Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review
When the world calls for wetwork, we answer. No greater good. No just cause.
The Metal Gear Solid franchise carries a legacy. It is a legacy of intriguing characters, unique stealth gameplay mechanics, over the top cutscenes and story twists, with a narrative that has been stretched across multiple releases, console generations, and over fifteen years by Hideo Kojima and his team at Konami. Though the franchise never quite set any sales records, with its matter-of-taste Japanese influences and quirks, millions of fans have been anticipating the arrival of Metal Gear Solid V. With The Phantom Pain being potentially the last game in the franchise created together by Kojima and Konami, will it leave a lasting legacy, or will the limited budget and high ambitions weigh heavily on the game?
MGS V follows the events of Metal Gear Solid 3 and Peace Walker, as well as the aftermath of Ground Zeroes. Players assume the role of Big Boss, also known as Venom Snake, as he awakens after nine years in a coma. His base destroyed, his arm missing, and shrapnel lodged in his body, Big Boss must reclaim all that he has lost. Alongside Benedict "Kaz" Miller and Revolver Ocelot, Big Boss creates Diamond Dogs, an army without a nation. They rebuild a home base on an offshore platform called Mother Base, and peruse those who wish them harm – as well as complete contracts from local parties in Africa and Afghanistan.
After wrapping up the whole saga incredibly well in MGS4, not many loose ends were left, and MGS V had a perfect opportunity to instead fill in some big missing gaps in the back-story. Before diving into MGS V, many dedicated fans were undoubtedly busy researching all the minute details from previous games in preparation for what was hoped would be a key entry in the franchise. To see Big Boss transform from the man he was in MGS 3, and Ground Zeroes, to the figure who left a lasting legacy on the rest of the series would have been a thrill.
Sadly, that never occurs. Most of the story missions are split between those that attempt to create an overarching narrative, and contracts that seem to have little connection to the main events. This creates pacing issues – that’s in addition to high difficulty spikes when a special enemy force gets involved, and pretty much only one boss battle. Those new to the franchise will feel lost, as the game does not attempt to fill in any of the background information. That’s probably for the best – given the franchise’s long heritage – but even the fans that have the major cliff notes in their heads will be disappointing by the fairly shallow narrative. It feels very much like a standalone story that doesn’t try to connect itself to the rest of the franchise.
Without a doubt, there are instances of the usual flavor of Kojima storytelling – the absurd, the brilliant, the harrowing and the dramatic. But such scenes are few and far between. The game’s main antagonist Skull Face is dealt with roughly halfway through (ala Far Cry 3), and the second half of the game feels seriously lacking. Missions available to the player become exact repeats of those from the first half, but with high difficulty due to special conditions. You don’t even have to complete them, as most of the story in the second half takes place in Mother Base. Further, the ending comes without any buildup and the twist will disappoint hardcore fans. It also leaves a huge plot element completely unresolved – in a game that doesn’t feature many storylines as it is, that’s rather damning.
The problems extend to the characters. Big Boss himself is notably quiet, barely saying a few sentences throughout the whole game, which becomes particularly jarring when a leader says nothing during key events. This is somewhat explained by the twist ending and some deep psyche undertones, but that doesn’t help the game you’ve just finished feel any more satisfying. Kaz, having been through hell, has become a maniacal, angry man with a sole purpose of revenge. Most of his decisions are made entirely by emotion, and it’s frustrating to see his rage go largely unchecked by Big Boss. Ocelot has a similarly shallow and typecast role, seemingly only existing to be the voice of reason to Kaz’s lust for revenge, offering level-headed advice. He lacks any personality and doesn’t tie in with his persona in the rest of the series.
Huey, meanwhile, was usually portrayed as a man without much bravery; but his persona in MGS V is simply annoying. He is way over the top with dramatic speeches and criticisms of Diamond Dogs, which are contradictory to his own horrific acts. Quiet is another character that was potentially interesting, but gets completely devalued by her design. She is practically naked through the whole game, for a reason that’s explained but doesn’t justify it, considering other characters in the franchise have the same condition but don’t need to strip down. And it’s not just the character design – the camera does its absolute best to produce the most gratuitous angles possible, and once you’ve reached a high bond level (by using her in missions), she becomes extremely flirtatious and pretty much throws herself at Big Boss with every opportunity. It all becomes often uncomfortable to watch. And thus, MGS V has the weakest narrative in the series, with unlikable characters, limited dialog, and unsatisfying conclusion.
