[Review] Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

ESRB:M
ONLINE:Yes [Up to 16 players on PC/PS4/XOne; Up to 12 players on PS3/360]
INSTALL:6.7GB w/ Disc, 11.7GB Digital; PS3, 25.1GB Digital; PS4, 28GB; PC/Steam
RELEASE DATE:September 1, 2015 - All Platforms
PLATFORM:PC/Steam, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360
PUBLISHER:Konami
DEVELOPER:Kojima Productions
ONLINE PASS:N/A

Story

Where do I start?

The story is by far not only the weakest part of the game, but the weakest entry in the Metal Gear franchise. Now, don’t get me wrong here – I enjoyed it. It being weak doesn’t make it bad, it just means that it is not the real focus of the game this time around. It definitely feels like Kojima wanted the narrative to take more of a backseat to the overall gameplay.

It’s told much differently this time around. Cutscenes are sparse, and most of the dialogue occurs through the cassette tapes you gain throughout your playtime. As you complete missions, you’ll gain cassettes of varying importance. Some actually expand on the narrative – these are marked yellow in the iDroid, some are for humor’s sake, and others just set up the world as a whole.

It’s a lot like Metal Gear Rising, where a lot of the story happened in CODEC calls that were optional, rather than spending 30+ minutes in a cutscene, doling out exposition.

There are cutscenes, but they are used sparingly, and usually only bookend missions.

There are cutscenes, but they are used sparingly, and usually only bookend missions.

It’s a nice approach, and honestly, I like it, as it lets the player get as much or as little story as they want, when they want it. You can listen to the cassettes at any time – just be aware that listening to them in the field can hamper your hearing, as the audio of the cassettes will muffle sounds in the world.

That being said – the story itself is clearly incomplete. There are very noticeable chunks of the story that are just missing, revealed to be cut in the Collector’s Edition, and only viewable there as a video, pieced together with placeholder animations and concept art. These missing portions would have greatly helped the story feel more cohesive. As it stands, players are left with unresolved plots and an ending that is sure to trigger a mixed response.

Hopefully Konami will allow Kojima to finish up these missing pieces and release them, either as free content updates or – and this is more likely – expansion DLC for the game. They’re definitely needed.


Presentation

My time was spent with the PS3 version of the game. All of the screenshots in this review were taken by me, from the PS3 version. While this version doesn’t look as good as its current gen counterparts, it’s still one of the best looking PS3 games I’ve ever played.

That said, there are some technical problems here. The game targets 30 frames per second on the PS3/360 version, but the framerate can vary quite a bit. It never dips to unplayable levels, but it can be noticeable. I’ve also had moments where the controls got really messed up and had a lot of input lag, resulting in not only inputs reacting late, but sometimes inputs would “stick”, usually with camera inputs. For instance, during one of the last missions, there is a decent amout of action happening, and a lot of effects going on. When I tried to move the camera, either normally or while aiming, the input would stick, and cause the camera to swing way off course.

Now, that particular issue only seemed to occur in that one particular mission, and it’s possible it has been fixed since I last played it. Most of these issues generally shake themselves out within a few moments anyway.

The game looks good no matter what platform you're on, but the current gen is definitely the smoother experience.

The game looks good no matter what platform you’re on, but the current gen is definitely the smoother experience.

I’m most impressed by the draw distance. In comparison to Ground Zeroes, which seemed to struggle just to show enemies 100 meters away, Phantom Pain allows you to see for miles. This is definitely a major improvement, as it’s crucial to be able to see enemies from pretty far away when you’re scouting an outpost or base.

Overall, Phantom Pain‘s PS3/360 outing is a fine looking piece of work.

Audio-wise, the game doesn’t disappoint. At least, not entirely.

With the lack of cutscenes, you don’t really get to hear a lot of dialogue from the characters. Miller and Ocelot seem to do most of the talking, most of the time. Troy Baker’s performance as Ocelot is probably the best I’ve seen from him. Every so often, you can hear him coasting into Patric Zimmerman territory, and then pulling it back, just a bit. He sounds exactly like you would expect Ocelot to sound at this age.

Robin Atikin Downes’ performance as Miller is hit or miss. Some moments, he nails the character – others, it feels like he’s reading a little too dramatically. He’s never bad, but sometimes it feels a little heavyhanded.

Kiefer turns in a great performance as Snake. One thing that I definitely liked over Ground Zeroes was that now, you could more clearly tell the difference between Miller and Snake’s voices. That was a bit of a concern for me with Kiefer, and it’s resolved here. I do wish he spoke more in cutscenes, though. He does at least get some speaking time in the cassettes, so listen to those if you really want to get a feel for his performance.

