Game Review: Metal Gear Solid V — The Phantom Pain
I just (half) finished Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain (2015) (I watched a video walkthrough of the rest). MGSV is a mechanically deep, conceptually complex, and narratively convoluted game that simply does not satisfy the first rule of a good piece of interactive entertainment: fun.
Tactical Espionage Operations
MGSV is a sophisticated game. It has a swell of deep, complex mechanics that challenge a players’ puzzle solving, resource management, and reflexive skills. For every gameplay system, there is another one swimming underneath. Weapons can be customized to the brim and each change is meaningful in the battlefield. You can bring along vehicles, animals, companions, and change up your gear to fit with the environment. You have allies who can assist you in the fight in a timely manner. Each ‘level’ in the open world is completely open for you to approach it however you’d like. Stealth is mainly mandatory, but a guns blazing approach can work if done with careful planning and a good understanding of how the level is organized. There is an entire base-building mechanic that could make up its own game. There are so many small gameplay quirks, such as the cardboard box, the stun arm, your recon device, the ability to slow down your movement to great precision, the dynamic weather systems, the ability to interrogate your enemies, to stash them to ensure others don’t spot them, to slow down whenever you are spotted etc., that keep the gamer constantly learning something new for each interaction. This is the deepest suite of gameplay tools I have ever seen in a game.
Even almost five years later, the FOX Engine powering MGSV holds up. The terrain is detailed, character models are well drawn, the audio design is crisp and precise, and the voice acting is high grade professional quality. The standouts are Kojima’s unique cinematography. The cutscenes are so distinctively shot, with such finesse and precision, it is engrossing every time. What is revealed to you and what is kept hidden is part of a carefully thought out subplot Kojima is weaving together. The handheld camera movements give you the feeling that you are in this world, tracking each movement, and witnessing its events unfold. The soundtrack, a ballad of 80s sleeper hits, is fantastic and captures the mood of the time period in which the game is set. The score, a series of heavy orchestral renditions coupled with sharp guitar strings, fits the mood and tempo tightly. The audio design allows for players to maximize their stealth approach, with footsteps clearly audible, communicating accurate distancing and direction. Enemy conversations, vehicle movements, and background sounds, all fill up the sonic space as you sneak your way into a base and drop every enemy on route.
The story of MGSV is a mixed bag. There is an enormous amount of lore to sift through in this game. Admittedly, I did not play the title’s preceding entries, so the cassette tapes and other collectibles located throughout its open world maps serve as helpful devices to catch you up on the events that prefaced this game. Nevertheless, you always feel lost in all of the interweaving story lines, unfamiliar names that are referenced, and locations that are discussed. The Metal Gear storyline as a whole is quite complicated and convoluted to a fault, and that remains consistent in this game. The subject matter, involving Private Military Forces, civil wars in Third World countries, Cold War politics, child soldiers, torture, and post traumatic stress disorder are some of the strongest aspects of MGSV’s story. Personally, I felt that the fantastical and sci fi elements took away from this immersion, and felt out of place with all of the real-world, gritty details that make up the universe. The opening cut scene is of particular note, completely different from the rest of the game, with a haunting atmosphere and a sense of great urgency. Unfortunately, the story is delivered in a scatter shot fashion, hastily mixed into the gameplay. So many of the missions you do in this game are busy work. Contracts for characters nobody cares about for causes that mean nothing to you. This stalls the story quite a bit and makes you feel disconnected from the overall narrative. The story is something that slowly drifts into the back of your mind and is an after thought once the credits roll.
Where is the Fun?
MSGV is not a fun game. It is why I did not play the game all the way through to its conclusion. I simply did not have fun with it. It has me puzzled. A 10 from IGN, a 10 from Gamespot, a 93 from Metacritic. You would think this game would be universally loved and undoubtedly fun. Yet, I did not feel that ‘pull’ to play this game in the same way I did other great titles. So much of the game feels like busy work. The checkpoints that are constantly re-stationed and block your path to the main objective feel like filler. Repetitive filler. Each level is quite open and free, but they all start to look and feel the same. Having only two environments does not help. Especially when these environments are outside a dense, vibrant, complex city, but instead lie at the outskirts of civilization, where only soldiers occupy the premises. This, I believe, is a product of how you as a gamer interface with freedom. I prefer games that provide me with guidance. Games that keep up the pace, throw me new surprises, and are tethered to the story they are telling. Games like Batman: Arkham Knight, Uncharted 4, or Gears of War. It is likely that the reason I did not enjoy MGSV is because it is a game that asks you to make your own experience. For those who lack the creativity, or the push to create their own fun per se, games like this become a drag. Every mission I did, of the 14 or so I did, felt the same because I took the same approach. When I looked through several walkthroughs of the game on Youtube, I was amazed by how much ingenuity could be applied in approaching each mission. So maybe it is my fault, and not the game’s, that I do not have the imagination to create my own moments of spontaneous fun. In any case, MGSV runs in opposition to my personal preferences for what constitutes a fun gaming experience, and is the paramount reason why my final score will differ greatly from the mainstream publications.
MGSV is a masterfully made game. There is no doubting this. It’s deep gameplay, immense freedom, strong presentation, and compelling subject matter all make it an excellent experience. But, it is a game that demands your time, attention, and creativity, and for those who prefer their games to be more proactive in how it interfaces with the player, this may not be your cup of tea.