Metal Gear Solid V on PS4
To me, ‘The Man Who Sold The World’ is a song about schizophrenia, not knowing who you were in the past, not knowing where you’re headed next. It’s a song about a journey, whether literal or metaphorical, with no clear indication of when or how it’s going to end. So perhaps it’s fitting that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain should begin and end with Midge Ure’s superb cover of David Bowie’s fantastic song.
In Metal Gear Solid V, you reprise your role as Big Boss, or Punished “Venom” Snake as he’s known here, and you begin your quest for revenge on those who destroyed your private army nine years ago. Familiar faces make a reappearance in the game; Kaz is back, though he’s missing a couple of limbs and feeling very angry about it; and Ocelot returns as a milder, though still rather psychopathic, version of himself.
Right off the bat, it’s obvious that Metal Gear Solid V isn’t going to be anything like its predecessors. It’s supposed to give us the reason for Big Boss’s transformation from the legendary soldier to an evil villain, after all. If all the promotional trailers and coverage were any indication, this was also set to be a game that dealt heavily with issues like torture during wartime, and the existence of child soldiers. Even from a gameplay perspective, MGSV was all set to subvert fans’ expectations by placing the game in an open world environment.
For what it’s worth, the open world aspect works very well for the game. Big Boss can open his iDroid and select a mission from a long list of side ops, choose a deployment point from which to begin his infiltration, and then choose which weapons would be best suited for the operation. ‘Open world’ here doesn’t mean increased exploration; it means giving players near unlimited freedom to choose how they want to tackle a mission. Approaching an enemy base from different locations would mean having to deal with different patrol routes, searchlights, and even different enemy weapon loadouts.
As a fan of the series, I’ve always loved executing headshots with a tranquilizer pistol – a boring way to play, I know – but what really floored me was the enemy AI’s ability to adapt to my tactics. Word of Big Boss’s skills gets around, and if the enemy starts noticing that you love tranquilizer headshots, they’re going to start wearing helmets for better protection. When I realized this, I started experimenting with smoke grenades instead. After all, who doesn’t love showing off a little CQC badassery while your enemies are blinded? But then they adapted to that as well by wearing gas masks. The AI isn’t completely flawless; they’ll still fail to notice you even as you crouch next to them during the nighttime, but having the enemies adapt to your tactics is an ingenious way of forcing players to change it up every now and then.
Save for Metal Gear Solid 4, the series has always been known for its memorable boss fights, and MGSV performs rather decently in this area as well. You’ll have no shortage of tense sniper duels, and epic encounters with oversized robots (the Sahelanthropus takes the prize for most badass Metal Gear in the series; I’d go so far as to say it even trumps Rex).
Occasionally, you’ll also encounter the SKULLS Parasite Unit. Oh god, the SKULLS. If there’s one thing MGSV should be praised for, it’s the game’s ability to seamlessly transform from a stealth action game into a scary horror game. The SKULLS are, by far, director Hideo Kojima’s most frightening creation ever, and every time the words “Guest Starring: SKULLS Parasite Unit” shows up during a main mission’s opening credits, I have to stop and collect myself for a bit. The SKULLS possess superhuman speed, superhuman strength, superhuman senses, and they have scary eyes. Oh, and they also have the ability to turn soldiers into creepy zombified versions of themselves.
The SKULLS are utterly terrifying, but the elation that comes with successfully sneaking around them or defeating them makes up some of the game’s high points. They’re still nightmare fuel, though.
When you aren’t busy running from the SKULLS or infiltrating enemy bases, you’ll be working on the expansion of Mother Base. Here’s where the trademark goofiness of Metal Gear Solid really comes through. To expand your base and its staff, you have to recruit soldiers. To do that, you knock out enemy soldiers, attach a balloon to them, and they’ll be transported back to Mother Base, where they undergo some sort of creepy brainwashing process that will soon convince them to work for you.
Building up Mother Base isn’t entirely mandatory for progressing with the story, but the rewards you can reap from it are pretty sweet. A stronger R&D Unit means you’ll be able to develop new weapons, new gear, new outfits, and new equipment for your buddies. Oh, did I forget to mention buddies? You have a choice of a horse, a dog, a robot, and a killer sniper to bring into the field with you. Buddies are equipped with their own special set of skills to suit your play style. There isn’t a whole lot to do back on Mother Base, but it can be nice to head back every once in a while to admire the fruits of your labor.
