Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain sets a new bar for open-world action, controls and approachability without breaking from series form.
The opening moments of this gargantuan title remind the player of the pain that has already come and gone through the old crew. Kaz, Big Boss and their compatriots have all been tossed and thrown about, losing hundreds of allies on top of their already staggering body count. Their wounds are fresh, open, and don’t seem to ever heal. Inside The Phantom Pain – through nearly every inch of its being – it is shown how their quest for vengeance affects each of them and their views on the world. For the player though, it is a masterpiece that represents a step forward in the gaming industry.
The centerpiece of that step ahead is the Fox Engine that absolutely nails every bit of its role. Afghanistan and Africa, as your two main sandboxes, are varied and, while not densely populated, alive with action. Animals roam in packs, guards change shifts and hold conversations, weather rolls in and out without regard for you situation; the Fox Engine renders all of this in one of the most beautiful games to date considering its size. One of the notable pieces found inside either environment is the draw distance. You can watch your helicopter fly to your rescue from what must be miles and miles away, or line up a sniper’s world record headshot from hundreds of meters. Some light pop-in and rock climbing issues aside, there is a sense of awe available at almost any angle.
It just seems remarkable how many spinning plates this engine is able to keep in the air at a time. The enemy A.I. feels especially noteworthy as well, inescapably so as it adapts to your play style. There were expected changes – NVG to counter night infiltration, helmets to take away headshots – and some that came out of nowhere, shotguns to halt quick ingresses and riot armor to counter CQC being two examples. These additions hit as soon as a pattern is detected, causing you to rethink your approach on the fly in some cases or retreat to come back better equipped. You are expected to pick up skills and varied tactics in a hurry. If you don’t, you will be left behind by the enemy’s counter tactics without mercy and be forced to consider putting on a silly, demeaning chicken hat.
“Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a game about the cycles of revenge, anger, and war…”
These two zones, plus Mother Base, are almost completely open to your exploration with some exceptions coming from high rocks and tucked away corners. Any journey on foot or with a trusted buddy is punctuated by smaller bases along the roads, wandering patrols, and larger regiments that you are free to skirt, capture, or destroy. Gameplay here feels marvelously fantastic, constantly making you want to experience more after you exfiltrate a hot zone. Snake has never before felt this mobile, quick, or able, and the amount of options at the player’s disposal, just in his movement, feels staggering at first. You can crawl, but you can also roll with a weapon raised and ready. You can dive, but you can also dive from a ledge, roll up with your weapon out, and fire a counter shot in a seamless motion. What is often relegated to quick time events in other games is at your disposal in The Phantom Pain with dynamic, completely organic gameplay possibilities.
Missions too feel alive and ready for your best, or worst, effort. Not only ready, but willing to adapt and give players a new opportunity as another falls through. The mission descriptions are almost always a simple objective with layers both atop and beneath that task adding alternative paths and accommodating other play styles. Take out an enemy convoy, for example, is a given task; that’s what you’re told. What you aren’t always told is that you can find some intel that lays out their predicted route, headlock a soldier into telling you where an armored vehicle is parked, and blow them all away. You don’t have to do it that way, and that’s where the brilliance of this freedom seems to radiate. It goes beyond “go from point A to B” or hidden objectives. The players will not be handed one solution but all the pieces to many solutions. You will likely have your play style set, but then have that style come up against a brick wall, forcing you to change your idea of how to play. When you have an idea, or an “I wonder if…” moment, you have unlocked exactly what makes The Phantom Pain feel so unique.
Mother Base construction feels just as engrossing and time-worthy as any of the field missions, especially deeper into the game. The off-shore base can grow to a staggering degree should you upgrade the struts and pieces, but it will need a lot of resources and soldiers to get there. The Fulton balloon is your primary means of sending resources back to base, and it’s an absolute joy to hear the various soldiers and animals react to the extraction. Materials and GMP must be maintained with a balance of troops, some of which have personality traits that also need balancing. Add on top of that a list of hundreds of weapons and other useful (mostly) items and a gun customization option you can unlock, opening up thousands upon thousands of combinations, and you have an idea of what Mother Base becomes around the 20 or 30 hour mark. Physically returning to the base yields several rewards including a shower, raising troop morale, target practice, and perhaps a secret story bit or two that can completely be missed. Overall, this feels like your creation much more so than in Peace Walker where there was just a series of static screens representing what is blown into an entirely different gameplay balancing system here.
