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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC) artwork

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC) review


"Makes an absolute mockery of every genre entry that preceded it."


Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC) image


The subtitle in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain refers to a phenomenon in which people continue to feel sensations in body parts that they've lost. This is appropriate for several reasons. In a literal sense, a couple of the game's most important characters are missing limbs. On a broader level, The Phantom Pain deals, thematically, with the loss of many things – people, voices, innocence, elements of the psyche. And from a real-world perspective, Metal Gear fans everywhere are now faced with the possibility of an incomplete saga, with important pieces excised and likely never to be restored. Given Hideo Kojima's meta turns in previous titles, I'd almost suspect that he's being deliberately ironic.

For once, the development woes and off-screen politics can't be dismissed when judging a final product. The Phantom Pain's conclusion leaves a number of plot threads unaddressed, and make no mistake – for the game to open so many doors and then just fizzle out with no sense of falling action would be inexcusable in any scenario. But following Kojima's departure from Konami, the entire future of this series has a massive question mark hanging over it, and even if Konami pushes Metal Gear forward, they'll be doing so without the mind that spent the last three decades crafting this story. Had Kojima been able to round things out and finally bridge the gaps between the series' two timelines, this would have been tolerable. But the holes that The Phantom Pain leaves unattended may never be filled. For a franchise as plot-driven as Metal Gear, that's a gargantuan loss.

But the trade-off is that The Phantom Pain is perhaps the best stealth game I've ever played, so, y'know... that's something.

In fact, until the disastrous endgame, most of The Phantom Pain's narrative struggles can be linked to a simple change of focus. Whereas many previous entries were set in contained locations and spanned short periods, Kojima now shifts the series to full-on sandbox status and frames Big Boss's mission as a base-building operation that likely takes months. And with that, the plot loses a sense of urgency. Not that it needed any, because this is likely the thinnest narrative of any mainline Metal Gear to date. It's a relatively simple revenge story, with Big Boss and company seeking justice for the event in Ground Zeroes (last year's prelude chapter) that resulted in the loss of their mercenaries, the destruction of their base and the nine-year coma that Boss has just awoken from. The central villain is revealed to have a convoluted scheme, but your objective is rarely more complicated than to simply amass the forces necessary to bring him down.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC) image


To that end, The Phantom Pain's free-flowing approach to expanding Mother Base feels like an extension of Peace Walker's structure, the difference being that the core gameplay is actually refined enough to make questing an enjoyable prospect. For as much as I like the Metal Gear games when Kojima is firing on all narrative cylinders (which, admittedly, he often isn't), I've never really held the series as the top of its class on a purely mechanical front, bested as it is by the refinement of stuff like Splinter Cell. At long last, that's not the case, because The Phantom Pain feels purposely constructed to avoid every common pitfall of the stealth genre.

The highest praise that I can offer The Phantom Pain is that it fulfills the promise of Ground Zeroes. While that title only offered about an hour of story-related content (relegated to a single location), it gave us a sample of the improvements on offer in the full-fledged release. For once, the legendary soldier at the center of the series actually feels combat-capable, but not so much that he can take on an entire militia single-handedly as many video game protagonists could. That would encourage us to disregard the stealth elements completely. Instead, The Phantom Pain's mission is to avoid fail states and offer players the ability to bounce back from their mistakes, elevating this release above the frustrating trial-and-error that so many stealth games often sink to.

The most immediate addition is Reflex Mode, which slows the game to a crawl whenever Big Boss is spotted, giving players a few moments to take the offending guard out and avoid alarms. On a broader scale, the enemy AI is among the best of the genre, with soldiers behaving with increasing levels of sensitivity as their awareness of Boss's presence rises. Enemies will be quicker to dismiss quick motions and inappropriate camo when they don't know you're there, while throwing off the scent when the guards are actively hunting you down means exiting line of sight and abandoning the search radius – a totally viable task in levels this sprawling. Indeed, one of The Phantom Pain's greatest strengths is its two gorgeous sandboxes and the dozens of strongholds within, a framework for open-ended mission structure in which mapping out a plan is as important a matter as executing it.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC) image


