Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain doesn’t feel like a finale. The series set gracefully in MGS4, with the many stories of the franchise reaching their respective finales, but afterwards it was time to return to Big Boss and watch as he ventures out into a dark blood-soaked world; a world that is completely different from that of the past Metal Gears in which the gameplay has seen a huge change and has embraced the open-world genre, with a new emphasis on experimentation. Storywise, MGSV constructs more of the bridge between Peace Walker and the original Metal Gear. It tells the story of how Big Boss built his own army, unveils a quest of revenge against the mysterious Skull Face, and presents how the Boss’ army treads the line between hero and terrorist. To tell this grim tale, Kojima has travelled far from the comforts of previous entries.
The first series trademark that’s been shed is the lengthy cutscenes that were spread liberally across previous entries; the focus here is on gameplay. This isn’t to say cutscenes are completely absent, as some of the game’s most powerful moments do use this method of storytelling. The opening is a cinematic that takes place in a hospital through the eyes of a bedridden Big Boss, while David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World plays hauntingly in the background. The soundtrack is the most diverse, and perhaps the best, the series has ever had.
The escape from the hospital is heavily scripted but, when Big Boss finds his way to Afghanistan, the world opens up rapidly. First we’re quickly reintroduced to Ocelot, who has matured from the cocksure gunslinger we saw in MGS3, and are set forth to save Kazuhira Miller, the man who played a huge part in setting up Big Boss’s army in Peace Walker. Like every mission in the game –even the most important ones— how this is done is up to you. This freedom to experiment was something we became acquainted with in last year’s prologue, Ground Zeroes, and it really begins to take shape here. Afghanistan and Africa are two huge worlds both containing beautiful and varying landscapes: the former has vast deserts and towering mountains, and the latter contains unwieldy swamps and rich forests. Both are dotted with settlements that are brimming with soldiers who travel between bases via trucks and Jeeps. Graphically, the lazy textures you see in large games aren’t present here, and the framerate fails to drop even in the most hectic of situations.
MGSV’s world feels as alive as what’s seen in The Witcher 3 and Grand Theft Auto V despite how underpopulated it is in comparison; attention focuses to the tiniest of details. Sure, Geralt may comment that it’s raining, but it doesn’t really matter; in MGSV everything matters. Thunderous downpours and blinding sandstorms are cover that completely change situations, night time makes it easier to slip past guards, a vacant building is an important vantage point for laying out tactics, guards have invaluable pockets of information for you to overhear or squeeze out of them, and soldiers can become familiar to your regular strategy; you may hear them speaking about a recent supply of helmets or sniper rifles. An acute awareness is necessary in order to come out of a base alive, and you’ll need to plan every move carefully. Thankfully, the controls here are the best the series has ever had, and the way Big Boss twists and turns when aiming is both intuitive and detailed.
Though even the most prepared venture can go sour, soldiers, while having certain rhythmic patrol paths, can change their behaviour rapidly, and when they spot you, they’re scarily aggressive in their efforts to hunt you down. The fear can be palpable as you crawl behind a rock while a soldier stares in your direction absentmindedly smoking a cigarette. Climbing up a ladder, or picking up a prisoner is something to be done deftly. But, when you inevitably get spotted you’ll need to cope skilfully and flee. In fact, if you feel comfortable with your escape strategy you can get spotted on purpose, thus leading an enemy away from an area you want to enter. Even a stumble can be turned into a stride, and many a time the best moments come from your resourcefulness and your reactions to the radical changes that can turn a situation on its head. A personal high point for me involved following a group of four soldiers leading a prisoner down a winding cave. I was out of ammo, but one well aimed smoke grenade allowed me to swoop in, silently take out each soldier, and grab the prisoner with barely a scratch.
The equipment you have is an essential part of any mission. At first you will just have your horse, a few weapons, and maybe a trusty box with a sexy lady on the front; but there are a ridiculous amount of guns, tools, and customizations to discover. They’re right at your fingertips if you manage the development of Mother Base correctly. Mother Base is where you’ll be building up Big Boss’s army, and you’ll need to collect funds and resources in order to expand the base. This inevitably leads to scavenging every base you enter, and kidnapping soldiers, with balloons of course.
But, before you strap some balloons to a soldier you’ll need to politely incapacitate them. Although this can be challenging, especially when your target is in an awkward location, as you also have to not to kill the soldier in the process. There is a incentive for getting certain soldiers however, as they can have very high abilities, or special skills. These abilities can then increase your base’s statistics, unlocking further support for Snake during missions, and special skills that can take the form of an abductee being a handgun specialist, or being able to translate enemy soldiers’ speech.
Combat specialists can be deployed in groups on far-off missions, or can be controlled individually in side ops; these typically involves something simple like rescuing a prisoner. You can also abduct animals for your animal conservation, so be prepared to start tranquilizing some bears, donkeys, and birds. On top of this you can also extract large objects such as tanks, trucks, material containers, and gun emplacements. Tanks can be dropped in for some heavy duty support, and gun emplacements can become an extra block in your Mother Base.
