Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

After years of waiting for a new (full) Metal Gear game, we finally got it on September 1st of this year.  Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the latest story of a man known as Big Boss, and features a pretty huge format change from previous Metal Gear games.  Some of these changes were very welcome when playing through this new entry, while some others were pretty disappointing.

Hideo Kojima, the man behind the Snakes, pulled one of his trademark pranks on the gaming industry back at the Spike Video Game Awards in 2012 when he announced this game under the pseudonym, Joakim Morgan and the fictional new game studio MobyDick.  The game community quickly saw through the ruse, and figured out that this was in fact a new Metal Gear Solid title.  Kojima had some pretty lofty plans for this game, including a very compelling story, amazing graphics with his new FOX engine, and an open world or sandbox type gameplay.  Things were looking VERY interesting and Metal Gear fans were excited to finally get their hands on this game.

Konami didn't fire Kojima, they just couldn't find an office with enough space for his gigantic head.

Konami didn’t fire Kojima, they just couldn’t find an office with enough space for his gigantic head.

Personally, I was incredibly excited about this chapter.  Promises were made to us that we’d finally see where Big Boss snaps and becomes downright EVIL.  Kojima likened his game to the amazing TV series Breaking Bad, where the main character goes from a mild mannered science teacher to a full on drug kingpin.  For me, Metal Gear Solid games have always been about the insane story first, and gameplay second.  Not everyone sees it this way, but a lot of the most hardcore Metal Gear fans are in my boat.  Gamers who aren’t die-hard Metal Gear fanboys such as myself complain of long and drawn out cutscenes and not much gameplay in between.  I definitely understand their complaints, and agree that it’s a sign of poor game design, but because I love the over-the-top stories, it doesn’t bother me…well, except the insanely boring and ridiculously convoluted codec conversations in Metal Gear Solid 2.

I planned out what would happen for the release for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.  I took a day off of work at the end of the week to give myself a nice four day weekend (US Labor Day was Monday), and I planned an entire month to release Metal Gear and Metal Gear Solid related content under the banner “Metal Gear Month”.  I drove to my local game store after work on launch day and purchased it.  I streamed the first hour or two on Gaming Rebellion’s Twitch channel, and was greeted with an opening sequence fit for a Metal Gear game.

A Hideo Kojima Game

A Hideo Kojima Game

After the prologue, you’re pretty much thrown into an open world and given various missions to complete at your leisure.  Traveling across the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan and fighting the occupying force of Soviet soldiers feels really good, honestly.  The gameplay is exceptional and responsive.  After getting used to the controls, which is honestly on me rather than the game (I played the game on the Xbox One, and I’ve never been an Xbox gamer…I’m still surprised how much flipping the face button labels from what Nintendo traditionally uses messed me up), I was easily sneaking, sniping, and shooting without so much as a second thought.

As Big Boss, you are given the freedom to approach missions how you’d like.  As long as you accomplish the mission goal within a decent time period, you can be awarded a better mission ranking.  These rankings are largely arbitrary, while the main reward are the soldiers you extract to build your own personal army and GMP, the game’s form of currency.  In some missions, attacking head on actually makes more sense than sneaking around.  You may have to take on several heavily armored vehicles with a rocket launcher, or blow up enemy communications equipment.  In one instance, I started sniping enemy soldiers who were positioned outside a large and fortified barracks.  After they heard my gunfire, I made my way unseen to the other side of the base.  While the Soviets were investigating my original location, I crept into the barracks from the other side and completed my mission without issue.  In another mission, after several failed attempts and sneaking through it, I just went in, guns-a-blazing with as much firepower I could take with me.  I blew up both armored guard vehicles and extracted the target supply truck, then ran for it.  I completed the mission with an “S” rating, the highest available.

"I don't need to keep you alive to achieve the highest rank, you know." - Bauer Snake

“I don’t need to keep you alive to achieve the highest rank, you know.” – Bauer Snake

While the approach to this kind of gameplay is nothing new, it felt fresh to me, mainly because for the last few years, I’ve been playing a lot more “retro” games than newer stuff.  Gamers have been drawing a lot of comparisons to the Far Cry series, which I’ve never played.  I see a lot of parallels to the Assassin’s Creed series, myself.  While Big Boss doesn’t climb towers and buildings as well as Ezio or Connor, he still has to stealth into areas and neutralize targets, go on missions where he has to follow a target to gather intel, or escort a high priority character through hostile terrain.  These missions seem a lot less of a chore than they do in other similar games, largely because of the excellent and responsive controls.  Big Boss never interacts with the environment in a way you don’t expect unless you screw up and give him the wrong command.

