October 14th 2016
WARNING: the following review contains spoilers.
I bought my PS3 on the very day Guns Of The Patriots was released in 2008, and seven years later I did exactly the same thing with my PS4 and The Phantom Pain. Seven years of patiently waiting, replaying through the previous games again and again, until the last piece of the puzzle – the missing link that would bridge the gap between the Big Boss and Solid Snake eras to bring the epic saga full circle – was finally released. Unfortunately, this is not the game we received. Instead, The Phantom Pain is a devastatingly disappointing mess of irrelevant and unfinished plot, weak storytelling and dull characters, mixed with lifeless maps, repetitive missions and a distinct lack of just about everything that typically makes Metal Gear Solid games so great.
In all fairness, there are some strong positives to the game. In addition to graphics that are prettier than ever, the gameplay has also never been better – every action feels delightfully smooth and fluid, every shot fired and punch thrown has a real sense of weight and impact. There’s such a wide variety of movements and manoeuvres you can utilize, and of weapons and tools at your disposal, that you can be endlessly creative in your approach to playing. There are hours and hours of enjoyment and entertainment to be had, and for a lot of people this alone will be enough to justify purchasing the game.
These brilliantly fun elements, however, are surrounded by tedious monotony and poor design. The game world is massive, yet lacking in diversity, depth and character. The enemy strongholds serve their purpose well enough but are mostly bland and forgettable, never coming anywhere close to matching the charm, atmosphere and personality of some of the series’ previous settings. Consider Shadow Moses, for example – desolate and isolated but in a powerful, haunting sense, the place exudes melancholic ambiance and is almost a character in its own right, much like Serenity in Firefly or the island in Lost. Then you have Snake Eater, featuring the field of white flowers at Rokovoj Bereg, the rope bridge of Dolinovodno, and even the simple giant ladder midway through the game – each of these environments build an incredible emotive resonance that you never really experience anywhere in The Phantom Pain.
The open areas between enemy bases are largely dull and lifeless, with little more than the occasional truck passing by and a series of unimaginative cookie-cutter outposts dotted along the roads. The game fails to convey the feeling that you’re part of a living, breathing world, that any actions or events take place aside from those which you catalyse. Although you’ll rescue prisoners in missions, you’ll never stumble upon Afghan rebels’ hideouts or encounter African civilians. You’ll never approach an outpost only to find the guards already engaged in a skirmish. You will, however, spend a lot of time running through frustratingly expansive dead zones.
Restricted to just two regions, albeit impressively large ones, the opportunity to explore a wider range of environments is missed. The same total game area spread across three or four maps could have offered more aesthetic variety, possibly including a snowy mountain range, an urban wasteland or a tropical island. The existing locations could have used greater distinction as well; the Afghan desert and African savannah may look different but the feel of their wide, open, exposed landscapes is often a bit too similar. The pockets of forest in Africa are some of the most beautiful and interesting areas in the game but should have spanned the entire map to create a dense, sprawling jungle, offering contrast while also fulfilling the idea initially planned for Snake Eater.
The Phantom Pain is plagued by an ill-conceived serial format; a cheesy, unnecessary gimmick complete with unskippable credits littered with spoilers at the start of every episode and jarring ‘to be continued’ freeze-frames at the end of a couple. Segmenting the game into dozens of separate deployments denies the tension, trepidation and urgency of being isolated and alone for the duration of a continuous ongoing mission, while in-field buddy backup, air support and supply drops are the antithesis of the traditional ‘one-man infiltration mission, weapons and equipment OSP’ ethos. The result is a complete absence of the tone and atmosphere of a true Metal Gear Solid experience.
Exacerbating this issue, the series’ renowned cutscenes have been stripped down to a bare minimum. Cinematics are now few and far between – and much too brief when they come – offering little in the way of exposition, characterization and drama. The full codec system has also disappeared, meaning the ability to have spontaneous, contextually relevant conversations with various members of a whole team of supporting characters is gone. The only in-field communication now comes from Ocelot or Miller chiming in via radio with occasional advice, hints and irritatingly repetitive warnings.
In place of these missing series staples is a collection of cassette tapes, intended to fill the gaps but instead coming across as a lazy info-dump. Listening to records of conversations after the fact just doesn’t have the same impact as experiencing them first-hand as they happen, while the lack of visuals means that non-verbal subtleties such as facial expressions and body language are lost. There is also no musical accompaniment, removing a potent tool in eliciting emotional responses and leaving the taped exchanges feeling dry.
The missions are generally enjoyable and engaging with great replayability thanks to grade rankings and secondary objectives, but they’re often lacking in narrative context with motivation frequently limited to simply being hired by an anonymous or irrelevant client to fulfil their agenda. In some cases a link to the shadowy antagonistic organisation Cipher serves as an ulterior motive, or you’ll be directly pursuing Skullface or otherwise advancing an ongoing subplot, but many assignments have little to no connection. New missions are unlocked intermittently without necessarily flowing smoothly and causationally from the previous operation; it’s an awkward, erratic and incohesive structure.
