There can be a subtle difference between “bad” and “disappointing.” People like to conflate the two words, but whenever the former encapsulates something for me, it’s usually said with no holds barred. A video game that’s bad simply doesn’t receive any sympathy from me, which usually contains flawed design, generic gameplay, and/or a poorly written story. However, there can be another game with aspects like these that’s more disappointing than it is bad, which is primarily determined by how much passion there is behind it. I don’t mean to say that something as mawkish and abstract as “passion” changes how I will criticize something if it has faults that I can’t ignore, but it alters the tone of how harsh I am in doing so. For example, Trine 3: Artifacts of Power is an incredibly average game, but I expressed twinges of regret rather than unrelenting anger over this because it was partly due to budget woes and misguided but well-intentioned alterations to the series’ formula. Frozenbyte simply didn’t have the touch this time, which was disappointing in every sense of the word. On the other hand, something like Legend of Kay leans more toward being bad. It merely passes in a lot of categories rather than excelling or showing potential anywhere; it’s unmemorable because it doesn’t have any passion put into it, but I believe Trine 3 did despite its major missteps. My scores for each game may have been the same, but I can tell you that I struggled a lot more giving it to Trine 3 than I did Legend of Kay.
What does this have to do with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain? Well, it’s something made of sheer passion that has dually outstanding aspects and significant problems. In many ways, it could’ve been one of the greatest games of this generation and Hideo Kojima’s magnum opus, but we have to acknowledge the elephant in the room known as Konami. It cut the game’s development short and awkwardly fired Kojima without any reasonable explanations or decorum. And even though this may have been a significant, outward force that negatively impacted the end product, there are inherent choices in the game’s design and story direction that are less than stellar, too. This leaves us with a lovingly crafted product that’s substantial yet unfinished. Grandiose yet underwhelming. Compelling yet dull.
Because of this, I’ve never had more conflicting feelings about any game than The Phantom Pain. Every time I reminisce about something I liked in it, I’m reminded of something that I didn’t. It’s a two-faced title that I love to hate and hate to love, so after dozens of hours, I’m finally able to collect and weigh all of my thoughts together to provide you with one of the most arduous and perhaps undecided reviews I have yet to write.
Spoilers for Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes’ ending in the tag below! Don’t open it if you would rather read the premise for The Phantom Pain without any context.
Big Boss and Miller manage to survive the Ground Zeroes incident and are taken to a hospital in Cyprus. While the latter needed no serious medical attention, the former flatlined but was luckily revived by a defibrillator. If only this had been done sooner. By receiving no blood flow to his brain for an extended period, Big Boss had been put into a coma, and it wasn’t until nine years later that he finally woke up. His doctor told him he had managed to survive a deluge of shrapnel that entered his body and that there was still some that couldn’t be removed. With no left arm to worry about as well, he was additionally pushed to undergo plastic surgery to protect his identity, since the world had been hunting him down. While showing Big Boss the results of the surgery later on, an XOF agent showed up and almost killed him, but thankfully a mysterious man named Ishmael fought her off, telling Big Boss that he had been watching over him for all those years. When he eventually escapes from all the chaos and other XOF agents, Ocelot meets up with him and explains that Miller needs to be rescued from the Soviets. Much has happened that Big Boss doesn’t know about, but he’s woken up at the right time to find his friend to help rebuild Mother Base. It will be the Outer Heaven that soldiers can call home, a nation partial to no one, free to act as a mercenary military for hire. However, it’s a Mother Base that will be built from the ashes of the past, rising again with a singular motive: revenge against the architect of XOF known as Skull Face.
The start of something big.
The first hours of The Phantom Pain capture that cinematic thrill mixed with weirdness, drama, and action you’ve come to expect from the Metal Gear franchise. It’s grounded in reality with how seriously it treats itself sometimes while pushing the limits of suspending your disbelief elsewhere. It’s something that Kojima has mastered more than any other game developer. He delivers these stories that are wildly imaginative and ridiculous with their larger-than-life characters, laughable scenes, preposterous technology, and so on. Yet despite these things, the world is portrayed and written in such a way that it’s self-aware of its silliness and embraces it without a hint of insincerity. The complicated lore that explains away nearly everything, straight-faced dialogue, goofy items that are used alongside realistic equipment, and breaking of the fourth wall? It’s all beautifully unironic, and that’s part of what’s made the game series iconic. For this game, some of this charm is toned down a bit for the sake of the story being darker and tackling more serious and gruesome material, but it’s still very much a part of this entry. That means there’s a lot to adore here, but that doesn’t make this the best narrative to close out the saga. No, I would say it’s actually the weakest one out of them all.