Building up your base is particularly important for the Forward Operating Base (FOB) missions, which involve intense invasions of other players’ bases, and them invading your own. To protect your own base you can assign staff as security and can place security devices throughout your settlement. You can also buy more bases, but unfortunately, this is where I have to utter the M word: microtransactions allow you to expand your base further, but this can generally be avoided. In fact, if you want to elude the online features altogether the game can be played in offline mode. Even without the FOB missions, the managing of Mother Base is an essential part of MGSV. Though at times this is painful, as it can prevent the story from advancing.
For the most part, the main story progresses simply by completing main missions, but the tale can become very sparse when you need to accomplish certain objectives like building up your base to a certain level. There can be a real lack of signposting here as to what exactly you need to do, and after running around the same areas for a lengthy amount of time boredom can really kick in. This isn’t helped by the fact that the buddies you can take with you on missions can level to the point that they are completely overpowered and thus destroy much of the challenge: D-dog can spot all enemies and prisoners in a base; he’s a very good boy. Although, what does counter this is that some of the later missions introduce some new challenges that increase the difficulty, like needing to complete a task with minimal equipment.
As a massive fan of the tale that’s run throughout the franchise, I find the issues with the implementation of the story particularly sad. The story itself is very strong and deals well with controversial themes such as child soldiers and nuclear proliferation. There’s also an added realism to the themes in how you can see the superpowers such as the CIA, and the KGB grasping for control while the local militias are swarming with guns across the land. All the while Big Boss’s group the Diamond Dogs are establishing their place in the world, and dealing with conflict and power struggles within their own group.
It’s a pity that, during these struggles, Big Boss plays the strong silent type a bit too well – especially since Kiefer Sutherland’s voice suits the character perfectly; perhaps the economical and talented Mr Hayter could have provided a few more lines if he had reprised his signature role. Sometimes we see him standing silently while brilliant characters like Kaz, Ocelot, and Huey Emmerich having intense disputes. Compared to Kaz in particular, who seems like a completely broken man, Big Boss has the presence of an extra in a play. Having said that, this desire to have a more vocal Big Boss may just come from a familiarity with the melodramatic Snake of previous series; remember when Big Boss had an unhealthy obsession with guns in MGS3?
A lot of staple characters are fleshed out however, and observing the way they have evolved will be intriguing to series veterans, but those who are new will still enjoy their brilliant characterisations. The composure and actions of characters reflect what they’ve each gone through, and there’s been a shedding of the simple traits we saw characters have in previous entries. Much like real life, facial cues and body movements reveal nearly as much as words themselves. Kaz, who was captured by the KGB, shows his personality in his movements, actions, and words that are of someone obsessed with vengeance, he’s stubborn in his views and fights often with the more rational Ocelot. In comparison Big Boss sits as a mediator, a figure that’s respected, but still just a soldier. His face is one of concern, and when he speaks his words carry thought and power.
How we learn all the details of what’s happening has changed from previous entries, and codec calls have completely vanished, instead we have casette tapes. These can be acquired by completing missions or can be found lying around, and are more valuable to the inquisitive player than any weapon or resource. Of course the tapes may just contain a classic 80s track (Take on Me being my personal favourite) which you can play while wandering the world or as your helicopter-evac music, but they can also have important information to events that are happening elsewhere. They’re essential to getting a full view of the world around you, but can leave you feeling distant from the action. The music itself also feels important, and I risked my life acquiring my copy of Take On Me when I heard it playing from some soldiers’ cassette player. I celebrated by sliding down a hill in a box while listening to the track; D Dog was baffled. But, besides the excellent licensed music, and animal noises, you can collect, the original music of MGSV captures the dramatic emotions evoked in past titles and is used to greatly enhance certain scenes.
Metal Gear Solid V is one of the best games of the year thus far, and, perhaps more importantly, one of the best entries in the series. It bravely departs the series’ past, and adapts the franchise’s story and gameplay into the open world genre, thus making a leap close to that made between Metal Gear 2 and Metal Gear Solid. The story is dark and gritty, letting the player witness an organisation’s just ideals descend into darkness. The gameplay easily trumps many other titles in its freedom it offers to the player. Though for Metal Gear fans this is much more than a near-perfect game, this is likely the final Metal Gear we’ll be left with, and the final mark left by Hideo Kojima in a series that has evolved dramatically throughout generations. Having said all of this, Metal Gear Solid V stands tall in the greatest series to grace the gaming world.
The best gameplay Metal Gear has ever had
Metal Gear Solid V effortlessly brings the Metal Gear franchise into an open world, and the combination creates one of the finest games of 2015. The gameplay is by far the best of the series, the story is dark and gritty, and the music is both fun and epic. A worthy finish to a near-perfect series.