“I’m Already a Demon…”
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the way Metal Gear was always meant to be played. Moment-to-moment gameplay can be enthralling, allowing you to craft your own memorable experiences that you’ll race to tell all your friends about. It feels like the way series creator Hideo Kojima always wanted the game to be played, and many have hailed The Phantom Pain as the fully realized vision Metal Ge ar was always meant to be. Unfortunately, that ultimate vision is cut short by a truncated story, poorly told plot, and bloated missions that bog down the experience, almost unforgivably.
Make no mistake, the gameplay in MGSV is the pinnacle of stealth mechanic refinement. Each mission and enemy base you come across is handled like a puzzle, one with almost infinite solutions. The game is smart in how it approves just about any strategy you can think of, and never punishes you for mowing down enemies instead of sneaking past them.
Take, for example, the time I re-enacted both the ending to Saving Private Ryan and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Tasked with destroying a convoy of tasks, I hid by the roadside and waited for them to pass by. Sticking C4 to their sides, unnoticed, I successfully managed to destroy two of them. As the last began speeding away, I gave chase, whistling for my horse in the process. As D-Horse came along side of me, I jumped onto his back, without breaking stride, and pursued the remaining enemy on horseback with my rocket launcher.
Moments like these, of my own design, are extremely satisfying and comprise much of what makes The Phantom Pain so great. However you can think to complete an objective is most likely a viable option, and the game continues to give you fresh options as you progress, so much so that you’ll never approach the same mission twice, no matter how many times you play it.
A Micro-manager’s Dream
As far as video games go, Metal Gear Solid V fully realizes its medium in terms of letting players craft their own cinematic experiences, while retaining all the quirkiness and little details that make playing games so fun. This is heightened by the fulton extraction tool which allows you to whisk enemies, animals, vehicles, crates, and prisoners back to your Mother Base to build out your own army.
The Mother Base aspects of the game were of least interest to me, but if you’re into micromanaging and base building, this very large portion of the game is right up your alley. While you can automate your base to sort soldiers and start research development, you really have to keep an eye on the place to ensure you’re upgrading the right way so that you won’t get stuck having to grind later.
Collecting enemy soldiers and high ranking officials is addicting, and scoping out an enemy with a high rating in any one of your research categories is enough to raise your pulse as you carefully seek to extract them. In sum, it’s a bigger, more refined version of Peacewalker.
The game continues to add elements to your Mother Base building, well over twenty hours into the game. While the aforementioned base building lovers will no doubt enjoy having all of these options, I found that they were ultimately a distraction from the core game, which is so satisfying to play in its own right.
Eschewing hour long cutscenes and codec conversations in favor of letting you craft your own memorable experiences is why MGSV has, hands down, the best gameplay in the series. Codec conversations are now replaced with cassette tapes, which you can listen to at your leisure as you sneak around the open world.
And it’s a good thing, too. While the open world allows for some truly unique options, the scenery between outposts is bland and dull. Having to wait for a helicopter to drop you off and pick you up after every mission is a nuisance as well. The cassettes help fill in the down time, and it’s entirely up to you if you want to catch up on world-expanding audio logs, or chill out to the great licensed soundtrack that features some great mid-1980s new wave tunes. Combine the latter while sneaking around enemy bases and you’re the star of your own 1980s action flick.
Unfortunately, all of that great gameplay feels wasted in The Phantom Pain. There is undoubtedly diminishing returns as you progress further into the game. Each mission, especially the side ops, begin to feel exactly the same. Main missions especially fail to heighten the tension or feel significant thanks to the hands-off storytelling. Unlike other entries in the series, the game ends basically the same way it began. Yeah, you have more abilities in which to complete your missions, but there’s no story to back them up. There are a handful missions that break the mold and offer something unique, but they are few and far between.
The sum of Metal Gear Solid V’s parts amount to very little, and it’s indisputable that the game feels very bloated as a result. Missions, both main and side ops, center around three or four main types, such as target extraction, demolition, intel gathering, and more target extraction. Had more of the side ops been condensed, given a proper narrative arc, and framed within the larger story, it would have made for a more engaging experience. Instead it feels bloated and filled with meaningless content.
Chapter two especially suffers from this problem. After an exciting finale to the first chapter, it becomes apparent very quickly how much of the game was rushed. Missions in the latter half of the game mostly comprise of literally the same missions as the first, but with difficulty modifiers. Occasionally you’ll be given a task that has a unique objective, but takes place in the same areas you’ve already been to. Between these disjointed and repetitive missions, you’re drip fed the occasional cutscene that advances the larger plot.
