I’ve played Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain for about 80 hours, at the time of starting this review, and I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of that time. Considering how loudly I’m going to complain about some aspects of the game, you should probably bear that in mind.
I really, really like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It’s almost my favourite type of game – insofar as “a big world full of systems that you can fuck about with for hilarious and often unintended effect” is a type of game, at least.
It’s ostensibly a stealth-action game. It’s theoretically the concluding part of Big Boss’ storyline. It’s literally a game in which I can hook a bear up to a balloon and watch it shoot off into the sky, roaring with confusion.
I could give you the overview of how it’s the fifth in the incredibly long-running Metal Gear Solid series, which is in itself an extension of the Metal Gear series, and which has its own side-games like Peace Walker and Portable Ops, and how it’s got a very complex interweaving story with all sorts of characters who… but no. I’m going to guess you at least know the basics of MGS5: you’re a guy called Snake, also called Big Boss, and you sneak around and choke people while trying to build up your base and get revenge.
But as this is the first game in the series to hit PC since Metal Gear Solid 2, I’d actually say that’s almost irrelevant. It’s not unimportant, but you’ll either know the in-depth backstory or you won’t, and there’s no way I can sum it up here. So! I’d rather focus on the gameplay.
As a game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is composed of… I guess I’d say three fundamental parts, although all three are heavily interlinked, and two of them are very, very similar. All of these contain little systems of their own, which can be used and abused. It’s very much a game of systems, nested within each other like matryoshka dolls.
First up is the open world, a pair of fairly vast areas in which you can wander, completing side-ops or gathering resources or abducting unsuspecting wildlife or randomly attacking outposts or hunting for 80s music cassettes or all of the above. Heavily linked to this is the second part, the main missions, which are a series of operations that unlock in a fairly linear fashion (although you’ll often have a choice of two or three at any given time) set within limited slices of that open world.
Finally, there’s Mother Base, the oil rig home of the proto-PMC you’re building up. As you progress through the game and gather resources you flesh this out, building new struts, employing more troops, developing better weapons, and gradually improving both yourself and your forces.
They’re all interlinked. Upgrades to Mother Base strengthen your abilities on the field; you might be able to call in artillery strikes, or get helicopter support sooner, or you might simply develop a new weapon. Completing side-ops gets you the resources needed to develop these upgrades, and gives you ample opportunity to kidnap/”liberate” troops to fill out your own ranks. Main missions unlock more upgrades, more side-ops, more buddies, more story.
And good grief, but it presents so many opportunities for creating emergent chaos and inadvertent hilarity. Like the time I had a side-op to clear a minefield, and I did so by attracting the attention of a nearby outpost and leading its guards into said minefield. Or when I sniped a target from a distance and relocated to another nearby hill… and then watched as mortar fire rained down on where I was, followed by the outpost guards searching in that direction for me, leaving me clear to sneak into the (now relatively undefended) outpost.
Brilliantly, this isn’t just emergent stuff: the main missions (which tend to be more scripted) allow for plenty of possibilities, too. Leaving aside the fact that they have multiple side-objectives (some of which are mutually exclusive, forcing you to replay the mission if you want to do all of them), even they can be completed in some slightly extraordinary ways.
For instance! One mission tasks you with assassinating a mysterious figure. You don’t know where he is, but you do know where his contact is, and said contact is going to meet with him. Your job is to find that contact, follow him to the meet, and then kill your target. And your first time through, you’ll probably do just that.
Your second time through? Well, the meeting is in the same place, so you can just head there and kill the guy (and then find the person you’re supposed to follow, brilliantly causing Ocelot to say “You should follow him, and… uh… okay, there’s no point.”) You can steal the car he’s supposed to take, forcing him to walk the entire way to the meeting point, buying yourself more time to complete side-objectives before the meeting happens. You can… you get the idea.
Lots and lots of the main missions are like this. Some have randomised elements, some change up based on when or where you do things, while some just present you with a slice of the open world and let you go about your objectives however you see fit. This is brilliant.
I’ve seen a few arguments that the game gets boring quite quickly, because you can just grab a sniper rifle and clear out a compound quickly, or take a powerful assault rifle and a rocket launcher and charge your way in. This is entirely true. You can do this, and it’s quite easy to do so, and it’s quite boring to do so. It’s technically a legitimate complaint. It’s also sort of like complaining that Dishonored is really easy and really short because, if you charge through the streets knifing everyone in the face, you can “finish” it in about four hours flat and it’s pretty dull. Entirely true! And kinda missing the point.
If, instead, you make things a bit harder for yourself – if you try to ghost through missions, limit your usage of the overpowered late-game equipment, maybe try for S-Ranks, use different tools and different tactics, turn off Reflex Mode – then things get interesting. Indeed, late game, you’ll start unlocking super-hard versions of earlier missions, some of which challenge you to go in with no starting equipment, and these are fantastically clever and entertaining vignettes.
With most games, I’d argue that this is a flaw in the game balance; that too many players will opt for the path of least resistance. In this case, though, I don’t think that actually applies. There are plenty of rewards for doing things either “right” or differently, and not just the tangible ones like earning a coveted S-Rank. The systems and AI in place in MGS5 are clever enough and thorough enough that exploring the possibilities is a joy in itself, and sneaking your way through an enemy base with a mix of cunning and stealth is oh-so-very satisfying to pull off.
