogue to flesh out its characters, MGSV is it.

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Much of the Main Plot of MGSV is Vague, Confusing, and Forgettable, but That Was Probably Done on Purpose

How many people who played through MGSV can remember the names of the three PFs in Africa, what the differences between them are, and what their relationship to SANR is?

I just finished playing through the game for the second time and all of that information is still fuzzy to me. Yet it’s all really important to plot. It’s easy to forget that despite MGSV being the “missing link” in the Metal Gear canon that shows Big Boss’s decent into evil and reveals lots of other crucial back stories of various important events and characters of the grand Metal Gear canon, the game’s plot is still largely a mystery story which has Venom Snake and Diamond Dogs fighting/infiltrating/dealing with various armies around the world to try to figure out what XOF is up to. A big chunk of the game is actually spent messing with three private military companies in Africa which are tied up with XOF in rather convoluted ways (I think one of them is a subcontractor of XOF, one works for some other company which sells nuclear material to XOF, and I can’t remember what the other one does). The fact that I, and probably most people who played the game can’t remember the details of much of MGSV’s plot indicates that Kojima failed to make much of the story interesting, or at least failed to make it stand out in relation to the more canon-relevant components of the story, like the presence of Liquid Snake and Psycho Mantis.

That may sound like a pretty severe criticism of the game, but I’m actually not sure if it’s a bad thing. I have a sneaking suspicion that Hideo Kojima purposefully made these plotlines vague, confusing, and uninteresting to reinforce one of the recurring themes in the Metal Gear canon. Certainly there was a motif throughout MGS4, PO, and PW of indistinguishable PFs engaging in pointless conflict with no purpose. It’s this very state of affairs which Big Boss and Miller simultaneously resent for making soldiers pointless pawns in a death machine, but also begrudgingly respect for putting military factions like MSF and Diamond Dogs around the world in a position of power. Given Kojima’s propensity for taking insane risks with his plotlines, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt in this case and assume he made the plotline intentionally uninteresting.

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There is a Lot More to Venom Snake than Most People Think

I subscribe to the explanation of MGSV’s story presented here. I won’t go into a full analysis or defense of the explanation here, but I’ll suffice to say that contrary to popular belief, Venom Snake is a fleshed out character with his very own arc. It’s just a really, really, really subtle arc. It’s so subtle that the vast majority of people who play the game will never notice it, in the same way that the vast majority of people who play MGS2 will never know what it’s really about.

Playing through the story a second time I picked up on a lot more of Venom’s arc. During my first time through the game, I thought the motion cap and voice work on Venom were absolute masterpieces but I struggled to crystallize why. It seemed like every scene conveyed a harrowing depth of character through small touches in Venom’s movements, facial features, and his precious few lines of dialogue. I may write my own full analysis of Venom later, but for now I just want to point out one key aspect of his character which stood out to me during my second playthrough: Venom talks more and more as the game goes on. In the beginning, he really is a borderline mute, with multiple entire scenes consisting of Ocelot and/or Miller talking to/with/about Venom with no reciprocated responses. But as the game goes on, Venom talks more and more. He never comes close to being loquacious, but he does become far more assertive as a character. He even gives a speech at the end of “Shining Lights, Even in Death.”

Again, there is way more I can say about Venom, but I’ll save it for later. I just think he is a masterfully well-made character who conveys so much for so little. He may very well be Kojima’s greatest character ever.

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Keifer Sutherland is a Way Better Big Boss than David Hayter

I never liked David Hayter’s voice for Solid Snake or Big Boss. There I said it: the ultimate sacrilege for a Metal Gear fan.

Yes, I know David Hayter’s gravely, growling, deep, guttural, 50-packs a day voice is one of the most iconic parts of the whole series. That doesn’t stop him from sounding completely ridiculous. Solid Snake and Big Boss don’t talk like anyone else on earth does. Their voices are so comically ridiculous that they completely undermine what are otherwise supposed to be serious characters in serious games. And yes, I know that there are plenty of light moments in Metal Gear games, but those moments work best on the margins with player exploration (like messing with guards using porn magazines or throwing snakes at people), not when they are applied to important characters that have a major impact on the story (like MGSV’s Johnny or MGS3’s Major Raikov).

Keifer Sutherland is absolutely phenomenal as Venom Snake and Big Boss. He has a unique and enormously emotive voice that perfectly portrays the power and authority of the characters, while simultaneously imbuing them with an appropriately subtle subtext of apprehension or even confusion. In the last section I briefly described how Venom brings an enormous amount of depth to each and every cutscene he’s in, and there is no doubt in my mind that Sutherland plays a huge part in that achievement. He’s so good here that I almost want him to go back and do over Hayter’s voice work in every other Metal Gear game. I have no idea what that would actually sound like, but I think it would almost certainly be an improvement and bring a great deal more depth to protagonists who despite their fame both inside and outside the Metal Gear community, could have really used an injection of personality.

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One thought on “Thoughts on My Second Playthrough of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

  1. Pingback: The Phantom’s Pain – Turning Venom Snake into the Boss: A Metal Gear Solid V Narrative Analysis – Introduction – Theory of Objective Video Game Aesthetics

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