Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the last final hurrah for Hideo Kojima, and the last breath in the (Kojima made) Metal Gear games, but rather than a final gasp, it’s an almighty roar. Kojima is going out with an impossibly loud bang with quite possibly the greatest open world game ever made.
I’m going to get straight to the point here. This is one of the greatest open world video games ever made. In a genre that has been stagnating for years under the weight of huge worlds littered with shallow side quests, minor distractions and pathetic mini-games, Kojima sweeps this cluttered table clean with The Phantom Pain and keeps on going right into the sunset. Metal Gear Solid V is a vast game, and untangling all the many little strands of detail and complexity that make up each moment of the game makes it hard for me to know where to even begin describing it.
Let’s start with the basics. You play Venom Snake, aka Big Boss, and we join him in a crucial moment of loss and disgrace. Left for dead after a chopper crash, Boss awakes nine years later to find his private army completely gone, the remnants of which are scattered into the wind across the world. You’re reunited with some old friends, mourn the loss of a limb, and you set off again to attempt to rebuild your army and get revenge.
Now. This needs to be clear from this point on: I have never played a Metal Gear game before. Sure, what Metal Gear Solid is known for is common knowledge: the dorky humour and fourth wall- breaking nods to the player set against a backdrop of po-faced military conspiracies. In truth however, I’d never been drawn to Metal Gear. The obnoxious hour-long cut scenes, the ridiculous, often comic book characterisations, the over-exaggerated anime voice acting… it all stuck out at me for many years. And even though, yes, I can accept these as Kojima’s unique mark on a game, and that it’s these idiosyncrasies that make his video games so unique, I still never truly fell for Metal Gear, or for Boss’s story. For The Phantom Pain however, this has been well and truly cast into the foaming waves . After a lengthy (albeit impressively well directed) hour long introductory sequence, you’re kicked out into the world to do as you see fit.
“Do as you see fit” is a design philosophy that’s not so much taken seriously here but rather is tattooed across the body of the game in huge demonic letters. This game is so wide open, so freeing and so accepting of any and all player interaction that it’s a surprise you don’t buckle under the weight of all the options the game steadily feeds you. There are A LOT of things to do in this game, and with nearly 50 hours logged in-game, it is still introducing concepts and ideas to me and I really, really hope it doesn’t stop doing so.
The primary bulk of the game will take place in either Northern Afghanistan or Central Africa. Both maps offer a huge, albeit sparsely populated expanse of terrain to explore. You might read “sparse” as a kind of criticism but when you play it for yourself you’ll realise it’s been executed perfectly. It manages to balance empty, wide open spaces with densely populated, heavily detailed settlements and outposts dotted throughout, so you never truly feel alone. The Phantom Pain is so confident in its systems that, hey, you know what? It doesn’t need to litter the world with shallow, meaningless filler. It takes the Ubisoft model of open world video games and practically sacrifices it to the video game gods. Gone are the days of icon hunting on large open world locales, and in comes the open-world genre, both boiled down to its essential cure, but with the taste of its core ingredients intensified over a red hot flame. This is an experience that is so densely packed, so intricately detailed and so damn difficult to put down that it’s frighteningly intoxicating.
So what makes it so intense? Well, the world is dotted with outposts, towns, military bases, prisons and air bases, each filled with soldiers, snipers, officers and even sometimes tanks. The game gives you a nearly unlimited amount of options to complete objectives as you see fit. Thanks to the open world you can now approach mission areas from any angle you want, with any weapon you can get your hands on, and how you plot your course through your objectives is left entirely up to you. Most missions will never amount to more than killing or incapacitating (again… your choice) key characters or saving prisoners but thanks to the ad-hoc nature of the environments and the systems that work alongside them, each mission feels legitimately different from the next, even if they have near identical objectives. For example, one mission had me assassinating an officer inside a decrepit, broken mansion. If I wanted to, I could have sat on a hill with a silenced sniper rifle and eliminated him from distance. But instead I noticed a patrol route of trucks travelling through the area, which he often checked the cargo load for problems. I laced one of those trucks with C4, so that when it stopped beside him it was no problem for me to hit the trigger and blow him sky high. I could have, if I wanted to, took him prisoner and extracted him back to base for the non-violent approach, or simply have gone in with a machine gun and some grenades and done the job the messy way. The Phantom Pain never, ever forced me to play a certain way and even when I attempted to disobey the game’s logic, it somehow adjusted itself especially for me.
