I really don’t know where to begin with this other than disclaiming “Don’t forget, I love Metal Gear.”
Ever since I borrowed the original 3 Metal Gear Solid games in a PS2 box set from a friend, I was hooked instantly. The cinematic nature of Metal Gear is something that is so larger than life, that most films made today fail to capture the energy of any of the games in this franchise. I became one of those fans that would make crazy exceptions to my life for Metal Gear, including buying a PlayStation 3 off of a college roommate, and a second hand copy, to finally play through Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It felt like a satisfying end to my hunger to discover just what Hideo Kojima could do creatively, and what poignant commentary he had left on the culture of indoctrination, nationalism, and nuclear warfare. I was satisfied, and the HD collection of 2, 3 and Peace Walker seemed like icing on the cake.
But when Konami couldn’t help themselves for one last ride, neither could we. The fans salivated for every bit of detail they could get leading up to the release of Metal Gear Solid V, either analyzing the trailer editing, the meaning of recasting Big Boss’/Snake’s voice to hollywood star Kiefer Sutherland, or deciphering the lyrics to the games trailer themes “Sins of the Fathers” “We Are Not Your Kind of People” and “Nuclear.” Based on the trailers and the news, The Phantom Pain looked like the most raw representation of Hideo Kojima’s psyche we’d ever seen put into life on a video game. Set in 1984, the game would show how Big Boss had developed his mercenary group, Military Sans Frontier, and show how someone who once was idolized as an American hero could crash and burn into villainy for his personal ethics and lust for revenge. In my mind, it was going to be the Darth Vader moment we never got to see, how a hero became the villain through bad circumstance, and become the Big Boss that built Outer Heaven and was hunted down by his own son in the very first Metal Gear. The fans love the story, and we expected to have all of the answers by the time The Phantom Pain was over, as the last official Metal Gear Solid game. But of course, when the hype train gains too much steam, something is bound to crash. And crash this game did.
A year later, I’m not going to bother posing the question “What happened here?” because everyone has discussed this topic to death. The easy answer to this is that Kojima had a vision, and also was developing the most expensive game that Japan had ever seen at a $50 million dollar budget. That money, I can guarantee, was all spent on building the FOX Engine instead of the story, and for the effort put into that aspect of The Phantom Pain, I have to say that while I was playing it, the gameplay was solid. In the time since I finished The Phantom Pain, I have only revisited one other game in the franchise for a very brief afternoon, Metal Gear Solid 2, and while the gameplay in Sons of Liberty holds up in its own right and was revolutionary in 2001, I realized that for all of my qualms about The Phantom Pain, the control scheme for Snake is flawless. It was actually quite challenging to return to one of the older Metal Gear titles, despite how well I knew them already, and relearn the controls after the streamlined nature of The Phantom Pain. The controls took the best components from Peace Walker, adapted them to a full console, and then posed the question of “How can we make this work in an open world.” Every adjustment to the world navigation and stealth mechanic was reactionary to this open sandbox setup between the two massive maps running on the FOX Engine. Even the new adaptive AI is impressive in the game because they actually adapt to you in the field and how you’ve gone about taking them out, or abducting them, previously. This actually presents a challenge to you in gameplay instead of laughing at the NPC guards based on their schlubby way of going about their jobs in the older titles, albeit the latter works to great effect in the right context.
However, when I played this game, I did it in the same way I was binging a favorite television show with a new season because, as previously stated, my favorite aspect of Metal Gear is, and always will be, the story and characters. While those aspects were there throughout Metal Gear Solid V, they were few and far between and tended to be incredibly short. The exposition in the cassette tapes that were meant to be listened to later I didn’t mind, it felt like an evolution of the original Codec Calls throughout the series, but I had to stand around and listen to them at Mother Base, the game’s hub world, because other audio from the enemy’s radio, or instructions from characters in game, would overlap with the tapes if I were to try to listen while playing the game. It was a simple idea to help keep the story flowing while you play the game, and was completely ruined by a single flaw of game design and it really got me feeling down about the general experience. And when the game did have cutscenes that began to expand on the plot, which is about the time that Big Boss encounters the old man known as Code Talker, the story takes a turn for the worse by directly ripping off a plot device that was done in previous Metal Gear games, but with almost no mention or allusion assuming that if there was a connection, the fans wouldn’t care to hear about it. Additionally, Metal Gear Solid as a series has always had some of the most creative boss fights and villains I’ve ever seen, and the bounty hunter Skull Face is possibly one of the worst villains I’d ever seen in my entire life. His backstory and motivation was so bad and unclear, that it made the inclusion of Christoph Waltz in Spectre look like a stroke of genius, and the moment that made this truly hit my like a brick wall was the absence of a boss fight at the end of Chapter One (which is technically only the game’s halfway point of the story), where Snake is confined to a long truck ride where the villain exposes dialogue at you and spells out his entire play, making you realize that the marketing for the game, while it looked and sounded cool, spelled out the game’s stupidity right in front of your face… “Words That Kill.” An evil plot to destroy the english language, an idea that sounds like it has deep subtext on the surface, but comes across as a cool bullet point that had no use being in a video game, because the best the story team could come up with is “the villains will put bugs in your lungs.”
Don’t get me wrong, I will not argue that Metal Gear Solid has a reputation for being particularly believable in any way, but while it has the absurdity of kung fu cinema, anime, and 1980’s american action films, the themes throughout had poignancy, and the characters acted with drive and purpose, often with the intention of serving something larger than themselves. Metal Gear Solid V was a baseless revenge plot with the storytelling complexity that could have been done better by a 12 year old, with several twists that are on par with those in an M Night Shyamalan film. While I had moments of enjoyment out of my 67 hours with this game, the presentation of the story here is so insulting that it has taken me almost exactly a year to really form a defined opinion on it. If I revisit this game, it will be for side missions and for Metal Gear Online, but for anyone asking me “Should I Play Metal Gear Sold?” Prior to the oncoming release of Metal Gear Solid V’s Definitive Edition this month, my definitive suggestion is to go and play 1 through 4, and you’ll have actually saved time instead of playing through almost 100 hours of Metal Gear Solid V.