It’s a joke that doesn’t get old. Tens and tens of hours into Metal Gear Solid V and I still occasionally let out a small snigger as I launch some poor unconscious soul hundreds of feet into the air attached to a balloon; their cheering, screaming or baaing gradually fading as they disappear into the distance. It’s the kind of thing you only ever really get in this series, which has carved its own niche and made combining the sublime and the ridiculous its calling card. Few other games would expect you to sagely nod to a lecture on the Angolan Civil War whilst you watch your horse defecate on a soldier’s head or ask you to bundle diamond mining slave children into a helicopter that’s blaring out the intro to Europe’s The Final Countdown, and it’s this duality that truly defines these games. The Phantom Pain sees this contrast somewhat out of balance and you’re either going to think it’s a complete masterpiece or a teeny-weeny bit disappointing depending on if you’re the kind of person that’s bothered by the bonkersness being scaled down a bit.
But firstly, let’s talk about what’s been scaled up. Metal Gear Solid V is huge. You could quite easily play through from the original to number four in the time it takes you to reach 70% on the completion counter in V. These games have always been as deep as they are wide with plenty of secrets and easter eggs to unlock but here this scope is completely blown out of the water with missions that can feel intimidating with the number of ways you can approach them. Fortunately, more often than not the number of options will feel intoxicating rather than overwhelming. Even before you set foot on the ground you’re given an insane number of possibilities as you pick and choose which items and buddies you’ll take into battle. Do you take in a tranquilising sniper rifle to make recruitment easier or do you take a scorched earth policy and bring along a rocket launcher? Perhaps you’ll take along Quiet who’ll provide long distance support for your softly-softly approach or maybe you’ll jump in your own miniature bi-pedal tank D-Walker and charge in gleefully making a mockery of “tactical espionage”.
When you finally do jump out of the chopper fully loaded, the benefits of making a stealth game open world quickly become obvious. With no corridors restricting your way, the terrain, the time of day, the weather, the enemy guarding patterns and your patience all contribute to a thousand different ways of meeting each objective. It’s the kind of game where you can share stories of your victories with your friends, confident that you will have achieved them in different ways. With the labyrinthine item development trees, and the promise of bigger and better if you focus on one or two types of sidearm, there is a danger of falling back on tried and tested methods. But what it does so much better than other entries is encourage you to deal with your mistakes when everything goes haywire. Being spotted doesn’t feel like game over anymore and fighting your way out in a hail of bullets doesn’t feel like cheating. Outright aggression is a legitimate tactic along with the stealth and although the final score board at the end of each mission favours those who are sneaky, there are a wealth of other emblems and codenames that can only be obtained if you experiment with the tools on offer.
The requirements for meeting these goals are buried away in the game’s vast menus, which is where it starts to lose some of its sparkle. You will spend a lot of time looking at the text projected from Snake’s iDroid; the handheld futuristic walky-talky which serves as your guide, your map and your cassette player. It’s frustrating that a game with such a beautifully realised world forces you look at a light blue hologram for large portions of your playtime. Keeping on top of staffing issues, Mother Base, weapons development and deploying your troops to warzones for extra rewards is just a bit of a hassle. And the legendarily clunky control scheme from the game proper has somehow managed to worm its way into this spin off, text adventure making every tiny thing much more difficult than it actually needs to be. Quite why you need to accept your rewards for combat deployment missions is a bit of mystery and the vast swathes of staff that you end up having on your payroll are unnecessarily difficult to differentiate. It’s all just a little bit too much, and completing a mission and receiving a new bunch of volunteers is more likely to provoke a weary sigh than anything else. You can auto assign everyone but there will always be the nagging doubt that you’re not quite making the most of the resources you have on offer.
Alongside nagging doubt, you’ll also experience plenty of plain old fashioned nagging. The Phantom Pain is one of these games that feels the need to give you hundreds of notifications until you’ve no other option but to just give up and let it wash over you. “The map has been updated”. “Development project met”. “Sun will rise momentarily”. If you have the gall to listen to one of the games many, many, cassette tapes while attempting a mission it can become a little headache inducing. And that’s just the noise. The text will fly by in the bottom corner of your screen keeping you updated on what you can do, what you can’t do, what you’ve found and what you’ve lost. It gets to the point when frankly you’d like it to just shut up for two seconds so you can get on and enjoy the game. It may seem like this is to be expected of a series that has given us cut scenes over an hour long, but in keeping the gameplay and story separate, the previous games gave you an opportunity to drink it all in. The equivalent here feels like Revolver Ocelot is standing in front of the T.V and shouting directly into your face while you’re trying to concentrate.
On the other hand Snake, played here by Kiefer Sutherland, is annoyingly quiet. It’s so abundantly obvious within the first few hours that he was paid by the line that it makes the decision to replace David Hayter even more baffling. And this is where my biggest problem with The Phantom Pain starts to rear its head; it just doesn’t feel very Metal Gear. That might sound like a ridiculous accusation when you’re hiding from a huge, walking tank in a cardboard box but somewhere in the process of reinventing the series, part of what makes it so unique has been left behind. The antagonists are largely forgettable with none of the dark charm of the Cobra Unit or Fox Hound. The boss fights, which were previously so often a highlight, feel like they’re begrudgingly shoved in and have an air that they exist because you expect them. And I’m probably in the minority here, but with the storyline uncharacteristically taking a backseat it can feel like there’s no continuity between the missions and you’re playing through a series of one offs. The linearity of the earlier games gave the action a forward momentum, a goal on the horizon. Here, with so much dotted across the map, it can feel scattershot and unfocused. And when you’re sent off to rescue yet another prisoner from the encampment you infiltrated not more than an hour ago, it can even feel a little boring.
I imagine that to a lot people these would be seen as plus points. Metal Gear Solid has always had its knockers (in more ways than one) and for many the changes that have been made will be seen as improvements. But when so many of gaming’s big releases are turning into one indistinct blob of fetch quests and map markers to see one of the more unusual AAA series have some of its rough edges and idiosyncrasies smoothed out is a crying shame. Snake’s exploits have always been beautifully ugly. Here they’re just plain beautiful; and as a consequence, far less interesting.
Not that any of this really matters of course. It’s looking nailed on that V will be the final instalment; even after ‘this is our last game, really, I mean it’ being threatened so often in the past; and that really is a tragedy. There are the foundations of something truly special here, and for those that come to the game with no expectations of what it should or shouldn’t be, I expect there is an absurd amount of fun to be had. It is a brave, spectacular new direction for the series and some will fall for it deeply. Perhaps if it didn’t have Metal Gear Solid written on the box and was called Smokin’ Serpents Sneaky Afghan Adventure, I’d be one of those people. But as it stands there are too many other niggling issues that stop me from looking past my preconceptions of what the game should be.
It seems fitting that for a series with such a convoluted timeline that the end should come at the middle of the story and yet feel like a new beginning. That we will likely never see where Kojima would have shipped the cardboard box to next is a great shame but he leaves behind a series of games that, despite their flaws, have an undeniable star quality. Where V sits in that list will depend largely on whether you found those flaws annoyingly off-putting or endearingly eccentric. With The Phantom Pain, Metal Gear has had its arm removed and replaced with something technically far more impressive. But although some of the feeling is still there, it’s lost just a little bit of its soul.