Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes was little more than a proof-of-concept demo, but it left me hungry for more of the open-ended sneaking and backstabbing promised in the rest of the game. So, when the kind folks at Konami invited me to their UK HQ to have a crack at the opening of a near-final build of The Phantom Pain, I jumped at the chance, and I am pleased to announce that the best is yet to come.
Phantom Pain opens nine years after the grisly conclusion of Ground Zeroes with Big Boss waking from a coma to the soothing sounds of David Bowie’s The Man who Sold the World before being given terrible news. To say that he’s a big banged-up is an understatement; losing his left arm,his body riddled with debris from the explosion that left him broken and presumed dead.
After an initial groggy period in first person, everything quickly goes to shit as a paramilitary group invade the hospital with the aim of killing Big Boss and silencing everyone else there for shits and giggles. As a plan, it doesn’t make a lick of sense if you think about it too long, but as an introduction to the game and a showcase for the FOX Engine, it’s absolutely fantastic.
Luckily, a mysterious bandaged man saves our hero from an unsightly end in his hospital bed, guiding him through the besieged facility in the hopes of escaping the ensuing massacre.
In what basically amounts to a sly tutorial that teaches players the basic controls and sneaking concepts you’ll use in the main bulk of the game, you’ll find yourself creeping through wards as the occupants of its beds are mercilessly gunned down, avoiding the spotlights of helicopter gunships and playing dead in amongst the corpses of former hospital workers; avoiding capture as Boss slowly regains his faculties. Just as you do, the game decides to take a trip on the mind-fuck express, with supernatural enemies beginning to stalk the halls. Eventually you’ll get whisked off by Revolver Ocelot and (somehow) end up suited, booted and ready for the main game.
It’s dark, brooding, utterly batshit crazy and one of the best intros to a game I think I’ve ever had the pleasure to play through. It’s not only a departure from the rest of the series, but interestingly from the rest of the game as well. It’s almost like a pitch for a survival horror game (RIP PT), and if you think it looked cool to watch, just wait until you get to actually play it.
Once the opening is out of the way, and a little time has passed, it’s revealed that Snake and Co. (who are hell-bent on reclaiming everything that was taken from them at the end of Ground Zeroes) have started a new PMC known as Diamond Dogs, built a new Mother Base in the Seychelles and have become embroiled in the 1984 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, hired by an unknown third party to help the locals push back Soviet Forces near Kabul and the Angola-Zaire border region. It’s basically a bigger and bolder version of Peace Walker, in everything but name.
The open world of Afghanistan is big and breathtakingly beautiful. A series of interconnected bases a la Ground Zeroes, surrounded by smaller outposts, bombed-out villages, vast mountains and expanses of sand complete with fortresses, huge dams and the ever present threat of Soviet forces .It feels alive in a way that few sandboxes before it have achieved. I guess the best contemporary comparison would be to the northern kingdoms of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
The mission structure is basically an evolved version of the one found in Ground Zeroes, crossed with Peace Walker. Once again, everything you need to know is contained within your iDroid. You can use this while in Afghanistan to call in support or a ride out of trouble, get your bearings using the map and delve into the game’s lore if you so desire.
Missions are split into main story missions, which are released in batches. These can be completed in any order but can only be activated when onboard a helicopter, as they restrict your movements to set mission areas within the world, which the ‘copter drops you in. There are also side ops, which you can simply mark on your map and engage in whenever you like. Completing side ops generally makes life a hell of a lot easier in the main missions. For example: On landing in Afghanistan, Boss finds that due to his injuries, he can no longer understand Russian, and therefore can’t successfully interrogate guards. Luckily, the first side op has you track down and ‘recruit’ (read: kidnap) a translator so that you can get extra information from his comrades, including troop positions and any other collectable goodies that might be in the vicinity.
