It’s been over 5 years since the release of the last major instalment in the Metal Gear franchise on the PSP, and a lot’s happened in gaming tech and innovation in that time. Hopes and dreams have been placed with Hideo Kojima and his team that they would keep the high standards we’ve come to expect from their work. Have they kept us waiting for the best game since Snake Eater, or is Metal Gear Solid V more like Sons of Liberty and likely to disappoint the hardcore faithful?
Epic stories, tightly directed action, attention to detail, convoluted and implausible characters… MGS has everything that’s right for a videogame. It’s narrative has always been controlled by its creator so that no matter which era or situation you’re playing, it’s part of a recognisable timeline of events that twist what you thought you knew of the saga and turn it into something bigger and usually better. That’s the approach that’s been taken with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – bigger and better than everything that’s come before. Snake is now free to explore an open world rather than small segments of map; you’re building an army and base of operations that have tangible effects that make you feel like part of a larger organisation; and it’s time to face the tallest bi-pedal robot outside Zone of the Enders. Yet all this is just a backdrop to the simple story of revenge and one man’s relationship with loss and love. Though it’s up for debate on whether that’s Big Boss’s role here, or one of his cadre.
Picking up straight after last year’s Ground Zeroes where the old Militaire Sans Frontiere outfit was destroyed, the action is set initially in Cyprus, but mainly Afghanistan, Africa and the Seychelles, and concerns the creation and running of Diamond Dogs – the new private army on the block. Contracted by various government entities and organisations, it’s Snake’s job to take on missions that will pay out cash to build Mother Base facilities, as well as recruit new team members, and continue the search for Skullface – the villain of the piece set up in the prologue. That’s pretty much it, and the way the game wants it to be. Aside from a rudimentary tutorial for the controls, things are left up to you on which missions you pick, what you take in with you, who you want help from, and how each objective is tackled. Freedom and choice is the order of the day, and something that is a significant difference from the previous games.
Handholding and molly-coddling will not be found in Metal Gear Solid V, though everything’s written down and can be viewed at your leisure from the pause screen. Major new elements like Mother Base and its operations do have tutorial missions for the benefit of all players, even if it doesn’t tell you everything you’ll find useful. That’s where the fun with the series is though – discovering how the enemy AI mechanics work, what different items and weapons do, how to use the environment. It’s all in here by the bucket load, and never fails to delight when something goes right or happens unexpectedly. Giving specific examples would just fill the rest of the page – and we’ve covered some of our favourites in another piece – suffice to say that if you think it, it can probably be done.
Having a Tactical Espionage Operations subtitle might make you think that it’s all about stealth… it is, because the core skill set of one man going it alone in enemy territory is focussed around not being seen. Sneaking, crawling and silenced pistols are a mainstay of the genre, and equally so here. Given that this could put off newcomers, and even veterans in the larger and less predictable environments, Kojima Productions have designed it so that getting it wrong isn’t going to halt your progress – merely give you a new puzzle to figure out. Flexibility comes in the form of your Mother Base, it’s not all about collecting soldiers to research new kit, it has a vital tactical role in the form of airstrikes and equipment drops. Get spotted in the middle of stronghold? Call in a smoke barrage and sprint out of there. Taken the wrong sniper rifle into battle? Get the right one dropped at your feet (mind not to stand under the package though!). It provides a much needed extra dimension that takes some adjusting to, but fits perfectly.
Alongside your support team hiding offshore in the Seychelles, you get access to buddies that come on missions with you. The most headline grabbing has been Quiet due to the game budget not running high enough to give her clothing, though D-Horse, D-Dog and D-Walker all make fine companions. Each can be given rudimentary commands and largely look after themselves whilst providing support. There’s a levelling system in play that builds your bond and gives access to more abilities, and there’s never just one type of scenario they’re good for. D-Horse and D-Walker provide locomotion across the large scale landscapes, Quiet and D-Dog can scout and fight, but there’s a decent degree of crossover for them all. Again, if you’ve chosen the wrong one just send them back to base and call in another. A feature almost as useful as your buddies is the weather system which works exactly in your favour 9 times out of 10, whether that’s damping noise or providing cover, though if you can’t rely on mother nature, then using the day/night cycle to time your infiltrations is very effective. Terrain and locations take on different aspects depending on the hour, and this promotes as much replay as the additional objectives you can try for.
