Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain [official site] may be the best stealth-action game ever made, but it’s not flawless. The game’s massive scope, and the surprising amount of detail in each interaction within that massive playpen, is impressive – however, that scope is precisely why certain aspects feel like they have something missing. Consider the following, then, as an exploration of The Phantom Pain’s own phantom pains – without plot spoilers.
Not much is happening between outposts
There is a particular Side Op in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes that begins with Snake in the back of an enemy’s flatbed truck, incognito. As the truck drives through Camp Omega, you can choose when to disembark and begin your usual sneaking, or see where the truck takes you.
I never once did something similar in The Phantom Pain, because enemy encounters on the open roads were so rare. Sure, I saw the occasional truck or four-wheel drive, but I never felt that they would provide opportunities that were otherwise unavailable to me. Part of this comes down to the design of each outpost: they feel like silos planted down on entirely separate areas of the map, often with so many points of ingress that the effort to get in the back of a truck undetected isn’t worth it.
This lack of open world activity also limits the frequency with which a situation that has gone to hell can snowball into something worse. With enemies found mainly within their own outposts, it’s too easy to flee and remain confident that you won’t run headfirst into another threat as you hot-foot it out of there. It’s a far cry (ahem) from certain other open world games that frequently see machine-gun-toting technicals revving their engines to pursue you along their own open roads.
Enemy threats don’t escalate significantly enough
In an attempt to prevent you from employing the same tactics in every mission, enemies will equip themselves with gear to counter your play style. Land enough headshots, and they’ll wear bullet-proof helmets. Repeatedly call in air support, and they’ll start wielding missile launchers. It’s a fantastic idea, but the time it takes to see these effects on enemies is often so long that you’ll have likely developed new tools to cushion the new threat.
This delay also falls out of lockstep with the plot’s developments. Without spoiling anything, one subplot concerns a particular piece of equipment proliferating throughout the private forces’ outposts in the area. However, we never actually see this happen, which is disappointing as that equipment would present exciting new challenges. To reiterate the previous point, seeing more activity between outposts in the open world which also utilised such equipment would make the world seem not only more alive, but also more dangerous.
Combat Deployments turn interesting tasks into countdown timers
Once you’ve established the Combat Unit on Mother Base, you can send your recruits on Combat Deployments. These are missions which your soldiers complete off-screen, and they reward you with resources.
However, some of these Combat Deployments have specific effects. If enemies in the open world have begun to equip bullet-proof helmets, you can send your soldiers, via a Combat Deployment, to destroy the warehouse where those helmets are being stored. This prevents the enemies from using that equipment for a few missions after the Combat Deployment succeeds.
The significance of such an effect feels at odds with the abstract, hands-off nature by which it is accomplished. This is the kind of thing I’d like to do myself. It would give me more reason to explore the open world, pushing me into potentially dangerous encounters. There are similar systems which act this way already, such as destroying anti-air radar emplacements to open up new landing zones. That’s much more interesting than watching a countdown timer.
It’s far too easy to escape the open world
Speaking of landing zones: there are so many of them, and they’re all so easily accessible, that it rarely feels like calling in a chopper to depart the mission area will entail much risk. With landing zones mostly located in the dead space outside of outposts, and with few enemies patrolling the open world to potentially encounter, the chances that you’ll experience a thrilling escape by the skin of your teeth aren’t as high as they could be.
The constant deployment and extraction loop feels necessary due to The Phantom Pain’s mission-based structure, but it undersells the hostility of the open world and the effort it takes to survive within it. This only comes across in the later, optional “Subsistence” missions – which force you to drop into the world with no equipment and make use of what you come across. But it’s disappointing that all the systems exist for such an experience to be had without forcing an arbitrary mission parameter upon you.
I wish it was harder to escape Afghanistan, and that I had more experiences where supplies were running low and I had to start thinking more creatively. If I were completely out of ammo, taking the time to hide in the back of a truck as it drives me to safety would make perfect sense.
Faction conflict would make the open world more exciting
You are the only force that opposes all enemies in the open world. Because of this, every time you roll up to an outpost, the state it will be in won’t ever change. If enemies had another force to deal with, such as an opposing faction, you would see even more opportunities for creative solutions present themselves.
Imagine slipping through an outpost while a gunfight rages, or picking off the stragglers left injured by a faction encounter. The unpredictable outcomes of such conflicts would encourage reactive play, balancing out the more intentional side of tagging everyone in an outpost and planning a route through.
Far Cry 4’s best addition to the series was its own faction system, and it’s one that provided for chaotic and dynamic moments that spilled over from outposts into the rest of the open world. It would be right at home in The Phantom Pain, and the narrative already establishes cause for such conflict.
Some of the best challenges are restricted to multiplayer
The Phantom Pain’s Forward Operating Bases are a proving ground for your stealth skills, because it’s where the most difficult challenges present themselves. Not only do to you have to contend with the intelligence and unpredictability of a live human’s decisions, but there are items and obstacles you’ll never see anywhere in the open world, such as laser trip wires and unmanned drones.
On top of this, many of the items you develop can be equipped by the security team you assign to guard your FOB. When you invade a base, you’re going up against troops that have items which previously only you had access to.
You need to completely change the way you think about approaching the situation, because you’ll never see anything this difficult in the open world. It’s disappointing, because those not interested in multiplayer are missing out on some of The Phantom Pain’s best challenges. The open world could have done with a few high difficulty outposts that utilised a number of security gadgets from the FOB mode – providing that challenge for everyone, and giving you the chance to practice against these systems in a less-intense environment.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is our Game of the Month for September, and that link will let you read all this month’s coverage.