Kept you waiting, huh?
Metal Gear Online will not be weighed into this review as I primarily focused on the single-player aspect of The Phantom Pain.
The Metal Gear Solid series is a renowned work of video game art that is equally daunting as it is inventive. For many, this beloved franchise paved the way for video game story-telling, perfected the calm yet addictive nature of stealth gameplay, and fostered one of gaming’s greatest heroes, Solid Snake. As someone with an inept ability for the stealth genre of video games, the Metal Gear series never once appealed to my preferences, despite its popularity and unanimous praise. Funnily enough, I completed the entire core Metal Gear Solid series this year and I honestly regret not rectifying my juvenile boycott sooner as the Metal Gear Solid series is an astounding achievement. Kojima’s fifth main and final entry to the Metal Gear series, The Phantom Pain, is a rather obtuse experience as it transcends so many inherent fundamentals of the series while diminishing certain attributes that’ve become synonymous with the idiosyncratic series. Kojima’s first foray into the vast depths of the open world is not only a success but it surpasses the modern status quo for the genre. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a near-perfect gameplay experience that both encourages and compliments your play style, expecting a required level of intelligence and interpretation. This is simply stealth gameplay perfection as The Phantom Pain offers a minutia of different tactical approaches for any foreseeable state of affairs, thus the experience is fluctuated accordingly, never emitting feelings of stagnancy or frustration. Complemented with an excellent and engaging open world to utilize as your own playground of sorts, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a gameplay rich experience that is admittedly addictive and is honestly one of the best open world games I have ever played. Unfortunately, The Phantom Pain’s narrative is unable to match, let alone surpass, the ingenious nature of its gameplay counterpart. What has become an expected component of the Metal Gear Solid series is practically non-existent in The Phantom Pain. Its sense of narrative is sparse – proving to be disappointing at best, deficiently pathetic at worst – its obstructively disjointed by a bizarre and questionable episodic structure and while its gameplay counterpart is filled to the brim with meaningful and engaging content, its core narrative simply feels underdeveloped. However, despite its discrepancies, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain still manages to transcend as a near-perfect experience that is profoundly addicting from start to finish, simply never letting up. Although it may not be my favourite entry in the profound series, that honor belongs to Snake Eater, it is still an absolute favourite of mine and as I previously mentioned, it’s also one of the best open world games to date. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an excellent entry into an already excellent established franchise and is undoubtedly the best game of 2015 that I never played.
As a direct sequel to the excellent Snake Eater and Peace Walker – two of the arguably greatest Metal Gear stories to date – it would be understandable to assume that The Phantom would follow this proud tradition of prequel quality, and while it respectfully continues its legacy through its gameplay implementation, its narrative leaves much to be desired. The Phantom Pain primarily focuses on Big Boss’ tumultuous road to vengeance and his arduous journey forming Diamond Dogs and their hell-bent revenge for the rogue Cipher unit XOF. The story is practically non-existent, primarily focusing on Diamond Dogs completing benign missions on behalf of different government military units, unable to personally complete the tasks at hand due to certain political and/or social reasons. In a rather finite, shallow, and hyperbolic nutshell, that is the unfortunate depth of The Phantom Pain’s narrative. The game’s narrative and gameplay structure are broken up into episodes – which constitute as rudimentary missions – but this questionable structure is disjointed and foreign to the typical Metal Gear exposition and ultimately feels forced and cumbersome. On top of its jagged nature, the story ultimately feels incomplete and poorly executed as certain threads have no resolution whatsoever and it does an insufficient job at tying the two series – Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid – together in a cohesive manner. Despite its narrative disappointments certain story moments manage to meet that peculiar standard that Kojima has fostered with each Metal Gear entry. For instance, The Phantom Pain’s opening is one of the most, if not the most, insane moments that I’ve ever experienced, period; it’s absolutely nonsensical and exquisitely obtuse in the best possible manner. Alongside from what is an excellent opening number, The Phantom features a specific mission in the latter half of the game that is emotionally devastating, enforcing one of the most difficult and uncomfortable interactions that I’ve partaken in. It’s downright heartbreaking and deliberately embodies a false sense of choice, reeling in a flood of hazardous emotion in the process. From a visual standpoint, The Phantom Pain is a gorgeous peace of work that runs at a silky smooth 