Way back at the beginning of last year, Konami released the first part of Metal Gear Solid V, Ground Zeroes, stating that the second part of the game would be out later that year. Modern games releases being what they are, the date then slipped several times before finally coming out in September of this year. The behind the scenes intrigue and drama that began long before Ground Zeroes continued in the build up to The Phantom Pain with creator Hideo Kojima reportedly no longer working for Konami and his name being taken off the packaging and promotional materials for the game.
The Phantom Pain picks up where Ground Zeroes left off, with players once more taking on the role of Big Boss, though most characters still just call him Snake. Ground Zeroes ended with Big Boss’ group Militaires Sans Frontières and their headquarters Mother Base being destroyed and Big Boss in a coma and the Phantom Pain jumps ahead to nine years later when he finally wakes up. After escaping an initial attempt on his life, Snake reunites with his old allies Revolver Ocelot and Kazuhira Miller and begins building a new military company called Diamond Dogs as well as a new Mother Base (along with yet another new variation on his codename as Punished ‘Venom’ Snake) to take revenge on his enemies.
Unlike most previous games in the series, The Phantom Pain doesn’t tell a constant story that relies heavily on cutscenes or lengthy codec conversations and is instead broken up into a series of main story missions and side ops, though some of the missions do have a few cutscenes there’s nothing to the density of Metal Gear Solid 4 for example. In terms of structure it has much more in common with what Kojima had previously been doing in the PSP Metal Gear games, Portable Ops and Peace Walker as both of these are also made up of smaller missions and in many ways I wonder if The Phantom Pain might have started life as Peace Walker 2.
In spite of this, there is still a fairly hefty amount of story to be told. In lieu of the traditional codec conversations, Snake will collect a large number of cassette tapes through the course of the game that cover much of the back story of the series including what many of the series’ characters had been up to in the years between games.
As well as Ocelot and Miller, who Snake has worked with in previous games, the other main character is a sniper that Snake meets fairly early on simply called Quiet due to her not speaking. She featured quite heavily in pre-release marketing materials and was quite correctly criticised for her somewhat questionable character design, but he’s far from a shallow character and has quite a lot of development over the course of the game despite not saying anything.
In a first for the series, The Phantom Pain is an open world game taking place between Afghanistan and Africa. Both areas are huge, and feature a number of outposts and towns scattered throughout. Both locales have distinct looks, as well as areas within each which are distinctive themselves but there’s possibly a little too much empty space between landmarks. I’m sure this is fairly true of the areas that they are based on, but in practice it leads to a lot of time travelling back and forth between areas can take some time though this can be reduced be riding on horseback, driving one of the many vehicles that you can find dotted about or (once you’ve unlocked some delivery points anyway) using the series’ signature cardboard box to have yourself delivered to different locations on the map.
With fifty main story missions as well as over a hundred and fifty side ops, there’s a lot of content to be had in The Phantom Pain. My play time at present is nearly 85 hours and I’m only at 60% completion according to the ingame stats, so 100% completion if you’re that way inclined is a substantial investment in time. I did feel that a lot of the so called story missions were mostly filler though, with a few batches of missions adding nothing to the ongoing plot. The story missions are split into two chapters, with the second chapter feeling more like an epilogue and containing mostly missions that are higher difficulty remixes of ones that have come before. This leads to the second part of the game feeling even less focused and meandering but if you’re just wanting to play the main story content though, you can skip the other missions so it’s not too bad.
In terms of gameplay it’s unsurprisingly almost identical to Ground Zeroes, which itself was not too dissimilar to Metal Gear Solid 4. The series’ gradual transition from top down 2D to full third person shooter long since over, you have full camera control as well as cover mechanics. While still not having an actual jump button, Snake can now jump over objects or across gaps, climb up surfaces as well as sprinting and ducking into cover. The controls are tight and responsive, with Snake able to quickly move from a prone position to sprinting when required as well as quickly snapping into aiming mode.
Outside of the main missions, a huge amount of focus is put on the base building aspect. Much like Peace Walker before it, The Phantom Pain allows you to extract enemy soldiers and prisoners from the battlefield to add them to the ranks of Diamond Dogs. Each enemy will have a ranking from E up to S++ (because E – A wasn’t enough, apparently) and each soldier added will increase the level of the various teams on Mother Base. As with Peace Walker, the primary method of extracting soldiers is through the Fulton Recovery System which lifts them into the air on a balloon so that they can be collected by aircraft.
Mother Base itself can be expanded by adding additional platforms and upgrades to each platform, allowing more team members to join and increasing each team’s level accordingly. You’ll frequently travel to Mother Base during the course of the game and while each platform is placed a ridiculous distance apart, you can again use the box delivery system to quickly move between them.
Ground Zeroes had a very limited selection of weapons and equipment, but The Phantom Pain starts with more and allows you to develop a huge selection. Increasing the level of the R&D team on Mother Base give access to more advanced weaponry, as well as some given during story progress or from blueprints found on the battlefield. Completing missions as well as finding resources scattered around will build up the currency and items required for the R&D Team to build each item.
