September 1st, 2015. I thought that day would be carved into my mind, much like the launch days of the previous titles from mastermind Hideo Kojima. Metal Gear Solid 3 and 4 were 10/10 masterpieces. That is a genuine consensus among video games journalists. After seventy hours and counting of gameplay I enjoyed this game for what it is: the Fox Engine makes the environment and characters look spectacular, the gameplay is sublime, and there is a plethora of missions. In spite of all that, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain does not feel like a Metal Gear Solid game, and it did not accomplish its new ambitions.
Phantom Pain does a lot right. If you are a newcomer to the series, this title is by far the easiest to start with, because over 90% of the game is small missions. Any player who jumps into MGS 4 or MGS 2 and hasn’t started from the beginning will be completely lost, and may be put off of Metal Gear because of it. With MGS V you can enjoy the gameplay in the short missions and don’t need to concern yourself with the daunting story because, let’s be honest, there isn’t much here.
Combat has always been decent in the series, and Phantom Pain has greatly improved it. The highlight of the combat system is when you creep up on an enemy who spots you. This triggers a short “slow motion adrenaline” state which lets you draw your gun and precisely line up your sights with his head. This is a very satisfying feeling no matter what weapon you are using. During this state, you can also charge in with a Close Quarters Combat barrage or grapple to interrogate, knock out, or stab the unlucky foe . Eventually, your enemies gain armor, so shooting them with a pistol or carbine will not always be effective. Some enemies will counter attack your CQC, prompting a QTE to counter their counter. I have nothing but good things to say about the combat. I would not change a thing. It’s the game’s strongest point.
I really enjoyed Ground Zeroes, the standalone prequel. It looked fantastic! Phantom Pain is another step up from that. The Fox Engine has been in the works for quite some time, and it gives us a glamorous visual experience. The environments are very detailed, from the day/night cycle to the rain and sandstorms; Phantom Pain looks spectacular on all platforms. It runs at a smooth 60 FPS. I didn’t experience a single frame drop, grainy texture, or glitch in the entire play through. In the current era of games being released well before they are ready, it is nice to see a title that is this finely polished, in terms of the graphical experience. The landscape of Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border look incredibly detailed, but, in between the small outposts scattered in the sandbox (pun definitely intended), there is actually very little to experience.
I have nothing but good things to say about the combat. It’s the game’s strongest point.
Newly introduced by Phantom Pain is the “buddy” system. You unlock multiple “buddies” throughout the game that assist you in most of the missions, each coming with various skills. The first one you receive is the horse. I called mine Carrie. Her skill is simple: she will get you from Point A to Point B much faster than you could run. You whistle for her, then the pair of you can ride off into the sunset. The next one is unlocked by you finding a wild puppy and having Ocelot train it. I called mine Nom Nom. He was usually my first choice to bring on a mission. He can spot enemies, vehicles, weapons, and VIPs. This can be very handy when some bad guys are hiding in a tent and you cannot spot them with your binoculars. He can also bark to lure and distract enemies. I won’t spoil the others, but they’re lots of fun to use. At any time during a mission you can call for an air drop of another buddy, and they’ll be flown in — at the cost of your in game currency, GMP.
Troy Baker’s skilled voice acting was spot on, and there was plenty of it. However, the old poster boy David Hayter isn’t even in this game, having been replaced by Kiefer Sutherland. He did an okay job, but he had next to no dialogue.
I really enjoyed playing with the “Fulton” system, a balloon extraction device. You can use it on enemies, guns, tanks, VIPs, and even sheep. When you are sneaking about this can be very useful for disposing of unconscious enemies, removing the risk of a patrol spotting the body and sending the captured individual back to Mother Base to be assimilated. Different enemies have different skills and ranks they can bring to your personal army. Sometimes you will be hunting for, say, an S rank engineer so you can capture him, Fulton him out of the field, and enlist him in your Research & Development team to make new tech. You have a limited amount of these balloons in each mission so you have to carefully pick the most valuable targets.
