Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain review
Metal Gear dons open world garb but the series’ trademark blend of grit and silliness is still intact… for better and worse
You creep into an enemy base inside a cardboard box that, when stationary, the guards don’t seem too suspicious of.
A walking cardboard box is a different matter, so you chuck a disc that then swells into a life-sized doll that somehow convinces and distracts the guards just long enough for you to creep up behind and slap them into unconsciousness.
And then it gets really silly – you strap a balloon to each one in turn and they’re launched into the stratosphere leaving only a trailing ‘AAAAAAAAHHHH!’.
In about 30 seconds they’ll have not only made the journey from Afghanistan to your home base in the Seychelles, they’ll have also been converted to good guys.
As much Inspector Gadget as James Bond
Such are the escapades of Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain – spy novel antics that are often, in honesty, more Inspector Gadget than James Bond.
Those familiar with the franchise will immediately recognise its hallmark mix of whimsy and po-facedness, but as with the previous 19 entries in the Metal Gear series, whether the game constitutes self-aware pastiche or unintentional farce isn’t entirely clear.
But none of The Phantom Pain’s sillier ideas are executed badly. Its set pieces, stealth-based infiltration, and cover shooting action are gold standard. The question of whether you connect with its uniquely Japanese idiosyncrasies is largely one of taste, not quality.
Just what the flip is going on?
Over the years, the Metal Gear series has endured more twists and turns than a bowl of spaghetti – so, for those unfamiliar with its story, let’s clear a few things up.
The Phantom Pain takes place in the year 1984, after Metal Gear Solid 3 but before Metal Gear Solid 4, and is the sequel to Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, thereby laying the foundation for Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2 and eventually Metal Gear Solid.
Our hero here is called Snake, but no, this isn’t Solid Snake. In fact, The Phantom Pain is centred around Solid’s genetically identical father, also known as Big Boss, Naked Snake, or Punished ‘Venom’ Snake, who is definitely not to be mistaken for Liquid Snake, or Solidus Snake, who are, like Solid, both also genetic clones of Big Boss.
So, if we’re getting technical, this outing really should be called Metal Gear: Naked.
Naked, aka Big Boss himself, is a former FOX agent who is the non-biological progeny of ‘The Boss’, whom he was forced to kill a couple of games ago. He’s just awoken from a nine-year coma and seeks revenge on the people who put him there.
See, it really couldn’t be simpler.
Some clever twists to the shooter formula
MGS5’s design is wholly competent, its choices discrete, and consequences measured. In some ways it’s more of the same: sneak around, identify your enemy, reach your objective, possibly cause some chaos along the way.
In other ways the game has become more clever: choose to consistently enter bases at night and soldiers will start to don night vision goggles. Become too fond of the sniper headshot and your enemies will equip bulletproof helmets.
The game’s core, where Snake is in the field and taking the fight to the enemy, is a synthesis of gaming’s favourite modern tropes given the unique MGS twist.
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It’s around the edges where The Phantom Pain sometimes misses the mark. Its open world, for instance, just isn’t ‘alive’ as The Witcher 3’s is, and as each mission encourages you to drop down in a chopper and then lift off in a chopper at the end essentially breaks the world into mission segments. It’s akin to someone handing you an apple and saying ‘eat it any way you like’ only for you to discover that it’s already been chopped into slices that you might as well eat one by one.
And there’s loads of padding: an HQ to be managed, teams of soldiers to be sent on mini missions, and more upgrades to be unlocked than there are fish in the sea.
And yet somehow it still works. It’s undeniably silly, its cocktail of Black Hawk Down and Transformers definitely isn’t for everyone, and its principal female character is a bikini-babe mute, which is problematic to say the least.
Originality, gender equality, and suspension of disbelief are far from MGS5’s strengths, then, but it remains a fun, silly and entertaining romp.
Some will love it, others hate it, but this is Metal Gear at its most ambitious
It looks gorgeous
Much more freedom than previous games
A huge amount to see and do
Portrayal of women is problematic to say the least
The grit-to-silliness ratio won’t work for everyone
The open world isn’t the draw it could have been