Version Tested: PS4
Twenty-eight years ago, a man named Hideo Kojima revolutionised the action game genre when he designed the original Metal Gear for the relatively unknown Konami MSX2 system. In 1998, he pioneered the stealth sub-genre he helped create with the Sony PlayStation‘s Metal Gear Solid. After numerous sequels, prequels, and spin-offs, Kojima-san’s swansong has finally arrived. And it is only apt that it arrives in a tumultuous maelstrom of universal praise befitting the final missing chapter of Big Boss’ sorrowful tale.
To be completely honest with you, I’m almost at a loss for words. Not only have I not written anything in a while, but this game is so huge and deep that I have no idea where to start. If you want to skip my upcoming ramblings, the game is a 10. If you want to know why I think so, please continue reading.
Kojima-san’s swansong has finally arrived…
The game’s plot picks up immediately after the events of prologue chapter Ground Zeroes, which climaxed in the betrayal and destruction of mercenary outfit MSF, founded by Naked Snake/Big Boss and Benedict ‘Kazuhira’ Miller. If you’re thinking of jumping head-first into this one, be warned. Many reviews will tell you that the game’s convoluted plot is more accessible for newbies, or they’ve catered it in such a way as to invite new players. No. They are lying to you. Listen to me, for I am your friend. Neglecting the story is a grave sin against the genius of this series. Half the reason anyone SHOULD play MGS is for the plot. Do yourself a favour and play the previous entries first. Go, I’ll wait here. Done? Great, let’s continue.
As The Phantom Pain opens, we see that Boss has survived and has been lying hospitalised in a coma in Cyprus for 9 long years. A mysterious special forces group storms the hospital in an attempt to assassinate the fallen hero, and what follows is a spectacular escape attempt featuring a man on fire, a telekinetic child in a gas mask, several close calls with explosions and tanks and a horse race after you witness a flaming whale fly into the sky. Yes, the MGS series is known for its many WTF moments, and Pain is no different. Once you’re safe and sound, the game begins proper and the essential premise involving executing covert ops missions in various war-torn hotspots in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border begins. Completing missions gains you funding and resources to rebuild your army, under the new moniker ‘Diamond Dogs’, all in an attempt to get revenge on Cipher, the shady cabal responsible for the destruction of your previous headquarters, Mother Base.
…the MGS series is known for its many WTF moments, and Pain is no different…
This is where the RPG and micro-management elements come into play. You can abduct or rescue various soldiers and prisoners to add to your army. Each one has a different ranking in the game’s five or six categories (combat, medic, research and development, intel, etc) and you can assign them to the appropriate sector to boost it’s productivity. The more staff you have, the more things you can do, be they developing new weapons or upgrading Mother Base, or sending out teams of specialists to complete minor missions. This whole segment is intrinsically a game in and of itself, and though it can be daunting at first, once you get into the swing of things, you may find yourself having fun simply organising your group to your taste. Later, weapon specialists and scientists can help develop cool new gadgets to use on the field and you’ll gain the ability to customise weapons, vehicles and even your allies. The level of depth on display here is, in a word, astounding. From the way you can prepare for your sorties into enemy territory, to the wealth of weapon customisations available, this is a completely different beast to what’s come before.
And all this before you’ve set foot on the ground. There’s a good reason the caption says: “Tactical Espionage Operations.” Once you choose your deployment area, you are free to carry out your tasks in almost any way you see fit. The open world elements are a wonder to behold, rivalling that of any Elder Scrolls over-world map. The things you can actually do constantly surprise you with it’s deceptive simplicity. The capacity to call in air support or supply drops, making your way to a stronghold, scouting the area, marking enemies and gun emplacements, stealing supplies and resources, sneaking in using tried and tested stealth mechanics and new techniques, securing the object and escaping all make for an immensely satisfying experience.