60 frames per second. The Fox Engine beautifully captures the aesthetic essence and impeccable detail of the desert rays of Afghanistan and the glistening precipitation of Central Africa, complemented by a vibrant and responsive day/night cycle, encouraging the gameplay to adapt accordingly to its contemporary cycle. An integral element of the Metal Gear Solid series is its musical composition, and while The Phantom Pain’s iteration of what is a musical legacy is not nearly as impressive as its older brethren, it’s an excellent addition to Metal Gear’s musical repertoire. From the somber tones of Quiet’s Theme to the electrifying and bombastic statement of Sins of the Father, there’s a leveled sense of diversity that sets The Phantom Pain apart from its core series. As a perk from being set in the 80’s, Kojima’s latest is ripe with exceptional retro tunes that atmospherically set the stage. Hearing Aha’s Take on Me bombastically roaring from a cassette radio player is a timely experience in and of itself. The original Metal Gear Solid made a name for itself as being one of the first few titles to successfully nail voice acting, a rather nuanced and alien element of gaming at the time. The Phantom Pain continues this pioneered tradition of the series as its voice acting is nothing short of excellent; Troy Baker’s portrayal of Revolver Ocelot is an excellent, level-headed rendition of the fan favourite character and Robin Atkin Downes’ performance as the blood thirsty Kazuhira Miller is exceptionally sharp and pungent. This time around, Kiefer Sutherland dawns the voice of the iconic Big Boss, the essential voice of reason and leader of Diamond Dogs. Kojima inherently stated that his final portrayal of Big Boss would be akin to a silent protagonist, where the characters surrounding him would expand and craft the vocal narrative, in a similar manner to that of Max in Mad Max 2. While I do solemnly enjoy and miss David Hayter’s iconic performance of Snake/Big Boss, I surprisingly prefer Sutherland’s realistic, calm and collected approach to the war hero over Hayter’s over the top, Saturday morning cartoon interpretation.
As I previously mentioned, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s gameplay acts as the perfect counterweight to its disappointing narrative. It flips the traditional Metal Gear gameplay structure sideways and dips its toes into the alien waters of the open world genre. The Phantom Pain transcended from being a skeptical open world experiment to a resounding example that triumphs the standards of the genre. Its two essential playgrounds, Afghanistan and Central Africa, are exquisitely detailed and impeccably rendered. Given the immense scope of these two sandboxes, The Phantom Pain would’ve benefited greatly from incorporating a mini-map, a synonymous element of the open world genre. It doesn’t even include a traditional radar, a signature staple in the Metal Gear series. The core gameplay has been refined and revamped to a tee, stealth gameplay has honestly never felt or looked so good. The game controls beautifully as gunplay is silky smooth and Metal Gear Solid’s signature CQC system has been given a fresh coat of paint. Performing hold ups, interrogations, and tactical takedowns have never been more intuitive or satisfying. Whether if you’re embarking on a free roam journey or following the structural layout of missions, you’ll eventually be tasked with infiltrating guard posts and larger scaled outposts. These small sandboxes within a grand scale desert can be approached in a multitude of variable ways, enforcing an unparalleled sense of versatility. You can take a non-lethal approach and predominately utilize CQC and silenced tranquilizing weaponry. If the nurturing Ghandi outlook doesn’t suit your preferred play style, then you can also embrace your aggressive tendencies. With the offensive approach, you can blast your way through the corresponding outpost and complete your objective once all enemy threats have been eliminated by whichever violently colourful manner you see fit The Phantom Pain also includes an excellent marking system, so that you can always keep tabs on the enemy’s current location, always having a tactical advantage and formidable understanding of the present situation. Through a proficient level of espionage, players can interrogate enemies to receive pertinent information to the mission at hand or to find enticing goodies – such as development blueprints for new R&D weapons, gadgets, and items – hidden throughout the outpost. Its aforementioned weather system proves to be far more tactically advantageous than one would assume, being rendered as more than simple eye candy. When completely shrouded by the rustling grains of a sandstorm, your field of sight is completely diminished, but so is the enemy’s; taking advantage of the new marking system, you’ll be able to keep tabs on enemies as you hide in plain sight. When a glistening rainstorm approaches the vicinity, one’s perception of sound is drowned out by the violent collisions left by the water droplets, allowing players to freely move at an alarmingly faster pace. It’s a tactical system that’s equally dynamic, fluctuating the pace of any situation. Amongst its already impressive list of improvements, The Phantom Pain houses the most robust arsenal of any Metal Gear title, with each weapon and its subsequent class complementing a different play style.
