After more than three decades and six generations of console hardware, Hideo Kojima finally brings his magnum opus to a close – and manages to deliver one of the most epic, most memorable, and most accomplished open world games ever made.
Whilst Guns of the Patriots brought the story of Solid Snake to a close, The Phantom Pain brings closure to the saga of his genetic parent Big Boss, aka Naked Snake. In The Phantom Pain, Big Boss is now going by the moniker of Venom “Punished” Snake: a man so driven by grief, loss and a sense of revenge that nothing else matters except for the next mission.
Like a Boss
The Phantom Pain picks up 9 years after the climactic finale of last year’s prologue, Ground Zeroes, and the first hour wastes no time in filling in the blanks and plunging you headlong into another dose of Kojima’s trademark mayhem.
The first ten or fifteen minutes of the opening sequence are, for my money, the strongest opening of a game since Bioshock sent you crashing into the ocean and into the depths of Rapture. I won’t spoil it, but it’s a powerful sequence, very different in tone from what comes afterwards, and it works perfectly at setting the scene. Even if you have no interest in Metal Gear Solid, only the most churlish would argue that it isn’t an excellent opener. After that, things descend into madness as Snake escapes the hospital he’s spent the last nine years in after a private military organization arrives on the scene to take him out of play for good.
It’s loud, it’s heavy on the exposition, it’s overly dramatic, and it’s utterly mental. Who else but Kojima would open with long conversations about private military organizations, the meaninglessness of war and international politics? And who else but Kojima would do all that at the same time as confronting the player with flaming unicorns, levitating superhumans and a drawn out escape sequence that has you moving as though you’re wading through treacle? Oh, and did I mention that the game opens with a fantastic cover version of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World?
“You get the impression that the sheer madcap bombast of that first hour is Kojima getting it all out of his system as quickly as possible.”
There’s even an early feint from Kojima that suddenly twists what you thought you knew about Metal Gear Solid V to breaking point, before things snap back into shape (I honestly can’t say more than that, but you’ll know it when you see it).
So far, so Metal Gear Solid. The Phantom Pain is incredibly daft, but never more so than in the initial opening sequence. In fact, you get the impression that the sheer madcap bombast of that first hour is Kojima getting it all out of his system as quickly as possible. After an hour that feels like a barely interactive assault on both your senses and your sanity, The Phantom Pain quickly, almost abruptly, settles down into something very different from Metal Gear games past.
Restraint isn’t a word many people would perhaps associate with a game designer who once expected players to sit through a cut scene lasting longer than most films, or who switched out a protagonist who was the very definition of gruff masculinity and had players instead controlling a naked, cartwheeling effeminate male. But amazingly, that’s exactly how The Phantom Pain feels: restrained.
It’s Finally Over
Gone (mostly) are the excessively long and meandering cut scenes where characters ramble endlessly about war, conspiracies, and philosophy. Gone too are the lengthy Codec conversations. Previous Metal Gear Solid games felt bloated by the sheer weight of exposition; The Phantom Pain feels anaemic in comparison. Much of the story and explanation surrounding events are relegated to a series of audio logs that you acquire throughout the game.
In fact, for vast swathes of your time with The Phantom Pain you barely see nor hear from any of the major cast; characters like Benedict Miller and Revolver Ocelot are present and correct (among other returning faces who I won’t spoil), but in general they only make themselves known during brief scenes that bookend story-critical missions (in a typical Kojima fashion, each mission begins and ends with a credit sequence and is referred to as an Episode), or during brief radio conversations as you play.
Whisper it: The Phantom Pain could actually do with a little more story in between its gameplay beats, a little more flesh on its bones.
Instead, if you wish to make any sense of what characters’ motivations are, or who you just encountered, or in fact anything that happens in during the story campaign, you ignore the audio logs at your peril. Even then, only the hardest of hardcore fans are likely to be able to make any sense of the plot. In previous Metal Gear Solid games this saw Kojima’s series skirting repeatedly close to utter disaster – I challenge anyone to explain just what the hell was going on at the end of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty – but it’s to The Phantom Pain‘s credit that somehow, unbelievably, it doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference to how much fun you’re likely to have.
Military Without Borders
The new open-world direction is largely the reason for this. While the dual environments of Afghanistan and Zaire possess neither the variety nor the memorable landmarks to make them truly stand out, the sense of scale is such that for the first time in the entire series you feel genuinely free to approach any situation how you want to.
