Review: Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (Sony Playstation 4)

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain
Genre: Open World Third Person Shooter
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami Corporation
Release Date: 09/01/2015

I am Big Boss, now dubbed “Venom Snake.” It is midnight and I am staring out over a valley in Afghanistan, on the other side there is a mountain covered in a sprawling military base. My intelligence team shows that somewhere in that complex is a commander. Big Boss is tasked with either taking him out or capturing him. I need to find out where he is. I take out my INT-Scope (a mix of binoculars, a directional microphone, and enemy targeting device) and scout the base. I spot numerous soldiers, a few jeeps, and various weapon emplacements. I need to work my way across the valley and up the mountain.

I decide to go for a stealth approach. I work my way to a guard house and choke out the first trooper. Moving on I use a sniper rifle and tranquilizer pistol to take out enemies along the way. I still haven’t found who I am looking for. I hold a knife to the throat of a guard and interrogate him, he gives me no useful information. I continue working my way through guards when a sandstorm whips into a frenzy, covering the noise I make and making it harder to see me. Since fortune favors the bold, I begin sprinting from guard to guard under the cover of the growing maelstrom. Finally, with the next to last guard I get the info I need… The commander isn’t here. He left at some point during my infiltration. My map has been updated with his location, he is on the other side of the valley where I just came from.

The storm has ended and so has the night: the sun has come up. I begin sprinting for the commander. As I reach the peak on the other side of the valley I see something move down below. I take out my INT-Scope, there he is! I plan to take the long way around and sneak up on him, but then I hear a noise, a roaring sound. I lower my scope and standing to my left is a large brown bear. I shoot seven tranquilizer darts into him, he is not amused and slams me to the ground, killing me in one blow.

I choose to reload my last checkpoint. When the game loads I am staring at the bear, raised up on his hind legs. No gun this time, I just run. He follows. I get a boulder between us. I circle behind and shoot him a few times, then run, rinse and repeat. At this time the enemy commander has spotted me with his sniper rifle, now I am dodging a bear and bullets. On the far side of the boulder I hear snoring. The bear has finally felt the numbing effects of twenty tranquilizer darts. I go to him and attach a Fulton device, after a few seconds a balloon emerges from the device lifting the bear in to the air where he will be caught by a plane and placed in my offshore zoo. Afterwards I sneak behind the commander. He lost track of me in the fracas. I hold him up with my pistol, tell him to lay on the ground and attach a balloon to him as well. Soon he will be a part of my army.

Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is all about one thing: emergent gameplay. This is just one early adventure I had. Your experience likely won’t be the same as mine, and even my own second play through could be vastly different. You are given two large open worlds and a vast array of weapons and gadgets to create your own spy thriller or an action masterpiece. It is up to you how you play, and unlike other games in the series, you aren’t penalized for taking a more deadly approach, though you will be more handsomely rewarded for not being seen.

“Given the right situation, the right story, anyone can be shaped into a hero.” – Ocelot

The Metal Gear Solid series has always had a fascination with movies and cinematic storytelling. The Phantom Pain changes things up a little bit. Each story mission is treated as an episode in a TV season with opening and closing credits. It is an interesting approach for the series, but sometimes the opening credits spoil which characters you will see in that chapter. One in particular tipped me off on a boss fight, which was rather disappointing.

The Phantom Pain takes place smackdab in the middle of the overarching Metal Gear story: filling the last gap in the story of how Big Boss went from a hero to a revolutionary to the villain. The tale is told through cinematics, radio transmissions, and cassette tapes you can listen to at any time (replacing the long winded codec conversations that grind action to a halt). While the story is serviceable, it never reaches the lovable insanity of Sons of Liberty, nor the emotional impact of Snake Eater. Most importantly, it lacks the closure of Guns of the Patriots. If you are new to the series it isn’t so convoluted as to leave you lost (and you can find background in the cassette tapes to fill you in), but fans will pick up on tons of references and catch up with characters from all over the timeline. There are also tons of scenes you encounter by meeting certain hidden objectives. I suggest you avoid taking a shower for a while and see what happens (and yes, taking showers is a part of the game, and pretty important to your overall health). In the end the story will probably be divisive among fans: it is all going to be up to interpretation of the player.

