We’re rolling up on the main release window for AAA titles and I couldn’t be happier! I’ve been occupying myself with indie games so far; let me assure you that if I have to consider another small-time developer’s feelings in the course of playing a game one more time I’m probably going to cry, then make a game about it. Those days are gone, though, and it’s back to blockbuster movie levels of sensational violence, where the only emotion on display is anger!
With that, let’s take a look at Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the latest (and possibly last) in Hideo Kojima’s renowned series of espionage games.
There’s been a lot of drama behind the development and release of this one, but none of it matters to the man on the street beyond name recognition, so let’s get down to business instead: The Phantom Pain stars Venom Snake, AKA Big Boss, AKA Naked Snake, AKA…well, he’s got a lot of names. After falling into a coma after the concluding scene of prequel game Ground Zeroes, Snake’s been out nearly a decade. That’s given his enemies Cipher plenty of time to continue their machinations, not to mention that Snake’s PMC has largely fallen apart during his time away. After taking the helm once more despite having lost a limb or two, Snake must work to rebuild the PMC, now known as Diamond Dogs, and take the fight to Cipher.
If you’ve played the $30 demo Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes you’ve got an idea of what The Phantom Pain is like. Unlike previous entries in the series, this is an open-world title and you can approach your missions in whatever manner you see fit. Snake moves quickly and fluidly with a grace he lacked in the other MGS titles; you can effortlessly dive behind cover, for instance, or adjust your movement to keep a low profile around guards. The radar system you’re probably used to from the modern-settling Metal Gear Solid titles isn’t present here, so you’ll need to be a little more careful as you can’t see guards’ vision ranges.
The key mechanic of The Phantom Pain continues to be stealth, and much of the rest of the game is built around supporting this, offering numerous ways to distract foes and infiltrate enemy positions. You can toss empty magazines to make noise, use Snake’s prosthetic arm to distract or stun enemies and set up inflatable decoys; perhaps most importantly, you can use Snake’s binoculars to mark enemies’ positions and keep track of them, even through walls. What’s more, Snake’s got a couple of animal pals to assist this time around, including a horse for quick getaways and a wolf that can sniff out foes.
Stealth doesn’t always work, of course. In combat, you’ve got an arsenal of lethal and nonlethal weaponry that produces the kind of impact you’d expect; a soldier hit with an assault rifle will flinch in pain, for instance, while a sniper shot to center mass will send someone flying. It’s some of the most enjoyable gunplay I’ve had the pleasure of playing with, up there with the urban chaos of Grand Theft Auto V, and I wish it was more central to the gameplay.
Ironically, this is probably my biggest beef with The Phantom Pain, actually. While you’re free to come up with your own strategies and complete missions however you’d like, that’s not to say there isn’t a “right” way of doing things. Despite the enjoyable gunplay, you’re strongly encouraged to use stealth and a nonlethal approach; if you don’t, the game will happily dock you points toward a decent ranking at the end of a mission. It’s still possible to do well, but you can’t do perfectly without ghosting through each mission. Boss battles allow you to cut loose a bit, but they’re few and far between. There’s plenty of funny things to do, like using horse poop to spin out enemy vehicles or stealing jeeps using hot air balloons, but if you want to do well it’ll take a back seat to traditional stealth.
This means that things can end up feeling a bit repetitive, since the correct approach for a decent chunk of the game entails slow, methodical stealth that can fall apart if an enemy so much as flinches at an inopportune moment. Why offer all these wonderful toys if you’re not meant to use them? Combine this with the relatively slow pace at which your development team produces new gear and this means you’re going to be doing a lot of the same stuff using a lot of the same stuff. If that’s what you’re into, that’s great! There’s tons of content here to indulge you. On the other hand, if you’d like to go Rambo on a base and get the same results as James Bond, though, it can’t really happen.
