Retrospective: Metal Gear Afterthoughts & Greatest Moments

AFTERTHOUGHTS
This has been quite a journey that we have embarked on. It literally took me months to complete all of the games in the franchise and, at times, felt like I had taken on a second job, but it was definitely a worthwhile experience which has given me a new appreciation of the franchise. Seeing how the gameplay has evolved and gotten more complex was very interesting, and actually improved the original Metal Gear Solid in quite a few ways for me (especially the key cards and backtracking which I found annoying in my first playthrough, but which are refreshing compared to previous games in the franchise). I also got to experience a few games that I had wanted to play but never actually got around to – namely, Metal Gear, Solid Snake and Rising.

It was also interesting to get a better look at the Metal Gear story. The franchise is notorious for having a supposedly “incomprehensible” story, but I have always found this to be a ridiculous assertion. The series’ overarching narrative is certainly extremely complex, convoluted and doesn’t make a lot of sense at times, but it isn’t all that hard to follow in each game. Also, considering that the overarching story was made up from game-to-game, it’s nothing short of a minor miracle that the story is as satisfying and reasonably coherent as it is, especially with the numerous retcons which have occurred in each new installment.

If I have time at some point in the future, I might also do a bonus review for the two Metal Gear Ac!d games, as they were both very fun and unique experiences. Other than those two games, Ghost Babel for the Game Boy Advance and Portable Ops Plus for the PSP are both ripe for a potential bonus retrospective… hell, maybe even Snake’s Revenge for the NES as well if I’m feeling extremely masochistic. We’ll see if any of these entries actually happen (I’m long overdue for an entry for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes for that franchise’s retrospective series), but perhaps one day. I’ll try not to say “Kept you waiting, huh?” though.

10 GREATEST MOMENTS IN THE METAL GEAR FRANCHISE
Here are, in my opinion, the 10 greatest moments in the entire franchise. They could be cutscenes, or gameplay twists or even epic boss battles: what matters is that they’re very memorable and/or extremely key to the overarching narrative.

Honourable mentions: Sniper Wolf’s death scene in Metal Gear Solid and the Raiden switcheroo in Sons of Liberty.

10) “I just don’t fear death.” (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)

For all my complaining about Raiden in Guns of the Patriots, this fight scene alone made his inclusion worthwhile. The sequence is well set-up: throughout Act II, Raiden is hinted as having a major return and our heroes get into severe peril. Then, when Raiden shows up, we’re not sure what’s going to happen – there’s something different about him, but can he really deal with that many Gekkos? As we soon discover though, he definitely can as we get treated to the most purely entertaining sequences in the entire franchise. The escalation is just fantastic too as suddenly Raiden is not only contending with Gekkos, but the immortal beast Vamp as well. The choreography and direction of the fight are the real highlights – it doesn’t serve a lot of story purpose, but it is extremely entertaining and memorable, to the point where an entire game was made and sold based on this exact sequence. Now that is impressive.

9) Gustava is Killed By Gray Fox (Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake)

Some people might prefer the fist fight with Gray Fox in the land mine field or Solid Snake’s confrontation with Big Boss, but to me there is no bigger story moment in Solid Snake than the death of Gustava. Despite the game’s extremely limited storytelling abilities and her short screentime, Gustava was an instantly-likable character. Her death on the rope bridge marks a major shift in the game’s narrative, as Gray Fox and Dr. Madnar both betray us and the game’s best character dies in our arms, regretting that politics kept her from being with the man she loved. Tragically, we later discover that that man was Gray Fox himself, who unwittingly killed his one true love. This causes Gray Fox’s own death to be somewhat hopeful, and his subsequent forced resurrection to be an even more horrific form of torture.

8) Shining Lights, Even in Death (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain)

Even if The Phantom Pain is lacking in its narrative, it’s undeniable that this mission is incredibly powerful, and is a skillful weaving of narrative and gameplay mechanics to produce a truly emotional moment. As Venom Snake makes his way through the horrors in the quarantine zone, you might come across soldiers that you recognize – you recruited everyone here, they have all fallen sick, and you need to do something to rescue them. However, it soon becomes apparent that there is no cure and, worse, if something isn’t done, then an epidemic could get unleashed on the world. As a result, you are forced to gun down each and every one of your men. Most of them don’t fight back. Some call you a monster. Some of them beg you to do it, as they salute and hum the Peace Walker theme. Even when you think that you found one survivor, the hope is short lived as they are infected in mere moments. By the end of it all, you know that all of these men and women are dead because of you – by your own hand, because you brought them to Mother Base and in your service.

The subsequent cutscene just makes things even more powerful. Keifer Sutherland justifies his casting with a very emotional and tragic performance as Venom Snake tries to come to terms with his actions, culminating with a fantastic little monologue:

“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you. Plant your roots in me. I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds.”

Furthermore, the ending of the game makes this sequence even more of a tragedy – you caused these men to die, but the only reason you were put into this position was because the person that you idolized was using you as an unwitting decoy in order to keep themselves safe. If Venom becomes evil between The Phantom Pain and the original Metal Gear, you can bet that this was a major contributing factor.

7) REX vs RAY (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)

Of all the pure fan service moments in Guns of the Patriots, the Metal Gear battle between REX and RAY is probably the most wildly enjoyable. It serves basically no story purpose (in fact, one could argue that it is ultimately detrimental to the game’s narrative in a few ways), but damn is it ever incredibly entertaining. I don’t think anyone ever expected to be able to pilot their own Metal Gear in one of these games, let alone use one to battle another Metal Gear. It’s a very fun, empowering and awe-inspiring sequence which is so purely entertaining that it’s easy to ignore how inherently silly it is.

6) “This Is Good, Isn’t It?” (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)

Big Boss is still alive. This is a rather insane reveal to work into the epilogue of Guns of the Patriots, but considering that the franchise has expanded to be the overarching stories of Big Boss and Solid Snake, it is even more appropriate to give him the proper send-off in retrospect. While this scene goes on just a little bit too long, it manages to end the franchise in an incredibly satisfying and conclusive way – The Patriots are gone for good, Big Boss finally comes to understand The Boss’s will, Big Boss and Solid Snake are able to reconcile as father and son, and Solid Snake regains his will to live and see out the last days of his life in peace. This is capped off with Big Boss’s final words to Snake as he smokes his last cigar: “This is good, isn’t it?”

5) “You Like Castlevania, don’t you?” (Metal Gear Solid)

I had considered not including this moment at all, but on further retrospection it occurred to me that this was really one of the formative moments in the franchise. For many gamers, having Psycho Mantis tear down the fourth wall and perform his parlour tricks was a massive shock. Suddenly this wasn’t just a normal video game, and Psycho Mantis wasn’t just a normal video game boss. The sheer amount of outside-of-the-box thinking required to both design and defeat Psycho Mantis makes the fight incredibly entertaining. While it has lost some of its lustre due to cultural familiarity eroding away the surprise of it all, it remains a very enjoyable experience to this day.

4) “I NEED SCISSORS! 61!” (Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty)

The Raiden switcheroo is the usual talking point when it comes to Sons of Liberty, but I recall fondly that Raiden’s naked romp through Arsenal Gear is the game’s real, truly important twist. Everyone knows about the Raiden switcheroo by now, but I imagine that there are still tons of people who will be playing Sons of Liberty and then be completely baffled as Raiden runs around naked, as the Colonel constantly calls Raiden with strange messages and as ninjas start appearing out of nowhere. And how many players put down their controllers in frustration when “Fission Mailed” showed up, before realizing that the game fooled them? Sons of Liberty really starts to jump off the deep end here, and does so in spectacularly, memorably absurd fashion.

3) Old Snake vs Liquid Ocelot (Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots)

As the final clash between the series’ main hero and its arch villain, the battle between Old Snake and Liquid Ocelot has a lot to live up to. Thankfully, it is one of the most distinctive boss battles in the entire franchise, as the two foes brutally pummel one another into submission. By the end, there isn’t even any dignity to the affair – it’s just two tired, old men beating one another to death for little purpose. It’s an incredibly sad and sobering affair which gets drawn out for quite some time, allowing us a chance to take in all of the trials we have been through with these characters.

2) “We Are Not Tools of the Government…” (Metal Gear Solid)

The death of Gray Fox in Metal Gear Solid is one of those major formative moments in a character’s development which can be clearly seen in subsequent games in the franchise. Throughout his life, Solid Snake is used as a tool by those above him, and he constantly fights back against this perception until he is able to achieve it. This moment is also called-back to by Solid Snake as a key part of Sons of Liberty‘s theme of “memes”, as he passes this idea on to Raiden, who internalizes the idea himself. In fact, within the universe of the game, this is likely a meme that was passed on to Gray Fox from Big Boss himself.

All of this in addition to being a very major moment in Metal Gear Solid itself, as Gray Fox sacrifices his life to save Solid Snake and give him the opportunity to destroy Metal Gear REX. In doing so, he demonstrates his friendship with Snake, and tries to atone for his lifetime of sins.

“We’re not tools of the government, or anyone else. Fighting was the only thing… the only thing I was good at. But… at least I always fought for what I believed in.”

1) The Ladder (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)

…just kidding.

1) “She Was a Real Hero. She Was a True Patriot.” (Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater)

The entire ending sequence of Snake Eater is by far the greatest moment in the entire franchise as far as I’m concerned. The showdown between Naked Snake and The Boss is already tragic, with the final trigger pull being a particularly heart-wrenching moment as the player musters up the fortitude to end The Boss’s life. That said, this all really comes into its own in the final series of cutscenes when Naked Snake discovers the truth of The Boss’s “defection”. Her defection was in fact a ploy to get close to Colonel Volgin and steal The Philosopher’s Legacy for the US government. However, The Boss soon realizes that in order to complete the mission and save the world, she will have to not only sacrifice her own life, but be remembered in history with disgrace. Considering that she has spent her entire life in service of her country, including giving up her only child and executing her lover, this is a despicable fate to befall such a noble woman. This revelation plants the seeds from which the rest of the conflicts in the franchise will grow, as her few disciples make misguided attempts to live up to her legacy.

“Snake, listen to me. She didn’t betray the United States. No, far from it. She was a hero who died for her country. She carried out her mission knowing full well what was going to happen. Self-sacrifice… because that was her duty. […] Out of duty, she turned her back on her own comrades. A lesser woman would have been crushed by such a burden. The taint of disgrace will follow her to her grave. Future generations will revile her: In America, as a despicable traitor with no sense of honor; and in Russia, as a monster who unleashed a nuclear catastrophe. She will go down in official history as a war criminal, and no one will ever understand her… that was her final mission. And like a true soldier, she saw it through the end. […] Snake, history will never know what she did. No one will ever learn the truth. Her story, her debriefing… will endure only in your heart. Everything she did, she did for her country. She sacrificed her life and her honor for her native land. She was a real hero. She was a true patriot.”

PERSONAL RANKINGS
1) Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater – 10/10
2) Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – 9.5/10
3) Metal Gear Solid – 9.5/10 (Literally the only reason that I have put this below The Phantom Pain is because it is a far less expansive and replayable experience, although for its time Metal Gear Solid was a SIGNIFICANTLY more important game.)
4) Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots – 9/10
5) Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty – 8.5/10
6) Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake – 8.5/10
7) Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker – 8/10
8) Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes – 7.5/10
9) Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance – 7/10
10) Metal Gear – 7/10
11) Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops – 6/10

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Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid V – The Phantom Pain (2015)

So finally we come to the most recent entry in the Metal Gear franchise – and likely the final entry for that matter in the eyes of most fans. Would Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain manage to bring the series full circle, while charting an ambitious new style for the series? Read on to find out. (Since this game is quite recent still, I will point out that there are MAJOR spoilers throughout this article.)

DEVELOPMENT
First off, it must be said that The Phantom Pain was fraught with an incredibly troubled development which is almost as intriguing as the game itself. We still don’t have all the details, but a sketch of the events which transpired has developed over time, which I will briefly recount here. Shortly after the release of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, it was revealed that Hideo Kojima, Guillermo del Toro and Norman Reedus had been brought together to create Silent Hills, an announcement which people discovered after exploring the mysterious, acclaimed tech demo P.T. Fans of that series thought that this was a sign of a return to glory for Silent Hill, which had been languishing for 2 console generations by then after a long string of bad-to-mediocre releases.

However, only a few months after the announcement of Silent Hills, disaster struck. After a corporate restructuring Konami had begun to scale back its AAA gaming publishing, choosing to instead focus on less-risky mobile games and licensed slot and pachinko machines. While we don’t know the details of what happened, this caused a rift to grow between Konami and Kojima. The red flags started rising when “A Hideo Kojima game” was removed from all Metal Gear promotional art for The Phantom Pain and on previous Metal Gear games. Soon, Kojima announced that he would be leaving the company following the completion of The Phantom Pain, which instantly caused panics over the status of The Phantom Pain and Silent Hills. Ultimately, Silent Hills was cancelled after an agonizing couple of weeks of silence, with P.T. being pulled from PSN shortly thereafter in spite of massive backlash, while Konami insisted that The Phantom Pain would be unaffected.

The exact causes of the split between Konami and Kojima are uncertain, but it can be inferred that money was a prime factor. Perhaps due to Konami’s desire to downsize their console gaming presence, there have been many reports that they were uncomfortable with the high budget on The Phantom Pain, which reportedly surpassed $80 million. This might also have been a major contributing factor to Ground Zeroes‘ separate release, in an effort to recoup costs quickly. On a related note, timing was also likely an issue – Konami likely wanted the game to be released within a certain budgeted timeframe, and Kojima’s vision was too ambitious to fit comfortably into these restrictions. Ultimately though, this lack of transparency on Konami’s part has damned them in the eyes of the public, even if they do potentially have reasonable motives (I mean, if Kojima Productions had become too expensive for them to maintain then fair enough, but if you don’t say a damn thing to us about it then we’re going to side with the creative auteur behind our favourite games).

PLOT SUMMARY
The game’s plot picks up 9 years after the events of Ground Zeroes as Venom Snake (aka Big Boss) wakes up from a coma to find himself in a dangerous new world. His muscles have atrophied, his body is embedded with shrapnel and his left arm has been amputated. Before Snake can be fully rehabilitated, the hospital comes under attack by XOF forces and a mysterious psychic boy and a deadly, flaming phantom. Snake barely escapes, thanks to the guidance of an unknown man calling himself Ishmael and a timely get-away courtesy of Revolver Ocelot.

From there, Snake heads into Afghanistan to rescue former comrade Kazuhira Miller, who has spent the last decade building a PMC named Diamond Dogs to seek revenge on Cipher for the destruction of Mother Base. Along the way, they uncover a plot by the rogue XOF commander, Skull Face, who has rebelled against Zero and has effectively brought much of Cipher under his control. The hate-filled rogue has decided that Zero’s ambitions of world unity through information control are doomed to failure, and that the only way to unite and control humanity is through fear and revenge. In order to achieve this, he intends to spread chaos by constructing a new Metal Gear, Sahelanthropus, and by distributing inexpensive nuclear weapons to PMCs and smaller nations, stopping nuclear-equipped nations from strong-arming others (while also retaining control of these nuclear weapons as a fail safe). Secondly, he intends to eliminate the English language as a form of revenge for the loss of his own mother tongue – with English as the world’s dominant language, all other languages (and therefore cultural understandings and viewpoints) are under threat of singular control, all as part of Cipher’s intention for global unity. To do this, he has weaponized an ancient species of parasites which reproduces when it recognizes distinct vocal patterns.

In his time building Diamond Dogs, Kaz discovers that Huey Emmerich was responsible for the attack on Mother Base 9 years earlier. Huey has been working for Skull Face and is responsible for the construction of Sahelanthropus. Snake captures Huey and puts him to work developing a new Walker Gear for Diamond Dogs, but is kept under surveillance. They also discover a mysterious, mute sniper named Quiet, who has incredible powers mirroring XOF’s SKULL unit. Kaz immediately distrusts her, but Snake and Ocelot allow her to join Diamond Dogs and provide Snake with support on missions.

Diamond Dogs begins hunting Skull Face in Angola, but in the process Mother Base becomes afflicted with an outbreak of the vocal cord parasites after Snake brings back contaminated materials. The outbreak runs rampant until Venom Snake rescues Code Talker, the man who developed the parasites under duress from Skull Face. A young boy named Eli, suspected to be one of Les Enfants Terrible, is also captured and brought to Mother Base, where he constantly flaunts Snake’s authority.

Snake then goes to attack Skull Face head-on, but is captured and taken to Sahelanthropus, where Skull Face tries to get The Man on Fire (revealed to be a phantom of Colonel Volgin) to kill Snake. However, the nearby presence of Eli causes a young Psycho Mantis (Volgin’s puppeteer) to switch allegiances and unleash Sahelanthropus on Snake and the XOF troops. Much of XOF is destroyed and Skull Face is mortally wounded, but Snake manages to take down the Metal Gear after an epic battle. He and Kaz then gloat over Skull Face’s dying body, mutilating him in retribution before Huey puts him down for good. Diamond Dogs retrieve the remains of Sahelanthropus, putting it on display at Mother Base as a symbol of their victory as Eli and Psycho Mantis look upon it with their own nefarious designs.

In the game’s second chapter, Kaz begins a witch hunt within Diamond Dogs’ ranks, hoping to root out all within their ranks that he deems dangerous. Particular targets of his wrath include Quiet and Huey Emmerich, who is revealed to be a pathological liar the more he is interrogated. After a second, more serious, outbreak of a mutated strain of the vocal cord parasite ravages Mother Base, it is discovered that Huey was responsible. He is banished by Snake just before Quiet goes missing. Snake tracks her down to a Soviet base, where he discovers that she has been infected with the English strain of the vocal cord parasites. Skull Face had intended for her to infect Diamond Dogs with it, but she had turned against XOF and taken a vow of silence. However, after witnessing the mutation of the infection on Mother Base, she had realized that she was too dangerous to remain there. After an intense battle with the Soviet army, Snake is injured and Quiet is forced to break her vow of silence to call in helicopter support to save his life, damning herself to death from the infection. After Snake is rescued, she wanders into the desert to die alone.