The game also offers an awful lot of wiggle room where objectives are concerned, and I'll give you an example. Midway through The Phantom Pain, I was tasked with rescuing a prisoner who was being held somewhere in a large camp. The plan was to tail the negotiator until he gave up the prisoner's location. I found the guy and followed him until he and his posse began questioning a man they had in custody. I swooped in, took out every enemy in sight, and extracted the prisoner only to be informed that this wasn't the guy I was looking for. Nearly any other title would then take me to a "game over" screen, but The Phantom Pain's response was, "Well, I guess you'll have to find him some other way. And P.S., they'll probably execute him by sundown once they realize that the negotiator has gone missing."

And I did find him. That refusal to shove me along a narrow path sent me into a frantic search across the entire camp. I eventually rescued another hostage (who was about to be shot), and she happened to know that the man I was looking for was being held in a remote location out in the woods. I managed to get there just as the sun was disappearing behind the hills and soldiers were approaching him. The Phantom Pain is full of exhilarating moments like that because it's not afraid to let players believe that they've screwed themselves over and then offer them chances to pull themselves out of the mud.

If I'm making The Phantom Pain sound too easy, its other strength is that everything has a consequence. Suppressors wear down after use, and they don't turn you into silent killing machines, anyway – indeed, one suppressed shot from a sniper rifle is enough to send an entire base into a panic, even if they can't pin down your exact location. And you know how enemies in stealth games tend to have their slates wiped clean every 30 seconds? When guards in The Phantom Pain become aware of your presence, they remain on alert for the rest of the mission. And even enemies that have been silently disposed of will raise suspicions when they're not responding to calls. The only clean getaway is to avoid conflict completely, and genre fans who aren't afraid to challenge themselves will be happy to hear that a ranking system now rewards flawless, pacifist stealth.

Kojima even makes the sandbox elements work by refusing to revert to the checklist format characteristic of, say, many of Ubisoft's recent games. I never actually set foot in either of The Phantom Pain's sandboxes without a specific objective in mind, and the side ops (which number well into the triple digits) are varied enough that I actually wanted to do them. Not that they're for nothing – the game's got a solid economy, since expanding Mother Base results in a bigger staff and more resources, which pave the way for more weapons, gadgets and upgrades. And since The Phantom Pain finds value in its wealth of options, unlocking new items is something you'll actually want to do.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC) image


Above all else, there's enough goofiness here that the spirit of the joyous sandbox experience isn't lost under the grim, often horrific subject matter presented by The Phantom Pain's plot. It results in a product that's often a bit tone deaf, but isn't that one of Kojima's most adorable characteristics? He's one of the few people who would frame a narrative that addresses psychological warfare, ethnic cleansing and child soldiers around a game in which one of the most prominent mechanics has players extracting people, objects and animals by strapping giant balloons to them. God bless him.

So how bad could The Phantom Pain's endgame possibly be that it would reverse 60+ hours of unyielding Game of the Year status? Honestly, you have to see this thing to believe it.

About two-thirds of the way through the campaign, the story seems to hit a natural climax – the villain's plan has been unveiled, the stakes are as high as they're likely to go, we fight what certainly feels like a final boss, and we're even given a full credit roll. Then, for whatever reason, The Phantom Pain keeps going, bringing up new plot threads that it doesn't have time to conclude. If I had to wager a guess, I'd say that the fake-out ending was where Kojima wanted to end the game, but then he caught wind of the fact that this would be his final Metal Gear and made a last-ditch attempt to tie the Big Boss and Solid Snake stories together once and for all, but wasn't given the time or resources to finish his work.

The biggest offender is a character named Eli, who fans will likely recognize as someone who becomes a big deal later in the timeline, but nothing about his portrayal here – his actions, his motivations, his relationship with Big Boss, and his very reasons for being brought to Mother Base to begin with – makes any sense or feels fleshed out enough to justify all of the late-game attention he gets. He's the subject of The Phantom Pain's original, deleted ending (which can now be found on YouTube), meaning his biggest development is just dropped with zero resolution.

