Thursday, September 17, 2015
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is great. This is not a point that many people will be willing to challenge. I gave it a relatively glowing review a couple of days ago, stating that it "makes an absolute mockery of every genre entry that preceded it." Oh, and also the plot is crap, which is a bit of a nag for a series that has largely made it this far on the strength of its plot. This doesn't prevent The Phantom Pain from being awesome, but it does warrant criticism, and since I can't spoil the specifics in the actual review, I figured I'd do that here.
For this post, I'm stealing Rob Bricken's popular "Spoiler FAQ" format, though I doubt it'll be an issue, since no one ever reads anything that I've posted on here. Nevertheless, here's my relatively complete take on everything that The Phantom Pain's story gets wrong (or, at least, everything that I could remember, since the game's narrative failure is long and winding.) Big thanks to David Roberts for proofing this and correcting a couple of things, because what a treacherous road Metal Gear's lore is.
So what's the Metal Gear series about?
It's about a soldier who led a successful mission in the '60s and the subsequent attempts to either replicate or kill him over the next five decades.
Good heavens, no, but that's the gist of it. Though Big Boss's reputation as the greatest soldier who ever lived maybe be a little exaggerated, since it was revealed that his success in Operation Snake Eater was more or less orchestrated. But I digress.
So where does The Phantom Pain lie in all of this?
Well, after a disillusioned Big Boss left the military, he spent roughly the next decade assembling a private band of mercenaries with the help of a fellow named Kaz Miller. In 1975, his headquarters were destroyed when an inspection turned out to be a ruse. A guy named Skull Face leads the attack, which puts Snake in a coma for nine years. When he wakes up, he's, like, really angry about that.
So The Phantom Pain is just a revenge story?
Not quite. Skull Face has an evil scheme, i.e. he's engineered a deadly parasite that that's only triggered by specific languages. His intention is to use the strain to wipe out all English speakers on the planet.
Jesus. What's the point of that?
Well, he seems to think that the English language is some sort of ethnic cleanser. He's Hungarian, and he believes that the spread of English is some form of psychological warfare used to erase cultures, or something to that degree.
That certainly sounds like something Kojima would come up with. But why did he go after Big Boss specifically?
He hated Big Boss stealing the spotlight, I think?
Honestly, the only reason his plan fails is because Big Boss gets involved, and that only happens because he makes things so personal. He's a bit of a bumbler, really.
So who is Skull Face?
He's a guy whose face looks like a skull.
I know, but like, what's his backstory?
Remember Major Zero, your commanding officer from the first game? Turns out he actually ran a second unit that functioned as a sort of invisible cleanup crew for FOX. This unit was called XOF, because it's a mirror of FOX or something.
So Skull Face is working for Zero, then?
Well, no, actually. In fact, Skull Face is the one who eventually induces Zero's vegetative state. Turns out he was secretly building his own influence in the military to carry out his ulterior schemes.
Anything else I should know about this guy?
He's been using Huey Emmerich to build a bipedal nuclear launch platform called...
Oh. So wait, why does he need that thing when his plan revolves around vocal cord parasites?
I've spent almost a hundred hours with this game and I can't answer that. And the funny thing is that the creation of Sahelanthropus is the other thing that leads to Skull Face's defeat, since Psycho Mantis winds up taking control of it and using it to destroy his base and kill both him and his most intimidating subordinate.
Psycho Mantis is in this game?!
Don't get excited. He kinda just shows up from time to time and does the "Psycho Mantis pose" before disappearing again. He never talks and it's never really established what his motives are. It seems like he's working for Skull Face, but then he just kind of turns on him without any apparent reason.
So he possesses Sahelanthropus, which I'm assuming Big Boss must then fight?
And that's it?
No, that's not it. We may never know what was going on between Konami and Kojima behind the scenes, but it honestly feels to me like Kojima had planned for Skull Face's defeat to be the finale of the game but then rushed to include more connective tissue between the Big Boss and Solid Snake stories once he realized that this would be his final Metal Gear. So after what feels like a conclusion, up to and including a full credit roll, Kojima then introduces a bunch of additional plot threads that he doesn't have the time to properly address.
Well, like a character named Eli, who is pretty much the worst thing about The Phantom Pain.
He's Liquid Snake, i.e. one of Big Boss's clones. The evil one, specifically. And you'll know it the minute you set eyes on him if you're even a casual fan of this series.
How does he figure into this?
He's initially known as the White Mamba and has been leading a group of child soldiers in Africa. I'm pretty sure he was only included because Kojima read Lord of the Flies right before he began writing this.