Some time after this, Venom Snake receives a tape which reveals that he is not the “real” Big Boss, but rather the helicopter medic from Ground Zeroes. After the helicopter crash, Cipher conspired with Ocelot and (eventually) Big Boss to create a decoy to draw the attention of XOF while the real Big Boss set about creating his own nation of soldiers in secret. Kaz is incensed by this revelation, denouncing Big Boss as a traitor and pledging to support Venom Snake and the sons of Big Boss to bring him down. Ocelot remarks that a time will soon come when these two Big Bosses will be at war with one another, just as the sons of Big Boss will clash.

In post-game recordings, we also receive some plot revelations. While Kaz is furious at Big Boss for betraying his trust, he is also angry with Cipher, which he had been working in concert with to help establish the beginnings of the war economy. He had followed their instructions under the belief that they were going to reunite him with his old friend, making the reveal Big Boss’s decoy sting all the worse. We also hear recordings from Zero himself. Following the unauthorized attack on Mother Base, Zero had been acting to get XOF under control, but Skull Face infected him with a lethal parasite, throwing his ambitions into disarray. A rapidly-deteriorating Zero orders Donald Anderson (aka, SIGNIT) and Strangelove to create the AI network that would come to be known as the Patriots. In his last recording, Zero visits a comatose Big Boss in hospital, revealing that despite their differences, he is still quite fond of his foe. His system thrives on conflict, and therefore he needs someone like Big Boss to cause it.

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
The Phantom Pain opens with a very intense and harrowing hour-long introduction into this brave new world. This sequence works very well for two reasons – it takes its time to draw you into the scenario and then, when it lets loose, you have absolutely no idea what is happening or why. It’s deliberately uninformative, but this just makes the horrifying events which happen here more impactful. I definitely got some Silent Hills vibes here and think that Kojima was dying to try his hand at a horror experience.

Once this sequence is complete, The Phantom Pain truly begins in earnest. While Ground Zeroes offered us a tantalizing taste of what an open world Metal Gear game would look like, that game absolutely pales in comparison to the freedom that The Phantom Pain offers*. The second that you get thrown into the expansive Afghanistan map, you feel a little overwhelmed with how much freedom the game has given you to approach missions, and where exactly to focus your efforts. The maps are dotted with all sorts of enemy outposts for you to approach or avoid at your discretion, while dozens of unique items, weapons, gameplay systems and AI buddies open up entirely new gameplay styles and practically guarantee a different experience for everyone. This also can lead to some incredibly intense moments where you end up in an extremely tight situation and find yourself improvising a solution on the fly which miraculously ends up working… whether due to your skill or the overwhelming force you choose to bear down on enemies, it’s up to you.

The game features two open world maps in Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border, both of which are rather unique. Afghanistan is dotted with cliffs and covered in desert, its action mainly centered around the roads controlled by Soviet troops. As a result, this map is actually surprisingly linear, with mountains forcing the player through series of choke points and making confrontation a regular affair. This is moderately disappointing, and can make traversal a real chore as the game wears on. However, Angola-Zaire is far more open, with the majority of the map traversable however the player wishes and roads being little more than an enemy-filled suggestion. This map is mainly covered in plains and swampland, with some jungles and villages offering a wide variety of ways to sneak about.

The game also features the most recent version of the base management meta-game which was pioneered in Portable Ops and Peace Walker. The Phantom Pain‘s base management is extremely similar to Peace Walker‘s, with troops captured in the field being assigned to various positions based on their skills to unlock new weapons and items. Going hand-in-hand with base management is the improved fulton extraction system. Fulton is one of the game’s strongest assets and is better and more convenient than ever. Instead of being limited to a handful of extractions as you were in Peace Walker, The Phantom Pain will quickly give you access to dozens of balloons to snatch enemy troops, supplies and eventually even vehicles as it pleases you (and if you run out of balloons, then just send a supply request for some more). My only complaint with this is that the fulton system is almost too good now – until your base gets completely filled up, there’s basically no reason to kill enemies when you can just fly them away with your balloon and make them join you. It also makes the numerous tank battle side-ops in the game a complete joke when you can just fulton the tank away without a fight and then take out the oblivious escorts (and fulton them too to boot). Still though, this is a rather minor quibble, as extracting enemies is one of the defining aspects of the game.

The Phantom Pain also contains a very fun buddy system, in which a very useful AI companion will join you in missions and follow commands. This system functions flawlessly and is an unexpectedly great addition. You start off with a horse named D-Horse who helps you traverse terrain easier and who can allow you to shoot while on the move (something that you can’t do while in a jeep or truck, probably so that D-Horse stays useful in the mid-to-late game). However, as you play, you can gain access to a wolf named D-Dog, a supernatural sniper named Quiet and a Gekko-like walker named D-Walker. Taking them on missions increases their bond with Snake and opens up powerful new abilities for them to unleash on enemies. All of them have their uses, but for my money D-Dog is the best – having 100% situational awareness is incredible for someone like me who doesn’t need a lot of help taking down a base silently. However, Quiet is also very good. She’s arguably overpowered, but she’s an incredible asset to have in missions backing you up… and can provide a fantastic distraction if the enemy’s defences are just a little too organized for your liking.

Returning in an expanded form from Ground Zeroes is driveable vehicles. Unfortunately, they’re not all that big a deal on the whole. The jeeps are the most useful of them since they help you traverse the maps far quicker than on foot (which is going to quickly become a problem once you inevitably swap out D-Horse for D-Dog or Quiet). However, the other vehicles are pretty useless for most of the game. The trucks are too slow to use effectively, and you still get spotted when driving them far too easily. The LAVs and tanks are funny to use on an enemy base once or twice, but aside from that they’re practically useless aside from a very small handful of boss battles, but even then they take a ridiculous number of shots to take out most enemies. For example, in one side-op I needed to shoot down a chopper but didn’t want to bring a missile launcher for the task. As a result, I took the heaviest tank to destroy it, but the chopper ended up taking more than 6 shots without an issue before it blew up my tank with its machine gun. Driveable vehicles are definitely a cool addition to the series, but it’s too bad that they’re just not all that useful outside of getting from place to place in less time.

The enemy AI is also definitely the best that the series has ever seen in my opinion. Sons of Liberty‘s AI was relentless when they were on alert, but The Phantom Pain‘s AI feel like geniuses sometimes. They call for help from nearby allies. If they see something suspicious more than a couple times, they’ll call in an alert which will put everyone in the area on edge. They also will warn other outposts of your presence and call in for backup if you reveal yourself. If they spot you, they’re not going to ease up until you neutralize everyone or until nearly a day of in-game time goes by, which is miles ahead of the goldfish-memory enemies we’ve seen in the past. Their vision cones are also fairly reasonable – they’re still rather near-sighted, generally needing to be within about 50-75m to spot you if you’re running, but if it was any closer then that the game would likely be far more frustrating. If anything, they’re far more reasonable than the laughably blind enemies in Portable Ops or Peace Walker. What all this adds up to is enemies who are actually rather thrilling to outwit, while remaining predictable enough that a skilled player will be able to take advantage of their routines as they get better at the game. It also makes me feel kind of bad when I kill enemies, especially when they get so badly wounded that they’re left bleeding out – I end up wondering if they have families back home and why I am killing them. This, of course, incentivizes non-lethal attacks and fulton even more.

It’s also worth noting that there are in-game counters to some of the tools that you will use on the enemy, and vice versa. If you go for a lot of headshots, enemies will soon be wearing helmets. If you use smoke grenades, they’ll wear gas masks. If you use decoys to fool enemies, you might soon find yourself the fool when an enemy decoy psyches out your plan of attack. These counters can make enemy encounters very challenging as a form of emergent gameplay (especially the riot suits that show up late in the game, which are the bane of my existence and make my stealthy playthroughs incredibly challenging). However, they can be countered by your combat units, by sending them out on missions to destroy enemy supplies. Doing so though costs you opportunities to gather resources and GMP, feeding into the game’s infinite strategic possibilities.

The game’s voice acting is good as you should expect from the series. Of particular note, Keifer Sutherland really grew on me and I think he does a really fine job as Snake… the only problem is that he is silent for long stretches of the game. Like, David Hayter’s Snakes would comment on things and reply whenever people talk to him. In this game, Venom Snake is often strangely silent when people are talking to him, with a particularly long jeep ride being the strangest example where it feels like Snake’s lines are completely missing. I’m not sure why Snake is so quiet for most of the game – perhaps Keifer Sutherland was unavailable to rerecord some dialogue, or the game’s constrained development didn’t leave room for some of the dialogue to be inserted, or perhaps it was intentional as a part of the theme of the power of words? Whatever the case, it’s a little awkward and too bad that we didn’t get more of Sutherland’s bad ass Snake performance.

Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering, the game’s graphics are fantastic. I wonder how much they had to downgrade them for PS3 and Xbox 360 in order to make them work on those systems, or whether they compromised the current gen versions to make them work. If nothing else, this game really showcases how fantastic and scaleable the Fox Engine is.

However, for all of its positives, there are some issues with The Phantom Pain‘s gameplay, some nit-picky, some more substantial. On the more minor side, there are some complaints about the opening credits which play at the start of every mission. These wouldn’t be much of an issue, but they do end up being “spoiler-ific” at times when they reveal that Skull Face or a SKULL unit are going to show up at some point when you wouldn’t have known otherwise. Each mission also has a post-missions credit sequence, but at least this can be easily skipped. The credits are obviously a rather minor issue and I quickly just learned to ignore them as I fiddled with my iDroid and reloaded weapons, but it’s hard to argue that the game wouldn’t have been improved somewhat if they had been removed.

Also worth pointing out is the game’s fast travel system. As the game goes on, traversal becomes a major chore and begins to feel like it’s padding out play time. Enemy bases become a pain in the ass to encounter when you’re trying to get somewhere and it becomes obvious that large stretches of the maps are just empty land. Considering the size of the maps, and the limited travel routes available in Afghanistan in particular, a proper fast travel system should have been implemented to cut down on the hours of point-A-to-point-B busywork which is going to pile up. The game does feature a very basic “mailing” system, but it is barely explained in game and is not particularly helpful – basically, there are obscure delivery points across the map. You must get to each of these points and then steal the point’s shipping manifest. This will allow you to be delivered to that location by hiding in a cardboard box at a delivery point when there are no alerts. As you can probably tell, it’s a cumbersome system that still requires a ton of traversal through empty space to even get it working, and even when it is functioning, it delivers you into the heart of enemy bases… not the ideal place to end up as you can probably tell.

Ideally, the game should have just given you the option to ride your helicopter to different landing zones without having to exit the map every time you climb on board. It already does this when you visit Mother Base, why can’t it do the same in the main maps? This would also disincentivize overuse and over-reliance on fast travel, since calling the helicopter costs GMP.

On the more substantial end of the complaints, the open world means that enemy encounters are far less deliberately designed than in previous games. This is an obvious trade-off, offset only by a few missions which take place within confined areas (such as “Code Talker” or “The War Economy”), but it is worth pointing out. On a similar note, the game’s side-ops have been designed to be plugged into around a dozen particular places on each map. This makes these encounters feel more dynamic, but they almost always play out the same way, with troops and targets located in the same areas. Furthermore, the side-ops’ variety is nowhere near the level it was in Peace Walker. If you want to get 100% completion, get ready to grind through the exact same missions over and over again. Each side-op type has more than a dozen extremely slight variations (eg, “Extract the Highly Skilled Soldier 16”), but even the differences between these side-ops are only marginally different from one another. Even more annoying is the fact that the game will continue to spawn completed side-ops on the map. Sure, you can ignore them when you come across them, but if you’re like me then just entering their area of operations is going to make you feel like you have to complete them, if only for the (reduced) GMP reward.

Speaking of repetitiveness, the game’s second chapter is notorious for making you repeat earlier missions under different circumstances. While it’s a little better than Chapter 5 in Peace Walker, this section of the game feels very tacked-on and is almost certainly a product of Konami’s interference on development. Basically, the game requires you to replay most of the harder missions that you beat earlier in the story, but with different conditions for completion. These are Extreme (more punishing difficulty and no reflex mode), Subsistence (start with no equipment and no reflex mode… I found these missions incredibly frustrating) and Total Stealth (an alert phase results in instant game over – this was basically my existing play style so I didn’t mind this too much). I would have preferred if every mission could be replayed voluntarily with these conditions, but as it is it’s clearly padding to try to distract from the fact that most of chapter two’s actual “story missions” are over glorified side-ops.

Also, the mission “Truth: The Man Who Sold the World” is a particularly egregious offender in this regard and bears extra mention. Billed as a proper story mission with an actual impact on the game’s narrative, this mission is little more than a straight replay of the game’s opening mission with only a small change near the beginning and a slightly shorter ending to differentiate it. Other than that, you’re forced to replay the whole opening hour all over again, but this time with full knowledge of what’s going on. This sequence fails for a number of reasons. First of all, knowing exactly what’s happening robs the scene of the impact and horror which it had the first time you play. Secondly, making its completion a requirement to reach the game’s true ending turns it into a slog and highlights just how on rails this whole segment is. Aside from a couple of short moments, there are almost no changes here from the original opening – hell, even the tutorials have been kept in place, making this section feel incredibly contrived. You think that they could have at least cut down most of this sequence or changed more things to keep it from dragging on and becoming incredibly tedious.

Also, many of the game’s “boss battles” are amongst the absolute worst in the entire franchise. The “Cloaked in Silence” missions (both the original and Extreme versions) are very fun and tense, as are the “Sahelanthropus” encounters (again, both the original and Extreme versions). However, all of the boss battles against the SKULLs are infuriatingly awful (with the sole exception of the sniper SKULLs in the standard version of “Code Talker”). The SKULLs are bullet sponges, requiring hundreds of bullets to take down. If you thought that the mechs in Peace Walker were bad, imagine that, but with 4 of them chasing you around. The armoured variety almost impossible to take down if you didn’t happen to bring a Machine Gun or Sniper Rifle with you. I shudder to imagine how awful it would be to try to defeat them non-lethally. There’s basically no strategy involved in defeating them either – just hold down the trigger and try not to get killed as you fight these annoying bastards for upwards of 10 minutes. Even worse, on Extreme missions, they can one-shot you with ease. This absolutely ruins the sniper battle on “Code Talker”, where you can’t even get a shot off without having 3 other SKULLs instantly kill you (the secret here is to call in a tank to shoot them, but this will take 10-15 minutes of incredibly tedious work to pull off, they still take 8 shots to down and they can still blow up the tank if you don’t play uber-conservatively). The armoured SKULLs on “Metallic Archaea” are even more annoying when you factor in a save glitch in the game which can be triggered by taking Quiet into this battle, especially considering that her anti-material rifle is the easiest way to bring these suckers down. I ended up having to take D-Walker and fired off every last one of my mini-gun shots to take down just 2 of the bastards.

So yeah, bottom line: F–K THE SKULLS WITH A RUSTY PIPE.

Finally, we have Konami’s awful microtransactions which have marred the game since release. First of all is the game’s forward operating base (FOB) system. On the one hand, this is actually a pretty cool opportunity for dynamic multiplayer action. However, its implementation sours the water very quickly. For one thing, playing online instantly slows down your menus consistently every time you open your iDroid (which, if you haven’t played before, is constantly). Thankfully you can disconnect in the pause menu, an option which I took advantage of for nearly my entire playthrough.

On top of this is the whole ploy behind FOBs – MB coins. This is Konami’s microtransaction currency which they generously offer to sell you in up to $80 chunks. With MB coins, players can purchase additional FOBs to gather resources for their bases and to buy cosmetic items in Metal Gear Online. Oh, and to buy freaking FOB insurance, a feature which was patched in a month after release. FREAKING FOB INSURANCE. If “FOB Insurance” doesn’t become the new “horse armour” of this console generation then there is truly no justice in the world. Up until recently I dismissed microtransactions in these sorts of games as a silly cost recouping gimmick which I can easily ignore, but I have decided that they really are a distasteful blight. The whole point of microtransactions is that they are meant to fund free-to-play games. However, when full-priced, AAA games try to get in on this action, it’s breaking this financing strategy. Unless they’re going to compensate by giving us something (such as free, worthwhile DLC), then they’re simply fleecing us for more money.

As you can probably tell though, Konami seems to have created many of the biggest issues in The Phantom Pain. The game just feels unfinished on the whole. While cutting features is a necessity in nearly every game’s development, the corporate restructuring of Konami late in development seems to have caused the company’s leadership to give Kojima a firm deadline to release the game and less support to complete his vision. This likely caused Kojima to heavily compromise and ditch a ton of features that he had been planning on including until this time and is likely the source of the split between Kojima and Konami. Since release, fans have discovered a massive amount of planned content was cut, including 3 new (likely smaller) maps, Snake Eater-style guard dogs and even a whole third chapter. It can also be deduced that Chapter 2 was likely heavily stifled by these cuts as well, with the plot thread about Eli stealing Sahelanthropus being dropped entirely, Kaz suddenly going blind and the game’s ending appearing with no narrative explanation whatsoever. Furthermore, the presence of “The Kingdom of the Flies” on the collector’s edition bonus disc suggests to me that this mission is intended to be canon but was not given the proper time to be included. While Konami may have declared that The Phantom Pain‘s development was not affected by the friction between the company and Kojima, I have an extremely hard time believing this, and the unfinished nature of the final product goes a long way to reinforcing these notions.

I’ll be honest though, most of these complaints are massively outweighed by how well The Phantom Pain plays. All-in-all, the game is an absolute joy to play. The freedom that it gives you to approach situations is unparalleled and the toolbox that it gives you to unleash your imagination is expansive. I had worried that the game’s daunting 30+ hour length would make replaying the game an unattractive idea, especially when compared to the much more reasonably-paced games in the franchise. However, as I’m writing this about a month after I finished the game, I’m already getting hankerings to replay it so this fear seems to have been somewhat allayed.

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS

The Phantom Pain has the opposite problem of Guns of the Patriots: the game emphasizes gameplay to such a degree that it becomes detrimental to the story. Furthermore, the friction during development seems to have only made these issues worse in some ways – as I have said, entire storylines are dropped, whereas others are introduced out of nowhere. That’s not to say that The Phantom Pain has a terrible narrative (it’s still far more thought-provoking than most games out there), it’s just far more fractured than we’re used getting from a Metal Gear game. I also believe that the game places more emphasis on themes rather than telling a straightforward narrative which contributes to its murky reception.