The open world elements are a wonder to behold…
The amalgamation of open world gameplay and classic Metal Gear stealth and combat has created a hybrid genre that has once again pioneered this beautiful hobby of ours. Successfully pulling off a mission nets you a rank and other rewards, revealing additional objectives you could have attempted and giving you incentive to try a different approach next time. Very few games offer you this much freedom in such a context and it may irk some who prefer the more linear approach of the original MGS or the survival elements of Snake Eater, but believe me when I say that the gameplay of Phantom is the best the series has produced.
The feel of the guns, crawling through grass and combat-rolling between shacks, thundering across deserts on horseback or making a mad dash uphill to your waiting chopper while a rescued prisoner lies slumped over your shoulder, the game is so full of these magical little organic moments that it often defies belief that someone could think up such scripted events. The number of possibilities regarding your gear is beyond counting. For example, you can hide in a cardboard box to avoid enemies. You can develop different boxes with different camouflage patterns depending on the area you intend to visit (and you can plan these from your helicopter which doubles as an Aerial Command Centre). You can add a poster to the box, like a swimsuit model to distract guards. In the box, you can crawl, dive out at an unsuspecting enemy, stand up and run, or slide rapidly down a hill if you want. You can use your Fulton recovery system to steal gun turrets to add to your Mother Base. You can attach C4 explosives to a truck, and use Fulton to lift it into the path of an oncoming chopper, exploding it at the right time to take it down. You can order a supply drop on top of a waiting sniper. You can tranquillise a zebra and liberate it to a zoo you’ve built. Yes, you can build a zoo. A fucking zoo.
Very few games offer you this much freedom…
The depth is insane. Kojima obviously didn’t work alone, but he deserves as much praise as a game developer of his calibre can get. The only minor gripe with the mission design is the harsh checkpoint system. On more than one occasion, I spent an hour running around my HQ meeting soldiers and interrogating them to discover the whereabouts of diamonds they’ve hidden around the place, only to accidentally dive off a bridge to my death. Then you have to start again. Provided you’re not a moron like me, this can be very frustrating, but it rarely crops up and patience and careful planning are always rewarded. The only other minor complaint I have is the fact that you can’t choose another deployment area once you’ve been picked up by your chopper. You must return to the ACC and choose another area of the map and wait for the loading screen to clear you for landing. But when the rest of the game is this good, who the hell cares? Controls are smooth and precise and work quite well but they still haven’t managed to escape the trap that plagues all MGS games; button mapping. Sometimes it can be very fiddly, especially when it comes to interrogating guards. Holding down three buttons and an analogue stick to ask a soldier where his friends are hiding is a bit excessive but it is to be expected at this point.
A new addition to the roster of gameplay ideas is the “Buddy” system. Before each mission starts, you can organise and equip Boss with two primary and two secondary weapons, several items, a vehicle (once you get further in the game), your chosen camouflage outfit and a friend to help you. Although known for solo infiltration missions, Big Boss will often find himself in need of the myriad little helpers he picks up on the way. D-Horse is this game’s Epona, and riding this magnificent steed across the bleak and rocky tundra of Kabul is a fun way to get around. Later, you can take the loyal hound DD with you, who helps sniff out enemies and herbs in the wild. Issuing commands is important and you can use your Buddy to cause distractions or attack the enemy. The Walker Gear is a man-operated mecha-like vehicle similar to the Silverback in Gears of War 3 but the real companion that will be a hot topic of debate is Quiet, the beautiful and silent sniper. Marking targets for her to kill is handy but it can be frustrating when you’re trying to extract a soldier who she deems unworthy and slaughters even though your scan reveals he has an A+ grade in Intelligence gathering and you needed him alive. Also, the confounding reason behind her apparent near-nudity is not as readily acceptable to my mind as Kojima promised; making it seem that her character, while intriguing, is used principally as eye candy. Honestly, it defies logic (even for MGS) and it could have been handled more tastefully.
