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Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is, on the surface, an amazing sandbox game which contains some of the most imminently enjoyable game mechanics I’ve ever seen in the genre. However, as one plays on, The Phantom Pain’s shortcomings slowly become more and more apparent – some of which don’t even make themselves known until the very end of the game. Whether or not these downsides to the game will affect your enjoyment of The Phantom Pain or not, will really depend on what you as the player are looking to see from the games you play.

With this newest game and direct sequel to Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, the Metal Gear series, which frequently skips backward and forward in time with each successive sequel, has now looped back to where it began, as the story events in Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain directly bridge Peace Walker with the original two Metal Gear games. Rather than creating a new standard finale for the series as Metal Gear Solid 4 was, Hideo Kojima has made Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes and Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, collectively, a pair of games which connect together previously-established plot lines and provide new context for the major recurring conflicts in this series.

As much as I like the Metal Gear series, it has generally suffered from having notoriously clunky controls. Thankfully they are not an issue this time around. Building off of Peace Walker’s controls, Ground Zeroes refined them while bringing back the ability to crawl, and making the binoculars an easily-selectable essential item when scoping out each location. The Phantom Pain further refines and polishes the controls, and they are easily the best the series has seen.

I revisited Ground Zeroes for a bit after playing through The Phantom Pain, and while I didn’t notice this when progressing from GZ to TPP, going back to Ground Zeroes again makes it clear just how stiff the controls in that game were. They’re essentially the same in The Phantom Pain, but immensely fine-tuned, and are much more fluid and smooth this go-around. Whereas I found myself sometimes detaching from a wall where I didn’t mean to in Ground Zeroes, that’s not really an issue anymore in The Phantom Pain. Being able to look through your binoculars while leaning against a wall now is also a much-welcome feature.

This game is FUN. Unlike many previous games in the series, this game’s priority is the stealth gameplay. There is a story, but it has a lesser presence in the game than one might expect from the Metal Gear branding. People who have derided previous Metal Gear games for feeling more like movies than games will likely be pleased with the greater emphasis on gameplay that The Phantom Pain features, though if you were fine with the balance that previous games had, you may find yourself missing it.

Unlike many open-world sandbox games, The Phantom Pain doesn’t need to spread a bunch of pointless collectables all across the world in an attempt to add replay value. The core gameplay is so satisfying and allows for so much experimentation and improvisation that it is fun on its own terms, and stays fun indefinitely. I’ve been playing for over 170 hours as of this writing, and don’t see myself putting this game down anytime soon. This is somewhat unusual for a series that has historically been known for having hours upon hours of cutscenes and codec conversations in between shorter snippets of relatively linear gameplay.

Enemies will continually adapt their tactics and equipment to defend against you; if you rely a lot on smoke or sleeping-gas grenades, you’ll see more soldiers wearing gas masks. If you headshot a lot of soldiers (either with lethal or non-lethal weaponry), you’ll see more soldiers wearing helmets. If you frequently hold soldiers up from behind, they’ll start to resist being held up. Soldiers will often travel in groups of two or more, which necessitates that the player think differently to try and take them out. Will you attempt to lure one soldier away from the others, so you can knock each one out one at a time? Toss a decoy out to distract them while you run up and choke them from behind? Blow up some C4 some distance away from you so their attention is drawn to that? Or, alternatively, will you go in guns-blazing and lay waste to everyone in your path? The Phantom Pain allows for all of these tactics, and many more. It is very viable to play many parts of this game like a third-person shooter if one so chooses, though I personally find it more satisfying to try and complete outposts without ever being spotted. At least if things go wrong, you have ways to defend yourself, or possibly to run off and have the enemy lose track of you.

The game’s soundtrack is pretty remarkable. The selection of upbeat licensed ’80s songs like “Take on Me” and “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” is nice, though I especially appreciate the option in the Steam version to add your own custom music to the game. I set my helicopter theme to Venom’s “Welcome to Hell”, and I felt like a total badass whenever I flew out on a mission.

