Republished on Wednesday 27th September 2017: We're bringing this review back from the archives following the announcement of October's PlayStation Plus lineup. The original text follows.
Hideo Kojima's critically acclaimed Metal Gear franchise is known for its showy, fantastical, and often down-right ridiculous mythos – and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain doesn't handle things too differently. In the fifth entry in the series, you're put in the boots of Big Boss – a rather disgruntled war veteran who's just come out of a nine-year coma – as he leads the mercenary group Diamond Dogs into Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan War. Unsurprisingly, there are enough campy bad guys and ludicrous confrontations distributed throughout this narrative to last a lifetime, though it should be noted that the namesake commits itself to a somewhat darker tone this time around.
For example, David Hayter's classic portrayal of Snake has been swapped out in favour of Kiefer Sutherland's more subtle, mundane tones, and while he gives a fantastic performance – one that's certainly fitting for the release's sombre setting – we couldn't help but feel that his voice goes a little underused. It's understandable that having a less talkative protagonist lends itself to a more immersive, self-indulgent experience as far as the player is concerned, but given the amount of time that you'll be spending exploring this Goliath of a game, a little more input from the iconic antihero would've been welcome.
For the most part, the story itself is fast-paced and intense, and this is no more evident than in the title's opening act. The segment sees a significantly weakened Big Boss hiding from attackers, taking cover from helicopter gunfire, and fleeing on horseback from a giant, er, flaming man in order to escape the hospital that he's just woken up in. That being said, there are a few instances where The Phantom Pain appears to lose momentum, and the events taking place start to become worn thin or anticlimactic – particularly later on. The same can be said for more than a few weakly resolved sub-plots, which pale in comparison to some of the grand conclusions that we've seen come out of Kojima's past ventures.
Furthermore, a lot of background information is relayed to you via mission briefings and audio logs, and to those that find showing preferable to telling, this may seem a tad lazy. Thankfully, the cast of non-playable characters on offer are all very likeable – both the familiar faces, and the new ones alike. Ocelot, Quiet, and Benedict 'Kaz' Miller all feel remarkably genuine, in no small thanks to the game's astoundingly good voice acting, and the influence that these personalities have is only strengthened by recent additions like the buddy system.
You can now take a 'buddy' with you to assist you in your escapades, and without spoiling too much – you can visit our guide for a more in-depth look at each companion over here – the feature effortlessly breathes new life into an otherwise lonesome formula. The same statement can be applied to almost every other aspect of the title: the gameplay as a whole feels like an evolution of older releases, and almost every staple gadget, weapon, and technique that you've ever had at your disposable is refined to perfection in this iteration.
The sheer scale of the assortment available to you is instantly compelling for those looking to get experimental with things, and selecting the right loadouts and upgrades for the job can greatly improve your chances of it being a successful one. Even the aforementioned buddies that you can take into the field with you can be freely personalised, and, like Big Boss himself, can be dressed up in numerous unlockable outfits and armours. Exploring these combinations only becomes more enjoyable with time, too, as you get access to more and more content.
It's this sort of diversity that the title prides itself on, and this pays off massively in its mission design. In what might qualify as the greatest use of stealth in a video game ever, each assignment can be approached from countless different ways, and it's incredibly refreshing to be able to go about accomplishing things in the way that you want to. Because of this, your escapades rarely come across as repetitive or uninteresting, despite the amount of them provided – and this is even truer when addressing the numerous side operations that there are for you to sate your appetite with.
However – again, more so in the later sections of the campaign – some missions can begin to feel forced or perhaps frustrating in their fidelity, making you backtrack to clear uninspired objectives again, or requiring certain difficulty modifiers to be enabled before you can fully check them off your list. Full Stealth, for example, makes it so that any detection by the enemy is an instant failure, and you'll likely have to start all over again thanks to the instalment's less-than-forgiving checkpoint system. Unfortunately, there's no manual save option for you to take advantage of either – which means that you'll be relying solely on autosaves to record your progress for you.
Nitpicking aside, let's return to the many ways in which the release enhances and builds upon its predecessors. For starters, there's the regenerative health mechanic. Whereas you'd previously have to eat a couple rations before you could patch yourself up and get back into the action, The Phantom Pain kindly restores your health for you over a short period of time, in the style of more recent first and third-person shooters. Your trusty iDroid grants you the ability to have ammo and equipment packages airdropped to your location, as well as the power to call in helicopter strikes and bomb attacks down from above – though dabbling in the latter will nullify your chances of scoring top marks in the ensuing mission report.