Sounds like you're jumping to conclusions.
The first time we see Eli, he's literally sitting in front of a decomposing pig head surrounded with flies. Also, the deleted ending reveals that Eli eventually forms an adult-free sanctuary on a desert island. Also, the script for said deleted ending literally refers to him as "Lord of the Flies."
Kojima's such a nuanced guy. Wait, there's a deleted ending?
Right. So after Big Boss defeats Sahelanthropus, he has it airlifted back to the new Mother Base to serve as some sort of trophy. Eli gets it running again and recruits his fellow child soldiers, who have all been taking refuge on Mother Base, to abscond with it.
Then nothing. The proposed final mission was supposed to resolve that particular plot thread, but it was never finished. So instead, Eli just fucks off with his own doomsday machine and that's the last we hear about him.
Why does he steal it to begin with? Can you at least answer that?
Honestly, nothing about this character makes sense. His arc seems to revolve around his relationship with Big Boss, but we never actually see the two of them interacting aside from a couple of contrived boss battles in which the game's usual rules involving tranquilizers and knockouts suddenly don't apply. He seems astutely aware of the fact that he's a clone of Big Boss, since he keeps referring to him as "father," but anything driving his apparent daddy issues happens off-screen. And even before he hijacks Sahelanthropus, he's constantly wreaking havoc on Mother Base, to the point that you wonder what Boss and company see in him, why they keep him on.
Are you having fun spelling out "Sahelanthropus" over and over again?
A blast. Also, Eli has the vial of the remaining vocal cord parasites. Again, in the final game, this goes unaddressed.
How does Eli get Sahelanthropus operational again, anyway?
With the help of Huey.
What's he doing here?
Big Boss, Kaz and Ocelot are suspicious of him, partly because he's working for Skull Face, and partly because the "inspection" that led to the original Mother Base's destruction was his idea. So they kidnap him and torture him repeatedly.
Aw, poor guy.
Actually, they're totally right. He's evil, though the specifics shine a light on one of The Phantom Pain's biggest problems, which is that it relegates some of its most important chunks of lore to easily-missed audio logs, many of them unavailable until this aimless endgame bit.
Give me an example.
Well, like there's this whole subplot involving Huey's relationship with Strangelove and the child that they had together.
Ah, Strangelove! The scientist who engineered the AI in Peace Walker! What's she up to?
Huey murdered her.
They had a disagreement about using their son, Hal, for experimental research, and Huey responded by sealing her in an AI pod, suffocating her.
Big Boss and crew discover this by extracting the pod and finding her skeleton inside.
Oh shit! So why do they even keep this asshole around?
Well, they coerce him into building a new unmanned tank called Battle Gear.
I bet that's fun to pilot!
We'll never know, because even when it's complete, you never actually get to use it.
Does it serve any sort of plot relevance?
Bummer. So Huey's useless, huh?
Well, in addition to assisting Eli in escaping with Sahelanthropus, he also orchestrates an outbreak of the vocal cord parasites on Mother Base, long after Skull Face has been dealt with. This forces Big Boss to shoot a bunch of his own men to prevent the parasites from spreading.
That sounds intense.
It's a powerful sequence, but it's just sort of anecdotal in that it comes up after the parasites arc is completed and doesn't go anywhere. It's just one of many things that happens after the central story has been resolved.
But maybe seeing Big Boss having to kill his own soldiers is an important step in his transformation into the villain he'd eventually become in the original Metal Gear games?
You'd be on to something there if the character we're controlling was actually Big Boss.
The character we're controlling isn't actually Big Boss.
Wait, what? Who is he, then?
He's a medic who works for Big Boss.
But he looks exactly like Big Boss.
He underwent plastic surgery to make himself look exactly like Big Boss.
So the real Big Boss can go undercover and... do... stuff.
When is this revealed?
In the very last story mission of the game. See, the very first chapter has a character who we assume is Big Boss awakening from a nine-year coma and then being led out of the hospital by a guy named Ishmael as it comes under attack by soldiers. Ishmael's face is covered in bandages, but he has Kiefer Sutherland's voice, which obviously sets off some alarms. But whoever he is, he's clearly not Big Boss, because Big Boss is the guy we're controlling.
But Big Boss isn't the guy we're controlling?
No. The final story mission of the game has us replaying this entire sequence, but with an additional cutscene that reveals Ishmael as the true Big Boss, who's actually totally intact and isn't missing any body parts.
Whose plan is this?
I thought Big Boss and Zero were enemies now?
