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Review - "Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain"

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes was a tad bit of a disappointment for me. While some fans disagree with me on this, I felt like it was a thirty-dollar pass to get excited for The Phantom Pain, which is something I didn't need to pay for. It was short on content, and the narrative was uncharacteristically pithy and somewhat bitter. On the upside, the gameplay housed arguably some of the best stealth mechanics out there, and the visuals were on-par with what I expected when I jumped in to this generation of consoles. Now, over a year later, we're getting the "hundreds of times" bigger follow-up experience that we were promised. This is the game that fans like myself have waited over a decade for, ever since we were introduced to Big Boss back in 2004. The only question on everyone's mind, of course, is whether or not Konami, arguably the worst major publisher in the business right now, managed to mess this up somehow, in the wake of all the drama surrounding them and Kojima.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Developer: Kojima Productions (RIP)
Publisher: Konami
Available On: PlayStation 4 (reviewed,) Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC
Rated M

MSRP: $59.99

The good news is, no, they haven't entirely. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain feels like, for all intents and purposes, more or less what Kojima had in mind when he made this game. In so many words, it's a bigger riff on the formula introduced last year, complete with some mechanical overhauls and a more dynamic open world. Real-time weather's been put in. The controls make a lot more sense. There's a new meta-game (although, let's be honest, it's really a variation on Peace Walker's meta-game.) Oh, and there's a complicated, jumbled, mind-trip of a narrative that no Metal Gear game would be complete without.

I mean that last part in the nicest way possible, considering this ranks among my favorite gaming franchises out there. While Ground Zeroes felt like a smack in the face, "The Phantom Pain" feels like a genuine, earnest attempt to tie up canonical loose ends, in some respects. Want to know how Big Boss became a bad guy? How about where some of the major players in "Metal Gear Solid" ("The Twin Snakes" if you're nasty) came from? Or just what, exactly, happened to Miller? You'll find out some of that stuff here, and then some. Basically, this follows Big Boss' fall from grace in the wake of an attack on Mother Base nine years prior to him "waking up from a coma," and details his gradual descent into being an all-around morally questionable human being thanks to the machinations of other all-around morally questionable human beings. Yep.

I'm keeping things very, very vague to avoid any spoilers, but because this is a Kojima joint, you know what to expect. Or, that is to say, you know to expect your expectations to be blown out of the water. Some later (and even earlier, if you pay close attention to the tutorial) twists are downright gobsmacking, and still have me scratching my head, trying to make sense of them all. Now, this is partially a good thing. A major climactic plot point, which I won't even hint at, has left many, many people outraged, crying that they were "betrayed" by Kojima, some even saying that they were glad he won't be able to make another one. I think that's awesome. The move is, in many ways, a massive middle-fingered salute to players. It feels like Kojima's way of saying "screw these games, and while I'm at it, screw you too!" The simple fact that an auteur can manage to cleverly navigate the spoiler-obsessed internet and surprise audiences is something that's very telling to his savvy, his wit, his unbridled love for weaving complicated yarns. I admire that, and it's great to see that "The Phantom Pain" managed to get under the skin of so many people in 2015.

And yet... is any of it really necessary? That's my larger issue, I guess. Yes, the narrative is twisty and confusing and every second of it is enthralling. And sure, seeing some (not nearly all) of the loose strings tied up is a real treat as a long time fan. But I guess I question how needed "The Phantom Pain" was. "Peace Walker," which ranks among my favorite gaming experiences, already had a pretty darn satisfying conclusion that stood on its own. When that game ended, I was under the impression that I understood why the first three "Metal Gear" games happened. I got it. It made sense. But this? A game that technically isn't even complete (more on that in a second?) I'm not really sure what to make of it. There's no denying that it's good, or even that it's very good, but I question whether it even needed to exist in the first place, or if this was Konami telling Kojima to make more of their most bankable franchise.

