Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

Metal Gear Solid V practically redefines the notion of what open-world gameplay can be.

Metal Gear Solid V feels like Hideo Kojima having one last laugh. The game embodies a particular irony: in what may well be Metal Gear's final outing, the series often derided as more movie than game has delivered perhaps the most impressively deep, dynamic, exhilarating stealth combat sandbox ever made. Just when you thought stealth games were pretty much dead, here comes the series that didn't even seem to care about being a stealth game anymore to show everyone else how it ought to be done. The Phantom Pain isn't without fault, but the core of this thing is so fresh and so profoundly satisfying--and it's rife with oddball Metal Gear-ness in so many subtle, quirky ways--that you absolutely need to experience it for yourself.

An enormous set of tools and exceptional enemy AI make MGSV arguably the best stealth sandbox ever made.
An enormous set of tools and exceptional enemy AI make MGSV arguably the best stealth sandbox ever made.

The Phantom Pain is crammed into the last unexplored period in Metal Gear's enormous century-long timeline, picking up in the mid-1980s as the once hero and future villain Big Boss builds up the army-without-a-nation that will figure prominently into the series' future events. As such, you already know what the inevitable outcome of this game has to be, which is not to say that The Phantom Pain is without its surprises. There are some real doozies in this story. Yes, the game has significantly fewer cinematics than past games, and (wisely) trades in the series' ponderous codec-transmission exposition dumps for optional cassette tapes you can play at your leisure while you play. But there's still plenty of Metal Gear in this Metal Gear game, although much of it now exists on the fringes and in the game's mechanics and systems rather than in outlandish story sequences that strive to one-up each other until they're impossible to take seriously. MGSV uncharacteristically exhibits some restraint at the core of its storytelling, and is mostly better off for it.

Relatively thin story aside, it's mainly the quest to build Outer Heaven--and tranquilize every guard in the world along the way--that drives this game. On paper, MGSV's various components aren't much different from the ones that make up other open-world action games: you breach bases and installations with the same sort of mark-and-infiltrate approach as in recent Far Cry games, you gain resources and then dump them into new weapons and abilities along the way, and you... kidnap hundreds of enemy soldiers and force them into servitude back at your aquatic mercenary stronghold. Okay, that last part is more akin to Pokémon or something than most modern shooters, but the point is that all of these aspects are so much more thoroughly fleshed out and interconnected than in similar games that they form to create a singular experience that's so thrilling and addictive it's been hard for me to stop playing it.

For my money, it's that in-the-moment stealth action that makes The Phantom Pain so special. The game offers you an overwhelming number of choices in tackling any given situation, from the angle you approach the completely open enemy encampments, to how loud or how stealthy, how lethal or not you want to be, to what sort of gadgets you want to pull from your enormous toolbox to use in creative and often unexpected ways. I could write another two thousand words about the many entertaining uses for sleep gas grenades and inflatable Big Boss decoys, or offer you two dozen anecdotes about amazing escapes or incredibly tense super-spy sneaking missions I pulled off, but there's no need, because you'll discover just as many when you play for yourself, and it'll be an enormous rush every time. It's an open-world cliche to say that the same sequence never plays out the same way twice, but MGSV takes this old adage to an unprecedented level. Every time something crazy happens, you'll wish you'd had an audience watching. The game produces an endless series of moments you want to tell other people about.

A sprawling base-building metagame is important when you need to research a plexiglass riot shield for your horse.
A sprawling base-building metagame is important when you need to research a plexiglass riot shield for your horse.

It would be tough to list out all the big and small factors that make every single moment of MGSV feel unique to your own experience. Random elements can have a profound effect on how enemies act and therefore how a mission plays out, including time of day, weather like rain and sandstorms, your angle of approach, and even how long you wait to get things done. That's because the important NPCs in this game don't stand rooted in place, waiting for you to run up and trigger them. They roam around the world, carrying out story-relevant actions like touring an airport or moving a convoy halfway across the map, and the game does a great job of withholding just enough information about their whereabouts that you end up feeling like a master sleuth when you track them down. Those chance encounters lead to an enormous amount of variety and a feeling that you aren't just running through a script carefully built by a game designer, but instead truly plotting the course of your own missions. In general, the enemy AI and the way it reacts to your actions is excellent, and while it initially feels like guards can spot you from a mile away, you'll start to get a feel for how to manipulate them and use their tendencies against them. But just when you really are starting to feel like the legendary mercenary, they'll start randomly throwing in body armor, night vision goggles, and other gear that stops you from just tranquilizer-head-shotting your way through every camp. Back to the toolbox.

But what if I told you that you could instead deploy combat units around the world, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood-style, to disrupt the enemy's supply of all that gear and make your missions a little easier to deal with? The action taking place in the field is already good enough to support this game on its own, but as you start to factor in the surprisingly deep base-building metagame and the effects it has on that action, the truly impressive scope of MGSV starts to come into focus. You'll shuffle soldiers with individual stats, special abilities, and language proficiencies between departments like R&D, intel, and medical to unlock dozens of new items and abilities for yourself, as well as add all kinds of ancillary functions to your map, binoculars, and other peripheral functions during missions. All of these mechanics tie into progression for the "buddy" characters you can bring into missions with you, as well as security upgrades for your own base and security team, since other players can invade your stronghold online. At one point in the story, the game even finds a way to use the base mechanics in a clever, unusual way that has you doing a little detective work among your ranks. Building up your own Mother Base is deeply engaging and ended up motivating me to keep pushing through the game just as much as the stellar action did.

