The Phantom Pain showcases the uncompromising ambition that pushed the series forward throughout the decades. The gameplay and narrative style feel so unlike the first Solid because, even now, the series continues to develop in every facet. The fourth instalment provided all the resolution and fan-service a follower of the series needs and so this game is free to provide something both ballsy and fun.
The Phantom Pain melds the stealthy, open gameplay of Ground Zeroes with the base-management mechanics from Peace Walker, with upgrades developed through levelling up and resources. The system is fairly balanced since it requires a little grinding which pushes players to explore the open-world and try out new things beside the main missions, but it is not a merciless time-wasting grind.
Peace Walker was very action oriented, having players fight ludicrous AI mechs far too often and the level design meant that the stealth missions present took place in areas that did not facilitate interesting solutions. The Phantom Pain is far from subtle, but it dials it down adequately from Peace Walker. There is only one Metal Gear to fight here and stealth is a huge priority, even if guns blazing is an option.
The level of detail players have come to expect from a Kojima game is present. Not many games can say that they have a lead gimmick programmer and this brings with it plenty of ludicrous items for Snake. There are a wealth of aesthetic and gameplay options to keep the game fresh and consistently surprising.
A lot of the story is told through cassette tapes which feel more detached than codec calls. If the codec made the player an eavesdropper, the tapes ask players to snoop into conversations that happened entirely without their presence. Nevertheless, they mean that players can choose how dense a storytelling experience they want from the game. Music tapes can also be found throughout the maps and the playlist is designed to juxtapose with the intense action and stealth. The crowd pleasing tracks allow players to create their own ludicrous spin on the game if they so wish, with pink helicopters belting out Ride of the Valkyries while gunning down enemies to the ability to blast the 1980s pop tunes out of speakers while driving. The original score and vocal tracks are also stunning and add grandiosity to the entire experience.
In past Metal Gear games, with the linear structure and cutscenes every ten minutes, every action built towards the final end goal of the game. In contrast, the missions of The Phantom Pain sometimes feel non-essential and cutscenes are less frequent. However, the format helps the player feel like a leader. In past games players were sent on missions and given instructions but it would not make narrative sense for this Snake to be shoved around and so, while the mission structure removes some urgency from the narrative, it makes thematic sense.
Snake is un-talkative in comparison to past portrayals and what he does say is very terse. Rather than show and don’t tell, Kojima usually goes for tell and tell again. The Phantom Pain loses none of the over the top extravagances of the series but it does ditch a lot of the drawn out monologues. In some very dramatic scenes characters say nothing, communicating through facial expressions and actions, sometimes reminiscent of silent cinema. Furthermore, huge moments in the game that could have been watched are instead interactive, which is incredibly powerful. By the end, sacrilegiously for a Metal Gear game, the message seems to be: if you want to passively watch a story unfold, then go watch a movie.
Most of the character development is split between to secondary characters, with opposite approaches. Miller provides a connection with the simpler, talkier days of Metal Gear, being given a similar phantom pain to the Boss and a greater desire to spell this agony and thirst-for-revenge out to the audience. Quiet, on the other hand, is naturally silent.
Quiet’s attire will be off-putting to many players, though her lack of speech is not an issue in context. Physical strength does not equate to a positive female character, but Quiet has plenty of time lavished on her development as a complex human being. It will just be a shame for many that such attention is also lavished on her body. It is ironic that Kojima almost always makes his women exaggeratedly sexualised but at the same time is actually one of the best game directors at respectfully crafting interesting and distinct personalities for them.
Kojima’s new approach to storytelling has consequences and there will no lengthy speech to explain the meaning of the game. Interpretations of Metal Gear games once meant fan theories, but with The Phantom Pain interpretation is essential and is the difference between feeling satisfied and unfulfilled.
The content is not limitless and the side ops are more plentiful than they are fun. There is a large amount of content but the pacing of the missions will leave some unhappy. The game asks players to repeat missions on harder difficulties which can be a welcome challenge to prove growth as a player, and weather effects and different tools mean the second time through can feel very different. For many, it still will feel cheap and perhaps there is an even better version of The Phantom Pain possible, with a limitless budget. The online features are limited and not extraordinary. Players are able to attack each other bases to steal supplies and staff and this can create a real desire for revenge for the victim but, in terms of gameplay, it isn’t very interesting.
The Phantom Pain is grappling with the ambitious task of also creating two open worlds. Nearly every open world game struggles with its narrative: Fallout 3 is held in incredibly high esteem, but was criticised heavily for its seemingly rushed and divisive ending. There are numerous examples of this and even open words that do pull off their entire story rarely have the cinematic scope of a Metal Gear Solid game. To have such an expansive world and such a strong story is a triumph.