The Phantom Pain features a story that feels fundamentally different from every other entry in the Metal Gear series. After a mind-numbingly awesome prologue that has you on edge, you go forth in an episodic construction that, while similar to Peace Walker, feels like you’re following a lit fuse to a pile of dynamite. There aren’t many lengthy cutscenes at all with most of them running a minute or two before transitioning seamlessly back to gameplay. Many of these scenes are optional and all of them skippable if you just want to dive straight back in while those that want the most story possible may find the cassette tapes especially illuminating. The entire structure here feels correct in its execution, even with the mandatory credits before story missions. You may experience a lull or two – middle of the first chapter and when the “hard” missions start to unlock come to mind – but rest assured that it won’t be long before the lore is pumping again.
The actual story inside that structure adds up to one of the more emotional chapters in the entire Metal Gear Solid franchise, but perhaps not in a way you expected. Hideo Kojima uses his new tool, namely motion capture, and delivers a heap of emotional reactions through facial recognition. Beyond that, there feels like substantially less dialogue all around this time as many characters do everything they can to bottle how they really feel, expressing their emotions through flickering eyes and new wrinkles on their faces. This leads to a somewhat subtle, more visual-heavy opera that not everyone will take to. Quiet, because of this visual approach and her character, ends up being one of the stronger characters in the game with her journey being equal parts fascinating and emotional, no matter what she wears. Keifer Sutherland does fine as Snake, often acting as a stop-gap between Ocelot and Kaz who both have interesting stories of their own. Despite the lulls mentioned earlier, there are some pitch perfect moments to experience in The Phantom Pain and some revelations that pull formerly cemented answers into question.
As a side quibble, there doesn’t seem to be a way to replay some story cutscenes that happen on Mother Base and elsewhere, which is not only a shame but a missed opportunity for those that don’t catch important details the first time to see them again. Another quibble deals with the lengthy helicopter rides to and from missions and Mother Base, but these feel far more thematic than annoying especially with your chosen music blaring out of your helicopter.
Forward Operating Bases is a mode of questionable quality at present. Konami’s server issues seem to have improved, but playing online through PlayStation 4 only happens for five or ten minute windows before the servers boot your Snake back to your Mother Base, leaving your FOB helpless minus your installed personnel. The few rounds that have been played in FOB have been intense and fun with your Snake in a familiar yet different place or protecting your home from intrusion. Seeing as how the messy servers are slowing down iDroid menus in single player, it’s probably for the best to just grab your daily bonus and then bow out of online mode. Single player will keep you busy enough with all story missions replayable, plenty of Mother Base content available after the second credits, and plenty of tapes to collect. Not to mention different versions of cutscenes depending on your approach and your hidden “demon” ranking, which will instantly make some want to some play again from the beginning.
Microtransactions are in the game but are currently isolated to purchasing MB coins that basically allow you to plant more and more FOBs after the first. They are non-intrusive, never appear on-screen, and the extra FOB is not necessary to reach higher tiers of research. It’s simply another option among the many that this game allows you to approach a situation, or ignore completely.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a game about the cycles of revenge, anger, and war. The first two are seen time and again on the faces of your Diamond Dogs, tearing at them while their eyes focus on the world’s issues and the wrath coming to Skull Face. War, for the first time, can be systematically approached in the gameplay with fluidity, speed, and grace apparent no matter how mighty your hammer falls. This is a story punctuated by massive, grandiose arm waves and boss battles as much as it is a slight grimace on Snake’s face; gameplay is done much the same with a tranquilizer dart as much as an air strike. The Phantom Pain will rise as a legend of open-world fun and choice because of this swath of organic possibilities, and linger with series fans for its twisting plot and dark turn. If this is Kojima’s last Metal Gear, he could do no better than giving us quite possibly the best and boldest game of this console generation.
Simply put, there is no better stealth-action gameplay system than the one within The Phantom Pain, and no better game as of yet in 2015.