A bigger, bolder revisit to one of the Metal Gear franchise's highest points
After almost thirty years (about twenty for everybody who started with Solid), there are some expectations and standards for a Metal Gear game: tense military and espionage action, a showdown or two with massive mecha, and some endearingly bonkers moments from series creator Hideo Kojima. Each game stands as a unique blueprint of gorgeous visuals and smartly-constructed gameplay for its particular generation of game technology and design. The series come to an end (I think? we've heard this before) with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
"I wonder how much this base cost, Miller. Would you say--" "Shut up, Boss"
Following the tragic conclusion of last year's prequel Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, the story picks up nine years later, with the legendary Big Boss Venom Snake waking from a coma. Getting the whole gang back together--"Kaz" Miller, Revolver Ocelot, and Huey Emmerich, along with a few new faces--they set about rebuilding Mother Base, the home that was put together in Peace Walker, and completely leveled in Ground Zeroes. Hell-bent on revenge, Snake sets out to put down Skull Face and his elite, inhuman XOF Unit, the people responsible for the deadly attack on the original Mother Base that killed so many of Snake's comrades.
For MGS fans who enjoyed 2010's Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker (or the 2013 HD remake), The Phantom Pain follows that template almost exactly: half the game is spent in the field executing operations (split into Story Missions and the seemingly endless Side Ops) and managing resources, manpower, and mission dispatches at Mother Base. This time around, though, both sides of the game have been expanded to the point that at times, The Phantom Pain feels almost too big.
You'll spend most of your time in the field--Story Missions and Side Ops use the same map, but Story Missions often create unique situations or setpieces for particular areas that you won't find when revisiting during a Side Op, or just freely running around the map. The game allows you to seamlessly manage how you play, notifying you when you're entering an area with a Side Op during free play, and quickly getting you into the mission prep screen if you decide to go for a Story Mission. You're automatically pulled into some Story Missions if you enter certain areas of the map, which can lead to some really tense action if you're unprepared (or if you're like me and too proud to call in for a supply crate unless it's absolutely necessary).
One of the high points of the Metal Gear franchise as a whole is its flexible sense of action--there's no single right way to accomplish any objective as long as it gets done, and you're given plenty of tools to do the job your way. Returning from Peace Walker is the Fulton Recovery Device, allowing you to kidnap extract enemy soldiers and steal everything that isn't tied down procure resources and weapons to help develop even better gear for you and your troops. You're even given a bounty for rescuing animals from the warzone, so you're encouraged to constantly look for new things to launch into the sky with balloons.
Base management has been streamlined since Peace Walker--there's no more Mess Hall, so don't worry about developing ramen noodles, Doritos, or Mountain Dew. In addition to developing new platforms for the base (such as better Combat units to perform dispatch missions, better Intel for reports on enemy/resource locations, better Medical care in case troops get sick, etc.), you now have to worry about enemy invasion, Dark Souls-style. FOBs (Forward Operating Bases, not my cousins) allow you to send out more troops to more locations and make even more money, but if you're playing online, other players can invade your FOBs and earn money over your unpreparedness. Aside from the tutorial mission (treated as a Side Op) and a single practice run on one of my own FOBs, I haven't had a chance to play against an actual person yet. I still found this to a really cool and very Metal Gear implementation of multiplayer.
Since you spend a lot of time on each map (one in Afghanistan, the other in central Africa), the game does run the risk of being repetitive, but I feel that since the conditions are always changing--weather, guard shifts, guard tactics and gear, a steady night-and-day cycle, "holy crap, when did they bring a tank here, this is out in the middle of nowhere"--I feel like you're never handling the same outpost the same way twice. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for Mother Base itself, your third map which is huge to the point of being a bother to get around. Sure, you can drive from platform to platform or call in a chopper for a ride, but both of these feel very time-consuming and pointless, making me miss Peace Walker's menu-only interaction with Mother Base (you can also fast-travel via cardboard boxes, but again... too big). Thankfully, all actual Mother Base functions are on Snake's handy-dandy iDroid, meaning that you can fire troublemaking employees while in the middle of a firefight if you want.
"NAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANTS INGONYAMA BAGITHI BABA" "Boss, he's not a lion"
Both Portable Ops and Peace Walker had co-op play (and MGS3 and 4 had Metal Gear Online), but MGSV reinforces the importance of the Buddy System with four different companions that provide unique benefits on missions. D-Horse provides free, fast transportation; D-Dog sniffs out resources and can locate, distract, disable, or outright kill enemies if needed; Quiet and her incredibly stupid outfit provide covering sniper fire available in the lethal and non-lethal varieties--watch out, she's really trigger-happy; and D-Walker is a mobile bipedal weapons platform that provides heavy firepower while being hilariously expensive to deploy. Each Buddy has their own strengths and weaknesses in missions, letting you tailor their support to your style (and change tactics on the fly using your iDroid), or you can just give them a rest and handle a mission solo if you don't want to spend the GMP. It's a nice addition that never feels forced on you, and can really take the weight off you during certain missions.
Much like in Fallout, you can't kill child soldiers... but there's no CPS in Africa, so go ahead and Superman punch, flashbang, and tranq them
There have been some complaints about how The Phantom Pain goes in a different direction from previous Metal Gear games--it's no longer a linear, cutscene-driven affair, instead focusing on gameplay and letting you determine the direction of your story. Cutscenes are short and to-the-point, with most of the expository dialogue relegated to tapes (no more Codec calls!), which you can play at any time and leave on as background noise while you're farming for resources or getting Side Ops done. Snake doesn't speak much in this, either--he's all business this time around. While I miss David Hayter's monologues to a point, The Phantom Pain is so much pure fun to play that I'm okay with never, ever going back to the overlong, drawn-out insanity of MGS4 again.
With Hideo Kojima on his way out from Konami, and The Phantom Pain's story now completely bridging every Metal Gear game (and explaining just what the hell happened at the end of MGS4), it's the end of an era. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain manages to create a tense and grounded military thriller that also leaps off the deep end in the best, most Metal Gear of ways. A few minor gameplay issues (and a few bigger issues with Quiet being the most pandering thing that ever pandered-- it's so over-the-top it might as well be Kung Fu Pander) can't bring down one of the best, most addicting gaming experiences of the year. Seriously, you try finding a good place to stop when you can get just one more Side Op done, even though it's 2am.
+ Ridiculously addictive and engrossing open-world gameplay that allows near-perfect freedom of play
+ The usual Metal Gear attention to detail, atmosphere, and sense of fun
+ Tighter narrative that's told either in quick cutscenes or optional cassette tapes instead of hour-long cutscenes
+ Buddy characters provide unique gameplay assistance that can turn the tide of a battle, or help you stay undetected
+ A whole lot of gameplay that never feels repetitive or forced
+ "Multiplayer" FOB invasions are a cool and series-appropriate take on online play
+/- The Phantom Pain doesn't jump the shark, it jumps the flaming whale that swallows a helicopter whole--this is good for me, but not for everybody
- Regardless of whatever in-game explanation we have for Quiet's outfit, it's kind of pathetic to see in this day and age
Nate Ming is the Features and Reviews Editor for Crunchyroll News, creator of the long-running Fanart Friday column, and the Customer Support Lead for Crunchyroll. You can follow him on Twitter at @NateMing.