Writer’s Note: There’s a lot of sensitive content here. There’s going to be spoilers, though I will warn in advance. I’m not really going to be holding anything back here. This game has a lot of mature content and it needs to be discussed so this is what I’m doing. Last but not least, I reviewed this using a Day One Edition PlayStation 4 copy of the game.
Well, holy shit guys, I’ve finally done it. I’ve completed the story content and a majority of the side content of The Phantom Pain. I knew this game was going to be one for the history books and it most certainly is. There’s not a quick way to explain this game. You could try but no matter how, you’d fall short every time. There is no easy way to classify this game, whether you like it or not: in spite of the things that may have fallen short or risen high about this game, in spite of what you would say about it, you have to admit one thing… it made you feel something. Games don’t often do that. And it’s more than petty things, too: it’s not the kind of stuff fanboys argue about or the casuals complain about. It’s the kind of stuff you keep around with you forever. This is one of those games that will earmark this generation of gaming, guaranteed. This is one of those things that I felt was missing, almost entirely, from the last generation: a game or series of games that changed your life as a gamer. Things had been changing for a while now and we got one last swan song from a company that had been drowning in its own misdeeds for years, now.
As far as the game itself is concerned, let me explain to you how the first few days of owning the game went: the game was never turned off, the TV was almost always on; I had everything ready so that way every minute I could be playing the game, I took advantage of it. I took a game whose main campaign could have been completed in around 10-15 hours, perhaps, and expanded that by at least tenfold. The longest point was within the game’s first chapter as I was finding myself as a player of the game and was building my character up so that way I could be exactly where I wanted to be.
You see, The Phantom Pain is one of those games that drops you in, tells you how to play and what it wants you to do… and that’s it. That might seem counterproductive at first and, chances are, it is. It certainly was for me. I stuck myself by playing the first three or four missions about ten or eleven times just to see how truly diverse the situations in this game are. Everything else is literally up to you. I mean that in every sense of the word. Metal Gear games in the past gave you a situation and gave you the freedom of choice in what method of approach you can use but this entry in the franchise amplifies, magnifies, and refines that process by about a million. Let me put it to you this way: you will be revisiting certain areas quite a few times but depending on something as minute as the time of day that you arrive, the whole situation, even for the same mission you just completed once five minutes ago can change entirely. I am not kidding. I have tested this and I have failed to play the same mission twice the exact same way.
Let me take you through a situation, without spoiling anything: you drop into a mission area, this base of sorts. Looks like a barracks where soldiers train at and they hold prisoners of war at. Pretty lock and key kind of place. Big ol’ front doors, four guard towers, a large enough space in the center that you could land a harrier jet into if you wanted. Small buildings surrounding the place, mostly for storage. Your first exposure to this base is to retrieve a prisoner of war for informational purposes. Before you even land in your helicopter to drop in to begin the mission, you choose the time of insertion, your loadout – which you can change on the fly, mind you, via a support drop – what camouflage you’re wearing, what companion you’re bringing with you, what vehicle you’re riding in on, depending on if you’re able to take one in by that point… if you know what you’re up against, you can control your approach entirely. This base, just off the top of my head, has about ten points of entry. And between those ten points of entry there’s about four or five ways you can get in. Of course, there’s also the ‘no holds barred, all guns blazing’ approach where you can knock down the front door all Call of Duty style, like Michael Bay on steroids, and of that approach, there’s just as many different ways you can do that, some more effective than the others. I’m serious, I played the first mission in this area at least fifteen times; not because it was too difficult but because it was so fun discovering different ways to complete it. That also doesn’t include all the different ways you could have messed it up, too. You’re literally left with the freedom to do a mission however you want. There’s even missions where you can fail and still somehow succeed.