Though we’ve been told to keep the story details as light as we can, you’ll also be happy to hear that the ridiculous two hour cut-scenes that plagued Metal Gear Solid 4 have been taken out back and shot, replaced with relatively-tight pieces of exposition that drive the story forward. With the bulk of the actual storytelling being done through gameplay.
Codec conversations have also been chucked out, replaced with optional cassette tapes that provide additional background information on objectives and the world of MGSV which can be listened to while you are actually sneaking around. There’s also some much more fun music tapes that can be found throughout the map, containing popular tunes from the 80s including the aforementioned Man Who Stole the World and Billy Idol‘s seminal Rebel Yell. You can even call in helicopters to blare these tapes at the enemy to distract them in a bizarre form of sonic warfare. Personally, I’m hoping to find The Birdy Song hidden in a compound or anything by Jive Bunny, which would be an ideal way to torture someone with music. The idea of sneaking past a platoon of pissed-up Russian guards doing the Hokey Cokey is very appealing to me.
Missions themselves have a core objective, such as killing a general or stealing a vital piece of intelligence and a bunch of optional side-missions that are revealed after you’ve completed it. Completing these will then net you a bonus of some description. Usually it’s cash, but will occasionally net you something nice like the blueprints to a shiny new weapon.
The basic gameplay is very similar to Ground Zeroes, with the routine for carrying out most missions starting with a quick survey of an area with your binoculars before figuring out the best course of action and executing your plan. Once again, favouring stealth and careful planning over running in guns blazing is the order of the day. I found it liberating to find that (like GZ) if everything goes to shit it is possible to bungle your way out and survive, mainly because I’m not that great at being stealthy. At one point, being sent to take out a Soviet Commander, everything was going to plan as I surveyed my surroundings, marking all the troops I could spot. I got in as closely as I could on horseback before diving to the floor, crawling my way through some barren fields to a side entrance. At this point I spied my target, took aim with a hand grenade (which in retrospect might have made this my own stupid fault) and…got spotted by a wandering guard just as I was about to toss the damn thing. Which then somehow managed to bounce off a back wall in the small room I’d tossed it into and blow up in the near vicinity alerting every other half-asleep soldier in what felt like a ten mile radius.
All notions of creeping went out the window here, so I vaulted into the room, knocked the commander out with a well-placed punch to the face and called my trusty steed. Tossing the poor bugger on the back, I rode off into the night. It’s ridiculous scenes such as these, in a game that allows for these approaches (as well as change your tactics on the fly thanks to the sheer open ended-ness of the gameplay) that impressed me the most about the whole experience. You’re given something to do, shown where to do it, and how you achieve your goal is entirely up to you. There is no ‘wrong’ answer. Be as surgical or as brazen as you want. Be as ridiculous as you feel. This is your game, so you play it however you want.
If you do have a tough time doing a mission though, you can also opt to put on the chicken hat. This will allow snake to be completely undetected by three guards and (theoretically speaking) giving you a better chance of success. It’s also a nice touch that if you die during a mission, all enemies you previously spotted with your binoculars will remain highlighted on the map.
Along with chicken hats your rate of success is changed by the game’s day and night cycle, which changes the entire landscape of your missions. During the day, it’s easier to spot and track enemies with your binoculars, but they can also see you. It also takes your eyes time to adjust when transitioning from the inside to outside as Snake is blinded by the dazzling sunlight. There are more patrols and guards are generally more alert. Meanwhile during night-time, there are fewer patrols and guards are more docile, with the trade-off of visibility being greatly reduced for both you and the Soviets.
Whenever you’ve had enough of baking in the Afghan sun, you can take a chopper back to Mother Base, which this time feels like an actual home and base of operations rather than simply a glorified spreadsheet. This is mostly thanks to the fact that you can actually walk around it while on downtime from missions. Snake can use the on-deck shower to wash the blood and shite off his face to boost his moral. Micromanaging your troops and using the Fulton system (more on that in a bit) to give sleeping guards an atomic wedgie after you’ve slapped them about a bit increases the morale of your men, not to mention being a lot of fun. There’s also a Dark Souls-esque invasion mini game in which you have to defend the base from invading players, but I didn’t get far enough to see it.
