So. Metal Gear Solid V. I know, I know, ‘What took you so long?’ Well, you see, I’ve never been much of a Metal Gear fan. I didn’t have a Playsation or PS2 growing up, and by the time I had access to the series I was already getting my stealth fill with Splinter Cell. I eventually caved and played MGS 4 a couple of years after release, and it turned out to be pretty darn good. The eccentric plot lined up with everything I had heard about the series’ enigmatic creator Hideo Kojima, yet I was still able to follow most of what was going on despite my ignorance to the franchise lore. Thus, when MGS V was announced, my interest was piqued. The release of Ground Zeroes only heightened my anticipation. An MGS game that played as smoothly as a modern action game? Sign me up!
Come release day, hype swelled to overwhelming proportions. Reviews waxed effusive for what was already being labelled Game of the Year, and for a solid two weeks no one was talking about anything other than the hijinks they had gotten up to within Kojima’s swan song farewell to the franchise he had created. Lacking both money and time, I held off joining the masses of MGS evangelists until just recently, but now I can safely render my verdict on one of the most expensive, most controversial, and most unfettered game of all time:
Before I start really digging deep into my time with MGS V, two things: one, there are going to be spoilers, so if you haven’t jumped in but you plan to at some stage, you might want to delay your reading. Second, I’m going to be focusing on the parts of the game that I feel don’t work, the stuff I saw little mention of in reviews and general discourse. Despite this, I want to stress that I did have fun with the game; I wouldn’t have put 50 hours into it otherwise. My criticism is merely intended to balance out the unbridled praise already well represented.
My first issue is the least surprising. Metal Gear Solid has never been a franchise known for its thematic subtleties - an interesting contrast for a stealth game to have. Long diatribes on the ravages of war and what it means to be human are commonplace, and though perhaps a little on-the-nose, they nonetheless encourage thoughtful reflection on topics that the real world is, or soon will be, facing. MGS V takes a slightly different approach. Existential pontification has been moved to the backseat in favour of more intimate drama: loyalty, betrayal, torture, vengeance. These themes are tackled without restraint, sometimes to their benefit, and sometimes not.
Pride of place in the ‘not’ category is the game’s representation of buddy character Quiet. One of the few female characters in the game, it is evident upon first meeting her what role she is to play. Clad in nothing but underwear - her outfit is even called ‘Naked’ in the menus - the cinematic camera objectifies her every chance it gets, lingering on her breasts, her butt, and her crotch with voyeuristic creepiness. There’s even a scene dedicated to showing her showering, replete with male soldiers gawking and leering lasciviously.
The game offers an explanation for Quiet’s absent attire, and it’s a real doozy: she is photosynthetic and thus needs to absorb light and water through her skin to stay alive. This kind of pseudo-science justification feels like a cheap cop-out, contributing nothing at all to the narrative or her character. I personally found the blatant sexualisation even more tasteless than in Bayonetta 2, a game that received its fair share of criticism for trumping its titular heroine’s ‘assets’. At least Bayonetta was a willing participant in the titillation; Quiet has no say in her objectification, and not once does the game acknowledge the depravity of its lust.
Apparently even a bullet-proof bikini is too much to ask for
Fortunately, your other buddies are significantly less exploitative - unless you count seeing an adorable little puppy trying and failing to jump into the bay of a helicopter as emotional exploitation. Seriously, though, D-Dog might be the most fleshed-out character in the entire game. His arc from pup to predator may occur with unrealistic rapidity, but it’s still more development than any of the human actors exhibit. Single-note stereotypes are the game’s bread and butter, even as it tosses around notions of betrayal and misidentity.
As cute as D-Dog is, though, my go-to companion was first D-Horse, then the Gundam-esque D-Walker once I’d unlocked him. It didn’t feel like much of a choice, though; both buddies provided the fastest means of traversing the open world. Using anyone else would have meant wasting even more time trekking from mission to mission than the game already forced me to.
