As I kneel atop this dusty cliff side, staring at the expansive village sprawl below while drawing deep from my e-cigarette, time seems to lose all meaning and simply drift by. Disappearing like so much of my youth, It’s now that I realise, Big Boss himself has given me a moment to reflect. A precious few minutes to drop my control pad and hurriedly jot down as many memories as I can muster from the past 8 hours I’ve had with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It’s no easy feat, let me tell you!
I’ve snuck into camps, interrogating everyone in sight and put entire guard outposts into sleeper holds. Goats, soldiers, trucks and shipping containers have all flown away, zoomed off with a cry thanks to my trusty balloon drone. I’ve tried to escape seemingly un-killable enemies that move like lightning and hide in a grey fog they themselves seem to emanate and I’ve charged out of the rubble of an exploding building on horseback, while firing blast after blast from my twelve gauge shotgun in the hopes it'll stop what can only be described as a flaming soldier demon, from catching up with me. Oh, and of course I’ve slid around the deserts of Afghanistan, while hiding under a cardboard box!
That paragraph alone should be enough to tell you that MGSV is easily one of the best Metal Gear Solid experiences ever. It’s also, hands down, the most divisive and unique since we first stepped foot on Shadow Moses and grew so fond of Solid Snake himself, in all his pixelated 3D glory!
To begin at the beginning, The Phantom Pain starts things off with an implosion, rather than a bang. Taking its time, just over an hour in fact, to draw you in with a smattering of information that'll ooze through cutscenes and a long stretch of tense gameplay sections that will leave you feeling powerless. As you struggle to regain your feet, you have been in a coma for years after all, you’ll be mercilessly hunted by an unknown but highly equipped swat team. Clinging to walls, railings and radiators for the sake of gravity, while trying to avoid spotlights and any other unwanted attention. The cost of survival is a high one though, being forced to hide while innocents are slaughtered in front of you. So close, you could touch them but daren’t.
This voyeuristic aspect, making you a player simply along for the ride and forced to watch the atrocities of war first hand, isn't entirely new to the Metal Gear Solid series. In many ways however, the games opening sequence shares more with Kojimas most recent project P.T, as it leads you through a winding space, convincing you that you’re in control while undermining you, scaring you witless and simply messing with your brain at every opportunity. Quite simply, I’d be surprised if this opening gambit alone doesn't go down as a mark of Kojimas greatest work!
Once out of the frying pan and fully into big bosses boots and bionic arm, you’ll be surprised at whats in store. The world you’re left to explore and work in is a vast playground, one that not even Ground Zeroes had fully prepared me for. You’re first mission, once settled into Mother Base (albeit a rather underwhelming version of it for now) is to rescue you’re old pal Khazura ‘Kaz’ Miller from a military outpost in the heart of Afghanistan and what a way to get you back in the saddle again!
Situated on a hill, this expansive military camp climbs high. Filled with guards, spotlights, radio towers and a constant patrol of vehicles I chose to take a deep breathe and using my binoculars, tag every one and everything in sight. There were so many options for me to choose from when infiltrating. Sneak up the mountain from the side, quietly slip in and out before anyone even knew I was there? Take out the spotlights first and execute everyone from the high ground? I could even go full Rambo and take on the camp by myself, leaving a trail of bullets, bodies and explosions behind!
Well, I attempted and rather sloppily managed to just about get away with the stealth route!
I began my climb up the hilltop village, finding some cracks in a main wall which led to the spotlight, so I clambered up. A nice little addition which allowed me to avoid the guard coming my way and throw me straight in front of another, who I was quick enough to silence with a sleeper hold. I’d made a mistake though. I’d underestimated just how many guards where in the camp, out of sight making me unable to tag them. Damn! I’ve seen at least 3 guards by now who I hadn't tagged before. How many more where there?
I scrambled and jumped from rooftop to rooftop like an ageing altair, lacking in finesse of course but avoiding suspicion. That is until one open rooftop dropped me into a room with multiple guards. Crap! reflex mode gave me a few precious moments to take them out. I got the first, then second but the third eluded me! (my aiming needs work!)
With the alarm raised it was time to finish this thing, guns blazing!
Unlike most other stealth games, fire fights in MGSV are smooth and work perfectly well. Taking to the roof, I was able to gain the advantage and kill off a stream of my pressures with rather satisfying headsets. With a pop and burst of the red stuff, each guard fell by the wayside.
Once the camp was clear, I had only a few moments to gather myself and save Kaz.
You see, thanks to the open world of The Phantom Pain, guard posts and camps are situated close to each other, meaning when one is under attack then inevitably, support will come from the surrounding camps. Of course, if you’re a forward thinker then this information will need to become part of your plans. You could play around with clearing camps by attacking smaller ones as a away of distraction. Hitting outpost B will force A to help out, leaving A ripe for a little infiltration.
Another option would be to clear any camps of satellite dishes and their radio comms units. Meaning any plea for help will go ignored, leaving you free to do as you will!
This alone is such a seemingly minor addition to the MGS world but one that really goes to show how well knit together the open world is. It’s not simply a huge map, although it is definitely 200 times larger than that of Ground Zeroes, sprinkled with smaller camps to just fill the void. Everything in the world around you has a reason and a purpose which all works together.
