Platforms PC, PS4, XBO, PS3, 360
Developer Kojima Productions
Publisher Konami
Version Played PS4

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a third-person, open-world stealth/action game developed by Hideo Kojima and Kojima Productions. In the game you star as Big Boss, or Venom “Punished” Snake as he’s known in The Phantom Pain. It’s been nine years since the events of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes put Snake in a coma and all but destroyed the Diamond Dogs. After waking up and with enemies all around, Snake teams up with his old friends and allies Ocelot and Kaz Miller to rebuild Diamond Dogs and get their revenge.

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I feel the need to start this review with a caveat; The Phantom Pain is my first ever game in the Metal Gear series, Solid or otherwise, aside from some teenage fumblings with a demo of the first level of Metal Gear Solid on PS1. I have been briefed on the ins and outs of what to expect from Kojima and his Metal Gear games from my good friend Patrick Welsh, and have done as much research as I could in order to prepare myself for experiencing the Phantom Pain, through YouTube videos, write-ups online and watching a friend play through Ground Zeroes.

With all that research having been done the story still didn’t make heaps of sense (although I’m told this is fairly normal), but I felt I was as prepared as I could possibly have been to tackle my first foray into the Metal Gear universe. And The Phantom Pain does an excellent job of keeping new players invested and along for the ride, while there was a lot of context I was missing or foggy on thanks to my inexperience with the series’ story, the game did an excellent job of giving me the information I needed to ensure that I knew (mostly) what was going on.

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Even without any of that context, however, The Phantom Pain would still have hooked me with some of the best moment-to-moment gameplay seen yet in 2015. The fifth installment of the Metal Gear Solid franchise sees the series make the move into open-world gameplay, and it’s some of the most gripping, dynamic gameplay I’ve experienced in a while. By opening up the world Kojima Productions have also opened up the options available to players. While still naturally geared towards stealth and sneaking, The Phantom Pain offers players a myriad of choices on how to proceed.

Stealth is still the focus here. Whether it’s shooting enemies with silenced weaponry, taking them down in close quarters or sneaking by without them ever knowing you were there, stealth is the core gameplay mechanic in The Phantom Pain. You’ll spend a lot of your time sneaking around the various outposts and bases that litter the open world(s) of the game; tagging enemies, belly-crawling through tall grass and more. But when things go wrong, or you get sufficiently annoyed at being spotted or dying (or you just can’t be bothered stealthing), things can get loud fairly quickly.

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What The Phantom Pain does beautifully is to not punish players for not adhering to a fully stealth approach. Sure you’re extremely unlikely to get an S rank in a mission if you get pissed off with the Spetznaz blocking your path and unleash righteous fury upon them with a light machine gun, but the game doesn’t frown upon you if you decide to take the Rambo approach (in fact that can sometimes be more fun). For as many mechanics, gadgets, weapons and more that The Phantom Pain gives you access to support your stealth-based adventures, it gives you just as many different options should you decide to go to all-out war.

It’s a fantastic approach to open-world stealth, offering richly dynamic gameplay that encourages experimentation and allows you to adapt your plans on the fly. For a lot of games similar to The Phantom Pain being spotted is game over, sending you back to the previous checkpoint. Or being spotted pitches you into a no-win battle against enemies that will tear you to shreds in seconds. Here, getting spotted and entering into combat feels merely like a different phase of gameplay, born naturally from the choices (or mistakes) you’ve made leading up to that moment.

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Depending on the level of your Mother Base, various teams and the equipment you’ve developed (more on that later) you’ll have access to a variety of options to aid you in pitched battle. Such as calling in your trust helicopter Pequod to provide aerial support, or calling down an aerial bombardment to rid you of a pesky outpost full of Commie scum. All-out attack is a valid option as well, foregoing stealth altogether and launching a one-man assault on an enemy encampment isn’t discouraged, and is actually a great deal of fun to boot.

