Retro Review: ‘Metal Gear Solid V’ ‘Ground Zeroes’ & ‘The Phantom Pain’

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The Metal Gear Solid Franchise is a legendary series with many games under its banner and the impact it has made on the gaming culture and gaming as a medium is immense.  It’s widely respected and admired for its unique qualities including its well-told, but convoluted narrative. This story is deep and can be traced throughout all of the major entries in the series and while Solid Snake’s story may have ended in Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots there is still more information to fill out with the series other main protagonist, Big Boss. This past year I’ve been taking my time and carefully playing and reviewing each game in the series. Trying to completely put together and experience the complex narrative cleverly crafted by series’ creator, Hideo Kojima whose vision is present in every game that he touched. Fans have been wanting a return to a major entry in the Metal Gear series and while Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker was an excellent portable game they wanted something more substantial. What fans didn’t know was the arrival of Metal Gear Solid V. The game was very cleverly announced with another title before the  actual reveal and while Kojima was hard at work on this game he worked to in essence deliver 2 games. One being that of Ground Zeroes, which is a side game and a setup for the other being the full game of The Phantom Pain. This game is one of the most fascinating entries in this series and it has had it’s fair share of controversy and behind the scenes issues including Kojima not being able to complete his vision. I’ve decided to look at both Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain as one game, which makes more sense given the context of the gameplay and the narrative. A part of this review will be a spoiler-free analysis, but it’s impossible to go into these games without digging into the complex story so there will be a designated Spoiler section in case you want to avoid reading anything. It’s a fascinating game and it’s certainly worthy of analysis. Here is my review of the final important entry in the series, Metal Gear Solid V.

Story

 

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The Game was broken up into two parts very much like some of the previous games in the series, but this time one of those parts was released as a standalone entry titled, Ground Zeroes. The story has always been extremely important in the series so to understand the context of the game it’s important to look at both parts in general and see why they work together and how they tie into one another. This game is different from the rest of the series given that cutscenes are present, but they are much shorter and much more sparse than before making the narrative in essence take more of a backseat this time around, but it’s still the most crucial element. There will be some minor Spoilers not only for this game, but for the rest of the series’ story as well if you want to avoid any details.

Ground Zeroes

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Set in 1975 not long after the events of Metal Gear: Solid Peace Walker. Big Boss is still leading the Militaires Sans Frontières (MSF). His mission is to infiltrate an American controlled base called Camp Omega where young Chico is being held after attempting to rescue Paz, who had been captured. Not long before Boss arrives a new Special Forces group known as XOF departs the base. Chico is rescued and gives Boss a cassette tape, which indicates that Paz is still alive and on site there. After Boss rescues her him and a medic realize that implanted in Paz’s body is a bomb which they successfully surgically remove and dispose of, but not long after when arrive back to mother base they are ambushed by XOF forces. Kaz Miller had explained about a UN inspection of Mother Base, but this inspect in fact turned out to be a ruse set up by XOF. Mother Base is destroyed in the ensuing battle and while they work to escape via helicopter Paz reveals that there is a second bomb inside her and she decides to throw herself from the chopper before the explosion is set off causing it to crash into an XOF chopper that so happens to be pursuing them.

The Phantom Pain

 

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The year is 1984 and it has been 9 years since the destruction of Mother Base and essentially the MSF. Big Boss has been in a coma for all of this time and is still recovering from the injuries present including shrapnel lodged throughout his body and the loss of his left arm. While waking from his injuries the hospital is attacked by not only XOF which is an offshoot of Cipher, but also a man on fire and a psycho kinetic child.  Boss escapes with the help of a man calling himself Ishmael and once Boss escapes the game’s plot hits into full gear as Boss regains control of the newly recreated MSF, the Diamond Dogs who are loyal to Boss. He’s joined by not only Kaz Miller, but also Ocelot as part of the Diamond Dogs. They begin working to not only rebuild what was lost, but to also stop Cipher (the Patriots) infiltrating Afghanistan to learn as much information. It’s not long before Boss learns of Ciphers’ plans to develop a weapon that could potentially bring the world to its knees.

