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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PlayStation 4) artwork

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (PlayStation 4) review

"You're leaving now. It's in your eyes..."

As Big Boss and Ocelot gazed upon Afghanistan's rugged, photo-realistic landscape at the beginning of the first chapter, complete with a daunting draw distance, mountains aplenty, and outposts scattered about, an unfathomable perception awaited me; after being accustomed to playing Metal Gear titles featuring linear surroundings for years, it was hard for me to grasp that, once Ocelot ended the conversation, I was able to explore an absurd amount of free space at my heart's content. On a horse, no less. In no time, I was marking soldiers patrolling villages and guard posts from afar, infiltrating secured bases at all angles and heights, from slithering through the grass and finding back entrances, to hopping across rooftops and gracefully sneaking through several houses without bumping into noisy objects. Most of this wouldn't go as smoothly without the improved movements of Big Boss, making this the most versatile incarnation of Snake to date.

Regardless of this newfound freedom, each giant fort, base, ancient ruin, or whatnot gave me a challenging workout as guards heavily paced around vital areas. I often spent anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour meticulously intruding, which usually ended with me getting caught in the most comical way possible; I never imagined that a passing truck from a distant outpost would be my greatest adversary in a Metal Gear game. And when a situation sometimes felt too overwhelming, a matter of wonderful timing crossed my path as days turned to nights, diminishing vision in half... unless searchlights and night vision goggles were present. Grander than that, though, one of the greatest rushes I've gotten out of my stealth runs occurred whenever a random sandstorm crossed the area for a brief period, prompting me to pop out of my hiding spot to wreak as much havoc before it moved on.

But despite the slew of new content and concepts that, at first, feels unworldly for the franchise, make no mistake: this is very much a Metal Gear title at its core. The Phantom Pain brings back nearly all mechanics from its predecessors in both familiar and modified forms, such as choosing from a variety of uniforms for blending in, or being able to stick up a soldier from behind. Enemy patrol routes and AI behavior will feel homely for veterans, except now they're much more suspicious and adamant if you constantly make too much commotion. Then there's the goofy, appreciable aspects, the classic "!" alert phase being one of them, not to mention a nod to the ever-present diarrhea soldier in the form of a cassette tape that you can use to your advantage. Of course, this truly wouldn't be a Metal Gear release without the cardboard box, proving its worth as a stealthy, flexible, and travel-ready beast.

However, The Phantom Pain's biggest influence comes from Peace Walker, right down to structure and flow. Unlike previous installments that basically involve traversing big chunks in one go, Peace Walker started the trend of making players conquer areas in a traditional stage-by-stage design, complete with statistics, grading, and occasional plot development waiting at the end of each mission. Though, since The Phantom Pain is home to open world environments, the game addresses this by placing a perimeter around the main missions. Don't fret much, as you're still granted a surprising amount of open space to use, and these restrictions aren't in place when you're free-roaming while doing the aptly titled Side-Ops.

Another Peace Walker creation, Mother Base, also makes a return to again provide enough content to consider it a game all its own. If the name didn't give it away, you'll be tasked with managing a base filled with soldiers who can create a ridiculously large quantity of diverse weapons and items, or even send some off to distant war zones for rewards. But you'll actually need soldiers first, and thus begins the bizarrely addicting phase of going into the field just to find good soldiers with an analyzer, then whimsically kidnap them with a Fulton balloon that literally launches them into the sky. Man, the number of times I almost ruined a good stealth run simply to snatch an A++ soldier is staggering... One very interesting new addition to the Mother Base system comes in the shape of base invasions, to and from other players, which further pushes the incentive to gather more soldiers and items for your base, so valuable stuff won't get jacked.

It works; the marriage of Peace Walker's template with The Phantom Pain's openness and solid controls. For a good chunk of chapter one, you'll be engrossed with the first dozen or so missions, being blown away by the various ways to complete them. As you try your hand at rescue attempts, plop out of reach from a sniper's sight, accidentally run across a bear, loudly destroy tank convoys under a time limit, or sic your amazing, one-eyed dog on unsuspecting soldiers, it's obvious that a lot of care has been put into how these missions function and flow. Personally, it's quite a sensational feeling because, gameplay-wise, this is the Metal Gear title I've fantasied about, and for the longest time, Metal Gear Solid 3 was the only game to come insanely close to that vision.

But then The Phantom Pain just falls apart.

I can pinpoint the exact moment it happens, too: the final two minutes of the 30th main mission. Prior to this, the "plot" progressed in the guise of a mystery, as Big Boss, Ocelot, and Miller try to unravel the person or persons responsible for Mother Base's downfall in Ground Zeroes, and what they've been up to since. Though not the most original or outlandish when finally revealed, and I wasn't really a fan in which they were uncovered, with either Miller saying the Intel team found something or a torture scene, it still built up to what could have been a dynamic confrontation with said rival. And just as things were getting juicy at the end of mission 30, it was almost as if Hideo Kojima thought to himself, "You know all that plot that's been building up since Ground Zeroes? Let's suddenly nullify its climax and do something completely different!"

Next thing I knew, the second chapter started up, and from there, the main missions completely lost any semblance of flow and finesse, in both plot and gameplay. I say this with no reservation or hesitation: the second chapter is the most nothing arc in the entire Metal Gear canon. Except for, say, one major cutscene that gets unresolved because Kojima ran out of time/money, one mission that's quite the workout, and the (mostly) optional repeat missions with Hard Mode conditions, every other new chapter two mission is inconsequential, simplistic padding. There's even a plot element that gets shamelessly repeated, making me wonder, "Why couldn't this have been fused with the chapter one plot point?" Then, without any type of buildup or hint whatsoever, a final mission just comes out of nowhere, and then the story is over.

Now, there are optional cassette tapes that are obtained throughout The Phantom Pain's missions, which, when tallied, adds to hours and hours of listening material. It is also true that a large chunk of the plot and motivations are explained in these usually one-sided, soulless conversations... and that's what makes it irritating. Why confine some of the most important plot details within tapes when they could have benefited greatly if told through cutscenes? I genuinely hope the answer isn't anything other than the team running out of time. Hell, cutscenes in the style of Metal Gear Solid 1's briefing files would have sufficed.

So, this places The Phantom Pain in a bizarre situation that few other games have achieved: it is both a conundrum and a culmination. In a franchise that is well-known for its unique approach to video game storytelling, The Phantom Pain, especially for possibly being the last of its kind, has screwed up pretty hard. On the other hand, it has also managed to attain new heights in terms of game mechanics, making it the most playable, addicting entry in the series. Even after I trudged through the second chapter and stared at the final cutscene (and before someone assumes otherwise, yes, I understand its message), I still found myself returning time and time again, whether to complete various Side-Ops for hours, beat extra objectives in the main missions, make Mother Base stronger, or build up the courage to sneak into another player's base unnoticed.

The Phantom Pain may not be Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear magnum opus, nor has it the solid balance between gameplay and plot that titles like Metal Gear Solid 3 accomplished, but it is one helluva Big Boss simulator.


pickhut's avatar
Community review by pickhut (October 03, 2015)

Gomu Gomu no Bō...

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bwv_639 posted April 01, 2017:

Astounding review
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pickhut posted April 01, 2017:

Well, a compliment's a compliment. Thanks for reading.

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