48 Hours Inside The Phantom Pain

In which the journalist spends what amounts to two full days within the vast, fuscous world that is Metal Gear Solid V.

by Jonathan G. Lee

Where on earth is it? You can’t find the FU.S. satellite of Konami on Google Maps, which is ironic, because it’s right next to the YouTube Space LA. But YouTube wants a high profile and Konami has never sought it out. Mystery, in fact, is something Konami does well, and considering that I was part of the eager handful of journalists and Metal Gear community leaders that were invited to play Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain two weeks before release, the secrecy was probably for the best.

Every time I come back to Los Angeles, I feel like I’m in a painting. Angelenos take great pride in maintaining the aesthetic beauty of their city, a devotion that the local environment itself seems to share. The sun seems to shine brighter here than on the East Coast, the colors a little more vivid. When my shuttle pulled up to the DoubleTree Hilton of Culver City, I couldn’t help but notice the greenery that decorated the driveway. It could have easily at home in Jurassic Park. After I checked in, I walked past the pool and saw that it was dotted with small palm trees and shrubs of every color. Despite the drought, even the chain hotels in L.A. make it a point to look beautiful.

David Hackett Fischer, who won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2005, posited the theory that the United States has four countries in a single nation. I’m inclined to agree. Los Angeles is in a different world from New York City, one that’s filled with sunshine and people who wear hoodies when it’s only 77 degrees outside, but for the entirety of my trip, I didn’t even spend an hour of my time in the California sun.

For four days, I was cloistered inside the Konami offices with a dozen other game critics grinding through The Phantom Pain for 15 hours a day.

We played the full retail version of The Phantom Pain to our heart’s content. Each table held two stations, spaced generously apart, with a television set and PlayStation 4.

All the small talk was confined to our meal breaks. We heard the rumors. Even though it was close to his 52nd birthday, we saw the great Hideo Kojima’s name being taken out of the marketing material, which was sad. We heard that Kojima Productions and Konami had formally parted ways. Yet there wasn’t much time to think of Kojima, the person. More, it was about Kojima’s art. How good would it be? None of us wanted to be bothered while playing the game because it could very well be the final Metal Gear title by Hideo Kojima. What we were playing could be the end of an era.

We were all cognizant that this was history.

The game certainly had a lot to live up to.

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Imagine this setting. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain takes place nine years after the events of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. The legendary Big Boss has just awakened from his coma to learn that his mercenary company, Military Sans Frontieres, is no more. Most of the company has been wiped out after the attack on Mother Base. Kazuhira Miller, Big Boss’s second-in-command, has taken the ashes of MSF to create a new private military outfit called Diamond Dogs. Big Boss, who now goes by the codenames Punished Snake and Venom Snake, embarks on a quest to hunt down the people responsible for MSF’s destruction.

The Phantom Pain introduces many firsts to the series: open world environments, free-form mission structure, drive-able vehicles, and even battlefield companions. It does all of these things so well that newcomers in the series would never be able to tell that this cornucopia of functionality is essentially a freshman attempt. Yet even with all these radical new additions to the franchise, Kojima’s imprint can still be clearly felt.

“I love how Kojima’s mark and influence is pervasive through every Metal Gear,” shared game journalist Steve Haske at the event. “The Phantom Pain was developed by over a hundred people but his personality still comes through. I can’t think of another designer whose essence is so entwined into the game.”

Kojima’s trademark flourishes litter the landscape of the new open-world. The serpentine storylines, references to classic action films and literature, fantastical villains, excellent camera framing, and surrealist symbolism are all here. The Phantom Pain is also the most somber Metal Gear to date, dealing with subject matter such as racism, PTSD, and even child soldiers.

Snake has become laconic after waking from his coma and the world of The Phantom Pain doesn’t hold many jesting characters, so the humor has been relegated mostly to visual rather than narrative puns. D-Dog has an eye patch to cover over his scarred eye just like his master. D-Horse poops on command. If you find yourself dying constantly, the game will offer you a chicken hat which prevents you from being discovered by soldiers up to three times when you enter their field of vision at the expense of your dignity. In that scenario, Snake will have to endure all his cutscenes looking like a street promoter for a fast food restaurant.

