Note: The only Metal Gear game I’ve ever played aside from this is Ground Zeroes, and a spoiler discussion will take place towards the end of this review.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a monumental game in practically every way possible. Being a product of the Kojima/Konami split, one could be forgiven for being cautious about the game, when all the news surrounding it for the past three months has been doom and gloom. But MGSV stands tall, a proud accomplishment for Kojima and his crew, and a true Game of the Year contender.
The Phantom Pain isn’t afraid to throw players in the deep end, completely disregarding whether or not they’re new to the series. And thank god for this, because the opening hour of Metal Gear Solid V is one of the most tense, haunting experiences I’ve had in a game in a long, long time. Big Boss awakens from the coma he suffered at the end of Ground Zeroes, the standalone predecessor to this game, and is immediately hunted throughout the labyrinthine corridors of the hospital by both XOF soldiers and a supernatural child, as well as his partner, the ‘Man on Fire’.
The tension never lets up throughout this fantastic sequence, and you can truly see exactly where Kojima put the $85 million he was handed by Konami, as the game runs in a native 1080p 60FPS, making it look absolutely beautiful. I could rant about the opening for hours, but in all, it effectively encases the player in an iron grasp, challenging them to delve deeper into the world and the lore surrounding the game.
While we’re on the subject of the story, the plot somewhat gets pushed aside to make way for the gameplay throughout the rest of The Phantom Pain, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since it’s clear Kojima has heavily studied the criticisms of the previous Metal Gear games and chose to focus more on the action in The Phantom Pain. The plot is essentially split into two chapters, the first one focussing on revenge on Skull Face for the destruction of Mother Base nine years ago in Ground Zeroes, and the second focussing on… Not much.
Skull Face is neither a terrifying nor a particularly menacing villain throughout the first chapter of The Phantom Pain, and while James Horan gives a solid performance as the antagonist, he never really comes off as a major threat. This is mainly due to the fact that Skull Face never actually gets a significant amount of screen time in the first chapter of the game, and while the plot chooses to focus on building up Mother Base throughout the first 15 or so missions, the focus is then suddenly thrust back on Skull Face for the final few missions, making his motivations feel particularly hollow.
The second chapter of the plot really doesn’t fare much better than the first, once again due to a severe lack of focus. It chooses to divide its time between Huey, Quiet and Eli, but never gives either character the focus they truly deserve. All of the aforementioned are painted as villains by Kaz Miller, while Revolver Ocelot tries to be the calming influence on you, but since the game features no actual choice system, the debates surrounding the character’s motivations feel slightly redundant. Chapter two in particular feels incredibly unresolved, but more on that later.
To counterbalance the lack of an actual plot, the characters of Metal Gear Solid V feel particularly deep and well written, if somewhat underutilised. Each has a distinctive personality: Miller and Ocelot are the constantly bickering advisers, each trying to influence Big Boss with their own world views, while Quiet, Huey and Eli are all intriguing mysteries waiting to be solved. Its the characters that undoubtedly carry the plot forward and ultimately help you to become fully immersed in the world surrounding you.
The acting in Metal Gear Solid V is also fantastic, and yet another attribute that helps solidify each character’s personality. There was a certain amount of contempt from fans of the series coming into this game for Keifer Sutherland, who was chosen to replace long time Snake actor David Hayter in the role. However, Sutherland delivers a great performance when the script actually allows Snake to speak up, and other great performances from veteran video game actors Troy Baker and Robin Atkin Downes really bring both Ocelot and Miller to life.
You’ll see a picture of Quiet above, and you’ll perhaps wonder why Kojima chose to dress, or not dress her, in such a way. There’s an actual plot reason for the way she dresses, but it’s complete rubbish to say the least, and you feel as though Kojima might have just cobbled it together when he saw the backlash on the horizon as a way to potentially save face. There’s even an outfit you can acquire for Quiet in the latter stages of the game that completely disregards the rules set in place by this plot point, and this lends a particularly redundancy to the character, which is even more unfortunate considering how much of a mystery the plot sets her up to be.
While the story of the game isn’t told in the most artistic way, the gameplay is the true selling point of Metal Gear Solid V. When Kojima said you could approach any mission from absolutely any angle, he wasn’t lying, and you really get a sense that the game wants you to be an experimental as possible in your approach to each mission. The Phantom Pain essentially gives you all the tools for a mission, only to let you run free in deciding how to use said tools in any given situation, and the result is complete creative freedom.
