Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain - Review


Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is not only the supposed ending to the Hideo Kojima directed Metal Gear franchise but also the ending of an era for Konami. With Hideo Kojima parting ways with year long developer Konami, expectations are high for this last original Metal Gear Solid game.
Ground Zeroes gave gamers a first impression in the form of (to be honest) a demo. While it is admittedly incredibly short and very unsatisfying in terms of content (especially since you have to pay for it), Ground Zeroes' introduced gameplay mechanics were something entirely new to the franchise. Now focussing on open world stealth, Metal Gear Solid 5 is not only bound to be the biggest Metal Gear game yet, but also the one with the biggest freedom of choice in how to tackle objectives. Question is, whether The Phantom Pain’s story is on par with the inventive gameplay mechanics and can substantially extend the franchise just as much...   


Story

The plot:
In the aftermath of the events of Ground Zeroes and the destruction of Militaires Sans Frontières (commonly abbreviated as MSF), Big Boss (Kiefer Sutherland/Akio Ōtsuka) falls into a coma. Nine years later, he awakens and helps lead a new mercenary group, Diamond Dogs. Adopting the codename "Punished 'Venom' Snake", he ventures into Afghanistan during the Soviet–Afghan War and the Angola—Zaire border region during the Angolan Civil War to track down the men responsible for MSF's destruction.
(source: Wikipedia)



The Phantom Pain starts off 9 years after the events of Ground Zeroes, which serves as the game’s prologue.
After a very cinematic and exhilarating escape from a hospital attacked by enemy forces, Big Boss along with his new formed crew called Diamond Dogs seek revenge against Skullface, the one responsible for attacking their base and killing most of the staff during Ground Zeroes' climactic ending. The search for Skullface takes Big Boss to Afghanistan and Africa and slowly uncovers a much bigger plan behind Skullface’s attacks.

Much like in other Metal Gear games, the best way to tackle Phantom Pain’s storyline is to head in completely open minded yet also informed about the events that happened prior in previous Metal Gear games. Much like MGS4, Phantom Pain is not really something that is genuinely welcoming and easy to get into for newcomers. Unless you are completely aware of what is going on in the MGS lore and the overall events in the games, you will not really have a clue about who is who or what even is going on overall. Though Phantom Pain’s main story is still very much presented as a standalone- or spin-off story that doesn’t affect or connect the other games in the series that much, gamers dedicated to the franchise’s story are definitely the ones that will get most out of Phantom Pain with all the details spread out making actual sense and helping to understand the full big picture.

Skull Face - A true master of disguise.

With that said, the story is without any doubt Phantom Pain’s biggest flaw. After the epic, climactic and very much concluding events that happened in MGS4, Phantom Pain clearly struggles to tell a story that extends the franchise in a substantial way. With pretty much all loose ends being tied up so neatly in MGS4, there is pretty much nothing that Phantom Pain’s story has to tell fans that really had to be told. With most of Phantom Pain’s story focussing on the hunt for Skullface and trying to prevent his evil plans, Phantom Pain feels very much like a standalone spin-off story in the Metal Gear franchise instead of a full-on next chapter, comparable to Metal Gear Rising or God of War: Ascension.
Though this is not what makes Phantom Pain’s story so unsatisfying. Spin-off stories themselves can be enjoyable and mean something if they are presented well enough, which is not the case for Phantom Pain. What’s different this time, is that especially the middle section of the story is simply delivered so poorly and uninvolving towards the player that it’s very easy to lose focus to why you are even doing each mission and what effect it has on the story and world.

Harshly deciding against the overly long cutscenes from previous MGS games, Phantom Pain’s story relies more on what people do than what they actually say. Though this decision comes off as very intentional, as it ties into the game’s core theme and can indeed be a powerful tool of conveying emotions of characters, the game clearly overdoes it to a point in which the story feels soulless. Making matters worse is that the game’s multiple themes it tries to tie-in and cover are not always made clear enough so that gamers struggle to make the connections right on. This leads to many themes or topics either getting completely lost in the mix or being so poorly explained and implemented that it feels like drastic themes like child soldiers, torture, etc. are only in the game for the sake of being shocking without any true purpose.

