The Phantom Pain essentially takes all of the best features and mechanics from all of the previous games in the series and melds them into one incredibly impressive package while also introducing a slew of new features that also has the right amount of fan service for long time vets, and opens up the gameplay in new and exciting ways for newcomers to the franchise.
+A Hideo Kojima Game
+Melds the best from previous MGS titles into one
+Mother Base expanding is excellent and worth the time
-Kiefer Sutherland's voice sounds like Kiefer Sutherland
-Many story details are tucked away in cassettes
-Can only save via checkpoint system
I have to admit, I wasn't one of the ones that appreciated last year's Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes fully. The paid 'demo' stigma that it had clouded my judgement, while I did play it and complete it I didn't respect what it was trying to show us. Metal Gear Solid V is an almost complete departure from what we know a Metal Gear Solid game to be.
Even with a ton of new mechanics and design choices, it feels like the best of the series in an odd way as well. Because of this massive shift in gameplay and mechanics, Ground Zeroes was released as an introduction to this new style, a small taste as it were. Now that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (simply referred to as Phantom Pain from here on) is here and showcases what it can do, I now see the intentions behind Ground Zeroes release.
Ground Zeroes gave us a taste of how this new Metal Gear would play, but for how fun it may have been, it really does pale in comparison to how much everything is on an incredibly larger scale in The Phantom Pain. Ground Zeroes showcased a very small military base, whereas Phantom Pain lets you loose in massive countryside's giving you complete freedom not only to explore how you want, but completing missions to your liking as well.
Even though the box may not sport creator Hideo Kojima's name any longer after the Konami debacle that began earlier this year, don't let that fool you. The Phantom Pain is not only a Hideo Kojima game but easily his best work to date for the series in many ways. Firstly, there's no more hour long cutscenes, arduous codec conversations, or difficult to follow storylines that even have the biggest fans scratching their heads. That's not to say that there aren't cutscenes or conversations but the bulk of it happens via radio during regular gameplay, which makes for a different overall vibe of the game; not simply good or bad, just different.
Instead of prolonged soliloquies by long time voice front man David Hayter, we instead get small but measured responses from Kiefer Sutherland who now voices protagonist Snake. It's a drastic change, especially when one man is synonymous voicing a character for just shy of two decades.
This isn't to say that Kiefer isn't a good Snake but the main problem I had whenever he spoke is that Snake simply sounded like Kiefer Sutherland / Jack Bauer and nothing like the iconic voice we've known for so long. On the bright side, the other main characters get much more spotlight on them to showcase their voice acting abilities fleshing out their characters further.
Long time series fans will be delighted with all of the hidden info and Easter eggs buried within The Phantom Pain which isn't explained for newcomers, very deliberately. I'm not saying that The Phantom Pain isn't friendly to newcomers although it certainly appeases those in the know so much more.
I mentioned Ground Zeroes so much in the beginning for a number of reasons. The most important being that The Phantom Pain is a direct sequel to the narrative groundwork that was laid down already. Nine years have passed since the conclusion of Ground Zeroes and TPP begins with Big Boss waking in a foreign hospital. Normally, I would go on for another paragraph or two about the plot, however being that this is a Metal Gear game, and the story isn't completely absurd and convoluted, I don't want to give much else away. The opening prologue is probably one of the best opening hours in a game I've played in a long time, so be ready from the beginning moments.
Set in 1984, so if you know your Metal Gear timeline you'll know exactly when this takes place in relation to the other games, The Phantom Pain is a revenge tale that may be confusing at first to new players to the series, but eventually it comes full circle and tends to focus more on smaller story elements at a time rather than a larger scale tale that you make smaller steps in progressively. Be warned: a large amount of key information is buried within the optional audio logs (in the form of cassette tapes since it's the '80s), so be sure to keep on top of listening to them or else major events can happen without any context, leaving you confused. Also, don't go in expecting a conclusion that wraps everything up in a neat package as it may actually leave you with more questions than answers.
As it's an open world game, giving you freedom to wander wherever you wish, the campaign is broken up into many smaller missions and are also not forced upon you in a linear order either. While you're generally only given a handful of campaign missions at a time, you can do mission 10 before mission 8 if you desire.
There is a larger narrative that encompasses the whole story arc and I found new structure was refreshing; all of the side-ops are also presented in the same manner. I did have two minor issues with this template though.
The first being that each mission plays like a TV episode in some ways, so you'll see a "starring Snake" and also gives some spoilers of whom you're going to encounter later in the mission as well. When the credits roll after each mission, you're reminded every time that Hideo Kojima was responsible for what you just played... every single time.
If you played Ground Zeroes, the core gameplay elements haven't changed. You will still be sneaking from point to point, though you're given the tools and abilities to go in hot and loud if that's how you wish to play as well. Your binoculars will be one of your most used tools, as it's not only how you'll spot guards and enemies from afar but also important information about each guard that comes into play later on in the game. You're encouraged to play stealthy, but by no means are you forced into that play style. As a bonus, should you die in a mission and have to replay it, all of the tagged guards you've already spotted will stay marked.
