Reviews

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review – There’s A Unicorn On Fire, What More Do You Want?

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Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3 and PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

Review copy provided by the publisher free of charge for review purposes.

The dismissal of Hideo Kojima has brought with it cries that while Metal Gear Solid may live on through Konami, it will never truly be the beloved franchise again, which in some ways is almost disrespectful to the many, many people who actually make the game behind the scenes and will likely continue on with the series. Kojima may provide much of the vision, but undoubtedly he also just said yes or no to many ideas brought to him. and trusted his team. Still, without the man himself it is quite likely that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will be the last true Metal Gear Solid game, especially with Konami involved, a company which, and let’s be honest here, has proven itself to be somewhat…well, stupid. So, if this is really the final proper Metal Gear game does it do justice to the insane series? Has Kojima gone out with a bang?

The story picks up nine years after the events of last year’s standalone Ground Zeroes prologue, and for those nine years Big Boss has been in a coma, because he’s lazy like that. Following his awakening it seems that pretty much everybody wants him dead, and to that effect the hospital he’s been lying in comes under attack from unknown forces, before then being decimated by even more unknown but far more powerful enemies. Making his escape Big Boss must rebuild his fallen Mother Base, and with it his own private military company free of governmental allegiance. Along the way he has to figure out what’s up with the strange Skullface, the mysterious Cipher and the powerful supernatural forces being used against him.

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The first hour is confusing, awesome and definitely Metal Gear Solid, managing to jam in a unicorn that’s on fire and supernatural powers with a tense hospital escape scene that shows off the game’s penchant for excellent visual moments in its surprisingly short cutscenes. The intro really is fantastic, easily one of the best I’ve played. After that, though, the narrative calms down quite a bit, delivering itself in small bites across the lengthy 40+ hours that the primary campaign will likely take, which is a direct contrast to the series usual sprawling cutscenes that sometimes lasted long enough for you to go cook and eat tea before devouring a pudding, only to find the characters still posturing. The story delves into some surprisingly serious realms and takes an altogether darker tone such as dealing child soldiers, while also attempting to mix in some of the typical Kojima madness that has become the calling card of Metal Gear Solid. Much like before it’s a concoction that you’ll either love or you won’t. Either way it is at least always interesting.

It’s hard to talk much about the story past this for fear of spoiling anything, I have to say that despite how much of it the developers seem comfortable with hiding in cassette tapes that the player can listen to and the fact that it’s paced quite poorly and even written quite poorly in areas as well I was hooked from beginning to end. Metal Gear veterans will naturally get the most out of this tale, which has a few potentially divisive moments, but newcomers can also jump onboard here as well. Some things will unsurprisingly go over a noob’s head entirely, but for the most part you can follow along with the narrative without too many problems. It almost physically hurts, then, to admit that while I was hooked on the tale it was also…well, not that good. For starters the characters get little in the way of actual development or even personality despite the considerable length of the game, including Big Boss himself, now voiced by the talented Kiefer Sutherland whose gruff voice skills are going entirely to waste considering how Big Boss rarely actually talks, instead tending to grunt a lot of just not answering people. That’s just rude, dude. The silent sniper Quiet, whom you’ve probably already seen and noted for being scantily clad, is incredibly fascinating, at least to me, but she’s ruined by the developer’s desire to flaunt her wares every five damn seconds instead of building her up. At least she gets some downright bloody badass scenes, mind. According to Kojima the intent was to make the player for ashamed of Quiet through her near nudity, but that’s bollox and all it does is it take away from a pretty kick ass character. Meanwhile there’s plot threads that appear and then are never dealt with properly. From these hanging threads hardcore fans will be able to guess where everything went, but it’s still frustrating that so many things are brought up and never resolved correctly. Ultimately it was the fact that Metal Gear, even in this toned down form, is bonkers that kept me wanting more, not the fact that the story is actually good or even well told. And that’s a shame, because there’s some cutscenes and plot moments that, taken entirely on their own, are truly sublime.