Before I dive into the game’s themes, I have to say that the game’s story is incredibly confusing if you don’t listen to the supplementary audio tapes (and, to be honest, it can still be confusing even with the tapes, particularly in regard to the vocal cord parasites). These tapes generally fulfill the roles which exposition dumps would have in previous Metal Gear games, explaining every concept, the setting and characters’ histories. Considering the time that you have to spend getting from place to place, there should be plenty of opportunity to listen to the tapes, and they do a great job of keeping you interested as they convey fascinating insights into Afghan War history or the  I can’t imagine trying to understand the game’s story without the aid of these tapes; it would be a completely different experience.

The tapes also really flesh out many of the characters. Code Talker in particular is a rather unimportant side-character after he cures the parasite outbreak, but when you listen to the dozens of tapes about his research and motivations, he becomes extremely sympathetic. Hell, he might be my favourite character in the game and that comes down entirely to the numerous recordings he has made explaining his life and the tragedies that have befallen him (plus I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get the way that he says “DA VOKUL CORD PARASYTES” out of my head).

Also, the secret post-game tapes are crucial to understanding the game and assuage some peoples’ complaints about how Guns of the Patriots revealed that Zero was the force behind the Patriots. These tapes give us our first clear glimpse at Zero’s motivations since his very brief cameo in Portable Ops, and bows out the series with a very sympathetic look at arguably the biggest villain in the whole series. Since Guns of the Patriots, Kojima has seemed to be trying to hammer home the idea that there are no true villains in the Metal Gear saga, only flawed individuals with the noblest intentions. Zero’s characterization fits into this idea very well – in creating Cipher, he is attempting to bring about world unity through information control. Unfortunately, Cipher has become quite unwieldy, necessitating the invention of AIs to control his system without having to worry about figures such as Skull Face overthrowing him. His friendly demeanour towards Big Boss also stands in sharp contrast to Kaz and Big Boss’ own murderous, revenge-fueled motivations.

And speaking of revenge, this is the first theme of the game and the one most clearly foreshadowed by Ground Zeroes. Also worth noting are the game’s frequent allusions to Moby Dick. These not-so-subtle references underscore The Phantom Pain‘s analysis of revenge, since Moby Dick‘s Captain Ahab is famous for allowing his desire for revenge consume and destroy him. Revenge is the driving motivation of nearly every character in the game – Kaz and (to a lesser extent) Venom Snake are both principally concerned with exacting revenge on Skull Face for destroying Mother Base 9 years ago, while also reserving a future desire to get back at Zero. Huey Emmerich seeks his own petty vengeance against Diamond Dogs and Cipher. Quiet is torn over whether she should complete her own mission and get revenge on Venom Snake for her immolation. Skull Face’s evil plan is entirely focused around a ploy to exact revenge on the English language for stealing away his mother tongue and for robbing him of his identity. Colonel Volgin’s desire for revenge is so strong that it turns him into a literal demon. Eli’s thirst for vengeance against Big Boss is so strong that he becomes a conduit for Psycho Mantis. Hell, Code Talker even expounds that the vocal cord parasites are, in essence, exacting revenge for their near extinction by ancient humans. So yeah, as you can see, there’s a shitload of revenge-plots at play in The Phantom Pain.

If that were where the exploration ended, then it would be a rather shallow, well-trodden theme for the game to tackle (although Taken comes to mind as a legitimately good example of the shallow side of revenge fantasy). However, The Phantom Pain is more interested in what revenge does to a person. As a general rule, every character who is motivated by revenge either relents or has it destroy them in the end. Kaz goes from a charismatic, likeable leader to a paranoid, cold-hearted, xenophobic bastard who sees insubordination at every corner and loses his friendship with Big Boss as a result. Huey’s bumbling attempts at revenge alienate him from everyone around him and nearly get him killed, turning him from a well-meaning person into a monstrous villain. Skull Face is defeated only because he underestimates his desire for revenge and loses control of Psycho Mantis, causing his plans to literally come crashing down around him. In “The Kingdom of the Flies”, it is also revealed that Eli is nearly killed when he refuses to stand down in the face of Cipher and Venom Snake, surviving only because of the timely intervention of Psycho Mantis.

On the other end of the scale though, Quiet and Venom Snake’s journeys are far different. Quiet is horrifically disfigured by Venom Snake during the hospital escape and is only saved when Skull Face implants her with parasites to be used as a biological weapon to exact her revenge. She initially goes along with this plan, but at some point her perspective changes. Perhaps because Venom Snake spares her life when he had the chance to kill her, she decides not to carry through with her mission, despite still wrestling with desires for vengeance. It is also implied that she starts to develop some feelings towards Venom Snake in spite of their rocky history. In the end, she sacrifices her own life in order to save his in an ultimate display of forgiveness. It’s a rather beautiful demonstration of the hollowness of revenge, while forgiveness leads to redemption.

Venom Snake on the other hand does not seem to be quite so gung-ho about revenge as Kaz. On the one hand, he does want to seek him out, but he does not seem to get a gleeful satisfaction out of it like Kaz. Furthermore, he also seems to be just as motivated by the evils that Skull Face perpetrates (if not more), rather than just seeking to settle his personal vendetta. He also is demonstrably merciful to people who do him wrong, such as Huey Emmerich, Eli and Quiet (although this is player-determinate, depending on how people play, he might end up being a vicious monster outside of cutscenes). This changes in the game’s ending though, when the truth about Big Boss and Venom Snake is revealed. Venom Snake is portrayed here in his demonic form, suggesting that the truth that Big Boss forcibly stole away his own identity drives him to become evil. The parallels between Venom Snake and Skull Face are so clear here that I’m basically convinced that this is supposed to be the intended interpretation of the ending, and it also helps to explain some of the logical gaps that this twist creates. There’s a fantastic essay that you can read here which goes into greater detail which I would recommend reading.

Also, before I move on to the next theme, I must say that this analysis of revenge retroactively makes Metal Gear Rising even more of a red-headed stepchild of the Metal Gear franchise. That game is basically the definition of the shallow revenge fantasy, which puts it greatly at odds with this game’s message that revenge is a desire which destroys people and can literally turn them into a monstrous figure. I know that Rising is intended to be dumb fun, but this just makes it even more of an inconsistent issue within the series canon.

The second, and perhaps most important, theme in the game is the power of words and language, and their place in the formation of identity. Having done studies in communication, language and colonialism, these themes resonated with me quite a bit and might have actually made this particular aspect of the game even more profound for me. Caliban’s famous lines in Shakespeare’s The Tempest came rushing back to me many times due to the game’s themes:

“You taught me language, and my profit on’t

Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you

For learning me your language!” (I.ii.366–368)

The power of language is an extremely under-appreciated force, so it’s heartening to see it highlighted in a video game of all places. As a side note, I think that a major reason why the Planet of the Apes remake sucked so bad was because it underestimated the power of language. By having the humans and apes able to communicate with one another from the outset, the entire idea of humans being a subjugated, inferior species just goes out the window, because if the apes didn’t sympathize with them then the humans would just organize and fight back.

The least-subtle example of the power of words in The Phantom Pain is the vocal cord parasites. When they first showed up in the game, I thought that having seemingly supernatural parasites all of a sudden showing up was a ridiculous plot development on par with the overuse of nanomachines in Guns of the Patriots. The existence of weaponized, supernatural parasites would probably be something that would have been useful in subsequent evil plots, but having something so over the top exist for only one entry strains credulity. While they may still be rather ridiculous in a lot of ways, their inclusion actually makes some sense… if you listen to Code Talker’s cassette tapes, that is.

In essence, Code Talker reveals that mankind evolved in symbiosis with a strain of parasites which initiated vocalizations as a mating call. Over time, the influence of the parasites caused early humans to evolve the ability to produce complex speech patterns without requiring the parasites to do this for them. As a result, humans began to use these vocalizations for their own purposes, meaning that the vocal cord parasites were no longer able to make their mating calls, while a retrovirus transcribed the ability to speak right into man’s genes. I believe I have actually heard parasites cited as a possible explanation for what might have caused humans to gain the power of speech, so there seems to be a precedent for this plot development, and one which ties into the game’s themes quite naturally when you look into it. While it’s a rather blunt way to incorporate this theme and the parasites’ abilities can be rather ridiculous, with the contextualization of the audio tapes I actually warmed up to them somewhat (although the more supernatural parasites have to be one of the biggest credibility stretches in the entire franchise).

The two characters who most clearly exemplify this theme are Code Talker and Skull Face (although there are others who tie in a little more loosely). Code Talker is a Navajo (or Diné) biologist who is terrified that his culture is going to be erased. After centuries of American imperialism, the Diné way of life is at risk of going extinct as his people are forced into residential schools, where their culture and language was systematically and insidiously stripped away from them. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, English’s worldwide dominance has put the very existence of smaller languages at considerable risk. Code Talker watches as his peoples’ language is exploited in World War II as a cipher, while the discovery of uranium deposits in Navajo lands causes many Diné to begin mining it to fuel the Cold War – with deadly consequences. These injustices cause Code Talker to delve into his research of parasites, which Skull Face exploits to become ethnic cleansers under threat of wiping out the Diné if he fails to comply. To Code Talker, language arguably the key factor of his peoples’ identity:

“To erase our words was like erasing our people. Their ‘education’ was tantamount to ethnic cleansing. Over time, the overt persecution of our language stopped. But to this day it continues to be eaten away by the lingua franca that is English. Many of the Diné outside the reservations can speak nothing else. It isn’t just our language. Across the world, minority languages are being destroyed by dominant languages. Many are on the verge of extinction.”

Similarly, Skull Face is a living embodiment of the dehumanizing effects that cultural imperialism can have on a person. As a child, his mother tongue was robbed from him by foreign invaders who forced him to adopt their language. During World War II, he was caught in a factory bombing, stripping him of even more of his identity as his body was covered in horrific burns. As he was passed from nation to nation, Skull Face’s languages were in constant flux and he began to understand the under-appreciated powers of language:

“I was born in a small village. I was still a child when we were raided by soldiers. Foreign soldiers. Torn from my elders I was made to speak their language. With each new post, my masters changed, along with the words they made me speak. Words are… peculiar. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong… War changed me – and not only my visage. Words can kill. I was invaded by words, burrowing and breeding inside me.”

In Skull Face’s view, Code Talker’s discovery and development of vocal cord parasites presented him with the perfect vector by which to extract his revenge. Skull Face seems to have a very skewed take on “The Boss’s will”, emphasizing her desire to “let the world be”. However, in order to do so, he believes that the answer is through chaos rather than control. English will have to be eradicated because of the homogenizing threat it poses to cultures the world over, and also conveniently helps him to get back at another target of his vengeance (conversely, Zero’s plan is to use English to unite the world as part of his conflicting interpretation of The Boss’s will).

On the other hand though, Quiet is basically a living counterpoint to this theme. By choosing to remain silent, she cannot construct her identity through speech. Her actions are the only things which “speak” for her, and so people project their own prejudices onto her. Kaz in particular wants her dead when he discovers that her abilities are the same as the SKULLs, whereas Venom Snake and Ocelot are simply cautious, interpreting her actions as an attempt to help them.

It must be said though that this theme links back to Metal Gear Solid and Sons of Liberty really well, since those games are all about “genes” and “memes” – the role of fate and identity in the formation of an individual. I imagine that Kojima intentionally added this little bit of connective tissue to link The Phantom Pain to the subsequent Metal Gear games, although it would have been nice if it had been set up even a little bit in Ground Zeroes.

This brings us to the game’s third main theme, the titular “phantom pain” sensation which manifests itself at various points in the narrative and within the player. The game contains many references to phantom pain, almost all based around Venom Snake. The most overt example is Venom Snake’s amputated arm, which he states actually is experiencing the titular sensation. There are other, more subtle examples throughout the story though. One particularly affecting example is during the mission “Shining Lights, Even in Death”. After being forced to kill many of his comrades to prevent a mutated strain of the vocal cord parasites from being unleashed, Venom Snake finds himself unable to part himself from his fallen comrades, the men who died at his own hands:

“I won’t scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea. I will always be with you; plant your roots in me. I won’t see you end as ashes. You’re all diamonds…”

Instead of giving them a burial at sea, Venom Snake turns their ashes into diamonds to give his men a visual reminder of the dead. In essence, the soldiers of Diamond Dogs have become an extension of Big Boss himself, and he cannot simply give them a funeral and then move on. To me, this scene seems to represent Snake’s attempts to reclaim a small part of the men who he has lost. The ending can also be seen as a an attempt to show that Venom Snake is going to be swallowed up in the identity of Big Boss when he dies, meaning that no one is going to even know he existed and will just attribute his actions to someone else.

A similar scenario plays out in the secret Paz storyline if you discover a hidden room on the medical platform. Inside this room, Venom Snake discovers Paz who suspiciously survived the seemingly fatal explosion in Ground Zeroes. However, as the player progresses through this storyline, it becomes increasingly clearer that this is not the real Paz, but only a figment of Snake’s imagination – a phantom from the past. At the culmination of this storyline, we come to realize that this is a visualization of Snake trying to come to grips with her death, especially since he only remembers her as the innocent child she had been portraying herself as throughout most of Peace Walker. While it may seem like a bit of a stretch to call this “phantom pain”, you must also remember that Venom Snake is not the real Big Boss, but rather the medic on the chopper who extracted the bomb from her stomach in the first place. He feels so much guilt for failing to save his patient and for indirectly causing the deaths of many of those around him that it penetrates the hypnotically-induced mind wipe that he has undergone to turn him into Big Boss. This guilt is a lingering phantom pain of a life and an identity which has been lost, and is a crack in his otherwise complete facade.

Finally, we come to elements of “phantom pain” which have been injected into the gameplay by Kojima. The most obvious and affecting example is the culmination of Quiet’s storyline. Following “A Quiet Exit”, Quiet is no longer able to be taken as a buddy (until the November 2015 patch, which will allow her to be recruited again when you complete “Cloaked in Silence” 7 times). Considering how useful (and arguably overpowered) she is, this can make some missions much harder and you find yourself missing Quiet constantly. I’d catch myself heading into “Sahelanthropus (Extreme)” and “Code Talker (Extreme)”, two missions where Quiet’s really the best buddy to take, and then catching myself in the thought. It’s a rather sombre moment every time it comes up. For my money, this is easily the most effective use of phantom pain in the game, and one which I encourage players to actually go through with – there are far too many people complaining about this decision, but as an artistic choice I find that it works quite well, even if it stings constantly.

Aside from Quiet’s ending, there are other gameplay and narrative elements which more dubiously tie into the idea of phantom pain. I believe that Kojima himself has said that he intentionally omitted a boss battle with Skull Face because he wanted the player to feel a lack of catharsis for having his defeat snatched away. This disappointment has caused some people to say that Skull Face was an awful villain, although I would have to disagree. He is quite charismatic and imposing and drives the player’s actions forward – we just don’t get to off him ourselves, and that seems to rub some people the wrong way. However, between such intentionally-subversive narrative elements and the clearly unfinished state of the game, it becomes an exercise in futility to try to figure out what was meant to cause “phantom pain” and what wasn’t. Many people have pointed out their dissatisfaction with the game’s ending, especially the lack of conclusion for Eli’s storyline, is just Kojima trolling us through the titular phantom pain. I personally don’t think that this was the intended case though – by digging through the game’s files, the community has found that quite a few elements, including a whole additional chapter, were dropped from the final product. If anything, I believe that Kojima had a conclusion planned, but when he discovered that he wasn’t going to get to implement it, he might have compensated and just decided to leave what they had open to this interpretation while he struggled to get the crucial elements finished in time for launch (such as “Truth: The Man Who Sold the World”, which would explain why this mission/revelation suddenly happens with no narrative explanation to kick it off – I imagine that it would have been precipitated by some event in Chapter 3 that never came about).

Moving on to some character notes, you just know that I have to speak about Quiet. Way back when she was first revealed I had some choice words about her character design, but I did refrain from jumping to conclusions since it sounded like Kojima had some sort of good justification for it. However, as you are probably aware, the justification is a ridiculously paper-thin excuse to make Quiet be as close to naked as possible, as often as possible (in short, she breathes through her skin so she can’t wear clothes or she’ll suffocate!). Making it worse, basically every time she’s on screen, Kojima subjects Quiet to a really perverted camera which focuses all its attention on her tits and ass as she waves her ass your face or her tits jiggle like a plate of Jell-o. It’s fan service at the very lowest of the lowest common denominator, and it just makes me embarrassed whenever she appears on screen… and that’s too bad, because she really is a cool character. She is a fantastic buddy to take on missions and you actually start to develop a legitimate bond with her as she saves your ass for the hundredth time or when she endearingly plays in the rain with a hesitant Snake (a rather cute and otherwise innocent scene which the camera tries its best to turn into a porno). The end of her storyline is also very poignant and I found myself very affected by her sacrifice. It’s just… that character design. Holy shit does it ever make it difficult to take her seriously in any way.

Having played through the game, I do think I understand the actual logic behind her design, but it’s not a pretty explanation. Since we know that Quiet will heroically sacrifice herself for Venom Snake, and that the player is intended to build a strong bond with her so that this sacrifice and its subsequent lingering pain will resonate, it is obvious that Kojima wanted to ensure that players would really like Quiet. However, instead of trusting in strong characterization and useful action, I believe that he decided to piss all over subtlety and took the most juvenile, lowest common denominator approach and just made sure that the player would lust like hell after her to form an attachment. I mean, in a sense it does kind of work, Stephanie Joosten is an undeniably gorgeous woman after all… but c’mon. It’s off-putting and kind of insulting to the player’s intelligence, and it becomes nearly impossible to take her character seriously due to her awful design.

