The “Metal Gear” name brings with it a certain clout, a history rich with twists, turns, and characters that typically deserve a double take in both visage and story. Never content to deliver what we could call a “straightforward” approach, Hideo Kojima and Konami are going big with “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”. Sprawling and open in nature, focused yet bombastic in narrative, “The Phantom Pain” looks to expand on the excellent pairing of story and stealth action from past entries, while exponentially increasing the overall immersion in the experience. In this hands on preview we were able to get over 15 hours of uninterrupted gameplay in “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”, and our Mother Base is ready.
“I’m afraid it’s been 9 years”
We find our hero, Big Boss, 9 years following the events of “Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes” waking from his battered and broken state in a coma, to heading the “Diamond Dogs”. Big Boss adopts the new name of Venom Snake, and takes the fight to Afghanistan to avenge the MSF. As not to spoil any of the other story elements, we’re going to refrain from going into much further detail of the actual plot and instead let you, dear reader, experience these beats on your own.
Base Builder Mother, Mother
With the formation of the Diamond Dogs, Big Boss is tasked with rebuilding his Private Military Contractor of sorts to its former glory. Mother Base serves as it sounds, as home sweet home for soldiers and hardware recovered in the field. Snake is able to find resources, hardware, and soldiers of differing utility to Mother Base throughout the game world, using the Fulton Recovery System (yes, like ‘The Dark Knight‘) to recover said items of utility for, well, utilization. Snake uses his trusty binoculars to scout and recon the landscape of Afghanistan, marking and researching the enemies or hardware scattered throughout the map to decide who, or what, is worthy of Mother Base. Upgrades to the binoculars provide the option to see a soldiers stats in the way of their ability to contribute to Mother Bases different “departments”. Mother Base needs things like a Med Bay, R&D, and much more to not just function, but thrive. Staffing those sections of Mother Base will be essential and may quickly prove as the largest distraction in the game. This shouldn’t be taken as a negative, distraction in open world games such as “The Phantom Pain” serve as compliments and add incredible depth and overall value to the game. It’s easy to estimate at least an hour, maybe two of those 15+ mentioned were simply spent scouting out the right soldier in an outpost, marking them, and then planning the best attack route to the target.
What was surprising about this approach is just how much the core drive of each outing in Afghanistan becomes when Snake can recruit and see what the enemy soldiers will bring to his team. What used to be a case of approaching the enemy encampment with reckless abandon for the meaning of these soldiers’ lives, becomes a game of subduing the enemies in the way of your true target; the best soldier in the area. Before our very eyes the game completely changed the way the player is consciously making decisions, and this fact wasn’t recognizable until a few hours later in a true “whoa” moment. “The Phantom Pain” seemed to guide us ever so gently toward a better, more productive way to play it, as opposed to flashing tips in the corner with “advice”.
It would be easy to simply scout out enemy encampments and set bases, but the enemies within the landscape wander routes along roads, paths, and seem to sneak up on a patrol when least expected. You may find Snake peering down his spectacles at the roadblock to find a pair of radio troops round the corner and trigger the iconic “Metal Gear” alert.
Ándale ándale Kojima AI AI, Uh oh (what’s poppin tonight)
Enemies within “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” act, respond, search, and investigate in entirely believable ways, looking around to investigate that sound that seemed all too close to a 175lb soviet dropping to the dirt. Throwing magazines and clicking your robo-arm will either lure or distract a guard, or group of guards long enough to make your move, be it evading or assaulting. Stealth action in “The Phantom Pain” feels believably accurate, in that players can clear entire areas with patience, but the eager Venom Snake players may find themselves alerting guards with quick movements, or in the flare of a search light. Losing the heat is easy enough with a good hiding spot, which can be littered through the environment in the shape of standard cover, dumpsters, port-o-potties, and numerous buildings to enter hoping for a dark corner.
Also featured on the AI front are buddies, some of which have been featured both in the past and recently. In our play we were able to utilize the horse shown off in early trailers to be able to leave a “gift” in the road to spin out enemy trucks, able to gear D.D. the hound with a sweet tactical vest in order to let him spot enemies and attack with a knife, and were barely able to use Quiet as our spotter and cover. In our experience the buddy system is fleshed out and varied, with the horse providing quick traversal of the environment, D.D. spotting pickups and enemies as soon as he (or she?) saw them, and Quiet picking off targets to assist our approach. While having the most time with D.D. and the horse quickly taught that the choosing of your buddy is vital to your success rate, and may have a direct impact on your ability to complete your mission with the best possible rating.
Buddies, supplies, and loadouts can be switched at nearly any time by calling in your helicopter, which also serves as your fast travel. Clearing out the radio antenna in a base will unlock more and closer travel points, giving Snake the chance to get up close and personal to some of the Side Ops and main targets quicker. The beauty of what calling the chopper does is provides incentive to stay in the field longer, earning more funds for the completion of projects and research back at Mother Base. “The Phantom Pain” is not without following Newton’s Third Law to a degree, as staying in the field too long without showing your face to your troops could end up with a negative effect, causing infighting and injury on Mother Base. This is a great incentive to hop in the chopper and head back to base, which more often than not also resulted in a unique cinematic opening up some new dynamic of play (one being D.D. ready for deployment). Not all trips to Mother Base do this, but even the ones that didn’t necessarily grant a new item or unlock were fruitful, as Snake can explore Mother Base, take on challenges around the base, and practice hilarious takedowns on his own soldiers.
