Metal Gear Solid V — Retrospective Review

This is a review of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, one year after its release. The game was praised on release, then criticised by fans, now it’s one year later I would like to bridge these two perspectives.

I played the Phantom Pain with no prior history with Metal Gear, nor an understanding of its hype and history. Only after I completed the Phantom Pain did I play Ground Zeroes. I felt no expectations toward the Phantom Pain, and future players will almost certainly feel the same.

I will say right now that Metal Gear Solid V is excellent and you should play it. This review is mostly negative, even though the game is mostly positive, because it’s more interesting to deconstruct failure than to praise success. Yet there’s no mistaking that this is an essential gaming experience.

The first half of this review discusses the story’s introduction, gameplay, controls, weapons and buddies, then the second half discusses story conclusion and how the game could have been improved. The first half of this review is spoiler-free, and the second half is not.

Part 1: Spoiler-free story, gameplay, controls, weapons and buddies

Three motifs to frame a story

The Phantom Pain opens on the confident assumption it has nothing less than our undivided attention. Themes and narrative are signaled but not explained. We won’t remember them when they become relevant, but they are a clear demonstration that the Phantom Pain intends to address serious topics.

First, there is only audio: a plane entering an uncontrolled descent and explosive crash. A text overlay states that: “It is no nation that we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake; our native tongue is our true fatherland.” This is the first of three framing devices that introduce the narrative and will return at the conclusion to close it. The first motif, the importance of language, does not bookend the narrative so much as telegraph what drives it.

Next, a bathroom stocked with military firearms. A text overlay states: “Just another day in a war without end”, as the camera zooms in on and a cassette tape labelled “From The Man Who Sold the World.” The cassette is loaded into a walkman and it begins to play a 1982 cover of David Bowie’s 1970 song. I highly recommend listening to it, here, as you read. The camera zooms into the cassette’s rolling tape reels then fades to black. This is the second framing device: What we’re about to see is a memory prompted by this cassette tape. That the entire narrative is a memory of something that already happened will eventually be forgotten by the game and the player. The single greatest failing of the Phantom Pain is that it could could have made better use of this framing device.

What you remember is waking up as the soldier Venom Snake, aka “Big Boss”, in 1984, inside a Cypriot hospital. The nurses are alarmed by your awakening. A doctor hurries to your bedside to explain that you and this hospital are in terrible danger. You must undergo cosmetic surgery, immediately, to protect your identity. At this point players input a new name, birthday and face —A new identity to protect your old one. Customizing the face is involved, enjoyable and detailed; An accessible interface that covers all the standard sliders for designing an avatar. Once you accept a new appearance the doctor begins preparations for surgery. However, before you can try out your fancy new look, a mysterious woman enters the ward, garrotts the doctor in front of you. Designing a new identity was a massive fake-out. The doctor bleeds out beside your bed. The facial surgery fake-out is the third framing device.

Veteran players know where it goes from there, and I won’t spoil it for new-comers. Suffice to say that as a new entrant to the Metal Gear series I was blown away by the tone established in that hospital and the escape. The Phantom Pain juxtaposes conventional action movie excitement against a deeply weird, playful terror. The enigmatic cowboy, Revolver “Shalashaska” Ocelot, rescues you from a telekinetic boy and a Man on Fire, and a flaming whale sails across the night sky. It’s a damn shame that the fun does not last. Before the credits roll the magician’s tricks will be revealed; a victim of that suffocating expectation that there be No Loose Ends. Until the logic defying mystery is dispelled, however, the a balance between conventional danger and unfathomable, absurdist terror is wonderful.

Overarching gameplay

After Cyprus, the player is introduced to the primary gameplay of the Phantom Pain — An open world environment of enemy soldiers holed up in defensive positions that exist to be reconnoitered, infiltrated and, if things go wrong, blasted through with all guns blazing.

Later on a base management meta-game will be introduced, in which enemies, resources and equipment that is captured in the open world are added to your personal Mother Base. Capturing resources for Mother Base unlocks new items, abilities and appearances, which in turn facilitate more advanced sneaking and capturing tactics to further develop Mother Base. It’s a subtle, effective incentive to challenge yourself into adopting a non-lethal approach, capture before you kill.