If you have played Peace Walker, you’ll feel very comfortable with MGS V’s gameplay setup. There are two main aspects to the game – managing Mother Base, and performing missions out in the open world. Managing Mother Base happens through menus on your personal iDroid interface device; you manage base staff, resources, and research new gear. Over the course of the game you’ll build new platforms for each team (Research, Medical, Support, and so forth). Unlike Peace Walker, the base is an actual location that you can visit and explore. Sadly, aside from a few hidden diamonds, shooting challenges, and one side story, all of the doors are closed and there’s absolutely nothing else to do. You’ll still get a satisfying feeling each time you take off in a chopper and get an aerial view of your ocean behemoth, but otherwise the base is dull and a missed opportunity to do more.
There are two semi-open locations, Afghanistan and Africa. Despite being billed as open-world, the latter is much more open than the former. The Afghan map is lined with impassable mountain formations, and would almost serve better as a series of interconnected large environments than an open world. Africa is a lot more traversable, but both locations struggle to offer anything to do besides collecting plants or trying to capture animals. It’s an open world largely devoid of interaction, save for a rare truck driving between bases. The freedom to approach enemy camps and tiny outposts is nice, but it could have worked just as well using Peace Walker’s individual levels.
Players will engage in a variety of operations across these two maps, split between story missions and optional Side-Ops. The story missions will often restrict you to a specific portion of the map, but it’s usually the same environment that can be explored later in freeroam. The mission objectives have some variety, especially the main story missions, but most of the objectives will involve infiltration, destruction/capture/obtaining an item, and escaping. Enemies and item locations are often in the same place each time you return to an area; disappointing design given that the game is geared for replay value. Over the course of the game, depending on the number of side-ops you choose to complete, your tasks can also start to feel monotonous, but that feeling is quickly overcome with gleeful joy as you pull off yet another masterful stealth excursion, or wreck explosive mayhem upon the enemy.
Out in the game world is where The Phantom Pain truly shines. The game’s mechanics are extremely polished – from Boss’ movement to his takedowns and using the various tools at your disposal. If you choose to be stealthy, as the game usually encourages but never forcefully suggests, it’s incredibly satisfying. Sneaking your way past enemies, neutralizing them, using distractions and finally reaching your goal deep behind enemy lines is a thrill, almost every single time. From using hold-up to interrogate enemies for information, or simply eliminating everyone like a silent assassin, the gameplay offers so much player choice it can be exciting just to think about the possibilities. Finding the loadout and rhythm that works for you, and then playing the game the way you want just never gets old. MGS V puts open world stealth gameplay on a new level; an addicting, highly satisfying and even immersive high.
Even as you get spotted, the game’s Reflex Mode gives you a moment to neutralize the target before anyone else is alerted. You can turn it off for a hardcore experience, but using it certainly helps pull off perfect stealth encounters. But if things do go south, Big Boss has a huge arsenal of lethal weaponry that can be developed and used in the field. Weapon handling and gunfights feel surprisingly satisfying, given the game’s stealth roots. Going in guns blazing can prove challenging, but the action is very fun. If things get particularly challenging, you can call in airstrikes, supply drops, a friendly attack chopper, and even change the weather conditions. By going lethal, you won’t get a very high Heroism rating or a good performance rating, nor will you get any potential new recruits for Mother Base, but after a few quiet missions, going all-out might be just what you need to diversify the gameplay. This is likely one of, if not the best, open world stealth games ever - and definitely the best gameplay that the franchise has ever offered.
A lot of the experience hinges on how the world reacts to your actions, and the AI in MGS V is commendable. They will react appropriately most of the time, and only occasionally fail to spot you from up close or notice you from what feels like too far away. The attention to detail is what’s most impressive – they’ll have conversations about their fallen or disappearing comrades, report to HQ any suspicious activity, and react with caution to your shenanigans. If you operate primarily at night, they will start wearing night vision goggles. If you use a lot of smoke grenades, they’ll wear gas masks. But even so, the game offers remedies – you can send your Mother Bases’ Combat team on virtual assignments (like in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood) to stop the supply of gas masks, helmets, and so on for the next few missions. Oddly, not a single security camera was encountered throughout the whole game.
But you’re not alone in the field, either. Players will be able to use one AI buddy in the field, including D-Dog, D-Walker, Quiet, and D-Horse. Each buddy offers a unique skill set, and more abilities are unlocked as you use them for longer periods of time and raising your bond level. D-Horse is great for faster environment traversal, and to stop vehicles in the middle of the road. D-Walker is your personal, customizable drivable robot. You can outfit it with a number of weapons and abilities, giving Big Boss a big advantage in battle. D-Dog is a loyal hound that will mark all nearby enemies for you (even through walls), and can eliminate individuals on command. Finally, Quiet is also very useful, providing scouting and firepower support. You can develop new gear for all four buddies, increasing their usefulness. The buddy system is great, because it makes any mission easier, and helps maintain stealth – or in the case of D-Walker, helps you win firefights. It must be pointed out that unlike most open world games, players will lose one of the buddies by the game’s conclusion. So if you planned to complete all optional content, it’s best to wrap up before the final story missions.
