By Jarrod Jones and Kyle Holmer. This is LOAD FILE, where we lock, we load, and then we lock and load. This week, Jarrod and Kyle finally get around to reviewing the presumed final installment to Hideo Kojima’s world-famous Metal Gear franchise, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. For Playstation 4, Microsoft Windows, and Xbox 360.
There’s an aphorism that gets tossed around a lot in criticism, one that’s most commonly applied to a certain kind of film genre — like, oh, let’s say, action/adventure. Some, not all, of the films in that particular genre typically storm theaters to claim its tremendous box office bounty no matter what critics and bloggers have to say about it, which is why this turn of phrase — “critic-proof” — is a perfect descriptor: it succinctly sums up how a rabid fanbase can thoroughly trounce any high-minded protestations you might hear from the critical peanut gallery as beloved properties arrive to snatch all of the consumer’s hard-earned money. Game anticipation operates in an infinitely more rabid manner than film anticipation, and because of this there might never be a game quite as “critic-proof” as Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V.
So no matter how many faults you may have discovered in the game — provided you were looking for them, and we’re going to be straight with you, we found a few — there is little doubt that just about everybody thoroughly enjoyed their Metal Gear experience. It’s as bug-out nuts as everything you remember from MGS4; it has seriously debugged the franchise’s notoriously prickly controls; its story is easily the best (and most confusing) since MGS3; and since this is our last bow as Snake (if fate continues to hold it to be), then The Phantom Pain is one hell of a way to go out. Just don’t go hoping that all of the series’ narrative havoc is going to finally start making any damn sense. Just sit back and let the game get creative with your expectations.
OMIGOD WHAT THE HELL IS HAPPENING, OR: THE STORY
KH: After taking a nine year nap, Big Boss (aka Venom “Punished” Snake, because Hideo Kojima doesn’t understand how code names work) awakens to find that XOF, the group responsible for destroying Mother Base in Ground Zeroes, has hired an Emmerich, built a Metal Gear, and developed a world ending Virus (or: pretty much the exact same plot of every other Metal Gear game). The Boss, now an amputee on the verge of a shrapnel-induced brain hemorrhage, must single-handedly stop XOF’s leader, Skull Face, while simultaneously kidnapping thousands of soldiers and coerce them into slavery by rebuilding Mother Base.
It’s classic Metal Gear, but unlike past entries the story sequences in this game are surprisingly sparse, with a total cutscene runtime of about two or three hours over a 50+ hour campaign. What is here is significantly darker in tone than anything Kojima has made before, but unlike Ground Zeroes, there is enough levity injected throughout to keep the player consistently engaged, although the twist in the finale ultimately trivializes any canonical impact The Phantom Pain might have had on the rest of the series (spoiler alert: Kojima clearly didn’t care about this story).
JJ: I think Kyle might have been right about 100% of that, save for that last bit; we won’t divulge the ultimate fate of Kiefer Sutherland’s Big Boss, but given what little we know about the Kojima/Konami fallout — and given that we have five/six? seven? entries in this series — I’m willing to give Hideo Kojima the benefit of the doubt. While the ending does, yes, dilute the impact of the game’s story, the story is so slight it hardly registers anyway. (At least, to me.) The impactful moments of the game come from the little things. When we’re not traipsing through Afghanistan or Africa setting the world straight as Big Boss, we’re building a world and we’re building a reputation, both fictionally and on — hey! — the PS network. That alone is cool as hell.
Though I completely and thoroughly agree with you on one point: this is definitely the darkest chapter of the series. Liberating child soldiers from Africa, human experiments with a doomsday virus, a protagonist with a giant black lump of shrapnel jutting from his forehead — punctuating times when he is referred to as “the demon” — I found myself grimly surveying the proceedings while my heart did backflips into my stomach. But it balances these unhappy times with moments of pure, gratifying accomplishment: I often genuinely felt like I was growing something from all of my deeds, that the story sat right behind the growth of both Mother Base and the respect my soldiers and my colleagues had for Boss. And the stealth. It’s the best it’s ever been. I forgive so much of the story because the mechanics are so damn good. So let’s talk about that!
“TAKE ON ME” BLASTS MY HEAD, AS I BLAST THAT SOLDIER OVER THERE
KH: What the game is lacking in story, it more than makes up for in gameplay; The Phantom Pain is far and away the most mechanically involved entry in the series. The number of available options at any given point in the game is consistently intimidating: there are weapons to develop, soldiers to manage, bases to build (including the online Forward Operating Base that blends seamlessly into the single player campaign), and buddies to recruit. All of these disparate systems come together and can impact how you choose to play any of the nearly 200 available missions. As is the case with past Metal Gear games, many of the game’s systems are poorly explained, providing the bare minimum to get the player through a mission, but there is a Dark Souls-esque quality to uncovering all of what this game has to offer.
