In Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, players assume the identity of Big Boss, a legendary soldier who—in the world of the game series—played an unprecedented role in shaping global politics and power dynamics during the second half of the 20th century. As Big Boss, you will travel across Cold War-era Afghanistan and central Africa, making a name for Diamond Dogs, Big Boss’s mercenary group, and fighting the machinations of the power-hungry Cipher organization.
Where MGSV most succeeds is in its core gameplay, which is dominated by a mix of objective-oriented stealth and open-world roaming. With gadgets developed by Diamond Dogs’ R&D team in your hands, you have a delightfully large number of ways in which you can complete missions.
Maybe you need to stop a convoy of Soviet tanks from annihilating a band of Mujahideen rebels that have contracted your services. Well, you can blast them from range with a barrage from your rocket launcher or track their movement and lay mines in their path. You can even take the convoy by surprise and steal their vehicles with the balloon-equipped Fulton device before they have a chance to counterattack. This ensures that missions rarely become boring or formulaic and that the overall game has a lot of replay value for its genre.
Additionally, enemy artificial intelligence is smart enough that you’re best left using your brain to overcome enemies, rather than mindlessly rushing in and mowing them down with a machine gun.
With cultural touchstones like David Bowie and Kim Wilde songs throughout the soundtrack, MGSV feels like you’re playing through an ’80s action movie, in a very good way. The open-world dynamic and side missions also give you more freedom in how you play the game, though their effectiveness is greatly tempered by a clunky transportation system and substantial penalties for staying in the field for too long; returning to Mother Base to shower after every mission gets old fast.
Unfortunately, MGSV has very mixed success in its systems outside of stealth and combat. While it can be fun to kidnap skilled Soviet soldiers to work on your base, managing them becomes an absolute chore after a plot twist in the last third of the game that potentially forces you to click and drag over an arbitrary 100 staff members from one list to another.
Though they are limited in scope, the game also includes micro-transactions for some aspects of its online play. As of a recent patch, you can purchase insurance to limit the damage that other players can do when invading your base. Though these micro-transactions do not confer sweeping pay-to-win gameplay advantages, they come across as a cheap cash grab that works to the game’s detriment.
The game’s writing and characters are something of a mixed bag as well. One thing that is refreshing about MGSV’s writing is that it doesn’t glorify the killing of enemy soldiers. If you commit too much senseless violence, Big Boss will envision himself as a blood-soaked demon with a horn growing out of his head. Conversely, your staff members will thank you for rescuing prisoners, child soldiers and even wild animals. Big Boss’s solemn thousand-yard stare on board his helicopter adds humanity to a character that could easily have been rendered as a gleeful sociopath.
If any one character’s portrayal falls short, it is Quiet, a silent young woman with superhuman physical abilities and unparalleled talent as a sharpshooter. Quiet definitely isn’t a powerless damsel in distress, but her “combat gear” consists of nothing but her underwear and some torn-up tights. MGSV completely fails to add what could have been a compelling female protagonist to its roster and instead winds up with yet another skinny, conventionally attractive woman wearing a combat bikini—a character archetype that should have stopped being written into video games at least a decade ago.
MGSV absolutely has its faults, but its incredible central gameplay and sprawling amount of engaging content results in one of the best games to be published so far this year.