People always try to downplay the story in Metal Gear Solid games. There's always a lot of hand-waving, a lot of 'yeah, it's bananas but...' that seems superficially like cultural cringe. Like the anime Shiki, which -- if you haven't watched it -- will seem like utter trash for the first three episodes until it becomes something awesome. And so you cringe as you recommend it, praying they make it past the Love Hina-esque bullshit and through to the good stuff lest they think you're one of those
That's not really what's going on here. It's not cultural cringe driving people to deride the story in a game they love, it's a con job. Metal Gear Solid as a series has always been the butt of jokes, because it's not easily digestible and gamers are lovable but easily distracted types. So if you think of Metal Gear Solid, you probably think of sneaking in cardboard boxes, perving on Meryl in the bathrooms or whatever. It's too difficult to explain that the game is basically "Escape from Alaska" in the same vein as "Escape from L.A." except with less basketball. I guess I just did that, but I'm a super genius. If you dump someone who isn't open-minded into Metal Gear Solid, they'll learn in the first 10 minutes that the protagonist's name is a dick joke and he shelved a packet of cigarettes so that he could smoke on his mission. And they'll turn the game off and never listen to you again.
So instead you tell them to ignore the crazy story and just try it out. Because if you're into Metal Gear Solid, you're a vector for the virus of Metal Gear fandom, and you know if you can just get them into the game they'll be infected as well. And soon they'll spread the virus as well, tricking people into ignoring the story just so they can enjoy the gameplay within.
Allow me to begin the obligatory trick by saying that the story is bananas. It's more bananas than you could imagine. The opening is crazy long and not remotely indicative of the contents of the game, the cutscenes following are shorter but still complete lunacy. In essence, you play as Big Boss and your job is to build up a private army so grand that nobody can ever screw with you again. You and your friends Ocelot and Miller kidnap soldiers and convince them to join your cause, the whole time seeking revenge on the man who destroyed your last attempt to do exactly what you're currently doing. It's adolescent power fantasy at its grandest, a militant reaction to bullying so epic it involves torture, giant robots and a dog with the ability to parachute people away to an oil rig in the Indian Ocean.
Along the way there are invisible people, rock people, people who can rust vehicles, tanks, helicopters, more robots and more. You can, if you like, skip every single cutscene just to move on to the game itself -- and if you hate whacky stories about all of the above, you should do exactly that. Because if you avoid this game just because you can't invest in a mad man's story, you are doing yourself a huge disservice. Because the gameplay is beyond reproach.
Before I get into that, let's discuss the story specifically. Metal Gear Solid, as I have already established, has always had a problem with tone. Sometimes it's nothing but dick and poop jokes, and minutes later it's non-stop serious conversations about the nature of war and the value (or lack thereof) of Mutually Assured Destruction policies. In one game it will make fun of the saves on your memory card and force you to confront the idea of torture, and it will give both ideas the same degree of gravitas. It will push you to your limits as you marathon mash a controller to save the world, and it will spend way too much time distracted by a soldier who has the runs.
What I'm saying is that the series has always swung wildly between silly and serious, and MGSV is no different. You can be playing with your puppy dog in one scene and rescuing child soldiers in the next. There's no distinction -- moments after you hide in a pile of slaughtered bodies the game seizes the opportunity to make a joke about your companion pissing himself.
By now, however, that's the tone the series takes - it's part of the adolescent charm, a levity that allows Kojima and his team to tackle legitimate situations without undercutting the 'fun' games are so often burdened by, and it's a philosophy present in the entire game. That's why there's a cardboard box, why you can win a boss battle by air-dropping a supply crate on their head. Because Metal Gear Solid is unashamedly an adolescent power fantasy, and so you can't have drama without comedy. And it works, mostly. It never felt to me like the comedy was taking away from the drama, even when your companion was pissing himself -- that also served to increase tension in a very tense scene. Where it didn't work was when the game strayed into nonsense -- a flaming blue whale, for example, never really worked for me.
