Warning: Heavy spoilers related to secret unlocks and especially story plot for both Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain inbound. This is, quite literally, unavoidable in order to fully explain the final score. This review also won’t cover Metal Gear Online, but it will cover FOB missions.
Kept you waiting, huh?
I’ve only ever played Metal Gear Solid 3; I felt like I owed it to myself to at least play that. It never quite grabbed me as most games do. However, the game was compelling enough to me that the series as a whole interested me from there on out. Metal Gear Solid V was almost an enigma to me; any time I saw the game, it looked different in many ways to what I was familiar with from MGS3.
About a month before release, I downloaded MGSV: Ground Zeroes for free through PS+ and got a chance to try out the gameplay, and I was intrigued at the very least. Then I finally stumbled upon the Konami presentation of the game, where they showed off various aspects of MGSV: The Phantom Pain, and the rest is history.
I’ve owned the game for two weeks, and have 110 hours worth of play time. Time to review it.
Gameplay and Story
The Phantom Pain starts nine years after the events of Ground Zeroes. Snake (also known as Big Boss) wakes up in a hospital after being in a coma, when the hospital he’s staying in gets attacked by a private army, known as XOF. To avoid confusion while explaining the gameplay, I’m going to give you the CliffsNotes version of the first few missions in TPP. After escaping the hospital, you’ll meet up with Ocelot, who will take you to Afghanistan after training you in using your prosthetic arm. Snake lost his left arm and sight in his right eye due to the immense amount of shrapnel in his body after the events of Ground Zeroes. Upon arriving in Afghanistan, you are tasked with finding Miller before he is executed, and that is where your story begins; with the formation of Diamond Dogs.
The moment you start, you have access to explore the first region, which is Afghanistan. You’ll have two regions to explore in MGSV: Afghanistan and Africa. Both are different in design, but equally full of places to explore and see throughout your playthrough. There are outposts and bases to visit, and while the outposts are usually similar, the bases you’ll find are one of a kind. Afghanistan is very rocky and varies in elevation, while Africa is very open and flat, with the most unique areas hidden behind dense jungle.
Your starting equipment is restricted. To start, you’ll have a basic assault rifle with a suppressor, and a handgun with tranquilizer rounds. You’ll also start with D-Horse, a Buddy which you can opt to deploy on most missions. More on Buddies later. Eventually, you’ll obtain the ability to Fulton seriously wounded or knocked out enemies to benefit Mother Base.
The controls are rather complex, but very easy to understand and master. Once you get the hang of it, it’s all incredibly fluid. The only questionable controls are when you want to activate something in your items while moving. Pressing left on the D-Pad, while moving with the left stick, you navigate the radial menu with the right stick, then click in the right stick to use that item. Easy, right? It’s worth noting that you can swipe on the DualShock 4 touchpad to quickly switch between your equipment and weapons based on what direction you swipe. While aiming your weapon, pressing the Quick Dive button will immediately switch between your primary and secondary weapons. Clicking in the left stick while strafing either left or right while prone will let you roll, and holding the Action button will automatically make you vault over low walls without entering cover.
Clicking in the right stick will switch shoulder cameras from left to right, and while aiming in first person, if your weapon has a variable zoom, clicking it in will change your zoom level. This also applies to using binoculars. If that sounds tough to learn, then you’d be surprised to learn that the controls really aren’t that hard to understand when you have the controller in your hands. As I said, it feels fluid and smooth, and you can adjust the camera sensitivity for every mode to your preference.
After playing the game for a couple of hours, you’ll have to start convincing enemies to join Diamond Dogs, which requires a Fulton device. This gameplay dynamic makes up most of your progression in The Phantom Pain. As you recruit more soldiers, you will gradually increase the rank of your Units. These are divided into several categories, such as a Base Development platform or an Intel platform; each one gives you benefits as well.
Base Development gives you more resources over time, and converts unprocessed materials into a usable form that you can use for developing weapons and other equipment, including base expansion. Combat allows you to play as soldiers that are designated to that unit, along with being used in Combat Deployments, an automated dynamic where you deploy a group to complete a mission for various rewards. You’ll unlock the Defense unit later down the line, which is the same as the Combat unit, except that soldiers designated here will be used exclusively to defend your FOB. More on that later. You’ll also have an R&D unit, which allows for higher-grade equipment to be developed, the Support unit which improves the speed and execution of various actions like supply drops and artillery strikes, and the Medical unit, which decreases staff recovery time in the instance of an injury or illness, and improves the success rate of Fulton extractions when the subject is injured.
Every unit is useful in their own way, but you’ll primarily be improving their level for one reason: Unlocking development options for equipment. As you improve your level and get various key items and blueprints, you will be able to begin development on better weapons and items. This will allow for more gameplay options and gives players many choices to best suit their playstyle.
