Metal Gear has remained one of the most innovative series in gaming. With cinematic storytelling, addictive stealth gameplay, and an unmatched level of detail, gamers have put their trust in the brand for decades. However, does this latest installment live up to its legendary status? Let's slip in to our Sneaking Suits and find out.
Before I start the review, I should mention that I've been a huge fan of Metal Gear Solid ever since its 1998 PlayStation debut. Every sequel since has left me nothing short of impressed. Needless to say, my expectations of The Phantom Pain were through the roof before I started my adventure with Venom Snake. After over 60 hours later and having experienced almost all there is to it, I'm both amazed and slightly disenchanted. Hopefully after reading this review you'll understand exactly why.
It's already evident how incredible The Phantom Pain's visuals are, but just being pretty to look at doesn't really add up to much. It's the visual effects that elevate the presentation to a new level. For example, the screen shakes violently as you run which not so subtly informs you that you're easy to spot. On the other end of the scale, when you lie down in a still position, the screen dims to give the impression that you're well hidden. Apart from this, one component I found extraordinary is how the change of weather and day to night cycle not only alters how everything looks, but also mixes up the gameplay. An example of this is when it rains since foes can't hear your footsteps as easily. Audio plays an important factor as well since it allows you to sense where enemies are. Nothing will get your heart racing like when you're in the middle of nowhere yet you hear a tank approaching, then you realise it's time to book it! Overall, the visuals and audio are not only deeply involving; they're also integral to the gameplay.
The Phantom Pain's gameplay is unlike any previous numbered sequel. In fact, its formula is basically an expansion of what Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker established back in 2010. For the unfamiliar, this means that you balance between taking on various missions while trying to build up your base of operations (also known as Mother Base). This dynamic may be foreign to you, but after you sink your teeth in, you'll find it difficult to put down because the constant managing combines with the exhilarating stealth missions to establish a habit-forming level of immersion. With all of this in mind, let's explore the gameplay in more detail.
As you take on missions, you'll be pleasantly surprised to see that the stealth gameplay is exceptionally fine-tuned. Although you traverse enormous open-world environments, the aspect of infiltration is as intimate as you'd come to expect. Getting dropped off via helicopter then working your way to the mission area in itself can be an intense endeavor as you cunningly move past enemy bases, roaming soldiers, and even dangerous wildlife. Once you arrive at your destination, completing the objective may involve a wide variety of tasks such as extracting an enemy combatant, rescuing prisoners, gathering information, stealing resources, and exploding installations. Upon success, you generally need to get the heck out of there which is a challenge on its own.
The core gameplay itself incorporates so many intricacies that it astounds me. Series creator Hideo Kojima's attention to detail is what made Metal Gear Solid stand out since the beginning. There are too many of these characteristics to list for The Phantom Pain, but some examples include enemy soldiers reacting to even the most subtle stimuli, the weather affecting your abilities, and how growing relationships with your buddies allows them to better serve you on the battlefield. It's really phenomenal how everything works together to make you convinced that you're actually in the game. Having an enemy spot you only to result in time slowing down while you grab him, hold a knife to his throat, and interrogate him about where the target prisoner is being held will make you feel like Big Boss himself. After playing for a while, it's difficult to get out of the stealth mindset. Once you eventually put it down, make sure you don't go to the grocery store and hide in the snack aisle assuming that the clerk is an enemy informant.
To assist your efforts, a variety of mechanics will ease the high degree of challenge. As previously mentioned, you can take a buddy along with you. These buddies include a horse, a dog, a mountable robot, and a sniper. The horse allows you to travel faster and you can command it to poop while the dog can sniff out danger and goodies as well as kill enemies. Now that's one badass mutt! The sniper does exactly what you'd expect and the customizable robot can turn into an unstoppable force of destruction. It goes without saying that you acquire a massive arsenal of weapons over time and picking the best equipment for the upcoming mission will surely give you the upper-hand. Weapons and tools such as your bionic arm, scope, and Fulton balloons are all upgradable, so the combinations are seemingly limitless. You even have the option to command your helicopter to drop more supplies and bomb enemy forces.
Building up Mother Base is an extremely rewarding process. The level of micromanagement that you conduct is entirely up to you. If you're lazy like me, you'll automatically assign staff members to where they're best suited by the tap of a few buttons. Practical functions of Mother Base include developing weapons, equipment, upgrades, and items as well as sending soldiers off to accomplish their own missions and improving the quality of intel and support you receive. Of course, all of these enhancements come at a price. As you play missions you gather materials, use Fulton balloons to recruit enemies to your ranks, and gain currency that's used in almost every transaction. There's also an online component where you can infiltrate other players' Mother Bases and steal their supplies and staff. Generally speaking, managing Mother Base is both an intuitive and involving undertaking that's ultimately a satisfying diversion.
The Phantom Pain is by far the longest Metal Gear Solid game. The campaign consists of a prologue and two chapters; the first of which contains the bulk of the story told over 31 missions. When you reach chapter two, you'll notice that it's basically made of scraps including repeat missions on higher difficulties and a few story-driven ones. Besides the main missions, there are 157 side operations to tackle. Thankfully, most missions differentiate themselves well through unique objectives and interesting scenarios. However, the only areas that you get to traverse are Northern Kabul, Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire Border Region. This disappointed me since the diverse array of locations in Metal Gear Solid 4 got my hopes up to explore all sorts of areas in The Phantom Pain. What makes this even worse is the fact that they don't differ that much from each other. Sure, there are sandstorms in the Middle East and it rains in Africa, but they're both generally lifeless plains with nothing significant that sets them apart. That being said, within these lands are many locales that offer some much needed variety such as mines, massive compounds, and ravines.
Finally, I should discuss what I found to be The Phantom Pain's most significant downside. Throughout Metal Gear Solid's history, there are many established staples that every title has contained. A great deal of these are sadly absent in Metal Gear Solid V which makes it feel more like a spin-off. One notable exclusion is a unique cast of formidable bosses that are a thrill to challenge and learn the back-stories of. Instead, we get a mostly generic antagonist named Skull Face who you never actually get to battle. Another strong component of the series is the epic lengthy story sequences. After playing through The Phantom Pain, I miss the entertaining monologues of madmen that go on forever and the layers of plot twists that force you to research online for hours after you finish the game. You could always listen to collected audio cassettes if you want to hear some intriguing conversations, but it just isn't the same. On the other hand, something that The Phantom Pain does perfectly is its gripping action-filled cutscenes (and there are a lot of them). Finally, although I personally predicted the conclusion of Metal Gear Solid V, it's also redeeming by how it brings the entire series full-circle.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the definitive stealth gameplay experience. Although you might be let down by its lack of environments and classic Metal Gear Solid moments, there's no denying how incredible of an achievement this game is.
- + Lengthy campaign full of diverse missions and intense action sequences
- + Phenomenal gameplay and attention to detail
- + Mother Base is incredibly rewarding to build
- - Absence of series staples make it feel more like a spin-off than a numbered sequel
- - Only a couple of environments to explore