All that being said, Phantom Pain does a lot wrong. There wasn’t nearly enough story to keep a newcomer interested or engaged. After about the first hour you are thrust into the mission-based semi-open world, and there isn’t a hint of story for another nine hours or so. There are cassette tapes to listen to, which unlock more dialog, but this sullies the experience. I want to be told the story, not go digging for it. Destiny did something similar with their Grimoire you could unlock to read elsewhere. Many players haven’t played any other MGS game, but when a significant character appears, who would otherwise be known, it is never explained who anyone is. The exception is one character, very late in the game. This does not develop the characters. It makes it more complicated than it needs to be. Even with brand new characters to the series you have to dig through the tapes just to get tidbits of who they are, where they came from, and what they’re up to.
At a few points in the story that I was really invested, but that’s the problem — only a few. Not in every single minute, like in Guns of the Patriots or Snake Eater. All the previous titles had “Metal Gear” moments: when you fought Metal Gear Ray with Rex, or Vamp comes back for the seventh time, or you crawl through the microwave to get to the servers. Phantom Pain doesn’t really have any of those pinnacle moments.
Due to the lack of story being told, I didn’t really care about any of these characters. I didn’t care that I was playing as Big Boss. I didn’t even care what happened to my buddies. The only thing I was attached to was Nom Nom, because he was useful to me. When you can’t connect with the characters, you can’t engage in any story there might be. During one of the endings, the main villain was doing his color-by-numbers monologue and I thought to myself: “Wow, this is super boring. Can I go back to putting balloons on sheep, please?”
Phantom Pain doesn’t really have any of those pinnacle “Metal Gear” moments.
Phantom Pain is more like Peace Walker 2, in the sense that the game revolves around short and simple missions to build up Mother Base. This worked for Peace Walker because it was on a mobile device, intended for a pick-up-and-play experience. Any time you embark on a mission, you summon a helicopter to Mother Base, hop in it, choose your destination, fly there, hop out, run for up to four minutes to arrive at the objective’s perimeter, run back (sometimes with a VIP on your shoulders), summon another helicopter, and fly back to Mother Base. Every. Single. Time. It is extremely tedious and degrades the overall experience. Sometimes, just getting to and leaving from the mission takes more time and effort than the actual mission!
If that’s not bad enough, the missions are repetitive and lack creativity. Almost all of them are VIP extractions, which are the most boring, alongside tailing objectives. After about episode 35, you are assigned more difficult copies of previous missions you have accomplished. In order to progress through the lackluster story, you now have to repeat the same boring missions. The decision to roll credits after every main story mission is annoying. I was done playing this game at about the 25-30 hour mark.
Last and, possibly, least, the “open-world” environment. When you open your mini-map, yes, the world truly looks big. Your first few missions you will say: “Yeah! This world is huge!” Only after will you realize that a bunch of rocks and open fields in between a few tents and a spotting tower is not a huge immersive world. Its dull and uncreative. At best, you can find the odd plant to collect or some sheep to attach balloons to. The game also boasted that there are numerous ways to approach each mission. That is not true. The environment funnels you in a certain direction because it’s not really “open-world,” and from there it’s either try to sneak through undetected or get detected and go on a killing spree. Some series should stick with the formula that made them critically acclaimed.
The enemy AI could have been better, and the lack of real weapons in the game was immersion-breaking, but ultimately, this game falls short on a deeper level. Metal Gear fans play Metal Gear games for the engaging story and the deep characters. After over seventy hours I am not at all satisfied with either of these vital elements. Open-world sandbox games are the norm, nowadays, giving us the feeling of being an avatar in world, being immersed in a unique world. It works for a lot of games. It doesn’t work here. Metal Gear was unique for focusing heavily on cinematics, cut-scenes, and codec conversations, revealing layer after layer of Kojima’s rich story. Many say that this is a master piece, or that this is what Kojima always pictured as his ending magnum opus. I don’t see how either of those could be true. Phantom Pain looks fantastic. The core gameplay is fun and challenging. Capturing enemies with certain skills to build up your base and army is enticing. The lackluster story, dearth of compelling characters, pretty but boring environments, and tediously segmented mission system brought the whole experience down.
Despite all its shortcomings, Phantom Pain is still a decent game. It appeals to a larger audience. I do recommend playing through the previous titles in the series to truly understand the lore and characters, which will improve your experience drastically. Finally, will someone please take this shrapnel out of my forehead?
+ Improved weapon and CQC combat
+ Stunning visuals
+ Unique buddies
– Lackluster story and delivery
– Poor character development
– Segmented repetitive mission formula
– Repetitive “open-world” environment
Edited by Editor Dan Giroday