August 24, 2015
I have a tried and tested method for stealth games that I've always fallen back on, ever since first playing Metal Gear Solid back in 1998. It's presumably the same approach that most take, attempting to sneak for as long as humanly possible, before reverting to evasion and gunplay once the stealthy approach inevitably goes out the window. In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, this is a more viable approach than it's ever been, but you'll still be punished in kind when things go awry.
The Phantom Pain might just be the advent of an entirely new genre: the stealth sandbox, letting you loose in a massive open world occupied by Soviet forces. Set in the wake of the events of Ground Zeroes, Punished 'Venom' Snake is whisked away to Afghanistan where he'll strive to "let the legend come back to life", as Ocelot puts it, commanding a huge private army stationed at Mother Base. A sort of 'best of' comprising Metal Gear Solid's finest moments, MGS 5 has you sending captured troops and resources back to base using Peace Walker's Fulton Recovery System, while utilising camouflage a la Snake Eater will make it harder for the enemy to spot you.
And given how sharp enemy AI can be in The Phantom Pain, you'll quickly learn that staying low and slowly crawling among fronds of grass and foliage is the way to go. But as a stealth sandbox, you can approach Metal Gear's hundreds of missions in any way you like, and you've an enormous toolset to delve into to support your own play-style. Fancy attempting to play the game like a third-person shooter? Good luck, you can try. All of the requisite items and weapons are there, but you'll probably come unstuck pretty quickly.
Tactical Espionage Operations is the tagline, and that's very much The Phantom Pain's remit, as Snake tackles numerous objectives and Side Ops that include rescuing prisoners, identifying then extracting or eliminating targets, and battling bosses, all while the story gradually unfolds following a first hour or so of wall-to-wall insanity following Snake awakening from a nine-year coma. MGS fans won't be disappointed in the story stakes, as all of the classic elements and themes the series is renowned for are present and correct, albeit stretched incredibly thin across countless hours of open-world gameplay.
Kojima's usual narrative excesses take a backseat to open-world gameplay in The Phantom Pain, leaving you mostly to your own devices to complete missions, develop weapons and gadgets, while gradually expanding Mother Base and the vast army you've amassed that call it home. We also suspect that there's less chatter due to Kiefer Sutherland taking over the role of Snake in this one, as he was presumably paid by the word judging by the brevity and infrequency of his dialogue. Gone are the ponderous and lengthy codec chats of Metal Gears gone by, replaced instead by snappy cut-scenes and short exchanges between characters.
Not that long sequences in which control is wrested from the player have been excised completely from Metal Gear Solid V. You'll still find the odd cinematic sequence in which you can rotate the camera and do little else but watch, with a talk between Snake and a certain character that takes place during an interminable jeep ride putting your attention span to the test, being but one example. Yet, The Phantom Pain retains everything that we love about the Metal Gear series, from outlandish villains to insane and often mirth-inducing quirks. It never feels like a slog.
Like Ground Zeroes, The Phantom Pain's gameplay mechanics are exemplary, while being able to take a buddy into battle with you as part of your loadout adds another dimension to how you prep for missions. Will you ride in on Snake's D-Horse to use as mobile cover or have defecate on command, or is taking D-Dog in with you to mark enemies and sniff out hidden items a preferable approach? Later on, you'll align yourself with other characters that unlock more buddy options, including helpful sniper overwatch from Quiet or the ability to take a more direct, offensive approach at the controls of a mini Metal Gear D-Walker.
Choice in The Phantom Pain isn't only manifested in the inherent freedom that the open world presents, but also the array of weapons, vehicles and other items you can take with you on each of the game's dozens of missions. You can gather medicinal plants to create useful drugs, while collecting precious metals and minerals gives you the resources to expand Mother Base with additional platforms and upgrades to accommodate a greater number of troops. R&D, building and upgrading weapons all costs GMP (Gross Military Product), which is earned for successfully completing missions and objectives, of which there are plenty. Later in the game, you'll be able to engage in online Mother Base activities, although these are optional.
Side Ops present opportunities to capture translators so you're then able to interrogate enemies in various languages, while ambient Combat Dispatch missions enable Snake to send units off on a variety of other objectives that carry a whole list of rewards, but can result in allied casualties. There's a whole range of these to complete, alongside well over a hundred Side Ops, some of which are integral to the plot, if not entirely mandatory.
Metal Gear 5 is a massive game in every sense, with the vast, sandy expanses of Afghanistan giving way to the lush jungles and grasslands of the Angola-Zaire border, changing the lay of the land in a far more meaningful way than a simple change of scenery. The terrain is completely different, the challenges you face shift in unpredictable ways, environmental hazards like sandstorms can turn mission parameters on a dime, and as ever, some of the offbeat boss encounters will require a little lateral thinking. Meeting the Skulls Parasite Unit at various junctures will always keep you on your toes.
So too will the trophies, thanks to the demands of having to 'S' rank every single main mission, while tackling a host of rather tough objectives. It might be a difficult list, but the spread is nigh on perfect, and the variation in tasks is exemplary. Building Mother Base brings with it trophy rewards too, while extra curricular activities like capturing wild animals and so on are also on the list. This is a trophy list that will take some doing then, but you'll certainly want to put in the time and effort.
Potentially the end of an incredible era, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain arguably represents the zenith of Kojima's stealth series, eschewing the usual linear narrative with all of its usual contrivances, in favour of something leaner in terms of plot, but utterly sprawling in the scale of its ambitious open world.
No ordinary open-world game, The Phantom Pain's is a sandbox designed purely with its objectives and gameplay strengths in mind. As such, it's never anything but a joy to play, revelling in all of the things that make Metal Gear great, albeit offering complete freedom.
A fantastic soundtrack rubs shoulders with stellar voice acting. We still miss David Hayter, but Kiefer does a fine job as Venom Snake/Big Boss.
A remarkable-looking game, The Phantom Pain brilliantly captures its locations and characters in stunning detail. It's superb.
By far the most playable Metal Gear game ever, The Phantom Pain is intuitive and perfectly attuned to whatever playstyle you prefer, whether it's balls-out gunplay or silent stealth.
Truly vast, Metal Gear Solid V's open-world Afghanistan, the Angola-Zaire border and Mother Base offer a massive play area, while the number of main missions, Side Ops and other activities will keep you playing for dozens of hours. It's gargantuan, although there can be occasional overlap in the types of objectives you'll undertake.
A strong list with a decent spread that's worth investing time in. Not the most inspired trophy list, this is nonetheless one you'll strive to complete.
A celebration of everything that makes MGS so brilliantly unique, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain heralds a new stage in Kojima's stealth opus that might sadly be his last. Should the Metal Gear series continue without Kojima Productions, we'd be surprised if it's anywhere near as superlative as this. The Phantom Pain is sensational.