Metal Gear Solid is often dismissed as having a bit of a hokey plot, full of silly, overwritten contrivances and screens of flowing exposition. It's true, of course: the series has all of those things in abundance, but I've always got a real kick out of spending time with Kojima Productions' dense narratives and conflicted characters. I've even got a notebook in my parents' attic somewhere filled with Metal Gear Solid 2 speculation and theories (and I'm still convinced that game was all a VR dream, no matter what Metal Gear Solid 4 might have said).
It's a confusing series, but an iconic one that I think is worth the time investment. It's also about to kick off all over again, with Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes being released in just under two weeks. Ground Zeroes is the first time Big Boss has been the star of a console game in 10 years, and his story continues from where it left off in 2010's PSP game Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker.
It's a game that you might just want a bit of a refresher course in before you take the plunge, so here's a brief (well, about as brief as Metal Gear Solid gets) overview of everything that has happened to Big Boss since his first appearance. Hopefully it will help prepare you for Ground Zeroes. You might want to get comfortable, though, because there's a lot of information here, and that's with me actively trying to make it concise.
IN BRIEF: Naked Snake is sent into the Soviet jungle in 1964 to track down and kill his former mentor, The Boss, and disable a prototype nuclear tank, the Shagohod. Unbeknownst to him, the whole mission is secretly a ploy by the US government to get its hands on a $100 billion cash fund owned by a clandestine group called The Philosophers. Snake's loyalty to his country wavers when he finally discovers the truth after being forced to kill The Boss.
The full story: A series of events are put into motion in the 1920s by the formation of a clandestine group known as The Philosophers, made up of influential leaders from the United States, China, and the USSR. Internal squabbling fractured the group following WWII, leading to the theft of a once-shared $100B war chest known as the Philosopher's Legacy.
Fast forward to 1964, and a world in the midst of the Cold War. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater opens by parachuting FOX agent Naked Snake into the Soviet Union territory to extract Nikolai Stepanovich Sokolov, a defecting USSR rocket scientist. The mission goes swimmingly, right up until Snake's leader, mentor, and friend The Boss chooses to defect. Snake has his arm broken and is thrown off a bridge, while Sokolov is handed over to GRU special forces boss Volgin (who has lightning punches, coincidentally) along with two US-made nuclear missiles, one of which Volgin fires on a Russian base. The mission is, unsurprisingly, seen as a rather massive failure. Whoops!
Following all that fracas, the US government attempts to avert a nuclear war by insisting that The Boss was a rogue agent and that it did not condone or approve of the attack. The Soviet Premier insists that the US clean up its own mess, and therefore Snake (all fixed up) returns to Soviet soil with two aims: to kill The Boss and her reunited Cobra unit, and to stop Sokolov's now-nuclear Shagohod tank.
Snake, under the command of FOX leader Major Zero, is deployed into the Soviet jungle and faces off with the elite GRU forces in the region led by Major Ocelot, making his way through the forests of Bolshaya Past on his way towards research base Graniny Gorki. He also has to compete against the Cobra unit: the one that's a really old sniper, the one who is a pyromaniac spaceman, the Predator-inspired one, and, of course, the creepy one covered in bees.
Infiltrating Graniny Gorki, Snake learns from Dr. Aleksandr Leonovitch Granin--who believes his own 'Metal Gear' concept would make a far superior weapon than Sokolov's Shagohod--that Sokolov is being held in Volgin's military base, Groznyj Grad. He is caught by Volgin after disguising himself at GRU Major Ivan Raikov and locating Sokolov, and taken for interrogation. Sokolov is heard being beaten to death and Snake is then tortured himself, losing his right eye in the process.
During his interrogation, Snake finds out more of Volgin's plans: he sees his control over the combined forces of the (now dead) Cobra unit, Shagohod, and the Philosopher's Legacy as a way to reunite The Philosophers under Soviet leadership. He also assumes Snake has been sent to recover The Philosopher's Legacy, which he's storing in the underground vault of Groznyj Grad.
Snake doesn't know it, but he's really there for the money: The US wanted The Philosopher's Legacy this entire time, and Snake's mission was orchestrated as cover for their grab at the jackpot. It also transpires that The Boss was in on the scheme the whole time, and accepted that she would need to die in order to maintain the cover story of the US after Volgin launched the nuclear missile, leading to a climactic fight to the death with Snake after he dispatches both Volgin and the Shagohod. Learning the truth of the situation does not exactly fill Snake with happiness, shall we say.
