In-depth Review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain [2015]

Metal… Gear…?

a review by the Crow

OPENING THOUGHTS

There is a post I’d sketched up for The Corvid Review since this blog first took flight. It’s a series overview for the Metal Gear series. But before we get to that, I think it’s more appropriate to review the latest game in the series.

I’ve long been a follower of this series. My first introduction to it was through Metal Gear Solid (1998). While it was a nightmare to play on a PC, I was almost immediately hooked by the cinematic scope the game aspired to.

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Mind you, I was playing this in the mid-2000s, years after its release. Once my more innocent mind slowly clocked on to what year it was released in and what the capabilities of that time were, I was mesmerised by what was going on in front of me.

While I have not played each game in the series, I have voraciously devoured every moment through vicarious means, over and over again, via different people.

On the 15th of September last year,  I stayed up all night, whisky and cigarettes and cardboard box at hand, for the latest installment in the series to drop. I played the main mission in Ground Zeroes once-over, just to refresh my fanboy mind for what amazingness was about to come.

And with the franchise’s history, and especially after this trailer, how could I expect anything less than a masterpiece?

A WORD TO THE WISE: Like all things Metal Gear, this review will be long.


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GAMEPLAY

First things first. The last MGS I’d played prior to Ground Zeroes was Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. While a far cry from the nightmarish MGS and MGS 2, it still felt… clunky. Realistic as it was, it seemed to distance one from what was happening on screen. In light of the usual gut-punch levels of emotion which come with a Metal Gear game, it felt like a slight letdown that the gameplay created said distance.

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Ground Zeroes (GZ), in comparison, was a vast improvement. After first playing through the main mission, it’s difficult not to sit back and let out a sigh of relief. It just felt so… fluid. One thing I’ve come to associate with the Metal Gear series is a lack of good controls, and GZ was such a pleasure to sit through.

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What can MGSV do but improve on this masterful set of controls?

And it does. It does so beautifully. Every little suggestion I would’ve put forward following GZ is addressed, and made better. This is a MGS game that I enjoyed playing just for its mechanics (and from a non-gamer, that must be high praise).

The stealth mechanics are improved. The combat (although less realistic than MGS4) is improved. The cardboard box is improved. The mechanics on display here are out of every MGS fan’s wet-dream.

However, it comes at a cost. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the first MGS game to be open world. While it sounds great and all, it does affect the overall experience.

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Whole sections of the game become ridiculously easier in this manner. Of course, any full-blooded MGS fan will honour the unspoken code and hull down as guards become aware of an intruder in their presence (if they are detected), but what’s to stop one from running back into the wilderness and waiting out time until an easier entry may be made? The game even provides you with the “Phantom Cigar”, which lets you wait out long periods of time while enjoying a smoke for time to just take its course.

The only times the game feels like urgent actions must be taken are when you find yourself funnelled into pre-determined sequences (the encounters with the Man on Fire being a prime example).

While the open world theme is certainly more realistic, and the zones into which you infiltrate are quite cleverly designed, it does reduce the threat you’re under overall.

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The new mechanics, so numerous and so fluid, do manage to make the art of infiltration more interesting. By themselves, the new mechanics don’t necessarily make things easier, but they make aspects like the whole multiple-point-of-entry in the game far more malleable.

The enemies do evolve over time, but it’s really not all that much of a game changer, especially when you can have pretty much everything you want air dropped in whenever you want it.

The enemy AI, however, is quite spectacular (classic Metal Gear wonkiness aside). They even ask each other to go see shrinks upon mysterious sightings of cardboard boxes. One exception, however, is how anyone thinks a horse in battle armour or a dog in a tactical suit with a fucking knife between its teeth is a normal everyday thing.

While (again) some fans who stress the need for stealth might rather play with the “reflex mode” off, it is certainly a welcome addition. Lifted off from the Splinter Cell series, it fits right into the gameplay of this installment.

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The “buddy-system” is executed excellently. While Quiet breaks the game by a considerable margin, the others are quite well-balanced. Every player must have felt the pain of missing Quiet after their first outing minus her in a while. On the whole, they’re not stupid, and each have their own little quirks.

