NOTE: This review and the score at the bottom is for the single player story only. The online game Metal Gear Online 3 is not yet live, and so that and the online FOB missions may be covered in a separate review. This is also due to the unstable servers from Konami, though things have improved since launch.
The Metal Gear Solid franchise is one of the most storied and acclaimed in all of gaming. Even though the series began life in 1987 as Metal Gear on the MSX and later a NES port, it wouldn’t truly hit its stride until 1998 when Metal Gear Solid released on the Playstation. Featuring a complex story and memorable villains, Metal Gear Solid caught the eye of both critics and gamers alike. The success and praise continued with both sequels and tie ins- Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty on the PS2 in 2001 was followed in 2004 with Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots hit the PS3 in 2008. Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker followed up Snake Eater’s story chronologically in 2010, first on the PSP and then later on PS3 as part of the Metal Gear Solid: The Legacy Collection. A prequel Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, following up on events from Peace Walker was released in 2014. And now, here in 2015, the final piece of the Metal Gear Solid saga has been released in the form of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. The game generated enormous amounts of hype pre-release, with things further fueled by the very public split between MGS creator Hideo Kojima and his long term publisher Konami. But is this new game worthy of wearing the mantle of Metal Gear Solid? Or has Kojima’s reportedly final game in the franchise gone out with a whimper instead of a bang?
The answer to the first question is a resounding “Yes!” Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain more than proves itself a worthy addition to the series. The second question doesn’t have quite the same definitive answer, however. It is a great game, and a must play for fans, but multiple flaws and odd structural choices for the game leave it short of being the masterpiece it could have been. This is already under debate among both fans and critics, as many hail it as a masterpiece (deservedly or not will depend upon the individual) while others have noted numerous issues including an unstable online and an episodic structure that while for some breaks the lengthy game up into bite sized chunks (my first playthrough of the story took me 75 hours and 38 minutes) while for others it breaks the immersion of the complete world in previous series entries. The gameplay is often spectacular, but frustrations with issues both big and small do mar the experience.
The first thing you’ll notice about the game is that visually it is just gorgeous to look at. Environments are created in loving detail, as are the characters, animals, and vehicles that populate those environments. The game begins with an intense prologue as Snake awakens from a coma in a hospital in 1984, nine years after the events in Cuba that were the make-up of Ground Zeroes. Things don’t go well quickly, as Snake is missing part of his left arm and an assassin followed by enemy forces arrive to make sure Snake stays as dead as he was thought to be. This prologue episode also introduces us to the first of the games more supernatural foes, that of a mysterious floating boy in a gas mask and the hulking Man on Fire, who shrugs off the effects of bullets and explosives. Snake is aided in his escape by the mysterious Ismael, as he dubs himself, and eventually is united with Revolver Ocelot. From there things move first to Afghanistan, then to a rebuilt Mother Base (the first being destroyed at the end of Ground Zeroes), and then to central Africa. Snake’s mission is one of revenge against the mysterious Skullface and the organization Cypher, and along the way Snake needs to do battle with Russian troops, supernaturally enhanced super soldiers nicknamed Skulls, and African soldiers. Several characters are introduced into the story (the plot I won’t spoil here), the most notable (and certainly most discussed prior to the game’s release) being the scantily clad sniper Quiet. Her appearance is explained in the game through some pseudoscience, which may or may not satisfy gamers curiosity as to why she is so scantily attired. It does make sense, to a point, even if it is a ridiculous explanation. But ridiculous explanations and over the top characters are staples of the franchise, and Quiet does over the course of the game earn her place alongside of Psycho Mantis, Sniper Wolf, The End, Vamp, and many others who have challenged Snake and Big Boss over the years. The game does have multiple endings as it’s split into two chapters (a third was reportedly cut from the game). The latter ending is considered the true ending, and you need to play several key missions beyond the first chapter’s 31 episodes to achieve it.
Gameplay is segmented into episodes, complete with opening and closing credits, along with open world bits that include side ops, exploring and collecting items from the open world, and building up Mother Base. The game offers players plenty of freedom in achieving their objectives, ranging to being super stealthy and using tranquilizer darts to put foes to sleep or blowing everything in sight to hell if stealth goes sideways. The more materials you collect and the more you expand Mother Base enable you to develop bigger and better weapons and more sophisticated gear to help you in the field. You can recruit personnel along the way using the Fulton system, but you will have to spend some time micromanaging your staff as troublemakers can cause you plenty of headaches. You’ll also have some buddies to help you out, the first being D-Horse, then your faithful canine DD (make sure you get the pup early on), and eventually Quiet and even your own Mecha Walker. Each buddy can be customized with gear and weapons you develop at Mother Base, and building bonds between them leads to a more efficient pairing out in the field. A save problem with Quiet on two missions did crop up, but at the time of this writing has been resolved through a patch on the PS4, PS3, and PC. Those playing on Microsoft’s consoles are still waiting as I write this, but the issue should be cleared up shortly. The freedom of play even extends to your buddies as you can issue them commands, and proper use of your chosen buddy goes a long way to a mission’s success. Each mission gets a rank, the lowest being E and the highest being S. Higher rankings mean more hero points and more rewards to aid you back at base, though on a first playthrough it’s best not to worry about your rank and just play and experiment with different approaches. That adds up to a lot of fun on missions, leading to some very intense and non-scripted moments. In this aspect is where The Phantom Pain shines most brightly, and will keep players coming back to try to get that higher ranking. There are 50 main missions in all, and 157 side ops. Missions can take you anywhere from 10 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on your skill level and style of play. Regardless of how you play, there is plenty of bang for your buck here.