The start is strong, but missions and objectives that you have to do quickly become lazy justifications for keeping the plot rolling. You’ll be tasked with taking out seemingly random targets and retrieving intel that slowly reveals the next major story beat accompanied with what cutscenes the game offers you. You would literally spend half of your time listening to dialogue and watching cutscenes in every past title, but this one contains more gameplay and less cinematic content. For a Metal Gear game, this is simply strange. It’s like the writers strung thin threads between gameplay to stretch out the story, so much so that you’ll occasionally forget about what’s supposed to be motivating you on or ignore the context behind why you’re doing something. It gets to the point where you’ll be surprised by what should be normal amounts of cutscenes, and it doesn’t help that they’re largely not that long or consequential. I’d be shaking my head at the purpose of some scenes since they felt like mere filler and silently rage about how many cassette tapes (exposition that you can listen to during gameplay) would have made for excellent cutscenes. This could’ve better entertained and educated players about the history and motivations of some characters, explanations for phenomena and recently introduced concepts, etc.
Here’s a moment of a favorite cutscene of mine. The moment Big Boss touches Quiet with an assuring hand after her intense arrival on Mother Base, despite all the reason he has to despise her, communicates a profound (and perhaps foolish) faith in her to prove she can redeem herself. It’s a calming, satisfactory end to a dramatic, long cutscene.
I’d be insane if I didn’t admit that I enjoyed these aspects to a degree. I adored the cinematography since the camera moves, shakes, and zooms as if someone is behind it in real time. Scenes are shot continuously in one take and even the lens are affected by weather and light (lens flares). His visual delivery contributes to the more gritty, grounded tone of Metal Gear this time around, and the motion capture allows for characters to express more emotion in their body language and facial expressions than with words like never before, which is employed well during some moments. It’s too bad that this is leaned on more heavily than I would’ve liked since it compromises the amount of dialogue and exposition you’ll encounter. My mixed thoughts translate to the cassette tapes, which are great for when you’re making a long journey across the open world or managing Mother Base, but there are just too many to listen to. It’s a shame that they reveal a cornucopia of emotionally-charged exchanges and revelations that explain so much. Why? Because you’ll agonize over why some of these provide context after something happens and how some of these could be regulated to mere audio.
What you essentially have is excellent visual and audio production poorly conveying a decent narrative. The potential is all there, but it’s never taken full advantage of except during the first few hours and the odd moments here and there until the end. This is especially evident in Act 2, where the story becomes this bizarre, uneven sequence of events that made me feel like I was in this endgame limbo where I replayed missions on harder modes to access the next important mission, completed random side ops so I could experience this other major thing, and so forth. That’s not to say I wasn’t having some fun doing these objectives, but the fact I had to get to the main content through these seemingly optional things was what I found puzzling. It really speaks for the plausibility of Kojima Productions needing to hurry up with Act 2 near the end of development. It didn’t feel like I had finished the story despite the fact that, well, I did. Snake is pretty silent for a reason, but it doesn’t make up for his lack of character development, and the same goes for the exceptionally mediocre attempts to build up Skull Face as a villain. There are missing pieces and conflicting plot elements that muddle how Snake could’ve became a full-fledged villain by the time (chronologically speaking) of Metal Gear, what was up with this mysterious kid named Eli, and why Ocelot is so different. The Phantom Pain fails to bring the saga full circle. Not to mention that the absence of Mission 51 and a possible Act 3 makes that statement all the more reasonable.
Snake is a…fascinating character that will make you reflect on him more upon once the credits roll, but I wish there had been more to actually reflect upon. I honestly think Miller had a more relatable and affecting arc to follow.
