Part of a continuing series looking at maligned, misunderstood, and forgotten works of genre fiction and making the case for their reevaluation. If you can think of something that you believe to be badly in need of this treatment, send us a message– it may get featured!
Warning: heavy spoilers ahead!
Being the relatively young medium that it is, gaming boasts few truly legendary figures: Miyamoto, Pajitnov, Gilbert, Miyazaki. Even in this privileged company, Hideo Kojima’s name stands out. The 59-year-old Japanese game designer has made his mark indelibly on the gaming landscape, violently dividing opinion even as he has enjoyed continued commercial success. With the Metal Gear series, he created an interweaving narrative of depth and complexity almost unprecedented in the medium while simultaneously pioneering the now-ubiquitous stealth genre. Metal Gear Solid V (MGSV), split (somewhat pointlessly) between Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain, was to be the grand finale of the saga, tying together the prequel games focused on Big Boss and the originals starring Solid Snake, his clone and archenemy. However, due to a well-publicized falling-out between Kojima and production company Konami, it didn’t quite work out that way.
Instead, MGSV went out in a plainly unfinished state, missing a critical last level and other planned features, with Kojima’s name scrubbed from the packaging. The behind-the-scenes intrigue inevitably ended up dominating responses to the game itself; most reviewers praised its technical achievements while criticizing the story’s half-formed nature. They compared it unfavorably with the intricate plots of Metal Gears past, especially 4, which famously ended with a wrenching hour-long cutscene. Even now the dust has settled, you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who names V as their favourite in the series or even recognizes it for the landmark it is. Well—stop me if you saw this coming—I contend that Metal Gear Solid V is not only Kojima’s greatest work, but may very well be one of the greatest games of all time.
What? Better than Breath of the Wild?
Yeah. Here’s why.
For me, at least, video games are about the experience of playing them above all. No other medium, except perhaps interactive theater, has such a capacity to involve its audience and immerse them in a fictional setting. The games that stay with us are the ones who create a world compelling enough to inhabit and allow players to take part in it meaningfully. This doesn’t require an open world complete with minimap and a billion sidequests; even comparatively linear and simplistic games like Super Mario Bros. can provide unique experiences potent enough to sustain dozens of installments.
Satisfactorily explaining the plot of Metal Gear in a paragraph or two is all but impossible, but I’ll attempt it nevertheless. The series essentially follows various iterations of the titular mecha, developed and used during the Cold War by a succession of megalomaniacs out for world domination. They’re opposed at every turn by a soldier with the codename ‘Snake’—first the legendary Naked Snake (later called Big Boss), then his clone Solid Snake. In a clever reversal, Naked Snake ends up building a Metal Gear himself to defend the utopian nation he’s built and is killed by Solid… or is he?
As if it wasn’t complicated enough, that confrontation actually took place in the very first Metal Gear game back in 1987. Since the original Solid-focused trilogy, the series has largely chronicled Naked Snake’s early exploits, building up to his eventual villain turn. This structure may remind some of the Star Wars prequels, but Metal Gear is actually far more successful in making us care for its protagonist, even as he begins to take questionable actions which we know will culminate in a final slide into irredeemability. Nowhere is this more apparent than in The Phantom Pain.
The main game centers on player character Venom Snake, who initially appears to be Big Boss’ new persona after emerging from a years-long coma, but is revealed in the final mission to be someone else entirely: a body double made to resemble the real Boss so as to draw his enemies’ attention away from him. Many players expecting a continuation of Naked Snake’s story leading directly into the original Metal Gear felt cheated—especially since Kojima had notoriously misled his audience with pre-release marketing before. MGS2, still the series’ most meta installment, was heavily promoted as Solid Snake’s triumphal return, only for the game itself to feature long-haired rookie Raiden as PC. The deception was no doubt deliberate, playing into that game’s themes of media manipulation and digital identity crisis. V’s twist serves a similar purpose—in fact, it’s key to the game’s greatness.
Throughout The Phantom Pain, the player engages in the series’ usual tactical espionage operations, sneaking into enemy bases and lurking in cardboard boxes to evade sentries. But there’s also a component to the gameplay not seen in any previous mainline Metal Gear title (though the PSP-only Peace Walker foreshadows it): a Mother Base the player must manage, expand, and defend. It may seem like something out of a free-to-play app, but the system is so well-designed that one really feels like they’re creating their own mercenary empire. The player’s actions on the field also materially affect things back home, so it never feels like two games utterly divorced from each other. Far from it.
The (mostly) unimpeachably smooth integration of the various complex mechanics on display is what makes playing V so absurdly satisfying. Unlike so many much-ballyhooed problem child titles which prove frustrating and broken when finally released, Kojima’s opus plays about as smoothly as one could hope for given the circumstances. Granted, there are obvious cut corners, like a customizable personal mech that never leaves its garage or some minor characters whose plotlines are left dangling (the mission that would’ve wrapped up their story had not yet been completed when Konami pulled the plug), but these annoyances are swept away by the sheer abundance the game offers.
The main campaign and sidequests can easily take 100 hours, largely devoid of grinding—and that’s not counting extra achievements, online play, and various other diversions for completionists. This is one of those games you can get lost in, caught up in building your legend as Big Boss. Every victory feels exhilarating, partly because the gameplay is so open-ended (so all breakthroughs feel like your own) and partly because it all builds meaningfully toward a greater goal: the original Metal Gear, bringing the entire story full circle.
The revelation that the villainous Big Boss defeated by Solid Snake in that game was your body double and not ‘the’ legendary soldier could come off as cheap, but instead it makes the link to the original even more powerfully felt. By the time the player reaches that point, they’ve put so much effort into your mercenary endeavor, suffered through so much in the skin of this duplicate Snake, that they can’t help but feel a deep personal attachment, deeper than the usual player-avatar connection in video games. The player is Big Boss—they’ve earned that title as much as the man who originated it. Just as the original’s Solid Snake was a thinly-sketched action hero template made for the player to slip into, so this new Boss has been tailor-made for us to feel what it’s like to live on the other side. Now that first fateful confrontation feels far more ambiguous than before, yet also infinitely more resonant. Full circle, at last.In the end, despite its production limitations, Metal Gear Solid V succeeds on almost every level. It provides a satisfying end to a decades-old saga, adding a new perspective to its earliest installments, while creating an intoxicating player experience quite unlike any Metal Gear before. For a series that had already repeatedly shown the heights of storytelling and gameplay that video games could attain, this is an even more impressive achievement. V deserves to emerge from the shadow of its troubled development and gain its rightful recognition as Kojima’s greatest work—and a prime rebuke to those who say video games can never be art.