The plot in a Metal Gear Solid game is the essential elements to what makes these games memorable. They are just as important as the gameplay and often times more so, which is why this game’s narrative feels very strange given that the cutscenes in this game don’t even come close to how long or how much it plays into the narrative as the previous games were. There’s a big portion of this game where not much happens in terms of a cutscene that drives the story forward. Most of the main information gathered about the World and the characters comes in the form of cassette tapes that you have to use a menu system to listen to. As a fan of the series it’s disappointing to not have the epic moments of cutscenes that take 20-40 minutes. I embraced and loved that about the series, but this game is much more gameplay focused, which in essence is more friendly to someone who has never played the series before. There are also moments where you can tell the bitter relationship between Kojima and Konami boiled over with some elements feeling a little hollow because of the behind the scenes drama. This isn’t to say that there aren’t great moments present. The story is actually extremely well done and it’s handled with so much care that it neatly fits into and broadens the implications of the series.There are incredible moments benefitted by the beautiful graphics as well as the top notch voice acting, which includes the controversial casting of Kiefer Sutherland as Big Boss and Troy Baker as Ocelot.  The Phantom Pain’s Second Act really brings the narrative up to an incredible level that makes the later missions in the game worth the slower ones earlier on. While it may be disappointing that it’s story is more sparse in this game that doesn’t take away from the fact that it still has a great and interesting story with interesting characters that work within Hideo Kojima’s brilliant sensibility as a creator.

Gameplay

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The series has been known for having a more robust narrative than necessarily a gameplay experience, but that does not mean that the gameplay was ever bad. In fact it has always been great, but the cutscenes were almost a majority of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. With that being said it’s important to mention that this game’s narrative takes a small backseat to its gameplay in a strange move for the series.

The controls of the game have similarities to past entries in the series with the implementation of crouch walking which wasn’t present in the original 3 games. This changed how things worked and not only is that used here it is perfected. Without any exaggeration this game is the best controlling game out of the entire series. The button layout, abilities, and stealth mechanics are phenomenal and this game certainly feels extremely modern in that it’s controls are incredibly intuitive and polished, which in a way definitely feels nice compared to the series’ past with great, but stiff controls. It’s a freeing feeling to be able to run at breakneck speeds and jump into crawling position which certainly helps in the more challenging sections where stealth is crucial. The action is also improved in that going in with a loud approach to enemies is just as viable an option. It’s shooting controls are precise and the attention to detail about how each weapon is used and how you can upgrade it is excellent all around. It’s the smoothest controlling game in the series and it was certainly impressive in accomplishing that. Things changed, but it still feels like a natural progression of where the series was always meant to go.

The game also carries over a lot of gameplay mechanics from Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. The game tasks you to use your “iDroid” to not only look at the map, but to essentially control every aspect of the game. You are tasked with using fulton recovery to build up your Mother Base and to help it build out. You also have stats that build up base divisions such as R&D which allows for weapon, suit, and other upgrades to be developed with the help of the in game currency, GMP. It’s a system that is extremely robust, while being easy to use and it allows for a constant control of the world and the story of the game. In Peace Walker you had to go into the main menu to alter things, but in this game the ability to alter things on the fly during any mission is extremely helpful. You can also use the “iDroid” to call in supplies, air strike, pick you up in a helicopter, and listen to the plethora of cassette tapes that can be found throughout the game. Some of these cassette tapes further the story, but others give you licensed music tracks that you can listen to while completing missions.

The game also carries over the mission ranking system from Peace Walker, but instead of having to do missions over and over again the game offers plenty of side missions to do at your disposal and those side missions aren’t ranked. The main missions have multiple objectives and rankings, but some of these objectives are purely optional even if they may reward you better. The faster you can start upgrading and expanding upon Mother Base, the better you can handle yourself in missions as the game does have its moments of difficult sections.

The gameplay is without a doubt the best in the series. It’s controls are well thought out, the optional missions are rewarding, the features are interesting, and it encourages thoughtful play. It definitely shows the level of technology and care that Kojima put into to make the best game he possibly could. It may be disappointing about all of the background controversy and drama that went down it still remains as a testament to what hard work on a game can accomplish at least from a gameplay and technology perspective. The game is worth playing for this reason alone.

Deeper Themes (Spoilers)

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The series is most known for its ability to tell a Grand and epic story that often has layer upon layer of hidden themes, ideas, and connections. There is no way that I could do this game Justice without going into the finer details of what makes the game work in relation to the series that came before it with all of it’s lore. There are some great moments of connections in this game as well as great revelations so I will have Spoilers in this section. I implore you to go and play the game before continuing to read if you have not already done so.