Of course stealth is the primary concern in The Phantom Pain, and the game gives you plenty of tools to aid you in this regard. Chief among them is the Fulton Recovery Device, a gadget that is quite possibly one of the most fun things ever put in a video game. After tranquilizing an enemy you can extract them back to Mother Base, and recruit them to your growing private army, by attaching them to a balloon and launching them into the stratosphere. As you upgrade the Fulton device you’ll also be able to do this with wildlife, containers, large-scale weapons and, most amusingly, enemy vehicles. Even when they’re occupied.

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There’s nothing quite like neutralizing an enemy tank by bull rushing it and strapping a balloon to the back of it. Even after 60 hours of gameplay Fulton extractions never lost their gleeful charm. Of course it’s not all about attaching everything that’s not nailed down (and some things that are) to a balloon and watching it launch into the atmosphere. The Phantom Pain also supports your stealthy and non-stealthy pursuits with a huge variety of weapons and gadgets designed to support any and all styles of play. Weapons such as pistols, sniper rifles, assault rifles, launchers and more are at your disposal.

You’re also able to utilize a variety of gadgets and items, such as binoculars to tag enemies with, night-vision goggles for night-time excursions and a variety of mines and grenades that can kill or stun enemies, or put them to sleep. Or blow them into a million bits. There’s a huge amount of weapons, gagdets and customization options, and it all feeds into how dynamic The Phantom Pain actually is. You’re also able to call in air supply drops mid-mission for a new weapon or even an entirely new loadout.

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Also supporting you during missions are your buddies. There are four buddies for you to find, each with their own advantages, and you’ll quickly come to rely on one over the others. D-Horse lets you travel around the map quickly and poops on command. D-Walker is a mini-mecha that you can outfit with various weapons and supporting gadgets. D-Dog sniffs out enemies within 50 or so meters, and can be equipped with weapons to kill or stun enemies. Quiet (my personal fave) is a sniper who can take position on vantage point and cover you from on high.

These buddies can fundamentally alter your gameplay experience in awesome ways. When I was able to take D-Dog out on missions I found his ability to sniff out nearby enemies invaluable. All of a sudden the guards that always blindsided me by rounding an unsighted corner were easy picking, because a quick growl from my best bro told me that there was a dude coming down the stairs. Similarly Quiet is an amazing companion, sometimes turning my role from base liberator to spotter, as I used my binoculars to spot enemies for her to take down. Once I had her equipped with a silenced tranq rifle the enemy never stood a chance.

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The only place where The Phantom Pain’s open-world is a drawback is in its repetition of locations. There are more than 200 missions in the game, but not nearly that many enemy outposts and fortifications, which leads to you infiltrating and attacking the same places over and over again. It’s fine at first, but once you start hitting the same outposts four, five, six times the repetition becomes extremely noticeable and starts to detract from the overall experience. There’s only so many times you can do the same thing over and over before it becomes boring, regardless of how good the gameplay is.

The open-world also feels kind of redundant, with each mission taking place in a small “operational area” and travel between missions taking place via helicopter and loading screens. I mean, you can run, drive or ride D-Horse between missions, but the open world is fairly empty and it’s kind of laborious to travel manually between one location and the next. Whereas you can simply call in your trusty chopper to pick you up and drop you off at the next mission zone.

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As I said at the top of this review, moment to moment The Phantom Pain’s gameplay equally matches the best we’ve had so far this year. The problem the game has is almost everything else. The Phantom Pain opens with an exceptionally strong, bonkers section of minimal gameplay and fantastic cutscenes. While I will admit to being well and truly lost as to what was going on during this first hour, it was still an awesome segment of the game. From the first custscene to being dropped off in Afghanistan ready to take on the world is a really well crafted, pulse pounding ride. It was a brilliant setup to a game that never really came, at least in terms of its story.

The Phantom Pain begins fantastically, follows through with a pretty good first chapter before running completely out of steam in its second chapter and meandering to a complete stop by its end. One of the biggest flaws here is how little story there actually is, at least openly (and I can’t believe I’m typing this after hearing so much about how story heavy the series is). Opening hours aside, there are precious few cutscenes to help tie the action together. It’s a damn shame too because when we actually get lengthy, involved cutscenes they are amazing. There’s just not enough of them.