A third layer of gameplay is added half-way through the campaign whereby other players can infiltrate your Mother Bases, and you theirs, to steal resources. The player v player infiltrations are far less effective than the open world gameplay. There are few incentives to steal from other players and robbing other players’ Mother Bases just feels wrong.

Players can visit their own Mother Base any time. It’s a network of modified oil-refinery platforms off the Seychelles coast, re-purposed as a floating military base. The physical, interactive Mother Base enhances our attachment to the meta-game. It feels like we’re capturing real soldiers who support you from a real support platform. Later, Mother Base will be victim to an attack during the story missions’ most effective sequences. We’ve met the soldiers who will die. It carries an extra punch that would not be possible if Mother Base only existed as a spreadsheet.

Mother Base as a physical environment is poorly designed. The mechanic whereby players invade your Mother Base means that laid out like an arena. The arena design does not lend itself to Mother Base’ primary function as a player home. Getting around is a chore. There is an important sub-plot in the medical bay, but it’s stationed way off on a remote platform. The development lab is over a kilometer from the helipad, so don’t even bother visiting the R&D team. Walkways are an elaborate spider web that are designed to confuse intruders, but the only person they’ll confuse is you. A much better design for Mother Base would recognise that not every Mother Base platform had to be a combat arena. The central Command platform could have been a player friendly home, clearly laid out, easy to navigate, and a location for every supporting character to live. The central platform could have been off-limits to other players, relegating PvP infiltration to the peripheral platforms. It’s a shame that all of Mother Base was designed to be a combat arena.

The open world is very well designed. Unlike Mother Base, the open world maps of are diverse and well-designed. The first mission sets the player down in Soviet occupied Afghanistan. The objective is to rescue Benedict “Kazuhira” Miller, Kaz to his friends. The map, enemies, objectives and interface are straightforward and accessible. If you planned on learning the mechanics in your own time, think again, Kaz will die if you don’t rescue him in under 72 hours. It’s a bold and effective push to dive right into gameplay that you understand without allowing players to become comfortable. Pushing the player beyond their comfort zone is never frustrating because controls and objective are blessedly intuitive.

Indeed, the control scheme of the Phantom Pain deserves high praise. Too many games break the immersion by failing to seamlessly translate player commands into action. Yet the player’s control of Venom Snake is flawless. Press Shift to run and Snake will run without waiting for an immersion breaking second. Hold E to pick up a weapon and a progress dial will show exactly how many fractions of a second until it’s in your hands. Snake will never walk into a landmine because he misinterpreted your commands. The economy with which actions are incorporated into a small number of controls shows how the Phantom Pain has benefited from the release of Ground Zeroes eighteen months earlier. In the latter, players could bring up weapon selection during interrogation because the D-menu did not always detect that Snake was restraining an enemy. The former correctly brings up the D-menu every single time. In Ground Zeroes, the mouse sensitivity of the binoculars was too low, but in Phantom Pain the sensitivity is perfect.

Brave new world

Neither the hills of Afghanistan nor the African savanna are beautiful. Nothing is lost in their emphasis of substance over style. The world is a setting for staged encounters. Soldiers placed in anticipation of the player’s arrival. Groups of three or five Soviets man the small guard posts interspersed between larger outposts of twenty or more soldiers. This is a game about sneaking into enemy bases, not admiring their beauty. I admire its purity.

Outposts bristle with gameplay possibilities. There are airstrips covered by snipers, crumbling ratways, artillery batteries commanding choke-point ravines, tent encampments in the pouring rain, and wooden huts perched on stilts above a murky wetland. All have well designed strong points to evade and puzzle weaknesses to crack. The act of puzzling is made enjoyable by observing and marking enemies through player binoculars, the Int-Scope. Marked enemies will remain visible, even behind walls, so the incentive to scout and plan your infiltration arises organically. The longer you watch an enemy outpost the better you understand the routines of soldiers: sleeping, guarding, smoking and chatting. Careful observation reveals opportunities for mischief. Planning and preparation are rewarded through the inter-play between gameplay mechanics.

