The perfect mix of “pants-on-head crazy” and incredible gameplay, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is my first foray into the MGS series since the original Playstation. Yeah, it’s been a long time. And not for lack of want, being plugged into the gaming culture has kept me abreast of the universe Hideo Kojima created, but only to a small extent. Curious, I decided to leap back in without any additional research to find out if I’d be confused or if the game was approachable by those who haven’t had the pleasure of staying current on their Metal Gear Solid knowledge.
Short answer: it is.
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Normally I’d save this for the end of the review, but Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is so great that I feel it needs to be mentioned immediately: this will be on everybody’s “Game of the Year” list. It’s that good. Not knowing what to expect, I waded in slowly and carefully. But thanks to the fantastic free-roam gameplay, amazing gunplay, impressive characters, and mountains of content, it wasn’t long before I felt comfortable and familiar with the world.
Essentially, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a prequel, an origin story of sorts, introducing you to the trials and tribulations of “Big Boss,” who is the antagonist in many games in the series. It’s strange playing a hero when I know that the lore of the universe sees him become “the bad guy” -- but no bad guy ever thinks he’s bad, right? Still, the effect it has on you is present, but not exaggerated.
What makes the game so wonderful can be summed up in a word: gameplay. You’ll visit two countries throughout your time within the game, both are vastly different from each other in terms of geography and wild game, but enemies and outposts only look different, but act much the same in each area. Still, as you approach each enemy location there’s an enormous amount of options. Stealth, run-n-gun, or a hybrid seems like a simple set to live by, but packed within each is an array of approaches and combat options that makes every encounter unique.
As The Big Boss, you’re tasked with running your own quasi-military, stationed out of a customizable, upgradeable facility called “Mother Base.” For those who opt out of simply killing anybody in your way, you’ll gain the ability to use your “Fulton extraction.” When you knock an enemy out, whether it’s via hand-to-hand or tranquilizer, you’ll attach a massive set of balloons to them and send them back to Mother Base. There, after joining your squad, they’ll be added to a special team and help improve a different aspect of Mother Base. If you’re lucky, some will offer special skills, like decreasing research time on upgrades or unlocking new weapons. Micro-managing Mother Base is a game within itself and can be difficult, particularly early on.
The next level of customization comes in the form of weapons and companions. You’ll see additional side quests while you’re roaming the world and, upon completion, you’ll start unlocking and upgrading everything you bring with you. Different companions offer varying abilities and can modify your approach to every task undertaken. Changing your gear and your companion often creates surprising depth to something that can become tedious and overlooked if you’re not careful.
The story is ... well, it’s crazy as hell. Not having knowledge of the Metal Gear franchise’s timeline is frustrating when you start out. There’s a paranormal aspect intertwining with what I know of 1980s military and politics (the game is set in 1984), so a lot of research was necessary in order to wrap my head around what I was seeing. Using MetalGearTimeline.com as a reference made it easier, but the game plays out like a Shamylan film, featuring absolutely insane twists and turns that pop up out of the blue and keep you exclaiming, “WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST SEE?!”
As an outsider to the series, the story, while raising eyebrows, was the weakest part of the game. It stayed interesting only in the, “I’m going to keep playing to see what else could possibly happen,” sort of way. I should say outright that the story is not bad, and despite those missions that make you double-take, there are many that can trigger a heavy emotional response. Be warned though, there are a few so different from the rest of the gameplay that they stand out in a negative way.
Still, the combat, the customization, developing your team and your base, it all comes together in a way that captivates and hypnotizes you. Calling it a “time machine” is the best explanation of how Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain plays. You’ll have some free time, sit down to play, and in what feels like only minutes, you’ve lost hours.
The story is odd, yes, but what you’ll experience in between those missions more than makes up for the craziness. The difficulty helps make the game feel new time and time again, while there’s so much to modify that one person’s experience will be entirely different from another’s. Besides, there’s not many games where you can upgrade your chopper so that it flies in with “The Final Countdown” blaring, which more than warrants a purchase.
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Overall Score: 9 out of 10