Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review (XONE)

MGS V TPP screen
MGS V TPP screen. Konami

After years in development and a surprising fit of public drama between publisher Konami and series creator / producer / director Hideo Kojima, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is really, truly, finally out.  For the most part, the wait has been worth it.  It looks great, plays fantastic, and offer an impressive amount of different mechanics for players to enjoy.  The Phantom Pain is truly a massive achievement that is one of the best games we've played, though that doesn't mean we feel it is the best Metal Gear Solid game, however.

  We'll explain all of this and more in our full Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain review. 

Game Details

  • Publisher:  Konami
  • Developer: Kojima Productions
  • ESRB Rating: “M" for Mature
  • Genre: Action / Stealth
  • Pros:  Fantastic presentation; D-Dog; D-Horse; Quiet; great gameplay; Mother Base; developing new weapons / items; Fulton lifting everything
  • Cons:  Checkpoints could be better; the MGS story is dumb; open world is kinda boring

Story

MGSV: The Phantom Pain takes place 9 years after MGSV: Ground Zeroes.  After Ground Zeroes, Big Boss' base was attacked and he was in a coma for 9 years.  When he wakes up, it is right back to business to rebuild his army, his Mother Base, and get revenge on those that turned on him 9 years ago.  In true Metal Gear Solid form, the enemies he faces are a bunch of super powerful weirdoes and freaks, and of course there's a hulking Metal Gear robot thrown in for good measure.

  Familiar old friends and enemies show up.  The past is referenced constantly and the future is vaguely hinted at.  And everything is great.

Sort of.  Similar to how I'm sick of how dumb the Resident Evil story is at this point, I'm also kind of tired of the Metal Gear Solid storyline as well.  The story has gotten increasingly stupid and unbelievable as the series has gone on, and the presence of so much ridiculous nonsense amid what is otherwise a fairly realistic game actually does a bit of a disservice to how good The Phantom Pain is on it's own.

  From a story perspective, it probably isn't a bad thing that this is (hopefully) the last MGS game.  Don't get me wrong, I do still enjoy the MGS franchise's story for it's over-the-top anime-inspired ridiculousness, but I also really miss the simpler days of MGS1 before things went too crazy.

Gameplay

As dumb as the story has become, however, the gameplay has never been better in MGS than it is in The Phantom Pain.  The Phantom Pain takes place in large open world areas, first in Afghanistan and later in Africa.  These open worlds are full of villages and outposts as well as large enemy bases and strongholds.  They're also full of animals wandering around as well as long stretches of barren nothingness with nothing of any interest in sight.  You navigate the world by either driving vehicles you find, riding your awesome horse, or hopping around via helicopter.  You select missions, or side-operations, via the menu in your helicopter, but you can also start them by simply going to that area of the world. 

I was initially concerned that having an open world Metal Gear Solid game wouldn't work, but the way the game is designed is actually pretty genius.  While you do have an open world to play around in, it isn't as if missions span the whole area and have you running around.

  Missions tend to focus on just one compound or one village or one key area.  The old linear MGS games worked so well because each area was like its own separate sandbox with a unique design and enemies and layout for you to play around in.  The Phantom Pain's open world is just a series of these mini-sandboxes all connected together, so while the world is bigger, the core gameplay rhythm of sneaking around is actually just the same as ever, which is a good thing.

All of that sneaking and shooting has never been better, either.  Enemies are a lot smarter than past MGS games, but the difficultly has been scaled down a bit from the way it was in Ground Zeroes.

  They still see you from surprisingly far away, but you have more opportunities to escape detection and avoid being turned into Swiss cheese here.  Because you can attack missions from any direction you want, and with whatever tactics you want, you have a ton of options on how to play.  Go in sneaky.  Go in guns blazing.  Send your awesome dog buddy to kill a patrolling guard.  Snipe everyone.  Blow everyone up with rockets.  Call in a support helicopter to bombard an enemy position.  Avoid conflict entirely by simply approaching the base from somewhere else.  Steal a jeep and drive through unnoticed.  Wait until dark so they can't see you.  Wait until a sandstorm pops up so they can't see you.  And the list goes on and on and on.  You really can play The Phantom Pain a million different ways, and they're all fun.  Sneaky stealth fans as well as Battlefield or Call of Duty fans will have have a good time.

