Platforms: PC, Playstation 3, Playstation 4 (reviewed), Xbox 360, and Xbox One
It might not come across as too much of a surprise, but I loved Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I’ve made no secret of my being a fan of the series, but I also probably spoiled how this review is going to go when I named it my favorite game of 2015. Still, coming back to it a few months later to wrap it up, there’s been some time to cool my hype level and see how things felt coming back to it with a three month break since I last played it.
MGSV:TPP takes place after the events of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. There’s a lot that went on in Ground Zeroes that, if you’re unfamiliar with it, might leave you scratching your head as to what exactly is going on in MGSV:TPP. Hell, I am familiar with it and I was left scratching my head at times. Par for the course with a Metal Gear game, but people looking to jump in here might be even more confused than normal. I didn’t play much of Peace Walker, the game that took place between the events of MGS3 and MGSV:GZ, so I’m a bit more in the dark than I would like to admit to as to what the hell is going on and how this cast ended up hooking up with each other. If you’re truly that concerned with making that much sense of MGSV:TPP, you’ve got a lot of homework to do.
Even if it comes across as one “what the hell just happened?” and “who the hell is this?” moment after another, MGSV:TPP does a wonderful job of fixing something that even Metal Gear fans have had a hard time selling newcomers on – the gameplay. Gone are the days of Metal Gear turning into a desperate scramble for your life once discovered. In previous entries, it almost made more sense to load a previous save file than to try to awkwardly combat the swarms of guards if you blow your cover. Big Boss now can hold his own against any combatants. For the first time, it feels perfectly acceptable to actually go in with guns blazing. You can even choose to have your shirt off to add to that feeling of playing Rambo if you really want to.The gunplay, either in first or third person mode, is the best its been. If shooting the place up once discovered is more your style, MGSV:TPP gives you controls and tools you need to actually make that happen.
While structurally it feels most similar to Peace Walker, MGSV:TPP mostly happens in two large, open world areas compared to the small mission map areas that took place in Peace Walker. There are guard outposts that are scattered throughout the map with large expanses of mostly empty territory. You can pick up flowers to use back at base and capture some wildlife, but there’s largely little going on aside from the occasional truck carrying a couple of soldiers passing by. You can infiltrate these guard posts and capture them by taking out all the stationed guards there or sneak right on by to your next destination. Not only do you get some invaluable experience on how enemies react to you, lines of sight, how long it takes to knock out someone quietly, and how the control scheme feels, but you can also “requisition” stuff to Fulton (basically attach some balloons to stuff and people to send to a waiting helicopter above) to use at your base of operations, Mother Base.
Getting enemy soldiers back to Mother Base enables them to be swayed to fight for you and join your personal army, Diamond Dogs. I like to think that they’re so impressed that the legendary Big Boss wants them that they defect to your side without a fight, rather than the slightly implied torture that might be going on. Early on, you’ll likely pick up every soldier you come across just to bolster your numbers, but, as Mother Base becomes full, you’ll start looking at their rankings and decide whether they’re worth the effort or not. Each soldier has something to contribute, but some more than others. What seemed like a solid group at first will likely be thrown in the Waiting Room doing nothing but taking up valuable space, requiring you to dismiss them. The soldiers’ ranks in certain areas and where they’re assigned will affect things like combat strength for away missions they go on, how long injured soldiers will spend recovering, how long it takes to call in air strikes, and what kind of equipment you can research.
Upgrading your weapons and gear is handled in a manner that might be more familiar to RPG players. The higher rank the soldiers are, the higher the level the Research group is (the same goes for all the different groups in Mother Base) and the more advanced equipment you’ll be able to develop. You’ll need specialists to develop more advanced equipment, making keep an eye out for them while on missions integral to your equipment enhancement. In effect, you’re going to be “grinding” for better soldiers to add to Diamond Dogs so you can keep leveling up your teams and gear.
The reason you won’t be able to easily skate by with the minimum amount of anything is the way MGSV:TPP handles difficulty. The enemy soldiers react to how you approach them. Like to pop off headshots? More and more soldiers will start to wear helmets, which makes using tranquilizer darts on them from behind a tricky prospect. Like waiting for night fall? Enemy troops will start wearing night vision goggles and you’ll notice security cameras being used. Go in Rambo-style? They’ll get better weapons and armor to be able to take and dish out more punishment. It was a bit of an intimidating thing to see at first, seeing as how the enemy soldiers never revert to lower state of readiness, but as you unlock new equipment to develop, you’ll realize that you’re in an arms race that’s definitely stacked in your favor. Every time the game does something to either take away or diminish one of your methods, it gives you another option to consider and new equipment to shore up your method you just had weakened. It’s a bit of brilliant game design that’s a welcome addition to Metal Gear.
