Fellow Metal Gear fans, the following article is for you. It is for the fans of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and it is also for those who felt deep dissatisfaction with the game. It is intended as a provocation of thought and discussion, which I believe have been sorely lacking in the community. Before I begin I should reveal my own bias so that it is out on the table. Metal Gear Solid is my favorite game series of all time. It has had a deep and lasting impact on who I am as a person as I have grown up playing the series. I played my first MGS in 1998 (I was 10) with Metal Gear Solid and have loved each entry thereafter, with one exception. Metal Gear Solid V was a heartbreaking experience that left me with a strange mix of anger and disappointment. The following article will explain my feelings and reasoning for those emotions as well as my own eventual "phantom pain" caused by the dissatisfying ending. From the initial reveal, to my completion of the game, journey with me and see this divisive landmark through my eyes. (SKIP AHEAD FOR MY MGSV:TPP CRITIQUE...LOOK FOR THE HEADING)
A New Project Revealed: Birth of MGS5?!
In April of 2010 Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker was released to critical acclaim and a warm reception from fans. The first "canonical" release of an MGS on a handheld was something to behold and although I deeply enjoyed Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops, I wanted to see what a game directed by series creator Hideo Kojima would be like. Needless to say, I was deeply pleased. A story which followed Big Boss as he continued to struggle with the result of his mission to kill The Boss, while trying to form his own vision of the world intrigued me. The emotional story beats kept me hooked and while some of the stealth elements didn't handle as well on the PSP, the later HD editions on console rectified the problems. It became, from a story and character development perspective, one of my favorites in the series.
You can Imagine my elation when in November of the same year, "Project OGRE" was revealed by Hideo Kojima and Kojima Productions. From the early screens I just knew it had to Metal Gear!
The above screen showed me all I needed to see. Just look at that stance, that ponytail, it couldn't possibly be anyone other than Snake and judging by the gear Big Boss himself. My mind began to swirl with the possibilities. Where would Kojima's next adventure take us? What would we see? Could this be the game that bridges the gap from Peace Walker to the original Metal Gear on MSX? I didn't care, all I knew was Snake was back!!
A Stunning Reveal: Ground Zeroes
In September of 2012, after many months of silence regarding Project OGRE, Kojima revealed Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. Naturally the fanbase poured over this initial trailer, hunting for any clue as to what this next stunning entry could hold for us. It was also revealed that Project OGRE was in fact MGSV and that Kojima would share more with us in the future. For the time being, all we were given was this trailer and the knowledge that Kojima developed his own engine, the FOX engine, to create the best stealth experience ever devised.
At first blush, I was floored. The game looked gorgeous and there was plenty of mystery to keep the theories churning in my mind for months. Who were XOF? Who was that deformed man? Could it be a returning Volgin? Perhaps Hot Coldman from Peace Walker back for revenge? I could only guess and I was itching to know more. Gameplay notwithstanding, the story tantalized me from day one. This, added with the updated gameplay had me counting down impatiently to some unknown release date.
What Is Going On?: A Hideo Kojima Mind Game
Just months after the initial Ground Zeroes reveal, a trailer for a mysterious new IP from a little-known developer called Moby Dick Studios was released at the 2012 VGAs. After only a few hours the fanbase did some sleuthing and decided this was in fact another trailer for the aforementioned Metal Gear Solid V. Not long after that, Kojima revealed that Moby Dick was a ruse to confuse fans, which didn't work. It did however, further fuel my inner fanboy. Was that Volgin's ghost? It HAD to be. How had Big Boss come to lose an arm? Why was he being hunted? Was Zero behind it all? Where does that disfigured man from the earlier reveal figure in? I played the trailer on a loop to start and end my days for a little while after that. The hype train had officially left the station. Whether or not David Hayter was Snake....but I was still mad at first.
Not Your Kind Of People: Bring On The Theories
Not three months since the release of the Phantom Pain trailer, the first truly epic Kojima trailer for MGSV surfaced. Featuring Garbage's "Not Your Kind Of People." there were many hidden clues as to the nature of MGSV. This is when I discovered the many youtube'ers talking about the game.