Metal Gear Online 3 is quite nice as well. It expands on the gameplay aspects of the main game, and even adds a few new features. If only the PC servers weren’t such a shitshow, and if it had been released earlier, like the other incarnations of it, perhaps I would’ve enjoyed it more.

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Forward Operating Base missions are a huge relief. Microtransactions and server issues in both online features aside, this is a truly enjoyable game mode. Personally, I don’t much care for the “events”, since they put me more in the mind of mobile games, but infiltrating built-up enemy bases and nicking their nukes (only ever those scum seriously) puts a sure smile on my face.

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All things considered, MGSV is a huge pleasure to play. I’m seriously impressed. Solid job all around.


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PLOT

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This is where things become a little more… unhinged. The Metal Gear series is known for its deep, layered stories. This is not one of them. It hints at greatness, but as things progress, it becomes apparent that the plot is unfinished, rushed, and above all else: loose.

But first…! To talk about the plot of this game requires knowledge of the events of Ground Zeroes. Here’s a quick summary:

[WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR METAL GEAR SOLID: GROUND ZEROES AHEAD]

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Big Boss infiltrates Camp Omega – a prison camp in Cuba – to extract Paz, who’s resurfaced after her disappearance at the end of Peace Walker, and Chico, who’s gone off to save his crush like an idiot. He does so, picking up casette tapes along the way. On their return flight, it’s discovered that Paz has a bomb implanted in her, and it’s gotten rid of. Mother Base is alight when they do get there, and everyone’s slaughtered by XOF, a rival from somewhere unknown. Big Boss, Miller, and a few companions escape, only for a second bomb implanted in Paz to go off before she can jump away to a safe distance.

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Afterwards, we get a quick cut to an unconscious Big Boss on a table, with medics trying to resucitate him. They announce he’s in a coma after a few attempts at bringing him back.

And then Kaz looks over Big Boss and asks: “And what about him?”

So, we pick up nine years later. It starts from POV, and has a quick overview of what damage has been done to Snake. Admittedly, my second attempt at playing through this mission was a letdown. There’s a little cutscene which cannot be reaccessed without deleting your save data and starting over, which is fine, but the opening moments immediately following it felt tedious. Whatever, it’s only a minor gripe.

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From here, we enter a nightmarish tutorial/intro. The sequences play out beautifully, and the tensions run high. It sets a high bar for the game as far as “predestined” gameplay is concerned. Once we’re through it, and we meet with Ocelot (gods-damn sexy bastard rides in on a white horse and all), Snake quickly roids back up to full size, and we enter the “open-world” section of the game in Afghanistan.

Here, right at the beginning, the bar continues to rise. At first sight, the Afghan environment is gorgeous. Over time, it’s limitations show; but right up front?: with glittering diamonds amongst the rocks, checkpoints manned by unsuspecting Russian soldiers, vehicles driving between outposts, carrying things to and fro – it feels natural as anything. Once Ocelot lets you off the hook, and you’re galloping down this vast map (and it is certainly huge), it’s hard not to want to do everything.

Following Ocelot’s departure, the game cleverly funnels the player through a selection of objectives until we find the beat-up, limbless Kaz, who is to be carried out for evac.

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And that’s when the figurative shit hits the fan. We encounter the Skulls unit. A strange bunch of zombie-cyborgs who we later discover are powered by parasites (of all things). These things are straight out of a horror movie. I doubt the player who claims they did not feel their heart jump a bit on their first hands-on sighting of the Skulls, and given at which points they show up in the story, they really do get the jump on you. Or they would… if it WASN’T FOR THE GODS-DAMN CREDITS GIVING THEM AWAY at the beginning of every mission.

I mean, damnit. The only time they get the jump on you is this first time, when you have no idea who or what the Skulls are. And this is one of my biggest gripes with this game. These opening credits. Every.gods.damn.mission has a tiny opening credits scene if you’re starting from the chopper, or just plays over the screen if you’re on the ground (far enough away from your objective for them to complete playing). It’s annoying. I would’ve preferred to just keep them playing over the screen, if they had to be there. But ideally, I would’ve left them out wholesale. They bloody well spoil so much!

