Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain review

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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is excellent. It’s hugely ambitious with sky high expectations from it ravenous fan base, and yet it still manages to surprise, even astound us with its excellence. However, this is not the Metal Gear Solid experience you were necessarily expecting.

Metal Gear Solid V kicks off after the events of the prequel Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes title. Protagonist, Big boss, has been in a coma for nine years following the attack on Mother Base at the end of Ground Zeroes, with the world largely believing he’s dead. Once you come to, the adversarial private military force XOF quickly try to kill you, finishing the job they started back in Ground Zeroes, and after an exhilarating escape from a hospital in Greece, begins the journey of revenge for Big Boss and his allies.

The first hour is utterly superb, hitting a sense of exhilaration seldom seen in the medium, let alone the stealth genre. It’s a brilliant way to kick off the story, bringing the classic, comic-book, over-the-top villains and action to centre stage in much the same vein as previous entries in the series. However, after this intense sequence the tone shifts dramatically to a more subtle and serious one. It can’t help but feel incongruous. However, after mere minutes in the first open-world location, Afghanistan, new qualities come to light.

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This is a very different Metal Gear Solid, the cut scenes are typically short, the dialogue snappy, the sense of freedom immense. Instead, actions speak louder than words, and you’re not simply watching a tale and interacting with it loosely, you too are put through your paces.

The Phantom Pain is expertly crafted to frustrate, bewilder and delight you in highly precise manners, with the intension to make you feel like you’ve experienced similar emotions and struggles to Big Boss, and it achieves this brilliantly. Revenge seems so simple to begin with but becomes more complex as you chase it. Much in the same way your rebuilt Mother Base starts as a small installation and grows to include hundreds of staff that support you on the battlefield in myriad of ways. Yet this complexity is handled terrifically so not to overwhelm you, drip feeding you more options as the hours pass to gradually teach you the ropes and  as you gradually change your driving focus from revenge to control.

Of course, as series fans will know, Big Boss is the central villain of the franchise, here we see how that transition from hero to villain occurs, or more accurately, how the myth of Big Boss relates to the man. This is an important tale in the overarching mythos of the series, and its subtle telling is all the more powerful for its results.

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This may, however, initially disappoint series veterans. This isn’t the same exposition heavy Metal Gear storytelling from the earlier titles. This feels far more enclosed and isolated, ideal for newcomers, meanwhile the nuances for fans are largely tucked away in audio cassettes.

The battlefield will also feel strange to series veterans. Ground Zeroes laid the ground work in teaching you the mechanics but the open-world locations of Afghanistan and Africa offer such immense freedom that it’s hard to comprehend. You can approach a mission objective however you see fit, whether that’s sneaking in and remaining completely unseen, knocking out guards with tranquiliser darts and chokeholds, or go in noisy with means to slaughter everyone, it’s completely up to you. However, it’s even more freeing that that. You can call in support helicopters to bomb locations or cover you, or have new equipment dropped into the area of operation for you to use. Your cassette player can even be used to fool guards into thinking you’ve been killed if you find a tape of a guard saying “enemy eliminated”, or amusingly, if you find a tape of someone being violently ill you can hide in a toilet and keep guards away from the area by playing that. The options are innumerable, and it’s wonderfully compelling figuring out what you can do and then deciding what you want to do when approaching a new challenge.

Moreover, missions often change midway through, either because you’ve gathered intel and are moving on to the next objective naturally, or because you messed up and things got out of hand, requiring new equipment and tactics. Additionally, mission often have side objectives you’re unaware of until you discover them, such as prisoners you can extract. Furthermore, you’re always looking to expand the abilities of Mother Base, so by using the Fulton Recovery System you can extract enemy soldiers to turn to your side, as well as equipment such as static machine guns, mortars, even vehicles and crates of resources – once you have the more advanced Fulton upgrades. The missions are so much more complex and interesting that they may first seem.

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This is further enhanced with the buddy system, which lets you bring a horse, dog, personal metal gear walker, or Quiet the peculiar and deadly female sniper. Each can support you in different ways and help with different playstyles. The walker is excellent at making you a one man army; when equipped with a shield on your back and a Gatling gun on the front you’re near unstoppable. Meanwhile, D-Dog is perfect from distracting enemies if stealth is more your style.

Furthermore, you can research and build new equipment and weapons at Mother Base and these enhance you option even more, allowing you to equip deadly new tools and items to yourself and your buddies to help get the job done. Moreover, as you grow Mother Base the more it can support you, with one aspect of that being combat teams you can send out on missions. Some of these mission affect the battlefield, such as disrupting the supply of weapons and equipment to enemy soldiers, which is critically important as the enemies adapt to your tactics.

As you come across enemies they gradually learn new tactics to counter your own. If you’re a fan of headshots then prepare for enemy soldiers to start wearing helmets. Having your combat teams disrupt the supply of helmets can be a godsend in the trickier missions, and boy do they get tricky. As the story progresses the enemies become more dangerous, with new weapons, equipment, larger numbers, higher vigilance and an overall superb AI. They quickly react to your presence, calling in reinforcement, going on patrol in pairs or more, and using highly aggressive tactics if they spot you. Moreover, from Act 2 some mission enhance the difficult by restricting equipment or forcing you to complete them completely undetected, and whilst this feels like padding when you first come by them, it becomes apparent how well they fit in with the overall story and theme in the end.

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Indeed you can approach a mission from so many different angles that if you do have to replay them, either due to continued deaths or you want to increase your score for that mission, then there are many other approaches you can attempt. As such, frustration rarely rears its head, albeit for a couple of story missions that have you facing off against powerful bosses or overwhelming odds.

In addition to the 40 plus hours of story missions and 150 optional side ops, a multiplayer component is present to tide you over until Metal Gear Solid Online launches in early October. You can create a Forward Operating Base and manage it much like you do Mother Base. However, your FOB can be attacked by other players who can infiltrate and steal resources by using the Fulton Recovery System. When it occurs whilst you’re online you’ll get the option to stop them head on yourself, otherwise it’s down to the AI and the security forces and equipment you’ve developed for them. Meanwhile, you can also attack other player’s FOBs and try and steal their personnel and resources for yourself. It’s a fun aside that can get highly competitive.

Indeed Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an exceptional game. It’s mechanically superb, allowing you to take a stealth or action approach with fluidity, its open-world design is unmatched in the action and/or stealth genre, offering extreme freedom that offers oodles of replayability, and the story is intriguing, profound and subtly spun with a focus on action rather than words. Its different approach to the Metal Gear Solid formula may initially disappoint series fans but this is, by far, the most intuitive version for newcomers and an incredible finale from creator Hideo Kojima.

Thanks to Xbox and Konami for their support 

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Some say Greg isn’t one person but a group of many people posting under the pseudonym “Greg”. No one knows for sure but either way, as long as he continues to fight the good fight of reviewing games, then we will always consider him a hero.