Despite narrative shortcomings, The Phantom Pain is the greatest stealth game ever made.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the game that Hideo Kojima always wanted to develop. Simply put, it’s the greatest stealth action video game ever made, a culmination of everything that Kojima learned and perfected ever since Konami released the first Metal Gear back in 1987. When The Phantom Pain was first announced back in 2012, I had a sense of skepticism about it. A Metal Gear Solid game set in an open world…how will it work for a series that has primarily focused on a tight level design as the protagonist makes his way across narrow corridors and levels?
But then Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes happened and all my concerns about the concept of free infiltration were resolved. What you possibly experienced in Ground Zeroes is just a fraction of what The Phantom Pain offers. The game is easily hundreds of times bigger than the lone Camp Omega that Big Boss infiltrated to extract Chico and Paz. The Phantom Pain’s map is massive in scope and scale and although it’s barren and devoid of any activity, the sense of tension is always there. The feeling of the player suddenly coming across a patrol or a Gunship hovering on top of you…this feeling of immersion is so high that you will totally forget about the deserted lands of Afghanistan and Africa, the game’s primary locations.
"The Phantom Pain begins with the player awakening in a hospital which is preceded by some of the most intense cinematic openings I have ever played in a Metal Gear game."
The Phantom Pain begins with the player awakening in a hospital which is preceded by some of the most intense cinematic openings I have ever played in a Metal Gear game. Unlike previous Metal Gear games where the opening was devoid of any player interactivity, The Phantom Pain’s prologue makes the player feel a part of the ongoing action. It also serves as a cleverly disguised tutorial of sorts, helping the player understand the remarkably simple controls that the game has to offer. After you are done with the Prologue, the player is thrown straight into the open world of Afghanistan with only your binoculars, low end weaponry and your trusty horse as your main support.
Settling into this vast open world will take some time, especially for hardcore Metal Gear fans. This is a new type of Metal Gear game that puts gameplay above everything else the game has to offer. Players will need to travel a lot, either on foot or by riding the D-Horse and once you have reached your destination, you need to recon the area ahead. Reconnaissance plays a big role in the stealth mechanics as players needs to find a vantage point and use the binoculars to mark targets and important locations. Once that is done, the player can carefully infiltrate the enemy’s base and complete their mission. Of course, you can totally ditch the stealth approach and go in all guns blazing but honestly that won’t get you anywhere as initially you won’t have the necessary equipment to take on enemy soldiers.
Enemy AI is a step above anything I have yet to witness in a video game with multiple and longer stages of inspection and search processes. Once you raise the alarm, enemies will search within a radius known as the last known location. They will try to frag you out, carry out mortar attacks, call support from neighboring bases and Gunships to kill Snake.
"Once you start pouring hours into the game you will come across blueprints, more specialists and even animals which can then be utilized to form your own zoo!"
It’s unfair to state that The Phantom Pain is a consolized version of Peace Walker. Yes, it borrows a lot of elements from that game but adds a ton of its own feature set which makes it an experience like none other. Once you get hold of the Fulton Recovery Device you will be able to extract enemy soldiers to your offshore Mother Base facility, earn GMP and develop your own weapons, tools and items.
Developing Mother Base is a pivotal gameplay element of The Phantom Pain. In short, if you are not fultoning out enemies and are not earning enough GMP, you will struggle later on in the game. Some players may find the system overwhelming at first but once you put your time into it by completing a plethora of side ops and main missions, building your very own military unit is a blast. The Mother Base includes several different units such as the R&D team, Medical Unit, Intel Unit, Support Team and more.
Each of these units can be upgraded by expanding your Mother Base which is done by earning GMP, extracting soldiers and collecting raw materials that you will find during your playthrough. You can also deploy your Combat Unit on remote locations which is essentially Extra Ops from Peace Walker. It’s a shame that we don’t see any real time action but regardless it will help you earn more stuff.
Using GMP and the several units at hand, players can develop high end items like sneaking suits, weapons like missile launchers, clever tools like decoys and more. Each weapon can be customized to your liking provided you find a Gunsmith Specialist for the same. Once you start pouring hours into the game you will come across blueprints, more specialists and even animals which can then be utilized to form your own zoo!
"All the units have their own struts which are quite far away from the Command Base Platform. However it’s slightly disappointing that these are only for aesthetic purpose and serve no purpose when you visit them."
As time goes on, what was once a single structure will develop into a fully functional, massive military force. You can also infiltrate other player’s bases in an online mode called FOB [Forward Operating Base] which serves as an add-on to the single player experience. It’s fun at times as the action can get pretty intense but I believe that most players will be investing their time into the single player experience.
All the units have their own struts which are quite far away from the Command Base Platform. However it’s slightly disappointing that these are only for aesthetic purpose and serve no purpose when you visit them. You may find a couple of interesting story additions should you visit them, but overall, navigating across your base is interesting at first but it gets old pretty fast.
Each and every mission in the game begins with a loadout option which allows the player to select weapons, suit and several items along with a buddy. The game offers four buddies and each of them have their own set of advantages. D-Horse will help you travel faster across the wide open world. But that is not all as I found it to be extremely useful for prisoner extractions and escaping from the hot zone. D-Dog is useful for tight stealth situations and creating a diversion for the enemy.
