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(The following review contains minor spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. This relates to the resolution of two characters’ roles in the story, but we don’t give away the details. Just a heads-up either way.)
Written by: Jake Wilson
Edited and co-written by: Jordan Helm and Stephen Welsh
Developer: Kojima Productions
Platforms: PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC (review platform)
When I was 14, for a high school show and tell style project, I decided to do a review of Metal Gear Solid 3. I recorded gameplay on to a VHS tape and used this to deliver a presentation to the class. The opening line of the presentation went something like: “This video game, created by the genius mind of Hideo Kojima…” Do I still think Hideo Kojima is a genius? Absolutely, he is still one of the few game directors out there who really knows how to put the player directly in to a video game character’s shoes. Is everything he’s ever done perfect? Definitely not. Is Metal Gear Solid V a 10/10 game? You’d have to be riding its gargantuan hype train to believe that to be the case but…on the other hand…is it not the greatest, purest stealth game ever created? It probably is. Apologies if you’re getting mixed messages so far but, from beginning to end, that’s exactly what Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has given me.
To start, Metal Gear Solid V‘s opening is one of the most intense, gripping and impactful introductions in video game history. Within the first ten minutes it overtakes pretty much any and all openings that have come before. Gradually and intuitively teaching you the controls as Big Boss is recovering from his 9 year coma, the player is once again put in Snake’s position as much as a controller can do. It’s here we first get a feel for how incredibly fluid the controls are for moving and shooting, something that goes hand in hand with some fantastic animation and overall graphic fidelity. Moving from crouching, to crawling, to pressing against cover feels buttery smooth and shooting, along with Metal Gear’s now signature shoulder switching mechanic, feels spot on.
Moving on to the meat of the game, the new open world structure stands a million miles from the cone vision of earlier iterations. With it comes the need to plan ahead and prepare for what may be around the corner. Camouflage, stance and lighting have never been more important and this is a key component to the gameplay’s undeniable enjoyment and replayability. Enemy soldiers especially display a higher intelligence in The Phantom Pain. They react very cautiously and tactically, always in constant communication with each other and the command centre who can send reinforcements if you aren’t careful. The breadth of counter-intelligent response is never too far away; Be it spotting you from a greater distance, covering greater ground during an alert phase, asking for others to cover them during an investigation, soldiers driving between outposts, or day-night shifts. Admittedly the intelligent thinking, on either side, isn’t always perfect – a soldier no more than ten metres away not spotting you, buddies getting in the way of your line-of-fire – but for the most part, infiltration seldom loses any of its tense risk-reward style of decision-making.
What’s more, the ability to conduct reconnaissance or calling in support through ammo, new equipment or co-ordinated assault adds further flexibility to an already expanded array of possibilities. Supplies, of course, cost resources which are stored at Snake’s ‘Mother Base’ – the game’s go-to central hub of sorts. Also similar to Peace Walker, the Fulton recovery device can be used to extract resources, kidnap soldiers and in some parts, rescue endangered animals. All of which can be accessed via the iDroid, a returning gadget from Ground Zeroes. Time continues to tick even when browsing the device, which solves the issue the older games had of simply waiting for enemy alert phases to die out. You can find a safe corner, get in a cardboard box and manage your base while the enemy blunders around looking for you but at the same time there’s care needed in making sure the coast, for that moment in time, is indeed clear.
For every advancement or evolution your player-character(s) go through, so too will the enemy adapt and change depending on both their combat skills (a skill tied to a soldier’s suitability for Mother Base’s combat unit) as well as your own previous tactics. Be it equipping themselves with gas masks, helmets, or body armour. While this may provide a brief increase in difficulty, the great thing about The Phantom Pain is that there’s always a way around the next predicament; a means to sink deeper into the mechanics and think outside the box which, if history has taught us anything, has always proven a great benefit to Metal Gear’s longevity.
Buddies can also be called in to aid you on your missions for tasks such as scouting enemy encampments. They’ll also accompany Big Boss on the field, with the player able to issue a few commands to each. D-Dog’s ‘wait’ command unfortunately barely works and he is the main culprit for standing in front of you when you’re aiming for a well timed head shot. D-Horse is a good way to get around early in the game but the trade-off between D-Dog’s scouting and D-Horse’s comic relief defecation on command doesn’t seem worth it. Quiet, an incredibly accurate sniper, is possibly even over powered but is still a lot of fun to take along once you get used to her constant humming over the radio. Lastly, there’s D-Walker, an interesting hybrid of buddy and vehicle, incredibly useful for long-distance missions and firefights.
