Video Games Review: Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain (PS4, 2015)

Hideo Kojima is clearly very torn about leaving his Metal Gear series behind after nearly 30 years. The fact that Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain spends a lot of time on the notion of losing a part of yourself, physically and mentally, illustrates this. Kojima leverages the phenomenon of phantom limb pain – the body believing a limb that is no longer attached to your body is still there, often still sending pain signals to the brain – to communicate his sense of loss. The thing is, once you clock the game, you may start to feel a phantom pain all of your own.

As stated, the Metal Gear series has been around for nearly 30 years at this point, published always through Konami. The series was never tied to any real consistency in terms of timeline  – each new game in the series would be a prequel or sequel, playing out at different points in the series’ established lore. Some were set far in the past in a world of spies and cold wars, others further into the future where armies of ambulatory nuclear-powered battle mechs were the order of the day.

The Phantom Pain takes the series in an altogether new direction from the “interactive movie” that was Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. An open-world stealth title set in a fictional 1984, it centers on Big Boss who has awakened from his coma following the Peace Walker incident. It really does feel like Kojima knows, after all the times he’s said he was ending the series in the past, that this is really it. The Phantom Pain brings a story three-decades in the telling to a close and what we are left with, even with its problems, is one of the best games in the series by a wide mark.

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For those who aren’t familiar with Metal Gear’s sprawling, often incomprehensible story, the events of The Phantom Pain are set after 2010’s Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on the PSP and the original Metal Gear from 1987 (in which Big Boss was the lead antagonist). The game attempts to bridge the gap in the timeline between these two titles and works hard to create a believable, sympathetic reason for Big Boss’s metamorphosis from Cold War hero to one of the series’ most fearsome villains.

If you didn’t play last year’s entree, Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes, then you may find yourself a bit confused by the narrative proceedings. This goes double for anyone who hasn’t played Peace Walker or, more importantly, Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. This is due to The Phantom Pain not spending a lot of time on backstory – though it does provide enough information to get you started. You’re out for revenge, and to do that you must rebuild the Diamond Dogs, Big Boss’ formerly world-class private army.

To do this, Big Boss will accept paid missions in Russian-controlled Afghanistan as a hired mercenary, funneling the profits back into the Diamond Dogs and their ocean-bound fortress called Mother Base. These missions are as varied as they are time-consuming – extract important people and prisoners, neutralise top enemy brass and the utter trashing of the Russian’s communications and supply infrastructure just to name a few.

Big Boss comes prepared for a fight, of course, with a staggering amount of weapons, gadgets and tactics both sneaky and brutal at the ready. Each mission can be tackled in whatever manner pleases you most – spend a few real-time hours reconnoitreing everything, creeping in under cover of night and tranquilising an entire enemy encampment and claiming your objective without ever being detected or kick in the front door and go full-blown Expendables on the joint, dropping airstrikes and detonating anything that looks remotely explosive. It’s entirely up to you.

In any other game, one approach would probably be more tactically rewarding than the other but The Phantom Pain makes it clear that though the stealthier option may pay better in the long run, there really is no wrong answers here. Both approaches are equally valid. For me, I started packing a tranq/silenced pistol combo so if there weren’t any soldiers I deemed talented enough to join my forces at Mother Base I could knock them out, disable their radio and put a hushed bullet in their knees to keep them from getting up and becoming a problem later.

Gone is the old radar system with its cones-of-vision and colour coordinated alert levels from previous Metal Gear Solid games and I actually think that’s for the best. Your best friend in any mission now are your binoculars. Those who played Ground Zeroes will already be well aware of this. Making sure you’ve got the lay of the land before beginning your op, particularly for the stealth players, will mean the difference between everything going according to plan and everything turning to shit due to an oversight. Once enemies are marked by your binoculars, Big Boss can track their movements and locations. It’s the enemies you miss while reconnoitreing, the ones that continue to scurry about the base unmarked, that will thwart your carefully crafted plan every time.

Your second best friend is the Fulton surface-to-air recovery device. This is, by far, the most fun gadget Big Boss has in his arsenal. Fultons allow Big Boss to tie a balloon to just about anything that isn’t nailed down – soldiers, vehicles, mortars, anti-air emplacements, tanks and APC’s, even animals like sheep and goats – and send them back to Mother Base to be repurposed into assets for the Diamond Dogs. It’s so much fun. Sneaking into an enemy stronghold, taking their commander alive and then sending him back to Mother Base to become a valuable asset without anyone knowing via high-velocity balloon transfer (or Express Post as I’ve come to call it) is one of the The Phantom Pain’s most satisfying and rewarding aspects.

