There's a cutscene, late in Metal Gear Solid V, that's ostensibly serious but contains a musical interlude so awkward it sent me into giggle fits. A dozen missions later, there's a harrowing sequence that ranks among the best video game scenes I've ever played. If you don't know how to reconcile those two things, then, well, you probably haven't played Metal Gear Solid.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, a video game directed by popular Twitter influencer and film enthusiast Hideo Kojima, takes itself very seriously — more seriously than any Metal Gear before it. Gone are the shlocky routines that characterised previous games in Kojima's longrunning series, which turned 28 — 28! — in July. Sure, you can make your horse poop, but that feels tame compared to the porn-lovers and pants-shitters of Metal Gears past. The Phantom Pain is often grave, filled with men yelling at one another about revenge and how they're all already demons.
It's not just the tone that's changed — Metal Gear's musty mechanics and clunky tropes have also been massively overhauled. While it is still predominantly a game about sneaking into bases, knocking out guards, and occasionally fighting weird boss battles, The Phantom Pain feels modern, fresh, and resoundingly different than any of Kojima's other games.
For all that's changed, The Phantom Pain has one big thing in common with other Metal Gears: It is both profoundly stupid and incredibly provocative. As I watched the story unfold, I found myself constantly frustrated, yelling "no way" at my television every time I witnessed a preposterous plot twist (there are a couple) or listened to an inane conversation (there are many). Metal Gear is to dialogue as teenage goths are to poetry, and yet — yet! — there are moments in this game that sent shivers through my body, made all the more evocative by the fact that I was in control of the action. One particular late-game sequence is on par with the series' greatest moments, like Metal Gear Solid IV's microwave corridor. (If you haven't played Metal Gear Solid IV, well, take my word for it. It's a very dramatic microwave corridor.)
Metal Gear Solid V is the best Metal Gear yet, and has immediately become one of my favourite video games of the last few years. It's an impeccable stealth-action game, clearly inspired in all the right ways by modern series like Far Cry, and it's got a level of moment-to-moment joyfulness that kept me satisfied even when I was slogging through harder versions of levels I'd already beaten just to see the "true" ending. The pacing might be terrible, the dialogue incoherent, the character motivations incomprehensible, and the ending woefully unsatisfying, but Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is, really, an excellent video game.
Too bad it's not finished.
Metal Gear Solid V, which is set before Metal Gear Solids 1, 2, and 4 but after 3, stars a guy named Punished 'Venom' Snake, aka Big Boss, who's just woken up from a nine-year coma after the events of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes. Things you should know about Venom Snake: He's voiced by 24's Jack Bauer, he doesn't talk much, and there's a horn sticking out of his forehead. After about an hour of breathless cinematic tutorials set in a flaming hospital, Snake joins up with longtime series star Ocelot and his old buddy Kaz Miller for a summer camp reunion. They help forge a mercenary group called Diamond Dogs, because apparently Boss is really into David Bowie. Diamond Dogs, as Miller explains, is a spiritual successor to Big Boss's last mercenary group, Militaires Sans Frontières. This time, though, they're angrier. They want revenge on the people who put Snake in a coma. And they don't mind doing whatever it takes to get that revenge.
Once things get going, Phantom Pain's core rhythms start to reveal themselves. Like always, Snake must go on a series of solo missions to infiltrate enemy bases, take out guards, rescue prisoners, and assassinate targets, accompanied only by his gear and one of four buddies — a horse, a robot, a dog, and a killer sniper named Quiet. (Quiet, a very good character who plays a pivotal role in the story, sports a sexy yet impractical outfit that's given a rather unsatisfying explanation. Considering Kojima's penchant for breaking the fourth wall, I almost wish they hadn't bothered, instead having her just turn to the camera and say, "Fuck it, we wanted to sell more copies.")
Snake's missions, as the savvy player will soon realise, all follow a certain pattern: First, you approach the enemy base, using your binoculars to scout and tag enemy soldiers. Then you decide how to execute. The appeal, and the thing that The Phantom Pain gets so right, is the freedom you're given to approach every objective however you want.
One operation tasked me with assassinating three Soviet commanders in a big, open camp. I climbed on my horse, pulled out a sniper rifle, and circled around the outskirts, shooting and ducking and shooting and ducking as my horse neighed gleefully all the way. Some important fights required some crafty use of Snake's most subtle weapon, the GROM rocket launcher. During other missions, I stuck to stealth, creeping behind enemy guards and interrogating them for tidbits of information. Other times I made liberal use of C-4 explosives, inflatable decoys, smoke grenades, cardboard boxes, and all of the other tools Snake has at his disposal.