Whatever the case is, nothing excuses the absolute trash heap that is the situation with the ending. As many outlets have reported as of this writing, the true ending to "The Phantom Pain" was chopped off the end and stuck on a Blu Ray disc as a dinky little extra, sold only as a Collector's Edition bonus. It's a 15-minute cutscene of unfinished assets and concept art, and it blatantly sets up how "Metal Gear Solid" to pass. Having watched it, and knowing how the main game actually ends, this is a major contributing factor to knocking points off a game. It is inexcusable to take something that contains vital canon information and decide to just not follow-through with it, and for Konami to have the gall to put out a game like that stands as a testament to their status as an abhorrently corrupt company. As far as the ending to the plain-jane version (i.e. the version everyone's playing) is concerned, it's a bit disappointing and open-ended. Did Konami leave it open for sequels? Did they want to rush Kojima into finishing the game so they could kick him out? Who knows. This is a review, not a gossip-y blog post. I do know that the result is a kick in the teeth to Metal Gear diehards like myself, and left me wishing that they hadn't even made this in the first place when I found out.

But then, had they not, we couldn't have experienced what is probably the most mechanically sound entry in the lot. Yes, despite my myriad of issues with the narrative, I have no complaints about the core gameplay. In fact, I'd say that it's a better example of open-world gameplay than "Grand Theft Auto V," "Far Cry 4," or any of the sandbox competitors currently on this generation of consoles. I say this because, first and foremost, it feels like a living, breathing world in which anything can happen. The locales feel inhabited and treacherous, forcing players to adapt or die. Living creatures, whether human beings or wild animals, all feel like tangible threats that will mess you up if you lose focus for one second. Whereas a lot of games have worlds that are distinctly, for lack of a better term, "game-y," I feel like I'm actually taking multi-hour trips to the places in "The Phantom Pain." That isn't to say that the game delves into hyper-realism or anything, thank god, but as far as the immersion goes, it's astounding.

That goes for the core mechanics as well. For the first (and I guess only) time in the franchise, it feels like a proper balance has been struck between "man struggling against an oppressive force" and "one-man army blowing said force to pieces." In past games, attempting fight the enemy was a legitimately awful idea, and the controls inhibited you from even trying, forcing you to focus on stealth above all else. In "The Phantom Pain," some missions straight-up encourage this as a tactic in some situations. One mission may have you sneaking through multiple villages, trying to determine the location of a prisoner, tailing a car, then grabbing him and sneaking out undetected. Others have you running around and trying to blow up as many tanks as possible, on foot, in a certain amount of time. It doesn't feel like the tight, polished stealth gameplay of "Snake Eater," no, but it also doesn't feel like the blatant pitch to the shooter crowd that "Guns of the Patriots" was. It's the best of both worlds. Everyone's happy... I think.

But what truly impresses me is the interchangeability of it all. Let's use those two missions I mentioned above as an example. While I decided to stand in front of tanks and blow them to pieces, putting multiple enemy bases under siege and raining terror on everything around me, I could have just as easily played it as a stealth mission, sneaking up to tanks and putting C4 on them, then blowing them up from a distance. And with the prisoner mission, I actually opted to blow my cover earlier, extract a key target, then find the prisoner on my own, killing everyone else from a distance. Depending on your mood, virtually every part of this game can be played however you like. In that sense, it's possibly the most versatile entry in the series, if not the most versatile sandbox game on the market, and can change simply depending on whatever mood you're in. There's nothing else quite like it. And, even though it may go without saying after all that, everything controls like a dream.

Which is why everything else comes as a huge disappointment. Yeah, you've got some great gameplay and an immersive world, and yeah, a lot of the missions are really fun... but most of them? They're practically the same thing, repeated dozens of times, for the simple purpose of... well, of padding. A lot of "Phantom Pain" follows the Ubisoft model of "cram an open world full of several riffs on the same basic set of ideas," and quite frankly, that feels like a really big squandering of a good thing. Because, above all, these missions don't actually feel essential. You get drip-fed some information, sure, and you get some new units for your base, yeah, but the stuff that drives the narrative forward? It's almost never in most of the missions. While most Metal Gear games have felt like tight, focused narrative experiences, "The Phantom Pain" seems too big with too much to do for its own good. When 70% of your objectives feel non-essential, yet are required to progress, what does that say about the progression of your game? Aren't I supposed to feel compelled and taken in by a mission, instead of muttering to myself, "oh, it's another one of those missions"? What makes this sting even worse is that this is Metal Gear we're talking about, one of the only major franchises that's never felt like "one of those games," which is exactly what "The Phantom Pain" feels like a lot of the time: one of "those" games. An open-world game with a lot of fetch-quests, "go do this thing to this dude" missions, a lot of "follow this dude until you learn more about another dude" shenanigans. Now, that's not to say it's not all executed very well, because it is, but for one of gaming's most iconic, defining franchises to feel like just another big-budget, AAA title is truly disheartening.

