How does a video game series as long, memorable, frustrating and legendary as Metal Gear Solid come to a close? With a game that’s long, memorable, frustrating and, for more reasons than one, legendary.
“Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain” is the (supposed) conclusion to the Metal Gear franchise, which began in 1987. The franchise reached major popularity in 1998, when its PS1 release “Metal Gear Solid” redefined how video games were experienced. Instead of merely testing your dexterity and problem-solving skills, “Metal Gear Solid” delivered a rich, cinematic and gleefully absurd story about the evils of nuclear war. The amount of cut scenes almost matched the amount of gameplay, which was continued for the series’ later installments like “MGS 2: Sons of Liberty” (the franchise’s Matrix Reloaded equivalent), “MGS 3: Snake Eater” (my pick for best video game ever) and “MGS 4: Guns of the Patriots” (I still don’t understand what happened, except one character needs a toilet).
Interestingly, this does not apply to story-light gameplay-heavy Phantom Pain, which follows the story of Big Boss, who, after suffering a nine-year coma at the conclusion of Ground Zeroes (Phantom Pain’s prequel game), escapes an under-attack hospital to formulate his own private military in order to hunt those who wronged him. As Big Boss, you’re dropped into historical-era 1980s combat zones of Afghanistan and Angola in an open-world setting. You can partake in story missions, side-quests or innocent exploring across the hostile terrain rife with enemy soldiers. This is a stealth game, and it behooves you to find quiet, oftentimes non-lethal solutions to your missions, though you can certainly run and gun your way through the game if you choose.
And that’s the game’s greatest gameplay mechanic: choice. While open-world gameplay has been around since Grand Theft Auto popularized the concept in the mid-2000s, Phantom Pain takes it to another level with its rich environments that offer countless options for sneaking, or blowing stuff up if that’s how you roll. Unlike previous games, where the player more or less was forced to sneak past robotic, predictable guards in a confined space, any given base here has multiple ways inside. While the guards sightlines was incredibly slim (they always are in a Metal Gear game), their movements are far less predictable. The environment can also turn on you via sand storm, rain or more, which means every trip to any area in the game offers something new.
As you progress through the game you are encouraged, and other times demanded, to extract knocked-out enemy soldiers (and bears if you choose) to your military base. The soldiers extracted join your organization and can be sent out into battle (unfortunately not the bears). As you earn more money completing missions, you’ll expand your base, which you can use in online multiplayer against other players.
Yet Metal Gear Solid has always been at its heart a single player game, which is why it was surprising and disappointing to see that the attention to detail that so obviously was applied to the gameplay was not applied to the game’s story. Cut scenes are few and far between, and multiple story threads are abandoned near the game’s conclusion.
This is no doubt due in part to the game’s troubled development. Konami and game creator Hideo Kojima (take a drink every time you see his name plastered in the game, I dare you), parted ways during the game’s production, and as a result there have been reports of multiple story missions that were simply abandoned as a result. This results in a game that feels stilted, undeveloped and lacking in the emotional resonance that permeated previous installments. The game’s “true” ending does pack a punch; it’s somewhat tragic for those who have followed the series thoroughly, but otherwise a player can’t help but ask his or herself, after 100+ hours of gameplay, if it was all worth it.
After contemplation, the answer is definitely yes, as the detailed and enjoyable gameplay will keep you entertained hours on end. It may disappoint those like me who played every game repeatedly, and it may confuse others who are new to the series, but otherwise Phantom Pain makes itself one of the most memorable games of this console generation, for reasons good and bad.