Video Games

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Review

Tom Bunting ’19 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is frustratingly close to being the best video game ever made. This is a phenomenally well-playing game, with tight controls and a staggering open world, brimming with possibilities. It’s also frequently poorly structured, badly paced, and has a story that veers between absent and brilliant before abruptly trailing off with the thematic equivalent of a shrug. Director Hideo Kojima has been making Metal Gear games for 25 years now, and with his abrupt falling out with publisher Konami earlier this year, it’s likely this will be his last Metal Gear. With that in mind, Metal Gear Solid V serves as a fantastic culmination of the frequently brilliant, occasionally maddening series, while finally becoming a well-playing game in the process.

(c) Kojima Productions, Konami
(c) Kojima Productions, Konami

Set in the 1980s (technically making it a prequel to 2008’s contemporary MGS4), Metal Gear Solid 5 finds the third game’s protagonist, legendary soldier Big Boss, coming out of a coma nine years after a crippling attack on his private military company left his body broken and his allies scattered. He’s hellbent on revenge against Cipher, the shadowy all-controlling organization he helped created, and the game follows his journey of rebuilding his army and avenging his fallen allies. For a Metal Gear game, a series infamous for it’s convoluted insanity and hour long cutscenes, this is a surprisingly straightforward set-up, but the game doesn’t shy away from connecting the dots on the series’ decades spanning lore. If you’re new to the series, the tonal shifts are going to be jarring: ruminative monologues about ethnic cleansing and child soldiers can be immediately contrasted with cute puppies with little eyepatches and a villain named Skullface (because his face is a skull, duh). But if you’re down for “angry, broken people do angry, broken, and increasingly evil things with a buncha really weird stuff in the periphery”, there’s a lot of interesting stuff to get into here.

Unfortunately, the story is doled out slowly, with stretches of missions completely disconnected from the greater plot. Even worse, the story’s structure breaks down as the game wears on, leading to a meandering final chapter with a late game twist that isn’t given time to do anything beyond trivialize a lot of the fantastic story beats that came before it. Metal Gear might as well have been founded on thematic inconsistency, but the worst aspects of this approach come out in the character of Quiet. She’s a mute sniper who spends most of the game clothed in an incredibly revealing bra and torn fishnets (the most practical battlefield armor!), a fact the game’s camera constantly reminds you as it awkwardly hangs on her cleavage. Between the strange-but-sincere attempts to justify her outfit and Kojima’s earlier comments on the nature of her character, you could legitimately argue that Quiet was created to be a subversion of the frequent fetiziation of female characters in the medium, but the implementation of her dark history contrasted with her near constant objectification just makes most of her scenes feel embarrassing. These mistakes are especially frustrating because the game’s story is frequently so strong; it’s borderline incomprehensible ridiculousness, but it’s been crafted by a man who’s been doing borderline incomprehensible ridiculousness for 25 years, and he’s really great at it.

(c) Kojima Productions, Konami
(c) Kojima Productions, Konami

It’s easy to be fatigued by the torrent of open world games from the past few years, but MGS5 stands as proof that the format can still be captivating. Missions take place primarily in two vast open areas, and most are very open-ended. The game does a fantastic job giving you what feels like near-infinite options on tackling your objectives and manages to adapt to just about any tactic you wish to take. You can take over a base by way of grenade launchers or you could knock every guard out and extract them back to your base, with the gameplay feeling perfectly tailored to either approach. Enemies even adjust their equipment and security when they learn your tactics, forcing you to continuously experiment. You can take buddies ranging from Quiet to an attack robot to a scouting dog with you on missions, and unlock new skills and abilities for them as your bond grows. When you consider the game spans over 50 story missions and around 200 side quests, it’s really an amazing achievement how strong the gameplay is moment-to-moment.

As you build up your Outer Heaven base, the gameplay systems around the basic shooting expand in dizzyingly ambitious ways. You start being able to send out your troops on missions, resource management takes a bigger role, and you gain the ability to build new facilities which in turn help you unlock new weapons and equipment. If the enemies start wearing bulletproof helmets, you can just send your men on a mission to disrupt their supply lines. You can even invade other player’s bases and steal their resources. Most of these systems are controlled through menus that could use a little more polish to be truly intuitive, but the joy of walking around the massive base you constructed more than make up for awkward navigation. Metal Gear Solid V is a massive game, and it’s really impressive how well all the systems gel together.

(c) Kojima Productions, Konami
(c) Kojima Productions, Konami

Metal Gear Solid V is a frustratingly close step away from true brilliance, but its current state is still an undeniable achievement. Metal Gear has always been a series known for awkward gameplay and clumsy controls, which makes the sublime joy of actually playing MGS5 all the more surprising. It’s the best playing action game I’ve ever seen, and it’s operating on a scale few games even try to manage. This is Kojima’s last Metal Gear game, but at least he’s ending on an incredible high note.

Final grade: A

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