Metal Gear Solid V is several AAA titles’ worth of game, all improbably rolled into one product.
The first game is the one in the screenshot below. The key gameplay element of the MGS series has always been stealth, and it’s true that MGS V has the single most finely-tuned stealth system since the inception of the genre. You spend a lot of your time in MGS V crawling on your belly through high grass and behind obstacles, hoping the guard who caught a glimpse of you loses interest, and with your silenced tranquiliser pistol prepped as a backup in case he doesn’t.
The second MGS V is the game where you go loud. Perhaps you’ve been spotted during a stealthy infiltration, or perhaps you made a conscious decision to start the mission loaded for bear – either way, MGS V handles firefights almost as adeptly as it does stealth. Its weapons handle well and have a real sense of heft and impact about them, while its guards are a genuine threat if there’s more than two of them shooting at you. You can play it like a classic third-person shooter almost the entire way through if you want. MGS V makes no judgements except for certain withheld bonuses in your end-of-mission score.
The *third* MGS V is the game where you don’t quite eschew stealth, you simply go about it in a different way: sprinting towards guards at full speed and punching them into unconsciousness with your bionic arm before they can react and sound an alarm, complete with “Whuh-nuh-nuh-nuh!” Six Million Dollar Man sound effects. Then you attach a balloon to them so that they can float into the stratosphere to be collected by a plane and taken back to your floating oil rig base, where they’re brainwashed into joining your own personal private army for hire.
The fourth MGS V is the game where you’re maybe having difficulty with a certain strongpoint or guard post. Instead of going loud, though, you call in a support strike from your staff back at the base. Sixty seconds later the outpost has been smothered in sleeping gas delivered via artillery shell and the guards are all snoring loudly, leaving you free to continue on your way. Vehicles are a bit trickier, but that’s where your support helicopter comes in; one quick radio message and it’ll come in hot blaring Rebel Yell over its externally-mounted speaker system to incinerate anything it can see with rockets, missiles and machine-gun fire.
The fifth MGS V is the game where you don’t bother with any of this. Instead you spend your time managing your staff, base facilities and weapons research at Mother Base, your expandable base of operations. Perhaps you’re just there to wash off the blood (you’ll start to attract flies if you spend too long in the field without a shower), perhaps you’re there to trigger one of the many, many cutscenes that take place at Mother Base, or maybe you’re not even there at all – all of Mother Base’s functions can be managed from your iDroid personal companion device. Then you’ve got FOB infiltrations and a weird sort of fantasy football league that pits your PMC against others of a similar level. You can spend literally hours in this thing if you’re not careful.
Overwrought intro aside, though, for me personally MGS V is the game that very nearly made a successful challenge to the Witcher 3 for my Game Of The Year So Far award. Ex-Konami idiot-savant-in-chief Hideo Kojima’s MGS swansong is one of the most complete games I can remember in terms of mechanics. It’s something that flips the traditional idea of the go-anywhere, do-anything open world on its head; it chooses not to focus solely on a single huge map full of pointless markers for you to check off your to-visit list, but instead presents you with an ever-expanding array of missions, methods and systems to master, to the point where twenty hours into the game you are still being given brand new things to try. This isn’t like the notoriously long Assassin’s Creed tutorials where they don’t take the training wheels off until halfway through the plot, mind. MGS V has a prologue/tutorial section that is a tad overlong at around ninety minutes, but after that you have access to all of your basic tools. Everything you’re given after this point is either something you develop yourself via the game’s R&D interface, or something extra that supplements the core gameplay without ever supplanting it.
What *is* that core gameplay, though? I must confess that aside from 2013’s excellent Metal Gear Rising spinoff I haven’t played a Metal Gear game since MGS 2, so for all I know the series has been heading in this direction for a while, but I was a little surprised to find that the heart of Metal Gear Solid V is an open-ended series of missions that you’re free to approach in just about any of the ways outlined above, and at least a dozen more besides. You’re told what the mission objectives are and then taken to the deployment screen to choose your loadout – this is where you can choose to equip anything from flashbangs to shotguns to having a whole tank dropped in with you if you feel like it. Then you’re inserted into the mission area at one of three or four helicopter landing points (you get to choose which) and from that point on MGS V leaves you to get on with it. As long as you accomplish the mission objectives it doesn’t particularly care *how* you do it, and while some missions are time-limited or have other restrictions they’re handled in a way that feels wonderfully natural.
