Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is both one of the most fun and most frustrating experiences I’ve had with a video game. At times incredibly brilliant, at others, undeniably stupid.
I’ll start up front with the plot, since that’s fairly important in a Metal Gear game – never before has it felt so much like the plot doesn’t matter.
The game’s plot kicked off in the first part of MGSV, released as Ground Zeroes around the launch of the new generation of consoles. Big Boss – the main character, also known as Snake – has built up a reputation as the leader of Militaires Sans Frontiers, a large-scale private military company. In 1975, however, while Snake is on a mission to rescue a young child named Chico, and capture an enemy agent named Paz, MSF is invaded. MSF is destroyed, Chico and Paz are killed, and Snake ends up in a coma.
Nine years later he wakes up, and the hospital he is in is attacked, leaving him to escape with the help of a man known only as Ishmael. After his escape, he encounters Ocelot, last seen in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater as an enemy agent. Here, he is an ally, and helps Snake to return to the battlefield after nine long years, rebuild his private army, and strike back against those who took everything from him.
Not terribly much is accomplished over the course of Metal Gear Solid V, though, other than people getting angry about things and some vague setups that don’t seem to go anywhere. Excited about new series villain Skull Face? Well, don’t be – he’s about on par with Hot Coldman from Peace Walker for “actual story impact.”
Cutscenes are also rather sparse – most information is relayed through cassette tapes handed out over the course of the game, with particularly important ones highlighted so you know to check those out for context. This isn’t something I’m opposed to, actually – it’s a nice way to get all the story information you need, while still acting in the game world and doing things. I’ve found myself listening to them whenever I’m crossing large areas of the game world – say, when travelling from Side Op to Side Op. Would more cutscenes have been nice, absolutely – especially after the harrowing experiences of Ground Zeroes, which nothing in this game really comes close to – but the cassette tapes, I don’t mind. It’s much better than in Peace Walker, anyway, which also had the cassette tapes, but you couldn’t listen to them during missions.
Also, why go to the trouble of hiring a new actor for Snake – Kiefer Sutherland – and not really using him? Granted, Big Boss isn’t super-talkative, and his stoicism is fairly justified in this game, but Sutherland has by far the fewest lines out of the whole cast, and he’s playing the main character. It’s just a bit odd, that’s all.
Alright. So that’s all out of the way. The story, overall, pretty disappointing, but I’m willing to let that slide if the gameplay’s good. After all, I’ve never actually thought Metal Gear had the most… coherent script anyway, but at least they deliver on my tactical stealth espionage.
And this game delivers quite well.
The big change to the game this time around is that your adventure takes place in a fully open world – unlike previous games where areas were chopped up into bite-size chunks with noted barriers and paths laid out, this time around you’re given total free reign to explore, plan, and attack however you wish over two absolutely gigantic areas.
The landscape is very wide open, peppered with enemy outposts large and small. Smaller outposts tend to have a way to simply go around them, while larger outposts often need to be moved through at some risk of being seen. The name of the game is still stealth – 90% of the time, you’re trying to avoid confrontation, so finding the path of least resistance is, as ever, the best option, if not necessarily the fastest.
To fill in this open world, there’s a lot of stuff to find. Outposts are filled to the brim with resources you can capture and bring back to your new private army called Diamond Dogs. Anything and everything you capture goes to bolstering Mother Base. Resources, diamonds, weapons and vehicles, prisoners of war and even enemy soldiers, they’re all fair game as long as they’re not bolted to the ground.
Yes, I said enemy soldiers. Your binoculars in this game serve a dual purpose – first, they can “mark” an enemy so you can see them through walls when you stand still, and at the very least see a marker indicating how far away they are and their general position relative to you.
The other use for your binoculars is an analyzer that shows you the soldier’s stats. Ranked anywhere from E to the best, S++, early on these stats mean very little – you need as much manpower as you can get. Later on, however, as your Mother Base fills up and you need better men to get better equipment, those stats will start meaning a lot and you’ll start being rather picky with who you take back to Mother Base with you.