The moment-to-moment gameplay consists of stealth missions in a pretty expansive open world, although open world can be a bit misleading; it primarily serves as a sandbox that allows for endlessly repeatable stealth encounters. The maps are massive and gorgeous, but mostly they exist as gigantic open spaces that connect mission-centric locations. When you aren’t out on missions, you’ll be tasked with developing your Mother Base (The Phantom Pain’s version of a meta-game). You’ll recruit soldiers on missions, those soldiers will then work and develop your Mother Base, which in turn allows the base to expand, and for the teams to develop new gear for use out in the field. It’s a pretty long (and complicated) gameplay loop, but there is a clearly defined process driving you forward. Also, as you expand your base, you’ll unlock hundreds of different weapons and items for use out in the field, all of which can dramatically change how you approach any mission.
JJ: I love that I get to build a mixtape in this game. Yeah, there’s, like, a zillion other things to do, and all of them are here to work the left side of your brain to the point of exhaustion, but I got to listen to the likes of Billy Idol and A-Ha whilst I put a tranq dart in the cheek of any offender who had the rotten luck of standing in my way. And that’s no small thing.
What I love most, however, is if patience isn’t your strongest suit (as most of DoomRocket’s writers know, it often isn’t mine), you have the option to engage your enemies. There are going to be times when waiting for some errant guard to move his head in the opposite direction so that you can advance five feet isn’t going to cut it, but before you cut loose you’re best advised to have done some footwork before you start taking on big time fortresses: take out comm satellites, remove all perched spotlighters, and make double-damn sure there’s no other way for your enemy to get the word out to HQ. It takes preparation, time, and patience, but once you’ve done your footwork, you are free to unload on a small battalion of mercenaries, and that’s pretty damned cathartic. Side missions often play out with the slick, oily click of a cocked assault rifle; you’re constantly on a state of alert, the AI in this game is pretty damn sharp, and if needs be, by all means: let the bullets fly.
There are, however, some negatives: if you’re looking to plow through set piece after set piece in order to get to the next story beat, you might want to tamp down those hopes. Like Kyle said, there’s a lot of small mechanics that need constant attention in order for this giant, seemingly deterministic monolith to function, and not all of it is spelled out for you. Save a cursory glance at the internet (and who wants to stop playing a game to do that?), you’ll have to use that noggin of yours to crack the code as to how you’ll optimise your Metal Gear experience. If you’re not thorough with upgrading your weapons, establishing trust and morale on Mother Base, and collecting enough currency to operate with your ever-expanding army, things are going to grind to a screeching halt. The mantra you need to repeat to yourself is “maintain”. So maintain.
Then there are the Boss fights, which are generally lousy in any Metal Gear game, but here they have a particularly nagging presence: you’ll take on immense bipedal drones, small children who want to put a machete through your lower abdomen (trust me, that one will grab your attention), and a group of voiceless assholes called the Skulls — whose downright laughable difficulty levels will be enough to make you consider giving up on the game entirely. (Seriously; I hated the Skulls. The Skulls sucked.) And if you get your ass handed to you enough, the game will ask you if you’d like to wear “the chicken hat” — a ridiculous device that will render you invisible to the enemy — which means your indignity won’t end with the ceaseless chorus of “Boss? Boooossss!!!“.
THIS SOLDIER’S DONE RODE OFF INTO THE SUNSET
KH: Well this is it. This is Hideo Kojima’s last last Metal Gear game, and I think more than anything it says a lot about where he was at with this series. If you’re familiar with the story so far, you know chronologically what happens before and after, and you also know that nothing too monumental could ever have happened in this game. This unexplored time period wasn’t meant to fill in the holes for the series, but rather, give Kojima a chance to do whatever the hell he wanted mechanically. It needs to be said: this story doesn’t matter.
There are some great (and brutal) moments in this game, but mostly it was an opportunity for Kojima to really stretch his gameplay legs. His sense of style is shoved into every inch of this game, but I think if you’re a fan of the series and you’re only here for the story, that’s not going to be satisfying enough. However, if you’re a fan of the series and you were content with the conclusion of MGS4 AND you happen to love mechanically rich games (that is a lot of caveats, I know), The Phantom Pain won’t be a disappointment, and it should leave Kojima fans excited for the future.
JJ: While the ending does make a part of me feel like I had been taken for a ride, never once did it feel like a waste of my efforts. In fact, the replay value of The Phantom Pain — hell, I’m still replaying Ground Zeroes — is enormous. I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting this whole damn thing again, and soon.
As for where it sits in the Metal Gear legacy, well. I miss David Hayter, but Kiefer Sutherland gives us a strong, noble performance as the man who would be Boss, and he gives us a few Hayter-ian grunts along the way that show the man wasn’t looking to eclipse what came before. It’s an understated performance in the most perfect (and, paradoxically, the most inconsequential) Metal Gear ever made. As far as final bows go, Hideo Kojima could have done far worse than The Phantom Pain. This is the Metal Gear experience I’ve always wanted. I just didn’t know for certain until everything was over.
Agree? Disagree? What was your experience with ‘The Phantom Pain’ like? We want to know! Tell us about it in the comments section below.