These Units can also be built on an online base, called an FOB. This is an optional thing you can do, but it allows for a smoother improvement rate, since Mother Base will get crowded fast. As you build this FOB, other players can infiltrate it and try to reach the core, and if they do, they will get a few soldiers in return. If they fail, however, you can retaliate and take soldiers from them. On top of that, if you’re online and you get invaded, if the enemy gets detected by your units, you can go on-base and deal with the enemy personally. All in all, the system reminds me sort of like Dark Souls, where you’re really going to be at a disadvantage if you trudge along normally. In order to fully utilize the FOB system, you need to prepare with high-powered weaponry and high-defense armor to survive, since more often than not, other players are going to be better than you.
The item developments tie into your Buddy, as well. You have four Buddies to choose from: D-Horse, D-Dog, Quiet, and D-Walker. Not counting D-Walker, every Buddy will gradually increase their bond level as you go on missions with them, increasing their capabilities. As this bond level increases, you will also unlock equipment for these characters. D-Dog can get a knife that he can use to either stun or kill an enemy on command, Quiet can get various outfits (that do nothing but be aesthetic) and different types of rifles for varying situations, and D-Horse can get armor to increase resilience when being attacked. D-Walker is unique, on the other hand. It doesn’t have a bond level, but you can customize its loadout to suit your needs, like being an anti-air unit, or an automated bot to knock out enemies in an outpost.
Every Buddy is good in their own way. However, one character in particular has a lot of disagreeable design decisions, and that is Quiet. Quiet is important to the story in several ways, but for some reason, she leaves for good after a specific mission with no way to re-obtain her. On top of that, she’s scantily-clad, sporting torn stockings, a front-knotted bra, what I can only describe as a thong, and combat boots. Now, I’m usually not one to feel anything towards a video game character, but Quiet’s design made me feel mildly perturbed. It wasn’t until I unlocked the Gray XOF outfit that I felt comfortable with having Quiet as my buddy. However, as I brought up, Quiet is the only Buddy that actually becomes permanently unusable after a certain point in the game, and that probably makes her the worst Buddy in the game. D-Dog, on the other hand, is probably the best Buddy; not only can he be commanded to knock out, kill, or wound an enemy, he can also Fulton out an enemy, bark to get their attention, and mark just about anything that’s human, animal, or vehicle (even stationary weapons and decoys) within a 100 meter range.
MGSV follows a similar formula to its previous titles; although it greatly extends some things to beyond traditional mechanics. For one, the alert and combat statuses last much longer, and the alerts extend to any surrounding bases and outposts. The game also adapts to your playstyle. Do you get a lot of headshots and perform most of your operations at night? Enemies will start wearing helmets and using flashlights or night vision goggles at night to make it harder on you. These adaptations can be removed, as well, by sending a group from your Combat unit to complete a Combat Deployment that cuts off the supply of those items you may not want the enemy to have.
Much of the gameplay dynamic will feel natural to any MGS player. Suppressors deteriorate as you fire a weapon, crawling on the ground and hiding in grass makes you harder to detect, headshots with tranquilizer weapons are one-hit KO, you can knock or throw empty weapon magazines to distract enemies, and so on. Newer dynamics will also be welcome to returning players, including a Reflex Mode which slows down time to allow the prevention of being detected by an enemy (which can be disabled), and the ability to visually mark enemies and set waypoints using binoculars. All of these are going to be fully utilized when you take on either the story missions or Side Ops missions.
Side Ops are on-site activated. They give you a general location and an objective, like “extract the prisoner” or “clear out this minefield.” They’re a nice break from the normal missions, but don’t go binging them all at once. You’ll get irritated pretty quickly by the monotony. Story missions are as they sound, you have a set objective and you must complete it. Based on how well you do (no kills, never being detected, no use of air support of artillery, etc.), you will get a grade from C to S, as well as a “codename.” Codenames are essentially a secondary grade that just simplifies completing a mission with a specific playstyle. For instance, if you primarily completed your objective with D-Dog at your side, you would get Doberman, or if you completed a mission with the Chicken Hat, you would get Chicken.
Dying three times in a row at the same checkpoint warrants a suggestion to put on the Chicken Hat. Putting it on makes it so you can’t get a rank higher than A, but the benefit is that you won’t get detected by an enemy when you’re in their field of vision (up to three times per use). If you keep dying, it’ll keep suggesting it. I kind of wish you could turn this off for good, since nothing irritates me more than accidentally turning on the Chicken Hat in a situation where you’ve already been spotted, making the item essentially useless.
