Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain Review
Without moderation, the more of a good thing you receive, the less joy you begin to derive from it. You’ve probably encountered and struggled against the reality of this age-old issue at some point and, in many ways, this notion eventually comes to define Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. While it’s a sprawling, technically accomplished, and an often-gluttonous re-imagining of MGS’ time-honoured ‘Tactical Espionage Acton’ gameplay, it’s without one critical component – it’s soul. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain might be one of the best stealth-action videogames we’ve ever had the pleasure of playing, but it’s also in contention to be the worst Metal Gear Solid to date.
That’s something of a loaded statement, so please let us explain before you go and release FOXDIE on the X-ONE offices out of protest.
Hideo Kojima’s 17-year tenure on Metal Gear Solid can thus far be defined by his wild and unpredictable experimentation. That extends beyond the litany of crazy boss battles that have had us doing everything from waiting for snipers to die of old age, to switching controller ports on the fly to find victory. Past the insane story that make Stephenie Meyer’s body of work seem Pulitzer-worthy, and yes, even beyond a dedication to implementing the cinematic flair born from Alfonso Cuarón’s school of directing. Instead, it’s the differing gameplay styles and ambitions between each entry into the long-running franchise that has truly set MGS apart from its peers. While you might not see a whole lot of core changes between, say, the likes of Assassin’s Creed II and III, the same certainly couldn’t be said for MGS2 and MGS3. Every single entry into the main timeline has been creatively ambitious; strived to push boundaries and establish Kojima as the most experimental developer in the industry. While The Phantom Pain is obviously ambitious, it doesn’t feel creative. Not in the ways we’ve come to expect from the recently ousted director, or the series itself, for that matter.
WAR HAS CHANGED
We don’t have the space to recap the story leading up to The Phantom Pain – that would take another six pages of magazine space and enough caffeine surging through our veins to lock us down into our own nine-year coma. But all you really need to know is that the multi-generational war against the Patriots has arrived in 1984; with Big Boss looking to establish his own little slice of (Outer) Heaven and take revenge on those that transpired against him in 2014’s playable prologue, Ground Zeroes.
In fact, Ground Zeroes largely informs the essential and basic gameplay systems of The Phantom Pain, though Kojima Productions has (thankfully) tightened up the core mechanics. But like Old Man Snake wouldn’t stop harping on about in Metal Gear Solid 4, war has changed. The resulting gameplay and stealth mechanics are almost unrecognisable to the style that once helped establish the franchise back in Shadow Moses and on Big Shell. Sure, the recognisable elements are all still there: the CQC stances, nudey posters, cardboard boxes, and oversized punctuation, but the moment-to-moment gameplay has been Fulton-recovered out of the corridors of old and is now built across three immensely fun and polished core styles of engagement.
At a basic level, there’s pure stealth, action, and a predatory blend of both. You can mix and match these as much as you like of course, and The Phantom Pain truly provides you with the tools to tackle objectives in any style that you choose. You can jump into engagements in first-person and blow everything to holy hell; you can move like a deadly ghost through settlements with speed and ruthless efficiency, or you can strive for S-ranks with tranquilliser gun and pacifistic intentions in tow. If you really want to, you can switch between these to deal with The Phantom Pain’s clever and reactive enemy AI soldiers at a moments notice. The Phantom Pain caters to an insanely broad range of stealth fans and play styles, it’s truly impressive; it’s fluid and emergent in ways Ubisoft dreams of – even if Big Boss does eventually feel like Splinter Cell’s Sam Fisher in FOXHOUND clothing.
BUILDING ON THE PAST
To a certain extent, to really understand the central hook and energy The Phantom Pain strives to exude, you do need to have played 2010’s Peace Walker – something you might not have done, unless you were one of the lonely few still playing on PSP after it should have been dead and buried. Still, Peace Walker took the handheld’s relatively limited power and pushed gameplay to the forefront of the experience; reining in the story and cutscene craziness in an effort to create the most mechanically rich MGS game to date. It was a surprise success, and one Kojima Productions has returned to build on for The Phantom Pain, with far more power and resources behind it than before.
The structure is largely the same between the two titles: you head out on missions, recruit soldiers and hijack resources along the way and use them to build items, weapons and Mother Base itself up to help further your progression through the main campaign. Only, instead of much of this being achieved through menu screens like it was before, this now takes place in giant open-world environments. Mother Base is now a fully-formed living and breathing entity, expanding visually as your mission to raise hell during the Afghan-Soviet war continues, and being a great distraction from the grind of missions. Then there’s the playable maps themselves: from the mountainous sprawl of Afghanistan to the dank jungles of Africa, The Phantom Pain offers environments that inspire actual exploration, a breath of fresh air in a time where open worlds have a habit of steering you towards millions of seemingly pointless objective icons littered across a map.
