I play every stealth game the same way.
I remain at a distance. I find the higher ground. I use a weapon with a scope; a bow and arrow if one is available, a normal sniper rifle if not. I crouch-walk around my target or targets slowly, attempting to pick off each enemy and objective in turn, such that no one ever notices anything is amiss until the instant when they’re killed. If they do notice and sound the alarm, I do not care; as long as they do not know where I am, and so can never fire at me, I continue until the job is done. It’s always this way. In the Far Cries, Crises, Splintered Cells and Rainbows Six; wherever possible, this is how I play.
I am playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain differently and I don’t know why.
It started with Ground Zeroes, Phantom Pain’s standalone prologue which arrived on PC last year, but I dismissed it at the time. That game’s island base has no higher ground, there is no way to begin a mission with a scoped weapon, and so I grouped it as a different kind of game. I noticed that I was killing the enemies I grabbed instead of methodically performing the no-kill playthrough I seem to always choose in games that necessitate close quarters – the Dishonoreds and Deus Exes – but I couldn’t work out why that was, either.
Now I’m in the open world of Phantom Pain and every single mission starts you on higher ground above the base you have to infiltrate. I’ve used my development team back at Mother Base to unlock and equip myself with a decent sniper rifle, and its range and accuracy are such that its entirely possible to remain at a distance and do the deed without having dirtying my hands.
But I don’t. I’ve taken to sneaking into bases, crawling on my belly or creeping on my hunkers, dealing with the tension of enemies who are right there and who could turn around and see that I am right here.
It can’t be the collectibles. Every game has diamonds and fuels and metals to collect these days, and I’m normally happy to ignore them. I do hunger for the music tapes, but I struggle to believe that Kids In America is a strong enough lure to change my entire playstyle.
It can’t be the sniper rifles. They’re at least as good as many of the games I’ve struggled through in this manner, and the AI deals with your use of them better than most other games. In Far Cry, a sniped enemy will cause witnesses to sound the alarm, pulling in reinforcements, but they and their new buddies will still stand in the open, shuffle pointlessly between cover, or walk slowly and visibly towards where they think you might be. Phantom Pain’s guards, by comparison, will at least move towards their ranged defenses. They’re a crack shot with the mortars, for example, as D-Horse’s charred and limp body can confirm.
My best theory thus far is that it’s because Phantom Pain’s world feels richer, denser, than most of its peers. Most of the territory between bases is empty desert, but the bases themselves are wonderfully designed. Guards have different secrets to share if you can get close enough to interrogate them, and they have different skills which can be employed back at base if you can Fulton them out of there. The terrain is always varied, even in a single area, featuring not just cliffs but ravines, bridges, multi-storey structures, bunkers, ditches and trenches, each one individually interesting to navigate. The machinery that make up those bases are exciting to explore and interact with, including power switches and portaloos, search lamps and sniper’s nests, machinegun turrets and sweeping cameras, alongside guard shifts and movement patterns that change with the time of day.
When people described Phantom Pain as “open world stealth,” I think I pictured in my head something like Far Cry 4’s wonderful outposts, with a greater degree of difficulty and punishment for failure to remain hidden. I think what Phantom Pain might be instead is an open world game with Hitman: Blood Money levels dotted around it. Sitting outside of those and sniping isn’t the most satisfying way to play; in fact, it barely feels like playing at all. It feels like cheating the game and myself.
Or maybe yeah it’s just the tapes.
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