Whoa-hoooooooooooo.

Whoa-hoooooooooooo.

Unlike previous games, there isn’t a lot of music. You aren’t constantly hearing a soundtrack at any given time – unless you’re using the cassette player to listen to any of the various songs you’ve found in the field. The only time music seems to play is when you’re infiltrating, on alert, or during cutscenes. Music is used to accent moments now, more so than providing a soundtrack. The music that is here, however, is on par with any of the other games in the series – well done, and entirely fitting when it’s used.


Gameplay

Now this is where the game truly shines the brightest. The gameplay of The Phantom Pain is stellar. By far the best of the series.

It plays like Ground Zeroes, but better. All of the abilities you had in GZ are here – the scope, the dive, etc – but they’ve all been tweaked or enhanced. For instance, diving [Square/X on Playstation/Xbox respectively] will now leave you in a prone state unless you tap the Stance button [Cross on the Playstation controller, A on Xbox], useful for getting behind cover quickly if you’ve been spotted, or just want to avoid being spotted.

The scope can now be used to place markers directly in the center of your view – ie: if you’re looking at a soldier, you can simply press a button to place a marker on him that will stay on him wherever he goes, whthere they’ve been tagged or not. The scope can also be upgraded to display soldiers’ stats and skills, helping you to determine if you want to recruit them back to your base. You can also call in support – things like airstrikes – directly from the scope. Simply change what your scope’s shortcut command is by pressing Triangle/Y, and then call in an airstrike on whatever target you’re looking at. Or get your support team to give you cover by changing the weather.

Speaking of recruiting – making a return from Peace Walker, the Fulton system has been tweaked as well. It’s now much simpler to use – no longer do you need to carry an extra item, you always have the Fulton with you with a set amount that can be refilled with a supply drop. Simply walk up to an incapacitated soldier – a soldier who’s either been held up or knocked out – and hold the Triangle/Y button to attach a Fulton to them, and have then sent back to Mother Base.

If extracted during a main mission, you'll get a rundown of all the soldiers you extracted.

If extracted during a main mission, you’ll get a rundown of all the soldiers you extracted.

Be careful, though, as inclement weather and things like injuries the soldier sustained can lower your chances of successfully extracting them. You also can’t extract via Fulton if there’s a roof or other obstacle blocking the balloon – not until you get a certain upgrade, at least. If you’re in a building, or underground, check for a skylight – you can fulton through there ;). One other thing to note – a soldier who hasn’t been rendered unconcious will yell out for help from nearby soldiers. If they hear him they can either come investigate or, if you’ve been fultoning a lot of guys, shoot the balloon to save their buddy.

Speaking of buddies, you, personally, get a few to choose from – they’ve all been shown in the trailers and gameplay videos, though. Sorry, no hidden buddies :(. They all have their uses. D-Horse is good for travelling stealthily. D-Dog is good for marking enemies in tight quarters and interiors – he can smell enemies around corners and behind walls. He can also be equipped with Sneaking suits that allow him to kill, stun, and even fulton soldiers. His tags wear off, though, unless you mark the enemy yourself. Quiet can scout an outpost or base ahead of you, permanently marking any enemies she can see. She’ll also provide you cover fire should you happen to get spotted. She can be equipped with a lethal or nonlethal rifle – lethal is better for her, as she can use it to shoot the helmets off of soldiers who may spot you, making headshots easier. You can also command her to aim at and shoot any enemy you have in your sights.

D-Walker is the most versatile buddy. It has some of the marking ability of both Quiet and D-Dog, while giving you faster traversal like D-Horse and also serving as a weaponized vehicle, with its own set of weapons and ammo counts seperate to your own. It being so versatile, also means it comes with a much heavier deployment cost. I only found myself using him in missions where I needed some extra firepower.

The game feels super good to play. If you die, it's certainly on you.

The game feels super good to play. If you die, it’s certainly on you.

The controls overall feel a bit more responsive. Turning around, for instance, feels quicker. It feels snappier.

On top of all of the returning Ground Zeroes abilities, Snake now has quite a few new moves as well. The cardboard box makes a triumphant return, and it’s the most useable it has ever been. There are so many things you can do with the box, it’s insane. Before, equipping the box was only good for hiding and protecting yourself against certain attacks, like stun grenades. Now, you can stand up with it, go prone with it, dive out of it, pop out and aim, place posters on the outside to distract/incapacitate enemies, and use it as a means of traversal by running and pressing the dive button with the box equipped. Snake will then dive forward and use the box like a sled. It’s never been so versatile.