Sometimes I did stuff like this:
Usually I snuck around. The best stealth games are like big puzzles, designed to be dismantled and solved through careful reconnaissance and action. It's there that Metal Gear Solid V is a resounding success. With the exception of a recurring group of irritating supersoldiers called the Skulls — Kojima's worst creation — every encounter is designed meticulously. Missions are full of hidden passages and helpful tools, ready to reward the curious and experimental player. Use an item too much and enemies will react; as I played through missions in the Angola-Zaire border region of Africa, for example, I nailed a lot of headshots and threw a lot of smoke grenades, which inevitably led the guards to start wearing helmets and gas masks. So I started using sniper rifles and C-4. Believe it or not a gas mask doesn't do very much to protect against a brick of C-4.
One of the core reasons Metal Gear Solid V feels so good to play is that it's exceptionally polished on a technical level. Not only does it look phenomenal — seriously, whoever modelled and animated Snake deserves many raises — it runs at a stable 60 frames-per-second on both PC and modern consoles, which makes everything feel extremely goddamned smooth. I love the way everything moves — sometimes I'll spend minutes just zooming the camera around and climbing up ladders. If anyone ever tries to tell you that video-game framerates "don't matter", show them Metal Gear Solid V.
Most of The Phantom Pain's missions are crafted to be played and replayed in as many ways as possible, which is great, because the second chunk of the game, cheekily called Chapter Two, asks you to repeat a dozen missions with harder difficulty settings like "extreme" or "stealth only." That part is less great. It comes at a time when story events appear to be hitting an emotional crescendo, and it throws off the pacing, adding an unnecessary amount of padding to an already lengthy game. Granted, padding ain't the worst thing in the world when you're playing something as generally fun as Metal Gear Solid V, but the forced backtracking is disappointing nonetheless. At one point, even after I'd repeated a bunch of old missions, new story operations wouldn't appear for me until I ground through more side-ops and made in-game "time" pass.
Even without those extra challenges, Metal Gear Solid V can be tough. Really tough. There are no difficulty settings, so you can't just switch to easy when you're stuck on a boss. Fortunately, there are some built-in semi-cheat buttons. When I found myself getting bored or didn't feel like slamming my head against the wall over and over to get past a tough challenge, I just called in a helicopter to bombard enemy troops. Doing this will prevent the player from getting the highest possible mission rank, since it's basically cheating, but if you're feeling the effects of poor pacing and just want to get on with the story, blowing everything up isn't a bad move.
Options for aerial bombardment notwithstanding, Metal Gear Solid V rewards the player most for keeping enemy soldiers alive. Tranquillise or knock out a soldier in the field and you can attach a Fulton balloon to him, which will whisk him off to your base, where he'll be brainwashed into your private army. Through a clunky set of menus on Big Boss's "iDroid" device, you can observe and manage the staff of Diamond Dogs, studying their strengths and weaknesses and assigning them to different areas like Intel or R&D. The better Snake's staff, the easier it is to earn money, recruit new volunteers, and develop better gear. You can even swap out Snake for other soldiers in the field.
The staff-management part of The Phantom Pain is intricate, sometimes to a fault — your mercenaries can fight amongst one another, gain morale when you visit, get sick and have to recover in the hospital, and even build their very own zoo. Paying tons of attention to this whole system isn't totally necessary, but it can get addictive, and as the game progresses, whatever emotional attachment you feel for Diamond Dogs is rewarded accordingly.
Assisting Snake on his quest for revenge against console exclusivity and 45-minute cutscenes are two familiar Metal Gear faces: the gruff, suddenly psychopathic Kaz Miller; and the inscrutable, always-been-psychopathic Revolver Ocelot, who has switched sides so many times over the course of the series it'd take an Excel file to figure out who he's actually working for. The rest of the cast is great, too: there's a spunky brat named Eli, a wise old gene expert called Code Talker, and a demonic villain with a cool voice but mediocre logical deduction skills. Other than Quiet, who wears a bikini and does not talk, the main cast features no women.