Child soldiers are a topic there...for some reason.

Keeping in mind that Kojima is the director of the game, it’s obvious that he intends for gamers to dig deeper into the story to get the full meaning of its messages. Giving hints to interpretations and being absolutely crucial to get the big picture and fill in narrative gaps, are dozens and dozens of cassette tapes that are acquired throughout the game. While the cassette tapes would’ve been a nice addition to get extra info on the story, it quickly turns out that listening to all of the cassette tapes becomes so important to understand what is actually going on, that they become essential to any gamer who cares about the game’s story. And with plenty of interesting details spread throughout the tapes, they are actually worth listening to. Yet seeing how many there actually are and how frequently you obtain new ones, it becomes a chore rather quickly to always having to listen to up to 7 tapes before you tackle each mission. Of course you can also listen to them in the background while heading to your mission, but it won’t take long till you are so easily distracted by something that you forget that the tape is playing at all.
Yet even when carefully listening to each cassette tape, Phantom Pain’s story is very thin, with connections and effects on the other MGS games only really appearing and mattering in the very beginning and ending of the game. And while the game’s big final twist is quite creative and tries to fill in some gaps in the franchise, the twist rather creates more plot holes in the franchise’s overall storyline than it actually fills. And this is not surprising, seeing that Kojima was planning on making MGS4 the last MGS game and now tries to shove crucial facts with Phantom Pain into the overall story that contradict many other aspects of the game’s individual stories. Being the supposedly last true Kojima MGS game, it will most probably leave most fans feel quite hollow and disappointed, serving an ending that is hard to predict and surprising but nevertheless unsatisfying in a way.
If Phantom Pain’s story does accomplish something, it’s that it only underlines even more that the franchise’s story should’ve clearly ended with MGS4 and didn’t need a fifth entry.

At least the intro mission is seriously awesome!


Gameplay
 

Right when the game’s first missions get going, it becomes obvious that the story took a backseat to the much more polished gameplay mechanics. Ground Zeroes already gave gamers a taste of what to expect from Phantom Pain, but don’t be fooled to think that that’s simply everything Phantom Pain has to offer. With that said, Phantom Pain has a lot more tricks up its sleeve and offers much more freedom while of course still using the same main mechanics setup as in Ground Zeroes.


Mother Base & Extraction Mechanics - "Keep it Growing"

Looking at the game’s cover you can see that MGS5 is no longer subtitled “Tactical Espionage Action” but “Tactical Espionage Operations” – and nowhere does this become clearer than through the new addition of the Mother Base.

The Mother Base, pretty much an oil rig that serves as the main base and center of planning and development for the Diamond Dogs, is your main hub in the game. There, you can expand the base and develop a large arsenal of weapons, tools, items and other equipment to help you and your crew members on your missions.
In order to increase the capabilities and crew of your base, you have to acquire personnel during your missions in the open world by using the fulton recovery device which directly extracts enemy soldiers and transports them to your base. Each of the soldiers roaming the open world that you can recruit has varying skills in various fields, like combat, gaining intelligence, etc., making it up to you to assign them to a specific section of your base that makes best use of their skills.
Recruiting or extracting soldiers during missions can be tricky though. While most of the time it’s not problem to pop a balloon onto them and send them flying to your base, extractions can indeed alert nearby enemies and therefore can lead to some nice risk vs. reward situations throughout missions.
Keeping Mother Base in mind all the time leads to you playing missions much more differently in Phantom Pain. “Do I extract this container full of resources to my base? Or do I keep it so that it provides cover for me? And what if the extraction alerts the other enemy soldiers nearby?” It’s these questions that will pop up relatively often during missions and give it a welcome certain edge even though it may eventually become quite comical when you catch yourself maniacally extracting every soldier, weapon, resource container and equipment in sight.

