TGS: Can The Phantom Pain Finally Perfect the Metal Gear Series?

TGS: Can The Phantom Pain Finally Perfect the Metal Gear Series?

The latest live demos of the next Metal Gear reconfirm its potential for greatness.

As I watched Hideo Kojima present a live run-through of a mission sequence from the upcoming Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain this weekend at Tokyo Game Show, I had only a single complaint about what I was seeing: Why does Quiet, the "sniper who lost her words," have to be stuck with such a dumb character design?

Plenty of ink has been spilled about the questionable nature of TPP's enigmatic shooter, so I won't belabor the point. If you follow Kojima's work at all, you know the man wears his kinks on his sleeve. You kind of have to take the bad with the good. During the TGS live demo, he constantly ogled Quiet with the camera, making jokes like, "There's no reason to look at her like this, but why wouldn't you?" This is the same guy who cut remarkably homoerotic trailers for Metal Gear Solid 4 that ended with Solid Snake grabbing a statue's crotch only to be splattered with a spurt of white bird poop, followed by a bit of text trumpeting a "simultaneous worldwide release!" Kojima has lots of very interesting ideas about game design, but also the maturity of a middle schooler.

The biggest problem I have with Quiet, as The Phantom Pain begins to unfold in advance of its release next year, is that she's so blatantly out of place in the game. Kojima's choice of cutscene for the TGS live show showcased Quiet's supernatural ability to become invisible (a process that seemingly involves her body being flayed into nothingness almost but not quite instantaneously, vanishing and rematerializing layer by layer) and run at impossible speeds. This glimpse of sci-fi mysticism is accompanied by stoic men threatening her life and the grizzled Big Boss sparing her only to vow to kill her himself once her usefulness has ended.

The TGS intro video, wherein one of these things is not like the others.

It all seems very serious, very self-important despite the fantastic elements. And yet, meanwhile, amidst all the heavily armed and uniformed men, this teenaged sniper is walking around in barely-there fetish wear. Sure, tonal inconsistency is hardly anything new for this series, but still. Give the poor lady a sports bra, at the very least. Metal Gear has always been comic-book-as-video-game, and in this case you have a sultry superheroine a la Star Sapphire hanging out with the cast of a realistic war comic like The 'Nam. They just don't jive.

I only remark on this because Quiet's appearance and powers seem so visibly out of step with the rest of the demo, and that one inconsistency is the only thing about the TGS Phantom Pain demo that wasn't absolutely pitch-perfect. In every other respect, Metal Gear Solid V looks like it could very well be the true culmination of the Metal Gear franchise. It's taken more than 25 years and some egregious missteps to get here, but even more than Metal Gear Solid 3 (the previous entry in the series that seems most connected to The Phantom Pain in both a narrative and conceptual sense) it feels as though Kojima has finally arrived at the game experience he's been struggling to create all along.

Metal Gear has always placed a tremendous amount of emphasis on sneaking around enemy patrols and getting around without being spotted. This, it's always done well. But its secondary platonic ideal — giving players agency to go about this task as they see fit — tends to be less consistent in its execution. MGS3 went to frequently insane lengths with its intricate survival and stamina systems. You could defeat bosses in totally unconventional ways, by feeding them rotten food or sniping them hours in advance of your slated showdown. However, certain other games in the series, particularly MGS2 and MGS4, railroaded players into far more linear experiences and didn't offer many opportunities to experiment or stray from the prescribed critical path.

Bunging in the jungle during the TGS 2014 stage demo (note: Japanese language).

It's possible that MGS5 could ultimately go in that more restrictive direction despite appearances, but after watching the past few live demos of the game — both this weekend at TGS and last month at Gamescom — it's hard to imagine even Kojima pulling off such an effective bait-and-switch. The Phantom Pain's environments appear to be remarkably organic in nature, applying the rules of "tactical stealth action" to an open world.

It sounds like a demanding task, combining those two video game concepts; I've yet to seem them properly integrated. Sure, Assassin's Creed has "stealth," but that franchise quickly abandoned all pretense of depth in its stealth mechanics after the first game. And it's true that you can use stealth in the likes of Skyrim and Fallout: New Vegas, but in those cases sneaking works within RPG parameters, relying on numbers and simple rules rather than line-of-sight and enemy observation. The artificial intelligence in MGS5 still looks pretty dumb — for example, you can distract enemies with an inflatable dummy of Big Boss, which stands and taunts them while they stare at it in stupefied wonder — but this is probably about as good as we can expect from a game before it becomes too unreasonably difficult or frustrating.

