Metal Gear Solid V – The Phantom Pain: What a Mess We Made When It All Went Wrong (…Actually, It Went Great)

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Considering how much of a Metal Gear Solid fan I am, I’m surprised how long it’s taken me to finally start playing MGS V: The Phantom Pain. I didn’t even touch Ground Zeroes until I knew I was going to be playing The Phantom Pain right after.

I could easily blame the backlog for this, but the truth is that I think Metal Gear has had a lot of weak entries since the release of Snake Eater. I was personally unimpressed by Guns of the Patriots. The pacing made it feel like more a guided tour rather than actual game. The story also tried to tie up way too many loose ends before it could conclude the series, on top of needing to bring back everyone’s favorite characters so that it could feel like a “proper ending”. Peace Walker seemed like a true return to form for the series, but watching Andrew play it gave me the impression that it was simply recycling old mechanics and motifs from the previous games just to churn out a new title. And I won’t even dignify Portable Ops with a comment.

Thankfully, The Phantom Pain (and by proxy, Ground Zeroes) has been a breath of fresh air for me, not just in terms of Metal Gear Solid, but in terms of games themselves. The Phantom Pain is one of the best games I have ever played. Period. The move to open-world gameplay has given new life to the series in a way that not only revitalizes the series, but also makes The Phantom Pain a supremely addictive game.

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One of the biggest gripes I’ve always had with MGS (and most other stealth games, for that matter) is its obsession with perfect stealth. Mistakes were unforgivable: One kill or enemy alert, and your perfect run-through was ruined. It’s certainly satisfying attaining that perfect run, but it gets frustrating when you feel forced to do it. These days I’ve got a full-time job to maintain, and I simply don’t have the patience to deal with that type of pressure.

Fortunately, many of the numerous changes introduced in The Phantom Pain (and perhaps even Peace Walker) have made the game’s action far faster and looser than any previous entries, while also preserving the incentives for you to pursue stealth before busting out your big guns.

Peace Walker abandoned the continuous objectives of previous titles with a mission-based system that divided the linearly-designed map into segments. The Phantom Pain takes this one step further by creating a large open-world map that is free to explore at your leisure. This is a huge departure for the series, but undoubtedly an excellent change.

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For starters, the open world gameplay now means that there are many different ways for you tackle enemy bases. Rather than being restricted to narrow hallways and corridors, you have the freedom to approach the enemy from several different directions while using the environment for cover. No longer is the game simply about waiting for a guard to patrol in the right spot for you to take a shot. Now, the largely open environments force you to maintain spatial awareness while you out-maneuver guards and avoid their lines of sight.

The main missions themselves divide the map into walled off sections so that each level feels like it has a sense of structure and progression to it. They also rarely reuse the same chunk of map, making each mission feel like a fresh challenge.

The mission-based gameplay also means that mistakes are far more bearable to deal with. Previously, a single alert or kill could ruin an otherwise perfect run-through. Now you have a chance to replay any mission you may have previously screwed up. Better yet, you can now pause the game and rewind to a checkpoint. Likewise, killing an enemy or triggering an alert isn’t an immediate disqualification for an S ranking: Perform well in a number of other categories and you’ll still earn enough points for a perfect rank.

The addition of Reflex Mode also helps immensely. Now, getting spotted slows the game down for a few brief seconds, giving you just enough time for you to neutralize an enemy or two to avoid detection. Far from removing any challenge, it gives you just enough “accident forgiveness” that you don’t feel cheated when you make just a little too much noise right before trying to grab an enemy solider. You can’t rely on it all the time, either. Sometimes the enemy is too far away or behind too much cover for you to pull off a headshot in time, and that means that you’re definitely screwed.

When that does happen, you’ll be paying for those alerts. The change to an open world means that the enemy bases have also grown large and complex. One fuck up and it could mean every soldier on staff coming to chase you down, complete with armored vehicles and helicopters (now where did I leave that Nikita missile launcher?).

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Mark my words, shooting your way out of a situation isn’t always easy. In fact, unless you disable a base’s comms system by blowing up their satellite dishes or radio equipment, more troops are guaranteed to keep flowing in. Because of this, avoiding alerts is often your best solution, not just because the game expects you to avoid a fight, but because you want to avoid it yourself.

Another welcome change is the replacement of the series’ lengthy codec calls with recorded cassette tapes. Rather than pausing the action for exposition, these cassette tapes can be listened to at any time whether you’re out in the field or simply scrolling through menus. The performances also feel more genuine: The dramatic soliloquys have more or less been replaced by candid conversations between the characters at Mother Base. Nevertheless, these cassette tapes are no less valuable at giving you all of the backstory you could ever need, whether it involves your mission, the geopolitical situation of the mid-eighties, or even the others characters.

Some fans might complain that there’s less story than previous installments of the game, but I found the trade-off quite pleasant. If anything, there’s more at stake in The Phantom Pain. Rather than simply following the mission, you are the mission. You, along with Kazuhira Miller and Revolver Ocelot, are (literally) “The Boss” of what get’s said and done. Miller and Ocelot remain your emotional lifelines on missions, and it feels less restrictive and puts you more in control of how you want to see those missions unfold.

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The Mother Base mechanics, which were introduced in Peace Walker, also pace the game out nicely. In between missions you get the chance to upgrade your base, manage your staff, and develop new weapons and upgrades for your missions. The loot you find on the battlefield also gets added to your stockpile, making exploration during excursions rewarding and fun. Soldiers that you tranquilize or knock out on the field can be directly added to your roster, which is an awesome and brilliant way to encourage stealth without having to resort to arbitrary end-game rankings.

Like any open-world game, however, The Phantom Pain does suffer some repetition to it if you choose to pursue every side-op available. How often you choose to pursue these side-ops is entirely up to you, of course. As Andrew puts it, how long you spend with this game depends on how addicted you get to it. For those of you fixated to making it to 100% compleition, though, it will tax you dearly – there are around 150 side-ops available, and most of them take around 20 minutes to complete. Frankly, I simply found it to be a chore.

Additionally, at the two-thirds mark you make it to “Chapter Two” of the story, which feels a lot less like a second chapter and more like an epilogue. The obvious emotional climax happens at the end of chapter one, and you wind up revisiting a lot of older missions on an increased difficulty setting, which only drags out the game longer than it needs to go. Most of the story here feels more like an add-on that could have been appended to the game before the actual resolution. If anything, this is my only complaint for the entire game – that it outstays its welcome just a bit longer than it even needs to.

Overall, however, The Phantom Pain‘s strengths far outweigh even its minor weaknesses. I’d easily give my 2015 Game of the Year nomination to it, and it’s no surprise that plenty of game outlets did just that. Just the fact that this game in available on PC made it a wonderful time for MGS to re-enter to my life.

The Bottom Line: The Phantom Pain is not just one of the best Metal Gear Solid games, but one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. In fact, it might just be the best open-world game out there right now.

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