Well, where do we go from here? Every time Hideo Kojima makes a Metal Gear game he says it’s his last, he’s been doing it since Metal Gear Solid on the PS One. Only this time it looks like it might actually happen now that Konami have effectively sacked him and spent the last six months scrubbing his name from everything in sight. So, with that in mind it’s just as well that with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Kojima has delivered not only his greatest game to date, but quite probably one of the greatest games we’ll ever see. A game so well-crafted and polished it’s sure to appeal even to those that have held a long-standing hatred for the series.
And I say that without hyperbole or exaggeration, the Phantom Pain is genuinely that good. How it’s managed this is, in part, down to the more relaxed approach to storytelling this time out. Gone are the gameplay interrupting codec conversations and constant barrage of cut-scenes that blighted Sons of Liberty and Guns of the Patriots with needless exposition. Things unfold more gradually in the Phantom Pain, more organically, and the difference is staggering. In fact, outside one of the most cinematic opening half hours you’re likely to see just about anywhere, there’s so little in the way of cut-scenes that I - on more than one occasion - actually forgot it was Kiefer Sutherland voicing Snake, and not series stalwart David Hayter. As a result, this sparser presentation allows players to experience the barbarity in the moulding of child soldiers, the fallout from war profiteering, or how far one should go in search of revenge, and may more topics besides first hand. And although many of the subjects in question have been covered previously within the series, never before have they had more impact, and that’s even with Kojima’s occasionally hammy dialogue.
If you remember that ten second walk through the bloodstained hallway leading to Otacon and a certain cyborg ninja during Metal Gear Solid, then you’ll likely remember the impact turning that corner for the first time had on you. It’s exactly that kind of cinematic moment that’s delivered so well during many of the Phantom Pain’s cut-scenes thanks to their infrequent nature and Kojima’s cinematic skill.
But perhaps more impressively, it now occurs during the emergent gameplay as well, thanks to the truly wonderful game design and some inspired use of licenced music. Just about every mission - and the hundreds of side-ops available - can be completed in a variety of different ways, more often limited by your imagination rather than the games mechanics. Want to play classic the Metal Gear-style and sneak in avoiding every enemy, before silently carrying the hostage to safety, then go ahead. Want to play Kim Wilde’s, Kids in America while storming the front gates and tossing frag grenades over walls, then go ahead. You can even blast Ride of the Valkyries out of your chopper’s speakers whilst you fly into town as the sun sets behind you. It’s all up to you, and when the music, the setting, and your actions all come together it manages to create some of the most memorable moments you’re likely to experience in any videogame, definitely this year, probably for a lot longer still.
The only conceivable drawback to this is that there is so much to do and so many variable options to play around with that, even should you follow every tutorial to the letter, there’s still more than one or two things you’ll either miss, come across by accident, or end up having to go online to have answered. But such a wealth of choice isn’t something that the game should be criticised for. In truth with the amount of weapons, gadgets, and companions to choose from it’s remarkable how accessible and digestible the game and its menus are. In fact there’s so much to do that learning to use all inventive ideas the Phantom Pain has to offer will likely see you through most of the game.
It’s just as well then that from pretty early on you’re given freedom to explore and experiment within both Afghanistan and East Africa. Two vastly differing landscapes that manage not only to feel impressively diverse, but are somehow free of the wasteful filler that tends to populate most open-world games, each is full to the brim with its own wildlife and secrets. Perhaps more significantly however, both evolve and can even be manipulated, with each passing hour you spend within them. Guards will start wearing helmets or deploying - irritatingly convincing - decoys. Taking a detour on missions to destroy anti-air radar masts can allow for more daring chopper deployments in future. All of it constantly keeping you eager to explore and try out new tactics or strategies throughout the course of the game. The only real inconvenience is the inability to be picked up by chopper and swiftly dropped off without the need to wait through a couple of loading screens. It’s something you’re able to do elsewhere in the game - and becomes something of a necessity when attempting each area’s many side-ops - so the fact that it’s not an option can be somewhat irritating.
Even so, traversing each landscape isn’t really something you’ll want to rush through or skip over. The Phantom Pain looks absolutely gorgeous, both in the rocky passes of Afghanistan and the muddy jungles of East Africa. Both of which are further improved by some truly show stopping lighting and weather effects. However the lack of verticality in Afghanistan can eventually make getting around feel somewhat more awkward than it needs to be, and will no doubt have you cursing the same sweeping cliff faces you were likely marvelling at just hours before.
There’s also the ever expanding monstrosity that is Mother Base to visit between missions. A multi-tiered, off-shore retreat that starts out relatively small (but much like the rest of the game, soon expands over the horizon), where you can regroup and ensure Snake showers off the blood from his most recent mission, in order to avoid the damaging effects of PTSD of course. But more than that, Mother Base allows you to see the fruits of your labour, expanding it adds to your roster of recruits, which in turn allows for more support when out on missions, more weapons research, and even the ability to send troops out on missions to earn cash or undo the various countermeasures enemy soldiers start using against you. As far as hub worlds go within videogames there’s none I can think of that come close to rivalling the depth and scale of Mother Base. It’s something the game would be perfectly fine without, but its inclusion adds more nuances to a game already so rich in worthwhile content that it puts the majority of its open-world contemporaries to shame.
Because that’s what the Phantom Pain is, a game that does everything, and does it better, than just about any game you could compare it to. In delivering such an experience, Kojima has needed to fundamentally change the series, yet has still managed to keep it feeling like a Metal Gear game. All the familiar silliness is there should you want to seek it out, but more importantly the major problems the series previously held have been emphatically addressed. You’re no longer encouraged to play the game a certain way and left feeling like you’re doing things wrong if you veer off script. The storyline isn’t forced down your throat every time you start enjoying yourself. Instead adaptability and player choice is at the heart of everything on offer. It’s so refreshing, especially in a Metal Gear game, a change of direction executed so well that it makes the Phantom Pain easily one of the best games in recent memory. It may be Kojima’s last Metal Gear, but like Zinedine Zidane in 2006, he’s gone out in some style.