My mission—and I chose to accept it—was to identify an arms dealer arriving by chopper, and follow him to my target, an officer in the local PMC. Between me and him was an entire compound of guards, snipers, and dudes in robotic exoskeletons. It was a tough mission to play stealthily, I found myself getting caught repeatedly when trying to play it slow. Lucky for me in the course of my failure I learned where my target would most likely be. So I ignored the arms dealer, sprinted wide of the guards and identified the target before the chopper touched down. He was unprepared and not on guard, so I was able to extract him before the confused arms dealer arrived, at which point I choked him out and extracted him too.
The game told me to wait until both were outside and in my line of fire so I could snipe them or sneak up on them, but I found my better way and Metal Gear Solid V was not only ready for it, it facilitated it.
This is what makes Metal Gear Solid V a phenomenal game; it provides the best stealth experience I have ever had, full stop. It gives you the tools to author an experience that will keep you playing as long as your eyes stay open and pick it up again at 8 a.m. the next day. I’m going to point out some flaws, I’m going to bring up some nitpicky stuff, and I’ll talk about Quiet, but if you’re even slightly interested in stealth-action games you owe it to yourself to pick up The Phantom Pain.
Metal Gear Solid V starts with Big Boss awakening from a coma 9 years after Ground Zeroes, when Skull Face and Cipher destroyed Mother Base and with it Militaires sans Frontieres. Things aren’t quiet long though as the hospital you’re recuperating in is attacked and Big Boss escapes to reunite with Ocelot and Kazuhira Miller. It is here the true story of The Phantom Pain begins, with Miller and Snake vowing to rebuild their PMC as Diamond Dogs and take revenge on Cipher. But we’ll get to the story…
Sneaky! Shush! Quiet…
The stealth gameplay is obviously what you come to Metal Gear Solid for and V does not disappoint. The Phantom Pain takes an open world approach to missions typically placing you far outside a mission area and saying “okay get it done.” Taking place in Afghanistan and central Africa, the majority of Metal Gear Solid V occurs outdoors. This allows the player to attack an enemy stronghold in any number of ways. You can go in guns blazing if you’re some kind of psycho who always thought Metal Gear should be more like Call of Duty, sneak in slow to choke out the guards, drop sleeping gas from a helicopter, or send your trained wolf in to cut throats with his own little knife—yes that’s a real option.
This diversity in gameplay styles is awesome and really helps the game stay fresh after you’ve done over 40 missions and hundreds of side operations. When you find yourself failing a mission over and over, the answer isn’t to memorize that guard’s path better, it’s often to come at the objective from another direction or use other means.
Similar to Metal Gear Solid IV, sometimes the level of freedom does trend toward overkill. If you like to play with stealth as I do, a tranq pistol and a tranq sniper will see you through the majority of missions just fine. Occasionally you’ll need to break out the C4 or rocket launchers for specific missions but that leaves dozens and dozens of weapons you’ll never even think about using. In what scenario would you consider using a shotgun in Metal Gear Solid?
Snake’s attire is similar, OctoCamo is gone as we’re in 1984, so we trend more towards Snake Eater with various colours of fatigues to blend into the environment. However, because it silences footsteps and the guards are still a little nearsighted, the Sneaking Suit is always the best choice. It seems petty to complain about too many choices after I praise the game’s freedom but there’s freedom and there’s filler and a large part of the arsenal (riot shields?) seems unnecessary.
One very necessary (and awesome) part of Snake’s utility belt is the Fulton Recovery System. While in the field, Snake can strap a balloon to guards, vehicles, weapons, resources and bears to send them rocketing into the sky. Besides being hilarious, these balloons will be sent back to Mother Base to help build Diamond Dogs. Soldiers will be recruited, vehicles and weapons used, and bears placed in a zoo—yes, really.
