Metal Gear Solid 5 : The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid 5 : The Phantom Pain is a truly excellent game in so many ways, yet there is something not quite right about it. love it in so many different ways, but I just don't love it in total.

Technically, the game is superb. It balances a bunch of different concepts and ideas superbly well and has a fully immersive world. Playing the game is often a joy where you plan, set up and execute a perfectly formed stealth take down of an entire base, without firing a single shot in anger. You will approach the base from the south, enjoying both the wonderful visuals, changeable weather and array of tools at your disposal. You'll even select your approach music accordingly from the array of great tracks available to you. You will probably order a buddy in to support you accordingly - I typically enjoyed using Quiet as a sniper scout.

The way the game plays - be it action or stealth - is always excellent. There is an enormous array of weapons tools and quite frankly, the level of flexibility offered to you would be overwhelming if the games interface wasn't so smartly designed. 

As you can tell, I love playing the game. Yet, there is more to a great game than it being technically excellent. There are three major problems that over-shaddow the game and they start - and end - with the narrative.

The story itself is not at all bad - in fact, by the usual metal gear solid standards, it is relatively easy to follow and quite interesting. The plot picks up where Ground Zero's left off and  explores a range of interesting themes -  the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the use of child soldiers and the effect of the war economy - interspersed with the typical MGS crazy plot elements of clones, huge armed mechs and telepathy empowered on fire psycopaths.

However,  the problem is that the main plot  as it is revealed through the mandatory parts of the game is relatively sparse and consequently hard to engage with. The game relies on the player playing numerous cassette tapes to fully explore the story. The problem with this mechanic is two-fold. Firstly,listening to the cassette tapes often gets in the way of doing actual missions - either because they shift your focus from what your actually doing or because some other voice over from the gameplay starts talking over the cassette tape. This is incredibly frustrating.

The second problem is related to the first - you're effectively left having to stand around listening to in-game audio files to explain key plot threads. This is a terrible way to engage with players - I never really felt motivated to do so for the simple reason that the bits of the game I wanted to play were there in front of me and listening to the cassettes either stopped me from doing so or distracted me to the point where it was pointless to play them in the background.

I applaud the attempt to find an innovative way of both making the game accessible and offering an alternative way to explore the narrative, but ultimately this design choice just did'nt work and left me feeling like i was forced to sit and listen to audio just to understand what the hell was going one when what i wanted to do was play the game.

The second major problem with the game is really simple. Post mission 31, the game offers 20 or so "post-game" missions. Around half of these offer you opportunities to gain XP and tie up some of the story threads, so no problem there. Half of them are repeat missions selected from the first 30, just made slightly harder. While I enjoyed a couple of these, the bottom line is that these felt like a lazy way to expand the games content rather than actual innovations. While not a problem in and of itself, needing to complete these to access the final missions in the game pissed me off a bit. That and the fact that most of them aren't terribly fun. I actually think that they would have been better off offering you the opportunity to play any mission at extreme difficulty or from the start without any gear, rather than picking a bunch at random and pegging them on the end of the game as part of the closing out of the game.

I am really not a fan of "repeat but harder" missions.

Finally, the other problem with the narrative is the sort of related to both of the above points. The game is so horrendously uneven in how the plot is revealed that you end up feeling like you're not quite sure what happened at the end of act 1. Having 30 "plot" missions where some have virtually no relevance at all to the plot interspersed with other missions that are crucial is annoying, but forgiveable. Spoiler alert - but having the main bad-guy die virtually out of nowhere after an uninspiring boss battle when half the plot threads are still hanging is both incredibly frustrating and unforgivable. It honestly felt like they decided half way through development that the games narrative was going to spread over 30 missions, rather than 50 and dumped the main "ending" into the point of the game that would be around 60% completion, rather than at the actual end of the game.

This really hurts the game - like I say, it is technically great, but all the wonderful stuff you can do in the game, including the cool stuff you can develop, the characters you can build relationships with and the missions you can do, totally lose impact, meaning and context when the main game plot abruptly ends and asks you do all this other really cool stuff in an open ended sandbox world rather than an inspiring, tense plot driven one.

And there, finally, is the problem. The game is so good in so many ways technically that it will always be fun to play, but I expect more from a Metal Gear Game - I don't just want to have fun with it, I want to really engage with the game, relate to the characters and explore the barmy plot, but doing so in a game where the actual narrative has ended just robs the experience of any deeper meaning or close relationship with the game experience.

Instead, the first two thirds of the game is the "metal gear experience", the last third is the "phantom" experience itself. Maybe they really were trying to tell us something in the title.

Lee

 

PS even though this is mainly about the stuff that drove me mad about the game, I'd still give it a 8 or 9 out of ten overall, but it could  have been so much more...

Until Dawn - Horrific Fun and Games

I had an experience with Until Dawn that I rarely have with any game - that is I binge played it. Over a 3 day / 2 night period, I played through the games story in 4 x 3 (or so) bursts of the game. It is rare that I play a game like this, not least because I tend to want to do something else after an hour or so, but mainly because I enjoy games in relatively short doses.