And that brings me to one of the game’s biggest frustrations: its unbridled excess. First, let’s talk geographically. There are two main areas of operation, Africa and Afghanistan, and each is impressively large. Unfortunately, the vast majority of their space is empty and lifeless. Between the outposts and enemy bases lies dirt roads and muddy swamps that serve no purpose other than to pad the game’s length. Even the pseudo-fast-travel system fails to ameliorate the issue: calling a chopper in for pick-up means waiting it to arrive, waiting for it to take off again and leave the mission area, sitting through a loading screen to return to the Aerial Command Centre, selecting a new landing zone, loading back into the area of operations, and waiting through the protracted touchdown scene. Oftentimes it’s actually quicker to run the thousands of metres to your objective than it is to take the chopper!
Padding is also evident in the game’s mission structure. Progression in the story is at times gated by completing certain research projects or expanding Mother Base to a particular size. To do this, you need to have amassed sufficient resources as well as levelled up your various support teams by capturing enough enemy soldiers. Achieving this forces you to suspend the story and either go out and expressly harvest the resources needed, or take on a few of the Side-Ops missions - side quests by another name. There are a whole lot of Side-Ops - 157 in total - but that number is misleading. In truth, there are only a handful of different missions types - extract a prisoner/soldier, eliminate an enemy squad, clear a minefield - repeated in different locations. The mission names themselves even betray their formulaic structure: Extract the Highly-Skilled Solider 01, Extract the Highly-Skilled Soldier 02, Extract the High-Skilled Solider 03 - you get the idea.
Real-world timers on research and development projects? Urgh, smacks of F2P.
This is disappointing, because I found that the Side-Ops were typically far more enjoyable than any of the story missions. Their generic objectives welcomed myriad tactical approaches: pure stealth, silent ninja, long-range sniping, explosive distraction, all guns blazing - the list goes on. Sadly, for all their strategic variety, the Side-Ops still get tiresome after a while. Repeating the same mission 15 times in different locations is a tough sell, all the more so when it’s necessary to push the story forward.
The story. Here’s where my interest suffered most severely. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest Metal Gear fan, so my knowledge of the series’ convoluted lore is limited to watching recap videos and skimming through plot synopses on Wikipedia. I imagine if I was more invested in the franchise, a lot of the cameos and story beats would have had more impact, but taken on its own, the narrative lacked weight. Setting aside the haphazardly juggled plot threads, the characters themselves are neither interesting nor endearing. All the talk of betrayal and subterfuge means nothing when the characters have earned no empathy.
Making matters worse are the story missions themselves. The openness of the Side-Ops frequently takes a backseat to more linear, scripted environments and scenes. In many cases, you are forced to abandon stealth and engage the enemy directly in service of the plot. A couple of missions even dump you straight out of a cutscene and into a firefight! That’s not only counter to how I want to play, but it goes against the game’s very tagline: Tactical Espionage Operations. Much like the mandatory boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, these encounters punish the stealthy player and leave them feeling disappointed in their lack of agency. Couple that with shooting mechanics that often feel stiff and unresponsive and you’ve got yourself a recipe for repeated frustration.
Sledding down hills in a cardboard box is MGS zaniness at its best
For all its structural issues and narrative weaknesses, though, MGS V’s core stealth gameplay is top notch. Every time a frustrating firefight or cringe-worthy cutscene forced me to put the game down and step away, I was called back by the allure of crawling and clambering my way through an enemy encampment, Fultoning valuable personnel one by one back to Mother Base without raising so much as a single alarm. That loop was compelling enough in its own right to overcome the issues the rest of the game is plagued with.
Much in the same way Skyrim created countless watercooler stories with its wealth of dynamic systems, so too does MGS V give rise to the kinds of unscripted moments that you can’t help but share. For example, one Side-Op required me to eliminate a squad of heavily-armed soldiers. While taking the lay of the land through my trusty binoculars, I spotted a pair of rabid wolves approaching the enemy camp. Without warning, they set upon a hapless soldier and immediately made my mission one enemy easier. The desperate cries from the unlucky soldier drew the attention of others nearby, granting me a valuable distraction which I gladly took advantage of. I eliminated the stragglers then waited for the remaining guards to take care of the wolves, after which I took care of them with ease. What would normally have been a slow, methodical series of silent takedowns became a tense, sporadic affair thanks to the dynamic interplay of the game’s systems.
