By Rick Warren / gfn2112
Since we just passed the two year anniversary of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I figured it would be a good time for me to take on the challenge of analyzing this critically praised yet controversial game. This isn't going to be a review; everything to be said on that front has been by someone at this point. Instead I'm going to be taking another look at the game, both with a clear head and the added knowledge of the Konami/Kojima situation. When I finished my original playthrough, I was more frustrated and confused than I ever have been with a video game. Maybe you were, too. Hopefully, this will bring some form of closure for myself and fellow Metal Gear Solid fans.
"Memories... I want to give them to you"
Growing up, I played so many video games. They were always just that for me, though: games. I was young, I didn't care much about anything other than having fun. I thought that was all video games were or could be. Then I played Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. It was the first time I had experienced a game that took it's story just as seriously as its gameplay. I fell in love with the characters and all their quirky-but-awesome traits. As soon as I finished, I played 1 and 2 immediately. Oddly enough, I'm happy I played 3 first. Going through the games chronologically gave me a better grip on the complicated and intricate story. It's thanks to Hideo Kojima and Metal Gear Solid that I began trying more story-heavy games, and the series made me the gamer I am today. Further, Naked Snake/Big Boss is still my favorite video game character to this day. His story is so believable, and the reasoning behind his eventual villainy actually makes sense. Hell, I even agreed with him early on. So years later, when it was revealed that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain would be both the final game in the series and fill in the gaps to the downfall of Big Boss, I was excited and more hyped for a game than ever before. Ground Zeroes was an excellent prologue that showed how dark the story was going to be. I was ready. Then, I played Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain....
When I finished the game, I was stunned. Not by the tremendous gameplay, gorgeous graphics or Quiet's ridiculous outfit (or lack thereof), but by what wasn't there. If you had told me back during the time of Metal Gear Solid 4 that the next Metal Gear game would be lacking a strong story and cutscenes, I would have laughed. Somehow, though, that was the case with The Phantom Pain. Instead of cutscenes, many story moments were delegated to audio files/cassette tapes that could be listened to as you move through the open world. The feature itself made sense, but many of the moments in the tapes not being shown to the player in-game was ridiculous, since they're so important. To list a few: finding out that Cipher was the owner of the hospital featured at the beginning of the game, info on Les Enfantes Terribles and Liquid Snake, Ocelot brainwashing himself, Skull Face being the one who put Zero into his vegetative (and evil) state, details on Quiet's powers and Skull Face's damn origins. These are just some of the many "yellow" tapes, with the color suggesting that they're essential to the story. Had the tapes only held extra information, I would have been all for them, but this was insane to see. The only possible explanations I can give for it are either that Hideo Kojima was discouraged by the long cutscene complaints from previous games and made this disappointing change himself, or Konami was forcing Kojima to go this route in order to save money. Perhaps it was a combination of the two. Either way, the lack of cutscenes/over-reliance on cassette tapes was only the beginning of the game's story issues.
