Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Konami Digital Entertainment
Open World Action Adventure
PC (Reviewed), PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One
September 1, 2015
₹999 (PC), ₹2999 (PS3, Xbox 360), ₹3599 (PS4, Xbox One)
Over the last three decades, Hideo Kojima has crafted an elaborate tale extending over half a century in the form of the Metal Gear franchise. While the bulk of the series features Solid Snake’s story set in the early 21st century, it has occasionally switched back to the past with Big Boss operating during the Cold War era. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain picks up Big Boss (or Venom Snake) in 1984, nine years after the events of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Over the decades, the series has evolved considerably, and Metal Gear Solid V is no exception.
It all starts with a breathless prologue, which assimilates the finest elements of Metal Gear Solid 4 into one potent package. However, from thereon, Metal Gear Solid V takes on a very different persona – one that is a distinct departure from its predecessors.
After the dissolution of MSF (the private military company Snake previously headed) following the events of Ground Zeroes, Snake and surviving members of the MSF set out to build a new mercenary unit from scratch – Diamond Dogs. Therein lies the core of Metal Gear Solid V – developing Diamond Dogs into a powerful private army, and the game reflects this, essentially being a complex military sim. It all starts with the Mother Base. Snake is sent out on missions, often for private contractors, with the objective of gathering resources to expand the Mother Base and its personnel. Over the course of the game, we are periodically reminded that there’s an overarching plot and an ultimate objective which carries over from Ground Zeroes and the prologue of Metal Gear Solid V. The stage is set – Metal Gear Solid V is all about gameplay, with narrative taking a firm back seat.
The Mother Base starts off with a single Command Platform with a handful of people, based on top of what is presumably a defunct oil rig off the shores of Seychelles. From there, we get to expand it into a massive complex over the course of the game. At its height, with six units, nine platforms, and hundreds of personnel (each of whom can be managed individually) this is not just a side game, but a deep, full-fledged sim – a game of its own.
To keep the Mother Base funded, Diamond Dogs take up private military contracts. However, it’s not just Snake heading to the field, he’s ably assisted by buddies as well as intel and support teams. The R&D team keeps churning out new weapons, tools and upgrades. All of this is managed and upgraded from the Mother Base. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be Snake, any of the soldiers in the Combat Unit can be selected, including women. There are separate combat units which can be assembled and deployed on parallel missions, gathering resources and intel alongside Snake’s missions.
Once out in the field, we are dropped somewhere in the vague mission area, with an indefinite objective. From there, we are left to our own devices, being told “How you do it is up to you”. This is not just a cool quote, but also sums up the chief design concepts of this game. Indeed, the objective is just a guideline, and there are multiple ways to finish each mission, wherein you make your own objective. You would even be congratulated for ignoring the given objective and executing the mission in a better way! Some missions do have rigid requirements, usually those crucial to the story.
The open world in Metal Gear Solid V is more akin to Far Cry or Crysis than The Witcher 3 or GTA V – designed chiefly to expand gameplay possibilities rather than immerse us in the story and its world. The barren canyons and dunes of Afghanistan or the equally wild Angolan Savannah aren’t particularly interesting visually, neither are the buildings and mission areas. The environments do have a degree of intractability, but nothing special. Free roam and exploration isn’t very rewarding as both worlds are rather small and repetition sets in quickly.
While the open world may not offer much innovation, the gameplay within it is another matter. Metal Gear Solid V is not just a stealth game, but a truly open sandbox, a semi-realistic representation of a real-world tactical espionage operation. Combined with support from Mother Base, a seemingly endless plethora of equipment options, the weather and time-of-day systems, interacting with the environment, a surprisingly dynamic AI, changing objectives etc., all opens up almost infinite possibilities.
Not every mechanic is polished and there are several inconsistencies. There are times where the game’s design does exceed the limits of current technology. However, as a sum of its parts, Metal Gear Solid V is remarkably well balanced, and offers the most comprehensive and all-encompassing action gameplay I have ever experienced in a game. I have deliberately shied away from citing examples and discussing specific systems – this game is far too dynamic and complex for that. However, if I had to mention one, it would be the hilarious Fulton surface-to-air recovery device.
Personally, I found the stealth approach not just tense and exciting, but also most effective for most missions. But my main motivation for going stealth was extracting soldiers, vehicles, animals and equipment covertly using Fulton, for Diamond Dog’s benefit. Why kill or destroy stuff when you can use them instead?
