Metal Gear Solid 5 : The Phantom Pain is a truly excellent game in so many ways, yet there is something not quite right about it. love it in so many different ways, but I just don't love it in total.
Technically, the game is superb. It balances a bunch of different concepts and ideas superbly well and has a fully immersive world. Playing the game is often a joy where you plan, set up and execute a perfectly formed stealth take down of an entire base, without firing a single shot in anger. You will approach the base from the south, enjoying both the wonderful visuals, changeable weather and array of tools at your disposal. You'll even select your approach music accordingly from the array of great tracks available to you. You will probably order a buddy in to support you accordingly - I typically enjoyed using Quiet as a sniper scout.
The way the game plays - be it action or stealth - is always excellent. There is an enormous array of weapons tools and quite frankly, the level of flexibility offered to you would be overwhelming if the games interface wasn't so smartly designed.
As you can tell, I love playing the game. Yet, there is more to a great game than it being technically excellent. There are three major problems that over-shaddow the game and they start - and end - with the narrative.
The story itself is not at all bad - in fact, by the usual metal gear solid standards, it is relatively easy to follow and quite interesting. The plot picks up where Ground Zero's left off and explores a range of interesting themes - the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the use of child soldiers and the effect of the war economy - interspersed with the typical MGS crazy plot elements of clones, huge armed mechs and telepathy empowered on fire psycopaths.
However, the problem is that the main plot as it is revealed through the mandatory parts of the game is relatively sparse and consequently hard to engage with. The game relies on the player playing numerous cassette tapes to fully explore the story. The problem with this mechanic is two-fold. Firstly,listening to the cassette tapes often gets in the way of doing actual missions - either because they shift your focus from what your actually doing or because some other voice over from the gameplay starts talking over the cassette tape. This is incredibly frustrating.
The second problem is related to the first - you're effectively left having to stand around listening to in-game audio files to explain key plot threads. This is a terrible way to engage with players - I never really felt motivated to do so for the simple reason that the bits of the game I wanted to play were there in front of me and listening to the cassettes either stopped me from doing so or distracted me to the point where it was pointless to play them in the background.
I applaud the attempt to find an innovative way of both making the game accessible and offering an alternative way to explore the narrative, but ultimately this design choice just did'nt work and left me feeling like i was forced to sit and listen to audio just to understand what the hell was going one when what i wanted to do was play the game.
The second major problem with the game is really simple. Post mission 31, the game offers 20 or so "post-game" missions. Around half of these offer you opportunities to gain XP and tie up some of the story threads, so no problem there. Half of them are repeat missions selected from the first 30, just made slightly harder. While I enjoyed a couple of these, the bottom line is that these felt like a lazy way to expand the games content rather than actual innovations. While not a problem in and of itself, needing to complete these to access the final missions in the game pissed me off a bit. That and the fact that most of them aren't terribly fun. I actually think that they would have been better off offering you the opportunity to play any mission at extreme difficulty or from the start without any gear, rather than picking a bunch at random and pegging them on the end of the game as part of the closing out of the game.
I am really not a fan of "repeat but harder" missions.
Finally, the other problem with the narrative is the sort of related to both of the above points. The game is so horrendously uneven in how the plot is revealed that you end up feeling like you're not quite sure what happened at the end of act 1. Having 30 "plot" missions where some have virtually no relevance at all to the plot interspersed with other missions that are crucial is annoying, but forgiveable. Spoiler alert - but having the main bad-guy die virtually out of nowhere after an uninspiring boss battle when half the plot threads are still hanging is both incredibly frustrating and unforgivable. It honestly felt like they decided half way through development that the games narrative was going to spread over 30 missions, rather than 50 and dumped the main "ending" into the point of the game that would be around 60% completion, rather than at the actual end of the game.
This really hurts the game - like I say, it is technically great, but all the wonderful stuff you can do in the game, including the cool stuff you can develop, the characters you can build relationships with and the missions you can do, totally lose impact, meaning and context when the main game plot abruptly ends and asks you do all this other really cool stuff in an open ended sandbox world rather than an inspiring, tense plot driven one.
And there, finally, is the problem. The game is so good in so many ways technically that it will always be fun to play, but I expect more from a Metal Gear Game - I don't just want to have fun with it, I want to really engage with the game, relate to the characters and explore the barmy plot, but doing so in a game where the actual narrative has ended just robs the experience of any deeper meaning or close relationship with the game experience.
Instead, the first two thirds of the game is the "metal gear experience", the last third is the "phantom" experience itself. Maybe they really were trying to tell us something in the title.
PS even though this is mainly about the stuff that drove me mad about the game, I'd still give it a 8 or 9 out of ten overall, but it could have been so much more...