Review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

A longtime fan’s review of the last true Metal Gear title. is it a fitting end to a 28 year journey? 

I should preface this review by giving a very clear understanding of my position on the Metal Gear franchise as a whole. I am a longtime fan of the series, having played every entry and every spin-off multiple times. I consider Metal Gear Solid as a whole to be my second favorite video game series ever, only falling behind Final Fantasy because of the nostalgic stranglehold the latter series has on me, though I firmly believe that in its entirety the Metal Gear series trumps the other in terms of quality. I am putting very clear emphasis on this because it is important for readers to understand that this review is not coming from someone who is judging this game purely on its own merits, but on how it fits as the last piece in a large and rather full tapestry. That being said, is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain a good game? Yes, it is a brilliant game. But, is it a fitting final entry to a series that has spanned 28 years with a firmly planted continuity and framework? Well…. it’s complicated, and actually rather hard for me to say.

The Phantom Pain sticks with the series tradition of being a stealth-action game and does a surprisingly good job of balancing both sets of mechanics. Metal Gear Solid V marks the second time in gaming history for me where getting caught and fighting your way out is a difficult but still viable option (the only other game I have seen this type of delicate balance done properly was in The Last of Us). What I mean by this is generally in a stealth game getting caught means you might as well give up, but here I generally found myself being stealthy for about half of an infiltration of a heavily fortified base before inevitably getting caught and having to go guns blazing the rest of the way, and both of these options feels equally tense and gratifying.

Yes, going in guns blazing is generally the easier route as you are provided with a large array of tools for that approach, while there is a much more limited number of stealth-based items. However, you remain fragile, meaning it is just as frightening as ever to be caught. One of the interesting gameplay changes to accommodate the new action-oriented freedom is regenerating health in the vein of most first-person shooters, which Metal Gear has never had before. While I at first hated the idea, by the end of the game I was hiding behind rocks hoping and praying my health would regenerate before another guard spotted me. The balance is near perfect, as only a couple of well-placed shots (and in some cases one well-placed shot) can have you killed, but with the exception of heavily armored enemies, your opponents are just as fragile as you are.

As you progress through the game you will be able to develop an enormous amount of survival equipment, allowing for an unbelievable amount of gameplay options. The amount of creativity and freedom the game allows you to have is absolutely staggering, and even after completing this lengthy game I can guarantee I’ve barely scratched the surface. Not only does the game allow for such creativity, it almost demands it, as the guards stationed throughout the large open maps will adapt to your gameplay style. Have you been sneaking around and taking out guards from a distance with a sniper rifle? Well prepare for them to start wearing helmets, making this tactic far more difficult without the base being alerted of your presence. Do you go in guns blazing with machine guns? Well, here comes soldiers in full riot gear that are immune to all but the most powerful of explosives. Hell, have you been sneaking in at night? Guess what? Guards now have night vision goggles! The game constantly raises the stakes, making you have to rethink strategies and further develop your own tech. There are even ways to limit your enemy’s supply of these items, making the whole world and game feel even more connected, and I loved it.

Of course, outright killing your enemies is not the only method of getting through the game, and is in fact often the less beneficial method. The Phantom Pain has you rebuilding your command center, known as Outer Heaven, and a key gameplay component is kidnapping enemy guards and ‘encouraging’ them to work for you. This is yet another tool that encourages stealth, as gaining staff and leveling up Outer Heaven is your way of getting better equipment and more powerful intel links to make your missions more feasible. All of the game’s pieces work together brilliantly and make every moment enjoyable.

The only part of the gameplay that is disappointing is rather surprising for the Metal Gear series, and that is the boss battles. For the vast amount of content the game presents, the boss battles are few and far between, and the ones that exist are pathetically easy and not at all memorable, to the point where it could be argued that the game doesn’t have boss battles at all. The game was so well-structured and stealth-oriented that the boss battles weren’t particularly necessary, but in a series known for its unique and memorable encounters, this title feels extremely lacking in that regard.

The Phantom Pain also has an online mode that I can’t comment on because by the time I finished the game it still wasn’t running properly. This is also where the game’s infamous microtransactions come in. I only bring up the online mode at all to state that the game is perfectly playable (and from what I’ve heard, a superior product) as a standalone single player experience, so people worried about the microtransactions need only worry if they insist on playing online.

