My feelings towards this game are fairly complicated. On one hand, it’s probably the most perfect stealth experience I’ve ever come across in gaming, refining open world gameplay in a way which puts other attempts to shame. It contains moments of power and profundity above almost anything else I’ve played this year. It’s also not finished and never will be.
The Phantom Pain picks up nine years after the end of Ground Zeroes and the attack on Mother Base by Skull Face and XOF. Naked Snake aka Big Boss awakens from a coma in a Cyprus hospital in 1985, scarred and weakened. The hospital is almost immediately brought under attack from a ruthless military force and supernatural threats. After making a narrow escape Big Boss meets up with Revolver Ocelot, who tasks him with rebuilding Mother Base as the mercenary company Diamond Dogs to take revenge on Skull Face. Big Boss takes on the new name of Venom Snake and undertakes a variety of missions in Afghanistan and Central Africa to discover the truth of Skull Face’s goals and how to stop him.
There are three moments from the plot of The Phantom Pain which I cannot get out of my head. They are powerful, moving and mindblowing scenes which I keep running over again and again and speak to just how good the plot of The Phantom Pain can be. It can also be almost embarrassingly bad. The Phantom Pain was quite clearly conceived as a three act game, but it fizzles out somewhere into its second act, with the first being the only part which approaches coherence. The plot of the first act about taking down Skull Face and discovering his plans is cool, but not necessarily exceptional. All of my favourite plot moments took place in the second half, but we get to this point towards the end where there is pretty much no connection between our actions and the story. We take random missions for a while and occasionally we’re summoned back to Mother Base for the next story beat. Massive plot strands are left utterly unresolved and major revelations are restrained to optional cassette tapes rather than fully fledged cutscenes. You can get glimpses of something excellent here and it’s amazing that the good bits work as well as they do, being held together by nothing much at all.
Despite all the story shortcomings, the actual stealth gameplay of The Phantom Pain may very well be flawless. I don’t say that lightly, but everything just works. That just doesn’t happen in open world games! Even The Witcher 3, a game that I loved, had some jankiness, but in The Phantom Pain there is none. The Phantom Pain differs from its predecessors in its open world design, containing two large areas, Afghanistan and Africa. Each area contains a dozen or so bases and some smaller outposts and most missions involve some sort of infiltration. What makes The Phantom Pain so special is that it follows through on the oft-made, rarely kept promise that you can play however you want. Guns blazing will work in many situations, but it’s way more fun to be sneaky. There are 50 missions (although not really, we’ll come back to that) and 150 ‘side ops.’ These missions involve a variety of tasks, some explodey and some sneaky. I’ve seen some people griping that these side missions generally return you to familiar areas, but even after visiting a base over five times I was still discovering new nooks and crannies and ways to approach the target. In this sense The Phantom Pain succeeds in expanding the high promise of Ground Zeroes’ Camp Omega.
You have a vast range of tools at your disposal and unlike in many games I actually used them! From simple weapon upgrades to more bizarre and ridiculous things later on I did not run out of new and exciting things to make. Developing new items is tied into the rather lovely Mother Base mechanic. Alongside the story you build up your base, recruiting new men and constructing new parts of the base. Building up these different areas will raise different department stats and the right levels will allow you to develop new tools and weapons to use in the field. The best part of this is that you recruit and gather resources by getting your hands dirty and using the ‘fulton’ balloon to extract them back to base. Later on you are able to identify the stats for individual soldiers and decide who you want to bring back with you. As you upgrade your fulton device you can eventually extract vehicles and advanced weaponry making the whole thing feel gloriously physical and hands-on. You can visit Mother Base between missions to boost staff morale, but it’s a bit sparse and soulless so I didn’t feel particularly attached to the physical location.
Another neat addition is the ‘buddy’ system, which lets Snake bring one of four allies with him into the field. There’s D-Horse, which is just a horse really, useful for getting around but with some amusing and surprisingly useful unlockable skills as well. There’s D-Dog, who reveals enemy locations for you and can rip out a guard’s throat. D-Walker is a mini Metal Gear which Snake can pilot, useful for more combat heavy missions and taking down vehicles. The best is Quiet, a sniper who can cover you and got me out of more than one dangerous situation. Quiet is also one of the most controversial parts of the game.
There’s not much to say about the character of Quiet that hasn’t already been said, but I’ll give it a go. My ambivalence about Quiet matches pretty nicely my feelings about the game overall. Quiet is a fascinating character, a sniper with one of the most interesting back stories I’ve encountered, an incredible presence with some absolutely wonderful scenes. She also wears pretty much nothing, with humongous breasts swaying every time she moves so much as an inch. She cavorts in the rain, loves nothing more than showing off her thong to Snake on the helicopter and will even give you a sexy sponge bath. There was an initial backlash when the character was first revealed and Kojima defended himself, saying that when we learnt the reason for her design we would be ‘ashamed of our words and deeds.’ Well, I do know the reason now and I don’t feel ashamed. A bit embarrassed for Kojima maybe. The justification for Quiet is honestly one of the dumbest things I have ever heard in all my years of gaming. I know that people saying ridiculous things in an entirely straight faced manner is a grand Metal Gear tradition, but in this sense all it does is undermine a character who, despite everything, I loved. Quiet has the potential to be a legendary character, a series best, but all anyone will remember is her character design which is genuinely awful.
The first 40 or so hours of The Phantom Pain are truly exceptional and it feels churlish to complain when you’re given 40 hours of such high quality entertainment. The dip in quality in Part 2 is noticeable almost immediately and explains rather nicely why Konami were so keen on boot camp reviews which capped the play time at…oh yes, 40 hours! It’s odd, if we’d just been given a slightly more fleshed out Part 1 I don’t think anyone would have minded and it’s not as if Part 2 is actively horrible. A lot of the missions are old ones with new challenges imposed, but they’re actually quite fun. It just can’t live up to Part 1 and we can clearly see that far more was intended for the final release.
Unfinished games are usually something like Assassin’s Creed: Unity, where the whole experience is there but plagued with glitches and irritations. The Phantom Pain is different; it just ends. While it’s there though, we have a gloriously slick experience. If Konami do leave AAA development forever it’ll be a shame as the FOX Engine would have had a wonderful future. The Phantom Pain is a marvel, looking absolutely wonderful and running at a luxurious 60 FPS. The fundamentals are treated exactly as they should be but usually aren’t; fundamentals. The voice acting is a bit more inconsistent, with some fairly hammy performances in some quite major characters. Obviously hamminess is very Metal Gear, but it doesn’t really suit the story that they’re going for here. The originally composed music is pretty forgetful, but you can’t fault the licensed 80s classics in the soundtrack. David Bowie’s ‘The Man Who Sold the World’ is used particularly well and there is a lovely original sung track too, but there isn’t anything that can match the theme music for Metal Gear Solid 2.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a maddening game to review because I just don’t know how to approach it. What we have is truly excellent, one of the best games of the year and an experience which has raised the bar for open world stealth. It’s all too easy to focus on what is missing and the outline for one of the best games of all time is there to see. I can’t think of another game like this, which offers 40 superlative hours yet still comes up feeling slightly unsatisfying. I doubt we’ll ever get the full story about what went down between Konami and Kojima, but I think that the best thing to do will be to let go of our dream of what this game could have been and celebrate the game that we do have.