Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review
by Alexander Jones | published Sep. 17th, 2015
What's in a name?
To those who've been following the Metal Gear franchise, the stealth-action-game-turned-cinematic-imbroglio series helmed by controversial auteur Hideo Kojima, the mere mention of the franchise's name evokes a litany of images. There's Solid Snake, the primary protagonist of the series crawling around an arctic base in a flimsy cardboard box, completely (and hilariously) invisible to patrolling guards. There's the game's winding, timeline-jumping storyline, which throws everything from nude cyborg ninjas to U.S./Soviet relations into the mix and dares the player to wrap their head around the whole thing. There's the hours upon hours of cutscenes that became the focal point of discussions surrounding Metal Gear Solid 4, the previous game in the franchise: Can we really call this a video game if we're spending half of it watching nonsensical exposition dumps? Above all else, however, the name Metal Gear Solid evokes something much larger altogether; a fascinating, often bewildering series that's never been afraid to take tremendous risks, even if those risks sometimes fail.
Oh man, and does Metal Gear Solid V (MGSV) take risks. These risks appear more subtle compared to the game-as-action-movie marathon of Metal Gear Solid 4, but after just a few hours of playing reveal themselves to be bold design choices that flip the franchise on its head all over again. MGSV is the closest thing to a traditional video game that Kojima has headed in years; an open-world stealth-sandbox set in 1980s Afghanistan that moves slowly and deliberately. A steady clip of side missions, world traversing, resource gathering and more eventful, story-driven missions keep the experience interesting while never distracting the player from their next goal.
You play as Big Boss, a man who's narrative arc is far too complex and borderline-insane to dive into in this review. As a soldier for the Private Military Corporation "Diamond Dogs," you're tasked with developing and training a private army while simultaneously unraveling the mystery behind, and combatting, a mysterious group known simply as "Cypher." You capture and interrogate soldiers, develop weapons and infrastructure for your "Mother Base," capture enemy outposts, recruit a variety of animal "buddies" (including a dog with an eyepatch that looks eerily like you) to help you on the field, extract prisoners and so much more to help reach your ultimate goal.
Unfortunately, while the gameplay is compelling and fresh for a series once doomed to collapse under the weight of its own legacy, the storyline is barely there even under Metal Gear standards. While the Metal Gear series has often been notorious for lengthy cutscenes that served as daunting story overviews, the bulk of MGSV's story is provided in a series of cassette tapes that are optional to listen to. This creates a wholly passive narrative experience for the player, leaving the motivations, causes and key players behind the story's main events a footnote to just about everything else offered in-game. Cutscenes in MGSV are brief, relying on vague imagery and a protagonist who's relative silence is out-of-character and dissatisfying. Ultimately, while the game does provide some semblance of an ending, that's all it really is; it just sort of...ends. The resolution provided does not nearly live up to the bar of eyebrow-raising storytelling the series is known for.
That's not to say that MGSV isn't a truly awe-inspiring piece of art. It's a game that fully and honestly invites the player to get lost in its universe, spending hours tending to your growing army, riding around the desert and tying balloons to tranquilized enemy soldiers. It's a brazen piece of video game audaciousness, who's flaws add to its twisted charm while still highlighting areas of improvement. It tries many things and succeeds triumphantly at some while failing at others. As a conclusion to such a beloved series, it's easy to want more of the same but ending this franchise on an eyebrow-raising pivot is probably the most Kojima-esque move that Kojima could have pulled off next to releasing a rail shooters with Metal Gear skins.
As a game, it's one of a kind, for better or for worse. Often for the better.