Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – A review

Video games are not taken seriously. Great games are never appreciated the way great movies, albums, or books are. Even though there are some really phenomenal ones, games are mostly seen as geeky, silly things for kids or immature adults. And that’s a shame since a great game can have just as big of an effect on you as any other type of media.

Two games now stand out among the best media I’ve seen. Two video games that have floored me and left me in awe at the power of the experience. The first was The Last of Us, a remarkable achievement in gripping and emotional storytelling that showed that the best games are capable of. Now, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain joins it as one of the most amazing entertainment experiences I’ve had; a groundbreaking, immersive experience that will go unmatched.

Consumed. My life was consumed by this game for 19 days. When hanging out with my friend Sean, I would bring my PS4 and this game to his house since just his company wasn’t enough. I needed to go through this journey. As I sat at work, I found myself thinking about the game all day. The story is thrilling, and the gameplay and visuals are all so perfectly done, I spent nearly every waking hour thinking about it.

Before you read on, let me just make sure you know this game has some wonderful, savage violence.
Before you read on, let me just make sure you know this game has some wonderful, savage violence.

It took me somewhere between 55-60 hours to beat the main story. I’ve put in tons of hours into games before, but I’ve never had to put that much time into just beating a story in one playthrough. And I’m not even done with all the side quests! This takes a pretty hefty time commitment, but it is damn fun. There is simply so much to do and praise, there’s no way I can touch it all in this very lengthy post.

I have already dedicated another lengthy post to something really dumb in this game: Quiet’s lack of clothing. But all of the best things have some flaws. The Godfather has Talia Shire’s acting. Despite the rampant sexism and stupidity in Quiet’s appearance, the rest of this game is absolutely incredible.

The year is 1984. You assume the role of Punished Snake/Venom Snake/Big Boss (the guy needs a lot of code names), having woken from the nine-year coma he fell into at the end of last year’s little prologue game, Ground Zeroes. At this point I should admit I am biased in my enjoyment of this game.

You see, Kiefer Sutherland lent his voice to Snake in GZ and now this game. Kiefer Sutherland is one of my favorite human beings of all time, and to have him as the voice of Snake only served to take an already legendary and badass character and make him even better.

Athos, Jack Bauer, and now Snake. Kiefer Sutherland has done it all.
Athos, Jack Bauer, and now Snake. Kiefer Sutherland has done it all.

This game serves as the last of several prequel games, taking place about a decade before Metal Gear, the game released nearly 30 years ago that actually started the whole series. While the first releases in the series were spent as Solid Snake, we’ve gone back in time to learn the legend of Big Boss, the original Snake. This time around, Boss is out for revenge on Skull Face, the dastardly commander that destroyed Snake’s private military force in 1975. Revenge is the goal, and you cut a bloody swath across beautifully rendered deserts and jungles trying to accomplish it.

The story in this game was very oddly paced and executed, but it works. Where MGS 4 had absurdly long cutscenes, The Phantom Pain and relies on the use of cassettes you can listen to in your Walkman – at your own pace – while free roaming at your home base, trekking across Afghanistan or Africa, or just hanging out in your helicopter command center. It was a very different and unexpected storytelling device, but it was really cool.

This isn’t The Last of Us, which was loaded with emotional heft and straight to the point. The story here is revealed through sprawling, unconventional means. You’re sucked in at the beginning, dying to see how Boss’ quest for revenge plays out, but it is all revealed through a strange narrative. People say the story feels sparse, but if you listen to the cassettes it is very substantial. One of the problems with the MGS series is that its plot is a little (see: very) convoluted. TPP takes a myriad of plot threads and manages to craft an engaging and exciting story out of them by tucking some things away in cassettes for exposition and focusing the cutscenes on the major developments in the quest for revenge.

If you keep failing missions, you can wear a chicken hat so the enemies don't see you. I only had to take that step once, I swear.
This series has always had a quirky sense of humor. In this one, if you keep failing missions, you can wear a chicken hat so the enemies don’t see you. I only had to take that step once, I swear.

However, if you aren’t a big MGS fan and aren’t familiar with the story of the series, you probably won’t find it all that cool. You’ll probably be ridiculously confused by most of what is going on, and you won’t want to take the time to listen to the cassettes because you’ll be like, “Why would I have to do this?” This is an incredible game to be sure, but it is very much a game for huge fans of the series.

There is also a big criticism of the story floating around on the interwebs. It has become clear that publisher Konami cut content from the game, and people are saying the story feels incomplete. Konami had a very high-profile falling out with series director Hideo Kojima, and the feeling is that Konami pushed Kojima’s team to release the game before it was finished.

It doesn’t really feel like this game is incomplete. Yes, there are some loose ends in the story, but they don’t feel like glaring omissions that cheapen the end result, just things we can speculate on happening in the years between this and Metal Gear. Ok, there is one thing that seems kind of important that is left dangling out there. But honestly, two days after finishing the game, it hasn’t detracted from my enjoyment in the slightest. As somebody who has spent a year and a half studying Kojima’s last 30 years of storytelling, I am satisfied with how it all played out and I love the methods he chose to do it.

