REVIEW: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Sunday, October 4th, 2015

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But no game has perfect mechanics, and I had a few problems with Metal Gear Solid V. The Fox Engine doesn’t always know how to deal with terrain elevation and small obstacles. When I’m in a mad dash, sometimes I’ll run halfway up a hill or rock only to slip and fall back down. Other times, I’ll be in a full-on sprint and effortlessly climb it like Spider-Man. It’s the one issue I kept running into, especially when trying to extricate myself from an area or reach an objective in time to accomplish a goal. And it’s maddening because it’s so inconsistent

Metal Gear Solid V | Boss and Quiet

Quiet, the waifu with a wai-fle. Get it? GET IT? Hey… I tried.

Another issue I had was more on a design level than mechanical. The enemies grow smarter and adapt to your techniques as you progress. Eventually, they’re all wearing body armor and helmets, move faster while securing areas and spot you from further away. In theory this all sounds pretty good, as it keeps the challenge level consistent. The problem is that it all but renders weapon development moot. I can’t tell you how many times I was excited to get a new gun only to discover that my foes had gotten tougher, as well, killing my enthusiasm upon realizing that upgrading my arsenal didn’t really matter. A toggle function for the enemy-learning function would have been welcome. I imagine it would have been easy to simply penalize the player for turning the learning curve off in the form of diminished rewards. Eventually, I fell back on a staple of reliable weapons and just gave up on everything except the cosmetic changes because they, at least, still looked cool.

Also, the mission variety is sparse. It’s always ‘extract this prisoner’ or ‘kidnap this skilled enemy soldier’ or ‘clear this minefield.’ Every sortie is a fetch quest of some kind, and, even though the resources are moved around or the challenges tougher, the same themes served as the mission basis time and time again. This is a fundamental flaw of open-world gaming that woefully few titles are immune to, and Metal Gear Solid V is no exception. The gameplay is never boring, but the lack of unusual, quirky and narrative-advancing interludes made the activity feel downright mundane at times.  It seemed like Kojima Productions’ imagination ran dry when designing the mission types, and felt more like they were fulfilling the obligatory needs of the open-world genre than trying to distinguish the game and break away from the pack. Some more oddball missions, like the ‘Pooyan’ balloon shooting operation from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker would have helped the game feel more distinct.

Metal Gear Solid V | Inside Aerial Command Center

Another day at the office. If your office is a helicopter that drops you into dangerous landing zones.

Where Metal Gear Solid V doesn’t stride majestically, it staggers under the strain of its own troubled production. The unfolding of the story, for example, seemingly suffers from limitations enforced by the development cycle. There were so many times when I would get a cassette tape that served as a boring infodump, content that would have been more engaging as a cutscene. If this had happened a handful of times, I might have forgiven it or judged it as Kojima covering his tracks in a few instances where he forgot to add a necessary detail. But the cassette tapes are the narrative’s crutch so often that it feels like a mandate from on high rather than any conscious decision on Kojima’s part for brevity. Characters appear and off-screen decisions are explained ex post facto via cassette, an egregious storytelling sin because this is Metal Gear Solid. The series has already committed an unredeemable number of ‘show, don’t tell’ crimes, but at this late stage, when Kojima is walking away (or being forced out, as some have speculated), why make the change?

My apathy towards the story’s dramatic developments and philosophical reflections is a direct result of Metal Gear Solid V’s inability to make me buy in to anything that’s happening. And that’s because it doesn’t want to commit to a substantive narrative or presentation. It’s a shame, because this is a series that has always taken great pains to get me invested in what’s going on, from personal character developments and existential quandaries to the broad and sweeping sociopolitical ramifications of things such as cloning, information control and nuclear deterrence. There’s a plot about a virus that can destroy the world and a hideously-scarred man behind it all, but it gets lost in the shuffle of unsatisfactory storytelling, underdeveloped relationships and a lack of pathos. What is this game really about? What am I supposed to care about? I never really know because I never get invested in the conflict. For its single area of play and its abbreviated length, Ground Zeroes is more compelling in its reveals than the whole of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. And all of this after that brilliant prologue hospital sequence. Why did this go off the rails?

Metal Gear Solid V | D-Horse

A man, his horse and his poorly-told story. It’s a tragedy of epic proportions.

Grading this game is not easy. As a finished game, it fails to be compelling beyond the action, despite touching on some compelling ideas. As a part of this series, in particular, it’s a black sheep. Metal Gear Solid has come to define itself as a deeply entrenched narrative experience about the world we live in and the onset of technologies that may be outstripping our capacity to comprehend. For years, people criticized Kojima for being too bloated a storyteller, but he’s clearly been hamstrung by boundaries on which we can only speculate. And stripping him of his overindulgent penchant for exposition isn’t the solution. I can’t say for a fact that’s what happened here. It’s entirely possible that he simply chose to do things this way or that there were other reasons the story had to suffer, but I have a hard time believing he would want to end his involvement with Metal Gear Solid this way. I’ve followed the man’s career since the beginning, and this is the first game he’s worked on where he feels restricted. Given the recent schism between Kojima Productions and the parent company, Konami, it’s all too obvious what happened here without having to go into great detail.

And Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain suffers as a result. It feels hollow where it should be triumphant. The gameplay is superb, no doubt about it, but the game doesn’t have a heart because it feels so unfinished in just about every other capacity. They say you shouldn’t judge a game by what’s not there, but when the missing elements make it all seem so rushed and incomplete, even given the long development cycle of MGS V, the end result is a profound lack of fulfillment, especially for the supposed ‘closing chapter’ of one of the most noteworthy game series of all time. You can’t help but feel a little ‘phantom pain’ yourself about what was once there, but is now missing.

Review Score

Review copy purchased by author.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is available on Amazon:

About Tom Tolios

Really smart, talks too much, loves the video games and the Star Wars and the Game of Thrones, likes the manga and some anime and knows that Kentaro Miura's Berserk is the greatest thing ever made.

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