Personally, I far preferred Quiet’s XOF Uniform once I unlocked it. While its existence instantly throws the “she’ll suffocate!!!” explanation into the wind, it simply is so much more sensible than her default outfit that it’s not even funny. It actually looks like a uniform that a soldier would wear and just fits her character so much better. I was actually worried that it might look a little too bland at first, but after a couple missions it had really grown on me and it made me lament her default costume even more (although now I could actually play the game when there were others around, so bonus). Hell, this might sound odd, but I wasn’t bothered at all by the cleavage-bearing Sniper Wolf costume that you can unlock by beating “Cloaked in Silence (Extreme)”. I’m not even sure exactly why either… Does her default outfit make Sniper Wolf look tasteful by comparison? Or perhaps I appreciate it when even a touch of subtlety is employed rather than pornographic fan service? Or maybe Sniper Wolf just has a better character design in general, striking a nice balance between a serious uniform a soldier might wear, while making it just cheesy enough that it has a sort of comic book sense of style? I’m not really sure, but I imagine the answer is somewhere between all three of these suggestions.**

Huey Emmerich also deserves a special mention for his role in The Phantom Pain. While there were some subtle hints in Ground Zeroes that he was responsible for the attack on Mother Base, it is not until The Phantom Pain that Huey is turned into a full-blown monster. This is a jarring change from his status in Peace Walker to say the least. On the one hand, I really did not like how his relationship with Big Boss paralleled Solid Snake’s relationship with Otacon so closely in Peace Walker, as it began to strain credulity (and before someone points it out, I don’t care if Metal Gear‘s a ridiculous series; there’s a difference between elements of magical realism and in having two generations of characters meeting up under the same circumstances out of sheer coincidence with absolutely no guiding force bringing this about). With that in mind, I significantly prefer Huey’s portrayal here as a lying, cowardly, spiteful individual as it allows him to create his own unique mark on the franchise’s story, but the justification for it is almost non-existent. The only real hints at these developments in Peace Walker that I could find are that he seems to blame his father’s genes for every misfortune that befalls him (showing a lack of responsibility) and that he believes wholeheartedly in deterrence (peace through force of arms), but even these traits are subverted through other actions that Huey makes throughout that game’s story (he feels strong remorse for his development of Peace Walker and doesn’t actually want to see any nuclear weapons be used, respectively).

With Peace Walker taken into consideration, Huey’s portrayal is problematic for a number of reasons, which is especially odd since The Phantom Pain is supposed to be a direct sequel to that game. The explanation for Huey’s complete change of character is left conspicuously ambiguous, which makes it difficult to understand some of the evil things he does. At least in Kaz’s case, losing Mother Base and his arm and leg are enough to understand if the guy goes over the edge. The only way I can rationalize this turn is to assume that, when Huey joined MSF, he believed that he would no longer be exploited to create machines of war. However, after Kaz acquired the nuke from Peace Walker and equipped it to Metal Gear ZEKE, Huey slowly realized that he was being used once again. As a result, he collaborated with XOF forces to bring down MSF, although this ended up being more deadly than he had expected. As a result, he is captured by Skull Face and forced to work on Sahelanthropus, pushing Huey over the edge and causing him to become a paranoid, distrustful coward who assumes that everyone is trying to exploit his talents for their own gains (which, when considering the threats and torture he endures, and that Diamond Dogs force him to work on D-Walker and Battle Gear, might not be too much of a stretch to imagine). Perhaps most difficult to justify though is his cold-blooded murder of Strangelove, who he was clearly head-over-heels in love with in Peace Walker. Obviously these feelings could have cooled somewhat in the time after she gave birth to his son, especially since (as she elaborates in her dying confessions) she did not reciprocate any love for him and simply used him as a willing sperm donor. In any case though, locking her in an AI pod to suffocate seems like a major overreaction to the fact that she secretly sent their son away to keep him from being used as a test pilot for Sahelanthropus. The only thing I can possibly infer here is that the choice of “murder weapon” is interesting – it is never directly stated, or even really implied, but perhaps Huey realized that she loved The Boss and not him, and so he left her to die with her symbolic lover in the Mammal Pod. It’s too bad that there’s not more justification given for Huey’s actions though. I think my speculations are sufficient to explain his actions, but they’re little more than my own personal theories filling in some rather large narrative gaps, since the game doesn’t deign itself to even bother giving an explanation.

Moving on to a few other notes about the story, I think I personally would have preferred a more “retro” style design for Sahelanthropus. As it is, it’s clearly the most powerful Metal Gear ever built, despite being smack dab in the middle of the series continuity and clearly intended to be the basis for Metal Gear REX. It’s the usual sort of irritating technological inconsistency that springs up in prequels all the time, like how the galaxy of The Phantom Menace is so much more technologically developed than that of A New Hope. The iDroid is a similar sort of anachronism, but at least in its case it is a rather minor issue which can be ignored, and it’s not like there’s a progression of iDroids in the series, with this one suddenly being the most advanced despite being in the middle of the continuity.

Also worth noting is that The Phantom Pain ditches most of the series’ signature instances of silly humour. While we get the glorious “Hamburgers of Kazuhira Miller” cassette tapes and a few humourous weapons and items (such as the surprisingly useful Water Pistol or the amazing Decoys), the game’s story is a very straight-faced affair… even when it is introducing parasites which coat the skin in carapace or when there’s a bikini-clad sniper shooting jets from the sky with her rifle. Obviously the series’ stranger elements clash with this tonal shift quite a bit, although the quirky elements remains charming enough that it still manages to hold together. The serious tone makes some of the nastier moments in the game resonate quite well, particularly “Shining Lights, Even in Death”… but considering that there are still so many over the top plot elements in place, it can still be difficult for some people to accept the narrative dissonance on display.

As for the game’s narrative on the whole, it basically boils down to filling in a few of the blanks in the series continuity. In very general terms, The Phantom Pain tells the story of why Zero puts his faith in AIs to create the Patriots network, why Kaz turns on Big Boss by the time Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake rolls around, where Big Boss acquired his “legendary mercenary” reputation and how Big Boss managed to create two military nations and “survive” being “killed” by Solid Snake in Metal Gear. Contrary to the marketing and popular belief, The Phantom Pain is NOT about Big Boss’ descent into villainy – it should have been pretty clear in Guns of the Patriots that Big Boss was never a straight up mega-maniacal monster. All of his “villainous” actions in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake were insurrections against the Patriots. Yes, he did some shady shit to get there, but his intentions were always understandable.

As for the game’s controversial ending, I’m a bit torn. First of all, having to replay the entire opening again dampened by enthusiasm for it significantly. Secondly, I think that the big reveal made for a pretty clever twist, not quite on par with the Raiden switcheroo, but close. However, the twist leaves far more questions than answers in the end and muddies the chronology significantly between this game and Metal Gear since there’s little info given for why the Big Bosses would turn on one another (although the essay I linked to in the revenge segment is, I would argue, a strong contender for the intended interpretation). It is also problematic since Big Boss clearly doesn’t want you to succeed in Metal Gear, so we’re left with two options. Either Big Boss was putting on an act in Metal Gear and wanted Solid Snake to actually kill Venom Snake for him, or Big Boss and Venom Snake were still working together and they really didn’t expect Solid Snake to get as far as he did. Neither option is airtight, although I think that the betrayal idea fits best with the overarching series storyline.

I’ve gone through almost 5500 words now delving into themes and character analyses in some detail without really getting to the heart of my feelings on The Phantom Pain‘s story… which will honestly take a small fraction of the time and space. Ultimately, the narrative of The Phantom Pain leaves a lot to be desired, being one of the weakest entries in the entire series in this regard. Perhaps it is because of the open world structure, or because the game is so clearly unfinished, but the events don’t really cohere particularly well in the end. There are definitely standout moments within the story, but on the whole, most of the missions don’t seem to be building up towards anything and simply feel like busywork. The lack of payoff in the end hurts matters even more, because why should we give a shit about all the stuff with Eli if he just pisses off into the sunset with Sahelanthropus and is never heard from again (outside of the collector’s edition DVD of course)? Then there’s the rather ridiculous elements revolving around the parasite soldiers which, again, remind me a bit too much of The Phantom Menace.

That said though, if you can untangle the twist and throw in “The Kingdom of the Flies” then The Phantom Pain acts as a pretty great mid-point for the franchise’s narrative. The pieces are set for all of big showdowns which will occur from here on out as the relationships between Ocelot, Big Boss, Venom Snake, Kaz, Liquid Snake, Solid Snake and the Patriots all begin to simmer towards a boiling point. As a middle chapter, that’s probably a good place to get the series to, but it’s just too bad that it had to be so messy on the way.

All-in-all though, simply due to its stellar gameplay Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain could easily be considered the best Metal Gear game. Its gameplay is incredibly fun and ambitious. However, while its themes are very interesting (if not particularly deep or subtle at times), its actual narrative leaves quite a bit to be desired, putting it well behind Snake Eater in that regard. It will be interesting to see how the reception for The Phantom Pain evolves over the years and whether it cools off or becomes stronger as people get over the initial sting of missing content and the twist. If Konami releases new story DLC, then this could also have a major bearing on the game, since “The Kingdom of the Flies” alone would make the game feel significantly more complete. As it is, it’s an amazing game, but one can’t help but wonder what it would have looked like if Kojima had gotten the opportunity to get it into a reasonably finished state…

9.5/10

*Much to Ground Zeroes‘ detriment, I might add. It would be awesome if they could retroactively unlock the gadgets and options from The Phantom Pain in Ground Zeroes to shake up that game somewhat and make it a little more open. As it is, Ground Zeroes is going to feel incredibly limiting now that we have seen what The Phantom Pain has to offer. As an interesting note, prior to release, Kojima had said that he’d allow us to explore Camp Omega again in The Phantom Pain, but this feature ended up being cut… surely due to the strained development period and time constraints.
**Also worth pointing out is one of the excuses given for Quiet’s attire: “well EVA was wearing even less during Snake Eater and no one gave a shit!” This is a very weak argument on many levels. For one thing, I have always found EVA’s costume to be ridiculous as well, but at least in her case she’s actually trying to be seductive and the game is trying to recall cheesy 60s spy flicks so it has some narrative justification. Secondly, when the game was first released on the PS2 in 2004, game journalism was far less developed than it is now. Back then, it mainly consisted of previews and reviews, with maybe some interviews and commentary. However, in the current climate, video games are taken far more seriously, so commentary on the content of a game is far more common and, in all honesty, this is a very good development. Even then, I doubt games journalists of today would bat an eye at EVA’s attire, but I can fully understand the hullabaloo that Quiet has caused.

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Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid V – Ground Zeroes (2014)

Welcome back to the Metal Gear retrospective! In this entry we’re going to cover the 10th game in the franchise, 2014’s prologue, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes! I actually wrote a review for this game back when it first came out, but in… er… retrospect it was more of a justification for the game’s length rather than a real review. As a result, I’m going to make sure to cover more info on the game itself. How does it hold up now that the price has dropped significantly and with the game being given out for free on a couple different occasions now? Read on to find out…

(For the sake of this review, I used the PS4 version as my benchmark. I can’t comment on the PS3/Xbox 360 versions.)

DEVELOPMENT
Even prior to the release of Peace Walker, Kojima teased the idea of Metal Gear Solid V. His team was busy developing a new game engine which would become known as the Fox Engine. The freedom of the Fox Engine would allow for a fully open world Metal Gear game, a notion which Kojima had been attempting to achieve since Snake Eater. With work on the Fox Engine wrapping up and the next generation of consoles approaching, the decision was made to make Ground Zeroes a cross-generational game.

Prior to the game’s official announcement, Kojima went on record saying that his next game would deal with delicate, even taboo, issues which might not make the final cut in the game or which might be so shocking as to negatively impact the game’s sales. Ground Zeroes was finally revealed in the summer of 2012 through a Japanese trailer which consisted of the game’s opening cutscene. This was also the venue where Kojima announced that the game would be running within an open world setting, emphasizing player freedom to approach their objectives. It would also be available on a very wide release, with the PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC all being able to play the game.

Some confusion began to grow as the game’s development continued. A trailer for a game called The Phantom Pain by “Moby Dick Studios” was quickly deciphered to be another Metal Gear game in simultaneous development. After some speculation, it was officially announced that The Phantom Pain was a part of Metal Gear Solid V, causing people to believe that this game and Ground Zeroes were going to be a single game. However, it was later clarified that they would be 2 separate games, with Ground Zeroes serving as a smaller prologue.

The game then began to encounter some major controversy. The long-time English voice actor for the Solid Snake and Big Boss, David Hayter, was replaced by Kiefer Sutherland. Fans bristled at this revelation and threatened to boycott the game, to no avail. Fans also complained about the game’s addition of “reflex mode”, which allows for a chance to eliminate guards after being spotted without setting off an alert, and a fast-regenerating health mechanic, both of which were seen as making Metal Gear too “casual”.

During the game’s initial release, the PlayStation versions received the “Déjà Vu” mission as a console-exclusive mission, whereas Xbox versions received the “Jamais Vu” mission. These two missions were timed console exclusives, which were unlocked for free for both consoles a few weeks after release. Naturally, the announcement about console-specific missions riled up some fans as well.

Probably the biggest source of controversy around the game though arose from Game Informer‘s Metal Gear Solid V cover story. In their commentary, they stated that the game was comparable to the Sons of Liberty demo, but paid for separately. Furthermore, they commented that they had completed the main mission in 2 hours, but some testers had run it in only 5 minutes. These comments caused fans to react extremely negatively, with people claiming that Konami expected them to drop $30-$40 for a demo with only 5 minutes of gameplay. These complaints were fresh in the public’s minds when the game finally released in March of 2014 (although the PC version would not be released until December).

PLOT SUMMARY
In the aftermath of Peace Walker, the UN has requested to inspect Mother Base for the presence of any nuclear materials. MSF initially turned the request down, but Huey took it upon himself to reverse the decision to try to make MSF appear to be a beacon of peace. As a result, Big Boss and Kaz prepare for the inspection by hiding ZEKE and their nuclear warhead, and evacuating civilians and heavy equipment offshore.

However, as they prepare for the inspection, Miller discovers that Paz survived her encounter with Big Boss. She has been captured by Cipher for interrogation and is now stationed in Camp Omega in Cuba. Hoping to rescue her, Chico sneaks into the enemy base, but is captured in the attempt. The Intel team attempts to discover Chico’s location, but after some time a cassette tape is received which contains a distress call from Chico. Big Boss and Miller suspect that the request is a trap, but with the inspection bearing down on them and the sensitive knowledge held by Chico and Paz, they have no choice but to attempt a rescue.

As Big Boss infiltrates into Camp Omega, Skullface, the leader of the Cipher special forces unit XOF, departs by helicopter and then heads out to sea to perform the UN “inspection”. Big Boss witnesses the helicopter convoy heading out and then moves to retrieve the prisoners. Making his way through the base, Big Boss locates Chico and then takes him to the shoreline for extraction via helicopter. Chico laments that Paz is already dead, giving Big Boss a cassette tape of her being tortured. Undeterred, Big Boss heads back into Camp Omega to locate Paz. He finds her in the basement of the Admin building, chained up in the boiler room. He sneaks her back out to the extraction site and then heads back towards Mother Base with the two rescued prisoners. However, on the way back, Chico discovers that Paz’s gut has been stitched up. Big Boss realizes that she has been rigged with a bomb and orders a medic to come inspect her. After a painful surgery without anesthetic, the bomb is extracted and thrown into the ocean.

Contact is soon lost with Mother Base though. When they arrive, they see that the base is on fire and that many of the struts have collapsed. The helicopter lands on one intact strut, which allows Big Boss to save Miller and a couple other soldiers before evacuating. Miller blames Paz for the destruction of MSF, but she stands up and reveals that there is a second bomb before jumping out of the helicopter and exploding. Despite her sacrifice, the blast radius knocks the helicopter out of control and sends it careening into the path of an XOF helicopter, causing the two aircraft to crash and putting Big Boss into a coma…

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
First off, I have to say that in a lot of ways it is fair to call Ground Zeroes a paid-demo, as it really is a stripped-down tech demonstration for the game’s main act. That said, it does have quite a bit of content to experience which helps to justify its stand-alone price point. For one thing, there are 7 different missions in this game which can all be replayed and experienced in a number of different ways. The main “Ground Zeroes” mission alone should easily take up 1.5 to 2 hours to beat on a first playthrough. In addition, unlike many open world games, all of the side-ops are well worth trying out. They all have their own interesting little stories and fairly unique objectives which make them both fun and challenging. For my own part, I have probably sunk at least 8+ hours into this game.

Of course, the “Ground Zeroes” mission is where most of the gameplay lies, and it is thankfully very fun. It is reasonably lengthy and offers a ton of player freedom. While you’re supposed to rescue Chico first, you can actually choose to go for the more difficult approach and rescue Paz first, which adds a whole new angle of challenge and difficulty to the mission. The other side-ops change up the gameplay quite a bit, tasking you with eliminating targets, retrieving intel or even killing body-snatchers.

In terms of mechanics, Ground Zeroes plays similarly to Guns of the Patriots in many ways. The radar and all associated systems have been completely eliminated, meaning that reconnaissance and situational awareness are now crucial to stealthy gameplay. The controversial reflex mode is a major boon in this department – with most of your aids now excised, having that last ditch effort to land a headshot is extremely helpful, without feeling absolutely broken either. Of course, if you’re just too damn “hardcore” for this pansy-ass bullshit, then you can just turn it off. And then eat some nails, presumably.

If you do get stuck in a straight-up gunfight, Ground Zeroes‘ combat is extremely refined. Gunplay is very fun and smooth, not featuring any of the stuttering which was common in Guns of the Patriots. Enemies’ animations when they get hit are notable for how surprisingly good they are, with shots to various parts of the body staggering them in that direction. CQC has also seen another makeover, with standard combat chains actually being a viable option, rather than having to rely on chokeholds and hold-ups to get anything done. You can also steal enemy vehicles, such as a jeep, truck or LAV (which has always proven extremely useful to me when extracting Paz).

Despite the game’s philosophy of providing player freedom, there are some annoying design decisions which go against this idea. Probably most importantly, the lack of ability to customize your loadout is a major problem which hurts replayability. Sure, you get some bonus weapons at the start of the mission when you replay it, but they’re very limited in variety. There’s also just a lack of meaningful weapon variety in general, with nearly everything being procure-on-site. The game also locks its 2 bonus side-ops, “Déjà Vu” and “Jamais Vu”, behind a collectible hunt. This is rather annoying because this locks off a good 30+ minutes of content (for just a single playthrough) which most players aren’t going to bother to unlock. It also doesn’t hurt that “Jamais Vu” is arguably the funnest side-op in the whole game.

