Monday, September 28, 2015

Xbox 360 review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Nine years after the sabotage and destruction of Mother Base that acted as the cliffhanger ending of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain opens with Big Boss awakening in a hospital to the shocking discovery that there is a shard of metal lodged in his skull and his left arm is missing from the elbow down. As a doctor explains the situation to him, tries to calm him down, and ease him back into the land of the living, word that ‘V has come to' quickly spreads, and it is not long before the hospital is besieged by heavily-armed forces. Barely able to stand, Big Boss, aka Punished ‘Venom’ Snake struggles to regain his ability to walk, while a mysterious bandaged friend calling himself Ishmael acts as his guide out of the hospital.

The route is dangerous, as the militant forces have orders to shoot everyone in the hospital, and Ishmael and Snake encounter what appears to be a flaming projection of Volgin, the Soviet colonel from Operation: Snake Eater. This first leg of the journey is largely an interactive story segment which teaches players the basic controls as they pertain to The Phantom Pain’s stealth and combat techniques. The escalation of events beyond the player’s control is intense, and ultimately the two patients are forced to dupe their would-be assassins, steal an ambulance, and avoid a pursuing helicopter before crashing through a roadblock. Snake passes out for a brief period, and awakens to find no trace of Ishmael, but rather is introduced to Revolver Ocelot, his contact from the newly-reconstructed Mother Base. Ocelot and Snake board a freighter ship to waters near the Seychelles Isles, where XO Kazuhira Miller ordered the new Mother Base be constructed in Snake’s absence.

The first orders of business in setting the stage for events to come are equipping Snake with all of his familiar gear, as well as a new robotic arm, and explaining to players (whether they previously experienced Ground Zeroes or not) that Skull Face is still at large, commanding XOF as a rogue agency no longer tied to the United States government. It’s just the right amount of information and story content to dish out to players this early on. The massive open world exploration element is kept in perspective, for the time being, as Ocelot informs Snake that Miller ran into some trouble during his most recent operation, and likely only has a few days to live before his Soviet captors decide they are through trying to interrogate him.

Each mission Snake embarks on during the game’s first eight hours or so is set in Afghanistan, where tall cliffs limit the number of available routes, but large rocks and hilly terrain offer sufficient cover for Snake, even as he rides past enemy outposts in D-Horse’s saddle. Afghanistan is, as Ocelot informs Snake, a big place, and there is great deal of time spent simply travelling from one location to another early on, though destroying anti-air radar emplacements can open up new landing zones for Mother Base’s helicopters. This map is also a stark contrast in design to the later-accessible African border region between Angola and Zaire, which is technically smaller in size overall, but the open plains and dense jungle provide Snake with a greater freedom to immediately drop in and explore, take on side-ops, and scope out enemy patrols.

Any misgivings about the open-world gameplay adopted by The Phantom Pain should be put to rest. The ability to rely completely on stealth is just as strong as ever, and plenty satisfying to boot. For players who wish to go loud and shoot up a base of enemies with automatic weapons, however, The Phantom Pain does not punish this approach, provided you have something of a plan in mind before storming a heavily-fortified base. More than any Metal Gear title before it, The Phantom Pain offers some truly creative solutions for players who can think on the fly and adapt to the situation as it changes. While Ground Zeroes felt incredibly limited in its scope and restricted in its freedom of play, The Phantom Pain welcomes experimentation, and on the off chance that you are killed in action and receive a ‘game over’ screen, it is always fair, placing responsibility on the player and their choices both in the moment and prior to engaging the enemy.

Enemies are quite a bit smarter than in previous Metal Gear titles, and will receive helmets, shields, and full body armor as word spreads of Snake besting their comrades. The Phantom Pain is somewhat forgiving, though, as the moment an enemy spots you does not immediately put all nearby soldiers on alert. Instead, Snake is granted a brief window to tranquilize, kill, or (provided he is close enough) perform a CQC takedown on the soldier that spotted him. This addition is most appreciated when infiltrating fortresses with high walls that prevent Snake from properly scoping out all enemies therein. The weather and time of day also play important roles in the enemy’s visibility. Obviously, nighttime is ideal for infiltration missions, as enemy soldiers have a smaller field of view away from light sources, and rain storms in Africa further obscure their vision. Dust storms will occasionally whip up in Afghanistan, lasting approximately two minutes at a time, and practically cover the entire area in a thick, blowing cloud – this can prove a double-edged sword, as the enemy is practically blind, but if Snake has not scanned the area beforehand, so too is he.