Big Boss was pictured next to Kaz, "what about him?" was Kaz's response looking directly at the camera. It was a rather unfortunate portent into the future. Kojima explained it away as "his perspective" to misdirect more inquisitive fans who in reality were very close to exposing the key plot point well before its intended time. At the time, I wasn't giving any credence to theories involving a body double. We'd surely get to play as Big Boss himself. No one hospitalizes the man without regretting it deeply later. I was absolutely enamored with the music and the editing choices were top notch. I expected no less. Despite my misgivings about the replacement of David Hayter, I got over them relatively quickly. I wanted more! This could be the best game in the history of gaming if it all fell together well.
The Phantom Pain: A First Glimpse
It wouldn't be long before I got another fix of MGS trailer magic. In nine uninterrupted minutes of glory, the world got to see what we would presumably get with the finished product. A story of the deeply wronged Big Boss and his long time right hand Kazuhira Miller exacting revenge on those who slighted them. This would presumably be Cipher, or Zero, Big Boss' former commander and the still mysterious XOF unit. Gameplay looked even more stellar than it had in the previous glimpses and the concept of free infiltration had me salivating. Would we see roaming bands of soldiers clashing in this open space? Would there be Villages? Markets? More open world elements? It certainly seemed so. I imagined what a game combining all the best features of its predecessors would look like. It certainly looked like this.
A plot rife with revenge, a darker, far more pessimistic story is what I expected after this. The red band e3 2013 trailer solidified how truly dark things would be. Would this be where we see Big Boss truly slip into his role as villain of the MSX games? Would it be revealed that he is still just a pawn? Would we see him earn the name "Saladin" and perform his famous acts of saving the likes of Frank Jaeger, Naomi Hunter and Sniper Wolf? How would he have been effected by everything that's happened? I couldn't wait to learn more! Sadly, my next real taste wouldn't come until the next year.
The Time Had Come...Sort of: MGSV GZ releases
When I say that I played the ever loving crap out of this "demo-game" I cannot state how many hours I put into five missions without feeling unabashedly fanboyish. Okay, okay. It was without hyperbole over 100 hours. I ran through each mission at least once daily from the March 17th 2014 release right up until The Phantom Pain's release on September 1st 2015.
The gameplay was every bit as awesome and smooth as I was expecting. It felt like Kojima Productions had learned from everything in the series prior. My misgivings were there however. The glaringly absent Codec system was a series staple I knew I'd miss. While tapes were a way to keep the player in motion, to me nothing beat the exposition the codec afforded. Also absent were Metal Gear Solid 3's awesome Camo Index, Wound Curing system and of course, no more rations. Yes, we'd be getting regenerating health. I had hoped that this would not be indicative of the full game as it would remove some tension from the gameplay and would also completely eliminate the need for any discernible "survival tactic" such as field medicine or needing to eat. Despite all that, I could not wait for more. I knew how Big Boss and Kaz ended up in the hospital, Paz was dead and if Chico survived, would he be on the warpath to avenge her and his brothers in MSF?
Going Nuclear: The Plot Thickens
As I felt the release date growing more and more imminent (I was wrong) I joined several fan pages to vent my all consuming levels of hype. I made several friends via these groups and we waxed poetic about what everything we'd seen so far could mean. It wasn't until the "Nuclear" trailer that I'd actively discussed my hopes with anyone. It was very clear to me, we'd see some really incredible moments. As Big Boss walked past the charred bodies of villagers I wondered, could this be a village he aided? He must have been helping this village as Cipher struck. Maliciously burning down everything, pushing Big Boss to a truly dark and foreboding place.
It was also here that my acceptance of Kiefer Sutherland as Big Boss really took hold. I was confident that his performance would be nothing short of amazing and that he'd provide some amazing and touching dialogue. "I won't scatter your sorrow to the heartless sea, I will always be with you." Wow, Big Boss what in the hell have you been through, what have you done? How will you take your revenge? The music was so fitting for what was shown. A man slipping from grace, willing to do absolutely anything for his "nation of soldiers." But what would "anything" entail. He'd killed the Boss, what more would he be subjected to?
