Prior to its release, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain ($39.99), the final Hideo Kojima-helmed entry in the long-running stealth-action series, was touted as the prequel game that would close the loop on the nearly 30-year-old series. But while The Phantom Pain has all the surface trappings of a Metal Gear game—a hulking mech, super-soldier battles, and ramblings about the nature of armed conflict—its tale of loss and revenge actually raises more questions than it answers. Still, from a pure gameplay perspective, The Phantom Pain is an huge achievement, and one of the best PC games when it comes to stealth. You can also play Metal Gear Solid V on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and last-generation consoles.
The Man Who Sold the World
We've already taken an in-depth look at The Phantom Pain on Xbox One. This review focuses on PC-exclusive features, gameplay changes, and our evolving opinions on the game's surprising story, nearly one year after we first played through it.
In terms of story, The Phantom Pain begins nearly a decade after the series began in the standalone Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, with a hospitalized Big Boss waking from a coma as the David Bowie song "The Man Who Sold the World" blares. The mercenary leader's body is severely damaged from XOF's attack, as depicted in Ground Zeroes' closing moments, and the villainous organization is on his trail to make sure that the legend doesn't come back to life.
A Metal Gear Solid game is always good for twists and turns, so we won't spoil what happens during The Phantom Pain's opening moments. We'll say this, though: This one of the strongest kickoffs in video game history, complete with high tension, nightmarish imagery, Moby Dick allusions, and a mysterious, bandaged figure (voiced by 24's Kiefer Sutherland) who helps you evade enemy soldiers. This tutorial sequence is thrilling, though a bit long. It introduces new mechanics and characters, while bringing back familiar faces from past Metal Gear Solid games.
That said, the remaining game doesn't sustain the same level of mystery and WTF moments. Perhaps taking the Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots criticisms to heart, Kojima doesn't let The Phantom Pain's characters dive into over-the-top monologues, exhibit wacky super powers, or simply embrace weirdness, elements that have all become series trademarks.
The Phantom Pain's story is a serious examination of modern culture's obsession with war and the emptiness of revenge, but many of the vital plot points are relegated to audio tapes you receive after a successful mission. It would've been a joy to have seen Kaz—Big Boss's number one, and a man who suffers from phantom pains on multiple levels—visibly emote some of the venom he spits on tape. The moment when Kaz fully embraces his lust for revenge on camera is absolutely frightening. Still, there's an advantage to delivering story details via audio. It enables you to stay abreast of things while in the field. It's also a far less passive experience than watching lengthy cutscenes.
The game's plot, which promised to complete the narrative circle by tying the Metal Gear Solid series back into its 8-bit Metal Gear NES roots, is a bit disappointing, too. Like Revenge of the Sith, The Phantom Pain details a hero's fall from grace, but it may be in a way that series fans won't appreciate. That said, Kojima handles the idea with far more care and creativity than Lucas did.
Unfortunately, some plot points go unresolved, missions repeat themselves, and there's a huge swerve that attempts to fit into the larger themes without enough build up. It's difficult to know if this is due to the very public fallout between Kojima and publisher Konami, or if it's simply the result of botched storytelling. Perhaps it's a bit of both. When you finally put the controller down, you may feel a phantom pain of your own. Thankfully, The Phantom Pain's stellar gameplay makes up for its narrative shortcomings.
You play as Big Boss, a man who's lost nearly everything, including body parts and his Militaires Sans Frontières private military company. Your mission is to rebuild your lost army and exact revenge on Skull Face, XOF's mysterious leader. To do this, you must sneak through Afghanistan and Africa, freeing prisoners, rescuing child soldiers, retrieving lost comrades, collecting and customizing weaponry, and battling Metal Gear Sahelanthropus. Throughout, the Phantom Pain is a joy to play, and it controls wonderfully, too. For the first time, you won't struggle with the controls of a Metal Gear game, as the melee fighting, shooting, running, and driving have been honed to perfection.
Big Boss navigates the battlefield with grace, too, which makes infiltrating forts and capturing bad guys—to turn them into good guys through off-camera means—such a joy. Since enemies are potential allies, you're encouraged to complete the game's many missions using knock out gas, tranqs, and other nonlethal tactics. "Recruited" (i.e., kidnapped) soldiers could potentially be the ones to unlock a weapon or item you need. You simply tie a Fulton recovery balloon to those soldiers and watch them sail off into the sky toward your rebuilt HQ.
Metal Gear Solid V's open-world nature means that trees, cliffs, tanks, and several other objects will block your field of vision. That's when The Phantom Pain's new enemy-tagging system shines. To keep track of enemy patrols, you must view them through your binoculars and mark them. On paper, this may sound like a simplification of Metal Gear's traditional radar-based gameplay, but it's essential to balancing the challenge.
Unfortunately, that open-world environment is barren, outside of the military bases you need to penetrate. Of course, I'm not expecting Afghanistan and Africa's expanses to be as densely packed as Grand Theft Auto V's fictional San Andreas, but there should be more to do as you're driving or sprinting through the environments, even if were just random encounters.