Those patrol cars you see for instance? Follow one for a while and you’ll be surprised to see that each has their own route through a certain number of camps. They don't simply drive to one end then disappear into the pixelated heavens, no.
Knowing this, if you’re that into you're planning then you could time their trip and choose to attack certain points when you know they wont be on their rounds.
So, I’d found Kaz and after finding out that the price of war was an arm and a leg, literally, I had to escape. I rushed out the building and threw him on the back of D-Horse, ready to escape before the area flooded with smoke and an unstoppable force known as “The Skulls’ appeared. Test subjects with glowing eyes, lightning speed and jerking movements that would be more at home in a Japanese horror classic. I stopped to fire a few rounds at them, i does nothing and now they're closer. I’ve got to run, thats all I can do.
Now, I’d be lying if I said I was completely surprised by their entrance. After all, thanks to The Phantom pain adopting a somewhat episodic format, each mission comes with its own opening and closing credit sequence. The former of which highlighted the special guest appearance of ‘The Skulls’.
For those furious over the Kojima vs Konami story that has cropped up as of late, you’ll be more than pleased to know that while Kojimas name doesn't appear on the box art anymore (I don't know why either) its constantly brought up in the credits of each and every episode. After all, he did write and produce them all!
Back to my daring escape and after a hair raising chase, with some ridiculously close calls, I eluded the fog and climbed aboard the chopper before being treated by a competition screen which informs me that I haven't completed any of the secret sub objectives. The Phantom Pain doesn't only allow you to replay missions, it actually encourages it. Completing sub tasks goes a long way to unlocking more tapes which in turn offer you more insight into the story as well as more blueprints for your R&D teams to use, unlocking better equipment which can only be a good thing! Now, if I was at home I’d be doing this mission all over again, but in the interest of journalism and results, I pushed on.
After a trip back to mother base and a delightful chat with cheerful old Kaz, the game opened up even more, with mission 3 - 5 ready for me to tackle at my leisure, along with some side-ops.
Side-ops aren't at all necessary but offer great benefits should you take the time to tackle them.
One, for example, had me infiltrate a small outpost and capture a single guard who is known to a be a linguistic specialist.
After neutralising his buddies, I knock him out with a quick bit of CQC and using the Fulton recovery system, sent him flying off to mother base. Katz then gives me a quick ring to let me know that guard I just attached a balloon to and sent off with a resounding “Whhheeeeeeeee!” is cooperating fully and will now translate Russian for me. Finally, I can interrogate guards and understand what they're saying!
The Fulton to air recovery system is a great tool. Useful as hell for sending soldiers back to base in order to sign them up to the Diamond Dogs. It doesn't stop there though, you can pretty much attach it to anything you like! Mortars, Trucks, Tanks, Shipping containers, even Goats! Watch and laugh as you tranquillise a goat and hear a befuddled “Baaaaaaa!” as it flies off into the sunset.
While a genuinely useful piece of kit, its also one of the many examples that display Kojimas skill at juxtaposition.
So Mother Base eh?
As I mentioned before, on my first visit it was an underwhelming single platform but as you wander the world and collect resource materials along the way, as well as goats, guards and artillery, you’ll see it expand.
Each soldier you capture will be given a gloriously ridiculous name such as ‘Grizzly Whale’ or ‘Dizzy Centipede’ as well as a ranking from A-E for each of their skills. This allows you to pick the best department for them to work in. Some are better at R&D others more attuned to training men in CQC, or you could simply throw everyone into support, ready for your call when you need some backup. How you utilise and deploy them is your choice.
Each department is upgradable which effects how your time on the field plays out. Intel offers you more details on the battlefield should you furnish it with enough staff while the higher your R&D level the more gear you can build. From guns and horse armour to upgrades for your chopper and a bionic arm that can use sonar or wander off and detonate at the flick of a switch.
While not entirely important, you could chose to build a skilled Combat Unit which, similar to AC: Brotherhood, gives you a suit of elite soldiers who can be sent of to do jobs around the world, further increasing your ranking as a mercenary group while helping to make Mother Base bigger and oh boy, does it get bigger.
By the end, my Mother Base sprawled into multiple platforms that were so huge, I had to drive from point to point, giggling like a school girl as each soldier stood to attention and saluted me on the way. Well, I am Big Boss!
Metal Gear Solid The Phantom pain is the biggest game for the series ever. Full stop. It’s so big, I’ve not got enough space to tel you about all the incredible experiences I had during my time which seemed all too brief. I raided camps at night while listening to Billy Idols rebel yell, thanks to the tapes that guards left lying around. I scared outposts out of their skin when I called in the chopper as it blared A-Ha from the speakers, something I’m sure the Russians had never heard before!
I spent hours kidnapping sheep and soldiers, while riding through the desert on horse back, occasionally slipping down the side to hide from patrols. I saw incredibly upsetting atrocities and I saw hilarious moments too! I even saved a puppy who is now available as a buddy for my missions!
Everything about The Phantom Pain screams Kojima and it plays like the ultimate culmination of past and present ideas to make what is clearly going to be his opus!
You kept us waiting indeed, but its shaping up to be more than worth it!