Despite the extra layers of interactivity, your new base of operations works much in the same way as it did in Peace Walker. It starts off small with one module which can be added to later on once you’ve recruited enough soldiers and have enough funds to facilitate the expansion. This allows you to obtain more troops and the whole thing feeds into itself quite nicely. Basically, it works as a means of upgrading your tech and weapons, with the R&D department working on better gizmos, the support department improving your helicopter service, field suppliy drops and medical helps to improve health-related odds and sods like creating better medicines. Just like Peace Walker, you can rearrange your roster of troops to help you level up various departments in order to unlock various upgrades and equipment faster. You’ll also find specialists in the field that will unlock unique items, as well as giving a significant boost to the department they specialize in, helping you to unlock more upgrades a lot quicker.
The way you recruit new troops (and eventually armour and vehicles too) is still strangely compelling and hilarious. Any troops that you knock out, either by stunning them with your handy tranquilizer gun or suplexing them into the ground with downright brutal CQC can either be dragged off to a waiting chopper or taken away using the Fulton System. The sight of Snake literally strapping a weather balloon to the poor bastards and watching them scream as they awake and find themselves being pulled violently skywards for helicopter pick-up will never get old.
Initially, you can only capture troops, but the Fulton system can be upgraded to steal tanks and other fun toys that can then be redeployed with Snake in later missions (though I did have fun trying to Fulton a truck, watching stunned troops wonder what the hell was going on as it came plummeting from the sky).
You can also use it to capture the local wildlife for various bonuses and (importantly) one of your buddies that can help you out on missions – a wild puppy that grows bloody quickly, but can only be used if you remember to Fulton him at the beginning of one of the story mission. Your reward is a faithful companion that will sniff out and maul guards for you, and a fun scene when Boss returns to base.
Before starting a new mission, or returning to Afghanistan from Mother Base, you can change Snakes loadout including weapons, gear, whether you want to drop in in a vehicle, what time you want arrive in the region and what buddy to bring along. There are four such pals you can bring into battle with you, including a mech that is pretty much an APC, a dog that helps you find and maul guards, Quiet, who will find a nice hiding position and snipe everyone for you and or your trusty steed D-Horse, Who helps you get across the environment a lot quicker as well as housing an unconscious guard/rescued prisoner on its back and functioning as a handy mobile hiding spot. You can summon your buddy at any time by holding L1 and pressing R3, when they’ll come running from literally out of nowhere. This comes in very hand where D-horse is concerned, and you need to make a quick getaway. Thundering out of base after a not-so-successful infiltration attempt is an exhilarating experience.
The way everything feeds into everything else is damn-near seamless and incredibly compelling. The recruitment system feeds into the upgrades system which in turn gives you better gear that makes your life in Afghanistan easier. The side missions then feed into the story missions which contain all the best spoils and the occasional elite troop that you’ll want to recruit, so you can get the better gear… and the wheel of fun goes round and round. In short, it’s bloody addictive and a hell of a lot of fun to boot.
After six hours with The Phantom Pain, I left Konami HQ wishing I could have taken the game home with me. I was reluctant to stop playing. So much so in fact, that if they’d said I could come back tomorrow and play some more of the game I happily would have done. That’s probably the biggest compliment I can give the game at this point. The sense of freedom and place that the world has, coupled with the ability to make the game as gritty or as ludicrous as you want give it an openness that makes me believe that this could easily be the best game in the series by a country mile. After the glorified demo of Ground Zeroes and the convoluted mess of MGS4, I didn’t think I would be saying this, but: If this is going to be the final Metal Gear Solid with Kojima at the helm, it looks like it’s going to be one hell of a tough act to beat.