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The meat of the story is consigned to cassette tapes that you unlock as you progress. Things like context, motivation, backstory are almost completely missing from the games cutscenes and crammed into tapes that you listen to while you’re doing other things. It means that while the cutscenes themselves are fun and incredibly well directed, the story ultimately feels hollow. Instead of seeing the characters personalities you’re given exposition dumps on audio cassettes that can last up to four minutes at a time.

While the spectacle is pretty great, it feels like the story lacks any real depth, which becomes a problem when the game asks you to care about what happens to its characters. The game needed a lot more “show” and a lot less “tell.” It’s a damn shame because with the proper context of what’s actually contained in those tapes, a lot of the story and character motivations becomes a lot clearer. But I shouldn’t have to wade through hours of audio logs to be able to properly appreciate and enjoy a video game story.

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The Phantom Pain’s story isn’t helped by incredibly uneven pacing. The first chapter, which lasts thirty-one of the games fifty main missions, is a pretty great action story, albeit with a weak villain and plenty of absurdities. If you’re willing to just roll with it, The first part of The Phantom Pain is a good time. It’s pretty much from chapter two that the game devolves into a mess. Rather than deliver another nineteen excellently crafted set pieces, a lot of the main missions in chapter two essentially task you with repeating previous missions at a higher difficulty.

Almost all of the rest are blatant filler that are essentially side ops that have taken the place of main missions for some reason. This becomes even more confusing, and more than a little infuriating, when entire storylines that should be what make up the main missions are consigned to side ops. There are entire sections of The Phantom Pain’s second chapter where the main story is being told via “important” side ops and the main missions are filler to pad the running time. Worse still one of the main stories has zero resolution, seemingly thanks to the 51st mission that was cut from the game.

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It may seem like I’m taking a huge dump all over the story, but apart from the (major) problems above it’s fairly enjoyable. There are even moments where it’s flat out amazing. Game director Kojima really knows how to put a cutscene together, and some of them rival the best action movies in terms of sheer cinematography. The trouble is that it just seems incomplete and rushed. Whether this is down to the politics at play between developer Hideo Kojima and publisher Konami we may never know. But from a story and mission structure perspective it feels like The Phantom Pain needed more time and resources to fully realise its narrative.

Away from the narrative and the main gameplay is the game-within-a-game development of Mother Base and the Diamond Dogs. Right at the beginning of the game you’re tasked with rebuilding your private army and base, located on a massive platform constructed in the Seychelles. This set of mechanics is actually a huge test of your micromanagement skills, and there’s a huge amount of depth to it. Enemy infantry captured with the Fulton device have stats that determine their suitability to one of several teams that you put together on Mother Base, each performing separate functions.

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The better skilled these teams are the faster you’ll be able to construct new weapons, process materials found in the world, predict the incoming weather and much, much more. Mother Base itself is absolutely massive once you start expanding it. Each of your different teams requires a new platform, and the more platforms you build the bigger your teams will be. It’s a huge metagame that’s actually a lot of fun, as you start balancing your teams to meet requirements for certain developments or skills. Eventually you’ll be able to use your tagging in the field to see the skill levels of potential recruits, tagging high priority captures and making sure they get KO’d rather than killed in any given situation.


Summary

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an exceptional game wrapped around a lackluster story. The lack of cutscenes and burying of most of its plot in audio tapes is a major problem, which is even more annoying because the cutscenes that are included are exceptionally well designed. The game is also hurt by an emphasis on repetition and a confused level design. The Phantom Pain still takes its place as one of the best games 2015 has to offer thanks to the sheer brilliance of its gameplay. Yes, it’s that good. Moment-to-moment there’s nothing that betters it, whether you choose an all stealth approach, or an all Rambo approach, or something in between. The Phantom Pain encourages whatever style of play you choose to adopt, with a myriad of options no matter what.