Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain PS4 review

It's probably the last Metal Gear we'll see from Hideo Kojima, so can The Phantom Pain send his legendary series out in style?

As hard as it may be, I’m going to put aside all of the ridiculous events of late revolving around Konami and Kojima. After all, it doesn’t matter how much Konami tries to remove Kojima and his studio’s name from the series, Metal Gear has, and always will be Hideo Kojima’s creation. That said, let’s focus on Metal Gear Solid V itself, the finale of the Metal Gear saga, and I don’t mind saying so right away, one of the best games of the year.

Events take place directly after Ground Zeroes. Well, maybe not right after, as you’ll find out from the prologue, which is a truly spectacular opening. Here the game cleverly introduces various elements, and it’s much less fourth wall-breaking than the usual Metal Gear instruction. That’s for the most part, as characters still tell Snake to “press the stance button to crouch,” and so on. But it’s Metal Gear, we can forgive that.

The opening doesn’t only introduce you to the game mechanics, but tells a great intro story, laden with mystery and foreshadowing. It’s an intro that’s both effective, and occasionally disturbing. As always, I don’t want to spoil anything, but a scene where someone gets shot in the head in front of you is pretty chilling, and it’s just one such instance.

Once the prologue is over, the game quickly shunts you into your first real mission in Afghanistan, and it’s here where you’ll realise something else. There are no elaborate, overly long cut-scenes. Sure, the game has cut-scenes, but they’re shorter and more action-focused, not the usual dialogue-heavy movies we’re used to getting from Kojima. Instead, the story is told as the game progresses through in-game dialogue and more interactive scenes. There are plenty of cut scenes throughout, but they’re all manageable in length. It’s a definite improvement, and as much as I can imagine Kojima very reluctantly letting go of such a feature given his penchant for making digital movies, it’s a welcome change. It keeps the game moving, and player much more engaged in the actual events, and the superb open world action.

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Sandbox stealth

When you’re first let loose in the open world, and after you’ve digested the gorgeous visuals (this is one fine looking game), you’ll get to take part in the sandbox stealth play we tasted in Ground Zeroes, and I’m happy to report that Phantom Pain‘s mechanics are even better. This is open world stealth done right, and it’s fitting that Metal Gear should be the series to get it done.

The map is huge, much larger than Ground Zeroes, as Kojima promised, and there’s much more meat on these reptilian bones. There are main missions, side-ops, collectibles, and there’s the whole Mother Base metagame, where you use gathered resources and captured personnel to expand and grow your base, and to research new gear and weapons. Enemy outposts and facilities dot the map at regular intervals, and there’s plenty of reasons to explore outside of individual missions, it’s required if you want to find and harvest materials to develop new equipment. Plants, animals, and enemy soldiers can all be harvested and/or captured, and then used to grow the Diamond Dogs, Snake’s private military outfit.

I should start with the main game, though, and if you’ve played Ground Zeroes, you’ll be instantly familiar with many of the mechanics here, they’re just implemented on a much larger level. The controls are much the same, save for being more refined and responsive, and Snake’s range of abilities, both stealth and offence are put to use in a truly open, and free-form system. Each and every situation you find yourself in you can tackle how you see fit. Enemy bases and checkpoints can all be tackled in a myriad of ways, and this even relates to main story missions. You can go in with the goal of being a ghost, undetected, you can go in with brute force, gunning down everyone, or you can mix and match. In some instances, you can even choose to face bosses, or just run away and escape. It’s usually up to you, and it’s the kind of freedom we’ve not had before in the series.

What’s even more important is the ability to actually recover from mistakes. One of Metal Gear‘s major faults throughout the series in my opinion has always been the forced stealth. Snake always has a veritable war chest of weapons, but the games have usually frowned upon their use, instead forcing players to hide in lockers for an arbitrary time limit. It hurt the game’s flow, and made players feel trapped into playing the game in only one way. Sure, recent games have fixed this to some degree, notably from Snake Eater onwards, but it’s never been fluid or realistic enough for me. Metal Gear Solid V, on the other hand has changed this, and this is in part due to the move to the open world system.

During an engagement, Metal Gear Solid V never forces you into one route, and you’re always free to use your own tactics. Should these tactics result in a mistake, such as being detected by a guard, or someone finding a body, it’s always possible to overcome it. There’s no onscreen timer this time if guards become aware of you, and they’ll search for more realistic times, going through various stages of alert. All the while you can still remain undetected if you’re careful, and alerts aren’t the game over they used to be.

Snake’s ability to slow down time and enter focus mode if discovered is a great feature here, not only outlining his heightened abilities and responses, but serving as a forgiving game mechanic, one that doesn’t make the game too easy, but does give you an edge. If you disagree, however, you can turn this ability off and make do without this skill. It’ll certainly make the game more challenging.