A large part of the Mother Base meta-game carries forward to The Phantom Pain’s online component: ‘Forward Operating Bases.’ Players can choose to invade another player’s FOB to steal resources or staff members and can research defences and plan strategies to defend their own FOB. It’s really satisfying retaliating against another player or successfully defending your own FOB. The online play doesn’t feel overbearing on the core game, but for people who choose to play online there’s some decent rewards to be had. It must be said though that there are already hackers who have found a way to cheat this online mode and Konami don’t seem to be taking the steps to fix this.
It’s unfortunate that Mother Base has no real customization options beyond changing its colour. Up to 4 platforms can be added for each of Diamond Dogs’ units but they are the same for each player and they are also the same on the FOBs. The doors around the base with red lights are also a tease as there is a severe lack of indoor areas on the base and this gives the impression that these doors will open at some point. Unfortunately they’re only there to be goalposts for online invaders.
So that’s the gameplay…it’s sublime and near perfect…but the gameplay is not the whole product, especially when it comes to Metal Gear. The Metal Gear Solid series has always been so much more than just its gameplay. So what about the story? Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain does have some intriguing themes just dying to come to the forefront: its stance on biological warfare, child soldiers and the general horrors of war and Western oppression should be applauded.
However, the storyline is so bare bones it’s almost non-existent by series standards. I found myself at each cutscene beyond the opening, wondering why I was not feeling any impact or emotion and it’s probably because the story overall feels rushed and unfinished. There is barely any dialogue relating directly to the characters, which means the characters just don’t feel the same compared to the other games. Cassette tapes deliver most of the plot points rather heavy handedly and feel like a poor replacement for the CODEC. In the other games, Snake would be asking questions related to the plot constantly, usually via the CODEC. In Metal Gear Solid V, Kiefer Sutherland as Snake, may have the least lines of any character (except maybe Quiet).
It’s such a shame as I feel Kiefer Sutherland is actually really good as Snake. Troy Baker on the other hand leaves a lot to be desired. In fact, I can’t imagine a worse choice to play such an amazingly iconic character as Revolver Ocelot. His voice acting is inconsistent, and lazy. It wavers between Snow Villiers (his generic go-to accent) and hillbilly cowboy (probably because he’d just finished voicing Joel from The Last of Us). I had expected a portrayal that could still capture Ocelot’s role as a scheming double agent, but Baker’s Ocelot never moves past a gruff cowboy persona. There is none of his flamboyant personality there any more, and I’m not just talking about his performance, but his role in the story as well. 90% of the time, Ocelot is acting as either a radio support for Snake, or a moral compass acting alongside Diamond Dogs’ leader Kaz. The two serve the same basic roles in the game, but whereas Kazuhira Miller is quickly descending into a suspicious warmonger, Ocelot remains utterly static, only there to disagree with Kaz at certain points. A disappointing way to bring back Big Boss’ rival from Snake Eater indeed.
The plots involving Huey Emmerich and a young boy named Eli feel tacked on and never really go anywhere. Quite literally in the case of Eli, as he essentially walks out of the story in the latter half and never shows up again. The reason? The mission that would have concluded his storyline wasn’t finished and isn’t included in the game. Skull Face, the primary villain of Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain, had the potential to be the most intriguing character, but is unceremoniously ousted from the antagonist role far too soon. We know his goal and his motives at least, but it’s never quite clear what it is he’s actually doing at any point in the game. He just seems to be wandering about really, occasionally saying cool things. He’s surrounded by the game’s cast of crazy enemies, such as The Man on Fire, and the SKULLS unit, but his own actions never live up to the hype.
