Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain takes the long standing stealth series in a new direction, attempting to blend modern open-world traits with the series’ punishing reliance on patience and precision. It works most of the time, and The Phantom Pain in many cases does the open-world experience better than others in the genre. There are a few roadblocks, however, which for the uninitiated may corrode the game’s standing among other stealth heavy weights, both within the series and the genre proper. Yet it often finds a way to sneak past these obstacles with grace and complexity. Just like other games in the revered series, there’s an outer layer that, once peeled away, reveals a deep and highly rewarding core.
The Phantom Pain takes massive risks, loudly distancing itself from the linearity and at-times overbearing narrative drive of its predecessors. This is what makes it different. I have wondered whether an open-world suits Metal Gear Solid. The key for an open-world game in my opinion is to find a good balance between freedom and structure. I know the two seem like polar opposites, but you need some sort of coherence and end goal to drive the player through the experience. Even if the game branches off in a million different directions — whatever the player’s choices — there’s always some predetermined conclusion to justify the player’s actions throughout the game. I think what ties into that is an ability — or perhaps submission — into keeping the core gameplay experience grounded enough without being underwhelming.
The Phantom Pain is in some ways an example of that. I think back to more recent open-world games like Sunset Overdrive, and even the past few Assassin’s Creeds games. All great open-world games with enough padding (like side missions, collectibles, etc.) to keep the experience active long before the main story is completed. My problem with those games is that, aside from simply wanting to achieve a perfect 100% completion rank, rarely do those side, optional objectives add anything of genuine worth to the broader experience. That doesn’t make them bad open-world games, it just makes them complicit in a design philosophy built on expectations of game length and not necessarily game reward.
How does The Phantom Pain avoid falling into that pit? I’ve found that even early on, a lot of what I do outside of the main missions offers genuine value to the game’s lore, contributing to the wider picture of the game’s world rather than simply existing for the sake of being collected or completed. I have nothing against mindlessly collecting things, and admittedly I often like doing those types of tasks because I enjoy the satisfaction of completing something that is purposefully trivial. But that’s really all it is: a trivial task that exists purely for the sake of enhancing my own self-worth as a player. I’m not learning anything about the world, about the characters, about what’s happening to drive my character to be in the situation that they’re in.
The Phantom Pain tries desperately to separate itself from many others in the genre. It’s followed the same transition of the modern open-world game with a combination of RPG elements and engaging open-world exploration, while permitting the player the freedom to unlock the story at a pace reflective of their urgency to complete optional objectives. At the very least I know that completing a specific Side Op will unlock a specific blueprint and cassette tape, both of which further down the line will open up other plot points.
I appreciate that, but it’s far from a perfect execution. While the game successfully finds that aforementioned balance, it’s just too easy to forget there’s a story at play here. That’s unlike Metal Gear Solid. But I’m not going to pretend like the story doesn’t matter in the broader scheme of things … or that it even makes sense. I certainly feel that in that shift to an open-world game, the development team struggled to balance the gameplay freedom offered by the world with the structured requirements of a plot that makes enough noise to be relevant. The game rewards you with plot points, but it doesn’t necessarily care enough to tell you there’s a story there to actually tell. I love that almost every side mission rewards you with something related either to the plot or Big Boss’ development, but I feel The Phantom Pain reigned in the cutscene-heavy structure of its predecessors almost too much. There’s actually very little here to appreciate, and when the story does kick into a gear (before almost always going down a notch again), it just gets increasingly ridiculous.
That’s Metal Gear Solid, right? Even as someone with a pretty sound knowledge of the broader timeline, I see The Phantom Pain as one of the most incoherent, but also one of the weakest and irrelevant. There are important plot points there, and sometimes it teases you with the prospect of eventually forming into a coherent arc. But it never realises that potential. Really, it’s gone from one extreme (intense, complex and long plot points and cutscenes) to another extreme (big gaps between important plot points, and weak cohesion). A lot of important characters are thrown at us with the promise of something bigger, but nothing ever really happens. Quiet just seems like a massively missed opportunity, and don’t even get me started on how grossly undervalued she is as both a powerful human, and just an all-round badass chick. The reasoning is there to have her dressed as a jiggling, sexualised, bikini-clad heroine, but her design lacks the creative clarity of so many other important characters in the game. That’s disappointing, because I hate how her god-like sense of empowerment is devalued by lazy story tie-ins to justify her dressing in torn yoga pants and a tight bikini top. I would fight to the death for the creative right to design a character like Quiet in any which way, but the way she’s presented seems unbalanced next to other relevant characters, and in a way it kind of sums up The Phantom Pain’s struggles to be a relevant storyteller.
