Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain PlayStation 4 Review: All Good Things [Update: Now With a Score]

Kojima's final turn with the series is also his most ambitious, but how well does it come together?

Review by Kat Bailey, .

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Hideo Kojima has never been what you would call a conservative designer. From the very start, he strained against the limitations of the medium, often with brilliant results. But with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Kojima has taken a different approach. For what will almost certainly be Kojima's final turn with the series, he has thrown the proverbial kitchen sink into The Phantom Pain, producing what is easily the most expansive game in the series.

I've been playing MGS V for about 40 hours now, and I'm still not quite finished. Some of that is pure content - there are more than 40 missions in the story alone, and that doesn't include the large numbers of side ops. Some of that is due to the often frustrating difficulty spikes that crop up when the Skulls arrive - an enemy that you will come to fear and hate as the story progresses. But for better or worse, there's no denying that Metal Gear Solid V is a huge game; one that is basically on par with a fairly long RPG.

Ostensibly an open world game dotted with bases and guard posts that you can explore at your leisure - you can drop in to Afghanistan or Africa at any time and just ride around on your horse if you wish - Metal Gear Solid V is primarily structured around its missions. These operations, which typically involve rescuing a hostage or eliminating a target, are very similar to Ground Zeroes - the prologue that served as a paid demo for The Phantom Pain. They are essentially puzzles with multiple solutions that encourage you to experiment with the many tools at your disposal. Sometimes you will find yourself pulling off the perfect heist, which is thrilling. More often than not, though, you will find yourself saying "eff it" and pulling out your rocket launcher, which can be satisfying in its own way.

There are many ways to tackle The Phantom Pain's individual challenges, though sometimes just shooting them is the most efficient.

In structuring The Phantom Pain the way he has, Kojima has more or less created a direct successor to Peace Walker, which was a compelling game in its own right but greatly limited by the fact that it was developed for the PSP. That approach has its advantages and its disadvantages. The open-ended nature of the missions can be quite fun, but the relatively non-descript bases and airfields suffer in comparison to Shadow Moses and Groznyj Grad - compelling settings that were almost characters in their own right. They also teeter on the brink of being overly samey, which is something Metal Gear Solid V spends its duration fighting against.

There are a few things that keep it from plummeting completely into the abyss of repetition. The most significant is Mother Base - Big Boss's headquarters and easily the most enjoyable location in the game. Set on a drilling platform resembling that of Sealand, it serves as a visual representation of your progress through the game, steadily growing as you earn the money and resources to build new platforms. Strictly speaking, there's not a lot you can actually do at Mother Base outside of visit certain characters, but you will nevertheless find yourself returning often, if only to shower off all the blood and muck that accumulates when you're out in the field - one of the many delightful details that serves to set Metal Gear Solid V from other big-budget action games.

The Phantom Pain's huge base offers a distinct experience that does much to alleviate the sometimes repetitive mission structure.

Outside of being a cool setting in its own right, Mother Base is also where you earn new tools, making it doubly valuable. There's a continuous flow of volunteers into Mother Base throughout the game who are automatically assigned to whichever department they are best suited, whether it's intelligence, R&D, the medbay, or whatever else. In addition, you can capture enemy soldiers and send them back to Mother Base, where they can be flipped to your side. One of Metal Gear Solid V's most enjoyable challenges is in capturing rather than killing an enemy commander and adding them to your ranks, which is very much in line with Metal Gear's tradition of rewarding non-lethal solutions to problems. They in turn can raise the level of a particular department, unlocking new weapons and items for later missions. In that, building up Mother Base is a crucial part of Metal Gear Solid V, and a rewarding one at that. With so many new recruits and weapons being constantly unlocked after every missions, the game rarely loses momentum, except during its more frustrating missions.

Another way in which Metal Gear Solid V manages to avoid becoming repetitive is in its well-paced dispersal of its setpieces. In that, Kojima proves that he is still one of the best directors around, his best scenes bringing with them a level of intensity that other triple-A action games struggle to conjure. It's evident from the very first minutes of the game, when a critically injured Snake awakens from a coma to find himself in the midst of a bloody massacre, forced to hide among the bodies while gunmen probe through the hallway with their automatic weapons. It's a harrowing sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the game, with plenty more like it to be found as the story continues, often at the most unexpected moments.

Meet D-Dog, the best dog in gaming. Yes, he wears an eyepatch.

