Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain Of Disappointment

It truly is the end of an era. As Konami’s public relations death spiral continues, torching their every professional relationship like a gephyrophobic pyromaniac, it’s finally Metal Gear Solid’s turn for the chopping block (at least until the inevitable pachinko machine). As a long-time fan of the series who considers Sons of Liberty to be one of gaming’s finest artistic accomplishments I could hardly have been more eager to get my grubby mitts on the series’ swan song, but by the closing credits I found myself somewhat relieved that it’s over.

Hideo Kojima’s tussles with his bosses over this game have been well-documented elsewhere so I won’t reiterate them, but in the final product he seems to be somewhat overcompensating as every single mission begins and ends with his name, a move initially coming off as a righteous jab at his former employer but which quickly feels like an almost Wiseauean level of egotism. This time the auteur’s decided to go open world, which proves something of a detriment to the series. Mechanically the game is very solid, stealth and combat are the smoothest they’ve ever been and traversing the beautiful Afghan landscape to infiltrate a base and kidnap people with balloons is natural and fluid, never feeling clunky aside from a bug causing snake to run sideways endlessly which got me killed more than once. After some initial fun however the flaws quickly make themselves apparent.

First, the open world structure kills any sense of story drive or pacing. Doing side missions or building up your base as the game tells you forces the plot to take an almost total backseat; for the first twenty hours I played after the opening doing what the game encouraged me to do almost nothing happened narratively. It also has the same problem of recent Far Cry games in that while the map is huge and expansive practically every enemy base is cobbled together from identikit buildings. None have any real personality as a result and so the map feels remarkably drab and repetitive, with even a mid-game setting change from Afghanistan to Zaire lacking any distinct change to the feeling of gameplay. There’s also very little interaction between the player and the world, for all the exploration and wildlife it’s lacking something like Snake Eater’s survival mechanics giving the player an immediate connection to the land around them, and so despite all the environmental detail the world feels very artificial. It also doesn’t help that these ostensible combat zones have no non-enemy presence. You stumble across prisoners from time to time but unlike Guns of the Patriots there are never any skirmishes or friendly troops and this supposedly active warzone feels almost peaceful. The updated version of Peace Walker’s base-building mechanic feels similarly forced and artificial, for all your headquarters’ expanse there’s nothing to do there, and no reason to return outside of story obligation.

Missions have a similar problem, practically every one is sneaking into an anonymous base and either shooting an anonymous soldier, ballooning them, blowing up a static object or if you’re really lucky ambushing a convoy on a road. Nearly every mission is interchangeable and they become repetitive very quickly, and only a few main story missions have anything to do with the immediate story at hand. This destroys any sense of being part of the larger story, which happens almost entirely offscreen. Kojima said he felt cutscenes were outdated but here he has nothing to replace them with. Here’s how the story plays out: Big Boss gets sent on a generic mission involving an anonymous enemy soldier in an identikit base. He shoots/kidnaps the soldier and then Kaz calls you up on the radio to narrate what happened while you were away. Not even a CODEC call like previous games in which two people have a back-and-forth developing both their characters, just a guy monologuing the game’s Wikipedia summary at you.

It also really doesn’t help that the few characters you do meet have been stripped of any personality. Kaz and Ocelot are nothing but nigh indistinguishable grizzled military stock characters and what supporting cast there is are almost as boring. There are no interesting villains either, the main bad guy Skull Face is a cipher without even the traditional MGS gimmick until he gets his villainous monologue explaining himself in practically the same cutscene he leaves the story in. Even the series’ colourful and engaging bosses are gone, our supporting villains are generic supersoldiers fought in repetitive and simplistic fights without any of the complexity or inventiveness of the series’ previous boss fights. Kojima does throw in a few cutscenes here and there, all done as one continuous take which does a good job of integrating them with gameplay but also aptly demonstrates that he is no Alfonso Cuaron. However most of them just consist of Kaz, Ocelot and Huey (well-characterised as an unlikable fuckhead) bickering back at base which gets old fast, and between the lack of engaging characters and the detachment of the player from the events of the story there’s no real drama here. It’s only a story in the loosest sense, and almost all context for what there is is given through optional audio recordings (the single worst expository device in gaming as you’re just asking the player to stop playing and listen to your notes you couldn’t be bothered to work into the game). The ending comes out of nowhere too, the result of Kojima having to cut its entire final third, resulting in a tale with no resolution or point to what has come before.

