What do we have when all that remains is the pain of loss? Metal Gear Solid V explores the depths of rage and sadness that people will sink to in order to try to fill the gaping hole of absence in their lives. Every character is broken and left seething for revenge, but not even revenge can satisfy the void that has been forced on them. The cycle perpetuates itself and the phantom pain never stops. Metal Gear Solid as a series speaks to that unending series of cause and effect and V exists as the chain that ties three decades of games together into a single whole.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain represents a new standard in stealth-action gameplay. Taking place in a relatively open world, players often have dozens of options when it comes to which route they’d like to take to infiltrate an enemy stronghold. Even better, players can choose how to develop their arsenals by using the resources they procure while on missions. These choices hold profound impact when it comes to how players want to tackle their time in The Phantom Pain. Do you invest in ever more deadly weaponry? Or do you trick out your non-lethal options? Maybe you eschew both of those options and focus on upgrading the gear for your support buddies. Every time you go into the field, you can choose to take a buddy with you. These range from a horse to a ridable death-robot. Depending on what they have equipped they provide different tactical options that can come in incredibly useful.
All of that probably sounds like a really big departure for the series, and it is, but while introducing so many new elements the core gameplay of sneaking remains intact and familiar. Across the board, the gameplay has been improved to such an extent that I am shocked at how close I am to calling it perfect. Perhaps the biggest contributor to this is the new Reflex Mode which slows down time when you are noticed in order to give you a chance to take out the person who saw you before they can raise the alarm. This alleviates a huge amount of frustration from the gameplay loop that could be irrevocably shattered at a moment’s notice in previous titles. It is amazing amounts of fun to stealth around guard encampments and pull off an unseen prisoner extraction or sabotage communications equipment. Even if you’ve reached the end of your rope during a frustrating mission and decide to go in guns blazing, the actual action feels great, too.
Beyond that, there are just so many fun, cool things that you can do. Scattered over the world are cassette tapes for your trusty Sony Walkman that play classic hits from the 80s (or timeline breaking remasters from the late 90s) that you can play while infiltrating and neutralizing targets or even set your helicopter to play when it comes in to pick you up. Few things are as sweet as listening to an assault chopper blast “Maneater” while coming in for a hot extraction. You could spend ten to twenty minutes to traverse the huge game world to get to your next objective or you could call in an expensive helicopter to bring you to a different drop point or you could hop in a box and ship yourself to your objective point. Or what about an option that makes your horse poop on command? Heck, there is even an animal collecting subgame that can unlock a peaceful nature preserve area to visit.
The only areas of gameplay that I found particularly underwhelming were the base-building elements which connects to the asynchronous multiplayer. After players progress a bit into The Phantom Pain, they’ll unlock the ability to upgrade Mother Base, a sprawling structure in the middle of the ocean. Building up Mother Base and recruiting personnel is an important way of unlocking new gear to design, providing new support functions like area bombardments, or getting accurate intel on enemy installations. It is a cool concept that works for the most part. Unfortunately, Mother Base as a place to visit is large and vapid. It doesn’t feel like a place you want to spend much time in and you are never shown Big Boss just hanging out with his comrades and friends. There was an opportunity here to really connect with the people players recruit in the field, but that doesn’t really come together as much as it could have.
About halfway through the game, players unlock the ability to both raid other player’s Mother Bases and construct additional bases elsewhere around the globe. You get one forward operating base (FOB) for free, but any more cost real money, which feels like the specter of microtransactions looming over a game where they feel grossly out of place. To top it off, infiltrating other players bases doesn’t feel very fun or important. There is the shadow of what could have been a cool idea there, but it doesn’t feel fully fleshed out at all. The rewards are nice, but rarely feel worth the enormous hassle it can be to successfully infiltrate an enemy base, especially when it feels like the gameplay is slightly tweaked against you after having been accustomed to how the rest of the game plays. You are often better off tackling one of the 157 side-ops missions to earn some additional resources.
Aside from the underwhelming aspects of Mother Base, I would recommend Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain to most people (along with the rest of the franchise as it is a fascinating look into the history of game design) on the strength of the core gameplay experience alone. However, the same openness that ushers in a new era of stealth gameplay for the Metal Gear franchise is saddled with a narrative still stuck in more constrained terms. The structure of the game and the structure of the narrative just don’t seem to meld together very well. Dramatic tension can be completely slack one minute and pulled taut the next, leading to the storytelling equivalent of whiplash. Each scene taken by itself is usually very well done when taken on its own terms, creating some really compelling and memorable moments. However, large segments of Metal Gear Solid V’s runtime that feel like treading water, and it absolutely kills whatever forward momentum the story has managed to build up. This leads to some reveals and confrontations that feel very sudden and unearned. The Phantom Pain would have been less fun if it had been more confined, but the story would have benefited from the more restrictive design. It's a strange catch-22.
This brings me to one of the problems with The Phantom Pain: If you didn’t read an encyclopedia on the history of Metal Gear and can’t rattle off how The Boss is different from Big Boss you are going to be in for a world of confusion. Stepping into the series for the first time with Metal Gear Solid V will be doing both yourself and the franchise a huge disservice. The gameplay will still be excellent, but you will be hard-pressed to understand anything that goes on. Heck, even I had trouble wrapping my brain around all the dramatic monologues to puzzle together the overarching plot and I love the Metal Gear Solid games.