The Phantom Pain is big… not just with the map, it’s with the missions and content too. There are 50 story missions and over 150 side ops, plus the content provided by developing new equipment at Mother Base, sending combat teams on missions, invading other players bases… and all before the online competitive components go live in October. To get to the end of the main story arc it’s taken in excess of 60 hours, and there’s probably triple that remaining if top ranks, all side ops, and all optional objectives were completed. Without doubt this is a monster of a game designed to be played and replayed for years. Is it a true Metal Gear game? Yes, definitely. It distills everything that’s great about the series gameplay and delivers it with style and aplomb. It even still has the same clunky prone-to-standing movements that mean you take massive damage if you get knocked over because you can’t get out of the way fast enough to avoid a follow up attack. So it’s a shame that it stumbles at the last hurdle because of the actual story.
Don’t get me wrong, the story is as epic as ever, and at its best when it hits the really bleak moments. Metal Gear Solid V strays into some really dark places which can be uncomfortable to watch, or even participate in, and it makes certain sections really resonate when the payoff hits. However, it doesn’t feel finished. The eventual conclusion whilst right for the end of this game leaves too many loose ends. Yes, we want a setup for a sequel, but we also want some finality to the chapter we’re playing, and I don’t feel that’s handled very well this time around. There’s also the bait-and-switch style ending that you hit after the final boss battle that lands at episode 31, but after this there are 19 more missions – many just being harder versions of previous key events. It feels a bit cheap and rushed, quite a counterpoint to the excellent game that comes before. From a boss perspective there are really only three in the whole game (not counting harder replays). Sure, there are several others you can take part in, but they’re easy to bypass with a bit of stealth or clever thinking. This leaves your progress paced at a steady rate rather than a traditional acceleration through a second and third act, and making you wonder where all the action comes from in the frenetic ending episodes here.
In a typically clever throwback to 80’s TV series, the proceedings are presented as short episodes with briefings done on the fly and a cast list to let you know who you’ll meet. This does remove some surprises for the keen eyed amongst us, and comes after you’ve made your loadout choices, which sometimes will have you immediately calling in replacement equipment. There’s no denying that choppering into a location with music blaring out of the onboard speakers is immensely thrilling. As is spending days on end in the desert, moving from camp to camp rescuing prisoners and stealing anything that’s not nailed down. What helps is the fantastic presentation of the environments using the Fox Engine. It’s not the amount of dressing in the environments, things actually look a little sparse at first glance, it’s more the detailing on what is there. Sure, there are some graphical glitches and shadow/texture rendering pop-in which make you wonder what Metal Gear Solid V would be like if it only appeared on current gen hardware. On the whole though it’s a very pretty game. Audio needs a shoutout too because it’s a full on 360 degree digital surround-fest, where you use the direction cues to focus in on enemies and objectives. It’s so well done that you don’t notice you’re using it half the time.
I can keep going with the superlatives, and with the different things that you can do, but ultimately it’s best if you discover everything for yourself. Very rarely does the gameplay put a foot wrong, and if you’re struggling with a mission or objective it’s probably because you’ve not explored an alternate option. There’s a dynamic difficulty level in effect that forces changes in playstyles to counter what the enemy do, and this just adds to the immersion in what you’re doing – all actions have consequence. Ultimately that’s the main theme here too. Revenge is on the surface, but that’s only come about because of Big Boss’s previous adventures and vanities that started right back with Snake Eater. Which also brings up the question, is it as good as Metal Gear Solid 3 (my favourite game of all time and the best in the series)? From what you can do in the game it’s a yes, from a story perspective and emotional impact it’s a no; but it’s still one of the best games you’ll ever play.
A review copy of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain for PS4 was provided by the Konami PR team, and the game is available now on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and PC.