Ah, I’m being so negative about the story! It’s just hard to not discuss in detail, but I want to stress again that it’s definitely enough to keep you going. I honestly loved building a connection with and attempting to figure out Quiet, who you’ll have an epic and touching mission with near the end because, yes, she’s an interesting character if you study her motives and actions (ignoring the eye-rolling moments where she sticks her boobs and butt in your face on the helicopter, which seemingly goes against her behavior anyway). The ways in which plot twists are delivered are cleverly done and the complexity behind subjects like the vocal chord parasites and mystery surrounding Huey Emmerich pushed me to find out more about them. But as a whole, the game only submerges itself halfway in what I thought it would explore with its story’s themes, characters, and events. It’s an incomplete gesture that touches greatness at numerous points, but never fully grips it with a firm, commanding hold like its predecessors’ stories.
The Phantom Pain is, quite simply, the pinnacle of tactical espionage action. Many of the existing mechanics from past Metal Gear Solid titles return, but this is a markedly revamped spin on them all that perfects the formula. Movement is more versatile and fluid, shooting weapons either in first or third-person is seamless, navigating equipment to select takes a matter of seconds, and overall, among other notable improvements, this is the ideal stealth game. As I reflect on past entries, they seem dated and stilted compared to the buttery smooth gameplay you’ll find here. Old favorites like the cardboard box, tranquilizer pistol, and night vision goggles are back in use, but there’s equipment and abilities Snake can use that not only enhances how you can approach missions with more strategies, but also makes sense with the open world design. Many features return from Peace Walker like the INT-Scope, which analyzes enemies’ abilities from afar and can now place markers or highlight threats and key interests. You can still interrogate enemies, “fulton” soldiers out of the battlefield to send to Mother Base, spring up decoys (of several varieties) that can distract foes, and the list goes on with newer tricks like a wall of firearms, different robotic arms Snake can wear (they replace his missing left arm, just in case you forgot!), etc. The Phantom Pain boils down to what the PSP title could have been at its fullest potential on current generation hardware,. I could mention more about the sorts of weapons and various kinds of items you can use in The Phantom Pain, but it suffices for me to say that I believe it is the near flawless realization and final evolution of what the Metal Gear series has built up to after all these years. By changing up your playstyles with a mix of both seriousness and mischievous experimentation, you’ll yield the most excitement out of this finely-tuned, mechanical masterpiece.
Follow the winds of adventure.
You’ll be making use of all this gear when you deploy on a mission or side op of your choice in two massive open worlds in Afghanistan and Africa. The opportunities for how you can approach certain missions can be limited (i.e. you’ll have no choice but to play stealthy or loud on occasion), but overall you can complete objectives in any which way with customizable loadouts. If you want to take out, say, a platoon of tanks by prowling about in your Sneaking Suit with silenced weaponry, disabling tanks with EMN-Mines (they disable them for a brief time) and fultoning them as you’re slowly incapacitating surrounding troops, go right ahead. Or if you want to go all in with a Battle Dress, rocket launcher, and light-machine gun to mow down your foes, that’s fine. Heck, you can even call in your helicopter, different kinds of air strikes, supplies, or buddies to help you out. Speaking of buddies, they can range from D-Horse, who’ll help you get to other areas or escape a hairy situation quickly, to D-Dog. He’s your adorable canine companion that can kill, stun, or even fulton enemies. They’ll all unlock new abilities and equipment as you spend time with them on the battlefield, who are definitely fun to have around, especially when someone like Quiet will actually take out a foe that’s about to spot you even if you don’t command it. They each bring a welcome wrinkle to how you will strategize taking out or getting around the opposition, with the minor exception of when they don’t follow orders correctly.
I’m sure you can tell that this results in broad yet equally exciting ways to strategize your plan to extract a prisoner or assassinate (literally or figuratively) a target because of the open world. Instead of having linear paths with semi-open levels, you can truly approach a small guard post or daunting base from multiple angles in hundreds of different ways. There could be supplies to pick up, blueprints for new equipment, cassette tapes with music to collect, high-ranking soldiers to fulton, new things to test out…the list goes on! Incredibly perceptive AI make the experience even better and more challenging in the process, and while you may think features like the essential Reflex mode (a brief stint of slow motion where you can prevent someone from being fully alerted) and specialized loadouts may ease up the difficulty, they react with far more caution and teamwork to find and eliminate you than ever before. Of course, soldiers may be silly when they fall for decoys or are advised to only be “careful” when seeing a comrade fly away with a Fulton balloon, but this is part of what’s always made Metal Gear’s legacy of grunts equally amusing and hard to get past. I’ve honestly not encountered much games with more logical, believable AI than in The Phantom Pain, even if they make humorous mistakes and reactions here and there.