Just about the only aspect of the sneaky/shooty gameplay I don't like is that mission checkpoints can be pretty brutal and unfair.  Sometimes you might restart a mission right outside the base you died at.  Other times you might start it several kilometers down the road and have to work your way back.  I've gotten frustrated with how much progress I've inexplicably lost and rage quit more than a few times, but I always come back.  A quick save option or something would sure be useful here.

A fantastic new component of The Phantom Pain is that you actually get to build a base and then decide what to research, what soldiers you recruit, and more.

  As you play you collect money as well as resources, which then go into building Mother Base.  You then can build and upgrade platforms for research and development, combat teams, medical, and much more, which all make your growing army even stronger.  Seemingly every story missions grants you access to some new gameplay mechanic related to Mother Base, which keeps things fresh for a long, long time.You also get to choose what weapons and items to research, which allows you to customize the game and your army to suit your play style.  It is just freaking genius how it all works.  Also, the strength of each of your components at your base is directly tied to the skills of the soldiers you recruit, so by finding specific soldiers wandering the battlefields you make your army stronger, which then lets you research newer and stronger stuff.  It is a cycle that just repeats over and over as you unlock increasingly powerful and interesting toys to play with. 

One such toy that we really love is the Fulton device - a balloon that lets you air lift soldiers (who then join your army) as well as animals, weapons, vehicles, and more.  You just press a button to attach a balloon to whatever you want and, whoosh, they fly up into the air and eventually appear back at Mother Base.  You eventually end up with enough high-powered weapons and skilled soldiers that you can actually send them out on missions and they'll find new resources and recruits and earn money for you.  At the beginning of the game, having enough resources so you can research new stuff is a constant struggle, but eventually Mother Base gets totally self-sufficient so you can just do whatever you want.

  I love that.

I'm also a big fan of the buddies you can take into combat with you.  Starting out with a horse, you eventually get a dog (who sniffs out enemy locations and mission objectives for you), a cool little robot with its own useful features, and even a sniper to cover your back.  The sniper in particular is simply incredible.  Her name is Quiet, probably best known as the chick who wears a bikini out on the battlefield for some inexplicable reason.  If you dismiss Quiet because of how she looks and run to the Internet to rant about how "problematic" her design is, you're ignoring her actual character and personality and story which all give context to that design and make you care about her as a (virtual) human being and not just as T&A.  Quiet is the best character in the entire game. 

Graphics & Sound

The presentation is another area where you really can't help but be totally impressed with The Phantom Pain.  Main character models are fantastic looking and highly detailed, though you do see a lot of the same generic soldier models walking around that don't look as nice.  The environments look great as well with rocky and dry Afghanistan, the sterile metal of Mother Base, and the forests of Africa all looking unique and realistic.  Lighting is very well done and special effects for smoke, dust, explosions, fire, and more are all fantastic.

The sound is also pretty darn great.  The voice work is solid for just about everyone, though no one sounds like they did in previous games.  Big Boss doesn't talk much (because of REASONS), and when he does Kiefer Southerland just doesn't quite sound right.  Other than that, however, the sound is well done.  Great, great music.  Great sound effects.  They really nailed it.

Bottom Line

All in all, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is awesome.  Simply awesome.  It is a great military sandbox to play in paired with a fantastically well thought out base building simulation that, honestly, would have been just as good even if it wasn't a Metal Gear Solid game.  Because of that, however, it sometimes doesn't feel like a "real" MGS game besides the dumb MGS story threads popping up to beat you over the head with how weird this series has gotten.  I think that the open world and freedom to play missions in any order you choose also makes it so that events sort of lack impact.  Previous Metal Gear Solid games are full of memorable quotes and set-pieces and moments from start to finish.  The truly memorable moments in MGSV: The Phantom Pain are spread much further apart and separated by weirdly dull open world stuff (oh hey, we just barely escaped from a giant Metal Gear called Sahelanthropus, now lets collect plants and hunt a black bear like nothing happened!) that it makes the game as a whole much less memorable overall. 

So, it's a great game, and a good Metal Gear Solid game, but not the "best" Metal Gear Solid game.  Semantics and mental gymnastic aside, though, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an excellent game that no gamer should miss.  Newcomers to the series won't be able to make a lick of sense out of the story (not that longtime fans can either), but the gameplay is more than good enough to make up for it.  There are dozens, and potentially hundreds, of hours of gameplay here, which make it easy to recommend for a purchase.  

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