Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review
The setup for The Phantom Pain follows the events of last year’s prologue release, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, as Big Boss awakes from a nearly decade-long coma. Eventually he links up with his trusty sidekick Miller and sets out to build a new private army from scratch, this time called Diamond Dogs. Of course it takes a lot to run a massive company like this, and most of the legwork will need to be done by Snake out in the wide world. Staff can be captured, vehicles can be procured, raw materials need to be brought back and processed- everything you do in The Phantom Pain’s massive open world has some effect on the new Mother Base’s development. At any time, Snake can actually visit the various platforms of Diamond Dogs’ HQ, which really drives home the impact you’re having on the company. Like in Peace Walker, which introduced this base-building concept to the series, being able to watch Mother Base grow and knowing that it’s all thanks to your efforts is one of the most rewarding aspects of this game.
The Phantom Pain is teeming with systems and interlocking mechanics, in the sort of way players could only have dreamed about when the previous MGS titles were released. I’m not really interested in describing each gameplay concept- there are too many to count, and I’m sure you can find that information elsewhere- I’d rather talk about how this game feels. When you’re sneaking around the open world of The Phantom Pain, there’s this incredible sensation of freedom. Now, most open world games give you that feeling at the beginning, but the spell always wears off once you learn their tricks. Here’s the thing though: my play time counter on this game has crossed the 100 hour mark, and it still feels fresh!
The first thing that helps this game stay interesting is its ridiculous glut of usable weapons and equipment. If you thought Metal Gear Solid 4 had too many things to choose from, then hold onto your hat. Due to The Phantom Pain smartly lifting Peace Walker’s fantastic RPG-esque research & development mechanic, you’re always building new and interesting things to use in combat. One of my favorite revelations came when I built a water pistol- it replaced my loadout’s handgun and actually shot regular old water, seeming like a funny but ultimately useless weapon. But when infiltrating a guard post I found that I could actually shoot it at electronic comms equipment, destroying radios without setting off a pesky C4 explosion! This changed my entire outlook on infiltration, and there are so many things like that to take advantage of- in true MGS fashion, it feels like the developers thought of every possible little outcome, and your job is just to try and uncover as much as you can.
If there were only the wealth of weaponry however, it would be easy to get stuck in one’s ways, effectively making the diversity useless. Here’s where the brilliance in this game’s design really starts to show. After being embarassed by Snake enough times, guard commanders will start teaching their men to counter your tactics. And that’s not in the typical “enemies get harder as you move forward” sort of way- they’re specifically reacting to how you sneak around. After you engage them in enough night missions they’ll start using night-vision goggles and spotlights. If you typically infiltrate from roads less traveled, you may be surprised to find claymores blocking your path. If you like extracting enemies (the ‘Fulton’ system makes a triumphant return in this game), guards will be specially trained to find balloons and shoot them down. All this makes it feel like Snake and his band of mercenaries aren’t the only ones growing stronger over time- the world is starting to learn his tricks and adapt accordingly. For example, I had developed a silenced sniper rifle and silenced pistol, which I frequently used to take down bases very quickly. But eventually guards started wearing helmets, then facemasks, and ultimately full-body armor suits- there wasn’t a spot of exposed flesh anywhere for me to pierce with a tranq dart! This forced me to develop gas grenades, flashbangs and other sorts of non-firearm gadgets, and got me experimenting with a whole class of weaponry that I never would have explored, had the game not called me out for getting set in my ways. I’ve never played a game where it felt like the world was so specifically tuned to make me try new things. This is huge- a paradigm shift on the scale of Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor’s ‘nemesis system’- I honestly think The Phantom Pain has raised the watermark on how open world games react to the player.
The gameplay in The Phantom Pain only ever gets better as you keep going, and it continually shattered my expectations, delighting me at every turn. If plotted on a graph, the storytelling of Metal Gear Solid V would be the exact inverse. I’ve never been so interested at the beginning of a game, only to be cursing the day I heard about every one of its characters and concepts by the time it concluded.
Remember ‘Midi-chlorians’ in Star Wars Episode I? How they take a universe full of wonder and magic and manage to suck out the fun by explaining too much? Yeah, that’s this game. It begins with a brilliant extended sequence, establishing a hugely engaging world of magical realism that leaves you wondering what’s fact and what’s fiction. By the end of the game you’ll know everything you wanted to know. But then you’ll learn everything you didn’t want to know, and then everything you couldn’t care less about, then everything that makes you consider putting a bullet through your skull. In the best works of art, the viewer is left with things to chew on- unanswered questions, things left up to interpretation, concepts to think about. Nothing in The Phantom Pain is left to the imagination- all you need to do to ‘get’ everything is simply keep going. This is largely due to the huge amount of ‘story’ content that’s relegated to collectible cassette tapes. These commit the worst crime imaginable for a Metal Gear Solid game: they’re boring. While sometimes impressively produced, these tapes are almost always overlong, filled with mostly worthless filler information, and usually by the end don’t actually say anything. Every single interesting aspect of the game is intellectually massacred by these cassette infodumps. They’re padding at best, and insulting drivel at worst.
The more typical MGS storytelling happens through cutscenes, though everything has been made bite-sized this time. Cinematics usually don’t last more than five or ten minutes, sometimes even throwing up a “to be continued” title to let you get back to gameplay and finish at your leisure. It feels like Kojima is more than a little self-conscious about his typically indulgent storytelling, but ironically, having more cutscenes would have been a huge improvement. The story of this game as it’s conveyed through cutscenes feels like an outline- drama is almost never capitalized on, characters come and go behind the scenes without explanation, and motivations are woefully underdeveloped. Like Ground Zeroes, this game also tries for the Alfred Hitchcock “Rope” (or more recently, Iñárritu’s “Birdman”) one-shot technique. This means that most of the cutscenes play out without ever cutting between separate shots, simply using a faux-handheld camera to pan from one character to the other for reaction shots and swinging outward for wide shots. It’s an admirable attempt, but ultimately this style just gets in the way of the micro-level storytelling, frequently dropping the ball dramatically and making certain scenes cringe-worthy as a result. All told, the plot of Metal Gear Solid V is unsuccessful in some way on every level- there are some truly great moments, but the bad aggressively outweighs the good.
At the end of the day, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is still an absolute must-play, even though as a complete work it fails. It’s similar to how a Hollywood blockbuster can be ‘fun’ but have a poor plot, and still be worth recommending for the experience alone. As it stands, Metal Gear Solid V might actually be better if you haven’t played the other titles. Divorced from its storytelling baggage, The Phantom Pain would stand proud on my shortlist of the all-time greatest video games. But by trying to do both, Kojima has unfortunately poisoned the well. The Phantom Pain is dripping with some of the best gameplay and mechanics the series has ever seen, but as a Metal Gear Solid title it falls heartbreakingly short.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain / Kojima Productions / Konami / September 1, 2015
This review was conducted on the Xbox One version of the game.
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