Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain Review

Metal Gear has always been one of my favourite game series’ - despite a few odd entries (I’m looking at you Revengeance), the series has always been a solid example of good stealthy and noisy gameplay, and exceptionally over the top story-telling, both in its dramatics, and the sheer length of the cutscenes!

Fortunately, the ratio of cutscenes to gameplay is a bit more reasonable this time. So you’ll be spending more time using the controller while you’re starting at the screen than ever before in a Metal Gear game!

As with most of the other games before it, this is a Hideo Kojima game. If you didn’t originally know that, the game is going to tell you… a lot! His name is plastered all over it almost psychotically. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a game before where every mission has a credit sequence. But as you play through this, after every mission (and actually before every mission as well), Hideo Kojima’s name will be there. You can of course skip the ending credits for each mission, but his name is always the first to appear! So no matter how quickly you mash the controller to get out of it, you’ll always get an extra reminder that Kojima was there. As if the mentally scarred half-naked woman whose swaying breasts are focused on at every opportunity isn’t enough reminder that this is a Hideo Kojima game! Oh, and if you imported your Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes save file, you can also encounter and extract a solider in the game called Hideo! Yep, his name is absolutely everywhere. So much so that I really hope someone releases a mod for the PC version that just replaces his name with a randomly generated string of characters.

The Metal Gear Solid series has always been pretty impossible to summarise, not just because the games weren’t released in chronological order, but mostly because the story just sounds like one giant conspiracy theory, in that it’s full of gaps, deliberately lacking explanations, and some pretty unusual characters and story twists. To quote from Sam Byford’s review on The Verge:

Just so we’re all on the same page, with apologies to series fans for the simplification: Metal Gear Solid V is a sequel to Metal Gear Solid 3, which was a prequel to Metal Gear Solid, which was a sequel to Metal Gear, a game in which Solid Snake, the character you play in Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, and 4, kills Big Boss, the protagonist of 3 and V. Got it?

So yes, this entry in the series is set 9 years after the events of MGSV: Ground Zeroes - Snake (Big Boss also known as Punished Snake and Naked Snake) wakes from his coma in a hospital shortly before the forces of Cipher (too difficult to explain them - basically just the enemy!), led by Skull Face (whose name is literal, not just a code name), discover that he’s there, and send a man made of fire and a weird infantile flying person who wears a gas mask to kill him. That all sounds fairly normal right? Anyway, a load of other soldiers turn up first however and start slaughtering everyone in the hospital, and during a very slow process of dragging yourself along the floor, to crawling along the floor, to eventually being able to stand, you manage to escape. It’s a very interesting (albeit painfully slow) semi-interactive introduction which places you in a position of extreme vulnerability, forcing you to hide among corpses and witness some fairly horrific killings.

You (Big Boss) then meet up with old friend/enemy Revolver Ocelot, and have to then quickly save old friend Kazuhira Miller, before rebuilding your base and private army so that you can take revenge on Cipher for wiping out your previous base and private army. But of course, financially speaking, you’re forced to take on private contracts in both Afghanistan and Africa while you build up your forces.

The actual base building is quite rewarding. The idea is that as you complete missions and explore the open world of the game, you extract soldiers using a hilarious interpretation of the Fulton extraction system, who are then convinced to join your base staff and assigned to a relevant unit based on their skills. As certain units level up, you unlock different abilities, weapons, and upgrades. The advantage of this is that, for once, a game actually rewards you for taking a non-lethal approach in a way other than telling you that you’ve taken the moral high ground. As you progress through the game and upgrade your gear, the enemies you encounter do the same, getting better weapons, armour, and equipment such as night-vision goggles. So the non-lethal approach isn’t just incentivised, it becomes a necessity.

You can always choose the lethal approach if you prefer though, and some missions do also require it! But the fact remains that this game, unlike almost any other game in existence that includes guns in some way, makes you genuinely contemplate not killing everyone you encounter.

Coincidentally, you can also Fulton extract animals. Doing so rewards you with both small amounts of in game money, and the hilarious noise a sheep might potentially make as it soars into the air…

Because the game is completely open world this time, you can approach your missions pretty much however you like. Some are of course more linear to accommodate some of the more cinematic sequences in the game, but most are completely open. That flexibility is completely new to the Metal Gear series, and while pretty much every game is a sandbox game nowadays, The Phantom Pain does it very well.

Most games lately tend to give you an open world but only a few ways to complete your objective, The Phantom Pain however gives you an unnecessarily vast array of ways to complete your current task! So if your task is to “eliminate” a particular enemy, you could do any of the following:

  • Use any number of weapons to shoot them
  • Climb into your weird two-legged machine that you eventually unlock and use any number of weapons to shoot them
  • Instruct someone else to use any number of weapons to shoot them
  • Instruct your helicopter to come down and start attacking everything
  • Order a tactical strike/carpet-bombing of the entire area
  • Instruct your dog (yes, you can have a dog accompany you), to kill/stun/severely maim them
  • Creep about and Fulton everyone nearby away, including your target
  • Any number of other things!

Most of your missions involve eliminating someone. Usually in a different place from the last mission, with a different selection of enemies around to help them. This potentially runs the risk of getting quite repetitive, but because of how open the game is, and the fact that you can unlock new and upgraded weapons as you progress (and that the enemy does the same), the missions always manage to be interesting.

Once you’ve upgraded your binoculars, you can analyse enemies and see what skills they possess. Almost every mission is helped by scouting out the area first, and when you notice that a couple of soldiers have A+ or A++ skills in Research & Development, your entire approach might change. Instead of thinking about how to quietly reach your target, you think about how to quietly reach your target whilst also extracting all of the skilled soldiers nearby. It’s a simple addition to the game that makes the sandbox truly dynamic. Even going back to the same mission, your approach might be different because of the skills of the nearby soldiers and where they are in the enemy base.

