Played it. Finished it. Reviewed it. A masterpiece…
It’s 4pm on Friday 31st July and there I sit having just completed Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Not only that, I’m told I’m probably the only person outside of Konami that’s finished the game. I’m sitting there gobsmacked and in total awe of what I’ve just played. I’m honoured. When I previewed it last month, I said I expected the final product to be something very special, so it’s no exaggeration when I tell you that The Phantom Pain is exactly that and more.
Game: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Developer: Kojima Productions
This spoiler-free review is based on attending a week-long event hosted by Konami. Breakfast and lunch was provided (hey, I had to eat something), but all travel costs were covered by me.
It’s almost difficult to know where to start with The Phantom Pain, there’s so much to cover and talk about. Every single element of it oozes quality. It’s Kojima at his best, and that is more than evident in the game’s story. Sure, it will be a little hard to follow if you’re a newcomer, but that’s to be expected. After all, it’s not exactly the first game in the series. That little footnote aside, if you’re a fan of the series, the story is quite simply outstanding. It will go one way and then the other, leaving you completely breathless by the time the credits roll. On more than one occasion I was left speechless by what I was witnessing, sitting there dumbfounded and in awe. I kid you not, I had goose bumps. Yes, it’s that damn good. It’s all easier to understand and digest as well, with The Phantom Pain representing a more focused approach to storytelling from Kojima. The criticism levelled at Metal Gear Solid 4 has been taken on board and feedback used to brush up his narrative techniques. Cutscenes are shorter, getting to the point quicker, with the occasional one allowing you to “interact” by moving the camera around. Better than that, pretty much all codec and radio chatter happens while you’re playing. No more staring at the same screen for hours. Fear not though, story is still a big part of The Phantom Pain, huge even, but there’s now a perfect balance between that and the gameplay. Sorry, I mean glorious gameplay.
I’m adamant this is the Metal Gear game Kojima always wanted to make, but was held back by limitations of hardware. Not on the scale of something like Grand Theft Auto or The Witcher 3 (when it comes to size), but definitely a much bigger version of Ground Zeroes. It’s an open world stealth game, giving you the choice and tools to tackle any given situation exactly how you want. Some questioned whether Kojima could pull it off, the fools. The Phantom Pain offers exactly that and more. It goes above and beyond, delivering gameplay experiences that most developers can only ever dream of. Stealth is still the best way to play the game and a massive part of the core gameplay, but the options you have surrounding it are just mind boggling.
The buddy system is just one of these many options, seeming fairly simple at first, but becoming a real game changer as you progress through The Phantom Pain. You start off with just D-Horse (what a name) who is just a means to travel from one point to another, but eventually end up with three other options that actually impact the gameplay. D-Dog has the ability to sniff out nearby enemies and mark them. You can also command him to attack. D-Walker is a mini-mech of sorts, allowing you to travel at speed and mow down enemies if you upgrade it accordingly. Last but not least, Quiet is the most interesting and useful buddy of all. A talented sniper, you can command her to take enemies out or just simply cover you as you go about your business. Additionally, via the iDroid (your handy all-in-one electronic tool), you can tell her to scout entire areas ahead of you. She’ll mark enemy soldiers, giving you the opportunity to work out how best to enter the area without being seen. Each buddy caters to a different style of gameplay, throwing in an extra layer of depth and strategy into the mix. Being someone who prefers stealth, I chose to take Quiet on almost every mission, using her ability to scout areas ahead. I’m not going to lie; I also took advantage of her sniping abilities if I got into a spot of bother. In fact, I occasionally even used it as a distraction technique, drawing the attention of soldiers to her and sneaking my way in to complete the objective. Going off on a slight tangent here, I even used the Fulton mechanic to my advantage, performing it near other soldiers, getting their attention and tip toeing around to get where I needed. Again, there you have it, a level of depth to the gameplay that most other developers can only dream of achieving. There’s even a loyalty system in place, so the more you take a certain buddy on missions the higher the bond. Incredible.
It doesn’t end there either. The Mother Base part of The Phantom Pain could be an entire game of its own. Much like the buddy system, it might seem fairly innocuous at first, but it’s actually a massive part of the game. It all begins with the ability to Fulton enemy soldiers from the battlefield back to your Mother Base. From this point on, it’s up to you to use your Diamond Dog’s abilities effectively, assigning them to the right department of Mother Base. You can do this via your handy iDroid, choosing to oversee the process manually or simply auto assigning the soldiers you’ve brought back to base. For the best results, I’d recommend the former, but it’s totally up to you. Whatever you choose to do has an impact on each department’s level and in turn the quality of its output. Put more of an emphasis on research and development, you’ll find yourself getting access to new weapons, gadgets and new gear much quicker. On the other hand, focus on support and you’ll be able to call upon life saving missile strikes or ammo drops during missions. Your end mission rank will be impacted, sure, but the point is everything you do with Mother Base will have an impact on the gameplay and the way you tackle missions. That’s even present in the Diamond Dog combat missions, similar to the system introduced in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. I say similar and not exactly the same because here you send your combat unit out on mission to bring back resources that are vital to keep Mother Base ticking over. It’s not just a throwaway part of the game, you’ll have to keep an eye on it all and make sure you send your combat units out appropriately. Obviously, at a certain point your base will start to get crowded. That’s when you start expand and grow it into something special. By the time I’d finished the story, my Mother Base looked like the Big Shell facility from Sons of Liberty! No joke. Of course, if you’re so inclined, you can customise your base and other elements too. Again, this is all done via your trusty iDroid. A very important tool, and not just a map screen or a place to listen to cheesy 80s music cassette tapes you’ve collected on the battlefield.
