The Story So Far: THE PHANTOM PAIN
It’s been five long years since a major Metal Gear Solid game has been unleashed on the public, seven since a numbered release. Famed director Hideo Kojima’s series has impacted the evolution of the video game industry in more ways and with greater effect than almost any other in gaming history. Launching THE PHANTOM PAIN and experiencing its intro sequence brought tears to my eyes, an experience I can’t claim a video game has historically elicited from me. MGS V’s storied development has been unlike any game before it. From its shocker reveal to its tumultuous production process that culminated in Kojima’s expulsion from Konami, it’s been one Hell of a ride. While every MGS title was created to be the last in the series, THE PHANTOM PAIN will truly be the definitive end of the franchise, no matter what may come after Kojima’s departure.
Despite being the premier stealth-game, MGS is known by many, and rightfully so, foremost as a story driven series. MGS V marks both the finale of the Metal Gear series and the end of the tale of Big Boss, following his transformation from hero to villain. Big Boss and his partner Miller establish the mercenary group Diamond Dogs to exact revenge on Cipher, the group that destroyed their previous army and put the Boss into a coma nine years ago. It’s an emotional, personal mission, and is a breath of fresh air from the confusing political capers of games past.
The method in which the story is told diverges completely from any prior MGS title, and its all the better for it. There’s been a lot of talk concerning the gameplay to cutscene ratio in MGS V, and the rumors are true; it’s around 9:1. While there were multiple segments in MGS4 where you didn’t have to touch the controller for over an hour at a time, you can go several hours in THE PHANTOM PAIN without triggering a single cutscene.
Though few and far between, each cutscene is exemplary
This shouldn’t be taken as bad news, however. The game opens with a lengthy story sequence, and the cutscenes peppered through the game don’t disappoint. Like PEACE WALKER, codec conversations have been replaced with collectible cassette tapes that contain world building information and historical context for missions, what characters are up to on their downtime, and what they think about what is going on in the plot. The tapes are far less intrusive than the optional codecs, but at the same time are far more essential. It’s true that many of the open world missions feel like standard military operations, but the game does plenty to remind you of your greater goal.
The game also exudes a much darker, no-nonsense tone than the decidedly more anime-skewing entries in the series. Characters like Ocelot, Miller, and the Boss himself are also toned down. This Ocelot doesn’t meow, and Kiefer’s new Big Boss stays largely quiet throughout the game, finally ditching the protagonist’s somewhat infuriating tendency to parrot whatever he hears.
This is still a Metal Gear game, however, and within the first hour’s tense hospital escape sequence, I had witnessed a telekinetic child, a flaming man riding atop a Pegasus, and multiple smash zooms on breasts and butts. The Fulton balloon system is still as ridiculous as it was in PEACE WALKER, and there are more mechas than ever, including ones that truly do surpass what we’ve come to expect in a Metal Gear. And yes, the cardboard box is back and better than ever, now serving as a surfboard, a bunker, and a pin-up model in addition to its previous functions.
Just another day in a war without end…
As with every entry in the series, THE PHANTOM PAIN marks an evolution in how the game is played. The vast barrens of Afghanistan and Africa are a far cry from the tight corridors of Shadow Moses and Big Shell. The camouflage system from MGS3 and 4, while still present in a reduced role, is now equally as important as the line-of-sight blocking tactics from the first two games. Like in GROUND ZEROES, enemy marking and route planning are key.
Guard AI is vastly improved in THE PHANTOM PAIN. The Soviet army gathers in much larger numbers than the paramilitary outfits that are par for the course, and you often see them using the buddy system, rarely isolating themselves from groups. Soldiers know how to pick their fights, hunting you down when in greater numbers, and digging in and radioing for backup when at reduced strength. They’re a lot harder to shake once being spotted, and they’ll stay on alert far longer once you’ve escaped.
Perhaps most impressive is the way the enemy adapts to the player’s tactics. As you complete missions, enemy garrisons will alter their equipment to counter your favored tactics. If you sneak in at night, guards will start to sport night vision goggles. If you use a lot of smoke and gas attacks, gas masks will be issued to them. Sniping sentries will lead to the appearance of countersnipers, and soldiers will carry scarier guns the more of them that you kill. It’s a genius method of both upping the difficulty and forcing the player to alter their strategy.
Shockingly (heh), one of the more mundane weapons at hand
MGS V has other ways of encouraging players to try different things. The almighty tranquilizer pistol is no longer the juggernaut it once was, as darts will bounce off of helmets and armor and ammo is scarce. CQC and the louder rubber bullets are now much more effective non-lethal alternatives, but require riskier approaches. In addition, killing enemies no longer counts against your final score on missions, as the negative “kills” category has been rolled into a “neutralizations” category that actually increases your point total. It’s a small but important change that will finally convince many non-lethal sticklers to use more deadly methods, such as the all new attack choppers and mortar strikes. While the name of the game is still stealth, going in guns blazing is finally an enjoyable and viable approach.
For the first time in MGS, THE PHANTOM PAIN lets you bring AI buddies with you on missions. You start with D-Horse, a stallion that enables fast travel across the large maps. Later, you’ll get D-Dog, who will sniff out items and enemies, and Quiet, a superhuman sniper who’ll eliminate lookouts during your approach. Some buddies are more situational than others, but all are extremely useful in at least a few ways, and you’d be remiss to go alone. You’ll also get to deploy vehicles that you capture in the field, ranging from jeeps for simple transportation, to tanks and mechs for mowing down mooks.
Alternatively, you can just have D-Dog bite their nuts off
Of course, the battlefield is only half of what THE PHANTOM PAIN has to offer. The much touted Mother Base can be visited between missions and expanded using the funds and resources gathered by the player during gameplay, as well as by friendly soldiers that can be sent on missions. As Mother Base grows, new gear and abilities can be developed for use in the field, ranging from guns and attachments, outfits and uniforms, helicopter upgrades, and better service from your intelligence and support branches. It’s great to return home every once in a while to check in on your staff, as well as to admire the growth of your military empire.
It’s good to be Boss
THE PHANTOM PAIN not only further improves and expands the original formula established in METAL GEAR, it reinvents it. Kojima’s swan song for the baby he raised for over twenty-five years stands as the most brilliant title he’s released up to this point, and is easily one of the greatest games of this generation. If you have not yet picked up THE PHANTOM PAIN, you should do so immediately. It is an unrivaled masterpiece that everyone should have the opportunity to experience.
A final review for METAL GEAR SOLID V will be released once the Konami servers are stable and the PvP functions are accessible. It will also contain my final thoughts on the storyline.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.