The RPS Advent Calendar, Dec 19th: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

What is the best stealth game of 2015? The RPS Advent Calendar highlights our favourite games from throughout the year, and behind today’s door is…

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain!

Graham: “It’s open world–” I’d say, before stopping myself. Ten-year-old me would interrupt that quickly. “What’s ‘open world’ mean?” he’d ask. Well, it’s a large expanse of land, I’d explain, that the game takes place within. You can walk for miles across mountains and into villages and towns and prisons and caves and enter inside any of those structures, but there are never any loading screens. Ten-year-old me wouldn’t believe it. “You can’t fit all that inside a video game.” He’s thinking: there must be a catch; it must be a text-only game; it must be static drawings of scenes with limited controls; it can’t be as cool as the thing I’m imagining.

If I explained to him that the only catch was that after 60-hours it sorta ended but didn’t, and that some of the systems made you feel too powerful too soon and so didn’t quite cohere, then ten-year-old me would stop me again. He’d wallop me across the head with one of his toy space ships, drag me to the curb and leave me there.

Were I to keep using my time machine to hop forward in time to meet with 12-year-old, or 18-year-old, or 25-year-old me, they’d all similarly expect some sort of catch. And the catches they’d expect aren’t there. Arrive in the present day and risk a paradox by talking to my present day self and there’d be nothing but agreement: in every way that matters, Metal Gear Solid V is unbelievably brilliant.

Even here in the grim meathook future of spaceyear 2015, it’s not like open world, first-person, systems-driven stealth games are filling the trunks of every self-driving rocket car hovering above the cyber-roads. Regardless of scope or genre, there are few games that are as generous and flexible in their mission design – and it’s the mission design that I think I like best about MGSV.

Dropped on a distant mountain path, you’re always free to pick your method of approach, whether that’s ‘climb that clifftop perch’ or ‘crawl through that ditch’, and whether that approach is taken while ‘hidden on the side of my horse’ or ‘roaring upon the back of my personal mech.’ Many games do this. But where MGSV differs is that most of the events that are going to take place during the mission’s duration are not hard scripted and none of them pose definite twists or dead-ends. The wide open spaces create a similarly wide open possibility space, where you’re never railroaded towards a destination or a particular plan. “Follow this person” doesn’t mean you need to follow them; you can kill them or extract them or place a bomb on their car and run in the opposite direction, but in any instance you’ll still find methods for completing the mission, and the AI and plotting will respond and adapt to whatever you decide. It’s a game that supports and rewards creative ideas with a toybox of interlocking characters, weapons, resources, base building, team building, AI…

When MGSV is at its best, it is the best. When it’s not at its best, think about how badly you’d have tried to convince your mum to ignore the age ratings on the box and buy it for your Christmas.

Alec: The first 20 hours of Metal Gear Solid V are my game of the year. No, actually, the first 40. No, actually, the first 60. OK, call it 70.

And isn’t it fucking crazy that that isn’t enough? That I can have 70 extremely happy hours with a single game but still wind up feeling that it can’t be justified as the year’s highlight, because the time that follows that became so hollow and unfinished-feeling?

The wild inconsistency time/value equation makes greedy fools of us all.

The question, for me, concerns the reason I kept playing MGSV. Was it:

a) To see its story through to its conclusion?
b) To reach some status of ultimate power?
c) To just enjoy dicking around in the desert/jungle with no fixed objective?

Little of column b, little of column c, to be honest, I think. I hadn’t meaningfully played any of this series before V, and despite moving on from youthful elitism enough to enjoy the rampant silliness, the plot parts of V still seemed very clearly to be the unedited indulgence and bitterness of a self-ordained auteur surrounded by yes men (and, worst of all, yes fans). I was in it to see what ridiculous thing/flaming whale it threw at the screen next, but never because I cared. So I can’t get onboard with any argument that MGSV is undeserving because its story screeches to an abrupt, unsatisfying conclusion.

The broader concern that this was a game that felt like it was going somewhere, and then it didn’t: it started repeating itself instead. And that’s true, and that’s a frustration I felt: my impetus and my compulsion kicked to the curb by over-familiarity, a sense that a great train had run out of steam.

I’m angry with myself for letting column b overwhelm the several weeks of pleasure I got from column c. What the hell do I need in order to be happy? Those 70 hours were incredible. The ad hoc nature, ever-shifting, self-set goals and solid, flexible, steely stealth of MGSV’s core was a sustained delight for so long, smashing straight through the scar tissue I’d built up after years of over-exposure to routine, more collectormania-focused sandbox games of this type. MGSV, for those 70 hours, always felt like an adventure, always felt a hair’s breadth from chaos, always felt like I was I was a secret agent behind enemy lines. The option for non-lethality and agreeably absurd balloon-based abduction was icing on the cake: I was having fun, not being a grisly murderhound. And pink helicopters and A-Ha too. Glorious.

The first 70 hours of MGSV is my game of the year. I genuinely don’t know if I can say that makes MGSV my game of the year.