As mentioned, keeping enemies alive is usually helpful so that you can transport them back to Mother Base. Fultoning items (that is, attaching a balloon that extracts objects once airborne), is a core mechanic. From soldiers to vehicles and cargo containers, Boss is able to collect a lot of items out in the game world. Soldiers, after spending some time in the Brig being “re-educated”, will become part of your staff. Your job is to manage staff between the different teams as mentioned earlier, such as Combat Unit, Base Management, Intel, and so on. Each staff member has a rank in every skill, so the idea is to find highly specialized soldiers and put them into the strongest team. Late game, each team can have over 100 staff members, so the game thankfully offers a button to quickly re-assign all staff to their best matching team. It becomes addicting to find highly skilled soldiers in the field and have them join your army. Actually, it becomes addicting to fulton absolutely everything in sight.
The GMP is the game’s currency, and there’s an in-game balance to keep track of. You gain GMP by completing missions or selling extra stuff you don’t need like transport trucks or weapon emplacements. Each time you deploy into the game world for missions or free roam, you must pay GMP based on your loadout. Anything you need in the field – air strikes, attack chopper run or extraction, new weapons or supplies – costs GMP, as does fultoning items. Despite the game constantly draining GMP from the player, you shouldn't run into a cash problem, while still playing the way you want.
The biggest GMP drain is item research. Like Peace Walker, you’re able to research a ton of different guns, items, and utility tools at Mother Base. Each item has a GMP and occasionally resource cost, as well as a required minimum skill level of a Mother Base R&D Team (and sometimes other teams). Once you’ve got a bunch of items researched, you can even start to customize weapons to build your ultimate stealth or destruction tools.
There are issues with the system, however. A vast majority of the weapons you research are lethal – pretty pointless, if you’re planning to avoid killing, as is usually recommended for soldier fultoning. This means stealth-focused players won’t need to use the system very much beyond a few special items and non-lethal weapons. Very annoyingly, like Dragon Age Inquisition, the research of weapons (as well as Mother Base upgrades) takes some time to complete – from 20 minutes to over an hour. Online dispatch missions take days. And it’s not done in real-time, it’s in-game time. So you can’t simply call it a night, and come back the next evening expecting your new gear to be available. The timer only runs when you’re actually playing MGS V, so you need to find something else to do in the game while your shiny new rifle is being prepped, or just leave it idling.
This similarly frustrating approach is taken with resources – the large resource containers you fulton back to base are unprocessed, and it takes time before they become available to actually use. Real time is also required to complete deployment missions of your Combat unit – sometimes as long as over a whole day. These deployments simulate a squad of your men attempting to complete an objective, with a visible chance of success, and it earns you extra GMP and resources, as well as potential Mother Base volunteers. As mentioned earlier, you can also deny item supplies to enemy soldiers, making your next few deployments easier.
MGS V also has its unique quirks that will potentially annoy players. There have always been “cool” things in the franchise that players could discover – such as avoiding The End in MGS 3, or the battle with Psycho Mantis in MGS1. The Phantom Pain has a few of these as well, but some of the key gameplay elements could have been better communicated. The game has a fast travel system using the cardboard box delivery points, but it never tells you about it; after completing a side-op you can teleport back to the ACC (command helicopter) from the menu. Knowing these alternatives would save players some time galloping across the map. And even the whole weapon customization system is only unlocked after completing a series of Side-ops, which some players may not do. Lastly, each mission is needlessly structured as an “episode”, with opening and closing credits. The issue here is that the opening credits spoil all foes and characters that will appear during the mission.
Another aspect of the game forced upon players is the Forward Operating Base. You’ll be required to build one of these (the first one is free) during the main story campaign. These FOB’s are basically like another Mother Base, with the same platforms that can be built, but it exists online. Your Security Team squad from Mother Base will occupy the FOB, and players can outfit the team with any weapons you’ve unlocked already, and also develop some security devices. The FOB is there to produce some GMP income and resources, but the catch is that players can invade it. The invaders’ goal is to reach the center of the FOB, which nets them your staff, materials, and GMP. If an invader is spotted before reaching the core, the FOB owner gets an alert and can deploy to defend his base.
This sort of asynchronous multiplayer mode is an interesting idea, but the fact that it’s forced upon players during the story campaign is troubling. You can probably largely ignore your FOB, leaving it unstaffed and unguarded, however the game forcefully leaves some of your resources on the FOB which could be stolen, as can your Security Team members. If you choose to dedicate time and resources to your FOB, you’ll need a lot of materials and FOB to build it up, and also strong Security. Infiltrating a heavily guarded, multi-level FOB is by far the most challenging gameplay in MGS V, and that’s before a real player joins to defend. Since each base is the same, players can learn the layout and improve their tactics with each attempt. If you want more than one FOB, you’ll need to buy coins with real cash.
