The game that I had been looking forward to for so long… The one that would answer the remaining questions in the Metal Gear saga. To be honest, to me, it was, and still is, the game to end all games. I know there will be no game I’ll ever be anticipating as much as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Ground Zeroes gave us a wonderful taste of what’s to come, but it was just that. Thanks to it, we knew the gameplay would be the best ever seen, but what about the story? How would it all tie up to the Outer Heaven uprising of 1995, when Solid Snake had to defeat the by then evil Big Boss? How did Big Boss turn evil from being nothing but a massive badass up to Ground Zeroes? Is Big Boss ever actually evil, even in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2? These are the questions that The Phantom Pain had to answer, and that is why, to a big fan of the series like me, it was absolutely essential.
I was delighted to learn that The Phantom Pain would also come out for the aging and almost dead seventh generation consoles, and not just for the new ones. It would also come to PC, so I would be safe even if it hadn’t appeared on PS3, but given that it did, that was the version I got (and the version I’m reviewing – not that there are important version differences). Yes, graphics would not be as good as they would be on a PC or a PS4, but it was also a matter of legacy. I would be able to play every single of the main Metal Gear games on my PS3.
Then, a short while before the game was to come out, we learned of the major fallout between Kojima and Konami, resulting in the closure of Kojima Productions. Aside from the moral issues such as the terrifying treatment of employees, the realisation that this would be the last Metal Gear directed by Kojima surfaced. Kojima would inevitably leave the company after the game’s release (and now the news is out that he’s starting his own Kojima Productions). The series would inevitably remain property of Konami, and they would likely have other people do the creative work on Metal Gear, meaning it would be “Metal Gear” in name only. Thus, The Phantom Pain would be the last game in the series, period. An important game, to say the least.
Game: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Developer: Kojima Productions
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Original release: 2015
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain lives up to the expectations in many ways, and falls just short in others… Perhaps the deadlines were a bit tight, but it is a fact that the game had more potential than it managed to realise. That said, The Phantom Pain is still a very strong entry in the Metal Gear series, and an extremely good video game. The gameplay is polished to perfection – I can’t see a valid complaint about anything but cosmetic issues. The story and particularly the storytelling methods can be put into question, but Kojima had already gone down this path with Peace Walker and the cassette tapes. It certainly destroys a long-standing myth about the series popular among people who don’t know what they’re talking about – that Metal Gear games are “movies” because there’s more cutscenes than gameplay… Well, here, the cutscenes are probably like 5% of the game.
The Phantom Pain is also an extremely long game which certainly came as a shock to a series veteran like me who expected 20-30 hours at most. I logged over 103 hours of playtime by the time I beat the game… But this is easily explained with the open-world nature of the game – there are only two main gameplay locations, both of them huge sandboxes you can do missions and side ops in, or just go around ruining soldiers’ day, “recruiting” new members for your private army, Diamond Dogs, or even rescuing animals. Was it all worth it after 103 hours? Absolutely!
- Perfect open-world stealth action gameplay – surpassing the already very high Metal Gear standard
- Intriguing story depicting Big Boss’ struggle to build Diamond Dogs and ultimately get revenge for MSF
- Great, engaging interactions between Big Boss, Ocelot, Miller, Huey…
- Incredible new character in Quiet
- True to the Cold War spirit of the 80s, excellent world-building and environments
- Wonderful soundtrack – both the licensed music, and the original compositions
- Storytelling isn’t optimal, perhaps due to the size of the game and time/budget constraints
- Health/ration system is abandoned in favour of a “modern” hide-behind-cover approach
- No saving when you want, it’s all automatic, with checkpoints
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain brings a conclusion to the Metal Gear saga, continuing the events of Peace Walker and Ground Zeroes and linking up to the original Metal Gear and Solid Snake’s first mission. In typical Kojima fashion, the story comes with some fascinating surprises in store, even for die-hard fans of the series. The year is 1984 and Big Boss leads a new organisation, Diamond Dogs, which succeeds Militaires Sans Frontières, whose terrible end we witnessed in Ground Zeroes… The struggle is to rebuild the mercenary organisation of soldiers without a nation, and then, get revenge against the people who destroyed MSF.
