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Why it's our game of the month (at the very least)

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain [official site] is our Game of the Month for September, but why has this traditionally non-PC series infiltrated our chests and Fulton'd our hearts? Alice, Adam, Alec and a Graham gathered to discuss stealth, balloons, dogs in eye-patches, making enemy grunts feel alive and accidental kill-sprees.

No plot spoilers here, but if you still hope to go into the game entirely blind, be warned that we do discuss some of the game's systems and mechanics in some detail.

Alec: What colour is your helicopter? Mine is pink. Always pink.

Graham: Mine would have been pink, but I didn't want to be accused of copying you. So I've gone for a purple.

Adam: Also purple. Similar reasons. We are clearly cut from the same cloth. Music? I waver between The Cure and Thomas Dolby because This Charming Man does not seem to be available.

Alec: I’m still Kim Wilde (and in the game) because I had to have four days off from MGSV to be ill, visit family and unwisely attend a music festival with a toddler. I don’t think I’ve had such acute separation anxiety from a game since the heyday of WoW.

Graham: I'm using A-ha's Take On Me, but I'm on the verge of switching over to some custom music. I'm enjoying collecting the tapes as a sub-objective of each mission, but none of the music I've collected fits with the time it takes a helicopter to land or take-off. I need something that hits the chorus, refrain or whatever-the-good-bit-is-called immediately, not as the chopper blinks out of existence on the map.

Alice: The first verse of Love Will Tear Us Apart kicks in right as my (funky dazzle camouflaged) helicopter lifts up and away, leaving me alone on the battlefield with my dog. I don’t like dogs and not in video games, but I do love my stealth dog. I’m saving up to buy him a stun gun.

Alec: I’ve been too busy hoovering up men and rough diamonds to progress far through the main missions, so D-Dog is still a puppy. I think I’ll cry when he’s all grown up and wants to go eat men’s throats instead of just roll around the helipad with me.

Adam: Before release, I thought the hoovering up of men and animals - the whole Fulton balloon extraction bit - was going to be a funny little gimmick. What I love about the game more than anything is that some parts are both funny little gimmick and Essential Mechanic That Underpins The Entire Structure of The Game. At the same time. Hardly anything is wasted - all these little parts are either making you think, making you laugh or doing both at the same time, with all manner of knock-on effects and consequences.

Alec: The fultoning is the unification of core mechanics and gotta catch ‘em all metagame that stuff like AssCreed and Far Cry ¾ shoots for but never quite achieves. It’s entirely in service of your central behaviour - learning to be a better sneak. You’re rewarded for it, and you self-better, and you get these absurdly dramatic moments where you’re ballooning a guy into the skies just before his mate turns around. We talked last year about how Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system was maybe the best - urgh - innovation in a mainstream game, but hadn’t quite reached its potential. This is 2015’s, but it has. I will never tire of it, I think.

Graham: I like that such a silly system makes your enemies more human than they otherwise would be. That the systems of the game fold together so neatly is great, but in a stealth game, I want the AI I'm fighting against to feel like more than cannon fodder or obstacles. Giving them value means the no-kill tactics I normally employ make more sense than in most games than in most games, too.

Alec: I loudly called my helicopter a naughty word for a lady’s ladyparts because it gunned down a dude who was chasing me. The senseless waste. The barbarism.

Alice: Fulton balloons are egging you on. "You could just snatch the prisoner and leave but... oh, look, over there on the other side of the base - an expert engineer. Bet it'd be nice to have him around Mother Base. OH LOOK someone spotted him dangling a balloon and now they've launched flares and oh deary me you're in quite the pickle now aren't you!”

Adam: I love the flares. They’re another example of how the game manages to provide enemy soldiers with agency and something like humanity. Rather than just deviating from a route and then doing the “must have been rats” thing that I expect in a stealth game, they attempt to get to the source of the disturbance. Their attitude is very much “that was almost certainly not a fucking rat”, so they talk to each other, they use radios, they send out search parties and they fire flares that can flip the entire situation on its head.