Perhaps also important to note: the game never really instructs you to “kill” anyone; the term “eliminate” is always used instead. It certainly implies killing them, but it’s also hinting at the fact that you can extract pretty much anyone, including your targets. While this seems to imply that every enemy you encounter secretly wants to be your shoe shine boy, as I already mentioned, it is nice that you don’t have to kill everyone. And as they’re a key target, they usually have some pretty useful skills, so extracting them always helps to unlock more stuff.

Speaking of the upgrades - I haven’t yet spoken about the cardboard box!

When you’re first introduced to how to research new weapons and equipment in the game, the cardboard box makes its entry. Admittedly, it is slightly worrying that you have to research how to use a cardboard box in the first place, and that to research another cardboard box with a slightly different pattern on it somehow costs quite a lot of in game money, but nonetheless, the cardboard box is a staple of Metal Gear games, including this one. You can simply hide in it and let enemies pass you by, adorn it with posters of soldiers saluting (which genuinely does work to confuse enemy soldiers), or posters of bikini clad women which makes soldiers come running to have a look instead! You can also use the box as a distraction if an enemy is coming over to investigate it by diving out of it in the other direction. It also doubles up as a toboggan when going down hills. These all seem likely silly additions, but they make what seemed like a pretty silly part of Metal Gear games genuinely quite useful (and sadly a little bit sexist as well…).

As previously mentioned, this is a Hideo Kojima game. Therefore, there has to be an overly sexualised character somewhere. In this case, that character is called Quiet: a half naked sniper where the supposed justification for having her breasts barely covered at all times is that she apparently breathes through her skin, so would suffocate if she wore clothes that covered too much of her…

The video game industry has received a lot of criticism lately for its portrayal of women, and although the fact that Hideo Kojima put such a character in this game is completely unsurprising, it hasn’t really helped the situation. Metal Gear Solid 3 did exactly the same thing, though in that case it was through the character Eva (and even The Boss to some extent):

You can of course purchase different, slightly less sexualised outfits for Quiet in the game. But the fact is you do have to use your in-game money to do so… and whenever you start a mission, there’s an in-game expense based on your loadout, which includes what outfit you choose to use for Snake, and for Quiet (if you bring her along); keeping her half-naked costs you nothing - putting clothes on her has an expense.

Sadly, I feel like I have to make a point of this. But the reality is, I’m almost numb to it now. The video game industry has received a lot of criticism for this sort of thing, and rightly so, but to be honest, if I want to see pictures of half-naked bikini clad women, all I have to do is walk into my local Marks & Spencer, or John Lewis, or pretty much any shop that sells women’s clothes, and there’ll be a giant picture of a bikini model placed somewhere so that it can be seen from wherever you are in the shop. Of course, my examples aren’t entirely comparable: the difference is that companies justify it in shops as being “advertising”. But if some lingerie manufacturer had sponsored The Phantom Pain to only allow quiet to be represented in their lingerie, they might argue exactly the same thing. The lines between advertising and sexualisation are getting too blurred. My point is, I’m surrounded by this kind of imagery in both games and advertising so much that it has genuinely become numbing.

The Phantom Pain takes it way too far by seemingly having spent far too much time on the animations of Quiet’s breasts swaying about, and intentionally zooming in on them during cutscenes. I genuinely don’t understand why they did it. This is a very good game, and Quiet is a really useful counterpart when doing missions - she can scout out enemy outposts and highlight where everyone is, and can also provide cover fire from a distance. You can eventually equip her with a silenced tranquillised sniper rifle as well, which is immensely useful! Over-sexualising her in this way was just a completely unnecessary aspect of an otherwise highly useful addition to the game!

Putting that aside for a moment - as this is an article about a game, not about sexism - my favourite thing about this game above all else was also my favourite thing about Dragon Age Inquisition. After spending a couple dozen hours in the game, you get to the final climactic mission; you fight your way through it, and enjoy the concluding cutscene. Just when you think it’s all over, the game tells you that Chapter 1 is complete, and we’ll now start Chapter 2! The Phantom Pain even goes so far as to show you a cutscene of events coming up in Chapter 2, like a TV show teasing you with content from the next episode. The great thing of course being that you don’t have to wait for the next episode; it’s not some soon-to-be-released downloadable content, it’s just part of the same game.

This happens at about mission 31 in The Phantom Pain, and while some of the missions after that point are just recycled versions of previous missions that are made much more difficult, I personally find it great that I’d already experienced enough content and put enough hours into the game to have genuinely felt that I was playing the final mission, when there were still quite a few more to go.

As a final note. Play it in offline mode! Every time you load up the game it presents you with a user acceptance agreement - this is you acknowledging that you want to connect online - just decline it. The online part of the game is done through Forward Operating Bases, whereby other players can invade your base and steal your resources and personnel. If you don’t want to worry about having some of your people stolen on a daily basis, then just don’t allow it to connect. But my main reason for declining to connect online is to make the game faster! Being online makes things load much slower; not levels, but menus. I might be able to put up with slower level loading, but having an additional 30 second wait every time I wanted to open a menu was just infuriating.

Ultimately, The Phantom Pain is a very enjoyable game, with a genuinely dynamic sandbox feeling and some amazing (albeit occasionally fairly horrific) playable sequences. If you can get past its sexism in some way, then this is definitely a game worth getting.

Posted: October 4th, 2015
Categories: video games, reviews