Interestingly enough, there aren't many boss battles in Metal Gear Solid V. You'll find them here and there, but from what I've played thus far, few of them are on par with anything you'll find in Snake Eater or even the original Metal Gear Solid. There's the typical sniper duel, and there's a rather cool sequence in which you have to find a way to stop an implacable foe who resembles a fire demon, but such moments are rare. Having said that, there is a rather large fight in the back half of the game that will make Metal Gear Solid fans equal parts happy and frustrated.

I suppose I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the Skulls - supernatural commandos who pop up to menace Snake at the worst possible moments. Skulls are absurdly tough, extremely fast, and capable of dealing out huge amounts of damage, making them bosses in their own right. Their encounters also constitute some of the most frustrating moments in the game. When the time comes to finally stand your ground and fight them, you will find them nearly invincible to anything outside of a homing missile. The mist they bring with them makes visibility poor at best. You will learn to hate seeing the Skulls under the "Special Guest" credits that roll before each mission - a typical Kojima touch that makes Metal Gear Solid V out to be a kind of television show while hinting at what you will have to prepare for. In terms of the actual gameplay, they are probably the single element I like least about Metal Gear Solid V.

Frustrating as it can be, though - and Metal Gear Solid V can be really frustrating - there's never been a point where I've actually wanted to stop. On the contrary, I had to be practically dragged away from one particular boss fight that had been giving me fits for what seemed like hours. It's a compulsive experience that compels you to assign your new staff, develop some weapons, then move on to your next mission. In that, Metal Gear Solid V rarely feels like it's a 50 hour game, though there's no denying its scope.

You will learn to hate the Skulls.

Its biggest strength continues to be Kojima's mastery of individual details, which are evident in every facet of the game. When you climb into your helicopter to leave the battlefield, for example, the mission doesn't just end. Instead, Snake will sit on the edge for a while as the battlefield below steadily recedes before finally climbing in and shutting the door. If one of his support characters is with him, they'll be hanging out with him. Photographs proliferate on the walls of the chopper. Snake's wolf - called D-Dog - exhibits almost Pixar-like levels of detail in the way it moves and interacts with the characters, and is easily the best dog I've seen in a video game to date. You can even find and listen to cassette tapes containing '80s pop tunes like "The Final Countdown" and "Rebel Yell" - a detail that must have cost Konami a small fortune in licensing fees. In the end, though, it's worth it for the way that it adds further color to an already incredibly rich setting.

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Comments 45

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  • Avatar for TernBird #1 TernBird 3 years ago
    I'm looking forward to seeing Kat continue to dissext MGSV. I'm most likely not going to play it (I lost interest in the series with how MSGIV handled things, having another game after "the end of the MSG series"* doesn't help matters), but this game will at least be a decent conversation piece. Kojima's still working his weird, weird magic. It also looks like the game plays a bit more like Snake Eater, which I appreciate.

    *Provided it doesn't come to represent the fandom's rallying point for "That time Konami ruined everything forever".
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #2 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    Kat is on this? I'm surprised but kind of glad. I'm not a Metal Gear head, but I do like the games so I think I'm closer to Kat's perspective than either Bob or Jeremy. It's going to be fun reading the updates.

    What really caught my eye, and probably why I love these games, is Kat's mention of Kojima's eye for details. Seriously, the console MGS games are filled with nice little touches like that. It's nice to hear that hasn't disappeared in Kojima's open world version of MGS. That makes me excited.
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  • Avatar for himuradrew #3 himuradrew 3 years ago
    I'll say this: I lost interest in the series after MGS2. I tried playing MGS4 when I first got a PS3 but it couldn't hold my interest for long. But after playing MGS:GZ, I'll have to say it did a good job into making me like the series again and I'm am eagerly awaiting MGSV.

    From what I understand though, isn't this game a direct sequel to Peace Walker? I've never played that game and now I want to play it on my Vita before TPP releases. I wonder how it holds up? Is the game beatable solo?Edited August 2015 by himuradrew
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  • Avatar for gamer1234cv #4 gamer1234cv 3 years ago
    @andrewjameschua87 Peace-walker is beatable solo as I played it that way and it is available in HD in the Metal Gear Solid collection.
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #5 manny_c44 3 years ago
    Hmm weird I thought Bob would be doing this review. Sounds great though, can't wait to get into it.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #6 Kat.Bailey 3 years ago
    @manny_c44 Funnily enough, I've written about as much about Metal Gear for USG as Bob, having reviewed Ground Zeroes, written the Snake Eater entry for our Top 15 Games Since 2000, etc. But yeah, I can see why people might have expected Bob or Jeremy given how outspoken they've been about the series. Fresh eyes can be useful, though!Edited August 2015 by Kat.Bailey
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  • Avatar for Kuni-Nino #7 Kuni-Nino 3 years ago
    @andrewjameschua87 Yeah, it's beatable solo. You have to grind a little bit to get some decent guns though. All the bosses are annoying bullet sponges.