An example. One of the mid-game missions is to extract a pair of engineers who have vital information pertaining to MGS V’s incomprehensible plot. They’re being held in a camp that’s about a kilometre and a half away from the nearest insertion point, but that’s not a problem – I’d researched certain upgrades that let protagonist Venom Snake (aka Big Boss, aka A Very Disinterested Kiefer Sutherland) run at Usain Bolt-like speeds and so I beelined straight for the objective, bypassing all of the checkpoints and guard posts on the way. A good thing too, because I arrived just in time to see one of the engineers slipping out of the back of a tent and staggering away across the sand dunes. As I was pondering how the hell I was going to get him out without the ten nearby guards noticing I heard the sound of an approaching jeep heading straight for the would-be escapee. Two guards get out. They’re mere feet away from spotting the engineer, and I assume that bad things are going to happen if they find him, so I unsling my silenced sniper rifle and pop them both in the head with tranquilisers before they can put two bullets into my objective.
This was risky. The guards in MGS V are reasonably alert when judged by the standard of your typical NPC goon; they’ll hear bodies hitting the floor out to about ten metres, and if you try to abduct somebody via balloon (it’s a long story, don’t ask) they’ll hear that from around thirty metres away. Their vision range is restricted at night, but thanks to the game’s dynamic difficulty system (that gives the guards powerups in response to the way you play the game, so a lot of headshots with sniper rifles means the guards all start wearing bulletproof helmets) there were two more guards in the nearby camp who had night-vision goggles that stripped away my darkness advantage. There was every chance they might have noticed me putting the guards to sleep, and it’s not easy to dispose of the comatose body of a guard unless you use a balloon – which would have *definitely* rumbled me.
So now I have to finish the mission before the camp guards decide to change up their patrol routes and trip over their snoring friends. I manage to extract engineer number one okay, but then I realise that engineer two is no longer in the tent; they’re moving him to another jeep to transport him who knows where. I have seconds to decide what to do, and my eventual decision is to go loud – but non-lethally. Because the majority of the guards at the camp are now escorting the prisoner to his waiting vehicle they’re all nicely bunched up, and so I fling my entire stash of 6 smoke grenades into their midst. Smoke grenades in MGS V not only block vision, but they’ll also temporarily incapacitate anyone who isn’t wearing a gas mask (which is another guard powerup that they acquire in response to you getting a little too fond of sleeping gas), and I managed to catch all but two guards inside the choking, billowing smoke cloud. I *could* have tranquilised these two, but the smoke doesn’t last long and I need to knock out all eight before it clears, and so I end up sprinting towards them at full speed to take them on in hand to hand combat.
If you do this during an actual fight when guards are alerted it’s practically a guaranteed trip to the Mission Failed screen. If you haven’t put them into a full combat alert, though, you can take advantage of MGS V’s stealth safety net: Reflex Mode. Reflex mode triggers whenever you get spotted by a previously unaware guard; it sends the game into slow motion for three or four seconds, which usually gives you just enough time to try and headshot them with a tranquiliser dart before they radio in your position. It’s supposed to provide a last chance to salvage a stealth run without provoking the guards into a combat alert (after which things get much trickier as they’ll man any nearby heavy weapons, send out search parties and even call in star shells and mortar strikes on your position). If you’re skirting the razor’s edge between stealth and violence, though, reflex mode turns into one of your most useful weapons. Yes, you *can* use it to score easy headshots, but this is of limited use against helmeted guards and downright useless against fully-armoured heavy infantry. All guards are helpless against close-quarter combat moves, however, and it just so happens that the time it takes Snake to sprint the last ten metres separating him and a guard is just a smidgen less than the reflex mode time interval between a guard spotting him and raising the alarm.