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS
Like most Metal Gear games, Ground Zeroes opens up with a very impressive cutscene which shows off a Alfonso Cuarón-style continuous tracking shot which shows the player around Camp Omega. Here we are introduced to all of the key players, including the enigmatic villain of the game, Skull Face. Most of the story is told in a rather simple, straightforward manner, but the story itself is fairly compelling. A lot of supplementary information related to backstory is sectioned off in the game’s optional and collectible cassette tapes (including all of Paz’s secret tapes from Peace Walker). While it will take you over an hour to listen to all of the tapes, I would definitely recommend that you do so, as they fill out the whole political situation surrounding the game’s story very well, lend it additional gravitas and show the various characters’ motivations. The interrogation cassettes are also rather important as they flesh out Skull Face’s character, especially considering that he is basically a shadowy figure off-screen for the whole game.

Of course, there is one very lengthy and difficult-to-listen-to cassette tape which details the torture inflicted upon Chico and Paz, which features Paz being gang raped by the soldiers, having Chico be forced to rape Paz (with Skull Face twisting it into a sick reward for the boy, who you must remember had a crush on her) and having Skull Face be heavily implied to insert a bomb into Paz’s vagina. The amount of suffering that she endures is unimaginably awful, and the fact that this sequence is an unlockable “reward” caused a fairly big controversy. Claims that depictions of sexual violence were being used as a “reward” for the player were rather overblown, as I’m sure that most players will concede that these are hardly a “reward” at all, but rather plot explanation. You could definitely argue about the necessity of such depictions, but this was one controversial aspect of the game which I think was overblown from people who didn’t actually play the game.

It’s also worth realizing that all of the torture inflicted on Paz ties into this game’s main theme, which revolves around the ethically bankrupt actions carried out by governments. Camp Omega is clearly intended to be a representation of Guantanamo Bay detention camp, and the tortures inflicted on the characters are meant to be a commentary on the moral shadiness of American anti-terrorism methods. The game compounds this idea with its theme song, “Here’s to You” (which was previously used in Guns of the Patriots‘ closing credits). The song is about a pair of anarchists who were executed by the American government in the 1920s, who are believed to have been executed for their political beliefs rather than any actual actions the pair might have committed. The song plays at a few key moments throughout the game, particularly during the opening and when Paz is being tortured by Skull Face.

With these themes in mind, I don’t believe that this game is truly about Big Boss, as it may seem to be at first glance. In my opinion, this game is all about Paz. She is the one invoked by “Here’s to You”, the martyr who is killed by the government, and the only character who has a real arc in the game. In her own audio tapes at the end of Peace Walker she reveals a conflicted desire to turn on Cipher and live as a true student of peace, but those dreams were lost. She also revealed a dislike of Chico, but when the two of them are being tortured she seems to warm up to him a lot. She even comforts him throughout their torture, even when he is forced to rape her and even though she is receiving the brunt of their depravity. She also refuses to break throughout the interrogations until Skull Face presents her with an offer – Big Boss’s life for Zero’s location. Betrayed by her own organization and perhaps looking to redeem herself for her previous actions, Paz sacrifices her own life to help ensure Big Boss’s survival. This is further demonstrated by her willingness to throw herself out of the helicopter at the end when she realizes that they didn’t find the second bomb planted on her. All of the suffering she is inflicted with makes Paz seem like something of a Christ-figure in this game. It’s easy to miss all of these plot points though if you don’t dive into the game’s audio tapes. Without them, this is a simple story about how Big Boss rescues a couple of targets. With them, this is a story about Paz’s struggles, her choices, her strength in the face of evil, and her defiance until the end.

Ground Zeroes suffers a bit as a prologue though. If the purpose of a prologue is to set up the events which unfold in the greater story, then Ground Zeroes is rather inadequate. Judged from this game alone, you’d think that The Phantom Pain would be primarily concerned with the dark side of nationalism/government control, but those plot points are never raised again. The only way that the two are really connected in a meaningful way is that it sets up Big Boss’s desire for revenge, but if you want a really tight narrative (especially in a two-part release) then you should at least try to work in the other themes in the game, rather than just the simple motivations. This is, of course, not entirely this game’s fault, but it is a strange point which makes some of the more fantastical elements of The Phantom Pain more awkward, especially after the extreme seriousness of Ground Zeroes.

All-in-all, Ground Zeroes is a very fun, but limited game. Questions of the length and value of the game persist long after its release. It is definitely a fun experience, but it really does feel like a rather large demo when all is said and done. Luckily, it is also quite cheap to acquire these days, making questions of value less of a deal-breaker for more people. For my own part, I’d recommend checking it out before jumping on board with The Phantom Pain, but be sure to experience the main story and the side-ops for maximum enjoyment.

7.5/10
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Retrospective: Metal Gear Rising – Revengeance (2013)

Welcome back to the Metal Gear retrospective! In this entry we’re going to be covering the ninth game in the franchise, 2013’s Raiden-based spin-off Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance! After a troubled development cycle and some major fan backlash, would this game manage to prove itself worthy of the Metal Gear name? Read on to find out…

DEVELOPMENT
The original version of the game which would eventually become Metal Gear Rising: RevengeanceMetal Gear Solid: Rising, was announced in 2009 at Microsoft’s E3 press conference. After the praise Raiden had received for his portrayal in Guns of the Patriots, there was a strong fan demand for another game in the franchise with him in the lead role. Kojima actually wanted a game with Gray Fox, but staff and fans pushed him to focus on Raiden instead. The game was intended to bridge the gap between Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots, explaining how Raiden became a cyborg ninja, how he rescued Sunny from The Patriots and how he retrieved the body of Big Boss. A trailer was released the next year featuring Raiden absorbing robotic enemies’ power cells and with a gratuitous amount of watermelon-cutting. According to the development team, the game would allow fast-paced action while remaining a stealth game at the core, with the ability to “cut anything”.

However, the game was quickly finding itself running into trouble as it was simply not working well as a stealth-action hybrid. To put it simply, it wasn’t working at all and by 2011 Kojima pulled the plug on the game, but not before concept work on the bosses and script was completed. The project was then handed over to Platinum Games, of Bayonetta fame. Considering their previous history with fast-paced action games, this was a fantastic move. However, fan reaction was very negative, as the shift from stealth to pure action was seen as betraying the series’ roots. To these fans, the shift in direction had effectively “ruined” a game that they hadn’t played.

Under Platinum Games, the game was retitled, reworked into more of a pure action game and set post-Guns of the Patriots. Stealth was essentially removed except for optional instant stealth-kills and some cutting-based environmental kills that the player can pull off. Platinum Games also upped the game’s framerate to 60 fps, a request that Kojima himself asked for as Rising was originally going to be only 30 fps. It was also revealed that the cutscenes, settings and story were written by Kojima Productions, while Platinum Games focused on the gameplay.

A year after the game’s initial release, the game was ported to PC, the first game in the franchise to receive a PC release since Metal Gear Solid: Integral back in 2000. All subsequent Metal Gear games would receive PC ports as well.

PLOT SUMMARY
4 years after the destruction of The Patriots, the world has fallen into an uneasy state where peace is extremely fragile and the last gasps of the War Economy continue. The remaining PMCs have taken on cyborg soldiers. Looking to support his family, Raiden joins up with Maverick Security Consulting Inc as a private security contractor. He is on assignment providing security for the peace-loving Prime Minister N’mani (of some unnamed African nation) when their convoy is suddenly ambushed by a cyborg PMC. Raiden’s boss, Boris, orders Maverick Security to evacuate N’mani while Raiden dispatches many of the attackers. However, a Metal Gear RAY unit, armed with a gigantic sword, appears and destroys N’mani’s limo. N’mani crawls from the wreckage, but is kidnapped by the enemy PMC’s leader, Sundowner. He explains that he needs N’mani dead and that he wishes to restore the War Economy. Raiden destroys the RAY unit and then pursues Sundowner onto a passing train.

Raiden tracks down Sundowner, N’mani and another enemy cyborg, Sam Rodrigues. Sundowner executes N’mani and then Sam attacks Raiden. Sam proves too capable, slicing off Raiden’s arm and then slashing out his left eye. Sam nearly finishes Raiden off, but backup arrives in the form of Boris and a convoy of armed jeeps, which force Sam to retreat. Raiden is recovered and it is discovered that the enemy PMC is called “Desperado Enforcement LLC”.

Three weeks later, it is discovered that Desperado is involved in a coup against the Abkhazian government led by a local extremist, Andrey Dolzaev. Outfitted with a state-of-the-art cyborg body, Raiden infiltrates into the city of Sukhumi and then fights his way through Desperado cyborg troops to reach Dolzaev and the local Desperado leader, Mistral. He is eventually ambushed by an AI-controlled robot called LQ-84i (aka, Blade Wolf) which resembles Crying Wolf’s exosuit. Blade Wolf attempts to kill Raiden as per its mission directives, but Raiden defeats the robot and shuts it down.

Soon after, he spots Dolzaev and Mistral at a factory. Mistral spots Raiden and blows him a kiss from a distance. Unperturbed, Raiden battles his way through the facility and reaches the top of the plant, where he is confronted by Mistral. She explains that she was an orphan and a child soldier in the Algerian Civil War, and had used war as an excuse to get revenge on those who killed her parents and as a cause to kill. She scoffs at the idea that Raiden fights for justice and then attacks. The pair fight all across the facility before Raiden corners Mistral at a tank of liquid nitrogen. He severs the tank and then freezes her solid before destroying her for good. Dolzeav discovers that Mistral is dead and then blows himself up, taking out a chunk of the factory in the process. Satisfied that the coup is over, Raiden is extracted from Sukhumi. Before leaving, he recovers Blade Wolf’s remains and has him rebuilt and reprogrammed to provide him with mission intel.

Maverick then receives intel that Desperado owns a research lab in Mexico and are connected to rumours of human trafficking. Raiden sneaks into the city along with Blade Wolf and then heads into the sewers to get closer to the lab. After fighting enemy units in the sewers, Raiden encounters a boy named George who claims to have escaped the lab. He tells Raiden that the kidnapped children in the lab were having their organs harvested. Raiden hurries into the lab to rescue the children. Heading further into the lab, Raiden finds a room which is full of cyborg brain casings – the cyborgs Raiden had been fighting this entire time were adults, meaning that the children must have been taken elsewhere.

He then uses a reprogrammed Dwarf Gekko to access the lab’s data terminals, where he discovers a video of Sundowner, the lab chief and another man speaking. They comment on a VR training program similar to the one that George Sears (aka, Solidus Snake) used to train child soldiers in Liberia. Fearing that their cover was blown, the unknown man says that all of the harvested, unprocessed brains and kidnapped children need to be destroyed and the lab shut down immediately, regardless of the cost. Maverick support team member informs Raiden that the unknown man is Colorado Senator Steven Armstrong, a leading presidential candidate for the 2020 elections, and a key member of World Marshal Inc, the world’s current largest PMC. With World Marshal and Desperado working together, trying to go public with the news of their corruption is apparently impossible, as they wield too much influence over the media and would destroy them if they tried.

Raiden then fights his way to get to the surviving children. He finds them locked in a lab as the chief scientist tries to gas them to death. The scientist holds George hostage and tells Raiden that he has to surrender. Calling his rather stupid bluff, Raiden cuts the man down and then rescues both George and the children.

Deciding to take the fight to World Marshal personally, Raiden resigns from Maverick Security and then heads to Colorado to rescue the remaining harvested brains. Boris contacts Raiden and says that he can’t offer his official support for this mission, but agrees to help however he can. Raiden is then pursued through the city by the cyborgs of the Denver police, which he dispatches as he heads towards World Marshal headquarters. On the way there, Raiden is confronted by holographic projections of Sam Rodrigues, who questions Raiden’s motivations. Raiden claims that he fights to defend the weak, but Sam asks who defends the weak from Raiden. He reveals that the cyborgs attacking Raiden are merely doing so to provide for their families, just as Raiden does. Raiden is then forced to fight a pair of cyborgs while listening to their thoughts, and kills them after taking a beating. With his psyche draining, Raiden kills more cyborgs while being confronted with their own humanity, before Sam appears in the flesh, accompanied by another Desperado officer, Monsoon. Monsoon explains that the “weak” cyborgs are used as human shields for the real powers behind World Marshal and Desperado. He also explains that war is like a meme, similar to Raiden’s belief that his sword is a tool of justice. Flying into a rage as he succumbs to bloodlust, Raiden unleashes his split persona, “Jack the Ripper”. In a flurry of violence, Raiden destroys a series of cyborgs and then is confronted by Monsoon. The pair battle, with Monsoon using trickery and the ability to “magnetically” split his body to avoid many of Raiden’s attacks. However, Raiden eventually severs Monsoon’s head and destroys him for good.

Raiden makes his way into World Marshal HQ, where Sundowner informs Raiden that the brains are in the server room. He then fights his way up the building to reach the upper levels, battling through corridors, a Japanese garden and the elevator shafts before reaching the top floor. Here, he encounters AI body doubles of Mistral and Monsoon, both of which he defeats with ease. He then moves on to the server room where he confronts Sundowner, who shows Raiden the hundreds of child soldier brains in World Marshal HQ undergoing VR training. He also warns that in 3 hours time, an event would occur that would rival 9/11 and would resurrect the War Economy.

Not wishing to “damage the merchandise”, Sundowner leads Raiden to the rooftop heliport to battle. Sundowner battles very defensively, but Raiden cuts through his defences before putting the leader of Desperado down for good. Deducing Sundowner’s words about a terrorist attack on par with 9/11, Raiden realizes that World Marshal is planning to assassinate the US President, who is travelling to Pakistan for a series of peace talks. His assassination would reignite the War on Terror and War Economy in the process. They realize that the only way to get to Pakistan in time would be to reach Mach 23 speeds via an RLV spacecraft, which could get Raiden to Pakistan in under a half hour. Raiden commands Boris to see to this and seek help from the Solis company while Raiden and his support team member, Doktor, retrieved the brains from World Marshall HQ.

After picking up the brains via helicopter, Raiden and Doktor are beset by a pair of drones. Raiden destroys them but falls from the helicopter in the process, forcing him to make his way to Solis by ground. He destroys a group of World Marshal cyborgs and then escapes the city on a motorcycle. However, just as he is about to reach Solis, Raiden encounters Sam Rodrigues and Blade Wolf on the road. Sam demands a final duel with his rival and the pair battle. Blade Wolf is confused by the purpose of the fight and is unable to understand why Sam and Raiden want to kill each other so badly. Regardless, the pair battle until Raiden slashes his foe open, killing him. Blade Wolf takes Sam’s ID-locked sword as a memory of his former friend and then the pair continue on to Solis.

At Solis, Raiden encounters Sunny Emmerich, who constructed the RLV spacecraft Raiden will be using. She realizes that they don’t really have time to reminisce, and proceeds with the launch. Raiden arrives in Pakistan with little time to spare. He reaches the air base where the President was scheduled to land and attacks the World Marshal forces guarding it, having already killed the US forces guarding the base. Soon, he comes across Blade Wolf, who has been badly damaged. Searching for the attacker, the ground suddenly gives way and a gigantic mech called Metal Gear EXCELSUS appears, piloted by Senator Armstrong. He reveals that photos of the attack on the base have already been leaked onto the Internet and that people are calling for death to the Pakistani people. Due to the harsh ideologies embraced by the American people, they have become “Sons of The Patriots” and simply need an excuse to reignite the War Economy. Of course, Raiden will have to be eliminated to ensure that this all goes down smoothly.

Raiden then proceeds to fight Armstrong in EXCELSUS, destroying its front legs and then removing one of its gigantic swords, which Raiden uses to slash the mech apart. Annoyed, Armstrong emerges from the destroyed mech and powers himself up, gaining a ton of muscle bulk in seconds. Armstrong then begins to beat Raiden with his bare hands, absolutely pummelling the cyborg ninja and snapping his high-frequency blade in half. Armstrong then explains his true motives: he is looking to destroy America to make it free again, allowing everyone to fight for what they believe in and for the strong to not be held back by the weak. Raiden tells Armstrong that he’s insane and the pair continue to fight. Raiden is unable to cause any meaningful damage to his foe though, due to nanomachines in Armstrong’s body which harden in response to physical trauma.

Blade Wolf then intervenes and provides Raiden with Sam’s sword. A final voice message from Sam reveals that he set his ID lock to expire after an hour and that he wanted Raiden to do with the blade as he saw fit. Armstrong bats Blade Wolf away, but not before Raiden retrieves the sword and then attacks the Senator with it. After an intense battle, Raiden slashes open Armstrong and then rips out his heart with his bare hand. Armstrong collapses and dies as Raiden stands in the rubble.

In the game’s epilogue, it is revealed that the US and Pakistan discuss a unified effort to combat terrorism, implying that the War Economy is still not dead. It is also revealed that George is now working at Solis with Sunny, who recounts that she would not be here today if Raiden had not saved her so many years ago. Despite what anyone thinks, she considers him to be a hero. The children were given cyborg bodies and put to work within Maverick Security. Raiden also permanently resigns from Maverick and declares that he will be fighting his own wars from here on.

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN
Obviously, Rising plays significantly differently than any other Metal Gear game. Whereas previous Metal Gear games were stealth-based, Rising is a fairly standard, fast-paced, hack ‘n slash action game. Thankfully, it doesn’t try too hard to fit into the Metal Gear mold and tries to do its own thing. For one thing, this game’s violence is super over-the-top, with the first 5 minutes of the game featuring people getting slashes apart and spraying out ridiculous amounts of blood. It also is punctuated by a hilariously cheesy nu metal soundtrack. While these tonal differences might make it seem odd (or even heretical) for a traditional Metal Gear fan, the extremely cheesy and ridiculous tone of the game makes it hilariously enjoyable (and considering that nu metal is known for being excessively angsty and more than a little cheesy, its usage is actually very appropriate).

Rising is also designed primarily around a philosophy of “speed”. To this end, the game has a “Ninja Run” mode which allows Raiden to sprint and automatically vault over objects. He can also slash and slide in Ninja Run which is useful for getting some quick attacks in on enemies. The game also was built around the idea of being able to cut anything, which is well-implemented. While obviously you can’t cut everything, many objects in the environment can be slashed apart, with the cut occurring exactly where the player’s blade passed through the object. It’s pretty damn impressive to see in action, although getting caught on the newly-bisected objects quickly becomes an annoyance. Rising also features a free-control “Blade Mode” which allows you to slash apart objects or enemies with exact precision. Depending on the enemy’s status, you can also rip out their repair units by using Blade Mode, providing you with a power and health refill. As a result, this action is extremely key to your continued success in Rising.

