Metal Gear Solid V is a stellar game, with top-notch stealth action and a malleable world that leads to all sorts of memorable moments. Too bad the ending is such a mess.
As I explained in my review — which you can read here — the latest Metal Gear Solid is saddled with incomprehensible characters and an unsatisfying, unfinished story. But it's not just that. The game's finale is truly absurd, even by Metal Gear standards, and the more you think about it, the less it makes sense.
Spoilers incoming. Now's your chance to bail if you don't want to read about the ending.
SPOILER WARNING: DON'T SCROLL PAST THE DOG UNLESS YOU'VE BEATEN METAL GEAR SOLID V
In true Kojima style, Metal Gear Solid V ends with a mindblowing twist: Turns out you weren't actually playing as Big Boss! As the opening hospital scene hinted, your character was just a decoy, installed as leader of Mother Base to protect the real Big Boss, who got to ride off on a motorbike and do peyote in New Mexico for a while. Somehow, thanks to plastic surgery and, uh, nanomachines?, Zero and Miller were able to transform that random medic from Ground Zeroes into someone with the face, build, memories, and skills of the world's most legendary soldier.
Scrutinised in a vacuum, this twist is kind of neat — turns out the "legend" of Big Boss had always trumped the man himself — but the harder you think, the more it unravels, leading to all sorts of questions with no clear answers. For example: If Zero can use hypnotherapy to transform a random medic into a supersoldier on par with Big Boss, why didn't he do it to other people? Why even bother with the Les Enfants Terribles cloning project? And how exactly does hypnotherapy infuse someone with all of someone's memories?
Speaking of unanswered questions: Why do we never get to see the after-effects of Venom Snake's big revelation? Why does Ocelot feel like such a different person in MGSV? Why is Miller so evil? Why is Skull Face's motivation so flimsy, and just what was he doing behind-the-scenes during Operation Snake Eater? What was up with Snake not saying a word during that giant monologue/musical interlude? What happened to the Camp Omega return that Kojima promised last year? What's the deal with the Third Child? Is he really Psycho Mantis? Where did Eli and Sahelanthropus go? (Oh, right, that part wasn't finished.)
But forget about all that for a few minutes. Let's talk about the biggest problem with Metal Gear Solid V's ending.
If you have completed The Phantom Pain, you will no doubt remember Mission 43. It's the one called 'Shining Lights, Even In Death.' In this mission, you find out that there's been a new outbreak of deadly vocal parasites at Mother Base, and that the victims have been quarantined. You — Venom Snake — have to go into the medical platform and figure out what's happening. As you explore the quarantine zone — which is scary and evocative in all the best ways — you gradually realise that you're going to have to kill anyone who's infected. You're going to have to murder your own troops.
As you proceed, you're given a pair of night-vision goggles that can detect infections in soldiers, giving you the hope that maybe some of them aren't actually infected. This, of course, is Kojima fucking with you: Every single one of them is infected. You have to shoot them all, one by one, cringing as the game tells you you're losing points because your goddamn soldiers are dying. Occasionally their names pop up, reminding you that you recruited and may have even used these men and women in the field, and now you have to murder them. It's the best mission in the game and it makes for one serious punch in the gut.
Metal Gear Solid V was always supposed to be the missing link in the series, the game that explains how Big Boss transformed from the heroic, idealistic soldier of MGS3 to the big bad villain of the first Metal Gear. As I played through Mission 43, it felt like I was watching that evolution. Here, punctuated by Huey's screams of disbelief, we got to watch Big Boss transform from inspiring leader to cold-blooded murderer. It was a harrowing experience that, like the microwave hallway of Metal Gear Solid 4, worked best because I was playing it.
Then... well, then it turns out Huey — the only person who dared call out Snake for killing his own soldiers — actually caused the epidemic in the first place, which throws off his whole moral high ground thing. Snake does all the right things: He turns the dead troops' ashes into diamonds, exiles Huey, and finds out that oh yeah, he's not actually Big Boss. And then the game ends.
Turns out that while we thought we were experiencing Big Boss's revenge-driven evolution from noble soldier to misguided villain, we were actually watching someone else entirely, which seriously cheapens the emotional effects of Mission 43 and just about everything else you do in The Phantom Pain. All those uncomfortable torture scenes and terrible decisions, like building a big, loyalty-free army and bringing a Metal Gear back to Mother Base? They had nothing to do with Big Boss.
And besides, the more you think about it, the more you realise that Ocelot and Miller were the real dicks in The Phantom Pain, torturing everyone and trying to convince Snake to murder the likes of Quiet and Huey. Venom Snake was actually... kind of a nice guy. We see him get angry and break a mirror after his whole identity crisis deal, but we never see the effects of that revelation, and we never really see him turn all that evil.
So. When the game ends, we're greeted with a big timeline explaining that in the first Metal Gear, the villain was actually Venom, aka Phantom Big Boss. But it's never made clear just how or why he became that villain, building weapons of mass destruction in hopes of dominating the world. (Big Boss in the first Metal Gear, you may remember, was pretty damn evil.)
In the second Metal Gear, the bad guy was Real Big Boss. Also evil. And because we know nothing about where he went or what he did while Venom was building Mother Base, his motivations also remain unclear. In cassette tapes, both Big Boss and Zero talk about realising The Boss's vision of a nation of soldiers without borders, but it remains ambiguous how that vision translated to "let's build nukes and murder people and maybe take over the world!"
It's all very messy and muddled, even by Metal Gear Solid standards, and it's cheapened by a twist that seems to exist only to shock people. Not that it did a very good job there — The Phantom Pain's trailers have been full of spoilers; the prologue signals pretty heavily that Ishmael is the real Big Boss; and fans had predicted Venom's true identity since they discovered that Kiefer Sutherland voiced the medic in Ground Zeroes. Hell, the reveal trailer for Metal Gear Solid V opened with Kaz in the hospital asking, "What about him?"
Even if Chapter 2 of The Phantom Pain didn't feel so incomplete, and even if it didn't seem like we were missing half the story here, the Phantom Big Boss twist would still cheapen everything we did in the game. Which is too bad, because the gameplay is so excellent that I'd thoroughly recommend Metal Gear Solid V to just about anyone. And I was really looking forward to seeing how Big Boss became Big Boss. Instead, much like Kojima's relationship with Konami, it seems like Metal Gear Solid will end on a sour note.