There is also a great deal of freedom in which weapons and gear Snake takes into battle with him. Grenade launchers, RPGs, and explosives like C4 are generally best-suited to missions that require the destruction of heavily armored vehicles, as they are among the most expensive to equip. But the sheer number of these that can be developed, along with assault rifles, machine guns, submachine guns, pistols, grenades, and camo patterns is astounding, and further reinforces the notion that you can play The Phantom Pain virtually any way you like. The ability to develop certain items is restricted until you have added sufficient personnel to Mother Base’s R&D team, and of course, each individual item costs GMP, the game’s monetary value that is earned in large sums upon the completion of each main game mission and side-op. Some of the wackier loadout options, like the Rocket Arm and cardboard boxes decked out with supermodel posters or anime characters, prove the most entertaining, despite perhaps not being universally practical.

Mother Base is divided into more than a half-dozen struts, each of which can be further built up over time. It does cost a great deal of GMP and resources like fuel, metals, and biological materials to expand Mother Base, but the benefits are more than worth the lengthy wait times between each addition. Building more platforms for your Intel team means that they can offer you greater information about your surroundings, while R&D will develop new weapons and gear more quickly if they have the space to support a larger team, and so forth.

GMP is also spent calling in fire support from your helicopter and for retrieving prisoners, unconscious enemy troops, wildlife, and vehicles alike with the Fulton balloon system, and it is a good idea to maintain a healthy amount of GMP at all times, as dipping into negative numbers means that Mother Base soldiers may leave due to dissatisfaction with the way Snake is running the show. Conversely, the more Snake displays heroism and grows Mother Base, the more likely volunteers are to show up on his doorstep, requesting to join his Diamond Dog forces. Each and every Mother Base soldier displays a specific set of traits, making some better suited for particular teams, and ill-suited for others. Some also boast unique abilities that can lessen or increase the likelihood of fights breaking out, and even perform special moves should players choose to take control of these characters for missions over Snake. Mother Base troops will have their morale increased upon visits home by Snake, and while there isn’t a ton to do on Mother Base, players can scour each platform for diamonds to up their GMP, engage in shooting range side-ops, and stumble across some cleverly-placed easter eggs.

While D-Horse is the first ‘buddy’ character Snake is allowed to deploy with into missions, the trusty steed’s fast gallop can be swapped for three other buddies, each with their own unique support roles. D-Dog, a wild pup that Snake encounters in Afghanistan, grows up under the training of Ocelot, and can eventually be utilized as a radar for detecting the exact location of all nearby enemies, wild animals, and plant life. While D-Dog’s default loadout allows him the option to distract enemy soldiers, he can later be outfitted with a knife or stun baton for stealthy enemy takedowns.

Quiet, the voiceless Sniper, moves at inhuman speeds, similarly scoping out enemy patrols from a distance, and picking them off one by one per Snake’s orders. Quiet is best utilized by players who prefer direct intervention, or who want a backup plan in case the enemy bears down on Snake with everything at their disposal. Quiet’s standard sniper rifle can be swapped for a tranquilizer rifle, while her alternate outfits are more aesthetically amusing than they are situation-sensitive. Finally, Huey’s D-Walker offers a travel speed slightly slower than that of D-Horse, but with offensive options like a gatling gun and rocket launcher, as well as a defensive buffer to the front. Each ‘buddy’ will be recalled from the field if they take too many hits, however, and this will subsequently weaken Snake’s bond with them, while properly utilizing their abilities and ensuring their safety will strengthen Snake’s bond with them.