To the extent the open world fails to be an interesting sandbox, it’s in between missions. There are at most two soldiers who will move between outposts. Enemies may cross the map to reinforce an outpost under attack, but never in tanks and helicopters. Enemies at the site and an attack will call in backup, launch flares, fire mortars and send out search parties. It’s a wonderfully alive response that fails to escalate logically. Enemies never fight other human NPCs, just you. Inter-faction conflict would have made the world feel more alive, rather than a set of encounters awaiting your arrival.

The siloing of outposts is less prominent during missions. Each one sets you down in a bounded section of the open world with a simple objective and a set of AI behaviours you can throw a wrench into at any point. George “Super Bunnyhop” Weidman has aptly likened it to the early Hitman games’ puzzle like quality. Deciphering the mechanics of the mission is the most fulfilling approach. Although there are ample opportunities to take a more direct approach, such play styles are subtly discouraged because they yield fewer rewards, put surrounding outposts on high-alert, and will probably get you killed.

Players are awarded a mission rating based on the quality of their performance, ranging from E to A and then the perfect S ranking. Every mission has unmarked secondary objectives that are revealed after the first play through. Most secondary objectives push the player to perform primary objectives with an additional challenge, usually capturing a soldier rather than killing them. However, there is always at least one secondary objective at odds with the primaries, effectively creating a self-contained mission within a mission. For example, a Mission 18 secondary objective is to extract three APCs patrolling between outposts. Extracting all three will require setting a road-side ambush completely unrelated to the primary objective of infiltrating an open cut diamond mine. Players seeking to earn a perfect S and complete every objective will have to play each mission at least three times. It’s a tragic missed opportunity that there is no narrative justification for why Venom Snake is reliving these fascinating and challenging scenarios.

Equipment

The Phantom Pain works hard to encourage experimentation and lateral thinking. Enemy snipers can be, for example, knocked out by calling in a supply drop on their heads. Tranquilizing a soldier in the open will raise suspicions, but lay their unconscious body on a fold-out bed and enemies will assume they’re sleeping. Every mission will, alongside the letter ranking, award players a code name reflecting their style of play: heavy use of sniper rifles will earn the code name Wolf, shotguns yield Piranha, and pistols earn the Bee. I consistently got Bear, Octopus and Bat, for hand-to-hand, non-lethal and balanced combat, respectively.

Players can paint their support helicopter any colour they want. I painted my chopper sky blue (to better camouflage it, obviously), however, hot pink is very much an option, in keeping with the Phantom Pain’s absurdist subtext.

The array of weapons, equipment and customisation at players’ disposal is a great strength and a major weakness. The most powerful items you’ll ever attain are a silenced tranquilizer gun, a knife and a satchel of empty magazines to throw and distract guards. All of these are unlocked in Mission One. The many shotguns, rifles, shields, and machine guns (both heavy and sub) are unlockable but discouraged because they are noisy enough to put a base on high-alert, lethal enough to rule-out capturing any soldiers for Mother Base, or so expensive you’ll use them sparingly. Sniper rifles, pistols, rocket launchers and land mines all come in non-lethal variants, but they’re situational. When you do use a weapon for the situation it’s made for, the experience is very cool. But there are too many varieties of weapon that you will never use. The Mother Base R&D team will spend hours unlocking equipment that is never more powerful than the pistol, knife and magazines available in Mission One.

Later in the story you unlock the ability to customise weapons. Back at Mother Base you can swap out any weapon’s scope, barrel, sights, stock, muzzle and accessories. The mechanic is fun but under-developed. The impact of making an alteration is not always clear. Every weapon is rated on a set of sliders representing damage, accuracy, recoil, etc. It’s not clear what each increment of these sliders means: Swapping out a shotgun’s standard pellets for a solid-slug moves its indicator along the damage slider, but I won’t know if it’s enough of improvement to take-down a soldier in one shot or two until I use it in the field. There is one missile launcher, the CGM, with a damage rating two-thirds along the spectrum, however, each salvo fires six missiles at once, so it’s damage is actually six times greater than rated.

