Metal Gear Solid V Review
Opening cryptically on a hospital bed while the Midge Ure cover of David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World plays on a cassette tape, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain certainly kept building my level of anticipation post release before crashing down with a VERY intense opening sequence which I won’t spoil for you. Needless to say, your home was destroyed, most of your soldiers are dead, one of your closest allies betrayed you and you now have a very nasty piece of shrapnel stuck in your forehead.
From there the game asks the player a simple question, “can you ever have too much of a good thing?” For the first half of the story, Metal Gear Solid 5 winds up spending a lot of time getting sidetracked with main missions which do nothing to advance the story even as the gameplay proves itself to be the best in the series. This is even more problematic when the game heavily rewards returning to Outer Heaven and completing sidequests. Things pick up in the second half in the final Afghanistan mission before heading to Africa but for a series as narrative heavy as Metal Gear, there was a lot of padding that could easily have been left on the cutting room floor.
And for a game that took me 118 hours to complete everything (not including the playable epilogue which also opens yet more sidequests) Keifer Sutherland doesn’t do much talking despite being the protagonist. For a game where Big Boss winds up driven to his breaking point, most of his character development happens towards the end of the game. Both the cassette tapes and cutscenes seem to ignore Boss even as he does morally questionable things like fight against child soldiers, take on assassination jobs for money and approve the use of torture on the aforementioned traitor. You still feel like he’s a darker character but a bit more fleshing out wouldn’t hurt. The lack of a two-way radio like previous installments had also hurts the narrative since it’s been an important part of Metal Gear since the first game hit back in 1987 and it makes Boss’ interactions with other major characters seem limited. It’s a waste of Keifer Sutherland’s talents which is a shame since he’s such a talented actor.
Then there’s the weird serialization going on where the camera zooms in on Quiet’s butt and a group of female boss enemies’ breasts. It’s distracting and takes away from the overall experience. The game gains nothing from gratuitous fanservice, particularly when it’s so overt that it’s a turn-off. Dead or Alive uses sex as a selling point yet the same tactics don’t really work all that well for Metal Gear on a thematic level.
The boss fights are also much weaker this time around. Most of them are against faceless fire teams of elite enemies who don’t utter a word. Another is against a burning man who again, doesn’t speak at all. There are still fights to be had against a young Liquid Snake, the mute sniper Quiet and a Metal Gear but these are the exception rather than the rule. Both the primary antagonist, Skull Face and a young Psycho Mantis (who also doesn’t speak) are unfought which is a shame given the scope of the game. It feels like there was a lack of focus when it came to designing memorable antagonists and much of the time that could have been spent developing better boss encounters were instead blown on many filler missions which add nothing to the plot.
And with all of that being said, this game is still the best playing Metal Gear to date. The combat feels like MGS4’s with the ability to move and shoot at the same time but the open world structure allows for a great variety of approaches to missions so players who want to sit back and snipe can succeed just as well as those who want to sneak through and pick enemies off hand to hand or call in air support to disperse sleeping gas and then charge in guns blazing to handle anyone left standing. That’s in addition to a mission ranking system and optional replay objectives which encourage players to replay the game after already beating it.
That’s in addition to the new Reflex system which slows the game down as soon as you’re spotted and if you can kill of knock out each enemy who spotted, you, you’ll avoid an alert. This makes unsuppressed weapons viable outside of boss fights for the first time in the series. While stealth is still preferred, it’s now completely possible to play this game however you want. In fact, you’ll eventually have to. Do too many melee takedowns and enemies will start carrying flashlights around. If you snipe too often, be prepared to constantly reposition yourself to avoid mortar strikes. If you prefer to run and gun, expect to be flanked. If you use rubber bullets instead of the real deal, enemies will wear helmets and body armor which will prevent you from doing any damage. Alerts also last longer to balance out the shots you take in Reflex Mode and hiding away from sight causes flares and helicopters to force you out. Stealth is much harder this time around but also much more rewarding. Disabling enemy reinforcements and eliminating each enemy silently one by one before extracting in the middle of their base or hiding in a cardboard box trespassing through hostile territory completely unnoticed is perfectly doable.
And once the story reaches the halfway point and the plot reappears, the game does tackle some very weighty themes like the role of language and it’s relation to national identity, biological warfare, mass killings of civilians, the ethics of torture, use of child soldiers, assassination, the ethics of mercenaries, unintended collateral damage, etc. It may take a while to get there but once it does, the game improves dramatically and begins dealing with the same lofty issues that the series has always been known for since Metal Gear 2.
That’s assuming that you don’t get stuck sidequesting to earn in game cash to upgrade your equipment. With so much to unlock and so many sidequests to complete, it’s easy to get sidetracked during the Afghanistan chapter. Thankfully, as the plot kicks in, it begins to move more swiftly as shortly after you reach Africa, sidequests and NPC deployments are disabled and not completing plot missions causes serious repercussions until the game nears its conclusion. Thankfully, the epilogue is playable with an extended ending reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s Return of the King complete with additional story missions.
Once you reach the post game, it becomes time to start seriously upgrading your base. I for one changed my team’s name from, “Diamond Dogs” to, “Battle Naked” as it was the funniest combination of two words that I’d unlocked (at least until I find if Crab is present which will naturally lead to a name change to Crab Battle).
That isn’t even touching the best part of MGS5. The exceptional 80s soundtrack featuring songs by Asia, A-Ha, Europe and more. This is topped off by the ability on PC to upload a custom soundtrack so if you want to hear the original Metal Gear Solid OST or create your own custom 80s mix, you are free to do so. You can even set any song – even the ones you uploaded – to the helicopter so you can hear it coming. I for one used these features to enter the battlefield aboard an attack chopper alternating between Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone, Pat Benetar’s Love is a Battlefield, NWA’s Straight Outta Compton and Iron Maiden’s Aces High, all of which were custom additions.
While the story may be directionless for the first half, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the entire game. Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid and Metal Gear Solid 3 may still be the finest entries in the series but it’s wrong to come down too hard on what is an amazing open world stealth experience. It may be bloated and overloaded with too much plot padding but Metal Gear once again proves why it’s one of the most legendary series in gaming.
Pros – Open world. Excellent replay value. Story is great once it gets started. Countless unlocks. Amazing soundtrack. Custom soundtrack support. Base development. Intelligent enemies. Accommodates most play styles.
Cons – Weak Villains. Story takes too long to start progressing. Big Boss Doesn’t Talk Enough. Underwhelming boss fights.