The main missions during the first act of The Phantom Pain are largely concerned with piecing together the puzzle of Skull Face’s master plan, one ‘weapon to surpass Metal Gear’. While the pacing of the game is spot-on, the story sequences – one of the Metal Gear series’ most popular and famous offerings – are sparse until the second act. While it is appreciated that The Phantom Pain does not bog players down with extensive cutscenes as Guns of the Patriots once did, MGSV cuts back on its narrative a bit too much. Metal Gear villains have long held a commanding presence in their respective games, and Skull Face is no different, walking a fine line between theatrically confident and cunningly evil. But when his plan is revealed in full, it is underwhelming, and offers too much room for error.

The second half of The Phantom Pain does increase the frequency with which the story is sprinkled in. Kaz becomes increasingly suspicious of Huey, believing he was responsible for the security breach that destroyed the old Mother Base. Quiet finds the soldiers on Mother Base are not all keen on her presence, calling her a freak and generally distrusting her. And Snake is forced to carry out some very heavy actions that, while perhaps necessary, are important steps in painting both himself and the forces of Outer Heaven as more of villains than heroes by the time the events of the first Metal Gear occur.

The Phantom Pain fills in the last major gap of time between the era of Big Boss and the era of Solid Snake, and as such, is less concerned with presenting grand revelations pertaining to the series at large than most other Metal Gear titles. The events of The Phantom Pain are guided in large part by what transpired in both Peace Walker and Ground Zeroes, and ultimately the endgame plays most prominently into the events of Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, and Metal Gear Solid. Some of The Phantom Pain’s strongest moments lie in its second act, but so too do its greatest faults. Roughly half of the second act’s main missions are simply retreads of missions taken on during the first act, with higher difficulty settings or more specific rules in place. In addition, the penultimate chapter that would otherwise provide The Phantom Pain with a clean, complete finale is entirely absent, leaving a humongous plot point hanging with no resolution.

Boss fights are also quite sparse in The Phantom Pain, though the handful that are present pay homage to previous titles in the series. A sniper duel between Snake and Quiet mirrors that of the battle with The End in Snake Eater, and the general design and abilities of Metal Gear Sahelanthropus offer throwbacks to Metal Gear Rex from the PS1’s Metal Gear Solid. One particular close-quarters battle with Skull Face’s elite Skulls unit even incorporates quick-time reactions reminiscent of Metal Gear Rising.

Side-ops are entertaining, more relaxed distractions from The Phantom Pain’s main missions, offering up goofy scenarios like tracking down a legendary bear to tranquilize and bring back to Mother Base’s animal sanctuary, or infiltrating a Soviet-occupied base to rescue a sheep via fulton balloon extraction. Other side-ops are more run of the mill fanfare, such as extracting prisoners, and destroying heavy infantry or armored patrol units. Side ops typically require less careful planning of Snake’s loadouts beforehand, and it can be easy to find yourself burning through three, five, or ten at a time, in-between The Phantom Pain’s main missions.

While Metal Gear Online may not yet be up and running, The Phantom Pain does offer an online component in the form of an F.O.B. invasion. F.O.B.s, or forward-operating bases, can be constructed in waters beyond the main Mother Base, and serve to further establish Big Boss’ presence to the outside world. Snake can infiltrate an enemy base for a GMP reward, depending on how well he manages to sneak past the troops stationed there, but your own base(s) will similarly be potential targets for other players to invade. F.O.B. invasions are an interesting afterthought, but they lack substance, and do not return as high-value rewards as the deployment missions Snake can send Mother Base soldiers on against CPU forces.

Many fans were, understandably, disappointed to hear that longtime voice of Snake, David Hayter, would not be returning to reprise the character in MGSV. It’s difficult to fully accept Kiefer Sutherland as the new voice of Snake, not because of the quality of his performance, but because of how infrequently he adds anything to the conversation. On the whole, Kiefer Sutherland does a sufficient job of carrying such an iconic role, but would be far more memorable if he spoke more than a few words at any given juncture – a stark contrast to Hayter’s rather talkative portrayal of Snake in every other major Metal Gear entry. As a rippling effect of this, Snake frequently comes across as more of an observer of events unfolding on Mother Base and during his missions than an active participant, at least during cutscenes and other scripted sequences.

