For nearly 3 decades, the Metal Gear franchise has engrossed players in an ever-widening storyline that confronts the harsh realities of war from the 60s to the modern day and beyond. Themes such as loyalty, nationalism and the role of technology in warfare have all taken center stage at one point or another. With Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, these themes take the stage yet again, articulated powerfully through masterful cut-scenes that give the most ambitious summer blockbusters a run for its money. The prologue to Metal Gear Solid V in particular, while it may be disorienting to new entrants to the series, is a breathtaking tour-de-force that demands the attention of the player and draws them into a rich, dark and strange world.
As Big Boss, you are tasked with rebuilding your private army, the Diamond Dogs, after the tragic events at the end of Ground Zeroes leave your army decimated and scattered. Nearly a decade has passed since that fateful betrayal (you go into a coma in 1976 and wake up in the year 1985), and it serves as one of the early pillars in motivating Big Boss to discover what happened, and who was responsible. Trust is a rare and valuable commodity for Big Boss, even among his closest allies. After acquiring a rather controversial ally early in the game, you can feel the tension among the ranks, particularly among your two chief advisors: Kazuhira “Kaz” Miller and Revolver “Shalashaska” Ocelot. This plants a powerful seed of doubt that leaves the player wondering if they have allies at all.
Child soldiers, the shadow of the Cold War and horrifying instances of medical experimentation are strewn about MGS V’s central narrative. It’s initially a story of revenge and redemption, but ultimately you begin to wonder if there is any redemption for a man like Big Boss. He and his comrades often acknowledge the dark and distorted world that they live in is far removed from that of your average, everyday citizen. Navigating this gray area is a large part of the moral journey that Big Boss finds himself on.
While there is a powerful central narrative, MGS V excels in offering players the freedom to explore secondary storylines and optional missions. These “Side Ops” offer a variety of benefits for the player, whether they’re acquiring rare blueprints to construct new weapons, or rescuing an interpreter to help them get valuable intel from enemy soldiers who speak another language. The rewards are real, and the lure of the side ops sets it apart from some other titles that utilize similar concepts as busy work.
Whether you’re pursuing the rich and appealing central storyline, or adventuring through deserts and forests for the latest gadgetry, MGS V keeps you engaged and driven to continue forward.
The only thing hindering the story from delivering its maximum effect is its lack of sympathy for new MGS players. As I mentioned early on, the prologue chapter is certainly a jaw-dropping cinematic experience, but those who didn’t play Ground Zeroes or earlier installments of Metal Gear find themselves even more lost than the average player. This is a recurring theme throughout the game: though it does an admirable job of building upon its own storyline, the richness of the “big picture” is not afforded to unfamiliar players, and could ultimately dampen their experience.
An iconic element of the Metal Gear series is the tactical element: the fact that it often encourages you to remain unseen, unheard. To crawl or walk rather than run, to choke or stab your opponent rather than shoot them. Yet, earlier iterations of the series offered little reward for avoiding killing your opponents. Metal Gear Solid 3 had an interesting boss fight that was significantly easier if you had avoided killing anyone up until that point, and while “No kills” was certainly cause for bragging rights, there wasn’t much else to encourage players to spare their enemies. MGS V expands on a system that Ground Zeroes started in a tremendous fashion that adds an entirely new level of strategy and gameplay and addresses this point specifically: capturing enemy soldiers to expand your own army. By utilizing the binoculars you can see your enemies’ “Rank” in different categories. They may excel with research and development, intelligence gathering, or maybe they are rated highly in combat. Knowing that a soldier could offer you a lot more to you alive rather than dead makes it nearly impossible to go through the game guns blazing killing everyone in your path. Even more interesting is that this principle applies even to enemy generals or commanders that you may be tasked to “kill”. An early mission tasks you with taking out a highly skilled enemy commander, but as an optional objective you can actually subdue him and add him to your ranks.
I cannot overstate how much depth this adds to MGS V. Once soldiers have been added to your personal army, you can then assign them to different divisions dependent on their strengths. As you might expect, having a lot of soldiers ranked highly in intelligence gathering will improve the quality of intel that you receive about missions, and also populate items of note on your map (such as medicinal herbs and materials). If you focus on collecting experienced combat veterans, once you’ve progressed past a certain point in the game you can begin to deploy your combat team on regular “deployments”, which provides you with a regular stream of income. Each of these teams offer their own rewards for expanding their operation and providing them with skilled personnel, and the freedom that you have in developing these teams provided countless hours of play time.
As an extension of this feature, there is an online element which allows you to attempt to infiltrate enemy bases. These missions are extremely challenging if your opponent has collected skilled personnel, and they can also set traps and mines to make your infiltration even more troublesome. Of course, you have these same options available should you choose to defend yourself against possible attackers. The reward for success is pretty alluring: by reaching the “central core”, you can make off with some of your enemies highly skilled personnel, or even confiscate some of their resources as you make your way through their base.
Previous Metal Gear installments really emphasized just how critical your solo infiltrations were. As was often repeated, there was no backup plan. It was just you and a rubber band against 5,000 highly trained soldiers. MGS V also takes a major departure from previous games in this regard with the introduction of the Buddy system. Throughout the game you acquire a number of “buddies” that can be deployed to the field with you. Your first buddy is your horse, which allows you to traverse the wilderness more quickly. Shortly afterwards you can acquire an adorable dog which can sniff out and alert you to enemies, and even stun/kill enemies later on. There are a couple of other buddies introduced later in the game, including one
that you are sure to see in cosplay form at various anime and video game conventions in the upcoming years. Each of them presents their own strengths and benefits, and the option to pick your buddy helps to add another level of detail to missions and how best to execute them successfully.
Even though MGS V makes some significant changes from previous installments in certain ways, the core of the game still feels very familiar. Throwing empty magazine cartridges to distract enemies, landing that perfectly aimed headshot with a silenced tranquilizer gun, stuffing enemies in dumpsters and toilets, these elements of the series remain intact. Rather than changing things that worked, MGS V focuses on expanding on certain elements that encourage a deeper level of play. It is thoroughly fun and its very high level of replayability sets it apart from previous installments.
One of the standout elements of the metal gear series since Metal Gear Solid was released on the original Playstation has been its reliably high-quality graphics, even when compared to other games of its generation. Now, this past year has seen some tremendously beautiful games, including Witcher 3 and Bloodborne. With that being said, MGS V certainly delivers beautiful graphics during regular gameplay, but absolutely shines during the cinematic cut-scenes. The higher quality cut-scenes that help lay out MGS V’s central plot perform on an almost entirely different level than most of the games we’ve seen this year. The closest that I could think of in recent memory was the PS4 remake of The Last of Us.
Coupled with these gorgeous graphics is an equally compelling score. Aside from the quality soundtrack during the cut-scenes, however, is your personal “cassette tape” collection. This is used in the game to further the storyline by filling in backstory and additional information on certain objectives, but you can also listen to music cassettes that represent the 80s. There’s nothing more amusing than storming a base only to stumble into an office and here A-Ha’s “Take On Me” blaring out of a nearby stereo. Walk up, and you have the option of confiscating that tape and listening to it whenever you want! The songs aren’t limited to 80s pop hits either, as there are thematic tracks of various types that can help set the mood for your missions.
With beautiful graphics, compelling cut-scenes and a fitting soundtrack to match, MGS V delivers a rich experience on every level.