This is the kind of game that The Phantom Pain is. It’s not like Grand Theft Auto where you’re just plunked into a city and your mission is to just fuck around in any way you please and then when it comes to a mission you’re pidgeonholed into a right way and a wrong way to do things. This game does give you direction and it does give you limitations but it gives you those with purpose: it helps keep you focused on the matter at hand. You had all the freedom to play this game entirely how you want to. I’m the kind of guy who loves a good sniper fight, the kind of guy who rushes to close the distance on those I couldn’t snipe and take them out close range before they get the chance to know what’s going on. That’s the kind of game I like to play as far as combat simulators go and not every game gives me that. Even games like those in the Metal Gear franchise don’t really reward you at all times for you trying to play the game you wanted; hell, as someone who enjoys long range shooting in his games, Metal Gear would oftentimes punish trying to do long range shooting when the game deemed it not appropriate for the situation. Sure, it allowed it in one situation and even in the one that was truly free and wide open, in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, the area for the sniper battle there was broken up and divided, leaving you to use tactics other than straight up sniping to truly succeed without pulling your hair out. I can play The Phantom Pain a million different ways and one of those ways is exactly a way that is extremely rewarding and accommodating to me. That’s perfection, right there.
This is the perfect combat and stealth simulator and there is very little you could do to it to make it better. It’s that fucking good. If this were a meal it would be the highest quality steak sandwich with the finest garnishes, cheeses, and sauces. If this game was a time of day it would be right after 4 or 5pm, when it’s just starting to cool down from the hottest time of the day and, depending on the season, gives you the start of a sunset. If it were your favorite thing, it would be a reminder of why you chose that to be your favorite thing in the first place and make you enjoy it like you never have before. It’s that fucking good.
Light Spoilers Ahead!
Before I get started, I’m going to spoil very little for you but the things I will spoil for you here are going to be some larger plot points so, please, if you have not completed the game and are interested in preserving the plot for you to find out on your own, I suggest you skip this section.
This game’s story, man. This game. I was not at all prepared for what the tale this game would weave. When Kojima told everyone that this one was going to be different he was not kidding. This game takes everything you thought you knew about Metal Gear and everything you thought you knew about Kojima as a storyteller and turns it on its side: where the earlier Metal Gear games spent a lot of time explaining itself away or trying to make itself subtle and clever, The Phantom Pain holds nothing back: Kojima takes a more mature and direct approach to his storytelling this time and that approach is welcomed in this, the most mature tale to date. Whereas The Guns of the Patriots was Solid Snake’s quest for finality that took him where he truly wanted to be, The Phantom Pain tells a story that’s very similar for Big Boss.
You see, this series, to me, has always been about Big Boss. Every game was, in some way, about Big Boss: Solid was about Liquid Snake trying to obtain Big Boss’ remains in an effort to put an end to the Patriots; Sons of Liberty was about the perfect Big Boss clone, Solidus Snake, and his effort to drive Zero’s efforts to control humanity through information control; Snake Eater, Peace Walker, Portable Ops, and Metal Gear 1 & 2 all featured Big Boss directly, and Guns of the Patriots was about Big Boss finally realizing the Boss’ will and making it a reality, in the end. The Phantom Pain is no different, in that respect as this is the tale to protect Big Boss from the world’s efforts to see him killed or worse, while seeking revenge against those who attempted to harm him and destroy Mother Base.
This tale pulls no punches to get its points across: this game has succeeded in disturbing and harrowing me in ways video games haven’t in a very long time. It’s not something that is bad, inherently, but in its weaving of the story, it’s made me feel things and taken me to places I don’t feel entirely comfortable with and that’s saying a lot for me. Let me give you a situation: by this point in the game, you’ve likely run multiple assassinations, destroyed some vehicles, taken over a few bases, fultoned your fair share of staff and supplies, performed rescues, and so on. One mission seems like it’s fairly routine – you have to go into an enemy camp and kidnap the leader of a bunch of child soldiers… and all the soldiers in the camp are children… that you have the freedom to disable, stun, or tranquilize any way you want… and the person you’re going to kidnap is also a child. He stalks off, when you find him, and he fights you… and you have to put the boots to him. Right from the moment I marked my first set of child soldiers I felt uncomfortable. I tried my hardest to do this mission on perfect stealth but it was near impossible with the noise made once you tried to get what you came for in the first place. Given, yes, I wasn’t killing anyone – I believe you actually fail the mission if you manage to kill any of the children – but smacking around children and shooting anything at them, even if they’re rubber bullets or tranquilizer darts is an incredibly sore spot for me and I found myself wanting that spot in the game over quickly so I was not faced with that anymore.