What’s more, chunks of plot are drip-fed, so if you’re here to learn more about Big Boss’ backstory and the events leading up to the earlier MGS games, well…you’ll be playing awhile. At least everything’s infused with the classic Metal Gear insanity, as demonic beings made of fire absorb explosions, half-naked women leap about and heal using photosynthesis and so on. In typical Kojima fashion, none of it makes a lot of sense, but series diehards should be content.
In any case, the significant amount of side content implies that the development team was aware of this potential repetition and took measures to address it. The most important non-mission activity is building up Diamond Dogs, which is done largely through kidnapping enemy soldiers and looting materiel during missions. If you manage to stun (or, later, mortally wound) a foe, you can strap them to a balloon and send them on a one-way trip to Mother Base for some re-education. Your enemies have different levels of ability and unique skills, so it behooves you to seek out the most skilled soldiers to press into your service. This is also yet another strike against lethal weaponry, since dead soldiers can’t be forced to become cooks for Diamond Dogs or whatever you’d have them doing.
Converted soldiers will work toward developing new gear, analyzing mission areas for intel and other behind-the-scenes activities. You can direct this development yourself to a large extent, but I found that aside from ordering weapons and gear you don’t really need to do so as the game handles itself fairly well. Still, if you want to sit down and futz around with your base for awhile, knock yourself out – you can even customize the base’s primary colors as well as your PMC’s emblem.
That’s not all there is to do, of course. Along with building the strongest possible PMC, other diversions include building a zoo (yes, really), searching for collectible resources, digging up intel and completing numerous Side Ops missions. There’s a huge number of the latter, but they generally involve sneaking into a base and capturing everyone…which is what you’re doing anyway, so…
One side activity in particular merits mention – this is the Forward Operating Base, which is Phantom Pain’s multiplayer option. In theory, this allows you to set up bases that you staff with soldiers, which are then used as infiltration targets for other players while you invade their bases. I’d love to talk about this in detail, but in my experience the system rarely worked, instead throwing up connection error messages and distracting me during missions. This is apparently common in the game’s PS4 version, so that might be worth considering if you have a choice of platforms.
Even if it did work, this serves as the main front for The Phantom Pain’s micro-transaction system. Yup, that’s right – we’ve got another $60 big-budget retail game with micro-transactions. After the game’s demo retailed for $30, I don’t think anyone should be surprised. You can spend real money for various bonuses, like an espionage-themed Candy Crush. In a perfect world, we’d all collectively agree as a hobbyist community to boycott the title and send a message. We won’t, though, so instead let’s say that the option to drop more money despite having paid full retail price is present and accounted for and the strong sales of this game ensure we’ll see more of it. You’ll think you were playing an Ubisoft game.
Also like an Ubisoft game, The Phantom Pain feels a little unfinished toward the end. The concluding scenes are spectacularly unsatisfying, and there are already indications that at least one story mission was cut from the title. The game’s not exactly short, but it’s still disappointing that things fall apart a little as you start to hit the home stretch. Don’t fret, though! If the micro-transaction scheme is any indication, I’m sure we’ll see some DLC soon.
This is a flagship game for 2015, so naturally the presentation is glorious. The graphics and sound are absolutely fantastic, especially if you’re playing on PC. It’s certainly one of those games you’ll want to use to show off your expensive consoles, computers and high-end TVs. One quirk, in case you weren’t aware, is that Snake is now voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, a Hollywood actor with a recognizable name. In practical terms, this means that Snake speaks much, much less than he used to, because Hollywood actors with recognizable names are expensive. He’s not quite a silent protagonist, but he’s close. This also means that the classic Codec calls that the series is known for have been gutted, becoming more like monologues from NPCs than insightful conversations between characters.
So it’s not the Metal Gear you know and love. It’s a little less scripted, a little more quiet, and a little more greedy. Still, for the money Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain provides a decent chunk of playtime in a (relatively) familiar style. I wouldn’t call this a Game of the Year shoo-in – my vote’s for The Witcher 3 – but it’s a good game and I’m never going to complain about more of those. People have said that this is the conclusion of the Metal Gear Solid series; if so, well, it’s a solid last hurrah before Snake goes out to pasture.