Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

For nearly 30 years Metal Gear has had players enthralled with great stealth-based gameplay, excellent (if a little whacky) storytelling and solid action. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain seeks to continue the trend of excellence and in what appears to be the final flourish in visionary game developer Hideo Kojima’s involvement with the Metal Gear franchise, looks to send him out with a bang. So is it worth a wad of your hard earned cash monies? Let’s find out…

Taking place during both the Russian-Afghan war and the Angolan civil war in central Africa circa 1984 The Phantom Pain begins nine years after the events of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, which itself follows on from the PSP exclusive title Peace Walker. Players take on the role of Big Boss who after awaking from a coma and escaping an assassination attempt, decides to rebuild his private fortress Mother Base and recruit and train an army named the ‘Diamond Dogs’ to go with it, all whilst attempting to hunt down and get his revenge on those responsible for his current condition. Cue copious sneaking missions, mechanized bipedal weapons, supernatural enemies and the usual over the top Metal Gear Solid melodrama in an engrossing tale of vengeance that only the mind of Hideo Kojima can provide.

Metal Gear Solid’s core focus has always primarily been on the ‘Tactical Espionage Operations’ tag plastered on its box/es. Unsurprisingly, The Phantom Pain continues the trend with a focus on stealth and general sneakiness. Fans of the series will feel right at home, whilst newcomers will be able to pick it up quickly due to its excellent prologue which dutifully puts Boss through his paces. All the hallmarks of the series are present and accounted for with the usual techniques in Big Boss’s repertoire: crawling to avoid detection, CQC attacks and tranquilising for non-lethal takedowns, climbing, hanging from ledges and hiding in boxes in plain sight to avoid detection. Carrying over from Ground Zeroes Boss now is also able to call in helicopter support, drive vehicles and has retained the ability to tag enemies with his binoculars in a similar method to the more recent Far Cry titles enabling players to observe enemy positions and patrol routes.

Of course, the game encourages players to complete objectives whilst infiltrating guarded positions and avoiding enemy lines of sight. Fortunately, those who are less inclined to the sneakiness are catered to as well as when things go south during an infiltration (or you prefer the action-orientated approach) shooting and fighting your way into objective areas and out of danger zones Call of Duty-style is a viable option.

As with Ground Zeroes, perhaps the biggest change to the series brought forth in The Phantom Pain is that rather than a fairly linear, set-piece filled fare that veterans of the series are used to, the latest title takes place in a sandbox environment. This means fewer cut-scenes but a heck of a lot more gameplay. The additional focus on the game’s mechanics means more work has gone into mission design and choices, allowing players the opportunity to approach objectives and other mission-related tasks in a multitude of ways. This is made even better by giving players the ability to replay completed missions, so they can revisit and experiment with various routes, objective priorities and strategies until they find one that is most efficient. Some of the trickier Achievements/Trophies and the value of mission rewards are based upon your mission completion ranking so replaying to earn higher ratings is a good challenge and one that is most definitely worth the effort.

Another new addition to the Metal Gear gameplay is the inclusion of ‘buddy’ characters that can deploy with Snake on missions and during free roam to assist players in-game with an array of useful abilities. There are a number of these buddies that range from D-Horse, who can be ridden to speed up movement around the battlefield, D-Walker – your own personal bipedal killing machine, D-Dog who can mark enemy positions, resources and other points of interest on the map and Quiet, a bikini clad sniper who has the ability to infiltrate bases, mark enemy positions and assist in providing fire support during combat.

One of the more challenging elements of the game is the way in which enemy forces adapt to Snake’s tactics and alter their deployment and behaviour patterns as players make their way through the campaign. Depending on the tactics you use, the enemies will adapt – sneakiness will be rewarded by additional security cameras being installed, lots of headshots will result in enemies adorning helmets, Call of Duty-style gameplay will have bad guys donning heavy body armour and more advanced weapons. Whilst these can be disrupted somewhat by deploying Mother Base personnel to sabotage enemy supply lines, the changes are more or less long-lasting and can force players to change tactics.

