Monday, 14 December 2015

Metal Gear Solid V: A Real Diamond Dog

I would say I'm predominantly a PC gamer, and probably always will be. However I do own a PS4, and get good use out of it for games which I currently wouldn't be able to run well on my current PC. Metal Gear Solid 5 is one of these games, and a game I bought based on the huge swell of positive reviews and comments. I went into this game knowing almost nothing about the Metal Gear series, having only a very brief experience with one of the games many years ago.

As a game it captures both that "cinematic" quality that so many other games are so desperate to achieve, but it does it without significantly affecting the gameplay. The opening section does seriously try your patience though, as your wounded protagonist can barely move his head initially and it takes some time before you are able to move freely.

I feel unsure about the storyline of the game even after many hours of play, with the prologue feeling almost like a fever dream. Some elements feel very grounded in reality, but other parts of this alt-history 1980s are pure sci-fi. It does feel like it's drawing heavily from 80s action films too, with the backdrop of a Russian-occupied Afghanistan reminiscent of Rambo 3.

The initial mission is set in a hospital, where you are recuperating after nearly dying. I have no knowledge of the backstory, but the game explains later that you'd created a personal army on a Caribbean oil-rig or similar structure. You get betrayed, and the base is destroyed, and now it's all about revenge.

Those that want you dead arrive at the hospital before you have fully recovered, so you have to slowly (so very slowly) crawl out of your room and hide. You gradually gain the ability to move more freely and defend yourself, but it's a long wait. Amongst the soldiers there's the sight of a man on fire, seemingly indestructible. I had thought this part might be a hallucination, but I'm not so sure now.

The game opens up when you've made it to Afghanistan from your base in the Seychelles. Here the game excels itself, offering a large open world in which to roam. This being set in the 80s, the are is occupied entirely by Russian forces who have driven the locals from their homes (this thankfully prevents you from worrying about accidentally killing civilians, although there are occasionally prisoners or other friendly folk to worry about).

Your approach to each mission, side-op or when you're just wandering about can be widely varied. The primary avenue is stealth, which can be augmented with a variety of gadgets and such. There's a hefty variety of weaponry too, with both lethal and non-lethal options. The enemy will also try and thwart your tactics by rolling out new equipment: body armour and helments, night-vision goggles and sniper rifles, amongst others.

The game is a challenge though not because it is necessarily difficult (although some missions are), it is because there's the personal challenge to get the best rank, to collect the most resources, to acquire the best staff and perhaps to be a ghost, unseen and unheard as you complete your objectives. Of course, if all else fails you have your guns, explosives and more to keep things in your favour, and the brilliant "reflex mode" which allows you to quickly take down enemy soldiers if you get spotted while sneaking around.

Building up your base (Mother Base), requires resources found in the conflict zones and plenty of cash. This opens up various services, including intel (to indicate where enemies or resources are nearby) as well as medical, base development and so on. After a certain point you also gain the combat unit, which can go on missions of their own.

The base building and side-ops give you plenty of work to do outside of the normal missions. The side-ops in particular allow you to test yourself in the field without having the consequence of getting a bad mission rating (or failing a mission). It's a great time for testing out those new gadgets, like sleep grenades or decoys, and getting used to the different buddies.

The "buddy" system gives you assistance on the ground from a helpful person, thing or animal. These are limited, and begin with a horse to get around the Afghan wilderness. Later on you can get three other helpers with different abilities and usefulness.

Despite the somewhat repetitive nature of the missions (infiltrate an area, disable the defences and guards, acquire the objective and leave), there's a real thrill to it all, and I find myself enjoying it even when I've been in the same collection of checkpoints and villages for hours. There's a lot to be said for the feeling of slowly creeping around a base and extracting each enemy soldier in turn.

The extractions are a major part of the game too, all provided by a Fulton extraction system (which has been used in real life, but was never this safe, cheap or successful). You hitch a balloon to a downed enemy (or equipment, or wildlife!), and it is carried into the sky to be picked up by an aircraft and taken to your base.

The staff you extract are then recruited back into your Mother Base staff, with quite a heavy suggestion of some sort of brain-washing. The aim is to gradually increase the number of staff, and to improve their ratings to level-up your various base units. Increasing the level of your units allows you to develop new things to help you in the conflict zones.

While I enjoy my military adventures, the plot continues to evade me. There are endless cassette tapes to listen to and a handful of short cutscenes, but aside from the general "Get Revenge!" storyline, I'm not sure where this is all going. Given the weirdness of previous MGS games (at least those bits I've heard of), honestly almost anything could happen.

Definitely one of the games of the year though, the actual gameplay is fun, accessible and challenging without being frustrating. This is really a hard balance to make, and I'm very impressed by how well they manage it.

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