After all, you can’t take everyone – your method of capturing most resources that aren’t briefcases or diamonds is the Fulton Recovery System. A hilariously over-the-top dramatization of the real life thing, kidnapping men is as easy as attaching them to a balloon, watching them float around for a moment or two, and then seeing them rocket off into the sky to be grabbed by a helicopter – it quickly gets even more absurd as you start doing the same to gun emplacements, jeeps, trucks, tanks, shipping containers, and bears.
Balloons are limited resources, however (and they also cost money to use every time – larger objects require larger amounts of money). While you can also use your helicopter to drop men into, it’s a much longer, more drawn out process, and you’re open to being attacked should anyone notice you while you’re doing it.
Either way, it adds a rather interesting twist to the standard “stealth and avoid confrontation” gameplay the series is known for. As enemy combatants are your main method of staffing Diamond Dogs, you’re now encouraged to invade as many outposts and capture as many men as possible in order to upgrade your equipment. Eventually, it hits the point where you’re sneaking, planning a way around all the guards, and then you see an orange “S-Rank” bar in the analyzer and sirens go off in your head, and all of a sudden your main objective has changed from getting around the soldiers to getting through them just to make sure you can Fulton that one guy who’s really really good.
It’s odd, and it’s fun. It also reinforces using non-lethal weaponry – after all, dead soldiers can’t work for you. At the same time, attempting to capture guards inevitably puts you in close proximity to them, increasing the odds of you being caught – and then a firefight opens up, and none of your non-lethal weaponry are particularly effective in firefights. It makes avoiding being seen that much more critical – it actively affects your ability to progress through the Mother Base part of the game.
CQC makes a return, and it’s better than ever. Much like in previous games, you can grab soldiers in order to interrogate them, you can hold them up, or you can simply throw them, or you can go total kung-fu master on them and knock them out with a brutal-looking combo. These all have their own benefits – they all save ammo, which are often scarce in the beginning of the game and in case you don’t want to spend the GMP to call in a supply drop just to deal with a few dudes. Some CQC methods also knock out soldiers for longer than simply tranqing them – and you also have a bionic arm running punch that uses the “six-million-dollar-man” sound effect.
Fighting large groups of soldiers in this game is a bit more of a death sentence this time around, though. Enemies are smart, accurate, and relentless – they’ll surround you, call in reinforcements, light flares, and even go as far as using mortars on you if they’re available. Even if you lose track of them, they’ll search the area for you, and remain on heightened alert for a rather long time afterwards, where many of your usual tactics will not work as effectively as they normally do.
The game includes a mechanic called “Reflex Mode,” however. If you’re spotted outright, you’re given a handful of slow-mo seconds to eliminate the guy who caught you before he can radio in. This makes the game a bit easier for those who are new to the series – however, veterans may find this interrupts the pace a bit, or just prefer to play without it as I do. You get a score bonus for never using it in a mission, and it can be turned off.
Staying stealthy might be more difficult, but not unmanageable. As usual, staying low to the ground is the best option when near soldiers, however unlike previous games you have an infinite number of empty magazines to toss around, luring soldiers into more vulnerable positions. Guards aren’t terribly stupid – they’ll catch on to what you’re doing eventually – however it still works pretty much all the time.
Other tools like good camouflage and, as usual, the cardboard box will bolster your sneakiness. The cardboard box also has a number of new tricks this time around, and the cigar also gets some use this time around, other than being a method for killing yourself (which it does not do in this game) – smoking it increases Snake’s perception of time, allowing you to advance the clock to an hour of your preferred sneaking, or force enemies into Normal Phase. It’s a handy feature, and supplements the open-world experience from the perspective of Metal Gear.
Out of all this though, even though it’s a LOT of fun, the game’s pretty repetitive. Pretty much every single mission boils down to “find/destroy/kill/extract this.” To be fair, this is a problem the series has always had in my opinion – it’s pretty much doing the same thing in every map – sneaking around soldiers – until you hit a scripted event. It does get progressively more difficult and soldiers will adapt to your particular strategies, however.
