Whilst I’m always annoyed when I come in on the tail end of a trend, I do think it’s given me a healthy amount of emotional distance in this case. The only other Metal Gear game I played before this one was Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, which actually managed the Sisyphean task of having a plot that was stupider than the title.
But this is apparently one of the things people like about Hideo Kojima and the Metal Gear franchise: the inherent weirdness of it all. I can definitely say that this aspect has carried over into the newest installment of the franchise (and most likely last installment, now that Konami is trying to see how many shotguns it can fit in its mouth), The Phantom Pain.
It suddenly struck me just how absurd the plot was when I tried to recount the prologue chapter to a friend, only to look back on what I’d been saying and realise that it wouldn’t have looked out of place scrawled in crayon on a padded cell wall. The whole game plays like a bad 80’s action film being adapted for anime, and the tone wobbles to an alarming degree. I’ll say it now, a story that features an intro sequence with militarised death squads gunning down unarmed civilians and has a scene where a man is tortured by having his leg bent the wrong way? That is not the same story that should contain hidden fart jokes, shameless attempts at eroticism and cute puppy sidekicks in quirky costumes. It comes across as vaguely psychotic, quite frankly, and it’s all played way too straight to be anything other than intended to be taken at face value.
Let’s not deceive ourselves, this game doesn’t have hidden layers that we can’t see. It’s not a devastatingly ironic take on the absurdity of AAA video game writing. No, Kojima is just bonkers and it shows when he picks up a pen.
These last few paragraphs have probably put me on the kill lists of the thousands of Kojima fans who would rather burn their Japanese love pillows than hear one word against his ridiculous dialogue, but remember, what seems normal to the locals always seems baffling to outsiders. Yes, Hideo Kojima deserves some respect for basically being one of the first people to try to get really complex storytelling into video games, but whilst the idea was a superb one, his execution has always left a lot to be desired. It’s like the works of Suda 51, only not satirical and self-aware in the least.
So let’s study the story. In Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Of The Opera, you play as a legendary mercenary named David with a series of codenames, affiliates and missions that he stole from unsuccessful male porn stars, including Solid Snake, Liquid Snake, Naked Snake, Big Boss, Snake Eater, and possibly Susan if I can just get the paparazzi shots to prove it. This week he’s clearly discovered S&M, because now he’s going under the moniker of “Punished Snake,” and all that kinky foreplay has taken its mark, because his mug is covered in scars and cuts that would put somebody with their head in a blender to shame.
At the end of the previous game, Ground Zeroes, Snake was blown up by an evil villain named Skull Face, who is named this because his face is a skull. Guess Kojima was worried that his legendary subtlety might be too cryptic for the audience, so just to confirm that this twat is the bad guy, he gave him a cartoon bank robber’s mask, put him in a funereal black suit and stuck him in charge of an evil organisation named Cipher. It’s a bit like if a rejected James Bond script was being adapted for kid’s TV, but with the kids employed as the writers.
So Skull Face (presumably the father of the Majora’s Mask antagonist) has an army of soldiers, robots, superzombies and giant mech-suits, which he uses to generally bother people and be a nuisance. He also monologues at Snake from time to time, who always politely sits and watches, instead of doing the smart thing which would be putting so much ammunition inside him that the bullets could be melted down to make a life-size statue of the bastard.
Meanwhile, Snake has been in a coma for nine years, until his surgery comes under attack from a clown kid in a gas mask and a man made of stitches and fire. They hassle him for a while, until he’s saved by the incredible Bandaged Man and his all-too visible backside. Then these new BFFs crawl around for a bit, until your new mummy chum runs over the human torch with an ambulance and Snake escapes, before being saved by a cowboy from a sudden attack by a falling blue whale and a fiery flying unicorn. The cowboy then brings him to an oil rig before they stick a robot arm on him and polish the horn in his head. No, I’m really being serious, and that’s just the first level.
Snake must now use what little is left to rebuild his life in the form of a mercenary organisation known as the Diamond Dogs, which incidentally sounds like a particularly camp pet salon. They set up their base of operations on the aforementioned oil rig and use their resources to make the best private army possible, and that’s where the gameplay, which until now has been snoozing in the back seat of the car, suddenly jolts awake and is allowed to drive.
