Tactical espionage brilliance — Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain review

It’s 0200. Clouds move overhead in the distance, slowly closing in. It’s dark, but it will be light soon. I lay prone in the muddy sludge of an African wetland, as enemy forces pace slowly just a hair’s length above on planks spanning the ankle-high water. I’ve slowed my breath, patiently waiting for my moment. Quiet hums softly in my ear; she has a target, and is slowly notifying me of all the weapons, enemies and objectives throughout the small fortress we’ve infiltrated.

The intel team pipes in. The clouds are moving in my direction and it will start raining soon. The thunder and downpour will drown out my footsteps. That’s my chance.

I pull out the detonator and give the order. Quiet’s shot rings out, downing the closest enemy to me. As the rest of the camp looks up to the mountainous horizon for her telltale laser-sight, I slink out of my hiding spot and detonate the payload. Enemy comms and anti-air radar explode like the Fourth of July, and I make my move towards the docked Walker Gears.

As the base scrambles for cover, I methodically place a Fulton device on each one, airlifting the Walkers to my Mother Base, where they’ll be refitted and repurposed for my private army’s use in future missions. As I extract each one, I count. One…two…three…where’s four?

My screen lights up with an alert, and I turn to find the last Walker Gear is manned and honing in on my position. Quiet tries to snipe the pilot, but her bullets can’t penetrate the armor. I have seconds before the Gear launches its payload of rockets into me.

Yet in preparation for the mission, I packed what I lovingly called “The Backup Plan.” A massive rocket launcher, it has a slow load time, but like Tony Stark’s Jericho, the best weapon is the one you only have to fire once. I unleash it on the Walker, destroying the final objective.

As Quiet lights up enemies, I join her on a mountaintop perch and call in support. We sit crouched atop a craggy peak, raining fire down on enemy reinforcements like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, until our extraction arrives. Jumping into our airborne escape plan, I grab one of the mounted miniguns and cover our exit. Mission complete. Well done, Boss.

Scouting out a base for entrances, exits and key assets like anti-air and comms is key to getting an S Rank.

Scouting out a base for entrances, exits and key assets like anti-air and comms is key to getting an S Rank.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain isn’t quite the cohesive, linear story experience you might be used to, but rather made up of mission after mission of stories that capture the feeling of truly being Big Boss, the legendary soldier. Every dispatch is another opportunity for emergent gameplay, every best-laid-plan makes you feel like Hannibal, every day there’s a new story to tell. “Did I tell you about the crazy way I extracted that translator yesterday? It all started with…”

The Phantom Pain isn’t a game of cinematics and nanomachines – it’s Hideo Kojima perfecting the work he started with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, and giving us the swan song of his many, many years with the franchise.

It’s hard to play The Phantom Pain and not instantly feel the Metal Gear nostalgia swim back. The story opens with Big Boss awakening from a nine-year coma to find out that the threads started in Ground Zeroes have followed him all the way to the present. Cipher is still hunting him, and after a harrowing escape from a burning man and a young child who looks an awful lot like Psycho Mantis, he reunites with Ocelot and rescues Kazuhira Miller from captivity.

Miller is your main contact for Mother Base alongside Ocelot, providing mission updates and advice.

Miller is your main contact for Mother Base alongside Ocelot, providing mission updates and advice.

Banding together, they form the Diamond Dogs, and so we begin to see the years of war and strife between Zero’s Patriots and the newly-dubbed Venom Snake’s Diamond Dogs. After being alluded to in Metal Gear Solid 4, it’s great to see the tale play out in game-form, and it builds a lot of anticipation for the events to come.

Missions play out in instanced experiences within an open-world, rather than within one linear structure. Starting in the deserts of Afghanistan and later the African savannah, The Phantom Pain is made up of two significant maps teeming with outposts, enemies, and secrets to find. Those who wish to can blow through story missions at a blazing speed, but the careful and methodical player will begin to slowly unravel the massive undertaking that is Metal Gear Solid V.

Side objectives like rescuing prisoners aren't required to beat a mission, but can strengthen the Diamond Dogs greatly.

Side objectives like rescuing prisoners aren’t required to beat a mission, but can strengthen the Diamond Dogs greatly.

