I’ve never been so split on a game as I have been with The Phantom Pain. In many ways it is one of the best games I have ever played, and definitely the best action game I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. It is a title that brims with excellence from start to finish, except where it counts the most.
As many of you who read my articles would know, I am a huge Metal Gear fan, specifically Metal Gear Solid 1 and 3 which are two of my favourite games of all time. They are major reasons why I love gaming so much and want to be in the industry. I love them, not for their gameplay, but their cinematic flair, the characters and the schizophrenic story. This is why, despite absolutely loving this game in almost every way, I’ve come away feeling a little disappointed.
The first hour was one of the most intense, action packed intros I have ever witnessed. While not representative of the rest of the game, as it was about as linear and hand-holdy as you can get, it doesn’t hold back, and gives you a good reason early on to hate these people. Without going into too much detail, afterwards I had to take a break for half an hour as I couldn’t stop shaking and giggling. I even contemplated restarting the game, just to go through it again.
Once that’s done, things open up and that is when The Phantom Pain truly begins. If you played Ground Zeroes, the prologue to this game, then you’d have only a small idea of how The Phantom Pain works gameplay wise. Ground Zeroes works well as a proof of concept, as well as a base from which The Phantom Pain builds on, but it did not present the player with the freedom that makes this game so special.
This is the hook that you can’t escape from, and I should know having played 60 hours since release (about 10 hours a day). You’re presented with unparalleled freedom with everything you do, whether mission, side-op, or just fucking about. While some missions may require some finesse, and not killing everything in sight, most of the time you’re free to deal with a situation however you want, and if that is to run through the front gate in a golden tank and blow everything up, then you can do just that. I even tried fighting The Man on Fire with a water pistol….. It worked about as much as you would expect, but it slowed him down some! Science and whatnot!
Side-ops work like a charm for experimentation, while still giving you the feeling of accomplishing something, and you will spend a lot of time doing them. They do a great job of fleshing out the game, and they don’t feel like needless tasks either as they will benefit you both short and long-term. Some of them are even integral to the story and need to be completed. It is easy to tell those ones apart too so you don’t get confused on what to do next. When in doubt, look for the yellow marker.
You can also run around in free-roam in either the Afghan or Africa maps doing whatever you want. From here you can start missions and side-ops, and if you require any ammo or equipment you can just get it air-dropped in. There is also a fast travel method too, which is not evident early on. Hell, I doubt most people ever noticed so I’ll just explain it real quick. In most towns/outposts you’ll find a small yellow pad, used for shipping. Go to the sign beside it and pull off a ticket to unlock that FTS. With that you can transport back and forth between unlocked stations. All you have to do is stand on them with your trusty cardboard box and you’ll be shipped off to wherever you want. You can also do this on Mother Base, and is the fastest method of transportation between platforms. This is actually a throwback as in the original Metal Gears there were some trucks you could enter with the cardboard box and be transported elsewhere. MGS 3 also had one of these trucks.
While on a scale unlike anything previously seen in the Metal Gear series, and even more serious, it does not detract from the silliness that Kojima has become well known for. Have you seen how much you can do with the cardboard box! Even after 60 hours, and hundreds of fulton extractions, I still smile when I watch a massive brown bear shoot off into the sky. Eventually it’s not just people and animals either. Upgrade it enough and you can start carrying Anti-Aircraft emplacements and even tanks back to Mother Base.
Combat and sneaking around are equally as fun. Whether wiping the floor of a base full of enemies, or sneaking though it without getting spotted, you can’t help celebrate a little. There are a lot of ways to distract enemies too. A strategy I often employ is setting up an AT mine on the road when a truck is coming, or blow up a fuel tank causing enemies to focus their gaze over there while I slip around the other side. You’ll be grabbing enemies and forcing them to give you information a lot too. These were useful tactics in MGS 3 at times, but here they are part of every mission you’ll undertake if you are looking to do them as sneakily as possible.
Of course, you could just shoot them all, and that too is perfectly fine. Every time you take down an enemy, whether with CQC, knocking them out, or simply shooting them, is satisfying. That is especially the case with lethal headshots, which fill you with a sense of joy on par with those from Gears of War. Not only do they look brutally beautiful, but each one sounds off with a lovely pop. That joy is only increased when they start wearing helmets, as the target for your one shot becomes smaller, and can only be hit from the front unless you shoot the helmet off. Am I a horrible person? Probably… But don’t judge me on that because you’d enjoy it too! For either of them I’d recommend you get the Legendary Gunsmith. Pay attention to the side-ops for him.
Mechanically, The Phantom Pain is by far the best in the series. While there isn’t anything specifically “new”, outside the weapon customisation, it brings together everything the games have done gameplay wise so far and executes them expertly. The one main criticism I would have is the AI, which does seem dim at times, but that is only really apparent when you’re sneaking around a lot, especially after just getting in a big firefight with them.