OH MY GOD.
And the weird thing is that this mission is buried deep in the game, to the point that the internet seems torn on how to unlock it. You basically just have to do optional stuff until it just unlocks itself.
So wait, which Big Boss is the one who shows up later in the series?
They both do. The fake Big Boss was the villain in the original Metal Gear, and he actually did die at the end of it. The real Big Boss is the one who then shows up in Metal Gear 2 and, eventually, Metal Gear Solid 4.
What's the point of all of this?
Now there are two Big Bosses!
So do we ever actually see what caused Big Boss to take an antagonistic turn?
No. If anything, it's an even bigger mystery now, since any major developments that happen in The Phantom Pain can be dismissed on the grounds that we're not actually following Big Boss at all. We're just watching the exploits of some fuck who's convinced himself and the rest of the world that he's Big Boss, and who will die the next time in the series that he shows up.
How do you know that Zero's in on this? Is he in this game?
Not really. He's just featured in a handful of audio logs that establish his connections to every character and event in this series. Honestly, this character's entire contribution could have been written and recorded in an afternoon. Shame, too, because I actually think Zero is a fascinating character, but he's constantly given the short shrift.
Is there anything else I need to know? You mentioned that Skull Face had a subordinate?
Wait, what? The main villain of Snake Eater? That Volgin?
Yeah, although it's not actually revealed that he's Volgin until the endgame stretch. Apparently, he wasn't actually killed in Operation Snake Eater, and further experimentation resulted in him developing pyrokinesis. He's nicknamed "The Man on Fire."
None of Kojima's creative juices went into character names, I'm noticing.
Want to guess what the Man on Fire's weakness is?
I was joking, but okay.
There's a boss battle against him, and it is the biggest anticlimax in a game full of them. You literally just knock him into a pool of water that's maybe one foot deep. You do this once and he's dealt with.
That's how he dies?
No, he get trampled by Sahelanthropus when Psycho Mantis goes insane.
And it's only well afterward, when you have to hunt down his remains, that it's communicated through audio logs who he actually is. "Big Boss" retrieves his body and brings it back to Mother Base.
That is the conclusion of Volgin's plot thread.
Have I told you about Quiet yet? The sniper who wears a bikini and never talks.
Actually, she's largely a really cool character. Her reason for not talking is that she's carrying the vocal cord parasites from the beginning and doesn't want to trigger them. She's initially one of Skull Face's agents, but defects after she spends some time with Big Boss and develops feelings for him.
Aw, that's sweet.
She's actually one of the few components of The Phantom Pain that gets a satisfying send-off, too. Big Boss gets badly injured while the two of them are out in the field, and he needs to be picked up, so Quiet directs the helicopter pilot by, y'know, speaking, presumably activating the parasites and dooming her. So she sacrifices herself to save Big Boss. It's a beautiful scene. Unfortunately, it too is pointlessly difficult to actually find.
Firstly, you need to get her bond rating to max, which involves bringing her along on a bunch of missions. If, like me, you never used her, you're in for some grinding. This unlocks her final mission, and for as much fun as the rest of The Phantom Pain is, this one mission is a crash course in bad game design.
Well, for one, it's a Horde-style endurance level in a game that largely goes through great lengths to allow players to avoid combat altogether, and this is the one time when The Phantom Pain decides that stealth is completely off the table. Enemies are in constant combat mode and know where you are at all times, even when they shouldn't, as per the game's rules. Also, you're mostly fighting tanks, and they're unfairly buffed to the point that many of their shots are one-hit kills and several of them took me a couple dozen rockets to destroy.
Sounds like you've just got terrible equipment. Why didn't you just ditch that mission, upgrade your rockets, and come back when you're better prepared?
Because (a) I don't want to spend 90+ hours in a non-RPG only to settle for grinding to oblivion to clear the final mission, and (b) for whatever delightful reason, you can't actually exit this mission until you've finished it.
Is it worth it for Quiet's conclusion, at least?
I mean, kinda. It's a great scene, though it's undermined a bit by her perverted attire.
Dare I ask why she's wearing it?
She's photosynthetic. She breathes through her skin. Clothes would suffocate her.
Are you fucking kidding me?
And Kojima apparently thought this was really clever.
This game sounds awful.
It's fantastic. Seriously. It's just not great for the reasons that Metal Gear games typically are, and that's understandably thrown some fans for a loop. You should absolutely play it, but with the expectation that you're getting a revelatory approach to freeform stealth mechanics and not a cohesive, satisfying story. Because, I mean, just look at it.