In another mission I was tasked with extracting a prisoner from within a heavily guarded enemy base. I successfully sneaked my way in and… convinced a guard to divulge the prisoner’s location. Everything was looking peachy as I secured my target and searched for somewhere to safely Fulton him back to Mother Base, but in my haste I didn’t check my surroundings well enough and stumbled straight into an enemy patrol. Outnumbered and outgunned, I took off, zig-zagging frantically as bullets tore through the air around me. Fortunately, my unconscious meat shield absorbed the worst of the flying lead. Unfortunately, being Swiss-cheesed doesn’t do much for one’s constitution, and after shaking my pursuit I discovered that the prisoner was too weak to survive a Fulton extraction; I had to get him out the old-fashioned way. Stuck in the middle of a base on high alert, that wasn’t going to be easy. I managed to find a jeep and planned on gunning it out of there and hoping for the best, but as I loaded the prisoner on-board a better idea presented itself. I could just Fulton the jeep with the prisoner inside it! That would cushion his extraction, right? I hooked the jeep up, crossed my fingers, and lo and behold, it worked! Prisoner safely extracted.
The surprised baaaah of a Fultoned goat never gets old
It’s that kind of tactical flexibility that solves one of the biggest problems with stealth games: the frustration that comes with being spotted and losing half an hour or more of meticulous progress. MGS V gives you the tools to turn disaster into opportunity without ever feeling like it’s going easy on you.
Reflex mode is among the most useful of these tools. Getting spotted while incognito causes time to slow down for a few seconds, giving you a chance to eliminate the threat to your S ranking. It’s not a sure-fire save, but it’s a second chance that prevents a whole lot of controller-throwing rage. Similarly, the ability to dive in and out of cover grants you a crucial Mulligan in bad situations. As I explored more thoroughly here, the balance between speed and sneakiness that the dive provides is something I think all stealth games should incorporate going forward.
Skimpy outfits aside, MGS V isn’t stingy when it comes to the gear at your disposal. Inflatable decoy soldiers are novel distractions available not only to you, but to the enemy; the first time I ran up to what I thought was an enemy soldier and attempted to knock him unconscious, only for my target to flop down and bounce back like a cartoon punching bag, I literally cried out in surprise. The faithful cardboard box makes its return, this time doubling as a roadblock for stopping traffic and sneaking aboard enemy trucks. Your iDroid - the source for menus and mission briefings - comes bundled with a tape-deck capable of broadcasting cries of ‘All Clear!’ and ‘Enemy Eliminated’ to fool the enemy into abandoning their search.
And your buddies! Overlooking for the moment the objectification of Quiet, the skills your comrades bring to the table change the rules completely. Spotted by a guard out in the open? Don’t worry about it; Quiet will drop him with her sniper rifle and her preternatural accuracy from her cliff-side vantage. Stuck behind a rock with all escape vectors covered? No problem: just give D-Dog a whistle and he’ll unleash the wolf on the situation. Tired of the sneaky approach? Equip D-Walker with a missile launcher and go all Mobile Gundam on the enemy’s arse. The possibility space often seems endless.
D-Walker deserves a game of his own. There aren’t enough mech games around these days.
On a purely mechanical level, MGS V is up there with the best of 2015 - heck, it might well be one of the best playing games I’ve experienced in quite some time. But mechanics alone are not enough for me. I need a compelling framework supporting the core gameplay to give me purpose and motivation to keep repeating the same routine over and over again. That’s where MGS V falters. It fails to deliver an engaging story for someone not already heavily invested in the franchise, and skews too far towards action and bombast in its primary mission design - a fatal misstep in a series built on stealth. My time with the game was a constant back-and-forth between love and hate, and though love ultimately came out ahead, the victory was hardly a clean one.
It’s not hard to see why MGS V was praised so highly, but for me it just didn’t live up to the hype surrounding its release. My reservations do not seem to be shared by many, though, and I envy those who came away from the game proclaiming it as the greatest thing since sliced watermelons. I had hoped MGS V would blow me away and convert me to the cult of Kojima, but alas, Snake has eluded me yet again. MGS V was fun, but it wasn’t the Big Boss I was hoping for.