The biggest change for the series comes in the form of an open world that spreads itself across Afghanistan and Africa. The series has become progressively more open in its design, but this is the first time it has ever attempted to integrate the classic Metal Gear stealth with vast, open spaces that allow the player to tackle missions from any direction they see fit, and rightfully there were a lot of people wondering how well the franchise could make the leap, as open worlds are difficult to do well. All too frequently the developers either make them too large, believing bigger is better, or cram them with copy and paste tasks in order to boast about how much content their game has. As it turns out all fears were largely a pointless waste of energy as Metal Gear Solid V gets it right for the most part, mostly because it still retains that detailed level design of the past games, focusing it on the 50-bases and small outposts scattered around the two environments, each one completely unique and offering different challenges. Every time you venture into them, and you’ll do that quite a bit as missions often have you tackling the same base, sometimes annoyingly so, there’s always something to be discovered, some new route or method of entry you hadn’t seen before. The space between these wonderfully designed areas is mostly empty, devoid of anything except some random animals meandering across the sand dunes or through some wetlands. In a way it’s disappointing to see such a relatively sizable land lacking more feeling of life or interesting things to find off the beaten patch, and indeed there’s a lot of convenient rocks and cliffs that stop you going certain ways, but on the other the scale of the world is balanced nicely so that you’re never far from a base or from some roving patrols. On a way to any given mission it’s quite likely you’ll get caught up at a small road blockade trying to extract a skilled soldier or grab some extra supplies for your base.

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The open world brings with a day/night cycle as well, so you can use that to your advantage by choosing whether to go for a daylight raid for max visibility or head in under the cover of darkness for some sneaky stabbing. The guard roster changes between day and night as well, giving you a window of opportunity as one group begins to leave and another gets set up. Hell, you’re even more likely to find enemies taking a quick nap when its night-time.

It all looks quite pretty, too, while managing to be damn impressive in terms of performance. With my own mid-level rig I was able to sustain a stable 60FPS with very few fluctuations and almost all the settings turned up high. Speaking of which there’s a good selection of options to help you get the game balanced just right, with the only caveats being the odd choice to not support the mouse in menus, which almost feels like a very deliberate hint that MGSV plays better with a controller, and a complete lack of an FOV slider. There’s some impressive vistas to soak in when you’re riding around on horseback or tackling an enemy base, supported by an excellent lighting system that creates some beautiful moments. Animations are equally impressive, Big Boss and the enemy soldiers moving fluidly through the world, and I have to give credit where it’s due for the sheer amount of animations, too, that seem to cover pretty much everything. The key to its performance is that it isn’t actually a great looking game solely from a technical standpoint; there’s a lot of rough textures or blurry textures and detail isn’t substantial in a lot of areas, yet it looks great when everything comes together. I know it sounds strange, but just look at the screenshots; beautiful, aren’t they? Now really look at them. Look close. See the rough areas? Once you’re playing, though, you don’t notice those, and instead just admire how smooth it all feels and how nice it all looks.

With the increased environmental scope comes increased gameplay scope. It’s like every idea previously seen in the series has been brought out of the cupboard, cleaned up, polished until it shines and pieced together thoughtfully to create a stealth-action that boasts a substantial amount of potential ways of tackling objectives, like unleashing a perfect assault where you take out a base’s power supply and communications before then proceeding to crash a tank through the front gate, gun down the major threats, leap out and use the cover of darkness to grab a couple of high value targets whose abilities will be a great boon to your own operations. Or maybe you’ll opt to go for a day assault, calling in aerial support and then going to town with a sniper rifle from afar. Maybe you’ll cover a jeep in C4 before driving it toward some enemies and jumping out, waiting for them to come and investigate the strange vehicle that has suddenly crashed into their guard tower so you can detonate it. Or maybe you’ll go with the perfectly executed stealth run, crawling on your belly through hidden gaps and only taking out the enemies that absolutely have to be removed.

