Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review
Welcome to the new generation of video games.
In my mind, there are only two games thus far this generation that would fit my personal definition of “next-gen.” The first is The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt but I was disappointed by its stunning lack of stability and I couldn’t ignore it. While the inherent concepts and scope registered as innovative and progressive, the implementation and execution left a lot to be desired. It’s fixed now (for the most part) but that doesn’t erase the first few months of the game’s existence. The biggest difference between that title and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain? One just works beautifully, all the while awing us with its size, flexibility and raw power.
The Fox Engine somehow manages to capture Hideo Kojima’s massive vision without skipping a beat. This is one of those games that will fool you into thinking a sequence is a non-interactive cut-scene when in fact, it’s in-game action. Given the sheer size and everything that’s happening in such a large area, I’m endlessly impressed when playing: There are no frame rate hitches, the load times aren’t intrusive at all, and everything, from the immaculate and inspired character depiction to the unbelievable environmental detail, shines. It’s a visual tour de force, a masterful combination of ambitious design, painstakingly crafted lines and shadows, and rock solid technical prowess. Just amazing.
The sound is almost as incredible and trust me when I say, a decent set of headphones is mandatory if you wish to enjoy the full MGSV experience. Every little sound washes over you with realistic and engaging clarity; from the bullets that just miss tearing into your skin to the ambient background noises that bring this world to life. And while I’m well aware of the community’s outcry when they learned David Hayter wouldn’t be reprising his role as the iconic Snake, Kiefer Sutherland is no slouch. First, he’s an extremely accomplished actor in his own right and second, well…as much as I’ve always loved Hayter, Sutherland’s voice really is a perfect fit. I think his performance has a bit more authenticity and dimension as well. And of course, the score is sweeping, majestic and flawlessly produced.
You’ll be hooked from the outset. The game starts with Big Boss waking up from a nine-year coma and not a second too soon, because an elite infantry unit is closing on his location. They want him bad and they don’t care who they take out en route to reaching the Boss. This sets the tone for the game, which is must faster and more dynamic than it has ever been in the franchise’s history. Series fans will recall the days of tedious talking between two portraits via codec; that admittedly plodding system has been replaced with a narration that keeps the action moving at all costs. It is, of course, partially due to an attention-addled civilization but at the same time, this method breathes fire throughout the adventure and keeps us riveted. I’ll get back to the story in a bit.
Anyway, this adventure takes place in 1984, eleven years before the very first MSX Metal Gear. The setting is a war-torn Afghanistan and basically, no matter where you go, you’re in the midst of hell. Your first task is to rescue a comrade and start building up the all-important Mother Base. The “Diamond Dogs” are going to throw down against Skull Face (perhaps the lamest villain name in video game history, but whatever) and his army. This will be no easy mission and you’ll have to use every ounce of the Boss’ prodigious skill set and arsenal to survive and thrive. Yes, it’s very much a stealth game at its core, despite the bombastic set pieces and action sequences, so fans should feel right at home.
As is the case with just about every aspect of the gameplay, you do have an option. You can indeed go for the gun’s-blazing approach but it’s not easy and very often, it’s an extraordinarily bad idea. This goes double for the first part of the game, where you’re still in the process of building up your Mother Base. Even so, if you really want to knock that door down and take on the hordes of baddies, you’re welcome to do so. You can support your chosen play style by researching different weapons and tools at Mother Base, and how the Boss hits the playing field is entirely up to you. There are seemingly countless loadout variations and you never know what – or who – you might encounter during a mission that will ultimately help your cause.
This level of customization is just wacky. If you try to ingest and process every option and decision all at once, your head might explode. Hence, the game encourages you to take things slow, examine the wildly diverse situations, and experiment. One of the most critical decisions you’ll make is which “buddy” to take with you; those who have been following MGSV already know about the wolf and the horse, but there are others, too. There are the obligatory aesthetic alterations as well, along with a myriad of tool, weapon and buddy combinations. Perhaps the most intriguing and useful element, in my eyes, is the Fulton system that can be executed in the field. Doing this lets you acquire new members of the Diamond Dog team and these guys can prove super helpful.
There are even distinct differences in how each member of the crew comes into play as you build the Mother Base. In order to be optimally prepared for your challenging missions, you really have to pay attention to how your team functions, from top to bottom: The Intel team can warn you about enemy patrols and inclement weather, the R&D group will try to create new tools and weapons for use in the field, and there are various NPCs that have even more to offer. Micromanagement fans will adore all of this and even those who lack patience will find it interesting and highly useful. The key is that Kojima and Co. made this portion of the game interesting and better yet, you can see the fruits of your labor almost immediately.