While Big Boss is the protagonist, make no mistake, this is your story. You can avoid the story altogether if you’d like. How you play is the real epic tale. The gameplay is front and center and it is first class. The game is a strange amalgamation of the outpost taking aspects from Far Cry 3, the stealth infiltration of Splinter Cell, Red Dead Redemption’s scenic landscapes and plant gathering, X-Com’s base building and research, and the “gotta catch’em all” addiction of Pokémon. It takes parts of all these games and shines them up really nicely to create one incredibly dense experience. It takes the promise of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and expands on it tremendously.

When you enter a mission, you need to decide how you want to play. Do you want to be sneaky, silent, and leave your victims alive? Do you want to go in guns blazing and leave no witnesses? You can also mix and match styles; how you play is up to you. You choose your loadout of weapons and gadgets and you can choose a helper buddy and/or vehicle if you’d like, then you embark on your quest. While you infiltrate, you can collect all kinds of things. You may want plants and materials for your research and development team to use to make new gear or soldiers for your combat unit or base defense team (not killing everyone has its benefits, if you strap a Fulton balloon to them they will join your cause). You can also collect vehicles for you or your team to use and you can collect animals for your zoo. When you finish your mission you must escape the area; you can exfiltrate by helicopter, by land, or be more creative.

On your base there isn’t much to do. There are a few rooms to go in, a few characters to check on, and one surprise for fans of the series. You can interact with your soldiers, beating them to a pulp if you so desire, and you are rewarded for it. There are a handful of shooting galleries as well. Most of the time at the base will be spent in menus. You will assign captured men to teams; combat (takes mission to earn rewards), defense (protects you from invasions), R&D (makes new gear), medical (keeps your team healthy), support (lets you call in airstrikes and change the weather), and base development (collects resources).

You can also develop upgrades for you and your buddies’ current weapons and gadgets, along with making brand new ones. This opens up new approach options so you can tackle missions in even more ways. Also, never worry about being too overpowered, the enemy soldiers will adapt to you. If you are a headshot master, they will get helmets. If you sneak around at night, they will get flashlights. If you bring the big guns, they will have riot shields. The enemies adapt to you and you adapt to the enemies. The game difficulty is really up to you. If you want to make it hard you can go in with no gear, or if you want a milk run you can load yourself up and go to town. This game is all about choice. If you find yourself bored, change it up. You can also build extra bases called “Forward Operating Bases” or FOBs. You speed up your research times and gain a larger army and all the benefits that entails, but there is a drawback, your FOBs are open to attack by other players. They can come in and steal your supplies and make off like a bandit in the night. You are given the option to retaliate and get your resources back, or you can just go steal from someone else. The competitive multiplayer is not available at the time of this review, but should be live in early October.

The Phantom Pain has surprises all over. This is a game you play with more than you play; it is a toybox. It is a Wile E. Coyote cartoon waiting to happen (except the coyote can win.) Dig deep and try things; player agency has a huge role in the experience. The most fun and the funniest things are often hidden. Experiment, try things, and have fun. Try hiding in a portapotty and playing a recording of gastrointestinal distress. This is just one of a myriad of strange things that can happen. There are dozens of missions and well over one hundred side missions to partake in. You do visit the same locations numerous times, which can get tiresome, but there are so many ways to tackle them that it is only a minor gripe. There is so much to see and do in the game that I could write a book. The Phantom Pain is gloriously stupid at times.