Alec: There’re lovely little moments in their chatter. There was one base where I disabled the comms system first, so they can’t talk to other bases, which they mention anxiously as they start combing around for who did it. Then later on, as they realise most of their mates have disappeared, they send panicked radio messages out anyway, knowing it doesn’t work but desperate for reinforcements to help save them from Ballooning Batman.

Anything anyone isn’t digging about this, lest this piece be an unabashed love-in?

Alice: I mean. It’s all a load of old tosh, isn’t it? But I adore that. SKULL FACE. METAL GEAR. Names with even more Ss than my mission ranks. I’d be fascinated to hear if folks who haven’t stayed on top of Metal Gear over the years make of the story/care about it/want to. (I have and it’s so daft and I adore it.)

Adam: I wish the story was dafter. Or not daft at all. It falls somewhere in the middle for me - I like doing silly military outings and I like seeing flaming whales and whatnot, but it’s not quite working for me. When it focuses on a specific character for a while, with Quiet, I think it’s mindnumbingly bad, but when it’s doing the broader strokes, I enjoy myself. But since the first hour, it’s mostly been noplotnoplotnoplotnoplotnoplotsomeplotnoplotnoplot.

Alec: Again, my extended break and focus on hoovering means I haven’t progressed that far in the main missions, so there have been almost no cutscenes since the intro. But I live in fear that one day soon my return to Mother Base won’t just involve an adorable short clip of Red Hands McFloppy-Hair talking about D-Dog growing up and instead I’ll have to try to understand something, or care about someone who isn’t an animal or a man I can attach a balloon to. I have very little familiarity with MGS plots to date, though I did a little research when I started playing, but I’m very open to treating it all as simply daft, rather than resolving any lingering questions. I don’t know yet if that’ll prove liberating or mean I have even less patience for its clumsy noodling.

Graham: I think I've done 13 missions now and I like that there's only been one real cutscene in the open world during all that time. Especially since that cutscene was the introduction of an unwelcome scripted action sequence at the end of an otherwise great infiltration mission. But I am finding myself wishing that there was more story back at Mother Base. I return there every so often to maintain morale, drive between my many platforms, and the very brief chatter upon arrival with Ocelot is fine, but I wish he was then present in that world when the cutscene ended so I could go find and talk to him more. Even if it was only to the extent that information about Side Ops was delivered by someone in-person instead of over the radio. Otherwise it's a tad lonely, even now that I've finally gained a grown-up D-Dog.

Alec: Yeah, Mother Base is the biggest disappointment for me. I feel so compelled to return there after every mission or side op (or hoovering bonzana) and though I love that I have this big pink oil rig all of my own, there’s nothing to do other than push my chaps around and maybe do some AssCreedy diamond hunting. I know the base is unfinished but, well, does it have to feel quite so unfinished? It’s empty, a ghost ship. (Though I guess this may change later?) And do all those men really share that one shower?

Graham: That said, I know I'm nitpicking. The open world stealth is great and it's meta-mechanics for progression are best in class. It feels greedy to want it to be Mass Effect as well - and given what story is there, or at least what I've heard about it, maybe it's for the best that Kojima focused his attention elsewhere.

Adam: What I find most strange about the whole fact that we’re writing this and that the game is so damn good is that it feels as if it sprang fully-formed into being. As this immersive stealth sim. It’s a series that’s heading toward its thirtieth birthday but even the cleverness of Snake Eater didn’t suggest something like this was ever going to come out of it. Not to me, at any rate. It feels like this ridiculously accomplished and experimental expression of what stealth games can be, and if it hadn’t been for Ground Zeroes it would have caught me completely by surprise. Did anyone here expect it?