Once you’re out of the classically structured, totally horrifying (and not to mention totally awesome) hour-long prologue section – which easily presents some of MGS’ most terrifying and shocking moments to date – you’re essentially on your own to explore those areas for the next 40+ hours. If you want, you can be left to your own devices, steering Big Boss to places of interest to locate loot and engaging in side-op missions to better aid Mother Base’s growth, or tackling missions on the critical path to further the bloated and poorly paced campaign.
JUST ANOTHER DAY IN A WAR WITHOUT END
While the emergent gameplay styles – supported by a huge, upgradeable array of unlockable items and weapons – and the immensely detailed and sprawling open world environments mesh well, they aren’t matched in excellence by the mission design. Metal Gear Solid has always been at its best when it’s under the tight pacing and structural restrictions of traditional game and level design. The mind-bending array of characters, themes and ideas that permeate through MGS require that structure to keep engagement up and to keep everything from falling apart. Nonsensical chatter about The Patriots, PMFs, child soldiers, cloning, superpowers and everything else in-between just simply doesn’t hold up over an experience that effortlessly rolls past the forty-hour mark.
The Phantom Pain quickly gets bogged down in repetitious mission cycles that feel a little like padding. Comfortable padding, because as we said, the mechanics are so damned solid, but padding all the same. Most of the missions will see Big Boss clearing a base of enemies, destroying equipment, locating important info, escorting VIPs out of hot zones and recruiting soldiers to contribute to the growth of Mother Base. You’ll do this ad nauseam before it eventually chucks a critical path story mission your way. Initially, it’s a fun diversion from the attention demanding scenarios and long-winded campaigns that MGS tends to revel in, but the further you progress through the game, the more it begins to reuse settlements and environments for almost the same exact missions, not to mention a lack of concrete reasoning as to why you’re engaging in said missions. This is where it stumbles in comparison to something like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, which excelled in making you feel like every action had a reaction. Every mission you undertake in CD Projekt RED’s open-world triumph felt like it was affecting the world or advancing it in some way – that’s clearly what The Phantom Pain strives for, but fails to replicate.
The Phantom Pain spends so much effort and time going for open world flow, that the huge array of missions on offer also eventually become at odds with the main story. It might let you run around Afghanistan and Africa to your heart’s content sans-interruption for the most part, but as soon as it becomes critical path story time, it grinds to a halt. When The Phantom Pain forces linearity into the open-world design, it’s hard to not feel like we’re being cheated. Especially as the game routinely breaks big moments in the story with ridiculous TV-chapter style “To Be Continued” banners to throw you out of the moment mid-mission, just in case you did fancy getting back to Mother Base mid-way through a Metal Gear battle to listen to a little more of that military-grade Hollyoaks banter the troops like to spout out.
There’s a lack of cohesion between the story Kojima clearly wants to tell across the open-ended structure and the one that is actually unfolding that we began to long for the incessant beeping of the Codec, the sight of a key-card restricted door and the sound of a distant Russian gunship. Perhaps that’s the problem – the missions and overall story lack the charm that tends to define a typical Metal Gear Solid outing. A section of missions feel lacking in that unmistakable Kojima Productions touch; story beats are presented slowly and often unintuitively; while boss battles are almost embarrassingly forgettable compared to what has come before. Basically, thank the Patriots the core stealth action is so damn entertaining.
STUCK IN OUTER HEAVEN
The faces and names might be the same, but the voices have changed. And we aren’t just referring to Kiefer Sutherland’s well-recorded, but poorly-written, role as Snake here. The more recognisable elements of Metal Gear Solid – like quirky weapons and silly asides thrown in here and there – might be present, but The Phantom Pain lacks the soul of the Metal Gear Solid franchise. Despite his name adorning each and every of the fifty-plus missions in the game, it doesn’t feature the Hideo Kojima charm, the quirks and nuance in design that he’s so loved and respected for.
We mentioned before that every single MGS game has been creatively ambitious; every game has done something impactful and memorable. And yes, The Phantom Pain is ambitious in its open world, but it falls short with its confused structure and off-tempo pacing. Compared to other games in the series? It doesn’t offer anything nearly as creative as its predecessors; it drags gameplay to the forefront of the experience but seemingly forgets about a lot of other components, despite having the hardware and resources to appropriately build on Peace Walker’s humble beginnings.
While Ground Zeroes promised that The Phantom Pain would be the darkest and most challenging Metal Gear Solid game to date, the actual result feels more like an open-world Splinter Cell. When it’s all said and done, it feels like one of the most neutered games Kojima has ever delivered. It’s still a fantastic stealth-action game, and you won’t likely find a better scratch for that itch on Xbox One for a long time. Just don’t come into it expecting this to be the game that re-writes the MGS playbook.