This smart use of both the tools at my disposal and the fundamental mechanics of the game meant that rather than being ganged up on and gunned down in a hail of bullets, Snake instead hit that clump of mostly-incapacitated guards like a human wrecking ball, taking out one after another in slow-motion CQC. None of them ever got the chance to raise an alarm (which also alerts other nearby bases in the area) because they were too busy being chokeslammed into the dirt. Once they were all safely unconscious I ballooned them all, got the engineer out of the jeep, ballooned him, and then exfiltrated the hot zone by ballooning myself on top of a cargo container.
There was some use of scripting in this mission, to be sure. The prisoner escaping, the guards turning up to find him, the second prisoner being readied for transport away from the guard post — all of these things were scripted events. Crucially in this world of barely-interactive movies a la CoD, though, this scripting took place entirely independently of my actions in the mission. I didn’t hit any triggers in the level that activated any of that stuff, but there was instead an invisible clock counting down from the moment I was inserted into the mission area. I have no doubt that had I been a little slower in getting to that camp, the first engineer would have been executed and the second would have been transported to a more fortified position. This is a *good* use of scripting, and a refreshing one after playing so many games where scripted events only fire if the player is around to see them happen. It gives the impression that the world is a truly open one where things happen without your involvement – because they do. The mission briefing had mentioned that there was some time pressure involved, but a hundred over-scripted experiences in other games had conditioned me to believe this was nothing but flavour. This is a really neat way to spice up the missions, and a far better one than having a big clock in the corner of the screen telling you to hurry up before something bad happens to the people you’re supposed to be rescuing.
A note on ballooning, since I’ve only mentioned it in passing and it deserves *some* explanation: you can steal things from the mission area by attaching balloons to them. Whatever you’ve ballooned will hang in mid-air for a few seconds and then shoot into the stratosphere, where the sound of a plane tells you it’s been picked up by your friends for transport back to your base. You can steal quite a large variety of stuff in this way. Guards are the most common example, as any unconscious or wounded guards can be transported back to base to staff the various departments in your base. There’s a little analyser device you can research for your binoculars that tells you how skilled each guard is in the various areas of expertise – R&D, Support, Intel, Medicine and so on — and you start specifically targeting guards with A+ ranks for abduction as a highly-skilled R&D department is required to research the higher-end toys. This is a genius mechanic in several ways; not only does it add this weird Pokemon-esque element to the game, but it also means that there *is* an indirect cost to going loud as you run the risk of killing off excellent potential staff members for your base. Odd as it sounds to say it, guards are resources in MGS V, and if you don’t play it stealthily – or at least non-lethally – you deplete these resources.
You can steal other things that aren’t guards, of course. This includes animals for your base “conservation area” (i.e. a zoo) because this is a Kojima game and the stealing-things-via-balloon mechanic wasn’t going to be weird enough without this odd sub-activity of hunting down and capturing rare wildlife. It also includes mounted machine guns, mortars, AA emplacements, jeeps, trucks, armoured vehicles and, uh, tanks. In order to balloon a tank you need to sneak up on it first, but once you do you’ll get the tank AND the guards sat inside it. The tank can then either be sold for cash, sent along with your combat team in one of the Assassin’s Creed-esque NPC contract missions that happen in the background, or dropped into the mission area with you if you feel you particularly need a big, noisy death machine during your stealth infiltration. Finally there’s cargo containers, which contain a big stash of raw resources that your base can process to be used in equipment research/manufacture and facility construction. If the primary feature of Metal Gear Solid V is stealth (with some excellent gunplay attached), then ballooning is something that comes in a very close second. It helps that it’s invariably hilarious to watch – hearing a tranquilised guard’s sleepy “Whuh… huh?” transform into a panicked scream as he gets hoisted skywards never gets old, and doing it to animals is even better.
You might have noticed that I’ve been mentioning a lot of game mechanics in passing without going into too much detail – the base construction and management, the acquisition of the resources you need to do this, the FOB missions that count as MGS V’s multiplayer mode, the fantasy football league thing, the side missions, the insanely in-depth weapon customisation mode, the buddy system (I really wish I had time to go into the buddy system because there are elements of it I really like) — I could write a lot more about all of these things, but then this review would turn into a book and it’s already running to several thousand words long. There is a *lot* of game here. One or two of these features are underdeveloped or fall a bit flat, but that’s to be expected when there’s just so many of them; the majority are at least solid additions that make the base gameplay more interesting, and that base gameplay itself has been polished to within an inch of its life.