Alec: Only because of Ground Zeroes. I spent the last 15 years convinced I hated MGS, primarily because I bounced so hard off the first few hours in MGS 2 when it came out on PC that there was no way I’d chance forty quid on the others once I had a PS2/3. But Ground Zeroes made me pay attention, realise that I’d been looking to the same places again and again for my stealth games, and that I’d really benefit from seeing another angle on it. I am, nonetheless, really taken aback by how rarely it gets in my face - that I wasn’t expecting. Most of the plot/shuddup and listen stuff that drove me spare in those bits of MGS2 seems to have been squirreled away into optional audio logs, so it feels like the bulk of the development attention has gone into the game proper rather than the hallucinogenic meta-fantasy.

Alice: Actually, before we get too far: should we be clear about how much we’ve all seen? I known none of us have completed it, and I’m not sure how much it’ll change as I get further in. I’m about a dozen main missions in and about as many Side Ops, and have got the gang together but Quiet won’t come with me just yet. I want to, if I can get her a tranq gun. ANYWAY, you all?

Graham: I think I've done 12 or 13 story missions - to the point where I've run out, for now - but only half as many side ops. That means that I've got Diamond Dog but have only heard rumours of Quiet, and my Mother Base is about 6 platforms in size. I feel like it's beginning to pivot in a new direction even at this stage, though, to something perhaps sillier and with more options, and I feel like I'm ready for it after some 15 hours of what's been lovely but quite austere stealth.

Adam: I’m at 31 in story missions and have had to throw myself into run ‘n’ gun mode for a while now because I am apparently not good at some types of stealth. Far enough in that I’m confident in saying that it manages to introduce enough variations and new elements that I could happily go for another 30 missions right now. Fun fact: I haven’t got a single S rank.

Alec: I have done five missions and seven side-ops, and a few times I’ve just dropped into the main map to noodle around hoovering up men and loot. D-Dog is still a puppy, I live in fear of the day Boobie Girl arrives, and I currently have three new base platforms. I haven’t done better than a B on any mission because I’m a bit reckless with the ol’ choke’n’fulton whenever I see someone with a decent skill, but I have almost never actually killed anyone. Quite fond of my rubber bullets machine gun for when things go to shit.

Adam: I like that - as far as I’ve been able to work out without doing any actual calculations - the punishment to mission score comes from getting hit rather than resorting to violence. I think it’s possible to get a good ranking using a sniper rifle and snapping a few necks, as long as you don’t end up taking a few bullets in the process. Goes along with the whole design providing freedom of approach. That said, I am the person without an S ranking so maybe my kill-happy ways are actually limiting my score. Yes. That may be the case.

And I just had to look up a mission to check which one it was. Nobody has done mission 18 yet, which makes me sad because it fucked me over good and proper and I want to know if anyone found a way to do it without feeling like a blundering arse.

Alice: Oh, if I may double back for a second (forgot to Fulton a jeep), I actually do dig that most missions are mercenary work. Yeah, sometimes I save the world, but mostly I’m trying to keep the lights on and get my dog a stun gun. And I like that Side Ops slip into story too - some, at least. One particular strand especially. I’m hesitating… have you found the secret of the Medical strut yet? By and large it’s systemic spoilers I worry about in this game, but a few story bits are a good kick in the teeth too.

Adam: Yeah, I’ve done the Medical strut (which sounds like a forbidden dance move). I like that there are slices of story hidden around the place - it’s like, sometimes you find a rough diamond, sometimes you find a medicinal herb. Sometimes you find an entire subplot. But I like finding the subplots more than I actually like the subplots. Maybe because I’m not particularly invested in the characters but I don’t care all that much about what they’re doing and saying. And this is coming from someone who liked that big ol’ intro! Oh, AND Metal Gear Solid 2. I like it when Metal Gear goes weird and melodramatic, a lot of the stuff in Phantom Pain feels melodramatic without the weird. Or bad weird. Boring weird.

Alec: Is this a medical strut?

Adam: Garth Marenghi’s Mother Base would be a heck of a show. Somebody mod Matt Berry into every game over screen yelling “BOSS? BOSS? BOSS!?!?” or “are you quite alright?” immediately.