Outside of the licensed music, the sound design can be pretty atmospheric and immersive. The background music is tense at the appropriate moments, and fairly minimalistic when you aren’t directly engaging the enemy. There’s one particular “caution” theme in Afghanistan which gives me a heavy John Carpenter vibe, which fits the ’80s time period this game takes place in. This, I think, is one example of how The Phantom Pain succeeds in tying up the series, as the early Metal Gear games, though taking place in the ’90s, were created in the late ’80s and had that kind of feel going for them, and now this most recent entry takes place in the ’80s, and recaptures that feel to an extent. I specifically want to note the song “Nitrogen”, which can be found on a cassette tape in-game, and compositionally-speaking, sounds as if it could have come straight from Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake’s soundtrack.

The ending portion of the game is an odd one. I didn’t know what to make of it initially, but after thinking about it for awhile, I think it’s satisfying as a part of the overall Metal Gear timeline, but unsatisfying as far as this specific game’s story goes. There is one story thread in particular which has absolutely no resolution in-game, and seems like a glaring oversight to not wrap up. There’s a video included with the collector’s edition of the game, which shows an unfinished version of Episode 51, which looks to have provided conclusion to said story thread, so the fact it’s not in the final game is pretty appalling. How much of this game’s gradual sense of emptiness and lack of a satisfactory conclusion is intentional, and how much of that was due to conflict between Kojima and Konami, may never be known. Despite noticeably dropping off towards the end, I did find the story very enjoyable. I think it serves as a pretty good tie-up of certain loose ends in the overall series storyline. Unfortunately it introduces a couple more of its own, though, so it’s not perfect in that regard.

Outside of issues with how complete the game arguably may not be, there are two major controversies surrounding The Phantom Pain; the first is the game’s online connectivity, which includes micro transactions. No previous main entry in the series has had online features interlaced into the single-player mode. I’m not particularly a fan of it, and especially since the October 6th update’s shifting of several resources from your base to being stored online, it kind of gets in the way. The micro transactions themselves only really apply to the online FOB multiplayer, which you can generally feel free to ignore if you so choose. Even if you do participate in FOB invasions, the micro transactions don’t have to be utilized at all, which is fortunate. Ultimately, I don’t think it ruins the game, and FOB missions can be exciting to go on, but the game would have been just fine without it.

The other major controversy that has surrounded The Phantom Pain is the overtly-sexual portrayal of one of the only female characters in the game, Quiet. I don’t think anyone can seriously deny that her choice of clothing (or lack thereof), combined with her mannerisms, is pretty much just there for the sake of fan-service, regardless of what story justifications are given in-game. That said, I actually really came to like Quiet a lot. She’s a mysterious person, and it’s easy to become attached to her through your developing interactions with her on the battlefield as the game progresses. She’s really likable, and she has the most dynamic character arc out of everyone in the game. Given that she has a reputation for not talking, I think it’s a good accomplishment that she’s so interesting. If you seriously dislike fan-service characters, be warned, but my opinion is that she’s cool.

If you’re a completionist, it will take you awhile to do everything. By the time I finally got to the end of the game, I had over 120 hours of playtime according to Steam. It may take less time if you rush to finish the main story and ignore most of the side-ops. Whether you buy this at full-price or wait for a sale, I think this is worth getting. It’s some of the most fun I’ve ever had with a game, and I… mostly enjoyed the story when all was said and done.

Lastly, I try to avoid spoilers as much as possible when I review games, but there is something I should note. So, if you want to avoid 100% of all spoilers for this game, don’t read the next paragraph… though as someone who tends to avoid spoilers myself, I sure wish I had known about this prior to finding out the hard way.

If you ever earn a Butterfly emblem at some point during your play through of The Phantom Pain, I strongly urge you to equip it to your Diamond Dogs logo sometime before Episode 41, and keep it there until the end of the game. When you have beaten the game (as in, completed Episode 46), then go ahead and look online to see what happens when you remove it. Then, it’s up to you to decide when/if you are prepared to unlock Episode 45 and thus go for 100% completion… Though being as I played on PC, I took the cheap way out and used a mod to “fix” my save afterward, hehe.