Kojima’s latest and greatest incorporates a competent buddy system – where AI companions aid Snake on his personal Vendetta, each of them being suited to a different situation. D-Horse is primarily used as a means for transportation while D-Dog, my arguable favourite, is far more versatile as he is able to sniff out enemy placement, weapons, medical plants, landmines, resources, and vehicles. On top of his passive benefits, he is also able to either distract, kill, or stun enemies, each corresponding ability tethered to the gear that he has equipped. Quiet, an integral character to the narrative, is a resourceful sniper who aids Snake in both reconnaissance and covering fire. Lastly D- Walker is a customized walker gear that aids Snake in both transportation and combat, capable of catering to one’s pacific play style and scoping out areas prior to your arrival as a form of recon. Another integral narrative and gameplay element is the Mother Base, which serves as Diamond Dog’s base of operations. At Mother Base, resources are collectively gathered, items and weaponry are developed and supplied, medical teams treat the sick, teams gather intel to aid Snake on the battlefield, and combat units are sent to take on virtual contracts for GMP and other rewards. The Mother Base implementation is an excellent and addictive gameplay device that harmonizes perfectly with the game’s narrative. Each enemy found throughout Afghanistan and Central Africa will have ranked abilities which correspond to each Mother Base Facility. Through this, you can extract whomever you wish, via Fulton extraction technology, to progressively increase the rank of each facility which will result in better equipment, higher success rates for dispatch missions, improved reconnaissance, tighter security, and a minutia of other enticing rewards. It’s an intuitive system that encourages non-lethal tendencies as keeping enemies alive may be the more difficult option in the heat of the moment, but the most beneficial in the long run. While recruiting members is almost entirely gameplay centric and arguably nothing more than a statistical value, there is ultimately a sense of ownership over Mother Base and the Diamond Dogs, and Kojima does a fantastic job at personalizing each member that you’ll ever encounter. Losing someone of high value to the team is quite dispiriting, and while it primarily effects the statistical value of their corresponding facility, you cannot discern that weighted sense of loss. In terms of its core structure, players will be given a rank upon completing a mission – which is collectively based on specific attributes such as time, number of kills, and a performance of perfect stealth. Trying to achieve an S rank for every mission evokes an addictive and arcade-y tendency that is rather foreign to the Metal Gear series. Completing a layered story mission with absolutely no kills and with perfect stealth is an accomplishment in and of itself, mirroring the rewarding satisfaction of, say Bloodborne. In terms of core gameplay content aside from the standard missions, players can also take part in Side Ops, which serve as smaller missions with no alarming priority; these are extremely gameplay oriented and highly addictive, with some side ops developing into an integral part of the plot, and at selective points, become mandatory. Challenge Tasks are tied to specific mission, side op, or any other miscellaneous objective which reward you upon achieving the necessary requirements, complementing The Phantom Pain’s aforementioned addictive nature. Examples of such tasks are completing specific missions with an A rank or higher, performing a certain number of fulton extractions, or completing certain side objectives within a mission. Metal Gear Solid V’s excellent sense of addiction stems from its rewarding implementation of progression. Whether if you are collecting resources to develop a new tranquilizer sniper, building up your combat unit in order to reap the rewards of the more difficult dispatch missions, tackling previous story missions to improve your rank and achieve their corresponding mission tasks, or simply deploying your buddy directly to your side in order to increase your relationship with them, everything evokes this rewarding sense of accomplishment and every minute feels incredibly meaningful and ultimately worthwhile.