That's one of the areas the game falls short in. Think about a Souls game, and the story is practically untold. You work stuff out either from the environment or from EpicNameBro and VaatiVidya videos, because none of it is spelled out for you. For some, this is the reward progress offers in Souls games -- the opportunity to learn more about a fascinating and enthralling world, made all the more tantalising because it's mostly unsaid. Metal Gear Solid is the direct opposite, throwing so much at you that you need to sort the relevant material from the chaff.
For a Metal Gear Solid fan, it's near perfect though. The cutscenes were much shorter than previous games, and the story elements hit all the right notes. Big Boss doesn't talk as much as he has previously, but that makes sense in the grand scheme of things -- a piece of shrapnel embedded in his skull affects the language centre of his brain, as you find out very early on, so maybe he's not confident in his abilities. Or maybe I'm apologetic on behalf of Hideo Kojima, who wanted to hire Kiefer Sutherland but realised 10% of the way in that he was expensive.
Kiefer does a great job though, as do all the major players in the story. Whatever the reason for Big Boss' silence, Sutherland conveys a great deal with facial animations. The pantomimicry of videogame acting is almost non-existent except with Dr Huey Emmerich, who flings his arms around like he's being directed by the great Harold Zoid.
The entire affair is treated like an insane, never ending movie. There's an intermission of sorts smack bang in the middle where they show you a staccato cut of clips from 'next time on...', and to avoid the common complaints of 'the cutscenes are too long' there are more than a few "To be continued..." freezes. It's odd, just as ending each mission with a roll of credits is odd, and if there is artistic merit in it beyond egotistical preening it's lost on a philistine like me.
Anyway, enough about a story some of you shouldn't be concentrating on. Those of you who care -- get it. It features one of the most impactful scenes in a game since The Sorrow boss fight in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and it has all the twists and turns and odd philosophising you've come to expect from the series. It's confusing and sometimes a bit stupid, but brilliant in its own way. Let's talk about the game
Holy shit what a game. You don't even know it yet. There are probably systems I haven't discovered yet, and I've got 90 hours on record. I was 95% of my way through the story missions when I discovered that sending my soldiers out on combat deployments altered the equipment my enemies had available. Sick of not being able to tranq guys because they're wearing full body armour and helmets? Send troops to destroy the warehouses containing the armour. Or get them to destroy the sniper rifles or whatever it is that gives you trouble.
That's just a small part of what the game brings to the table. It's systems on top of systems on top of systems. Guard AI designed to look like independence, but on top of that is typical stealth game AI designed to create tension and challenge. Colliding with that is the buddy system, where your partner AI interacts with both you and the guards depending on the situation. It turns every infiltration into a new challenge -- one you become more and more competent at tackling as the game carries on. Even guard posts you've visited previously are still a significant obstacle -- you might have a different buddy, it might be a different time of the day, you might have gone into the mission with equipment for an entirely different scenario.
It means the core of the game -- getting into bases and killing/stealing doods -- never gets stale, because it's never just the same thing. You have far too many options. Don't feel like kidnapping every soldier in a base area? Don't. Don't kidnap anyone. Deal with the results when they wake up and sound the alarm, or get out faster. Or, you know, use bullets instead of tranquiliser darts.
Lethal vs non-lethal is one of those it factors that games bring to the table. Dishono(u)red, Deus Ex, MGS 3 -- a lot of my favourite games tend to give you the choice to kill or not kill, and I think the reason it sticks with me is because it's player choice in action. It's not like deciding to cure the genophage, where an entire species is wiped out due to a decision you made in your lounge room at 3 AM on a Saturday (I'm sorry Wrex). Lethal vs non-lethal is a decision that you engage in repeatedly, and Metal Gear Solid V actually incentivises your decision to not straight up murder everybody.
The fulton system where you kidnap soldiers with a balloon on a hook -- it's part of a much grander system than just 'eliminating threats'. Army management is a surprisingly detailed and complex area of MGSVTPP. Mother Base is a huge series of oil rigs and all of them need to be staffed. So you kidnap soldiers and assign them to work -- once they leave the brig and agree to join -- and you need to decide where they're best suited. The easiest way is to look at their stats -- if they have A level in Intel and B in everything else, chuck them in your Intel team and they'll scout the weather and let you know about predicted enemy movements.