One of the oddest parts of the narrative is the almost shocking lack of dialogue from Big Boss as voiced by Kiefer Sutherland. There are many parts of the game where you expect some kind of vocal response from the legendary Big Boss, but all you get is a grunt or silence. This is made all the more irritating because when Big Boss does take an opportunity to talk, Sutherland performs admirably with a lot of depth and nuance. There are just a number of pivotal moments where there is no dialogue to be had and it comes across as incredibly strange.
That the narrative can’t seem to embrace the open design is a shame, because the theming and presentation of The Phantom Pain is some of the best video games can offer. A grand tragedy plays out as we participate, a cog in a grander plan. We see men and women broken by the machine of modern war. It is a terrible thing, and yet we find joy and wonder and beauty in all of it.
One of the unavoidable topics when discussing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain has become the controversial character Quiet. I held off making judgement calls until I saw the final credits roll. Perhaps Kojima was simply biding his time for a full revelation of her character? Having completed the game, I can now state for certain that Quiet's design never adequately pays off. I thought there would be some last minute shenanigans that might justify the skimpy character design, but she seems to exist to contort herself for the benefit of players who want to stare at her lady bits. That is a terrible shame because Quiet is an interesting side character with depth, but she gets boiled down to her body as her most important attribute - both explicitly in the story and implicitly by the way she is framed.
We need to talk about the concept of male gaze because that idea can be seen in full effect in almost every scene involving Quiet. In the most basic terms, male gaze is the structuring of a visual medium around the assumption that it is for men. In cutscenes involving Quiet or even her idle animations that are sometimes placed in front of the player, the camera is always strategically placed to ogle her. Sometimes it focuses on her butt, other times her breasts, but she seems to be constantly framed by the game in weirdly sexual ways for no reason beyond pure titillation. If you want some clear examples of what I mean by this, I suggest checking out Tactical Modding’s brilliant character model swap of Quiet and Revolver Ocelot. The videos demonstrate the importance of framing; could we really take Revolver Ocelot as seriously if the camera was constantly zooming in on his buttocks or chest?
Now, I’m not going to say that video games as a medium are free from that kind of framing. With the success of games like Honeypop, there is clearly a demand for games that aim directly for players who want to ogle and that’s fine. But when we hold up a game/series as one of the best the medium has to offer, we really need to give that attitude serious consideration. What this sort of framing does is send a very clear message to people that says, “This is a guy game. For guys. About guy things. Like war and violence and sometimes crying (but only when people die).”
That’s a really alienating message and a really disappointing one when Metal Gear Solid 3 and 4 had some of the best female characters the medium can offer in the form of The Boss and Meryl Silverburgh. There is nothing wrong with making a game about issues that deal specifically with the male experience, but you can do that without demeaning and overly sexualizing female characters. Heck, you can even make such a game that also invites women into the experience! Now, maybe there are some people who have no issue with how Quiet was designed. That’s cool. However, I’ve had several people (both men and women) approach me while I was reviewing Metal Gear Solid V who were thoroughly put off by her design alone and had no desire to engage with it. That’s a problem that could have been solved by showing a little more respect to the character.
On top of that, representation seems to be a bit lacking. For a game that largely takes place in Afghanistan and South Africa, there is a surprising absence of notable Middle Eastern or South African characters. This could have been a really interesting plot point as The Phantom Pain takes place during a period when Apartheid was still in full effect, so it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity. Beyond that, Quiet represents as the only female character in the game aside from two others, one of whom is a literal woman in a refrigerator trope and the other who doesn’t really count because spoilers.
All of the things I mention here about narrative structure, male gaze, and representation matter. They’re the things that really hold The Phantom Pain back from being a video game masterpiece, despite nearly perfect gameplay. Those issues matter when you begin talking about what makes a modern video game a timeless classic. That doesn’t mean I don’t think that Metal Gear Solid V isn’t worth playing. On the contrary, I still thoroughly recommend it as a great game that falls short of being what it could otherwise have been.
The feat of long-term game design that Hideo Kojima pulled off in the Metal Gear franchise is nothing short of spectacular. Metal Gear Solid V fits like a puzzle piece into a space we didn’t know existed, tying in Peace Walker, Snake Eater, Metal Gear Solid, and even the original Metal Gear. It truly feels like a farewell to the franchise from Kojima. The series is so unabashedly him, full of strange quirks, attention to detail, and oddly placed homages. He managed to be an auteur in the AAA game design space during a period that often leaves large developers faceless and corporate. Kojima’s unique place in the industry and the overwhelming likelihood that The Phantom Pain will be his last work on Metal Gear Solid renders the triumph of his swan song bittersweet. There might still be a future for the franchise, but that future probably won’t include Hideo Kojima.
In a way, the evolution of the Metal Gear series up to this point has been the evolution of games as a whole. The final entry demonstrates how far we have come, while also showing that we still have a number of things that could be miles better.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain was reviewed on PC and is currently available for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.