The party doesn’t end there, either: there’s a spot on the last so many hours of the game where, due to circumstances, you’re forced to kill your own soldiers. It’s not one of those clear-cut decisions where your soldiers went rogue, turned evil, or anything obvious like that, where it’s easy to make the decision. These are men who support you and some of them have been with you through the long haul and the game makes it so you know exactly which of your soldiers you’re taking out. That was awful and I knew right from the moment the scenario started what was going to happen and I dreaded every moment of it but there’s one scene in particular where there’s a little hope – you get an item that allows you to determine who of your soldiers need to go. That was a device for catharsis, I found, because it did very little good, in the end. When you find out that there is one soldier who you can hold out hope for he’s in a room full of soldiers and you have to shoot down everyone but one down as they are saluting you and thanking you for the honor of dying by your side.
Another side plot thread that made me feel a little conflicted was that of Huey Emmerich: this guy is almost insanely vague in his personality and his admitted backstory. He’s pretty much the definition of the mad scientist, without many morals of any sort; the kind of guy that will do anything for the advancement of science. By the end the heads of Mother Base make a final choice regarding his fate and the way it’s handled makes you wonder whether Huey truly deserved the fate he got in terms of what it left him with. It’s that kind of moral vagueness that suited Huey right up until the end, leaving fate to decide what happens to Huey as opposed to helping him or destroying him, much like Huey did to Mother Base. It’s this kind of moral line blurring that really sets the tone for the kind of man our protagonist becomes.
This is not a story of glorious outcomes where good triumphs over evil and the guy gets the girl in the end and the bad guys all end up pushing up daisies. This is a story where the lines between good and evil are blurred and the only common drive for everyone involved is revenge: everyone has something they want to fight against, to destroy, to hurt. That kind of poison leaks out of the story and into its players and it’s not always something that feels good. Not for all people, anyway. This is literally a story of how Big Boss becomes the “devil” you see in the first Metal Gear games and how he survived until Guns of the Patriots.
The Final Conclusion
There’s really not a more fitting heading to wrap this review up because, honestly, this game is the magnum opus of the series. This franchise is one of those rare ones that simply gets better with every entry and this entry in the series simply blows every other game in the series out of the water. I would score it 11/10 if I even took score just to ensure that games that came after were judged on a different standard than this game. This isn’t to say that it’s without its shortcomings – Metal Gear Online is yet to come and the Foward Operating Base battles are a little easy to exploit if they’re not actively defended. Anything else doesn’t really go beyond annoyance – some walls don’t provide proper cover, for example: you may be hiding behind a perfect solid wall but if you take a certain type of fire like a missile or a tank shell, you’re still at risk of taking direct damage because the area of effect clips right on through the wall like magic. No game is without its flaws but the mark of a really good game, in my mind, is the one that makes you forget about all of its flaws, the one that keeps you going, even though the story may be rubbing you the wrong way, the one that pushes you to do better every time you come back.
This is the game to beat this year. If you haven’t played it, play it. If you’re not sure because you’ve bought into the crap about Ground Zeroes being too short and Konami being a bunch of shits, don’t listen to all that and try it out anyway. Heck, if you’re unsure, try Ground Zeroes out. At the price it’s often sold at now it’s not even close to a rip off. You may even find it in a bargain bin somewhere for a steal of a price. Since the orders have already been placed you’re not keeping Konami from making money on the game so you’re not doing anyone any favors by holding out or boycotting – if you like combat games, at least try it. If you like Metal Gear for any reason, you owe it to yourself to buy this game and keep it with you forever. This game made me regret selling off The Legacy Collection and I still have copies of just about every Metal Gear game, anyway. That should tell you something.
I’m serious. This is one of the best games I’ve ever played and I feel it will be one of the best games I’ll ever play. It’s that damn good.