Developed by: Kojima Productions Published by: Konami Reviewed on: PlayStation 4 (also available on PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3)
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is series creator Hideo Kojima’s final game in the series. As the follow up to last year’s Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, Phantom Pain is supposed to be the missing link connecting the Big Boss and Solid Snake sagas. Following the devastating attack on his Military Sans Frontier base by Skullface, an agent of the enigmatic Cipher organization, Big Boss falls into a nine year coma. He wakes up in a hospital that is under attack by Cipher’s forces. After a dramatic escape with the help of a mysterious patient, Big Boss, now known as Venom Snake, begins his path of vengeance.
Instead of the linear, movie like pacing of its numbered fore-bearers, Phantom Pain plays more like an next generation version of Meal Gear Solid Peace Walker, the mission based, episodic follow up to Metal Gear Solid 3. Phantom Pain takes the base building concepts and missions system from Peace Walker and greatly expands upon them in an open world setting. This makes it the most expansive game in the series.
A good portion of the game involves developing Venom Snake’s new mercenary organization, Diamond Dogs, located on an offshore facility called Mother Base. Through a menu based management system, you expand Mother Base, develop new equipment, and send out units on combat missions to earn income. You recruit soldier via the Fulton system, which takes defeated units and resources by attaching a balloon that lifts them up into a waiting helicopter. By the end of the game you truly feel like a military commander with the ability to request supply drops, call air strikes, or even having a vehicle dropped off.
In terms of in game action, Phantom Pain has the most diverse game play in the franchise. There’s always a multitude of ways to tackle any given objective. Whether it’s through pure stealth or a violent, aggressive approach, the open world approach makes these choices viable. An evolved version of the CQC combat system gives Venom Snake a variety of ways to take down and interrogate enemies for intel. For trigger happy players, the gun play in the game is also very satisfying and there’s no shortage of weapons and vehicles to wreak havoc with.
The other major addition is the Buddy System. Venom Snake no longer has to carry out his missions alone. D. Horse allows you to travel quickly and also serve as a distraction. D. Dog can spot and mark enemies as well as provide support with distractions or attacks. The sniper Quiet can also mark enemies and provide cover fire. Finally, D. Walker is an all-purpose mecha that can provide quick traversal as well as heavy fire power.
Visually, the game lives up to the franchise’s high standards. The beginning sequence is an impressive, fever dream scenario that shows off Kojima Production’s highly touted Fox engine. The game maintains a steady frame rate throughout Venom Snake’s jaunts through the open landscapes of Afghanistan. It’s a very smooth, seamless experience on the next generation consoles and PC.
Unlike Ground Zeroes, long time series composer Harry Gregson-Williams didn’t create any music for the game, but instead serves as the music producer. Composers Ludvig Forssell, Justin Burnett, and Daniel James created Phantom Pain’s atmospheric, Western film style score with hints of 80s synth rock. There are numerous cassette tapes featuring iconic 80s pop from artists like David Bowie, A-ha, and The Cure. The only major callback to the previous games is the heroic Peace Walker theme.
Kojima made the controversial decision to replace long time Solid Snake / Big Boss voice actor David Hayter with Kiefer Sutherland. Sutherland provides Big Boss with a natural sounding voice compared to the guttural, over the top styling Hayter is known for. Unfortunately, Venom Snake is practically a silent protagonist for a majority of the game. There are several instances where he’s almost completely silent while other characters speak to him. Sutherland provides strong performance in the few scenes Venom Snake does speak. In place of the traditional codec conversations, the game has cassette tapes that have recorded conversations between characters.
The game suffers from pacing issues and padding. The mandatory waiting times before you start each mission and the time it takes to reach mission areas adds up. In terms of game play to story ratio, the game also has far fewer cutscenes and overall character development than the previous games. The missions, particularly the side ops, also begin to like repeated variations of the same objectives. The lack of environmental variety adds this feeling of sameness, too. The most egregious padding is found in the second half, which forces players to replay certain missions under slightly different conditions. Peace Walker also suffered from this repetitive grind, but also had a better variety of environments to make up for it.
In true Kojima fashion, there are numerous twists in the endgame that’ll be a source of controversy among fans. Numerous scenes depicted in trailers are notably absent, suggesting there was a lot of cut material. There are some unresolved plot threads, too. The main story abruptly ends without the climatic flourish the series is known for. It’s also a shame some of the significant plot developments involving Cipher, Big Boss, and Skullface are left as optional cassette tape conversations.
While Metal Gear Solid V doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessors, it’s still an outstanding, well-polished stealth action game. One can only wonder how the game would have turned out if Kojima had an extra year to work on it.