It’s been one of the most anticipated 8th generation games for years now, but Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain finally landed earlier in September. It brought with it the wild imagination of series creator, Hideo Kojima, back to the Xbox ONE, PS4 and PC, following up its prequel, Ground Zeroes, with yet more tactical espionage operations. The defining factor in the latest entry in the series is the sheer freedom it gives you as you make your way through the action, and it’s this element that makes it such an impressive and immersive experience.
If you want detailed storyline and plot progression, you can get it in bucket-loads in the tapes that you collect and listen to along the way. If you want a stealth game, you can focus on that element, but equally if you want a shoot off, that’s well within the capabilities of the gameplay too. Essentially, The Phantom Pain is as good as you want it to be, or as good as you can imagine it to be, because it all comes down to you and how you make your plays in each mission. That’s not to say it’s entirely without its linear progression, but you do have a lot more freedom than in any other Metal Gear release.
The game is also available on the Xbox 360 and PS3 if you still haven’t moved on from the 7th gen devices yes, which has meant that the development of the game has been split between the old school and the new order. This always results in an element of compromise on the higher-end quality of the game, and while that’s the case here, it’s largely confined to graphics more than gameplay.
The game is set 9 years after the events of Ground Zeroes as Snake wakes up from a coma that spans the time gap since his last outing only to find that the Cypriot hospital he’s been kept safe in is under attack from a very sinister force. Your first challenge is escaping from the onslaught with a much weakened body and only one arm, so it’s incredibly tense right from the very beginning and it only gets freakier with the addition of supernatural attackers that appear to be unstoppable.
It makes for one of the most memorable opening scenes in gaming history and while the rest of the story doesn’t come anywhere close to living up to the cinematic early moments, it does set things up well for a great gaming experience. That’s not to say that there aren’t the odd one or two cool cut scenes to look forward to later in the game, but they’re not as prevalent as in previous games in the series and they’re not always as high impact as the opening sequences.
One of the oddities of the storyline delivery is the sheer silence of Snake in the cut scenes, which just feels out of place, especially compared to his chatty nature in Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater and his inquisitive questions on the many tape recordings you find as you make your way through the missions. Characters ask him questions and get no reply and lengthy reveals are met with stony silence, which makes the cut scenes a little forced.
The tapes are a bit laborious in general, but they are a good way of finding out more detail about the plot behind Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain. They’re worth swathing through, but they do take up a fair amount of time.
Snake’s antagonists in the game, the Cipher organisation, are pretty impressive in general and make for an overwhelming force to be reckoned with. They’ve got a complicated setup with some very unusual motivations and world view interpretations that give the story its focus. Snake, his newfound Diamond Dogs and his previously destroyed Militaires Sans Frontières are just part of the capital damage of Cipher’s grand master plan and it makes for some very cool gaming to immerse yourself in.
It’s here that the game has its fewest faults and those that do remain are minor in the extreme. While we hate approaching a shoulder high rock and not being able to hop up on top of it or a rocky cliff and not even being able to try to scale it, they’re small bug bears that you get used to with so many other things to enjoy in the game. However, if Hideo Kojima is looking for gameplay improvements we’d have to say ultimate character freedom would be one of them.
Now that we’ve got our only real gameplay negative out of the way it’s time to focus on what makes Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain so good, and the sum of it all is, conversely, is the sheer freedom you get in the game. While Snake as a playable character is completely flumaxed by a higher than usual rock formation, preventing him from getting to the best higher ground to spy and snipe from, he does have a whole lot of creative freedom throughout the missions.
There’s never one way to complete them as you can approach from any angle, try a variety of personal strategies to complete missions and change your mind half way through if things don’t look like they’re going well, or if you just get bored of your initial plan. It means the game feels like it’s genuinely all about you and how you want to take it on, so you can sneak past all guards silently in the dead of the night without disturbing a soul or you can butcher everyone in a melee of gunfire; you can creep up on each guard and kill them without reprieve if you’re good enough, or you can recruit them to the Diamond Dogs with the Fulton recovery kit as you go; you can plant C4 and detonate it remotely to destroy a military camp or your can hurl in a barrage of grenades to get the job done.
You get the point, the list could go on and on, but it’s one hell of a point and it makes for another exceptional game from Kojima and Konami. That’s not to say that your decisions don’t have their consequences or that some are easier to pull off than others, but it does mean that you’ve always got a number of options up your sleeve, depending on whether you’re in a live and let live frame of mind or you just want to see everything burn.
Snake’s move set is a big part of the freedom you have in the game with some very cool plays available, especially from the confines of the greatest espionage asset known to man, the cardboard box. From inside you can spring out of the top to hold up a guard like a Jack in a box, dish out some CQC, put them in a hold for interrogation or jump out the back and leave the box as a decoy for overly nosy enemies.
There’s also a lot of scope for great moves when using a wall or block for cover. Our favourite is to sneak up to around 15ft away from an enemy, crouch by the corner of a wall out of sight and use Snake’s new mechanical arm noise to get there attention. When they head over to investigate you can unleash a very nice CQC move on them that spins them around Snake fast and smashes them head first into the wall, leaving you with an easy Fulton extraction on your hands.
In general, the graphics are pretty impressive, especially with so much land and detail to cover in the game. However, they’re not as faultless as they could be on the Xbox ONE and PlayStation 4 and this is undoubtedly a result of having to develop the title for 7th generation gaming too, which always has an impact on time and resources. Draw distances are the biggest issue for us as rock formations and enemy building pop into existence in the background, tainting the experience just a little.
There’s also a question mark over the quality of the animation when galloping at speed on your horse. While it is pretty smart in general, it does throw up a fair few anomalies as you go. We can’t help but think it could have been fixed if development had a bit more time to focus on making it as slick as possible for the current gen consoles, instead of trying to get Xbox 360 and PS3 versions out the door too.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of great graphics to look forward to, as the landscape is beautifully rendered with a frightening amount of detail built into it. The rest of the animation is incredibly responsive and lifelike, making for an absorbing and entertaining thrill ride with some great sequences for mounting your horse or sprinting in the field.
Faces are a triumph in the game too, looking more like real people than artificially rendered skin, hair and eyes. There’s probably just a little too much shine at times, but in general they look very credible, even the random soldiers out in the field. Perhaps the best example of this is Snake’s sniper buddy Quiet, but equally the sheer level of detail behind her distinct lack of clothing throughout the entire game only exacerbates the criticism The Phantom Pain has received for her fashion sense. From our point of view, we’re surprised it’s created the fuss that it has, as it’s not the first time a Metal Gear Solid character has appeared wearing skimpy clothing. EVA was regularly undone at the best of times in Snake Eater, but somehow a tie-front bikini top is going too far. You don’t see anybody complaining about Jax’s chest being out in Mortal Kombat X, so we’re not going to pick holes in Quiet’s attire (it’s got enough of those as it is).
Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain review score: 4.4/5