I was as excited for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain as I ever have been for a game. With Hideo Kojima’s relationship with Konami disintegrating, this was his last Metal Gear… for real this time! Then, in the weeks running up to the game’s September 1st release, my girlfriend surprised me with a trip to Italy on the 5th of September.
This gave me four days to play through The Phantom Pain. That’s doable, right? I picked it up at the stroke of midnight on release day in Camden and the next few days are a blur. Falling into a stealthy, sneaking fugue state I completed every one of the 50 missions and 157 side ops. I ate, slept and shat Metal Gear Solid, hopping on that flight to Italy muttering incoherently about vocal cord parasites.
I had a whale of a time. As the game closed the timeline by looping back to the 1987 original I was sleep-deprived but satisfied. Sure, some things were a bit confusing, but Hideo Kojima had done it again… right?
Since then, that initial glow has substantially dimmed. In retrospect I couldn’t deny that the story is objectively unfinished, that the second half of the game was full of repeated filler missions and that the open-world lacks personality and focus. And then there’s Quiet, the tits sniper…
So I was nervous returning to it as part of my chronological Metal Gear series playthrough. Would its flaws would suddenly become glaringly obvious? Would I suddenly see The Phantom Pain for the game it was, rather than what I hoped it’d be? Would it lose its lustre altogether?
Well, the credits have just rolled on my second playthrough and I’m pleased to say that The Phantom Pain is still a damn good game – and a damn good Metal Gear Solid game to boot. Even five years after its release the stealth gameplay is still unmatched. Experimenting with the game’s huge array of weird gadgets (inflatable decoys, warp portals, rocket arms, smoke grenades, cardboard boxes with anime girls on the side, knife-wielding dogs) gives you a basically infinite amount of ways to sneak, infiltrate and sabotage.
And if your carefully laid plans fail, going loud and lethal is also great fun. My sniper buddy is going nuts with the headshots, I’m tossing grenades like they’re going out of style and my attack helicopter buddy is firing missiles while blaring Ram Jam’s Black Betty over the battlefield. It’s a good time.
On this playthrough I clocked about 60 hours in the game, and not once during the actual sneaking was I bored. It’s tense, it invites creativity and the enemy AI lands perfectly between realistic and fun.
But I kinda knew all that going into it again. What I was really worried about was the story. Here’s where the cracks began to show, as on my first playthrough I was simply caught up in the mystery of what was going on.
This time it became apparent early on that Skullface simply isn’t a very interesting bad guy, that the vast majority of the supporting cast have truncated and confusing story arcs, and that the game has nowhere near as much interesting stuff to say as the rest of the series.
Best I can do is latch onto the game’s fixation with parasites (which stand in for nanomachines as the source of the all the supernatural elements). About two-thirds of the way through the game we see one of the parasites, which bears a resemblance to the layout of your mercenary headquarters. An in-game cassette tape spells things out more explicitly: Diamond Dogs, your military cult, is a parasite attached to a world that relies on war to survive.
The characters continually lie to themselves that they’re free of ideology, selling their military services to whoever wants theme. By the time you’re blowing up a convoy of tanks in the tellingly named late-game mission ‘Proxy War without End’, you don’t know who you’re fighting for or why. In a world where there are only enemy soldiers (and the occasional prisoner to be rescued) why think too hard about what you’re doing? You are merely a parasite on human misery, acting on instinct rather than on morality.
It’s interesting enough, but as someone who doesn’t currently lead a mercenary unit it doesn’t give me much to apply to my life.
Overlaid on that is a confusing but mostly interesting examination of language and cultural identity, with the spread of the English language positioned as an insidious method of thought control and… in a development that I still can’t work out if I like or not, the revelations about who you play as in the game.
For 99% of the game you assume you’re playing series hero/villain Big Boss. You look like him, talk like him, people treat you like you are him etc etc. In the final chapter, there’s a twist that Big Boss is actually off doing something else and you’re effectively playing as yourself. The moral is that anyone can be Big Boss with the right encouragement and it was actually me that did all those brave feats.
Except I obviously didn’t. I didn’t blow up a giant bipedal nuclear robot with a missile launcher. I certainly didn’t lead a daring helicopter escape to save a mine full of exploited African children. Nor did I engage in a daring sniper battle in the ancient ruins of Afghanistan. I was being carefully ushered through a choreographed video-game in which real achievement is inherently illusory.
Usually Kojima is in his element when reaching through the videogame fourth wall to the player, but this is a twist too far. Knowing The Truth shouldn’t matter – if it quacks like Big Boss it may as well be Big Boss – but, as much as I’d like to claim otherwise, it does matter. After all, if I want to ‘play as myself’ I’ll put the controller down and head outside.
With The Phantom Pain Kojima came to the end of almost thirty years of storytelling. That he chose to effectively abandon his story at the final hurdle in order to impress upon players that they should focus on subtext rather than the technical specs of giant robots and the hows of cloned supersoldiers is laudable. On paper it’s very much my jam. In practise… not so much.
It means The Phantom Pain (and Metal Gear Solid as a whole) is and will forever be incomplete, with the true finale of the game relegated to a half-finished cutscene on YouTube.
But I suppose the most important thing is whether the game is fun. And it’s difficult to truly dislike a game where you can fire your arm into the air, circle it back and rocket punch yourself in the dick.
Going from this to 1987’s Metal Gear on the MSX next month is going to be quite the contrast.