I just wanted more out of that story, and while the cassette tapes provide plenty of information and actually drive me to completion, I don’t feel that they’re a particularly engaging way to tell a story. Going back to my above point, it’s like Kojima Productions didn’t quite know how to balance the story next to the freedoms offered by the open-world, so they packaged the story up as a reward for embracing that open-world element, as opposed to being a prerequisite to tie together the player’s actions. Don’t get me wrong, what is there makes a genuine effort to tie things together, but again, it’s not a mandatory requirement to drive the experience. I just think that’s a lazy way to tell a story. The game makes so many of its open-world activities relevant, which is appreciated, but relying on them as a core storytelling device is I think what lets the experience down. The Phantom Pain sets a new standard for the genre in regards to how it values smaller objectives, but it’s down the bottom in that it struggles to hold its story up as an important piece of the experience.
Thankfully, what the game lacks in narrative cohesion it makes up in sheer gameplay depth. The two maps are disappointingly barren, although I think justifiably so. It would have been nice to see more life in Afghanistan, and the outposts do eventually become repetitive. I often wondered whether I was just revisiting the same places over and over again. Thankfully, the variation in gameplay and freedom to approach missions and objectives in different ways I feel blankets that issue, and I never found myself bored or mindlessly playing through an area to simply complete an objective. The iDroid device works wonderfully as a means to call in supply drops for weapons and ammo, allowing me to change up an approach on the fly if things aren’t working out for me. It’s by far the most accessible Metal Gear Solid game in the franchise, even if that learning curve to appreciate the game’s core fundamentals is still rather steep. I certainly feel that if you have the patience to appreciate how The Phantom Pain should be played, you’ll find it to be a highly rewarding gameplay experience.
Admittedly, I don’t think The Phantom Pain is perfect, but its heart is in the right place: it still wants to keep us grounded enough so that we stay focused on the end goal, and it certainly possesses a sense of linearity that other open-world games shy away from. Comparatively next to other Metal Gear games, however, it challenges the genre in admirable ways, and also takes it up to the series proper, which, mind you, was already established as one of gaming’s best and most revered franchises. The Phantom Pain’s open-world shift is a massive risk for Metal Gear Solid, and while it can lead to what I think is a more action-focused approach to engagement, its reward system is exhilarating and punishing in a way that its barren environments dictate, dragging you back down to earth with a thunderous slam if ever you ignore the series’ stealthy roots.
It does this through a complex development and staff management system that, while at first intimidating and seemingly worthless, is as important a component of the broader Phantom Pain experience as anything else in the game. I had eventually reached a point where my arsenal was so powerful that I could simply mark my enemies from a distance and then stroll into a compound guns blazing, commando style. The game is typically and understandably hostile towards this approach, however, not only down marking you for being sighted by the enemy, but also subtly and slowly breaking down your combat efficiency by punishing you for not recruiting high quality, effective staff for Mother Base. The open-world shift was a risk because it has to invite a varied style of play, and that sometimes might incorporate moving away from the series’ stealth roots. Sometimes going in guns blazing is just too irresistible. Yet Kojima Productions managed to balance that temptation with a system that actually relies upon you towing the stealth line: your chances of success slowly dwindle over time if you don’t have the resources and team necessary to enhance your combat readiness, both of which are only truly accessible and expandable via a stealth approach.