The result is that while the actual scripted story feels pared back, the freedom granted to the player during the actual play experience results in any number of stories crafted through emergence. I can barely remember a single mission that stands out; but I can remember dozens of small moments where things either came together beautifully or my plans fell apart in disastrous fashion.
To start with, you’ll be tempted to play The Phantom Pain much like the Metal Gear Solid games which preceded it. You’ll move slowly, learning guards’ patrol routes through each of the dozens of bases in each area, taking them down one by one as you creep towards your target. Playing this way is immensely satisfying, but it isn’t until you begin to experiment with the myriad gameplay systems and tools at your disposal that you start to really appreciate the tactical possibilities on offer.
That The Phantom Pain allows you to approach any situation how you want to is the best thing about it, and outside of the main story missions, it’s all unscripted. You’ll often find yourself making your way to a mission location only to come across a small village outpost and spend the next half hour taking out the guards and then investigating it for any loot, purely because you can.
All Your (Mother) Base Are Belong To Us
The desire to go off the beaten path at any given opportunity is bolstered by The Phantom Pain’s headline feature: Mother Base, Big Boss’ base of operations. The basic concept is an evolution of what we first saw in Peace Walker, allowing you to recruit new soldiers, develop base facilities and research new technology. The key difference is that in Peace Walker, Mother Base was depicted as little more than a series of static menu screens and not much else. Those menu screens still exist – you issue orders and make decisions from directly within your iDroid – but Mother Base now exists as a fully explorable space.
Starting off with a single oil platform, as you upgrade and expand your base it grows in size until it becomes a massive installation, multiple platforms connected together by long stretches of road. Those upgrades – and a baffling array of new weapons, gear options, and more types of cardboard box than you would believe possible – are paid through via resources and GMP (Gross Military Product).
“Far from being an annoyance, the constant need for more money pushes you towards choosing gear and upgrades to suit a particular play style.”
You earn GMP and resources for completing missions or collecting them while out in the field, and while hardly difficult to come by, you’ll never have as much as you want. Advance Mother Base to a certain point and you can also send your recruits out on missions, earning you further resources, blueprints for new gear, and more recruits. Everything ultimately feeds back into Mother Base, in a wonderful series of ever-escalating gameplay loops – but you never have enough money for everything you want to purchase.
Far from being an annoyance, the constant need for more money pushes you towards choosing gear and upgrades to suit a particular play style. That new model rocket launcher is bound to come in handy against tanks in the field; but researching it means that you won’t be able to afford upgrading your Intel platform, restricting the amount of knowledge you’re given about your surroundings. Equipping your helicopter with more advanced weaponry can make it more effective when you call in air strikes or need picking up from a hot zone; but if you get that silenced sniper rifle instead, you could wipe out an entire outpost without the enemy ever knowing you were there in the first place.
That’s not to say that you’ll always want to take the violent approach, and the ever-present need to expand Mother Base presents a compelling reason to opt for the stealthy approach. Take a guard out silently – whether through choking them, using a tranquilizer, or even knocking them out by having your helicopter drop a box of supplies on their head (yes, really) – and you can attach a Fulton balloon to them, which suspends them in midair briefly before comically whisking them up into the sky, where they’re then picked up by an overhead plane and taken back to Mother Base to join your cause.
Everyone you recruit out in the field is stationed in Mother Base, and they salute you as you approach. The wildlife you capture out in the field is stored in a ridiculous makeshift zoo; the vehicles you extract (once you’ve upgraded your Fulton balloon) are placed proudly on display. The sense of progression is wonderful: you really feel as though your empire is growing.
Mother Base’s physical presence is little more than a virtual trophy room; activities are relegated to a handful of target practice missions and exploring the labyrinthine passages for hidden loot. but as a monument to your progress through the game it’s second to none, Assassin’s Creed 2’s Monteriggioni writ large and a symbol of Big Boss’ growing martial might.
Facilitating the open-ended and emergent gameplay is a selection of optional Buddies for you to choose from, each with their own skills and expertise. You start off with just one, D-Horse, but over the first half of the game you’ll gradually gain access to D-Dog, mute sniper Quiet and a miniature mech.
D-Horse primarily acts as a mode of transport to help you get across the expansive maps – essential given that the fast travel options are somewhat laborious – but once you’ve developed a sufficient bond with him, D-Horse can poop on command. Far from being just a humorous touch, vehicles will skid off the road if they come into contact with D-Horse’s leavings, adding an amusing, and notably easier way to take out the enemy. D-Horse can also be used as a good way of getting deeper into enemy territory without being spotted: Big Boss can lean to one side of the horse as it canters past outputs, hiding himself from view so that guards simply think they’re seeing a wild horse out for a stroll.
