Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

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MGSV: The Phantom Pain is the best Playstation 2 game ever made. True, it came out barely two months ago and only for modern machines, but it has controls that are sufficiently complicated, trying to command too many actions onto too few buttons, so as to resemble in feel games of previous decade. This is not an insult. The Metal Gear games have always had odd, complex control schemes, and V is the best of the bunch. It puts more actions onto fewer buttons with more success than any PS2, I mean, err, Metal Gear, game has been able to accomplish.

But what am I doing, jumping right into a game by talking about the controls? No, I should start in a hospital, where, conveniently, the game starts as well. It throws you right into the hazy, first-person perspective of someone slowly waking up from a coma, tended to by a kindly, nearly photorealistic eastern European doctor. Of course it only remains peaceful for so long, before heavily armored soldiers bust in and start shooting, a hulking fiery Frankenstein starts to fling flame indiscriminately, and a mysterious man called Ishmael shows up to help you through it all (Ishmael really needs to tighten up his scrubs in the back). You learn the ropes piece-by-piece, as your body slowly awakens from the nine-year sleep it has been succumbed to. It is an ingenious hiding place for a contextual tutorial that not only acclimates the player to the odd feel of the controls, but introduces those unfamiliar with Metal Gear to the overall climate, the conspiracies, the bad guys (hint: they’re the ones shooting at you), and the strange supernatural twists. It is, hands down, the best introduction a videogame has ever had.

No game can possibly live up to such a strong start, and Phantom Pain is no exception. After its explosive inception it resorts to fairly standard Metal Gear gameplay. Both stealth and Rambo are valid approaches to almost every mission, but unlike most games that give you such a choice, MGSV gives you legitimate incentive to go the sneaky route. See, Mother Base, the home fort of your non-national military organization Diamond Dogs, was destroyed nine years ago. You have to rebuild it, and take revenge on the pale-skinned cowboy who caused the disaster. How to rebuild it? By attaching soldiers to…balloons.

The “fulton recovery device” mechanic is tonally inconsistent with the rest of this serious tale, but it’s an inspired design move. It allows you to capture soldiers (and later, equipment) that you come across during missions, and add them to your Diamond Dogs army to deploy, help you with research, etc. While it is silly to watch dazed soldiers whisked into the air via small black party decoration, and while it’s never explained just how they become convinced to loyally join your side, it encourages the player to play aggressively yet non-lethally. That elite soldier might be dangerous, but you don’t want him dead. You want him for yourself.

Undoubtedly, this objectifies the soldiers on the battlefield, turning them into stats and skills. This isn’t by itself a problem, because Phantom Pain already goes 90% farther into humanizing its enemies simply by giving each soldier a name, but it does diminish the impact of an otherwise harrowing late-game plot twist.

But over the course of about 40 or so core story mission, Phantom Pain packs in enough shocking turns to make up for this slight diminution in impact. True, a few “big” reveals will be lost on those who haven’t played (or simply don’t remember; it is from 2004) Metal Gear Solid 3, but in general Phantom Pain’s story accomplished something that no other game in the series has yet achieved: you can actually understand it.

Indeed, it is finally true. A Metal Gear game…that can actually be understood. Don’t get me wrong; the plot is still the complex mix of various conspiratorial organizations and sci-fi mumbo-jumbo that has always been present, but it doles it out in such manageable portions that it never overwhelms. In fact, I didn’t start banging my head against the wall in confusion until what were literally the last few minutes of the game, something that I spent the entirety of MGS4 doing.

Where Phantom Pain’s story soares is in its characters. It never lives up to, say, The Witcher 3, but the incredible writing, voice acting, and facial capture lend humanity to both the black-horse scheming villain and the macho-man main character. This is especially true for Quiet, the controversial sniper who wears less clothing than a Victoria’s Secret model. Body language is, obviously, an essential part of her character (no, not because of her nakedness, but because she doesn’t talk), and underneath all that…nothing, there is a surprisingly deep character buried within her. It’s a pity she’s so shamelessly sexualized (there’s a story reason why she wears few clothes, but it’s a pathetic excuse), because had she actually been clothed, I would go as far to call her a “strong female character.”

Quiet is part of the buddy system, a new addition to the series that lets you take one of a four sidekicks (one of which is technically a vehicle) alongside you on missions. It’s a fantastic idea that adds an extra layer of depth and strategy to gameplay, but ultimately it’s terribly balanced. As soon as you get the ability to drop in vehicles, the horse loses all function. The walker is great for all-out attacks, but if you desire stealth, it serves no purpose. The dog (wolf, really) is useful for distractions and scouting, but almost anything the dog can do Quiet can do far better.

Quiet is incredibly overpowered. She can scout outposts and give you a near-complete map of enemy activity before ever nearing the base. She can wipe out entire battalions, both lethally and non-lethally, with almost no help from you. If you order her to start firing, enemies will immediately target her, conveniently turning all of their backs in the same direction and leaving themselves wide open for stealth-takedowns. She’s a good failsafe for if you get spotted, but she takes almost as much skill out of the game as does the “chicken hat”, Phantom Pain’s toggle-able version of an easy mode.

But these are minor gripes. The Phantom Pain only falls flat on its face in one area. Though I can hardly say the game is shallow; numerous essays have already been written concerning its symbolic and philosophical implications, Metal Gear Solid V handles the theme of child soldiers in a tangential way, lacking in depth or any real feeling of sensitivity. There are the occasional scenes where adult characters will offer some sweet, heroic, or sentimental gesture towards the abused children you encounter over the course of the game, but MGSV finds it sufficient to ultimately turn the children into just another type of enemy. Their storyline isn’t tragic; it’s cold and undeveloped. The only real “character” among the children hardly seems like a child at all, but is written and acted just like a shorter version of another soldier. Some may argue that that’s the point, to depict how war changes a child. But MGSV provides no solvency for this dilemma besides dramatized spankings (that sometimes involve limb dislocation) and suppressed revolutions.

This problem is ultimately derived from overextension. It’s been known for a while now that director Hideo Kojima didn’t actually get to finish the game anywhere near what he had wanted. Nevertheless, his style and direction remains as sharp and stylish as ever; he’s cut the half-hour cutscenes and replaced them with concise, expressive segments and numerous audio logs that flesh out the story more than his previous mini-movies ever could. Here you’ll find some of the best camerawork, framing, and lighting ever seen in a game; Kojima’s experiences working on Silent Hills clearly show through.

Whatever you think of Hideo Kojima’s personality (I personally think he’s a narcissistic creep), you cannot deny that he makes great videogames. This is his best yet; it represents the perfect combination of beautiful filmmaking and storytelling and fantastic situation-based gameplay that he’s always aimed for but never quite gotten ahold of. It stretches itself a bit too thin, but what remains is still an incredible whole experience full of unforgettable moments. With the time and money Kojima was expecting we may have easily gotten one of the best games of all time. Right now? We’ll simply have to settle with “incredible,” and dream about what might have been: the loss of Kojima’s final chapters will forever remain a phantom pain within gamers’ minds.

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