Codec conversations — those radio conversations that would pop up every once in a while in older Metal Gears — are gone, replaced by cassette tapes that you can play from anywhere. Most of these tapes are essential for catching up on Metal Gear history and supplementing the cutscenes, so it's useful that you can listen to them while doing other stuff. Unfortunately, they also lead to one of The Phantom Pain's most irritating quirks — if someone starts talking to Snake, the tape keeps playing.. If you're on a mission and Ocelot or Miller starts chatting about objectives on your radio — which happens all the time — they will just talk over whatever cassette is on. It won't pause. This might sound like a minor problem, but it's actually a big pain in the arse, since there are hours of tapes to listen to, and you'll want to play them while sneaking around enemy bases, not just sitting around in your chopper.
It's a good thing those tapes exist. Not only do they offer colour and clarification, they give you a healthy dose of Snake's voice actor, Kiefer Sutherland, who is otherwise nearly silent to the point of awkwardness. His strange silence is particularly evident during some provocative late-game cutscenes, where his response to emotional events will often just be to look at people. One unintentionally hilarious scene involves a villain monologuing at Snake while he just stares, silent, for a solid ten minutes. He and Quiet make a good team.
Kiefer's jarring muteness aside, Kojima's style is all over this game, which is mostly a good thing. When the director's camera isn't creepily lingering over Quiet's boobs, it's zooming and whirling like a dervish, showing off grand spectacles in that flashy, stunning style that Kojima has perfected over the past few decades. Kojima's film obsession drives just about every scene: One boss is straight out of Pacific Rim; other moments borrow from war and horror films, from the frantic handheld camerawork of Saving Private Ryan to the fog-shrouded terror of Silent Hill. (Not a surprise, considering.) None of the cutscenes are as long as they have been in previous games — the longest is probably 15 minutes or so — but they are plentiful, and they're almost always great, even if they do take themselves a little too seriously.
Don't worry, though: This ain't Call of Duty. The Phantom Pain might aim for gravitas, but it's still a Metal Gear game, which means that one moment you might rescue child soldiers from a life of imprisonment and the next moment you might slide down a hill on a cardboard box. It means that, in between long discussions on heavy subjects like torture and the power of language, you'll stumble upon posters of anime girls making sexy poses.
It's really too bad this game isn't finished.
Metal Gear Solid V has two endings, both of which you can see in a single playthrough. Both are unsatisfying. The fates of major characters are left unresolved, the motivations of both villains and protagonists remain unclear, and there's very little closure for the Diamond Dogs and their leaders. A handful of endgame cassette tapes help clear up a few character connections, but some of the twists and turns will inevitably leave the audience with more questions than answers. (The key is not to think about them too much.) After the second ending, you might not even realise the story is over.
Not long after Metal Gear Solid V launched, fans discovered an unfinished cutscene that would have made for a far more satisfying conclusion but is not in the actual game. It's almost impossible to believe that they cut this; without it, an entire major plot thread is just left dangling there, unresolved in the most glaring fashion.
Right now, The Phantom Pain feels incomplete. It is incomplete. It's a stellar stealth game and a triumphant work in many ways, but it's also not the story it should have been, and that's disconcerting. The "phantom pain" in the title refers to the literal and metaphorical pain Snake feels in his missing arm, but it could just as easily refer to the lingering sense that the game, too, is missing a piece. What is that missing limb? Where am I feeling that pain, and how could the game have remedied it?
When I finally completed Metal Gear Solid V — and I do mean finally, because it took me many dozens of hours to see it all — I wasn't really sure how to feel. Here's a game with such impressive design and so many evocative moments; why is the story so damn unfulfilling? Why does it feel like there's so much missing? Why, even though I'd happily sing the praises of this excellent video game, am I stuck with the feeling that Kojima's fifth (and perhaps final) major Metal Gear Solid wasn't what it was meant to be?
Big Boss describes his mercenary group, Diamond Dogs, as an army without a nation. Metal Gear Solid V is a game without an ending. Yes, it's a triumphant piece of work, a game that emotionally resonated with me as much as anything I played this year. But that resonance happened in the moment, and without a proper climax, I can't shake the feeling that it didn't amount to much.
By all means, join the Diamond Dogs. Go to Afghanistan; go to Zaire; meet interesting people and shoot them with tranquilliser darts. Enjoy the smart mechanics and dumb dialogue and melodramatic cutscenes. Laugh at the incredibly sharp contrast between the game's best and worst moments. Spend dozens of hours creeping around enemy bases and enjoying the incredibly fun, fluid stealth-action in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. But know that Big Boss's latest story is incomplete. It leaves a sour taste. Then you turn on a cassette tape and shoot up enemy guards with an assault rifle to the tunes of Europe's 'The Final Countdown' and you remember that oh, OK, this video game is alright.