“You mean it has advantages, other than being stylish?” – Naked Snake

The production aspects of The Phantom Pain are top notch. The game only has a few technical hiccups and I have some personal nitpicks. The landscapes look amazing; rocky outcroppings, rolling dunes, gorgeous jungles and more beg for you to inspect every nook and cranny. It all looks wonderful and alive: though it is a bit sparse to help facilitate the ability to infiltrate bases from many angles. The graphics are great, but not spectacular. The character models look good and animate extremely well. A few random graphical glitches show, but none were more noticeable than some grass that was floating above the hill it was on.

The sound design is on point; gunfire makes a satisfying “rat-a-tat,” darts make a nice “whoosh,” and explosions boom. Everything sounds rich and full. The voice acting is all very well done, though the fan in me misses the voices of old. Kiefer Sutherland does a fine job as Big Boss, but he doesn’t feel like my Snake. Also, in radio conversations, the voices of the three main characters, Snake, Kaz, and Ocelot, can tend to blend together. They lack distinction, something that cannot be said of characters in other Metal Gear titles. They give great performances, it just wasn’t what I expected.

The menu system can be a bit troublesome. There are so many pages and options and some only show up in certain situations. This makes it so you have to go back to your base or helicopter to check certain stats or perform certain tasks. It could really use a bit of streamlining. I faced some load time issues as well. The game is very fast at getting new assets loaded except when I was logged in to the servers. It slowed down all the menus from a few seconds to upwards of a minute. I ended up playing most of the game offline.

The controls are silky smooth and feel great, but the game does have a few issues. Most of them arise from the fact that two buttons act as context sensitive action cues, with either a tap or a long press to perform your task. When you have a lot of bodies, guns, and weapon emplacements nearby you can find yourself trying to Fulton extract someone and accidently mounting a machine gun, or when trying to pick up a body you switch guns. I also ran in to some issues with trying to crawl into small openings. Snake would try to crawl in, then crouch, press against the wall and sometimes even spin a bit. It usually would correct itself after a moment, but it did cause me to alert guards on a few occasions. The last problem I ran into was trying to press against walls to take cover. Sometimes Snake just refused to do it, no matter how much I tried. This definitely caused me some headaches.

Aside from this handful of flaws, I encountered a highly polished and enjoyable experience. It feels like it is rare in this day and age for a game to ship and feel this finished. The only thing more I would love to see is a co-op mode. The game feels like it was made for it.

Short Attention Span Summary:
As a longtime fan of the Metal Gear series, dating back to the NES days, starting out in the Phantom Pain caused me quite a bit of cognitive dissonance. I enjoyed the gameplay, but it felt off. From the opening scene I could see the inherent quality of the game, but as I moved forward it started to feel less and less like a numbered entry in the Metal Gear Solid series. Things just weren’t bonkers enough. Sure it was wacky for a standard “Triple A” video game, but Metal Gear is a standard bearer in this category. I just couldn’t shake this emotional disconnect. I was disappointed. I felt like the game wasn’t made for me.

As I dug in deeper, the “Metal Gearness” of it all started to creep out. It was hidden in the periphery. You had to discover the odds and ends. At around forty hours of gameplay it all just clicked into place and all was right in my world (to be fair to the game, it could have clicked a lot sooner had I been more experimental at the start.) This may very well be Metal Gear’s swansong, or at least Hideo Kojima’s last entry in the series: either way it goes out on a high note. The Phantom Pain just shines. It has gorgeous landscapes, superb sound design, and satisfying gameplay that rewards you for creativity and experimentation. Kojima Productions has created something wonderful: an experiential toybox. This is a dense and rich game that is welcoming to people new to the series, but has most of the bits and bobs that Metal Gear fans long for. Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain may have its flaws, but none are so egregious as to keep it from being a joy to play. It kept me engaged for about eighty hours (and I will be going back). Not only is it the most fun I have had with a game this year, it is the most fun I have had so far this console generation.



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One response to “Review: Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (Sony Playstation 4)”

  1. Steven WK Avatar
    Steven WK

    Hi all,

    I am your friendly neighborhood reviewer. I am excited and proud to have The Phantom Pain be my first ever review. If you have any comments, questions or concerns, please feel free to ask. Have a nice day!

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