Robin Atkin Downes and Troy Baker put forth strong performances as Kazuhira Miller and Ocelot, respectively. Downes does a phenomenal job at conveying Miller’s desire for revenge, and the hatred he harbors towards Skull Face’s XOF forces for destroying the old Mother Base, yet still maintains a strong-willed presence and great degree of faith and respect in Snake, even if he does attempt to go over his head during a few key instances. There is a constant tension in the air whenever Snake and Miller are present in the same scene, due in no small part to Downes’ performance. Troy Baker, meanwhile, manages to present Ocelot in the prime of his adulthood, without sounding too similar to other middle-aged roles he’s performed in the past, like The Last of Us’ Joel or Bioshock Infinite’s Booker DeWitt. Baker gives the famous gunslinger an appropriately deeper voice than Josh Keaton’s performance of a youthful Ocelot in Snake Eater, but dials back a few notches from Patric Zimmerman’s famous raspy voice from Metal Gear Solid, Sons of Liberty, and Guns of the Patriots.

As Snake explores Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region, he will receive cassette tapes – some that are delivered by Miller and Ocelot containing mission-sensitive information, and others that contain musical tracks. Many of the audio tapes will prove a real treat to hardcore Metal Gear fans, referencing events from Snake Eater and Peace Walker, while others provide greater context to Skull Face’s motives and the origins of XOF. Playing Metal Gear theme songs of yesteryear while carrying out missions delivers a good dose of nostalgia, but blasting one of the many hidden 80s pop and rock tapes can make for some wacky, thoroughly amusing moments. Better yet, you can set any of these songs to blast from your helicopter’s speaker system, so as to bear down on unsuspecting enemies with rockets launching to the tunes of Kim Wilde’s “Kids in America”, The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love”, Kajagoogoo’s “Too Shy” or Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell”.

As for the original orchestrated soundtrack, The Phantom Pain’s musical stylings deviate a surprising degree from those in previous games. The few reprises of classic Metal Gear themes that do sneak their way in to the mix are quite subdued. Sins of the Father, meanwhile, is a powerful and commanding vocal track, with lyrics that are among the most thematically-appropriate to a Metal Gear title since Snake Eater’s self-titled jazzy James Bond-esque number.

The Fox Engine once again outdoes itself, as The Phantom Pain looks shockingly good, even on a last-generation console like the Xbox 360. There are some minor shortcomings when compared to the PS4 and Xbox One versions, such as certain textures sporting less detail and requiring the occasional bump-in load. As the game installs on the system’s hard drive prior to your first play session, load times between missions are kept to a reasonable speed. Draw distances are superb, offering Snake the ability yo scope out vast distances, provided the terrain does not obscure his field of vision. The blurred distance effects are nowhere near as harsh on the eyes in the Xbox 360 version as they are on the PS4 or the Xbox One. I never stumbled across any noticeable dips in frame rate, and only encountered one odd, non-threatening glitch during my playthrough – very much appreciated, given the track record of other contemporary open world games.

In addition to catering to any play style you like, The Phantom Pain reflects player loadouts and time away on missions within cutscenes. When Snake begins an interaction with Ocelot and Kaz, he’ll be wearing whichever camo pattern players last dressed the legendary soldier in. If Snake has been taking to more direct means of intervention, shooting up enemy soldiers, his face will be streaked with blood, while even a long series of stealth ops will depict Snake with sweat dripping from his brow.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is far from a perfect game. The lessened focus on a complex narrative will likely leave veteran fans hungry for more, especially with the knowledge that the final leg of Snake’s journey is left incomplete. That said, the story elements that are at play prove, by and large, of the same carefully-calculated nature that Kojima is known for. The few major twists that come to pass are masterfully executed, and the nigh-on perfect gameplay The Phantom Pain sports certainly helps ease the pain of the elements that are absent. The Phantom Pain travels to some dark places, with plot points that teeter closer to reality than other games in the series. While The Phantom Pain may not be the definitive masterpiece fans had hoped would cap off Hideo Kojima’s nearly-thirty-year run of directing the Metal Gear series, it is still one of the most enjoyable games I’ve played this year. It’s a shame that the circumstances surrounding Konami, Kojima, and the game’s development process did not pan out more smoothly, as the full, completed vision for The Phantom Pain would have no doubt earned a considerably higher overall score.

My rating: 7.75 (out of 10)

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