Pip: I made it as far as the first mission in Afghanistan (maybe an hour or two into the game and most of that time was spent on the prologue) and then I sort of… drifted away. I’ve spent the rest of the year hearing how exciting it is from other people and seeing screenshots of things attached to balloons. I think it’s one of those games – like Fallout 4 – where I didn’t jump on the bandwagon immediately so now I need to wait until the memory of everyone’s hot takes and opinions recedes and I can enjoy the game in peace. Is that weird?

Go here for more of our picks for the best PC games of 2015.

29 Comments

  1. Zenicetus says:

    I know this game was popular here, and you can’t play everything that comes out. But I’m just curious… how many of the RPS staff that decided on this for “Stealth game of the year” also played Assassin’s Creed Syndicate?

    I haven’t played MSGV so I can’t judge between the two, but it’s a pretty damn good as a stealth-focused game.

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      Ridiculous Human says:

      I really enjoyed AC:S, but I’d be hard-pressed to say it’s better than MGS in any way except graphics and narrative.

      • Zenicetus says:

        I think what raises my eyebrow a bit here, is that AC Syndicate is a full-on stealth game. There’s no other way to play it, at least for the majority of the game without getting killed (er, I mean “de-synchronized”).

        I got the impression that MGSV combined a lot of other action game elements, and while the stealth was good, it wasn’t designed as the core gameplay mechanic. Maybe I’m wrong about that.

        • yogibbear says:

          Yes you are wrong about that. Stealth is the main game.

          • Zenicetus says:

            But you can call in chopper support. Okay. ;)

          • Capt. Bumchum McMerryweather says:

            Oh come on, don’t be so facetious. You know full well the TPP is a game completely designed around being stealthy, as is the whole damned franchise. Given that both TPP and AC:S have the option for you do missions in a non stealthy way (in MGS you have a chopper, in AC:S you have Edward), you could argue that neither of them are true stealth games; which we both know is bullshit.

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          Ridiculous Human says:

          Oh come, Zenicetus, let’s not pretend AssCreed doesn’t feature massive no-stealth-allowed melees and zoom-crashy carriage fighting amongst its mission types. Or that most missions can’t be cheesed by just fighting the enemies face-on. If we’re questioning MGS as a pure stealth game, you’d wanna use Neon Struct as your example, not Syndicate.

          • Zenicetus says:

            Okay, you’re right about a few of the missions with scripted mayhem and crowd chases. However, even if some missions end that way, they usually include optional rewards for extra cash and XP that are do-able with stealth, and impossible by just barging in.

            To me, that’s a strong indicator of how the game “wants” you to play, even if you don’t always have the patience to get those extra rewards. I bypassed a few that were just too tedious.

          • LennyLeonardo says:

            It’s the fact that TPP doesn’t tell you how it wants you to play that makes it the more rewarding stealth game, to my mind. However, Syndicate’s stealth is way better than any if its predecessors’, which seems to have gone mainly unnoticed, appropriately enough.

    • Sigh says:

      Ha ha ha ha ha ha, you almost had me there! Assassins Creed as a stealth game of any note…my gawd my side hurt so much. Oops sorry I got distracted I was in a crowd of guards beating their face into the cobblestone as one at a time took their turn trying to fight me.

  2. Geebs says:

    You have to love a game that paints its author-insert character as an incompetent, snivelling poltroon who spends his time working on a lesser version of his previous work, and then actually banishes him while he hurls imprecations at the man characters and everything they stand for.

    Also, that bit with the guys singing the Boss’ theme tune made me sad.

  3. airtekh says:

    I’ve never played a game that has both delighted and infuriated me in equal amounts as MGSV.

    I love how beautiful the open world looks, and how atmospheric it can feel.

    I hate how empty the open world really is, after the initial promise that it has.

    I hate the rigid mission structure that makes the open world seem redundant.

    I love the openness of the missions, which gives you complete freedom in your approach.

    I love that you can call down chopper support (I HAVE MY OWN PERSONAL HELICOPTER OMG).

    I hate the goddamn unskippable helicopter intro when I’m watching it for the 70th time.

    I love how deadly the AI can be, especially the first time you stick up a guard and the AI realises he hasn’t checked in, causing them to get alerted.

    I love the introduction of the Fulton device.

    I loathe the moblie-game esque base management bullshit that forces me to suck up troops with the Fulton device and make it feel like a chore.

    I love how awesome the buddies are.

    I hate how after you have spent the best part of an hour carefully infiltrating a base and not being detected, that the game can just spawn guards on top of you (OOPS GUESS YOU WEREN’T THAT STEALTHY AFTERALL).

    I hate the timed nature of most of the missions, rendering my stealth approach hurried and stressful.

    I hate the occasional control glitch causing me to get spotted and fuck up a mission.

    And yet I played the game for 90-odd hours. I absolutely lovehate it.

  4. ansionnach says:

    I’ve only played three Metal Gear games, the last of them being Metal Gear Solid. Thought Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake on the MSX2 was by far the best one and Metal Gear Solid was a distilled version of its setpieces in 3d with loads of watching cutscenes, but less gameplay. This one sounds like a bit of a departure for the 3d games but I’m not sure any of the newer games could top Solid Snake.