Unlike many action games, Rising forgoes a block button in favour of parrying. Enemy attacks are colour-coded by a flash – red means that the attack can be parried, while yellow means that it is unblockable. Presumably, the decision to eliminate the block button was done to keep players on the offensive and to keep them from turtling up, but it is a very controversial decision. On the one hand, it certainly does force the player to be active and alert, while also backing off when they see an unblockable attack telegraphed. However, it’s easy to miss these cues when surrounded by enemies or if they end up off-screen when they telegraph their attack. The game also makes this more annoying by not featuring a dodge mechanic by default – it’s a skill that you have to unlock early on. Even then you have to hold 2 buttons to pull it off and it’s far from fool-proof, meaning that you’re going to need to rely on parrying anyway more often than not. To make matters worse, Rising does a wretched job of explaining its fundamental gameplay systems. I didn’t understand parrying at all until about halfway through the 2nd chapter when I ran into a parry-dependant boss, at which point I had to learn the system on the fly. That said, once you do understand parrying, the rest of the core gameplay becomes extremely easy, with only a handful of enemy types providing any sort of challenge (basically just Mastiffs as they love their unblockable attacks and usually attack in groups of 3).

In my personal estimation, the combat doesn’t seem particularly deep. It’s certainly better than the rhythm-based, pathetically easy combat which pervades most modern action games these days (eg, Assassin’s CreedShadow of Mordor*, the Arkham games, etc), but I don’t think it’s up to snuff with Ninja Gaiden. Most confrontations are easy as soon as you understand the game’s parrying system, making the core gameplay a very simple game of offence and quick reaction times. Much of the game’s challenge comes from its systems not working correctly though. Again, you could theoretically block every parriable-attack with relative ease if you have reasonable reflexes. However, it’s common that you will miss your cues due to enemies being off-screen, getting being surrounded, or from all the visual chaos that occurs during combat. The camera in particular really sucks in the game at times. I found that it would swing around wildly if you headed into a corner and can make tracking enemies difficult when it moves unbidden. Alternatively, there’s a camera lock-on system, but it has the exact same problems (or worse), swinging around wildly when enemies move quickly or keeping all of your other enemies off-screen. This tends to result in some rather cheap damage as you get caught in an unblockable attack from off-screen. The lack of a dedicated block or dodge button compounds this issue as you can’t even block as a last-ditch effort.

There are also a couple of really strange design issues. For one thing, you can customize Raiden in-game, but if you do so then you’ll have to restart from the latest checkpoint. I’m not sure why this was added, although I think it might have something to do with the encounter-based ranking system. The item/weapon switching system is also counter-intuitive. Considering that the game is all about speed, it’s totally inexplicable to me that it would force Raiden to be stationary before he can switch his weapons or equipable items. It is a limitation which makes little sense and can actually get you killed at times.

Also worth noting are that the game’s environments are extremely unimaginative. If you’ve ever played a hack ‘n slash game before, let me know if this sounds familiar: there’s a level in a ruined city, across moving train cars (straight out of Uncharted 2), a freaking sewer system, city streets, office buildings… even a Japanese garden/temple setting. All of these settings are very basic action game locales, and have been since the SNES days. It would be one thing if they did something to stand out, but the environments are just very noticeably generic throughout the game.

To change up the gameplay somewhat, there are also some very basic stealth segments. They’re typically quite short and optional, giving you the opportunity to one-shot enemies if you remain undetected. However, more often than not, it’s both funner and more beneficial to just sound an alert and enjoy the combat. There’s also a sequence where you get to control a Dwarf Gekko which is surprisingly very fun, but for some reason enemies will shoot at you anyway. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but it is a nice bit of disempowerment which had me laughing at my enemies’ feeble attempts to catch me.

Rising is also quite short in length. There are only 8 chapters, but they vary significantly in length – most of the earlier chapters take around 45-60 minutes, but chapters 5 and 6 took me 13 and 5 minutes, respectively. I got to the end of the game after only 2 reasonable sittings, which might have taken me only 5 or 6 hours, tops. With reasonably simple combat, replayability is going to come down to how much you want to play around with the tools you have available. You can play on a harder difficulty, go for a “non-lethal” playthrough (in which you only slice off all of your enemies’ limbs… they’ll live), try to get S-ranks on all encounters, find all of the unlockables and beat the available VR missions if you really want to extend the game’s length.

The game’s graphics are also noticeably a step down from Guns of the Patriots. While this might be disappointing as there is a 5 year gap between the two releases, it is more than made up for by Rising‘s silky smooth 60 fps. This is key for such a fast-paced game and significantly outweighs the slightly mediocre graphics. The framerate does dip occasionally, but I didn’t find that any frame drops that did happen affected the combat significantly. There is also some strange disparity between gameplay and cutscenes, where it can be nighttime in the cutscene and then broad daylight in-game, although this is presumably due to the work-split between Platinum Games and Kojima Productions.

On the subject of cutscenes, they are less intrusive than in previous Metal Gear games. Many action sequences that would have been relegated to cutscenes are now playable, although they do so through quick-time events. I also personally think that the Codec calls are a little too frequent and take you out of the action for too long when they do show up. Rising is also notable for having a ton of optional Codec conversations available – in fact, it easily has the most prominent Codec since Snake Eater.

The enemies in the game are fairly standard action game fodder and can’t really stand up to Raiden in a fight (especially when you factor in the prominence of parrying). Enemies’ visual designs draw very heavily from the technology depicted in Guns of the Patriots, particularly Sliders, Crying Wolf, Haven Troopers and Gekkos. As a result, this visual continuity helps to ground this game as being in the game universe as the Metal Gear games, despite being so tonally different.

The fight against Blade Wolf is the first difficult enemy in the game, although this is mainly because the game hasn’t bothered to teach you its own systems at this point. I posted a link above where a Kotaku writer stated that he, and many other players, hit a brick wall during this fight. I have to agree with him, this fight took me about a half dozen attempts at least before I finally “figured out” the parry system.

After Blade Wolf, most of the bosses become significantly easier. I found Mistral to be quite easy to take down by brute force, especially because she surrounds herself in Dwarf Gekko which drop health pickups every time you kill them. Monsoon was also quite easy, but because he is very rarely open to be attacked, his fight drags on significantly longer than it needed to. You also have to fight both of these bosses again shortly after defeating Monsoon, but luckily the fights are significantly easier.

Sundowner is an enjoyably hammy and douchey enemy, but his fight becomes annoying quickly. He is a primarily-defensive boss, using an explosive shield to avoid your attacks. The only way to avoid it is to use Blade Mode and cut at a specific angle, which allows you to cut off some of Sundowners’s shields. Unfortunately, I would get locked into a combo as he put up his shield, meaning that I would hit it before I even had a chance to use Blade Mode. I had to start using smaller attack chains until he put up his shield, at which point he became much easier (…again, parries).

Considering that he gets hyped up to be your big rival throughout the game, I actually found the battle against Sam to be disappointingly easy. Unlike other bosses, Sam’s battle is basically a straight-up duel, meaning that you literally just have to parry in time to make it through. Defeating him shouldn’t take too much effort to pull off, which is a bit of a shame.

Like most Metal Gear battles, EXCELSUS is stupidly easy in spite of its imposing stature. Like most giant-monster battles in these sorts of games, just attacks its parts which are close to the arena’s edge and avoid its attacks as best you can (constantly using Ninja Run is useful for this). To make things sadder, pairs of Gekkos attack you, but they do so when EXCELSUS shoots a flamethrower at you, meaning that they just get hit by the attack and commit suicide.

However, for all of the simplicity of Rising‘s combat, Senator Armstrong is a freaking annoyance. Nothing in this game will prepare you for the difficulty spike that this guy is. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb and declare Senator Armstrong the absolute hardest boss in the entire Metal Gear franchise, and not in a good way. The battle is very long, you have to face him in 3 different stages and he is cheap as all hell!!! It seems that he can break parries with his regular attacks sometimes, he has a ridiculously enormous health bar and his attacks cause significant damage, meaning that if you don’t learn all of his attack patterns perfectly, time all of your own attacks/parries, avoid all of his unblockable attacks and then have perfect Blade Mode mastery, then you’re absolutely screwed. I went into this fight on Normal mode without any health regenerating nanopastes and I literally couldn’t get him down lower than 140%… luckily I knew I was at the game’s end so I just Youtube’d the finale, but this fight was seriously infuriating. I guess you can argue that he’s the ultimate test of all of the skills that you’ve learned in the game, but the fact that he is so much harder than any other test that the game throws at you suggests to me intentionally obtuse game design… it’s up to you whether that sounds like just plain bad design or the best thing ever.

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS
I’ll be honest, when I booted up Rising, I was expecting an absolutely awful story. While I wasn’t exactly wrong, the game does have a fairly complicated plot which is better than your average action game, and arguably still better than most AAA console releases. That said, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re playing through it, and when I was writing the game’s plot summary it was really striking me how stupid everything was. The main issue is that most of the game’s connective plot tissue is relegated to the hundreds of Codec calls scattered throughout the game. This can cause some pretty jarring plot points to appear out of nowhere, such as when the hell Raiden recruited Blade Wolf or the entirety of Raiden’s mission to eliminate Dolzeav – when he blew himself up I literally said “who the hell was that?” I know that a lot of people really like Codec, but Rising is a strong illustration of why I am glad that it has taken a backseat in modern Metal Gear games. When the plot info that you need to understand the game is excised and told only by pausing the action, something is wrong in my opinion. Furthermore, Rising is a very fast-paced game, so expecting the player to pause the action constantly to listen to static audio is rather counter-intuitive. If you could continue to playing while listening to Codec calls then that would be one thing, but considering that there are literally hours of audio in the game, I gave them a hard pass.

On the plus side though, Rising is a game which knows that it is all about the gameplay, so the weaker story isn’t really that big of a deal in all honesty. The humour and over-the-top moments also help to keep the cheesiness of the story in perspective. Within the first 10 minutes of the game, you heft a Metal Gear RAY over your head and then slice it apart with your sword… and that’s not even the most ridiculous moment in the game. Furthermore, Raiden is the butt of some fairly silly fun as he tries to disguise himself as a Mexican local by dressing in a mariachi uniform. The game definitely has a strange sense of humour, but it keeps everything reasonably enjoyable.

There are actually quite a few unexpected call-backs to the Metal Gear franchise as well. The consequences of Guns of the Patriots factor very heavily into the game’s narrative, particularly emphasizing The Patriots, SOP, War Economy and George Sears. The game also tries to build upon Sons of Liberty by claiming that The Patriots’ memes live on in the form of war… a thematic extension which actually makes some sense, even if it is only half-baked within the plot itself. There are also some unexpected recurring items within the game, such as the Drum Can, Cardboard Boxes and 3D pin-up models, although these are really only useful during the limited stealth segments. I wasn’t expecting this game to have nearly as many references to the rest of the franchise as it did, which actually helped it in some ways to feel like less of an outlier.

Unfortunately, Rising can’t help but trample on Guns of the Patriots‘ rather fitting conclusion for the series just to make the game’s plot work. The ethics in the post-SOP world are fairly shaky, with the peace implied by Guns of the Patriots‘ finale being on the verge of being absolutely destroyed and the War Economy continuing without The Patriots to foster it. The idea that World Marshal and Senator Armstrong are so powerful that the media wouldn’t report on them harvesting the bodies of children is pretty insane though – it’s a huge plot convenience, because obviously somebody would print this. PMCs are also very prevalent still, although I did rather like the idea that cyborg technology would end up becoming a prominent development that would shape the battlefield, especially after Raiden’s heroics became public knowledge.

Unfortunately, the game tries to hit us with a twist by making us question Raiden’s morality. This is a rather tired trope that was attempted by Ninja Gaiden 3 a year earlier, to much derision. Rising handles it a little better (for example, it made me wonder for a moment whether I’ve been slaughtering child soldiers all this time), but I still can’t help but shake my head at the assertion that “You’re the real monster! You love killing people!” “OH NOES, I IS SO CONFLICTED!!1!” It’s obviously meant to be a meta-commentary which is an indictment against the player and the character, but it doesn’t work when you make your villains a bunch of murderous, sadistic, warmongering, child-killing psychopaths… not to mention that the whole point of progression in the game is to enjoy the killing. It’s hard to take someone lecturing Raiden about his morality seriously when he really is fighting for justice… and if he enjoys the killing along the way, who cares as long as he kills these assholes and not civilians? I don’t even care that he’s killing people with families, they signed up to shield the child-murderers and decided to keep fighting.

While the “a murderer is you” angle is annoying, it is interesting that the game explores Raiden’s ideals. From Raiden’s perspective, he protects the weak and his sword is not a weapon, but rather a tool of justice. His foes scoff at this philosophy, but it really is demonstrably true in the game – he doesn’t just go around killing willy-nilly, he hunts after those who have clearly wronged him and plunged an entire nation into conflict. It seems pretty cut-and-dried that Desperado, World Marshal and Senator Armstrong need to get the shit kicked out of them. In addition, Raiden is no longer whining and running away from his troubles for once, which is a nice development. The fact that he fights for justice and to stop other children from being exposed to the regimen which turned him into a bloodthirsty killer is actually quite noble. The story conveniently ignores Rose and little John almost completely throughout all of this though, which is rather unfortunate. Hopefully Raiden’s raking in a ton of money to help support them…

I also noticed that Quinton Flynn’s performance is quite different than in previous portrayals of Raiden. He has given Raiden a significantly deeper voice, presumably to represent his coldness and experience. It makes him sound like he’s attempting to channel David Hayter in some ways as well. He also gets a ton of one-liners throughout the game, but his delivery seems to unintentionally contribute to the rather cheesy tone of the game. Luckily most of the other voice actors put in fairly mediocre performances.

The other characters are a fairly mixed bag. Sam is a very charismatic and imposing rival for Raiden, but his motivations don’t make much sense at all. Sundowner is also an enjoyably hammy villain, I quite liked his scenery-munching appearances throughout the game. Of Raiden’s allies, Blade Wolf is the only one who is in any ways interesting, due to his AI’s very defined parameters and his attempts to stretch those limits. Sunny’s brief cameo appearances are also a major highlight of the game.

Unfortunately, everyone else is pretty mediocre at best. The rest of Raiden’s support team are fairly yawn-inducing, especially the boring doctor named, originally, Doktor. His speeches tend to be long-winded as well which, when considering that 50% of the mandatory Codec calls are probably coming from him, gets annoying. Amongst the villains, Senator Armstrong has to be the absolute most ridiculous enemy in the entire Metal Gear franchise – a US Senator who pilots a giant mech ant, grows super-muscles and then has nanomachines that harden his body and allow him to Falcon punch his enemies? What the actual hell? The other villains aren’t nearly as bad, but don’t have much in the way of personality. I should mention that Monsoon has a fairly cool design though with his magnetic body parts providing a unique challenge in a game dedicated to cutting things. Oh and as there are only 3 female characters in the game, Mistral and Countrney obviously had to be given ridiculously enormous breasts… obviously.

I feel like I have been excessively hard on Rising throughout this retrospective. I did find the game reasonably enjoyable for the most part, but the mediocre combat failed to excite me as I had hoped it would and that final battle with Senator Armstrong left me with an incredibly bad taste in my mouth. I guess this is a really obvious observation, but it’s just my Metal Gear game. I can replay Snake Eater a dozen times and try out different play styles with each new playthrough, but this is a game that I don’t really have a lot of interest in replaying. The “meh” story doesn’t really help matters either, which doesn’t even factor in the fact that it screws with Guns of the Patriots‘ legacy pretty badly. Maybe some people will really enjoy this, which is totally fine, but it just didn’t scratch that action game itch that I have been having.

7/10

*The combat system was easily one of the worst aspects of Shadow of Mordor. I wanted to have some really powerful nemeses who would kick my ass again and again, but the combat was so easy that I was able to dispatch dozens of orcs without risk of taking damage. The only way I could conceivably get defeated would be if there were close to 50 orcs attacking me at once, plus 2 or 3 officers egging them on.

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Retrospective: Metal Gear Solid – Peace Walker (2010)

Welcome back to part eight of the Metal Gear retrospective. In this entry we’re going to be covering Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the second canon installment on the PSP. With the franchise effectively wrapped up in Guns of the Patriots, would Peace Walker find a reasonable justification to keep the franchise alive? Read on to find out…

(Note, I will be reviewing this game based on the HD Edition re-release on PS3, and will consequently be directing quite a bit of commentary towards the work put into the port. That said, I played the PSP original as well back when the game was released, so I can give some comparisons on how the two different versions perform.)

DEVELOPMENT

Shortly after the completion of Guns of the Patriots, Kojima Productions went back to work on another Metal Gear game. Considering how definitively Guns of the Patriots wrapped up the series, there was some concern about whether another game would be able to justify itself as something other than a cash-in or that it might unravel the series’ narrative once again. Peace Walker was announced alongside Metal Gear Solid: Rising (a Raiden-based spin-off which was going to tell the story of how Sunny was rescued from the Patriots), and it was stated that these two games would essentially be Metal Gear Solid 5, although Kojima publicly considered Peace Walker the true series successor. While Rising ended up languishing and was ultimately cancelled and then repurposed into Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance years later, Peace Walker proceeded much more smoothly, with Kojima at the helm once again.

Peace Walker was revealed to be another prequel game, focusing on Big Boss and the establishment of Outer Heaven. In fact, it sounds to me like Peace Walker and its immediate successors, Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain might have been the first Metal Gear games which were made with future installments in mind, as this quote of Kojima’s original vision for Peace Walker‘s story suggests:

“Solid Snake’s storyline has ended with Metal Gear Solid 4. But there’s still a lot more when it comes to Big Boss’ storyline. The Cold War was a time where people, neither good nor evil, were manipulated by various factors, and they became good or evil. The same goes for Liquid Snake, and we’ll get to see just what happened to him.”

Obviously if you have played Peace Walker, then you know that Liquid Snake does not feature at all, but this promise would be fulfilled 5 years later when The Phantom Pain was released, suggesting to me that Kojima had a very grand vision for the future of Metal Gear and for filling in the gaps between Snake Eater and Metal Gear.