The other MGS games have been linear stories. You do mission after mission, watch cutscenes, and put together the story in one cohesive movement like a movie. The Phantom Pain is totally open world. After the prologue to get a feel for the controls, you’re just plopped in the middle of Afghanistan and told to go. From there, you take on main story missions or any of the 150+ side missions when you feel like it, and you can complete them using a variety of tactics and methods.

The openness of this game is really stunning. When you deploy for a mission, you can choose to go in at nighttime or in the daylight, and you have to wear the appropriate camo for the time of day and the terrain of the mission area. You can go in guns blazing and arm yourself to the teeth like Rambo, or try to go in full stealth and tranq everybody or choke them out.

Just a boy and his dog...
Just a boy and his dog…

There is the “buddy system,” which allows you to bring a partner along for the ride. You can bring your dog, who marks off enemies and important details in the environment. You can bring Quiet, the sniper who can wipe out everybody for you. It is amazing how different your experience can be from another player’s just based on what time you start your mission, and the gear and buddy you choose to bring along. Or you can replay a mission with a totally different loadout for a new experience.

And the gameplay is unreal. It runs on the Fox Engine, an engine Konami may never be using again since they are parting ways with Kojima and his team, and now focusing on mobile games rather than console games. That is sad since game looks and feels amazing. It is easily the best looking PS4 game, and it plays so well. Batman: Arkham Knight looked wonderful, but it could feel clunky and you saw the occasional glitch. TPP is shocking since in all that time I pumped into the game, I never experienced any sort of glitches or had any issues with the visuals. It ran so well.

In TPP, you can hoof it, you can crawl around, you can ride a horse, you can ride around in tanks and jeeps, and all of it feels smooth. You can get in huge shootouts or stealthily maneuver your way through enemy territory, and it always feels natural and comfortable. And it always looks perfect. It is movie quality at all times.

Neat mechanic. You have to return to base occasionally and shower to get the blood off of you, otherwise your troops will find you disgusting.
Neat mechanic. You have to return to base occasionally and shower to get the blood off of you, otherwise your troops will find you disgusting.

One kind of weird, but still pretty awesome thing. Time is a loose concept when it comes to the licensed music in this game. Sure it is 1984, but you can hear the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” (1992) and Europe’s “Final Countdown” (1986). But you also get songs you would hear in that time time period, like A-ha’s “Take On Me,”  Hall & Oates’ “Maneater,” and Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell.” Needless to say, this is pretty much the greatest use of licensed music in any game ever.

There is an online component to the game that is totally optional. I love that decision since it would really kill the immersion in the single player experience if you kept getting sucked out to do things online. I can’t comment on it past that since I was locked into the story so I didn’t go online ever.

My only real complaint about the game, aside from Quiet’s nakedness, is the mechanic of visiting your troops at Mother Base, your private army’s headquarters. Mother Base is a massive plant out near the Seychelles. In another amazing mechanic, you get to recruit troops and build more platforms for the base to increase your staff capacity, and ultimately reap rewards from it. Really cool stuff. The only problem is that you have to come back to visit the troops occasionally to keep morale up. As you build more platforms, it takes freaking forever. Like, seriously, it takes so long to visit all of the platforms and find some random soldiers to dap up. It does give you a good opportunity to listen to some of those cassettes, though!

Thanks to this balloon extraction system, you can recruit new soldiers, or even save animals from Soviet turf!
Thanks to this balloon extraction system, you can recruit new soldiers, or even save animals from Soviet turf!

Other than that, this is a phenomenal piece of art. It even includes the MGS staple of over-the-top dialogue, like Skull Face’s instantly classic screaming of “WHOOO?!” You build up a home base, you manage an army, you save child soldiers, you save animals, you kill Soviets, and its openness really gives you full control over how things play out. What more do you really need out of a game?

It is also worth noting that Hideo Kojima may be the world’s greatest David Bowie fan. Snake’s army is named Diamond Dogs, a nod to the Bowie album and song. The game takes place in 1984, a nod to the song from the Diamond Dogs album. It opens with Midge Ure’s cover of “The Man Who Sold the World.” This isn’t the first time Kojima has given a nod to Bowie, either. That says a lot about how awesome Kojima is.

When judging media, the best compliment you can give something is saying you will never experience anything like it again. There are so many common tropes in media and so many people have riffed on the same ideas, so when something can come along and still break the mold and leave you stunned, you know it is special. It is why people went insane for Mad Max: Fury Road.

Metal Gear Solid V is unlike any game I’ve played before, and I will never play anything like it again. The way it plays, the way the story moves, and the way it looks are just unbelievable and so unlike any other game. Now that I’m done with it, I find myself thinking about it even more than I did while I was playing it. That’s the sign of a game with a lasting impact, and a work of art that should really be appreciated.