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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
Genre: Action
Publisher: Konami Europe (EU), Konami (US)
Developer: Kojima Productions
Release Date: Sept. 1, 2015


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PS4 Review - 'Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Sept. 8, 2015 @ 12:30 a.m. PDT

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the latest installment in the MGS franchise, powered by the new FOX engine.

There has been some behind-the-scenes drama with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, so it's a pleasant surprise that the final product barely shows signs of the rumored conflict. Hideo Kojima's name is front and center on every mission, and while the game has flaws, it's still a very strong contender for the best game in the franchise's history.

The Phantom Pain opens up nine years after the end of Ground Zeroes. Big Boss was placed in a coma by the same attack that destroyed Mother Base and obliterated his army. He wakes up during an attack on the hospital and barely escapes. His rescue is orchestrated by the remnants of his former soldiers, the private army now known as Diamond Dogs. With his former partner Kaz "Master" Miller, Boss seeks to rebuild his forces and get revenge on Skull Face, the man who had masterminded the attack on Mother Base.

Plot-wise, TPP is a slight departure from the series norm. At first, I thought it was light on the plot, but I came to realize that much of what would've been mandatory codec calls are now optional cassette tape briefings. It's an odd choice because while the plot isn't incoherent without listening to those cassettes, they provide a lot of context that is otherwise lost. If you play them (while playing the game, a welcome improvement over staring at two static faces while they talk), you'll hear interesting characterizations and off-the-cuff philosophizing that defines the franchise.

The plot has its fair share of twists and turns, and the core concept is so fundamentally Kojima that it is almost breathtaking. It straddles the line between engrossing and ridiculous and somehow manages to work — for the most part. There are times when the game goes too far, but the same goes for the other games in the franchise. Unfortunately, the story does fizzle toward the end. It has some big twists, and it certainly ends, but it leaves a few things unaddressed. (Information has come to light that suggests an omitted mission addresses most of those questions.) It's still a roller coaster ride from start to finish and should leave most Metal Gear fans happy. If I had one complaint, it is that Skull Face is a hollow villain for the amount of hype he gets.

The basic structure of the game is very similar to the last PSP offering, Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Just as the plot is a direct follow-up to that game, the mechanics are a massively improved version of Peace Walker. The player's hub base is Mother Base, an offshore oil rig that houses all of their facilities. Mother Base (or rather, a chopper you take from Mother Base) serves as your command center. From here, you can pick various missions in Afghanistan or Africa. You can also choose to visit either of the two maps in free roam, although there is little reason to do so. The gameplay shares the design improvements originally demoed in Ground Zeroes, making it the franchise's easiest game to pick up and play.

One thing that needs to be emphasized is that TPP is an open-world game, but the area between enemy outposts is almost entirely meaningless. There are no collectibles, no real secrets, and nothing to do. The open-world gameplay is primarily there to make it viable to approach enemy bases from multiple directions or to escape from enemies. Each mission sections off a chunk of the world and instantly fails the mission if you leave it without completing your objective.

The more open gameplay structure works in TPP's favor. Once players drop into a mission, they're free to take it on however they like. There are almost no missions with serious time limits or strict failure points. A couple of timed missions exist, but they reward you for being quick, rather than failing you for being slow. There are multiple ways to infiltrate each of the outposts and bases, and there are multiple ways you can complete the missions. It's reminiscent of something like Hitman, where you have a slice of gameplay, and how you handle it is up to you.

Of course, this means you have options, and I'd be hard-pressed to think of a game that gives you as many options as TPP. Lethal and non-lethal weapons are available, and Snake has a variety of special abilities. You can sneak in and quietly assassinate enemies, go loud and blow the living daylights out of a heavily guarded base with a stolen tank, have your pet dog run in and tear open a target's throat, or even shoot your rocket-guided robotic arm through a window to blow up a base. You can sneak around and disable communications or hold up foes to get information. The number of options is nearly infinite, and you can mix and match since the game allows you to swap equipment at any time in the field.

The great thing about all of these options is that the game rewards you for playing however you like. The ranking system is lenient enough that you can murder your way through entire camps and still get an S-rank. You're not obligated to play in a specific way to finish missions and get a good ranking. You're rewarded most heavily for avoiding combat and staying stealthy, but unlike previous games in the franchise, it isn't incentivized above all else. It is just as valid to finish a mission by grabbing a sniper rifle, looking for a good vantage point and sniping your foe as it is to get in close, knock them out, and capture them alive.

You're even rewarded for changing your play styles. Enemies respond to how you play, so if you go for a lot of headshots, you may find enemies wearing helmets more. Nighttime missions make you stealthier until the enemies start donning night vision goggles. You can have your Mother Base allies perform missions to temporarily remove these benefits, but eventually, enemies adapt.

