Played on Windows and PlayStation 4
Also available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One.
Oh boy, so we come to the last game of the Humble Monthly Bundle of December 2018, and it’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. This is a big game, and I feel that it’s impossible to divorce this review from the company who made the game, the man who made it, and the situation surrounding it. In fact, any attempt to do so at this point would not be properly judging Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
We go back to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, which we already have reviewed about a week ago. From there, Ground Zeroes was an expensive demo for consumers, but it still contained excellent gameplay, even if it didn’t have a ton of content. At that point, I remember thinking that there was no chance in my mind Phantom Pain could fail. A true Metal Gear Solid level story, tied with that gameplay would be incredible.
About a year later in March of 2015, there were rumblings of trouble. Konami and Kojima Productions seemed to be going separate ways after The Phantom Pain. No one was sure exactly what happened, but the rumors that were around was that Kojima would be leaving Konami after the completion of Metal Gear Solid V and the other rumors made people think it wasn’t very amicable.
Six months later, Konami released The Phantom Pain, and while there are far more parts of the story such as the removal of Kojima’s name from some promotional material, I’m not reviewing Konami’s business practices here. I’m focused on The Phantom Pain, however, there are parts of the game that I think directly relate to this. I do recommend anyone interest in the full story to research it further, as it was a rather interesting situation.
So looking at The Phantom Pain, I’m quite amazed at almost every part of it. The first thing that strikes me is the graphics are fantastic. Almost every scene and every visual is unbelievable. The level of detail is similar to Ground Zeroes and that’s amazing. Though, once the player reaches Afghanistan after the first level and starts playing the main game, I do have to admit that the graphics while great, never reach the height of the first mission in The Phantom Pain nor the Ground Zeroes opening mission.
At the same time, part of the reason is they are different types of games. The first mission is a typical level based game with limited scope and view, and Ground Zeroes only has a small area to render. The Phantom Pain instead takes the open world to the extreme and allows Snake to explore a very large map with a huge number of bases, guard posts and locations to check out. While the graphics aren’t as good, they’re still amazing and I found myself lost in the exploration and locations.
I don’t think Afghanistan will be using Snake’s version on the tourism board, but you can pretty much go where you want outside of high cliffs.
About halfway through Chapter One, Snake is allowed to go to a second location. Without saying where it is, I’ll say the graphics seem to improve there. No longer is the player stranded in the desert that has sand in almost every direction. Instead, they are surrounded by lush and beautiful foliage, water features and better vistas to see everything.
Still, the graphics of the game are beautiful and while there are trade-offs, such as a limited number of interiors there’s still a focus on the binoculars again and it really allows the game to shine. The Phantom Pain still impresses me with the visual quality it achieves, even three years after the release.
Graphically, I’m impressed, then we come to the story, and the good news is unlike Ground Zeroes we start to find a bigger and better story. The game starts with Snake heavily focused on the aftermath of Ground Zeroes. Without spoiling it, Snake has a lot to deal with early on and the first mission is very story heavy and develops Snake into an interesting character. I would even say the first mission gives players a false understanding of what the Phantom Pain is going to deliver. There’s a lot of story development and it almost feels like it comes from another of the series’ games.
After that mission though, the story flutters away, and for the rest of the game the player feels like he has to chase it incessantly. Chapter 1 has thirty-one missions in it. Of them, less than half feel like they have a strong tie to the main story, though the last five have heavy story elements, and even contain a continuation with “to be continued ”s at the end of each mission.
Those last five missions are unlike any other mission in the entire game. That shift in pacing, both the heavy focus to the main story as if it’s suddenly important and the continuation feels off. Suddenly after 25ish very open world missions, you have five heavy story-based missions in a row, and they just don’t fit. The game eschews the story until it brings it back with a vengeance and then later tosses it away again.
Every mission works from the gameplay side, however, The Phantom Pain exchanges cutscenes and story moments in the previous games in the series to an audio tape style delivery system for much of its dialogue. While the audio tapes are often good and flesh out large pieces of the story, it fails the fundamental first step of a story. “Show don’t tell”. The Phantom Pain is not a radio broadcast, yet it tries to use that in the tapes. However, it’s a visual medium as well as an interactive medium, so even if it was the best story, it’s not living up to the promise of the medium itself with it. Even if they were Picture in Picture videos, they would work better with the medium.
Similarly, since they’re audio tapes, they almost always just tell a story, and for Metal Gear Solid, that’s not good enough. After most missions Snake will receive a couple of tapes that attempt to fill more pieces of the story. You’ll hear discussions of the villain (Skullface), different characters, and a lot of dialogue, and it can work if you put the time in.
At the beginning of each mission, the game shows credits, and sadly the credits hurt the story a bit as if you pay attention to them you’ll see surprise guest stars in many missions, in fact, there are great reveals of enemies and even the newest metal gear, but watch the credits and you’ll see their name so the surprise of their appearance is gone.
