I expected MGSV: The Phantom Pain [official site] to be punishing - the kind of stealth game that stuck you with insurmountable challenges the second you stepped out of the shadows or were spotted. These expectations were born of what I assumed previous Metal Gear Solid games were, based on struggling through the first on PSone as a teenager, and based on the slavish praise they received from what I assumed were more skillful players than me.
I was initially relieved, then, when The Phantom Pain turned out to be accommodating. But after twenty hours of play, I'm much more surprised to find myself feeling so far towards the other direction. The Phantom Pain is too easy.
It started with D-Dog. Initially, my efforts to scout and infiltrate bases would be occasionally sent awry when I'd round a corner and be caught by a previously unseen guard. This would trigger reflex mode, still giving me enough time to rectify the situation, but it would also often cause a domino effect of alerted guards and clumsy clean-up. This was part of the excitement.
Now this never happens because D-Dog is there to detect anyone nearby, even when they're around corners or inside buildings. With him by my side, I can often pick routes from one side of a base to the other and then sprint, full-pelt, among buildings and watchtowers to get where I'm going.
It got worse when I unlocked Quiet. I like the idea of being covered by a sniper, who I can order to shoot in order to get me out of jams, but Quiet's ability to spot enemies and her perfect aim mean that it often feels like I'm not needed at all. At least D-Dog would sometimes be overwhelmed by enemies and need to balloon out; Quiet's position on a nearby clifftop seems to put her out of reach of the enemy AI in most instances. And if they do manage to shoot her, she can teleport to a new location without me needing to ask.
I know there are harder missions to come which will limit your options in certain ways, but I've been playing large swathes of the game without breaking a sweat so far. It's making the experience feel emptier than I would like.
Of course, the real problem here might be me: faced with an easier path, I'm unable to avoid taking it. The Phantom Pain gives you umpteen ways to make the game harder for yourself but I lack the willpower to take any of them. I could decide, for example, to never settle for anything less than S-Ranks; I could resolve to play non-lethally; I could leave the buddies back at base entirely. I could even play as characters with less resilience or speed than Big Boss, turn off Reflex mode in options, and bring with me only unsilenced or slow or inaccurate or weak weapons on sorties.
But I'm finding I'm not particularly good at setting these boundaries for myself. I recently completed a mission which (no spoilers) required me to tail one man to another, then eliminate both of them. I decided to add spice to the challenge by extracting rather than killing them, which required finding a way to get close to them before they escaped and under the noses of the many guards which surrounded them. I tried to do this again and again by sneaking, by tranquilising, by approaching from different sides, before deciding that I should probably make use of the full set of tools at my disposal.
Here's me doing it with a cardboard box - this video is brief, so again shouldn't be a spoiler:
I was forced to come up with a new tactic because this wasn't in a base, and so Quiet couldn't be asked to snipe from nearby, but I still managed to take out around 12 enemies by standing still inside a box and a poster attached to it. It was funny, but I still feel a sense of dissatisfaction because I essentially fell back on using magic in order to solve a challenge that could have been overcome without it. Yet I lack the conviction to ignore the magic entirely and commit myself to an honest day's work until I accomplish what I want.
I should stress: I'm not sure I'd change the game substantially to correct this. I suspect that if Metal Gear Solid was the hardcore game I assumed it would be, then I wouldn't be enjoying it nearly as much. I suspect if the difficulty was ramping up - via more mechs or more enemies and less player progression - then I might eventually find it tedious rather than satisfying. I think, at most, I'd like there to be more menu options for outright ripping certain parts of the game out so I can't lazily fall back upon them, or a harder difficulty mode that does the same.
(P.S. Probably what I want is this Hardcore mod, which Alice wrote about after this article was originally published).
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