Review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Will Divide Die-Hard Fans
It's been an extremely long wait to get the final missing piece of the famous Metal Gear Solid series, and it's Kojima's last contribution in that regard. Has it been worth all the wait and hype?
- Worth The Time?Yes, there was never any doubt about that.
- Things LovedThe incredible number of options you have as a player; it puts many other open world games to shame; there are so many ways to play and no 'right' way; most of the experience is player-driven; the staggering amount of quality content; the intelligent design and means to use all the tools at your disposal; it looks beautiful and runs as smooth as butter.
- Things HatedA huge chunk of the meat of the story is provided on cassette tapes which leaves the story feeling half empty; Snake talks far too little; you have to 'unlock' the true ending and additional great story content; it doesn't feel like a true farewell to the series; going online hurts performance significantly.
- RecommendationYou've already made this purchasing decision if you're a Metal Gear Solid fan. To anyone else this can be a no-brain purchase if you set your story interest aside and just want to experience one of the finest open world games you can get your money on right now.
- Name: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
- Genre: Action Adventure, Stealth
- Players: 1
- Multiplayer: Online features
- Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360
- Developer: Kojima Productions
- Publisher: Konami
- Price: $60
- Reviewed On: PC
The Metal Gear Solid series is my favourite video game series on this planet. I’ve been obsessed with this series ever since I was a youngling without a PlayStation who played the first two games on PC. I’m fairly certain that the writers at this site are tired of hearing about how Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is one of the most perfect games ever made, and just how much I drool over this series in general. Yet for the first time in this series’ entire lifespan I was left conflicted at the conclusion of a game.
It’s been a long wait for The Phantom Pain, set as the final missing piece of this incredible story, as well as the series’ first bold steps into the saturated open world scene. While it has made the transition beautifully and absolutely shines in its gameplay, it’s the story where The Phantom Pain doesn’t have it all for a die-hard fan of this series.
The Phantom Pain begins incredibly and will no doubt leave your jaw on the ground as you, as Snake AKA Big Boss, wake up in hospital after a nine-year coma following the events of Ground Zeroes. You’re barely able to move, yet the entire hospital is under attack and you’re already facing death. After managing to escape not entirely in one piece, Big Boss is aided by Revolver Ocelot and joins up with a new military group Diamond Dogs, founded by Miller after the destruction of MSF at the hands of antagonist Skull Face and Cipher. With their forces depleted Big Boss, Ocelot and Miller set out to rebuild their army and Mother Base and take revenge on Cipher.
We’ll stop there with story content to avoid any spoilers.
Immediately if you’re a long-time Metal Gear Solid fan you’ll notice how very different The Phantom Pain is from the way this series usually is. Metal Gear Solid is among the least welcoming series’ of games out there as far as its story is concerned, as the game has never quite cared about newcomers. You’re either invested in this story or you’re totally lost, and you can’t just jump into a game and expect to know what’s going on unless it’s Snake Eater, because that’s chronologically the beginning. The Phantom Pain by contrast seems to care very much about newcomers.
You may wonder how on earth that could be a bad thing. Well every single MGS game is like half game half movie. Kojima was always obsessive about the amount of story and research he put into his games, and each game felt like it spanned multiple books’ worth of content, themes and fascinating characters. The result may have been too cutscene-heavy, but no die-hard MGS fan ever cared because it was impossible to finish a game without feeling like you had a complete experience, and without a desire to think on and explore the story in more detail, or go for another playthrough.
In The Phantom Pain you’ll see no such obsessive story detail and no long cutscenes. The game’s cutscenes are kept as brief as possible, with it often feeling as though you’re getting a summary of information rather than the full Kojima overload. It’s respectable that the game wants you to play it more, but the result is that even the game’s most complex themes feel under-explored and sometimes even shallow, because all the meat, context, background and depth is just gone.
Where did it all go? If you’re like me you won’t like the answer to that question.
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It’s unclear whether it’s because The Phantom Pain tried to be as inviting to newcomers as possible and not burden them with overload, or because Konami had budget issues, or because the open world mission-based structure impacted the story heavily or because Kojima was afraid of repeating Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and its insane amount of cutscenes. But The Phantom Pain feels so bare in its story that it literally got to the point where I began savouring cutscenes when they happened, just because I wanted more story content.
Most of the meat of the story is now bizarrely contained in audio tapes given to you over the course of the game. For example a key character may have been interrogated, and the game will tell you to listen to the tape for more information. Perhaps The Phantom Pain wanted to be all about gameplay, while still please die-hard fans by giving them all the excess information on audio tapes, right? The problem is that some of the best dialogue, including some that you heard in trailers, are on these tapes, and if you don’t listen to them you could miss out not only on that but on the actual depth of the themes in the game. It’s Metal Gear Solid. It’s damn complex. But it’s half-delivered.
What’s worse is that Big Boss hardly ever talks. He has some fantastic dialogue in the audio tapes, but he remains as quiet as a certain female sniper even during some of the key story moments. It’s such a shame because even though there may be those who can’t get over David Hayter’s departure, Kiefer Sutherland does a magnificent job at portraying a battle-worn leader in Big Boss. When he speaks, his word is final. He just carries an air of authority. His performance may not be as unique as Hayter, but the more subdued approach makes Big Boss seem more like a hard ass at times, and it’s great.
The problem is though that his moments to shine often aren’t in the actual story, but – you guessed it – in the tapes. It’s just a terrible way to convey so much emotional depth and core story moments, because audio tapes are emotionless. They don’t feel part of your character’s journey, because it’s something happening off-screen somewhere else and thus it’s hard to connect to.
On top of that The Phantom Pain also inherits Peace Walker’s bad idea of hiding away core story content, including the grand mind-F plot twist, away for not only after the conclusion of the main story, but subject to unlocking it meeting certain completion requirements. It becomes mind-boggling when three of the best story scenes and most incredible cutscenes in this entire game may not be experienced by those who don’t play beyond the final boss fight and try to unlock more.
The actual story of The Phantom Pain is great though, even though its mind-bending plot twist will surely cause an uproar. There are some killer themes and some incredible moments and stand-out characters, which includes Quiet who despite her dress code is one of my favourite characters in games this year.
Just to go there for half a second, the topic of Quiet is for another time because there’s too much to discuss here as it is, but I’ll just say that the ‘story’ reasons for her appearance would have been easier to swallow had the game focused more on that and less on giving you close-up looks at her cleavage. Honestly though I didn’t dwell too much on it, because she’s just such a great character.
Back on target. It’s clear that Kojima did everything he could to complete his entire story arc. It’s insane how this game connects to the original Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, which are the games that came before Metal Gear Solid.
But the story moments that are meant to hit hardest, and even the main villain Skull Face, don’t hit as hard as they should because your connection to the story is half artificial and off-screen. I didn’t feel like I knew Skull Face that well even by the end of the game. Through tapes I got to know him better after the conclusion, which is just depressing. The context of the huge plot twist is even given to you on audio tapes, despite the twist involving a few of the most important characters in this entire story’s legacy.
Even after pouring over 60 hours into this game and seeing the ‘true’ ending, I still was trying to unlock more story content hoping that there was more and that it wasn’t over. That’s how starved for story I was in a series where that usually is virtually impossible.
The other big consequence of that is The Phantom Pain doesn’t feel like the true farewell to this series. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots felt infinitely more like the conclusion, like the tribute to the series and like the goodbye for Kojima. The Phantom Pain feels more like it just wants people to enjoy playing Metal Gear Solid, and wrapping up the story wasn’t the main focus.
Yet despite my grand story grievances the fact that I played for that long and still found the game so enjoyable is testament to how wonderful it actually is as a video game.