Testing each modification is cumbersome. There are eighteen different scopes and dot sights, with no way of looking down the sight before you mount it on a rifle. I had to look up a guide to know what I was adding to my sniper rifle. It’s poor design to make players deploy on mission to test a weapon. The customisation interface should have been designed to sit within a weapons testing range on Mother Base. There should have been enemy-like dummies, tanks and buildings to demonstrate how a modified weapon will perform in the field. It’s a real shame there’s no such testing range in the Phantom Pain.

The restrictions on player load-out can be quite arbitrary. Venom Snake is able to carry on his person one hip weapon, one back weapon, one side weapon and dozens of support items. The hip weapon can only be a rifle, shotgun or grenade launcher and players must equip a hip weapon. The back weapon can only be a sniper, machine gun, rocket launcher or shield. If you want to deploy with a sniper rifle it must be carried alongside a hip weapon. However, assault rifles can be customised with a sniper scope, sniper barrel, sniper muzzle, sharpshooter’s stock and a sniper silencer — So why not just let players equip an actual sniper rifle as the hip weapon?

The restrictions on player load-out are also poorly balanced. Venom Snake can carry up to three weapons (hip, back and side), as well as tens of landmines, dozens of grenades, night-vision goggles, medical drugs and cardboard boxes. There’s nothing wrong with carrying so many weapons, per se. The only real restriction on carrying equipment in the Phantom Pain is that it costs in-game money, called called “GMP” (Gross Military Product). GMP is earned by passing in-game time, completing in-game missions and collecting in-game items, which are all essentially just grinding. Choosing what items to equip based on a grinding trade-off is inherently less satisfying than trading-off against intangibles, such as run speed, noise and weight limits.

The only way to avoid grinding is to deploy with as little equipment as possible. The incentive is to use as little of the game’s equipment as possible. For example, the night vision goggles are a really fun piece of kit but I stopped equipping them because I felt foolish paying 500 GMP for something I never really needed. Eventually I lowered my per-deployment cost to a meager 4,930 GMP. And while we’re discussing GMP: It’s pretty sloppy that the Phantom Pain does not delimit 000s with a comma. Too many times did I mistake 1000000 GMP for 10000000 GMP to not bring this up.

A little help from my friends

In addition to the equipment on Snake’s person, he can deploy with a single buddy alongside him each mission. There are four buddies: Quiet, a sniper; D-Walker, a robot; D-Dog, a wolf; and, D-Horse, a horse. Each has a suite of powerful, unique abilities. Using buddies builds your bond with them, unlocking more abilities at higher levels of bonding. D-Walker can, for example, enter into ‘turret mode’ that snipes, tranqs or machine guns any enemies who cross its field of vision. Later, D-Walker can research a rail gun that stuns soldiers , and a cannon that fires fulton-extraction kits at enemies, lifting them into the sky on contact.

Each of the four buddies’ abilities are truly unique. Making the choice between Quiet, who can provide covering fire, and D-Dog, who can mark enemies without raising the alarm, is genuinely interesting and has major consequences for gameplay. D-Horse is valuable in some situations; he’s fast and can defecate on command (it’s more useful than you’d think). But Quiet and D-Dog are clear and away the most powerful buddies. D-Dog’s ability to mark any and all enemies in an outpost with just a quick reckon really should have been nerfed. Ideally, D-Dog should only mark ‘objects of interest’ without revealing if they’re soldiers, prisoners, animals, equipment or resources. It would be worth it to watch D-Dog get excited about the ‘thing’ marked around the corner, probably an enemy soldier, turn out to to be an innocuous gerbil.

The best component of the buddy system is that their gear costs GMP but they deploy for free. The player never feels they’re being penalised for choosing a buddy. You will grow attached to them as they create new opportunities Venom could not achieve alone. Their personalities emerge through play. Quiet, bless her soul, 500 meters away kept tranquilizing the soldier as I was interrogating him until I told her to knock it off. The buddy system is a wonderful mechanic. Deploying without one by your side will feel like losing an arm. Except the robot, which always costs money and its cheaper gear is nothing you don’t already have on you. I don’t often miss the robot.

