Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is finally here, and for better or worse, it could be the final Metal Gear Solid ever made.
Controversy marred the build-up to MGSV's launch. Long-time director Hideo Kojima has reportedly been ousted by Konami, following internal conflicts. Similar reports say that Konami are treating staff at Kojima Productions with an unfairness, pending dismissal once the game ships. Konami have been scrubbing all mention of Hideo's name from the game's marketing materials, right after cancelling a high-profile Silent Hill reboot helmed by Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro. What a mess.
Going into this review, I had to wonder if the reported drama at Kojima Productions would have an impact on MGSV's quality. At this early stage, it's hard to claim that it has. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is damn good, but I do have concerns.
What is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain?
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain takes place several years after the events of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Without spoiling anything, the events of MGSV: GZ have led Big Boss and his partner, Kazuhira Miller on an international quest for revenge against the franchise's central antagonist, Zero. If you want to catch up with MGSV's story without playing the previous games, I recommend Metal Gear Timeline.
MGSV: TPP is similar to Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker on the PSP, were it on steroids. You play as Big Boss, tasked to rebuild his private army and off-shore base of operations. You'll be recruiting soldiers, managing resources and choosing upgrade paths for dozens of weapons, vehicles and other equipment. That isn't all, though.
The Mother Base management gameplay plays second fiddle to Metal Gear's core-gameplay, which sees you launch military ops across the globe. Infiltrate complex enemy facilities, extract prisoners, eliminate your enemies and unravel a global conspiracy within vast and complex open-world areas.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is likely the last Metal Gear game with Hideo Kojima at the helm. Can Kojima tie up and deliver closure to the series in this final act? What I've seen so far is incredibly promising.
The Good: rewarding gameplay with an enticing attention to detail
It's still Metal Gear. Hideo Kojima has combined the best aspects of each previous title and condensed them into a singularity of gameplay excellence. In terms of combat and motion, The Phantom Pain plays identically to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Movement is responsive and snappy, and the finger-acrobatics from MGS4's cumbersome controls have gotten streamlined without sacrificing complexity. There're a lot of context menus and toggles to remember, but I'd argue that it's intuitively done and easy to pick up.
MGSV: TPP is without a doubt the best Metal Gear game for gunplay. Each of MGSV: TPP's weapons can be customized and upgraded, and there are ridiculous amounts of them to unlock. Iron-sights aiming feels almost as good as a regular first-person shooter, each weapon sporting a unique personality and individual attachment options.
Metal Gear Solid V is still a stealth game, first and foremost, but it has more room than the other Metal Gears to tailor your playstyle. Being detected will trigger a 'Reflex Mode', enabling you to take snap decisions in slow-motion. Of course, Metal Gear purists can turn this off, and doing so will allow you to procure higher rankings for completing missions.
MGSV: TPP has a mission-based structure set in vast open-world areas. Undertaking primary missions will unlock new ones and MGSV: TPP's story plays out in between. Often you'll have several available at once, and it's up to you what order you tackle them in. The story will occasionally make mission choice requirements of you, however. Side missions unlock periodically, allowing you to procure extra cash to help you develop Big Boss' base, equipment and army.
Unlike previous games, there are no difficulty levels, at least not on the first play-through. You can challenge yourself to obtain higher rankings within the game's mission structure, and doing so will award you with more rapid unlocks. Stealth gameplay will yield the highest rankings, but you don't seem to get punished as harshly for going in guns blazing. Why have all those shotguns and light machine guns if you get incentivised against using them?
I was still able to obtain an 'S' rank on a mission even while alerting the enemy, rapidly wiping everyone out with sniper rifle headshots before being seen.
I believe Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has perfected the 'play your way' game design convention, even if it has stealth leanings. You're given ample time to plan your infiltrations (or attacks), using binoculars similar to the ones found in Ground Zeroes, marking targets and taking note of entry points.
There's no tried and true 'perfect' way to undertake a mission, the sheer amount of tools and abilities at your disposal will prevent any two attempts from being identical.
As you progress through the missions, you'll gain access to even more powerful equipment and abilities. Some of these include a Metal Gear prototype mini-mech and the ability to call in airstrikes. Some of these powerful abilities limit your mission ranking, and also come at hefty development costs.
