The Phantom Pain takes place in 1984 and continues the story of Big Boss following the events of Metal Gear Solid 3, Peace Walker and Ground Zeroes (other games in the series are set in the future beyond Phantom Pain). Will you get more out of the game’s story had you played the aforementioned games? Of course. But do you need to play those games to play Phantom Pain? Absolutely not. And I say this as a huge fan of Metal Gear who has played all of the mainline games of the series.
And the reason for that is the gameplay. Like previous Metal Gear games, the main gameplay portion involves hiding and stealthily moving your way through enemy bases, either avoiding or taking out enemy guards as you go. This is not only the best playing Metal Gear game by a wide margin– but it is also just one of the best playing action games ever made. The controls have so much depth yet is easy to master. There was rarely a situation in the game where I couldn’t do or execute what I wanted. It’s pretty seamless to go from crouch walking, to crawling around on your belly, to sprinting across the map to catch a guard before he calls in something, to getting on your horse and exfiltrating mission zones. Reflex mode slows down time when you’re spotted to give you a few moments to recover from your mistake by eliminating the guards who’ve spotted you, making the game much more forgiving in some ways than previous Metal Gears, but also just gives you a chance to still be a total bad ass even if you aren’t perfect at stealth.
The open world is another key ingredient to the brilliance of Phantom Pain as it allows to approach most missions and side ops from multiple angles, and helps make every run through of a mission feel dynamic. Phantom Pain doesn’t bottle you into a path like other open world games tend to do (Assassin’s Creed being one of the worst perpetrators of that). Instead, it really allows you to do what you want to do, in the way you want to do it. The open world itself is pretty sparse as it mostly contains enemy guard posts and bases, but I think the world design really works for this game.
The mission design is also best in class. There are so many ways to complete your objectives here. You don’t have to do things in the way the game spells it out. Instead of following a guard to an objective, you can capture the guard and interrogate him to find out the objective, or send him back to base to find the objective. Instead of killing an Assassination target you can capture him and add him to your team and take advantage of his skills. Or you could just send in an air strike to take out your target instead of having to do the work of trying to get in close enough to your target. And the few escort missions that do exist are just not dreadful as they are in many other games due to the options you have to exfiltrate– by horse, car, helicopter, or even Fulton depending on the situation.
The base building aspect which was brought over from Peace Walker is also a huge component of this game. It gets addictive trying to capture soldiers to add to your base, so that you can research better weapons or get better support from your team in other ways. It gives you a huge incentive to do side missions that other games don’t. Which also brings me to something else– there’s no useless trinkets in Phantom Pain. Everything on your map has a purpose– whether it’s a Mission, Side Op, resources to pick up or blueprints, everything has gameplay relevance to you.
It’s the combination of all these aspects– the great controls, the open world, the mission design, the base building, which make Phantom Pain magical to play. The great gameplay feeds into the addictive metagame of building your base up, which then feeds back into your gameplay experience. And I think Phantom Pain achieves the ambition of the first Assassin’s Creed in a lot of ways. Assassin’s Creed was an interesting idea, but was a severely flawed game. It wanted you to investigate to be able to find your target before performing your assassination. However, the investigation phase ended up being super basic in the final game– you had to complete several mini-games to get to the assassination phase. In Phantom Pain, it also has an investigation phase in many missions. Usually you’re looking for a specific target, and the way to find the whereabouts of the target is to capture and interrogate enemy guards, and this ends up playing out much more naturally. And because of all the systems at play, the gameplay just ends up feeling dynamic, and you end up having these crazy moments happen that you end up wanting to share with your friends as soon as possible.
The Phantom Pain looks fantastic. It runs almost always at 60FPS on PS4, and the lighting is some of the most realistic lighting I’ve seen in any game. Both the daytime and nighttime lighting look great.
I loved the original score in this game. It’s epic and bombastic, and despite my long time with this game, I never got bored of it. I also enjoyed the cassette tapes you could find hidden around some enemy encampments that you could steal and play in your own personal cassette tape player.
The game is huge, yet I didn’t get bored. I put in 65 hours to get through the entire story. That involved doing a healthy amount of Side Ops as well, because doing those contribute to building up the level of your base, which in turn unlocks more options for you on the battlefield.
There are some questionable choices in the Mission structure of the second Chapter of the game. There are a large amount of harder versions of earlier missions that pop up in your mission list. These aren’t mandatory (you can do Side Ops instead to progress your game), but it’s not clear that they aren’t at all. It’s hard to say for sure, since we weren’t in the walls of Konami during the production of this game, but it seems like some of the strife between Konami and Hideo Kojima may have led to the second Chapter of the game feeling a little rushed.
The story told in Phantom Pain isn’t the Metal Gear story that I wanted or expected, but it’s interesting nonetheless. I thought about the themes this game communicated for several days after I finished it. It’s not often that I think about a game’s story long after I completed it, so ultimately the story left a positive impression on me. The story also isn’t told in the traditional way that Metal Gear stories are usually told (mostly in cutscenes and codec sequences). The codec sequences have been turned into optional cassette tapes that you can listen to in your leisure either while in a menu, or while you’re in the open world– I think this is a smart change which allows players who care about the story to dive deep, and those who don’t to completely ignore it. The cutscenes also seem pretty sparse early on in the game, but the game does get more cutscene heavy as the game progresses, and ultimately the game likely feels sparse of cutscenes because there just is so much gameplay here in contrast to previous Metal Gears.
If you’re interested in playing Action games at all, Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain is an essential game to play. It does so many things right gameplay wise that other open world games do not do that great. There are places where the story didn’t go where I wish it had, but the gameplay is so good that it overrides any flaws I perceive with the gameplay. Even if this game had zero story associated with it, I’d probably still highly recommend it.
A PlayStation 4 code was provided by the publisher for review purposes