There is a certain amount of ambiguity that underpins each encounter in the game, too, and really the AI should be applauded as the best ever seen in a game. Your enemies aren’t predictable AI bots. They don’t follow scripted AI routines when a certain amount of conditions are met. They won’t always ring the alarm, and they won’t always radio in disturbances in to their superiors, but sometimes, they just might. If you make a racket and kick over a tin bucket while trying to nab some enemy intelligence, maybe the guy around the corner will come and investigate it, maybe he won’t. Or maybe he’ll radio it in and gather some buddies and they could investigate it together. The AI never stopped surprising me, and it never ever settled into a predictable pattern that you’ll see time and time again with other stealth games, and this should be seriously applauded. It really sets Metal Gear Solid V aside from other stealth games when your enemies don’t act like computer AI; they behave like humans. Not only does this make each engagement truly, legitimately different, but it also makes for moments of real humanity and humour when you hear them discussing their toilet habits, or watch their shocked bemusement as you try to balloon extract one of their sleeping colleagues high into the sky. And whilst your carefully executed plan coming to fruition is breathtakingly rewarding, everything going completely wrong and having to improvise on the spot when the proverbial shit has hit the fan is just as fun, just as exciting, and just as cathartic. Whereas in other stealth-action games, failure often feels like something of a punishment, here it is just an opportunity to mix things up, and for the AI to throw you a curveball. You’re never forced or pushed. The game doesn’t want you to do it their way, it wants you to just play.
Besides an incredible stealth component, there are also a million tiny details working away in the background all the time, all of which underpin and support the stealth infiltrations. Maybe you shot a lot of people in the head on your last few missions? The enemy will pick up on that and start wearing steel helmets. Maybe you used your chopper for rocket support too much, too. Well, then get ready to have to deal with soldiers with surface to air missiles slung across their backs waiting for your next chopper assault. I would like to tell you every little detail that the game pours into each living, breathing moment but really, that would just ruin the fun for you, and you should all just experience that yourselves.
All of this on its own would make the game an immensely rewarding experience, but I haven’t even touched on Mother Base yet, which is Boss’s newly formed home in the middle of the sea. Mother Base is a military base on an oil rig platform way out in the middle of the ocean, which, over time, as you progress through the game and gain resources stolen from the battlefield, you slowly start to build your army back up again. This might, on paper, sound like a minor background meta game. Not at all. This is essentially a fully-fledged management component that is tacked on to the main game, and actually supports, aids and improves your experience as you play. Thanks to Mother Base, you can have supplies dropped into your area during a mission, or you can have your intel team radio in updates on enemy movements, or perhaps you’d rather send out a combat deployment of soldiers of your very own out into the world to do your bidding for you. This is all grown from the things you manage to steal from the battlefield by way of ridiculous balloons, and in turn manages to feed back into your game by providing you with more help later on, which, believe me, you’ll need. Mother Base starts off as a lowly single platform in the middle of the sea but towards the end of the game is a vast, spiralling network of impossible bridges and platforms stretching on forever, and once it’s all in full operation, flying your chopper over it is simply a breathtaking sight, and it needs to be witnessed to be believed.
And in the interests of fairness, I find myself, at this stage, struggling to find anything to dislike about the game. If I could indulge myself for a second, though, Quiet, your mute female sniper buddy is photographed in a way that is really less than tasteful. Shots of her during cut scenes and movie sequences are taken from quite an obvious male gaze and as an adult, nearly 30 year old man, this just strikes me as incredibly awkward. She is often positioned in compromising situations that really feel sexist more than anything, and considering the delightfully slapstick approach the game tends to take towards the sexual frustration of soldiers deployed away from home, I really also didn’t expect a genuinely immature depiction of the female form in a game that is otherwise so brilliantly intelligent. It goes from laughing at sexually frustrated soldiers ogling naked women, to then expecting the player to be that man, ogling Quiet in her prison cell as she bends down to pick things up from the floor. It’s unnecessary.
But really though, that isn’t even a noteworthy blemish in what is essentially a nearly perfect end result. It’s truly hard to describe a game of such staggering detail accurately and without being too terribly vague, but so much of this game should remain a surprise until you play it yourself. At 50 hours into the game, the end is nowhere near in sight; things are still being introduced to me and I am simply fascinated to know more. Even as I type these words, I just want to sneak back into that base, pull out that prisoner without anyone noticing, and blow up a few anti-air guns in the process to distract the guards for my daring escape on horseback. This game needs to be played by anyone who likes video games, but specifically for fans of stealth and open world games, as it deftly manages to be the greatest of both of these. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is the work of someone with an unbelievable degree of obsessive attention to detail and everyone should envelop themselves within its huge, sweeping folds.