I'm around 15 hours in, and Big Boss' aerial command unit reports that I've only seen 5% of the game. There are so many small details to appreciate. From the realistic judder of the camera when a dynamic sand storm rolls in, or the ability to set your helicopter's music from a selection of classic 80s hits. It's not as pretty as The Witcher 3's 30 FPS open-world, but sacrificing visual features for 60 FPS works in a game that often demands quick reactions.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a meaty game that'll have completionists busy for months. If you're looking for something to sink your teeth into until Fallout 4 or Halo 5, look no further.
The Concerns: Odd performance issues, the spectre of micro-transactions and Kiefer Sutherland
I'm a pretty big fan of Metal Gear Solid. I can measure my gaming career in the wait between titles. Now that I write about games for a living, I've made an extra effort to not let my personal feelings for the franchise get in the way of reporting the true state of the game. Here are my concerns.
Major outlets derived their reviews from MGSV "boot camps" set up by Konami PR companies around the world. It had me wondering the extent their impressions were skewed when there's reps on hand, whose job it is to sell games. IGN and Gamespot have both given MGSV 10/10 based on these "boot camp" playtest sessions, likely with the PS4 version of the game. As a fan, I can't say MGSV on Xbox One warrants a perfect ten yet.
One of the most controversial aspects of MGSV in the early days was the omission of long-time voice actor, David Hayter. The replacement of Hayter with Kiefer Sutherland came as a slight to many long-term fans who felt Hayter's portrayal was iconic to the series. I do like Sutherland's portrayal, but so far I have concerns that his likely-expensive inclusion has impacted the amount of dialogue Konami could fit into Metal Gear's budget. Simply put, Big Boss is uncharacteristically short on things to say. He's too damn quiet.
Kaz and Ocelot will launch into lengthy tirades, and Sutherland's Big Boss will often respond with a single word, or even more often, nothing at all. Whether this continues further into the game remains to be seen, but it's cause for concern thus far.
Another concern I have pertains to the game's performance. Now and then, the game will sharply lag, disorienting audio and dropping frames. I've experienced it perhaps once every 30-60 minutes. During these periods (maybe 2-4 seconds), the game continues to roll, remembering your last controller input and ignoring all others. In a tight spot, it's conceivable that it could have you involuntarily wonder out of cover or put yourself in a dangerous situation.
I had hoped that today's 650MB patch had fixed it, to no avail. It's not game breaking, but it's something I hope they fix sooner rather than later once the game is out there. There's always the chance it's my Xbox, but no other game distorts in this way.
As of writing, the game's online PVP mode is disabled. There's no way to access the online portion of MGSV: TPP, but we know that it'll carry some form of micro-transactions. I'm concerned to what extent the 'accelerators' will have on MGSV: TPP's versus mode, and it's a bit worrisome that Konami have kept the full nature of it under wraps. The servers will likely spin into action later tonight, but until then, we'll have to wait and see.
My enjoyment of Metal Gear Solid V vastly outweighs my concerns
Despite some concerns, I'm hopeful that I'll end up agreeing with the critical reception of the game so far. The gameplay is solid, the attention to detail is incredible, and switching to open-world hasn't dampened Metal Gear's signature stealth gameplay. I'm ablaze with eagerness to continue play, ignoring social and professional responsibilities in the process.
I'm intrigued by the game's mysterious plot, kicked off by last year's prologue Ground Zeroes. I'm eager to develop my Mother Base, discover Skullface's motivations, and ultimately be blown away by Hideo Kojima's signature plot twists.
Metal Gear fans already have this pre-ordered, and if you were a fan of Peace Walker's PMC simulator gameplay and mission structure you're going to feel right at home. If you're a newcomer to the series, you'll likely find the plot disorienting, but you'll discover a beefy open-world stealth 'em up that puts the likes of Assassin's Creed to shame. You might just find yourself sucked into the Metal Gear franchise as well, thanks to what is likely the final real Metal Gear.
Stay tuned for our full review.
Check out the disc version of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain for the Xbox One at Amazon ($59.99; Currently Unavailable)