There was a moment in MGS V that cemented its brilliance. I’d messed up, gloriously so, finding myself bogged down in an Afghani camp, resisting gunfire from all sides. Unbeknownst to the enemy I’d called in a support chopper. And so, from hundreds of meters away, Spandau Ballet’s ‘True’ rings out, and to the chorus of this much maligned track, death reigned down upon the enemy soldiers. It was awesome, hilarious and gave me a sense of ownership that few games in the past have.
MGS V is a marvel of design. Plenty of games are marketed as offering choice but, when it comes down to it, it’s a cheap illusion: sure, there’s option A and B, but they often offer little more than a minor deviation from the norm. MGS V is different; it’s chock full of meaningful options in almost every mission. I spent a good thirty hours with its gameplay before feeling that I’d seen everything I needed to see, and I can’t overstate just how enjoyable those thirty hours were. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an incredible stealth game, perhaps the best ever made, but as a Metal Gear game, it’s incredibly disappointing.
I jumped aboard the Metal Gear Solid train fairly late, in 2012 to be precise. I met a guy (now a good friend) who implored me to play the series, so he lent me his copy of Metal Gear Solid for the PlayStation, and sat alongside me as I poured hours into the series. Playing old games can be a bit of a chore -nostalgia can only do so much – but I really liked Metal Gear Solid. Its story, its bosses, its balls to the wall plot twists, its fourth wall breaking moments – MGS was ahead of its time.
Many have tried to explain Metal Gear’s story in the past, perhaps with a great degree of futility, but I shan’t be joining them, not to the same extent at least. However, it’s important to touch upon The Phantom Pain’s importance to the overarching story.
Sandwiched between the original Metal Gear and its little sister, Ground Zeroes, Metal Gear Solid V was to provide the answer to one simple question: how did Big Boss become an asshole? The hero, the patriot, the world’s greatest soldier; the guy who stopped Volgin, repelled Zero and Cipher and stopped the threat of nuclear war – he becomes the bad guy in Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2. I’ve now played every Metal Gear game, and I still don’t know how or why that’s the case – that’s a problem.
The Phantom Pain’s opening hour promised much. There’s a man on fire riding a flaming unicorn, a child Psycho Mantis, a whale on fire (lots of stuff is on fire for some reason) followed by a fairly simple task: expand Mother Base, eliminate Skullface. That’s fine. In fact, it’s not too dissimilar to most Metal Gear games: stop Ocelot and FOX Hound in MGS1, kill Volgin in MGS3, prevent Liquid’s insurrection in MGS4 – nice, simple tasks. But those tasks unraveled, revealing sub-plots, grander themes and mind-blowing twists – The Phantom Pain does not.
I don’t wish to needlessly analyse and criticize MGS V beat by beat, cutscene by cutscene, so I’ll summarize it succinctly: I didn’t care about anything – not the cast, not my mission. Or rather, I wasn’t made to care. It seems strange to say about a Metal Gear game, but I wasn’t given enough of a reason to invest emotionally… in anybody or anything.
Metal Gear Solid V refuses to do much with its main character. As aforementioned, MGS V was supposed to detail Big Boss’ descent into evil. Although the end game’s plot twist explains some of the later events of the original Metal Gear, we’re still without a reasonable explanation to that key question. I know how Walter White became Heisenberg, and I know how Anakin became Darth Vader (regardless of its poor execution), but heck, The Phantom Pain lacks any execution at all.
And Skullface? Well, he’s certainly no Volgin, with flimsy motivations and a lack of a strong personality. Even Ocelot, one of the series’ best characters, is nothing more than a vehicle for tutorials and meaningless exposition. Ancillary characters like Eli and Psycho Mantis and the Man on Fire… I mean, why were they even there? Their presence seemingly adds, well, nothing.
Building Mother Base, too, felt equally as fruitless. Buildings grew taller, stats became higher, and the people were plentier, but that was born out of a need to progress and grow stronger, rather than a desire to actively build Mother Base for any personal or emotional reasons – I did simply as I was told.
There’s a lot of talk about what Metal Gear might become post-Kojima, what the game might feel like. Well, it feels like we’re halfway there already. Metal Gear Solid V doesn’t feel like Metal Gear. What does that mean exactly? To me, Metal Gear is Sniper Wolf’s death; it’s walking up the ladder in Snaker Eater; it’s crawling through the radioactive microwave in MGS4, or the final fight with Liquid Ocelot, or all of MGS 2’s big plot twists – it’s all of these things and more. MGS V lacks a Metal Gear Moment. Yes it plays brilliantly and yes, its open world offers up a literally unbelievable amount of options, but it doesn’t feel like Metal Gear.
We still talk about Metal Gear Solid so many years on (and so too its successors). Their graphics may have aged, their gameplay might not feel as good as it once did, but they’re littered with moments that transcend console generations. We’ll still be talking about these games in the future, too.
Metal Gear Solid V? Well, it hasn’t earned that same right.