Staying on the topic of Mother Base, it’s also a place to for you (Big Boss) to kick back and relax between missions. It’s something you’ll want to do as the missions get more and more intense as you progress through the game. Plus, it will benefit you in the long run. Your Diamond Dogs will salute you as you walk past them, raising their morale in the process. You are the great Big Boss after all. It’s not just a cool aesthetic thing, as your regular presence will keep soldiers happy and prevent fights from breaking out. Seriously, I kid you not. Also, there are showers on Mother Base, allowing you to clean yourself up. If you don’t, you’ll be told in no uncertain terms by both your troops and Ocelot. It’s the little details like these that highlight the genius at play in The Phantom Pain; something Kojima is brilliant at implementing. I mentioned the Russian translator bit in my preview, and I encountered another one in my review playthrough. At the start of the game I set my birthday as the same date when I was playing, resulting in me being surprised by the Diamond Dogs and Ocelot with a birthday cake during my first proper visit to Mother base. I couldn’t help but have the widest grin on my face as I watched it all happen. Like I said, it’s the little details that sets Kojima apart from other developers. There are a few other things I could mention too, but I wouldn’t dare spoil them. All I’ll say is just keep an eye out.
With so much on offer in terms of gameplay and content, one could almost forget just how good The Phantom Pain looks. Kojima’s claims about the FOX Engine are spot on, with the evidence on show for everyone to see. Character models are a thing of beauty, with incredible detail present everywhere you look. The environments are nothing short of spectacular either, highlighted by some fantastic lighting. The day-night cycle works just like you’d expect, with visibility being that bit less prominent in the dark. It’s no exaggeration to say that the game looks just as good at night as it does during the day. Don’t get me started on the dynamic weather either. Both the wind and rain look spectacular, especially the former. Watching the elements at play during a sandstorm is sight to behold and then some. There’s an argument to present for The Phantom Pain being the best looking console game, especially when you take into account its size and the fact that I didn’t encounter a single bug during my playthrough. It’s extremely polished, something that translates across to the audio as well. Kiefer Sutherland is brilliant as Big Boss, not speaking too much, but doing so with confidence and the grit you’d expect from the legendary soldier. Fans will always hold David Hayter’s performances in high regard, but that shouldn’t detract from the excellent job by Sutherland here. The soundtrack is excellent too, with special mention going to Quiet’s theme and Sins of the Father by Donna Burke. Man, the goosebumps I got every single time the latter song played. Stunning.
Finally, much like the gameplay options and surrounding elements, the sheer amount of content in The Phantom Pain is simply astounding. Spread out over five days, it took me just over 40 hours to complete the story. I’m not allowed to mention a number, but there are an incredible number of side ops to complete too. I completed just over 20% of these during my time with the game, so that should give you an idea as to just how much content there is here. If I was to make an educated guess, I’d say it would take around 80 to 100 hours (maybe more) to 100% The Phantom Pain. I’d compare the sheer amount of content and depth (not size of the world) here to what’s present in something like The Witcher 3. The quality is there as well, with each mission and side op delivering wonderfully. Best thing though? The way some side ops fuse into the main missions (vice versa too), it’s brilliant. You won’t see it coming; therefore my advice would be not to ignore side missions like you might do with other games. How about negatives? Well, I’m hard pressed to find one really. If I was pushed I’d say the (kind of) duplication of one enemy encounter might not be liked by some, but when it’s gloriously executed, tense and enjoyable like this one… I’m not going to complain. There’s an argument that no game is perfect, sure, but play The Phantom Pain and you might just reject that notion. It’s so good, unbelievably so at times. Before completing this I was of the thinking that Kojima leaving Konami would be a good thing, allowing him to create something new. Now I just want them to patch things up and give me more Metal Gear. Right in my face. Please.
Bursting with an astounding array of content, amazingly deep gameplay and an engrossing story, The Phantom Pain is the best Metal Gear game to date. It’s a masterpiece, oozing with Kojima’s creative genius. He’s listened and learned, crafting a game that’s as close to perfection as you can get. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and, as the credits roll, you’ll sit there in disbelief. I certainly did. Either way, you’ll agree that The Phantom Pain is one very special game. If this is to be Kojima’s last Metal Gear game, what a way to sign off. It’s so damn good. No exaggeration, one of the best games ever made.
*If I could give it a higher score, I would. Not even joking.