If I wanted to list everything I loved about Metal Gear Solid V’s design it would take too long. I spent dozens of hours having more fun than I ever have in a Metal Gear game before, teaching myself how to hone my tactics and maximize my effectiveness, and happily found that every time things started to feel a bit stale, something new would come along and freshen things up. The multiplayer component of “Forward Operating Bases” is a great example. Eventually Mother Base will start to get crowded, and the cost of expanding isn’t very affordable at that point, but then along comes FOBs to solve both problems at once: not only does it increase your staff limits across the board, but it allows you to dispatch more teams around the world to do income-earning missions. Invading the FOBs of other players has a clever little balancing mechanic by putting you on their “retaliation” list and along with a randomly generated “indirect retaliation” list for anyone to pick from. Customizing your FOB isn’t as in-depth as I would like, since I was hoping to place security devices in certain spots manually and become a master of trapping the greedy bastards who dare to attack me… but there’re still real choices to make, and they can pay off. Defending your own base (or the bases of your friends) is even better. I randomly added some people to my “support” list so that I could be notified when they were invaded, and I successfully stopped several invaders. It feels amazing, and this alone is a worthwhile minigame.
The only way to not enjoy Metal Gear Solid V is by playing it for the story first and foremost. Chapter 1 starts off incredibly strong thanks to the way it ties into missions and Mother Base’s development, but by the end the cracks are already showing. Not one of the new characters introduced turns out to be all that interesting, and Big Boss in particular feels like a dummy who just stands around while events unfold around him. I guess he’s supposed to be strong and silent, but he feels like a clown to me. I feel a bit foolish for assuming there would be so much more to the story, but it’s clear Kojima wanted this game to shrink the world, not expand it in interesting ways.
(Spoilers beyond this point.)
Chapter 2 is best described as an embarrassing slog. It isn’t a cohesive experience by any stretch of the imagination. It’s just a series of disjointed plot points. It feels like somebody describing an idea to you. Eli and Psycho Mantis hijack Metal Gear from the base and fly off with it? Okay, I suppose that happens. I mean, I saw it happening on the screen. But I couldn’t care less, and I didn’t feel a damn thing when it happened. And by the looks of it, neither does Big Boss or anyone else! They just stands there with their thumbs up their asses, even though they commands the greatest private army in the world. Which brings me to how much I dislike Psycho Mantis in this game. Talk about deus ex machina. My god, has there ever been such a heavy-handed excuse for things randomly happening or not happening in the series? At least people got freaked out when Vamp or Fortune did the impossible in MGS2, saying it was like a nightmare. Here, nobody even has the courtesy to discuss the matter. There’s so much damn talk about “vocal chord parasites” and “Sehalanthropus” (two terms I never need to hear again, thanks!) but in reality it’s obvious that the ONLY true superweapon in the entire game is the red-haired kid who can do ANYTHING, ALL THE TIME. The fact that Mantis isn’t the only subject out out everybody’s mouths is surreal to me. He’s literally God.
I wasn’t amused by the hamburger escapades of Miller and Code Talker. I didn’t care about child soldiers. I wasn’t troubled by the use of torture. I couldn’t take Skull Face seriously for even one minute, and yet he also didn’t work as a comical Volgin-style villain. He was just a lame plot device in the end, and I got tired of seeing him after 25 seconds, no matter when it was. I felt like Kojima wanted to finally unleash a proper sicko into the Metal Gear world, and show everybody how gross and scary and evil he could make a villain, but it backfired thanks to the corny dialogue and Saturday Morning Cartoon level of trusting his wacky goons to do his bidding. Maybe Kojima wanted to give him the kind of iconic flair that you might see in a Tarantino movie, and let players really soak in the ideology of the man, but it would have worked much better if we only saw Skull Face here and there in glimpses, and never heard him speak at all. Let somebody else explain his motives, and let the man himself mysterious and intense. I complained about how bad Skull Face was back in my Ground Zeroes review already, and I dearly hoped that The Phantom Pain would redeem his character, but it just doesn’t happen.
Selhanthropitus’ magical sword gave me the worst flashbacks to the godawful Pacific Rim movie, which Kojima obviously loves and wanted to honor. I’m sorry, the whip-sword was the worst part of that shitty movie, and it’s the worst part of any boss fight in this game, too. I actually appreciate the variety of a sword-wielding Metal Gear, and I think the concept is cool, but it doesn’t fit in a serious Metal Gear game. Save it for a spinoff.
