Since the dawn of cinema, art critics have been arguing about the concept of specificity as it relates to a medium. If a film has cinematographic specificity (artistic qualities that are unique to cinema), does it have inherently more value than a film that doesn’t?
Now, critics have begun to carry this argument over to the interactive medium. Is a game with more player agency more worthwhile, because it excels in ways only video games can?
“Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”
PS4 (Reviewed), PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC
This critical dilemma is the heart of the discussion surrounding the “Metal Gear Solid” series. The popular stealth action franchise’s first four numbered games, while all critically acclaimed, have received flak from fans and critics regarding their cinematic influences. Some have argued the series relies too much on cutscenes and linear narrative. Others have argued that “Metal Gear” ’s cinematic influences are extraordinarily compelling, and are part of what makes the series great.
That’s why it’s so fascinating that “Metal Gear Solid V,” the fifth numbered entry in this wildly popular series, completely abandons the focused narrative structure of the previous major games. Instead, it relies almost entirely on open-ended, emergent gameplay, favoring a high degree of player agency in problem solving over scripted sequences.
The vast majority of “MGSV” is a military open-world game that takes place in two humongous areas based on real-world locations: Afghanistan and the Angola-Zaire border region of Africa. As a member of military NGO “Diamond Dogs,” the player is tasked with completing military objectives. But, rather than cramming its open world full of side activities and collectibles as many of its contemporaries like “Assassin’s Creed,” “Grand Theft Auto” and “Mad Max” do, the world of “MGSV” is mostly empty wilderness, save for numerous guarded outposts.
This lack of extraneous content is undoubtedly a positive thing. With few distractions, Kojima and Konami were able to hone “Metal Gear” ’s core gameplay — infiltrating and exfiltrating guarded areas — into the finest stealth action gameplay the genre has ever seen. This is due to the incredible degree of control the player has over his or her avatar, the sheer number of tactical options the player can use in combat, and the flexibility of the AI in how it reacts to the player.
So, whether you’re focusing on efficiently completing a mission or just dicking around in the open world, the joy of “MGSV” is discovering the clever, brutal and often hilarious ways you can interact with enemy soldiers. The exhilaration of trying something new and having it succeed or fail gloriously is the joy of “MGSV.” The mission structures are generally quite engaging and often act as a creative spark for encouraging experimentation with the mechanics.
Further expanding upon the already excellent gameplay is the “buddy” system, an entirely unique ally mechanic that adds yet another layer of options for in/exfiltration. At any time, the player can call upon an eclectic mix of helpers — a horse, a dog, a sniper and a robot — all with interesting, powerful and upgradable abilities. The buddies each add a new angle of strategy to gameplay, and their most interesting uses are so fun to discover and play around with that they should not be spoiled here.
When “MGSV” ’s full toy chest of weapons, buddies, vehicles and abilities are unlocked, there is no doubt that it becomes the greatest open-world sandbox game ever made.
However, the road to this heightened state of emergent gameplay is a rocky and somewhat unsavory one. “MGSV” employs a progression and unlock system straight from “Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker,” a game for the PSP that, by most accounts, very few people played. To unlock new weapons and items, the player must navigate a complex system of recruitment, staff management and research & development, none of which is particularly compelling, and all of which requires grinding. It’s the kind of mediocre menu-based gameplay one would find in a mobile companion app for a game, more “addicting” than fun.
The most bizarre facets of this system are the completely pointless countdown timers that make the player wait unreasonable amounts of time after unlocking weapons to be able to use them. These feel like remnants of a scummy microtransaction system that was scrapped late in development.
While the narrative of “MGSV” is far, far less central than in the other games, it still maintains something of a presence. The narrative in this game is kind of like Ethan Hawke’s divorced dad character in “Boyhood.” He shows up once in a while with a few cheap presents under his arm, and it’s usually pretty fun and interesting when he does, but you never know when he’s going to ring your doorbell. Him, and it, have consistency issues.
It’s worth noting that the cutscenes in this game are shamelessly catered to the heterosexual male gaze. The way the camera zooms in and lingers on female body parts will elicit at best eye-rolls and at worst legitimate disgust from many players. It’s a huge bummer the direction isn’t more inclusive.
But hey, at least its chauvinism runs at a great framerate. On PS4, this game runs at a rock-solid 1080p 60FPS, a visual standard that few games on the console have met, but more should.
The voice acting in this game is strange. Kiefer Sutherland (Fox’s “24”) is excellent as protagonist Snake, but the character is mostly silent throughout the game. There are several scenes that almost require Snake to talk, but he stands there, mute. Snake’s comrades do the vast majority of the talking, suggesting that there may have been contract or budget issues with Sutherland picking up the part.
One more nitpick: the back third of the mission menu in this game is rife, confusingly, with optional “extreme” versions of earlier missions. While fun, these should have been confined to a separate menu.
While “MGSV” has its share of problems, it’s still the boldest and most original game the open-world genre has seen in many years. Swinging from one extreme end of the “linear vs. open-ended” spectrum to the other is no small task, and the late Kojima Productions pulled it off swimmingly. It will be fascinating to see whether this game attains “classic” status among fans as its PlayStation predecessors have, because upsets in structure this huge rarely do well by internet fandoms. Until then, “MGSV” is a fascinating beast that demands to be experienced by the curious and worshipped by the established open-world gamer. Few games are as risky, beautiful and brilliant. Savor this one.
“Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” was reviewed using a post-release digital copy provided by Konami.