Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain successfully translates the iconic stealth action gameplay that has defined the series into a massive open world adventure.
For fans of the franchise, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is a bittersweet affair. On one hand, fans finally have a chance to play the long anticipated game, which brings the story arc that began all the way back in 1987 to a satisfying close, but on the other, it is likely the last time that Hideo Kojima will ever direct a Metal Gear Solid game. Well, at least he's going out with a bang.
For other developers and studios, a controversy with a publisher like the well documented conflict between Hideo Kojima and Konami, which included the legendary developer's firing as well as the disbandment of Kojima Productions, would be a death knell. Thanks to the sheer talent at Kojima Productions, Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain, despite a troubled development cycle, is easily one of the best games to release this year.
Set in 1984, the game picks up immediately after the harrowing final moments of its prologue, Metal Gear Solid 5: Ground Zeroes. Legendary mercenary Big Boss, also known as Punished Snake, awakes from a nine year coma, and while things are nice and quiet at first, the subsequent opening moments are some of the most heart-pounding and memorable in video game history. It's a rare thing when a tutorial sequence can leave one's hands just as sweaty as the best moments in lesser games.
Following this stellar opening, players are thrust into the expansive open world of Metal Gear Solid 5, largely left to their own devices. There's brief explanations whenever a new gameplay mechanic is introduced, but for the most part, players can experience the game however they wish. They can choose to take on the game's main story missions, tackle Side Ops, or explore the expansive regions of Afghanistan and Africa.
There are some issues to be had with some of the missions in Metal Gear Solid 5. While most of the missions are headache-free, there's a few that are more frustrating than they are fun. One such mission is an escort mission (which frankly has no place in gaming in 2015) that is lengthy, has no checkpoints once the actual escorting starts, and involves dealing with dumb AI that has a tendency to run right up to enemies.
While there are some duds, most of the missions in the game are quite good, and allow for true player freedom. For example, during a simple infiltrate and extract mission, Snake can sneak through the area to reach the target, or hang back and pick off foes with a sniper rifle from afar, and then rescue the target once everyone is dead. Or for those that prefer the explosive approach, Snake can even commandeer a tank and blow everyone up, if that is his prerogative. Those that take these more violent approaches should just remember to wash off the blood that accumulates on Big Boss using the shower units at Mother Base.
Mother Base is actually a huge driving force in the game. Besides the reward of seeing the story unfold through the expertly crafted cutscenes (none of which are obscenely long like those in Metal Gear Solid 4), the thrill of expanding Mother Base will keep gamers playing, and then replaying, all the missions that the game has to offer.
Mother Base is expanded by recruiting new soldiers to the cause. These soldiers are then categorized into one of the various facilities available at Mother Base, which in turn levels up those facilities and unlocks access to additional items and helpful information. Players can choose to micromanage Mother Base by evaluating the stats of the various recruits and shuffling them around, but it's not necessary for success.
The primary way that new soldiers are recruited to Mother Base is by utilizing the hilarious Fulton balloon propulsion system. After knocking out an enemy, Snake can apply a Fulton balloon and then they will be launched into the sky and delivered to Mother Base. This can easily be done in the midst of missions and is not restricted to enemies either. Anything the player sees that might be useful for Mother Base can be airlifted back. This creates an addicting gameplay loop of deploying for a mission, gathering Mother Base resources, completing the mission, returning to Mother Base to check out the improvements, and then going back on another mission to continue the cycle.
The inclusion of Mother Base means that in this particular adventure, Big Boss has more resources and help available to him than in any other Metal Gear game that came before. This includes the ability to call in a support helicopter, requesting supply drops, and palling around with a "buddy", as Snake's partners are referred to in the game. These buddies are diverse, multi-talented, and the more missions that are completed with them, the more abilities they unlock. D.D. (Diamond Dog), for example, can sniff out enemy positions and players can order him to attack/stun enemies.
All of these complicated gameplay mechanics work harmoniously with the large open world that Kojima Productions has crafted. From a gameplay standpoint, this open world structure allows Metal Gear to be the best it has ever been. From a story standpoint, however the open world is somewhat of a hindrance. The story is still engrossing and is a virtually unparalleled treat to behold, but there are some pacing issues, as there are some long stretches of missions where players may not feel like they're accomplishing as much as they did in the same amount of time in previous Metal Gear titles.
The open world in Metal Gear Solid 5 may create some issues with pacing in terms of the plot, but as stated previously, it does help the game achieve some of the best gameplay the series has ever seen. It also gives way to truly jaw-dropping visuals, with Kojima filling the open world with an impressive amount of visual detail. The character models and animations are also extremely well done, and it all moves at a very crisp 60fps on current-gen consoles.
These stupendous graphics are complemented by top notch audio design, which includes fantastic voice work along with brilliantly utilized music. Veterans of the franchise may still find Kiefer Sutherland voicing Snake a little jarring at first, but his great work done in Ground Zeroes continues here, though Big Boss is strangely silent for a lot of the game.
As for how long it will take players to complete Metal Gear Solid 5, well, don't expect to get through it in one weekend. Besides the main story missions, there's also well over 100 Side Ops, and an exhausting amount of open world content to explore. There's also the Forward Operating Bases multiplayer component, but it's not very engaging and is microtransaction heavy. The other online multiplayer aspect of The Phantom Pain, the latest iteration of Metal Gear Online, has unfortunately been delayed to next month, but it should be decidedly more entertaining than the Forward Operating bases, at least.
The end credits of the game don't even truly mark the end, as there's dozens of hours of gameplay after that. It largely consists of replaying previous missions on harder difficulty settings, but doing so is worth it as there's a lot more story after the primary conflict is resolved. Simply put, those looking for significant bang for their buck should definitely look into Metal Gear Solid 5.
The minute-to-minute gameplay in Metal Gear Solid 5 is incredibly diverse. In the span of 30 minutes, it's possible to rescue a prisoner, blow up a tank, interrogate an enemy soldier, fight a bear, and then send that bear back to Mother Base using a Fulton balloon...all while listening to Kids in America on Snake's in-game Sony Walkman. The game is a triumph in more ways than one, and while it's not without flaws, it's safe to say that Hideo Kojima and company have successfully adapted the core of Metal Gear Solid for an open world. It's sad that Hideo Kojima is moving on from Metal Gear, but Metal Gear Solid 5 brings the story full circle in a very satisfying way, and is a legitimate contender for Game of the Year. Whatever Kojima works on next, it has a lot to live up to.
Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is available on PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, and Xbox One. Game Rant was provided a PS4 code for this review.