There is an ostensible fifth buddy as well. Mid-way through the campaign your Mother Base team begin to build a large battle mecha called “Battle Gear” on the premise that once complete you’ll be able to deploy it alongside you like a regular buddy. The Battle Gear exists in the Mother Base hanger and you can see it’s assembly in between missions. However, once complete, Battle Gear doesn’t do anything. You can’t deploy it in field, or even test it out in Mother Base. You can only send it on deployment missions with your NPC Mother Base combat teams. It’s a colossal let down.

Part 1: Recap

I promised to keep all the spoilers out of the first half of this review. So, let’s recap before moving on to spoiler-town: The Phantom Pain opens with a great deal of confidence, an exquisite setting of mundane action-genre excitement against supernatural strangeness. It all works to establish some interesting framing devices that may or may not pay off later in the story.

The control scheme alone warrants a gaming recommendation. The world environment is a warehouse of well designed enemy outposts that are in practice interesting puzzles in need of solving. The story missions build on the conceit of the stealth puzzle, presenting the player with complex scenarios to nut out, although the mission design does go a bit limp in the last third of the story.

Stealth gameplay is incredibly well balanced, not least of all how it contributes to, and is reinforced by, the base management elements of Mother Base. The Mother Base is not a nice place to visit, but it is an immersive spreadsheet to review between missions. Player equipment is not well balanced: There are too many superfluous weapons, customising equipment is clunky, the best equipment is unlocked in Mission One, and the financial cost of carrying additional weapons encourages players to use as little gear as possible. The buddy system is, however, balanced, meaningful and points a way that the equipment system as a whole could have been better.

In the second half of the review I will touch briefly on the narrative, discuss how I think Mother Base could be a more interesting place to visit and how Battle Gear could have been less of a let down. I’ll then discuss how the ending makes use of the narrative framing devices it began with, how I think those framing devices could be better used, and how I think the equipment system could be better and also enhance the narrative.

Part 2: Spoilers, narrative, “true” load-out, and Mother Base

A place to call home

The problem with Mother Base is that it’s an FPS arena, not a place to become emotionally attached. As I suggested, the obvious solution would be to create at the heart of Mother Base a core of platforms immune from infiltration. Relegate the online gameplay to the peripheral platforms, save the central platform for the Phantom Pains’ human drama.

What Mother Base needs at its core are three or four small platforms, close together and easily navigable. All the main characters should be have a place to live on the central platforms. Venom ought to an open plan office, centrally located to observe all the other central platforms and watch Mother Base going about its day. The office could house all his memorabilia from completed missions. Miller should have his intel room, seen through tinted glass always on the phone about some new work coming through a cut out. Ocelot ought to patrol the staff training yard, drilling recruits and shooting from the hip. In the Phantom Pain, Quiet lives in a quarantine cell under the medical platform. It would make more sense for a sniper like her to have a crows nest where she can put a bead on anyone anywhere in the base. Miller and Ocelot don’t trust Quiet, but Venom could talk them into letting her move into the old control tower. If players use the Int-Scope to ogle Quiet in the crows nest, then that should lower her bond.

Mother Base should also have a gun workshop to customise weapons and test out new modifications using practice targets. Players should have been able to test out new weapons in a timed-shooting gallery style arcade. If you run down the shooting range timer with only one target left standing, then Quiet should shoot it from the crow’s nest, and give a sassy thumbs up. The workshop should also be the place Battle Gear is built and stored. Speaking of which…

A small explosion to keep things interesting

There is a straightforward solution to squandering of Battle Gear. What should have happened is that Skull Face destroy Battle Gear before mission thirty-one. All it would require is that mission thirty-five, “Cursed Legacy”, in which Venom extracts two containers of vocal chord parasites be moved to occur after mission twenty-nine, “Metallic Archaea” but before mission thirty, “Skull Face”. In the modified Cursed Legacy mission, Venom should extract a shipment of Skull Face’ vocal chord parasite to take back to Mother Base to help develop an antidote. Back at Mother Base the two containers would be unloaded in the workshop, next to Battle Gear, where a contamination lab has been hastily erected. However, as soon as Venom returns to his office to review Ocelot’s debrief, the workshop erupts in a huge explosion. Battle Gear, all of Venom’s equipment and most of the platform is destroyed. D-Dog, D-Horse, D-Walker and Quiet are seriously injured. Skull Face had concealed a dirty bomb inside the containers. There’s no time to dwell on the security lapse, however, as Skull Face is preparing to unleash his remaining parasites in Afghanistan. Venom must deploy to OKB Zero with nothing but his knife and tranquilizer pistol. Players would be so angry that Battle Gear was destroyed that they would be absolutely chomping at the bit to take-down Skull Face. Alas, if only that’s how the game had actually written off Battle Gear. In actual fact, the final missions of the Phantom Pain are not particularly good.