The mission structure that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain uses isn’t anything new to hardcore fans of the series.  The last main entry to the franchise, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker used a VERY similar structure for sending Big Boss on his missions.  Casual fans of the series may see this as something new, as Peace Walker was initially released on the PlayStation Portable, and later ported to the PS3 and Xbox 360 in the Metal Gear Solid HD Collection.  In both games, there are main operations, and side operations, with the main operations telling the bulk of the story.  Some side ops missions will initiate story elements when completed, or will even trigger a main ops mission.  Completing more missions means more GMP and more opportunities to recruit soldiers and grow your mercenary army and Mother Base, your unit’s headquarters.  The difference between The Phantom Pain and Peace Walker is the open world, which makes The Phantom Pain feel much bigger and more grandiose in scope than its older brother.

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Even though the mission structure was used in a previous Metal Gear game, it still feels a bit jarring when comparing it to the other games in the series with a numbered entry.  Every other numbered Metal Gear Solid title was very linear.  While these games gave you a base or bases to infiltrate and explore, there were never any real deviations from the main mission, thrusting the story into the spotlight much easier.  In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the story takes a much smaller role due to all the secondary missions and the huge landscapes that Big Boss has to tackle.  The game makes you feel as if you MUST complete a good number of secondary missions, delaying your progress in the main game, so you can upgrade your Mother Base, weapons, armor, and buddies.  I think it would be incredibly interesting to see how hard the game is if you decide to ignore your Mother Base growth and side ops.  This may be something I decide to take on in the future.

One new addition to the Metal Gear series is the ability to bring a buddy onto your missions with you.  This is an incredibly awesome addition to the game, and makes you feel a sort of camaraderie with your digital companion.  You have the choice of bringing your horse, D-Horse, your dog, D-Dog, the Sniper, Quiet, or the mini Metal Gear walker, D-Walker, with you to assist in operations.  The AI for these buddies, D-Walker and D-Horse aside, is VERY good.  D-Walker is mainly used as a vehicle until you get later upgrades for it, and D-Horse will mostly only do the things you command him to.  D-Dog will scout out enemies and resources for you, making sneaking much easier.  Quiet will not only scout out enemy outposts and strongholds for you, but will also provide cover fire for you if you are discovered.  D-Dog and Quiet in particular are a lot of fun to work with throughout the game.

I'm cluckin', they hatin'

I’m cluckin’, they hatin’

Metal Gear Solid V isn’t that difficult.  Though there are plenty of difficult missions, the majority of the game is pretty fair and not too tough.  Upgrading weapons and equipment makes the game a lot easier, as you can develop more potent weapons, uniforms geared toward sneaking or direct combat, and even secondary items like the famed stealth camouflage.  If you fail a mission too many times, you are given the option to play through wearing Big Boss’s Chicken Hat, which allows you to run around undetected no matter what.  I personally never used this, because I felt like the game was taunting me anytime it suggested it.  Supposedly, wearing the hat in a mission will carry over to any following story cutscenes, and I definitely didn’t want to see Big Boss smoldering at other characters while wearing the ridiculous piece of headgear.

The game looks really good, but honestly, even playing this on an Xbox One, I’m starting to see a law of diminishing returns here.  The Phantom Pain on Xbox One DOES look better than the version of Ground Zeroes I played on the PS3, but not by a ton.  Sure, the textures are a higher quality all around, and the weather effects look really good, but at this point, it’s not this huge massive difference that you saw generation to generation in previous years.  This isn’t a jump from PS2 to PS3 or Xbox to Xbox 360.  It almost feels like a half jump to me, and maybe that’s just because I’m not a huge resolution-o-phile.  I’m not discounting people who get really excited about incredibly high resolution graphics and 60 frame per second performance, I’m just not one of those people.  The graphical difference between generations as a whole just isn’t impressive to me.

