Despite the fact Ground Zeroes gave us a vertical slice of what would be on offer, I wasn’t really prepared for what The Phantom Pain ended up delivering. The scale of the game – be it the size of its maps, the scope of the gameplay, and the challenges available – overtakes anything we’ve previously seen from the Metal Gear Solid franchise. You could even say it’s the logical conclusion to Kojima’s work in terms of gameplay and accessibility, with the end result being something that stands head and should above anything else remotely similar.
In short, Kojima has effectively re-written the rulebook on stealth games yet again, but is it the perfect game? That’s a question that isn’t so easy to answer.
Trying to fully explain the story would take far too much time than I can afford to spare here, so here’s a brief summary. After Mother Base is destroyed at the end of Ground Zeroes, Big Boss returns nine years later take revenge on those that nearly killed him, and rebuild his army without a nation. Cue lots of ridiculous plot twists, robotic arms, and fights with supernatural beings in the chapter that fills the gap between the eras of Big Boss and Solid Snake.
That’s about as much as I want to discuss the plot, simply because in many ways The Phantom Pain doesn’t force the narrative upon the player like the series previously has done. That said, those that are looking for a lore-intensive experience will find it in all its typically bizarre Kojima-based wonder – you’ll just have to look outside the main missions. The meat of the backstory is pushed to optional tape recordings, which I found disappointing, but it does mean that the gameplay has the chance to shine once outside of the linear prologue tutorial.
And wow, does it shine so brightly.
The control scheme enables what I would consider the most natural stealth experience I’ve ever played. I never once felt restricted by the controls when trying to infiltrate a base, or when I found myself in a firefight between I was just plain careless. Everything just felt responsive and at hand when I needed it most. Even issuing commands to a buddy – the AI companions you can have at your side – felt easy to use. If there is one area of aggravation, it’s trying to control an armoured vehicle in combat. Why the aiming reticle isn’t there in third person baffles me, as it meant I had to go into first person mode and would end up crashing the vehicle. It ultimately meant I didn’t use tanks at all, which is fine for a stealth game, but I still think more could have been done to make them a legitimate option.
After all, choice is good, and it’s something that is in ample supply thanks to the sandbox elements. Both the episodic missions and the open world provide players with the ability choose how to play, but the most impressive part is how the world reacts to the players actions. Take a lot of headshots? Expect the enemy to start wearing helmets. Keep sneaking into places? Expect security cameras to start appearing. Keep blowing stuff up? Expect tanks and gunships to start patrolling between bases. Mixed with an AI that responds in unexpected ways to your presence, it creates an emergent stealth experience unlike anything I’ve played before. I could try the same tactics at the same area and end up with different results. It all helps to create the feeling of a living world that evolves as your skills improve, and reminded me a lot of Shadow of Mordor’s Nemesis system to a degree.
The episodic format of the main missions is a welcome one, as it not only allows players to prepare their gear for a specific type of mission, but it also breaks down the gameplay into more time-friendly sessions. While I could have done without the intro credits ruining the surprise appearance of certain characters and bosses, everything else about it works well – especially for those after the coveted S Rank scores. If anything, making the missions episodic encourages players to return to them for the perfect run (and more importantly, doesn’t mean that if you screw up three hours into a four hour run you don’t have to start over, like you would have had to in older instalments. *sigh*)
However, the real treat comes with the open world and the Side Ops missions, which charges players with an extensive list of varying objectives. You might be forgiven for thinking that there aren’t many to do, or that outside of them there isn’t much reason to go into the open world map, but the truth is that there is so much more there than you realise. New Side Ops missions appear just as quickly as you finish them, and while the map isn’t filled with collectable icons the truth is that everything in the map is a collectable. Soldiers, vehicles, and cargo containers are all there to be taken, and that’s on top of the schematics hidden at various bases. Basically, there’s always something to do and collect.
Which leads me rather nicely into the Mother Base portion of the game, and its terrifying addictiveness. Perhaps my obsession with Fallout Shelter hasn’t helped me here, but building up Big Boss’ new floating fortress has been more fun than it should have probably been. I have found myself ignoring the main missions just to go and get more resources, or hunting the open world to find soldiers to improve my research levels. Hell, I’ve even repeated certain missions just to get an influx of GMP – the main currency of the game – to then go and spend on projects or the expansion of Mother Base.
