Game Review

by Dave Riley,

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, PC

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
The Phantom Pain takes Metal Gear Solid into the open world, but loses some of the series' essential personality in the process.

Snake (aka "Big Boss") wakes up from a nine-year coma in 1984 with blurry vision and the lo-fi crackle of David Bowie's The Man Who Sold the World blaring from a nearby boombox. The beginning of The Phantom Pain burdens this weakened Snake, and his player, with limited mobility and a feeling of questionable sanity as he tries to survive an assault squad accompanied by what seems, to Snake's unsteady senses, like some kind of supernatural force. This is as vulnerable as Snake his ever been, stuck in bed, bringing his eyesight back blink by blink. The tutorial for camera movement reveals his amputated left hand, the tutorial for stealth forces him to laboriously drag his body across the floor and out of sight of searching guards. In sight, sound, and control, The Phantom Pain greets both Snake's and the player's reintroduction into the world with the usual Metal Gear bombast—in this case, gas-masked children and giant, flaming whales.

It's a bombshell opening, but once it's over the abundant personality, cinematic indulgence, and elaborate level design we've come to expect from the series largely vanishes into the ether. The Phantom Pain is an open world game, and, between all the outposts to conquer and the collectables to grab, it retains only vestigial hints of that Metal Gear sensibility. In this narrative, built of taciturn characters, "you set us up!" story beats, and a half-dozen torture sequences there are no shirtless immortal vampires, no evil United States Presidents in tentacled fighting suits flying jet planes. Climactic cutscenes of nuclear robots and boss battles against game-spanning antagonists with larger than life personalities are thin on the ground. Story sequences are brief, supplemented by cassette tapes which stand in for codec conversations, but offer few of their charming and long-winded tangents about classic film or quote of the day philosophy. Instead, they are short-shrift audio logs containing rote descriptions of the 1984 political climate and plot developments that didn't warrant a cutscene. Snake, now voiced by Kiefer Sutherland, is conspicuously quiet throughout. You get the feeling you could fit all of his on-screen dialogue into one of the longer conversations from Snake Eater with time to spare.

Few stealth games nail both the satisfaction of patient plan well enacted and the adrenaline thrill of recovering from a sudden spike of disaster like Metal Gear. Phantom Pain maintains that tense edge while bringing the series' cumbersome controls up to modern day standards and spackling over the remaining rough patches with Reflex mode, an automatic stint of slow-mo that provides time for a last-second headshot before an enemy spots you. This is a game for planners. Patience is your best asset--the willingness to crawl across a bridge when you'd rather run, to memorize a guard's exact route when you'd rather just dash up and choke him out. Though the writing absolutely refuses to have any fun with itself, you can still manifest some of that Metal Gear magic by launching a sleeping sheep into the sky via helium balloon or pasting a block of C4 to an unaware soldier's butt. Open world games are about making your own fun. In that sense, Phantom Pain is a present waiting to be unwrapped, full of just-stupid-enough enemies who are always two steps behind your every move, the hapless paramilitary to your thermal-goggled Benny Hill. You fire your sniper rifle like the first step in a Rube Goldberg machine. They send up flares and mortar explosions to your Last Known Position while you flank around and bonk them on the head one by one. They radio back to home base for reinforcements, but ooops: guess who just set off the explosives he placed on the comms antennas five minutes ago?

Every system feeds into every other system. You conscript enemies in the field and send them back to Mother Base to work in the R&D lab or Intel squad, where they develop better tranquilizer pistols and mark enemy placements on your map, making it easier to sedate and secure the next round of recruits. Sending your soldiers on sorties hampers the opposition's preparedness, reducing their access to night-vision goggles or tranquilizer dart-blocking helmets. The tech tree is filled with upgrades and unlockables, including non-lethal variants for almost every weapon type, inflatable decoys, spray-on stealth camouflage, rockets for your support helicopter and stealth suits for your pet dog/combat companion. You'll never have enough money or enough staff to get what you want and the menus, with their flashing "99 upgrades available," never stop cajoling with the promise of bigger, better equipment--you know, if you'd just take a gander at this side mission for a flamethrower blueprint or a cybernetic specialist.

When Ground Zeroes, the two-hour prologue came out last year, presented Camp Omega's maze of stairwells, back alleys, prop tents, and air vents suggested an open world setting wouldn't dull the series' labyrinthine level design. Seems that hope was misplaced. Whether in Afghanistan or the Angola-Zaire border, most of the map is filler: tiny outposts containing a guard tower or two and a collection of one-room shacks, their tactical solutions as simple as observing at distance and eliminating at your leisure using whatever gun or grenade or chokehold is your favorite today. The Phantom Pain unfolds like any other open world game, the bulk of its runtime devoted to checking off chores like "extract the target" or "eliminate the convoy" until the next story mission unlocks. Usually it's two or three plot-light, personality-free levels until you're allowed to play something that where the environment feels like it was crafted by a human hand and not a procedural AI, and you'll return these few points of interest--the airport, the mansion, the ancient fort honeycombed through a sandstone cliff--multiple times during the compulsory missions alone, to say nothing of when you're mopping up sidequests.