Bearing that in mind, it became clear to me after 15 mins of Until Dawn I was, so to speak, all in until I completed it. Before I comment on what I liked and did'nt like, there is a useful bit of context. I played this around new year when I was back in London on my own and when my house was empty, that is my housemates and girlfriend were all away. 5 days alone, in the depth of winter - the perfect time to play a horror game I thought.

1. Storytelling at its B-Movie Finest

The plot in UD really is ludicrous, but to get hung up on that would be to miss the point. The fun in the game is'nt in the specifics of the plot, rather it is in how your decisions play the plot out. Instead of watching a daft movie, you're part playing in one, part directing it. The characters all have their quirks, but you get to shape how they react to the situations that range from quirky to life threatening. Sometimes getting one character to be a dick to another character is fun "just-cos", but other times you'll find yourself weighing your decision - balancing the questions of :

- what would this person do if they were faced with this situation

- what would I do if it was me in this situation

- what do I want to do to achieve a certain outcome in the game

Or, to put it another way, the game engages you on several different levels through its effective storytelling, even if the story it is actually telling is'nt particularly original or clichéd.

The reason that I have opened with this point as being the main one that I loved is because it really is the backbone to all the other great (and bad) bits of the game, however, the way the game tellls the story is also crucial...

2. Patience, voice acting and actual decision making = a game that you become invested in

The other components, ideas and gameplay mechanics that the game uses are all supported by the wonderfully engaging engaging way the game tells its story. How does it do this? Well, specifically...

i. Excellent Voice Acting : all of the characters are well acted and really believable and even when the script is slightly crappy, they still really sell it

ii. Decisions that actually matter : Where other games (The Walking Dead - I am looking at you) give you the illusion that the decisions you make matter in terms of the key points of the game, UD really does put the players decision making to the forefront. Small decisions have bigger repercussions later in the game, big decisions mean that the relationship or experience you have with certain characters can change dramatically very early on. I quickly realised that I was playing a game that had not just enormous replay value but also one where I could see both in the short, medium and long term that my decisions mattered. This was particularly interesting where I made a decision that had a (shocking) unintended consequence which I then realised would have other effects on what that character could and could not do later in the game. 

iii. Engaging and patient gameplay : Even the bits of the game where you are essentially just walking forward are interesting and engaging. They're often used to visually develop the world, build tension and even give insight and add believability to the Characters. This is helped by both the excellent voice acting (again) and the superb graphics, however, it is more than that. The game seems to "get" that good horror is'nt all about the gore or jump scares, it is as much about the build up and patient character development so that when the horrific things happen, they mean something. The game, even the bits that are a little slower, are very well paced and there is always an underlying tension even though the game is very linear in the order in which you play through the main events. 

UD really goes at lengths to get the feel of it right. It is as if they developers thought "we know this is a B-Movie horror game, but we're going to make it the best damned B-Movie Horror game we bloody well can". Even the bits that I didn't like so much, I easily forgave the game for because it got so much right.

As for what I did'nt like so much...

1. Some of the decisions are made for you

Obviously, you have a lot of choices in the game, but as this is a game these choices are in a framework and sometimes some of the biggest choices are made for you. For example, early on in the game, two characters elect to go wandering off on their own and then you influence how this wandering off plays out. Fine. However, when something happens to them, it is very simple - I'd play the game by demanding all the characters stay together, but this literally is'nt an option. So the game invents other reasons for them to separate. It's not a big issue, but there were a few moments like this where I was reminded that though I could take these characters on a path, that path had already been laid out for me by the developers.

2. Some of the shocks are really unforgiving

I was actually going to put this in a a positive for the game, but bumped it to a negative because this will really drive some players mad I think. I actually quite like it, even though it did piss me off a bit. I was aiming for a particular type of play through and I had certain characters I really wanted to survive. At one point I was faced with a choice and the route that I took led to instant death for the character, despite it feeling like a relatively safe situation. There was no QTE to offer me the chance to escape, no "are you sure" moment, just I made this choice and t that character was no more. It is a strength, but it upset me as I was pissed that a) my game ending was going to change and b) I lost one of my favourite characters. What was good about this is that it also taught me about myself - leading a character off to explore something on their own is ALWAYS a bad idea, but when faced with the option in a horror game I just thought "oh...go on then.... I'll be all right...".. They were'nt and they died brutally.

3. The plot slightly messes things up

The plot is a B-Movie style horror flick, so don't expect too much by way of shocking revelations. For the most part, this is absolutely fine, but there are a few moments of eye-rolling where a well worn cliché is trotted out or a character makes another ludicrous conclusion. They are few and far between and by no means damaging to the games over all story, but I've heard the "beware the insane asylum" trope so many times now that I just fail to believe that anyone would go wandering around an abandoned one at the top of an isolated hill without being heavily armed.

***

Until Dawn is a bona fide great game, easily one of the most engaging and fun games I've played on the PS4 and PS3 too. The annoyances with it are made pretty obvious pretty early on and they are incredibly easy to forgive given that the game gets so much else right. I'd strongly encourage anyone who enjoys a good daft yarn, interactive fiction, horror games, decision based gameplay or even just "something a bit different" to play it. It would also be fun to be played as a couple too - it is very much like watching a movie where you influence the decisions and characters and a lot of fun can be had with it.