But what if they're equally good at a number of things? Why, then you should check their traits! If they have a troublemaker trait, assign them alongside another troublemaker and they (should) neutralise one another. Or you can put someone with a diplomat trait in their area to curb their dickish ways. There's still things I haven't worked out -- does their language matter? It does in the scheme of the game itself, but does it affect unit morale? I'll probably never really know.
More soldiers means better units means a smoother experience out in the field for Snake, which means it pays to give at least some attention to your Mother Base soldiers. At the same time, it's entirely optional -- even if you don't kidnap soldiers, as Snake's Heroism metre grows soldiers will volunteer to join his Outer Haven anyway. And the game will auto-sort your soldiers into their most appropriate squads by default (although it's not 100% perfect auto-sorting).
Nevertheless, the main objective of the game is to grow Mother Base out into something grand. At times if feels like the rest of the game is there to service your staff management game, as if Kojima wanted to make Football Manager but decided to throw some stealth action into the mix to distract us. At one point a disease rips through Mother Base and you need to quarantine the infected to stop it from spreading. Soldiers die, your units lose levels and morale takes a nose dive. It's depressing as all get out. To quarantine your soldiers, you need to work out what those who are showing symptoms have in common, and you need to quarantine everyone with that trait. I had more than 400 people on my staff at this point in the game, and it took me 23 minutes to sort all my soldiers into quarantine. And I missed a guy. It was pretty frustrating.
In fact, that's probably where Metal Gear Solid V TPP falters the most in my opinion. I personally believe that the quarantine situation forced me to investigate my soldiers more and to become more attached to them, which was a great thing. But too often the game wastes your time without reason, treading water when it should be moving forwards.
From an artistic standpoint I can't see why there are credits at the end of every mission, as I've already said. But from a gameplay perspective it's an affront, a disrespectful action which brings nothing to the table and serves only those listed in the credits. The opening of each mission sees Snake sit on a helicopter for a minute -- probably an effort to hide loading times, ala Mass Effect's elevators -- which would be less galling if the game didn't use this time to spell out exactly which characters were going to show up in each mission.
And the game might need to load less if there weren't so many incentives to leave the world map. Certainly you can free roam, which is perfect for when you want to get some Side Ops done or you want to track and tranq wildlife. But you need to return to Mother Base to wash or you're negatively affected combat wise. And you can't start a mission from Mother Base, you need to call in your chopper and kick things off from the Aerial Command Centre. And when you finish a mission, you can either run outside the area of operations or you can call in a chopper and wait for it to arrive. You do more than your share of waiting in MGSVTPP, and the game isn't better for it.
I don't know why the game is afraid of loading screens, either. In a game as dense as MGSVTPP, tips on loading are your best friend. Half the stuff I know about the game came directly from the tips screen. Some of it's useless, but more often than not you'll stumble across something helpful and the game gets even better again. And it's not like anyone would complain if a game that looks this good
had slightly long loading times -- especially if the game wasn't dragging you up and out of its open-world constantly.
It's odd that the game appears to be so concerned about loading times, considering the decision to tie menus -- even menus for things not related to the online portion of the game -- to online servers. The online portion of the game seems wholly worthless, as far as I can tell -- infiltrate someone's Mother Base, kidnap their guys and then wake up the next morning to see that they've robbed you blind. There's no way to opt out of this system, and infiltrating in retaliation only seems to lead to vague frustration -- if they don't show up to stop you, you kidnap everyone and leave, continuing the cycle. If they do show up, they usually just rocket launcher you until you're dead.
These are just small things in a game of this magnitude, however. I don't know if MGSVTPP is the best game ever, but it's certainly the greatest. It's too large in scope and design to inspire anything other than awe -- even Metal Gear haters can surely appreciate the majesty of the game. It's not enough that the game delivers compelling and interesting stealth-focused gameplay (with 'going loud' being a viable option) -- it includes staff management, resource management and relationship management as well. It's gorgeous, it has a fantastic soundtrack -- including a satisfying array of 80s pop hits to remind you of the time period -- and you always feel like you have perfect control over Punished Snake. And yeah, the story's bananas but... you absolutely have to play this game.