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The open world layout makes much of this experimentation possible. Unlike previous Metal Gear titles, where progression is largely linear, within one-way areas pointing to a set goal, here the whole world is truly open, and the missions structure is non-linear. You choose which missions you want to do, in what order, and you can even revisit completed missions to try and achieve sub-goals you may have missed to increase your rating. In fact, much later in the game, you have to do this to unlock later missions, and the difficulty ramps up quite dramatically.

To aid you in the large world you can use your trusty steed, D-Horse. This is essential, as the world is huge, and as well as saving time, D-Horse can be a lifesaver if you need to escape a sticky situation. You can also whistle to summon him, a la Witcher 3, only here D-Horse is far more intelligent, and far easier to handle than Roach. Later on you’ll be able to make use of additional allies, each with their own unique benefits. And yes, the dog is awesome.

Super soldier

As the greatest soldier in the world, Snake (or Big Boss, whichever you prefer) has a wealth of ways to deal with situations he finds himself in, and you’ll need to use all of these to progress. Being stealthy and unseen is arguably the best use of his talents, but this won’t always be the optimal route. For example, if you need to locate an enemy commander or rescue a prisoner, one of the best ways to proceed is to find a guard, grab him, and force the information out of him, revealing your target’s position. Sometimes, causing a ruckus elsewhere in a base can be a great distraction (if you can sneak away and hide again), and others a quick air strike, which you can call down when you’ve got the resources and research, can make your life all the more bearable. Again, the open world setting makes all of this work, and each and every gameplay mechanic is wonderfully woven into the whole tapestry. There’s so much to explore and do here, from destroying local communications to cut off reinforcements, to capturing enemy hardware, gun emplacements and even vehicles for use in your own army. Everything is covered in a simple complexity, meaning that there’s a lot to discover and enjoy here, but it’s not difficult to do so.

This is all the more impressive when you realise that Kojima and his team are hardly experts in this genre. For a first proper attempt and a sandbox title, this is shockingly good, better than many efforts by studios with far greater experience. Even Rockstar could learn a thing or two.

Home, sweet home

Snake’s Mother Base makes a return here, having been first seen in Peace Walker. Here the whole mechanic is greatly enhanced. Not only can you visit and explore Mother Base, which grows to huge proportions, but you can manage every detail of the Diamond Dogs’ operations. As you capture personnel and collect materials, you can build new parts of the base, such as R&D, medical, and intel modules, and these open up a wealth of new gear and options. You can research and equip better weapons and gear, enhance your buddies (such as D-Horse), and can manage your roster of staff, placing the most qualified into the best potions. The more people you have, and the better their skill, the higher rank your various departments will be. This growth opens up more and more research options, and the whole system is well handled. It’s not just a feature that’s there for the sake of it, and it’s not one players will ignore. You’ll actively spend time managing your staff and exploring the world to find the resources you need to grow your base.

It adds a lot to the game, and makes your action in the field mean a lot more than simply ticking off progress check-boxes. Who you choose to capture and recruit, and how much time you spend looking for resources really does impact your game, perhaps no more so than the game’s one-on-one PvP mode, the FOB system. Sadly, due to server issues and unavailability of multiplayer during my time with the game, I wasn’t able to test this out, but this looks to be a very promising mode where players can build their own forward operating bases to increase the amount of resources and money made automatically by their army. These bases, however, can be invaded by other players. Players can defend bases personally, or rely on their own defences, such as security teams and positioned security hardware, such as cameras, security grids and gun emplacements. I’ve seen the actual mode running, and it looks very interesting, but the proof of this will be in the playing.

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The main multiplayer component of the game, Metal Gear Online isn’t available at launch, so we’ll also have to wait for that to surface in October.

Diamonds in the rough

Metal Gear Solid V is a sprawling open world epic, and one that’s polished to a mirror sheen, but at times it can show flaws. For one, although the game looks excellent for the most part, close up some models do look rather basic. Some buildings for example, are simple square blocks, and on closer inspection the high quality textures can’t hide this. From a distance the game also scales down the detail noticeably, but in fairness, it really doesn’t impact things all that much.

A more serous concern are some questionable objectives. Chief of these can be seen in a nearly mission where you have to capture a ‘friendly’ soldier from Snake’s original unit. This involves chasing the soldier and besting him in CQC combat a few times before you can extract them. The soldier runs away in a ridiculous fashion, and when you get close they one-shot you with a nigh-on unavoidable punch, knocking you to the ground for a few seconds while they make a getaway. It’s a frustrating mess, and one that stands out amidst the high quality of everything else.

Although they’re always fun, there’s also a lot of repetition in the side ops, with many similar goals being repurposed, and a feeling of filler content from time to time. You’ll spend a lot of time executing similar missions here, and visiting many places you’ve been to time and time again.

These niggles are very minor, though. Even when you’re rescuing yet another hostage, you’re always enjoying it, and as you progress through the game you just won’t care, as the story is simply brilliant, with a huge amount of fan service for those who’ve been along for the ride Kojima has taken them on throughout the long-running series.

This is Metal Gear at its very best, and whether you’re a long-time fan of the series, or this is your first tour of duty with Snake, this is an essential purchase.

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5 out of 5