Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, is highly anticipated for several reasons. Firstly, it’s another outing into the world of tactical espionage that arguably kicked off the stealth genre, a ‘next gen’ one at that, which promises to be the best experience yet. Secondly, Kojima, the mastermind behind the franchise, and Konami, the publisher, parted ways with each other. I’m not here to talk about those politics, but my point is: you can bet that Kojima wouldn’t leave his beloved series behind without making his final project something truly special. Lastly, and this is probably the most important reason to be excited (and possibly the scariest), we will finally know the truth behind Big Boss (Naked/Punished/Venom Snake), and find out what made him change from legendary hero to, well, the Big Bad Boss we encounter later in the overall Metal Gear story.
And what a story It has been, filled with more plot twists and surprise revelations than a hundred M. Night Shyamalan movies combined, taking 28 literal years to tell. I’ve honestly wondered whether Kojima planned it all from the very beginning, or whether he has been making everything up as he goes. Regardless, The Phantom Pain is his swansong, and by the mouldy, overused cardboard box of Snake, is it spectacular!
First and foremost though, it must be said that I never got around to finishing the The Phantom Pain. I say this with burning tears in my eyes, as I really did try to reach the juicy conclusion as best I could during my limited time with it at a review event. Still, I plugged 35 hours into Big Boss’s latest open world adventure. If that isn’t enough time to indicate whether a game is good or bad, then I don’t know what is.
To newcomers, the plot of The Phantom Pain may come across as a little tangled and confusing. For this reason, I would recommend reading up a little on Metal Gear Solid 3, Peace Walker, and the more recent Ground Zeroes at the very least to get some sort of understanding as to where the story is at.
Before diving into the game myself, I had only played Metal Gear Solid 1 and 2 (a sin, I know), both of which have very little to do with Big Boss and his overall tale. Still, I was able to follow the overall plot of The Phantom Pain, albeit vaguely.
All I can say is that some of the finer story details may have been lost on me, but I know long time fans will have several “a-ha” moments as pieces of the Metal Gear puzzle slowly fall into place. I won’t spoil anything – I’ll leave that for them to discover first-hand.
What I can talk about extensively however, is actual gameplay. This is where The Phantom Pain truly shines. It’s an odd experience at first, truth be told, because while everything certainly feels very much like a Metal Gear title, it doesn’t at the same time.
Tradition is kept alive thanks to the familiar series formula of sneaking around, cardboard box equipped (or not), and attempting to avoid detection. Controlling Snake is easier than ever in this regard, with an automatic snap to cover system in place, and movement, prone, crouched, or standing, handling in the most optimal form it’s ever been.
This is Metal Gear Solid, through and through, yet, it doesn’t feel like it is. This is thanks to the new open world approach, which gives players the freedom to tackle objectives however they wish. There is no “right” way to do something. The only right way is what YOU feel suits the situation best.
For example, a day in the life of Snake might require him to extract a high-value target from a heavily fortified position. There are several ways to perform this task.
The more traditional approach may be to find a vantage point during the day to scout the camp from afar, tagging targets and learning their preferred locations and patrol routes. Once that’s done, it makes sense to wait for the cover of night (or perhaps a wild sandstorm to appear) to ensure sneaking around is a lot easier. Where is this high-value target? No clue, which is why it is probably a good idea to isolate a guard and interrogate them for more Intel and a more precise location. Once that’s done, and the target is found, it’s a matter of carrying them out of the camp; either to a chopper, or for extraction via the Fulton system. See how nobody died in this scenario?
Alternately, you could just blow everything up… shoot first, ask questions later. Seriously, for a game that has roots in avoiding conflict it all costs, it’s unreal how well The Phantom Pain handles as a third-person cover shooter. Following this approach means disposing of any enemy that gets in the way, and simply searching each building till the target is located. Find the resistance a little too much? No problem, call in some chopper support or, oh I don’t know, an airstrike to level the playing field, quite literally.
I opted for a combination of both approaches, not by choice mind you. Usually, I would sneak around until I was inevitably spotted, at which point I would call in backup and shoot everything in sight. It didn’t make for good business however, as a dead soldier is no good to me or Mother Base – a rather integral part to the overall Phantom Pain experience.
