Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review — Kept You Waiting, Huh?

So I’ve finally managed to free up enough time to beat this ridiculously long game. Let’s get to talking about it.

I know I’ve only just gotten into this series, but the more I think about it, the more I see Metal Gear Solid as being my second favorite video game series of all-time behind Saints Row. And whilst Saints Row claims its spot for being the most fun I’ve ever had with a video game, Metal Gear Solid has the advantage in terms of intellectual story and character even if the execution is very problematic, what with its overly long dialogue and dated gameplay. The whole thing is basically what I’d like Gundam (and Sunrise mecha in general) to be more like, dealing with post-war/modern themes rather than plain-war/standard ones and its incredibly serious Saving Private Ryan-like tone despite the fact that the enemy soldiers have a psychic ghost setting a giant man made of fire at you and is led by a man named Skull Face, who gets his name because there’s no skin on his face, and in Phantom Pain, he decides that he’d supplement that with a Lone Ranger mask for no adequately explained reason. Yeah, it’s a little disappointing to see some of that stuff explained with nano machines and other ludicrous science tropes, but I sort of ignore said explanations because they’re too over-the-top to really take seriously and no amount of nano machine bullshit can excuse flying kids wearing gas masks who can teleport anywhere.

So I was super-hyped to play Phantom Pain upon seeing all the great reviews because I loved the other main entries and Peace Walker’s gameplay was fun even if the story was more standard than what I’d expect from Kojima. Of course by the time I got to playing the thing, I’d heard the complaints; and upon getting all the endings, all I can say is “well I liked it more than Peace Walker“. Yeah, I’m not exactly the biggest fan of Kojima’s decision to be more about the military stuff and less about challenging the player with the series ever since the Solid Snake story line concluded almost ten years ago. But it would have helped if Konami didn’t tell Kojima to fuck off before he could complete the game.

But let’s start with describing this game on the ground floor. After the events of Ground Zeroes in which an explosion puts Big Boss aka Venom Snake into a nine-year long coma, he awakens to an attempt on his life and escapes in order to rebuild his organization from the ground up and take revenge on the people who killed his men. Thus, Diamond Dogs is born, and with the help of former enemy/secret ally Revolver Ocelot and second-in-command Kazuhira Miller, Snake must take on missions in Afghanistan and Africa in order to gain resources whilst hunting down Skull Face and stop his plans regarding a giant mecha that’s said to be more powerful than the original Metal Gear. Along the way, he gains help from a horse that allows him to travel long distances, a wolf that was raised as a cub to be loyal to Mother Base, and a female sniper named Quiet, who’s basically Yoko Litner from Gurren Lagann in that she fights with as little clothing as possible and could be excluded from the story without affecting too much. And she never talks, because the men are speaking right now, honey (actually, there’s a good reason why she doesn’t do much more than hum, but I can’t say much about it other than the fact that language is a big theme of Phantom Pain’s story).

Phantom Pain was an attempt to overhaul the original Metal Gear gameplay we’ve come to expect from the main series with an expanded version of Peace Walker’s, so progression is made by doing missions, and the game is now a giant open-world sandbox where you personally decide how you want to accomplish the missions anyway you’d like. And considering the fact that Kojima never works with an editor, you’ll have access to hundreds of weapon and buddy options to clear your goal, when in reality you’ll only use about ten or so throughout the entire game. Of course, you’re going to have to get really good at using said options because the enemies wise up to your tactics over time and some missions require you to have a specific item to accomplish them. In order to develop those items, you have to recruit soldiers in order to level up the development teams required to make said items, and whilst you’ll get volunteers from time to time, the best soldiers are found by scanning enemy soldiers to see if they’re highly skilled, taking them down without killing them, attaching them to balloons, and watching them rocket into the sky whilst laughing at how impossible that application of the Fulton Recovery System would be in real life.

