Still, every mission starts with the same decision: choosing your loadout. As you board a chopper in preparation to ship out, you’re given the option of selecting exactly what you will be outfitted with. Unsurprisingly, this is where a lot of the freedom comes from, though don’t be surprised if you find yourself a little overwhelmed at first. There are plenty of options when it comes to choosing firearms and gadgets, which range from your standard pistols and rifles to more flashy explosives and rocket launchers. Trademark items such as the always useful cardboard box are back in action, though this time you can stand upright with them, and even drape posters on the front of the box in an effort to confuse your enemy.
Aside from your weapons and gadgets, the biggest addition comes in the form of ‘buddies’; sidekicks that accompany you on the battlefield, providing useful skillsets, depending on who you choose. From the onset, you’ll have access to D-Horse, a standard riding horse that provides quick transport across the harsh Afghanistan desert.
More talented buddies soon rear their head though. D-Dog, or DD for short, serves as your faithful canine companion, who excels at spotting enemies, flora and fauna from a distance. Still, the best comes in the form of Quiet, a mute sniper outfitted with a preternatural (if not supernatural) sense of her surroundings. With the ability to mark and take out enemies with accuracy from a distance, as well provide general support, Quiet is easily the most versatile partner one could ask for, though it should be noted that things can become a little too easy once you level her up all the way, as she can easily take out an entire enemy outpost without you lifting so much as a finger to help.
Difficulty is a bit of an oddball when it comes to The Phantom Pain. Rather than relying on discrete difficulty modes as seen in prior games, the game features no difficulty options of any kind, save for a few remixed missions which pop up towards the end, which task you with replaying old missions with more stringent stealth requirements.
While the series has always placed an emphasis on stealth, with the option of going all-out guns-blazing usually being pretty difficult to pull off, the same can’t be said for The Phantom Pain. Other than a ‘hero score,’ which awards points for ‘honorable actions’ and takes them away for being malicious and violent, it’s easier than ever to progress through the game by killing.
Sure, getting noticed is always a surefire way to find yourself on the wrong end of a gun barrel, but with no real incentive to stay stealthy, there’s no reason to shy away from laying waste to those around you (save for one reason I’ll touch on later). Still, the option to try to play stealthy is always present. I imagine on my second playthrough in a year or two, I’ll try to go into each mission with a simple tranq gun and nothing else. I do commend the developers for allowing levels to be completed either stealthily or not, though in my time with the game, I did come across a mission or two that required you to pick up a rocket launcher or two.
To its credit, even when you think you’ve mastered the game and have nothing left to learn, there’s always a new mechanic or idea that presents itself, which is just a sign of how well-designed the open world is. Long gone are the narrow pathways and corridors of games past and with that come a bevy of options when it comes to tackling the mission at hand.
With a day/night cycle and dynamic weather comes the decision of when to tackle a mission, with factors like visibility and noise changing depending on what the weather looks like. Enemy outposts and camps are often outfitted with communication satellites, meaning that one wrong move can result in reinforcements from other bases being summoned. Of course, there’s the option of removing and destroying communication equipment, but with that comes the risk of alerting the enemy.
The same goes for anti-air radar, which can be destroyed should you want to more easily call in air support. All these different systems weave together to create a seamless open world, and it’s a treat to see how the game reacts to your style of play. For example, conducting a majority of your missions at night might result in the enemy force outfitting themselves with night-vision goggles, or focusing on headshots (lethal and non-lethal) might result in soldiers employing helmets to protect themselves. These changes and nuances serve as a great way to forcing you to adapt to your surroundings, which when you think about it, is the key to survival in the first place.
While you’ll spend most of your time on missions, your actions on the battlefield tie directly into your base of operations, aptly named Mother Base. Completing missions nets you more gross military product (GMP), which can be used to expand your base, developing weapons, scaling up your intelligence gathering division, and bolstering your combat unit. Of course, this would all be for naught if you don’t have a staff to run your base, which is where the Fulton Recovery System comes into play.
Herein lies the one reason to not eliminate enemy soldiers but rather incapacitate them, as you can use the Fulton Recovery Balloon to extract enemies back to your home base, where they will be recruited into your own army. Each soldier has their own unique set of skills, and as you amass an army and level up each unit on your base, you’ll gain access to more weapons and items to research, as well as more detailed intel which you can use on the battlefield. You can also send your combat unit on missions around the world, which boil down to waiting for countdown timers to expire, hoping that your combat crew ‘survived’ their ‘encounter,’ with rewards ranging from GMP and materials to new recruits and blueprints for weapons.