Yet another mixed bag in the gameplay department is the Mother Base component, carried over and expanded from "Peace Walker." On paper, I like this idea, and I liked it in that game: abduct people to recruit them to expand your facilities so you can get new gear and intel. It's a novel idea. There's something very satisfying about building a huge army that does stuff for you, and seeing the tangible results of your efforts to build a standalone nation come to life. In execution? It's half fun and satisfying, half tedious hokum. Because, while actually using the Fulton Recovery System to get new troops and to sometimes get "buddies" (like DD, the awesome and useful wolf you can raise to sniff out and kill enemies) is a good time, and there's a degree of satisfaction to building a base that gives you new things, the process through which you do all of this has the structure of a "Farmville" knock-off. "Collect X amount of resources." "Wait X amount of time for building to be finished." "Level up X thing with X resources to allow X amount of people to build X thing." Does all of this sound familiar? Like a GameLoft or Xynga game? Because that's exactly what it is: a management sim crashed into an open-world sandbox experience, and frankly, that's a terrible idea. Why do I have to kill time to just wait for another thing to finish building? Doesn't that structure, you know, make more since for a game that isn't sixty dollars on a console?

Maybe I sound overly cynical, and I eagerly await comments and downvotes telling me why I'm objectively wrong. But for me, Metal Gear has always been about open-ended stealth and narrative. Adding in mobile game chicanery for no apparent reason dilutes the core experience. When I have a tense hide-and-seek showdown between a giant robot that's multiple stories all, only to be brought into a bunch of cool-down menus and reminders that I can spend more money to get more resources or play the multiplayer mode, that makes me irate. I don't care if I can "turn them off." I don't care that "they're entirely optional." That doesn't matter. What matters is that they're there in the first place, and in my book, that's a serious problem.

"A serious problem" could be used to describe "Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain" in more ways than that one department. Because, on paper, I should adore everything here. The gameplay is tight and polished, conducive to doing whatever I want, however I want. Visually, everything is stunning and runs at a consistent 60 FPS, which is unheard of for an open world game of this scale on a console (although, let's be honest, it shouldn't be.) The narrative is engaging and kept me guessing, hungering for the next detail, hanging on every little bit of world-building. And, as per usual with this series, the score is sublime, and on top of that, the licensed tracks are nothing but gold.

Yet... almost every aspect of what I just mentioned gets negated by something, at some point. Yeah, the mechanics are great, but they're often used for monotonous, same-y missions. The dropping of the ball when it comes to the ending undercuts the entire narrative and makes it feel way less substantial. Cool-down timers, daily login bonuses, and micro-transactions make the base-building element feel less fun and more like a million other things I can get for free on my cell phone.

Much like Solid Snake's infamous encounter with Ocelot in "Metal Gear Solid," I feel like this game is Snake: trying its hardest to resist the torture that are archaic gameplay elements and woefully incomplete story bits. And yeah, in the end, he holds out, but he's a bit banged up afterwards. Still strong, still capable, but definitely damaged. And that's what "The Phantom Pain" is: a strong, capable experience that's still a very good game, damaged by corporate pressures and inexperience with how to pace an open-world title.

It kept us me waiting, but now, I'm waiting for a more polished version of this game that will never come.

- Phenomenal open-world elements.
- Gameplay is tight, fluid, dynamic.
- The visuals are among the best out there.
- The narrative is compelling throughout.
- Excellent musical score.
- You can train a horse to poop on command... also make a wolf kill people.

- Archaic and same-y mission structure, most feel non-essential.
- Narrative is obviously missing chunks of key info.
- Base-building is slow, has cooldowns, features microtransactions and daily login bonuses.
- Feels like a game with several unfinished elements.

(8's are well above average games. They may have 
some problems holding them back from greatness, but
are still a good time all the same, and great examples
of their genre.)


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