Whilst you’re free to choose if you want to stealth it up or go Rambo on everyone, you’ll definitely want to favor the first one because Snake’s health is low, you can only auto-recover by not moving, you’re generally outnumbered in any of the non-boss fight missions, and most people generally prefer the people and resources they want to use in order to improve your base to be alive. Also, you get an automatic game over if you kill any child soldiers, so you’ll NEVER want to be rid of the tranquilizer gun at any given moment. And trust me when I say that once you gain the ability to have tanks fly in the air, you’ll definitely start favoring clearing those missions by sneaking up to them and performing a 1-hit kill with balloons rather than use three shots from a rocket launcher that you have to reload very slowly in-between shots. It’s that sort of increasingly organic gameplay as you go on that makes Phantom Pain one of the most fun entries in the series to actually play, almost to a fault since you’ll probably find it hard to go back to the previous games after this. Just remember that you’ve got to call a chopper, wait for it to land, get in, and then wait for it to take off before you can complete most missions or go to a different destination. You can use the pause menu to return to your helicopter automatically, but that only works during the side stuff and you’re not at your home base.

As for the story, my main problem with it is that it feels like an intermission to connect past and present rather than a true standalone entry. Quiet is probably the only character in this game who undergoes an actual arc, but since she’s an entirely optional character, a lot of the scenes and dialogue have to progress under the assumption that you made a choice different from 95% of the player base. A good chunk of the missions don’t contribute to the story to any significant degree, and Skull Face’s episode felt like the main story in Peace Walker all over again, except less personal because he rarely meets Big Boss face-to-face. Speaking of Peace Walker, after that story is over, we launch into a sort of epilogue episode where you complete missions for the sole purpose of tying up some loose ends whilst revealing what’s really been going on behind-the-scenes. Whilst it’s definitely more substantial than doing the same mission over and over until the final reveal that that game did (and for the record, I had to the same side mission over and over to unlock the mission that you needed to beat six times), it depends way too much on the twist endings at the cost of functioning as a standalone product to the point that it felt like certain portions of the actual journey had been edited out.

Plus, as I said before, it’s disappointing that a game series I liked because it challenged the gamer underneath all the war stuff now focuses its story more on said war stuff. Well, I tell a lie. There is a twist at the end of the game that without spoiling anything major, reveals that the entire game was secretly Kojima’s plan to marry the player with who they’re controlling and puts a lot of things introduced at the beginning of the game into perspective. However, it takes a long time to get to that point and the success of said twist depends a lot on the stuff that happened prior in the first place. And what happens prior are a bunch of themes regarding the harshness of being a child soldier, the nuclear arms race, humanity’s greed, and language with the last one being the only one I found fresh enough to be really intriguing whilst the others I mostly tolerated because of Metal Gear’s self-serious quirkiness.

It also doesn’t help that the end of said language arc requires you to play through one of the worst “final levels” I’ve ever seen in a game. I thought the final level of the first episode where you fight against the giant mecha and his one-hit kill lasers and kicks that are apparently more powerful than exploding rocks was frustrating enough, but the end of the whole language thing requires you to either blow up or attach balloons to fourteen tanks and a chopper that come armed with backup soldiers and one-hit kill missiles that have horrible collision detection so that the shockwave of the explosion can knick your face behind cover and still wipe out all your health in one hit, whilst being able to absorb ten rockets to the face. Oh, and you have to prevent Quiet from getting herself killed whilst saving your own damn life in the process. The final boss in Bloodborne (either of them) was easier to take down.

Whilst Phantom Pain is fun to play and the reveals at the end do a good job at reminding me why I really enjoy this series, it honestly doesn’t stick in my mind as much as the other Metal Gears. The characters aren’t very fun on account of mostly just being a bunch of angry people with a grudge against the world, and most of the story as well as any real sense of closure is told through optional audio tapes, probably because of all the complaints regarding Kojima’s dialogue tendencies, so he wanted to leave the decision whether or not experience all that to us. It’s in the upper echelon of all the open-world games that came out in 2015, but I’d definitely recommend trying out The Witcher 3 instead. Which come to think of it, I should really get to trying out myself.

Minor Quips

  • I guess it could be argued that G Gundam is a post-war anime given how the fighting tournament was created as an alternative to the practice.
  • Quiet’s justification for being nearly naked all the time is very weak, especially compared to Eva and other Metal Gear females. Although the fact that you can only give her clothes once you’ve maxed out your bond with her is hilarious (although why do you have to pay so much money in order to do so?).

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