And where is China in all this? Well, it turns out they sent an agent to run off with The Philosopher's Legacy: Eva, who had been working with Snake for much of the mission. She also infiltrated Tselinoyarsk, and posed as one half of the KGB duo Snake was supposed to rendezvous with. Confessing the truth of her mission via a tape recording, Eva says that she was ordered to kill Snake, but spared his life due to a request from The Boss. But Eva only manages to retrieve a fake Legacy, with Ocelot bringing half of the funds to the CIA. Ocelot, it transpires, is actually a spy working for the US, and was also supposed to be Snake's genuine contact at the KGB. Crikey.
Following Snake's defeat of The Boss, he's awarded a new title: Big Boss. There's also a fantastic ending cinematic that doesn't outstay its welcome, which is more than can be said for Metal Gear Solid 4.
IN BRIEF: Snake wakes up in a cell next to Roy Campbell. It's 1970, and his former unit, FOX, has gone rogue and stolen a Metal Gear from the US military. The leader of FOX is now a man named Gene, who wants to defeat The Philosophers by creating a nation of soldiers called Army's Heaven. Meanwhile, Ocelot and Major Zero create a shadowy organisation of their own: The Patriots.
The full story: It's 1970, and Naked Snake (he still doesn't like calling himself Big Boss) has been drugged and taken to an abandoned Soviet missile silo located in Colombia's San Hieronymo Peninsula. His captors are the rogue remnants of the FOX unit, which is now no longer under the command of the CIA. Tortured by a Lieutenant Cunningham, Snake learns that FOX believes he ran off with the missing half of The Philosopher's Legacy--which would be a total of $50B. Even worse, everyone else is under the impression that Snake and Major Zero instigated the FOX revolt to begin with, and the pair is also accused of stealing a prototype weapon from the US military.
Snake is imprisoned, and his cell mate is Roy Campbell, the only survivor from a green beret squad send to investigate the situation. It is not long before the pair escapes, at which point Snake contacts his former FOX squadmates Para-Medic and Sigint, who inform him that the only way for him to clear his name is to capture the leader of the FOX rebellion: Gene.
Campbell suggests that he and Snake start recruiting disenfranchised Russian soldiers to work with them, and shortly afterwards, on an unrelated note, contracts malaria. Snake heads to a laboratory to find the necessary medicine, only to stumble upon a young soldier being stored in a tube and a woman, Elisa, who turns out to be one of the dual personalities of a single FOX member--the other, Ursula, had previously tried to attack Snake. Elisa gives Snake the malaria cure and directs him to a cargo ship, and eventually provides him with two prophecies: firstly, that Snake will one day unleash a Metal Gear of his very own, and secondly, that one of his children will ruin the world and another will save it.
Snake and crew, now freshly free of malaria, discover an empty shipment with US markings and are contacted by Sokolov--though Snake doesn't know who he's speaking to--who faked his own death back in Groznyj Grad. He informs Snake that Gene has put into production a version of Granin's Metal Great concept, and the machine is powerful enough to fire multiple nuclear missiles. Sokolov would later provide Snake with vital information in destroying this Metal Gear, as Gene's master plan, it transpires, is to launch a nuclear attack on both the CIA and the Pentagon, the two US bases of The Philosophers, in order to create a new world order.
Gene's vision was to create a country for soldiers, known as Army's Heaven, that would supplant The Philosophers and involve themselves in all of the world's armed conflicts, creating a nation of superior soldiers that wouldn't be used for any nation's political or territorial interests. Snake disagrees with Gene's vision, arguing that he's no different from any other dictator, and Gene replies by saying that Snake doesn't know the full story behind the death of The Boss: Volgin was acting on the commands of a mastermind in the US, and The Boss was aware of this. Gene also says that he has his own motive for involving Snake in his planned revolution: he wants to fight him to the death in order to determine who The Boss' true successor actually is. It is, unsurprisingly, Snake who teaches Gene that lesson in a rather fatal manner.
Snake also finds himself fighting two Metal Gear units, RAXA and the Intercontinental Ballistic Metal Gear, with Gene duping Snake into investing his time in the former while he deployed the latter. Both units also have four legs, even though it has been explicitly stated that Metal Gears are bipedal tanks. It doesn't matter: Snake destroys them both.
Ocelot is also seen walking into the CIA and killing the Director of Central Intelligence. He runs off with the US' share of the Legacy, and reveals that he plans on ending The Philosophers and involving himself, along with Major Zero, in a new clandestine group known as The Patriots, which will include Snake as a founding member. They also plan on using the data acquired from Frank Jaeger, the child soldier that was discovered in the tube, to eventually create the genome soldiers that appear in the original Metal Gear Solid.
IN BRIEF: Snake leaves The Patriots after discovering that Major Zero attempted to clone him, and sets up his own mercenary group in the Caribbean. He's hired by Costa Rica to rid the country of an invading force, fights the nuclear-equipped AI machine Peace Walker, and inadvertently stumbles into a scheme--devised by Major Zero--involving the creation of a Metal Gear.