And it’s good gameplay, very good gameplay, which does more than enough to balance out the embarrassingly awful story, much like Revengeance before it. But unlike Revengeance, which was all about hacking enemies into pieces with your sword, The Phantom Pain is a free-roam game with an emphasis on stealth, reconnaissance and nicely organic methods, kind of what you’d get if you merged Red Dead Redemption, XCOM and Far Cry 3. You horse around the desert before coming up on a stronghold and use whatever methods you like to take out the Soviets inside. Then you use the rewards (including the terrified soldiers and wildlife you fired into orbit) to revamp your base and equipment to be more prepared for the next mission.
Yes, this is where the story about giant robots, superzombies and clown kids gets weird, because Kojima has discovered the Fulton Recovery System, or at least some magical version described to him by a six year old. If you come across a lose object or living creature, you can strap a balloon to their chest which rockets them into the sky, where they are apparently picked up by your mates and brought home, at least if they haven’t been taken out by a commercial jet along the way.
Despite the silliness of it all this is actually a very good mechanic, because it gives you an incentive not to use lethal methods. If you get a reading that the commanding officer in a stronghold can break a man’s neck with his nipples, and you decide you’d like him and his nipples to join the Diamond Dogs, you can knock him out and have him recovered from thirty thousand feet, hanging beneath a hot air balloon and trying not to wet himself. Then he’s brought back to the lonesome, inescapable oil rig, whereupon your allies presumably hit him with sticks until all that pesky patriotism and loyalty to his country has worn off to the point where he’s willing to sell his killing skills to the highest bidder. What heroes we are!
All joking aside, this is a very good concept and I’m glad it’s in there, but there are mechanics that I don’t feel so overjoyed about. There are always a hundred ways to deal with a problem, but I only really felt like using a couple of them, because they’re what I’m used to and usually much more effective than the others. MGSV keeps insisting I could snipe enemies from a distance or run in guns blazing, use my attack dog or the robot legs that you get after a while, but why do those things when they’re all noisy, lethal and you can’t get items or recover loot and enemies? I found that just throwing distractions and choking people out when they looked around worked fine, and I always had the tranquilliser gun for when things got crazy and I needed to drop somebody. It’s all a bit flabby and could have used a bit of streamlining.
The base management is good though, albeit with a terrible GUI that makes navigation a chore, but the two systems support each other well enough that neither one feels unimportant and it all escalates at a good rate, meaning that you don’t usually feel overpowered.
In fact, it’s hard not to feel invested after a while. Whilst the beat-by-beat plot points are batshit, the overall theme of building a private army by attaining resources, earning a name for yourself, kidnapping experts, making shrewd business choices and working out strategies isn’t a bad premise and the game handles it well. I was feeling pretty proud of everything I’d make for myself, from the barracks stuffed full of cheery soldiers, to the world-class R&D lab who had something new every time I came back from a mission, to the overflowing coffers and the mighty matrix of facilities I’d built with my own ingenuity.
Which is why it felt utterly, gut-wrenchingly awful that after twenty hours of solid work, the game crashed and corrupted my save, forcing me to start from square one and endure the rubbish prologue level once again. After making a noise not dissimilar to a jaguar being fed through a combine harvester, as well as eating one of my pillows in abject frustration, I managed to calm myself to the point where the police felt they could leave me alone without issue. Konami strikes again with their relentless commitment to perfection, it seems, and I’ve seen enough posts online to know I’m not the only one it’s happened to.
It also wasn’t the first glitch I’d experienced in the game, though it was definitely the worst. At one point my horse managed to somehow run me over whilst I was riding it, a prisoner I was trying to rescue decided to fall through the map in order to escape for good, and one enemy walked so close that his gun clipped through Snake’s head and yet somehow failed to notice the eyepatched man crouched nearby.
Now that I mention it, the AI is pretty shit in general. Enemies will respond normally to sounds and sights, but once you’re spotted all they do is move in on the place you were. After you’ve slipped away they bumble around angrily like they’re bees in a hive that’s been nudged too hard, and then go right back to guard duty, regardless of how many of their men have either been launched into the stratosphere or lie bleeding nearby.
But there’s positives to the game, technically speaking. It’s nicely optimised, though I always think that’s kind of a hollow point to make. It’s basically saying that it functions as advertised, but for what it’s worth, it ran very well on my laptop on the highest settings, something that few games manage.
And that’s good, because a great deal of the game is pictorial atmosphere. Whether it’s the Afghanistan scrubland or the jungles of Africa, the environments have good scope and I found myself stopping often to admire the scenery, at least once I’d cleared it of Russians and had all the sheep airlifted out of it. The one exception is the water effects, which are about five years behind by my estimate, but that’s a small quibble and a sign that there’s not much else to say.