The beauty of it is it doesn’t have to be like that for everyone and/or every mission. In a nutshell, Metal Gear Solid V does to gameplay what The Witcher did for narrative, striving to making a game truly dynamic, shaped around the player’s choices, distinct from scripted constructs like books or movies. Of course, there’s a debate to be had here, does the scripted game make for a better experience? Perhaps, but a dynamic game does offer a truly personal experience and greater replayability. Indeed, games like Metal Gear Solid V or The Witcher 3 must be played multiple times to be truly appreciated.
Kojima-san has borrowed liberally from science fiction movies, manga and anime in the past, and this has been reflected in convoluted plots, extended cutscenes, and colourful characters, reaching its peak in Metal Gear Solid 4. The prologue in Metal Gear Solid V promises much of the same. However, as Episode 1 (each mission is structured as an episode) rolls, it is clear the approach to story is starkly minimalist. For the first third of the game, there’s very little to remind us of the characters introduced in Ground Zeroes or Prologue. Given the game’s multitude of complex gameplay systems, an absolute focus on gameplay may have been a necessity to not overwhelm the players. In fact, I was still discovering new approaches by the end game! Over the course of the game, the overarching story becomes more intertwined with the missions. By the end of Chapter 1, it does evolve into an intriguing narrative, though one that features familiar tropes and caricatures, particularly from manga/anime series.
Chapter 1 will generally be accepted as the main game. Confusingly, Chapter 2 serves as more of an unstructured epilogue to tie some of the story’s loose ends together, with several optional missions, rather than second half of the game. For long time Metal Gear fans, Chapter 2 is a must play that reveals bits of story details that tie together the events in Metal Gear Solid V to the rest of the series. In terms of gameplay, Chapter 2 doesn’t offer much that is new, and most of the same mission areas from Chapter 1 are reused, leading to a lot of repetition. Chapter 2 is destined to remain controversial and debated upon for years to come.
After sitting out Metal Gear Solid 3 and Metal Gear Solid 4, the series is back on the PC with V. The game’s visuals aren’t quite cutting edge, but more of an enhanced console port. There’s a special emphasis on the people. Faces, facial motion capture, character animation, equipment and armour, are all top notch.
During my playthrough, I didn’t encounter a single major bug, or any crashes. It chugged along at a very consistent 60 fps. Fox Engine is surprisingly scalable as well, running reasonably on modestly powered systems well below the official minimum requirements. Given the scope of the game, this level of polish and stability is unprecedented! That said, your mileage may vary, and there have been reports of a couple of game-breaking bugs.
Unlike its predecessors, Metal Gear Solid V’s cutscenes are few, sharp and short. What it lacks in quantity, it more than makes up for with exquisite quality. The general style is similar to movies like Children of Men – handheld with long takes. The handheld aesthetic has often been imitated in games and animated movies, but it has never quite looked right. Metal Gear Solid V finally offers a convincing imitation. Most cutscenes play out in a single shot, without any cuts. While in films like Gravity this technique calls great attention to itself, Metal Gear Solid V’s lack of cuts are so well constructed and executed that it is almost invisible and perfectly effective.
The sound is well attuned to gameplay, adapting dynamically between the environment and the equipment donned by people. However, while concepts like exaggerated footsteps and weapon clanks are useful cues for gameplay, they just don’t sound as pleasant. Just like every aspect of the game, the visuals and sound are tuned in favour of gameplay utility over aesthetic immersion.
Given the scaling back of cutscenes, there’s not a lot of dialogue, although what is there is generally well acted. Much of the voices are relegated to radio comm and cassette tapes, which serve as exposition for both specific missions and the overall story. A bulk of the voices heard are thus likely to be Miller and Ocelot, both of whom are very well voiced. Also available as collectible tapes are amusingly cheesy 80’s pop songs. The music of Metal Gear Solid V is par for the course in modern action movies and games – a mix of electronic and orchestral. It’s well done, but not particularly fresh or memorable. In the field, particularly engaging are the enemy soldier’s chatter and reactions to your actions, in their native languages. When the gameplay devolves into lethal combat, there’s a feeling of palpable terror and chaos created by their vocal outbursts.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is one of those rare events that offers us a glimpse into the future of gaming. Sure, there are moments where Metal Gear Solid V’s execution doesn’t live up to its substantial ambition, and often taking the safe route would seem like the more pragmatic option. Chapeau to Kojima-san and the good folks at Kojima Productions (RIP) then, for being uncompromisingly ambitious and doing their bit to propel the medium forward.
+ Free flowing, dynamic gameplay
+ Mother Base military management simulation
+ Endless customisation and player choice
- Story structure
- Sparse open world
- Chapter 2