On the next page: lethality versus non-lethality, differences to Western-made stealth games, S-ranks and nasal hair.

Graham: Despite what I said earlier about no-kill decisions being more meaningful because of Mother Base, I still find I'm more likely to kill people in Phantom Pain than almost any other stealth game. What's everyone else's sleep-to-throatslit ratio?

Alec: I reset to checkpoint if it comes to that, though my ratings are still rubbish. I did a few kills pre-fultoning, when I didn’t realise how precious a kidnapped man can be, but now I get myself into all sorts of bother because I’m not prepared to take someone out permanently but I don’t want to waste a balloon on someone whose ratings are all Es and Ds. So the bastards wake up after a while and raise hell.

Adam: I am a garbage person and I kill anyone who isn’t within arm’s reach. Well, not quite, but I am leaving a trail of bodies. I try to be good but I am very bad. Also, I just love sniping and, yeah, I can tranq people but it’s not the same.

Alice: I’ve only gone bullet wild on two missions where I got caught out deep, deep inside enemy lines. I did try to Fulton those who were still alive, but only a few made it back. I do resent that non-lethal sniping is held back for so long. I can sneak deep inside bases unseen, knock everyone out, and escape in the shadows, but putting crosshairs on faces half a mile away and pulling the trigger is really fun in video games and I want to do it in this grand open world. The first tranq rifle is such a let-down. And, actually, lead to the first time I gunhurt a load of men - I’d blithely assumed it was silenced.

Also, thematically, during the course of this Verdict I snuck out twice. First to learn how to make bread, and then how to use our coffee machine. No one noticed. Nothing but S ranks, baby. (That S rank bit is not true.)

Alec: I snuck out twice too, once to help a toddler transform a toy car into a robot, and another to pluck some errant nasal hair. (Mine, not the toddler’s.)

Adam: I was so relieved when I finally got a tranq rifle for Quiet. Until then, every time I took her out I’d be watching people through binoculars and praying that their heads wouldn’t explode like rotten watermelons.

My worst moment involved interrogating a man, telling him to lie down in the dirt and then shooting him in the back of the head with a tranquiliser dart. Except I’d mistakenly equipped my shotgun. I felt like a proper bastard after that.

Alice: Oh! Wait! This morning I did accidentally kill a sleeping man. He was asleep on a bed, so I hopped up and kicked him in the face to stun then Fulton him. I learned an important lesson about kicking people in the face.

Graham: See, if I aggro everyone and force full combat, I do reload, but otherwise I'm more content to put people to sleep permanently with a bullet to the face or knife to the throat in Phantom Pain than I normally would be. I don't know exactly why, but it might be simply because the AI are so good at causing you difficulty if they're left alive to wake up, tell their friends, radio a neighbouring base, or man a mortar. I think perhaps I'm just a coward.

Alice: You can recover from alerting everyone. It’s a bit of a bastard, and I like that. They ring up reinforcements, put everywhere on alert, launch flares, send out the chopper, scour shadows… and somehow I find a way through it all, Fultoning a chap or two as I go. It’s really tense, and awfully fun. I think you’re missing out by not having everything go terribly wrong every now and then - what would Far Cry 2 think? My proudest moment was when a combination of sneaky preparation and a long battle of attrition meant that when the final outpost called for reinforcements a final time, they were told no one could come save them. Just you and me, pals.

Adam: Watching a base react to my presence is my favourite thing. You can pull their strings like a puppeteer, directing them from one place to another and seeing how they panic when they can’t find you or pin you down. It’s like upsetting an anthill.

Alice: Especially when your combat team has recently returned from a mission to fuck up their supply of flashlights.

Adam: Alice, you mentioned Far Cry 2 and I’ve been telling anyone who’ll listen to me that The Phantom Pain reminds me of Far Cry 2 more than any other game. Even more so as you progress through the story missions. Do we know for sure that Clint Hocking didn’t wind up at Kojima Productions for a while? It would make sense. He has been everywhere else.