The next problem is one that Metal Gear Solid has never struggled with, either, and it's how it uses its supporting characters. To be clear, this is not the fault of any of the voice cast. Everyone was great, including Kiefer Sutherland. While I certainly would have preferred David Hayter to voice Snake in his final appearance, I can understand some of the reasoning behind the change (which I'll get to soon). Instead, the problem was that most of the characters were simply under-utilized. As mentioned earlier, the game's main villain, Skull Face, was set up to be one of the best MGS villains ever in Ground Zeroes. His voice actor was great. His character design was great. Yet he was absolutely wasted in The Phantom Pain. Despite having a large effect on the Metal Gear universe, almost everything interesting that he did was told through the cassette tapes. His only moment to really be imposing in-game is about 30 minutes before his death, and it's one of the more awkward scenes I've ever seen in a video game. He literally sits in the back of a truck with Venom Snake and tells him his evil plan, while Snake himself does not say a single word back. It's a painfully long, one-sided sequence that never would have happened in the other Metal Gear games. When it's over, and Snake finally takes his revenge, it felt unearned. Maybe having Ground Zeroes as part of the Phantom Pain would have made it feel better to take him down, because honestly, that was as far as Skull Face came to being interesting. This issue of misused characters didn't just apply to the main villain. Ocelot is well-voiced by Troy Baker and has a few nice scenes (like re-using what Big Boss taught him about gun engravings to train some soldiers), but really does nothing important after the intro. Liquid Snake and Psycho Mantis both make an appearance and were heavily teased... but they too fail to do anything noteworthy. This is likely because their main story mission was cut last second, which is a shame because it looked really interesting. The only character other than Quiet (who I'll definitely talk about later) that felt like they had a complete story arc was Miller. Characters we expected to see, like the beloved Frank Jaeger/Gray Fox, were completely absent from the game. So much of the Metal Gear charm was lost due to the lack of character interaction, which hurt even more because this was the final, true Metal Gear game.
Before I move on to a different topic, I have to discuss the tremendous issues that exist in Chapter 2. Instead of filling this chapter with, you know, all of the story put into the cassette tapes, it consists almost entirely of re-hashed missions. Time trials, speed runs and other things that should be optional. Instead, they were required to move forward. What's worse is that these are the same missions that ruined the pacing of the first Chapter. They were basically just renamed side-quests thrown into the main storyline to make it seem longer. Seeing so much padding in a Kojima game is heartbreaking. It was the last thing I'd expect. Spreading the story moments out so far apart made me forget I was playing Metal Gear Solid. There were maybe 3 actual story missions in Chapter 2. Most frustrating of all though, is that this chapter undoubtedly had the best moments in the game. It drove me crazy seeing the Kojima trademarks I knew and loved in these cutscenes. The dialogue was great. The animation was great. The story was great. They were some of the most somber and dark moments I've seen in any game, not just Metal Gear. For those short moments, it felt like I was playing the Metal Gear Solid V I had dreamed of... and when they came to an end, I was stuck thinking of what should have been.
Sins of the Father (but not really)
Of course, I can't talk about Metal Gear Solid V and leave out that heavily-debated twist! When I first saw it, I was furious. I felt like I had been lied to, but maybe that was the point. See, if one thing has changed for me over these past two years, its my opinion on this twist. If you're reading this, I'm sure you know of what the twist itself was. In short, it's revealed at the end of the game that you were never playing as the real Big Boss. You were one of his soldiers in the Ground Zeroes helicopter that took the majority of the damage by shielding him. Your unnamed character took a large amount of shrapnel to his head, and was eventually coerced into thinking he himself was Big Boss while in a coma. His face was reconstructed to look like Big Boss. This was all just part of a plan to help the real one, though. When Skull Face's team of killers found the hospital and returned to finish the job, the real Big Boss could escape in a disguise. Further, Big Boss saw an opportunity and selected the brainwashed and unnamed soldier to be his public face. While he was off in the background secretly working on his own plan, this fake Big Boss could serve as both a distraction and a tool to get what he wanted.
I hated this. How could the series end with me not playing as the actual Big Boss? Weren't we promised that this would be his downfall, after all? Well, in truth, it was. By choosing one of his own loyal soldiers, without their permission, to take on his identity and all the trouble that would come with it, Big Boss is becoming more heartless than ever. He's using a man to fight his own wars rather than fighting them himself, even though he's perfectly capable. He shows that he doesn't care about what happened to Paz, Chico or Miller. Personal revenge is all Big Boss cared about. Worst of all, he's doing exactly what was done to his beloved mentor The Boss: he's using a good soldier for his own selfish gain. This inaction and control of others by Big Boss actually says more than anything else could about how far he'd fallen. At this moment, his judgement became just as clouded as Zero's.