I’ve heard and been part of discussions regarding The Phantom Pain’s worth as an open-world game, and whether it even fits under that title. I think it does because it offers the flexibility and freedom to approach missions and side objectives in a way befitting of others in the genre. It amplifies an intimidating sense of realism by restricting where you can drop into a combat zone and how you can reach certain objectives, which admittedly gets tiresome when you constantly find yourself on the other side of an insurmountable hill. I don’t, however, think this compromises the game’s title as an open-world game, because it successfully promotes the landscape’s hostile environment. It’s not meant to be easy to get around, and I certainly imagine that in an effort to keep the game grounded in the series’ roots, there was a conscious effort to make sure the exploration and travel elements of the experience reflect the challenges of war. Sometimes The Phantom Pain genuinely makes me feel exhausted for Big Boss and his buddy.
On that note, the buddy system is useful and reflective of those stealth elements the game so desperately wants you to embrace. D-Horse is useful for transportation, D-Dog as a scout and attack dog, and, my favourite, Quiet, also as a scout, cover shooter and intel. These buddies can all be upgraded, but of course you’ll need a research and development team that is competent enough to promptly unlock them. As I mentioned above, it’s imperative that your Mother Base is functioning well in order for you to head into combat in the best possible condition. I understand that the stealth elements can take time to appreciate and embrace, but the reward is satisfying and useful. I love scouting enemies for potential staff, and then working to quietly extract them from an area without getting caught.
I probably appreciate and enjoy the Mother Base management element more than others. I can’t continue on missions unless I have read up on every new development and tool, even if I haven’t actually unlocked them yet. I often find myself sitting in the chopper and scanning my iDroid device, either managing staff and developing new weapons and tools, or sending staff out on missions to earn some cheap GMP. The Mother Base component really is a game in its own right, and I think Kojima Productions has tied the main game in with those managerial elements really well. It takes a while to start realising the benefits of an efficiently run base, and I won’t lie, I was tempted to ignore it all together during the early stages, but there is a sudden jump in urgency to manage it stringently and often. I loved that sense of empowerment of being genuinely in charge of this base and having an entire army reliant on my managerial skills. Once you reach that point of domination, you’ll wonder how you ever doubted this system (if you ever did at all).
Unfortunately, The Phantom Pain’s online component is forgettable and detrimental to the game’s performance, obviously added as a means to introduce a premium currency model for Konami to earn some extra cash. Essentially a stealth mission on your Mother Base, it invites opposing players to attack your base for the sake of earning extra resources and staff for combat deployment missions. It wasn’t particularly engrossing in my experience, and the costs associated with building your GMP up to respectable levels is downright ridiculous. Konami has since reduced the pricing but it’s still outrageous. The servers are unreliable, and the whole thing wreaks of a rush job.
It’s worth noting that this review is based on an Xbox One version of the game, and while the game looks superb in patches, it certainly passes as a late-gen Xbox 360 game. I know that’s harsh, but there are obvious technical issues that suggest to me that the Fox Engine isn’t particularly stable, or at least not especially efficient on Xbox platforms. The implementation of the engine in PES 2014 for Xbox 360 and PS3 resulted in a sluggish, slow responsiveness, and while that is never quite the case for The Phantom Pain, there are similar presentation issues that were present in PES 2014. For one, the game’s audio sometimes glitches out, sounding like what can only be described as a scratched CD. Then almost immediately after that, Big Boss will get stuck in an animation, which is particularly frustrating during heated combat. If I’m moving into cover and the game glitches out, he’ll just keep moving forward even after I’ve taken my finger off the analog stick. This has been tested on multiple consoles and with different controllers, and it happens more frequently the further into the game I get. After a week, I’m surprised this hasn’t been patched yet. Another MMGN editor hasn’t experienced this bug on PS4 after more than 15 hours of play time.
The Final Verdict
If ever there was a time to get into Metal Gear Solid, The Phantom Pain is probably it. By far the most accessible from a gameplay standpoint, it shares a similar level of intimidation and scope as its predecessors, while expanding the ways in which it approaches combative gameplay. There’s a lot to love about it, and a lot of that has to do with the freedom offered by its world, the flexibility and variation in approaching missions, and the sheer depth of the Mother Base component. Gameplay is tight and focused, offering a deep sense of power and control over a combat area thanks to its rewarding upgrading system. Its story struggles to coherently tie together the events of the experience, but the rewarding elements of engaging with the game world make up for what the game lacks in narrative cohesion. Xbox One bugs are irritating but hardly game ending, although the PS4 version might be the ideal one.