Speaking of welcome additions, Big Boss now has the option to go out into the field with a companion. No longer do you need to be a solo infiltration specialist, you can now bring a buddy along to help you. There’s D-Horse, who lets you get from point to point more quickly and will defecate on command (it’s useful in the oddest way imaginable). D-Dog sniffs out enemies and landmines, will be able to take out some enemies when you research some equipment for him, and can also be used as a distraction to lure enemy troops so you can sneak around. Quiet is an enemy sniper that becomes an ally who can pick off enemies from a distance for you. Finally, D-Walker (seeing a naming trend here?) is basically a mini-Metal Gear that you ride on that you equip with a rather large variety of loadouts to supplement any style of play. You can also choose to leave them behind if you want, but there’s no real purpose served in being without one of your four buddies.
What MGSV:TPP does have as a weakness is truly memorable boss fights. Metal Gear is known for many things, but something that tends to get overlooked by the less-than-rabid fanbase are the boss fights. A ton of care has gone into previous entry boss fights. The fight with Pyscho Mantis in MGS has him reading your memory card and requiring that you plug in your controller into the second port to actually be take him down. What might be the most incredibly tense and clever sniper battle in video games is in MGS3. The numerous ways to fight The End is one of the most brilliant bits of design in any game and that’s what makes it stand out so much over ten years later. The boss fights in previous Metal Gear games always had a feeling of desperation, a feeling of being overwhelmed by someone who’s vastly more capable than you might think you are. What makes them so memorable is figuring out the trick to them and then surviving long enough to take advantage of that. Even when you figure out the trick, it’s not a guarantee of victory.
MGSV:TPP has a distinct lack of those moments. The only one that really comes to mind was about a third of the way through the game. While the fight might seem ridiculously stacked against you at first, the game’s story up to that point has all but told you exactly what to look for. You’ll find that thing rather conveniently placed in the area the fight occurs, almost making it a bit of bummer when you figure it out that it is as simple as it might seem. This fight does have multiple ways to end it, which made it feel like the one with the most thought put into it, but those ways all involve the exploiting the same vulnerability, one way or another. These fights are such a glaring weakness because the improved gameplay allow for so much more movement and control of Big Boss that you’re almost expecting a higher level of boss fight than MGSV:TPP ever brings.
While the amount of time periods left for Metal Gear to explore are limited, having MGSV:TPP take place in the 1980’s seems more of “crap, I guess we have to have this one take place here” decision than anything. You’re dealing with technology that’s nearly on par with stuff in MGS4, the game that takes the furthest along in the timeline (Metal Gear Rising: Revengance excluded). It being the 80’s is limited to using cassettes to listen to what would have previously been radio or Codec conversations, some music cassettes of the era you find scattered about, and the occasional nod to what would be current events through passive conversation between enemy soldiers. How they could have better used the time period is really beyond me, but the level of the technology involved will make you completely forget that you’re in the 80’s until you hear something like “The Final Countdown” randomly playing, hinting that it’s there to pick up.
Admittedly, the cassettes being used to fill in the story gaps rather than make you stop and listen to a radio or Codec conversation is a welcome idea since you can continue on traversing through the game while you listen to them. No more playing for fifteen minutes and then having to stop while another story beat is played out in some non interactive manner for an equal or longer amount of time. Some of the best writing in the series happens in side radio/Codec conversations and that holds true here with my personal favorite, The Hamburgers of Kazuhira Miller.
My only other problem I had with MGSV:TPP comes about because of how much I enjoyed it. Once the game ends, it basically ends, no New Game Plus. You can go clean up some Side Ops, increase equipment levels, and redo some missions and try to get a better rank in some of the missions. If you were hoping for second run with an increased amount of guards that have better lines of sight all while taking out Reflex mode but maintaining your earned gear, you’re out of luck. Once MGSV:TPP decides it’s over, it packs up its bags and leaves. That said, there’s no lack of content here. With fifty missions, over one hundred fifty Side Ops to do, researching gear, and just messing around, I easily put in over two hundred hours before seeing the credits roll (the final batch, not the ones you see after every single mission is completed). There’s as much content as you could really hope for.
With the Metal Gear series possibly at its end, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a fine way to go out. There’s rumblings about what actually happened with the loose ends that don’t get tied up here. Was it Kojima leaving the door open for more story? Was it Konami, tired of funneling money towards this project, that pulled the plug before it was completed? One could endless speculate. While it’s story might not feel complete, there’s no denying the amount of things to do is well more than above adequate. MGSV:TPP will leaving you wanting more story, but, unless you only buy and play one game a year, it’s doubtful you’ll feel short changed. As a long time fan of the series, I’m less than happy about the way the story tied up, but, then again, it’s something I’ve learned to live with with the Metal Gear series. It ended before I was ready for it to, but so few games let me play for two hundred hours and make me never tire of it. MGSV:TPP managed to do just that, all the while making me crave more of it.