Oh, and you can color your base hot pink too. So there’s that.
But when you play a Metal Gear Solid game, the story is what you’ll really pay attention to. Unfortunately, I’m sorry to report that the story and its characters in MGSV don’t exactly live up to the standards we’ve all come to expect from an MGS game. Skull Face, for instance, looked primed to be a charismatic and enigmatic antagonist in this entry, but he ends up feeling a lot like a cheesy James Bond villain with an ending that feels undeserved. Skull Face gets too little screen time as it is, and he’s also responsible for delivering what will undoubtedly be regarded as the joke line of this entry (“Such a lust for revenge! WHOOOOOO?!”).
Other characters, including the annoying little shit Eli, feel like missed opportunities for MGSV as well. Story threads are left loose and dangling, and certain character motivations are never fully explained. Aside from the intriguing way Kojima twists language itself into a weapon to be used against nations, other themes and issues like the aforementioned child soldiers and effects of nuclear proliferation are never properly addressed, and the game never seems to have anything new to say about the subject matter.
This comes as quite a bit of a disappointment, considering that past games have always managed to take difficult concepts like memes (no, not internet memes) and the future of the war economy, and provided a unique spin on them. Metal Gear Solid 2, for example, ended up being a game way ahead of its time because of the way it tackled internet censorship and information control. You’ll find no such social commentary in MGSV.
Ironically, the only character I ever felt attached to was the scantily clad sniper, Quiet. Yes, there is a plot reason for the way she dresses, and no, it’s not a good reason at all. In fact, it’s such an overwhelmingly silly reason I almost wish they hadn’t bothered trying at all. But in spite of her appearance, Quiet ends up being the game’s most compelling character, and she’s pretty much the only character with a proper story thread, with a few bumps along the way. Quiet is pivotal to the game’s story, and she’s surrounded with such an air of mystery it’s hard not to feel intrigued by her actions and her absence of words.
So MGSV takes itself really seriously, but this isn’t an entirely bad thing as it lends itself well to orchestrating some of the series’ most memorable and dramatic moments. One particular late-game mission, for instance, stands out to me as one of the most well-done and emotional sequences I’ve ever seen in this series. And this series has a LOT of emotional sequences. Remember the microwave corridor and the return to Shadow Moses back in MGS4? Good times.
Loose story threads and illogical character motivations aside, the biggest crime doesn’t come up until the game’s true ending. For what will reportedly be Kojima’s final Metal Gear game, I can’t help but feel like the ending doesn’t fit quite well as a sendoff to this 28 year-old saga. Without spoiling any key details, the final plot twist comes out of nowhere, with little to no indication of when this revelation took place or when the player was meant to come to this realization.
Don’t get me wrong; the twist is something you’d be able to see coming if you’ve been paying attention to the game’s nuances, and the idea behind the twist isn’t half-bad. The real problem here is the way the twist was executed, and how the game ultimately fails to tie up its other loose ends after that. Preceding the true ending is a chapter that takes the story to an emotionally high crescendo, and then the plot twist comes into play, and then the game ends.
Metal Gear Solid V gets a lot of things right; the gameplay is near flawless, there are barely any glitches despite it being set in an open world environment, the character models look shockingly gorgeous, and the game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second. It’s a technical marvel, and is undoubtedly one of the best stealth action games ever made. Seeing a series evolve so beautifully in terms of its gameplay and mechanics is something I’m proud of as a fan.
But how does it stack up as a Metal Gear Solid game? As the final entry in the series, can its ending and its out-of-left-field plot twist really be accepted as the ultimate farewell to this long-running story? Not unlike the man who sold the world, MGSV feels like it’s lost its way a little, resulting in an ending that feels strangely unsatisfying. As tempted as I am to praise the game for its crazy plot twists and overdramatic moments, it’s hard to do so, knowing that this insanely wild ride ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.
Knowing that this remarkable series has left its fans behind in a less-than-satisfactory fashion – perhaps that’s the greatest phantom pain of all.