Metal Gear Solid 5 is already a sprawling stealth masterpiece (opens in new tab), but less discussed is its FOB multiplayer mode. Players have an opportunity to build Forward Operating Bases, which function as risky but rewarding extensions of their Mother Base. You can invade other player’s FOBs and steal their stuff, so long as you can sneak by their guards and defensive gadgetry. Get discovered and that player can enter the fight and try to take you out. Fail completely, and they can invade your FOB at a chance for revenge. If you get in and out undetected, they can’t retaliate.
After finishing the campaign, I set out to see if FOB invasions were more than just a novel idea, but in my heart, I knew I was heading out there to make sure my rivals would remember the name Barb: Cosmic Mom.
Operation Pipe Dream
I’m targeting a mid-level Medical Pavilion, my first choice for a reason: it’s not guarded by drones, cameras, or IR sensors—at least that I can see. So far, I’ve only seen an outfit of ill-equipped guards and myself. Reaching the base core should be a cinch. I take a few steps before an on-screen notification informs me that my rival, The Joy is approaching. I panic.
My first good idea is to climb one of those large pipes and remain there motionless until I win. My second is realizing that this is not a good idea, so I dislodge myself from the pipe and am spotted immediately. My last good idea is to use my immense upper-body strength to hang precariously from the side of the base over the open ocean.
My rival's feet clank on the walkways above. They’re sprinting aimlessly, shooting at the sky. My decision to hang from the first floor railing on the edge of their FOB wasn’t without reason. I can’t be spotted easily from here, and luring guards down to this platform only to pop up and blow them into the ocean with C4 has technically kept me alive and hidden. I’m not sure that sending those boys to their watery death qualifies as espionage exactly, but what is stealth, truly? For them, it was a life of indentured servitude or the long sleep. My human and robot hands are clean. This is stealth. I am a stealth master.
I hang off the edge for 20 minutes, listening to The Joy take pot shots at the sky. Magazine after magazine, emptied into nothing. A timer ticks down on-screen. If it gets to zero, I lose. A stealth master can’t lose.
I let go and join The Joy’s boys.
The next four invasions followed a similar pattern. Perhaps I was selling myself short. Sure, I failed a series of simple level 14 invasions, but maybe I stunted my natural skill and instinct by setting my sights so low. Why not start from the top? I invaded a level 40 platform.
I revisit the climb-a-pipe-and-win plan, but it fails again. A tranquilizer dart hits me from somewhere offscreen and I fall down, which ignites a small quicktime event. The Y-button nearly melts under my thumb and I shake the control stick as my eyelids close in blurry first-person perspective. There’s a metaphor here about my enthusiasm.
Sprinting aimlessly only draws more attention. I see pipes, I resist. Somehow I manage to fulton two containers and a guard before my rival, The Leviathan, pops into the game to defend their base. Again, from somewhere offscreen a smoke thing hits me. I continue my get up and run strategy, albeit with a bit more urgency knowing The Leviathan is out there. The smoke follows, a drone shoots from above, everything on screen becomes oversaturated and blurred, and a final tranq knocks me to the ground. My rival appears and fultons me into a wormhole.
After a few more failures on higher-level bases, I give up for the day. But it wasn’t my fault, the game is just unfair. If drones outfitted with cameras circle the base, guards can spot you from across the map and fill you with tranqs or lather you with smoke, then I’m not to blame, right?
Operation Gunk Junker
My inability to win is eating away at my confidence. If I can’t succeed in a single FOB encounter, what does that say about me? In order to succeed (and to prevent a meltdown) I have to redefine success itself. So naturally, I prey on some brand new players.
Before I tackle my next FOB to prove to the rest of PC Gamer that I'm a Real Gamer, I rearrange my staff to their optimal positions. The process is automated, so it usually means your security unit is emptied out and leveled down in favor of boosting the vital single-player units. NowWhen I search for FOBs with a low-level security unit, there are nothing but low-level, empty bases to invade—MGS5’s own rudimentary form of matchmaking. Convenient.
The next eight invasions all play out the same way: I climb a pipe, dislodge from the pipe, and ‘sneak’ to the base core, a victory condition. A bunch of screens show me data and tell me I did a good job. Various numbers associated with persistent game stuff and leaderboard information I can’t parse beeps and grows. I feel good.
Most of the bases I invade during The Weak Streak still have a default “DD” emblem. Chances are, they barely started playing the game. I began to project. Maybe these are good folks, working late to support their family of four to fourteen Mother Base recruits. Metal Gear was the one game they bought this year. Imagine: they’re pining all day for a few minutes with Big Boss, and the first thing they see upon loading in is a notification that Barb: Cosmic Mom rolled in like a sneaky mean guy, gunked up their junk, and they can’t do a damn thing about it.
What monster is this?
I am not a stealth master. Turns out, I was barking up the wrong tree—or, climbing up the wrong pipe. FOB mode is strictly for the bossest bosses, and I’m still a clumsy stealth boy. But that I only found real fun by stepping outside of the mode’s intended methods of play isn't only because I was bad a tiptoeing (but maybe a little), it’s a reflection of the mode’s well-intended, but half-baked ideas.
FOB invasions are a novel, but super niche affair. Finding an FOB that poses a fair challenge feels like a crapshoot. There might be low-level bases with a few soldiers that, if alerted, pose a huge threat. On the other hand, there may be a high-level base stocked with no soldiers, but all sorts of gadgetry that's relatively easy to disable or skirt around. And what each base is stocked with resource-wise doesn’t seem related to their defenses.
The onus is on the defending player to stock their FOBs with adequate soldiers and defenses, but since they’re buried so deep in the single-player game’s progression, most bases will be insufficiently defended. Conversely, players who are deep into the FOB mode will have bases that are seemingly impossible to infiltrate. I found it hard to find a base somewhere between the extremes. For the few hardcore FOBbers, I’m sure they’re happy. For the happy-go-lucky, lackadaisical stealth children of the world, you’re best off playing around in the open world or waiting for a more refined take on the mode.
I love the idea of invading a stranger's base and wrecking something they built. There's a teenage vandal sensibility at play, with a real risk of retaliation. But the mode comes in too late during the single-player campaign to support an involved, diverse player base, and customizing your defenses is too restrained for any of it to feel personal or worthwhile. As it stands, FOB invasions are a cool addition that don’t harm the rest of MGS5, the implementation just doesn’t feel aligned with what’s great about the game. None of it feels playful and any small error is severely punished, which may be fair, but expect everyone but the most skilled to jump ship. As a standalone mode it could work, given more nuance in terms of how players personalize their bases and interact. Right now, FOBbin’ is too inconsistent to recommend.
Hope remains: Incremental updates are coming and MGS5 has yet to launch its fully-featured multiplayer mode. Metal Gear Online, on PC in January 2016, looks to be more traditional in the way it pits teams of players against one another, and from the footage we’ve seen so far, it appears to embrace the inventiveness and variety from the single-player campaign. Let's just hope the only way for me to win isn't by picking on inexperienced players.