Meanwhile, moving past all the attention she’s received, the worst character by far is Quiet. I say character, but she barely has a personality. She has two modes: silent and aggressive sniper, and sexy soldier girl. She can’t speak of course, and because of this we have to be informed about her character in one of two ways. First, through unsubtle scenes such as stomping a soldier’s crotch, and the introduction of a romantic bond with Snake by stripping off and dancing half-naked in the rain. Second, with exposition given by other characters, such as Ocelot explaining that she doesn’t wear many clothes because she’s surviving with photosynthesis(?). Quiet feels like a character fans are meant to love, but with none of the substance to actually make that the case. She just comes across as a copy of MGS3’s EVA, with awkward and terrible execution.
What ties this all together is probably going to be most people’s main bugbear with the game…It feels unfinished. The last handful of missions are literally harder versions of old missions. Even the briefing and debriefing dialogue which plays at the start and end of missions is exactly the same. They feel like placeholders for something which would have made up the final chapter of the game. The epilogue is unlocked with no fanfare or context, and while it reveals some very interesting story details (which are sure to leave fans debating for years), it’s presented through yet more recycled content. Couple this with the Eli scenario mentioned earlier, and it becomes apparent that this story is missing quite a lot of scenes that were once planned.
Despite the game’s unfinished state though, Metal Gear Solid V has an insane amount of content. The gradual progression of Mother Base and methodical pacing of missions makes the game seem such amazing value for money. I find the general gameplay loop of deploying to a mission area, taking care of business, then being picked up by the helicopter at a location of your choosing, has near endless replay value. The FOX engine is truly beautiful and playing on the PC version, I have not noticed a single frame drop nor any poor quality textures save for one, rather strange-looking oily water texture during a mission in Africa.
The music of The Phantom Pain is a vast improvement over Metal Gear Solid 4‘s muddled, disjointed score which aptly fits the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth.” This time we have a straight up collaboration between Ludvig Forssell (composer) and Harry Gregson Williams (producer). It doesn’t quite reach the heights that Harry Gregson Williams achieved in Metal Gear Solid 3, but each track has its place, with my favourite choice being the use of the Peace Walker theme on the deployment screen, which never fails to get me pumped for a mission.
Scattered around the open world, some of the soldiers will be blasting out some well-known 80’s hits which you can collect and use as your helicopter music. It’s unfortunate that you usually only ever hear the beginning of a track before the helicopter quickly leaves the area and this made me opt for the custom music folder unique to the PC version which allows you to use your own music. Nonetheless, it’s immense fun exploring an open-world with collectibles coming courtesy of Billy Idol, and Joy Division.
In the end, regardless of how disappointing Phantom Pain is as an installment in the Metal Gear canon, it’s still easily one of the best games of the year and such good value for money that it’s hard not to recommend this to anyone. What matters most of all is that the majority of The Phantom Pain’s 120+ hours of playtime is filled with exactly what it says on the box…”Tactical Espionage Action”…sorry I meant “Operations”.
How The Phantom Pain will be seen in the years to come is anybody’s guess, but it honestly sticks out like a sore thumb in comparison with the rest of the main Metal Gear titles. Despite marketing touting this as the grand finale that bridges the gap in the timeline prior to the very first Metal Gear, it only serves to create more loose ends with its unfinished narrative that gives too much focus to inconsequential characters. What little story we get also serves to demystify much of this beloved universe, with a particular aspect acting as a retread of the infamous nanomachines used to explain away so many things in MGS4.
Metal Gear Solid V, intentionally or not, falls victim to an identity crisis throughout. While it features familiar faces such as Big Boss, Ocelot, Miller, and a number of iconic members of the series’ cast, their characterisation does very little to bridge the gap between the 1984 setting, and the established timeline. Furthermore, its an open-world, mission-based game with little care or craft put into storytelling or character development. The structure betrays what MGS fans have come to expect, and feels so at odds with the series’ established design philosophy that The Phantom Pain comes to feel like a spin-off.
After all the hype, what Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain delivers is an immensely fun open-ended stealth experience. As well as bitter disappointment when you realise your limb of a Metal Gear game is missing a big chunk of it. It’s somewhat appropriate that this game; something that seems so crucial to the body of the series, is something incomplete and substantially changed from what it once was. It’s an interesting journey of phantoms, but one that leaves regret over what could have been. It just stops in the middle of the second chapter, and leaves you to reflect on everything that’s come before it. In a way it’s a fitting finale to this long saga, but one that is far from fully satisfying. So close to being something incredible, but carrying the wounds of a career and a legacy cut short.