It is a strange sort of relief that the latest entry in Metal Gear Solid, a series thematically concerned with what it means to leave behind a legacy, lives in such brazen defiance of its predecessors. Gone are the hour-long cutscenes rife with the sort of exposition that makes you feel like a character is reading directly from a Wikipedia entry aloud. The control scheme, so hideous and yet loved by many specifically for that hideousness, has also been reconfigured for accessibility. In a sense, most of the things that make Metal Gear Solid Metal Gear Solid have been traded away for a freewheeling stealthy action-adventure game that plays more like a giant version of Splinter Cell: Blacklist. This is ultimately to the benefit of The Phantom Pain though the loss of Metal Gear’s somewhat endearing quirks are a little disappointing.
The open-world genre has grown stagnant over the last few years. Developers of such games often demonstrate just how weak and hollow their worlds are by filling them with random tasks designed to prolong the amount of time the player spends in these places, like collecting those stupid shards in Dragon Age: Inquisition or climbing to the top of every arbitrarily chosen tower or building in every Assassin’s Creed game in order to reveal the map and make your completion meter go up by one quarter of a single percent. These are distractions that are only loosely connected to the thrust of their respective games. Why does the Inquisitor, one of the most important people in that universe, have to go around picking up shiny garbage? Because it’s a relatively easy way to make the game seem a bit bigger than it actually is. Most contemporary open-world games are, by and large, pretty looking containers of junk.
This is not the case with The Phantom Pain, a game that not only presents the player with activities that are genuinely exciting and worthwhile but also connects them with an economic system so that everything you can do feels like it’s building toward something bigger. It’s a game where nearly every piece feels carefully designed and polished to a mirror sheen. Unfortunately, “nearly” is the keyword here. The game’s sublime joys mean that its few failings are twice as disappointing as they would be if the The Phantom Pain was mediocre or just plain fine.
Though the Metal Gear saga is ridiculous and convoluted, The Phantom Pain is direct in a way that, while initially refreshing, is ultimately disappointing. Big Boss is maimed after the events of Ground Zeroes, losing his arm. His BFF Kaz Miller loses an arm and a leg. After nine years in a coma, Revolver Ocelot, a Russian who’s seen too many damn Westerns, rescues Boss from danger and reunites him with Kaz in 1984. The trio decides to build their own private army and go after Skullface, the cartoonishly evil villain supposedly responsible for all their despair.
Metal Gear has always had a penchant for weirdness. It’s mostly been charming outside of the games’ adventures into perversion (more on that later) but the story of The Phantom Pain isn’t Metal Gear weird. It’s not even interesting weird. It’s just a dull revenge plot, peppered with occasional references to earlier games, about shitty people and the shitty things that happen to them because they’re so consumed by pain and hate (there’s also some subject matter that you’re automatically supposed to regard as profound, like the inclusion of child soldiers or disabled people, but nothing interesting is ever done with them). A good contrast here might be the quality difference between the episodes of Twin Peaks that were directed by David Lynch versus those that weren’t. Even though series director/writer Hideo Kojima was involved with all the previous Metal Gear games, The Phantom Pain’s few attempts at aping the series’ idiosyncrasies come off more as pale imitation than anything else. There are some standout moments, particularly those involving Boss and Revolver Ocelot, but taken as a whole the story is weak and unsatisfying. That said, as someone who spent the last month playing through nearly every single Metal Gear Solid game: thank god there isn’t a cascade of cutscenes for every five steps you take. Instead, The Phantom Pain mostly delivers piles upon piles of exposition through optional cassette tapes you can listen to during your missions, a mechanic that is partially responsible for the story’s weakness as well as the astonishing success of its open-world design.
Infinitely more disappointing, but not entirely unexpected, is that while the series sheds its clunky controls and its notoriously long cutscenes, the sexist tendencies of Kojima’s writing and direction are as regressive and crude as they’ve ever been. Metal Gear Solid has always sexualized its female characters (yes, even The Boss, who serves as fans’ go-to piece of evidence that Metal Gear isn’t sexist and how dare you say such a thing) to the point that every single game has had the camera ogling their breasts or butts. Those who aren’t objectified in a sexual fashion are often presented as nagging portraits or damsels. While this isn’t enough to sink the game or even significantly alter my enjoyment of it, it does serve as an occasional rude interruption to my enjoyment, especially since scantily clad Quiet is a fascinating character who deserves better than the camera’s constant close ups on her boobs and the limited wardrobe her creators gave her (and the silly reason they cooked up for said wardrobe).