MGSV's is not a typical open world in the sense that there are radio towers to climb and collectibles to find all over the place. It's actually pretty bereft of meaningful things to do in between the major bases and minor guard outposts, although the world sure does look nice, and the openness is crucial to the free-form nature of the infiltrations. But between story and side missions (of which there are something like 200), there's more than enough to keep you busy here. Moreover, if you share my fascination with watching numbers steadily climb upward, MGSV's base-building metagame is likely to bury its hooks deep in your compulsive need to always be upgrading. I somewhat shamefully found myself letting the game idle at my desk while I was doing other things, just so I could keep dispatching new combat missions as soon as the timers on the previous missions had completed. Since you can physically visit and run around on Mother Base, it's neat to see your empire expanding strut by strut (although there's not nearly enough to occupy your attention while you're there). And going back through previously infiltrated installations just to continue "recruiting" new operatives became an appealing prospect in itself when I started seeing more enemies in the field with coveted A++ and S ranks, which naturally show up on your scope in various enticing shades of gold. It feels like one of those slightly manipulative upgrade loops that are so fun and goofy that you don't mind going along for the ride.

You wouldn't believe how much cocaine Ocelot did in the '80s.
You wouldn't believe how much cocaine Ocelot did in the '80s.

The game's online Forward Operating Base mode is a bit manipulative too, but in a less forgivable way. Here you can build satellite ocean bases around the world that greatly expand your troop population, resource-gathering, and other base functions. Or, more accurately, you can build ONE extra base when this mode opens up; additional bases will cost you a significant amount of real-world cash. Since you regularly bump into severe resource constraints when pursuing late-game upgrades and have to watch a bunch of very lengthy timers (some six to eight hours or more) as your base builds up, locking up a bunch of progress-accelerating abilities behind a pay wall is pretty disappointing. It feels too much like the bad kind of mobile free-to-play game.

The other function of the FOB system is to let you invade other players, Dark Souls-style, to attempt to steal resources and personnel from their own platforms. There's a ton of depth to the process of building out the security forces on your own base, and making your way into the base of a player who's spent a lot of time tweaking their defenses is a stiffer challenge than anything I saw in the story missions. But crucially, there's no reliable way to opt out of player invasions once you've built a FOB; you can turn the game off for the night and wake up to the aftermath of a ruinous invasion that's robbed you of a huge number of resources. It seems you could simply refuse to ever build and upgrade your first FOB to prevent these invasions, but since the FOB and its cheap capacity upgrades become available at a time in the game when you're just starting to hit major limits on your main base, this isn't a good option either. If the design weren't questionable enough, the servers have been extremely unreliable well over a week after release. Server trouble can prevent you from accessing single-player functionality, which is just inexcusable, and I've had issues like getting a notification my base was being invaded but then having the game hang, error out, and then crash entirely when I tried to go defend it. There are some great ideas in the FOB mode, but it's possible to come away from this mode feeling more than a little burned by exploitative design decisions and lousy implementation.

Maybe the most impressive thing about this already very impressive game is just how damn weird it is. MGSV is bursting with the kinds of bizarre little touches this series is known for but which you never see in the biggest games that cost tens of millions and take years to create, especially the ones in this genre. At the top level, the game is self-seriously occupied with Cold War-era ruminations on global hegemony and nuclear deterrence, but out in the field you're busy extracting soldiers and assets back to base by comically attaching balloons to them and watching them soar into the sky, while the strains of "Maneater" emanate from your cassette player. You're pulling up a radial menu to order your horse to poop on command (which, yes, has a relevant gameplay use). You're inflating Big Boss decoy standees that spout catchphrases to distract guards. There's a zoo in your sea base where all the animals you've extracted live. Your dog companion wears an eyepatch. There's a deeply goofy sense of humor around the edges of the game that's made more refreshing by its contrast with the solemn, high-stakes tone of the core storyline. For me, Metal Gear got predictable and a little boring when it lost all restraint and went full anime in past games. Here, it keeps you guessing with those constant shifts in tone, and frequently surprises you.

Want to drive a bipedal robot that can body slam enemies? Play this game.
Want to drive a bipedal robot that can body slam enemies? Play this game.

In the same vein, MGSV's narrative structure is quite unlike anything I've seen in any other big-budget game, with the possible exception of other Metal Gear Solid games. This is the series that gave us the Raiden bait-and-switch, so it shouldn't be surprising to say that there are tremendously unconventional elements in the way this game is laid out, how the story is presented, and how missions connect to one another. The game plays on your expectations and perceptions in a handful of ways; some of those moments struck me as brilliant, while others felt unearned by the story and fell a little flat for me. It's impossible to objectively say whether all this is good or bad, since the way you react to these things will entirely come down to your own personal taste and interpretation. Discovering that stuff for yourself is most of the fun, so I'll leave it there, but, just, look. The game is amazing in a lot of strange and unusual ways that most games just plain aren't.

The Phantom Pain is a game I can't stop thinking about and didn't want to end. How this immense accomplishment in game design came from Kojima Productions, a studio helmed by a guy who always seemed like he was more interested in directing movies than making games, is completely beyond me. The unfortunate strife between Kojima and Konami has been well documented in the rumor mill, so maybe The Phantom Pain is a game too offbeat and beautiful to exist after all. What a swan song, though. The handful of things I wish were better about this game pales next to all the things it does better than any similar game on the market. It left me feeling inspired and excited about the future of open-ended, mechanics-driven video games, and I hope it isn't another seven years before we see its like again.

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