Tom Francis is a former writer for PC Gamer and current game developer. He's been playing Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain and writing up his thoughts on his personal website. We've been enjoying his musings and he agreed to let us share them with you here. You can follow the development of Tom's next game, Heat Signature, at its official site.
A lot of the time, MGS V is just a very good stealth game. You have lots of tools to distract, evade or take down your enemies, and they’re all very satisfying to use—just like Deus Ex 3. Its levels are encampments dotted seamlessly around a huge open world—just like Far Cries 2-4. Its layered systems turn failures into new challenges rather than end points—just like Invisible Inc. But none of those things are new, and MGS V sometimes feels like something that is.
Those times, for me, are not during some particularly great mission, or when some unexpected chain of events creates a cool story. They’re after: when the guards lie sleeping or dead, the cargo containers are ballooning skyward, I’m scampering out with the target (too weak to be similarly ballooned) slung over my shoulders.
Because what happens next is both incredibly mundane and incredibly unusual. I heave them into the back seat of a 4×4, get in the driver’s seat, and drive off. I bring up the map and tell my chopper pilot where to pick us up. Then I drive them there. Then I park, haul them out, carry them to the chopper, and put them in. Then the chopper flies off. Then I go back to my car, look at my map, and figure out where I’m going next.
None of these things are thrilling or even challenging, they’re just the things you would need to do if this was your mission and these were your tools. And that makes you feel more like an actual field operative than any other game I can think of. Instead of cutting to the next exciting mission or cinematic, it leaves you to deal with the basic mechanical business of getting things done and moving on. It’s more than feeling like the star of an action movie—it’s feeling like this is your job.
As I’ve started to figure out that this is what’s special about the game, I’ve also figured out how to maximise the feeling. Because it doesn’t always do this: main missions often do cut away, or force you to return to base. So now I drop myself at sunset, in whichever country has the most side-ops scattered across its map, climb in my car, and work through the night.
That means getting from each mission area to the next, sometimes through 3 kilometers of twisting, guard-infested roads. I mostly drive, cutting my headlights and offroading dangerously to skirt watchtowers, and enjoying the empty, dark stretches between. Other times I ride, hanging off the saddle to hide behind my horse as we trot past patrols in the shadows. And for the longest journeys, I sneak into an outpost’s delivery point, climb inside a stamped addressed cardboard box, and post myself to the next town.
That part is probably not a lot like a real commando’s job.
But it’s these between moments, staying in the world between objectives, that makes it work. It has all the appeal of methodically taking down the outposts in Far Cry 3 and 4, but the added sense of purpose from the side-ops makes a huge difference to the fantasy you’re living: you’re an agent with a job to do rather than a madman with a murderous hobby.
In fact you’ve got lots of jobs to do, and the more of them you do in one continuous marathon of espionage, the deeper you can sink into this other life. Last night I tranqed a whole airport to find a crucial blueprint, interrogated a lookout to locate a prisoner, incapacitated four heavy infantry with my bare hands, and stole a tank from under the noses of its sniper guardians. By the time I drove out to a remote shack to capture an interpreter, the sun was coming up. I tranqed him and one of his bodyguards at range, then snuck up on the last one and slammed him into the shack. For no practical reason, I loaded the target and the better of the two bodyguards into my jeep and drove to the nearest pickup point… then this happened:
Turns out the game sometimes auto-extracts people when you leave the mission area. Which is one of many signs that this sense of doing all the between bits yourself wasn’t a particularly high priority for the developers. But when you play that way, and when they let you, it’s really something special.
This article was originally posted on pentadact.com.