Enemy AI adapts to how you play as you progress as well. If you're the type of player like myself that goes for tranquilizer headshots whenever possible, you'll start to notice that eventually almost all guards will be wearing helmets, forcing you to adapt your strategies. You might even see enemies start to equip shields on their backs if you're constantly sneaking up on them from behind. When you do get spotted by an enemy, Snake will go into a Reflex Mode for a few moments where time slows down, giving you the time to (hopefully) aim for the perfect shot to incapacitate the enemy.
While most may complete missions in a standard way, Snake's given so many interesting tools and options that it begs to be experimented with.
His prosthetic arm for example can be upgraded to not only punch the ground to create sonic waves and relay nearby guard information back to you, you can also turn it into a flying rocket projectile later on for some real fun. Cardboard boxes make a return and have been vastly improved (Yes, there's a R&D department for cardboard boxes) which allows for more (and hilarious) interactions that I'll leave you to find for yourself.
Weapons can be developed to suit your needs and situations as well, so there's a slew of options for you to play with and find what works for each situation.
There's a day and night cycle which plays a large part of Snake's strategy as well.
This cycle occurs in real time and while night time makes it much more difficult for enemies to find you, they will also be harder to spot yourself and will also eventually start to wear night vision goggles. Things can become hectic when it's about to be sunrise (you're alerted when the cycle changes) and you're in a precarious spot not meant to be in daylight. Snake has the ability to 'fast forward' time by indulging on a Phantom Cigar, passing the time back to day or night. Weather also play a large part into your strategy as a sandstorm can make it impossible for enemies to see or hear anything, even right in front of them.
Snake normally works best alone, however Phantom Pain incorporates a new Buddy system that allows you to bring AI companions into battle with you should you find and recruit them.
You begin with D-Horse, allowing you to ride into or away from battle at a much quicker pace than simply running.
D-Dog is a wolf pup that is raised to be an incredibly valuable buddy in battle, spotting nearby enemies, plants, and can even go in for an incapacitation or kill when ordered to. You'll eventually have the option to use a D-Walker, essentially a mobile weapon platform that can help you in a more aggressive approach.
There's also an unlockable buddy, Quiet, who's a female sniper with some paranormal abilities. No matter which you choose, if any, they are an incredible asset to have and their abilities and effectiveness changes the more you use them and raise the bond. Case in point, you can eventually train D-Horse to poop on command (which will cause vehicles to slide out of control if ran through).
Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker introduced a base building mechanic that returns in Phantom Pain, but on a much larger scale. Snake is tasked with expanding Mother Base and to do so he needs to recruit enemy soldiers, which is luckily a very easy task with the Fulton device (essentially a surface to air balloon that is recovered by allies). This allows you to fill the expanding ranks to grow your army.
When you need a break from missions and collecting materials for Mother Base expanding, you can explore home base on foot and interact with your new soldiers. It may seem like a diversion at first, but trust me, spend the time bulking up Mother Base as best as can be, as it pays off in other ways, allowing you access to new weaponry, money earning, and more.
Certain items and weapons needs specific departments (like R&D) to be a certain level. You are freely able to move around staff to different departments but each soldier has different stats and skills that their best suited for.
You can temporarily lessen the medical or support staff so that you can gain a few levels in R&D to research that new sniper rifle you've been wanting. There's so many possibilities and no wrong way to do so that it will play into your overall strategy for unlocking new items and abilities.
The Phantom Pain will eventually include two multiplayer modes: The classic Metal Gear Online (MGO) mode that we came to know from Metal Gear Solid 4. This was set to release alongside the game's launch but had to be delayed until October for whatever reasons. So, unfortunately that mode is unavailable currently as of the time of this writing and is not weighed into the final score. What is available for multiplayer though, is an interesting extension of the Mother Base mechanic. Eventually you'll be able to create 'Forward Operating Bases', FOBs for short, which can be used to enhance your single player resources, just keep in mind these FOBs can be attacked by other players.
The attackers attempt to steal said resources while the defending team, including your soldiers that are placed there as well as yourself as you try to protect them from the trespassers. You're able to customize your security staff and layout of the base itself to maximize its defense capabilities. Since we don't have MGO for about another month, this 1 vs 1 takes on multiplayer is an interesting concept with risk vs reward, but I'd rather just focus on my single player instead of constantly worrying about my FOB's.
For all of the amazing things Phantom Pain does excellently, there were a few minor issues that really irked me beginning to end.
As mentioned above, it's not that Kiefer Sutherland isn't great at voicing Snake, it's just that he sounds exactly like Kiefer Sutherland. Maybe it's the purist in me, but I miss David Hayter's rendition. The biggest issue I had throughout my dozens and dozens of hours played though is that I had a constant and infuriating bug that I've been unable to find a solution to. Essentially, it's as if my game is loading something, so it stutters and hitches, then continues to press the stick in the direction I was moving when the hitching began. Needless to say, this happens at the most inopportune times when I'm trying to quickly get away from a guard so sneak past something without being seen. I've only been able to find a handful of others with the same exact issue as myself, so it's not common, just be weary just in case.
All that said, The Phantom Pain excels at everything else so astoundingly that it's accessible by many more players now because of said changes, instead of just stealth or Metal Gear fans. Gone are the over complicated and confusing storylines that many struggled to follow, as are the cutscenes that were almost full length movies that many fans disagreed with. Now we have a Metal Gear that is without a doubt, not only the best in the series, but also a hell of a sendoff for Hideo Kojima and his team.