The credits rolled 33 hours after I started playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. That’s pretty long for most games, let alone a Metal Gear Solid game, but The Phantom Pain is a little different. I’d fought battles across continents, assembled a fearsome private militia, and defeated a terrifying enemy. Thirty-three hours across the course of a month. Fair enough.
Except it turned out the story wasn’t over. And to finish the game, I’d have to play through most of the missions again with much harder settings.
I’ll save that for a rainy day or 12. This is just one of the ways The Phantom Pain subverts your expectations, and sometimes your patience. It’s a maddening work of occasional genius that, not for the first time in the series, has me questioning whether I’m supposed to hate it.
Things start off well enough with The Phantom Pain’s spectacular, semi-interactive introductory sequence. Your character, variously and inexplicably referred to as Big Boss or Punished "Venom" Snake, awakes from a nine-year coma and suddenly finds his hospital turned into a war zone by a shady group called Cipher and a man on fire called The Man on Fire. The sequence is as virtuoso as it is bizarre, combining wonderfully tense direction with flaming blue whales and gratuitous butt shots of a scrubs-wearing man named Ishmael.
(Just so we’re all on the same page, with apologies to series fans for the simplification: Metal Gear Solid V is a sequel to Metal Gear Solid 3, which was a prequel to Metal Gear Solid, which was a sequel to Metal Gear, a game in which Solid Snake, the character you play in Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, and 4, kills Big Boss, the protagonist of 3 and V. Got it?)
The Phantom Pain’s opening hour is as outlandish and intoxicating as anything in the series to date, but the game quickly settles down into a more sober affair. Snake links up with old friend Kazuhira Miller and old frenemy Revolver Ocelot to build up mercenary group Diamond Dogs. (Director Hideo Kojima really wants you to know that he likes David Bowie and ‘70s-‘80s music in general. The game opens with Midge Ure’s cover of "The Man Who Sold the World" in the background, and you can find cassette tapes from the likes of The Cure and Joy Division scattered throughout the environments.)
That is basically the setup for The Phantom Pain: Miller and Snake are upset that a Cipher unit called XOF blew up their previous base in prologue episode Ground Zeroes, so they build up an army to take revenge on spooky leader Skull Face. While that process would be depicted as a montage in most games or ‘80s action movies, it takes up the vast majority of your time with The Phantom Pain. So, Snake finds himself in Afghanistan and Africa carrying out missions for Diamond Dogs; most of these earn you money to spend on new gear, or new soldiers to send out on missions to earn money for new gear, or new staff members to work on your base to help develop new gear.
This is mostly a very satisfying loop because, as my friend Chris pointed out, The Phantom Pain is a huge triumph in game design. Each mission takes place in a vast environment that gives you incredible freedom to play the way you want; generally you’ll need to be stealthy, but there are countless ways to go about achieving that. When everything clicks — when you manage to get to your target undetected because you executed on a strategy you had to come up with on the fly — there’s no more exhilarating way to hold a game controller this year.
The Phantom Pain’s open-world, mission-based structure will be catnip to anyone who wished the series would ditch its linear designs and overwrought storytelling. It’s easily the least verbose game in the series, and mostly just lets you get on with your objectives; you can often even select in which order you want to carry them out. The Phantom Pain gives you far more freedom than any Metal Gear Solid game — it’s a serious overhaul, comparable to how Resident Evil 4 transformed its own series from antiquated survival horror to a massively influential action game.
The Phantom Pain is a serious overhaul for Metal Gear Solid
That isn’t always for the best. The freeform approach is fine on paper, but in practice I found that little was pushing me forward. The Phantom Pain’s initial setup — dudes are mad about their base blowing up — isn’t quite compelling enough to justify the repetitive structure. Most of the game’s missions would be side activities in other open-world games — kill this anonymous guy, rescue this anonymous captive, blow up these anonymous tanks. The Phantom Pain’s optional side missions are often more fun than the main ones, in fact; in one you can rescue a bear for your base’s zoo.
The game’s wonderful systems mean its generic missions are usually still fun to play, some maddening difficulty spikes aside. But for better or worse, Metal Gear Solid has always been a game anchored by its plot, and The Phantom Pain spoon-feeds you narrative in meagre amounts. Much of it takes the form of unlockable cassette tapes that you can listen to while playing the game. But it’s almost as if you’re not supposed to — the controls are buried within menus, and the conversations are often rendered unlistenable by enemies’ or allies’ frequent radio interjections. The cassettes don’t pause when anyone else is talking over them, making them difficult to follow unless you just sit in a field and do nothing for a while.
I would be the last to complain about The Phantom Pain moving in the opposite direction from Metal Gear Solid 4, perhaps the nadir of contrived, melodramatic video game storytelling. And the cutscenes that are here are as slick as you’d hope for from Kojima. But something feels off with Metal Gear Solid V.
Maybe it’s the way Kiefer Sutherland, Snake’s new voice actor, is suspiciously silent through several dramatic scenes, his supporting cast doing all it can to work around his taciturnity. Maybe it’s the hamfisted attempts at levity around topics like child soldiers and sexual assault. Maybe it’s how the only truly major new character, the only female character, and much of the cutscenes’ direction seems to have been motivated by the desire to ram near-naked breasts into the game at every opportunity.
That brings us to Quiet, the sniper whose revealing raiment provided not a little controversy leading up to The Phantom Pain’s release. Kojima said we would all be "ashamed" for writing the character off once we learned the reason for her get-up, calling her an "antithesis" to scantily-clad women in video games. Well, here’s the reason: she’s infected by a parasite that forces her to breathe through her skin, so she can’t wear clothes without suffocating. Feeling ashamed yet?
The most charitable reading possible of Quiet is that the convoluted reason for her gigantic, swaying, exposed breasts is intended as satire of the numerous games out there — particularly within Japan — that include similar characters without explanation for pure titillation. But in the unlikely event that that was the intention, it falls completely flat. A near-naked mute woman whom the camera lingers on isn’t an antithesis to poor representation of women in video games — it’s an escalation of the problem.
I couldn’t be more conflicted about Metal Gear Solid V. Its core systems are so perfectly tuned, and the potential for improvisation is so endlessly robust, that it’d be a real solid pick for a desert island disc. But with its serious tonal missteps and the distinct feeling that the game has been rushed in a big way, it’s hard to come away altogether happy.
I’m writing this now after a month with the game in which I tried to play as much as possible as fast as possible without getting burned out (and without impinging on important Destiny time). Maybe I’ll feel different when I do get to the actual actual ending, after going through already-repetitive missions for the second time on a more frustrating setting. So don’t think of this as a review, really — I said "this one could go either way" when I played Metal Gear Solid V at E3 a few months ago, and I still couldn’t tell you which way it went.
But I’ve played enough of Metal Gear Solid V to know that it is a deeply strange, exasperating, and mercurial game that anyone with a slight interest should absolutely check out for its frequent moments of unpredictable brilliance. When it comes down to it, its worst elements are incredibly common in the world of video games, and they’re things I’d usually manage to avoid.
Its best elements, though? You won’t find them anywhere else.