However, while the Mother Base works out well as a main hub and a stage for the game’s multiplayer component (more on that later), it doesn’t really offer that much in terms of exploration. There is just not much to see or do on Mother Base except for some shooting challenges and finding the occasional diamond here and there. Sure enough you can visit characters or listen to soldiers having conversations, but they never got anything substantial to say, while story related cutscenes and interactions with key characters on Mother Base only trigger at specific times. Mother Base therefore definitely functions way better than a tool rather than a place that you want to visit often despite the game’s multiple attempts to encourage you to do it.

Watching your Mother Base grow bigger and bigger feels pretty good.


Open World - "Welcome to the Wasteland"

Compared to the separated areas present in MGS3 and Peace Walker, Phantom Pain’s open world feels huge in comparison. Though it’s not the biggest open world we’ve seen, it’s truly a new highpoint for stealth oriented games.
Afghanistan and Africa are the two areas in Phantom Pain that you are free to “explore”. And while the game’s big scope is quite astonishing at first, the amazement quickly disappears since the game’s open world feels incredibly empty aside from the outposts and enemy bases set on specific locations. Very much comparable to the open world in Far Cry 2, there is actually nothing really there to actually “explore” except for the very occasional wild animal or herb. Even though Phantom Pain’s open world gives way to tackling enemy bases and outposts in any way you want, the fact there is pretty much nothing inbetween those spots makes getting from point A to B a chore. Especially if you don’t have any vehicle or your D-Horse at hand, (which might very often be the case) you then always either have to go to every designated spot on foot or have to call in the helicopter to pick you up, hover around, send you to the helicopter menu, choose a mission, wait for it to arrive at the spot nearest to your objective, and then get out and head to the objective. Of course you sometimes run into the occasional wild animal to extract or herb to collect but that’s about it and doesn’t nearly excuse the extremely dragging and annoying detours the game constantly forces you to take.
Also, it would’ve been very welcome if the game would’ve offered at least one more area, since the Afghan desert or African jungle are clearly overplayed and starting to get very samey towards the end of the game’s story.

"Look at all this nothing to explore while we head to our objective!"


Missions - "Let the Fun Begin"

When you actually get to your objective however, the fun can finally begin.
With the large open world feeling mostly like a huge wasteland, it at least offers plenty of ways on how to tackle each objective, meaning that the ample amounts of space offered are finally good for something. Missions in the Phantom Pain can generally be divided up into four categories: rescuing/extracting a hostage, assassinating a target, destroying specific enemy weapons and equipment, or obtaining a specific item. The game only very rarely diverts from these four mission types that appear repeatedly throughout most of the game. And even though pretty much doing the same mission objectives over and over again only underlines the lack of a truly investing story to give reason to why you are extracting prisoner No. 122838 again, it’s the bases’ layouts that make each mission a fun task nevertheless.
Enemy bases are very well constructed and hold plenty of alternate routes, hidden passage ways, obtainable vehicles, and more that make for a huge number of ways of how to tackle your objective. There is never one simple way to do the mission, just like each mission doesn’t necessarily have to be accomplished through stealth alone. Mostly, thanks to the sophisticated enemy AI, the flow of the mission remains unpredictable, meaning that you often find yourself having to switch between defensive stealth tactics and offensive shooting tactics on the fly to accomplish your mission and make it out alive.
Speaking of unpredictability, sometimes mission objectives can even completely change mid-mission depending on your actions, forcing you to quickily rethink your strategies, like “You killed the arms dealer instead of following him to the target? Well, now you have to quickly make it to the airport to shoot down the chopper the target wants to escape with.”

However, Kojima’s decision to have the postgame missions that unlock the further story including the true ending of the game only be the exact same missions as before just on a higher difficulty, remains a very questionable and cheap move to artificially stretch out the game.

