The gaming community considers it blasphemy to talk poorly about Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima. Kojima is one of gaming’s true auteurs, and his games are some of the most unique in the business. That said, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is only fun when the game doesn’t bog players down with Kojima’s trademark storytelling and overlong cinematics.
This isn’t the case of some strange bias. I respect Kojima as a creator. Frankly, his Zone of the Enders series is one of my all-time favorites. But the Metal Gear Solid series has always been a divisive topic for me. On one hand, the games are polished stealth-action experiences — they’re classics in the genre for good reason. On the other hand, they’re filled with bizarre, convoluted storylines, awkward dialogue, and an overreliance on lengthy cinematics. Thankfully, there is a whole lot to like about The Phantom Pain before we get to its weak points.
Instead of linear level design, The Phantom Pain utilizes an open-world structure that really shakes up the gameplay. With dynamic weather, a day and night cycle, and an emphasis on reconnaissance, the key to the game is patience.
Plenty of stealth games make patience optional. Series competitor Splinter Cell has offered more aggressive features in recent games, making open combat a gameplay choice. In The Phantom Pain, combat is not a choice. It’s a last resort. The game punishes reckless players. It makes the gameplay less accessible to newcomers while making successful stealth feel very rewarding.
Dozens of new features bolster the polished stealth. A base building mechanic allows for supply drops and gear upgrades. The “Phantom Cigar” allows players to fast-forward time and observe guard patrol routes. The new Fulton recovery system is especially refreshing — this surface-to-air balloon secures resources and captured targets and sends them right to Mother Base.
Furthermore, the game really opens up once players become familiar with the buddy system. Snake can take partners out on missions with him, and each one with different abilities. D-Horse serves as reliable transportation. D-Dog can track and distract enemies. The sniper Quiet can mark enemies and cover the player from afar. Snake can develop friendships with each of these buddies, which unlocks new abilities for them to use. Between the buddy system, gadgets, and the open-world, The Phantom Pain’s greatest strength is variety and player choice.
As for the visuals, Metal Gear Solid V excels. Whether it’s the photorealism of the environment or the surrealism of Kojima’s designs, the game looks bright, crisp, and appropriately haunting.
Sound design is essential in a stealth game, and The Phantom Pain knows it. The soundscape is detailed and helps make everything feel more tactile. Voice performances are solid as well, but the dialogue and writing are where the cracks begin to show. As usual, despite the performances, the story is lore-heavy and hard to follow.
For the sake of simplicity, I won’t attempt to recount several years of Metal Gear Solid history to provide context for the series’ latest installment. Tonally, the game loves being deadly serious almost as much as it loves being campy. To be fair, the game seems much more self-aware when it comes to its campy tone than previous entries. In any case, the great gameplay is often interrupted by cinematics and overwritten lore, though maybe that should be chalked up to taste.
It’s worth noting that Metal Gear Solid V does offer a multiplayer component. Although, it feels especially tacked-on compared to an otherwise compelling single-player experience. Metal Gear Online features game modes that mirror traditional ones found in other third-person shooters. Comm Control has players fight over specific areas of the map, Bounty Hunter acts like a capture-the-flag game type, and Cloak and Dagger is a stealth-oriented twist on it. All three modes feel a little awkward in the game’s open-ended structure, and they aren’t nearly as compelling as the campaign.
There are also Forward Operating Bases: a competitive base-building game that earns resources for the single-player mode. Players attack other bases and steal resources, but they can also secure easy victories with microtranactions. It’s another unnecessary and especially sleazy mode that adds no real value to The Phantom Pain. Thankfully, the campaign is so dense and engaging that multiplayer can be ignored entirely.
As the fifth main entry in the series (and Kojima’s last game at Konami), Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain feels decidedly different from its predecessors. The open world makes for a renewed sense of stealth and a refreshing change of pace. However, like the previous games, dense lore and convoluted writing bogs it down. If the story doesn’t grab you (as it didn’t grab me), Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is at least worth playing for the gameplay itself, which remains a fantastic experience.