A proper multiplayer mode, meanwhile, is Metal Gear Online. Launching a month after the main game release (ala GTA V), the competitive options are structured around character customization and class-based team gameplay. All of the visual customization are optional and don't affect the gameplay, so you can run around with a squid on your head if you so choose. There are three soldier classes, and players have a separate soldier for each class, with differing loadouts and level. Enforcers are straightforward run and gun soldiers, featuring the best firepower and weaponry. Scouts are meant to be a support class, using sniper rifles to engage and the scope to mark enemies for teammates. Finally, the Infiltrators are meant to be a non-lethal, close combat focused class, and their primary perk is the stealth camo. Interrogating and fultoning enemies gives you lots of points to level up and unlock more loadouts and customization options.
The balance across the three classes is questionable. If you utilize teamwork, and also pair up (a buddy system provides bonuses and a spawn point for each other), the mutliplayer can be a challenging and closely contested affair. However, the infiltrator class is clearly the go-to because of their stealth camo. Most matches you join will be dominated by invisible players running around the map, because the cooldown is so low and CQC has a huge range. Early on, playing the other two classes is frustrating; and because you're stuck with your class until you've leveled up enough to unlock a second character slot, it can feel like a chore. Often, matches become a war of invisible people.
There are five maps in MGO, most fairly large in size, and featuring both day and night conditions. Just like there are three soldier classes, there are three gameplay modes. Comm Control is your standard capture and hold mode, and Bounty Hunter is more in the style of team deathmatch. Cloak and Dagger is perhaps the most interesting mode, tasking the attacking team with sneaking into an enemy base and stealing a data disk, with perma-death. Regardless of class, the attackers start with stealth camo, and if anyone on your team is spotted, everyone becomes temporarily visible. But when the defenders have infiltrators that also use stealth camo, the attackers lose the edge that the mode is supposed to provide.
Each mode lasts for two rounds, with each team taking turns attacking and defending. The nice thing is that even if you lose one of the two rounds, you can still win the match as your team's actions are tallied and scored. MGO runs very smoothly, with no connectivity issues or hitching; matchmaking is very quick. However, it's host-based, and there is no migration - you're simply booted to menu if the host quits. Overall, Metal Gear Online has good aspirations to produce a tactical take on online multiplayer, but there is some balancing to be done. A few more maps wouldn't hurt either, and no host migration in a modern multiplayer game is poor design.
MGS V shines in its presentation. The cutscenes are disappointingly few in number, but they are mostly excellently produced and directed. Graphically, MGS V looks great, from its smooth animations to a variety of effects that showcase the Fox Engine. And though some draw distance issues exist, almost all textures are nicely detailed up close. The game runs at a perfectly smooth framerate at all times, day or night, rain or sandstorm.
Voice acting is solid across the board, and the newcomer Kiefer Sutherland does a very good job with Big Boss, making the absence of franchise staple David Hayter easier to bear. A ton of the narrative is told via cassette tapes (a replacement for the Codec conversations in past games), and you can play them in the background while doing something else. The issue is that due to the effect of cassette distortion, some of the voices become difficult to distinguish, especially true for the three main characters. Also, considering how much Big Boss talks on the tapes, it’s again disappointing to see him remain so silent during the story cutscenes. Finally, the game gets high marks for using authentic voice actors for foreign languages.
The music score also deserves a mention. MGS V features some fantastic original songs and the soundtrack is very memorable as well. If you’re in the mood for licensed music, players can find cassettes during their adventures to unlock classic songs. These, in turn, can even be used as your helicopter’s approach music. Hearing Rebel Yell or The Final Countdown as your attack chopper descends in the middle of a firefight is fantastic. On the whole, sound design across the board is excellent.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a highly enjoyable and almost addicting take on open world stealth and base management. This is a title worth playing for almost everyone interested in a highly polished stealth action game, with so many gameplay nuances that it's hopeless to try and cover it all in one review. Perhaps, the game could have been better off if it chose to set goals and execute on them, instead of running away with a million ambitious ideas. If you are a die-hard fan, you'll be disappointed with the narrative, but the core gameplay is so strong that you won't dwell on the story for too long. If you’ve never played MGS before or your experiences were not enjoyable, this is the game to pick up. Online multiplayer has two distinct offerings, between FOB and MGO, providing a fresh if flawed take on competitive Metal Gear. V has come to, and you should come and see for yourself what he’s all about.