D-Dog is a wolf. Oops. All that matters is that you can pet him, which is the best mechanic in this game.
The moment-to-moment gameplay may be top-notch, but I mentioned earlier that repetitive level design hurts the narratological context behind assignments. The reason for this is because, again, nearly every kind of mission involves extracting prisoners, getting intel, or eliminating someone or something of minor significance, so emotional investment or story significance behind what you’re doing is low. A lot of it serves to slowly crawl toward brief spikes in the story that grab your attention for a moment, but then you have more monotonous quests for another two to four missions until the next big event. Variety is lacking, which can make you feel like you’re replaying the same missions only with different locales and superficial motives. This helps alleviate this parroting pattern to an extent, but it’s exacerbated by identical side ops (on a smaller scale) that you’ll start to grow tired of halfway through the game.
Much like how inFAMOUS: Second Son recycled a small pallette of boring side quests to do across Seattle, The Phantom Pain falls into the same trap by offering the “disable these claymores” side op 10 times over in Afghanistan, a host of similar “rescue this Mother Base operative” side ops in Africa, etc. They’re all fun to do three to four times over, but familiarity breeds contempt, and this is exactly how I felt about these missions not only here, but in Peace Walker as well after several hours. The latter gets a slight pass considering it was a portable game, but as for the former, this widespread problem that permeates the game shouldn’t exist. Where are the memorable boss fights? Where are the clever missions designed like puzzles, in which you utilize circumstantial items and/or specified loadouts to achieve victory? Perhaps this is equal parts due to the open world nature of The Phantom Pain and shortened development where things had to be recycled, but that doesn’t change the reality of how it hinders the otherwise exceptional gameplay.
This leads to one of the best boss fights in the game, but it’s not with The Man on Fire. And that’s not saying much.
There’s no way I could move on without everything you’ll be able to do with your trusty iDroid. It’s a device that emits a holographic menu you’ll be scrolling through for hours because it’s how you manage Mother Base. While you’re out on your excursions, anything you extract is sent to your offshore plant. Your greatest concern, soldiers, are assigned to branches based on their skill set. If you happen to extract someone with an A rank in Medical, they will contribute to getting injured comrades back in the line of duty faster and allow you to develop more drug-oriented items that can heal you, enhance sensory abilities, etc. An S rank in Research & Development can help produce anything from better weapons to suits, and at a faster rate to boot. With accrued currency known as GMP, supplies, and human resources, Mother Base is a living, economic machine that relies on you to continually expand your staff and production with more facilities. That’s not to mention you’ll also be assigning your Combat unit to missions where they can recruit more soldiers or protect clientele for GMP and supplies, which reminds me a lot of how you sent out apprentices in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. The point is that you’ll be fiddling around with all of this for hours, and thankfully it’s a clean, impressive system that takes Peace Walker’s Mother Base management and cranks it up to 11.
There’s even an attempt made to connect with your soldiers on a more intimate level since you can see them roaming around Mother Base and play as them in side ops. However, since there are so many people and interaction is limited, you honestly can’t become emotionally invested in anyone unless you decide to pay attention to a select few. Over time they’re only worth paying attention to for their stats. I would’ve liked if you could converse with your staff or train with them on nonlethal “challenge maps,” if you will, to test your skills and build morale. However, you’re limited to only doing a handful of marksmanship challenges and having your soldiers salute you on Mother Base. Yeah, there’s not much else to do at Mother Base besides admire it, much like the zoo base where you can visit extracted animals. It’s pointless. Your visits are more out of necessity than anything else, but it would’ve been cool to see more drama to deal with not only in the wild but at home, since I did feel an urge to come back to it because it was, well, home! Alas, that wasn’t meant to be.
Snake can ride a D-Walker with custom weapons, upgradable armor, and a color scheme. Seeing Snake zooming around and ram into people with it is ridiculous. I love it.
