The Metal Gear series is known for its captivating cinematic scenes that are used to unravel an absorbingly complex plot, but MGSV: The Phantom Pain does something its predecessors don't: The Phantom Pain allows you to create these memorable moments for yourself. Never before in a Metal Gear game has the gameplay felt so fluid, responsive, and satisfying. Stealth has always been the staple of the series, but series creator Hideo Kojima has evolved the definition of "stealth" and incorporated it into an incredibly massive open world – a first for the series.
The Phantom Pain continues the story of the legendary soldier Big Boss. 9 years after the events of Ground Zeroes, Big Boss awakens from a coma to a brand new world and plans of vengeance aimed at those who wronged him. Following the opening cinematic, Big Boss a.k.a Venom Snake is taken to Afghanistan on a rescue mission, which is where the game opens up and allows you to explore every inch of it.
It's easy to become overwhelmed in this world. The sheer amount of freedom the game gives the player so early can be intimating to some, but The Phantom Pain does an exceptional job of explaining game mechanics as you progress through missions. Fans of Peace Walker will be in familiar territory when it comes to how missions are completed in the game. There are 50 main missions and over 100 side-ops, and there isn't any specific order that you have to do missions in.
Some of the missions become a little repetitive, but they are still a blast to complete. Main missions take place in the same areas but have more story specific objectives. If you want to more freely explore the terrains of Afghanistan or Africa, ignore the main story and complete as many of the side-ops you can. The game does make a weird design choice in adding credits before and after each of the 50 missions, which can be very spoiler heavy because they show what villains will show up in the mission and feel somewhat out of place.
There are plenty of ways to approach The Phantom Pain from a gameplay perspective. Snake is equipped with tons of gadgets that can be utilized whenever the situation demands. Cardboard boxes, decoys, tranquilizers, etc. If stealth isn't really your thing and you prefer a "louder" approach, the game allows you to play this way and more importantly, it doesn't punish you. Snake can call down helicopter support, air strikes, and even a small mech dubbed "D-Walker" to dispose of his enemies.
Dynamic weather also plays a major role in how you approach missions. Unlike Ground Zeroes, you aren't graded on side ops you complete. This ranking system is only applied to main ops and is still more lenient than Ground Zeroes. I particularly appreciated this because it allowed me to occasionally go on a killing rampage without worrying about messing up my score.
There are isn't a difficulty setting in the game. Instead of your traditional easy, medium, hard, or classic European Extreme difficulties, The Phantom Pain utilizes what they call "Dynamic Difficulty". This basically means enemies adapt to your playstyle. For example, if you tend to score a lot of headshots, enemies will start equipping helmets. If you call in a helicopter support often enemies will place AA weapons in their bases and equip rocket launchers to combat your tactics.
While you have to freedom to engage enemies however you choose, there are substantial benefits to recruiting soldiers in the battlefield. Venom Snake and company are rebuilding what they lost in Ground Zeroes. You are the leader of Diamond Dogs, a private military company that takes on contracts for clients while simultaneously positioning themselves for revenge against their enemies.
Mother Base, Diamond Dogs' offshore plant, must be maintained by building facilities, recruiting staff members, researching and developing weapons and technology, raising troop morale, the list goes on. Your main source of income (GMP) will be based on what you scavenge in field. Outposts in the game are scattered with materials that can be sent Mother Base, and sending soldiers you don't kill to Mother Base will increase your base's staff and productivity.
Even enemy tanks and other vehicles can be sent back to your base. Of course this is done in a silly Metal Gear way, and it's hilarious to see a full-sized tank floating in the air on a balloon. Even after over 80 hours playing, I am still impressed by how much depth Mother Base adds to the game hours after the main story concludes.
From a gameplay perspective there simply hasn't been a more satisfying game in the series, but to my surprise The Phantom Pain shortcomings come from its storytelling. The game opens in classic Metal Gear fashion with an amazing cinematic prologue with tons of intense moments. From there on out, the overarching plot seems to take a backseat to the rest of the game. The story continually raises more questions than it answers, which is typical for a Metal Gear game. Where the Phantom Pain falters in comparison to its predecessors, however, is in its pacing of the story, under-developing characters, and an unsatisfying ending that ultimately answers questions but is devoid of any build-up or cinematic conclusion fans have come to expect.
The game touches on mature themes such as revenge, child soldiers, betrayal, torture, etc, but never manages to explore these themes in any substantial way. Instead, cutscenes are too few and far apart and are only a few minutes when they do appear. The game is very much about the now than it is the past or future. Most plot related elements pertain to Venom Snake's current affairs. As a standalone story, The Phantom Pain does a great job of being accessible to newcomers to the series but is likely to divide the Metal Gear faithful who are seeking for more closure. I personally would have enjoyed Metal Gear Solid 4's storytelling coupled with The Phantom Pain's gameplay.
That being said the story cinematics that are present are beautifully produced. The spectacular visuals and superb voice acting are also best in its class. Venom Snake is voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, and his performance as Snake is impressive. Sutherland does a exceptional job of portraying the emotional side of the character but unfortunately, his star performance is severely hindered by how under-utilized he is.
It's almost awkward how silent Snake is in the game. The vast majority of the scenes with Snake involve people talking to him without him even uttering a word. Sometimes Snake doesn't even acknowledge he is being spoken to. Even during some of the most crucial scenes in the story, Snake says very little, if anything. Unlike other entries, any dialogue spoken in the game is quick, brief, and to the point omitting the off topic conversations that traditionally gives more insight into Snake as a character.
What the game doesn't let us see with our eyes, it allows us to hear via cassette tapes. After the first chapter of the game (which can effectively be the ending if you so choose) there are extra cutscenes and missions you can compete in order to get more closure to the plot. The most details come from cassette tapes you obtain. You can listen to over 100 cassette tapes that divulge into details answering questions that pertain to not only to this game but past and present games as well. I would much rather have these tapes implemented into more cinematic scenes but I did appreciate hiding these crucial overarching story tapes and scenes behind difficult missions and prerequisites that only the hardcore fans would attempt or even care about for that matter.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the culmination of decades of an acclaimed series that repeatedly raised the bar with every entry. The storytelling may not please everyone, especially the initiated, but this is unquestionably the best gameplay in a Metal Gear game. Hideo Kojima has given the player more control than ever before and it translates to an incredibly fun game to play, and a fitting end to one of the most influential game series of all time.
Authors Note: Due to continual issues connecting to Konami servers, this review is solely based on my single player experience with the game.
Writer for Darkstation since 2014. I've been playing games my whole life and starting writing about them in 2010. Outside of gaming I enjoy anime and watching my Philadelphia Eagles let me down every Sunday. Follow me on Twitter @jsparis09