This is the most engaging open world title ever made. Despite a serious shortage of likeable characters, a few disappointingly shallow mechanics and the mother of all pacing issues in its storytelling, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain remains above all a supremely addictive game. It merges stealth seamlessly with high-octane firefights, and turns a set of simple objectives; fight, destroy, retrieve, into a massively replayable, ever-evolving core gameplay loop. Add to that a healthy dash of eccentric Metal Gear charm, and you’re onto a winner. It’s just a pity that outside of the context of its sprawling franchise, The Phantom Pain’s story is one of the least interesting director Hideo Kojima has ever conceived.
And that’s a real shame, because the gameplay here is the best we’ve ever seen in a Metal Gear Solid title. With a buddy at your side, you’re free to use stealth, cunning or violence in any combination you fancy. From inflatable decoy soldiers to pitched sniper battles, there are dozens of sides to The Phantom Pain’s action. You’re on a quest for revenge. As such, it’s up to you to pick from a broad list of essential missions and resource-boosting side ops, and deploy across the gorgeously-rendered valleys of Afghanistan to assassinate generals, hunt tanks, rescue wildlife, and complete a cornucopia of other objectives, almost all wrapped around annihilating a target, or stealing something or someone of importance to your sprawling oil rig fortress, Mother Base. It’s those thefts that bring the game’s most charming asset, your fulton balloon retrieval device, into the fore.
As the game progresses it opens out into a second, even better field of play, a war torn African borderland. The more soldiers you pilfer from these abandoned war zones, and the better their skills, the stronger Mother Base becomes, offering the opportunity to research from a broad tech tree, customise gear as you will, and master the battlefield with intel reports or aerial bombardments. You can fly in for a visit, but the base itself is a big empty shell, made entertaining only by your fanatical guards begging you to beat them senseless, and your zoo, funded by an environmentalist NGO.
That lifelessness is just the first sign of the game’s inconsistent ability to mesh plot and action. Much of the narrative is relegated to optional cassette tapes, which are interesting, but overused. This is the first Metal Gear Solid title that ever needed more cutscenes. The cinematics we do get are hit and miss too, especially when they’re ogling slimily over the game’s piece of silent sex appeal, the superhuman sniper; Quiet. As the game’s only notable female character, it’s a crying shame she’s given almost zero characterisation.
The plot ends up giving us too little, too late. Despite having excellent AI, amazing gunplay, and near perfect credentials as a sneak-em-up, The Phantom Pain takes an incredibly long time to realise any of its potential, miring you for dozens of hours in a clash with one of the series’ least memorable villains. We’d need days to explain just how amazing this game can be, how it draws you in for mission after mission, but unless you use the rich, tactile action as a crutch to endure the snail’s pace story, you’ll never see what The Phantom Pain can do.
Perhaps it’s a symptom of Kojima’s meltdown of his relationships with developer Konami. Maybe the game presents you with such sublime, open-ended gameplay that you can’t help but wish for more control over your underlings and their epic base. Whatever the reason, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is not a perfect experience – but it routinely shows the potential for perfection. Only series fans will appreciate the job it does of filling out the story. But every single one of you will find something to love in its gameplay.