Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is Hideo Kojima’s Great White Whale, the game he’s been trying to make his entire career, or at least since Peace Walker. Like the central character, nicknamed Ahab, or his bandaged roommate Ishmael, this modern-day epic takes some time to get to its feet and stumbles through quite a bit of padded content. But once the narrative wheels start spinning and “Venom” Snake gains access to his full arsenal (like an upgraded version of his helicopter, the Pequod), it’s hard to imagine ever playing another stealth-based title again. Given all the freedom of The Phantom Pain, even games as precise as Splinter Cell: Blacklist seem like cheap arcade action titles by comparison.
However, as with Ahab’s quest in Moby-Dick, Kojima’s boundless, blinding ambition leads him to miss the forest for the trees, for while the desert wilds of Afghanistan and marshy border between Angola and Zaire are meticulously detailed, the guards and wild animals within them are generic and dull, and many of the main story missions (to say nothing of the optional side-ops) feel like echoes of one another. Worse, too many of the narrative thrills are submerged within picayune sections, like the (necessary) meta-game in which players are forced to spend hours farming, managing, and developing Snake’s private army.
Melville packed Moby-Dick full of sailing-related details that added verisimilitude to the novel, and Kojima tries to do the same, not caring how much all the little details slow down the pacing. Snake’s given a lot of freedom in the field, but his actions all deplete GMP (Gross Military Product), the in-game currency, which means that the most reckless players—the ones who don’t hesitate to call down airstrikes, use the fanciest gear, and skip past both outposts and their hidden caches of diamonds—will end up having to replay missions just to soldier on. Likewise, while it’s realistic that researching new technologies and deploying recruits into the field takes time, these actions occur only while The Phantom Pain is active. In any case, this is a game that also features a sniper whose near-nakedness is “justified” by the fact that a mutation has caused her to breath through her skin, a gas-masked and straightjacketed child who levitates eerily through the air, a villainous skull-faced cowboy, a legion of genetically enhanced zombie soldiers, and a burning man. Realism is overrated, especially when it’s used to mask loading screens and stretch an already lengthy game.
These complaints extend to the core gameplay loop, which revolves around getting to a vantage point from which to mark your foes and identify a safe infiltration route, and then patiently sneaking through. A few missions have special circumstances in which players must ambush moving targets, protect an unusual group of prisoners, or escape from a monstrous bipedal robot, but the rest are fairly straightforward, and the game suffers from dicing its content up into episodic, non-linear chunks. Because each mission essentially starts afresh, there’s no way for the overall plot to dramatically crescendo. Even the boss encounters are lackluster; without the focus of previous entries, the open-world design means that most can now be avoided or escaped. There’s something to be said for the way that Deus Ex and Dishonored occasionally forced players to engage, even if indirectly, and fans of Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance or Guns of the Patriots may grow tired with The Phantom Pain’s emptiness.
Of course, there’s a reason why Moby-Dick is still studied to this day. Despite all the minor (and major) irritations to be found in The Phantom Pain, the sum of its parts is never anything less than awe-inspiring. There are so many small tricks to gleefully discover, from using the cardboard box as a form of fast-travel (when left at a shipping station) to strapping a Fulton parachute to a vehicle and climbing aboard in order to instantly extract Snake from a hot zone. Assuming players don’t neglect upkeep on Mother Base, they’ll continue to gain access to new tools, from electronic decoys that call out to foes to sleep-gas-grenade launchers. Likewise, if Snake takes care of his various companions (a miniature Metal Gear suit, a faithful steed, a loyal dog, and vicious scout), they’ll continue to develop new tactical options.
It hardly matters that the mission objectives are redundant, given that the locations are so diverse and detailed: They’re worth exploring for their eerie beauty alone, if not the hidden blueprints cached within. There are modern (for the ’80s) airports and oil platforms mixed alongside busy plantations and man-made mining canyons; Afghanistan’s ancient ruins are often appropriated by military outposts entrenched in the cliffs. And if the off-the-wall moments seem too scarce, it’s only so that they can alleviate the war-is-hell doldrums at just the right moment. This leaves The Phantom Pain an impressive epic, even if it falls several steps shy of the open-world grandeur realized by The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.