Then we have the problem of Quiet. Metal Gear Solid’s relationship with women has always been strange to say the least, but while its prior success in juggling wildly varying tones allowed it to create sincere drama out of the most outlandish scenarios (in a similar manner to James Bond) here it completely falls apart. Dressed like a decaying stripper and shot like a Dead or Alive volleyball match Quiet’s mere presence undercuts any dramatic tension, and while this series has featured many ridiculously dressed female characters over the years their outfits fitted with their game’s tone and world – EVA’s spy catsuit suited Snake Eater’s sixties spy motif and the Beauty and the Beast corp’s high-tech bodysuits matched their game’s slick futuristic aesthetic – but Quiet shoots through the suspension of disbelief line and never looks back. The scene of her being tortured later on by electroshocking her breasts would have been my ‘fuck it, I give up’ moment had the story ever had me.

The tonal issue is even worse as Kojima has decided to attempt a very serious narrative about child soldiers, meaning the game flits back and forth between Spring Breakers and Beasts of No Nation from mission to mission. Thankfully though he was smart enough to keep them separate save for one brief cutscene, but they just don’t belong in the same story.

More than anything though, this game feels half-finished. Not just in its utter lack of resolution but in that what is here feels desperately thrown together to meet a deadline. The vague, sketchily-told narrative, the disconnect between player action and story progression and the lack of any of the series’ signature features (colourful characters, complex boss fights et al) make it feel like a first draft of a game, lacking the polish to tie it together artistically. It’s a mess, and the first genuine failure of this series.

Really though, I’m glad this series is over. Ever since Guns of the Patriots wrapped up every single loose end this series ever had the following games have suffered from a severe case of prequel syndrome. No matter what potentially world-changing events occur none of it matters because it can’t affect anything meaningful in the future, as we know how it will all play out. We know Big Boss will be thwarted attempting to build his own nation of Outer Heaven, Liquid will take over Shadow Moses and be killed by Snake and Huey will drown himself after catching his son in bed with his stepmother. The more you add to this series the more pointless it feels and the more unlikely it seems that no-one in earlier games ever mentioned any of it (particularly Liquid). In the end I think it’s good that Kojima will be starting a new series somewhere else, unrestrained by his absurdly convoluted mythology, and I sincerely look forward whatever he comes up with. Until them though, I guess I’ll just have to find something else to fill its space and distract from the phantom pain of disappointment this game has left me with.

Civilization: Beyond Earth

If there’s one series that’s stayed with me throughout my life, it’s Civilization. Star Wars faded from memory, Spyro fell into the shitter and Mass Effect – well, there’s a reason it’s got a restraining order against me. But Civ’s been my constant companion, from babbling toddler tactical advice at my dad’s Amiga Civ 1 games, learning words and history from 2 and spending so much of my youth leading crusades in 3 and 4 for power, science and lebensraum. But it was Alpha Centauri that captured my heart, Firaxis’ 2000 spinoff when they didn’t have the rights to Civ proper, an epic tale of survival and human endeavour on a new world and the wonders and horrors that await us. So when I heard Firaxis was returning to the idea I couldn’t have been more optimistic.

After Beyond Earth is built on Civ V’s engine and the civ management and combat is so similar it feels more like an expansion or a really professional mod (of the kind the company includes with Civ re-releases). If anything it seems stripped-down, missing that game’s happiness and religion systems with little take their place beyond a generic questing system (which removes much of the series’ feeling of freedom). This feeling extends to the rest of the game, with a limited number of units (whose modification system barely qualifies as such) and only three victory types: conquest, science (contacting aliens) or re-invading earth. The latter has variations depending on which cultural ‘path’ you picked, but functionally they’re identical.

And that’s Beyond Earth’s problem, a lack of personality. Alpha Centauri was a masterpiece of economical storytelling, building a wide variety of fictional cultures and a vision of the future both fascinating and terrifying (seriously, it’s a 4X horror game). Every technology, building or wonder was instantly understandable from name alone, and each delivered with a quote that – whether real or fictional – summed up what it was and what it meant for humanity (I can quote many to this day)*. Despite only seeing the world from above or chatting with other leaders (also well-defined and memorable – Fuck you Miriam!), a brilliantly compelling vision of the future (and storyline) was created in a game that looked like this:

Beyond Earth has none of that. Every leader and faction is interchangeable; I can’t recall anything about them. The main Civ games didn’t have this problem as the real countries, leaders and techs are immediately recognisable with the most basic historical knowledge, but a sci-fi spin-off needs something the player can connect to. I have no idea what any of the techs, buildings or wonders are even meant to be, or what they achieve beyond slightly better units or resource bonuses (I don’t know what the new resources are either). It’s all just a big pile of blandness.

And that’s Beyond Earth in the end, a spin-off without enough to differentiate itself from its predecessors or enough personality to stand on its own. I had to look this game’s wiki up to remember enough to write this review, and in a year I doubt I’ll remember it exists until I check my steam inventory, see its name, and release a heavy sigh.

*Alpha Centauri’s The Cloning Vats wonder video, for comparison: