Ever since the release of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, series creator Hideo Kojima has said that each installment in the franchise would be his last. It got to a point where it became a running joke, and when he said that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain would be his final game in the franchise, no one took him seriously. After the fallout he and parent company Konami had however, Kojima’s promised departure from the series has indeed come. Despite the drama, I can think of no better way for Kojima to leave the franchise he created. The Phantom Pain is not only one of the strongest entries in the franchise, but one of the top games of this year.
Starting directly where last year’s Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes left off, we’re dropped into the game with one of the most terrifying yet exhilarating introductions in recent years. Not long after awakening from a nine year coma, Big Boss is back in action. This time, it isn’t preventing nuclear war, or building up a mercenary nation that drives him and his men — it’s revenge. Revenge for what happened to them in 1975 at the hands of the enigmatic Skull Face and his XOF army. From beginning to shocking end, the story weaves a bloody tapestry that contains all of the plot twists, betrayals, and “what the fuck” moments that we’ve all come to know and love from Metal Gear Solid.
Though the story of this game is solid (pun heavily intended) and intricately constructed, it takes a back seat to the actual gameplay. The MGS series has become synonymous with drawn out and gratuitously long cutscenes, but TPP (The Phantom Pain) mostly eschews those excesses in favor of putting the player in direct control and not letting the story get in the way of the game. While I admit to missing the exposition heavy cinematics, I don’t mind too much considering the gameplay is so satisfying and rewarding.
Stealth has always been the core mechanic of the series and MGSV takes what has come before and refines it further. Along with your trusted silenced tranquilizer gun which is used to knock out enemies, you can also divert their attention with empty magazine rounds, blow up doll decoys, or various types of smoke and sleep grenades. Let’s not forget your trusted cardboard box: the pinnacle of stealth technology, which has also received some new functions.
Crouching and crawling are done with the press of a button and these types of movements are essential for not being spotted. More stealth options include shooting out lights to help you blend into the shadows more and grabbing enemies from behind to gather information. If you do choose to grab someone, players are given the option to either kill or knock them out with a choke hold.
Of course, if all goes pear shaped, you can always shoot your way to victory. That being said, the gunplay in MGSV is the best the series has seen and isn’t as cumbersome as it was before. Shooting enemies in the face and watching as blotches of blood and bone flew midair was satisfying and felt just right.
In contrast, you don’t always have to kill when using lethal weapons. I made it a habit of shooting my enemies in the knees Terminator 2-style and then using the Fulton recovery balloon to send them to Mother Base. If I was feeling particularly sadistic, I would shoot enemies in the knees and let them squirm until they bleed to death. Not very honorable, but considering that they are the bad guys, I didn’t feel too bad about this twisted behavior.
One of the coolest things this game does is make enemies adapt to you and your play style. If you constantly shoot foes in the head, they will eventually begin to wear helmets. If you shoot them in the chest, they will begin to wear vests. If you kill enemies in mass quantities, they will begin to wear full body armor. If you choose to infiltrate missions during the night time they will begin to wear night vision goggles.
We all know how easy it is to get into the rhythm of entering an area, shooting everyone with tranqs, completing the objective and then exfiltrating. TPP does an excellent job of remedying this repetition by creating a system meant to keep you on your toes. With that being said, you can also influence events to occur in your favor later on with command missions where you can have soldiers stop the supply of armor, helmets, NVGs and more.
Metal Gear Solid 3 and MGS4 introduced larger, natural environments into the series which forced players to think differently than they did when they had to sneak around the man-made facilities. MGSV takes this approach and broadens it by introducing two gigantic open world maps where missions take place. Afghanistan and Africa are easily some of the largest gaming environments I’ve seen in quite some time and dwarf many other open world games. The scope of each map can be daunting at first considering that no MGS game has been this large before, but after a while, you not only get used to it, but revel in the grandiosity of it all.
What makes this open world different than those of other games is that you can’t exactly run around causing mayhem all willy nilly. This is at its heart a stealth game so trying to sneak past guards is still the preferred way of doing things. This can make getting from place to place a bit tedious since you either have to avoid or confront enemy troops in order to get to a desired location. Though the game lets you fast travel by shipping yourself to different bases, you can only do so after collecting a shipping list. Without that, you’ll have to either run, ride a horse, or drive a vehicle to your destination.
As gorgeous and sprawling as the locations are, I have to admit that they both felt a bit lifeless. The only inhabitants are soldiers and some randomly scattered animals. There are no civilians to be found in either Africa or Afghanistan which just felt off to me, especially in Afghanistan where the Soviets are supposed to be engaged in battles with the Mujaheddin army. I would sometimes see Soviets shooting into the mountains but I never saw anyone fire back. Africa proved to be disappointing because I never once encountered big animals like lions, giraffes, hippos, cheetahs, or anything of that sort. This could no doubt be attributed to the fact that The Phantom Pain isn’t a true current-gen game since it is also on the last-gen PS3 and Xbox 360 systems.
From a practical standpoint, The Phantom Pain is essentially MGS: Peace Walker 2.0. You recruit soldiers and procure equipment while out in the field thanks to your fancy Fulton device which balloons them back to your Mother Base. Mother Base, just like before, can be built up using materials found in the field and can be staffed with different soldiers. You can even send men out on side missions, requiring no work on your end, other than making sure you dispatch teams with the highest probability of succeeding. Though the Mother Base aspect is nearly identical to the way it was in Peace Walker, there are some notable and welcomed differences.
Whereas before you could only interact with Mother Base on a map, you are now able to go into the base and explore it. Much like Afghanistan and Africa, the base and its various platforms don’t have much to do in them. You can collect hidden diamonds which are scattered throughout and interact with your men by beating them senseless (it’s okay, they like it), but besides that, it’s only useful to return to Mother Base to wash all the blood off yourself and to keep your crew from fighting each other (they miss their Boss if he’s gone too long). Despite not having much to do at Mother Base, I appreciated that I could visit it directly.
The mission structure is broken up much in the way it was in Peace Walker as well. There are a total of 50 main missions and an astonishing 157 side-ops to engage in and replay. The only real complaint to be had here is that each main mission features opening and closing credits. I understand that this was done to make each mission feel like an episode of a TV series, but after mission 11, it just became annoying. Worse still, the credits would spoil things by letting you know which enemies you’d face off against in that particular mission. With that being said, having the missions broken up this way makes replaying segments, getting S ranks, and finding hidden weapons or items much easier.
Unlike Peace Walker, you cannot play missions with your friends. To compensate for this, the game offers you a choice of four “buddies” to bring along. These include D-Horse, D-Dog, D-Walker, and of course, the sniper, “Quiet”. Each buddy has their own special abilities which can make missions smoother. D-Dog is probably the most useful when it comes to finding every single person (enemy or prisoner) on a map, while Quiet is great at taking enemies out for you. The more you complete missions with buddies, the more your bond with them will grow which in turn will unlock new abilities for them.
As your R&D department expands and you find different blueprints for weapons and items, you’ll be able to develop more and more of them. The amount of weapons/items you can develop is staggering, but you are limited by GMP (the game’s currency which you earn by completing missions) and the R&D team’s level.
Weapons have always been a bit of a weird thing for me in MGS games. I try to go the non-lethal route whenever possible, so having 90% lethal weapons kind of made them pointless to me. However, since this game doesn’t penalize you for killing foes, the vast amount of weapons that can be created is something that those who just want to murder everything will appreciate.
Going back to the story of the game, though it still has those quirky (i.e batshit insane) MGS/Kojima-isms, it is by far the most serious entry in the franchise so far. There are moments that outright made me feel uncomfortable to watch, not to mention some of the actions the game forced me to do while playing. Kojima said he wanted to touch on subjects that would upset people and be controversial and he wasn’t lying. Though some of this stuff can be hard to digest, it all serves the greater good of the narrative in that it pushes the boundaries of what is acceptable in this medium. As Kojima himself said, movies and television can take many risks and there is no reason that games cannot do the same.
I obviously won’t say much about the plot since this is a spoiler-free review. I will say that the story and resolution to the game is one that has stuck with me after finishing the final mission. There are some loose ends which aren’t tied together as neatly as I would have liked, but for the most part, all of the big questions pertaining to how things tie into the original Metal Gear games, as well as the first Metal Gear Solid game, are answered. As you would expect, the ending is a shocking and unexpected one but it fits perfectly into the overall lore of the franchise.
As great as this game is however, it isn’t exactly perfect or flawless. If this is your first foray into the series, you will be somewhat lost. Granted, TPP is much more friendly towards new players compared to previous installments. This is accomplished by providing materials to players which serve as a way to explain past events, such as audio tapes and other collectibles. However, if you are not quite initiated into the Church of Gear, you won’t have the proper context for why certain things that occur in TPP are particularly important. This aspect has always been an issue with MGS and isn’t something that can be easily fixed due to how labyrinthine the plot of the franchise has become.
While Chapter 1 of the game has a great flow and pace throughout its 30 missions, the same can’t be said for Chapter 2. For reasons I don’t fully comprehend, the game requires that you repeat missions from Chapter 1 only with certain stipulations like having to complete them with full stealth, or at a higher difficulty. These sort of missions would be perfectly fine for Side-Ops but they have no business being in Main Ops as they’re just annoying roadblocks that get in the way of the story. The game didn’t need these filler missions in the main story to artificially inflate it.
Before I end this review, I have to briefly speak about the online component of the game. And I do mean briefly since, at the time of this writing, it barely works. Right now, FOB missions (Forward Operating Base) are available and they serve as a way for players to expand their Mother Base with added materials and personnel. Players are able to invade each other’s FOBs for said materials and personnel.
While this aspect is an interesting idea, the fact that you can’t opt out after agreeing to it is frustrating. Especially because you can be invaded while being offline. If your FOB is invaded while you’re playing the game you at least have the option to defend it, but having it be defenseless while you’re at work or sleeping is just plain unfair. It also doesn’t help that your base can be invaded while you are in the middle of a mission, forcing you to abandon it and lose all progress or continue and let your FOB be overrun by an invader. I’d say to completely avoid this, but considering that you need the added space for men (and that trophy!) you are more or less forced into participating in FOB.
Despite some issues with the story progression in Chapter 2 and the lack of things to do in the open worlds, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a phenomenal entry in the series and a grand finale for Hideo Kojima to leave on. Though we’ll no doubt see more Metal Gear games in the future, this title signifies the end of an era for a franchise that has continued to innovate and given fans thoroughly satisfying and meaningful experiences. Speaking as a die-hard fan of the franchise, in my heart, this is the finale to the series, and with what Kojima and company have given me, I’m more than satisfied. I know that long-time fans will be pleased with this game as well.
This review of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is based off a digital copy for the PlayStation 4 which was provided by Konami.