While gameplay is king and The Phantom Pain’s fair share is the arguable definition of near perfection, a diminutive slice of questionable decisions obstructs what could’ve been an impeccable display of game design. A renowned feature and staple in the Metal Gear series are its rambunctious boss fights. While one could argue that The Phantom Pain does include boss fights in some capacity, they severely lack the traditional nuance that we’ve come to expect from the series. While certain boss encounters prove to be mildly entertaining – Quiet’s brief but strategic sniper battle comes to mind – nothing is quite able to match the innovative brilliance of The End’s boss fight from Snake Eater or the sheer epic scale of the Metal Gear Rex versus Metal Gear Ray encounter from Guns of the Patriots. While The Phantom Pain’s episodic structure alleviates the pacing in some regard, it also has destructive repercussions. Similar to its narrative, mission gameplay feels rather abrupt as you’re constantly thrown back and forth between the battlefield and your reconnaissance chopper, with the overall mission structure resembling the disjointed nature of Destiny as opposed to the seamless open world implementation of Red Dead Redemption. Towards the latter half of the game – after a mid-season finale of sorts – Metal Gear Solid V requires players to complete renditions of older missions in order to unlock new story missions. On one side of the spectrum, this design choice adds a sense of longevity to the experience. These postgame repeat missions add certain restrictions to the table to add an additional layer of challenge, encouraging players to tackle scenarios in a more tactical and strategic manner. Subsistence missions enforce an absence of sortie prepping, requiring players to start missions completely naked as gear and weaponry are to be found throughout the mission sandbox. Total stealth missions are self-explanatory; you’re simply tasked with completing the given mission without alerting the enemy and The Phantom Pain’s slow-motion reflex mode is also removed for an extra layer of bravado. However, the core pacing of The Phantom Pain is hindered due to the mandatory nature of these repeat missions. One can’t help but feel that the crux of Chapter 2 is locked behind a gratuitous and repetitive grind. Speaking of repetition, locales and certain points of interest will slowly begin to reveal their thin recycled nature as you are constantly visiting regurgitated sights and outpost for new missions. A new, specific feature of Metal Gear Solid V that bears redundant tendencies is the Private Force System. One player’s offensive combat unit will be pit against another’s defensive unit – in the event of non existent virtual battles – with the winner being rewarded with Victory Points which will eventually be transitioned to PF points. PF points can be used to purchase anything from high ranking employees to an abundance of different resources and plants. However, the amount of PF points required to purchase these rewards is laughably insurmountable. This system is not necessarily broken or unintuitive, it just doesn’t serve a warranting purpose and doesn’t need to exist. It’s an added reminder that, at certain times, Metal Gear Solid V feels overwhelmingly massive, as certain elements – such as the PF system – don’t pan out as intended and feel either underdeveloped or underutilized. Another questionable feature is Metal Gear Solid V’s FOB missions. Players are able to expand their base of operations by creating separate Forward Operating Bases (FOB’s) which provide further support for tactical operations. Capricious players can invade another’s FOB in an attempt to steal an exorbitant amount of the invaded player’s assets – essentially their collected pool of resources and staff members. The defensive players can set up fortifications and security for their fob in preparation of an eventual invasion, and ultimately prevent the enemy player from reaching the FOB’s Central Core. This sense of PvP, while not necessarily broken or cumbersome, feels uninspired, similar to its PF system. FOB missions are a great system for longevity but lack the proper depth to become a popularized system that’ll keep players coming back for more. Lastly, although Mother Base represents an excellent foundation and its passive, behind the scenes contributions are imperative to the gameplay’s addictive cycle, as a physical structure, it is unimpressively desolate with little to no value. Aside from the few training exercises and occasionally beating your staff members to boost their morale, there is absolutely no productive reason for you to return to mother base as every essential Mother Base gameplay mechanic is solely implemented through the game’s elaborate menus.
The Metal Gear Solid series has been somewhat of a bipolar experience as its core design has fluctuated more than your average roller coaster. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty improved almost every element of the original’s gameplay, while transforming into a convoluted mess with gratuitous exposition and nonsensical plot devices. Snake Eater is the masterpiece of the Metal Gear Solid series, striking a resounding balance between excellent gameplay and impeccable storytelling. Guns of the Patriots provides conspicuous gameplay improvements, which are inducted sparingly as majority of the experience is indulged by lengthy cutscenes. The Phantom Pain is essentially the antithesis of Guns of the Patriots; a gameplay rich experience with a criminally underutilization of the series’ renowned exposition. Despite its narrative omissions, certain gameplay hiccups, and questionable design decisions, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain still transcends most entries of its fathering series as its moment to moment gameplay and sheer fun factor exceeds anything that came before it. Kojima’s first experiment into the open world genre has become a resounding success story and I can’t wait to see how he expands and develops this template further for his future projects. It’s an astounding accomplishment in accessibility as its core structure implements the fundamentals of stealth gameplay in a productive and efficient manner, encouraging the gamer’s freedom of choice and adaptability instead of enforcing an obligatory mindset. Despite whatever shortcomings its narrative may entail, The Phantom Pain, from a gameplay standpoint, is an evolution in every meaning of the word, and in the developing world of gaming, gameplay will always be king.