A little hard to see here, but hey look it’s three MAJOR villains, must be an important mission?
While most missions are free form and exploratory, some missions have a story based “Metal Gear Solid” feel. This is when you are ushered into a location with only one real entrance, you’ll notice something has changed with the game. Oftentimes you’ll get that strong story cutscene system again. Sadly they don’t happen often, but when they do the story shines. In fact, your first face to face meeting with Skullface is brilliant and every time I see that scene I instantly realize why it’s a “Metal Gear Solid” game, or at least what my heart really wants from a Metal Gear Solid game. The cutscene, the delivery, and the presentation are all there. It’s just a shame that you then play ten more missions trying to find another mission that has that same delivery, and ten missions after that chasing that second story moment.
Sadly, that next mission that has a similar feel to it ends with seeing this mystical and amazing Metal Gear that this game hints at in that first mission. You see it in broad daylight and kill it so quickly it loses so much mystery. It will eventually come back again as it’s the character referred to by the series name, but after seeing it twice and having killed it efficiently, it is a huge let down for the development of it as a major opponent. It does come back for a major battle but it never rises to the same level as any of the series other “Metal Gears”.
Seeing the game give away the experience so early in the game feels anti-climatic. What’s worse is it’s one of the few “Bosses” that this game actually has, and I actually find that there are two other missions that are far harder than the “Metal Gear” missions big finale. It doesn’t stand as a particularly strong enemy. That’s a big shame for the story and the development of this major entity of the game.
In fact, much of the main bosses are like this. You see them between one and three times and then they’re “dead” and that’s their whole role. Very few get any development, and while fans have picked over the game for information, the only one that really rises to the level of previous game bosses is Quiet the sniper, and that’s only because she can be captured and become a deployable buddy, and will get a lot of story development after that point.
I’m not actually against the open world experience. I actually find it to be the best gameplay experience. The problem though is there are two types of missions in Metal Gear Solid V and it’s a shame because it seems that a part of the game wants to tell Metal Gear Solid V’s story like every game in the series. The rest of the missions seem to leave the story behind and focus on the gameplay, and the problem is the new audio tape system can never be as powerful as the handcrafted cutscenes.
The game does so much better when it let’s the player play the game, sneak up on enemies take them out and do what the player wants.
The story of The Phantom Pain is all over the place. The game returns back to the look at PMCs similar to Metal Gear Solid IV but adds in children soldiers, as well as strange elements such as a new force called the Skulls, and more. I really like most of Chapter 1 of The Phantom Pain. The first 31 missions have an interesting development and story elementary. While I think it needs more story or better pacing I still am enthralled with the story.
However, at the end of Chapter 1, the main villain dies suddenly, in one of the worst ways possible for the story and yet the game goes on. The strange part is if the game ended right then, I might actually have liked the story more but I would also be expecting a sequel because it’s unfinished.
The main villain doesn’t get really any development either. I’ve looked up online who he is, who he was, and more, but while much of it is in audio tapes some after he dies, the game doesn’t take the time to show why he’s such a major focus of the game, which is odd for a Metal Gear Solid game to have such an unknown villain that goes out so easily.
Sadly, the story goes on and ruins itself. All of a sudden the game goes completely bonkers and there are incredibly interesting moments building a second story arc. While this is good, the problem is this arc is heavily unfinished or left open.
Normally I don’t try to second guess stories, or try to discover what went wrong with the game, the focus should be on the game that is released, or potentially patched in, and I stand by that. I only judge the game based on that. But The Phantom Pain’s story is so strange and hard to take as it stands. The fact is there is a video in the collector’s edition of additional content that wasn’t in the game. The video talks about the additional mission and the mission discussed is definitely missing in my opinion as without them the story doesn’t work.
I’ll actually go farther and say the death of the main villain seems out of place and I feel like it’s thrown in there so that the player has a resolution with him as perhaps he was supposed to return. The Chapter 2 story ruins what the game built. The problem is the final mission comes out of nowhere, and where Chapter 1 has 31 missions, chapter 2 has the player replay many of Chapter 1’s missions on a harder difficulty. The story suddenly requires a lot of smaller operations, but they are pages of a story that don’t fit together and only have moments of the story involved. There are only 5 new full missions in Chapter 2 to tell its story, and it all brings up ideas but each of the five does not feel strongly connected.
This is why I brought up Konami and Kojima’s separation, because while Chapter 1 feels complete and time was taken to develop it into a stronger narrative, it’s clear that Chapter 2 is unfinished in some fashion, and the only thing I can imagine was the game was never fully completed but time ran out and something had to ship. As stated there’s at least one missing mission that is mentioned and shown in the collector’s edition, but there are so many other loose threads in Chapter 2 that even that mission leaves too much open.
