A couple of days ago I finished playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and it’s taken me a bit of time to stop and consider what I thought of it, and where I’d place it amongst the other games in the series. You see, I’m a *massive* fan of the Metal Gear games, and consider at least two of them (the original Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater) to be some of the very best videogames ever made. When I think of the series as a whole the things that define it, at least for me, are: amazing and inventive boss battles, fourth-wall breaking postmodern elements, and convoluted crazy and awesome cutscenes. Which is why the fifth, and likely final, entry in the Metal Gear saga is quickly becoming so divisive amongst fans, as many of those defining elements are heavily reduced or marginalised. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is both familiar and different at the same time, really its own beast and something worth experiencing both as a series veteran and as a newcomer. As part of this review, I’m also going to first discuss another controversial aspect of the fifth game, namely the splitting-off and separate release of what was coined by Hideo Kojima as the “prologue to the Phantom Pain”.
Last year, as a way to test the new game concept of an open-world Metal Gear, Kojima released Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, which acts as a sort of bridging episode into the fifth game. This consists of a single mission, bookended with cutscenes, and some extraneous side-ops (the game’s version of side missions) and extra-ops (hidden easter-egg missions locked away). The mission is to infiltrate Camp Omega, which is basically like Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, and extract Chico and Paz; two characters from the previous game Metal Gear Solid: Peacewalker. It’s actually quite a difficult mission, especially if like me you prefer to play total-stealth and no-kills, and expertly designed – Camp Omega is an excellent introduction to the open-world sandbox stealth gameplay of Metal Gear Solid V. I thought it was also very refreshing how the game basically drops you into the thick of the action with the barebones of a tutorial (followed by a “read the manual” message) and expects you to work things out for yourself. The sandbox area is pretty large, and there are so many different ways to approach any given situation, something milked by the side-ops, that this really does feel like a massive step forward in terms of gameplay.
The graphics are excellent, and this was our first real look at the Fox Engine designed for the game, running with photorealistic shading and at a buttery smooth 60fps. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes doesn’t have a true open-world, and there is no dynamic day-night cycle for instance, although you do get to see Camp Omega at different times of day and with differing weather during the side-ops. While they are few and far between, the cutscenes are excellent and really do a great job of setting up and teasing events of the next game. I thoroughly enjoyed Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and it would get an unequivocal recommendation, especially to Metal Gear fans, but for the sticky subject of its length. Even before its release there were reports that the game could be completed in a couple of hours… or even more damning, an hour. Even at a reduced £20 this seemed like a steep price to pay, and indeed the mission took me about three hours to play through first time because I was slowly working my way through a total stealth run. Just before The Phantom Pain released, I quickly played through this “prologue” game again and this time using lethal weaponry, taking me one hour and twenty minutes! I find it hard in good faith to recommend that you drop money on this game, but it’s well worth playing if you can get it cheap, and it certainly does a splendid job of setting up the true Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
After the cataclysmic end of Ground Zeroes, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain picks up nine years later as Snake (Big Boss) emerges from a coma to find his body horrifically mutilated, arm missing and gaps in his memory; explained by a chunk of debris lodged in his skull. The game kicks off with what is, in my humble opinion, one of the best opening sections of a videogame *of all time!!* It’s divisive, with many people disliking the length and slow pace its starts out on (did they play any previous Metal Gear games!?), and takes about an hour to get through, but is absolutely spectacular and really sets the militaristic with psychological/supernatural overtones for the rest of the game. This is also confusingly labelled the “prologue” of Metal Gear Solid V, and treats the player to a lengthy tutorial regarding the controls, which feels really odd coming straight from Ground Zeroes. Once again, Keifer Sutherland takes on the voice acting role of Snake, and this really imbues the character with a familiar yet different feel to previous entries. Here, Big Boss is damaged goods, a twisted and scarred (both physically and psychologically) version of his former self that the game dubs Punished “Venom” Snake. In previous games we have become used to the protagonist being quite chatty and personable, but here Snake rarely talks and remains quiet in many cutscenes, and completely silent during missions. Something is not right and he seems like a broken man. Many players have found this to be a negative, but in my opinion is suits the character well and even hints at some revelations that come further down the line.