Lazy rehashes of previous deployments form the majority of the second chapter in a shameless and insultingly transparent attempt to lengthen the game and compensate for cut content. These would have been welcome as bonus alternative options for the original missions, but trying to pass them off as separate components is not acceptable. After just seven new missions in which fresh plots barely get off the ground, the game reaches an abrupt and anticlimactic conclusion in which storylines are abandoned due to an intended third chapter being scrapped, leaving no resolution or closure. The grand finale – a minimally altered rerun of the slow, tedious prologue sequence – clumsily delivers a sudden twist without any kind of build-up, rhythm or causation; the mission simply appears out of nowhere, senselessly and arbitrarily.
In addition to main missions there are plenty of side ops to keep you busy, though unfortunately these are severely limited by a ‘quantity over quality’ approach. The vast majority are shallow, repetitive tasks with no context, haphazardly tacked on without thought or craft. They’re a far cry from the great ‘pseudo-historical recreations’ of Ground Zeroes, which featured unique objectives and enough background information to make each one feel compelling and meaningful; a few dozen secondary missions in that style would have been much more interesting and worthwhile than checking over a hundred monotonous, time-wasting tasks off a list. This would also have been a more suitable platform for those main missions that weren’t actually related to the story.
In fact, Ground Zeroes was arguably an all-round better game than The Phantom Pain, at least in a ‘pound for pound’ sense. It was focused and concise throughout with dark overtones and thick atmosphere. The main mission was short but gripping, with no unnecessary distractions diminishing the feeling of importance. You actually had to hide unconscious guards rather than simply extract them, ammo had to be carefully rationed and sought out in-field rather than delivered via mood-killing and overly-convenient supply drops, and there were no time-outs at Mother Base to relieve the sense of pressure. Camp Omega was dynamic, intimidating and full of character; large and open enough to offer a degree of sandbox freedom yet compact enough to remain tight and sharp. The game set high standards and expectations, which The Phantom Pain sadly failed to live up to.
Strong characters with distinct, enduring identities and a charismatic, commanding presence have always been an essential ingredient of the series, but the game disappoints in this aspect too as new and old faces alike largely feel hollow and lifeless. Ocelot is reduced to a garden-variety voice-of-reason military advisor with none of the intrigue and allure he formerly possessed. Skull Face, despite initially being introduced in Ground Zeroes as a dark, cruel and frightening figure, often seems camp and cartoonish, killing his menace and making it difficult to ever take him all that seriously. Quiet is slightly too mysterious for her own good; she fails to convey enough personality and her relationship with Venom Snake is undersold, leaving the conclusion of her story arc feeling far less moving and meaningful than it ought to. A young Psycho Mantis is shoehorned in as a contrived plot device rather than a fleshed-out person, while Eli is underutilized and never reaches his full potential. The less that is said about Code Talker, the better. There are some positives on display though – Miller’s passionate lust for revenge often steals the show whenever he is on screen, and Huey’s role as cowardly, treacherous weasel inspires real disgust and loathing.
Venom Snake himself is an empty shell; vacant and detached, he’s a million miles away from the lively, animated protagonists we’ve seen in the past. Whereas Solid Snake, Raiden and Big Boss all had strong, clear identities and inescapable charisma, Venom’s reserved, withdrawn nature prevents you from ever really getting to know or understand him, causing an awkward disconnect between player and character. The revelation that he is in fact not Big Boss at all but just some random, anonymous medic severs the only link you have, further alienating Venom while thankfully relieving the uncomfortable dissonance between this unrecognizable stranger and our familiar hero.
After the fascinating boss groups from previous games – Foxhound, Dead Cell and The Cobra Unit – Guns Of The Patriots’ B&B Corps was incredibly displeasing due to the members’ formulaic back-stories, lack of individuality and vague, tenuous association to the plot and surrounding characters. However, even they look like superstars next to the Skulls Parasite Unit. These flavourless bullet-sponges are effectively non-characters with nothing to offer beyond their initial creepiness. Devoid of depth, personality and even names, there is nothing distinguishable or memorable about them. The Man On Fire isn’t much better; inconsequential and overblown, the man formerly known as Volgin has been dehumanized into nothing more than a one-dimensional beast, and is far less interesting, detestable and monstrous than the brutal sadist we saw in Snake Eater.
The actual fights are mostly just as lacklustre, which is thoroughly disappointing given the series’ rich history of iconic, unforgettable confrontations such as the ingeniously creative battle with Psycho Mantis, the tense war of attrition with The End, the tragic yet beautiful last encounter with The Boss, and the epic final showdown with Liquid Ocelot. These are some of the greatest boss fights in all of gaming, but even the very best The Phantom Pain has to offer – the sniper dual with Quiet – doesn’t approach the exceptional standards set by its predecessors. Clashes with the Skulls, the Man On Fire, Eli and Sahelanthropus are emotionless and uninspiring, while you never directly face-off with primary antagonist Skull Face and there is also no final boss of any kind, adding up to a colossal let-down in this aspect.
