Review: Metal Gear Solid V The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid V (MGSV) is a major departure from the Metal Gear Solid formula.  A follow-up to the portable base building style of MGS: Peace Walker–which I haven’t played yet–Kojima’s latest and last Metal Gear Solid adventure continues down that same path, severely cutting down on long, dramatic cutscenes and general Kojima-style narrative whatthefuckery. It’s a bold transition away from the norm and it experiences a few missteps, though only in certain parts of the game itself. From the beginning, it was implied that MGSV would fill the missing piece of Metal Gear history by showing how Big Boss went from hero to mastermind of the Outer Heaven Uprising featured in Metal Gear (1989). The game fulfills that role, just not in the way I wanted to see. Rather than feature a definitive end, the game’s numerous retcons raise more questions.

MGS: Ground Zeroes was a $40 demo for MGSV yet the former relies heavily on the events featured in the standalone title. After a nuclear inspection goes awry, Cipher’s coldhearted treachery came to bear with Paz, who was fitted with a hidden bomb that detonated after she threw herself from the Boss’ helicopter. The resulting explosion puts him into a nine year coma. There is no respite when he comes to, as Cipher storms the hospital in a violent purge. He is rescued by a masked patient and set upon a journey to rebuild Mother Base and investigate the events that caused the MSF’s destruction. Big Boss, aka Venom Snake, is reunited with Kaz Miller and Revolver Ocelot (refreshingly portrayed as a good guy), the three of which build their vision of true Outer Heaven. Snake will also track down Skull Face, the perpetrator of the attack against the MSF and learn of his plan of revenge against those who wronged him.

MGSV deals exclusively with the theme of revenge. Each major player suffered a severe loss that only aggression can resolve. Big Boss struggles with the loss of Paz, Chico, the original Mother Base, his arm, and nine years, Miller, badly beaten and tortured, lost himself with the MSF’s destruction along with a few limbs. The middle point of the first chapter reveals Skull Face’s true nature, transforming the concept of “revenge” into something with far greater meaning: cultural identity and national pride. Where Kojima once waxed poetic on the importance of nuclear disarmament so too does his heavy handedness apply to the loss of one’s native language. And kudos to him for broaching a subject no other games talk about.

The subject matter is interesting and could have been more enticing were it given the classic Metal Gear cutscene treatment. Instead, the majority of the game’s exposition plays out through cassette tapes. And there are a lot of tapes. So. Many. Tapes. The tapes are a curiosity, not just because of their sheer number or the wild tangents they tend to express (hamburgers?). They’re ultimately not very important to those disinterested in story. There are key tapes that need to be heard to unlock missions, but the number of missio n critical recordings to non-essential recordings is grossly disproportionate. It’s possible that the design of the recordings was a response to Konami’s ultimatum to Kojima to get the game done on time.

Thankfully, the real meat of MGSV is in its gameplay. Metal Gear Solid is a series defined by an almost insane attention to detail. In previous games, the environment had a tendency to be more fun that the primary gameplay. Each combat zone offered different ways to interact with the world and take on enemies. MGSV represents the pinnacle of Kojima’s fevered genius. He presents to you an open world were there truly is the absolute freedom to complete objectives in countless ways. In fact, you could probably write a book on how Snake can interact with the world. Rain will cover the sound of your footsteps and wash away blood. Soldiers put to sleep head first into a body of water will drown. Enemies can be killed or knocked out and shipped back to Mother Base to join Big Boss’ ranks. They can be interrogated to reveal the locations of prisoners, skilled specialists, raw material, and mission objectives. If they see you sneaking around or incapacitating one of their own, they’ll respond by shouting for their comrades and signaling command posts for reinforcements.