A better story

There is no reason for the Phantom Pain to have a bad narrative. The plot moves according to its own action-movie logic, building a bonkers momentum all the way up to its epic, Mission Thirty-One show-down against Skull Face. The defeat of Skull Face neatly book-ends the first narrative framing device: “It is no nation that we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake; our native tongue is our true fatherland.” His scheme to commit linguistic genocide is thwarted. The player can put down the controller satisfied. And yet, Mission Thirty-One is not the end.

After Mission Thirty-One is an under-developed Part Two that goes no where, until it doesn’t. It consists of eighteen missions, of which twelve are, literally, high-difficulty replays of Part One missions. Only six of the eighteen are original, and of those missions only two advance the plot. The pacing of the six original missions is terrible, the level design is far less-complex and the plot is a non-sequitor. The developers clearly intended these missions to be part of a larger, unfinished second and third acts. Instead, what they are is a jolting lurch toward the finale.

Mission Forty-Six is the true finale. The mission is a replay of the Prologue escape from Cyprus with one clever twist. The third narrative framing device, the reconstructive facial surgery that never went ahead, is revealed to be the product of an unreliable narrator. The truth is that the player, Venom Snake, a.k.a. “Big Boss”, did undergo surgery and did change his identity in Cyprus. The player defined avatar’s face was your original appearance before becoming the body double of Big Boss. Venom did not realise this because he was brain washed by Ocelot into thinking he was Big Boss, and you the player believed it too. The twist is revealed on completion of Mission Forty-Six when Venom receives a cassette tape from the real Big Boss, who uses the moniker “The Man Who Sold the World”. It’s the same cassette tape from the introductory cutscene, played in full for Big Boss to explain the entire ruse to Venom.

This is a cracking twist reveal with no where near the correct build up or emotional breathing space to land effectively. The revelation of Mission Forty-Six comes out of no where, and the game just ends moments later, roll credits, turn off the computer. A better game would have followed Mission Forty-Six with a slow paced epilogue. Give players some busy work objective, let them come to terms with Venom’s true identity. Players should have been given time to reflect on how we could have been so blind, or bask in the satisfaction that we saw it coming all along. Characters should react to the shock-twist, allowing us to process the news vicariously through their reaction. Instead, what the game does is dump a set of “truth tape” in the inventory. These tapes are no more than recordings of characters explaining the plot, with no context, no explanation where the tapes came from or whether they’re reliable. It’s a horrible missed opportunity and a waste of a clever twist.

The ending could have been much better. Even if the game weren’t released too early, with clearly absent content, it could have undergone minor tweaks to make it more enjoyable than it is now. I will close this review by proposing small changes that could have better built up to the twist revelation that Venom is the phantom of Big Boss.

Restrict mission equipment on the first play through

The most significant, minor change that the Phantom Pain would benefit from would be to prescribe a set of equipment players must use the first time they complete a mission. If the equipment load-out was prescribed the first time, it would make better use of the current equipment system, present players with more interesting challenge, and could support the build up to Venom’s twist-identity revelation, while still allowing experimentation and choice during replays. Allow me to explain,

At present, the Phantom Pain encourages players to complete each mission at least three times: Once for primary objectives, once for secondary objectives and once for an S rating. And, every mission has a suite of talented soldiers to capture, resources to farm and monthly online challenges tied to mission activities. So it’s not usual to play a standard mission over a dozen times. Yet the player’s range of equipment is never restricted on any of these play throughs, except in the cost of GMP.

