The Metal Gear Solid series is now nearly two decades old. It originated in the grainy, polygonal renderings of the PlayStation 1. Besides pioneering the stealth genre, it advanced games as a way to weave a narrative, exploring topics with a level of immersion only available to that medium.
In 1998, it discussed the contrary notions of nuclear bombs as a political tool and a genocidal weapon. In 2001, Sons of Liberty predicted governmental internet censorship. By 2008, Metal Gear Solid’s world would be characterized by proxy wars and unregulated privatized militaries.
Most recently, Ground Zeroes plunged players into the fictional black-site of Camp Omega, a chilling reflection on inhuman practices present in both Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib. Phantom Pain’s focus lies in the concept of Lingua Franca.
As one character observes, “The greatest symbiotic parasite the world has ever known isn’t microbial—it’s linguistic.”
When The Phantom Pain launched earlier this month, nearly a year and a half had passed since the release of Ground Zeroes, Metal Gear Solid V’s first chapter. Despite Zeroes’ lackluster length, the fluid gameplay and stirring narrative were promising enough to leave both longtime fans of the series and newcomers alike anticipating the title’s larger release.
Fair warning, however: The Phantom Pain, at a narrative level, is an unwelcoming affair to those inexperienced with the series. While it’s the fifth numbered installment, it lands in the middle of the fictional timeline and makes innumerable references to events both past and future.
If you lack the ability, time or interest to experience the previous games yourself, as recommended, Phantom Pain offers in consolation collectible cassettes. The tapes serve as substitute for the Codec system present in previous titles, now playable simultaneous to gameplay. These include tutorials, character dialogue, hyper-accurate political exposition and, my favorite, 80s classics like a-ha’s “Take On Me” and Europe’s “The Final Countdown.”
Players adopt the role of Big Boss, a famed mercenary, and his tortured comrades as they hunt down ‘Skull Face’, the disfigured man responsible for their army’s destruction a decade earlier. Beyond him lies the organization Cipher, the primary antagonist of the larger franchise.
The series’ familiar melodrama, supernatural elements and sharp tonal shifts might be surprising, if not unappealing to newcomers. In the introductory episode, for example, players quickly encounter a fire-manipulating superhuman, accompanied by the mysterious psychokinetic ‘floating boy.’ Much of the franchise’s charm can be found in the realities it suspends, a novel contrast to the global history it depicts and preserves.
Story progression itself is extremely non-linear. Some main missions can be ignored entirely while the occasional side mission is essential to further the game’s plot. This concept is charming at first but, paired with unspecified progression requirements, results in a poorly paced second half.
My hopes for a strong conclusion were crushed after I discovered there existed a ‘Phantom Chapter’—essentially the game’s missing climax. Concept art and bonus footage included in the Collector’s Edition confirms as much. Whether this is the product of the falling out between Hideo Kojima and Konami is as of yet unknown, but its significant detrimental effect on the game’s plot is undeniable.
In Phantom Pain, players will be dividing their time between three distinguished locations: Afghanistan, Africa and Mother Base. In Afghanistan, periodic sandstorms lower enemy visibility but prevent allied helicopters from landing or providing air support. In Africa, torrential rain makes Boss’s movement less audible but temporarily immobilizes certain ‘Buddies.’ The Buddy system, in which the player can choose a cooperative AI to accompany them on missions, is one of the most substantial additions to the series.
Metal Gear Solid V, despite its flawed pacing and late-game stumbles, is easily recommended to series regulars and stealth enthusiasts alike for its expansive open world and wealth of gameplay options. While the rushed finale and unresolved conflicts leave me feeling exceptionally bitter, the existing content is of a quality far above average.