As Mother Base grows, so does your army, your arsenal, and your reputation. Eventually, soldiers start volunteering to join your Diamond Dogs crew, because they've heard of your heroic wartime efforts. You can also expand your base, order the construction of new weapons (including a nuke and weather-control device!), and send soldiers into the field to fight other battles, while you tackle solo missions.
Sadly, most of those functions can be executed while you're away from Mother Base, which means there isn't much to do when you go home. In fact, outside of an encounter that touches on Big Boss' fragile emotional state, and a few specific cutscenes, Mother Base feels as truncated as the second half of the story. There should be more, but there is not.
Eventually, you gain buddies who accompany you into war. They include a knife-wielding wolf (named D-Dog), a battle-ready steed (D-Horse), an armed-to-the-teeth mech (Walker Gear), and a seductively dressed and photosynthetic long-distance sniper (Quiet). The buddies are remarkable assistants who can turn the tide of battle in your favor if properly used.
For example, equipping Quiet with tranq bullets makes missions considerably easier, as she'll KO nearly every enemy soldier in her field of vision. The downside is that letting her do so lowers the monetary bonus you get at the end of each mission. That money is used to upgrade your buddies, your weapons, and even your bionics. Amass enough money and other resources and you can even build nukes, though there are consequences for such actions.
I'm Afraid of Americans
The Phantom Pain has the distinct flavor of a 1980s revenge tale. You can play the rock and pop cassette tapes, including gems such as Lauren Branigan's "Gloria" and Kim Wilde's "Kids In America," which you find scattered throughout the battlefields. You can listen to the tunes on Big Boss' iDroid handheld device as he skulks around on foot, or use the tracks as his helicopters' theme music. Yes, helicopter music. It's quite thrilling to hear A-ha's "Take On Me" in the distance as you race to a landing zone with the enemy on your tail. Even better, the PC version lets you import your own music, so you can raid military installations to the sounds of Hanson's "MMMbop," if that's your thing.
The enemy AI is one of the best we've seen in a video game. Pick off too many soldiers with headshots and the enemy will start wearing helmets. If you fancy knocking out opponents with sleeping gas, enemy troops may wear protective gas masks in your next tango. The AI factors into The Phantom Pain's day-night cycle, too. If you infiltrate a base between shifts, you may find an easier way to penetrate the opposition forces. You don't necessarily have to wait around do so either, as you can use the Phantom Cigar, which contains Wormwood, to speed up Big Boss' time perception and select daytime or nighttime missions.
If it's not enough to pay $40 for a new game, you need to pay real-world money to buy new Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), which are additions for your Mother Base that you defend in a special one-on-one infiltration mode. You can invade other players' FOBs to steal weapons, resources, and soldiers. It's an optional mode, of course, and you get one free FOB to toy with, but the mere suggestion of paying cash for extra doodads in a major release is infuriating. You can also buy FOBs using the in-game currency, Mother Base Coins, but you amass them very, very slowly.
Even worse, you can buy FOB insurance with real-world money—a huge mistake. Now, Joe Blow can pay to make sure that nearly anything you swipe in infiltration mode is covered, removing the threat of being cleaned out by a rival. Sure, you can still capture enemy soldiers, but FOB insurance ruins the sick joy that comes with ransacking some random's home base. You can also pay to speed up the development times of new FOBs. This puts those of us who'd rather not spend additional money at a disadvantage. Ugh.
This nickel-and-dime tactic carries over into team-based multiplayer Metal Gear Online, too. For example, when outfitting your avatar in military gear, you get a handful of colors to give your soldier a unique look. Sadly, even the extra colors are locked behind paywalls! That's ridiculous.
Thankfully, Metal Gear Online is otherwise outrageously fun. You select a class (Scout, Enforcer, or Infiltrator) that boasts unique weapons and attributes and take to battle in a variety of gameplay modes. Metal Gear Online supports 16-player battles, so the action can get really intense as you scout locations, set up distractions, and take out enemies via lethal or nonlethal means.
You've got several options for The Phantom Pain's gorgeous visuals, ranging from 800-by-600 to 3840-by-2160 pixel resolution. That high-end 4K video option is something not available on consoles, so if you have a PC with enough horsepower, crank those graphics. The Phantom Pain is locked at 60 frames per second, but the action moves along at a smooth pace. Our Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 card rendered the gorgeous 1080p character models and scenery with aplomb.
The graphics settings let you tweak many visual elements, including depth of field, textures, and lighting. I've played The Phantom Pain on both PC and console and determined that the PC version looks noticeabley better. And as you'd expect from a Steam release, The Phantom Pain supports dozens of Steam achievements.
The irony isn't lost on us that a game named The Phantom Pain has missing content that's left the fanbase with a sense of unease. Still, Metal Gear Solid V is a (mostly) excellent way for Hideo Kojima to send off the series that he's masterminded for nearly three decades. Yes, the story may be the weakest in the series and the online modes may be filled with money-grubbing shenanigans, but if you're a Gear head, The Phantom Pain is a masterful stealth experience.