Snake has never felt better to control, either; the Metal Gear series has long been known for not only having strange controller layouts but also feeling rather clumsy. This time around the controller layout is still a bit odd in places, but it’s so, so much smoother to use. Big Boss can sneak, dive, snipe, throw grenades, take cover and sneak around the place smoothly now. It’s Metal Gear as it always should have been, really, and is yet another way in which it’s far more accessible for newcomers.

In a nod to typical modern videogame design you’ve got a pair of binoculars that can mark enemies from afar, so scouting out a base before heading in is always a solid plan, but through good design there’s always plenty of blind-spots to keep you on your toes as there’s always a good chance that you missed a couple of roving guards who’ll come strolling around a corner at the wrong moment. If spotted, though, there’s a chance to retain your stealthiness as the game activates reflex mode, a few blessed moments of slow motion that let you quickly try to take the enemy down, be it through a a close-combat throw, a tranquilizer dart or a bullet to the face. You can always switch this off, though, for a more authentic experience. Another nod to difficulty comes in the form of the magnificent chicken hat, granted to the player if they fail several times during a mission. The hat essentially gives you three windows where guard will conveniently ignore you’re existence because they’re too busy laughing. It’s a playful way of helping out struggling players. On the other side of the spectrum, though.

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As a stealth game it plays really rather well. Naturally there’s a selection of suppressed weapons to take into battle, plus Snake can get up close and personal with a simple throw that can immediately stun an opponent, while his bionic arm can be upgraded with a few devastating melee moves, too. You can grab enemies as well, choosing whether to choke them out or simply plunge a knife into their bodies before dragging the corpse off so that nobody discovers it. The ability to interrogate enemy soldiers has returned, letting you grab some intel on where to find raw materials, or in many cases vital stuff like where a target is located. Of course the classic cardboard box makes a most welcome return, and you can even attach posters to it, including one of a high-ranking officer that will make soldiers stop and salute, clearly demonstrating that they shouldn’t even be in charge of opening a tin of baked beans when they can’t discern a poster on a box from the real thing. Bases are always designed with plenty of ways to sneak around, from underground tunnels to clambering through a window, making them lovely playgrounds.

Inevitably things will go wrong; you’ll miss a critical shot, or get too cocky or just turn a corner at the wrong moment without looking first. Whatever happens it’s nice to know that MGSV isn’t too bad of an action game, either. There’s a very minor score penalty for actually getting discovered, and of course being seen means having a lot of angry people with guns coming after you, but apart from those two things the game doesn’t penalize you for being spotted or never even bothering with the whole sneaky thing. There’s no instant failures or anything of the sort here, and much of the time the most fun is when things do go wrong. While MSGV isn’t competing with the likes of Gears of War for the honor of being the slickest third-person shooter around it’s still solid in its own right, demanding controlled bursts of fire and smart use of cover and the environment to come out on top.

Everything gets bounced off of some of the best A.I. to grace a videogame. Over the years we’ve become strangely accustomed to AI in stealth games that seems to exist solely to ignore everything suspicious up to the point where they actually get punched or shot at, guards with rigid patrol patterns and reactions we can predict with unnerving accuracy. Of course the other type of enemy in stealth titles tend to be the kind that are utterly incompetent at detecting intruders, but suddenly turn into omnipotent beings with terrifying accuracy when they do finally cotton on. But guards in Metal Gear Solid V are smart buggers who aren’t so easy to predict, nor do they become all-knowing, all-seeing soldiers when they become alerted to your presence. Should they catch a glimpse of you they may opt to ignore it, or come running over. They may radio for a friend to tag along, or begin shining a flashlight into the night or even go activate a floodlight to find you. If they get really worried they might not bother looking at all and simply radio it in, sending the base on high alert. These guys won’t ignore dead bodies, random explosions, strange sounds or mysterious bullet holes appearing beside them, either. While patrolling they’ll sometimes just stop and start looking around, or have a smoke break. Routes change, too. For some people having their perfect run of stealth ruined because a guard decided to suddenly have a look around could be annoying, but for people like myself it makes stealth more dynamic and realistic and tense. There’s always a chance to be thwarted by simple human behavior.

