The end of an era is upon us. Hideo Kojima, the talented mastermind behind the Metal Gear saga has finally made what appears to be his last game in the series, more than 25 years after its inception. On many an occasion he has stated that the last title in the franchise had been released, and yet somehow he would always emerge years later with a brand new game, much to the delight of his fans.
However, this time a falling out with publisher Konami appears to have put paid to hope of any further surprises. In an almost poetic twist of fate, Kojima’s final undertaking is as bittersweet as some of the lead characters in his creations, left to carry out one last mission despite knowing the inevitable end it will bring.
Though Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain may be the last of it’s kind, it is not in fact the last chronological entry in the game’s timeline. Set in 1984, it falls somewhere near the middle of this grand storyline of intrigue. You take control of the legendary protagonist Big Boss (known in this game as “Venom” Snake), as he attempts to seek revenge for events that have left him both physically and emotionally scarred.
The opening level is by far the best yet in this series, with a sinister underlying tension building slowly before exploding into brutal violence. The sheer desperation in the scenes reach out of the screen and pull you into the world, yet the game also does a remarkable job of teaching the gameplay basics parallel to the surrounding madness unfolding. With a fluid ease, it switches between cutscene and gameplay and then back again, never letting the pace falter.
After the wonderfully frantic intro, both Snake and the player are given a chance to catch their collective breath as they set off across the globe in search of answers and vengeance. In a short while, Snake is transported to the game’s first open world area, where he is left alone on horseback amongst dusty ruins, surveying the expansive vista of the Afghan landscape.
This is where the game veers radically away from it’s predecessors and into new territory. For the first time in Metal Gear’s history, the levels are no longer a selection of linear areas linked together, but large free-roaming game worlds to be explored as seen fit. This allows for total freedom in how the player wishes to accomplish each mission objective, whether by stealth or superior firepower. This changes a great many things in terms of both the gameplay and the how the narrative is told.
The two open world areas that Snake will deploy to are large, though perhaps not overly so when compared to other free-roaming titles. Wild and forbidding, danger lurks behind every weathered rock or curve in the pitted road. Soldiers and animals alike prowl this landscape, and neither takes too kindly to their territory being encroached on.
The world is visually impressive with a great draw distance and plenty of plants and foliage for concealment from watchful eyes. A day/night cycle and dynamic weather add to the immersion, and also provide great tactical options for sneaking behind enemy lines. The soundscape too is well-conceived, with the ambience of distant thunderstorms and swishing of trees being shattered with the sound of gunfire when things go astray.
The sneaking and combat is head and shoulders the best thing in the game. Snake’s movements are fluid and fast, and the while the controls are complex, they are also easily mastered. Whether crawling on his belly through muddy swamps or charging across sand dunes through a hail of bullets, the tight gunplay and snappy movement are nigh on flawless. This is good news considering just how ruthlessly efficient the enemy soldiers are in hunting Snake down when they do spot him.
Loadouts appear very simple at first, with only a few items unlocked to help complete early missions. However, as the game continues, a staggering list of weapons and gadgets slowly becomes accessible, ranging from the devastatingly lethal to the absurdly hilarious. In true Metal Gear style there are an arrangement of unusual contraptions for the player to use against their unsuspecting enemies including blow-up decoys, a child’s water pistol, and a reimagining of the infamous cardboard box.
One new item of particular note is the Fulton balloon recovery system, a device that will become a core part of the game. It allows you to attach a balloon to unconscious enemy soldiers which will then be hooked by a passing plane, hoisting them up and away back to your basecamp. With a little persuasion, these kidnapped troops can usually be convinced that playing for the winning team is a much better alternative to fighting for their previous regime. Upgrades to this system will allow you to purloin larger items such as weapon emplacements, trucks, and even tanks.
After completing your first mission, you will be transported around the battlefield on your personal command helicopter. From this central hub you will be able to research new weapons, manage the support staff, and oversee all other aspects of Motherbase. A deep-sea platform reminiscent of an oil rig, this is Snake’s new home, and core to the Diamond Dog’s fight against its enemies. Eventually you will be given the opportunity to send squads of your newly-converted mercenaries off on their own missions, and thereby rake in even more men and materials from their exploits.
