Learning From That Phantom… Past.

Whatever you may feel about the hurricane of hype lately, can we please just take a moment in the eye of the storm to talk about this?

Look, I know asking people not to be excited for Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain is like asking Sega to let a decent Sonic mechanic get more than one outing in the franchise. I’d rather do something that’s more attainable… like breed a unicorn, or swim to Mars, or psychically assault every doxer, hacker and swatter on the Internet to the point that they couldn’t physically or mentally function for days and weeks at any given time. I get it people. You’re hyped. A new Metal Gear Solid game comes along sparingly enough that each successive outing is something special.

Except, they’re not are they?

If history has taught me anything about the Metal Gear Solid series, it’s that in the swathe of publicity and hype that occurs in the build-up to each entry, reviewers froth at the mouth and go frankly disturbingly cultish about the series. The last few entries I am aware have been reviewed in tightly-controlled “review events”, which are effectively time restricted boot camps where they don’t get to play the game in the same way you or I would actually go about playing a game. In these condensed review camps, it’s fairly easy with Konami and Kojima minders watching over you to find yourself easily swayed into liking something, in a way similar to Stockholm Syndrome. These events are generally disliked and frowned upon, but when you’re inside them it can be very hard not to find yourself liking even the most dubious of mechanics as a means of mentally escaping the conditions you are working under.

This happens time and time again, with reviews almost always glowing. Early reviews have once again gone to town, sounding like marketing spiel and lacking any real insightful commentary about the game, but again. This isn’t new. We’ve seen this before.

The problem with this is that if we’re being honest, Metal Gear Solid has always had problems. And I’m not talking about minor quibbles here and there; each game has had a handful of pretty significant issues that detract from the games holding true classic status, and in time we tend to end up looking back at these titles and wondering what all the fuss was about. We are temporarily dazzled by a few gimmicks and a few set-pieces, but in the long haul of the games industry we probably all know deep down that even if Metal Gear Solid 5 is the last entry for the series on home consoles, we won’t actually miss it.

We can come back in two or three years and discuss the virtues of Metal Gear Solid 5 as a “Game of the Generation” contender. I have never much liked Metal Gear Solid precisely because of this smoke and mirrors rubbish. A quality product needs to stand the test of time; whether it’s next year, two years or ten years from now. Some can be of their time, sure, and still remain quality products that remain relevant even in a modern world – hell, look at the back catalogues of Nintendo, Capcom and Square-Enix where games are still as good now as they were back in their 8-bit and 16-bit days of yore to understand where I’m coming from here. If you look back on a game like MGS5 in a year or two years and think it was vastly overrated, then it simply for me did not deserve those high marks. It’s so easy to be suckered into narrow views in the onslaught of advertising and positive press, but we as consumers need to learn that this is all part and parcel of the marketing drive. Reviewers have always to some degree been a part of the marketing machine, especially for big-name games, and we as gamers have had enough lessons in the past few years to be understandably sceptical when a reviewer is foaming at the mouth, singing the praises of a game without really expressing why they feel that love in the first place.

Past entries into this series look antiquated now; the perfect scores given to Metal Gear Solid 2 are almost comical when you consider how much disrespect gamers pour over it nowadays. The same is also applicable to its sequels 3 and 4. Each time, we gradually begin to scrape off Hideo Kojima’s frankly excellent grade of high-polish (can’t criticise him for that) and end up realising that the Golden Egg we’ve been given is actually a stone egg painted gold. I can’t keep ignoring that.

It’s why now I feel almost immune to the Cult of Kojima’s cycle of hype. There’s a point where you have to accept that when these patterns emerge, that one must approach the next instalment with a sense of caution. And I approach Metal Gear Solid 5 in the same way I’d approach a snarling dog with its leg in a bear trap. Sure, the temptation is there – there may even be good intentions at play. However, the warning signs are self-evident and you can’t really be surprised if an angry, snarling dog will attempt to rip your arm off even if you’re attempting a good deed.