Another interesting note about the game’s development is that this is the first Metal Gear game to be specifically targeted towards younger gamers, which saw the game secure a Teen rating from the ESRB. This was an especially baffling distinction for me, because Portable Ops‘ content was no worse than Peace Walker‘s (and in fact, Peace Walker was a lot more frank and juvenile when it came to sexual/suggestive content). This makes me wonder if the split-second decapitations in one cutscene were enough for Portable Ops to get pushed over the edge, which would be rather ridiculous if it was the case. That said, there is an unspoken rule in the ESRB that subsequent games in a franchise will almost always get the same rating as the previous release, unless they intentionally go for something higher or lower. This doesn’t really affect the game much either way, but it was a rather strange note in the game’s development.

PLOT SUMMARY

Having left FOXHOUND and the USA behind him, Snake joined together with Kazuhira Miller to form a private mercenary force, Militaires Sans Frontières. Snake and Kaz are approached by a man named Gálvez purporting to be a professor at the Costa Rican University of Peace and his young pupil, Paz Ortega Andrade. They seek the services of MSF in repelling a CIA mercenary force which has entered the country and is experimenting with some high-tech weaponry. Paz, an idealistic girl obsessed with peace, reveals that she and a friend had been captured and tortured by these forces. Due to the Costa Rican government’s constitutional abolition of an organized army, they are unable to deal with the interlopers and require MSF to get rid of them. As payment, Gálvez offers an offshore base of operations and any support that he can give. However, Snake and Miller both suspect that Gálvez is a member of the KGB, which he confirms when confronted with the accusation. However, Paz is left unaware of Gálvez’s ruse, as he instructs her to play back a tape that her friend had recorded prior to her capture. Snake hears a voice on the tape which sounds exactly like The Boss, causing him to question whether his former mentor is still alive. Gálvez tempts Snake with the uncertainty, succeeding in coercing him to accept their offer for help.

After a short investigation of the CIA mercenaries’ supply depot, Snake is alarmed to discover evidence that they are transporting nuclear weapons into Costa Rica. Snake seeks help from the Sandanistas, a revolutionary guerilla army from Nicaragua that had been forced to regroup within Costa Rica. When Snake arrives, he finds that the commandante of the Sandanistas has been killed by the CIA forces, but his daughter Amanda Valenciano Libre has reluctantly taken command of the remnants. Amanda informs Snake of a CIA base to the north when they are attacked by a gigantic, flying, unmanned vehicle. A flying drone captures Amanda’s little brother, Chico, and they pursue them to try to get him back. A drone also tries to capture Amanda, but Snake destroys it before it can. However, Amanda’s leg is badly broken in the fall and she has to be taken back to Mother Base to recover. She tells Snake of a base in the mountains where prisoners are taken and he promises to rescue Chico for her.

Making his way into an enemy base, Snake rescues Chico and reunites him with his sister. Chico then acts as a guide, providing Snake with the mercenary’s shipping route. However, he warns that the route is guarded by “el basilisco”, a giant monster. Snake heeds this warning with some skepticism and then heads north in pursuit of the nuke convoy. After losing sight of the shipment in a tunnel in the mountains, Snake catches up to the convoy in a garage within the mercenary’s mountain base. By the time he arrives though, the nukes have been shipped out already.

In the infiltration, Snake overhears an argument between Huey Emmerich and Hot Coldman, the CIA station chief in Central America. Coldman outlines the basics of nuclear deterrence theory, where mutually assured destruction will prevent nuclear powers from ever actually using their weapons. The flaw in the theory though is that humans are left in charge of the decision to retaliate, which can lead to an exploitable weakness that doesn’t discourage a first strike. Coldman seeks to have a computer controlled weapon, dubbed “Peace Walker”, that can guarantee a retaliatory strike, thereby rendering first strikes as suicide. However, in order to prove his theory, Coldman needs to make a nuclear strike to prove Peace Walker’s capabilities. Huey is outraged that Coldman is going to use his creation to launch a live nuclear weapon and tries to convince him to stop. Coldman dismisses Huey, forcing the wheelchair-bound scientist to fall down a flight of stairs.

Snake comes to Huey’s aid, recruits him to MSF’s cause and then hurries to catch up to Peace Walker. However, he is attacked by a Shagohod-like unmanned vehicle dubbed “Pupa”. He destroys the Pupa, but not before Peace Walker is extracted via helicopter and taken to the Costa Rica-Nicaragua border for final launch preparations. Huey advises Snake to seek out the main AI researcher on the project, Dr. Strangelove. He also offers to help build a Metal Gear for MSF.

As per Huey’s advice, Snake heads north to seek out Dr. Strangelove. On the way, he discovers an escaped prisoner named Cécile Cosima Caminades, a French ornithologist who was captured when she was seeking out Quetzals in the Costa Rican jungle. Snake soon realizes that she is the one who made Paz’s tape of The Boss, but is surprised when it turns out that Paz and Cécile have never met. Snake sends Cécile back to Mother Base and then infiltrates Strangelove’s lab. Inside he finds the Boss’s horse and Strangelove. Strangelove confronts Snake, angry at him for assassinating the Boss 10 years earlier. She shows him her creation, an incomplete AI reconstruction of The Boss’s personality known as the Mammal Pod. Strangelove goads Snake into trying to destroy it, but Snake finds himself unable to.

The Mammal Pod and Strangelove are from the lab as Snake is attacked by the Chrysalis, the flying AI weapon which had attacked Snake and the Sandanistas earlier. Snake shoots down the Chrysalis and destroys it before heading north to intercept Peace Walker. When questioned on his ability to complete the mission by Miller, Snake insists that he will be able to go through with it and destroy the Mammal Pod, although his insistence is not entirely convincing. After so many years of wrestling with the meaning of The Boss’s defection, Snake wants answers.

Snake pursues Peace Walker to another CIA base, but is attacked by mercenaries and the massive Coocoon AI weapon. Snake overcomes these foes and then makes his way into the heart of the enemy base. Here, he sneaks his way to the Mammal Pod, but hesitates when he has the opportunity to destroy it. He tries to get the AI to tell him why The Boss betrayed her country, but it is unable to answer. Outraged that the AI can’t give him the answers he needs, Snake finally tries to destroy it, but too late – Coldman, Strangelove and the CIA forces surround him and take him captive.

Snake is tortured by Strangelove for the truth about The Boss’s final mission, about whether she was a traitor or a sacrificial lamb. She needs this key information to complete the Mammal Pod’s personality programming. Snake refuses to talk, but Strangelove views his silence as answer in itself. Snake is sent back to his cell, where he escapes using a jigsaw that he had hidden inside a snake-shaped scar on his body. He hurries out to stop Peace Walker’s activation, but is confronted by Coldman, who has taken Paz captive. Coldman announces that, thanks to the interrogation, Strangelove has completed The Boss’s AI and that Peace Walker is ready to be activated. He reveals that the launch target will be Mother Base as Peace Walker moves to relocate to the launch site in Nicaragua. In desperation, Snake tries to stop Peace Walker from escaping, which puts the mech into self-defence mode. Snake causes quite a bit of damage to Peace Walker, but is unable to destroy it as it retreats across the Costa Rican jungle towards Nicaragua. Snake pursues on The Boss’s horse, managing to reach the border before the horse loses its footing and is mortally wounded. Snake puts the horse out of its misery and is forced to end the pursuit as Peace Walker fords the Rio San Juan. Luckily, Amanda is able to gather intelligence from fellow Nicaraguan guerillas about the location the CIA base and passes this information on to Snake. He discovers that Coldman plans to coordinate his launch with the SALT II (strategic arms limitation treaty) talks occurring between the US and Soviet Union at the time, which would be occurring in two days’ time.

Snake infiltrates the CIA base, but is shocked to discover that Soviet troops are occupying it. He continues onwards as MSF forces launch an attack on the base, hoping to provide Snake with support so that he can get to Coldman and stop Peace Walker. Snake makes his way to Coldman and his captive, Paz, but is surrounded by Soviet soldiers and CIA mercenaries. Coldman gloats that he has already input false launch data into Peace Walker and that it will strike Mother Base as soon as he inputs the confirmation code. Before he can do so, Gálvez arrives. He reveals that his real name is Vladimir Alexandrovich Zadornov and that he has been in league with Coldman all along… before ordering the Soviet soldiers to turn on Coldman. Coldman is incensed as Zadornov reveals that he wants Peace Walker to fire at Cuba in order to spread anti-American sentiment throughout Central and Southern America, bringing the Soviets closer to winning the Cold War. Zadornov then forces Paz to shoot Coldman twice, leaving the man slowly dying from the wounds, before ordering Strangelove to change Peace Walker’s target to Cuba. He then mockingly congratulates Snake, stating that his actions have helped the communist revolution in Nicaragua, that his death at the hands of the “CIA” would make him a hero in the same vein as Che Guevara, and that his death would make him into a fraud like The Boss.

However, before he can complete his plan, Amanda leads the Sandanistas to attack the base and take Zadornov captive, stating that they won’t be puppets of the KGB anymore. Amanda and the Sandanistas thank Snake for giving them the strength to return to their home nation. Having presumably prevailed, Snake gets an apologetic Strangelove to take him to Peace Walker so that he can finish off the Mammal Pod and end this crisis. Strangelove states that all she really wanted was to learn the truth of The Boss’s final mission.

Hoping to prove himself right in the end, a captive Coldman secretly inputs the authorization code for Peace Walker before succumbing to his wounds. This causes Peace Walker to become active and begin launch preparations, while also relaying false-launch data to NORAD. Miller informs Snake that they are unable to stop the transmission and that if they do not hurry then the US government will have to decide whether to launch a nuclear “retaliation”. The only way to stop the signal would be to destroy Peace Walker itself.

Snake moves to destroy Peace Walker to prevent nuclear holocaust. He is able to stop Peace Walker from launching its own payload at Cuba, but is unable to stop the false-launch transmission. Hacking into NORAD’s communications, Huey discovers an extremely tense situation as the assembled heads of the US government are preparing to go to DEFCON 2 and launch a retaliatory strike at the Soviet Union. Realizing that Coldman’s gamble was going to literally blow up in their face, Snake orders Huey to patch him through to the Pentagon where he uses his reputation to convince the Chairman that the launch data was false. However, the other officers aren’t convinced and they overpower the Chairman, forcing the retaliation to go through.

With the situation becoming critical, the Mammal Pod opens on its own and Snake climbs inside to disable The Boss’s AI. In spite of this, the signal continues to be relayed, and Strangelove theorizes that The Mammal Pod’s functions must have been transferred to the mech’s second AI unit, the Reptile Pod, which is responsible for Peace Walker’s mechanical processes. In desperation, Snake tries to destroy Peace Walker once again, but the machine stands upright and begins to walk into the ocean. The Boss’s voice begins to sing out as Peace Walker drowns itself and the false-launch transmission to NORAD is replaced with peace symbols, stopping the government heads from launching at the last possible second. Snake, Miller and Strangelove all watch on as Peace Walker destroys itself, proving that The Boss willingly went to her death. Snake salutes for his former mentor and then casts aside the bandana that he had taken from her ten years ago, stating that he believes that by putting down her gun ten years ago, The Boss betrayed him. As a result, Snake finally accepts his title of “Big Boss”.

In the game’s epilogue chapter, “Outer Heaven”, MSF builds up its power in the aftermath of the incident. With Strangelove’s help, Huey completes Metal Gear ZEKE for MSF. Miller recovers Peace Walker’s nuclear missile and equips ZEKE with it in order to provide MSF with its own deterrent against world powers that might object to them. Zadornov also escapes from captivity seven times, prompting Snake and Miller to believe that there is someone on the inside aiding him. On the seventh escape, Snake encounters Zadornov hiding aboard Mother Base and then kills him in self defence. Immediately afterward, alarms go off in the base as somebody activates ZEKE.

Snake hurries up to the deck and finds that ZEKE has been hijacked by Paz, who reveals herself as a deep-cover agent of “Cipher”. She declares that she will take ZEKE back to her “masters”. She outlines Zero’s basic philosophy of information control, which she insists is the only way to bring about worldwide peace. She offers Snake the ability to join with Cipher once again and be their deterrent against anyone who tries to stop the creation of this future. Snake refuses, which causes Paz to prepare a nuclear strike against the east coast of the US, which will frame MSF as a terrorist group and allow Cipher to seize control through fear, bringing about their plans either way.

Snake battles Paz and severely damages ZEKE in the battle. An explosion throws Paz from the mech’s cockpit into the sea, and Snake presumes that she dies from this. Miller hesitantly reveals that he was aware of Cipher and of Paz’s true loyalties, much to Snake’s chagrin, but that he was using them as a means with which to grow MSF to where it now was. Thanks to Cipher, MSF has effectively pioneered a new kind of business venture. Snake warns that the world is going to fear them now and that enemies will be coming for them soon.

GAMEPLAY & DESIGN

Peace Walker plays very differently than any Metal Gear game released up until this point in the franchise. While its systems draw heavily from Portable Ops (recruitment, base management, menu-based mission structure), its gameplay it reminiscent of Guns of the Patriots with its modern third person shooter controls. However, Peace Walker iterates on both of these games by making sure that its gameplay is fun, first and foremost. By sheer virtue of having tight core gameplay, Peace Walker is instantly a hell of a lot funner than Portable Ops. Whereas Portable Ops took existing Metal Gear gameplay and then forced it into the PSP as much as it could, Peace Walker actually feels like it was built from the ground up to make the most of the hardware.
One of the most impressive aspects of Peace Walker is in how well it refines the recruiting and base management systems from Portable Ops. In Portable Ops, a significant amount of time was wasted in dragging enemy soldiers back to your truck to recruit them. This is solved in Peace Walker with the introduction of the fulton recovery system, which lets you capture enemies instantly and on location. This is significantly more satisfying and elegant a solution to recruiting than the dragging mechanic was in the previous game. Balloon supplies are distressingly limited though, so you might actually find yourself using up two precious item slots to bring the Analyzer gadget to maximize the efficiency of the soldiers that you’re recruiting. Base management has also been expanded, with significantly more troops able to be recruited, more useful items available for development and missions that you can send your combat units on to earn supplies. All-in-all, the base development system has been expanded very well and managing it can be just as fun as going out on actual missions at times.
While Portable Ops had limited side missions and player freedom, Peace Walker really emphasizes activities which don’t tie into the main story, particularly side ops and co-ops (I have never really been interested in the co-ops mode so I can’t really comment on how it plays unfortunately). There’s a surprisingly nice variety in these side-ops – some missions will require base defence, or extracting specific targets, blowing up a target, taking a picture of a target or clearing mines. There are also boss side-ops which are necessary to get ahold of some of the stronger mechanized units in the game. Then there’s the joke side ops which can be surprisingly compelling and replayable. I had a good belly-laugh at the cartoonishly slapstick Pooyan Mission, found the ghost hunting missions surprisingly compelling and the two dating missions are equal parts hilarious, awkward and clever as you try to figure out the puzzle involved in doing well in them. There are also a few Monster Hunter-themed missions which sound like a lot of fun but which I have never had the patience to actually unlock. Add in the damage indicators that show up with each shot and the mission-ending score rankings and Peace Walker feels like more of a casual, arcade-y experience at times.
 
Guns of the Patriots‘ third person shooter control scheme has been translated to PSP fairly well, although having to use the face buttons in lieu of a second analog stick never really felt as precise as it needed to be. Luckily, there’s a generous auto-aim in place and the enemies move slowly and have small vision cones, but this is still miles ahead of Portable Ops‘ frustrating shooting controls. Luckily, the HD edition’s biggest improvement is the addition of a second analog stick which makes aiming feel far more precise and drops the basic learning curve significantly.
 
Some Metal Gear purists will lament how marginalized the Codec is in the game though. For one thing, it doesn’t even have a dedicated button anymore – you have to specify that the Select button is to be used for it, because I believe it is set to co-ops communications by default. That said, assigning Codec to the Select button is probably going to be less useful than keeping the co-ops comms there by default, because it has been effectively rendered useless. The calls are always automated based on the mission you’re currently undertaking, so there’s a good chance you’re not going to get any sort of useful information anyway. For example, I was looking for an item and figured I’d call the Codec for some hints. The resulting advice was useless: Miller telling me what my mission is, Paz telling me about the area and other characters just cheering me on. Keeping Select for co-ops comms is literally going to provide you with more help in this game, I promise you, even if you only ever use them for the Date With Paz/Kaz side-ops.
 
 
While the HD edition does improve the shooting significantly, it is unable to help with the small areas and frequent loading screens present in Peace Walker. This was always one of my biggest gripes with the game, as it adopts the area-based maps of Snake Eater or Guns of the Patriots, but in a far more enclosed space which means that you’re going to be spending quite a bit of time just waiting for the next area to load (this only takes about a second or two, but it is still an annoyance when it happens all the time). Compounding this problem is the fact that there may only be a couple of guards per area, meaning that gameplay in these sections may come down to two really quick tranquilizer shots before moving on to the next loading screen.
 
The lack of checkpoints during missions can also be a source of frustration. Normally, thanks to the small maps and few enemies, checkpoints will probably not be necessary as you’re only going to lose about 5 minutes worth of gameplay. However, there are a couple longer, combat-oriented missions which you can easily die in if you aren’t paying attention and which have no checkpoints of any sort – if you die, you have to restart the whole mission. In such missions, you could easily lose 10 minutes or more of gameplay with no mercy for the sudden difficulty spike. The most egregious offender here is the last shootout before you face off with Peace Walker – this mission is around 3 time longer than normal and is just a gauntlet of enemies firing at you with all they have… and to top it all off, you have to fight a helicopter when you’re all done with it. I got to the helicopter almost every time, but by then I’d be out of healing items so I wouldn’t survive and then had to completely restart. It was quite frustrating to say the least.
 
This is probably as good a time as any to point out my biggest problem with the HD edition of the game: it’s a pretty bare-bones port. By this I mean that it seems that all that Konami did was remap the controls to work with a Dualshock 3, upped the frame rate to 60FPS and then upscaled the graphics to fit an HD screen, throwing in some anti-aliasing in the process and calling it a day. For example, I noticed that the game’s aiming controls still felt a little sluggish for my tastes, so I went into the options to increase the right analog stick sensitivity. However, I was unable to locate an option for this, and it occurred to me that this would probably be because the game was originally made with face button control in mind – there wouldn’t have been a need for a sensitivity option. If this really is the case, then that really highlights how basic a port the HD edition is. Peace Walker still feels very much like a PSP game, making for a less-satisfying experience compared to other console-based Metal Gear games. The hardware isn’t getting taxed at all and the small maps and really lacklustre graphics just don’t stack up particularly well.
 