Quiet is a major part of the story, even if her outfit feels exploitative, she’s one of the only characters that the game takes the time to properly develop.
Sadly, if you want a complete Metal Gear Solid level story, with all the twists and madness that comes with the series, I feel you’ll be disappointed. Personally on this, my second playthrough, I was so disgusted by the experience of Chapter 2 I couldn’t finish it a second time, though I did see three of the missions in Chapter 2 and remember how poorly they delivered their story elements. It was far worse than I remembered, and it took my absolute joy for the game down quite a bit.
I’ve gone on quite long on the story here, but the fact is story has been critical in the experience of Metal Gear Solid as a series, and the lackluster experience here is important especially to fans of the series, to not delve deeply into it would be to ignore the series for the game. That could be possible, but the issue is the game tries so hard to fit into that series, it’s not intended to be a standalone or a different game, unlike Metal Gear Solid Revengeance which was a standalone title.
The good news though, is if the story is weak, there’s still a saving grace left for the game.
As mentioned there are two types of missions in The Phantom Pain. There are story-based missions which don’t always have the best gameplay experience, but there are not many of them. In fact, much of the fifty hours I played The Phantom Pain was spent playing with the open world, or doing missions which allowed the player full freedom to tackle missions as they want.
The opening mission is a level based gameplay, and I will say that I played that mission at least four times on the Ps4, so when I played it on the PC, I will say I didn’t find it as exciting as it’s mostly there to set up the story, which I had already heavily explored, and while it succeeds at that, the gameplay is mostly a tutorial that goes on for an hour or two. It’s a long level and is not representative of the real game.
The second level though is where The Phantom Pain starts to show itself. You start with a simple objective, a friend is captured and Snake has to go rescue him. The game points out the village where Snake can get intel from and then lets Snake do what he wants to save his target.
The game gives you so many ways to approach or leave a base, that you’ll always find new approaches, such as climbing on an oil pipeline and sneaking away.
What’s really interesting is the intel is useful on the first playthrough but on the second attempt the first village can be entirely skipped. This is actually part of the game, in almost every mission, the player is allowed to attack the mission in any manner he wants as long as he succeeds at his targets. Stealth is useful but rarely enforced. If the player wants better ratings and score, no death is useful, but again, not required. Quite often I earned S ratings while not playing perfectly, and it shows how open the game is to alternative play.
That first mission allows the player to rescue his target and escape, but after that point, The Phantom Pain starts to throw mechanics in often. Before long Snake will learn about Fulton extracting enemies (Airlifting enemies to capture them), to add to Outer Heaven, using his horse to get around a map, taking over outposts, stealing vehicles, calling in supply drops, air support (bombardments), helicopter attacks, Helicopter pickups and more.
There’s so much you can do with The Phantom Pain that it’s a joy to play. I personally get obsessive about trying to capture as many enemies as possible with the Fulton to fill up my base with worthy recruits. They don’t change very much of the gameplay, but they do allow me to do research to get better weapons. It’s not required but it’s a nice addition. Other players can mostly ignore this and enjoy a different experience.
The game now has “challenges” that were added post-launch. Sadly the economy in the game is based off not having the “challenges” so in the early game you start to earn top tier characters and rewards so quickly you don’t need to play as much with the Fulton system to build your base up. However, the Fulton is so much fun I found myself doing it just to remove a character from the field and show my absolute domination of the enemy. It’s one thing to kill four guards on a guard post, it’s another thing to come in, airlift all four after tranquilizing them, then steal anything that isn’t tied down before moving on. Personally, I choose the later every time.
I have to say that The Phantom Pain might be one of the best open world games because they seem to understand that concept at a deeper level. In Grand Theft Auto or other games, many missions are “get X to Y” whether it be a car, the player, or something else. You might have to kill a person but whether you do it with C4 or a gun, you’ll likely have to shoot your way to the target through a large mission. The open world is more direction based and mostly gives you the option of which vehicle you take.
The Phantom Pain approaches the open world gameplay differently. It starts it’s missions with a target and a location, with some intel or story elements potential (story associated only to that mission). The locations are static but there are so many ways to attack the mission. There are simple choices such as approaching during the day or night, but beyond that distracting, avoiding, killing, knocking out, or interrogating enemies is up to the player. Any and all of those can be used in a single mission. Even during the middle of an Alert of the base, all those still remain possible, though most become much harder to pull off.
Found my target, what I do with him after this point is completely up to me.
However, the game also is very flexible in its goals. Often you’re required to “eliminate” a target, but if the player decides to capture them, or airlift them with the Fulton to send them back to Outer Heaven to add them to his force, the game accepts that as completion, and awards full credit.
