Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is Hideo Kojima’s greatest failure.
“Greatest”, in this case, means more than “biggest”. The game is great — hell, it is the greatest attempt he’s ever put forward — but that attempt simply wasn’t fulfilled, for reasons that really don’t matter. It’s an unfinished trainwreck that can’t hide its shortcomings gracefully, which means it’s the greatest shame of his career, too. A legendary screw up.
We’ve seen Kojima sabotage his own games before, subverting player expectations for various artistic reasons; but that’s not the case here. Whatever ambitious, twisted, cunning plans were laid for MGSV, we’ll never experience them properly, and that’s the really painful part. This game doesn’t betray you with an ingenious kick in the balls that makes you question your thinking in some type of postmodern life lesson, it just starts to let you down repeatedly until you’re cringing at everything by the end. For most players, this disappointment will only be experienced months after release, if at all, long after they’ve become satisfied with their purchase; but for hardcore fans of the series who mostly care about the story it’s sinking in already, just shy of two weeks after release. People are already harassing Kojima on social media, making bitter jokes about “The Phantom Chapters” and all the content cut from the game like precious limbs. MGSV will go down as a game defined by what’s missing as much as by what’s there.
Like anyone who’s a fan of this site, I was ready to go to extreme lengths to interpret this game’s weirdness as a meta-commentary. The pre-prologue-prologue, Ground Zeroes, included eerie warnings of Kojima’s problems within KONAMI, while the whole marketing stunt involving “Moby Dick Studios” and the lie about “Joakim Mogren” only ramped up expectations of some huge metanarrative twist that would leave us marveling at the layers of storytelling going on. Just look at how the fact that “The Phantom Pain” was originally shown off with the words “Metal Gear Solid V” literally cut out of the text. What’s that, Kojima? You’re saying that Metal Gear Solid V was essentially cut from The Phantom Pain, and that it’s missing the soul that would make it truly deserving of the title? Even in defeat, you’re a genius! This is the kind of thing I’d love to say. But there’s nothing clever about the way MGSV falls apart.
If you’re not up to speed with how the game unfolds and need details, I hardly know where to start. This game drops the ball so many times it’s like a kid with Parkinson’s in gym class. For the sake of avoiding spoilers and dragging out the matter here, let’s save specifics for some other time. (There will be some spoiler-adjacent comments.) What I really feel is the need to ask a simple question: does Metal Gear Solid V still manage to become greater than the sum of its parts, even with so many parts missing?
The first fifty hours of the game, I was enthralled. Anything I could complain about was offset by something I could praise even more. The prologue wasn’t “fun” and failed to teach even 10% of the controls newbies should learn, but it was gorgeous and well-written enough that it still worked as a premise. I won’t get into the avatar customization part, but suffice it to say I was hooked by what it implied. Meanwhile, the opening montage and your first mission — rescuing your old partner Miller in Afghanistan — is a seriously juicy appetizer. Freedom is a glorious thing.
I could complain about the fact that I didn’t feel the slightest bit of hostility, angst, or vengeance as I played, but I was having fun. Chapter 1 may be titled “REVENGE”, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what I’m doing at all. The characters talk as if the ghosts of the past are tormenting them every step of the way, but where are those ghosts? I couldn’t help feeling grateful for my hand being chopped off: I got a free robot arm, and it kicks ass. I wish they cut my legs off too, because I’d probably be able to jump 20 feet in the air if they had. So here’s an idea: if Kojima wanted me to feel the “phantom pain” as a player, he should have forced me to play with only one hand until I found/stole/created a replacement, limiting my weapons to pistols and taking away the ability to grab enemies or drive vehicles. My first replacement arm could be a basic prosthetic hook thing, which unlocks a couple of new basic abilities, while future versions steadily increase functionality; eventually, it gets even better than my real hand was. That would build up a sense of accomplishment and motivation against those who robbed me of my gifts as a soldier. “You took away something from me, but I’m going to come back stronger and use my loss as a weapon to defeat you.” That would drive home the theme much better.