You can develop versions of weapons that have silencers for example, or non lethal variants of sniper rifles which are useful for taking out enemies without killing them so that you can recruit them. This also allows for more flexibility in how you tackle each mission, as you can choose to use all non lethal or silenced weapons for stealth or go to the opposite extreme and use heavy machine guns or rocket launchers. You can also choose to have weapons or equipment dropped in by helicopter at any time for a cost, so if you’re suddenly faced by armoured vehicles and decided to go with only non lethal weapons you’re not stuck helpless.
Quiet is one of several allies that Snake can have join him on missions, initially you only have a horse available called D-Horse until you find a wounded wolf pup a few missions in that Snake takes back to Mother Base to raise and calls D-Dog. Each buddy brings different benefits, D-Horse of course allowing you to ride him and travel about quicker, D-Dog sniffs out enemies and items and Quiet unsurprisingly provides sniper cover. Each buddy also has a number of weapons and items that can be developed for them that you can equip when starting a mission. Successful completion of missions with each buddy will increase your bond level with them, which unlocks additional upgrades for them as well as commands that you can give them.
As well as the main Mother Base, once you get past a certain point in the story you can begin to construct Forward Operating Bases or FOBs. Identical in design to Mother Base, the FOBs allow you to increase your level ranks but are primarily used for one of the main multiplayer modes. Once you have constructed your first FOB you can begin playing the FOB missions that let you attack other player’s FOBs to gain online ranking as well as recruit additional staff members. Players who happen to be online when their FOB is attacked can choose to retaliate and either try and stop the attacking player or strike back at them.
The other multiplayer mode is Metal Gear Solid Online, though this is not yet available for the PC and is due for release in January.
On the graphics side of things, it’s a truly stunning game. With my A10-7850K and GTX 960 I’m far from the cutting edge of top end systems, but even so The Phantom Pain ran on high settings with an almost constant 60 FPS. Character models are all well animated and detailed, particularly the main story characters but enemy soldiers and animals are all very good too. The various landscapes are also well detailed, with the rocky areas of Afghanistan and the jungle parts of Africa in particular looking great. Trees and grass blow about in the breeze, and the changing weather and time of day cycles can lead to some great visuals too. Night time scenes when it’s raining for example are fantastic, and the sandstorms that sometimes occur in Afghanistan howl around you reducing visibility to next to nothing but can make for great cover.
Series concept artist and designer Yoji Shinkawa again returns to provide the designs for the characters and mechanical elements, continuing the visual consistency the series has had since Metal Gear Solid that makes Metal Gear games instantly recognisable.
Long time composer Harry Gregson-Williams no longer provides most of the music for the game instead acting as producer to newcomer Ludvig Forssell. This leads to a very different feel to the music from the very action movie blockbuster feel of the last couple of games and while there aren’t as many standout tracks in my opinion it certainly feels right for the tone of the game. As well as the score, The Phantom Pain also features several new theme songs that are pretty decent.
In addition to the new music, the 80s setting and heavy use of cassette players means that collectible music returns from MGS IV. This largely consists of 80s pop songs, though some themes from past entries in the series are also present. Kojima has a good ear for songs that will work well with his games, with the Midge Ure cover of David Bowie song “The Man Who Sold the World” being featured quite heavily. Collected music can be listened to while playing and you can also choose a song for your stealthy helicopter to play loudly while landing, and I was quite partial to A-Ha’s “Take on Me” for my chopper.
Keifer Sutherland’s Snake is oddly silent through most of the game, only really speaking during key cutscenes or the cassette tapes which seems like an odd use of a Hollywood actor. Regardless, the lines he does actually deliver are all decently done and by the end of the game I’d almost forgotten what David Hayter sounded like – don’t get me wrong though, I’d still very much like him back at some point if we ever get a game with both Big Boss and Solid Snake. Troy Baker takes over as Ocelot, trying to balance the voices of both Josh Keaton’s younger version of the character from Snake Eater and the older Ocelot voiced by Patric Zimmerman in most of the other games. He does a decent job, but isn’t given enough to do. Robin Atkin Downes returns as Miller, though as Miller’s hasn’t done so well since we saw him last he’s a much gruffer character than he used to be. Both Ocelot and Miller also offer frequent radio ‘advice’ while you’re out in the field which, to no fault of either actor, end up being incredibly repetitive though thankfully some of it can be turned off.
Given Kojima’s apparent departure from Konami and their shift towards focusing more on casual games it seems possible that we’ll not see another Metal Gear game of this kind again, unfortunately. Despite being somewhat meandering at times and seemingly unfinished towards the end (the bonus disc given away with the special edition of the game shows footage from a mission not included in the game) there’s still tons to do and a lot to like. Even without replaying previous story missions to get the highest ratings and complete all of the challenges you’re still looking at around 100 hours of game on average.
While I don’t think it’s the strongest entry in the series (Either the original PlayStation game or Snake Eater probably hold this spot for me) and it’s real flaws aside, The Phantom Pain is still a very compelling game. The great controls and gameplay mean that even some of the repetitive missions aren’t a chore and it’s almost always fun to play. For existing fans of the series it’s a no brainer, and while some of the ongoing plot elements might be a bit baffling for newcomers the more episodic and less story based nature of the game make this much more manageable than it could have been and a game I feel is worth playing by just about anyone.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is available now on PC, PlayStations 3 and 4 and Xboxes 360 and One.