Metal Gear Solid V is not just a masterpiece, it’s also creator Hideo Kojima’s farewell to the series
Kojima has not only crafted the best stealth game ever, but a fitting conclusion to a saga that began almost three decades ago
When Hideo Kojima was a young boy, his parents introduced a daily ritual. Each evening, the family would sit down to watch a movie together. Kojima wasn’t allowed to go to bed till the film had finished, even if it contained sex scenes. His experience was, he has says, the “opposite” of how it is for most children. Those kids had to finish their cauliflower. Kojima had to finish his Coppola.
This childhood ritual seeded in Kojima a deep love of cinema, which can be seen running throughout the Metal Gear series of military-themed video games that he’s directed over the past three decades. These expansive games of khaki-coloured hide-and-seek are routinely interrupted by an overabundance of exposition-laden cutscenes, which has led some to suggest that their creator is just a frustrated film director. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain – for the PlayStation 3 and 4, and Xbox 360 and Xbox One – puts an end to all that talk. This is a sumptuous, deluxe, groundbreaking game, and proof positive that Kojima is the master of the medium.
The year is 1984 and you are Big Boss, the leader of a private military contractor, primarily working in Afghanistan and Zaire, taking on freelance assignments to rescue prisoners of war from the Russians, for example, or blow up strategic military assets. You work without moral judgment. “The world calls for wet-work,” says one of your company’s co-founders, early in the game. “And we answer. No greater good. No just cause.”
Big Boss, like some kind of special forces Mary Poppins, carries a bottomless bag of tools and toys, and is supported by an increasingly competent team back home.
Metal Gear Solid’s familiar rhythms of commando-crawling through the tall grass, ducking behind walls, luring guards with careful taps and whistles, and popping off tranquiliser darts are all present. Veterans of last year’s Ground Zeroes amuse-bouche will also recognise the pleasingly clutter-free screen and the now essential “reflex mode”, which triggers a few seconds of slow motion the instant you’re spotted by a guard, offering a moment’s grace in which you can attempt to incapacitate your captor. Less familiar is the vast playpen in which you operate, traversed either on foot, by horse or other means, and filled with things to do.
Unlike so many other open-world games, this field is not littered with meaningless trinkets and treasures (although, if you do find a diamond in the rough, it will contribute to your company’s purse). Rather, everything you find and harvest, every piece of information you cajole out of a guard at knifepoint, every single weapon and vehicle you commandeer works toward a unified goal: success.
Although it might not seem like it from first appearances, Metal Gear Solid V’s heart is a business sim. You are the on-the-ground chief executive, building a workforce who carry out research and, later, missions on your behalf from your base, an oilrig stationed in the Seychelles. The systems are rich and intricate, and combine to form a complex yet smooth metaphorical engine, one that drives you into and through the game with even more force than its pitch-perfect sneaking and combat. Almost every enemy soldier you encounter can be stunned or put to sleep with a tranquiliser dart. Then, they can be parachuted back to the base, where they become the latest recruit in your private army (even if some have to spend a few days in the brig, waiting to be convinced first).
Once recruited, each soldier can be deployed in one of a number of research teams, either providing you with intel in the field, helping to develop new weapons and items, or providing medical support on the base (later, you are even able to scan soldiers to judge their various expertise, or lack thereof, helping you to become a more discerning recruiter in the field). A soldier with a unique skill, such as the ability to understand a foreign language, will revolutionise your company, allowing you, for example, to interrogate Russian or Pashto speakers, where before you could not understand them. The more men and women you recruit, the quicker your interactive vocabulary expands, adding a new decoy, type of camouflage, upgrade to your helicopter or piece of hardware with which to take out a tank (there are hundreds of these weapons and items to develop). Then, when you fill each department’s staff quota, you can expand the base itself, to create yet more room.
The base is not a metaphor, or something rendered only in menus. It’s a real place, to which you are able to return after each sortie. You can wander its clanking walkways and listen to the slop and groan of the sea below. Your men will salute when you draw near, and returning home from Afghanistan every now and again improves staff morale, helping them to get things done quicker. Almost everything you encounter in the field can be parachuted back to base, from medicinal plants to enemy gun turrets, vehicles and, eventually, even giant crates. In this way you become a hunter-gatherer, collecting materials for your family back home (Ocelot, the base’s manager, repeatedly urges you to stop by regularly, lest the men begin to “miss you”).
Later in the game you even develop a zoo on the base, a series of platforms, rendered in exquisite detail, that house an aviary, vegetable patches and pens for the animals you send back home (paid for by an animal welfare NGO that wants to take the creatures out of harm’s way). In this way, the base becomes a physical representation of your achievements and story – and also something of a home.
The Phantom Pain is an unabashed survey of combat in the field. For all the Hollywood-esque dives for cover, the slow-motion headshots or the ludicrous Enemy At The Gates-style sniper face-offs, there are serious side-missions in which, for example, you must clear a field of mines to protect the locals, or, much later, scenes in which you fight against child soldiers (characters that, hitherto in the series, have only been talked about, never encountered during play).
The primary story, then, is told via your choices, and the ways in which the game records them, as much as via the meandering cinematic cutscenes for which the series is well known. These formally plotted theatrical segments do feature, especially in the game’s overbearing, high-production opening hour: an explosive escape from a besieged Greek hospital.
From here, however, Kojima and his team show unexpected restraint. Metal Gear Solid’s winding, arcane story is, perhaps for the first time, tamed by Kojima, who has always struggled to fit his overabundance of ideas into the game’s structure. Most of the historical details are now relegated to the game’s cassette tapes, which can be played in the background, whenever you wish during sorties. By sidelining the backstory and exposition (which is expertly delivered by the game’s voice actors, who include Kiefer Sutherland and Troy Baker), Metal Gear becomes a far more lithe and streamlined production.
The game is a masterpiece of structure, too. Formal missions are chosen from a selection of non-linear options from your helicopter command centre, which then drops you off at a location you specify. Once you arrive, you’re free to toddle off to complete some supplementary freelance mission, or to simply collect resources.
Kojima’s humour remains present throughout. In one series of side-missions, you must search for long-lost recruits from an earlier iteration of your base, who have been wandering the desert the past few years, remaining true to the cause. Track one of these men down, and he will flee from you. You must find a way to convince him that you are his boss, at which point the tearful reunion takes place.
It is, at times, a tonal confusion, the result of mixing serious points about the military-political complex with supernatural characters who can leap buildings (there’s also a deadly female sniper who wears close to nothing). But here the brand of magical realism that Kojima has been trying to land for years finally finds its feet.
Smart, funny, serious, mystical – this is lavish, luxurious game-making. It’s no wonder that its publisher, Konami, appears to have panicked at how long and how expensive the game was to make, and have reportedly cut Kojima and his studio off from future projects as a result. There are, surely, only a handful of backers in the world who would be willing or able to finance such an ambitious project, and to such a preposterous degree of finesse. Konami’s gamble is our gain. Metal Gear Solid V is an industry-changing triumph.
It is comfortably the best stealth game yet made. But that accolade sells it short. This is the final evolution of a video game director’s singular vision, one first painted in the crude pixels of the 1980s and now fully realised, fully resplendent.