The game does a great job in explaining how everything works, making it feel far less complicated than it actually is, especially when it comes to Mother Base. While managing staff and resources might sound like a chore, they do a fantastic job in showing you how things get done, without spending half the day at it. Do it once, and you have it, then you will just start doing it instinctively. It doesn’t throw everything at once on you either, but slowly introduces you. As you build more platforms Mother Base becomes absolutely massive. You will rarely have to go to these other sections, though I do recommend giving a wander about the medical platform once it’s built! It would be great if you could actually enter more sections of the base, but they serve well as visual aids on just how big Diamond Dogs is becoming.
The soundtrack to the game is sublime, with a great mix of original works, as well as more well known 80’s tracks. These you can set for your heli to play when flying you in, or extracting you from enemy territory, striking fear into enemies hearts as they get gunned down to the tune of Kids in America. On the PC version you can also fill up a custom playlist, which can also be set as your heli music. There are loads of videos of heli’s coming in for extraction playing Team America’s “America (Fuck Yeah)” song, as well as many others.
While all that is great, as I said at the top I still came away a little disappointed. Now again, I absolutely love this game, and has deserved a place as one of my favourite games of all time, but it lacks where it needed it most, and that is the story.
From whatever way I look at it, I can see that there is an amazing plot there, from their plot points, the locations and the characters, but unlike other Metal Gear games it was disjointed, barely explained and poorly paced. Some people may say that is the case for the previous games too, but that is more a lack of understanding on their part than actual negligence of the plot which Metal Gear is famous for.
Scenes relevant to the story are few and far between, in a series that usually hits those marks with laser precision. Plot lines are left to your imagination as they all of a sudden drop, most of the characters stories are told in cassette tapes, as they feel like simple vessels for the story to progress. The only characters who I felt had any purpose in the story were Quiet and Skull Face, and Skull Face’s story just abruptly ends, with little explanation. Quiet was the only character I felt anything for, not because, you know…. her eyes… but because she actually had an excellent backstory and some genuinely emotional moments. Her story is really the only one that had an ending I was mostly pleased with.
Miller and Ocelot (until at least the very end) seem like nothing more than Big Boss’s lapdogs who just offer advice and tell you what needs to be done, and torture scenes don’t help me like them any more, only serving as shock value. And what about The Man on Fire?! A character who showed extreme promise from the start, only to end in disappointment. The same can be said for Eli and Rebenok.
The lack of boss fights, another component that the Metal Gear series is known for, doesn’t help either. In total there are 2 and a half of them. Half, because one of them isn’t actually a boss fight… Just you giving yourself a chance to run away. While one might argue that there is no need for them, I would disagree. Boss fights serve as a great way for two characters to solve their differences the only way they know how, and can help speak volumes about them without sharing a single word, as well as be a satisfying conclusion to their story. Also, come on! I want memorable fights like The End, Phycho Mantis and The Boss.
As for Big Boss, there’s a lot of depth and emotion in his character, but sadly not much of that is expressed. This is not down to Kiefer Sutherland, who did a fantastic job in a tough role. Not many will accept him as Snake, and I doubt I can either, but he can definitely be proud of the work he did. The biggest problem with Big Boss is he didn’t talk much.
A lot of this is not down to Kojima Productions, but seemingly Konami themselves as they cut it due to the development costs being so high. This becomes obvious when the collector’s edition includes a blueray of the extras including cutscenes and concept art of what should have been the overall ending, and would have answered some, not all, of the questions remaining. As much as I’d love to go on a rant about how Konami are dirtbags, I can see why they had to when the development costs went so high, and been so long in development.
It isn’t all bad though, as there are moments in the story that are beautiful, heart-wrenching and would make you want to vomit, in the best of ways, but again, half of them aren’t relevant to the main plot which is to take revenge on Skull Face. The fight with the Metal Gear in this game is fantastic, and difficult too. I only passed it on my second attempt because of sheer luck and my expertise of hiding behind rocks.
So you can see why I am split. On one hand we have an amazing action/stealth game I’d recommend everyone to play, on the other we have a game that is only Metal Gear by name (and Kojima humour). I feel a little wrong for saying that when it provides so much quality content everywhere I look.
A huge amount of work and love went into this game and it says a lot when, for mostly the gameplay, it’s probably going to be my GOTY, but their priorities were reversed. Before I pushed through the clunky gameplay to get to the juicy bits of the story, but now the gameplay is why I kept playing. I’d often not bother with the missions to get to the story and just screw around on the side-ops, just because that’s what I’d rather be doing.
Most of you are probably thinking, “Kevin, you’re being too darn critical” and I probably am, but that is because of my love for the Metal Gear series. And, while I may be a critical douche-bag, there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t play this game, even if you’re popping your Metal Gear Solid cherry, because it is fantastic, and it is one of my favourite games ever made. It just doesn’t feel like a Metal Gear game.