There was a point where there was a prisoner being transported as the main target of my mission. I had to extract the prisoner and send him back to my base. The game intends to take the prisoner from one base to another and make the player have to sneak through a different fortress. I ended up blowing up the tank that was escorting the prisoner with C4. When the driver and passenger of the car that was transporting the target got out to investigate the blown up tank, I snuck up, airlifted the car with the passenger still in it, and then ran away as fast as I could. Mission accomplished, and I got an S rank, and no alerts.
The whole game is flexible and allows the player to try different tactics, and while I’m sure some mission out there has some flaw, so many missions have various ways to complete it due to the systems that are included in the game. In fact, one of the most interesting tricks I’ve heard of is that Snake can climb on containers in the game, airlift the container, and remain on top of it to be airlifted out of the combat area. It makes no sense, it could potentially be breaking a few scripted moments, but it’s the brilliance of the open world system that The Phantom Pain pulls off so effectively.
In addition, The Phantom Pain has a very interesting variable difficulty. If I spend most of my time fultoning guards, guards will start to notice and then eventually shoot the balloons that pull their friends out if they see them. If I use a lot of headshots, the enemy distributes helmets to their guards. Using the cover of night will make them respond with Night Vision Goggles. Each of these changes the game depending on how the player approaches the enemy, but even more interesting is that over time the game continues to evaluate the player, and if you move away from a tactic, it’ll pull back. It’s done so subtly though I’m amazed because it feels likes the game actively plays against you without cheating.
In addition, there are a number of “Buddies” that the player can take. There is everything from our friendly sniper, to a dog, to a horse, and a mecha. Each has its own use and it works so well to keep changing what you’ll bring depending on the situation, or even when requesting support, send in a different buddy if you need to change what you’re doing.
Now there’s more, but so much of this game’s experience was covered in my Ground Zeroes review. Everything is the same as that game, and if you want to check that out I’ll link it above. However, I will talk about the Reflex shot once more as it’s a critical part of the game.
I love the attention and care devoted to the buddies. Here we have Snake on a drive with his buddy D-Dog, who has an eyepatch as well.
When you’re playing The Phantom Pain, if a guard is about to see you, the game will pause and they’ll slowly pull back as they’re about to shout out that they found you. You can take advantage of that moment and shoot them, attack them, or even start to get away while that’s going on. It’s a small window but there’s at least enough time for a couple of shots.
The problem with the Reflex shot though is it makes the game a bit easier, and I prefer it but I do admit it might make the game a bit easier than it intended to be. Once you’ve mastered how to use that small window of time, there are very few reasons for the enemy to ever detect you.
There’s more to The Phantom Pain of course, but the thing is, the gameplay in The Phantom Pain is so ridiculously solid that while the story doesn’t live up to the legacy of the series and lacks a lot of polish, as well as a feeling that there’s missing content, the gameplay is what made me play for 50 hours.
Yes the story should be better, and I specifically call that out, but the majority of the time in the game is spent running missions and fighting against an enemy, using that really fantastic open world experience, and having fun with it.
The problem though, is I don’t feel like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain lives up to the Metal Gear Solid name, the story lacks so much that the fan of Metal Gear Solid in me was angry enough to stop playing near the end. But the gamer in me played 50 hours before that and got more than it expected before I could even consider stopping.
It’s so hard to really talk about The Phantom Pain, there’s a lot wrong with it, but there’s also so much that it does well that I can’t give it a low score. It’s not the best game out there, but it’s so amazingly playable and the experience is so good, that I enjoy myself even on this second playthrough knowing that it would end poorly.
At the end of the day, The Phantom Pain is a good game for surprising reasons and fails at what Metal Gear Solid as a franchise has been so consistent at. Still, I award The Phantom Pain a
I was considering giving it a 4.5 while playing the first thirty to forty hours because as I said, the gameplay is so effective. The problem is the story completely falls apart and as mentioned, ruined that experience so expertly I couldn’t consider it, but I also can’t allow a weak or bad story to really ruin the enjoyment the gameplay gives.
If you want to play an amazing game for its gameplay, definitely check out The Phantom Pain, it’s so much fun, and the Fox Engine that took so long to develop shines. However, if you’re hoping for another Metal Gear Solid tier story, The Phantom Pain will leave you very frustrated. Personally, I’m frustrated with the story, but I would be lying if I said I’m never going back to play more because the gameplay is calling me back still.
Note: I did not play Metal Gear Solid Online, as I was not a fan the first time, nor did I play the base defense mode that is also online. There are microtransactions involved with that, and personally, I had a great experience with delving into either of these two areas, and I don’t think the game requires either one.
Final Thoughts: It’s the final Kojima-led Metal Gear Solid game, and while the story falls apart, the gameplay is surprisingly enjoyable. It’s worth checking out just for that gameplay experience.
Stats: 50.2 hours, 21/42 achievements earned.