Also making a return is the useful knock. This time handled with Snake’s bionic arm. By selecting the “Knock (Lure Enemy)” command, Snake will rotate his mechanical hand around, causing a clicking noise that will draw an enemy to you. It takes away the limit of only being able to knock on solid walls, and actually makes it far more useful.

The iDroid, too, has seen some improvements.

The iDroid, too, has seen some improvements.

The iDroid has also seen its fair share of changes. You now have shortcuts on the map menu that will allow you to quickly call in support – be that a helicopter for pickup, a supply drop, or just placing a marker – by simply pressing up or down on the d-pad to cycle through the options. You can also control certain buddies this way. It’s nice having free reign of where my supply drops fall, as I can call in a drop just outside of the mission area, and have it arrive before I get there. Or You can call a drop on the head of a stationary enemy, knocking them out cold.

One other thing that sets this apart from other Metal Gears, and other games in general – there are absolutely no useless items. Everything has a purpose, even the things that might seem completely stupid, like the water pistol.

No, I’m not kidding.

There's a lot to develop, and it all has a purpose.

There’s a lot to develop, and it all has a purpose.

The water pistol, as an example, seems useless at first. Like a joke item on par with the Monkey Mask in MGS3, or the Tuxedo costume in MGS1. It’s not. It can actually be used to put out barrel fires – which can allow you to sneak around outposts easier at night. It can also be used to short out electronics. Quietly. If a mission requires you to, say, take out comms equipment, you can bring the water pistol along and use it to destroy it without anyone hearing it. Much easier than using C4 or a lethal weapon.

Even the standard bandana has a purpose – it makes it more difficult for you to sustain a serious injury.

Every item you develop requires GMP and will usually require specific team levels and may require soldiers with certain skills, or certain other resources, like fuel or common metals which you’ll find out in the field, in two forms. Processed materials come in small amounts, but can be used right away. Unprocessed materials come in large crates and large quantities, but must first be processed by Mother Base before they can actually be used.

Items you develop have wait times associated with them. The first 2 tiers of development trees develop instantly, tier 3 and up require in-game time to pass. Unlike Peace Walker, this is real time, not just going out on a set amount of missions. If a weapon requires 30 minutes to develop, you need to have the game on for 30 full minutes. Unfortunately, it doesn’t pass while the game is off. The same is true for offline Combat Deployments and Mother Base upgrades. If the game isn’t on, development isn’t progressing.

That’s honestly disappointing, because online development passes in real-world time. If you set an FOB strut to develop, it progresses whether you’re on or not. Same for the online Combat Deployments. You can also use your MB coins to speed up progress on these.

That reminds me – the oh-so-horrible microtransactions that were going to completely and totally ruin the game? Really not that bad. You can buy MB coins if you wish, but you can also receive them as a login bonus for signing into the game often. At the time of this review, I’d gained over 400 MB coins since starting in September, and currently have over 200 of them left, after spending some to speed up an FOB strut.

MB coins are given to you regularly. While they aren't mass quantities, they do add up with so little to actually spend them on.

MB coins are given to you regularly. While they aren’t mass quantities, they do add up with so little to actually spend them on.

That’s all they’re really for – speeding up progression of a few online things. You can also use them to buy a few cosmetic options in the newest iteration of Metal Gear Online. There is also an insurance item you can buy to protect you FOBs, but I’ll go more into that when I actually talk about the FOBs.

Going on missions is pretty simple.

Going on missions is pretty simple.

Going on missions is pretty simple and straightforward. Either while you’re in the ACC, or in the field where the mission takes place, you can select a mission from the “[MISSIONS]” tab in the iDroid. After going to Missions, you can choose to view the various mission lists. “Mission List” covers your main missions, “Side Ops List” is fairly self explainatory, and “FOB Missions” is where you can access a list of various online rival FOBs to invade or retaliate against.

If you’re in the ACC, simply select the mission you want to go on, and you’ll be able to choose a dropzone near the mission area and set up your loadout for that mission. If you’re in the field, you can only accept missions that take place in the same map that you’re in. You select them from the list as usual, but instead of being dropped in, you must travel on land to one of any of the starting points for said mission. You also don’t get the option of setting up your equipment beforehand, unless you call in the items from your iDroid. Side Ops work the same way, but instead of having to be selected in the iDroid, you simply head into the area that they take place and the mission automatically starts.

