Full disclosure before I begin the review of The Phantom Pain. I am one of the biggest fans of the Metal Gear series you’ll ever meet. This review will be coming from the point of view of someone who is fully “committed” to the Metal Gear themes, setting, and tone. With that said, let’s begin my “thesis” on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. On its relevance to the entire series, and how it does as the “official” final entry to the series (because, we all know Konami will try to milk the ever-living hell out of the series even after Kojima leaves the company). Oh, and don’t worry, I’ll avoid spoilers at all costs in this review.
First off, a brief history on the game’s development, and how much Hideo Kojima (the series’s director and creator) is committed to being a supreme troll. We first got inkling of the game’s development when Konami unveiled the first screenshots of their, then still in development, Fox Engine back in February 2012 at that year’s Game Developers Conference. The next time we heard about the game was during the Penny Arcade Expo in August 2012. It was then at PAX that Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes was first shown off. During the event, Kojima also made it clear that Ground Zeroes is merely the prologue to the bigger Metal Gear Solid V.
Now, this is when the story of Metal Gear Solid V becomes…Shyamalan-esque would be the perfect way to describe the events that follow. During the Spike Video Game Awards in December of that same year, a teaser trailer for a game titled The Phantom Pain was released. In the credits of the trailer, it was shown that Moby Dick studios would be developing the game and that the director of the game was a person named: Joakim Mogren; and thus began the shenanigans surrounding that trailer. Fans began dissecting the trailer, and Moby Dick studios by extension. It got to the point of finding out that the company’s website was put-up 2 weeks before the trailer dropped, finding the silhouette of Metal Gear Solid V in the title card of the trailer, and figuring that “Joakim” is an anagram for “Kojima”. To curb all this fan speculation (and to cap this humorous segment of MGSV’s development), a bandaged Joakim would appear for an interview to promote Moby Dick studios and The Phantom Pain.
Hilariously, during the interview he would become silent and nervous when asked about why the Fox Engine logo appeared in several screenshots of the game. It was only after a year of hijinks, in March 2013 at GDC, that Kojima would finally officially announced that The Phantom Pain was the larger part of Metal Gear Solid V and (again) Ground Zeroes would serve as the prologue of MGSV. Flash-forward 2 years after many, MANY, trailers (all of which I avoided like the plague to keep myself as much in the dark as possible), the release of Ground Zeroes a year prior, and an entire blow-up between Konami and Kojima resulting in Kojima leaving the company and Konami leaving AAA game development; The Phantom Pain was finally released on September 1, 2015.
With this being Kojima’s final Metal Gear, and the relationship between the director and Konaim turning sour during the development, the question is: Will this game be an adequate end to the series? The short answer to that is…complicated but a “yes” as far as I am concerned, and with questionable design decisions DUE to Konami’s “interference” notwithstanding. To elaborate on that further, let’s move on to the review proper.
First on the chopping board, my discussion on The Phantom Pain’s gameplay. To be frank, this and Ground Zeroes have perfected the Metal Gear gameplay formula. First of all, the controls are FANTASTIC being the most intuitive of any control scheme created for a Metal Gear game. With that said, if I were to hand the controller to a random passerby while I was playing, they wouldn’t be able to play the game without supervision. While the controls are easy to use once accustomed to them, at first pick-up the game would be difficult to play as buttons do something different depending on the stance and situation of the character. Having said that, in comparison to the previous titles in the series, and once the player adapts to the controls, the game has easily the best control scheme for any Metal Gear game.
Now, the most drastic change that The Phantom Pain bring to the Metal Gear gameplay formula is the fact that it is an open-world game. Traditional Metal Gear games have a linear structure where the player is led through a set game progression. In contrast to this, The Phantom Pain runs on a mission based structure, where the player can choose the order of missions to take (in a somewhat limited capacity because missions unlock, at most, 3 at a time and you still have to complete all the missions to progress the story). Besides the main missions though, players can free roam between the 3 maps of the game: Mother Base (Big Boss’s and Diamond Dog’s base of operations), Afghanistan, and Africa. During free roam players can choose to either just play around in the game’s sandbox, gather flora and fauna, or partake in main and side missions. It’s also important to note that the game brings a new feature to the series, which was probably an after-effect of shifting to an open-world, the use of vehicles; obviously for easier traversal.
Another big change brought by Metal Gear Solid V (I’m referring to both Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain) to the Metal Gear formula is the fact that the game shifts its focus from a purely stealth game to more of an action game in general. Players can still go full stealth the entire game, and it is still quite rewarding to do so. But now, the game doesn’t punish players for “going in loud with guns-a-blazing”. For example, in one mission, I went “full-Rambo” and shot-up an entire base to complete my mission. The game still gave me a high-ranking when it evaluated my performance in the mission. In previous games, if I had to shoot my gun, or be spotted by a guard, the game makes it clear that I fucked-up. The game would blast a giant red ALERT sign on-screen and would disable the player’s radar. It was clear that the old games discouraged doing anything “loud” or aggressive. In Metal Gear Solid V, the game allows or even straight up encourages an aggressive approach for some missions. The fact that the game permits several approaches for completing a mission, brings me to my next topic of discussion: the replayability of the game.