Metal Gear Solid has always been, for me, a slightly baffling mixture of the ground-breaking, the mind-blowing, the absurd, and the head-scratchingly self-indulgent, and that’s perhaps never been so true as with this latest instalment, number 5 (though it feels more like number 20) The Phantom Pain.
Without doubt, there is a lot here that’s hugely impressive and overall it’s a compelling and rewarding game to play. There’s a magnificent opening sequence as a horribly maimed Snake has to escape a hospital under attack from ruthless paramilitaries, a straitjacketed psychic apparition and an insane unkillable burning giant. And that’s just the opening. There’s a nicely realised open-world to explore, bags of different missions and content, strong AI from enemies whose co-ordination and equipment are constantly improving. There’s a vast base to build and populate with captured soldiers and a giant and varied arsenal to research, develop, and intricately customise, allowing for a huge range of different playing styles and approaches. It isn’t excessively clunky like some of the previous games have been either – once you’ve got the hang of it you find yourself sweeping through enemy guard-posts with the slickness and precision of a breeze in the night, spiriting their hapless crews away to serve among your private army and leaving no sign that you were ever even there…
But *heaves a heavy sigh* it wouldn’t be Metal Gear without plenty of frustrations. I know maverick auteur Hideo Kojima is one of the great maverick auteurs of the industry, and that’s really maverick and very auter-y, but the way that he insists on lavishly declaring his authorship of every individual mission, item and episode begins to smack of egomania. You can virtually see his logo on every bush, his name written in the puffs of smoke that issue from Snake’s gun as he lays down suppressing fire. If one signature per painting was good enough for Picasso I’m not sure Kojima needs too many more.
Then there’s the labyrinthine incoherence which has always been a bit of a Metal Gear hallmark. Thankfully, the video sequences aren’t quite the self-indulgent marathons they have been in the past, and no doubt there are a lot of cool visual touches, but overall characters range from flat to stereotyped and deliver a wash of incomprehensible babble. I think I missed one or two, but I swear I’ve played most of the previous games right through and I still, right from the start, had not a clue who anyone was or what the hell was going on. Something about a skull-faced guy holding the world to ransom with super-soldiers but also a plague of language-recognising deadly microbes? Plus giant robots. And nukes. And if you should be as confused as I was, worry not, for the game supplies several hours worth of audio-cassettes in which indistinguishable tough-sounding bass-voiced guys will growl out a sequence of loosely-connected words that will confuse you even more. In the same way that ‘We Will Rock You’ the musical tries desperately to drag into one narrative a set of songs by Queen that were never supposed to have anything in common, the plot here seems to be a kind of straining net-bag desperately holding together all the crazy ideas and cool shit they wanted to include. It’s frustrating, because at times there are really powerful thematic ideas of the kind video games so rarely touch almost emerging – the Phantom Pain of lost limbs, but also of all the things these ruined men have lost to lives of violence. Trouble is, deeper points about the evil of warfare are hamstrung by the obsession with the incredible coolness of military hardware (guns are evil, but they’re definitely less evil once you lovingly customise them with loads of cool shit), and pretensions of gritty realism are rather undermined by strangely quaint esoteric throwbacks like Snake hiding in camouflaged cardboard boxes or grabbing sentries by popping out of portaloos.
One more thing which looms tiresomely large over this game. The fan service. Dear god, the fan service is the most embarrassing I’ve seen maybe ever. The only significant female character wears a bikini all the time. In a war zone. Cos she photosynthesises. So she has to. It’s literally STRIP OR DIE for her. And she can’t speak, cos she’s infected with a deadly voice-activated parasite. She’s a literal mute in a bikini. Sometimes stretching suggestively. In a helicopter. Why exactly the camera has to endlessly, tediously haunt her glistening boobs is not explained in game. BOOBS BY HIDEO KOJIMA. I mean, adult content? I’m all for it. Actual sex ? Knock yourself out. But this adolescent peeking at boobs stuff? And in a game which is, after all, 18 rated? Oh, Hideo, Hideo, I’d hoped we were past that…
13 comments so far
I had the same thought you did. I don’t have any issue with adult themes in video games, but when it’s so blatant and serves no purpose other then straight up fan service….it just loses me. It cheapens a game.
Oh Joe, how I love thee..
Tried Bloodborne or the Dark Souls genres?
Click on the little games category under the title of the post and you’ll see all my posts on games, all four of the From Software games among them, I think…
Joe, Im surprised you never gave a Witcher 3 review? As a man who values quality writing, strong characters, and a gritty, interesting world, seemed like a tight fit with your sensibilities.. Also, would you ever consider being the lead writer for an rpg? Once I get $50 million together, I’m going to start my own game company.. Just wanted to know 10 years in advance if you would be interested.
Where is the Witcher 3 review? I know you were playing it.
On Witcher 3, yeah, forgot to review that one. Played it, loved it, will talk about it at some point soon…
I’m with Artorias, waiting for the TW3 review. 🙂
I highly recommend playing the first DLC too ( Hearts of Stone – more of an expansion really).
As far as games go, I’m waiting for the Bloodborne DLC, TW3 second expansion and then Dark Souls 3.
Also, I know it’s completely off topic, but since it’s the newest blog post… Any news on the comic series, Joe?
I really liked the first part, wouldn’t want it to not continue…
Looking forward to your thoughts on Witcher 3. Maybe with DLC thoughts as well? I am playing the first DLC right now and it’s excellent.
Another vote for your The Witcher 3 Review!
Would be really interesting to see where it ranks for you.
For me it is up there with Skyrim and Dark Souls 1. Much better than anything Bioware has ever produced.
i love your review almost as much as your novels.
Great review. We share quite some frustrations :). What I also find very frustrating is the fact that there is no difficulty setting (unless I missed it). When I shoot a rocket launcher at my horse standing next to it, (accidentally the first time), I expect both me and my horse to be dead. But no, … We both somehow survive.
Hello Mr. Abercrombie I hope all is well ! My name is Elliott Gangwer I live in San Antonio Texas with my wife and two kids. I realize this isn’t the appropriate place to comment on your books but this was the first opportunity I came across. Anyway, I just wanted to say that I recently finished last argument of kings and I am devastated that it’s over. What an amazing series…I have so many questions about the characters I’ve grown to be fond of and where exactly they are headed. The way it ends is perfectly sewn together but still leaving me wanting. I came to the website hoping to catch a glimpse from the following books that might involve some insight on Logen, ferro and the others. Anyway just hoping you could point me in the right direction…I want to say thank you and compliment you on a truly amazing series. Your books belong on a special shelf that all fantasy readers should come across. I have passed along the series to a friend at the fire station I work at and will continue to do so !