It’s no secret that Big Boss might be the most pivotal character in the entire franchise. His role shaped what would happen in every single game in the series and he is the most interesting and well developed character starting way back in Metal Gear Solid 3 and having narrative implications that led into the games following. His role is sometimes seen as a hero and other times seen as a villain, but in reality he’s a character that has both in him. In this game he is the protagonist. You get to learn all about the legacy of Big Boss and how his story tied into Solid Snake’s story. His persona is one built around the legend of his name in a very similar fashion to that of The Boss’ story where her persona became much larger than who she was. His vision like hers was one that people believed in and getting the opportunity to see what happened during this point in the fictional history was certainly engaging.

One of the biggest connections the game ties into was the Les Enfants Terribles project established by Cipher (the first name for the Patriots). This is the cloning project of Big Boss that led to the creation of multiple important characters including that of Liquid Snake, Solid Snake, and Solidus Snake. These characters play a larger role much later in the games narrative, but in this game one of them makes a stunning entrance into the story. That is of Eli. Eli is a young, white boy taken in by the Diamond Dogs from the heart of Africa. His temperament and his connection to Big Boss should be evident as to who he really is. He’s none other than the infamous Liquid Snake the main antagonist in the original Metal Gear Solid. Other important appearances of characters include the first glimpse of Psycho Mantis as the child with psychic powers as well as the reveal that Colonel Volgin from Metal Gear Solid 3 was the man on fire. These are huge connections with huge ramifications in the series. In particular, Eli is one of the most obvious direct connections and influences upon the series and having him appear in this game fit the timeline and it also gave us a glimpse at the things that were discussed, but not shown in Metal Gear Solid 4.

In continuing with the seeing things that were hinted about in the past one of the game’s largest and most deep connections is that of the incredibly rocky relationship with that of Major Zero who in this game is the head of Cipher. Major Zero and Boss worked together previously in that of Metal Gear Solid 3. Their mission with the creation of Cipher was to fulfill The Boss’ wishes of creating a world without borders and Big Boss had that same mission, but saw her will as being something different. The creation of the Les Enfants Terribles project that broke the bond between Snake and Zero and they seemingly became enemies, but this game brilliantly includes tapes that show that Zero still cared for Boss. He didn’t want him to die and one of the biggest twists in the game is explained within the tapes received at the very end of the game. With the help of Zero, Big  Boss was able to surgically alter the medic who helped save Paz to become a Big Boss not only in looks, but also in his mind as well. They used hypnotherapy to create a Big Boss to protect the real Boss. It’s a brilliant plan that not only works in Big Boss’ favors, but it also ties up a lot of the inconsistencies in the series including the events of the original two Metal Gear games and the fact that Big Boss in this game has a head wound, has only one arm, and doesn’t speak as much. Everything does come together well in the end and while I feel like there are certainly missing aspects because of Kojima’s removal from Konami it still contains enough of his genius that the story is still incredibly effective.

With as long a game as this is there is a lot to unpack and while it may have lacked in comparison to that of the densely populated Metal Gear Solid 4 it still does a good job at expanding the lore and looking at moments in the series’ history and while I touched on the important large themes present in the series and how the characters’ affinity for The Boss leads to misunderstanding there is still a lot to uncover thematically. The theme of misunderstanding is essentially a big part of Skull Face’s plans. His mission is to eliminate people based upon their languages and specifically the English language. It’s a massive aspect of a story dealing with communication and that theme runs deep not only in this game, but throughout the whole series. I’m immediately called back to the control of communication and control brought about in Metal Gear Solid 2 and how the Patriots system evolved.  Errors of communication and people creating borders has caused some of the most dangerous actions to occur. It’s an incredibly dense anti-war  and anti-control sentiment that has shaped the series and Metal Gear Solid V delivers upon this giving us more context to the series, while also delivering on many of the running themes the series has adopted.

Conclusion

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Metal Gear Solid V has one of the weaker cinematic presentations in the series barring it’s beautiful graphics with huge portions of the game going without moving the narrative forward outside of completing missions and that is a bit disappointing, but this does not make it any less impactful when the great storytelling does show it’s head. It proves that Kojima had an incredible vision that was tampered with and what is left is still a phenomenal experience with the strongest gameplay in the entire series. It’s brilliant execution of it being a game makes it stand out from a lot of the other games in the series and some of this is at the cost of as deep a narrative. Regardless of its faults it is still an incredibly immersive experience that does a lot of good for the series. It may not be my favorite game in the series, but it still is an excellent game that I highly recommend you check out especially if you are a fan of the rest of series as a whole.

Score

9.1/10

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