There’s not much room for auteurs in gaming. Big budget releases demand huge amounts of time and resources, with teams of staggering size that diminish the importance of any one person. In spite of that, Hideo Kojima has managed to fashion himself as the definitive creative voice behind the storied Metal Gear franchise, an influential and visionary designer who lent his characteristic spin to every project he headed. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain appears to be the end of that legacy, and the moment is bittersweet. Fans will no doubt be sad to see Kojima go, but if we see that end with The Phantom Pain, then consider it the crowning jewel that stands atop the rigid structure the creative director has built over the past 30 years.
Taking place nine years after the events of Ground Zeroes, The Phantom Pain once again puts players in control of Big Boss as he awakens from a devastating coma brought on by an attack that wiped out his regiment. On his quest for revenge, he gets caught up in thwarting a conspiracy to create a weapon to surpass even Metal Gear.
The narrative of The Phantom Pain is one of the strongest yet in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. It still has some of the more annoying trappings of the series, like acronym-heavy military jargon and a few unexplained plot threads, but forfeits long-winded conspiracies for a clear villain and to-the-point storytelling, while still leaving plenty of twists for players to try and unfurl. Frankly, I have never been as emotionally affected by any piece of entertainment, video game or otherwise, as some of The Phantom Pain’s final moments.
Action games often try to convey the horrors of war through their stories, but that message is constantly at odds with the power fantasy expressed through their gameplay. Series like Call of Duty and Battlefield get more grave with each entry, while at the same time obsessing over mechanics that glorify those same horrors they try to subvert. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain doesn’t get wrapped up in making the player feel “cool,” never going against the game’s overall anti-war theme.
Part of what helps along the synthesis between narrative and gameplay is that The Phantom Pain forgoes long-winded codec sequences accompanied by even longer cutscenes for radio transmissions that supply a lot of the plot while you’re in each mission. However, in shedding its exposition, some plot holes are left wide open that will be apparent to even the most passive observers.
The story unfolds over the course of separate missions, much like in Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker. But where missions in the PSP title fractured the narrative into pieces, The Phantom Pain’s Mother Base strings missions together by acting as a hub to ground your progress, making you feel like actions work towards a single goal, rather than being strung along, waiting for the next cutscene.
Almost every one of those missions takes place in an open sandbox. I was skeptical when I learned that Metal Gear Solid V would be an open world title, especially after playing the game’s lead-in released last year. Thankfully The Phantom Pain offers an openness unafforded by Ground Zeroes’ claustrophobic base, giving players plenty of room to breathe and contemplate a plan of attack.
That space comes from the persistence of agency players have on the game’s open world. Every action has a reaction during infiltration. In one instance, I had removed so many of a base’s soldiers that their forces were spread thin, making my entry later on a simple affair. Another guardpost heightened its security because my fumbling attempts to take it over earlier in my playthrough made enemy forces realize they would have to fortify their defenses.
Each base has numerous entry and exit points, and the various potential weapon and item loadouts create countless approaches to infiltrating a fort. Each attempt, whether it ends in success or failure, feels unique to you. Many little touches make Metal Gear Solid V’s landscape seem truly alive, and it competes on the level of any other open world staple while adding a flavor unique to Metal Gear.
When you’re not out in the field, you’ll be spending the majority of your time at Mother Base, which can be customized to the player’s liking. Players can focus on building facilities focusing on what suits their playstyle. R&D and intel were my focuses, allowing me to jump into the battlefield ready for anything but also informed about my target. Perhaps most impressively, the improvements you build manifest themselves physically, which means your base can become absolutely massive, requiring car or helicopter transport to get to the different sections.
The trade-off is that a decked out Mother Base requires a sizable staff. When in the field, players can extract unconscious soldiers to Mother Base via a strapped on balloon called the Fulton recovery system, converting them into allies. Finding and extracting the perfect soldier becomes a quest of its own, and gives you plenty of reasons to explore the open world even when you’re not in the thick of a mission.
Interactions on Mother Base are meaningful and reflect the ragtag nature of your team. Overheard conversations about recent buddy acquisitions and operations add to the feeling that your squad is constantly changing and adapting to their surroundings. That, coupled with some Mother Base–specific cutscenes, build a culture behind Big Boss’ militaristic operation. Your base can house hundreds of soldiers, but seeing them physically while exploring the base makes each individual have weight, and the impact should any of them die on deployment missions is that much more meaningful.
In addition to its impressive single player, Konami’s latest title features an interesting, if flawed, multiplayer mode called the forward operating base system. FOBs are basically smaller versions of Mother Base established in waters rich in resources. Those bases can gather resources for use in the single player campaign, but are susceptible to other players’ attacks.
Players can choose whether or not they want to interrupt their play session to go defend their FOB in person, or leave it up to the guards they have stationed on site. It’s nice to know that you can choose to trust the soldiers in your employ, but the idea of having to choose between a potentially devastating shakedown or completing an intense story mission seems disruptive. Along with that, the constant threat of losing hard-earned team members and resources nagging you throughout playtime makes my stomach churn. Luckily the game can still be completed with ease without dipping into the forward operating base at all, but some ancillary single player features like soldier deployment and resource gathering will be limited as a result.
Even Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s missteps show a certain boldness that is absent from the big budget games space. It is unafraid to experiment, not just on the franchise’s structure, but on mechanics readily established as standards in the industry. Delivering the most realized open-world stealth game to date in addition to the customizability for players to approach every challenge however they see fit, The Phantom Pain not only changes the rules of the Metal Gear Solid series, ultimately altering the trajectory of the franchise, if it does continue, while simultaneously changing the idea of what can be accomplished with an open world game, both narratively and mechanically.
Big Boss’ supposedly final outing puts players in the middle of the most ambitious entry in the series yet, and it delivers on almost everything it promises. If this is Hideo Kojima’s final game, then he is stepping out at the top floor of the industry.
M – Mature
|Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, PS3, and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Konami for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of one to five stars.|