I think you should all go and play for the rest of the day. I want to know which missions you find particularly tricky. I was talking to a friend who has finished the whole damn game and every time we discussed a particular mission, we realised how different our approach had been. There are a couple of tricky ones where we’d resorted to the same tactic, having been frustrated without our idiosyncratic attempts, but on the whole, we’ve managed to succeed and fail on our own terms. Which is hugely impressive.

Graham: I've had one S Rank so far. Or at least, until a few minutes ago. My second S Rank is that I've been playing this game while alt-tabbing over to this conversation.

Alice: I have also been doing that. I’ve just rescued four donkeys for my zoo, and intend to steal this tank. Or maybe ride it into the heart of this base and destroy everyone.

Alec: Oh man, sounds like there’s so many parts of this game I haven’t even seen yet. I can’t wait. And I really, truly cannot believe that the game I’ve been most excited about it maybe a couple of years is a Hideo fluppin’ Kojima game. How did this happen? How could it happen? I think I have to fire myself from RPS.

Graham: I just added Quiet to Mother Base. I feel like I should close the curtains or something. Bleurgh.

Like Alec, I haven't kept up with the console Metal Gears. Until Ground Zeroes, the last one I played was the first MGS on PSone. Perhaps that's given me a skewed perspective, but for all its strengths, and the extra distance it goes in its systems, the stealth in Phantom Pain seems very familiar from other recent western games. Is that because Ubisoft has taken from previous Metal Gear games or is it because Phantom Pain has adopted liberally from the Far Cry 2s, Splinter Cells, etc.? Because to me, that seems to be what has made a Kojima game so great - even though it also feels unfairly dismissive to simply say, "Aye, it's borrowed some of the good bits from other good games."

Adam: I’m not going to answer that question directly but one of the things I love is that all of these weird callbacks are there - perhaps most obviously the cardboard box which is even introduced with a sort of gag - and the whole game is still shot through with an identity that’s very much its own. And yet all of that is working within a world that does seem to borrow the best of the rest. The way it all fits together is astonishing though, to the point that I’ve given up on second-guessing reactions. I just assume things will work in a logical, credible, legible way when I experiment with them. And more often than not, they bloody well do.

Alec: The open world is very different to a Far Cry, much more organic, much less a series of icons on the map. The locations are places you go to and then find out what to do and how you could do it, rather than with a very specific intent or series of actions in mind. And the illogic of the fultoning becomes logic very quickly. But yeah, the essential hide’n’sneak mechanics aren’t a million miles away from a Splinter Cell or Deus Ex. It’s just that they feel so much less mechanical, somehow. This always feels like a guy trying to cross a vast militarised desert undetected, rather than traversing a series of clearly ‘designed’ maps.

Alice: Everyone’s quiet. Are we all alt-tabbed playing now? (I got cocky Fultoning a man from a bustling village and am now enjoying Consequences.)

Graham: I think I might have found the "medical strut".

To wrap up then, our review called this the best stealth game ever made. In terms of those that are open world, yes, I can see it heading in that direction - though I want to play it more. Does anyone else feel similarly?

Adam: I’ve played for hours and hours and hours, and can still go back to the first area and have fun making mischief. When The Witcher 3 stomped all over open world RPGs I thought that’d be the year’s peak for big polished thank-god-they-exist genre extensions. Phantom Pain has done something similar; recalibrated my expectations about This Sort of Thing.

Alec: Honestly, it feels like the realisation of what Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry ¾ tried to do, but without the faintly frustrating hollowness. I haven’t yet felt frustrated in MGSV, or as though I’m doing grindy Mickey Mouse work for pointless trinkets. For all the lurid fantasy, it has this internal logic and this solidity. It’s almost an immersive sim in the desert, and by God do I want to spend a few dozen more hours living on my wits there.

Alice: I like it a lot. It’s really good. And I’ve almost perfected Big Boss’s emblem with “RIOT GIRL” over a totally kvlt inverted pentagram.

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