Not just in the sense of “the stealth is fun, but shooting is boring and easy”, either. You can, for instance, decide that you’re going to murder absolutely everyone in an outpost, but you’re going to employ devious tricks to do it. You can sneak through and plant C4 on every piece of communications equipment. Maybe you then place some anti-personnel mines near that equipment. Maybe you’ll then sneak your way to the mortar emplacement at the back of the base, before you detonate the C4. Now the guards can’t call for help, and when they go to investigate the equipment destruction, they’ll trip the mines… and then you can start raining down fire with a mortar. While listening to A-ha’s Take On Me.
I’ve done this. It feels amazing, both because it’s an exploitation of the systems the game gives me, and because it requires a fair amount of skill to pull off without raising an alarm first.
That’s not to say that I don’t have some massive complaints, though. The plot and story are, frankly, rubbish. With few exceptions, the characters are one-note and dull. Skull Face is an awful villain, and while previous MGS games always explored an important period in the series’ timeline and enriched your understanding of the saga as a whole, the story here has very little plot impact on anything, barring maybe one reveal.
Then there’s the infamous “missing mission”. Unlike a lot of cut content from games, this cut mission isn’t a little side bit that would’ve been nice to have in, but is essentially the game’s big climax: it’s the huge final battle, resolving the last few threads of a fairly major sub-plot. Instead, those threads are left entirely hanging, and while I can’t go into detail without spoiling far too much, it is kind of a big deal. The game still has a fitting ending, but it’s a shame that one of the most important sub-plots is left dangling in the breeze.
There are some nice bits with the story, mind. As discussed in the Version Impressions piece, the Prologue is phenomenal, and there are some glorious setpieces throughout. One or two missions are truly spectacular, and the game does occasionally manage some genuine emotional highs. There are also a few clever elements of foreshadowing, and one or two “Aaaah” moments of sudden realisation. It’s just that some of those realisations are very stupid.
Oddly enough, Quiet – generally referred to as “that bikini sniper girl” or “the one with the tits” online – has one of the more understated and sympathetic storylines and character arcs, so it’s a bit of a shame that she’s almost entirely a reactive character rather than one who pushes the story forward (and that the excuse for her clothing is as laughably flimsy as the clothing itself, but let’s not get into that). Nonetheless, if the early trailers left you expecting something as verbose and emotional as earlier titles, you’re going to be sorely disappointed: there is very, very little of that here.
The shift to open-world comes with problems, too. As I mentioned, there are two large open-world environments in the game… and almost every single story mission is set within these. By the game’s halfway point, you’re not seeing a fortress and wondering how you’re going to sneak in. You’re seeing a fortress and going “Oh, I’m sneaking into this place for the fifth time.” Metal Gear Solid is traditionally a very linear experience, usually with some neat tricks in the level design, but when the entire game world is open to you from the very start, there really aren’t a great many surprises in the levels and environments after you’ve played for a little while.
And this is without mentioning the smaller, niggling problems, like the mandatory bloody helicopter rides. Or the repetition that sets in when you’re doing the fourth Destroy A Tank Unit side-op because you need a few more GMP for that next rocket launcher upgrade. Or how Miller’s entire character is, basically, to be wrong about everything.
The sense I get is that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain had a troubled development. In some ways, it feels like half a game: the Metal Gear hallmarks of grandeur and emotion are missing, as is the actual climax, and far too many background elements – like the story, and the villain, and the characters – needed a lot more work. The open world doesn’t tie into the plot particularly well, and the plot itself is utterly half-baked. There’s little sense of looming threat, or a cunning villain. There’s no character growth, and very little in the way of mystery. It’s… limp. I could speculate that things like this led to Kojima’s departure from Konami – that he wanted to take the game in a different direction, or wanted more time, or that executive interference led to this being different to how it was originally intended – but that’s just pure speculation. For all I know, this is exactly how Kojima envisioned it.
Nonetheless, finishing past Metal Gear Solid games left me reeling in one way or another. For all that I dislike it, even Metal Gear Solid 2 gave me a sense of accomplishment. Metal Gear Solid 3 punched me in the gut with its heartbreaking final scenes. Metal Gear Solid V… uh, ends. I guess. Sort of. After very little of any meaning has been done. When I finished Metal Gear Solid V, I felt disappointed.
Now that I’ve said all that, go and read that first paragraph again. No, really. I’ll wait.
80 hours. 80 hours, and I enjoyed almost all of it.
There’s some repetition. There’s at least an hour or two of pointless helicopter rides. There’s only one good boss battle in the entire game, and that’s a cut-down version of a better boss battle from an earlier Metal Gear Solid game. There are lots and lots of little problems.
But the game itself? The game itself is utterly fucking glorious.
That, really, is the reason for the below score. Regardless of what problems it has – and it really does have problems – Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain gave me an awful lot of chaotic, emergent, clever, silly, precise, wonderful, ridiculous entertainment, for over three entire days of playtime. In the long run, the problems it had can’t overshadow the spark of joy created whenever I used the many, many mechanics and systems in play to pull off something incredible. It doesn’t have much story of its own, but it gives you the tools to create memorable tales of your own, and that part of it – the game part of it – works damn near perfectly.
For instance! There was this one time when I had to extract a prisoner from a heavily defended base, and I didn’t realise that my tranquiliser pistol’s silencer had broken, and so…