Gameplay on Display: Problems and Promise
The many months from the "Nuclear" trailer and the following year's E3 were littered with gameplay demos. No more story bites were to be given in 2014, but plenty of gameplay information would be on display. This is where I had a few more misgivings about the gameplay. Regenerating health was definitely in the main game. The lack of tension caused by needing to ration health items would no longer be there. As sad as I was by this prospect I had hope that it would work out for the better. The apparent loss of the codec along with this had me seeing that a good bit of the old order was being dismantled, much to my chagrin. Was Kojima appealing to a broader audience at the cost of difficulty? It seemed that way. Not to mention with the inclusion of "Buddies" the concept of lone survival, which was a main tenant of the series, was all but non-existent.
All that aside, I anticipated that gameplay would be thick with enemies and opportunities to use these buddies without hollowing out the experience would be there. I was hoping for chances to use them in combat and as aides in sneaking into what were SURE to be absolutely huge complexes spread across an active gameplay landscape. I had faith that I would not be steered wrong by Kojima and Konami.
Problems Arise: Kojima Leaves Konami
As a fan of Kojima's work, I vilified and groused Konami after hearing that Kojima was under some sort of duress. He promised to finish The Phantom Pain, but my question was, at what cost? Had Konami wrested control of the game from Kojima? How would the game be effected? Would this truly be the last and final MGS game? Signs were everywhere, but I'll discuss this later on...
Language: The Final Trailer releases
Just two months and change from release, Metal Gear Solid V got its final trailer and it was surely a doozy for the fans. Skull Face had finally been given some context as a man who'd lost everything much in the same way as Big Boss had, though he was harboring animosity toward Big Boss. How had it come to this? Was Cipher pulling his strings, did Zero set Skull Face upon Big Boss? In either case, Zero would apparently appear to explain at some point.
Whatever the case, something seriously wrong happened to Big Boss and his men. What had Zero commanded Skull Face to do? What depths has he sunken to? Would this be the catalyst for Big Boss' descent into villainy? So many questions, so few answers. No matter, the game would be out. Soon I'd be earning my stripes as "Saladin."
The Day Had Arrived: The Release of TPP (FULL REVIEW)
As I unwrapped the cellophane from my collector's edition of MGSV, I imagined what I'd be getting into. A final adventure, to tie it all together once and for all. Guns of The Patriots with the kinks worked out! The best game in the series, the one to dethrone Snake Eater! Except, no, none of that would turn out to be true. None of my hopes, none of the promise of the last few years would come to be. This was truly the end of the series' long held excellence.
Gameplay - 6.5/10
While the core gunplay mechanics were smooth and the stealth was initially incredibly addicting, I began to realize I was in for a very "rinse and repeat" affair. Early on, the game encourages careful planning on approaches and deep thought into which soldiers I would deftly poach from the sands of Afghanistan or the jungles and plains of Africa. This, however would give way to an eventual observation. Haven't I done this before? The answer was yes. After my second or third incursion into the game's various "mission areas" I began to feel a sense of sameness. Move in, fulton soldiers, kill or sneak past the undesirables....rinse, repeat. Speaking of "moving in" this is one of my bigger bones of contention. Where was the life in between these "bases"? Weren't the Russians and Mujaheddin battling head to head at this point? Where are the battles between the two groups? How about the forces in Africa, would no one oppose them? I thought back to MGS4, when you could either interject in battles between locals and PMCs or skip them. I was hoping for that. To chose my own path. Would I become "Saladin"? would I work toward further bolstering government control? Would I go my own way? None of these options was ever present. In a gaming landscape that nearly always allow for these sorts of choices in open worlds, I was wondering where these were in TPP. Instead there were wide open vistas.....lifeless, soulless vistas.
Speaking of these empty spaces, how come surviving out in the exposed landscape was never given focus? While other games released at the same time featured some sort of survival mechanic (needing to drink water in Mad Max, for example) TPP was devoid of this VERY cool mechanic, while at least two of its predecessors featured it. In previous entries, lack of food or rest effected Snake's ability to fight causing him to lose health more rapidly or see a drop in accuracy while fighting, just as examples. Did Kojima Productions completely throw away all lessons learned throughout the series extensive lineage? It seemed so. Survival would be key in environments like Afghanistan and Africa, at least I'd hoped. My hopes, needless to say were harshly dashed as absolutely no survival mechanics were implemented and anything resembling the "Survival viewer" was all but a dream.
