In the interest of full disclosure, I think it’s important to admit that I’m a bit biassed.
Ever since my introduction to the weird and wonderful world of Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid in the late 90’s, I’ve adored each and every entry in the franchise from story-essential numbered titles, to the deck-building and hack ‘n’ slash spin-offs. I’m an MGS fanboy through and through.
As a result, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has been a difficult game to review. Not because my love for the series makes it hard to pick fault with (quite the opposite in fact), but because MGSV is so vastly different to every other Metal Gear that’s been before.
Gone are the days of linear environments, on-site weapon procurement and stealth being essential to success. Phantom Pain is Metal Gear blown wide open, and the result is a unique, open-world adventure with player choice at the heart of the experience.
The story begins nine years on from the events of Ground Zeroes, during which a comatose Big Boss has been stuck in hospital. Shortly after waking up, Cipher operatives and a familiar looking ‘Man on Fire’ appear on the scene in search of our newly conscious hero, and Boss is forced to make a stealthy escape. The whole intro sequence is easily one of the strongest in Metal Gear history and establishes the brutal, borderline uncomfortable tone of Phantom Pain perfectly.
From here the game begins proper, and Snake is let loose on his new, open-world playground. And ‘playground’ is exactly what it feels like. The game environment is reminiscent of a Far Cry title, featuring a huge map littered with outposts to capture, hostages to rescue, and no end of flora and fauna to liberate back to base. Importantly, the new ‘freedom of infiltration’ philosophy at the core of MGSV’s design means that how you tackle objectives within the sandbox, is up to you.
Purists and old-school stealth veterans are free to opt for the ‘traditional’ approach; creeping through mission areas under cardboard boxes, leaving behind tranquilised goons stuffed in port-a-loos. But rocking up to an enemy fortress with an LMG in one hand, RPG in the other and an attack helicopter covering you to the sound of ‘Ride of the Valkyries’, is an equally viable option. The in-game scoring system still rewards pacifism and evasion, but more aggressive tactics have their own benefits, as well as some interesting effects on Snake himself.
Changing up your approach isn’t just for the sake of your own enjoyment either. Later on it’ll become downright necessary as MGSVs ‘adaptive difficulty’ alters enemy defences according to your style of play. Like to tranquilise guards with headshots a lot? They’ll start wearing helmets. Undertake most of your infiltrations at night? They’ll equip night vision goggles. Call in air support too often? Enemies will carry RPGs. Etcetera, etcetera.
Not only does this keep gameplay fresh and interesting, but it positively encourages players to experiment with gear, equipment and strategies that they otherwise might never have tried, and thinking outside the box can be a lot of fun. Let’s say you’re pinned down by enemy sniper fire. No problem – just call in a tank to even the odds. Hell, order the tank to be airdropped on the sniper! It’s not a subtle solution but it’s your solution, and this is your playground to enjoy.
Further options are opened up with the addition of ‘buddies’ – partners that Boss can bring along with him on mission, each with their own distinct advantages. D-Horse isn’t exactly handy in a fight, but he’s great for getting about the map without having to bring in (or steal) a vehicle. D-Dog can sniff out enemy soldiers before executing them on command with an acrobatic slice of the throat. And D-walker (the customisable mini-mech) provides lethal and non-lethal solutions for any situation, as well as an effective way of navigating around the map.
Of all the available buddies, Quiet is arguably the most useful as she scouts ahead, providing cover and neutralising targets on command with unerring precision.
But the eventual explanation for her skimpy attire which kicked up such a fuss during V’s development, reeks of a paper-thin excuse for ‘boobs because boobs’, and is made all the more transparent by the amount of time the virtual camera spends buried in her cleavage. That said, the character itself is an interesting one, and at least some players will be emotionally invested in her story by the game’s end.
Outside of missions, you’re free to spend time on Mother Base, the home away from home and hub-world you’ll fall in love with. It’s a modest structure to begin with (a single offshore platform out in the Seychelles Archipelago) but the development and expansion of Mother Base is a metagame unto itself. The rewards for investing time and money into your new home are well worth it; allowing you to house more soldiers, develop better gear, and deploy combat teams on missions for a regular source of income.
On arrival, your own soldiers eagerly await the appearance of their Commander-in-Chief and stand to attention by the helipad as you disembark. Whatever way you choose to interact with them results in a morale boost, and they’ll be honoured to receive a quick throw or mechanised haymaker punch from the legendary Big Boss. You can take a quick shower to wash away the blood and grit of the battlefield, visit NPCs, or even take a flight to the animal conservation platform where all your furry, Fulton-extracted friends roam safe from the war zone you pulled them from.
As well as adding extra platforms for R&D, Medical, and Mission Support, customisation options allow you to choose the colour of the base and the emblem adorning all of its buildings and containers. Over the course of the game, you’ll inevitably become attached to your new home and the hand-picked staff you have manning it; providing a real sense of urgency when parts of it are invaded by rival players in online FOB attacks (assuming the servers are working, of course.)
Overall, Metal Gear Solid V is a staggeringly impressive experience. Between the freedom-of-infiltration gameplay on-mission, the base-building micro-management metagame on Mother Base and the gorgeous graphics from the brilliantly optimised Fox engine, it’s a great technical achievement with some astonishing depth. Players who stick it out to the end will be treated to some awesome visual sequences, new twists on old missions that really change up the gameplay, and a tonne of silly new gear and cosmetic options to play around with.
However, it’s impossible to deny that by pushing the player-made experience and opening up the game world, the lack of linearity has made it harder for Kojima Productions to keep the narrative as tight as in previous Metal Gear titles. A significant number of story missions feel like filler with many simply being variations on a theme, and players might find themselves frustrated with the continuous stop-start momentum of the narrative.
Furthermore, where previous games in the series boast numerous stand-out moments, MGSV has relatively few. What moments there are, are truly spectacular (especially towards the endgame) but there’s far fewer of them compared to older titles. In part, this has a lot do with Phantom Pain’s lack of ‘conventional’ boss battles, and it seems as though the deficit in scripted highlights is designed to be made up by player-made moments. A reduced number of cutscenes addresses one of the series’ most often criticised staples, but the decision to replace them with cassette tapes soon begins to feel lazy. Plus, there’s a strong suggestion that this may have been due to budgetary concerns from Konami. It does mean that players are free to listen to the exposition at their leisure, but there comes a point when listening through every last one of the damn things for fear of missing essential information, gets a little tiresome.
Ultimately, this means that as a ‘Metal Gear’ game, Phantom Pain may leave series fans with a sense that it just doesn’t feel quite right, but compromising a little on linearity has opened up the gameplay in a way that’s fun, flexible and utterly addictive. Between main ops and side ops, committed players will easily find over a hundred hours worth of content here, and that’s not to mention the addition of Metal Gear Online that’s still yet to go live.
MGS fans will find a very different experience from what they’re used to, but one packed with enough nods, references and familiar themes to keep them engaged throughout. Gamers new to the series who are looking for a huge, open-world adventure to sink their teeth into, need look no further than this: a different, yet ultimately excellent new entry in the Metal Gear saga.