The Phantom Pain as a game is Peace Walker on crack, to put things in a nutshell. You’ll select your missions, both main and side ops, from a list and choose your loadout before you deploy into the world and are left free to your own devices. In addition to your loadout you’ll also select your buddy, who is an accomplice that helps you out on missions and provides numerous benefits. For example D-Horse gives you a faster way to travel, while Quiet can scout out entire enemy outposts and take people out at your command as well as provide cover fire.
How you approach any given mission or situation is entirely up to you. Sure, lots of games promise this, but not often is it so beautifully realised as it is in The Phantom Pain. It’s honestly one of the most free and player-driven experiences I’ve had for a long time, and especially in this genre.
That is down to two core aspects of the game: almost nothing is scripted, and there’s really no right or wrong way to play the game.
Whether you want to go in ready for war, go a full non-lethal approach, improvise or even fool around, the game provides you with buckets of tools to achieve all ends. If you don’t care about mission rating and just want to have fun, there are enormous rewards to experimentation.
Central to the game and all of these cool features is Mother Base.
At any point you can push a button to bring up your iDroid, and gain access to your base management features and literally your entire arsenal. And at any moment you can change the entire game and your approach.
You’re heading into a highly guarded security facility but you’re low on ammo and your suppressors are worn out? Call in your helicopter from your iDroid to drop supplies down for you and restock. You realised that you’re suddenly in dire need of anti-tank weaponry? Call in your chopper to deliver a launcher for you from your arsenal. Need a different buddy? Swap them out from the iDroid. You’re up against a small platoon of soldiers and need the perfect distraction? Call in a giant smokescreen and watch the madness unfold. Need air support? Better call Saul.
None of this is free however. All weapons you acquire and all support you use is governed firstly by GMP, which is your currency, and secondly by your Mother Base resources. On the battlefield of The Phantom Pain it gets to a point where nearly anything you see is a potential resource for Mother Base, whether it’s enemy soldiers, vehicles, animals or cargo. You’ll extract them using a Fulton balloon, where they’re then transported by air back to base. All of your resources are limited, but if you have the money and manpower you can always get by.
Enemy soldiers and resources become your primary way to grow your Mother Base. You can scan any soldier with your binoculars, giving you their statistics. This will help you decide whether said soldier is a potential valuable addition to your staff. Good soldiers level up your R&D, Medic, Combat, Support and Intel teams, and each team provides you with benefits, whether it be new weapons, suits and items to develop or faster support from your chopper or additional map information.
If you don’t want to bother with manually assigning all your staff and such, there’s no need to worry. All of it is a lot less complex than it sounds, and the game can do most of the grunt work automatically for you, leaving you with just the fun stuff.
As you progress through the game your Mother Base will evolve from a small platform to a giant fortress, except unlike Peace Walker you’ll get to walk around and explore the entire thing, which is great as there’s quite a bit to find and discover in it.
It all just works so seamlessly. It feels like nothing went to waste in this game, and the experience is just filled with so much freedom. When we say that it’s player-driven, we mean that the majority of memories you have of this game will be ones that you create through your own ingenuity.
I’ll give you an example which will explain exactly what playing The Phantom Pain can feel like.
On the way to a main mission one of my departments gained a level, which gave me access to a new Sneaking Suit. It came at the right time it would seem, because I was about to enter a heavily guarded base, and a suit that deafens footsteps and is fit for night operations was perfect. As I arrive at my mission I have the suit delivered to me. Night sets in and the base is packed with enemy soldiers. I decide that instead of going through it, I’ll just find a way to bypass all of it. Seemed a good idea, right?
I went under the mountain and climbed all the way back up on the other side, thinking I’d just skipped all the drama and maintained my perfect stealth. My iDroid told me that a sandstorm was imminent. I get all the way to the top of the stairs and literally ahead of me are two enemy soldiers. I dive to the ground, but they caught a glimpse, and begin raising their flash lights to investigate. I’m afraid to move and risk causing an alert, so my mind is working in overdrive on whether to headshot both of them and be done with it, try to distract them or try to crawl away and risk being spotted.
That’s when the sandstorm hit.