Once the enemy knows your there it becomes even more impressive. Enemies will hone in on your gunfire quickly and not hesitate to unleash a hail of fire on your known location to pin you down, forcing you to hunker low and move away or become a victim to the soldiers using their comrades covering fire as an opportunity to flank you. A barrage of mortar fire is a common occurrence, too, as if you needed extra motivation to get moving, and at night guards will frequently fire off flares to illuminate the environment while search parties doggedly hunt you down, refusing to go back to regular behavior for quite some time. Put a large base on alert and it genuinely feels like you’re in trouble, and in a full-on gunfight enemies will attempt to pin you down and flank you, or flush you out with grenades. They may also choose to call on backup from nearby outposts or ask for a support chopper to come in, which is why it’s sometimes a good reason to scout a large base and slowly take out their communications dishes and maybe even clear out any nearby outposts.

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It’s ultimately this A.I. which ensures that whether you go for pure aggression or perfect stealth it’s always great fun. The Phantom Pain chooses smartly to never tell you how to play or penalize you for ditching stealth in favor of taking out a rocket launcher and blowing some shit up, while the myriad of different systems and ways to interact with the game coupled with the fantastic A.I. give rise to loads and loads of cool moments. And that’s for the best because in terms of pure mission design MGSV does tend to get repetitive, with most objectives boiling down to eliminate/hijack this thing over there. The side-missions suffer from this, too. There’s an impressive amount of them to complete, providing The Phantom Pain with plenty of content for dedicated players to enjoy, but most of them are along the lines of extracting a person or destroying some specific target, so repetition is a problem. Again, though, it’s a testament to the gameplay that the repetitive objectives don’t feel like much of a problem, because even extracting a prisoner for the nth time in a side mission feels like a chance to play around in a different way.

But then again, just about every missions feels like a chance to see what the game can do. Opting to sprint madly into a base when you should be tailing someone who’ll lead you to your target, for example, can yield a prisoner or documents that reveal your intended victims exact or rough location, meaning you can choose to ditch the less interesting job of following in favor of setting up an ambush for the real target. Likewise it’s worth going back to a mission to play around a bit. The ability to call in supply drops and request new weapons and items in the field ensure you can always get access to whatever you feel will best fit the situation or whatever new thing you’ve developed that might let you cause some fun carnage. Of course there’s nothing here that compares to the open-world mayhem of something like Just Cause 2 which allowed for some pretty crazy antics, but there is a whole lot of pleasure to be derived from finding out how to slide down hills in a cardboard box, or that by playing a tape of a constipated soldier while hiding in a portable toilet you can make other soldiers steer clear. There’s joy in discovering that you can pipe in something like Ride of the Valkyries so that it blares over your helicopters loudspeakers while it comes screaming in to provide support at your behest, or that a certain song played via your iDroid can lull enemies to sleep. There’s fun little moments to find at Mother Base. There’s a water pistol that seems useless until you learn it can blind enemies and short out electrical devices. You can even send yourself in a cardboard box to another base. And then there’s the more serious moments, like using your knowledge of a mission to set up the perfect long-distance shot or pull off a smart heist. There’s immense satisfaction in sneaking up to an enemy tank, tying a Fulton Balloon to it and watching it get whisked up into the sky, much to the surprise of enemy soldiers surrounding it. When you get down to it the game is just a whole lot of fun.

There is a vague attempt to keep you in check via the ranking system which generally awards more thoughtful, stealthy play the higher ranks, which in turn increases the chances of volunteers coming to work for you. But to be honest it’s best just ignore the ranking system in order to have fun, or complete your first playthrough and then come back later with carnage in mind.

