It all comes down to this. After delivering classic game after classic game in a series that has spanned several decades, Hideo Kojima finds himself in a position where he has released what may very well be the last Metal Gear Solid game. While we already had the ending of the series, chronologically, with Metal Gear Solid 4: The Guns of the Patriots, The Phantom Pain is a different kind of ending. Where 4 was the last game for Solid Snake, 5 is the last game for Big Boss. There are still a lot of things in the Metal Gear universe that haven’t been detailed that 5 tasks itself with telling, and for the most part it gets the jobs done.
For those who played Ground Zeroes last year, The Phantom Pain takes place nine years after the finale of that game left Big Boss in a coma. Upon awakening he learns that the Mother Base he built in Peace Walker has been destroyed, he’s lost an arm and there are currently unknown forces out there that are trying to kill him. Big Boss is able to escape the hospital that was protecting him for all those years from an assassination attempt including a creepy giant engulfed in flames and a floating little kid with a gas mask. Once out of there, it is now Big Boss’ mission to not only rebuild Mother Base with the help of Benedict “Kaz” Miller and Revolver Ocelot, but make it better than ever by completing contracts and recruiting new workers.
The Phantom Pain marks what is perhaps the biggest gameplay shift that the series has ever seen, as instead of linear paths entirely focused on stealth this game drops the player into a huge open world with near limitless options. Each area has several forts filled with baddies and many winding paths for you to take, and you can complete most of your objectives by going in silently, guns blazing or a mixture of both. There are also random weather effects like rain and sandstorms that will allow you sneak around easier though also limiting your own visibility. Missions can also be done during the daytime or nighttime, and your choice of mission time will effect the amount of enemies on guard duty. The Fulton Recovery system also makes a comeback in a big way, as now you can not only ship people back to Mother Base, but you can also ship weapons, vehicles and cargo that can all be used to improve Mother Base further.
While The Phantom Pain gives the player much more freedom to tackle each situation however they want, stealth is still the preferred choice for most situations. If you do go in guns blazing you wont be able to Fulton Recovery enemies that you have the option to knock out, and that will lose you potential recruits to improve Mother Base. However, thanks to the game’s tagging system that lets you scope out an area and mark each visible enemy, you can check out their stats and see if they are worth Fultoning in the first place. If you see a group of dudes up ahead and none of them have any special stats to speak of, just friggin’ open fire if you’re confident that it’s not going to cause any alarms to go off.
However, even if you are going for stealth and you get spotted by an enemy, the game has what is called Reflex Mode that allows you a few seconds in slow motion to take out the enemy before he alerts the others. It’s a great new addition that allows you to avoid slipping into too many alert scenarios without feeling cheap. Still, with the huge arsenal of weapons at Big Boss’ disposal that can be developed through Mother Base you’ll usually have what you need to take on enemies should the occasion arise. Those pesky choppers can be taken down with a well placed rocket, enemy snipers can be picked off by your own well-timed sniper bullet, and the ground crew can be mown down with an array of machine guns, rifles and shotguns. Big Boss has that title for a reason, and the lethal things that he always has at his disposal is a testament to that.
This isn’t to say that the game isn’t challenging, though, as the game’s fantastic enemy AI assures that you won’t deal with any average mission easily. If you run around they will hear you and check out your last known location, and if you leave a dead or unconscious enemy in a visible spot they will see it and tighten up security. They will also learn your mission patterns, as if you tend to go on more night missions they will start wearing night vision goggles and they’ll wear gas masks if you take a fancy to smoke grenades. Thankfully, you can get around this by sending out your Mother Base Combat team on missions to stop their supply of masks, armor and so on. There are always new things being added to the playing field to make things more difficult for you, but if you use your head you’ll find that you always have the means to overcome them.
Your traversal through the game’s gorgeously designed and vast areas are done through main and side ops missions, which will both give you plenty of content to suck your teeth into. Main missions will usually progress the story, while side ops mostly contain missions that will net you helpful items like weapon blueprints. There is certainly a lot of content here, though some of it occasionally does feel repetitive as some missions feel more like padding than a meaningful excursion. A lot of the time you’re sneaking into an enemy base to rescue a prisoner, kill a certain person or investigate an issue, and while the different level structures do give them a lot of variety they don’t always feel all that fulfilling to accomplish.