Gunplay is smooth and intuitive, and with the exception of the odd piece of cover or unresponsive ledge, manoeuvring around the environment feels exceptionally fluid. Enemies behave dynamically and realistically, making their movements less predictable than you may expect – but this only helps to make each tense situation just that more thrilling. Once accosted, they can also be put to good use – interrogated, knocked out, or killed, to name a few choices – and the constant weight surrounding your decision makes every one of these moments relevant and fruitful.
With all of that in mind, if the game had to be summed up with a single word, it'd be 'detailed'. That's what the title is: detailed – and there isn't a time that this is more evident than when you're exploring its gorgeous open world. Whether you're searching for hidden items of interest, gathering resources, or capturing outposts, you'll be accompanied by some rather stunning sights. Sure, there may be a muddy texture here or there, but the overall aesthetic of the game is quite beautiful. This is only improved upon further by the fact that the release manages to maintain an impressive 60 frames-per-second throughout its playtime.
Of course, the sound design has also been polished to such an extent that it too creates an uncanny sense of realism and submergence. Not only do trademark touches like the menu navigation blip make a return, but ambient effects such as far-off animal cries and bullets that whizz past your head blanket every second spent traversing the wilderness. What's more, the score that overlaps your exploits is ever-changing, shifting, and matching your on-screen actions. It's an absolute pleasure for the ears, and there are even collectible cassette tapes scattered about that contain some pretty goofy 80s tracks for you to make memories with. Ever feel like driving a SUV into a bear to Kids in America? Well, that's something that you can do in Metal Gear Solid V.
Mother Base serves as your central hub in preparing and relaxing between procedures – a huge, offshore platform that houses your main forces and research departments. As you may have anticipated, it's staggeringly customisable, down to the colour of its exterior walls. The responsibility of governing such a construct may seem daunting, but it actually makes for some addictive good fun. In just investigating the area, you'll come across multiple activities and curios for you to sink your teeth into – there's an on-site shooting gallery, to name one. The plant is also where you'll find all of your off-duty allies, who you can interact with as frequently as you'd like – yielding some pretty entertaining results.
Your headquarters can be developed further by obtaining equipment and troops, and you'll probably acquire most of these through the use of the Fulton surface-to-air recovery system – a balloon-like device that you attach to inanimate subjects, before watching them jolt upwards and float back to Mother Base. Assuming that they do make it back, of course; bad weather and your captive's current state could hinder your hopes of getting them there in one piece, though these aren't common enough problems that they'll pose that much of a threat.
All in all, it's a highly pleasing little feature that instantly rewards you for your efforts, and since officers that you've snared can then be transferred into roles of your choosing, it's also one worth playing around with. As mentioned earlier, Mother Base consists primarily of research stations that can be upgraded in order to raise their efficiency – eventually producing new weapons, intelligence, and the sort – and bringing in new materials from the field will help make this possible. Additionally, while you're going about your own business, you can deploy small recon units to gain bonus resources for you on the side.
Upon growing large enough, your base is liable to be invaded by other players, where they can steal personnel and GMP – the currency used to establish new technologies, among other useful assets. Luckily, you can raid other players, too – although it's hard to recommend doing this straight after you've been assaulted yourself, as your invulnerability period will immediately expire, and you'll be left open to invasion once again. The concept seems a little unappealing, but in reality, it's quite thought-provoking and it can make for some gripping combat opportunities. Indeed, for a multiplayer component in an almost exclusively single player title, it's fairly well-executed – but some may find the acquisition of extra strongholds via microtransactions to be somewhat discouraging.
If the idea doesn't seem like your cup of tea, then you can disable the game's online capabilities through the options menu. Doing so may be advisable anyway, given that faulty connections to the Konami servers have reportedly been causing crashes, lag, and generally bad performance, especially with the release's loading times.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a hallmark of excellence in tackling open world gameplay, with its creative approach being reflected organically through your own actions. The amount of detailed, quality content on offer is immense, and the title boasts such a diverse selection of gear and utilities that it rarely, if ever, becomes repetitive to play. Managing and supporting your forces is both addictive and compelling, though indulging in the game's online features may lead to some frustratingly unfortunate technical issues. In terms of its story, the fifth instalment in the series may leave some fans wanting more, but overall, the release proves to be a fitting, brutally brilliant finale to Hideo Kojima's beloved saga.