[UPDATE] Metal Gear Solid 5 is available for free for PlayStation Plus members in October 2017. Here’s the original review.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a milestone release for Kojima Productions, but not for the reasons we perhaps hoped. Sadly, it marks the end of Hideo Kojima’s long-standing tenure with Konami, following a well-publicised falling out that has unfortunately dogged the game’s final few months of development and potentially derailed what should be a successful hype train.
Nonetheless, while the exact details on this messy divorce remain ambiguous, one thing that is abundantly clear is that Snake’s latest adventure is a stunning piece of work, and the culmination of Kojima-san’s incremental improvements to this beloved series following its debut on PlayStation back in 1998. In fact, I’d argue that this is the first Metal Gear Solid title to truly feel like a stealth game—the mesmerising Snake Eater notwithstanding— rather than merely feature elements of the genre built around a conventional action-adventure romp.
Taking place some nine years after the events of Ground Zeroes, The Phantom Pain picks up after Snake awakens from his injury-induced coma. Ostensibly a moody tutorial, the prologue acts to bring you up to speed on the story and acquaint yourself with the game’s fundamental controls before the action really kicks off. Once that’s out of the way though, Snake gets himself patched up and the main mission is laid out before you, namely taking revenge on the Mother Base attack nearly a decade ago.
The true nature of the open-world setting tested in Ground Zeroes is realised here as you step down on the dusty plains of Afghanistan. Right away, it becomes evident that The Phantom Pain’s precursor effort was merely testing the waters; Kojima-san has given gamers an authentic game world to explore this time around, punctuated by majestic views, roaming wildlife and enemy bases/outposts awaiting infiltration.
While the core mechanics remain largely unchanged from Ground Zeroes, the sense of tactical freedom afforded in The Phantom Pain’s vast game world is unprecedented for a Metal Gear Solid title. More than any other game, Kojima-san’s latest makes you feel like a battle hardened soldier who is capable to adapt to almost any situation; and, while stealth is obviously Snake’s calling card, there’s no real punishment for adopting other strategies if you see fit. Every option has its pros and cons, and you’ll get a kick out of trying them all.
If you fancy crawling through the mud and surreptitiously capping foes in the head with a tranquilizer gun like a stealth maestro, then go for it. On the other hand, I got a great kick out of setting up shop outside an enemy outpost and sniping them from afar, allowing me to then raid the camp for essential Mother Base supplies (more on that later) unmolested. Hell, you can ride past bases on your trusty steed and duck out of the enemy’s sight at the press of a button, circumventing the need for confrontation in one swift, satisfying gallop. Of course, you’ll have objectives to meet, whether they’re from the main campaign or Side Ops, with things becoming increasingly more difficult as you infiltrate larger complexes patrolled by dozens of guards, mechs and even massive gunships.
Fortunately, the AI is superb; guards will pursue you tenaciously if they spot you, and do a thorough job at attempting to weed you out if you manage to escape their vision. Even if they don’t physically see you, they’ll be put on high alert if they spot a corpse or suspicious activity, forcing you to really lay low and methodically push through to your objective. It’s tense stuff, and all the more rewarding when you manage to avoid detection or sneak up on a foe and knock him out cold. Then there’s the usual batch of eclectic characters that act as boss battles, who will give you plenty of trouble and require far more strategy to take down.
There’s a whole new layer to The Phantom Pain besides infiltration and combat, however. Mother Base makes a welcome return from Peace Walker, which injects a wealth of tactical depth to the action. Acting as your ‘hub’ away from the battlefield, Mother Base contains everything from the ability to create weapons and other handy devices to deploying mercenaries on faraway missions for a steady income reward. As mentioned, you’ll hoover up various assets out in the field such as cash (in the form of various diamonds) plus resources such as metals and other such items.
These can in turn fund development projects back at Mother Base. You’ll need a crew though, and that’s where the Fulton recovery system comes in; simply whack triangle near an unconscious or wounded enemy, and they’ll be hooked up to a recovery ballon and whisked back to base. You can then divvy up responsibilities depending on each soldier’s various skill set. Some are better suited to the med bay while others cut their teeth in R&D. The latter is particularly useful, as that’s where you’ll be crafting new weapons and equipment; the more you use them, the higher their rank will become, thus unlocking new research projects.
Micromanaging your assets back home becomes paramount to your success out in the field, as you will need to ensure you have the best equipment available. Despite my initial reservations it’s actually very addictive and not at all monotonous; in fact, I got a kick out of seeing my Mother Base slowly expand with new divisions and areas constructed, which better improves the efficiency of your team. The Fulton system also allows you to call on asset drops out in the field. Low on ammo? No problem, just request some fresh stock and it’ll be delivered to you after about 30 seconds. Enemy vehicle giving you a headache? No worries, put out a call for a rocket launcher—problem solved.
To put it more succinctly, the Mother Base and Fulton work in tandem to ensure you are able to adapt to any given situation when the need calls for it, which allows for a wealth of freedom from a gameplay perspective; it’s one of The Phantom Pain’s biggest strengths, and ensures you will never tire of trying out different tactics.
Admittedly, I was somewhat sceptical as to how The Phantom Pain would manage to deliver a concise, hard-hitting narrative within the trappings of an open-world. After all, Metal Gear Solid is renowned for its tight storytelling confined within a linear setting, whereas sandbox games are intrinsically more focused on the experience and discovery, with narrative elements punctuating these moments to drip-feed you info. However, Kojima-san has managed to pull it off.
Sure, you can simply focus on the story missions like any sandbox outing, but there’s a brilliant sense of cohesion between game world and narrative that you will want to venture off the beaten track and indulge in some other games optional elements. Unlike some open-world games, which offer varying side quests that feel incongruous with the main story, The Phantom Pain’s various attractions—be dispatching enemy leaders, rescuing hostages, gathering raw materials or extracting translators—are totally harmonious with the overall narrative and never feel inconsequential.
The Fox Engine really flexes its technical prowess in The Phantom Pain, which manages to look fantastic despite being weighed down by the fact it’s a cross-generation release. The game runs smoothly on PS4 with no discernible frame rate hiccups, while the environments are nothing short of impressive; standing on a rocky outcrop at the crack of dawn looking across the dusty plains of Afghanistan is an evocative sight, and the draw distance is nothing short of impressive. Snake and co look great too, and while perhaps not the most detailed character models you’ll see on PS4 (it’s not quite teetering on the Uncanny Valley ala Uncharted 4, for example), they still display enough visual nuance to complement the excellent voice work and script—Kiefer Sutherland and Troy Baker in particular really shine in their roles as Snake and Ocelot, respectively.
You can pour literally dozens of hours into The Phantom Pain and still come back for more. The scoring system, where you are ranked on your performance including kills, stealth takedowns and general play style, offers more than enough incentive to tackle missions a second time through. However, the main aspect that elongates The Phantom Pain’s lifespan is the sheer amount of ways to tackle the game; you’ll want to try out different tactics with each playthrough, testing new equipment and weapons, as well as opting between a more rambo-esque approach to missions or remaining stealthy throughout. Aside from that, the game is just so bloody enjoyable you’ll want to go back for more.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a compelling, sprawling and often jaw-dropping experience that truly brings the franchise into the open-world setting for the first time. Featuring the series’ best stealth gameplay to date, the game is marred only by the odd bland visuals dotted throughout an otherwise beautifully detailed sandbox. If this is indeed Kojima-san’s last Metal Gear Solid title, then take comfort that the Phantom Pain is unequivocally the best game in the series to date.