With a wide open world full of story-driven missions, random encounters, and even plants to collect, the third-person stealth-action game Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain (PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC) plays like a sneaky version of The Witcher III: Wild Hunt if you swapped magic for machine guns. But while that might sound like a big departure to fans on this long-running series, what this really does is adapt the classic Metal Gear Solid formula to a engaging new setting, one that helps make this one of the most compelling games of the year.
When we last saw our old pal Snake, at the end of Metal Gear Solid V Ground Zeroes (which was really just the first part of this game), he was escaping from Mother Base as it was being attacked, only to have an explosion cause his chopper to crash. As Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain begins, Snake finds himself in a hospital, only to learn he’s spent the last nine years in a coma, and it’s now 1984. So he sets out to rebuild his organization, while also looking to get revenge against those who killed his friends and comrades.
What follows is as much an expansion of what Metal Gear Solid mastermind Hideo Kojima did in the first part of 2008’s Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots as it is the second (but larger) part of what he began in Metal Gear Solid V Ground Zeroes. Except that instead of having Snake run around a small but open world in broad daylight like he did in the former, or a small base at nighttime like the latter, here he’s running around a large world with an active day and night cycle.
Further setting it apart, Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain tasks you with a series of infiltration missions in the wilds of Afghanistan. Which might have you thinking that, because Afghanistan is a desert, there’s nothing to hide behind, so this must be a third-person shooter. But while you can play it that way — and good lucky with that — Afghanistan is actually rather rocky and mountainous, so there’s not only some made-made structures to hide behind, but there’s also the land’s natural terrain, not to mention the cover of darkness during nighttime. There’s also random sand storms, though these cut your visibility as much as they do your enemy’s.
Which is why Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain still plays like a classic Metal Gear Solid game, in that you have to hide and be sneaky, but also plays like other games as well. For instance, because you can now approach your objective from almost any angle, and can use binoculars to mark targets and plan your attack, this sometimes feels a bit like Far Cry 3 and Far Cry 4.
Similarly, while Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain has an intricate narrative that’s laid out as you complete the game’s main missions, it also has side missions, and you also have to travel great distances to get to your next objective, during which you might run into enemy guard posts or patrols. All of which makes recalls such open world RPGs as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fallout 3, and the aforementioned The Witcher III. Though unlike all of those RPGs, you don’t run across missions during your travels; all of your assignments are assigned to you by central command.
What makes this more like The Witcher III than the other two games, however, is that everything you do plays into the story. Specifically, all of the side missions and random run-ins can help Snake make his new army that much stronger. You’re never just running an errand for some guy you just met. You even get around on a horse, one who always comes when you whistle.
Aside from The Witcher III, Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain also recalls 2010’s Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Like that game, you can not only kill bad guys, or pressure them to give you information (like where some supplies might be located), but you can also knock them out, attach a balloon to their waists, and send them back to the new Mother Base where, for some reason, they’ll decide to work for you. But while Peace Walker required you to you do the job of human resources for every new recruit, determining what department they’ll be assigned to, Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain gives you the option to automate the process. Which is great because playing H.R. executive in Peace Walker was kind of boring.
Recruiting new soldiers also pays off more in Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain than it did in Peace Walker. After staffing up, you can not only improve Mother Base, but you can get the guys to develop new weapons and combat items, all of which can be air dropped to you in the field. You can even call in an attack helicopter when your attempt to be stealth goes horribly awry and you just decide to do it Rambo-style.
Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain even evolves the standard Metal Gear Solid formula. For starters, when you compete a mission, enemies don’t just throw up their hands and let you walk away, they continue to chase and shoot at you until you get away. Which, trust me, is often more difficult than getting in.
Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain also, in subtle but noticeable ways, really makes you feel like a well-trained soldier, more so than any in this series (save for Metal Gear Solid V Ground Zeroes, of course). When surprised, Snake goes into a moment of sol-mo, during which he can dispatch his enemies like a well-trained soldier with combat experience. The game also has a slight aim-assist that’s somewhere between the suggestiveness of the Halo games and the snap-on of the Call Of Duty series.
As great as Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain may be, though, it’s not without its annoyances. Many of which, oddly, were carried over from Metal Gear Solid V Ground Zeroes. For starters, the silencer on some of your weapons doesn’t last long, which seems an odd oversight for a soldier whose modus operandi is to be sneaky. Also, while it’s cool that you can switch which shoulder Snake rests his gun on when shooting, it’s not cool that switching them happens when you press down on the right thumbstick, since it’s something you’ll undoubtedly do during one of the game’s harrowing firefights. There are also times when there’s spoilers in opening credits that accompany every story mission.
Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain also doesn’t have any fast travel options (though you can use a helicopter if you don’t mind waiting), nor is there any way to wait for night to fall or day to rise (though you can, when deploying from Mother Base, chose to go in at 6:00AM, 6:00PM, or whatever time it happens to be). At least I don’t think there are. Because, as has been a problem with this series from the start, Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain doesn’t do a great job of explaining its own intricacies.
Ultimately, though, these irritations don’t take much away from how engaging, invigorating, and ultimately addictive Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain can be once it gets going. As a fan of this series, I wouldn’t have minded if it had just been more of Snake being sneaky inside some buildings while following a linear path. But by setting this in large open world, it puts a new spin on this series, one that not only makes it as compelling as its forerunners, but also makes it so unique that it’s as if this series was just beginning.
To read my review of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes click here.