I really appreciate the boss battles, which are different because they are a lot more flexible, and some can even be avoided entirely. Each time you encounter one of the bosses, you're offered choices: fight, sneak past, run, and so on. Even when you have to fight them, there are tons of ways to take them on. However, there are relatively few bosses, they're recycled a bit, and none of them have the personality of even the MGS3 Cobra squad.

For the first time, Snake is not alone on missions because you can bring along one of four different buddies. D-Dog is a pet dog who can mark enemies and attack with a specially designed knife. D-Horse is a horse you can ride to get around quicker. D-Walker is a combat robot you can pilot to fight enemies. Quiet is a recruited sniper who can provide covering fire. Each is genuinely useful. Quiet is fantastic if you need someone to watch your back, while D-Dog is a huge advantage if you're trying to find a hidden prisoner. D-Horse should not have been an optional buddy but always available. He's not useful enough to sacrifice the buddy slot, but it's annoying that you can't access his fast speed when you're just trying to get from place to place. Being able to whistle for him at any time (like every other horse in video games these days) would've also been a big improvement.

TPP also attempts to institute an online competitive mode, with limited success. To be honest, this would be a big issue if it weren't so easily ignored. Around mission 20 or so, players can create Forward Operations Bases, which are expansions to Mother Base and make it easier to research new items and equipment. However, they can also be infiltrated by other players. Should a player successfully raid your FOB, he/she can steal materials from you. It's an interesting risk-reward concept that's soured by a few things. After the first one, building FOBs requires an absurd amount of waiting or the spending of real-world money. As of this writing, the online servers are so unstable that invading FOBs feels incredibly lackluster and difficult. Patches may improve this feature, but right now, it feels half-baked and poorly implemented. The FOB feature is entirely extraneous, so you can easily research and get everything in the game without bothering with the online competitive mode.

TPP is an absurdly polished game, but that just makes the lack of polish stand out in certain ways. There are a lot of minor problems that crop up, but together, they can detract from the whole. Getting from location to location can be tedious since you have to summon a chopper, which takes a very long time, or trek to a base with a delivery platform to be delivered to another platform, which is also a lengthy process. The Mother Base user interface is awkward, unintuitive and sometimes downright frustrating. There are ways to automate it, but that doesn't mean it's not frustrating. There is one late game mission where you have to manually move a number of characters around Mother Base; it's absurdly tedious, but if I didn't do it, it would've led to characters dying permanently.

The biggest lack of polish is in the last quarter of the game. Once you finish the main plot, the game goes to "Chapter 2", which begins to address the franchise's overarching meta-plot. From this point on, the game feels a bit rushed. Instead of new missions, you get a smattering of "enhanced" versions of old missions that require you to take on challenges you've already finished with handicaps, such as a lack of equipment or harder enemies. The plot trickles to an ending rather than leaving off with a bang. Everything up to the end of Chapter 1 feels intense, but Chapter 2 feels perfunctory. It's still fun and has a lot of classic Metal Gear action, but it's clear that whatever production problems occurred behind the scenes took their greatest toll on this section of the game.

It is to TPP's credit that this is a significantly lesser problem than in a lot of similar games. The title is fun, and the remastered versions of missions require you to rethink how you're approaching things. There are dozens of hours of fun gameplay even before you hit that point. The remastered missions provide little to no plot context, and some even repeat outdated mission briefings.

What certainly does reach its full potential are the visuals. TPP is an extremely good-looking game. The character models and animations are fantastic, the facial motion capture does a great job of expression emotions, and in general, the entire thing looks phenomenal. It also runs at a surprisingly smooth 60 fps with only momentary dips. The well-publicized Fox Engine lives up to its hype, and TPP is one of the best-looking games on the market.

The voice acting is similarly quite good. Most of the cast had returned from previous games, though David Hayter's iconic growling has been replaced by the more subdued Kiefer Sutherland, who does a good job. Snake is a surprisingly mute character now, having only a handful of lines in the game. He's more talkative in the cassette tapes, but it does leave Snake feeling more like a bystander than a leader. It may be intentional, but it still feels odd.

Metal Gear Solid V: Phantom Pain is a phenomenal game. It is a credit to its quality that some rather substantial flaws do little to drag down the game, and even with them, it's destined to be remembered as one of the best titles this year. The variety and quality of gameplay make it a delight, and there's a lot of fun to be had. Metal Gear fans and newcomers alike should find a lot to like here. If it is the end of Kojima's Metal Gear career, then it's a high note to go out on.

Score: 9.3/10

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