Ground Zeroes planted a seed of imagination, suggesting we might be able to explore a space as cavernous and intricate as Metal Gear Solid 1's Shadow Moses without the technical limitations of loading screens. In reality: there's a whole lot of empty desert and savannah out there and only a handful of places that even have alternate ingresses like air vents and scalable cliff walls in the first place, there are even fewer than give you any reason to actually use them, and environmental hazards like land mines and security cameras practically don't exist until the post-game. Phantom Pain's primary ethos is that of the entire open world genre: "do whatever you want!" Stealth games are about working around your restrictions, but here you are completely unshackled. Harder difficulties unlock later on, requiring you play without being spotted or removing the crutch of Reflex mode, but the game's winking callbacks about a difficulty mode where weapons are "strictly OSP (On-Site Procurement)" are tough to play along with, since it took forty hours to get to that point.

The best way to play Phantom Pain is to savor it. If you take it slow you'll spend more time enjoying the actual mechanics of bellying along the ground, petting your dog, giving your ultra-tough military squad's helicopter a fuchsia paint job and less noticing how, like any open world game, Phantom Pain is more concerned with quantity than quality, expanding its scope with the dogged determination that "more" will transmute into "better." More guns, more maps, more side missions where you click a button and, thirty minutes later, your away team comes back with money and resources that you can use to build a bigger R&D hub so you can develop some machine gun or rocket launcher you probably shouldn't use anyway, because those things kill people. You can't kill people, you need to knock them out so you can recruit them to build a new, better machine gun or rocket launcher you'll never strictly need, but you might as well get anyway; it's there for you to click on, after all. The systems' feedback loop is the perfect endorphin drip, metered out at just the right pace: slow enough to keep you thirsty, fast enough to stop you from getting bored. There's a dozens of hours of stuff to do and see and unlock, but the issue is how much of it is just "stuff."

What memorable things the narrative does with character, locale, and the interplay between mechanics and story happen long after the first time the credits roll. There is interesting, crazy stuff here, but it's all backloaded in closing hours. When the game unveils a subtle, curious commentary about mechanics and play it starts to feel like Metal Gear again, but once that moment passes, it's back to the outside world to blow up another helicopter or assassinate another random guy in a truck. When the end of an emotionally wrenching cassette tape is twenty seconds of hissing silence, it only serves to make you wish that sort of tact and craft were what the game was actually about instead of the bland political thriller they forced you to endure.

But let's remember Metal Gear Solid 4 came out in 2008. Since then, Peacewalker recast the mold. Metal Gear isn't a 10-15 hour cinematic experience anymore, it's a 40+ hour epic where you receive not just the joy of being the world's greatest soldier, but also it's greatest actuary, shifting personnel around and managing money, and replaying missions for the second or third time because your Anesthesia specialist keeps dying in combat, or from getting sick back at Mother Base, or you accidentally fired him, and now you need him back because there's another tranquilizer sniper rifle to build and this one, thank god, the boys over at R&D finally cooked up the idea to attach a silencer to it, only thirty missions in!

By going open world, Phantom Pain has sacrificed the core of the series, converting itself into another game where hardly any moment feels different from any other moment, it all runs together into a slurry of headshots, weapon upgrades, yellow sand and brown huts, all rendered in sharp, explicit detail, fun to play and tense in the thick of it, but flexible to a fault and fleeting in the afterglow. There is no equivalent in Phantom Pain to past games' hallmark moments, like a sirens-blaring, stun grenade-chucking tower climb; a twenty-mech battle in a cybernetic cavern; a psychic ghost fight in a spectral river resolved via cyanide pill; or even a button-mashing crawl down a microwave hallway. Phantom Pain's missions are presented almost as tangential, something you opt into from a menu when you're bored of chasing down goats or driving donuts in your jeep.

Phantom Pain's aiming and shooting are crunchy, its base building metagame satisfies in that low-stress, lizard-brain kind of way. Its world is gigantic, but it is also hollow. In the face of this, it's evident that Peacewalker, with its humdrum level design and endless gauges to fill, was not an aberration brought on by the limitations of portable hardware, it was the new normal and, with Hideo Kojima gone from Konami, presumably how the series will close its canon.

Coming to Phantom Pain for the stealth mechanics, you'll get the best the genre has to offer. Coming to it for a Metal Gear experience, you'll walk away wondering if it was even made by the same people. In 1998, what was most astonishing about Metal Gear Solid was how, for all the teasing it gets about being more movie than game, its every moment contained a mission: solve the PAL key code, navigate the minefield, guide the remote-controlled missile through the gas-filled laboratory. It was a scripted experience, dense and focused all the way through. Every task was a puzzle and the solution was rarely "shoot everything on your way to the objective marker." Here, in 2015, the puzzle is always "clean up" and whatever you have on hand will do the job just fine.

Overall : B
Graphics : A
Sound/Music : A
Gameplay : B+
Presentation : C+

+ Strong, technical shooting and sneaking mechanics
Bogged down by open world bloat and lacking most of the zany character of the series

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