Add to this the buddy system, which makes the lone sneaking the series was long known for a joke and you have my utter disappointment. Why take a risk slowly crawling up to the wall of a complex when I could simply order Quiet or D-Dog to attack or subdue my target? Many would then say, play without a buddy! Alright, I hear you. But this exposes how dumb the AI can be when not in a combat phase. As long as I was even slightly cautious, sneaking was no great challenge. In direct combat the AI was cool, calling flanking manuevers or suppressing, but even then, with enough brute force they fell easily. A disappointing challenge. The only bright spot was OKB-Zero, which I did found to be a bracing, if brief lesson on what the game's challenges should have been.
To address challenges, where exactly were the series famed boss units. Where was our Foxhound/Dead Cell/Cobra Unit/Snakehound equivalent? I was under the impression we'd get some really colorful characters and nothing in the many trailers suggested we wouldn't get them. After all, every other game featured them and with this open world, imagine the possibilities! Instead we get the bullet sponge "Skulls", a fight with Quiet that was channeling "the end" with less heart and a Metal Gear fight that boiled down to "hurl explosives" when facing Sahelanthropous.
In summation of the Gameplay portion, I'll say this. It was very well designed from a control perspective. Gunplay and Stealth in the series played very well, but it all felt heartless. Gone were harrowing segments of challenge, seemingly in favor of appealing to a wider audience. A beautiful, yet entirely heartless attempt to revolutionize a system of series staples that "wider audiences" could not accept from earlier iterations.
Narrative - 5/10
Trying to come to terms with the fact that the narrative in MGSV was as thin as Ice in the springtime really frustrated me. I had such high hopes for this game's story, especially given the caliber of games that had come before it. Not that MGS4 was perfect, it was noy, but it tied up Solid Snake's saga. Every trailer leading up to TPP's release showed the promise of a story that would refine and surpass that formula. Upon release however, that promise was quickly broken. While the first hour or so was engaging and promising, the story devolved quickly into sitting in the chopper for HOURS sifting through cassette tapes. Although some were interesting, most could have and rightly should have been cutscenes. I imagine this was done to try to combat Guns Of The Patriot's biggest criticism, cutscene length. Frankly, I found it insulting. If this were the series Magnum Opus, why was it being so undercut?
I cannot explain how painful it was listening to each yellow-highlighted tape hoping for a story tidbit, only to be greeted with more inane droning about the game's parasites which Skull Face sought to control. I got it the second time i heard it, but I had to keep hearing about it for MANY more tapes. As to Skull face, we found out he'd cleaned up Big Boss' messes over the years. Wouldn't that make him an uber badass? He worked for FOX in the shadows, wouldn't that mean he has some prowess in combat. If you guessed yes, you'd be dead wrong. His death is the epitome of an anticlimax, meeting death while pinned under a support beam at the hands of Huey. I sat slack jawed as chapter one ended with that death and absolutely no fight. I understood his motivations, a country (the US) and a language (english) that annihilated everything he held dear, he wanted to step out from Big Boss' shadow and show the world what power was, under the guise of unifying mankind. This warped, powerful mind was felled by an accident and a psychopathic nerd.
Oh Chapter 2 HAD to be better....
Except, it wasn't. It was a rinse-repeat section for the entire game you'd already played, minus the occasional unlock of a new mission, every few replays. You would eventually take down the man on fire, a Boss fight so dry and simple I could hardly believe it. This was the corporeal form of Volgin's otherworldly rage incarnate controlled by the best telepath known to man and he was a pushover. How did you learn he was volgin? A tape. Yup. A cassette tape that explains, the plane crash you heard about on the news while coming out of your coma was the catalyst for Psycho Mantis' power.
The coolest moment of the story (and one of its only high points) was the outbreak on Motherbase. It's the only time I felt any real sympathy for any of the characters, a thing that felt commonplace in the prior games. As I walked the corridors of the quarantined area shooting some of my best men, a sense of regret was palpable.
As I wrapped that up, the game began to reach its climax. A cutscene triggered and Liquid had gotten away with Sahelantropous. I was expecting to mount up and go after him. That mission was not included in the game. Mission 51 "Kingdom of the Flies" was on a special disc included in its unfinished state on a "making of" disc in my collector's edition. Soon after that I unlocked the "Truth" mission.