Once past the introduction and dropped into the game proper, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain really opens up, into a vast open-world environment; first in the sand bowl of Afghanistan and later into the red plains of Africa. Whilst the previous Camp Omega was a large sprawling complex, here the traces of civilisation are much further apart and segmented, allowing you more freedom to tackle a stealthy entrance in a variety of ways. Expanded too are you tools, items and weapons and combined with some of the most refined and tightest controls you’ll find in a videogame, the gameplay on offer here is absolutely top-notch. Make no mistake, from a videogame point of view, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain instantly feels like an absolute classic. After recuing Kaz Miller, you’re given the task of rebuilding the second incarnation of Mother Base, a large oil-rig structure reminiscent of the “Big Shell” from Sons of Liberty. It’s in regards to this that the game starts to structure itself much like an RPG, with crafting, resource gathering, and levelling up albeit in quite a distinctive and unusual way. Whilst you *can* play the game completely lethally and kill everything in sight, you’re encouraged to instead tranquillise enemy soldiers (or knock them out through other means) and extract them from the battlefield in order to fill the ranks of Mother Base. Using the often hilarious fulton recovery device, you speed soldiers back to base where they are put into teams depending on their skills. These teams have different tasks, such as R&D or Intel, and level-up depending on the number of soldiers and their skills in the field. As the teams get larger and more skilled, it unlocks new weapons, options in the battle field, air support, etc.
Further adding to the gameplay options, and for the first time in a Metal Gear game, you’re given a support buddy to help you out in missions. This starts with D-Horse, which you can ride about and use to get from objective to objective during free roam, and later expanded to a canine ally D-Dog, a small metal gear called D-Walker and an elite sniper called Quiet. The latter especially is very significant and she gets a lot of cutscenes integral to the game as well as a powerful and emotional story resolution should you work to unlock it; Quiet’s story serves as one of the many “ends” to the game. Much fuss has been made of her attire, which is explained in the game but not satisfactorily enough for most people to look past the sexualisation present. Personally I thought that she was not only an absolute *badass* (often making Punished Snake look like a chump) but quite a deep and complex character – her clothing never bothered me. My favourite companion from a gameplay point of view though was definitely D-Dog, who makes finding and extracting specific targets so easy it’s foolish not to bring him. Also, I loved constantly petting him, and later having him “fetch” people for me back to base. Once again the Fox Engine shows what a powerful and flexible beast it is by creating a photorealistic open-world that streams in flawlessly and *still* runs in 60fps despite the shackles of Camp Omega being cast off. It’s is a crime that this engine will not see further use, and Kojima Productions should be commended in their technical achievement here – it may not have the outright best graphics this year in terms of pure visual fidelity, but it is definitely the most solid and flawless experience out there in terms of the engine.
Without dropping a load of spoilers, I would like to address the criticisms levelled at Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, namely that it feels unfinished, because it is. There’s no getting away from the fact that at some point the budget ran out or the tense atmosphere at Konami caused the game to be prematurely cut short. After a long and perfectly paced ‘Chapter One’, which I actually thought had a solid conclusion, the second half ‘Chapter Two’ has a muddled and confusing structure, and a lot of padding intended to hide the fact that it’s obviously not what was originally planned. To get something straight, you only *need* to play the main missions that the game flags up in yellow, and you can spend your time wrapping up side-op storylines to get these missions to unlock; I personally didn’t play any of the repeat missions in Chapter Two. The end of the game is even “hidden” away (although it seemed pretty easy to unlock for me) and can be missed, along with some revelations relevant to other games in the series. Still, I *did* get to see all the story content and I absolutely loved it – I never felt that there were too many loose plot threads, and only watched the deleted mission on the collector’s blu-ray out of curiosity. I don’t think it’s *needed* to save the game or anything. While I would have liked more cutscenes obviously, as I’m actually a huge fan of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, I liked the different structure for this story of Punished Snake’s descent. Also, yeah the boss fights were nothing memorable, but this is explained by Kojima in the collector’s guide; basically, he wanted to pull the rug from under the notion of a traditional boss fight with Skull Face and leave the player aching for “true” revenge that would never come – like a phantom pain. I think it works.
My opinion of the game twisted back and forth throughout my playthrough, during Chapter One I was ready to drop a perfect score, and then reduced that down a bit when slogging through Chapter Two, but feel by the end it has provided a truly unique gaming experience and a great entry in the Metal Gear series. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has already entered the gaming zeitgeist, been discussed to death, and will likely be dissected for years to come. In this regard I think I have to award it classic status, it’s certainly now one of my favourite entries in the series, and I can’t stop thinking about it even after the credits rolled.