Most missions will have story influence in them; mostly in the use of cutscenes. Each mission has a purpose, but the important ones have about five to fifteen minutes of cutscenes in them. You can skip them, at least. The story as a whole is rather intriguing. XOF has made Afghanistan and Africa their home, and your goal is to find out where Skull Face is and eliminate him. Along the way, you’ll discover that not everything is as it seems, and that there is a parasite that is slowly infecting and killing anyone that speaks a specific language. After finding out how to cure it, you continue your search and find out that the next natural goal was to remove English as a language entirely, as an “ethnic liberator.” Without delving much further into the story, I can say this: The story is great, except for the last part.
See, as this game was getting reviewed by literally everyone, there seemed to be a split between if the story was good or bad, and now I understand why. For those who thought the story was good, they probably stopped after Episode 31. For those who thought it was bad, they played all the way through to Episode 50. See, MGSV is an incomplete game; it may not seem like it from the amazing gameplay, but it truly is. As I’m writing this review, dataminers have found out that the Briefing Tape for Episode 51 is still in the game, meaning that development of the game was ceasing right after Chapter 2 (Episodes 32-50), and Episode 51 would have tied up one of the plot lines opened in Chapter 2.
So this leaves MGSV in this really weird limbo that I find incredibly hard to explain, especially in a review format. On one side, you should absolutely play this game to enjoy the gameplay, but on the other side, the story is a frayed rope with no way to tie a secure knot. When you see all of the story mission content, you’ll want more, but you will never get anything. The main story (Episode 0-31) is amazing; it feels redeeming and ends solidly, even leaving a few questions that could technically be answered in future titles (I think). However, everything after that is a mess; a dirty room with a bunch of junk on the ground and no way to arrange it, and even if you do clean up the mess, you’re still left with a disappointing pile that you really can’t make odds or ends with. That’s all I can say about the story: Great, but overall disappointing. This game will quite literally have its own phantom pain; the sensation is there, but that’s all it is. A sensation.
Graphics and Performance
The game, as a whole, looks great. During my entire playtime, I never experienced any texture flickers, or even any significant texture pop-in. However, it’s certainly nothing to write home about. I would put this in the same graphics grade as Destiny; it looks great, but you’ll notice some things like poor aliasing (especially on models when seen up close) and questionable graphics quality (seriously, facial hair looks penciled on). On that note, animation quality looks superb, and the facial capture is impressive in many ways.
MGSV is flashy, as well. It uses a lot of refractive lighting effects and lens flare. There isn’t a time in the game where something doesn’t glisten or glint in the light, and although it isn’t distracting, it certainly looks ridiculous, which suits the game’s overall style, I guess. The overall graphics are nice and pleasant; it’s a mix between MGS3 HD Edition and Battlefield 3, smooth and makes good use of its engine. It’s also impressive that I never experienced any slowdown or frame loss my entire time playing. Considering just how much can happen in the game at one time, that’s incredibly impressive, and it runs at 60FPS.
It also takes a heavy influence to the 1980’s, where the story takes place, and it captures it pretty well. Snake even has a Walkman that you play cassette tapes in, and a lot of the overall design keeps itself within the time period. Some things naturally don’t match the time period, but those are natural for MGS games. I mean, I don’t expect invisibility and wormholes to really exist even nowadays.
Among the options, there are ways to turn off markers, action icons, etc. If you want, you can make your UI minimal or overall nonexistent. You can also turn off the rather obnoxious camera shake if you wish, or disable Reflex Mode.
Overall, the sound is nothing to write home about, either. What you get in terms of music are rather normal “stealthy action hero” themes and licensed 80’s music that you can play however you want. The voice acting is as you’d expect from an MGS game; serious and plentiful. However, Snake says very little in the game. In fact, I could estimate that his dialogue makes up maybe 5% of the overall dialogue; most of what you hear come from Ocelot and Miller, Snake interjects sometimes here and there, maybe he gets a monologue after a while, but that’s it. It’s surprising, since Snake was a very talkative character before this, and Kiefer Sutherland’s rendition is borderline silent protagonist. Everyone else speaks naturally and often speaks their mind, so I really don’t know why Snake doesn’t get a word in edgewise. This is especially relevant with the cassettes, since you’ll be getting a lot of plot filler and side-story through these. If I had to estimate, there’s probably about 8-10 hours worth of audio from the cassettes alone.
The sound effects are a mix of returning MGS classics (like the ‘!’ sound effect, and the headshot sound effect), and rather impressive weapon sounds. Every gun sounds natural, although some sound the same. There are some interesting sounds along for the ride, like how if you have the Bionic Arm equipped and do a sprinting melee, it uses the “bionic man” sound effect. So overall, everything sounds good, but you can listen to music or watch YouTube while you play it and you won’t miss much.