It turns out slowly building Mother Base into a thriving, ocean-locked military metropolis is The Phantom Pain’s sleeper hit. New recruits can be sorted onto a number of different teams (like R&D or Intel for instance) depending on their skillsets. This will put them to work analysing combat zones, researching new equipment for Big Boss to take into the field and even contract missions you can send them off on if you think the Combat Team is ready. The list of upgrades and researchable items is immense and there’s very little that didn’t jump out at me right away as being incredibly useful. The thing about Mother Base is, despite your being asked to return frequently to keep morale high and give Big Boss a wash to keep his mental state on the straight-and-narrow, there’s not a whole lot to do once you arrive and the whole place feels a touch empty.

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Recruitment in the game also extends to what the game calls Buddies. These allies can be used on-mission to aid Big Boss in a number of different ways. You start the game with D-Horse, who is your first and primary source of transport around the Afghan countryside. Later, you’ll also pick up DD the puppy and Quiet, a mute, bikini-clad, fetish-model sniper. While her appearance may be eye-rollingly sexist (and the narrative limply tries to explain its reasoning for such transparent sexualisation), Quiet introduces a quantum shift in the way The Phantom Pain is played and quickly became my go-to companion. You can use her sniper skillset to wipe out anyone who poses a threat to Big Boss and the mission, but she can also create convenient distractions to buy Big Boss some time.

Here’s where my problems with Quiet begin, however. While her silence is justified in the context of the game’s (batshit insane) story, her revealing attire is neither sensible or earned narratively. The camera, too, looks at Quiet in a way that it doesn’t when focused on the male characters. It lingers, pauses, or straight up pulls focus on her breasts or backside (something it repeats on the handful of other female characters present in the game). To make matters worse, there are hints in the story that Quiet is a victim of sexual assault which, frankly, makes her attire all the more tone-deaf. I want to be clear – I like Quiet a lot, but the way the game treats her as little more than a nice pair of boobs to look at during a cutscene instead of the silent, professional menace that she is is both aggravating and unnecessary.

DD, on the other hand, becomes your spotter, combing the battlefield for threats and marking them to greater amplify your awareness of your surroundings and basically puts your reconnoitreing process on autopilot. He’s less useful in combat, however, but you can totally pat him which more than makes up for it.

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As you progress through The Phantom Pain and your arsenal begins to change based on your research and personal tactics, so too do the challenges the game throws at you. I found it very difficult to come up with solutions that didn’t involve my tranq pistol when enemies started wearing helmets and heavy armour, for instance. But you can counter that counter! Send your Diamond Dogs on remote missions and they’ll intercept shipments of valuable items like the precise sort of heavy armour and helmets that are stopping your tranqs. I point this out because it’s a great example of the way The Phantom Pain overlaps and interlocks its many systems like some sort of magical tactical espionage Voltron.

One part of The Phantom Pain I found rather odd was that, after all the furore around Keifer Sutherland inheriting the job of voicing Big Boss from series veteran David Hayter, Big Boss really doesn’t have that much to say in comparison to other characters like Kaz Miller (voiced by Robin Atkin Downes) and Ocelot (voiced by the great Troy Baker). He just sort of stands around, not reacting, as other characters regale him with crazy stories and dialogue. It’s weird and a bit suspicious if you ask me.

Hideo Kojima is one of video gaming history’s most singular creators. He has a vision and style that is instantly recognisable and drenches every second of The Phantom Pain. Each mission begins and concludes with a credit scroll of everyone who worked on it, from writing to character design and it was through these moments I was reminded over and over again that Kojima produced and directed the game. It’s a bizarre design choice but it reminds you on the regular of everyone who had any input into this sprawling, strange, daring, risky, remarkable game. If it turns out that this really is where Kojima puts Metal Gear behind him, The Phantom Pain will be one of gaming’s most bittersweet farewells – both for Snake and for a man who has become one of the industry’s most reliably interesting and iconoclastic designers.

Review Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: So much to do; Tactically broad; Fultons are too much fun
Lowlights: Treats Quiet appallingly
Developer: Kojima Productions
Publisher: Konami
Released: 1 September, 2015
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC PlayStation 3, Xbox 360

Reviewed on PlayStation 4