Probably the most obvious area where the HD edition was half-assed though is in the graphical department. Peace Walker‘s textures were clearly made with the 480×272 resolution of the PSP in mind, and on that hardware they looked sufficient. Even then, the textures actually looked worse than Portable Ops, but the more interesting environmental design (eg, not just straight edges and lots of boxes scattered about) and much better lighting/atmospherics masked the weaker graphics. However, in upscaling to HD, the textures don’t seem to have been improved to compensate and it just makes the game look like utter crap – Sons of Liberty looks significantly better, and it was released 9 years earlier. Sure, they put in anti-aliasing to smooth out the edges, but this doesn’t make up for the textures which were never supposed to be viewed at such high resolution (and in fact just reveals that they are far less detailed than they might appear on a smaller screen).
 
 
This issue also extends to Ashley Wood’s digital-graphic-novel-style cutscenes. While the cutscenes have been improved since Portable Ops, featuring far more animation and more interactivity, the HD port handled them very poorly. Rather than rescanning and reanimating Ashley Woods’ original art, the developers have half-assed it and simply straight-up reused the PSP’s cutscenes. This results in art which is notably pixelated even in the default view, and which looks even worse when you use the game’s zoom function during a cutscene. I know that they basically wanted to put together a quick and easy port to recoup costs since the PSP release’s sales were underwhelming, but still, it’s clear just how little work they actually wanted to put in towards making Peace Walker a proper console experience.
 
On the subject of the cutscenes though, Kojima seems to have decided to experiment with Peace Walker and made them far more interactive, occasionally integrating them with the gameplay. In practice, this means that we get some quick-time events, some basic shooting minigames and a couple button-mashing sequences. While this sounds like a rather interesting way to keep the player involved during the story sequences, in practice it ends up being more annoying than anything most of the time. As with the worst quicktime offenders, there is very little warning when a quicktime event is coming, meaning that you’re probably going to die the first time it comes up and have to redo the scene. There are a few of these moments spread throughout the game and they end up being fairly annoying, even though I do appreciate what they were going for.
 
Worse though is the torture sequence, which is similar to Metal Gear Solid, but without the ability to skip it in any way. This sequence was the absolute worst moment in the entire game for me in both my PSP and PS3 playthroughs – I simply am incapable of mashing the triangle button fast enough to get through this sequence, so I end up being forced to redo it over and over again with absolutely no way of getting past it. The only reason I ever got past it was because I used the “Bic pen” trick on PSP and then got my brother to do it for me for this playthrough on PS3. If you don’t have any of these options, then you’re shit out of luck. I hate to think how many people probably quit the game at this point because the game offers absolutely no way to skip the sequence or make it easier.
 
 
The bosses are rather unusual in Peace Walker, since all of them are vehicle-based. The “mini-boss” encounters versus armoured vehicles are reasonably fun the first couple times you encounter them, but they basically play out the same way every time (shoot the weak points and/or neutralize their escorts until the commander shows up). Aside from the helicopter battles, the gameplay doesn’t really change up either – facing off with a tank isn’t much different than facing off against a BTR or an LAV for example, which will quickly made these encounters quite tedious. On the plus side, there are only a handful of these battles in the main game, with most being relegated to side-ops long before you grow tired of them, so if you get sick of them then you can easily ignore them. If you can get through though in a non-lethal fashion, these armoured vehicles can be farmed to provide your combat unit with huge power boosts that you need to beat some of the tougher enemy units out there.
 
The game’s proper boss battles against the AI weapons are quite fun though. By firing at specific parts and weapons on these bosses, you can disable enemy weapon systems or completely prevent them from being able to perform certain attacks. This makes them rather fun to replay… which is good, because in order to complete Metal Gear ZEKE, you’re going to have to attack each boss a few times to farm for AI motherboards. The game does a really horrible job of explaining the system for getting ahold of specific parts, which just seem to be inexplicably random – for example, I was trying to get Walk units in order to complete ZEKE and, despite firing at any associated parts of the boss as the game tells you to, I failed to get any corresponding Walk AI motherboards in the post-battle minigame. However, then when I got to the boss fight summary, the game said that I had received a Walk component, thereby allowing me to complete ZEKE. I was left baffled, and despite having played through Peace Walker twice now, I still don’t understand this system at all (and in fact, I never even got the real ending of the game on the PSP version because I couldn’t understand the randomness of these part drops).
 
The other problem with some of the bosses though is that they can be massive rocket sponges. In the final battle with Peace Walker, I must have fired 50 rockets before I finally whittled it down, which is just ridiculously frustrating. To make matters worse, Peace Walker has an attack which makes it immune to all rockets for a random length of time, meaning that if you didn’t pack a machine gun then you’re going to be stuck running around uselessly for upwards of a minute or two. If the battle was even half as lengthy and Peace Walker had a more reasonably-sized health bar then it would be a significantly funner fight, because I was actually rather enjoying the battle until it turned into a tedious grindfest. The game also has even harder versions of each battle in the side-ops, but I don’t want to think about how long these fights would take without maxed-out anti-armour weapons…
 
I’ll be honest though – I feel like I have been quite critical of Peace Walker‘s gameplay. However, most of my issues with the game are related to the effort that was put into the HD edition, the repetitive armoured vehicle battles and the bullet-sponge Peace Walker battle. Those gripes aside, the game really is quite fun. The hardware limitations are annoying, but I did find the game to be enjoyable and was having fun during my time with it.
 
 

STORY & CHARACTER ANALYSIS

From its opening moments, the story of Peace Walker is significantly more compelling than Portable Ops, feeling like a fully-fledged Metal Gear narrative rather than a periphery gap-filler. This is in spite of the fact that Peace Walker really doesn’t do much to fill in the remaining gaps in the Metal Gear timeline which had been left unanswered by Guns of the Patriots, instead choosing to tell a largely-original story which, in some ways, creates more questions than it answers. For example, if Big Boss was in a conflict with The Patriots in the 70s, why the heck would they allow him to come back to America and lead FOXHOUND? How would they not realize that he is the leader of Outer Heaven? And why would Big Boss knowingly send Solid Snake into Outer Heaven and put himself at risk of being defeated, rather than some incapable soldier? Snake Eater and Portable Ops‘ endings left a lot of room for inference, but by fleshing out the conflict more and introducing major new concepts, Peace Walker leaves some pretty big questions unanswered without even attempting to fill in the gaps. Some of these issues would be filled in with The Phantom Pain, but even then the answers can be rather dubious.

That said, Peace Walker‘s narrative is quite enjoyable on its own merits and is easily one of the more unique entries in the series’ canon. In some ways, Kojima also restrains himself and puts out a far more streamlined narrative. For example, it’s really nice to see Coldman explaining his entire agenda in his introduction rather than saving this for later as part of a big plot twist and exposition dump as Kojima usually does. This can also be applied to Zadornov’s introduction, as Snake and Miller realize that he is a KGB agent within the first few minutes. Even this reasonable amount of restraint is enough to reduce some of the narrative fat which plagues Kojima’s stories and makes Peace Walker quite a bit easier to follow.

The game’s non-linear design does create some narrative issues though. Foremost amongst these is that we have no idea how long a time period the game takes place over. Based on the way that the main missions flow, it seems like it can’t be more than a couple weeks for the main part of the game, with anywhere from a few months to a year passing in the epilogue chapter. This is obviously problematic once you realize it though, because that means that MSF expands to a vast size and builds a fully-featured offshore Mother Base in a matter of weeks. Then, they build their own Metal Gear from scratch in less than a year. The obvious intent here is for the player to miss this little chronological detail, but once you become aware of it, it is a rather nagging issue.

I must also say that the section of the game where Coldman activates Peace Walker has to rank amongst the most intense sequences in the entirety of the Metal Gear series. The tension just builds and builds as the situation grows increasingly more hopeless and Snake struggles to do absolutely everything in his power to prevent nuclear Armageddon. This is all capped off with a surprisingly impactful sequence where The Boss’s spirit sacrifices herself once again in order to save the world.

That said, The Boss’s AI is the point where the game’s story strains believability. It doesn’t make a lot of sense and the game doesn’t do a good enough job to justify its existence. Somehow, Strangelove is able to piece together a nearly-perfect AI personality using old mission data about The Boss, and yet she isn’t able to complete it without knowing whether The Boss sacrificed her life for her country? The fact that she needs Snake’s confession to finish this last piece of The Boss’s personality never really made a lot of sense to me, because Strangelove already assumed that she knew the answer. Could she not have just programmed her own suspicions into the AI just to test whether it would work (it also doesn’t help that the process used to get this AI functioning is not expounded upon at all)? It also creates some strange issues about Peace Walker in the game’s climax, when the game heavily implies that The Boss’s soul possesses the Mammal Pod and sacrifices itself a second time (in fact, Huey says in a rather schmaltzy manner that Peace Walker is acting “with its heart” rather than its mind, which is just ridiculous). I can understand the reasoning for these decisions – it works on a symbolic level for the AI to be a representation of The Boss’s soul, but on a narrative and logical level none of this makes any sense and it nearly derails the entire plot for me.

It is also quite interesting that the ending causes Snake to turn on The Boss and accept that he is her successor. The reason he gives is because he believes that by putting down her gun and allowing Snake to kill her, she gave up on her ideals as a soldier. While it isn’t directly stated, I believe that this is confession is meant to show the flaws in Big Boss’s interpretations of The Boss as an individual and The Boss as the symbol which he has been building up an ideology around for the past 10 years. As an individual, it seems that The Boss’s will was a desire for a world without conflict. However, in Snake’s mind, it seems that he has subscribed to The Boss’s will as a world where soldiers are valued, can fight for a greater good and where they live for nothing beyond the mission they are given. Considering that divergences in interpretation of The Boss’s will drive the conflict between Zero and Big Boss throughout the Metal Gear saga, this seems to me to be a hint that the “good guy” doesn’t even have it right. Snake has thrown himself so far into a predefined worldview in the name of his former mentor that, when confronted with the reality of her ideals, he turns on the source his entire ideology.

Not surprisingly, Peace Walker‘s primary theme is an exploration of the nature of peace and deterrence theory. While it is not exactly subtle in its methods, this makes for some rather interesting discussions on human nature. Using deterrence as a major theme was particularly fascinating to me. I actually “developed” an understanding of deterrence as a child when I was around 10-13 years old. I was wondering why we haven’t had an open conflict between major superpowers since the Second World War, when it occurred to me that the threat of nuclear attack made open war an unappealing prospect. As a result, I theorized that we wouldn’t see another World War until a missile-defence system was developed which would render nuclear strikes worthless, thereby making conflict viable once more. While obviously this was an overly-simplified view of international politics, it does hold true to the basics of deterrence and I was able to appreciate the game’s premise quite a bit.

Coldman’s views on deterrence are quite interesting and his plan actually does make just enough sense that it might have worked if he had managed to complete his plans. Having a 100% guaranteed retaliation makes mutually-assured destruction more than a threat – by having the capability to strike, they end up rendering all of their nuclear weapons useless. However, Coldman also believes that humans are incapable of launching a retaliatory strike on their own volition, a notion which Kojima declares patently false in the game’s climax as the US government nearly sets off the end of the world. The other big issue which the game seems to raise about deterrence is that everyone seems to equate it with peace. However, based on The Boss’s idealized vision of world peace, this does not mesh with her desire for peace without borders – deterrence, after all, still requires two aggressively opposed nations who are just not particularly interested in launching into all-out conflict for fear of total annihilation.

One of the more interesting and subtle uses of peace in the game though is in regards to the Sandanistas. Shortly after being introduced to Paz, the physical embodiment of peace in the game, Snake comes across Amanda and Chico, who are fighting a revolutionary war to wrestle control of Nicaragua from the American-backed regime. This creates a rather complicated picture which suggests to me a questioning of when conflict is justified. The Sandanistas cause is suggested to be a righteous one in opposition to the Somoza regime, with Amanda and Chico fighting for a cause that they so deeply for that they are willing to lay down their own life to achieve it. The game also makes numerous references to Che Guevara for similar reasons, suggesting that while peace may be the desired (if unnatural) state for mankind to achieve, there are times where fighting is necessary and justified.

Also tying into the theme of peace, Peace Walker is unusual amongst Metal Gear games for being really on-the-nose with its characters’ names. The most obvious examples of this are Paz and Kazuhira, both of whose names translate to “Peace”. However, it is not exactly subtle that both of them end up betraying their namesakes – Paz turns out to be an illusion, whereas Kaz is a businessman whose ultimate goal is to spark the war economy. The fact that both characters with the name “peace” end up betraying their namesake seems to tie into this quote from Immanuel Kant which features in the game and is brought up by Paz at one point:

“Peace amongst men living alongside one another is not a natural state. On the contrary, the natural state of man is that of war. War manifested not only by open hostilities, but also by the constant threat of hostility. Peace, therefore, is a state that must be established by law.”

Paz and Kaz aren’t the only characters with meaningful names though. Amanda Libre’s name is very apt (it basically translates to “lover of freedom”), while Chico is literally a character descriptor (it means “young boy”). Hot Coldman is also so obviously a symbolic “name” that they could have called him “Cold War Jackson” and had the same effect.

Strangelove’s name is also pointing out, although for somewhat different reasons. First of all, it is incredibly obvious that her name is a reference to Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, a film which, in itself, has a lot to do with the game’s themes. Her name also foreshadows that she will become Hal “Otacon” Emmerich’s mother, since his namesake comes from 2001: A Space Odyssey, both films of which were directed by Stanley Kubrick. However, as obvious as the film reference explanation for her name is, the game tries to go even deeper and pass it off as a reference to her sexuality. This is a really weird way to try to twist the name in my opinion and kind of underscores the series’ weird approach to “queer” sexuality. Vamp is the closest parallel – he’s obviously named Vamp because he’s designed to be like a vampire, but then it is explained in-game that the name comes from him being bisexual (it’s a slang term, you’ve probably heard it in Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar On Me”). I actually like Strangelove as a character and find her rather fascinating, but the handling of her sexuality is clumsy (she’s a bit of a misandrist and sexually assaults most of the game’s female cast) and trying to highlight it in her name doesn’t help all that much (although that’s just my take on things – there are more positive assessments of the sexualities of the series’ characters which are worth checking out).

Peace Walker‘s treatment of women in general is about as juvenile as ever. Aside from the aforementioned clumsiness about Strangelove being a lesbian, the game also goes out of its way to make awkward jokes about Paz and Cecile. For example, in Paz’s introduction you can zoom the camera in on her to give an x-ray vision of her in her underwear. There’s no real justification for this other than for it to be “funny”, but it’s also really awkward considering that at this point in the game we’re supposed to believe that Paz is a 16 year old girl. Paz also ends up in her underwear on a couple other occasions, like if you get an S-rank in the Date With Paz mission and when she steals ZEKE for some reason. Cecil, on the other hand, has basically no bearing on the game’s plot, but exists to be little more than an inside joke and some eye candy (in her introduction, if you zoom in on her cleavage the game will make a cartoonish popping sound).

On a more positive note though, Amanda Libre is a pretty great female character. The camera actually seems to respect her and she has a pretty great character arc as she learns to take responsibility as commandante of the Sandanistas. She even saves Snake’s ass in the end. Plus, while the game hints at there being some sexual tension between Snake and her, it is left as a mutual respect in the end and doesn’t end up being the defining aspect of her character in the slightest. Amanda is a great example of how Kojima can write a strong, interesting female character without objectifying her in the process, which is something that he does on a distressingly infrequent basis.

While Peace Walker largely avoids the crappy kind of “George Lucas cameos” that afflicted Portable Ops*, it does have one extremely egregious offender: Huey Emmerich. It strains belief that both Big Boss and Solid Snake would coincidentally meet up with an Emmerich and become friends. This whole addition is clearly meant to be a big shout-out to the fans, but it just totally rubs me the wrong way and feels more like bad fan fiction than the actual narrative (although The Phantom Pain would do its absolute best to fix all the problems that this bit of indulgence created…).

I’m also not a big fan of the way that cassette tapes are used in this game. They are only accessible before missions, where you get a list of tapes from each character. However, the game doesn’t let you know how long these tapes go on for – most briefing tapes are around a minute at most, but there are longer ones which can easily take 10 minutes or more per tape… and all of this is just keeping you from playing the mission you have been queuing up to play. As a result, if you’re like me then you’re going to quickly just ignore all of the briefing tapes, which is unfortunate because they do have some very informative background story info and some hilarious jokes. The tapes about the Box Tank and Snake believing in Santa both had me laughing out loud, and the tape which reveals that Cecile’s name translates to “KOJIMA IS GOD” in Japanese had me in stitches. There are also tapes by EVA, Strangelove and Paz which are all extremely key to appreciating the game’s narrative, but are hidden in the cassette tapes section and can easily get missed. EVA’s tapes are perhaps the most important to the overall franchise, detailing a ton of information on The Boss, her fateful mission into space, The Philosophers and corruption in the CIA. Strangelove’s fill in more info on The Boss and her mission to space, but they also are important for understanding her motivations and make her a significantly more sympathetic and tragic character. Paz’s tapes are also important to understand the twist about her being a villain, and actually make her far more sympathetic in the end as well.

I’ll be honest – when Peace Walkerfirst came out on the PSP, I didn’t dig it all that much. I got sick of the armoured vehicle battles and the AI grinding and never actually saw the game’s real ending (in part because I didn’t realize that it had one). I even tried to play through the game once in the past when I bought the HD collection, but I ended up pouring all my time into Snake Eater instead. Having gone through Peace Walker again though and reached the real ending, I do have to say that my estimation of the game has improved considerably. The game has a pretty great story and its gameplay is fun for the most part, although it could have been improved with less frustrating boss encounters and more challenging regular troops. It’s also too bad that they didn’t use the HD collection as an opportunity to bring Peace Walker in line with Guns of the Patriots‘ gameplay.

8/10

*Kaz gets a free pass for being so essential to the narrative, for not really resembling his former portrayals and for ultimately making Kaz’s fate in future games even more surprising and impactful.

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