So – back in October, when I wrote that I had to start writing again, I had every intent to do so. It didn’t have to be a weekly thing, I thought (even though I’d managed that before), but I wanted to start pushing words out.
But the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry… and the cause of (or, at the very least, the scapegoat for) the subsequent lack of wordage was a tiny little game called Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
Now, it’s fair to say that I approached Hideo Kojima’s work with a great deal of skepticism. The tag “auteur” rarely sits well with me, and rarely indicates any level of quality, and if there’s one thing that most gaming media outlets can agree on, it’s the fact that Kojima is best described as an auteur. And that he really wants to be a movie director, but that’s another aside.
Still, MGSV garnered plenty of plaudits (and Game of the Year nominations) when it was released back in 2015 (only missing out the top gong in some polls by the user-generated joy of Super Mario Maker). And whilst the word on the street was that the narrative content was bearable at best, the consensus also had the gameplay as the best of the Metal Gear Solid series… and perhaps some of the best ever.
So when the game was offered as a PlayStation Plus freebie back in October 2017, I thought it could be a good introduction into Kojima’s work. I snaffled it, and it promptly gestated on the backburner for nine months. Hundred-plus hour completion times scared me, but eventually I bit the bullet and leapt into it, supported by my partner on a rainy Sunday evening.
And whilst I mechanically plodded through the game’s opening sequences, my partner was completely bemused by the two hours of nonsense that she witnessed… and I couldn’t fault her for that. I was expecting to find a near-impenetrable wall of narrative with references to a bunch of games that I hadn’t played, but the frequent appearance and disappearance of the Man On Fire – and the dry acknowledgement of his presence by the rest of the characters – left me curious about the adventures ahead. Overtly leering shots framing nurses breasts were laughably uncomfortable… but they, and many of the plentiful cut-scenes that fill out the prologue, were exactly what I was expecting from a Japanese auteur.
And then I started actually playing the game.
I’ll be honest: as I crept through the initial episodes, only to have an hour’s worth of sneaking undone by a short-lived gunfight after an errant eye-line, I was a little bit despondent. I felt as if I’d been lured into the stealth genre with no hope of being able to actually enjoy the game; but then I contemplated how much I had enjoyed the criminally under-appreciated Never Stop Sneakin’ and wondered whether I was simply missing the point of The Phantom Pain.
So I started playing a little faster, a little looser, and with a little less concern for optimal mission scoring. Another encounter with the Man On Fire? Trigger a weather-change event, and the job’s as good as done… hey, I was never going to get an S-Rank anyway. But I was getting through the missions, seeing more of Kojima’s ludicrous story, and gradually unlocking more and more circumventions of the “expected” gameplay.
The acquisition of player buddy Quiet was a game-changer for me, and the eventual upgrade of her sniper rifle to a tranquiliser was the next big step. A careful creep through Mission 21 led to the unlocking of Mother Base’s online component, and suddenly there was way more to do than I could fathom – platforms to build, weapons to develop, allies to “recruit”, and dispatches to send My Men on. Hours were wasted sitting in my helicopter waiting for a timer to tick down to complete the next mission, to unlock the next weapon. I upgraded in a way that suited me, and then I chewed my way through the rest of the main storyline.
And, with Mission 31 under my belt, I reflected: The Phantom Pain wasn’t that bad. Not my type of game, sure, but I had a bit of fun tranquilising everyone I could find – and fultoning anything that moved (and many things that didn’t) never got old.
But there were a squillion Trophies left to unlock. A bit of digging informed me that there was the opportunity to lose Quiet – the idea of which terrified me – so I tiptoed through the remaining missions avoiding that particular trigger.
And then came the S-Ranks.
Sure, I’d got a couple of S-Ranks as I’d progressed through the game, and I knew that the biggest factor in obtaining an S-Rank was usually time… but some levels had taken me over two hours to meticulously pick my way through! Needless to say, I was intimidated by the thought of having to S-Rank every mission, but – armed with a plentiful supply of YouTube demonstrations – I started applying myself.
And that is where I found the bulk of The Phantom Pain‘s fun.
Tackling each Mission with a focus on speed removed the impediment of my brain’s self-preservation instinct, turning the Mission into a fast-moving puzzle-box with plenty of moving parts… and tons of variety. Super-fast stealth was optimal, of course, but discovery by an enemy usually led to an explosive mission climax, in an attempt to keep the times as low as possible… and that mix of stealth and lack-of-subtlety resulted in a bloody good time.
After spending around 220 hours with The Phantom Pain, I eventually left it with a relatively positive feeling. Sure, I found the narrative of the game laughably self-indulgent, and was constantly rolling my eyes at the treatment of Quiet as an object for leering (doubly so for the so-called justifications for doing so!), but the actual gameplay that I eventually found was genuinely sloppy good fun. I’ll never play another Metal Gear game – and I’m doubtful that I’ll support any of Kojima’s other work – but I’m glad I played this one.