The game’s intro is incredibly fascinating, and you are probably familiar with it if you’ve seen the game’s E3 trailers and the like in the last couple of years. Big Boss must escape the hospital where he spent 9 years in a coma… It’s only through Ocelot’s help that he eventually succeeds and returns as a military leader, building another glorious organisation. The relationship between Big Boss and Ocelot evolves during the events of the game, although it’s never really a main point. Of course, as a whole, the characters’ dynamics, the highs and lows, are a very important part of the story that greatly helps make the game the gem that it is. Big Boss keeps developing as a character, too.
Diamond Dogs’ missions, and particularly Big Boss’s, interfere with two major conflicts that were taking place back in the 80s. The Russian operation in Afghanistan, and the conflict between the MPLA and their West-funded enemies in Angola – two very well-known wars that paint the landscape of the Cold War quite well. Interestingly, like the independent organisation Diamond Dogs is, you fight against the Russians in Afghanistan, but against the MPLA’s enemies in Africa. Languages are a key part of the game’s story, and you’ll find yourself looking for interpreters so you can understand what the soldiers around you are saying (conversations are often interesting and add to the atmosphere). Another thing to watch out for is child soldiers.
As I said in the intro, it’s not all roses. Sadly, perhaps due to time and/or budget constraints, the story isn’t told smoothly like we are used to in Metal Gear games. Partly due to the game’s open-world nature and mission structure, cutscenes and other story bits sometimes come at seemingly random times. Often, you need to clear a certain number of missions or side ops to unlock the next story sequence. Of course, usually those are directly connected with the missions at hand, but not always, which is the problem. Also, a LOT of the storytelling is done via cassette tapes, which certainly saves budget, but is not nearly as appealing as animated cutscenes. All that said, Kojima’s typical foreshadowing and subtle hints about the game’s big revelations, when looked at in hindsight, almost manage to erase all bitterness from all that could have been, but wasn’t.
THE BEST GET EVEN BETTER
It is no secret that I am a huge fan of Big Boss and Ocelot, and a game that highlights their collaboration as leaders of Diamond Dogs naturally appeals greatly to me. In this game, Big Boss is voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, not David Hayter. It is an interesting change which many fans of the game initially resented, but Big Boss is Big Boss, and Solid Snake, while a clone, is his own man, he’s NOT Big Boss, so them having different voice actors makes better sense. Kiefer Sutherland does a very good job, although Big Boss talks much less in this game than he did in Peace Walker, which I explain with Konami willing to save up a bit on a likely high wage that such a famous actor would receive for the role.
While not that vocal, Big Boss (also known in this game as “Venom Snake”) is still the leader we are used to. He is brave, courageous, and leads by example, completing the most dangerous Diamond Dogs missions. He commands great respect among his soldiers, who are ready to die for him without question. It is a big honour for them to even be part of his organisation, and that is truly amazing to see for the player, their selflessness for a cause that is not even tied to a nation. The other two calling the shots at the new Mother Base are Ocelot and Miller, who also managed to survive the attack 9 years ago. Ocelot is as badass as ever, now a rather grizzled military instructor, and interestingly the voice of sanity, often in contrast of the much more radical Miller, who is unable to let go of the tragedy that happened 9 years ago, and wants revenge at all costs.
Other familiar faces also appear, like the scientist Huey Emmerich – Otacon’s father, the villainous Skull Face whom we saw in Ground Zeroes, and also some major characters from games taking place later in the Metal Gear timeline. But the most impressive character (Ocelot and Big Boss aside, of course) is a new face who has been subject of heated discussion since her very first trailer appearance. I am naturally talking about the sniper, Quiet.
True to her name, she does not speak, but her actions are more than enough to make her not only interesting for the player, but also a major driving force of the story. She is also, as far as I’m concerned, the first female character in the Metal Gear series that is really beautiful. That is easily explained with the model she has been designed after, the Dutch Stefanie Joosten who lives and works in Japan. Stefanie is a very beautiful woman, and so is Quiet, but it’s quite notable that they are very different (aside from one being a video game character). If one watches interviews or let’s plays with Stefanie, it’s clear she gives off a rather ditzy air, which couldn’t be further from the truth about Quiet. From her very first appearance in the game, Quiet maintains an air of mystery, seriousness, and ruthlessness. Only on very rare occasions – if you complete some in-game requirements at that, will you be able to see a more lighthearted side of her. Her dynamics with Big Boss are great.
