If Hideo Kojima really is on the outs at Konami, he's at least going out with a bang. The embargo for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain coverage hit last night, and the first batch of reviews are glowing.
IGN's Vince Ingenito gave the game a 10 out of 10, lavishing praise on the way it adapted the series' stealth-action formula to an open-world environment.
"Right from the moment you're told to get on your horse and explore the Afghan countryside, Phantom Pain feels intimidating, almost overwhelming in terms of the freedom its open world affords and the number of concepts it expects you to grasp," Ingenito said. "It's almost too much, especially given the relative linearity of previous Metal Gears. But what initially appeared to be an overly dense tangle of features to fiddle with instead unraveled into a well-integrated set of meaningful gameplay systems that provided me with a wealth of interesting decisions to make."
"Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain doesn't just respect my intelligence as a player, it expects it of me, putting it in a league that few others occupy."Vince Ingenito
Whether players choose to sneak their way to victory or go in guns blazing, The Phantom Pain affords them a number of avenues to do so. The game's day/night cycle and changing weather systems can make certain strategies viable (or not) at any given time. At the same time, a private army management meta-game lets players raid battlefields for resources and new recruits, which can then be put to use researching new technologies or using their skills to open up a variety of other strategic alternatives.
However, a perfect score doesn't mean a perfect game, and Ingenito does identify at least one weak point in the game.
"Where Phantom Pain's gameplay systems are far richer and meatier than any the series has ever seen, its story feels insubstantial and woefully underdeveloped by comparison," Ingenito said.
It's a somewhat surprising criticism of the game, given Metal Gear Solid 4's penchant for frequent and extended cutscenes larding the action with exposition and plot twists. While The Phantom Pain shows flashes of that approach (Ingenito noted the "spectacular" opening sequence), it ultimately produces a narrative he found "rushed and unsatisfying."
Obviously, that failing was not enough to tarnish an otherwise fantastic game in Ingenito's eyes.
"There have certainly been sandbox action games that have given me a bigger world to roam, or more little icons to chase on my minimap, but none have pushed me to plan, adapt, and improvise the way this one does," he said. "Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain doesn't just respect my intelligence as a player, it expects it of me, putting it in a league that few others occupy."
GameSpot's Peter Brown likewise gave the game a 10 and praised its adaptable approach to missions, but enjoyed the story considerably more than his counterpart at IGN.
"The best elements from the past games are here, and the new open-world gameplay adds more to love on top."Peter Brown
"After dozens of hours sneaking in the dirt, choking out enemies in silence, and bantering with madmen who wish to cleanse the world, The Phantom Pain delivers an impactful finale befitting the journey that preceded it," Brown said. "It punches you in the gut and tears open your heart. The high-caliber cutscenes, filled with breathtaking shots and rousing speeches, tease you along the way. Your fight in the vast, beautiful, and dangerous open world gives you a sense of purpose. The story is dished out in morsels, so you'll have to work for the full meal, but it's hard to call it 'work' when controlling Big Boss feels so good, with so many possibilities at your fingertips."
Brown said prior knowledge of the series isn't a prerequisite to enjoying The Phantom Pain, but added that "Fans of the series will find their diligence rewarded in ways that newcomers can't begin to imagine." They'll also, in his estimation, be enjoying the pinnacle of the franchise.
"There has never been a game in the series with such depth to its gameplay, or so much volume in content," Brown said. "The best elements from the past games are here, and the new open-world gameplay adds more to love on top. When it comes to storytelling, there has never been a Metal Gear game that's so consistent in tone, daring in subject matter, and so captivating in presentation. The Phantom Pain may be a contender for one of the best action games ever made, but is undoubtedly the best Metal Gear game there is."
"It's a game of planning and reacting in a world that refuses to stand still, making every minute matter and every success feel earned."Matt Wales
Eurogamer hasn't published its full review yet, but Matt Wales weighed in with his impressions to date. Like Brown and Ingenito, Wales underscored the narrative approach as a major departure for the series.
"Beyond an outlandish, action-packed opening sequence... The Phantom Pain is a remarkably economical affair, telling its tale of '80s cold war subterfuge through snatches of radio dialogue (courtesy of Ocelot), and the occasional return to Mother Base between missions," Wales said. "It's fascinating to see such restraint from Kojima, a man well known for his self-indulgence and excess, especially considering that The Phantom Pain is likely his Metal Gear swan song."
On the gameplay side, Wales said The Phantom Pain "isn't exactly a radical reinvention of the stealth genre," but acknowledged the increased freedom players are given to accomplish the familiar assortment of objectives.
"Metal Gear Solid 5's open world might not be vast, varied or stuffed full of things to do, but it's a place of constant movement," Wales said. "Night falls, day breaks, sandstorms sweep in, patrols come and go - and this organic sense of life means that missions are never predictable (no matter how often you play them) with tactical possibilities arising all the time. It's a game of planning and reacting in a world that refuses to stand still, making every minute matter and every success feel earned."
"The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima's ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged."Joe Juba
He also applauded the way The Phantom Pain managed to adopt an open-world design without the genre's standard glut of padding.
"[E]verything you do feels meaningful and consequential," Wales said. "Guard posts and roaming patrols aren't simply there for colour as you traverse the world: one careless move into hostile territory and every single enemy on the map will know you're coming, with more search parties and increased security radically altering the way a mission unfolds. And while other games tout choice and consequence as a headline feature, the Phantom Pain just gets on with it. Even the smallest action can have unexpected consequences - some significant and others barely perceptible."
Game Informer's Joe Juba gave the game a 9.25, currently one of the lowest scores the game has received on Metacritic (where it has a 95 average based on 15 critic reviews). Like some of the above reviewers, Juba was a bit disappointed at The Phantom Pain's approach to storytelling, but noted that having the narrative take a step in to the background puts the focus on the game's strongest point, its open-ended gameplay.
"A series can't survive this long without evolving, and The Phantom Pain is a testament to the importance of taking risks," Juba said. "An open world, a customizable base, a variable mission structure - these are not traditional aspects of Metal Gear, but they are what makes The Phantom Pain such an exceptional game. The gameplay, storytelling, and protagonists in Metal Gear may shift with each new installment, but Kojima's ability to surprise and enthrall gamers remains unchanged."