If Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is truly to be the last entry in the venerable series, then Kojima Productions have ensured that it goes out with a bang. It concludes the transformation that was started with Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, brilliantly turning into a grand open world that exists simply to give you opportunities and possibilities to play within the environment.
After a dirge-like opening hour that you quite literally have to drag yourself through, Afghanistan and Africa emerge as huge sandboxes for you to play in. The immense open spaces maybe don’t have the same density of other open world games and feature little else beyond the enemy forces and a handful of wildlife, but there’s always something nearby to explore or a mission to tackle. It could be a small side op to take out a group of guards at an outpost or extract a prisoner, or a more expansive mission that sees you tailing characters, collecting intel and striking at an opportune moment as two high ranking officers meet.
Though the series is best known for its stealth gameplay, you can tackle most objectives how you see fit. Certainly, you can go in with a silenced tranquilliser pistol and use CQC attacks to interrogate and subdue soldiers, but you can also snipe from afar, go in and cause bloody havoc with an assault rifle, or play as a completely different member of the Diamond Dogs – you can actually play as a woman in this way – and barrel through the enemy forces in a luridly golden tank.
All along the way, you’ll have the option of taking a buddy into battle with you. D-Horse is your mainstay early on, allowing you to quickly cover ground before you’re able to steal military vehicles for your own personal use, while the single person Walker Gear lends you a little added toughness for a more head-on approach. However, they pale in comparison to the benefits of taking D-Dog (AKA “DD”) or Quiet into battle with you.
DD detects and marks any nearby enemy or point of interest with a soft little bark, and can be commanded to attack to distract, kill or stun, depending on how he’s been equipped. Meanwhile, Quiet can be sent to scout an outpost regardless of where it is on the map, before setting up shop in a sniper spot and keeping a watchful eye for if you get into trouble. She too can be commanded to fire on specific targets, with a growing bond through persistent use adding the ability to fire in tandem with her, shoot a thrown grenade or simply have blanket cover fire. Get her a silenced tranquilliser sniper rifle, and you’ll be able to subdue and kidnap entire battalions of soldiers, but she can even take on helicopters, armoured vehicles and be useful during boss fights.
In truth, these two buddies remove a lot of the hard work from the stealth gameplay and could be considered overpowered as a result, but they are a lot of fun to use and it’s still up to you whether or not to take them into the field. In fact, it’s entirely your choice whether or not they are inducted into the Diamond Dogs in the first place, in another example of the surprising flexibility to the game’s design.
That Quiet is so scantily clad remains a disappointing decision through to the end, in how needless it is for her to be depicted in such a manner and the way the camera gleefully lingers upon her body during cutscenes. The pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo is a lame pretence for her near nudity that doesn’t really get better later in the game, but she remains a compelling character within the story. Her mere existence and her almost inexplicable actions are a constant source of disagreement and conflict between Ocelot and Miller – Big Boss rarely utters a word throughout the story, on the other hand – who are constantly at odds as the Diamond Dogs seek revenge, but the gradual reveal of Quiet’s particular tragedy culminate in a rather powerful scene as the game’s central story ends.
While you can tackle most things with a hail of bullets, you are gently pushed towards stealthier play, primarily through the need to build up your Mother Base into a support structure for your endeavours in the field, albeit one that you can and will visit regularly and are able to explore as it grows. The main method of gaining more men for the budding Diamond Dogs is, in fact, to enact a campaign of mass kidnap and indoctrination, by making use of the Fulton recovery system to whisk them away to your base. It takes a while for you to be able to research it, but the Fulton eventually lets you spirit away cargo containers and heavier military equipment, such as tanks, trucks and APCs.
Some of them might dive straight in, while others come to staff the various departments of your organisation, from R&D to Intel, Support and beyond. Though the game shuffles players into an appropriate department for you, you can also manage them yourself, which allows you to manually boost a department’s level and comes in useful during the story at points. Staff management is just part of the Mother Base set up which can be accessed at practically any time via the iDroid – though it’s best to wait for a lull in the action and/or use the companion app – allowing you to set the next weapon or technology to research, send the Combat Unit on missions, expand your base and even manage the forward operating bases which tie into the game’s online play.
When online, you can attack another player’s FOB in order to steal resources and capture some new recruits, while trying to set up and develop your own FOB with enough troops and defences to stave off an infiltration from another player. Your main Mother Base is off limits, and this is a largely asynchronous affair – though you will be notified of and able to attempt to thwart an infiltration if you happen to be playing and online at the time. A week after launch, the servers have yet to truly recover from the crush of players, and while you can infiltrate other bases just fine the menu for this fails to display player stats properly. You might also prefer to play without connecting to the servers, just to avoid the moments of lag introduced to certain parts of the iDroid menu.
Perhaps most importantly for the main game, expanding Mother Base lets you stay one step ahead of the soldiers that you encounter. Over time, they start to wear helmets, body armour, wield shotguns and sniper rifles, place decoys and mines. The Combat Unit can disrupt the supplies of these items, to give you a temporary advantage for those sticky situations.
Unfortunately, the game’s story and pacing start to come off the rails around the half-way mark. As it moves from Chapter 1 to Chapter 2, it starts to repeat itself more than it offers new material to play through. There are new missions and more than a few new cutscenes that resolve a number of plot points and tie up loose ends, but they are interspersed with missions from the first chapter that are modified in various ways to be more difficult.
The real problem isn’t that those repeat missions exist, since the game encourages replays to get a better score, complete side missions and more, but I’d rather have Subsistence or Extreme modifiers be an option across the board, rather than something I have to play in order to trigger the next cutscene or unlock a new story mission. It feels as if Kojima Productions simply ran out of time or resources to create new material, and found themselves having to pad the game time out in order to tell the rest of their story. It’s somewhat telling the number of times that a message from Miller after an unrelated repeated mission sees you dragged back to Mother Base for a cutscene.
There are a few missions that fall flat, as well. Kojima would have done well to heed the old advice to never work with kids, as the missions featuring children sap a lot of the fun and potential for inventiveness out of the game through awkward design. The boss fights can also feel rather wearing if you don’t go about them in a certain way, though they are undoubtedly very tense, difficult and fraught experiences. It’s maybe a bit of a shame that their appearance is spoilt by the intro credits, when you load into a mission.
But in the grand scheme of things, those missteps do little to detract from the glorious open world of possibilities that the majority of the game presents to you. Kojima has also done an excellent job of integrating this story into the well worn universe, wrapping up almost all of the loose ends within, as well as tying it to the events that are set to follow in a way that ought to please fans. Having said that, I’ve no doubt that there is much gnashing of teeth amongst fans of the series over the finer points of the ending and, for entirely different reasons, some of the more overwrought and hackneyed plot points.
The Phantom Pain makes a major departure from the gameplay of the earlier home console games, but it’s brilliant for it. The story loses its momentum half-way through and the boss fights can fall flat, but those are minor points compared to the outstanding open world that has been created for you to play in and the freedom to do so.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4