Except there is something else to say. I wasn’t sure if I was going to mention this, because the Metal Gear franchise has famously always featured ridiculously oversexualised women to the point where it’s like saying that hot chocolate tastes good, or stab wounds are problematic. It’s such a given that you might as well not bother. But what irked me about this one was something that Kojima said in the lead-up to The Phantom Pain, showing what a bit of context can add to a discussion.
See, there’s this girl in the game called Quiet. She’s a mute sniper who works for Skull Face until you fight her, beat her, and bring her back to the base to get her on your side, like you do with all the other grunts you fight. The problem is that Quiet is not wearing what you might think of as regular sniper gear – aka, a ghillie suit and enough face paint to keep a children’s fairground supplied for weeks.
No, she wears a skimpy bikini, ripped translucent tights, and always manages to be in just the right position for the camera to leer at her like a dirty old man, to the point where it got genuinely uncomfortable to observe, as if I was expecting somebody to burst in and take a photo of me watching what looked like foreplay. I know Kojima doesn’t know how to keep a consistent tone, but I was wondering for a few moments if he was venturing into softcore porn. It doesn’t help that when you bring her back she’s put into the brig, where she kills time by lying face down with her top off.
But the thing that annoyed me was a tweet by Kojima about Quiet herself, in response to fairly widespread criticism of her design.
“I created her character as an antithesis to the women characters appeared in the past fighting game who are excessively exposed. “Quiet” who doesn’t have a word will be teased in the story as well. But once you recognize the secret reason for her exposure, you will feel ashamed of your words & deeds.”
Intriguing, I thought. A subversion of traditional female representation in games? A major franchise responding to characters like Soulcalibre’s Ivy and Felicia from Darkstalkers? Kojima will probably get it wrong, but it’s a good start and a noble intention. Well done, that man!
Then I played it, saw it, and realised what the statement above was – a trojan horse. There is an explanation in the game for why she dresses like a page three girl with daddy issues, so look away now if you don’t want spoilers – Quiet has been infected by a parasite that gives her superpowers, but her rejiggled biology means that she has to breath through her skin. Therefore, if she gets wrapped up in a sensible jumper and jeans she’d asphyxiate. How inconvenient for her, but how fortunate for the people who really wanted to see a pair of double-d’s flopping around as they prepare to slaughter a camp of Moscow-born soldiers.
For a while I wondered if I’d missed something. How’s that a subversion? How’s that an antithesis? That’s just a plot reason for why she has to dress like that, isn’t it? The Human Centipede has narrative reasons for showing torture footage, but it’s not a satire on body-horror. It’s just the story bending over backwards to fit in the shots that the director wanted to see.
It would be a satire or a clever take if Quiet was secretly a pre-op transexual, or weighed three hundred pounds, because it would be playing on the expectations of the audience. But this is just exhibitionism with the reason made up after the facts. Kojima wanted a sexy character, he’s said as much in interviews. And if he really wants one, then just go ahead and do it, but don’t lie and claim it’s more than it is, i.e., masturbation fodder for those who don’t have a steady internet connection. You can’t have your birthday cake stripper AND eat her too.
Wait, let me rephrase that.
On the whole, the game suffers from one problem – flabbiness. There’s a bit too much of everything, like the editor was late to the offices and didn’t have time to cut it down properly. Too many mechanics, too much dialogue, too long an intro, too much fast-travel. Whilst a sandbox is only as good as its contents, a lot of that stuff just isn’t needed or looks a bit dull.
And yet I’m still looking forward to restarting and getting back to where I was, because there’s a lot of fun to be had here.
That’s the key – to look at the game as a whole reveals the flaws, so it’s more about the moment-to-moment encounters. Dropping into the midst of four thugs and taking them all out with a series of kung-fu kicks and punches, lying face down in the grass as a whole platoon moves past, missing you by inches, or charging out of a base on a bipedal robot chassis, firing your minigun like a madman as a support chopper comes in to help, all the while blaring “The Final Countdown” – those are the moments you take with you, the wheat pulled triumphantly from the chaff, and they’re enough to cancel out any other flaws the game might have.
The Phantom Pain is not perfect, not by a long way, but I could never stay mad at it for long because it’s just too satisfying to play. Now I need to make a new save and rebuild everything I lost before. I can’t say it’s not appropriate.
An over-abundance of bells and whistles can’t quite make me forget that there’s a genuinely excellent rhythm at the centre of it all. A solid stealth system that’s strong enough to drag a brain-damaged plot and a few technical imperfections behind it without slowing it down.