Besides the incentive to build up Diamond Dogs, the Fulton system is the best incentive for non lethal playthroughs I’ve ever seen. In most games when you play non-lethal you’re doing it to play as the “good guy,” to build up your paragon score—in Metal Gear Solid V every throat you slit is a missed opportunity to have that soldier turn coat and work for you.
To complement his arsenal of hot-air balloons, Snake is equipped with binoculars that can tag enemies for planning an infiltration. These specs can show a soldier’s attributes, whether he or she could be useful in R&D, Intel or on the Medical team. When you’re on your way to an objective, avoiding guards, and you see one with an A++ or S rating, there is an uncontrollable urge to strap that soldier to a balloon immediately, alert phases be damned. It forces you to weigh the risk-reward of diverting from your objective to take that soldier home and makes the game feel more alive and natural than any sandbox where you climb towers and collect flags.
Once you’ve strapped everything in Afghanistan to a balloon, you can use it to improve the Diamond Dogs’ HQ Mother Base. Mother Base is hit and miss from a gameplay perspective but succeeds more than it fails; parts of it are addictive features that enhance your gameplay experience and build the world, the rest trends towards tedium.
Improving each team—R&D, Intel, Support, Base Development, Security and Medical—by recruiting more skilled soldiers provides you with valuable benefits. A better R&D team researches new weapons and items faster and can build better equipment, while a high level intel team can spot enemies for you while you are in the field. Managing these teams, researching new projects, sending your mercs out on assignment sounds dry as Death Valley but is actually very satisfying—the “collect em all” nature of extracting and managing never wore out its welcome for me over 100+ hours.
The Base itself on the other hand is just sterile and boring. Each unit has its own platform, which are absurdly far apart and arranged in a way that makes it a chore to get between them. You’ll probably only visit each one once though, because besides a few training side ops and some story sections on the Medical platform, there’s really nothing to see. Your soldiers are the same; you’ll see them on base saluting the Boss and talking about what a legend he is but the only way you can interact with them is to beat the crap out of them with CQC. Hilarious the first time but after a while you’ll wonder why you can’t salute back or talk to them without a knife at their throat.
It’s a bit of a disappointment because you’re supposed to return to Mother Base every once in a while to shower off the filth, boost morale etc., but by the end of the game it will feel like a chore. Metal Gear Solid V circumvents this a bit by placing a few missions and most story sections at Mother Base, but by the end of the game you’ll be sprinting to get out as soon as possible.
As for online Multiplayer only the FOB system is functional as of yet, with Metal Gear Online arriving in the coming months. At a certain point in the game you will unlock the ability to build Forward Operating Bases, which expand Diamond Dogs’ reach but can be targeted by rival PFs (other players). It’s a system that gives back as much as you put into it; you can do the tutorial and never touch it again, or build an unbreachable citadel, the choice is yours.
If you successfully infiltrate an enemy FOB you can steal resources, kidnap staff, or even take weapons—doing so successfully can be immensely satisfying. But because you can build your FOB independent of other players, it can feel like you’re miles behind other players, and attempting to infiltrate is like pounding your head on a brick wall. When you’re doing well it’s addictive, providing the malevolent rush of taking another player’s stuff, but when you keep running across Nuclear equipped bases it can get taxing.
Much ink was spilled pre-launch about the ridiculous looking microtransaction system for FOB resources, but I’m happy to say it can easily be ignored and you are never prompted to start shelling out money.
The Saga Continues
Revenge is the main theme this time, like Genes in Metal Gear Solid, Meme in Metal Gear Solid 2, or Sense in Metal Gear Solid IV, and as motivation it serves the story well. The drive to grow Diamond Dogs into a force to be reckoned and wreak vengeance with lines up well with the goals of the player.
What begins as a simple story does become decidedly Metal Gear as the game progresses. A new walking tank is developed (this time with a sword!) and another threat (which I won’t mention for fear of spoilers) emerges that eclipses the dangers of a mobile nuclear launch platform. The story will definitely keep your interest, but players new to Metal Gear Solid will likely find it dense and hard to penetrate. There are some cheap moments where a new character deus ex machinas us to an explanation, but that’s to be expected in the marathon story that is Metal Gear.
