In the world of gaming, few series carry the weight of reverence that Metal Gear does. When it comes to iconic characters and settings, few games can compete with Snake, Shadow Moses, and the like. Despite some recent drama and a highly-publicized falling out between series creator Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is finally here, over a year since fans were teased with Ground Zeroes. We’ve played through the game and have our thoughts below.
Spoilers Not Ahead
I will attempt to review The Phantom Pain spoiler-free. Just know that several characters make triumphant returns, and a few new ones are introduced such as the much-debated sniper Quiet. Let’s just get this out of the way now: it’s hard to pinpoint what Kojima was attempting to do with her. She’s every stereotypical, heterosexual man’s perfect woman: curvy, wears few clothes, and doesn’t talk much. Yet, she’s also one badass sniper whom you’d hate to have to fight against. Plenty of debates have been had over her overt sex appeal, and this is not the place to delve into that. Just know that Quiet is not focused on for too much of the game, and shouldn’t distract from what is otherwise an impossibly fun game.
Easily the biggest change between this and previous entries in Metal Gear is the story’s emphasis, or rather the lack thereof. The narrative takes a backseat for a good portion of the experience. There are a few cutscenes between missions now and again, but besides the Prologue chapter (which, holy shit, you have to see to believe), most are short by Metal Gear standards. If you’re chomping at the bit for more story, various audio cassettes (remember those?!) are strewn throughout the battlefield, which you can play on your iDroid to catch up on events. I feel that the game really frees up with the story mostly out of the way, for reasons that we’ll get to. This device is where all of the game’s missions, your map, and Mother Base (more on that in a bit) can be found. While you’re using the iDroid, the game does not pause, so you better ensure you are in a safe location before you whip it out.
Between all of the combat, you are also given full command of the Mother Base, your floating military complex in international waters. From your iDroid, you can manage staff (whom you’ve recruited via these crazy-ass balloons known as Fullerton Extraction Devices) and assign them to Units such as Combat, R & D, Medical, Support, and more. The Combat unit can be sent on special Dispatch Missions, which will earn you resources ranging from metal compounds to new staff members. Depending on the Unit’s rank, the mission may even fail, netting you nothing but KIA staff in return.
Gather together enough resources and money, and you can expand your base, which in turn unlocks weapons, tools and upgrades that will help you on your missions. It’s a whole other game within TPP; expect to sink several hours into micro-management if you want the best gear. I love meta games like this, and Mother Base hosts one of the best. This and other aspects to TPP boost the number of time you’ll need to fully complete the game up to, and perhaps over, 100 hours.
Live or Let Die?
“Freedom” and Metal Gear Solid aren’t traditionally words you would hear in the same sentence very often. That is, until now. With a massive battlefield taking place in the rugged hills of Afghanistan, most missions see Punished “Venom” Snake dropped in low into the wilderness, and left with a buddy of his choosing.
You’re only given an objective; how you complete that objective is 100% up to you. Prior to each mission, you can equip your loadout, and that of your buddy’s, and later of your vehicle if applicable. There’s weapons and equipment for going in “hot,” with plenty of deadly ammunition and airstrike capabilities to make the United States armed forces blush. On the other hand, you can also unlock and utilize equipment that enables you to go in so quietly as to not even disturb a single enemy. The game rewards you no matter what your method of attack is, though true to its series’ roots you are rewarded just a bit more for successful stealthy actions. I cannot emphasize enough the countless choices that TPP presents to you when completing your mission. You can finally make Metal Gear your game. Many of my favorite moments are off-script or even side missions where my plan executed perfectly.
Enemies are not stupid in TPP, and have a wide search area when they lose sight of you. Expect to spend several minutes after they spot you in hiding, unless you have enough ammunition to retaliate hard and fast. Taking out radio communications became a key part of my tactics pretty early on. It was cathartic to hear enemy combatants request backup, only to be informed that the network was down and no help would be arriving. I will admit that playing aggressively made the game feel a little too easy, but attempting to achieve a score higher than an “A” did prove to be a most challenging task. The optional (and on by default) Reflex Mode slows time down after an enemy spots you, giving you a few precious seconds to target and silence them before they can radio in your position. No doubt diehard players will turn that right off, but this helps immensely for new players. Die a few too many times on a mission, and the game offers you a Chicken Hat mode, which inexplicably gives you a few free passes before an enemy notices you. Hilarious.
Kojima Productions have been hard at work on the Fox Engine, and it absolutely shines on the PlayStation 4. The view distance is superb — you can see enemies coming from kilometers away. A full day/night cycle has been implemented, as has a surprisingly dynamic weather system. During the day, you can see enemies a bit more easily, but then the flip side of that is true as well, and they can spot you just as quickly. I did experience a rare graphical slowdown in one particular area. This was while across a valley, zooming in on a massive village embedded in a mountain. It took an entire village to slow down the Fox Engine; this minor issue hardly slows the game down, and something that can likely be patched.
Diamonds and Flowers
While many games have you collecting things for the sake of collecting, TPP doesn’t really have any of that nonsense. Everything you collect, from plants to metals, animals and materials, can and will be utilized by Snake and Mother Base. Even taking down posters can be used for a quick cash grab. Oh, and in this world, diamonds are pretty easy to find, in stark contrast to reality and Minecraft. Anything that you extract, be it resource or potential staff member, takes time to arrive at Mother Base as well, so it is possible to lose resources if you get killed shortly after a resource extraction.
Maybe I’m spoiled, or perhaps my sound system is no longer configured correctly, but I could only ever get TPP to play in 5.1 surround sound on a 7.1 setup. I’ve verified that my speakers are all outputting on each channel, but the game only utilized five channels at any given time. This does not detract from the experience whatsoever, and many systems can compensate for this by emulating the rear or side channels, but this is something to consider for those of us with a high-end system.
Let’s also make one thing clear: the audio work in TPP is wonderful. While Kiefer Sutherland still sounds odd as Snake, you get used to it pretty quickly by listening to those cassettes. With the decreased emphasis on story, he also doesn’t talk as much as in previous games. Whether you’re creeping slowly along the ground, or running at full speed, everything sounds lifelike and adds to the atmosphere. When it’s midday and the sun is beaming down, you’ll hear wildlife in the distance (and occasionally up close, to either kill or extract — your choice, as usual). You’ll also hear Snake slow his breathing when prone, enemies conversing, and vehicles behind you. Indeed, running around on horseback has never sounded as epic as it does here.
One Hell of a Finish
Incredibly, unbelievably, what we have here is a nearly perfect finale to the Metal Gear franchise. I truly believe that The Phantom Pain is where Kojima always envisioned he would take the franchise. This is personalized, open-world infiltration at its finest. You have so many options at your disposal with which to complete your missions, it truly is mind-boggling. Whether you sneak in, secure your objective, and sneak out without alerting a single enemy combatant, or run in guns blazing with air support at your back, how you plan and execute your attack is key, and it’s amazingly rewarding to see a well-thought out assault come to fruition. On that same token, recovering from a mistake such as not accounting for an enemy or circumstance that the game throws at you can be its own form of exhilaration as you race to find a secure spot from which to reset. If this is truly the last game in the series with Kojima’s name on it, then there is no better way to exit the stage gracefully.
Review copy was provided by the publisher. For information on scoring, please read our Review Policy here.