How Konami has approached Metal Gear Solid 5, and how it has treated Hideo Kojima, is awful. And I totally understand that feeling many have of buying the last Metal Gear Solid game with the direct involvement of its creator, Hideo Kojima. But do you think he’s going to see any money from this? His bags are packed it seems and he’s ready to leave Konami HQ to burn itself to the ground with pointless pachinko machines and rubbish freemium apps on smartphones. I doubt he’ll see a penny in cash from the almost guaranteed sales explosion that will come with the full release of this game. Buying the game probably isn’t going to get Kojima a bonus; the studios are closing, the man is halfway out the door and all I see happening is Konami profiting from arguably crappy treatment of its IP and talent.

And you know, deep down, I’m likely not far off with that assessment. As much as I feel bad for Hideo Kojima – he’s actually been a damned good asset for Konami, whether I am a fan of his work or not – I feel no such sympathy for Konami, who now seek to get out of the console gaming market for whatever reason they have on a given day. Buying the game is lining the pockets of a company that’s treated its staff, its headline talent, its actual property and its own audience like crap for several years. And the cognitive dissonance from many quarters of the gaming landscape over this one game is evidence that we really don’t learn from the past all that much.

But we should. Look, I haven’t played Metal Gear Solid 5 – I might snatch it up later on, when it’s cheap and I’m not pressing cash into the hands of Konami (readas; second hand), but I’m one of the few old enough to actually be able to see the pattern and see the borderline religious claptrap being bandied about over this game. It may be good – I won’t say that the past games were terrible because they weren’t and aren’t. But I think the best time to come to that conclusion will be sometime in the early-2016 lull period of February and March, where we’ll have given enough time for the storm to have passed to more objectively and saliently see what’s good and what’s bad about the game.

All of this is before obvious other issues rise to the fore; the review event conditions were pretty tight, and reviewers steamed through the game with a Chicken Hat, effectively putting the game on Easy Mode and not really playing it the way most people would. They also didn’t partake in the base building, because of the time constraints. Nor does it seem like they were allowed to test out the multiplayer, a mode that comes replete with microtransactions and my continued bugbear in a full-priced game is companies nickel and diming players to skip the intentionally-constructed grind by throwing even more money at the game, again all likely lining the pockets of a company most of us have grown to hate over the years and whom it seems even Hideo Kojima can’t wait to escape from (something tells me he’s not had much input into the multiplayer element of the game, if any…).

Which is a problem; for all the perfect scores, the game still has significant questions to answer and those answers may not be popular to most people. Until the game goes live, and we all see what impact such things have on the overall experience, these early reviews with their highly inflated scores and scarcity of actual detail seem a tad dubious, almost as if Konami needed quotes to slap on the back of the box next week!

We live in an age where things change rapidly. I’d like to come back in a few weeks or months and say I was wrong – I like admitting I’m wrong, it’s certainly a healthy thing in my mind and I’m more than happy to see my more pessimistic side be put in check. Until then, like many out there, I’m just urging caution. It’s easy to get carried away; we’ve all done it, and some of us have been suckered in multiple times with particular franchises. We live in a post-Colonial Marines world, where we’ve seen first hand that what we’re shown and told isn’t necessarily what we actually get when all is said and done.

I can almost write off the early reviews as typical nonsense from the usual suspects in the sphere of games journalism. I can even forgive Hideo Kojima; sure, the emperor has no clothes, but it’s still quite funny to see his winky, isn’t it? But when so much has been left unsaid, when so many questions remain unanswered in the run-up to a big release like this and when a company like Konami is doing everything in its power to stifle any outside reviews or streaming (yes, some stores sent copies out a week early – so much for stopping spoilers, right?), I find myself just a little suspicious about the whole thing.

And if all of this was new, that’d be one thing. But it isn’t. We’ve been here before, many times with many games and many publishers.

Just… be careful out there. It’s dangerous to go alone. Take this… *offers Sword of Scepticism*

Chances are you’re going to need it.

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