A better mechanic would be to require players to complete each mission the first time using a prescribed set of equipment. For the sake of convenience and narrative symbolism, let’s refer to the equipment of the first playthrough as the “true” load-out, and the player-defined load-outs during subsequent play throughs as the “personal” load-out. For example, a mission might have a ‘true’ load-out of one unsilenced, lethal sniper rifle, two sleep grenades and a standard set of fulton devices, int-scope and all the standard paraphernalia. Until the player had complete that mission at least once, their equipment would be limited to the true load-out and anything they find on-site.

Prescribing a ‘true’ load-out would have been a great opportunity to design more interesting missions. If developers knew what items a player would have, at least the first time through, then they could design missions around those items. For example, if the designer knew the player’s only non-lethal option was sleep grenades, then they could have the mission target move between tightly clustered groups of soldiers. Clever players would notice the ‘target rich environments’ and drop a sleep grenade. Perhaps that mission would take place during a storm that makes sleep grenades fizzle and ineffectual unless they’re used indoors. The designer could have also hidden a useful item to reward exploration-minded players. While the missions in the Phantom Pain are often well designed, this would have added more diversity.

Prescribing a ‘true’ load-out would help players to discover new tactics with unfamiliar weapons. The current game gives players little reason to not pack a tranq pistol, so it’s unlikely that players will learn how to use a lethal pistol to ‘non-lethally’ shoot a soldier’s kneecaps. I didn’t learn that explosives can destroy watchtowers until I accidentally fired a mortar into an outpost. So many players have loved to share stories of when they were caught in a tight spot, with no idea what to do, but managed to improvise a way out. Prescribing a true load out would mean players must play each mission, at least once, outside their comfort zone. A well-designed true load-out would keep missions exciting and full of moments of panicked improvisation.

The twist ending would have made more sense with a “true” load-out

It’s established when the camera zooms into the rolling cassette tape that the Phantom Pain is a memory. Every mission is Venom’s memory of that mission. The post Mission Forty-Six truth tapes establish that Revolver Ocelot brainwashed Venom to remember each mission as though he were Big Boss. However, the revelation that Venom is Venom suggests that at some point he stopped remembering how Big Boss completed those missions and began to remember how ‘he’ completed them. This suggests that every replayed missions represents Venom thinking “No, this is how I remember it.”

Prescribing a ‘true’ load-out would have supported the twist that Ocelot had brainwashed Venom. The first playthrough with ‘true’ load-out would represent the memory of each mission consistent with Ocelot’s brainwashing. Subsequent play throughs using the personal load-out would represent Venom, and the player, rejecting Ocelot’s story. Was Big Boss a murderer? The true load-out suggests he was, but maybe you re-played the mission using non-lethal weapons. Was Venom a hero who rescued child soldiers? Ocelot claims that he did, but it depends if you completed the secondary objective to save all the child soldiers or not.

The conceit of each mission being an implanted or an authentic memory could have been reinforced by mission objectives and rewards. Players who complete a true load-out playthrough could have been rewarded with a cassette tape from Ocelot explaining how the mission has contributed to the legend of Big Boss. Mission Seven, Red Brass, for example, could have rewarded a debrief tape that explains how Venom’s gunning down three Soviet commanders has spread fear among the Soviet army. However, if the secondary objectives were to capture, not kill, all three Soviet commanders, then that would contradict Ocelot’s debrief.

The missions rewards could reinforce the build up to Mission Forty-Six. Completing bonus objectives should have unlocked fragments of the post Mission Forty-Six truth tapes, for example, a garbled autopsy report of the Man on Fire, or a snippet of conversation between Ocelot and Miller. That would establish an obvious-in-retrospect mechanic that the first playthrough is Venom’s implanted memory and subsequent playthroughs are Venom’s forming new memories that reflect his true identity.