    Honestly, you don't have to play Peace Walker. It's really just Metal Gear-lite. If you want to see the story, the audio tapes in Ground Zeroes should have you covered. Going to into Peace Walker expecting something on the level of any of the console games or a complex stealth game, you'll be out of luck. It's a really simple version of its big brothers.

    It's a nice game, but don't feel like you HAVE to play it. Trust me, you're not missing out on much.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #8 cldmstrsn 3 years ago
    @TernBird do you know anything about this game? V takes place way before 4 so don't see how it changes the story. This is big boss not solid snake.
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  • Avatar for Spooky-Toast #9 Spooky-Toast 3 years ago
    Excellent review-in-progress, Kat. Excited to hear more of your take on the rest of the game and how Kojima manages to handle his "mature" content such Quiet. Really liked your intro about Kojima's change from working within limitations to the sheer scope of this entry.

    Very excited for MGS V
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  • Avatar for dimasok #10 dimasok 3 years ago
    Meh, this is not for me. I LOVED the story and the codec conversation and the long-winded cutscenes. The fact that the game moved from this linearity into the open-world category and undercut its story subsequently means that I will only check it out when its a bargain sale. Don't care what score its given.

    The reviews I read so far pretty much spelled out in no uncertain terms that everything I loved about the previous games has been totally cut and remodelled. I also hated Peace Walker and Portable Ops so yeah.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #11 Kat.Bailey 3 years ago
    @dimasok I don't think the story has been substantially undercut. But yeah, it's different.
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  • Avatar for Oblivionous #12 Oblivionous 3 years ago
    I created an account just so I could comment. Thank you for this review. I checked out the "other" sites who all seem to be giving it 10s with little explanation of the actual gameplay. This is the first time I'm hearing about D-Dog and Skulls, which sound great and annoying, respectively. Again, thanks for this, you sound like a real person who actually played the game.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #13 VotesForCows 3 years ago
    Was planning to hold off on getting this for a few months...but that's looking increasingly unlikely! Great review so far Kat.

    Any notable bugs? Wouldn't be unexpected with a game this big.
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  • Avatar for pennybags #14 pennybags 3 years ago
    @andrewjameschua87 it's definitely beatable but I'd recommend one of the console ones. The boss fights are difficult on the PSP controls.Edited August 2015 by pennybags
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  • Avatar for ShawnS #15 ShawnS 3 years ago
    It sounds exactly like the expanded Peace Walker experience I was hoping it would be. I didn't play PW until just this January on the HD collection and I was totally surprised by how it grabbed me. 95 hours later I still didn't want to stop playing but I was practically out of things to do. Getting more of that with modern visuals and room for even more R&D gear, characters, music, etc. sounds just superb.
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #16 manny_c44 3 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey He wrote that long preview that's the only reason I was thrown off...I'm sure you're qualified ;)
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  • Avatar for ShadowTheSecond #17 ShadowTheSecond 3 years ago
    Did the other reviewers start a large portion of their review at the Konami event too? I don't mind in the case of this review since it was disclosed at the beginning, but it would be a bit frustrating for others not to disclose that (even if it didn't truly change the scoring).
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  • Avatar for The-Challenger #18 The-Challenger 3 years ago
    I hope there are plenty of different environments to explore. I don't mind the repetition, but a little variance in level design can go a long way in a game like this. It sounds like a fully fleshed out version of Peace Walker so far. I like that style of play versus what MGS4 offered.

    Which version is least stable? I hope it's not the ps3 copy. That's all I have, or I could go the PC route.Edited August 2015 by The-Challenger
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  • Avatar for manny_c44 #19 manny_c44 3 years ago
    @The-Challenger Oh man, having played Ground Zeroes in 2560x1600 maxed out-- sitting up close to all of the detail, it's the way to go! Love the coordinated PC release, a real gift to PC players from Kojima this time.
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  • Avatar for Monkey-Tamer #20 Monkey-Tamer 3 years ago
    I like how multiple methods of ingress and egress are going to be available. This has been glossed over in virtually all video games, but is a huge part of any real ops plan. While there needs to be bits of reality left out to make the experience enjoyable, this is a welcome addition for me. I like how you can approach a situation from multiple angles to obtain the same end result. It sparks creativity where before it was trial and error until I stumbled upon the method the developer intended.