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Anyway, once we’re done with the Skulls (protip for first-time players: run), we sweep out to the new and improved Mother Base. And it’s from here on that the game hands the controls over to you in full. And it’s from here on that we’ll only be looking at the plot in broad strokes.

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Let’s take a closer look at Chapter One 

Overall, I have to say that the plot is okay. There are some initial missions which walk you through different aspects of the game, and there’s certainly a lot going on.

It’s revealed that XOF – a faction of Cipher which has since spun off and gone rogue – was behind the attack that destroyed MSF nine years ago. The central plot is about Snake and Diamond Dogs trying to figure out just what in the hell it is XOF’s up to so that they can get their revenge.

Along the way we encounter our buddies. D-Horse, we start out with; D-Dog comes early (significantly missing the backstory which made us all shed a quiet tear for mummy-wolf back at that presentation); as does Quiet (thanks for the heads up, DD!); and in time, D-Walker joins us in the field.

We encounter minor characters from both the Russians and the Mujahideen. They have places in the story, and I personally would’ve been interested to find out a little about them. The Metal Gear series has never shied away from explaining who these minor players are or how they fit into the grander scheme of things, but in The Phantom Pain‘s rush to lower how long we spend in these moments, the game fails to let them actually become characters.

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“…” ?!

Amongst the 31 missions which make up Chapter 1, quite a few of them don’t exactly have much to do with the plot (if anything at all). Apart from the first few missions which help us get a feel for the game (such as the excellently designed C2W), these non-story missions are missed opportunities. If all MGSV wants is to stick to the main plot, why in the heck are we being shown all this other stuff?

If you’re going to show me all this other stuff, make it feel more like something I want to do. Not something I have to do. They just as well may have been optional side-quests.

I wish the story had kept the reins on its plot a little tighter, though. While some gamers are content to grind through a level to complete all the side objectives and all that, I do believe that the game would have benefited from constraining the main plot missions to a single playthrough until at least the end of the first chapter.

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This is a good time as any to talk about the “Side Ops“as any. Oh.my.gods. Are they ever a fucking bore. They start out well enough. The rescuing children and finding wandering soldiers missions are pretty good fun, and it’s always nice to accidentally stumble into a Side Ops area. But as the game goes along, you’ll find yourself hating the repetitive, drab missions. In a game with so much to do, why are these Side Ops so bleeding boring?!

A little bit of cleverness would’ve helped. More variety is certainly in order. Less-crafted versions of the above missions would’ve been nice.

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We meet Skull Face, we get to know his plans. We reunite with Huey, we meet Eli, and learn about the Metal Gear of the game. Now, I won’t be spoiling the story for you here in this review, but I will tell you this: Skull Face’s plan? It’s quite darn good.

Although parasites are the nanomachines of V, and there is a fair bit of magic going on powered by them, the ideas behind Skull Face’s master plan, and even the ways in which it’s executed all make sense.

However, the way in which this is all presented to the player?

Well, it’s not what we’ve come to expect from Hideo Kojima. The “theme song” scene in this game is not a boss fight with a ladder, or a torturous crawl through a microwave chamber of death, or anything of the sort. It’s Skull Face Glasgow-grinning at Snake after delivering this big bad-guy speech, while Snake – I shit you not – shuffles in his seat, and probably starts wondering what’s for dinner back on Mother Base.

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There’s a pretty awesome boss battle with the Metal Gear ST-84 – otherwise known as Sahelanthropus – after possibly the most OVER THE TOP meltdown by a Metal Gear Solid villain ever (which is actually awesome just because of how hilarious it is).

On completing Chapter 1, watching the credits play. I found myself confused as heck. On one hand, I was like: “Well, that was pretty good. Fun to play and all.” and on the other: “That’s it?!

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And then!