Outside of the main missions and exploration, the rest of the game will likely be spent micromanaging Snake’s oil-rig themed base of operations Mother Base. The base itself stats off small but quickly grows larger as you acquire resources and purchase additional platforms that allow players to develop research projects devoted to various elements of gameplay. Additional platforms are a necessity to make the most of your resources and fall into a number of categories: the ‘R&D’ platform will unlock additional weapons, gadgets and buddy upgrades, the ‘Support’ platform will grant you additional information in the field including language translations of enemy units, fire support and reports of incoming weather events to help plan your actions. The ‘Combat Unit’ personnel can be sent out on short combat missions in the background that can be rewarded with resources, new staff and by handicapping enemies in the field by sabotaging their supply lines. IN addition to these, there are many more platforms including: a base development platform, a prison, a wildlife reserve (yes, I’m serious) and a medical facility all of which provide their own perks.

As players explore the world maps they can use a Fulton Extraction to pilfer supplies from enemy forces and transport them back to Mother Base where it can be further utilised. The Fulton Extraction essentially involves attaching a balloon to the resource of interest and watch it get taken away in a distinctly similar manner to Pixar’s Up: People, turrets, vehicles, animals, shipping containers, almost nothing is safe. This is an important facet of gameplay as it will help to bolster staff numbers and resources, which can help you complete development projects to improve your weapons and load outs so that you can capture more resources and personnel so that you can complete more upgrades… and so on.

The game itself has 50 campaign missions which are bolstered by the addition of more than 150 side-operations to undertake for further challenges that usually result in the rewarding of additional resources, blueprints for research projects or elite soldiers for Mother Base. The majority of this gameplay takes place across two large world maps, one based on the rocky desert and plains of Afghanistan and a swampy savanna style-environment in the Central African Zaire-Angola border region. These environments are quite large but unfortunately are quite sparsely populated and feature only a set number of guard posts, enemy base camps and settlements. As this is the case, you’ll be revisiting a lot of these areas whether it be for campaign missions, secondary objectives or for hunting down collectibles.

The Metal Gear Solid series has always prided itself on pushing the boundaries of visual and audio presentation and as one would expect, The Phantom Pain is a fantastic looking game. The character models are typically excellent and the game’s lengthy cut-scenes really help to showcase them in all their glory. Each of the sizeable maps on offer provide unique visual styles and feature finely crafted environments with a painstaking level of detail made even more impressive made even more so by the changing weather effects and the lighting effects triggered by the day-night cycle that the game brings to the table.

Unfortunately, The Phantom Pain does feature its share of turnoffs (minor as they may be). Once you have cleared out a few areas and try out the side-ops players will often need to venture back to previously explored areas and whilst this repetition is mitigated somewhat evolving AI behaviour and the numerous options to infiltrate each area, players are most likely to experience a sense of déjà vu. Additionally, Mother Base is far too big for what it needs to be and the 500 meter-long bridges linking the main platforms means it takes a long time to get around and for the most part it feels quite empty.

The other main criticism that the game will face, likely from the more hard-core fans of the series is in the narrative department. Due to the open world structure and the splitting of the game up into 50 missions, the traditional Metal Gear Solid linear, story-driven experience and the hours upon hours of cut-scenes linking everything together are nowhere to be found. Sure there are some intro/outro and mid-mission cinematics in places, but for the most part, instead of being spoon-fed to players in a litany of cut-scenes, the story is told through a series of cassette tapes that are rewarded before, during and after missions and you’ll only be able to get a grasp on the entire story by listening to them.  Although I enjoyed the narrative, the reliance of setting aside time to listen to backstory unfortunately made the main story feel somewhat less impactful than previous titles.

Overall Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a great game. The main content and side-missions will take well over 100 hours to complete and the stealth gameplay is perhaps the finest you’ll encounter in a game to date. Whilst hardcore fans may be put off by the reduced focus on story and cut-scenes the open world structure, some excellent gameplay and replayability more than make up for any narrative shortcomings. This is easily one of the most entertaining and well-polished titles of the year to date and most definitely worth your time and attention.

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