Last September you would have been hard-pressed to get me off the couch. I was completely and utterly engrossed in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Even someone like me, who had never played an MGS title before and who found the lore utterly intimidating to understand, I still found myself enamored with Kojima’s swan song to the series. In fact, in September, I would have bet that the game would be one of the best of the year, if not of all time. Five months later, I feel that’s absolutely not the case at all, and it’s clear the behind the scenes drama at Konami has hampered what should have been an unparalleled masterpiece. Instead, we got a technical marvel wrapped in a narrative mess.
Things in The Phantom Pain start off on a high note for sure. The first hour is an on-rails guided section – an hour of deceptively linear gameplay that could in the wrong hands feel like a Naughty Dog adventure. The story thrusts you into the trademarked Kojima narrative insanity and propels you along with enough urgency and mystery, as well as a healthy dose of tension and scares. All this leads to thrusting you alone in the wilderness of Afghanistan. Your mission is to build up an army of PMCs to take on the mysterious Skullface, a villain who destroyed your protagonist’s base of operations in the much-maligned prequel game Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. It is one of the most organic and perfectly constructed open worlds I’ve ever been in, and the possibilities felt endless. As did the desire to replay it before I had even finished it.
But it was clear early in the game that something was a little off. I first noticed it when the main character of Big Boss was oddly silent. One could argue that your character, who was in a coma for 15 years, and is now taking in his new surroundings while everybody around him lectures, has a good reason to keep his mouth shut. That didn’t satisfy me though. There were entire conversations that felt like parts were just…missing. Big Boss is being lectured by friend and foe alike and says nothing. All of this silence is made even more confusing by the highly controversial replacement of voice actor David Hayter by Kiefer Sutherland. Hayter had been the voice of Metal Gear for decades and at the last minute – he was replaced. And yet, Hayter has said more in interviews about his disappointment than Sutherland says in the entire game. I wish this was an exaggeration, but it is only slightly so. Your character is quiet.
The game really started to show problems in the latter half, however. Yet, until those problems surfaced, the game felt amazing. It was addictive. The stealth was incredible, and most importantly – and amazingly – this wasn’t a game that felt like it punished failure. When things went wrong, and frequently in my trial and error gameplay they did, I took joy in saying “To hell with it” and embracing the full on gunfight it turned into. There were so many amazing moments where the game either surprised me by how easy something ended up being, or alternatively showed me how little I knew as it took my best laid plans and obliterated them.
The Phantom Pain is broken up into two chapters encompassing fifty missions. The first thirty missions take up chapter one and deal with you primarily tracking down and defeating Skullface. Were the entire game only the first half, I might not be writing this. The awkward and stilted dialogue aside, the game in the first half delivers a complete story. The second half is anything but. The majority of the missions are repeats of previous missions that can only be completed on a higher difficulty. It should be noted the higher difficulty took out the fun of the screw-up, and try again mentality. Having to restart an entire mission that you could be twenty minutes in or more because of one random occurrence feels exhausting. On the lower difficulties you could screw up and still complete the mission, but you had to improvise.
Increased difficulty is one thing, but increased difficulty on previously completed missions is a cheap and obvious tactic to pad the length of play for the game. There ended up being minimal story in chapter two, and it wasn’t well-told story either. Even veterans familiar with Kojima’s tactics could see this wasn’t an appropriate payoff. It didn’t help that shortly after release more details of originally intended endings came out.
Metal Gear Solid V is a technical marvel. It has set a new benchmark for stealth games. I reiterate this because I don’t think the game is bad per se. As a stealth action simulator it is great. As a finale for the Metal Gear series, it falls woefully short. Obviously though the behind the scenes drama with series creator Hideo Kojima and Konami Productions had an impact on this. Details still trickle in each week as it was clear that Konami was an awful place to work and Kojima himself was pressured to go in directions against his will. Hopefully, Kojima’s new home at Sony means we will get more of his work in the future, but to blame him for the game is unfair. That being said, this is an example of a game that started off so great but ended so terribly, and unfortunately shouldn’t be a lock for as many game of the year awards as it might still be. But the real bottom line is for us as audiences to remember to take some time and collect our thoughts before we throw out phrases such as “greatest game ever!”