    I'm curious if there is going to be a cost for each mission based upon how you choose to tackle it. Risking a chopper with a couple of escorts would obviously be far more costly than riding a horse halfway in and crawling the rest of the way. Since Snake's military is privately funded this would be a real concern. Not sure if I actually want it in the game, however.
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  • Avatar for #21 3 years ago
    I love games. But that doesn't mean I'm good at them. Plus the fact I'm the kind of guy who more enjoys the experience, not the challenge.
    And I'm old now, so my reflexes aren't what they used to be.
    So that Skull talk has me nervous. I played MGS4 on easy. I'm going to be be pissed if I can't pass the Skull sections.
    Another great preview out of USgamer. Been reading all the game sites and this was the only one touching on things like the lack of personality in the environments compared to past games.
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  • Avatar for Iliya-Moroumetz #22 Iliya-Moroumetz 3 years ago
    I was planning on getting the game anyway, but still, I want to hear what Kat thinks about the whole deal later on. So, yay.

    I mean, I kinda already know how Jeremy feels about it, via his old Thumbnail Theatre from the site which shall not be named!

    Liquid: Blah blah blah, stole my birthright, whine whine whine, Les Enfant Terribles, cry cry cry, You're the Better one! NOW DIE!
    Fox: Snake, I'm sick of hearing this guy's prattle! Let's kill him before he can start another spiel!
    Snake: No! I wanna hear how I'm a Super Baby!
    Liquid: Now you've done it! Now I'll NEVER SHUT UP!

    Or something to that effect. It brought many laughs. Granted, Jeremy's choice of words may have changed since then, but I would imagine the spirit is still the same.
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  • Avatar for RorschachCCCLX #23 RorschachCCCLX 3 years ago
    Kat, does the conditions mentioned in Forbes hold true for UsGamer folks?
    According to the online magazine, most reviews online were done playing in Konami controlled, highly regimented gaming sessions.

    I have no doubts on the integrity of the review you'll produce, I just found the conditions a little strange.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #24 Kat.Bailey 3 years ago
    @RorschachCCCLX Yes, that was the case. We're holding off on scoring it until launch because we want to experience it in a more natural environment.Edited August 2015 by Kat.Bailey
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  • Avatar for himuradrew #25 himuradrew 3 years ago

    Thanks guys. Opted to play through Snake Eater on the Vita first. My younger brother has a copy of Peacewalker on our old PSP so I'll probably give that a shot after finishing up Snake Eater (which is considered one of the best MGS games if I'm not mistaken?)
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  • Avatar for RorschachCCCLX #26 RorschachCCCLX 3 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey thanks for the update, very much looking forward to your final thoughts on this closing chapter of a legendary video game series.
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #27 Mooglepies 3 years ago
    On the topic of difficulty spikes, I'm a little confused.

    Was it that the game's conditions for success were too difficult or your choice of how to handle it (full infiltration followed by extraction of all the targets) was too difficult? I read it as the latter but please correct me if not.

    I've been thinking about difficulty for a while (particularly where it pertains to players having choice in how to proceed) so this kind of point is interesting to me at the moment. Is it really fair to criticise the game's difficulty like that when the section in question can be tackled in a multitude of other ways, many of which will be significantly easier?

    In the context of this game, surely being a legendary soldier like Big Boss is not just being able to win against the odds but also see when the odds are so stacked against you that you need to take a different approach entirely?
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  • Avatar for jihon83 #28 jihon83 3 years ago
    If these systems were tied to a better story, I would consider it an instant buy. As it is, I may wait for both US- and Eurogamer's review, just to see if the single-player content is worth slogging through the "cinema", for the sake of playing Castle Doctrine: Metal Gear Suikoden edition. All of that said, I hope you are willing to stretch the definition of "RPG" just a little bit to talk about Phantom Pain on the Axe of the Bloodgod, Kat. Both to hear your thoughts and, perhaps, to listen to Jeremy and Bob praise and grouse about it.
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #29 Kat.Bailey 3 years ago
    @Mooglepies I probably could have been clearer. There are points when brute forcing mission won't work either because you'll be gunned down almost immediately. By difficulty spikes, I meant more that there are some missions that are way harder than others. The mission I described is one. Even if you just go in guns blazing, the targets will scatter and run almost immediately. The guards are also everywhere, and it's early enough in the game that you don't have a ton of ways to deal with them. It took me a while to beat that one.
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  • Avatar for frontiersoldiers99 #30 frontiersoldiers99 3 years ago
    Just 10/10 thanks guys "
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  • Avatar for frontiersoldiers99 #31 frontiersoldiers99 3 years ago
    Deleted August 2015 by frontiersoldiers99
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  • Avatar for frontiersoldiers99 #32 frontiersoldiers99 3 years ago
    Deleted August 2015 by frontiersoldiers99
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  • Avatar for Mooglepies #33 Mooglepies 3 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Ah okay I understand. Thanks for clarifying. I can kind of understand when it's maybe something you can tackle later on, but if you're limited in your app arch and it's mandatory, that presents a different set of issues.
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  • Avatar for alexb #34 alexb 3 years ago
    @Kat.Bailey Kat, why didn't you tell us all that the only way to buy FOBs beyond your first one is to spend real life money on an in-game currency called MB Coins that you can't actually earn in the game? This is kind of critical information since it affects single player progression by capping the amount of resources you are able to gather for upgrades and research of new gear. Surely this situation was obvious from the word go on your end, wasn't it?
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  • Avatar for Roto13 #35 Roto13 3 years ago
    @alexb "This is kind of critical information since it affects single player progression by capping the amount of resources you are able to gather for upgrades and research of new gear."