A trailer for Chapter 2 shows up. Woo-hoo! Buthangonaminute…! Is that going to be a separate download? Is it something I have to unlock?! Wait… do I have to pay for it?! 

Well, to be honest. It just starts up right after.

So… er. Why the trailer?!

Oh wait. I know why the trailer.

Let me tell you.

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The first thing one notices in Chapter 2, after a side-quest mission to start with, are the words: SUBSISTENCE and EXTREME. Soon, they’re joined by TOTAL STEALTH; and, well… you find out that 12 out of the 19 missions in this chapter are higher-difficulty versions of previous missions. 

Now that just pisses me off. That’s why the trailer. Chapter 2 is a big, hollow mess.

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It – however – has some of the best story moments in MGSV.

Well, both the best, and the worst.

Eli and Huey have their stories expanded upon the most. They bounce against Snake, Miller, and Ocelot well enough. Huey becomes possibly the massivest prick in the Metal Gear universe during the course of this chapter, and while every scene concerning him made this crow at least want to cringe and slap him upside the head, everything to do with the story revolving around him was actually well done. Eli, honestly, just needs a spanking.

Code Talker and Quiet add themselves to the flow of the plot here and there, but there’s not really all that much to them until Episode 45, which I won’t spoil right here.

That said, I must talk about “Episode 43: Shining Lights, Even in Death”. In this one constrained, pre-destined section of the game, Kojima shows us all he’s still got it. It’s a severe punch in the gut from a game which otherwise feels quite soulless.

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Ultimately, the game ends at Episode 46 (it’s not necessary to play all the missions leading up to it). And… it’s a let down. After having played it, it’s easy to understand what Kojima was going for. While the decision is ultimately not for the likes of this crow (actually, this crow doesn’t like it very much), the execution is terrible. After excelling with Episode 43, Kojima shows us exactly how truly awful he can be when he… just doesn’t care.

That’s exactly it. The ending. The “Truth” as we’re presented it. It’s like Kojima doesn’t completely care about it.

In this review, this crow is going to avoid mention of Chapter 3, or the missing Mission 51 (which seems like it could’ve been a good addition to the game; shame it was never finished).

At the end of the day, the game’s plot would’ve benefited from having the chapters broken up a bit better, from having its priorities right when balancing out minor characters to keep our eyes on the main story, and so on and so forth. It’s a disappointment, and that’s a damn shame. This was a game with so much potential.

It’s hard for me to say I hate the story. I like it, actually. It just needed better telling.

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The game’s decision to switch out cinematic cutscenes for audio (which come in the form of cassettes in-game) also hurts the delivery. It goes from being an immersive experience to an audiobook you can listen to while roaming around the jungles of the Angola/Zaire border, with your dog in tow.

And it begs the all-important question… just who is recording these conversations? 

And even then, most of the cool lines of dialogue in the game are pretty much found in the E3 2015 trailer.


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THEMES AND IDEAS

Metal Gear Solid V touches on some serious stuff. Child soldiers, the pain of lost things, and even rape are all part of the tapestry. But where Ground Zeroes laid hell bare, The Phantom Pain fails to rise to the occasion as its precursor did.

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Revenge is the only theme really on display, with loss right behind it. However, the loss angle rings a little hollow. Revenge is easier to tackle. Loss is to be dealt with much more subtlety.

The Phantom Pain never lingers on loss enough to drive the point home. Don’t think that the game never has moments which hit that sweet spot, however. It does, but the episodic nature of the game’s main plot points mucks around with the impact of said loss.

Even the themes that would make people gasp on first hearing about them come off half-baked. Child soldiers, for instance, are not really touched upon all that much. Sure, you see them trapped in the mines, being forced to work. Sure, you see them being led around a village with rifles in their hands. Sure, you see them rise up under the White Mamba and terrorise the village later. But aside from a further few cutscenes, that’s all there is. We never really explore the idea so much.

And as far as the rape thing goes? Well… the less said about it, the better.

One of the crown jewels of the game, of course, is the way it tackles linguistics and the idea of cultural warfare. It’s messy. It needs better execution. But it makes perfect sense. However, these themes never leave the reach of the plot.