There are a lot of side ops, but unfortunately, not a huge amount of variety in them. While Peace Walker wasn’t much different, it did have a few Side Ops that were unique – such as the Pooyan missions, and the Monster Hunter missions. It would have been nice to see something like that here.

FOB missions are a good way to keep yourself sharp. They can be quite tricky, depending on the player's base security.

FOB missions are a good way to keep yourself sharp. They can be quite tricky, depending on the player’s base security.

FOB missions are a bit of a side game. You can deploy out to other players Forward Operating Bases and attempt to sabotage their operations. This is actually a fairly fun mode, and depending on the player’s base security, can be either a walk in the park, or some of the hardest stealth gameplay you’ve ever experienced – especially if the defending player appears and is good at the game.

Unfortunately, you’re kind of forced to build an FOB if you’re online [Not entirely forced, you can back out, but you’ll be asked if you want to build one often.]. That said, it’s highly worth it – the pros outweight the cons. At the risk of losing a bit of staff/materials to infrequent invasions [Usually amounts you can restore after one mission out in the field], you gain the ability to have double the staff, double the amount of teams out on deployments, and even further improved resource acquisition/item development.

If you really, really don’t like the idea of someone stealing your hard earned resources/staff – you can use your MB coins to purchase insurance for your FOB. Players can still invade your base and steal your stuff, but you’ll be reimbursed for anything you lose – they gain, and you don’t lose. You can get a free 3 days for your first time, and then spend varying amounts of MB coins for varying lengths of time of protection. It’s not forced. you don’t ever have to buy the insurance at all, but it’s there if you want it – the way a microtransaction should be.

The defending player can appear at any time, so be on your guard if you decide to invade someone.

The defending player can appear at any time, so be on your guard if you decide to invade someone.

Your goal in an FOB mission, is to reach the core of the platform you decided to invade. Different platforms have different layouts. Some are easy to navigate, others are super difficult and confusing. You also don’t need to actively extract any materials/staff. Reaching the core successfully captures some resources and staff members automatically. If you’re spotted during the infiltration, then regardless of if you successfully infiltrate the core or not, a revenge wormhole will open up, allowing the defending player to retaliate against you.

The more you invade, the more likely you are to be invaded. So, if you don’t really want to deal with it, don’t invade people. Also, don’t skimp on your security measures. Players generally don’t want to invade a base with really high security. It’s not worth it.

Successfully get to the platform's core, and reap the rewards.

Successfully get to the platform’s core, and reap the rewards.

Overall, Phantom Pain‘s gameplay is some of the most open ended stuff I’ve ever played. A lot of sandbox games claim that you can do whatever you want – but it always feels like there’s some kind of limit. Action sequences are always scripted and you’re always confined by the limits of the gameplay. Phantom Pain doesn’t seem to run into that problem. Some moments are scripted. Slightly. Certain things don’t happen until you’re in the area for them to actually happen – this is to keep things fair for the player, as if they occurred too soon, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

This is not always the case, though. Sometimes, a mission will have events occurring in real time from the moment you enter the area. Meaning that missions can evolve as you play them. Maybe you save that prisoner. Maybe he/she is caught by the guards hunting for them and killed. Maybe you reach the truck before it leaves the hangar. Maybe it’s halfway through its route when you find it.

Even the minor moments can evolve. A mission can be going extremely clean – you’ve remained undetected the whole time. Suddenly, a soldier you managed to miss marking comes around a corner and spots you. Reflex mode kicks in and you quickly take him down – but he had a friend you didn’t see. The base is on alert, and you need to get to the prisoner fast, or they’re going to kill him.

Speaking of Reflex mode, it also returns from Ground Zeroes – and it’s far more useful here. The open world makes it almost a necessity. There are many times where you’ll be spotted by a stray soldier you couldn’t mark or see. You’ll be glad you have it on. It also allows for some really cool looking moments to happen, as well. Moments that you have full control over.

And that’s what makes Phantom Pain‘s gameplay so great. The moments that you experience – the pulse-pounding “Holy shit, I can’t believe that happened” moments are 98% in your control. You create them. That moment in MGS1, when you’re fighting side-by-side with Meryl and gurads are pouring in in waves? It’s not scripted here. Chances are, if it happened, it’s because you were caught, and the soldiers are actively coming after you.

