I’m just over an hour into Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain when I finish the prologue, and I have to sit for a few minutes to take in what I’ve just seen. In the trailers you’ve seen the fire demon, the hospital under attack, and the flaming sky whale, but playing through it is something else entirely. My first thought is that Kojima has finally snapped – how can all of this be reconciled into a series that has mostly stayed in the realms of possibility? On reflection, however, there are tantalising clues as to where the story is going, and I cannot wait to sit down with the full game come September.
Unfortunately I’m not allowed to give too much detail on the story elements I’ve seen, and I certainly wouldn’t want to spoil your experience of them beforehand. Instead let’s get to the meat of The Phantom Pain’s gameplay. As you’d expect, the control scheme from Ground Zeroes has been carried over and it all works brilliantly. The core mechanics (crouching, shooting, etc) are all the same, but they’ve been subtly refined; the map is more intuitive to navigate, for example, while enemies are a bit easier to tag. It’s mostly little things but they make a world of difference.
Stealth works the same as in Ground Zeroes as well, with enemies having telegraphed patrols you must work out in order to pass unmolested, with Snake snapping to sensible cover whenever you gently push into it. Light levels make a massive difference to enemies’ visual range, but they also affect your vision, meaning choosing to tackle a base a night becomes a very different proposition.
Choosing when to attack is of course down to you, thanks to the new open world. Set on a sprawling map several times bigger than that found in Ground Zeroes, as soon as the prologue is finished you’re dumped in the middle of it alongside your trusty horse, and left to go about your business. Bases and outposts dot the map, each with their own patrol patterns and entry routes, and you really do have the freedom to tackle them as you see fit. In keeping with open world design you can have several missions to choose from at any one time – although it really is only a handful next to the likes of Assassin’s Creed or The Witcher – and you can mostly tackle these however you see fit. There are always multiple points from which to scope out a base beforehand, allowing you to plan your route in and out, and there truly is total freedom in how you approach each base: creeping in stealthily, sniping from a distance, or going full on Rambo. A knock on effect of this is that there’s plenty of room to be reactive as well: if a stealth entry goes tits up you can at least try to shoot your way out.
These can produce some standout moments of emergent gameplay, almost as good as some of the story missions. One memorable moment was a sniping attempt going horribly wrong; leading to the ridge I was occupying being shelled. Rather than flee, I turned it into a distraction whilst I snuck around the perimeter, with the guards’ attention still on the ridge. Sneaking in as mortars pounded away, the entire scene lit by flares was tense and, when I pulled it off, utterly exhilarating.
Gameplay-wise this is on course to be the finest in the series yet. Snake has access to hundreds of weapons and items, which are researched and delivered by his Motherbase operatives, themselves kidnapped by him during missions.
But the open-world part? That concerns me.
Metal Gear Solid has always been a series with a story to tell – everybody knows Kojima would love to make a film one day – but the open world breaks up the tightness his narratives have relied upon to eventually make sense. So far, major story moments have cropped up every few missions, leaving the ones in-between (while incredibly enjoyable) feeling a little like filler in story terms.
It would be an understandable concession if the open-world felt like an integral part of the game, but so far, based on what I’ve played, I can’t tell why it needs to be. No area you need to sneak into has been larger than the Ground Zeroes map (again, based on my hands-on time so far), though one mission did have a long trek from the start point to the objective, but scripted enemy units were put in my way for it anyway. It’s not even like you drop straight into missions from the open world, as each is book-ended by at least opening and closing credits, if not a cut-scene, reminding me of binge-watching Netflix box sets. There’s even a prompt telling Snake to take a break once in a while if you spend too long in the field.
There are collectibles to improve Motherbase, the occasional side objective, as well as enemies and vehicles to kidnap to add to your army, but on the whole it feels a little barren at the moment. There’s not even any civilians, just enemies in each outpost, which then makes the latter seem even stupider when they don’t realise the figure riding across the desert, on the only horse I saw in six hours, isn’t one of them.
Getting across the desert is a pain in itself. While you have access to a horse and vehicles that you steal later on, your main mode of transport across the map is a helicopter that can be called into select extraction zones. While there are plenty of them, even these defeat the point of an open-world: get picked up by a helicopter to ferry you across the map and you have to wait through two loading screens before you’re dropped back off. I mean, seriously what is the point?
Of course, it’s important to remember that this is just a preview build of the game. I wouldn’t put it past Kojima to have a greater, plot driven reason for the inclusion of the open world, and later missions may well make better use of it. The most important thing is that in terms of gameplay, The Phantom Pain is already impeccable, and pulling off the perfect infiltration is an addictive high. If the balance between player freedom and the narrative is right, this could be one of the very best games this year.
Hi all, I'm Dan 'Nailz' Naylor, News Editor for the site (and I've just realised there's a pleasing alliteration to that). Almost all the news posts you see on the site are either by me or written because I say so, and we try to make them a little more interesting than a regurgitated press release so I hope you think we're succeeding.
Normally I'll be sinking my time into the latest RPG, but I'll play almost anything, with racing games a particular favourite. Owner of a Wii U, I have no regrets purchasing the console, though Smash Bros. hasn't left the disc tray since Christmas.You can find me on Twitter and PSN as MacShanks, and feel free to hit me up if you have any questions, queries or feedback!
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