I wasn’t moved by the noble sacrifice of Quiet, either. Anyone who wants to criticize her for being T&A is still completely justified in doing so. Her story is nothing. There’s no important social commentary behind her skimpy bikini outfit or her silence, just poorly made up science fiction designed as an excuse to make her a sex object. Don’t get me wrong, I still like her as a superpowered killer chick you can take on missions, but it has nothing to do with her secret motives. The final mission where you go to rescue/kill/whatever her is the low point of the entire game. None of it makes sense. The onslaught of armored vehicles is not fun. You aren’t even allowed to quit the mission and properly prepare for it, since you’re not given any warning that it’s going to devolve into that garbage. I had to supply drop a whole new loadout, costume, and weapons in order to finally have a chance.
Huey’s story frustrated me to no end, not because his character was badly handled or performed (Christopher Randolph knocks it out of the park), but because it exposes how shitty every character around him is written. This is the guy who betrayed MSF, allowing Skull Face to destroy Mother Base, put Big Boss into a coma, and kill however many of his soldiers. Throughout this game, he not only makes a new Metal Gear for Skull Face, but we find out that he killed Strangelove, lies constantly, tries to kill everyone in Diamond Dogs again, and when confronted simply mouths off to all of them. What does Big Boss, the most fearsome and revered soldier of the 20th century, do to such a man? He puts him on a boat with some food and watches him float away comically. If I could pick one scene to sum up how stupid all of Diamond Dogs behaves in MGSV, it would be this one. To me it’s almost as bad as Liquid Ocelot’s “fingerbang” SOP takeover bullshit in MGS4.
At this point I’m rambling, but you should see some common themes here anyway: the gameplay is incredibly rewarding and fun at its core, while the story steadily goes from “satisfactory” to “horrible”. It provides the necessary plot points to make the series come full circle, including a weird allusion to “OPERATION INTRUDE” from the very first Metal Gear, but it all feels rather hollow, despite the shiny graphics and facial capture. Speaking of which, I could feel the budget shrinking as the scenes went on, with more cassette tapes, more convenient closeups that hide action, and more characters standing around doing nothing in critical moments.
The Death of the Author
I don’t know how many more years and how many more millions of dollars Kojima would have needed to turn this game into the ultra-blockbuster-masterpiece he obviously hoped to create, but I wish he would have gotten it all. I wanted this game to be perfect. I wanted it to have four big juicy chapters, each introducing a new huge landscape, along with hundreds of unique missions. I wanted Kojima’s final MGS game to be a wet dream that defied all expectations. I wanted the final twists to hit home like a nuclear bomb and leave me pondering the genius of it for the rest of my life. Instead, I now get to watch the most incredible game designer of all time go out with a whimper, not a bang. This is not the legacy he wanted to leave behind, and this does not reflect what he’s capable of; it reflects the consequences of his hubris instead.
I love this game. I’m going to enjoy it for a long time, and put more hours into it than any other MGS game out there. I’m going to forget that it has a story. I’m going to caress it, and shush it, and cuddle with it when I go to sleep. I’m going to be gentle with it, because it’s a good doggie at heart, and its very sensitive about its missing leg and eyeball. “It’s okay,” I’ll say to it, “nobody’s perfect. And you did more than most.”
But I swear, if it tries to tell me in a serious voice…
“THERE ARE NO FACTS, ONLY INTERPRETATIONS”
…I’m not going to be able to hold back my laugh.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain bites off way more than it can chew, tries to keep it all in its mouth for as long as possible, then spits out over half of it and makes an embarrassing mess all over itself. It tries to act like this doesn’t happen, despite you watching the whole thing and probably getting some on your face because you were too close, bringing what could have been the greatest game ever down to a mere +2.8.
Clearly, what remains is pure and true enjoyment — for those who can ignore its disgrace. It would be wrong to take its shortcomings much more seriously than its accomplishments, considering that its accomplishments are meaningful innovations. The glory of its peaks are not brought very low by the thorns in its valleys, and while it can never live up to all of its promises, it lives up to enough to deserve serious respect.
It doesn’t become more than the sum of its parts, in the end. But those include some damn fine parts.