Kojima famously lamented about feeling inadequate when he saw the trailer for Grand Theft Auto V back in 2013, then lamented yet again in 2014 when the trailer for the PC and eighth-generation console version of Grand Theft Auto V was released. He wrung his hands and questioned if his own “V” could even reach the bar that Rockstar Games had set.

His anxiety was completely unfounded. In recent years, open world games have come under criticism for being saturated with lackluster, unfulfilling content: the mini-map brimming with inconsequential items to fetch, formulaic missions, and repetitive map design. The Phantom Pain doesn’t suffer from these problems. The sheer amount of content in the game is staggering, but every mission and op is crafted as carefully as a level in any linear game, down to the unique codec chatter.

And since it’s an open world, the amount of abilities and customization you have access to is equally impressive. You can gain up to four companions who will follow you into the field and confer unique abilities. D-Dog sniffs out enemies and marks them on your map, making him the perfect companion for infiltration. If you need a sniper to pick off hostiles as you make your escape, Quiet is your girl. You can also choose from dozens of different rifles, pistols, rocket launchers, grenades, and miscellaneous items like decoys, Metal Gear’s trademark cardboard boxes, camo, and head gear. Snake can radio in fresh supplies, vehicles, air support, and helicopter extractions.

When not on missions, you can roam the open world and capture animals for preservation on behalf of an NGO. You can find cassette tapes that expand upon the narrative or play hit songs from the 80s. You can head back to Mother Base to visit your men and take a shower. You can swell the ranks of Diamond Dogs by choking out enemy soldiers and shanghaiing them into your ranks.

The game has also anticipated a remarkable level of minute details that pull the player deeper into immersion. You’ll hear the wind whipping past Snake’s ears as he dashes across the rolling hills of the Angola-Zaire Border Region. When we see Snake after waking from his nearly decade long coma, his face is gaunt, his pecs are sagging, his gut is bloated, and his arms are little more than skin stretched tight against bones. When Snake is under fire, you’ll be able to tell the location of enemies based on sound — just listen for the direction of the bullets whizzing past your head.

________________________________

The Phantom Pain is probably the first videogame that will be replayed over and over not for the sake of its gameplay, but for its story. Each mission in the game begins with a roll of credits that lists the cast, guest stars, level designers, and writers involved in the particular mission you’re playing, ending with Hideo Kojima’s name and a title sequence showing the mission’s name. This is a hint telling you that The Phantom Pain is more of television show than it is a movie. It’s meant to be unfurled and digested over time. The narrative is packed with symbolism and foreshadowing, none of which can be fully observed in the first playthrough.

The design approach that went into developing The Phantom Pain inevitably draws comparisons between CD Projekt RED’s The Witcher 3. Both The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V are both notable for being the first open world titles in their respective series. CD Projekt RED pulled out all the stops because for The Witcher 3 because it was planned to be the final game of the series.

The Phantom Pain is Kojima Production’s magnum opus, and that may be so because it could also be Kojima’s swan song. With Kojima Productions officially dissolved and both parties refusing to comment on the matter, The Phantom Pain will likely be Kojima’s final Metal Gear game. It would explain the massive scope of the game, the elements borrowed from previous Metal Gear Solid titles and honed to a razor’s edge of perfection, and the unapologetic exploration into serious, and sometimes deeply disturbing, subject matter. The consequences of war upon dignity, life and psyche are on full display here, with no punches pulled. The Phantom Pain exudes ambition, and each of its elements is crafted so carefully and lovingly that I can’t see it as anything other than a farewell.
Perhaps then it is appropriate, even intentional, that The Phantom Pain is about loss. Snake is a man who has lost many things — his mentor, his nation, his friends, his men, his arm — and it’s that loss which drives him. He envisions a world where soldiers are free to choose their own destiny rather than being dispensable chess pieces in the grand game between nations. The loss of Militaires Sans Frontieres and Mother Base only emboldened him (and Miller), pushing them to create something bigger, better, grander.

Whatever The Phantom Pain was fueled by, it is a marvelous achievement. I’ve spent 48 hours with the game. In the first hour, I decided the game was pretty good. On the 10th hour, I knew I was probably playing the Game of the Year. The 30th mark is when I realized that I had just experienced a part of history, because I was part of the first handful of people that played a videogame that will be studied, examined, dissected, and imitated for years to come.

Jonathan G. Lee, a boxer and a gamer, writes frequently for the New York Videogame Critics Circle.

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