I’ll be mentioning FOBs and Metal Gear Online down below, but this covers all of the primary gameplay, which is the most conflicting category of The Phantom Pain for me. Being able to influence Mother Base’s direction by your direct command and actions while deployed truly makes you feel like The Boss of Militaires Sans Frontières that you were meant to be in Peace Walker, which laid the foundation for the towers this game builds on top of it. Choosing your loadout with unlocked and upgraded gear, being vengefully violent or clandestinely quiet on assignments of your choice…ah, The Phantom Pain is so memorable in this aspect, but is sadly brought down by repetition and familiarity. Allowing so many personal touches to how you can play mitigates the disappointment of what you’re given to do. It’s really up to you to make your own fun as time goes on, and if you can do that, this is a game that cannot be missed. If you just want the game to tell you what to do and lack motivation to take advantage of all the customization, you’ll see its major flaws in full force.
I pray and hope that Konami will give the rights for other developers to use the Fox Engine. I cannot believe how well it’s been optimized to run on last and current generation hardware. Even the PC version benefits from much improvements without having to break the bank on top-of-the-line parts! There are never any loading screens while traversing the open world, so immersion is never broken with the naturally occurring sandstorms and rain and changing times of day. The facial motion capture, well, captures subtle expressions very well, and the skin of characters actually looks great since it glisten and react to light when covered with sweat, water, etc. Lighting is an interesting case because there are unnatural effects to the camera lens with large lens flares and bars of light in response to certain levels of brightness, but in all other cases the way it casts on the environment and produces shadows is solid. What impresses me most is that they perfectly transition to gameplay in some instances. I believe there’s a mix of in-game and pre-rendered cutscenes, but the differences between them are minimal. One big plus I have to highlight is that the game runs in 60 frames per second, which baffles me despite the fact there are small compromises made with anti-aliasing, slight texture detail, and draw distance. That last thing is particularly jarring when objects and shadows will pop out of nowhere from far away and even up close in some instances, but it doesn’t happen enough to be a significant problem.
Here’s an example of that interesting lighting I was talking about. It draws your attention to prominent and important elements in a shot, and with this cutscene, the emphasis on the gun and strong, yellow lens flare originating from an area only Snake can see demonstrates this concept in action.
One thing this game gets to explore in great detail is the fusion of 70s and 80s design in a world with advanced technology. The result is a consistent, memorable style that guides the design. You’ll even see visual connections made between the first Metal Gear Solid that demonstrate the beginnings of this fictional world’s 21st century aesthetic, such as with the weirder enemies from XOF that gave me vibes of the cyborg technology you see down the road in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Devices like the iDroid reflect elements of retro-futurism that are humorously contrasted with plain, old tech like a cassette tape player that Snake wears on his side, which, like I said, points to The Phantom Pain being a hodgepodge of sci-fi elements blended with a 70s and 80s touch. With the stylish menus and crisp user interface to boot, this category is a demonstration of how to find an exemplary balance between ideal performance and graphical fidelity that will make everyone happy, no matter what platform you own.
I’ve come to expect proficient audio down to the smallest detail from Kojima. For example, it’s not uncommon to hear subtle things like different materials of clothing tightening or ruffling and voices sounding different depending on where a character is (small room, big cave, etc.). Without a doubt, this entry is no exception that prides itself on the importance of sound effects, especially during its cutscenes. You’ll also love the way navigating the menus sounds with the classic, digitized “bips” that sound different when selecting, moving, and going backwards with options. The music is equally commendable that’s composed by Ludvig Forssell. Many portions of the soundtrack sound militaristic and almost sinister with gritty, digitized sound, heavy bass, and hard strings that vary from being low-key to intense depending on if you’ve been spotted or not. However, there are shockingly tender moments where individual songs or a section of one drops most of the instrumentation in favor of a singular piano or guitar surrounded by beautiful ambient echo effects.
Skull Face is a talkative guy, and while Snake would’ve responded in kind in the past, I don’t believe he says a word to him at any point. I get it. He’s stoic now. But Sutherland is known for his volume and anger in the TV series 24. That would…you know, work with a darker Snake?