PERFECT STEALTH ACTION
Frankly, it is hard to imagine that a better stealth game than The Phantom Pain could be created. It really is that good. Metal Gear has always been stellar in this respect, but the last game puts it on a whole new level. This is greatly helped by the open-world nature of the game with only occasional close-quarters confrontations with enemies. That gives the player almost total freedom in choosing how to approach a situation. You can sneak up on an enemy from pretty much anywhere. Of course, it’s still important to watch their movements, path, and to make a plan first, but it’s now even less restrictive than it used to be. That is balanced out by the enemies being tougher and more clever – if you are caught by 3 or more that start firing at you, chances of survival aren’t high. You barely need to use the cardboard box here! Or camouflage. The environment is your natural camouflage, if you know how to use it. Get in the grass, crawl on the ground, advance slowly, and the enemies will hardly see you coming.
Missions in The Phantom Pain play out in a rather independent way, including in terms of presentation. They are their own episodes, which short credits in the beginning and at the end. Your performance is also scored at the end of each mission, with no real index to unite your scores. That makes it more of a chore to do a no-kill run – a staple of my personal Metal Gear experience since Metal Gear Solid where I found out it was impossible during an elevator scene (but fortunately it’s been possible in every game since). Since you can only see kill statistics after each mission, you can’t be 100% sure you haven’t killed anyone between missions and in side ops. You must pay attention. Early in the game, you can choose between several missions, and doing one or two progresses the story, the rest remaining open. This changes fast, however, you are soon obliged to clear a mission to progress the story, and by the end, you get missions you’ve cleared before, but with higher difficulty settings… A clear sign the game’s development ran out of time and/or money. Some missions are routine mercenary work, others have to do with Diamond Dogs’ own goals – the latter being obligatory, of course.
True to the trend since Metal Gear Solid 4, The Phantom Pain offers a vast variety of weaponry. However, they aren’t nearly as easy to get your hands on this time. While you get some handed to you initially, most, and especially the best ones, you will need to unlock by developing your Mother Base’s research facilities (mostly the R&D team). Like in Peace Walker, when recruiting soldiers, you get to see their talents, and then assign them to the unit they would help the most in. There are several teams at Mother Base – Combat, R&D, Base Development, Support, Intel, Medical. The higher the abilities of a man assigned to a team, the more the team’s level goes up. To unlock new weapons for development, you need to get a team to a high enough level, and occasionally you also need blueprints or particular specialists on your team. Combat unit members are your main force during off-screen Dispatch missions (and you can actually do missions as someone on this unit in Big Boss’s place), Base Development helps you grow Mother Base faster, Support and Intel help you during missions, and Medical helps injured soldiers heal faster.
A very interesting new feature in The Phantom Pain is the Buddy system. There are actually several buddies that become available as the game progresses. They help you during your missions. You start out with D-Horse, a trusty steed to help you navigate the huge fields and deserts of Afghanistan. Later on, if you manage to recruit them, you’ll get the badass D-Dog and the mysterious sniper Quiet. There’s even a miniaturised manned Metal Gear called D-Walker that you will be able to use. Of these, I took Quiet and D-Dog along the most. You can develop equipment for your buddies – better sniper rifles for Quiet, and suits for D-Dog. These two can directly attack your enemies, helping you greatly. There is a bond level with each buddy (except D-Walker that is just a machine), and the higher the bond, the more “orders” you can give to your buddy. Bond level is raised by completing missions and side ops together, and lowers when your buddy gets badly hurt, or when you send them back to the base before the mission is complete.
That’s not the only assistance Big Boss can rely on during missions – there’s always the chopper to pick you up or assist you with fire from above. You can even develop improvements for the chopper. There is also the Support unit that helps you extract soldiers you want to recruit via the Fulton recovery (later on, you can even Fulton enemy vehicles like tanks!), and translates what soldiers are saying to you (as long as you have recruited a translator for the language in question). The Intel team gives information about enemies and even medical plants nearby. And while the game is quite in-line with the time period, there is one exception that happens to also be an amazing help on the field – the iDroid, a mini-computer that contains information about the missions, maps, is also a cassette tape player, and even allows Big Boss to give orders to Mother Base during missions.
One rather sad thing about The Phantom Pain is that, as hinted in Ground Zeroes, the wonderful HP and ration system that had been a staple in the series for so long has truly been abandoned… Instead, Kojima went with the “modern” approach of “screen goes red, hide behind cover until it’s back to normal.” Truly a disappointment, but one of very few in this game. Another small hiccup is the fact that Big Boss runs uphill just as fast as on level surface. Another disappointment – the save system… There is no voluntary saving, it’s all automatic. In order to restart from earlier points, you’ll have to resort to using a USB flash drive and regularly copy your saves there. I know I needed it, so you probably will, too. This is truly a low point.