The buddy system delivers yet another layer of nuance and choice, letting you take along one of four Buddies on any given mission. There’s a good chance you’ll already know of one of them; D-Dog can be found as a small pup wandering the land and rescued, growing into a large and fearsome ally. D-Dog is able to sniff out and mark weapons, enemies and medicinal plants, making him a great companion for stealth players, plus with an upgrade he can even be granted a small knife that he’ll unsheathe on command and use to slice the throat of a targeted enemy, which is just awesome. D-Horse, meanwhile, provides mobility, although is most memorable due to his ability to poop on command, something which can actually be used to cause enemy vehicles to slip. He can also be used as a handy roadblock as enemies will usually stop, get out of their vehicles and try to shoo him away. There’s also a mechanical D-Walker that can bring extra firepower to a mission, especially with some upgrades. But my own favorite is Quiet, a controversial woman in that she’s a deadly, seemingly mute sniper that wears very little clothing, something which does get explained within the story. She’s able to offer deadly accurate fire-support, making her extremely handy. Each buddy comes with unlockable skills via a trust system that rewards you for spending time with them, but the key to their existence is how picking one always means sacrificing something else equally useful. Take D-Dog and you’ll miss having a horse to get around with. Take the horse and you’ll regret not having the dog’s powerful nose.

It’s Mother Base that provides not only the game’s narrative backbone but also the meta-game that ties everything together neatly. A sprawling complex of off-shore platforms Mother Base acts as a physical representation of your power and progress within the game, a safe-zone from which to develop new tools of war that you pick out from an impressive list of potential weapons, gadgets and more that constantly subtly alter how you tackle each mission. It’s a huge list, and even in the closing hours of the game I found myself developing upgraded versions of new gear for myself and my buddies, and even ordering up entirely new toys to play with, like a deployable decoy soldier and a sniper rifle that fires tranq darts for some long-range snooze action. It’s a constant flow of equipment that helps ensure the game remains fun.

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Speaking of tranquilizers they’ll quickly become a key part of your arsenal. Mother Base is vast, and it needs to be fed soldiers in order to operate. Using an upgraded pair of binoculars you can analyse enemy soldiers to determine how skilled they are in various areas such as combat, R&D and medicine, and then if you feel like they could be a valuable asset you can simply use a tranq dart or a close-quarters throw or choke to knock them out. Once you’ve got them snoozing on the dirt you can whip out your Fulton Recovery Device, which is essentially a large balloon with a homing system that you tie to the unsuspecting victim, at which point it gently lifts them a few feet off the ground, giving them about three or four seconds to groggily come to before they suddenly get yanked at speed up into the clouds, issuing a hilarious scream of terror as they go, although funnily enough POWs that you can rescue and other “friendlies” all let out whoops of delight. Quite frankly the few seconds of complete confusion on their faces and then the quickly disappearing scream never gets old. Once back at base the soldiers will somehow be persuaded to work for your operation, and will get assigned to one of the various departments. You can let the game auto-assign captured soldiers based on their skillset, or you can manually control where they work, handy if you want to specifically level up something like the R&D department in order to gain access to a new weapon.

Stop to think about it and you’ll realise just how clever the system is, encouraging the player to take their time and recon every area and approach with caution rather than just going in with all guns blazing, or else risk losing a potentially valuable asset that could help you unlock the next batch of equipment. And yet it doesn’t negate the more aggressive approach, either, as you can always mentally create a list of the soldiers you want to keep alive and then proceed to go on a noisy killing spree, carefully working your way around the chosen few. Still, a way of marking specific soldiers would have been nice, as trying to keep an eye on the one you want mid-fight is damn hard, and pulling out your binoculars to quickly check stats isn’t much of an option when five bad guys are trying to flush you out. Constantly seeking new recruits also brings a risk vs reward mechanic to the game, as exfilling any soldier, POW or even piece of equipment often puts you at risk.

It isn’t just soldiers, either, as innocent animals can also be dragged skywards with reckless abandon, populating your own private little zoo. Nothing quite beats the perplexed expression of a bear that’s trying to figure out why it’s not dangling above the ground. With some upgrading the Fulton can also be used to appropriate things like mortars, entire vehicles and even cargo containers full of valuable assets, all feeding the ever-expanding Mother Base. From the iDroid menu system you can pick out what gear to develop next, as well as order the construction of new platforms in order to house even more staff, which again in turns levels up your different departments so you can get access to even more stuff.