So, we were given Venom Snake. The second Big Boss that we never knew existed. The reason for the change in voice actor. The reason Snake was far less talkative than ever before in The Phantom Pain (he's also the Big Boss that Solid Snake takes down in the original Metal Gear, fixing a decades-old plot hole). To be honest, I think I'm okay with it. Not just for what the twist does for the real Big Boss, but because Venom Snake did become his own version of him. He didn't just have the memories of the original, but his own tragic ones too. His guilt over Paz's death was a nice touch, as was his loss of Quiet. When he hears Big Boss's message and smirks, it's clear that he too sees himself as Big Boss. He's become the legend, and he doesn't care about who he once was. Don't get me wrong, I would not put him near the level of Solid Snake or Big Boss proper. I do think he fits in the universe similarly to Raiden, though. I'm done pretending that he doesn't exist.
Another part of the twist I've grown to appreciate is the double-meaning. Take a look at the tape Big Boss left for his phantom:
Now do you remember? Who you are? What you were meant to do? I cheated death, thanks to you... and thanks to you, I've left my mark. You have too - you've written your own history. You're your own man. I'm Big Boss, and you are too. No... he's the two of us, together. Where we are today, we built it. This story - this legend - it's ours. We can change the world, and with it, the future. I am you, and you are me. Carry that with you wherever you go. Thank you, my friend. From here on out... you're Big Boss.
This tape is the moment where Venom becomes Big Boss, true, but it's also a message from Kojima to the player. It's a thank you for the support we gave the series, and an acknowledgment that we were essential to the story. It's a fourth wall break that works.
With all of this said, I've grown to like the twist. I don't love it, because I do think it could be much better. I wish David Hayter came back to voice the true Big Boss, since it would have made the ending that much more impactful. I wish the final mission would have been Solid Snake taking him down, because it would have been the ultimate final moment that brought the series full circle. Most of all, I wish Venom was more than a random soldier before he became a Snake. I understand that Hideo wanted to make him start as a nobody to further push the idea that we were the character, but it just doesn't feel right. Saying that we're "Big Boss's best man" was a touching gesture, but I couldn't accept it. I spent hours looking up theories that stated Gray Fox was secretly Venom Snake. I wanted to believe them, and I still do. Realistically though, it just is the way it is. The twist is flawed and always will be. I'm going to have to accept that.
Here's to you, MGS V
So far I've talked about what I hated and what I liked about the game. Let's end on a positive note, and talk about what I loved: the gameplay. The reason for all the critical praise was this, and I do understand it. It's not only the best gameplay in the series, but the best stealth gameplay of all time in my opinion. You're given tons of weapons and items to play with, which present you with nearly limitless possibilities. The AI was at its peak, too, and adapted to all of my strategies. Everything looked and ran great. The take on the good/evil system was a neat one, too. Seeing Venom Snake's face get bloodied up, or his shrapnel horn grow based on actions like killing or making a nuclear bomb were very cool. The symbolism added plenty of weight to the awesome "Kaz, I'm already a demon" line. There were certainly some good boss fights too. Most of them didn't match the quality of the other Metal Gear games, but one in particular definitely did: Sahelanthropus, the prototype Metal Gear. This fight made great use of everything MGS has to offer, and it's still one of the best boss fights this generation.
The base and fulton systems were extremely impressive as well. They made use of basically everything and everyone remotely helpful that I came across in the open world. It was always fun finding and capturing the best soldiers, assigning them to jobs and interacting with them back at my base. I really did feel like I was in charge of my own military. All of this was made even better by letting players infiltrate the bases of other players online. I could steal anything that wasn't bolted down which was very entertaining. I even ran into the base owner and had to fight it out with them a few times. The system made clever use of online play, without sacrificing the core gameplay of Metal Gear Solid.