If the game’s open world areas are daunting, then the Motherbase meta-game systems are even more so. This is an aspect of the game that will be essential to keep progressing forward, yet the number of menus and systems held within can be confusing to navigate and make use of. Everything the player needs is there, but finding it can be a real chore. This is made slightly easier by tutorials, and the fact that many elements are gradually unlocked over the first 20 hours.
Snake’s previous appearances have always been solo adventures – a lone wolf pitted against his numerous foes – but this too has changed with the option to bring along buddies to assist his infiltration antics in various capacities. They are all uniquely different, and each brings their own set of gameplay strengths and mechanics to the fray. Of this small ensemble perhaps the most interesting is Quiet, a mute sniper whose ability to hit targets from extreme distances is nothing short of amazing. She may not be the most vocal of characters, but this compliments Snake’s own stony silences perfectly.
And now we come to perhaps the biggest disappointment in The Phantom Pain. Metal Gear stories have typically been a confusing web of plots and deception with a flair for the melodramatic, but they have always sat at the fore alongside the gameplay. This is no longer the case, with the lengthy cutscenes and codec conversations from past games having been slashed and burned away. The cutscenes are now islands dotting a vast ocean of gameplay, and the segmented mission structure that has been adopted leads to constant pacing issues.
This is further amplified towards the end of the game, when progress is locked until the player either replays earlier missions on more demanding difficulty settings, or completes a swarm of secondary objectives. It’s an attempt at extending the lifespan of the game with artificial roadblocks, and it’s both irritating and unnecessary. While you are able to replay any of the missions you complete, there is no way to start a new game without deleting your save data, which is quite disappointing.
To its credit, the grim tale that is being told is both interesting and dark, with topics such as ethnic cleansing, child soldiers and the futility of war being depicted in all their horror. When taken alongside the impeccable gameplay, the change in focus is perhaps less of a shortcoming – particularly for people fresh to the series. And while new players may find the story a little bewildering, long time fans will enjoy all the nods to characters or events that featured in previous entries.
Kojima’s direction of the cutscenes is still the best in the videogame business, with fantastic cinematic touches that film buffs will appreciate. Scenes with simulated hand held camerawork give an amazing sense of immersion, and taken alongside his talented direction and editing, they show off both the characters and environment to their fullest.
However, it should be noted that his fetish for close-up cleavage and booty shots has also made a return. For better or worse, these have always been part of the series, though having the character Quiet wear only a bikini and skin-tight leggings for the entire game is setting a new record in his quest to provide eye candy for male audiences. A half-hearted attempt is made to explain this situation away, but it makes very little sense given the context.
Finally, there are also the online portions of the game. Metal Gear Online allows player-vs-player combat, but this is scheduled to be released at a later date. There are also Forward Operating Base (FOB) platforms that can be built separate to your Motherbase. These allow the player to acquire many more resources and recruits than would normally be available, but comes with the serious caveat that other players can infiltrate and steal these resources using stealth or force. Unfortunately, once the first FOB has been built there is no way to disconnect this part of the game, and you will constantly be under threat of losing your hard-won gear and people.
While the potential for greatness is there, these missions are currently plagued with server problems and frequent disconnects at the time of writing. It should also be noted that while you are given the option to stop whatever it is that you are doing to rush off and defend your base, this can happen at any time including during story missions.
Disconnecting from the servers is probably not a bad idea until after you have completed the story, and doing so will also improve load times significantly. Even when you are offline, other players can still attack, and you will take a hit in staff numbers as a consequence. This is unavoidable unless you play the game 24 hours a day.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a truly exceptional game. Its stunning open world setting and visual spectacle gleam like the polished gems that they are. While the story isn’t quite what it could have been and the online component is still shaky, the sublime gameplay and near limitless tactical options make this the most accessible and enjoyable Metal Gear game to date.