Generally speaking, Metal Gear games advance the series in one of two areas, but not both: Either technical or design. MGS2 and 4 were technical advances but clamped down on freedom of interaction, while MGS3 and Peace Walker didn't break much new ground in terms of technology but were very much built around their in-game systems. With The Phantom Pain, Kojima Productions seems to have managed to make strides on both fronts. The game looks excellent, a considerable step above previous chapters of the series, yet it also creates seemingly vast opportunities for player-environment interaction.

And that's really what "player freedom" is about in Metal Gear: Not achieving a goal or pursuing branching plotlines, but rather the measures you take to reach those ends. In the older games, this more or less boiled down to "kill dudes or take them out without killing," but the array of options available in the Metal Gear sandbox has increased considerably over time. The Phantom Pain takes the series' predilection for many and novel uses for individual items and applies them to a more open-ended and dynamic world than ever. In the TGS demo, for example, Kojima had the demo player set down in a specific landing zone but pointed out the fact that each mission can have multiple insertion points.

Adventures in Afghanistan in the Gamescom 2014 stage demo.

The Mother Base concept from Peace Walker returns in a more meaningful way as a part of this freedom. You can call on your allies for backup and assistance in the field at practically any time, but this is balanced by a practical consideration: Cost. Since Big Boss is putting together a private army, money matters, and the more complex an action the greater your capital outlay. Taking a chopper to an insertion point can be expensive... so frugal players may choose to make their trip on foot or on horseback to save some cash, though of course such an approach will take considerably longer to complete.

Kojima presented a chart to compare what appears to be the topography of The Phantom Pain versus the relative real estate encompassed by every previous game in the series. MGS5's land mass, which based on the chart comprises more than eight square kilometers of contiguous space, dwarfs every previous entry in the franchise combined. Players will evidently have some limited ability to affect the layout of the game world, too; during the demo, a grenade launcher destroyed a wooden bridge, cutting off a squad of approaching enemy soldiers while also limiting the player's options for getting about the world.

Still, it's the more complex interactions with the world that really impress in The Phantom Pain. A big part of that is the new buddy system, in which Big Boss can take along a companion as he infiltrates hostile territory. This brings us back to Quiet, who despite seeming terribly out of place in the game holds her own quite neatly. The player can take her along into combat and define way points for her to stake out. She'll work as a spotter for Big Boss, using a green laser sight to "tag" foes who are blocked from the player's sight by the environment. She takes the player's lead, holding her fire unless explicitly told to attack foes; during combat, she'll choose and destroy her own targets, but the long recovery time on her sniping attacks mean you can't simply rely on her to do your dirty work for you.

And finally, the MGS5 E3 demo for your enjoyment.

You can, however, ask Quiet to do things that would be impossible on your own. The TGS demo I watched ended with Big Boss being pinned down by an enemy helicopter; having squandered all his grenades on destroying wooden bridges, the demo player couldn't easily take out the chopper himself. Instead, he set up a trick shot with Quiet: He tossed a normal grenade into the air and she hit it at its apex, the force of the rifle bullet deflecting the grenade into the chopper's open gunner door, where it exploded, instantly disintegrating the assault craft. Ridiculous? Probably. Satisfying? Absolutely.

Still, the real potential of The Phantom Pain only comes across if you take the time to watch multiple game demos. While the one I watched ended with the trick shot, a different demo ended with an entirely different alternate solution. The player placed some C4 plastique on a Jeep, then stuck a Fulton recovery system on the vehicle, directly underneath the chopper. As the Jeep went through the two-step delay of Fulton recovery (after rising a few meters of the ground, a Fulton'd object pauses for a moment before being taken entirely out of play), the player detonated the C4 during the Fulton's pause. It annihilated the chopper. That pause can also work against you, though — when the demonstrator tried to Fulton the demo objective (a hostage modeled in the likeness of the demo runner) to safety, an enemy sniper spotted the attempt and shot down the balloon, raising the alarm in the process.

There's a lot that could go horribly wrong with Metal Gear Solid 5; Kojima Productions is attempting a game on a scale they've never worked at before, with their own self-made game engine. That can be a recipe for disaster; see also Final Fantasy XIII. Yet all the demos Kojima has shown over the past few months have hit the right notes: The game looks expansive, sophisticated, and complex, with the occasional light touch to keep it from degenerating into dour misery. About the only element that seems weirdly out of place is, of course, Quiet... and Kojima claims you can complete the game without even meeting her. That's not quite the solution I was hoping for, but it's something.

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