For a very long time while playing, I thought there might not be bosses at all in this one… Eventually, that turned out to be wrong, and some of the boss battles are actually quite epic. Even more so when you’re trying not to kill anyone, and the most destructive weapons are of course not the tranquilising ones. There is one particular battle with Skull Face’s attack unit, appropriately named The Skulls, which requires an amazing amount of alertness and patience. After tens of defeats, it took me over an hour to win on the final try! No battle until the end of the game felt as intense, though some came close. As a whole, though, boss battles aren’t on the level of first three Solid games.
There are also a couple of online modes – FOB where you invade other players’ bases (and get yours invaded, of course), and the good old Metal Gear Online, back with its third iteration… I haven’t put time into either of them, so I can’t say much, but the reception is mostly positive – although Metal Gear’s focus has never been on the online modes, so one can’t expect too much.
TRUE TO THE SPIRIT OF THE 80S
As mentioned above, The Phantom Pain certainly maintains the spirit of the 80s. The conflicts of the time are well represented, same goes for weapons and combat vehicles. The Cold War is slowly drawing to an end, but the competition between the two world superpowers is still fierce. The two main battle areas, Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border, are depicted quite well – lots of rocks and vast deserts in Afghanistan, in contrast with the lush forestation in Africa. There is beauty to be found in both places – in the endless sands of an Afghan desert, or in the bright sun barely making its way through the thick jungle… The two main areas are quite big, encompassing much more than what I mentioned – there are rock fortresses, ancient ruins, mansions, villages, factories… The character models are brilliant, with special mentions for Venom Snake, the middle-aged Ocelot, and of course Quiet. That said, on PS3, the version I played, there are small graphical weaknesses, like some details in the distance not being drawn until you get close. It’s to be expected with this almost 10-year-old hardware.
Music is an even stronger point than looks. Kojima brilliantly decided to include a licensed soundtrack alongside the original compositions, all with songs that came out before the time of the game’s events! An incredibly nice touch, allowing us to peak into Kojima’s musical tastes to boot. Well, despite the name of Big Boss’ new organisation, there are no David Bowie songs, I don’t know if they were too expensive to license or what – instead, we are treated with a cover version of “The Man Who Sold the World”… There are some great songs like Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell”, Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me with Science”, “The Final Countdown” by Europe… The original soundtrack is also excellent. Ludvig Forssell is the main man behind it, with several tracks by Metal Gear veteran Kazuki Muraoka, too. For this review, I’ve chosen Forssell’s “Behind the Drapery”, a song that I found the tape for very early in the game, and then listened to a lot while sneaking during important missions. It’s my favourite in the OST, along with Muraoka’s “The Tangerine”.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is one of the best entries in the series. In terms of gameplay, it is even the best – by some distance, too. The player experiences perfectly polished stealth action gameplay in a first-for-the-series open-world environment. The story sadly doesn’t manage to be quite as engaging as a Metal Gear fan would expect, but it still blows away most games out there with ease. It’s just that Kojima has set the bar that high. Even then, and despite the rather suboptimal storytelling methods (cassette tapes being a main one), the conclusion is incredibly satisfying. And seeing badasses like Big Boss and Ocelot work together building Diamond Dogs into a powerful mercenary organisation is very satisfying. Then, there is the beautiful and mysterious Quiet, too. On top of it all, the game offers some excellent and well-hidden Easter eggs. You’ll probably need to consult the internet to uncover most of them.
With this, the Metal Gear saga gets its grand conclusion… I wish this could have been the perfect game Metal Gear deserves as its last, but it isn’t. Some shortcomings tarnish an otherwise excellent experience, and prevent it from reaching the overall level of quality seen in Metal Gear Solid 3, 4 or 1. The game is also very long, something not seen so far in Metal Gear. It’s several times longer than the standard we are used to from previous games. This is both a good and a bad thing – it allows you to experience the wonderful Metal Gear universe longer, but at some points it feels like you’re doing missions that aren’t important in the big picture. It’s not complete filler because it helps you recruit soldiers and grow your organisation, but a requirement to pass a certain amount of missions before unlocking the next story sequence smells of unfinished game. Still, despite the strife with Konami, Kojima managed to provide us with a high quality product, and we can only be grateful and wish him the best with his new endeavour.