As the game presses past the 50+ hour mark the story seems to run out of gas. After what is undeniably a climax, final boss battle and conclusion, we reach “Chapter 2,” which consists mainly of replaying old missions on harder difficulty, with a few new missions scattered throughout. Chapter 2 does have some incredible missions and massive revelations, but the story can’t keep its momentum when you’re replaying old missions out of order. I can’t help but feel if they had condensed the story and made mission replays far more optional, the story would be better for it.
It’s been speculated that the latter half of the game feels patchwork due to the game being pushed out and hampered by Konami, and I can definitely see where that suspicion comes from. If this is the case, Kojima and his team deserve a massive amount of credit; Metal Gear Solid V does deliver a strong story and some great moments despite some gaps appearing as the game goes on.
Narratively, Kojima still leans hard on the “tell, don’t show” method. While there are some powerful moments delivered in gameplay, the villain explains his plan to Snake in a long cutscene and a HUGE amount of important plot information is delivered through audio logs. This serves to make the story feel somewhat detached from gameplay, which has always been a foible of Metal Gear Solid, but here it feels almost excessive when ~30 minutes of audio relays crucial story after the final mission.
When it comes to The Phantom Pain‘s characters, I actually found myself most engaged by Quiet. Snake speaks surprisingly infrequently in the story, typically just listening to the banter of the more loquacious Ocelot and Miller. Kojima opted to dump series mainstay David Hayter as he wanted someone who could better convey the facial expressions and mannerisms of a man in his late 40s, but it really feels odd to know that’s Keifer Sutherland and have him barely talk. It’s excellent to have the legend of Big Boss experienced in-game by the player, but he feels a bit shallow from a character perspective.
Quiet however had me constantly intrigued. She starts the game as an enemy and once encountered, her motivations and allegiances are constantly in a state of flux. Because she can’t talk, she can’t do the Kojima thing and give a 10 minute speech about her background, what she’s doing, and why she’s doing it. This means her character is 100% defined by actions, and player opinion of her will be defined by her impact on gameplay. Stefanie Joosten and the mo-cap team also deserve some serious praise, I can’t imagine it’s easy to convey emotion strictly through facial expression and grunts, but they do an excellent job.
Yes, the logic behind her bikini attire is idiotic and definitely a result of “design-first, explain later,” but it really doesn’t hurt her character in my eyes. She remains capable, complex, and interesting regardless of whether she’s in the black bikini or one of the more modest unlockable outfits.
Believe Your Eyes
We reviewed this game on Playstation 4 and it really is gorgeous.
In my impressions post I remarked that in 2015 we are climbing out of the Uncanny Valley, and after 100+ hours I stand by that. The faces in this game are among the best I’ve seen in any video game, so much so that you find yourself drawn in, forgetting you’re watching a video game and just experiencing the story. The game’s environments are equally impressive; Afghanistan and Africa are staggeringly large, beautiful to behold and continuous—you can run from one side of a map to the other and experience no loading or hiccups. Some say the better graphics get, the less we need to mention them and I agree, because all I have to say about The Phantom Pain graphically is that it is spectacular.
The End of a Legend
Kojima has said every Metal Gear since 2 would be his last one, but this time with Konami seemingly burning the door behind him along with the building, it feels more final. We’ve seen one of the last gaps in the Metal Gear saga close, and to be honest it’s bittersweet. But if this is the last Metal Gear Solid, the last time we’ll see Solid Snake or Big Boss, then they couldn’t have ended it any better. Its a flawed game to be sure, but a flawed diamond is still a diamond.
Metal Gear Solid V is a spectacular game, possibly the best stealth-action game ever, and worthy of being the series’ swan song.
This game was reviewed on Playstation 4 with a copy purchased by the reviewer.
Metal Gear Solid V is an incredible game worth a purchase by anyone remotely interested in the genre.