Review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear dons open world garb but the series’ trademark blend of grit and silliness is still intact… for better and worse.

You creep into an enemy base inside a cardboard box that, when stationary, the guards don’t seem too suspicious of.

A walking cardboard box is a different matter, so you chuck a disc that then swells into a life-sized doll that somehow convinces and distracts the guards just long enough for you to creep up behind and slap them into unconsciousness.

And then it gets really silly - you strap a balloon to each one in turn and they’re launched into the stratosphere leaving only a trailing ‘AAAAAAAAHHHH!’.

In about 30 seconds they’ll have not only made the journey from Afghanistan to your home base in the Seychelles, they’ll have also been converted to good guys.

Such are the escapades of Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain - spy novel antics that are often, in honesty, more Inspector Gadget than James Bond.

Those familiar with the franchise will immediately recognise its hallmark mix of whimsy and po-facedness, but as with the previous 19 entries in the Metal Gear series, whether the game constitutes self-aware pastiche or unintentional farce isn’t entirely clear.

But none of The Phantom Pain’s sillier ideas are executed badly. Its set pieces, stealth-based infiltration, and cover shooting action are gold standard. The question of whether you connect with its uniquely Japanese idiosyncrasies is largely one of taste, not quality.

MGS5’s design is wholly competent, its choices discrete, and consequences measured. In some ways it’s more of the same: sneak around, identify your enemy, reach your objective, possibly cause some chaos along the way.

In other ways the game has become more clever: choose to consistently enter bases at night and soldiers will start to don night vision goggles. Become too fond of the sniper headshot and your enemies will equip bulletproof helmets.

The game’s core, where Snake is in the field and taking the fight to the enemy, is a synthesis of gaming's favourite modern tropes given the unique MGS twist.

It’s around the edges where The Phantom Pain sometimes misses the mark. Its open world, for instance, just isn’t as ‘alive’ as The Witcher 3’s is, and as each mission encourages you to drop down in a chopper and then lift off in a chopper at the end, it essentially breaks the world into mission segments. It’s akin to someone handing you an apple and saying ‘eat it any way you like’ only for you to discover that it’s already been chopped into slices that you might as well eat one by one.

And there’s loads of padding: a HQ to be managed, teams of soldiers to be sent on mini missions, and more upgrades to be unlocked than there are fish in the sea.

And yet somehow it still works. It’s undeniably silly, its cocktail of Black Hawk Down and Transformers definitely isn’t for everyone, and its principal female character is a bikini-babe mute, which is problematic to say the least.

Originality, gender equality, and suspension of disbelief are far from MGS5’s strengths, then, but it remains a fun, silly and entertaining romp.

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