The Mission Makes the Man
Missions come in a few varied options, and as is the theme with the open world “Metal Gear”, the choice is yours. Main Missions are varied in the respects of objective; infiltrate, extract, eliminate, and much more await the eager stealth action fan. Main missions tend toward requiring more time and patience, while having a bit more that could go wrong, in addition to being a bit more intense than the Side Ops. As a broad theme, the Main Missions just have a bit more everything. Featured in the Main Missions are some of the most engaging and interesting cutscenes the “Metal Gear” franchise has become known for, with impeccable voice acting, incredible visuals, and outstanding backing orchestral. Every aspect of these scenes and sequences feels the way it is intended, be that dire, or daring.
Side Ops fill in a majority of your side-work as Diamond Alpha Dog, serving much as they sound, but providing some incredible benefits and incentive to the players looking to make the best equipped Snake and Mother Base. Side Op missions vary a bit from the main story, but are a bit more drilled down, as in “find this commander” or “eliminate this hardware”. Side Ops grant a decent chunk of take-home cash, barring any collateral damage or crazy expenses for resupply and “exporting talent” via the Fulton too often. If Snake finds himself checking his Chase statement and staring a bit too long, Side Ops are a great way to bring home the extra funds to get you prepped for the next Main Mission.
As is a trend in more “Metal Gear” play than not, Side Ops can quickly devolve into multiple retries and reloads with multiple grown up words levied at the screen. These retries and sequences where the player fails don’t feel so much as the game failed, but as simply stated; the player fails. Not frustrating, more serving as is the trend these days as a “what did you learn” moment. The definition of insanity comes to mind, as trying the same thing over and over, expecting different results will indeed end in even more grown up words and more “done goofed” scenarios. Observe, adapt, succeed. Patience is a virtue. Whatever you need to tell yourself, the answer is never “go loud.”
When Snake gets into these scuffles, getting out of combat is a must. The pounding soundtrack and increasingly blood-spattered screen drive the player to get snake to safety. In cases of Snake taking extensive damage the player needs to hold whatever button might be at the top of the face diamond (triangle for PS4 and Y for Xbox One) in order to administer some quick first aid. Finding Snake in some dire circumstance, escaping a hell-on-earth firefight for the third time in twenty minutes and spraying down his wounds with a face of sheer agony puts things in perspective. The player takes a moment to realize the hell they’re putting this old dog of war through. We aren’t as spry as we used to be, and the player starts to feel a little bad for forcing these Roger Murtaugh moments on him. That is, right before we wait until the health is restored and go get back after our end goal.
Storms; Foe and Ally Alike
Weather effects in the play session came in to play less as a rain storm or as featured in Ground Zeroes but do have a dramatic effect on the gameplay, and certainly your tactics in the moment. Sandstorms may roll in at literally any moment, with a little notification from your iDroid that gives you a minute or so to be prepared. Being prepared maybe isn’t the best word, as really you’ll need to continue your mission and plan on limited support from the air for the duration of the storm. The storm will not allow your pilot to drop in supplies, and the Fulton stands a great chance of failing pickup in bad conditions, resulting in a plane launching a dead body across Kabul. Storms can be used as a powerful ally as well, being able to mask your movements and noise greatly, so if you get seen and the iDroid chirps there’s a storm-a-comin, thank your lucky stars. It’s also a great time to recon those High Value Targets and do more of that recon for your Mother Base, picking them off from the group and carrying to a nice little hiding spot to Fulton when weather clears up.
The Pre-Bottom Line
While the preview build still needed just a touch of polish and that final once over, “The Phantom Pain” looks FANTASTIC. With incredible detail going into things like the environments, weather effects, and lens flares that would make JJ Abrams blush. Moisture effects glisten on skin which normally wouldn’t cause a second bat of the eye, but with FOX engine, these small touches don’t hope you notice, they demand it. There are a few small things like bloodstains on Snakes face in close-ups, a few gun barrel models, and really just a few areas that when the preview build “got too close” where the cracks began to show. These cracks didn’t cause doubt while playing however, quite the opposite, as the mere fact that Konami was willing and able to plop the games media in front of a copy of “Phantom Pain” and confidently say “just play it until we tell you to stop” is a major vote of confidence in the look, feel, and status of “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.” This confidence is justified. In 15 hours with “Phantom Pain”, never once did the thought enter or doubt, not enough to do, or a shallow experience. It demands mentioning that the opposite thought never entered either; is there too much here? Is the game going to respect the player’s time? The answer, at this juncture, seems to be that “it’s up to the player” – less a statement of a singular feature, and more a statement of mission in “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” game design.
Don’t let this fool you – “The Phantom Pain” feels like it’s at odds with itself, and nearly defies description. None of what we played during our time with the game ever felt massively out of place, and for a series that has seen flying gas mask mind-control boss fights that read your memory card, fighting a 100+ year old sniper, and a general story line that could confound scholars, everything seems perfectly tuned. From a company and creator that made up a fake studio and put some guy in bandages, here’s looking forward to that September 1 release.
Examiner was provided travel, room, and meal accommodations on behalf of Konami Studios Los Angeles in order to preview “Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain”.