Before the game starts, before the title screen, even before the corporate logo splashes, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain apologizes. This morning, it apologized for server maintenance. It was sorry for a bug almost nobody would have noticed. It regretted that the iPhone companion app wasn’t working for some people. It announced that it was giving all players in-game gewgaws, but not before apologizing for giving everyone the wrong amount of gewgaws yesterday. These problems, all trivial, fill The Phantom Pain with self-loathing. It is perhaps the most genuflecting game ever made.
It’s also a scary introduction to what has been one of the most anticipated games in recent memory. But this is not a case of a problem game apologizing reflexively to get out of trouble. Instead, it’s a lot closer to someone who worries that an A- will bring down their GPA—attentive, cognizant of its few flaws, and narcissistic anyway. It’s a game with attitude, and attitude well earned.
The latest (and possibly last) work in a series that has spanned nearly 30 years and well over five games, The Phantom Pain covers the last major gap in a long military tale: how Big Boss, portrayed as a world-weary but idealistic soldier through multiple prequels, transitioned into the authoritarian villain of the game that started it all, 1987’s Metal Gear. It actually gets this out of the way fairly quickly. The game begins with Big Boss waking from a 9-year coma, minus an arm, and his enemies immediately trying to murder him. Boss starts rebuilding his privatized army for the sole purpose of revenge—and if he has to take a little unrelated wet work to fund that revenge, so be it. He’s immediately not a good guy, which lets The Phantom Pain slowly wring out the rest of Boss’ idealism over rationalizations of necessary violence and lesser evils.
That’s not to say The Phantom Pain is subtle. After all, it still delights in the series’ signature menagerie of giant walking robots and magical villains. And while it has given up most of its pedantry on nuclear proliferation, it instead devotes considerable time to ham-fisted philosophizing on the role of language in identity and globalization. This game is so over-the-top that its leading man, played by Kiefer Sutherland, comes off as terribly miscast. It’s not that his performance is bad (it isn’t) or understated (it’s Kiefer). It’s that his co-stars are, in classic Metal Gear Solid style, chewing the scenery so single-mindedly that it’s hard to even hear what Sutherland is saying.
Where it counts, though, the game tells its story deftly. It treats the issue of child soldiers as the complex, seemingly intractable problem that it is. That it does this without exploitation by re-contextualizing the roles of existing characters is particularly impressive. It does this with many of its existing characters, respectfully and believably building upon them, which in turn subverts years of hard-fought series convention. As someone who has followed the series with interest, if not always love, these fascinating revelations filled my head for days.
But there’s plenty here for the newcomer as well. You can leave much of the story locked in collectible audiocassettes, if you like. With or without context, the interactions offered in The Phantom Pain are arresting. A “stealth action” game, The Phantom Pain peppers wide swaths of Afghanistan and Central Africa with espionage missions: eliminating high-value targets, recovering prisoners, gathering resources. Every mission is different, and the number of approaches to any situation feels limitless. But because most every mission also begins with incomplete intelligence, any strategy, no matter how well executed, could fail.
The game provides multiple opportunities to compensate for failure, and the result is constant, palpable tension. A typical mission for me involved a long pre-planning phase—gathering recon with the binoculars from a distance, which allows for “painting” enemies so you can see them through walls—and plotting the path most likely to be undisturbed by guards. But then I’m there, and I’ll eke too close to a soldier in the shadows or wade into the path of a security camera I had completely overlooked. At this point, the game slows for a moment, providing precious time to perform the one move that will maintain cover: a quick knock-out slam, a bullet to the temple. Fail this, and Big Boss’ location is broadcast to everyone, and survival options change again: a protracted gun battle, a mad dash for a hiding spot, calling in an air strike. Or maybe just call in an air strike immediately and see what happens. Hey, it worked for me (exactly once).
Tiny changes will affect the entire cadence of a skirmish. The addition of helmets on enemies means headshots no longer eliminate with a single hit, greatly diminishing the usefulness of sniping. Armored enemies soak up bullets, forcing a sneaking or explosives-based solution. Sometimes there’ll be a great vantage point for recon, but there will also be a bear, and the choice becomes take on a bear or execute a mission blind.
And there is always more to consider. Big Boss is, after all, building a mighty vengeance army, and that means collecting resources from the battlefield. So there is the Fulton balloon, which tears enemy assets hilariously into the sky for collection. Ballooning enemy soldiers turns them into new recruits for Boss’ awkwardly named military group, the Diamond Dogs. Ballooning gun placements and shipping containers full of biomass adds to the Dogs’ resource pool, which pays for research into new weapons and tools, which in turn provide more options for espionage.
Everything feeds into everything else, a wheel of design that crushed me under its fearful momentum. Add major details, like a system of buddy characters that provide specific forms of assistance (including D-Dog, Boss’ soldier-sniffing dog pal) and charming embellishments (like the licensed ’80s songs that can be lifted from the battlefield and dropped behind your helicopter megaphone, so it sometimes blasts rockets but always blasts Spandau Ballet) and the result is a game that is somehow intense and silly, detail-oriented and vast.
At more than 60 hours into the game, pushing forward toward 70, it feels like there’s still a lot of The Phantom Pain left on the table. For every new detail I discover—like taking that masterpiece of stealth tech, the man-sized cardboard box, and slapping a pin-up poster on it, thus ruining its stealthiness—it seems like there are five more details waiting just beyond my reach. There’s even a fascinating online component that lets you infiltrate the bases of other players while they’re gone—or even more interestingly, while they’re present. These break-ins are exceptionally difficult, much more so than anything in the single player game, but they don’t feel unfair. Controlling Big Boss is so precise and supple, and the number of play choices so enormous, that failure can almost always be attributed to the player and the player alone. As a result, The Phantom Pain is a game where loss is often as empowering as victory is satisfying.
It’s worth noting that this generous work isn’t even finished yet—a new competitive online mode will be added to it on October 6. But even without that missing piece, I have had so many interesting conversations over the past two weeks about what is here. Is The Phantom Pain devoted enough to the series’ signature overheated crankery, and, if not, did it sell out or did it mature? Is that controversial ending brilliant, or merely audacious? Hey, did you find that secret thing on the base yet?
These questions are worth digging into. And then The Phantom Pain tightens its grip, presenting a vision of war without end that is both nihilistic and too intoxicating to escape.
You shouldn’t be sorry, Metal Gear Solid V. But I accept your apologies.