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PRODUCTION QUALITY

This is a Hideo Kojima game. The production is top-notch. Nothing less is ever expected. The visuals are gorgeous, the things happening on screen are for the most part how they would happen in real life. The Afghan and the Angola/Zaire maps are stunning, and only at one point did I have a problem with the visuals (although that was after about two days of nonstop playing…).

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The voice acting is ridiculously good as well. The shining star here is James Horan, who sparkles as the hammy, overdramatic XOF commander, while retaining a proper amount of menace. Sutherland, for all the few lines he has, does an okay job. Robin Atkin Downes and Troy Baker pull their weight as the main supporting cast, despite my reservations regarding Baker’s incarnation of Ocelot.

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The motion capture – most visible on Snake – is a pretty thing, too. A lot of work’s gone into this game, and it shows.


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CHARACTERS

[WARNING: FULL SPOILERS AHEAD]

VENOM SNAKE: V/10

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How exactly does one approach this character? While he’s certainly the man for the job and has been turned into the “phantom” of a legend, I see no charisma, I see no leadership qualities, I don’t see anything other than a man standing beneath a shadow – the shadow of someone else, someone he’s been convinced he is. All he has been is stripped from him, just as his face is, and he’s thrust into a mad, mad world in which he barely has a place. The world around him morphs to accomodate him: Kaz is kept ignorant, Ocelot lies to himself about Snake’s true identity, and everyone is in awe of him. The last lines spoken to him ring true: Venom Snake is us. I’ll touch upon this angle later in my closing thoughts, but just for the moment, it’s hard to gague this character as a person because he has no personality of his own. He’s meant to be us, but he has zero relatability thanks to it. While it’s easy to say that the tabula rasa state he starts from is a good place for us to start from, and the sentiment that since we’ve followed Big Boss for so long, we’re the right man to step into his shoes, it doesn’t really work.

QUIET: 4/10

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While we find out a lot about Quiet over time, and we do see her as a person, the woman never truly comes alive as a character.

She is just a buddy. And no: the explanation for why her character is dressed the way she is amounts to nothing but an excuse to give ladyphiles something to ogle at. The XOF uniform even looks nicer.

Her entire character can be summed up in just a handful of cutscenes. Most of her showings in the cutscenes are gratuitous and could’ve been left out. The whole emotional connection she forms with Venom Snake is also a bit silly, and just sort-of… happens, as if buddy meters are a thing that they’re both conscious of.

Her final appearances in the main story, I have a problem with, but that’d be spoiling things.

MCDONELL BENEDICT KAZUHIRA MILLER: 7.5/10

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Oh man, what a dickhead. And it makes him all that much awesome! Kaz is the most tortured, fucked-over character ever. He has truly lost everything. And he’s angry. He’s angrier than he’s ever been. And he’ll have his revenge. If it’s the last thing he does.

Gone is the happy Kaz. Outside of discussing … “business ventures” with Code Talker in a series of recorded conversations, he’s defined solely by his quest for vengeance, and his command. One-armed and one-legged as he might be, you don’t want to get on his bad side. His very final lines are really the only “missing link” we truly get in terms of how things will turn out in the series’ fictional chronology.

OCELOT: 6/10

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Er… okay… I mean, the dude is a Russian Cowboy. He’s by far the most hammy character in the series (remember this?!). Why is he played so damn straight?!

That said, he’s pretty alright. I expected a little more from Ocelot, though.

HUEY: 7/10

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Seriously, fuck Huey. He only gets such a high score thanks to his doing his job: annoying the heck out of everyone. This snivelling, lying, possibly tragic coward is the ultimate example of a man who knows how to make enemies. His story – subject to change depending on who you ask – is confusing, and not even he knows it all himself.

Who’d have thought Otacon’s dad would turn out to be such a complete bastard?

SKULL FACE: 3.5/10

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Who could it be? Such a lust for disappointments! WHOOO?!

Skull Face, it is.

While the voice acting is on-point (menacing as hell), the character is wasted by the story. He has an excellent master plan, but oh my goodness… his final appearances are laughable, and he barely shows up enough to be a threat.