Despite the stellar gameplay, with its smooth controls and easy to navigate menus, flaws do rear their ugly head to mar the overall experience. Invisible walls and things a super soldier like Snake should be able to climb but can’t force you often into long detours on your way to your desired location. Interaction between Snake and his buddies is oddly limited, especially with DD as a pup, and it’s odd because the game stresses how important it is for you to interact with them. That even extends to the soldiers on Mother Base, as snake can pummel them under the guise of “training”, yet can’t return a salute. While the open world is beautiful to look at, it also feels lifeless and empty. You never come across civilians in villages, and even the wildlife seems to appear in minimal quantities. One mission has you aiding Afghan rebels, yet you never see them or the battles, not even in the distance. So no making your way to a target through a raging battle, a la Conner in Assassin’s Creed III, as you often had to move through battles on your way to an objective. Dialogue and mission settings do get repetitive relatively quickly (you will tire of hearing “Pequod is on appraoch to the LZ!”, among other things). Missing are the Codec conversations, replaced by a large number of cassette tapes that contain a lot of the story, instead of the story being relayed more naturally as you play. Ocelot in particular grows irritating as he questions your choices constantly in the field (“You gonna extract him?”). The foes lack the charm and the backstory of previous games’ villains, and Skullface is borderline cliched and his objectives are just almost laughably ridiculous. The more intense boss battles are gone, replaced with a couple here and there that get very frustrating and often lead to cheap deaths (at least the Chicken Hat, which is sort of an easy mode, becomes available should you fall too often). The ending of Chapter 1 underwhelms, and the one at the end of Chapter 2 provides a twist, but is only mildly satisfying. The structure, especially in Chapter 2, which has challenge missions (harder versions of ones you already did in Chapter 1) mixed in with the story missions, which often rely on specific circumstances to unlock. This feels more like padding, especially since there isn’t a wide variety to mission types to begin with.
That being said, there are some standout missions, but they’re few and far between, and two of the best comes towards the end of Chapter 2. The adaptive AI works most of the time, as your foes will alter their methods according to your game play. Make a lot of headshots, for instance, and more soldiers will wear helmets. While outposts do repopulate similarly each time you revisit them (they will only stay clear on your current mission should you clear them), the soldiers do shift according to the day/night schedule and level of threat they feel. Stay stealthy and things remain calmer, let a shot ring out and things can become chaotic quickly. At least you can call in a helicopter for air support or fire support to provide devastating bombardments (though this voids getting an S ranking). For the most part the AI does respond intelligently, but they can also be inconsistent, not noticing as you approach form the side, or being ridiculously eagle eyed and spotting you when you’re behind cover. The reflex action, which kicks in upon being spotted a briefly slows time, works well most of the time, but hinders you if you’re just trying to sprint past everyone. Again, this can lead to unnecessary frustration. Challenging missions are fine, but when things feel cheap they don’t go over as well. And while the game does offer you freedom in how you approach things, it also encourages you to think strategically. Planning your moves carefully rather than charging blindly in also aids in your success. But at least the choice is yours.
One does have to wonder how much impact the troubles between Kojima and Konami had on the game, and if Konami made certain decisions instead of Kojima. Of course, that’s all just speculation, but the game does feel rushed in spots despite its having been delayed from its original date. The odd structure of chapter 2 seems off. Challenge missions are fine, but they should have a mode of their own, not be interspersed with story missions. And those missions should unlock after each other, instead of making you goes off and do side ops in the hopes of triggering something. The side ops missions mostly feel like busy work, though there any some interesting and fun ones among them (especially a late game one where you rescue a very familiar face), and yet they become necessary, especially in helping beef up Mother Base. Some will relish this, as managing your base can get quite addictive. Also, there are some things to discover at Mother Base that will give some interesting cut scenes. What’s repetitive to one player is more of a good thing to another, and which one you are will go a long way in determining your enjoyment of the game. Some will absolutely love it, and for some this will be a first entry into the series (in that case definitely check out a synopsis of the story so far so you’re not lost). Others, even long time fans, will see the flaws that are there, even as they’re mostly liking the game.
And that feeling had me conflicted on how to score the game. I wanted to love it, but as a reviewer I have to try and remain fair and balanced as best I can, and i just couldn’t overlook the game’s flaws. In the end there was more fun than frustration, but The Phantom Pain also felt lacking in some of the charms from previous titles in the series. Its episodic structure make sit feel off, and forcing you to figure out what you need for a “real” ending smacks of just padding out the game. The game has a nice length as it is, padding wasn’t necessary. Still, overall, it is a great game, and while not the pinnacle of the series, it certainly deserves a place in your collection. As Kojima’s swan song, it was adequate, as it offers plenty of gameplay for your dollar. But you have to wonder what might have been had there not been a falling out with Konami. So in the end we’re left with a great but flawed experience, and yet despite those flaws, it’s still worthy of the name Metal Gear.
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