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That being said, there were a few moments were I was impressed with the visual presentation, specifically when looking at the world I was exploring.  The big difference between generations is the fact that these newer systems have a much greater draw distance than previous consoles.  You don’t see that same pop-up of foliage and background objects that were present in games like, say, Skyrim.  The scaling of distant buildings as you travel closer is very smooth.  Overall, the technical aspects of the graphics in today’s machines is apparent, even if it’s not immediately noticeable.

I miss some of the old themes that were present in previous Metal Gear Solid titles, particularly the main theme that was established in Metal Gear Solid 2.  The music IS well done, and there are some very catchy tunes, however.  The mission preparation theme was stuck in my head for days.  The major notable aspect about the game’s soundtrack is the inclusion of numerous famous 80’s pop music.  You can collect tapes within the game to add to your collection and listen while you’re sneaking around.  Having Big Boss sneak around and take out enemies while listening to “Kids In America” is pretty funny.  According to numerous online sources, you can also import custom music on the PC version, so that’s kind of neat too, I guess.

Ocelot busts into the Big Boss and Kaz bromance to make one big bromance triangle.

Ocelot busts into the Big Boss and Kaz bromance to make one big bromance triangle.

The part where Metal Gear Solid V kind of loses me is the story.  Now, when I say it loses me, I don’t mean that I don’t understand the story or that I have trouble following it.  That’s actually the problem.  There isn’t enough convoluted, campy, over the top, 4th wall breaking, melodramatic dialogue.  This doesn’t feel like a Metal Gear Solid game to me.  For the most part, it feels like just another action game, with the only reminders that this is, in fact, a Metal Gear game being Huey Emmerich’s voice and the (very) occasional monologue.  There are a few points late in the first chapter that make you feel like the story action is finally starting, but then it suddenly stops, never to really be seen again.  The story sequences that are sparingly sprinkled throughout chapter 2 feel disjointed and don’t flow together very well…probably because most of the missions you undertake during this chapter have absolutely nothing to do with the story.  I don’t want to get too deep into this without spoiling what is there, but just know this: I’m a hard core Metal Gear Solid fan, and I was VERY disappointed by how this part of the game was handled.

Kiefer Sutherland takes over David Hayter’s iconic role as Big Boss, and throughout the whole thing, I honestly couldn’t suspend my belief.  Big Boss was talking with Kiefer Sutherland’s voice.  I’m NOT criticizing Kiefer Sutherland’s performance of Snake.  He doesn’t do a terrible job, honestly.  The only problem I have is that he doesn’t talk all that much, and when he does, he sounds like an “A-list” actor with a recognizable voice.  When a voice actor voices a character, they ARE that character. They change their voices to a degree that when you hear the character speak, you don’t think of the voice actor behind the character, you think of the character.  This is why David Hayter was so effective as Snake. You didn’t hear David Hayter, you heard Snake.  When you hear Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid V, you hear Kiefer Sutherland.

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It’s okay, Quiet, there are still plenty of Hayter Snake games to enjoy.

 

Additionally, a lot of the story is left for the player to listen in the form of cassette tapes.  These replace the codec conversations of games past, and they don’t do a great job.  These are honestly just a lot of briefing tapes, with no urgency or passion because the conversations almost never happen during the story action, but in between.  With the exception of a VERY angry Kazuhira Miller, most of these feel pretty flat and lifeless.  They aren’t any fun to listen to…and they sound like briefings.  Trust me, I’ve been in many a military briefing, and unless you have some kind of intimate passion in military strategy and politics, they’re pretty boring.

Overall, I actually liked Metal Gear Solid V pretty well.  The game was a blast to play, and I even find myself wanting to go back and play through the side ops that I left unfinished.  The game is pretty lengthy, though I’m sure I’ll be back for a second go in a few months when I eventually replay all the Metal Gear games for the bajillionth time.  Sure, the story left a lot to be desired, but honestly, it’s still worth a play.  The game is very good, but I wouldn’t go around telling anyone to pick this up now at full price unless you are that die hard Metal Gear fan that needs to know what happens NOW.  Likely, if you ARE that die hard Metal Gear fan, you’re probably already finished with the game or in the midst of it now.  Give it a shot, definitely, but don’t break the bank to do it.  Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was an interesting experience, and in the coming weeks, I’ll have a full story analysis on Gaming Rebellion.

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