As simple as this management aspect is (most of it essentially runs on auto-pilot), it imparts a more personal feel to the game as a whole, with the added bonus of lending more gravitas to your actions when you are on missions. There’s also the matter of Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), which essentially serve as extensions to Mother Base by increasing the potential size of your army, while speeding up development and deployment times. FOBs also play into the multiplayer component of The Phantom Pain, allowing you to attack other players’ bases and defend your own, though due to server outages I was unable to try this out for myself.
Unlike previous games in the series, The Phantom Pain ends up feeling like the antithesis to what we’ve come to expect, placing the focus on gameplay and player experience, with the story taking a backseat this time around. That’s not to say that the plot and direction of the game isn’t worth enjoying, but it doesn’t take long to see that it’s a far cry from the stories we’ve come to expect over the years. That’s not to say it’s not well produced. Kojima’s attention to detail and meticulous direction are at full effect here, with beautifully choreographed cutscenes and an ensemble cast turning in great performances.
Big Boss (or Venom Snake, as he is sometimes referred to) is portrayed by Keifer Sutherland this time around, who does an admirable job picking up the mantle. While this re-casting is bound to draw the ire from more than a few fans, the real issue is that for the most part, Big Boss has little to say throughout the entire story. While I have a feeling that this is partly ties into a plot element I won’t dare spoil, many have suggested that his bizarre penchant for silence might tie into development and budget woes, which might make sense considering that a lot of dialogue that would normally be presented through cutscenes and radio conversations have been relegated to optional tape recordings.
Surprisingly, secondary characters like Kazuhira Miller (Kaz) and the hard-to-nail-down Revolver Ocelot command more of a main role this time around. Through various in-game events, Kaz is noticeably less charming (and noticeably more pissed-off), with his obsession for revenge fueling most of his actions.
Ironically, I found the mute Quiet to be the most interesting of the bunch, with her mysterious backstory and powers serving as a driving force to find out more about her. There’s also the matter of her rather skimpy attire, which surprisingly does have a plot explanation down the line, though in true Metal Gear fashion, it ventures deep into the ‘nanomachines’ territory, or at least, this game’s take on them.
Whether or not Kojima’s explanation of her clothing style (and the intent of shaming those who focus on it in a demeaning way) will resonate with players is up in the air, but above all her design can easily be attributed to the inclusion of a titillating character. To some, her design might be too much to handle (which has become an ongoing area of debate within the games industry), though it’s not too far from the fan service you’d come to expect in an equivalent blockbuster movie.
I don’t want to venture too far into the specifics of the game’s story, as doing so would be a detriment to those who have been invested in the series’ ongoing narrative for all these years. What I will say though, it that as a whole, The Phantom Pain continues to draw from the themes that were heavily featured in most of the games, specifically focusing on the concept of identity, and how one’s identity can be shaped by a variety of things, from our genes, to the places we grew up in, and what we were exposed to, information wise.
In fact, The Phantom Pain continually tries to champion the idea that we, the players, are all Big Boss. Just like Raiden was essentially a stand-in for the player, transforming himself from an inexperienced and naïve soldier living in the shadow of Solid Snake into what could be argued as his equivalent, the same goes for Big Boss and you; the player. While the game does a decent job of tying some loose ends together and touching upon plot points from the universe’s past and future events, it is by no means a tightly focused narrative. On the contrary, many of the best moments come from you, as you run around unscripted, creating the legendary moments on the battlefield that made Big Boss the legend he is in the eyes of the world.
If you didn’t heed my warning from earlier, it should be plenty apparent now; Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is not your typical game, and it’s definitely not the Metal Gear game you’ve grown accustomed to. For those who came looking for a plot-driven story that documents the downfall of Big Boss, you’ve come to the wrong place. If anything, Kojima has once again shown that ideas and fiction are more powerful than facts, and by the time the credits roll (and especially if you unlock the alternate, ‘true’ ending), you’ll be left with a few revelations that are both satisfying and jarring, and that might have some serious ramifications on your outlook on the series’ canon as a whole.
Or you could just stay for the explosions and stealth. That works, too.
This review is based on the PS4 version, which we were provided with.