This is due largely to the game’s fractured narrative. While many missions will get you some fantastic cinematic cutscenes that really drive the plot forward, there are also plenty of missions that don’t really do much for the plot. In fact, there are large stretches of time where it feels like you aren’t even progressing the plot anymore, making the big moments that pop up infrequently a bit jarring. In a series that prides itself on always delivering cinematic storytelling that is consistently gripping, The Phantom Pain definitely disappoints in this category.
However, this is also due to the fact that Kojima elected to replace much of the cinematic storytelling with cassette tape recordings, allowing you to flesh out the story on your own time while you’re doing other missions. While I know this is Kojima responding to some of the previous game’s haters, this was a big negative for me as the consistently brilliant cinematics (however long they may run for) are what made the other games so good. I don’t want to have the story read to me in the background while I’m doing other things, and even worse I don’t want to sit there and just listen to tapes 20-25 minutes at a time.
Still, as infrequent as the big cinematic moments in The Phantom Pain may be, there is no mistaking that there are some truly great ones here. The game’s main antagonist Skull Face isn’t the best villain that the series has ever seen, but the scheme he is involved in results in some incredible revelations in the second half of the game. There are a couple of parts towards the end of the game that are equal parts riveting and heartbreaking, rivaling any of the most powerful moments that the series has ever offered before.
Unfortunately, there is also a major plot thread that is left completely unresolved and while I’d usually chock that up to sequel baiting, the information that this segment was either removed or just left unfinished to get the game out sooner leaves a really bad taste in my mouth. This pain is felt all the deeper when you’re already dealing with the the most story-light Metal Gear Solid yet.
Thankfully, the tripod of Big Boss, Ocelot and Miller results in some great character interactions throughout the course of the game that keeps you invested. Where Ocelot is the most level-headed of the three, Miller is constantly a hardass and trusts nobody. This results in many moments where there is constant tension between the game’s protagonists, and I found this to be much more interesting than their conflict with the antagonist. They all have different ideas of what Mother Base should be and how it should be run, but ultimately it’s Big Boss’ call and he makes the final decision whether they like it or not.
These decisions lead to some friction early on when Big Boss brings back a character named Quiet to Mother Base, as some believe she is a spy while others welcome her. While her near-naked character design and many suggestive camera angles are definitely eye-roll inducing, I would say that Quiet has what is easily the best character arc in the entire game. Bringing her on missions will increase your relationship with her, which makes the many story scenes that she is a part of all the more impactful.
The voice acting is also topnotch, as each character is brought to life perfectly by their respective actor. The biggest actor of note here is Keifer Sutherland, as he is replacing the man who voiced Snake in every other Metal Gear Solid game, David Hayter. Sutherland does a great job of portraying Big Boss, and even though I love David Hayter and definitely missed having him in what may be the final Metal Gear Solid game it’s easier to digest having Sutherland on the spot. I do have to admit, though, that there was more than one time when I was picturing Jack Bauer when he would deliver certain lines, but that probably has more to do with the fact that I’m a nut for the 24 TV show.
The audio is solid all around, in fact, as the game’s music score is fantastic. There are plenty of sweeping orchestral moments that give each scene a suitably epic feel, and plenty of licensed songs that actually came out during the time period of the game are listenable through cassette tapes. It’s always great to go through a tough area while Europe’s “The Final Countdown” is blaring in the background, though I do have to wonder how Big Boss got a hold of the 1999 remaster of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” in the 80’s. As you can see, the man truly remains a mystery.
Along with utilizing Quiet’s sniping abilities to mark enemies in an area and taking them out when things get rough, you can also bring along other buddies with you during most missions to help you out. You initially just have a horse that allows you to get around much more quickly, but you will eventually recruit a machine called a Walker to take down many enemies head-on and even a dog that will sniff out and kill enemies stealthily. These buddies add a nice new aspect to the gameplay, as there are many times where you might be about to die and your buddy will help you out and save your ass. I can’t tell you how many times I was sneaking up on an enemy only to be spotted before I got to them, but was saved from being killed or the enemy alerting others by a swift and silent sniper bullet from Quiet. These tense moments are a huge rush when you’re a part of them and are easily some of my favorite aspects of the gameplay.