But even if the planned ending had made it to the final product, it would only have solved a fraction of the problem. The workings of Cipher still remain a mystery. A major revelation regarding one of the game's villains is hastily unveiled and then never brought up again. A young Psycho Mantis frequently shows up throughout the game, but we never know what he's doing or why. Many underlying mysteries, such as the history between Huey Emmerich and Strangelove, are sloppily addressed through easily-missed audio logs. And above it all, the final missions are hidden beneath tedious fetch quests and often require hazy prerequisites to be unlocked. The "true" ending, which reveals a crucial, lore-altering twist, is tucked away so securely that the internet remains divided on how to even earn it. It's feasible that many will shelve the game without even realizing that they haven't seen everything vital.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PC) image


And thus we're in this bizarre situation where Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is both the year's biggest disappointment but also a stealth game that makes an absolute mockery of every genre entry that preceded it. I know some Metal Gear hardcores who have already decided that this is their least-favorite game in the series, precisely because it's so lacking in the elements that made the previous titles endearing. On the other hand, if you've no attachment to the franchise's plot, you'll be blown away by the advancements that The Phantom Pain has to offer to the stealth genre. I remain somewhere in the middle, my enthusiasm for satisfying stealth and hearty sandboxes at odds with my distaste for incomplete products.

4/5

Suskie's avatar
Freelance review by Mike Suskie (September 15, 2015)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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Genj posted September 19, 2015:

I mostly agree. I mean I absolutely love the game, but I'm kinda surprised by the extremely positive reviews when Chapter 2 detracted so much from the game. I spent 35+ hours on chapter 1 and then there was like 7 hours of padding before the finales for Quiet and "The Truth." There's like what 3-4 new missions that heavily reused assets from previous chapters and you're forced to either spam Side Ops or play through extremely difficult variants of older missions to progress. And then good god Quiet's mission was horribly frustrating and the final mission forces you to essentially replay a tutorial. It's frustrating because this more than likely Konami's fault and not Kojima's. If MGSV had 6-12 more months of development, it probably would have been the best game of this gen. Also it would have been nice if 90% of the story wasn't told through audio logs.
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joseph_valencia posted September 19, 2015:

I don't really care for the story in these games. I just want to Fulton soldiers and develop state-of-the-art cardboard box technology.
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Roto13 posted September 20, 2015:

You never have to play the hard rehash missions. They are 100% optional.
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Genj posted September 20, 2015:

If you don't do at least 1 hard mission, you have to do 3 Side Ops to trigger the next story mission in Chapter 2 each time. It feels forced either way.
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joseph_valencia posted September 20, 2015:

Doing three Side Ops in place of a "Hard Mode" mission doesn't seem unreasonable. Sounds kind of like the Radiant Quest system in some of the Skyrim quest lines. It also sounds similar to final chapter of Peace Walker, where you had to complete two Main or Extra Ops to trigger the next plot mission.
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Suskie posted September 21, 2015:

The game, to my knowledge, doesn't specify how to unlock the final story missions, which is the point I was making in my review -- it's bad enough that the plot ends so poorly, but to hide what feels like a half dozen non-endings behind increasingly vague prerequisites totally hampers the pacing.

Genj, I do wonder somewhat how many early reviewers were burdened with time constraints, since I've heard reports that Konami's "review event" consisted of four eight-hour sessions. And yeah, if I'd had to write a review after 32 hours (compared to the over a hundred I've currently logged), I'd be screaming GOTY, too.
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pickhut posted October 24, 2015:

Just finally got around to reading this. Certainly a review that dives deep into the inner workings of its mechanics, and does so without losing focus. That prisoner search mission was also one of the more memorable moments in my playthrough, simply because I poked through every corner and sometimes panicking just to find said person. As for Eli, he was an "Oh, neat!" moment at first, but quickly became an annoyance when the game kept focusing on him later on. It felt too much like fanservice. The wrong kind. Really cool read.

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