Add to that the fact that his superweapon (Tretij Rebenok) is someone he doesn’t really himself understand, and that he loses control of it and it ends up blowing up in his face.

What a shame.

CODE TALKER: 6/10

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HAMBURGERS

MALE… TO… FEMALE

COPULATION

– Code Talker, 1984

Possibly the most quotable (or meme-able) character in the game, Code Talker – along with Quiet – is a parasite-user. He explains stuff, eats Kaz’s experimental burgers, and rolls around in his wheelchair, but gives us nothing much to talk about. Apart from maybe… WOLBACHIA

ELI: 4.5/10

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Kid needs a spanking. He’s arrogant and annoying, but hey, we’ve all been there. He seems a little grown-up for his age, but he is a clone of Big Boss. Again: we spend far too little time with him. Mission 51 would have expanded on the character a bit, and capped off the Sahelanthropus story angle. I’d actually be very interested to find out what happens to the kids and their Metal Gear in the current version of events.

MAJOR ZERO: ?/10

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The man only shows up in recordings. Older, a little jaded with things, and all in for saving his old friend Big Boss from XOF. Cipher might not be at the forefront in this period of the story, but Zero still makes his presence felt.

BIG BOSS: ?/10

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I really cannot give Big Boss a score, here. The man only shows up for a handful of minutes in total. Nothing to say about the soldier of legend.

THE MAN ON FIRE: 4.5/10

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Actually, a little bit interesting. I’m not so sure about him being in a coma for so long after that happened to him the last time we saw him (I’m trying not to give away the most obvious character, here). There’s not much to him outside of the two amazing encounters we have with him. His character reveal, while a massive moment for fans, is a bit strange, but then again: he’s a supernatural chappie, so have at it, I guess.

THE SKULLS: 4/10

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Ohshit! It’s starring The Skulls Unit!

They’re tough bad guys. They come in three classes. I call them: the sprinters (below), the snipers (above), and the heavies (not pictured). They’re all encountered more than once and are by far the best substitute to boss battles in this new breed of Metal Gear game.

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The sprinters (only encountered twice) can just be run away from. The heavies provide the best one-on-one combat. It’s the snipers who get the two best appearances in the mission concerning Code Talker. Their appearance is creepy, and they actually make for an interesting, drawn-out battle of wits if you’d like to engage them on their own terms.

PAZ: 4/10

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She’s certainly a weird one. Paz is Paz, minus the horrific scars of the time she spent in Skull Face’s “care” (despite the crude surgical scars). Her “subplot” is an interesting addition to the game, but at the end of it, I couldn’t help but thinking it was all a bit weak. Her subplot (and therefore her character) could certainly have been written in better.

D-DOG: 10/10

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AWWW! PUPPEH!

D’AWW! DOGGIE! 

Also…

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Screw you, Kaz.

TRETIJ REBENOK/THE THIRD CHILD(/let’s face it: he’s MANTIS): 7/10

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A creepy figure indeed, Tretij is the driving force of all things in the game. I’m surprised even the Skulls aren’t powered by him. Briefly under Snake’s spell, mostly under Skull Face’s, and eventually overwhelmed by Eli – young Tretij manages to have the most interesting character in the game, without uttering a single word.


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CLOSING THOUGHTS

(This post was originally going to be much longer, but I’ve made a rough and crude chop down on the length, apologies if parts sound cut-off too quick.)

Well, I can’t say I’m not disappointed. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a game which could’ve been so much more, but stopped short of making it.

To recap: The main issues I have are with the plot and how it was presented, and also with the relative lack of story-missions.

This is the final game in the series by Kojima, and honestly, it isn’t that bad. Whatever gripes I have with the story and the mission structure are more than made up for by the gameplay and production qualities. In the end, there’s a good game in there, somewhere. But just like Venom Snake as we first find him, it’s not whole.

Now… let’s do something I enjoy…

Rating: V/10

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6 thoughts on “In-depth Review: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain [2015]

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