You see, Mother Base is your safe haven, your base of operations. At the start of the game, it is, sorry for the lack of a better description, an offshore base for ants. It’s a tiny little oilrig, with barely any staff manning it. It’s up to Snake to find the people, resources, and finances to expand it into something bigger and far better. Which brings me back to my point about shooting everything as being bad for business. Every soldier on the battlefield is a potential asset, excelling in some thing or other that may be useful on Mother Base.
For example, an enemy camp may hold a specialist who is knowledgeable in R&D. Isolating them and knocking them out (see: NOT KILLING THEM), and then sending them back to base via the Fulton system, would help me in researching newer, better weapons. That one guard manning the tower in the middle of the camp may be a specialist with regards to intel. Securing his employment will result in a better overall radar system.
This is where, to me at least, The Phantom Pain turned out to be the most enjoyable. You’d think that spending 35 hours doing mission after mission would result in some sort of fatigue. It really didn’t! Not once did I feel tired or bored of the game. Obviously, I would focus on my main objective, but going out of my way to secure staff and resources for Mother Base supplemented my experience quite nicely. Besides, it meant I had to use the Fulton system pretty often, and damn is it a fun toy to play with! Beyond being key to sending soldiers back to Mother Base, the Fulton system (a high tech extraction system) has other applications once it is upgraded sufficiently.
My most memorable experience with it came in the form of a mission where I had to secure a truck. The catch was, it was being protected by a tank and an armoured anti-air vehicle, one in front, and one behind. I decided to go in, guns blazing, destroying the tank in the process. All attention drawn to the front of the convoy, I flanked and snuck around with the intention of placing some C4 on the anti-air vehicle at the back. Destroying it would leave the truck completely unprotected, and mine for the taking. Imagine my surprise when I reached the armour and a Fulton notification popped up. Yes, instead of destroying the damned thing, I attached that balloon, and watched the vehicle fly skyward, and off to Mother Base to be put to a use that involves NOT shooting me in the face.
It’s ridiculous to even imagine, but remember, we are talking Metal Gear Solid here, where craziness and unlikeliness is the order of the day. Yet, it somehow manages to be believable, if you’re willing to be open minded and open to a little use of imagination.
While the overall experience is fantastic, The Phantom Pain does have some minor hiccups. In terms of story pacing, past the explosive prologue, it really feels like things take a while to really kick off. Like I’ve said already, this is Metal Gear Solid for sure, but it doesn’t feel like it at times. Fans expecting long winded cut scenes throughout the entire experience will find themselves sorely disappointed. Instead, it’s mission after mission, with titbits of important dialogue between each.
In terms of gameplay, there are some inconsistencies that can throw the whole experience out somewhat too. While I found the enemy AI to be solid, and genuinely smart, there were some moments when they were truly dumb. At one point in the game, I snuck up to a tank in the middle of a base and blew it up with C4. instead of going into full alert like I expected, nearby enemies transmitted to HQ that they suspected they were under attack.
Lastly, and this was by far the most annoying snag; failing a mission or dying on the job meant starting right back at square one. I can’t tell you how many times I came close to fulfilling my objective, only to be spotted and killed. Having to start back outside the base is disheartening to say the least. On the flip side, it does encourage players to try again, in a new, creative way.
Beyond those minor annoyances, The Phantom Pain is a masterpiece by Kojima. I was constantly astounded by how beautiful the game looked. The dusty plains of the Afghanistan playground (and the dry, though more tropical planes of another location, which I don’t wish to spoil in case you don’t know about it already) are a joy to take in.
I could happily ride atop Diamond Horse for hours, drinking the visuals in, watching the dynamic weather and 24 hour day cycle taking place. Not once in my time with a PS4 copy of the game did I ever experience lag or slowdown either – even when there was a ton taking place (explosions, sandstorms, million of enemies, and so on) at any given time.
The travelling between each mission, and time spent at Mother Base may be perceived as unnecessary padding, and not to everybody’s taste. It never bothered me once though. I loved the whole experience of preparing for a mission, and tackling it however I wanted to.
Should you go out of your way to play this new Metal Gear Solid? I can only tell you this: after my time with the game, I went out and ordered the limited edition Phantom Pain Playstation 4 bundle. I am that confident in the game, that hooked, and that excited to play it once more! Basically what I’m trying to get at is, should you be excited? Yes! This is a The Phantom Pain is a phenomenal title that should be experienced by everybody – newcomers and hardcore fans alike.
Disclaimer: This game was played at a review event over a week. We spent about 35 hours in the game, playing it normally – without any magical chicken heads.
Last Updated: August 24, 2015