There’s also the knowledge that the soldiers will actively counter your efforts. Sneak in mostly at night? They get flashlights and night vision goggles. Sneak in through side paths? Soldiers put landmines in your favorite sneaking paths, forcing you to be more cautious or take another path. Get a lot of head shots? Prepare to deal with helmets. Body shots? Body armor. Fight from long range? They bring in snipers. Fulton people a lot? They start shooting the balloons down.

The game’s difficulty adjusts based on how you play – and unlike other games where they just make enemies harder or more resilient, Phantom Pain’s adaptive AI is actually effective. And they start adapting fast. It’s not like Peace Walker where the soldiers you faced and the gear they had were based on the mission, at least not always.

I also love that the AI is good enough to actually fall for tricks. And I don’t mean the silly tricks like setting a magazine down for a soldier to see. I mean real tricks. Actual plans. Cause a distraction on one side of a base, and sneak in while the AI is sending people out the investigate the disturbance. Got caught in a firefight? Get away and have the AI investigate your last known position. Use that to set up an ambush.

If you can think it, chances are, you can do it. Hell, if you get caught – while in Reflex mode – throw an empty clip into the soldier’s face. DING! They’re knocked out cold.

No really, the soldier gets knocked out, and there’s a satisfying bell ringing sound that plays.

Which way do you go? It's actually up to you.

Which way do you go? It’s actually up to you.

Many games claim to be open, to give the player free reign, but Phantom Pain is the only game I’ve played that truly delivers on that front.


Replay Value

Let’s be real here. The replay value in this game is through the roof. On top of the nearly infinite amount of ways you can approach nearly every mission, each main mission has a set of mission tasks that also encourage players to come back and play again later. Some can be tackled right away, others will require upgrades to items you might not have at the time of the mission. Like fultoning away a material container that resides inside a building.

A ton of side ops, FOB missions, main missions that regain GMP payouts as you play more missions – this game has a lot to keep you playing. Add on to that Metal Gear Online which, while it currently is a little limited in modes/maps, offers an entire suite of multiplayer options, seperate to the single player.

There are some things I wish would have stayed on from Peace Walker – like co-op – but I really can’t complain here. Not with the breadth of content already available in the game. I’ve already put over 100 hours into TPP, and I’m only at 81% game completion.

There are even a few missions that act as replays of earlier ones, but with different stipulations. “Extreme” variants are just a higher difficulty, “Subsistence” variants send you in with no items or weapons and you have to find what you use on-site, much like the older games, and finally “Total Stealth” variants are just that – they require you to complete the mission without being spotted. Get spotted, and the mission ends right then and there. While these don’t make up for the missing content of Chapter 2, they’re at least fun.

For you trophy hunters out there – this one won’t be too hard. A lot like Peace Walker, it’ll take a while, but nothing in it is too hard.


Final Verdict

Buy it.

Yes, there was content cut from the game – content that could have helped form a more cohesive story – but you know what? There’s still plenty of content here. There’s still plenty of game here. And that’s what this is. A game. Yes, it’s diosappointing that the saga ends on this kind of note, story-wise, but the gameplay is the best in the series – and that should always be at the forefront of any gamer’s decision to purchase a game.

It’s a mirror image of Metal Gear Solid 3. How? MGS3 is considered by many to be the “best” story in the series [I don’t actually agree with this, I think it’s MGS2 – but I digress], but the gameplay is by far the most cumbersome & clunky. Having to constantly go into menus that freeze and take you out of the action, 2 of the least interesting boss fights ever, convoluted controls that hadn’t really changed in nearly 14 years at the time – the gameplay was a mess. If it hadn’t had the story behind it, chances are really good that MGS3 wouldn’t be a lot of people’s favorite.

Phantom Pain is in the same boat – it’s just flipped the opposite direction. Instead of the gameplay being a mess and the story saving it – the story is a mess, and the gameplay saves it. And honestly, is that really so bad?

The stellar gameplay and sheer amount of overall content more than make this game worth owning.

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PROS CONS
  • Huge, open areas that allow truly freeform gameplay.
  • Extremely high replay value, and tons of content to unlock/earn.
  • The best gameplay in any Metal Gear to date.
  • Afghanistan and South Africa are the only real maps.
  • The story will leave a bit to be desired for some.
  • FINAL VERDICT
    Click here or on the verdict image to the left for full disclosure of what these ratings mean!

    About James Headrick

    James is an aspiring game reviewer that plays primarily on the Playstation 3 & 4. He also works freelance as a graphic designer, doing print and branding based design.
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