Thankfully, there also isn’t such as emphasis on getting an S rank in each mission, as players will still be awarded a significant amount of currency for completing any given mission. This really helps the flow of the game, as sticking to stealth is never something that’s forced upon the player and results in true freedom within the wide open maps of both Afghanistan and Africa.
The missions themselves are also fantastically varied, something that you might not expect from your average stealth based game. Different story missions can range from securing intel in an enemy outpost to destroying an entire legion of tanks, all the while still giving the player the freedom to approach these missions in any way they please. All 157 of the Side Ops missions are brilliantly designed and give players the great chance to experiment with any given weapon they like, as there are never any performance based scores tied to these missions.
Throughout the monumental game that is Metal Gear Solid V, the Mother Base always acts as a home to you, challenging you to build up the strength of your units stationed there, and then send them out on missions. While out in the field, the player can fulton extract any enemy (still breathing) to Mother Base, and the staff are then graded on their attributes and assigned to work in a certain field for you.
The micromanagement in this system is really well designed, and succeeds in giving players a true feeling of control and accomplishment over their Mother Base. With a powerful fighting squad, you can send them out on different missions to gain resources for you, while a highly skilled R&D division can construct new weapons and gadgets for you to use out in the field. Kojima really succeeds in making Mother Base a home base for your war operations and consistently gives you the feeling that you’re making a difference with your own personal army.
This is all particularly emphasised when the plot shifts its focus in chapter two to focus on an epidemic at Mother Base and how it affects each one of your soldiers. One could argue that this is the high point of the plot, and without going into further detail – really shows Big Boss’ descent into villainy that so many people were eager to see played out, and makes for a massively emotional sequence for the majority of the cast of The Phantom Pain. Is this moment undercut by the huge twist that takes place at the end of the game? Perhaps, but it’s still once hell of a scene.
Which bring us to the end of the plot, and the spoiler discussion about what makes it great – and not so great. So, it turns out that players weren’t actual playing as Big Boss, but rather as a decoy installed by both the real Big Boss, and Ocelot. The ‘Phantom’ Big Boss was left to clean up the mess in the Middle East with Skull Face, while the real Big Boss departed for South America, to build up his Outer Heaven army for future fights in the Metal Gear series.
It transpires that Ishmael, the bandaged patient who saved you back in the hospital intro, is the real Big Boss, and you were originally the medic seen at the end of Ground Zeroes, before undergoing surgery in order to impersonate the real Big Boss. All this is done without the medic’s knowledge, and he simply assumes that he is the real Big Boss, confirming Ocelot’s theory that the character of Big Boss has become such an international icon that anyone can assume the role.
There are several distinct problems I have with this ending. Firstly, it undercuts entirely the sense of villainy that the character of Big Boss is meant to be transitioning into prior to the first Metal Gear game, something that was previously beautifully illustrated in the epidemic sequence on Mother base in chapter two. Snake being forced to put down his own soldiers is a heartbreaking moment, almost completely ruined by the revelation that the finale presents us with. Although you really get the sense that you’re becoming the icon of Big Boss, the feeling would’ve worked so much better on the actual character.
Secondly, the unwritten rule of plot twists is that they must make logical sense in order to be both successful and have an impact on you, but does this twist actually make any logical sense? Ocelot is meant to have hypnotised the medic into believing his is the real Big Boss, but does this actually give him the fighting skills and the physique to become the legend? Also, I don’t really understand how Ocelot is meant to have hypnotised the medic if he was in a coma for nine straight years prior to the events of The Phantom Pain, but I guess you really have to suspend your disbelief of anything in this universe after seeing the floating psychic child at the beginning of the game.
There are also several plot threads that are left entirely unsolved at the conclusion of the game. Eli and the children from Africa previously fled from Mother Base, along with the Sahelanthropis nuclear weapon, and this plot point is entirely absent from the finale of the game. Yes, I’ve seen the ‘mission 51’ online, and how it concludes the Eli plot point, but I’m amazed it wasn’t included in the actual game and was cut by either Kojima or Konami. In addition to this, the absent mission 51 gives more of a personality and motivation to the psychic child, which really would’ve been a welcome addition to the game.
All in all, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a fantastic game, but not without its key flaws. While the emphasis of the game is placed on the great open world exploration and combat, the plot of the game is pushed aside, with the ending feeling unresolved and slightly unsatisfying, which is a complete injustice for the many deeply written characters involved. This is great game made by the true mastermind that is Hideo Kojima, but it just falls slightly short of achieving the legendary status it deserves.