Exacerbating the problem is the occasional barrier of having to develop a particular item to complete an objective. Depending on how much you’ve been micromanaging the entire game, it’s easy to find yourself in a situation where you then have to waste hours of time grinding side ops in order to collect more soldiers and upgrade your base.
Good Story, Terrible Execution
The story missions at the very tail end of chapter two are where things get interesting, but the disjointed way in which its told completely ruins the delivery. Some of the most important material is even relegated to post-credit cassette tapes. It makes the last forty hours you spent getting to that point feel like busy work. It’s fun and entertaining busy work, but busy work all the same.
This points to the larger problem with Metal Gear Solid V. The months leading up to the game’s release were plagued with rumors and controversies about Kojima’s departure from Konami on not-so-friendly terms. Whether or not those were the exact reasons for the game’s truncated finale is up for debate, but the reality is the game is clearly unfinished. The lazy repeating of missions in the latter half of the game, coupled with pushing some of the most important story information to audio logs (including one that actually establishes Skull Face as a villain), makes it clear we either didn’t experience the plot the way it was supposed to be envisioned, or nobody at Konami, even Kojima, knew how to deliver a story inside an open world.
Still, plot delivery aside, The Phantom Pain missteps when it comes to characterizations. Where previous entries were filled with interesting and eclectic characters, Kiefer Sutherland’s Snake is a passive, soft spoken man with no interesting entities to bounce off of. Ocelot in particular is a curious example. In Metal Gear Solid 3 and Metal Gear Solid 1, the two games that surround MGSV before and after respectively, he is a young and then old eccentric, sadistic soldier who breathes life into the world and offers a complex layer to both plots. In Metal Gear Solid V, Troy Baker plays him as a bland, soft spoken cowboy whose only role is to argue with Kaz Miller every other cutscene.
This problem extends to the villains as well. Skull Face in particular is a weak adversary who is hardly given any screen time, nor does he do anything that establishes him as an interesting villain worthy of our efforts. Gone, too, are the memorable boss fights the series is known for, and their absence is felt. There is no supporting cast of villains whose characterizations crescendo into interesting encounters. Instead, we fight the same squad of enemies every few missions, which almost always plays out in the same way.
Quiet is the exception to this rule, which is quite an accomplishment considering she’s mute. She’s intriguing, emotional, and has a vested interest in our protagonist, which makes her the most compelling character in the game.
A Flawed Gem and Making it All Worthwhile
Ultimately, The Phantom Pain is a paradox. It’s incredibly deep when it comes to gameplay mechanics, but very shallow when it comes to quest variety. Its open world structure allows for creative ways to complete objectives, but feels bland and devoid of interesting content outside of a few specific areas. Great detail is given to the little things, like making D-Horse poop on command, but almost no attention was given to making sure each mission feels like it means something that serves a greater whole.
Metal Gear Solid V brings a great discussion to the table. As technology marches on, we’re going to see larger games, with sprawling worlds and deep mechanics. In 2015 alone we’ve seen The Witcher 3, The Phantom Pain, Arkham Knight, with Fallout 4 on the horizon. The problem that developers are going to have to face is making all of that content worth your time.
For The Phantom Pain, that content is a mixed bag. It’s the equivalent of a really addicting multiplayer game. It’s fun, exciting, and you’ll glibly spew how you handled the latest adventure to anyone in the room. However, after around thirty hours, that excitement fades and is replaced with disappointment once you realize how the rest of the game is going to play out.
Whether or not you want to pick up The Phantom Pain is, as always, up to you. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the best Metal Gear game I’ve ever played, but it’s also the most disappointing. Those hoping for a grand send off to Big Boss will find the way the narrative unfolds lacking and immensely unsatisfying. It’s hard not to feel sad upon completing the final story mission, knowing full well this is likely the last we’ll see in the ways of a true Metal Gear game, and knowing how much better it could have been handled.
If you’re a fan of the series prepare to be disappointed, but if the gameplay alone is enough to intrigue, then by all means check it out. The Phantom Pain is a severely flawed gem on the crown of an excellent series, and there’s no denying that Konami and Kojima’s falling out will forever haunt the final installment. It’s been a great ride, and even though I wished Big Boss went out on a higher note, it’s better not to dwell on speculation. Enjoy it for what it is, play the game how you’d like, and fulton the Afghanistan countryside clean of all its farm animals.
Steve ran over D-Dog once by accident and he still hasn’t mentally recovered. Follow him on Twitter.