…the real companion that will be a hot topic of debate is Quiet…
The aforementioned depth isn’t limited to the gameplay either. Rarely does a game’s story make you stop and think this much. When was the last time you played a game that dealt with the concept of child soldiers or post-traumatic stress disorder? The themes covered therein are sensitive, thought provoking and mature. Nuclear deterrence, the effects of war on soldiers, the concept of guerilla fighters vs bullying super powers (both figurative and literal), and the morality of scientific experimentation all play a part in this gargantuan narrative. It’s also terrifically acted.
Metal Gear alumnus Christopher Randolph returns as Huey Emerich, bringing the nostalgia factor while Robin Atkin Downes (Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed III) is the voice of reason as Kazuhira Miller, a man who acts as your primary support during missions. Legendary voice actor Troy Baker (The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite) takes over the role of Ocelot, and does a great job. The notable absence is, of course, David Hayter, who is replaced by Hollywood star Kiefer Sutherland in the role of Big Boss. I won’t dwell on it too long as I delved extensively into this change in my first ever article here at GameOnDaily, but it has to be said that while Hayter’s raspy chords are sorely missed, Sutherland is more than adequate at portraying a damaged soldier who commands respect through stoic impassiveness and his voice better suits the more serious (or rather, less cheesy) tone of the plot. However, he is criminally underused. In fact, he barely speaks at all, not even to acknowledge comments or advice. Only in the odd cutscene (which has become far rarer) does he sometimes utter a line or two. I’m not too sure it was worth motion-capturing Sutherland either, because I seldom witnessed any particular facial ticks or subtle acting that was Kojima’s goal. It seems to be a missed opportunity but it doesn’t detract from the overall experience. The aforementioned cutscenes, action sequences and set pieces are directed with Kojima’s typical flair and acute sense of military accuracy too. While cutscenes are few and far between, they are as usual, filled with the typical heavy handed hyperbole that is often a cause of consternation among naysayers. Miller in particular will chew your ear off frequently with his long winded rhetoric, but it’s all part of the fun to me, so most fans won’t be too surprised by the excessive dialogue.
Sutherland is more than adequate at portraying a damaged soldier…
The general sound design is impeccable; displaying excellent effects both familiar and new and an eclectic soundtrack featuring music from the 80s plus original pieces that enhance the atmosphere greatly. Graphically, it doesn’t disappoint despite earlier misgivings I had about the game being essentially a cross-gen title (the concept of which I detest). Textures and vistas are often downright gorgeous, lighting is exemplary and particle and other special effects such as motion blur are used effectively. The downside is Big Boss’ beard, which looks frankly awful at times, as if someone tried to draw each individual hair follicle but gave up somewhere between the moustache and the goatee and decided to scribble in the rest. Anyway, that’s just nit-picking. At a constant 60 frames per second and exhibited in glorious 1080p resolution (on the PS4), the game is absolutely silky smooth and the animation is some of the best you’re likely to see. In short, the game looks fantastic and plays just as well.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain represents an evolution for the series. Transcending traditional gaming, storytelling, and art, it is a successful marriage of open world and stealth mechanics that creates an elaborate dichotomy of ideas that somehow work within the parameters of a thought-provoking and often profoundly captivating narrative. It is a testament to the skill and ingenuity of it’s designer and his team at Kojima Productions that a game steeped in its own legend can produce a sequel that takes risks and challenges the status quo of it’s predecessors and still manages to end up familiar and original all at once. The mind-boggling depth of micro-management and combat variety are augmented by a beautifully constructed package to establish a truly tremendous culmination of game design. You can be sure that this game will be discussed for many years to come and will be remembered as a highlight of this generation of gaming. Despite several minor flaws, chiefly button mapping issues, stern checkpoints and other such grievances, what we have here is an almost perfect gaming experience with longevity and replayability adding to an already extensive campaign. The multiplayer component isn’t even ready yet, as of writing, but that looks promising. I may return to amend this review when MGO is good to go, but until then, I will return to my Forward Operating Base and prepare for my next foray into the absurd, exciting, and incredible world of Metal Gear Solid.