As fantastic as Mother Base is at providing a very tangible way of tracking how much progress you’ve made and as amazing as the sheer amount of gear that comes out of it is, it’s a shame that Mother Base never feels like a place worth spending any time. It’s impressive to look at when you fly in via chopper, and evokes a sense of pride, but when you step on to the metal decks it all feels…hollow. There’s pretty much nothing to find past a couple of hidden scenes, and while the game tries to encourage you to visit all the soldiers in order to keep morale up, which will improve their skill ratings, it’s hard to work up much enthuism for ambling around what amounts to a lot of empty space. You can’t go into almost all of the buildings, you can’t chat to the soldiers or hang out with them. You can visit Quiet but outside of specific moments all you can do is look at her, likewise D-Dog runs around but you can only look at him. Even the ability to pet D-Dog while on a mission is gone at Mother Base. Since you can order the construction of new platforms and tell R&D what to focus on next from your iDroid when out in the field or sitting in the helicopter there’s not much reason to step foot on Mother Base.

There’s a multiplayer mode included where you have to defend your FOB (Forward Operating Base) from other players, and then launch attacks of your own. Essentially it boils down to playing cat and mouse with another player for a bit, and frankly isn’t worth the time or effort to connect. In fact I actively encourage hitting the disconnect option, because if you are connected then iDroid menus suddenly take ages to load and right now the servers are terrible. Sadly to send out more than Combat Team on operations the game demands you have some FOBs on the go. The good news is that only having one Combat Team won’t bother you too much. With the multiplayer component also comes microtransactions, which is frankly just insulting in a full priced title such as this. Look, I’ll be honest I barely played the multiplayer. For the sake of reviewing the game I was already struggling to jam enough time into the singleplayer, and after just a couple of online “matches” I was tired of it and simply hit the disconnect button so that I would not be interrupted by another player attacking my FOB.

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There are plenty of small gripes and niggles with the game, plus so bugs and glitches, including one at the moment which can corrupt save data when using Quiet during two missions, something which Konami has already posted a warning about. There’s some graphical hiccups where black rectangles start invading the terrain, but it’s still relatively minor. Meanwhile judging what Snake can and cannot clamber up can sometimes be a bit of a pain in the backside, as can getting caught up on pieces of the terrain when you’re trying to move quickly. I once encountered a guard who was simply spinning in circles, and in one mission a target simply failed to ever move, which was a bit of a problem since I was supposed to be tailing him. This also brings us to the autosave system which only saves the game whenever an objective is completed, meaning that if you’re playing around you can find yourself losing a good 30-minutes of time when you die. Even when you aren’t playing around a tailing mission or something where you have to spend a considerable chunk of time crawling around slowly or waiting can mean a significant loss should you accidentally get spotted and die.

The end result of these myriad systems and ideas should feel like so many other games do when they attempt something similar; messy. Yet Metal Gear Solid V doesn’t. Everything comes together beautifully into something which is not only a worthy continuation of the series, but also the most accessible of the bunch for new players looking to experience what all the fuss is about. The story is still bonkers, but nowhere near the same level as usual and cut-scenes are tighter and considerably less likely to consume entire days by themselves, although die-hard fans may argue that this means it really isn’t a true Metal Gear game, meanwhile Snake has never controlled this well. In other words MGSV does what a lot of entries in long running series never manage; be absolutely amazing for newcomers and veterans alike.

No game is ever perfect and MGSV is no exception to this rule, but even so it’s frankly nothing short of a masterful game that successfully brings together  a series of systems that feel great individually, and amazing together working as a cohesive whole. There were a couple of moments when I wasn’t having fun, namely battling the damn supernatural unit that pops up from time to time, but those moments were so fleeting that they barely matter in the hundred hours or so it will likely take to actually finish everything. Don’t be shocked to see this pick up a lot of Game of the Year titles when the award season comes rolling around, duking it out with the Witcher 3 for the coveted title. There’s no hesitation on my part to slap a hearty recommendation on this one, for both existing fans and people who are just looking for a great game. Play it.

Reco

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