The partner mechanic was a brilliant touch too. D-walker was useful for taking out large squads of enemies. D-horse let me move around quickly and consistently. D-Dog (who is totally a wolf), one of my favorites, was insanely useful. He could spot enemies, gather items and take enemies out all on his own. He became one of my favorite AI buddies for any game and actually felt useful. On par with him, though, was Quiet. Syncing up shots with a sniper is always fun, especially when it works as effectively as it did in MGS V. Quiet always gave me a fun advantage for every battle, and she never felt like a burden to have around.
Metal Gear Solid V featured a wonderful soundtrack, too. It's one of my favorites of all time. Sins of the Father is a very memorable main theme, while Quiet's Theme is a true masterpiece. The great music from the trailers, like Nuclear or Not Your Kind of People, is present. The original version of Here's to You, featured in Ground Zeroes, fit perfectly. These songs and much more licensed music from the 80s can be listened to at any time in the game. For all the flaws of the story cassette tapes, the music tapes made perfect sense and were an awesome way to incorporate a soundtrack
Despite my complaints about the poorly-utilized supporting cast, I mentioned a few exceptions. One of them, obviously, was Quiet. Her entire story was as brilliantly done as her Theme, and I appreciated the reasoning behind her silence. Her final mission in particular was shockingly brutal. It's probably the most gruesome fight scene I've seen in a game, but there's definitely a valid reason for it. Following this, you get to see the wonderful ending to Quiet's story and get to hear her voice for the first and last time. Whereas Skull Face was an underdeveloped character, Quiet was anything but.
For one last positive, I'm going to end by praising a mission from the story that disappointed me oh-so much. Shining Lights, Even in Death is one of the most harrowing and crushing moments I've experienced in any piece of art, be it a movie, book or game. The mission deals with the outbreak of a deadly virus that targets the language of a person. When the individual speaks, they infect everyone around them. There's no surviving it, and those infected suffer until they die. When the outbreak happens on Mother Base, Snake is forced to stop it from spreading. This brings players into the quarantine zone to kill their own men. The first infected person you come across thinks you are coming to rescue them, only to realize what has to happen. Soon enough, everyone that's infected finds out. Some try to run, but they're burned alive by bombs before they can make it out of the contained area. The rest don't move at all. Kojima could have easily made this more manageable for players by making the infected people zombie-like, or by giving us a cutscene that does the deed for us. Instead, he forces the player to pull the trigger on every single person. What makes it so dark isn't just that these are people you recruited, but that they have so much respect for you. They compliment you and salute you as you kill them. Some even hum the Peace Walker theme, adding to the moment. At the end of the sequence there's a person who looks to be healthy, but right before the extraction, you discover that he's infected too. With Venom firing that final shot, it's over. Snake walks down a red hallway and eventually falls to his knees, surrounded by the bodies of his fellow Diamond Dogs. Afterwards, he gives a wonderful speech. It's the moment that established him as his own character and more than just a phantom for me, and Kiefer Sutherland nails the lines. Without question, this is and always will be one of my favorite Metal Gear Solid moments.
Way back before I got started on this retrospective, I said that I hoped to bring myself closure by writing this. Honestly, though, I don't think I have. Metal Gear Solid is too engrained in my life for me to fully move on. The characters were a part of both my childhood and my teenage years, and they're still part of my life now.
Metal Gear Solid V is still my least favorite game in the series because it failed to do them justice and give the series a proper finale... but I'm learning to accept it for what it is. I can try to pretend it never happened, but it did. I can keep being upset about the story flaws, I can keep saying "Fuck Konami" and I can keep trying to believe in theories to ease the pain. That won't help though. I'm going to start looking at the things that I love about Metal Gear Solid V instead of the things I don't. The gameplay. Quiet's character arc. Moments like the parasite outbreak and the Sahelanthropus encounter. These things all deserve as much attention as the problems do. This might me my least favorite Metal Gear Solid game, but it is still a Metal Gear Solid game. From now on, I'm going to treat it that way.
Thanks for Reading - Rick