Freedom is a pervading force throughout. It’s not simply available in spades in regards to preparation; it’s also evident the minute you set foot on the battlefield. If you want to sneak around and abuse the tranquilizer darts, desperately avoiding enemy eyes, feel free. If you’d rather rely on a heavy arsenal and lots of things that go boom, have at it. But nothing here is a cakewalk because the AI is excellent and they’re not going to go easy on you. Guards will keep chasing well after they’ve lost track of you and on top of which, if they sound an alert, they’re checking just about everything. They’re looking for any sign of suspicious activity and if they find it, they will redouble their efforts to locate you and end your quest. Additionally, there’s the standard assortment of boss battles and colorful characters, so the game always retains that classic MGS feel.
Speaking of the boss battles, I won’t give anything away, but they’re not quite as memorable as boss encounters in previous series installments. That’s just the simple, unvarnished truth. I mean, these confrontations have their moments but considering the wildly unique and diverse boss battles we’ve had in the past, these bosses are a bit of a letdown. Well, they’re a letdown if you do a direct compare-and-contrast and by the way, the same can be said for the storyline. But before I level some criticism at Kojima’s latest work, let me say this: This is still a great plot for video games. It really is. You won’t easily find another game that exceeds MGSV’s story in terms of pacing, intrigue, twists, performances, choreography and writing.
The downside is, as I’ve said many times before, just a byproduct of the open-world structure. As we are continually exploring and experimenting and strategizing (more so than ever in this particular entry), the story inevitably takes a back seat. Almost no matter how compelling the characters are, regardless of how interesting the plot may be, we’re constantly taken away from it. In lieu of a continuing narrative that keeps us involved in a well-written story, we have more freedom. And I’m sorry, but you can’t have both. You just can’t. Stories don’t work that way. This is the only reason why MGSV’s narrative won’t be viewed as one of the best in the franchise’s history, as other critics have already concluded.
However, that being said, I think Kojima’s often tangled web of prose and pacing is actually the best it has ever been in MGSV. It’s almost as if he was forced to scale back on the too-long dialogue sequences and the endlessly looping plot lines, simply because he knew gameplay would end up ruling the experience. Another plus is that due to the game’s size, it will take you a good 35-40 hours to complete, which is a damn sight longer than any previous series entry. That’s the trade-off, I believe: More gameplay and more freedom but less story; or rather, less story that you’ll remember for years and years. I don’t see people easily recalling this plot five years from now but I doubt many will forget the stellar, next-level gameplay.
Even so, I can’t in good conscience deduct a lot of points for the story, just because I think it falls short of previous entries and adheres to the modern style of gaming. Critics are supposed to compare new products with other new products and make those comparisons; as such, there is no game that’s as good as MGSV right now. There isn’t one that can compete on every conceivable level, from artistry to technical proficiency to intensity and freedom of gameplay. Yes, I think there’s a minor flaw with how some of the missions are structured, in that there are some less-than-inspired tasks and backtracking that I could do without. But aside from that, it’s hard to envision a better-developed, better-executed interactive adventure that has almost everything one could possibly desire.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the masterpiece we all hoped it’d be. It’s undoubtedly the best game of 2015 and the generation so far and further solidifies Hideo Kojima as a master of the genre. It’s no wonder he calls this his magnum opus, the game he’s always wanted to make since the inception of the franchise. That’s because the latest – and sadly, last? – installment represents the logical and wonderful progression of a series that first captured our hearts 18 years ago. It’s a monumental achievement that will undoubtedly go down in history as one of this industry’s best. The only caveat is that long-time followers are going to have to reconcile this new structure in their heads; if they can do that, they’ll quickly see the genius and unrivaled playability shining through.
The Good: Impeccable graphical presentation with amazing effects and unbelievable detail. Great voice acting, spectacular score, involving sound effects. Runs beautifully, with nary a stutter or hitch. Excellent, responsive control. Unparalleled freedom, options and strategy. Mother Base is exceedingly well-structured and implemented. Great story and characters. The ultimate love note from Kojima to fans.
The Bad: Story might fall shy of die-hard fan expectations. Some boring, menial tasks in certain missions.
The Ugly: “MGS and ‘ugly’ are mutually exclusive.”
9/3/2015 Ben Dutka