It’s this level of progression that makes it so easy to keep returning to The Phantom Pain. A research project could be finished, giving access to new weapons, or a new arrival might boast your base improvement level, opening up new research to carry out. The micromanagement might not be to everyone’s taste, but its informative menus and ease of use mean I’d much rather be checking if my soldiers have left the sickbay yet than finish this se
Sorry. I’m back now.
Visually, The Phantom Pain looks phenomenal. The Fox Engine manages to create glorious vistas to gaze over, regardless of whether there is rain, a sandstorm, or glorious sunshine. The day-to-night cycle is so effective that it adds to the feeling of a living world (not to mention its effect on AI behaviour, which again is excellent.) Animations for all items, be it the fauna, the people, or the animals move realistically, but the cutscenes are where the Fox Engine truly shines thanks to the facial features. We’re not talking L.A. Noire levels of face-capture here, but it’s damn close in terms of delivering the actor’s performances.
One aspect of the game I haven’t yet covered is the Forward Operating Base. While it functions as intended – a Clash of Clans type affair where you raid other player’s FOBs – I found the entire thing unnecessary, especially as it was able to affect my single player progress to a slight degree. I ultimately decided to play offline to avoid the mode altogether as it really wasn’t my cup of tea at all. Your mileage may vary, though.
So I’ve praised the gameplay, the vast amount of content, and the visuals. You’re probably wondering why I haven’t just scored it a 10 and run away skipping with glee, humming Snake Eater as I do. The unfortunate truth is that there are issues that, as a fan of Metal Gear Solid, I can’t quite get over. I’ve already mentioned how the story takes a backseat to the gameplay, but the levels to which this happens become more disappointing as the game progresses.
This isn’t helped by the fact that there are a few “false finishes” that make less sense the more they occur. It softens the impact of the actual ending and actually makes the story feel like it ends on a whimper. Then there’s Snake himself, and Kiefer Sutherland’s performance. Or lack of, I should say. With the exception of a few key cutscenes (mainly at Mother Base) Snake remains oddly silent throughout most of the game, his vocal contributions relegated to the tape recordings. This does allow players to be able to use other soldiers in the field, including female characters (which is a great move! Choice!) but it ultimately makes Snake feel redundant for most of the game. As someone who wished to experience the final chapter in his story, that left me feeling a little disappointed.
It’s such a shame, then, that the characters around him are much more interesting, including the hotly debated Quiet. Her attire may well be explained with pseudoscience, but the truth is that the jigging breasts and intentional camera angles are just unnecessary. To paraphrase our former writer Jon Lester, fan service is fine when done right, but its inclusion in The Phantom Pain is made worse by the fact Kojima tries to legitimise it with reason. Then of course there’s a whole narrative section that isn’t even resolved properly. A video in the collector’s edition proves there was a conclusion originally planned for it (and a third area to explore) but its unexplained removal means that we will never have true closure. As a fan of the series, this frustrates me greatly, as it was one of the only narrative threads that I was genuinely intrigued by.
Seriously though, if Konami try and sell me that ending, they can go straight to that special level of hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theatre.
However, here’s the thing – as I’ve already pointed out, the game is able to shine without its narrative. In fact, I had more fun ignoring the storyline altogether and just breaking into bases, stealing their resources (and people) with balloons and then making a break to the extraction point. There’s still the same level of Kojima-bonkersness such as bowel movement gags and ridiculous conversations about hamburgers. As a game, it’s the natural evolution of the stealth genre into something utterly peerless, but as the closing chapter in the Metal Gear Solid franchise the diamond becomes flawed. You should still have this diamond in your collection, though, because when it shines, it does so with an unmatched beauty.
[Final Note: With Metal Gear Online not active yet, we will return to the game to review it once it goes online.]
- Cerebral gameplay controls & sandbox elements make it the best stealth title to date.
- Mother Base progression mechanics are incredibly addictive.
- The Fox Engine is absolutely stunning in action.
- The narrative not only takes a backseat, but ends with a whimper.
- Kiefer Sutherland’s (lack of) performance is disappointing.
- Fighting in a tank is the most frustrating thing ever.
The Short Version:
The unfortunate truth is that its narrative fails to deliver a coherent and satisfying conclusion to the series, but as a stealth sandbox The Phantom Pain is peerless. Responsive controls, freedom to approach objectives, and extensive replayability make it an absolute joy that you won’t want to put down. It’s a diamond that may be flawed, but it is one that Kojima (and gamers) can hold with awe.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.
Platform: PS4 (tested), Xbox One, PC, PS3, Xbox 360
Developer: Kojima Productions