Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain impressed many people upon its release in the summer of 2015 for numerous reasons. The first game in the long-running series to utilise an open world setting, Konami’s latest stealth extravaganza manages to take advantage of the various benefits of the new setting, without disregarding the features and idiosyncrasies that have made the series a worldwide success for over two decades. Garnering as much attention as the title’s release, however, was the news that this will almost certainly be the last Metal Gear Solid game in the series to be overseen by creator Hideo Kojima, due to his acrimonious departure from developers Konami shortly before the game’s release. This could be then, the last time fans can enjoy the beloved franchise in all its fantastical glory.
Of course, as with all games in the series, The Phantom Pain has a typically unique plot that combines heavy themes such as the brutal realities of warfare with bizarre, supernatural elements and even humour. The story follows legendary soldier Snake, aka Big Boss, in his quest to uncover the identities of the men behind a vicious attack on his mercenary force nine years prior; an attack that left Snake in a coma for the intervening nine years along with numerous other, grievous wounds. Set between two vast landscapes in Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border during the 1980’s, Snake searches for the men responsible for the attack whilst attempting to rebuild his army (now called the Diamond Dogs) with the help of his trusted comrades Revolver Ocelot and Kazuhira Miller. As the story develops, Snake discovers a conspiracy directed by the enigmatic Skullface (in true Metal Gear Solid fashion, the appellation is literal) that threatens to change the world. Throughout the fifty plus hours of playtime, the narrative retains a consistent pace that matches any game in the series for complexity, without seeming unnecessarily convoluted. Thankfully many of the signature, movie length cut-scenes frequently used in previous titles have been replaced in various ways, which helps to preserve the fluency of the narrative. Cassette tapes and codec communication (more or less a hands-free phone system, familiar to all seasoned players) along with simply shorter scenes are used to great effect to convey pertinent information far more concisely – though admittedly the prologue is as slow and ponderous as any passage from the previous titles. While noticeably different from its predecessors, the narrative style of The Phantom Pain will please both new and old players alike because of this more balanced approach to storytelling.
Characters and their motivations are always extremely important to a Metal Gear Solid game, with few protagonists or antagonists ever portrayed as entirely good or evil; a theme continued here. In The Phantom Pain, we learn more about Snake’s personality and how he came to be the complicated character so important to the wider series. Sometimes cold and pragmatic, here we see a Snake who nonetheless exhibits a definite sense of honour, valuing loyalty above all else. Voiced by 24 star Keifer Sutherland (who first took over the role from gruff-voiced David Hayter on the prequel title Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes) Snake feels more human than ever without losing any of the charisma the character is known for. The supporting cast is, largely, well rounded too. Ocelot, Miller and Hal Emmerich (father of franchise mainstay Otacon) are all written and portrayed brilliantly, with special credit going to Troy Baker for his performance as Revolver Ocelot. That being said, villain Skullface doesn’t compare favourably with the likes of Liquid Snake or Colonel Volgin from the original Metal Gear Solid and Snake Eater respectively, due largely to the frequent shift of focus between Skullface, the Diamond Dogs and the multitudinous supporting cast. More frustratingly, however, is the character of Quiet the sniper. As silent as her name suggests, Quiet’s mysterious nature is genuinely intriguing; causing the player to constantly question her motives and true purpose. However, the decision to have Quiet spend the entire game in just her undergarments detracts from the absorbing character Kojima creates, achieving nothing except to further an outdated, negative stereotype of female characters in games.
Moving on to more positive aspects of The Phantom Pain, the gameplay itself proves to be an absolute triumph that gives the player greater freedom when deciding on a strategy for a particular mission and what equipment best suits those tactics. Though guards still patrol specific areas as in previous titles, their movements are now far less predictable and more reactive. Enemy soldiers now have the ability to upgrade their equipment to counteract your style, for example using night-vision goggles if the player relies on undertaking missions at night. Complementing this sense of freedom is an even larger array of weapons and support items, as well as old favourites such as the cardboard box (now customisable with a variety of posters that inexplicably confuse or entice guards) and stealth camouflage. Moreover, using the Diamond Dogs’ research and development team, players can develop new equipment to help overcome particularly challenging objectives or to simply increase the efficacy of existing items. This segues nicely onto one of the most enjoyable aspects of The Phantom Pain; base development. As commander of Diamond Dogs, Snake can ‘recruit’ incapacitated soldiers using the Fulton extraction system and assimilate them into the player’s mercenary force; for those unfamiliar with the system ‘Fultoning’ is essentially airlifting people, animals or vehicles from the battlefield using balloons – a feature that’s ridiculous, humorous and prototypically Kojima.
Accompanying the player on their missions is a playlist of original music, along with cheesy, 80’s pop hits which serve to provide a touch of comic relief in between the darker plot elements. Capping off this wonderful gaming experience are exquisitely rendered graphics that give the numerous bases and settlements an authentic, inhabited feel set amidst beautiful landscapes the equal of any PS4 titles currently available.
Engaging, immersive and immense in scale, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an unequivocally successful debut in the open world setting. Arguably the most accessible game in the series whilst retaining its identity, Kojima’s stealth series could well have reached its peak with The Phantom Pain; a fortuitous accomplishment given the likelihood this is the last Metal Gear Solid Hideo Kojima will ever create.