Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the ultimate Metal Gear title for gamers who don’t like Metal Gear. Despite an off-the-wall intro channeling P.T. and the Metal Gear Solid of yore, it’s almost as if Kojima has transplanted Snake and put him in a totally different game.
The telltale signs and oddball quirkiness are still there of course, but the overarching framework is different enough as to be bewildering to long-time fans. Well, at least this long-time fan. For the opening 10 or so hours I really ummed and ahhed as to whether I even liked it. I went in with expectations of an open-world and all the trappings that came with it, but I wasn’t prepared for the drastic change in how Metal Gear Solid 5 would feel.
You can play for hours without a hint of cutscene. Novella-length codec conversations are consigned to the history books. In fact codec conversations are out entirely, replaced by hundreds of optional audio tapes that can be listened to at will, fleshing out the story.
Without delving into the spoilerific opening two-hour salvo, beyond this The Phantom Pain operates around a pretty simple gameplay loop. Once you’re out in its open-world, you select a mission, choose your gear, head out in your helicopter and complete your objective. Once done it’s time for extraction. Then you can spend your hard-earned cash on one of hundreds of upgrades, before picking another mission and heading out.
Missions are split up being between the main campaign and the side-ops. There are about 160 side-ops to perform, spread over a variety of objectives. Plenty of them touch on similar things, but they’re really just excuses to play around with the dynamic stealth systems rather than anything else. You’ll be extracting people, assassinating targets, capturing sheep, blowing up supplies. It’s all fairly run-of-the-mill, but you are free from the shackles of the scoring system from the main missions, so it’s a great opportunity to check out some of the heavier fire-power available to you.
The main missions are where MGS 5 continues to step up and up as you play. The Phantom Pain is a game which keeps its cards very close to its chest, but over the course of the campaign it unfurls some truly jaw-dropping moments the likes of which you’ve come to know and love from the Metal Gear Solid series - it just so happens that it’s framed within the open-world narrative.
Where MGS5 differs from most open-world games is in the level of options available to you. And I don’t meet Far Cry 4-esque toss-ups between stealth and warfare. This is real choice. There are hundreds of weapons and gadgets covering every conceivable angle. You can develop cardboard boxes. Or an explosive arm. Or call in airstrikes. Or circle a base with a helicopter gunship. Each and every one of these tools can be used in so many ways.
Take the humble cardboard box for example. Previously Snake could just whip this out and hide under it, or shuffle awkwardly. Now you can slide down mountains on it like a toboggan. You can stick Playboy posters to it and stand up in it to lure guards. You can even post yourself in the cardboard box and get yourself delivered right into the centre of an enemy fortress.
There’s almost countless ways to approach any given situation, and even the simplest of tasks can escalate out of control.
While out in the field, there’s a self-defeating purpose to everything you do. Every action you take has consequences. You could be moving in on a Soviet stronghold, equipped with a cardboard box and a silenced tranquilliser pistol. Perched atop a nearby hilltop you pull your goggles out and beginning tagging enemies troops and items of interest. Once you’re set, you snap your night-vision goggles on and begin your approach. You take down a few enemies patrolling the outskirts quickly and quietly. The deeper you head into the base, the more force you’re having to use. Before you know it a body’s been discovered and the base is on alert. You get spotted by a pair of guards from behind, forced to drop them with live bullets to prevent further alerts. The bodies are stacking up with every move, but so perversely is the pressure of enemy presence. Guards radio for support. Squads fan out and attempt to corner. Mortar flares light the area you up like a beacon. Before you know if you’re legging it across the Afghan mountains with your target strewn over your shoulder, helicopter gunship in tow, blazing down Hellfire missiles.
As pure stealth, it’s some of the finest out there. Unlike the majority of titles, you aren’t hemmed in by achieving a perfect run. When push comes to shove it’s merely an opportunity to switch up your tactics, eliminating the problem or sidestepping it. Once spotted you’re given a brief slow-motion moment to respond, preferably with a swift head shot or uppercut. It gives you just enough time to analyse a situation and make a move.
Despite the variety in the way you can approach things, there is an almost undeniable level of repetition to proceedings. The relentless tick-tock of infiltrate / exfiltrate can grow tiring. Moment to moment it’s great fun, but once a mission is completed, it feels like a slog to begin the rigamarole of heading in once again. Once you are in you’ll no doubt have a whale of time, but to me it felt like something to be savoured in smaller gaming sessions.
Luckily this is offset by the Mother Base. This is Snake’s headquarters and it’s the key to everything. Here you can develop new technology, allocate resources, customise your weapons, expand your base, even run a zoo. While you’re out in the field you can gather resources and blueprints, as well as fulton gear away to your base. This is a parachute device which can be strapped to things for extraction. The primary use is for extracting enemy soldiers, which can be convinced to work for you at your base. Each has unique stats and specialities, elevating The Phantom Pain to a light manager title. It’s like Pokemon but with people.
You can assign each guard to a specific division, choose what new struts to buy for your base, and manage your funds. Late on you can send guards out on missions, to collect supplies or destroy outposts. You can even target enemy supplies. If enemy armour is proving a problem, you can send a squad out to cut out the supply chain of helmets, and you'll notice the difference out in the field. It's all fairly optional, but there's just so much micro-management you can get wrapped up in in-between missions. This would all be in danger of being a bit dry, but this is offset by that typically offbeat MGS charm. You can step into the shower for a wash, practice knocking out your guards who come back begging for more, or pet a baby wolf you found out in the wild.
There’s so much to say about Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, but it’s a sprawling, evolving experience that it’s best learnt first hand. So many elements are at play at any one time and I’ve only just scratched the surface of what it is capable of in this review. The number of unlocks is staggering and your play-style will drift over the 60 or so hours it takes to plough through this, offering one of the densest and most rewarding games of the year. It’s already shaping up to a titanic battle for game of the year.