Another massive failure of the game is the plot. The presentation is fragmented and uneven, but the real issue lies in the content. The Phantom Pain is formed of several lesser arcs that never fuse into a focused overall story, leaving uncertainty over what the game is ultimately about. Ending the terrorist threats on Shadow Moses and the Big Shell, assassinating The Boss and preventing Volgin from turning the Cold War into a blazing hot one, putting a stop to Liquid Ocelot’s insurrection; these were all clear ongoing objectives you worked towards throughout each of the previous games, but this time there doesn’t appear to be an overarching narrative tying everything together into a cohesive, coherent whole.
Parasites are strangely introduced as a major plot element despite having never been mentioned at any other point in the timeline. The use of simple bugs as tools and weapons feels wildly out of place next to the advanced sci-fi machinery and cutting-edge technology usually featured in the series, and they’re a puzzling inclusion given their functional similarity to nanomachines, an over-the-top but at least established and tonally-fitting component that could easily have been used in their place. The vocal cord parasites story arc does lead to one of the best sections of the game though; a forceful, distressing climax that generates extreme guilt and sorrow.
Another outstanding gem can be found on the medical platform of Mother Base. A series of unsettling but endearing interactions with Paz, who has seemingly miraculously survived the events of Ground Zeroes, builds up intense feelings of concern, sympathy and affection, before ruthlessly tearing you down with an agonizingly poignant crescendo. The sudden melancholia and palpable sense of loss arguably make this the most sentimental moment of The Phantom Pain, bringing a flash of the series’ trademark brilliance to a game that too often misses the mark.
The most significant arc – taking revenge on Skullface and Cipher for the attack on the original Mother Base at the end of Ground Zeroes – unfolds in an oddly clinical manner, lacking the raw emotion you would expect from a furious personal vendetta. The enemy motivations and goals are vague while their exact plans are confusing and ill-defined, and it all culminates in one of the most bizarre scenes in the series as Skullface brings you along for an infamously awkward jeep ride before being unceremoniously incapacitated and then killed shortly afterwards. It’s an unsatisfying and anticlimactic finish to a storyline that never felt particularly captivating to begin with.
The biggest mistake of all and most overwhelmingly frustrating aspect of the whole experience is simply that the game doesn’t tell the story that needed to be told. It should have been about Big Boss’ descent from the heroic figure of Snake Eater and Peace Walker into the cold, villainous warlord we know he becomes. We should have lived through events referenced earlier in the series – the escalating feud with Zero, saving Sniper Wolf, meeting Naomi and Grey Fox, forming Foxhound and Outer Heaven – before finally completing the saga with an epic showdown between Big Boss and Solid Snake. It would have been the perfect ending, possibly among the greatest moments not just of the series but of gaming history, and it’s unbelievable – absolutely astonishing – that such an undeniably amazing and obvious opportunity was overlooked.
In place of the glorious masterpiece that could have been, we essentially received an extraneous side story; the various adventures of a Big Boss imposter as he builds up a private military company. The events of The Phantom Pain have little importance to the main overarching plot, any impact they do have is trivial and unnecessary while some details even detract from the established canon. Venom Snake’s existence serves only to answer a twenty-five-year-old question that nobody was actually asking. Recharacterizing the feud between Big Boss and Zero takes the sting out of the graveyard scene in Guns Of The Patriots. The introduction of yet another nuclear bipedal tank, the cartoonish and over-the-top Sahelanthropus, further devalues the concept and diminishes the significance of other Metal Gears from later in the timeline. It all adds up to feel thoughtless, irrelevant and incongruent with the rest of the series.
The Phantom Pain can best be summarized as a great game, but a terrible Metal Gear Solid. Smooth, polished and awesomely fun, it’s a joy to play and will keep you entertained for dozens of hours. The fact that it’s unfinished is indefensible, and the open-world concept is clearly overambitious and underdeveloped, but the game has some excellent moments and is certainly worth playing… however, make no mistake; it’s a complete and utter betrayal, virtually unrecognizable from the previous games you know and love. In this regard it falls catastrophically short of expectations, getting the story monumentally wrong and comprehensively failing to deliver a suitable, satisfying conclusion to the acclaimed series. The tone and atmosphere is totally alien, and the classic style and feel of a real Metal Gear Solid is painfully missing. The omission of David Hayter’s iconic voice is a final unforgivable nail in the coffin. For all intents and purposes, the game might as well be it’s own separate, original, standalone title, completely unrelated to Metal Gear Solid. Overall, I cannot possibly overstate how crushingly, heartbreakingly disappointed I am with The Phantom Pain.