Side ops and collectible items like blueprints litter the battlefield, rewarding players who take time between story missions to flesh out their forces. Early on, you’re given a Fulton extraction device, which you can attach to weapon emplacements, stunned enemies, resources, vehicles and even animals to add them to your pool of resources for Mother Base, the home and headquarters of Diamond Dogs.

The base collection aspect of Metal Gear Solid V is massive, yet fully integrated into the experience in a natural and enthralling manner. As you capture soldiers and resources, you can assign them to different teams on Mother Base. Research & Development creates new weapons and tools, your Intel team notifies you of enemies and resources in the field, Base Support gives you options like artillery bombardments, and the Combat team can be sent on optional deployments to gather more resources and recruits for the Diamond Dogs. As your base grows even bigger, you can add more platforms to accommodate larger staffs and an even greater flow of materials and extracted resources.

Your gradual progress with expanding Mother Base then gets funneled back into the missions, giving you more options to tackle each obstacle you might face. New weapons, upgrades and tools for all playstyles are available, loud or silent, lethal or nonlethal. You choose how to spend your hard-earned GMP and resources, whether that’s on a new tranquilizer pistol upgrade, more explosive C4 or a wormhole extraction device. Yes, it’s Metal Gear Solid, so things still get wacky.

You’ll need all the options you can get too, as enemies begin to adjust to your playstyle and prepare for your methods. Early on, my strategy was to infiltrate under cover of darkness – enemies caught on to this, and started wearing night-vision goggles and deploying search lights. I became fond of tranqing enemies with headshots, so they shipped out helmets to their troops. When I got lethal, they equipped bulletproof vests and shotguns to combat my assault gear. Counter-snipers plagued my careful vantage points, and artillery bombardments on major roads prevented me from speeding away in a jeep. As the game progresses, your enemies will constantly challenge you, always keeping you on your toes and inventing new methods of infiltration and assault. The only downside is when the enemy deploys the Skulls, a squad of teleporting superhuman soldiers who suck all the excitement and entertainment out of the game and turn it into a game of hide-and-seek.

Patience is key to slowly sneaking up on a guard. It's a lot like that pouncing scene in The Lion King.

Patience is key to slowly sneaking up on a guard. It’s a lot like that pouncing scene in The Lion King.

Buddies can help you with finding ways to mix things up; your partners-in-crime, you can deploy one buddy alongside you to assist Snake in the field. Each has their own particular skillset and methods, meaning that even if your loadout isn’t changing, your methods are. D-Dog can sniff out enemies and incapacitate them, D-Horse provides a reliable method of quick extraction and can poop in the road to cause car wrecks (yes that’s possible and it’s as amazing as it sounds), D-Walker totes a variety of weapons and ammo boxes for quick resupplies, and Quiet is the enigmatic mute who’s incredibly proficient at sniping, covering your every move and taking out enemies who might jeopardize your infiltration. As your bond with each grows, you’ll gain new skills and loadouts, further increasing your options.

This amalgam of mechanics, systems, completion bars and loadout options means that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is one giant playground that you can manipulate and experiment with for every mission. This is emergent gameplay at its peak, in a manner most open-world games haven’t even come close to achieving. Missions I completed one way could’ve played out in hundreds of different outcomes, depending on both my mission prep and the moment-to-moment of the mission. You’ll constantly adapt to changing circumstances, finding new and interesting ways to complete objectives, and uncovering hidden side objectives. There’s never a wrong way to complete a mission – well, besides outright creating a time paradox.

You'll sometimes pause the game and wonder, "How did I just manage that one?"

You’ll sometimes pause the game and wonder, “How did I just manage that one?”

With so much freedom in the missions, it’s difficult to think that Kojima could keep the same narrative complexity of previous games intact. In some ways, that’s true – story pacing often suffers, in part due to the actual mission progression and in part due to player action, deciding to spend three hours between missions completing Side Ops instead of progressing the narrative. It’s still a solid addition to the Metal Gear Solid franchise, and continues the story of Big Boss in an interesting manner, but there’s some problematic changes that you might have to wrestle with.

