I stand at the apex of a dusty ridge in Afghanistan.
I am Big Boss, a legendary soldier seeking revenge under my new moniker; Punished “Venom” Snake. I’m waiting, patiently, for a guard within the military encampment below me to finish his cigarette and resume his usual patrol route. As soon as he flicks the still burning stub into the darkness before him, I will be granted a brief opening into the base.
A panicked soldier informed me earlier, as I held my knife to his throat, that my target (a Mujahideen soldier) is being held within a ruined shack in the centre. My plan is to infiltrate the base quickly, grab the prisoner, and escape via horse back. It’s a fool proof plan.
The slacking guard finishes his break, adjusts his gun, and walks casually on his way. It’s time.
I stand up. Covering me from head to ankles is a cardboard box. The front of it is adorned with a poster of an anime girl dressed in a light blue maids outfit. It is, in all seriousness, one of the most effective methods of distraction at my disposal. A click of the left stick sees me break into a sprint towards the steep slope that leads into the encampment below. At its edge, I hit square, and Snake throws his entire body forward. I hit the ground with force. Thankfully, the box acts as a makeshift toboggan, and I safely slide into the mission area unharmed.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain refines the Metal Gear formula for a new generation. As far fetched as the scenario above may seem, it is a perfectly valid way of tackling one of the game’s plethora of missions and objectives. If I’d wanted to, I could have decided to go in from the north during the day, the time difference dictating a completely different set of guards and patrol routes. I could have sniped key targets from a distance. I could have even called in my helicopter to slaughter everyone in sight, wandered in unharmed, and rescued the prisoner without firing a single bullet. The possibilities are seemingly, even after over 100 hours of play, endless.
Gone are the days of tightly designed corridors and a limited set of options for sneaking through them. In their place are a number of huge open areas and a broad selection of tools, weapons and support options available to achieve your goals. In MGSV, there are no right answers. Stealth is, obviously, still the preferred option but it’s never necessarily the best one. With an AI that continuously adapts to your play style (players who frequently shoot enemies in the head using the tranquilliser for example, will be met with more guards who wear helmets in an attempt to prevent further infiltrations), sometimes going in loud is easier than traditional, quieter, methods.
Snake doesn’t just have new guns at his disposal either. Throughout the course of the game, Snake acquires a number of “buddies” that can accompany him on the battlefield. Starting with just a horse (vital to traversing the farthest reaching corners of the game’s expansive locations), the player eventually gains access to a dog wearing an eye patch, and Quiet, a scantily dressed sniper. Buddies, ultimately, bring additional depth to the overall experience and are a joy to both experiment and engage with.
Snake himself, however, is perhaps the star of the show. As an extension of the player, Snake is responsive and powerful. His repertoire of abilities (even from the offset) are extensive and useful, streamlined and iterative. At no point during my hundreds of hours of play did it feel like I wasn’t fully in control. Snake would run, duck and dive exactly when I told him to, and combat is both fluid and slick.
When a guard spots you, gone are the instant “failure” states of previous instalments, in which you desperately scrambled for the safety of a nearby locker. Instead, time slows to a crawl, giving the player a brief window of opportunity to manage the situation without any further consequences. As the series grows exponentially and becomes more complicated as a result, it’s pleasing to control a character as capable and as versatile as Big Boss. You are, after all, the world’s greatest soldier, and it’s satisfying to feel like that within gameplay.
There’s more to the Phantom Pain that meets the eye, however. Although the majority of your time will be spent observing enemy outposts from afar, tagging enemies and infiltrating them in a multitude of creative ways, you’re also tasked with managing your base of operations, Mother Base.
Mother Base is an oil-rig-esque structure located in the middle of the ocean, which the player can return to between operations. By completing missions you earn money and resources, which can be spent on building additional platforms and developing new weapons. Your most vital acquisition however, is manpower. Soldiers can be “employed” by your military outfit Diamond Dogs by either rescuing them from captivity or by extracting them via the Fulton Balloon, an ingenious item that (when attached) comically removes soldiers from the gameplay area and straight to Mother Base. Once there, they are assigned to a number of different units, each one aiding Big Boss in various different ways when he’s out in the field. As the game progresses, you find yourself micro managing Mother Base an obscene amount, the rewards of doing so fruitful yet frequent enough to keep you hooked. It’s an addictive addition to the game, and The Phantom Pain is a richer experience overall as a result.
Rival players can even invade your carefully constructed bases in an online component known as “FOB”, which bears a striking resemblance to the invasions found in From Software’s Dark Souls series. It’s yet another ingenious element that, despite curiously long load times and frequent connection issues, crams even more enjoyment into an already superb experience.
MGSV is a stunningly well presented game, too. Graphically, it’s very handsome, its sweeping vistas and lush tropical jungles a sight to behold. Its sound design is equally exquisite, and its use of licensed music from the era (1984, to be exact) is both carefully curated and thematically relevant.
There is, however, one major flaw that undermines Metal Gear Solid V in a fairly prominent way. Metal Gear Solid is a series famous for its long and tenuous cutscenes and endless codec calls, yet MGSV features very few of either, if any at all. Cut scenes are few and far between, and traditional codec calls are now buried away within a menu, labelled instead as “cassette tapes” that the player can choose to listen to at their leisure. Admittedly, it makes for a more gameplay led experience than previous entries (such as Metal Gear Solid 4) but the game feels hollow as a result. Despite being voiced by Hollywood superstar Keifer Sutherland, Snake largely has very little to say, and it’s Troy Baker’s Ocelot who arguably steals the show purely because he’s given more screen time.
In general, the overall narrative is pretty poor. The final act of the game sees everything grind nearly to a halt, and unfortunately tarnishes the whole experience as a result. Key characters just disappear without a trace, and it’s only since the game has been released that additional cutscenes and story elements have surfaced online that appear to have been cut for seemingly no reason. Whether it will appear in the future as paid DLC is still unknown, but it results in the game feeling frustratingly unfinished.
Also, it would be wrong of me not to mention Quiet. A controversial character since her initial reveal for her interesting clothing “choices” (or hilarious lack thereof), she is perhaps one of the game’s biggest flaws. Her over-sexualisation is puerile, the camera focusing more on her breasts and arse than is necessary, and although realistic representation of women in Metal Gear games has hardly been Kojima’s strong suit, it’s still a staggeringly stupid design decision. Quiet is, perhaps, one of the most interesting characters the series has ever had, and she is fundamentally ruined by someone’s teenage sex fantasies. It’s a shame. A real shame.
All in all, Metal Gear Solid V is an incredible experience let down by some frustrating additions and omissions. The game offers an unprecedented amount of freedom and its player agency is unparalleled by anything else available on the market today, but its unfinished narrative and outdated representation of Quiet stop it from becoming the masterpiece it so rightly deserved to be.
The Phantom Pain is absolutely Kojima and his team’s final swan song, a fitting end to a series so vitally important to so many. Whether you’ve been a fan of Metal Gear from the very beginning, or if you’re looking for an extensive experience that will consume you for weeks on end, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a must buy.