Geeked Out: Metal Gear Solid 5
Phantom Pain was released on Sept. 1, 2015. It is the eleventh release in the series franchise which had its start all the way back on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987.
Phantom Pain was released on Sept. 1, 2015. It is the eleventh release in the series franchise which had its start all the way back on the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987. Hideo Kojima, the game's creator, has also stated that this is the final installment of the Metal Gear Saga.
The series is a touchstone of my gaming history and seeing it come to a close is interesting in many ways. First, it is incredible to see a franchise that has stretched across decades and console families. More impressive still is that all the games are actually tied together canonically, if not necessarily chronologically. And finally, Metal Gear Solid 5 is the most different game in the series from the established format of previous modern Metal Gears, starting with Metal Gear Solid on the original Playstation. There is a certain bittersweetness to it all. Let me explain why.
First off, if you are unfamiliar with Metal Gear as a game franchise, don't worry — I don't blame you. If you've been consuming games like me your whole life you will understand what makes Metal Gear games so magical. But if you are normal human being who plays games to enjoy them, it is understandable how you might have passed over this series. Metal Gear games are pretty obtuse, but it is this very obtuseness that makes them so attractive.
The best way to define a Metal Gear game is by its own tag line: "Tactical Espionage Action." The game is about being stealthy. It's about playing Snake, sneaking into a base with a tranquilizer gun and your fists, and destroying giant robots with nuclear capabilities to save the world. It's also created by a Hideo Kojima, a genius Japanese game developer. He mixes large political and philosophical issues — like nuclear proliferation, private militaries, and nation secrets — with his own interpretation of western machismo of things like Tom Clancy spy novels. The stories are dense, nebulous, and exposition-heavy. I still remember the start of Metal Gear Solid 2, there was a good 15 minutes of dialogue introducing all this information that would make your mind melt; but as a fan of the series you'd gobble it up knowing it was all going to be connected to something later. The stories are messy with double and triple spy agents who flip flop back and forth, various nuclear threats in each game, and humans with crazy superpowers, set in an alternate timeline of our own real geo-political history. Add on top of that, a layer of goofy gamer culture and silly gags. In many ways it's a hot mess, but it is enthralling when you start trying to put it all together.
Part of what I loved about these games is that they were strong linear narrative games. You got your objectives through conversation over a "codec" which allowed you to talk to your commander and other specialists who would advise Snake on what to do next. There were mountains of dialogue to listen to and hear more about the characters. Snake himself was an encapsulating character, given his history as a specialist and his goal to stop any and all Metal Gear. So it has been disappointing to me that in this latest game, Venom Snake is largely silent. Most of those conversations you were forced to have in the previous games are now relegated to optional "audio logs" that you can listen to as you romp around the game world.
The other large departure is the game's structure. Previous titles were linear, with specific plot points hitting on beat like a film. Phantom Pain is structured more loosely in favor of an open world where players pick and choose what mission to take on and when; which makes sense, when taken into perspective with my previous complaint of a silent protagonist. If Snake can wander to and fro, it makes forced linear exposition more awkward, as who knows in what order the player did what mission.
Those two issues aside, Metal Gear games have always been mechanically dense, which is another way of saying very "gamey." The transition to an open world and allowing players to dive deep into the game's rich systems is creating one of the most enjoyable experiences I've had in a game. I have a horse, who has the codename of D-Horse. I can have him crap in the middle of a road where a supply convoy is planned to come through, which will result in the truck spinning out. This allows me to incapacitate the driver, and guard and steal the cargo all undetected. It's pretty amazing. And the game is full of moments like this, where players engage with the game's systems and these incredible player stories emerge. So on one hand this is a great experience, but on the other hand it is missing so many things that make a Metal Gear game a Metal Gear game.
Critically, the game is earning high marks across multiple publications. It makes sense, but knowing this is the last game in the saga makes it a little bittersweet for me.