D-Dog comes in handy for his ability to detect enemies, plant life and resources out in the field, as well as a useful way of keeping the enemy busy. He can even be equipped with a knife and trained with the ability to take down enemies silently. D-Dog is adorable, his excited yelps and wagging tail instantly endearing him to you even as you can’t help but laugh at his ridiculous eyepatch and the comical “shing!” noise when he knifes an enemy.
“There is absolutely no justifiable reason for Quiet to be as skimpily dressed as she is.”
Quiet is also a valuable ally, able to provide cover by sniping enemies from afar (eventually gaining access to a non-lethal sniper rifle), though she has been the center of no small degree of controversy. Simply put, there is absolutely no justifiable reason for Quiet to be as skimpily dressed as she is, and though the narrative attempts to explain her constant state of semi-undress, it’s really just a paper-thin excuse for the camera to leer over close-up shots of her cleavage. The way she leans in over Snake at the start of each mission, the camera looking directly down her top, or the way she can be found in her cell between missions lying on her front with her bra undone, don’t do anything to help Kojima’s assertion that she isn’t over-sexualized.
It’s a shame, because Quiet is one of the most interesting characters in The Phantom Pain, and although she’s mute, she displays more personality in a glance or a resigned sigh than most of the other characters do in an entire speech. Nothing would have been lost by giving her a bit more clothing, and given the fact that Kojima recently took to twitter to show off a collectable figurine of her with squeezable breasts really shows where the development team’s thinking was at when they designed her appearance.
Lastly, for the player who likes to throw subtlety at the window, there’s the Walker, a miniature mecha suited to all-out assaults and gun battles. Tearing through bases in the Walker is deeply satisfying, though if you want to finish a story mission with a high rank then it’s probably best avoided. But in side ops and for just messing around in the giant sandbox that Kojima Productions has created, hopping into your Walker feels like an instant power trip. It’s a great way to blow off steam after a stressful day, and can result in some hilarious instances of emergent chaos.
You’ll quickly pick your favorite buddy, though you’ll be missing out if you don’t mix and match them throughout as each has their uses. Which Buddy you take with you on missions (if at all) wildly affects how you approach each objective, and replaying a scenario with a different Buddy is well worth it just to see how dramatically different the outcome could be.
You’re a legend in the eyes of those who live on the battlefield
All of this is wrapped up in some of the best production values ever seen in a game. Konami and Kojima Productions have made a lot of noise about the fidelity of Fox Engine, and while we’ve seen glimpses of what it can achieve already, in both Ground Zeroes and the ill-fated P.T., in The Phantom Pain it’s given room to breathe – to stunning effect.
Draw distances are phenomenal on current gen. Vistas extend for miles in every direction, enhancing the sense of scale generated by the massive open environments you explore. Aghanistan and Africa aren’t the most visually varied of locales – one is effectively a rocky desert and the other is a jungle – but they’re both rendered with such beauty that, at least on initial viewing, they’re breathtaking. There’s some very occasional pop-in and the odd questionable texture, but they’re so rare that you’ll likely not notice.
None of this would matter if the game didn’t perform well. Thankfully, even in busy scenes, with more than a dozen enemies running around on screen and with particle and smoke effects in full deployment, there’s no appreciable slowdown. It’s a remarkable achievement, no doubt aided by the fact that engine was built to scale down to older hardware. Perhaps in a few years the game will show its age; but right now, there’s little to challenge it in the visual stakes.
Sound production is equally accomplished. Sprinting feels far more satisfying than it should thanks to the sound of the air rushing past Big Boss’ ears as he runs. Guns feel meaty; even the most minor of effects sounds as though it was a labor of love. And yes, all the traditional effects from past games are present and correct. The Phantom Pain really benefits from a good set of headphones or a surround sound setup too. Playing the game with the right sound equipment allows you to truly appreciate just how well judged the effects are, and helps you to become immersed in the world. It’s an aspect of video games that rarely gets the attention or praise it deserves, but The Phantom Pain wouldn’t be half the game it is without the excellent sound production on display here.