Always pick the right moment to extract soldiers.


Buddies - "A Spy's Best Friend"

Buddies additionally greatly affect the way in which you tackle missions.
A buddy accompanies Big Boss during missions and offers specific support: D-Horse provides mobility and a way to quickly get from A to B, D-Dog sniffs out enemies, plants and wild animals, and can attack them, Quiet can scout and cover you with her sniper rifle, and D-Walker acts as some kind of small mobile tank giving you additional firepower for more offensive tactics.
What’s fun is that each buddy is tailored to a specific playstyle and means that choosing one means that you have to sacrifice something else. While Quiet’s sniper support feels awesome when tackling enemy bases, one will quickly miss calling D-Horse to quickly ride out of the same enemy base once all hell breaks loose.
Furthermore, a buddy’s set of abilities, commands you can give them and equipment you can develop for them is dependent on how much time you spend with them. This is ranked in a so called Bond Level, which will make your buddy increasingly more skillful and useful as you increase your Bond Level with the specific buddy. Sticking to a specific buddy is therefore quite worthwhile in the longrun, when you for example finally can equip Quiet with a suppressed sniper rifle that makes things much easier.

Believe it or not but there actually is a reason for that outfit.


Enemy A.I. - "Hide & Seek"

As already said, Phantom Pain’s very well developed enemy A.I. is a big key factor that makes the admittedly repetitive mission objectives nevertheless fun. Constant patrols whose patterns change depending on the time of day, numerous watch towers and tactically well placed snipers to guard the base make scouting out your location and getting familiar with your surroundings crucial before sneaking in. However, if spotted, your chances of making it to the objective and out alive are not that good. Though you can of course take on enemies right on with your own guns, the sheer number of enemy forces surrounding you (especially in bases) is more than enough to make escaping the enemy’s visual grasp an accomplishment on its own. Guards don’t give up searching for you easily. They immediately investigate anything suspicious and especially after already having spotted you, they will call in reinforcements, shoot flares into the air to make you visible and look into every nook and cranny searching for you. This is really the most aggressive and intelligent that guards have ever been in an MGS game. Only very rarely are you able to actually rest in a specific hiding spot when guards are looking for you and waiting it out. Most probably they eventually will find you, forcing you to change hiding spots depending on the situation, which in return makes for many unscripted intense moments.

Boss fights in Phantom Pain are very hit and miss though. While the game’s weak story once again takes huge chunks out of the boss battles fun by not giving the bosses enough character to make you actually anticipate the battles like in MGS2, especially the sniper boss battles are very well done here. Oftentimes the game has you face off against multiple superpowered Skull Force soldiers at once who will put your skills in terms of weapon handling, use of items and perception of surroundings to the test. Sure enough though, the boss battles overall are far less personal and memorable this time around, but given the fact that you can once again freely choose in what way you want to overcome them and that some boss battles can even be completely avoided if you are stealthy enough, this is quite impressive.

Forget Sniper Wolf. These dudettes are the real deal.


Multiplayer 

Another MGS aspect that has been dormant for quite some time reappears in Phantom Pain – Metal Gear Online.
This time coming in the form of the FOB, short for Forward Operating Base System. In this implemented multiplayer mode that can influence your singleplayer experience, you can construct optional FOB bases that provide additional resources, contributing to the development of your Mother Base.
The key that puts the multiplayer aspect into all of it, is that other players can invade your base at any time and steal your resources, personnel and equipment, and it’s up to you to defend your base.
It’s a very neat idea and can make for many intense face offs when so much is at stake. Constantly keeping your security staff and your defensive weapons up to date and always ready on your Mother Base is critical in this regard. If you are investing time into playing online and building FOBs, extracting equipment and soldiers from the field becomes even more important than before in the game. Once again, rewards for successfully invading another Mother Base are plenty, yet seeing how much you put yourself and your staff at risk of losing valuable resources and downgrading many of your facilities, the fun of FOB is largely depending on how much you are willing to risk. FOB can therefore be equally as rewarding as it can be frustrating at times. Luckily though, you can turn it off at any given time by simply blocking your internet connection to the game.

