Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

[Video review edited and co-narrated by Gage Paul.]

Metal Gear Solid V once again casts you in the role of Big Boss, awakening after a 9-year coma induced by the tragic events at the end of Ground Zeroes to once again lead your mercenary company to greatness. It’s the game that finally bridges the gap between eras, and almost certainly the last entry from series creator Hideo Kojima. It’s at once an evolution of the series and a fundamental restructuring of its ideas. As a Metal Gear game, it will be controversial–perhaps even moreso than 2–but taken free from the series’ baggage, it’s an amazing title that excels in nearly every category.

MGS5 moves the series’ stealth action to the open world, and this opens up a ton of new options for how to complete your objectives. You can approach enemy bases from any direction, and there are tons of ways to approach each mission.

Snake has never controlled better, and every maneuver is simple and intuitive to execute, whether you want to use CQC on enemies, snipe them from a distance, hold them up at gunpoint, or simply distract them and sneak by undetected. Most of these options have been in the series for years, but they’ve always required you to master a complicated set of controller gymnastics in order to execute. That barrier no longer exists.

But enemies have gotten upgraded abilities, as well. The days of vision cones and set patrol paths are gone, and enemies will smartly adapt to increasing signs of your presence. A few noises will merely act as distractions, but if guards start disappearing–even silently–their presence will soon be missed, and remaining patrols will start actively searching for intruders. Once you actually get spotted, you’ll have a few seconds of the slow-motion Reflex Mode to take out the guard before he calls out your location to the entire base.

Trying to fight your way out of a botched stealth operation is absolutely viable, but it requires equally careful planning. If you haven’t marked each enemy’s location, you’ll find yourself quickly surrounded, and as the bodies start mounting up, the location you’re currently infiltrating will radio other nearby bases for backup–that is, if you haven’t taken out their communication equipment first. And even if you break line of sight, guards will try to flush you out any way they can, laying down suppressing fire on your last known position, and even launching mortars if you’ve chosen an entrenched sniping point.

We could spend literally hours describing all the game’s mechanics, but suffice it to say that it all works together in an incredibly satisfying way. Every moment will force you to weigh a dozen different options to proceed, and in turn the all the different ways each of those options could succeed or fail. This isn’t a stealth game where you simply restart when you’re spotted, as surviving the failures is just as fun and exciting as perfectly executing an infiltration.

There are also buddies you can take with you which can fundamentally change the way you approach your missions. D-Horse can get you quickly and stealthily around the environment, while D-Walker is a heavily armed and armored mech there when you want to go full assault on an enemy base. D-Dog will sniff out and mark all enemies within range of your position, and can act as a distraction, or with the right equipment can even kill lone guards. The sniper Quiet can take out entire enemy patrols damn near single-handedly–I’d often have her start firing indiscriminately to draw the guards’ attention while I snuck in the opposite side of the base. By the time I’d completed my objective, most of the enemies were usually dead.

In addition to the core gameplay, there’s the meta-layer of recruiting soldiers and procuring resources for your Mother Base. The system will be familiar to those who’ve played Peace Walker, but it’s been both expanded and streamlined here. You’ll still extract new recruit via fulton recovery balloon–along with vehicles, gun emplacements, cargo containers, and even goats–and assign them to various departments at your base. As your R&D team levels up, they’ll let you develop new weapons and items. You can send your combat team on missions either to collect resources, or disrupt supply lines, which will prevent the guards you face in your missions from having access to equipment like body armor or night-vision goggles. And, unlike Peace Walker, you only have to micromanage if you really want to–otherwise, recruits will be assigned to whatever department they’re best suited.

Seeing your forces level up and provide you with ever-increasing support is satisfying, but the one major misstep is Mother Base itself. You’ll need to return to it periodically to continue the story and keep Snake at his mental peak–showering increases your damage reduction and expands your time when reflex mode is triggered–but there’s no reason to hang around your base aside from checking in on story developments and hitting the showers.

Mother Base only becomes a gameplay environment in the online mode. You have the option of constructing addition forward operating bases–or FOBs–for extra resources and a place to house additional staff. The FOBs, in turn, are at risk for invasion from other players online, who can steal some of those resources. You can either fight off invading players, or invest in additional security to rebuff their efforts. There’s some satisfaction to be had in comparing your development to other players’, but getting deep into the system requires navigating a complicated system of micro-transactions, and for the first week of the game’s release, the servers have barely been operable. Thankfully, this option is easy to disable, so you can choose whether or not to pursue it.

The game takes place primarily over the course of 31 main missions, each of which can range from a few minutes to hours long, depending on your approach. Some of these missions progress the core story, others are tangentially related to it, and still others are just standalone mercenary jobs. The story told here is an interesting one–especially if you’re into Metal Gear’s brand of socio-political melodrama–but there’s no denying that it the build to its ultimate conclusion is much less satisfying than that of previous games. It’s a good open world action game story, but it’s fundamentally different from anything Metal Gear has done in the past.

It’s also worth noting how bleak and violent the story is. Almost every scene is a long, unbroken shot which focuses unblinkingly on the emotional or physical torture any given character is undergoing. The sci-fi and supernatural elements Metal Gear is known for are still present, but they’re no longer the campy, fun moments from the previous games–instead, in the context of this game’s somber tone, those moments feel nightmarish, almost like they’re coming from a horror game. Put against the often absurd nature of the gameplay–where you’re hiding in cardboard boxes, attaching balloons to goats, and using horse shit to disrupt enemy convoys–the tone can sometimes feel downright grotesque, especially as the story starts delving into very serious, ugly topics like rape and child soldiers. Whether that’s an intentional or valuable part of the game’s design will be endlessly debated in the months to come, and it’s way too huge of a topic to deeply explore in a review, but again, it’s worth noting: there are parts of Metal Gear Solid 5 that will likely make you feel very uncomfortable.

Many of the game’s most interesting character developments and cutscenes take place after the credits roll in a thoroughly disjointed “chapter 2.” These moments take place separated by hours of replaying missions on higher difficulties and completing side ops. I understand the desire to include story elements in what would otherwise be a somewhat dry, gameplay only part of the overall structure, but many players will likely never see some of the most interesting moments. The final, “true” ending features a twist on par with anything the series has tried before. It’s sure to be a controversial choice, but as a long time fan of the series, it seems like the perfect narrative stunt for Kojima to pull in his last Metal Gear game.

Even with those reservations, Metal Gear Solid V is a hell of a game. Its individual mechanics work in flawless concert to create unexpected and exciting situations in which to play, and its depth and complexity aren’t hidden behind excessive tutorials or needlessly complicated controls. Every time you think you have the game figured out, a new enemy will force you to alter your tactics or a new ability will encourage you to think about encounters in a new way. And the narrative does adhere to the Metal Gear mold–in that it’s bold, unique, and unwilling to be held by tradition. It’s not perfect–no game is–but its best parts are so damn good that it’s a strong recommendation to anyone who plays games.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

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