By Tom Tolios / October 4th, 2015
|Title||Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain|
|Release Date||September 1, 2015|
|Genre||Action, Stealth, Third-Person Shooter|
|Platform||Windows PC, Xbox One, Playstation 4, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3|
|Age Rating||M (Mature)|
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a sign of the times. It’s equally fantastic and frustrating, resulting in an identity crisis stemming from its controversial production. Is it fun? Hell yes! This game, mechanically, is as good as any military action shooter I’ve ever played, and the stealth is phenomenal. You don’t normally give 100 hours of your life to electronic entertainment without enjoying it. But something’s wrong here. Something that went unnoticed for a while. But, once I saw it, the exclamation point went up over my head and it couldn’t hide from me. Not even in a cardboard box.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is reportedly the closing chapter on the saga of Big Boss. It takes place in 1984, nine years after the prologue chapter, 2014’s Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, which ended with a catastrophic helicopter crash rendering Big Boss comatose. He wakes up in a hospital and, after some tone-setting exposition between him and the medical staff, the facility comes under attack by two different factions. One is a group of superhuman military commandos led by the game’s villain, the aptly-named Skull Face.
The other is…well, I’m not really sure. I never understood just who the other group was. I figured it was somebody that hates Big Boss since they’re ruthlessly murdering everybody in sight, presumably to get the target and eliminate any potential witnesses. Your only aid is a mysterious man with a bandaged face calling himself Ishmael, and he names you Ahab because literary references. Since you’re just coming out of a coma and your muscles have atrophied, he injects you with something (adrenaline, maybe?) that will help get you going, but it takes time to kick in, so you spend the first part of the prologue crawling, trying to pull yourself up on couches, tables and chairs and flopping around. All while avoiding getting killed. The tension here is so palpable that I found myself as apprehensive and frightened as I’ve ever been playing the best of the Silent Hill or Resident Evil series. What could have been a frustrating and limited opening sequence was instead gripping and provocative. It felt like I was on the cusp of gaming greatness.
Once the masterpiece of a prologue sequence is done and you’re extracted by your allies, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain truly begins. As Big Boss, your initial task is to rebuild the army you lost at the end of Ground Zeroes, and you’ll get help from the returning Kazuhira ‘Master’ Miller and Revolver Ocelot, who became Snake’s ally in Portable Ops and assists with intel and interrogation this time around. Together, the three of you form the core command of the newly-christened fighting force ‘Diamond Dogs.’ Kaz and Ocelot give you missions, Mother Base status updates and converse with you during cutscenes and through the many cassette tapes you acquire by completing the game’s chapters. More favorites and memorable characters return as the game goes on.
Some new pals join the fray, as well. During missions, you’ll get to pick your loadout and a companion — called a ‘Buddy’ — to accompany you. You have your choice of D-Horse (a horse), D-Dog (a dog), Quiet (who is very quiet) and a D-Walker, a one-seat bipedal mech developed by series’ regular Huey Emmerich. Each Buddy has their own advantages that come in handy as you’re moving about the game’s open-world environments and Big Bossing (or Venom “Punished’ Snaking, if you prefer), so you’ll have to choose accordingly based on the mission’s parameters. D-Horse helps you get around faster, D-Dog (my favorite Buddy) sniffs out resources and enemies for you, Quiet is a lethal sniper that can scout areas and give you fire support and the Walker Gear is what you take with you when you just want to mow enemies down. Each Buddy is customizable with weapons and gear that are more than cosmetic in nature. D-Dog, to give you one example, can be equipped with battle armor that allows him to either stun or kill enemies.
And speaking of killing or stunning, you’ll be weighing your options very carefully before you choose which route you’ll take. Those you render unconscious can be sent to Mother Base for recruitment. Once they get there, Kaz and Ocelot will assign them to the division for which they’re best suited. Some will be great soldiers, others medics and others engineers. The quality of these recruits will improve as the game goes on, with the overall level of the Diamond Dogs rising as a result. That leads to the ability to develop better weapons and gear and dispatch your troops on missions to earn more currency and raw materials to help develop your arsenal.
Weapons and materials extracted in the field can be positioned at your base or sold off for profit. There is a multiplayer ‘invasion’ aspect to the game that is similar to Dark Souls, interrupting you in the middle of your session and bringing you back to Mother Base in order to defend it, but I didn’t experience this aspect of the game because I felt it was unnecessary. You can always choose to play offline and not worry about PvP shenanigans, and, since I like to do my Venom Bossing sans interruptions, I never logged on to the multiplayer servers. The sole advantage to being online, from what I can tell, is that you can create more FOBs, or ‘forward operating bases,’ and the reason you’d want to do this is so that you can deploy more troops on missions in single player mode. But, as I never wanted for activity and my Mother Base was developing at a decent clip, I didn’t feel any detrimental effects of limiting play to offline only.
The game progression is separated into two categories, Missions and Side Ops. Missions are, for the most part, the narrative-advancing episodes. Missions can be repeated, and they have fun optional objectives that can be completed for extra rewards. Thankfully, completed side tasks are saved so you don’t need to get them all in a single go if you’re trying for 100% completion. The Side Ops are the secondary jobs you take to get gather resources and procure more skilled soldiers for Mother Base. It’ll behoove you do a lot of Side Ops because the game is more fun when you have better weapons to play with and, to do that, you need to spend a little time getting your mercenary on.
When you’re dispatched on a Mission or Side Op, you’re dropped into the hot zone via helicopter, and, once you’re on the ground, the excitement begins. The Fox Engine is a marvel, with great control and engaging combat and stealth. Enemies are smart, frequently backing each other up and intelligently sweeping and clearing areas before moving on. Luckily, you have a lot of tools at your disposal to help you distract them and evade detection, including different types of grenades, spent ammo magazines that can be tossed to cause distractions and the signature MGS cardboard boxes. The type of outfit you choose before you sortie can help you blend in with your environment, and, if all else fails, you can tranquilize or kill nosy soldiers. But this is a double-edged sword, since it’s really rare that alert enemies travel alone, and taking one down will, at the very least, warn his pals to the imminent danger.
The combat and stealth mechanics are sublime; as good as anything on the market in military action today. Weapon switching and aiming are smooth and simple processes. Controls are responsive, and you’re given enough options with your sneaking, running and gunning that you get to decide how you want to solve problems. This is the first Metal Gear Solid game I can remember (discounting Ground Zeroes) where you have complete agency in solving the problem at hand. Random weather effects help you with stealth approaches. Vehicles can be commandeered. Watch towers and barrels can be destroyed. Lights can be shot out. Decoys and mines can be planted. You’re given so much to work with that the possibilities seem endless. And it helps immensely that the graphics and sound are so good that you are immediately immersed by what you’re seeing and hearing. Everything from your hurried feet splashing in the mud as you sprint to the blinding brilliance of willy-pete burning overhead are handled so deftly that you can’t help but feel the tension of the war zones in the game. It’s all just so fluid and visceral.
There is so much to the sandbox that every encounter ends up being unique, keeping the gameplay fresh. Want to be a ninja? Go for it. Want to be a super villain? Feel free. Support strike from your chopper? Why not? Don’t have the tools to deal with a certain enemy, or running out of ammo? Call in a supply drop. Support requests take time and cost GMP (the game’s currency), but sometimes you’re so far along on an operation that you’re fine with eating the loss. However you want to play it, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has action that is engrossing and rewarding.
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