There are so many ways to get out of tricky situations and for every action there is a reaction. Interrupt a soldier as he’s reporting in and the local command post will send someone to investigate. If soldiers happen upon the bodies of their comrades, they’ll alert headquarters for reinforcements. You can disrupt communications among posts by destroying signal dishes and comm stations. If someone sees you Fulton extract an object or person, they’ll freak out. Steal their music and they’ll curse. Play a recording of someone suffering from diarrhea while hiding in a bathroom and soldiers will stay away. Want to knock out a soldier without using guns? Summon a supply crate to land directly on top of them. Shoot down power lines to electrocute targets standing in puddles of water. There are so many ways to play with prey. It’s mind completely mind boggling and allows for so much creativity.

More brilliantly, MGSV adjusts itself to your tactics. Rely on head shots for too long and the next time you entire the field, soldiers will be equipped with helmets. Your attacks will also cause escalation as soldiers start carrying body armor, machine guns, night vision goggles, gas masks, and sniper rifles. Such changes force you to adopt different play styles in a really cool and unobtrusive way. You can disrupt the supply of such gear by launching combat deployments, Assassin’s Creed-style assignments. Combat deployments are timed missions, so you’ll have to wait until the clock finishes before the effects of such assignments are implemented.

Where Snake’s previous missions have been solo affairs, MGSV introduces Buddies, AI controlled partners that help level the playing field. Buddies offer unique abilities that supplement Snake’s own skills. D-Horse, for example, is a cheap and noiseless substitute for louder vehicles like jeeps and trucks. D-Dog, whom you find first as an adorable puppy, is an expect at sniffing out enemies and wildlife, tagging their locations without any assistance. And there’s Quiet, a beautiful sniper and lightning rod for any discussion about the depiction of women in video games. Kojima has always had a soft spot for the ladies but Quiet is the most egregious form of cheap sexuality. Even more than EVA’s penchant for prancing around with her shirts half unzipped. While there is a story reason for Quiet’s appearance, it doesn’t quite excuse the overly gratuitous sexiness imposed on her during shower scenes and the cat-like preening and stretching displays. It’s fun for the first few moments, then it just gets unnecessary.

As good as MGSV can be, even in light of its only significant female character, the game has its fair share of faults. MGSV is designed so differently from any of its console predecessors and while some change is good, others leave a bad taste. The most annoying are the countdown timers associated with weapons and Mother Base development. As projects grow more sophisticated and complex (like outfitting Big Boss with a rocket powered bionic arm), the time needed to develop tech increases. By the end of the game, weapons development took up to 36 minutes, combat deployments stretched to an hour, and high level base development took three hours to complete. And this is real time. With no way to skip forward, you’re forced to fill the time by completing missions, Side Ops, and free roaming to kill time. I admit that the timers are necessary to prevent the player from being overpowered but the wait is insufferable nonetheless.

Other problems present themselves through extended player. There are only two play areas, for example, and many Side Ops take place in areas that look uncomfortably identical. The second chapter is overloaded with duplicate missions from Chapter 1, only with Extreme (higher difficulty), Subsistence (all gear procured on site), and Total Stealth (instant fail if spotted) game variants. Considering the grandiosity of the game’s first chapter, which took me 40 hours to finish, seeing the same content mixed in with a story that has a hard time getting off the ground felt like a huge cop out. Thankfully, they are not required to complete if you want to see the ending. Whatever the circumstances between Konami and Kojima, the game’s denouement is frustratingly repetitive and misses an opportunity to create a whole new experience by shifting the point of view or implementing new gameplay. But then again, what can you do against Konami’s ultimatums?

MGSV is a decisive product. Being the last Metal Gear game we’ll get now that Konami has declared its exit from console development, the thin and unsatisfying plot ends the franchise on a dour note. There is still a story to tell, one that has already been suggested by an impressive and riveting webcomic. The gameplay is representative of Kojima’s wild fanaticism with detail and emergent gameplay. It’s one of the best games I’ve played all year and while I didn’t get the ending I wanted, there is still so much to appreciate about MGSV and the universe Hideo Kojima created around it that I’m so sad to see it end.

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