Graphically the game is beautiful, with an attention to detail that feels perfectly characteristic of the Metal Gear series, though on a much larger scale. The vast landscapes are brimming with life and the motion capture used for the animations really help to make the world feel real. You can feel the heat of the Afghanistan desert, and the metallic sheen that comes from your weapons and vehicles just feels perfect. Despite the game’s size and the massive amount of things going on at once, I never once had a drop in framerate and I feel that speaks volumes about how well optimized the Fox Engine is. In fact, from what I’ve seen the game still runs surprisingly well on last gen consoles too, so if Konami doesn’t license out this engine they will be missing out on a great financial opportunity.

The soundtrack is absolutely stunning. I had only a couple of songs stick out to me while playing the game, but after having paid closer attention to the soundtrack on its own, I am left awestruck. While this sounds like a contradiction on the surface, the fact that the songs don’t always stand out just shows how organically it all fits together. The music constantly shifts and swells with every given situation, giving the perfect amount of tension and ambience when it is not playing a more bombastic and memorable melody. It really can’t be understated how much the score helps to drive the situations home, going from tracks that are celebratory and vibrant to songs that are so unnerving they wouldn’t feel out of place in a horror game; all of this fits perfectly with both the gameplay and the story in ways that few games I’ve played have been able to touch.

In addition to the beautiful original songs, there were a good deal of unlockable 80’s pop tracks as well to add a bit of humor and catchiness to the mix. Songs like ‘The Final Countdown’ and ‘Man Eater’ are both great and help to remind the player of the time the game takes place in (despite some of the songs coming out after the game’s supposed date) but I don’t feel they added any substance to the game at all. Don’t get me wrong, they didn’t take anything away from the game either, I just felt their inclusion to be little more than an amusing joke.

The vocal performances were outstanding as usual, but that shouldn’t be a surprise as that has always been Metal Gear’s strong point. All of the characters were convincingly portrayed, even when the ‘Kojimian’ melodrama inevitably reared its familiar and oddly shaped head. Particular props should be given to Christopher Randolph in the reprising his role as Dr. Emmerich, and Robert Atkin Downes with his deliciously twisted and paranoid take on Kaz Miller. Not to mention Troy Baker as the ever magnificent Ocelot. Damn it Troy you glorious bastard, must you follow me everywhere!?

A point of contention with this game’s voice acting, however, has been around since the game’s initial announcement and still has fans split to this day; namely the fact that our hero, Big Boss, is no longer voiced by series regular David Hayter. I am still torn on this myself as I did miss hearing the usual voice of Big Boss, but on the other hand… Kiefer Sutherland’s performance was pretty good. Just because it is different doesn’t mean it is bad, but it still made it feel a bit less like a Metal Gear Solid game. I never found the acting distracting, and I honestly thought he turned in a wonderful performance. But yes, the fanboy inside still yearns for the iconic David Hayter growl. That being said, I truly believe that having David Hayter absent from the game was a deep and intentional choice that goes farther than the simple reasoning stated by Kojima in interviews, but there will be more on my conspiracy theories in my next follow up post on the site (shameless self promotion here).

Of course, outside of the music and voice acting the sound effects are all filled with just as much love and attention as all the other parts of the game. Explosions feel appropriately powerful and the subtleties in the sounds of your footsteps give you a good idea of how stealthy you are actually being. As far as the presentation goes, I really don’t have a single complaint, and I would be hard pressed to find someone else who takes issue with any of these things either.

Up to this point I have been singing this game’s praises, but arguably the most important part of the core Metal Gear Solid experience is where this game falls the most flat, and that is in its storytelling. Metal Gear Solid as a series has often been reprimanded for being more of a movie than a game, and whether or not you find that argument valid, it has become a core part of the Metal Gear experience. This games’ shift in priorities is not unprecedented or really a surprise; in fact, every Metal Gear game starring Big Boss has had a larger focus on gameplay while the games following Solid Snake have been far more heavily story driven, but this is the first time I’ve ever left a mainline Metal Gear game feeling unfulfilled. After putting 120 hours into this game, completing about 2/3s of the total available content, and unlocking every story-based cutscene, I still didn’t feel like the game really accomplished what it set out to do. Don’t get me wrong, the story that IS here is good, and there is a Kojima style plot twist that is so massive that it will forever divide the fan base, but it still just felt hollow. This game, which presented at least two of the most powerful moments in the entire Metal Gear series, suffers from both the weakest villain the series has ever seen and easily the worst pacing the series has ever presented (and that is saying something).