    That's not true at all. There are several other ways to get resources that have nothing to do with the FOB system.
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  • Avatar for chaoticBeat #36 chaoticBeat 3 years ago
    I can't wait to start cracking into this game. I'm trying to take in a lot of information in so I don't get intimidated by all the systems. I realize I've taken this approach with challenging games that I really want to understand. Games like FF Tactics and Demon's Souls. I watched so many videos and read so many threads about D. Souls before I actually started it. Good way to get hyped too.
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  • Avatar for RorschachCCCLX #37 RorschachCCCLX 3 years ago
    4.5 seems to almost be the ceiling for USGamer reviews these days, but that is not a bad thing. A thoughtfully incisive piece as ever from Kat. Its tough saying goodbye to a series that has been with me my entire gaming life, spanning a multitude of generations and platforms. I'm certainly sad to see it go, but at the same time, I'm ready to close the book on Metal Gear. Its become laden with enough narrative and continuity baggage to crush Metal Gear ST-84. As it was pointed out in the Metal Gear Retronauts episode, just about everything you can do with the series, has been done. If Sony or some other first party studio hires Mr. Kojima, I hope he shows what he can do unbound maybe not from fan expectation, but at the least a series full of conventions.
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  • Avatar for cldmstrsn #38 cldmstrsn 3 years ago
    Started playing last night and I am just blown away. Great game. I do miss Hayters voice though. It sounds off to me but I can get past it. Also Ocelot sounds off to me as well but again I already got past that. The mission style is a lot of fun and I found myself wanting to do more side ops then the main missions just so I could pimp out my mother base. I am convinced that this is really just a building sim with some go collect material missions in between. Also love all the credits that are in the game to make sure you know Hideo made this game. So brilliant.
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  • Avatar for aaronpinsley40 #39 aaronpinsley40 3 years ago
    We're going to be arguing over whether latter-day metal gears (Specifically Peace Walker and MGSV) are jRPGs for years
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  • Avatar for Kat.Bailey #40 Kat.Bailey 3 years ago
    @RorschachCCCLX I thought really hard about giving it five stars, but like I said, it comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome in the back half, and the Skulls are bullsh*t. It's a pretty amazing game, though.
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  • Avatar for naazimeaala75 #41 naazimeaala75 3 years ago
    I dislike such reviews where review in progress are just padded up and called a review! I wanted a properly written review for MGS5 on USGamer :/
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  • Avatar for NightingaleXP #42 NightingaleXP 3 years ago
    @naazimeaala75 Wait, what about this review as it stands isn't comprehensive? How would a review you'd seen all at once have differed, content-wise?
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  • Avatar for naazimeaala75 #43 naazimeaala75 3 years ago
    @NightingaleXP I didn't say it wasn't. It was. But it wasn't like the reviews I read at USGamer. You know. I mean reviews has a them while reviews in progress are different in nature.
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  • Avatar for seanmitchell #44 seanmitchell 3 years ago
    Good review. Its kind of a weird game. But I'm enjoying it quite a bit apart from the odd bit of gameplay that feels like padding. The infiltration gameplay is the best I've ever played
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  • Avatar for pennybags #45 pennybags 3 years ago
    At 20 hours in or so I have to say I feel like this review makes the Skulls seem a whole lot more prominent and annoying than they are.
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  • Avatar for dianabolcanada60 #46 dianabolcanada60 2 years ago
    Dianabol CanadaEdited February 2017 by dianabolcanada60
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