There were several moments in my playthrough that I found myself stuck between a group of enemies approaching and I had no recourse except to command my D-Dog to attack or bark at them to create a diversion. The extremely versatile sniper Quiet is useful for scouting and taking enemies from far out whereas D-Walker made its presence felt for heavy combat situations. Each of your buddies can be upgraded to have new abilities, weapons and add-ons. There is also a bond that you need to associate with your buddy. This bond affects how they perform on the battlefield.
"The boss fights for the most part are underwhelming both in terms of quality and quantity. Yes, there is this memorable fight with the new Metal Gear and an epic duel with Quiet which kind of reminded me of The End but besides these there is almost nothing."
The level design is simply phenomenal in The Phantom Pain. No two bases ever look the same and there are multiple ways to infiltrate them. In fact, with a bit of strategy and initiative several tough missions can be completed within minutes but there is no doubt that the game will test your patience as the going can get pretty hard in the first few hours of the game. Several bases are present within valleys, mountain ranges and slopes making it difficult to infiltrate and recon the area. The game also introduces a dynamic weather and day/night system. I preferred infiltrating during the night as this affects soldiers’ visibility and funnily enough you might even find them taking a nap! From time to time it may even rain making it harder for enemies to hear your footsteps not to mention that sandstorms/mists can affect visibility which can be used as an opportunity for the player to get out of a tight spot.
Harry Gregson-Williams and his team have done some jaw dropping work on the game’s score. There are some moments in the game that will truly scare the crap out of you due to the game’s background music. Some missions have a Silent Hills [P.T.] vibe to them all thanks to the fantastic music, atmosphere and level design. Everything about the game seems so polished. Playing on the PS4, The Phantom Pain looks gorgeous. With next to no pop ins, I came across minimal performance issues and low texture resolutions. This is a well ironed out game…have no doubts about that.
Despite all the amazing things it manages to do, The Phantom Pain falters in some aspects that make up a Metal Gear game. The boss fights for the most part are underwhelming both in terms of quality and quantity. Yes, there is this memorable fight with the new Metal Gear and an epic duel with Quiet which kind of reminded me of The End but besides these there is almost nothing. You can completely skip the boss battles against the Skulls making their inclusion into the game somewhat questionable.
"During the narrative heavy moments, Snake is just there, standing and not even acknowledging what is going on. It begs the question why Kojima got Hayter recast if Snake was just going to stand there clueless?"
My second big complaint about The Phantom Pain is that cutscenes and the story are secondary to the experience. Except the prologue and the ending of the game, the game has next to no memorable story moments. One can argue that some of the best moments are to be found in gameplay and that is true but there is no denying that cutscenes played an important role in making the story move forward. What is surprising is that most of the scenes were already revealed in pre-release trailers which makes me wonder why Kojima was unable to recreate the balance between gameplay and cutscenes which was found in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater.
The story seems to be just there with almost 80% of the plot hidden behind cassette tapes which only the hardcore fans will take a listen to. There are no reasons given behind some of the character’s motivations, for example, Skull Face whom I thought of as an interesting character, had no background in the game and lacked any sort of character development. I found the entire story to be just lacking in content and although the ending breaks the fourth wall, it just felt like this game raised more questions and made the story even more convoluted than it was before. The game has its dark moments like torture and what not but within the grand scheme of things, something about the story feels disconnected.
"Despite the shortcomings in the narrative, The Phantom Pain is a remarkably amazing game. It may not be the Metal Gear Solid game everyone wanted and it may not be the missing link that everyone was looking forward to but what it does right, it does it with a big bang."
Voice acting for the most part is superb. Robin Atkin Downes [Kaz], Troy Baker [Ocelot] and Christopher Randolph [Huey] deliver a remarkable voice and facial performance. Kojima totally wasted Kiefer Sutherland’s capabilities as Snake. He barely has any lines in the game and although he speaks a bit more in the cassette tapes, it does not justify his inclusion. During the narrative heavy moments, Snake is just there, standing and not even acknowledging what is going on. It begs the question why Kojima got Hayter recast if Snake was just going to stand there clueless?
Despite all of these shortcomings, The Phantom Pain is a remarkably amazing game. It may not be the Metal Gear Solid game everyone wanted and it may not be the missing link that everyone was looking forward to but what it does right, it does it with a big bang. The stealth mechanics are light years ahead of anything I have seen in a video game. It may be the most divisive game among fans but there is no doubt that The Phantom Pain will have its own, respectable place in the long running series.
Stealth gameplay perfected. It does not get any better than this.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Stealth mechanics unlike anything you have seen before, base building is intriguing, true freedom of infiltration, long campaign, tons of side ops, creative and funny ways to take out your enemies, memorable battle with Metal Gear, amazing score and music, truly makes you feel like a Big Boss.
Less cutscenes, game ends abruptly with no resolution, Kiefer Sutherland’s talents have been wasted by Kojima as Snake barely speaks, lack of character development, most boss fights are underwhelming and can be completely skipped.
Hardcore fans may be divided about The Phantom Pain, but there is no doubt that this might very well be this generation's defining game.