The assembled cast of voice actors do an admirable job. Troy Baker demonstrates why he’s such a popular choice when it comes to casting roles with a great performance as Revolver Ocelot; James Horan’s performance as Skullface conveys just the right amount of sinister sneering without descending into pantomime villainy. Christopher Randolph has been voicing two generations of the Emmerich family since the very first Metal Gear Solid in 1998, and his performance continues to be nothing less than spot on.
The casting of Kiefer Sutherland as Snake/ Big Boss sparked no small amount of fan ire upon its announcement prior to the release of Ground Zeroes last year, and while he turns in a performance very different to David Hayter, he’s well suited to the role.
Though Sutherland often sounds as though he’s channeling a decade’s worth of Jack Bauer at times, and despite the fact that his dialogue is extremely thin on the ground – no doubt his fees were astronomical – he lends a world-weariness to the role that Hayter, with his gruff no-nonsense machismo, never managed to achieve. That’s likely to be considered a sacrilegous assessment by many, but it’s one that this reviewer stands by.
Unfortunately, Sutherland’s lack of dialogue does mean that you never develop an emotional connection to the man once known as Naked Snake, and his reaction to the climactic events of the story falls a little flat. It’s a minor point, but it’s enhanced by the fact that The Phantom Pain‘s narrative structure already makes the events of the story difficult to follow.
Ludvig Forssell and Justin Burnett composed The Phantom Pain‘s soundtrack, and while it takes some getting used to (two decades of Harry Gregson-Williams means that his style is hardwired into fans’ collective consciousness), once you warm to it you gain a deeper appreciation for what they’ve achieved.
Music is used sparingly, punctuating moments of action and drama rather than being ever-present, and it suits the themes of the game perfectly. It’s subtle and ominous where it needs to be, rarely descending into the overbearing bass-heavy sound that’s become prevalent in the medium since Hans Zimmer became popular in Hollywood.
The only letdown is the absence of the iconic Metal Gear Solid theme: coupled with the drastic changes in gameplay and a new actor for Snake, it can be easy to forget that you’re playing a Metal Gear Solid game at times. But in all other regards, and taken on its merits, the sound effects, acting and music are all of the highest standard.
Assuming you don’t get too distracted by the myriad activities and side missions, by around the 40-50 hour mark, you’ll have reached the end of The Phantom Pain’s story. The last few hours are a sudden rush of revelations as dozens of loose ends get tied up, and by the time the credits roll, Big Boss’ transformation into the legendary villain we see at the beginning of the original Metal Gear is complete.
The climax isn’t quite as fulfilling as it could have been, however. A large number of dangling plot threads are never resolved, while others that are resolved aren’t tied up as neatly as they could have been. A large number of questions remain unanswered, and some of the explanations and resolutions feel forced, as though Kojima simply ran out of time. In fact, in light of the revelations surrounding the director’s strained relationship with publisher Konami, it’s entirely possible that he did.
It’s also possible that it was a deliberate move, that Kojima wanted to leave a few things hanging to be picked up at a later date by whatever Metal Gear game comes next (whether that’s with, or without his involvement).
Nevertheless, the ending doesn’t quite hit the high notes that you’d expect from a game intended to wrap up 30 years’ worth of characters and plot points, and act as a bridge between two very different character arcs. It’s impressive, and unexpectedly grim – the latter half of the game takes in themes as unpleasant and controversial as child soldiers – but some of the ideas and concepts are never given room to breathe. The spartan narrative structure certainly doesn’t help this, nor does the need to listen to copious amounts of audio cassettes to gain context and background, particularly given that in the majority of cases you only gain those cassettes after completing a mission.
But any doubts you have over the ending are soon forgotten when you realize that you still have dozens of side-ops to complete; S-ranks to achieve; and a vast array of research to undertake, wildlife to capture, and intel to find. And that’s before you even get to Metal Gear Online, which is currently scheduled to launch sometime in October.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a roaring tour-de-force of a game. As a stealth game it’s without peer, a stunning technical and gameplay achievement, one that’s confident enough to simply provide you with plenty of tools and grant you the freedom to experiment and find your own way through. After so many Metal Gear games where you always felt the director’s hand pushing you along, the sudden freedom you’re granted after the opening sequence is exhilarating. Very few developers would be brave enough to step back and let the player dictate their experience to such a degree; the fact that it’s Hideo Kojima setting a new gold standard for emergence in a video game is almost impossible to believe.
But that’s Hideo Kojima for you: endlessly inventive, utterly mad, and always subverting expectations.
Whatever Kojima turns his hands to next, long may he reign.