It wouldn’t be a Kojima production without some crazy monkey wrench thrown into the plot, changing your perception of the entire MGS universe, and there’s definitely some wrenches here. While ultimately not that groundbreaking, it’s still interesting enough to think about after the credits roll, though it’s depressing that the most climactic and significant mission of the game was cut and relegated to cutscenes in the Collector’s Edition Blu Ray. It not only fleshes out one of the series’ most influential characters, but it would’ve been a high note to top off the game. Instead, the ending just kind of flubs out; the main antagonist of The Phantom Pain is little more than a dastardly mustache-twirling bad guy, and his ultimate and predictable demise is little more than an eventuality.

The opening of The Phantom Pain is suitably strange and cinematic.

The opening of The Phantom Pain is suitably strange and cinematic.

The cast of characters is what saves the story of The Phantom Pain, and ultimately redeems the game as a nice carryover into the events of the original Metal Gear. Ocelot and Miller have a nice back-and-forth, and though Venom Snake is surprisingly silent compared to the Big Boss of old, it ends up working itself out by the credits roll. Eli is an interesting character who provides much of the foreshadowing of future events, and several characters make cameo appearances, giving it that “how they came together” vibe that most prequels have.

Quiet, however, is probably the most divisive character in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I found my experience with the character to be conflicted; I enjoyed her brash attitude, her sniping prowess and her cold determination. She’s the badass lady-sniper that makes for an excellent companion to Snake’s unsettling silence, and I grew accustomed to the soft lullaby she hums before pulling the trigger. She is often portrayed in a voyeuristic manner, though, whether she’s caged up in her prison cell in Mother Base, taking a public (clothed) shower in said prison cell, or seductively teasing Snake during ops planning sessions in the Aerial Command Center. I think she’ll be a point of contention for a lot of people, and there’s both problematic and excellent bits throughout her story arc, but I strangely feel like Quiet is as necessary to this game as D-Dog or Miller.

Quiet has some interesting moments, contrasted by mundane moments of titillation.

Quiet has some interesting moments, contrasted by mundane moments of titillation.

Most of the narrative exposition for story arcs like Quiet’s is relegated to tapes, similar to the codecs of previous games, and you’ll find yourself often putting them on for background listening while you assign R&D research, allocate resources and Fulton extract African goats for your personal zoo. You can also grab music tapes from throughout the world, gaining a made-for-you mixtape from Kojima ranging from Joy Division and a-ha to a time-bending 90’s remaster of Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” found in 1984 Afghanistan. Don’t ask questions, just enjoy the tunes.

Visually, the game is stunning, and runs at a consistent and high framerate on PS4. The smooth 60fps and high fidelity of The Phantom Pain is a true modern technical achievement. Hopefully the Fox Engine powering Metal Gear Solid V will get leased out for wider use, because it can really pump out some gorgeous vistas and excellent graphics, while still managing all the AI interactions and physics calculations of massive firefights.

Both Afghanistan and Africa are massive playgrounds waiting to be explored.

Both Afghanistan and Africa are massive playgrounds waiting to be explored.

A note on multiplayer: while I had a chance to spend a lot of time with the single-player experience, the FOB invasions are currently experiencing some server instability. This, coupled with Metal Gear Online’s delay, means that the multiplayer functionality of The Phantom Pain has yet to be fully realized – we’ll update this section when we get a chance to check it out.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the last MGS title Kojima will ever touch, as he’s moved on to new horizons. It’s sad to see someone who has made such an incredible mark on the industry leave his series behind, but The Phantom Pain is the perfect send-off to the saga of Metal Gear. Excellent gameplay, a huge amount of content to explore, top-tier graphics that make use of every byte available and some intricate, complex, sometimes challenging characters. The Phantom Pain is the seminal experience of this year, toppling the competition unabashedly and forging the perfect high note for one of modern gaming’s most iconic series.

I'm a Texas native and graduate of Texas Tech University, freelancing in the gaming journalism industry. I love games, live music, Texas BBQ and sports. Favorite games are The Witcher 2, anything from Bioware, the Kingdom Hearts series and Dota 2.



Metal Gear Solid V:The Phantom Pain

Review Guidelines

The Phantom Pain strays from the formula to perfect a new one, offering the best in open-world emergent gameplay we’ve seen this generation. While the story sometimes falters under expectations, the characters, aesthetic, and polish of this game set it apart as one of the year’s best. Thank you Kojima, for one last Metal Gear Masterpiece.

Eric Van Allen

Unless otherwise stated, the product in this article was provided for review purposes.

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