Replaying missions to recover Venom’s true identity would have been more fulfilling than the Phantom Pain post Mission Thirty-One. It would have made more sense to replace the Part Two introduction with a cutscene prompting the player to question what they’ve been told so far. I imagine would go something like this: The title card reads “Epilogue: Peace”. Venom returns to his Mother Base quarters, the glass still blown out from Skull Face’ destruction of Battle Gear. Miller would be waiting for Venom inside. He begins to tell Venom that he’s been reviewing Ocelot’s debriefs, and something doesn’t add up. Miller was monitoring Venom’s comm channel every mission and he doesn’t remember some of these things Ocelot claims happened, do you, Boss? Venom isn’t sure. Miller says he isn’t either, you should review the tapes, review each mission, maybe something will come up, he says, then leaves.

That would have been a much neater build up to the Phantom Pain ending. Calling the last few missions an “Epilogue” would set our expectations appropriately that this will only be a few new missions. The cutscene would establish a narrative reason to replay past missions, rather than the unceremonious reusing old missions as new missions. The converstion with Miller would establish that the true load-out may be an Ocelot plant. It would allow players to replay the missions they want to replay, and it would feel natural because the game already incentivizes players to play once for completion, once for secondary objectives and once for an S rank. The six original missions in Part Two could be listed in the mission list as ???, so players would know what they’re building toward. The blanked out missions would unlock after a proportion of secondary objectives are completed, for example, sixty per cent for Mission Forty-Three, Shining Lights Even In Death, seventy for Mission Forty-Five, A Quiet Exit, and eighty per cent for Mission Forty-Six. The ending could have then played exactly as it does in the current game but with a proper build up, narrative rationale for the revelation of identity, and proper management of expectations that this is an epilogue, not a second act on par with the first.

Parting words

That’s how the Phantom Pain could have been better. Mother Base could have been a more interesting place. It’s being attacked could have felt more hurtful. Equipment could have been used more judiciously, customisable in a target range on Mother Base. Missions could have incorporated specific load-outs. The twist reveal could have been built up to more logically. The ending could have been more effective.

These are not insubstantial changes, but by all rights the Phantom Pain could have implemented them in its truncated development cycle. It suggests that the game as it actually exists is incomplete, which is true, but not the whole picture. Make no mistake, the Phantom Pain is an excellent game, but excellence is not perfection. Its flaws are not fatal, despite how easy it is to envisage their solution. Players approaching this contentious, one-year old gem will find it a compelling game worthy of praise. Experience the gripping introduction, enjoy the crafty mission design, and listen to a soundtrack of thematically appropriate and emotionally resonant performances. I will leave you with my recommended selections

Epilogue: Soundtrack

  • 9 to 5, Dolly Parton (1981)
  • Affair of the Heart, Rick Springfield (1983)
  • Africa, Toto (1983)
  • Atomic, Blondie (1980)
  • Beat It, Michael Jackson (1983)
  • Cover Me, Bruce Springsteen (1984)
  • Do You Believe in Love, Huey Lewis & The News (1982)
  • Drive, Cars (1984)
  • Far From Over, Frank Stallone (1983)
  • Flashdance, Irene Cara (1983)
  • Footloose, Kenny Loggins (1984)
  • Heat of the Moment, Asia (1982)
  • Here Comes the Rain, Eurythmics (1984)
  • Hot in the City, Billy Idol (1982)
  • Hungry Like the Wolf, Duran Duran (1983)
  • I Can Dream About You, Dan Hartman (1984)
  • I’m Still Standing, Elton John (1983)
  • In the Navy, Village People (1979)
  • Kiss On My List, Hall & Oates (1981)
  • Little Red Corvette, Prince (1983)
  • Maniac, Michael Sembello (1983)
  • Morning Train (Nine to Five), Sheena Easton (1981)
  • Only the Lonely, Motels (1982)
  • Rock the Casbah, The Clash (1983)
  • Say it isn’t So, Hall & Oates (1984)
  • Self-Control, Laura Branigan (1984)
  • Separate Ways (World’s Apart), Lourney (1983)
  • She Works Hard for the Money, Donna Summer (1983)
  • Sunglasses at Night, Corey Hart (1984)
  • Sweet Dreams, Eurythmics (1983)
  • Tainted Love, Soft Cell (1982)
  • Too Shy, Kajagoogoo (1983)
  • When Doves Cry, Prince (1984)
  • Who Can it be Now, Men at Work (1982)
  • Workin’ for the Weekend, Loverboy (1982)
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