In a moment of pure, unscripted beauty, I was completely cloaked to the enemy and visibility was reduced to nothing. Suddenly I went from sitting duck to the hunter. What transpired was an awesome Jason Bourne-like CQC moment to take out both soldiers and be the last man standing.
That is just one memory from one mission in the game, that another player may or may not have. It was entirely my experience.
This is the essence of The Phantom Pain, and why it’s such a damn good game to play.
Other open world games wish they were like this game. Other open world games wish they were as full of meaningful options, as intelligent, as unscripted and as player-driven as this game.
Whatever you think up or want to try, it’s a viable way to play and it will work in some capacity. Even your more ludicrous ideas like trying to drop a supply crate on someone’s head. It will just work, because of how intelligently designed this game is and how much it wants you to think about your own approach and reward you for it.
Boss fights also feature in The Phantom Pain as is tradition for this series, and like most of the game they’re different from anything you’d have expected from these games. And that’s because all of your tools available in the world are available to you in these fights. That’s what makes them, while not as epic as past games, certainly as intelligent if not more so, because you have to think up the best way to win. The encounter with Quiet and the Metal Gear are particularly memorable and awesome, and the other more ‘supernatural’ elements of the game are damn fine too, none of which I’ll spoil.
There’s so much more that can be written about the amount of things you can do in this game and the sheer amount of addictive fun that you can have. But it’s best to just experience it for yourself. Simple side missions, even though repetitive in structure and lacking in variety, can feel more entertaining and deep than they have the right to be because of the strength of the core gameplay and the freedom to be your own player.
After over 60 hours with this game and completing the main story I was only about 60-something percent complete with the game’s content. I still want to play more. There’s just so much quality content on offer in the gameplay and so many things still to be tried, tested and discovered.
People who just want to play Metal Gear Solid and don’t care for the story or prefer less cutscenes will find this game closer to perfect. But it will divide the fanbase for its story decisions and because of that plot twist.
There’s also still the online component to talk about, but honestly I did not bother with it.
Connectivity issues and a monstrous amount of content already available aside, the only benefits to connecting online would be to firstly upload your Ground Zeroes save game file, and secondly to increase the number of soldier groups you can dispatch on side missions. Once you do that you’d rather just go back offline, because firstly the online component itself is nothing to write home about, and secondly it significantly slows down your iDroid performance, to the point that even opening up the development screen can take twenty seconds longer when it’s normally instant.
That does not help your cause in the battlefield where the game doesn’t pause while you’re tapping away at your iDroid. It’s just not worth it.
The Phantom Pain is best enjoyed as a solo operation. And we don’t need to validate Konami’s pathetic Microtransactions or whatever other bad decision they make.
As you would expect from a Metal Gear Solid game and the Fox Engine The Phantom Pain is drop-dead gorgeous. Especially in cutscenes where visual quality ramps up, the game can just blow you away with its insanely high character detail and spectacular lighting. The performance is excellent too. It almost puts other publishers to absolute shame that The Phantom Pain can release on all platforms, bring its PC date forward by two weeks and still launch performing as perfectly as this. I played the game on PC and never ran into a single issue.
Due to the size of the world textures are not always the most impressive when free roaming and the fact that there are only two locations, Afghanistan and Africa, can make things look samey and bland after a while. A third location would have been welcome, but a combination of the changes in weather and day and night cycles, as well as the massive variety of the gameplay can make you forgive these issues.
There are some amazing soundtracks in this game as well, but apart from Quiet’s theme I wouldn’t call it the best the series has produced. Perhaps it’s just because gameplay is the be all and end all focus of this game, and other usually stellar elements of this series were set aside in pursuit of that goal. It reflects in the voice acting as well, which is mostly fantastic but packs a whole army of talent not fully used due to the reduced nature of the cutscenes.
There’s so much more than can be said about The Phantom Pain, but after this absurdly long review it’s best to close and leave the floor open for discussion of Metal Gear Solid V: Fankind Divided.