I just wish I could say the same about MGS V’s story.
This is the single significant black mark against the Phantom Pain, but it’s a pretty huge one. The story is the Phantom Pain’s Achilles’ heel. Almost everything about it is — or turns out to be — incomprehensible and terrible at the same time. I hadn’t played MGS 3 (which introduced this version of Snake) but it turned out that didn’t really matter as most of the setup for Phantom Pain happened in Peace Walker, an iteration of Metal Gear that *nobody* played because it was on the PSP. There’s a bit of groundwork laid in Ground Zeroes, the two-hour prequel to MGS V, which at least shows you the helicopter crash that puts Snake in a coma for nine years prior to Phantom Pain, but it does nothing to introduce any of the characters or factions and largely just assumes you know who they are already. Perhaps this is intentional; at the start of the game Snake is just coming out of that coma and struggling to to come to grips with a world that’s moved on without him, so maybe the disjointed nature of the plot was supposed to reflect that in some way.
I doubt it, though. Even if it’s true, that’s just an excuse that for all the time and effort lavished on the gameplay — and it’s hardly wasted effort, since it ensures MGS V is an excellent game irrespective of its dud story — it turns out to be yet another unfinished game, or at least one that seems to have been severely truncated. None of the characters are compelling, none of the plot threads introduced are resolved in a satisfying way, and once the game segues into Chapter Two it becomes painfully clear that rather than functioning as a lengthy coda to the game it’s simply the place where they put all of the unfinished plot, and none of it makes any sense. As a result the game peters out on something of a bum note, which is a shame considering the act of playing it is so damn pleasurable. The Witcher 3 suffered from something of the same affliction with an Act 3 that was far weaker than either of the preceding two chapters, but it at least recovered in time to give itself a decent sendoff at the end. By contrast when you finish Phantom Pain you’re left thinking “And that was it?” It’s never a good way to end a game, and that goes double for a forty-hour epic like the Phantom Pain.
If MGS V’s story has one saving grace, it’s that the lengthy cutscenes the series has become known for are almost entirely absent. It *has* cutscenes, and the cutscenes that it has are very stylish and well-directed, if only because a scene where a bloodied Snake stares into a mirror while that music plays over the top is going to come off as dramatic no matter what else you do to it (it’s something else I don’t have time to go into in detail, but the soundtrack to this game is invariably excellent). However their incidence is just barely more frequent than you would expect from an AAA title instead of comprising over half of your “playing” time. Much of the backstory is instead relegated to the now-ubiquitous audio logs, which you listen to while travelling from place to place on your horse/in your jeep (there is no fast travel in MGS V) and which *still* make absolutely no sense whatsoever, but at least they’re entirely optional this time.
(I realise after writing this that there’s actually another saving grace: probably 60-70% of the missions you go on are completely standalone and don’t relate to the main plot at all, except maybe through some extremely convoluted reasoning that you’ll forget five seconds after listening to the mission briefing. This makes it much easier to treat the missions as a series of interesting, intricate challenges that you go on for their own sake rather than because you want to find out what’s going to happen next in the story.)
So the Phantom Pain is basically the dictionary definition of “Flawed masterpiece”. If you can somehow get your brain to turn the plot off it is an amazing game. It has enough gameplay content to put any other open world game that isn’t the Witcher 3 to shame, even if it doesn’t make a tremendously good use of the open world itself – it’s more of an attitude that it brings to its mission design and the options it gives to the player. That last quarter of the game really hurts it, though, as even if you’re ignoring the plot it’s noticeably less polished than the previous thirty hours you just played through. I understand MGS V had a protracted, troubled development, and from what I can see here Kojima ran out of time and was told he had to get what he had out the door. It’s riddled throughout with his particular brand of genius touched by madness — or perhaps the other way around, given the whole business with Quiet — but he could have done with somebody looking over his shoulder who had the power to do some more brutal cutting; you could jettison almost all of Chapter 2 and slot the bits that work into Chapter 1 and I think you end up with a much stronger game. Given how beefy MGS V already is, that’s a hell of a missed opportunity.