Retrospect: Metal Gear Solid V

Metal Gear Solid V is a unique game in that it carries a rather large burden in terms of gaming history and culture. It is the effective close of the original Metal Gear Solid saga, the final Metal Gear game from Hideo Kojima – now one of the industry’s most valued creators – and it comes at a point when the IP owner, Konami, faces a dramatic shift in its business goals for gaming.

It is a game that both caps off one the longest lasting franchises of the industry – spanning 6 generations – and reflects the turmoil created by the monetization of gameplay features. While excitement leading up to its release was high, the actual experience has not been so universally praised. This isn’t a reflection of a bad game that raised hopes too high, but rather it is a game that at once delivers examples of both the best and worst of game design in a single package. There were no accidents, either, no notable glitches to explain away good and bad aspects. Everything visible to the player seems to be a deliberate choice, resulting in a game that may reflect the shift of Kojima and Konami away from one another, after a decades-long relationship.

The start of the game is a classic Kojima trap; you are promised intense stealth-action and expert gun-play, but are forced to spend the introductory portion of the game waking up from a coma, and dragging yourself through a hospital under attack. It is slow, deliberate, and at times an annoying delay to the meat of the game. But it serves a purpose, forcing you to focus not on the action but on the surroundings to understand the tone of the game – a tone that explores the grim side of modern politics and militarized violence. This is a Kojima staple, and though overdone, it serves its purpose well.

When you finally start the first true mission of the game, you are dropped into the mountains of Afghanistan, with a simple hostage rescue mission. Immediately the game’s high points are highlighted. The open world is truly stunning, even on consoles, compared to other games of similar scope. Little to no performance is lost as you traverse the immense landscape. The game shows off beautiful texture and lighting design, and an overall presentation that delivers one of the best-looking and best-performing games to date. This is a small sample of the high level of polish given to the core aspects of the game.

The areas are big and filled with things to find and do, as long as you focus on the stealth-action aspects of the game. This is also a picture of the best video game horse ever.

Upon actually taking control of the game, you start noticing the same high-quality design and refinement in the controls. The horse you use to quickly travel in the wilderness is beautifully animated, easy to control, and delivers a real sense of weight and speed. Coming upon your first enemy base, the advantage of the open-world design becomes apparent, as this initial, tiny challenge reveals numerous venues of attack and strategic options. The promise of a fully realized infiltration game is so far delivered. Moving around in stealth, switching between weapons, marking targets, and setting up traps are intuitive and deep. Your options are many but easy to access and utilize. Engaging the enemies shows off the excellent combat mechanics as well. Weapons deliver sharp audible and visual effects, and the animation of the main character and enemies adds a sense of realism and therefore intensity to their actions. Moving from cover to cover, aiming weapons, and landing precise shots is smooth and fast, without feeling easy. This combination of excellent combat design and control mechanics leaves you with a sense that you have direct control of your character at all times, allowing you to more easily become engrossed in the action. This sense of direct control makes the gameplay of Metal Gear Solid V one of my favorite experiences in gaming – by far.

Within a couple of hours, however, the seams start showing. The main games of the franchise always depended on a narrative push to progress from mission to mission. While the levels have generally always been somewhat open – though nowhere near what is present here – each Metal Gear Solid game had a clear sense of progression from objective to objective driven by its immense narrative. Metal Gear Solid V, however, completely ignores that design. Each mission is selected and launched by the player, and there are more side-quests than story missions with actual plot. This seemingly benign design choice is actually devastating to the Metal Gear experience; all sense of urgency is lost when you pick and choose when to take on the story missions. Atop this, the overwhelming emphasis on side-quests seems to have influenced the design of many story missions, which for the most part are effectively no different except for a cinematic cut-scene here and there. There are also missions, however, that hit all the right notes in narrative intensity and gameplay – challenging your understanding of what video games can do to address very real and very painful problems like torture and child soldiers. That, however, simply highlights the vast gulf between the high and low points of Metal Gear Solid V.

The narrative drive is far weaker here than in other Metal Gear games, even when to compared to Ground Zeroes. A few moments, however, play out brilliantly. It just feels like there are too few such moments in this story.

These design choices are made worse by the carrot-on-a-stick design of items. The game promises dozens of weapons and pieces of gear that allow you to fully realize the open-world potential for stealth-action. However, after unlocking the first few sets of items – which are admittedly all you need – the other items require intense levels of grinding for items and obscene waiting times measured in real-life minutes spent in game. This, combined with options to use real money to purchase items that can exponentially speed up these processes is an insult. You are promised choice, given as much as is needed to play the game, but then cutoff from the rest behind unreasonable demands for time and money.

The points of the game that finally bring together the stellar gameplay and the rare narrative high-points are captivating and memorable. Rare, but worth it for Metal Gear fans.

I am not reviewing Metal Gear Solid V here. In fact I don’t want to. This is still my favorite gaming franchise, and many parts of Metal Gear Solid V make it one of my favorite games in the series and in video game history as well. Because of that, I am extremely biased. I also have to recognize that a long series of design decisions was made that intentionally handicapped a game that could have been the best in the franchise, and a legendary game in the industry’s history. This is a game I thoroughly enjoy, a game I will continue playing, and it is also game I cannot easily recommend. The level of dissonance between what I experience and what I expect others to experience reveals how easily a small set of poor decisions can blemish an otherwise stellar game. My expectation for Hideo Kojima’s future works are probably higher than for anyone else in the industry; he has shown the capacity for genius design, now he can show it off free from the Metal Gear franchise and Konami.

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