Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is full of nonsense. The story is nonsense. The characters are nonsense. The universe in which the game takes place is pure, unadulterated, nonsense. Yet it is also one of the best games ever made and a masterpiece of the game designer’s art. In one beautiful, absurd, compelling, infantile work Hideo Kojima and his team have produced the supreme example of the importance of gameplay. In other words MGSV is a game that is just so much fun that it completely transcends its failings.
Those failings come at you thick and fast at the outset of the game and reappear at any point where it attempts to engage you with its characters or setting. From the agonising prologue which feels like it lasts somewhere between half an hour and six years right through to the final scene the story rumbles along like a convoy of clown cars. The plot feels like a work of adolescent fan-fiction, which is sadly a charge that could be levelled at many videogames, but MGSV takes this to an extreme with its political pontificating, continual leaps of logic and crude literary references. Much has already been made of how poorly the game portrays its female characters but in the context of this game and it’s disconnect from all things mature and rational it is hardly surprising.
What saves MGSV, indeed what elevates it way above being saved and up into the pantheon of classic games, is its game mechanics, the interconnecting system of rules for the world you play in and how your character interacts with it. When you get to grips with the game, roaming around within the world it has created and dealing with the problems it presents you with, it is fun. That simple three letter word so easily overlooked in the pursuit of art, or higher meaning, is the reason we all play games in the first place.
How MGSV succeeds in being fun lies partly with how robustly the game world is built. It is a sandbox with relatively few characters in it, but those characters have purpose. Rather than doing what games like GTA V and The Witcher 3 have done in terms of creating naturalistic looking worlds that are essentially well dressed movie sets within which the action takes place, MGSV instead creates a world that isn’t trying as hard to look realistic but where your interactions with its objects and population are more interesting. There are no random civilians wandering around to give the areas a sense of being busy, there are no enemies popping into existence in huge numbers in the middle of nowhere. The game, in its open world state, doesn’t use people as mere decoration, they have purpose and value.
We can see this most clearly with the AI for the characters in the game. If you are detected by a guard they’ll shout out to their friends and then attack you as a team, some will attempt to supress you with gunfire, others will flank you and somebody will make the call to HQ for reinforcements. If you’re very unlucky and they have a mortar handy you can expect one of them to bring that into play to either dig you out of cover or bury you in it. Meanwhile outside of combat the behaviour of the guards, the way that they grow suspicious and act on those suspicions carefully, gives them an inquisitive almost lifelike quality. These aren’t the typical stealth game guards that will go back to business as usual having just discovered the brutally slaughtered corpse of a colleague as in so many other stealth games, a single overheard gunshot, if reported up the chain of command, can put an entire base on alert.
Overall this emphasis on function over form creates a game that allows for endless experimentation and interaction. Perhaps for instance when confronted by a prisoner rescue mission I’ll sneak into the enemy base, avoid the guards, grab the hostage, sneak them out the same way I came in and float them back to base using a balloon. Or maybe I’ll call in a helicopter gunship with Take On Me blaring from on-board speakers to attack the base, while I gallop through on horseback armed with a shotgun, blast anybody who gets in the way, sling the prisoner onto the back of the horse and disappear into the night. Or maybe I’ll do a little of both. When a game handles every style of play from creeping around in a cardboard box to mechanised warfare with similar aplomb there really is no wrong answer.
That is not to say that everything about MGSV on a mechanical level is perfect, when you’re not on the ground doing your sneaky ninja and/or Rambo thing the game does throw up some annoying elements. For example there is a lot of needless waiting around for research and base upgrades and the game has in-game purchases, which creates a sense that some of this waiting is there to incentivise you to throw real money in to speed things up. It does not reflect well on the developers or the publishers of MGSV that in-game purchases made it into a full price game while so much of it still needs work.
Those elements outside the game, building up your army, researching upgrades and so forth, could have been a lot more engaging. The ability to recruit almost anybody you meet by evacuating them from the battlefield (whether they like it or not) and then to put them to work in your base, or even play the game as them is great. It feels again though that this area of the game is unfinished, that perhaps I should be recruiting my scientists from labs and my doctors from hospitals, rather than finding world class medical and research personnel pulling sentry duty on Soviet roadblocks in Afghanistan.
Yet for everything that feels unfinished and for all the rambling strangeness of the story, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain remains an outstanding game. It could have been so much better, that much is clear to anybody who plays it for any length of time, but the beating heart of the game, the moment by moment action, is nothing short of sublime. It carries the burden of the flawed story and the unfinished elements without breaking stride.
The simple joys of sneaking into places you’re not allowed to be, of evading and escaping hordes of baddies, of attaching people, cargo and puppies to balloons cannot be underestimated. MGSV serves as a timely reminder that the feature-list box-ticking of the big budget games and the earnest artistry of the indie games mean nothing without a fundamental appreciation of what is fun to play.