Managing Mother Base returns from Peace Walker, though this time the experience is much more user-friendly. Through utilizing the game’s iDroid you can manage the base’s staff and move them around to different departments like Research & Development, Support, Medical, etc.. Unlike in Peace Walker, when you recruit new workers they are automatically put into the department that suits their abilities, which is a nice way to save a bit of time on your part. Mother Base is actually a living and breathing place that you can explore this time around, with huge multi-story buildings and longer platforms that connect all of the different bases. While there are certainly some interesting things to check out at Mother Base, I do wish that there was a bit more going on there to really make it feel like a major area of the game.
Peace Walker‘s fragmented mission areas are also completely gone in The Phantom Pain, as you now have two humongous open worlds with hundreds of missions within both Afghanistan and Africa. I definitely like this approach a lot better as it gives you a much better sense of the area you are in, as well as eliminating constant loading screens while moving between areas. The Phantom Pain‘s world is the most fluid and sleek one that the series has ever seen, and just traversing through it sometimes is a pleasure all on its own. Where most open world games have huge areas that lack much personality, here you are consistently introduced to incredibly dense and beautifully designed areas that are packed with plants, enemies and wild life for you to interact with.
Eventually you will build what is called a Forward Operating Base, which is essentially a Mother Base that exists online to generate you some in-game income. You’ll build this base just as you build the core game’s base, though you’ll also equip it with weapons and security devices. The reason for this is that other real-life players can invade your base, and if they reach the center of it they will depart with your staff, materials and money. However, if this intruder is spotted before reaching the core then you’ll get an alert and can deploy to your base to defend it. It’s a pretty cool meta-game that’s always playing in the background while you’re doing other things, but the main bummer is that if you want to own more than one FOB you’ll have to buy coins with real-life money.
However, there is now a completely free traditional multiplayer mode within the game called Metal Gear Online. This mode has just recently become available to the core game, and it features three pretty standard modes that are nevertheless enhanced thanks to The Phantom Pain‘s unique gameplay. Bounty Hunter has you trying to eliminate the enemy team to deplete their ticket count, Cloak and Dagger has you sneak into an enemy base to steal a data disk, and Comm Control has you capture and hold 3 different areas. These are very standard game types, but they feel fresh thanks to The Phantom Pain‘s stealth leanings. You can just kill any enemy like you would in any other shooter, but in this game you can also fully utilize the Fulton Recovery system to get a lot more points then just kills would get you. This puts more emphasis on playing stealthily, as you’ll want to sneak around and try and knock out an enemy and Fulton them for the maximum point count. This is made all the more tense as there are always other players close by to kill you before you can finish your task or even pop the Fulton balloon before your hostage can completely take off.
This mode also has a fair bit of customization for the player, as you’ll have the option of 3 different classes that have various stats and abilities. Enforcers are the standard guns blazing class that have the best arsenal at their disposal, Scouts are the support class that stay on the outskirts of the stage and provide sniper backup, and Infiltrators are the pure stealth class that use stealth camo and non-lethal means to knock out and Fulton enemies. Each class has their perks and offer different styles of gameplay, but Infiltrator is definitely the most used thanks to its stealth camo perk. While this will be a problem for some as it results in a lot of nearly-invisible people running around, if you know what you’re doing you’ll be able to spot these guys and avoid them giving you too much trouble. Like any multiplayer game worth its salts, you will gain points that will go towards leveling up your characters that will gain you access to more weapons and gear options.
The Phantom Pain is definitely one of the best open world games on the market today, as it takes the now overused gameplay style and makes it better feel fresh and engaging. However, as a Metal Gear Solid game it is hard to not come away slightly disappointed by the game’s lack of a consistently engaging story and lack of many great cinematics, in general. If this truly is the last game in the series then the glaring plot point that is left wide open will remain very hard to swallow, especially because it leaves the game’s story feeling unfinished. Even so, the gameplay is fantastic and offers a lot of freedom and variety, and the just released Metal Gear Online is sure to keep you coming back for plenty more. The Phantom Pain isn’t the best in the series from a story perspective, but from a gameplay one it easily takes the crown and becomes one of the best games of the year so far.