The full story: It's 1974, and Big Boss (although still using the codename Snake) has now parted ways with The Patriots after discovering Major Zero's Les Enfants Terribles project, a scheme designed to produce clones of Big Boss. He's not a fan. Going it alone, Big Boss sets up his own mercenary group, Militaires Sans Frontières, somewhere in the Caribbean.
Snake's deputy, Kazuhira Miller, is met by professor Ramon Galvez Mena and his student Paz Ortega Andrade, who offer MSF a forward base and a helicopter as payment for helping Costa Rica fend off an unknown armed force, suspected to involve the CIA in some way. Snake and Miller suspect Galvez might have ties to the KGB (perhaps his giant red fist gave the game away), who reveals that he was ordered by the Soviets to hire MSF in a bid to rid the area of the CIA, as the Soviets wanted to establish a base in Central America. Snake reluctantly accepts when he is also played a tape recording of The Boss, and says he is taking on the mission because of an impassioned speech from Paz about desiring peace in the region.
Snake allies himself with the local guerrillas to discover whether nuclear weapons are being stored in Costa Rica, and discovers from Sandinista commander Amanda Valenciano Libre that the CIA was planning a coup. Snake then enlists Libre into the MSF. He then heads to a prison in the mountains to discover more about unmanned drones and rescue Chico, a 12-year-old boy who asks Snake to kill him because he confessed during torture. Giving Chico a chance to prove his strength, Snake offers him a place in the ever-growing MSF.
Tipped off about a delivery of nuclear missiles to the Fuerte la Ladera military base, Snake instead encounters Huey Emmerich, who tells him that former CIA director Hot Coldman is planning to launch nuclear strikes with four AI weapons: Pupa, Chrysalis, Cocoon, and the nuclear-equipped Peace Walker itself. Huey, who developed the machines, decides to join the MSF, on the grounds that he doesn't want to see an actual nuclear attack.
Knowing that Peace Walker must be destroyed, Snake journeys to Coldman's underground base, armed with the knowledge that the AI powering the robot is based off The Boss herself. He doesn't get further than the hangar, when he's met by Coldman, who reveals that he's the mastermind behind the events of Snake Eater, and is sent off for the Metal Gear Solid series' mandatory torture scene, where he gives scientist Dr. Strangelove enough information to complete her programming of The Boss' AI.
Coldman's scheme is to launch the first--and last--nuclear strike of the Cold War, and his target is none other than Mother Base. Snake and Coldman are also joined by Galvez in their final confrontation, who reveals that his real name is Vladimir Alexandrovich Zadornov and that he's been in cahoots with Coldman the entire time. With one small exception: Zadornov plans to run off with Peace Walker and use it to launch a nuclear strike on Cuba, and also he shoots Coldman. As you might expect, though, Snake manages to defeat Peace Walker, apprehend Zadornov, and finally obtain closure from his events in The Boss' death. He is finally ready to take on the name of Big Boss.
Big Boss (aha!) also agrees to the creation of Metal Gear ZEKE as a way of ensuring that MSF could defend against anyone opposed to its ideals of a mercenary nation. By equipping the machine with a nuclear missile, MSF would be a player in nuclear deterrence theory. This Metal Gear would be unmanned, and would be controlled by AI, but Paz secretly installed a cockpit and manual controls by using Zadornov's continued escapes as a diversion.
Paz is actually 24, not 16, it turns out, which totally validates an utterly bizarre scene where you can chase her around a beach while she wears a bikini and then get under a box and, heck, I don't even want to know. She's also working with Major Zero and the Patriots, and told Big Boss that if he refused to rejoin Major Zero, then Metal Gear ZEKE would be used for a nuclear attack on the US. Snake, again, destroys the Metal Gear, and closes the game instructing the MSF that he will soon build a nation free of politics and nation: Outer Heaven. Don't try to ever fight Snake with a Metal Gear is pretty much the main lesson of the entire series.
All this brings us up nicely to 1975, which is where Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes takes place. While the plot of the game is still relatively unknown, we do know Mother Base will feature, and Paz will once again be a central character to the proceedings.
The Phantom Pain, for the record, is said to take place in 1984, and features Snake waking up from a coma. How does he get into that state? And, more importantly, what happens next?
The only thing that leaves is Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2 on the MSX, which feature Big Boss as the primary antagonist. Here the series switches over to Solid Snake, with these original two games paving the way for the Shadow Moses Incident and the iconic Metal Gear Solid. While Big Boss' actions continue to ripple throughout the rest of the series, explaining the history of Solid Snake is another article for another day...