Outside of those two elements, The Phantom Pain’s pieces come together to create a compelling gameplay loop that results in the most enjoyable game I’ve played this year. As Big Boss, or a random soldier you can choose from a roster, you pick your equipment loadouts—a nice mix of loud and quiet, dangerous and non-lethal—and then go on one of many missions. Sometimes you’re rescuing hostages, sometimes “eliminating” targets, which you can kill or extract to add to your growing army. Kidnapping plays an important part in the game, with you knocking soldiers out and transporting them to your base via fulton balloon. There you assign them to one of several departments that can help you out by developing new weapons or feeding you crucial information during missions. It is kind of silly that the soldiers you kidnap just go “ok, I’ll work for you!” but the neatness and goofy entertainment value of this outweighs its dumbness. You can also select buddies—a dog, a horse, a sniper, a mech thing that looks like it was made by someone who dreamed of an action movie starring Johnny Five—that will help out in missions in various ways. They’re all pretty nifty but I mostly use Quiet’s sniping skills or my horse’s ability to drop turds that would cause enemy drivers to faint and swerve their cars off the road.
The Phantom Pain works best when you’re on a mission in beautifully rendered Afghanistan or Africa, choosing how to approach your goals. It’s essentially a military tactics short story generator that’s successful in letting you have big action movie moments that are organic and not scripted. I have a huge collection of fond memories from the 50 or so hours I’ve spent with the game, like when Quiet suddenly shot the face off some dude I was interrogating and scared the hell out of me, or how I lured a bunch of dudes to an area with an inflatable decoy version of myself and then blew them to pieces with C4 while listening to Kim Wilde on Boss’ Walkman. Of course, you don’t have to kill anyone if you don’t want to. It’s just as exciting to play non-lethally, putting everyone to sleep and “recruiting” them, as it is to stealthily move through outposts, making guards fall to your knife or silenced pistol one after another until none are left.
What elevates The Phantom Pain beyond this particularly Far Cry brand of player choice is the economic system attached to your actions. The currency in the game that allows you to develop weapons, build base facilities and call in support, such as ammo being flown in or even an attack helicopter that gives you cover fire, is called GMP. You earn it by completing missions, dispatching soldiers to do their own operations and by finding diamonds around the various outposts you infiltrate; you can also sell off any excess resources you find to make that money too. Plenty of games have moneymaking systems, like how Assassin’s Creed and Grand Theft Auto encourage you to invest cash into businesses so you can make a profit in the long run via a steady stream of income. However, most of these systems are usually attached to a single, one-time decision. Almost everything you do in The Phantom Pain either gets you money or loses you money, which forces you to make expenditure decisions constantly. It’s a game that’s constantly asking you to evaluate the cost and profit of your actions. Should I kill everyone in this base or is it worth the trouble to capture each of them to serve in my army? Is the 7000 GMP it would cost to call in a helicopter to take out the dudes shooting at me necessary or can I make it out of the outpost by myself and continue to save for that silenced sniper rifle I want like an eager child dropping bloody pennies into his piggybank?
The game ensures that saving up for upgrades and new weapons is essential (and not just an immediate way to make you overpowered) by amping up the difficulty in missions rather quickly and throwing a number of grindy boss fights your way that can be super frustrating if you don’t have powerful enough equipment. It’s a thematically appropriate system for a game that takes place during the Cold War, with you pitting the development of your tech against the tech of your enemies, constantly expecting to be far ahead of them only to discover that you’re right beside one another or, worse, they’re a few feet in front of you, nearing the finish line.
The Phantom Pain, in spite of its shortcomings, might be the only open-world game I’ve ever played where I can say I feel like I wasn’t wasting my time on some activity that was dull or poorly designed. Even my favorite games in the genre (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Arkham City, Saints Row IV) all have at least one or two clunky activites that they force you to do over and over again for the sake of progression, tainting the experience. However, nothing feels like a chore in The Phantom Pain. Tone-deaf? Sure. Long-winded? You betcha. A few annoying boss fights? Yup. Still, I can’t fault the game for being dull or tedious because it’s genuinely thrilling to play 99% of the time. It’s a game made by people who know the pieces of its construction intimately and how those pieces should connect to one another, who understand that making the small moments matter is just as important as the big picture.
In a previous piece about Metal Gear Solid, I wrote that the series is fascinating because it represents both the apex and the nadir of games as a medium—a mishmash of philosophy and fart jokes, the tug of war between a player’s need for agency and a creator’s need for creative control—and I find The Phantom Pain to be further evidence for that assertion. It’s a game that’s often obnoxious and clumsy in the handling of its subject matter and the treatment of its own characters, but it’s also that rare game that showcases the treasure of undying delights to be found within meticulously crafted interactive worlds.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was developed by Kojima Productions and published by Konami. It’s available on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.
Javy Gwaltney devotes his time to writing about these videogame things when he isn’t teaching or cobbling together a novel. You can follow the trail of pizza crumbs to his Twitter or his website.