It’s even more noticeable here though, what with the general lack of cutscenes, and the fact that you don’t have to return to Mother Base that often, and… there’s not a lot of boss fights, either. And what ones there are can be defeated rather easily with some lateral thinking. There’s one in particular against a sniper. You can either have a drawn-out battle like in Metal Gear Solid 3 against a sniper that’s just better than you are… or you can mark her, call in a supply drop on top of her, and then keep poking your head out of cover to keep her attention on you and not the box that’s about to cave in her skull and have the mission done in about ten minutes.
Buddies can also make things a little on the easy side, in particular D-Dog and Quiet. D-Dog, aside from being absolutely adorable…
He can mark all enemies in a certain radius from him, distract enemies, attract them to your position by barking, or even attack to kill or stun them with the right equipment. He’s extremely good.
Quiet, on the other hand, is a sniper you can send out on recon assignments or provide cover fire for you. Aside from her design being silly, she can permanently mark enemies while on recon (but there’s the chance she’ll miss one), and she has so many sniper commands, she’s also extremely good.
They’re the two buddies you’ll get the most use out of, aside from D-Horse who acts as pretty good transportation and can poop on roads to make vehicles spin out (seriously). There’s another buddy, but I never used them, so I’ve no idea what to say about them.
You can also actually visit Mother Base this time around, running up to your soldiers to have them salute you and increase morale, which actually increases their stats temporarily. They even like it when you beat them up – some will openly invite it, and again, this makes them a better soldier. And Big Boss is nothing if not an equal opportunities employer – both men and women staff Mother Base.
But now it’s time to talk about what I found incredibly frustrating about this game besides the story – the online.
The game has a player-vs-player system, called FOB Missions. After a certain point in the game you’re instructed to build a Forward Operating Base – essentially a second Mother Base, complete with staff and resource gathering. On the one hand, this provides a massive boon since you can effectively double or even triple the amount of staff you have, letting you reach higher staff levels with simply more amounts of not-as-good staff members.
The problem is that your FOB is a target for other players to invade, as theirs is for you. So begins a complex game of invading another player’s territory, sneaking through without being detected and stealing their resources. If you’re captured, the opponent has an opportunity to spawn on the map if they’re currently playing and then attack you, and the opponent can launch a revenge mission to attack you.
On the one hand this is pretty cool and fun and nifty, but there’s no way to simply “opt out” once you’ve accepted the online terms of service. You can go into “offline mode” to not have to deal with this silliness and somewhat longer load times, but a recent update to the game made this… not so ideal.
The most recent version of the game adds an “online inventory.” Right now, you’re probably thinking, “Oh! So I can choose what stuff I store on my FOB and it gives me even more storage. Neat!”
No. What it actually means is about two-thirds to ninety percent of your resources get locked into online escrow if the connection so much as sneezes. Do you have a choice in this? No. It’s forced upon you before the FOB nonsense even comes into play. Get disconnected? Or is Konami doing server maintenance? Well, screw you – say goodbye to nearly all your money, resources, and guns.
All to sell “FOB Insurance” through microtransactions, which basically amounts to “oh they stole copies of your stuff just kidding.” Except your staff still die.
It’s idiotic, and absurd, and exemplary of why I choose to opt out of the online from now on. I shouldn’t be punished because I want to play the game in offline mode and not deal with the PvP nonsense that is now actively player-hostile. The consequences of invasions are relatively minor to begin with – all your absolute best staff and the majority of your resources are stored on your main Mother Base, so any losses are easily recouped by simply playing more of the game. FOB Insurance is patently worthless.
So what’s the final verdict on Metal Gear Solid V? Overall, as far as the stealth gameplay goes, it’s the best in the series. The open world enhances the experience and the Mother Base metagame makes stealth and subterfuge even more key to advancing. The story, however, is relatively inconsequential, and Chapter 2 is 70% remixes of previous missions except harder (like no items and don’t get seen – yeah they go there). Chapter 3 just doesn’t exist, leaving the game on a ridiculous cliff-hanger that needs a lot of explaining.
It definitely feels like something’s missing.
So I guess “The Phantom Pain” is aptly named.