  5. A Gentleman and a Taffer says:

    Hmm, well this had GOTY written all over it for RPS, I thought. Intriguing! Witcher 3 then?

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      FhnuZoag says:

      Witcher 3 does seem likely. Still, remember that last year RPS disregarded the rules and put Endless Legend as GOTY despite featuring it previously on the advent calendar. So, all the previous games are still potentially in the running.

      Undertale still has a chance!!!!

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    Andy_Panthro says:

    I’ve played up to about mission 19, and done tons of the side-ops. I’m not sure how many hours that adds up to, but it’s a lot. It’s the first MGS game I’ve played more than five minutes of, and I’ve loved most of it.

    The base-building and online stuff is a weak link, it’s a nice idea but it becomes a bit too much like busy-work. Especially when the base is huge and generally uninteresting. I did like the wildlife sanctuary though.

  7. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I’ve been playing it off and on for the past couple of months. The gameplay is fun, yes, and I’ve put in a solid number of hours, but it’s never captivated me like it seemed to captivate the crowd when it first came out. In part, I think that’s because, as Alec said, the story is largely overdramatic and incomprehensible (at least for anyone who hasn’t been playing MGS games for the last decade and a half). I can ignore the bad writing, however, which is a testament to how well-constructed of the fundamentals of the gameplay are.

    All that said, I think I still prefer FC4. I was actually invested in the civil war in Kyrat, for one thing. Not to mention, the world felt more open and alive. In MGSV you’ll occasionally see a truck drive by, whereas in FC4 you might stumble upon a slave convoy, or suddenly find yourself looking down on an ongoing battle from the perfect sniper perch, or have to fix an ally’s broken-down vehicle. The mountain climbing mechanic and the flying vehicles went even further towards making the world feel open and accessible. I think that sensation is missing from MGSV, and the game, while still quite good, is a lot weaker for it.

  8. SMGreer says:

    I really enjoyed this but despite many, amny hours of enjoyment it really did just fall apart, finishing abruptly on an unfathomably daft twist and leaving a rather hollow feeling with me. I haven’t gone back to it since.

    • yan spaceman says:

      Yeah. I really threw myself into MGSV. I knew the storyline was crazy mad and I was prepared. Even with the most open of minds the ending was so naff it was spectacular in it’s naffness.

    • Just Endless says:

      It blows my mind just HOW MUCH DAMAGE the ending did to my enjoyment. I hit that plot twist, uninstalled, and I’ll probably never play it again; I was mad. And yet I loved the 50 hours I put in; it’s weird that the little part of my brain that hadn’t given up on my childhood favorites (1, 2, and 3) being supplemented with another had so very much sway over the rest of me when it turned out to derail at the 1/3rd mark.

      It’s worth commenting I think, for those that call out the story as badly written (I concur), that previous entries (mostly 2, some in 3) actively used intentional awfulness to set up harder punches down the line. With that in mind, I was 30 hours into 5 waiting to see why such bad decisions were being made, what master plan.

      There wasn’t one. Or at least not one we ever saw.

  9. dominique81 says:

    ji

  10. anHorse says:

    I liked MGS but I got a very distinct impression that a lot of reviewers only played the first half of the game

    It goes to shit after that but it seldom came up in reviews

  11. welverin says:

    Over the course of three months I put in three hundred hours and earned every achievement, and that’s while effectivele ignoring FOBs.

    Easily and without my game of the year.

  12. ooshp says:

    This game could have been a masterpiece if the writing wasn’t atrocious. Damn shame.

  13. ROMhack2 says:

    MGS V had a lot of intelligent ideas and its 80s war themes made for a unique experience, but I came away from it with a bad taste. In the end, I couldn’t get on-board with the gameplay and it felt like an absolute chore to play for most of its duration. My feelings are that it became an exercise in excess and, to be honest, I think Konami and Kojima’s relationship ended for valid reasons – artistry requires limitations and I don’t think Kojima allowed for any.

    That said, I still admire a man willing to attempt to make something this lengthy. Many games are long but they don’t have much of an equivalent for maximalism and MGS V is the only one I can think of. Nobody really mentions it, but I’m certain Kojima was attempting to invoke the style of Moby Dick and decided to make a game that was essentially a lengthy text both amazing and a painstaking challenge.

    However, that’s also related to its biggest issues because like Moby Dick, MGS V is told with absolutely no regard for time. As a result, the execution suffers immensely if you don’t play simply for the thrill of open-world gameplay (like me). Much like you will struggle to read Moby Dick if you aren’t interested in learning all about 19th century whaling techniques.

    I think we will, or maybe should, have not been so hyperbolic the game it in the beginning. Its real legacy is as a game of complete excess: much like, say, Michael Cimino’s movie, Heaven’s Gate.

    • anHorse says:

      Plus referencing Moby Dick always ends up with the story referencing it looking shit in comparison

  14. 321 says:

    The best stealth game of 2015 is Thief 2. It was also the best stealth game every year since 2000. And it will be next year’s to.