A big part of the problem is that the story never actually concludes. A final/secret mission was cut from the game entirely that would have explained one of the most blasphemous loose ends the game leaves unanswered. Luckily, the special edition version of the game came with a blu-ray that contains a sort of unfinished/abridged version of this mission, and it has been uploaded to YouTube so that you can have that loose end tied up, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is not in the finished product and thus can not be taken into account when doing a review.

The biggest problem with the storytelling is that it is very clear that Kojima has no idea how to tell a non-linear story, and to be fair, that is a difficult thing, which a lot of industry veterans are just now having discussions about how to do properly. There are actual debates happening right now that argue that you can’t use the normal three act structure when it comes to open world games at all, and whether or not that is true it is an interesting thing to think about and an obvious hurdle that Kojima had no idea how to overcome. The storytelling was downright infuriating at times, with main characters who (they are supposed to be super intelligent soldiers and secret service operatives with a staff of over 100 intel crew members) would stupidly trot along, blissfully unaware of things happening in the story that were blatantly shown to the player hours before hand.

This could be argued to be my fault because my desire to complete a lot of the side ops meant that I went long stretches while avoiding the main story, but on the other hand, when creating a game like this, you have to consider all of the playstyles that will be used in your game. In addition, the game lacks flow, with the climax happening at the half-way point, but all of the interesting character arcs happening afterwards with no real action or drama to carry it through. Frankly, it is a mess, and the perfect checklist of how not to pace a story. Considering this is a product that they heavily play-tested and constantly fine-tuned when it came to mission structure and gameplay techniques, it is doubly appalling that this level of care and detail wasn’t put into how the story was presented.

Added to all of this is yet another downfall of the games’ storytelling, in the fact that a great deal of it is presented to you only through audio tapes that you get after completing certain missions. Once again, this is not a new concept as it started in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker and returned once more in Ground Zeroes, but both of those games stood on their own without listening to the tapes, while The Phantom Pain just doesn’t. You will be missing out on a vast number of story details if you don’t dutifully sit in your helicopter and listen to huge chunks of these tapes, often times listening for 30 uninterrupted minutes at a time with nothing to stare at but a bland user interface or perhaps subtitles. To be fair, the game gives you the option to listen to these tapes while you are out completing missions, but doing so hampers your stealth abilities (and likely your ability to pay attention to what is being said anyway). The headphones Big Boss wears work rather realistically, blocking out the sound of things around you, and this is a major handicap. It is important to note that all of these issues are small, but when piled one on top of the other it becomes almost unbearable. Most people wouldn’t bat an eye at these issues if they were part of a less storied series, but it is barely hyperbole to say that this is the equivalent of making a dungeon crawler without loot drops: Yes the game can still function, but it is missing a very fundamental component of what made these games so beloved in the first place.

Should you buy Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain? Hell yes. Even newcomers can easily start with this title, though they will miss out on some interesting story connections that may make the plot even more impactful for them. All things considered, the numerous hours of stellar gameplay are more than enough to justify the cost of admission; in fact, if I actually equated my game time to money spent, I would have spent only fifty cents per hour, and I was never once bored during that time. As a fan of the series I found myself frustrated with the game at times, but always entertained. While the storytelling is weak by Kojima standards, what is there is still compelling. I hold these games to a very high standard, higher than I hold most other games (and people who know me know that I am a rather harsh critic as it is). Even with my deep levels of cynicism conflicting with childish optimism over this title, I still walked away from it extremely entertained, just without truly feeling the same levels of Kojima magic that I have come to expect. If this were the game that fit at the end of the series timeline, I would be gravely disappointed, but since it is an interquel it fits just fine. I hope Kojima walked away from his last Metal Gear game proud, and though this is the last true title in the series, this will definitely not be my last journey with Solid Snake, Big Boss, or any of the other amazing characters this series has introduced me to over the years.

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