"All Your Base Are Belong To Us"


Graphics
 

Visually this generation of consoles just keeps on impressing. Aside from PES 2014 and Ground Zeroes, Phantom Pain is the first truly big showcase of what Hideo Kojima’s very own Fox Engine is capable of. And it all looks really stunning at consistently smooth 60FPS on PS4 and Xbox One. Especially during very cinematic cutscenes, the engine shines. While some presentation decisions come off as pretty weird, (like the decision to have credits roll after each completed mission), the game as a whole is presented very well and epic at its best moments with the highlight being most probably the game’s intense intro hospital escape. Characters are very well designed throughout and convey emotions very well through expressive facial animations. A staple for MGS has always been a high quality in graphics, and Phantom Pain doesn’t disappoint in that regard. 


Sound
 

There has been a lot of controversy and hot debate regarding the decision of replacing longtime voice actor David Hayter with Hollywood star Kiefer Sutherland as the voice of Big Boss.
And while it takes some short time to get used to it, Kiefer Sutherland actually does a good job with his performance. Voice acting also feels quite a bit more down to earth this time around compared to some of the more comical voice acting performances from past MGS games. Unfortunately though, Big Boss doesn’t have too much to say throughout Phantom Pain’s story, limiting most of his outings on being cassette tape recordings in the game.
Other than that, performances are all well done throughout by other actors like the omnipresent Troy Baker as Ocelot.
Last but not least, Phantom Pain’s soundtrack is also worth mentioning as it incorporates many epic original tracks as well as famous 80s pop tunes to listen to while sneaking or riding in the chopper.


Take a break, Big Boss. You need it.


The Verdict

All in all, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain shows that the franchise managed to greatly expand beyond the gameplay limitations of its past entries into a full on open world game. It offers a large amount of freedom regarding the many ways it’s possible to tackle missions. On top of that, the addition of Mother Base and buddies to help you accomplish your objectives, makes the entire gameplay feel more like teamwork rather than a solo job. It’s a big departure from traditional MGS gameplay but also a nice new dynamic that is excellently held up by a great array of new gameplay mechanics, weapons and tools and an improved, challenging enemy AI. It’s so good in fact, that it becomes almost entirely forgivable that Phantom Pain only offers a quite limited variety of mission types since each mission nevertheless remains quite unpredictable no matter how often you tackle it.
Yet Phantom Pain’s gameplay fidelity comes at a big price.
Aside from an unnecessarily large and empty open world, what ultimately drags the entire score of Phantom Pain heavily down are its huge story issues. Metal Gear Solid games have always been very careful and focussed on their story and lore to fully immerse the player. While older MGS games tended to overuse cutscenes, Phantom Pain is the exact opposite. After a superb intro mission, the game’s story very quickly runs out of steam and substantial material to keep you invested and interested. It’s a very thin and loose feeling story with multiple themes and topics left wide open without any real purpose or conclusion. The Phantom Pain ultimately feels way more like a spin-off story than an actual defining final chapter without any real effects on the overall MGS universe, aside from a big final twist that confuses more than it does fulfill.

Metal Gear Solid games have always been superb examples of great storytelling, gameplay and visuals all at the same time. In that regard, The Phantom Pain is quite a departure from the franchise’s traditions in both a good and sadly a bad way. This is no longer “Tactical Espionage Action” but “Tactical Espionage Operations”, and the game rightfully feels and plays entirely different than previous MGS games. Yet without any real narrative purpose given to what you actually do throughout the game, The Phantom Pain ultimately plays great but still feels hollow without any good enough context there to support your actions. Thanks in large to its gameplay mechanics it still manages to be a good game, that should've been amazing though.

          
  
 Final Verdict: 7 out of 10 

Status: Good




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