And if he wanted me to feel as if Big Boss is haunted by phantoms, he should have done this literally as well. Make ghostly apparitions and sorrowful voices show up as you’re doing missions randomly, whispering sad things and causing players to become paranoid about what’s real or not. He could have created a game mechanic where you cleanse yourself from the ghosts of the past by avenging their deaths in increasingly epic ways. At first you just need to kill soviets and build up Mother Base, but in the end you’re demolishing entire fleets of battle tanks and dropping tactical nukes on Skullface’s secret headquarters just to satisfy the vengeful spirits that linger around Mother Base. Now THAT would be badass. If you spend too much time goofing off and picking flowers in the desert, the voices will demand vengeance and ask you whether you’re truly the Big Boss they gave their lives for. Ignore the voices, and they’ll start to visibly appear around the landscape. Ignore those too, and they’ll start making noises that attract guards toward you, screwing you over in different ways and drawing you into conflict. Not only would this freak players out, it would prevent them from forgetting the reason Big Boss came back from the dead once again. Hell wasn’t ready him yet. He still had some revenge to get first. Now we’re talking. That would go down in videogame history.
Instead, I just ran around enjoying the espionage. Weeeeee! It really is a blast.
Metal Gear Solid V takes the player’s time seriously, and there were shockingly few times when I got frustrated with how long something took. This was pretty much my biggest concern going into it. There are countless ways that a game can be “big” and “open world” by simply making the player feel small, or wasting their time. For this reason the “episode” structure is a great invention. It worked well in Peace Walker but is way better here thanks to the open world. It keeps you focused, measures your skill, and gives you something crystal clear to obsess about while you’re in the middle of a huge environment. Adding a strong structure to the open world was absolutely the right move by Kojima, and he deserves a lot of credit for coming up with it. The ability to go back and replay old missions to with new equipment or strategies is also great.
I could complain about how long it takes to get in and out of missions (the helicopter transport is more than tedious if you use it rapidly) but there’s a whole psychological aspect to time management that I respect about The Phantom Pain. In fact, it’s one of the strongest aspects of the design. In a videogame, time is the main currency that gets traded. Players are constantly investing their time into the game, and the game converts that time into different things — story experiences, gameplay fun, etc. If we say that a game is “hard”, what we usually mean is that it punishes your time if you fail. (You have to restart from a far earlier point.) If you’re really “good at” a game, it usually means you know how to save time by doing things efficiently. In a roleplaying game where dying means permanently losing a character, it feels like the stakes are enormous because you’ll lose hundreds of hours you’ve “invested”. Metal Gear Solid V is a true gentleman when it comes to time, because it knows how to reward your time investments without allowing you to get careless and sloppy. As your base develops, you’ll be multitasking several things at all times. Research & Development will cook up something for you when you get home, while your trusty merc hos will go out into the world and bring back money for their cycloptic, cyborg pimp daddy on a regular basis. It’s a fine operation, and as you watch your base grow you’ll get a real sense of achievement for the time you’ve invested. But your actual missions revolve around time in interesting ways too:
Speed is greed. The faster you complete a mission, the better your score bonus will be, which means the more money you’ll get. Skilled volunteers will want to join your ranks, too, meaning that you don’t even have to capture soldiers from the battlefield to improve your operation. So why not rush through everything?
Stealth is wealth. You get big money bonuses for not killing anyone, not getting spotted, and not triggering a “Reflex Mode”. Take zero risks and your patience will be rewarded! So why not crawl around slowly everywhere and wait hours?
Things change. Unlike previous Metal Gear games, there are special windows of opportunity to do certain things in MGSV missions, many times. The time of day changes, which can cause a shift change (for better or worse,) while important targets might escape, transfer to a higher security zone, or do something else to complicate your plans. If you take too long getting to your objective, you might regret it.
The extra mile is worth it. Almost every mission has extra objectives that aren’t necessary, but give you cool things in return. Specialists who can develop new technology, blueprints, and other good stuff is waiting for you. Taking care of these objectives is a great idea, but they force you to take risks that might backfire. And when things backfire…
Beware the swarm. Drawing a guard’s attention can often be a good thing, but actually getting spotted is a huge pain in the ass. Unlike previous games, guards take a very long time to settle down after an alarm has been raised, meaning they’ll patrol faster, look around more, report things quicker, and generally increase the pressure to the breaking point. Waiting for the guards to calm down is guaranteed to ruin your time bonus, but trying to accomplish your mission while everything’s on alert multiplies the risk of further alarms, kills, deaths, and frustrations. You might just be tempted to restart…
Starting over is a pain. This is where the helicopter ride comes into play. Simply restarting from a checkpoint doesn’t take long, but it ruins one of the score bonuses you could’ve gotten, so you might want to use it sparingly. However, fully restarting a mission is a clean slate. If there was no “time cost” for doing so, people would abuse it constantly in order to create perfect runs.
I love thinking about how I can do missions differently. I love planning things and trying out new stuff. I love the attention to detail, listening to guards complain about the tactics I’ve been using against them, and messing around on side missions.