The voice acting definitely lives up to its exaggerated past with some villains and heroes being really passionate with dramatic cadence and volume, like with Skull Face and Miller. But there are more subdued voice actors like Troy Baker as Ocelot and Kiefer Sutherland as Snake. Come to think of it now, these are the main voice actors you’ll be hearing the most, so how are they? The first two nail their performances, but there’s something about the other two that isn’t completely right. Sutherland puts a lot of power into his role on the occasions when he speaks, but this isn’t often much to my chagrin. Narratively speaking, it represents a personality change for Snake since Peace Walker, but I would’ve loved to have heard David Hayter in this role, because if he can pull off Old Snake, he could’ve easily excelled as Punished “Venom” Snake. As for Ocelot, he sounds and talks like a totally different person compared to the haughty, arrogant voice you’ll hear in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Metal Gear Solid. Yes, Baker is also great, but the voice change doesn’t fit him.
I know people have complained that The Phantom Pain is an unfinished game that didn’t justify its full price tag upon release, but come now. Even though we don’t have the full story or as many robust missions to go on, there’s a behemoth of content that makes it the longest game in the series. I’d say that I’ve devoted a range of 20-30 hours to each game in the franchise, but even though I only have 55% completion, I’ve put over 100 hours into this one. I haven’t put that kind of time into anything in years, and I only played this game until I felt like I got everything out of it I wanted. There were plenty more side ops and a few more bonus missions to do, but they’re ancillary once you’ve finished the main story and played a good amount of side ops along the way to break things up. Playing with this mindset would undoubtedly grant you 50 to 70 hours of playtime, but that’s not including how much time you’ll spend doing FOB missions and Metal Gear Online.
On my way to steal your swag.
The first thing involves playing as Snake or one of your Mother Base operatives to infiltrate another player’s Forward Operating Base (FOB). This is basically another Mother Base you’ll manufacture that allows you to have more staff as a whole, but unlike your main hub, this one can be attacked by players. To defend it, you set up security measures on different platforms to increase the chances of someone having a harder time reaching the end point of a facility. You can even fight off the other player yourself if you happen to be online at the time of an invasion. If you’re not, you’re given the opportunity to retaliate by sneaking past their soldiers, cameras, drones, and the like while trying to extract as many supplies and soldiers as you can without being caught. This can be a thrilling mode that puts your patience and strategy to the test in a competitive setting, which I loved doing to increase my world rank and bragging rights…even if I’ve raged and lost more times than I’ve won. Remember how I said visiting all of Mother Base is pointless? Well, in an indirect way, it isn’t since the complicated layouts of facilities are what you’ll be invading online, so at least its uselessness is put toward a nice distraction.
Metal Gear Online is what you’d expect: team-based, strategic multiplayer with customizable loadouts and a fine selection of modes. It’s something I’d recommend playing with friends instead of strangers since coordination goes a long way, but I won’t lie that something like fultoning an enemy after having a CQC fight is worth playing on your own for a bit. I didn’t play it much, but I can tell it miraculously adds even more substantiality to a game already bursting at the seams. So even if you don’t touch either of these things, you have plenty to do. Trust me.
Kept you waiting for the conclusion, huh?
Oh, we’re finally here? Well, if I were to say anything about how I’ve treated Kojima’s goodbye to his life’s work in this recap, I would define it as tough love. It’s an undervalued virtue that, when applied appropriately, shows that true concern for someone or something comes with constructive discipline and criticism for the betterment of both parties. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is one such example for me, since it’s a game I admire yet refuse to sugarcoat because of its deep flaws. There’s no question it’s visually and aurally excellent with its balanced performance and graphics, confident aesthetics, persistent sound effects, and phenomenal score. It may also feel perfect to play, but the seams fall apart when examining the lack of objective diversity, bosses, and standout moments that rarely raise the execution of gameplay to creative or clever lengths. This leaves players to make their own fun since monotony will set in otherwise. Lastly, the story had great potential in the beginning with its premise, characters, and world ripe to entirely engage you, but all of this is thrown to the side with poor exposition and mediocre characterization, which is terribly evident in the latter half of the experience, ending a legacy with a relatively pathetic whimper. That sounds damning, doesn’t it? Yet I can’t help but highly recommend this game because I had a blast with it. What a lovingly crafted product that’s substantial yet unfinished. Grandiose yet underwhelming. Compelling yet dull.
Perfect yet punished.