All parties have likely reached the end with “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” given Kojima’s dramatic departure from Konami earlier this year alongside what appears to be a company-wide shift away from expensive console games. Built as an open world game spread across two massive environments, one in Afghanistan and another on the border between Angola and the former-Zaire, “The Phantom Pain” puts you in control of Big Boss as he seeks revenge against those responsible for the violent ambush at the end of last year’s short prelude, “Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes,” which left him in a coma for nine years.
“The Phantom Pain” abandons the linear, filmic spectacle of earlier games in favor of loosely serialized missions, usually framed as contract jobs from mystery clients who need a former operative rescued or a piece of experimental technology burgled. Payment earned from these missions can be used to develop new weapons and tools for later missions or build up new facilities at Big Boss’s floating base in the ocean off the coast of Seychelles.
You’ll build up the staff for your base by tranquilizing enemy soldiers and using a Fulton balloon to extract them off the battlefield. These soldiers are used to help defend your base from online invasions in the game’s Forward Operating Base mode, where a player can try to steal resources or kidnap your soldiers for use on his base unless you or one of your AI controlled soldiers can kill them first.
Earlier “Metal Gear” games often seemed to strain against video game conventions with aggressive interjections from cutscenes and codec calls during which all forms of interactivity ground to a halt. The games were also loaded with a huge number of weapons and items whose uses often felt unclear or extraneous in the linear corridors and tightly-controlled arenas where a tranquilizer gun and med-pack was usually sufficient.
“The Phantom Pain’s” openness feels like Kojima finally found a technical platform broad enough to make use of all of those tools and trusts players to build their own narrative drama from the way they choose to put these tools together for each mission. Accompanying all of this tactical gear is a dynamic enemy AI, capable of moving not just through a single compound but patrolling the whole map.
Still, there are telling limits to the openness. “The Phantom Pain” has farms but not farmers, villages but no villagers, trading posts but no traders. The game has no place for human life that isn’t trapped in orbit around militarized conspiracies and shadow organizations.
The game’s story is as enthusiastically elaborate and gracelessly metaphoric as earlier games, turning its epigraph from Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran — “It is no nation we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake; our native tongue is our true fatherland”— into a plot about a parasite that’s activated by the sonic properties of specific languages, which transforms its hosts into empty shells bent only on keeping the parasite alive.
“The Phantom Pain” uses this bizarrely literal interpretation of a philosophical abstraction as pretext to engage a number of morally confrontational subjects – a colony of child soldiers, chemical experiments performed on unwitting Africans, forced sterilization to prevent the parasite’s spread, and the introduction of Quiet, the most gratuitously sexualized female character Kojima has ever created. An optional “Buddy” character who ends up playing a central part in the game’s conclusion, Quiet is dressed in ripped nylons, a leather thong, and bikini top. In almost every scene she appears, the camera hovers on her breasts, buttocks or crotch as often as it focuses on her face.
Kojima has written a narrative justification for Quiet’s appearance — she’s infected with a form of the parasite that requires her to absorb water and oxygen through her skin to stay alive — but it’s an absurd one that doesn’t quite work as camp or critique.
As an intermittent admirer of the series, I found “The Phantom Pain” unexpectedly emotional, not as a story or as an arrangement of digital things to play with, but as a parting gesture to a community of which I have occasionally been a part. The game works as a frame for asynchronous intimacy, keeping company with people who, for the most part, aren’t present, its visual beauty inseparable from the severity of the working conditions required to build it. After 45 hours of play, the game tells me I’ve only finished some 30%. It feels like a monstrosity that could go on forever, a shambolic whirligig of a series that was never meant to be more than one game.
“The Phantom Pain” is the summation of the shared history of a designer who wanted only to make something other than another sequel and the players who wanted another reason to return to a world he’d sold them on too well. “It doesn’t feel like this is over,” Big Boss says at one point in the game, “and I’ll never be whole again.” This kind of tortured melodrama feels like the best possible ending for Kojima’s biggest failure. No matter how exciting, offensive, or incoherent some of his turns have been, there has always been something beautifully true to life in his willingness to try.
*Editor’s note: This review was based on the reviewer’s attendance at a four-day review event hosted by Konami.
Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Slate, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, Kill Screen, Edge, and Gamasutra. Follow him on Twitter @mike_thomsen.