After spending two full days with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, playing through the story missions and tinkering with its myriad menus, it’s hard to shrug off the feeling that Hideo Kojima’s final entry in the celebrated stealth series is a game of contradictions. It’s simultaneously the most self-indulgent game in Kojima’s catalogue—packed full of the humorous quirks and microscopic touches for which he’s most revered—and also the most alien experience of the series to date. Echoes of past staples flare up only infrequently, like the onset of phantom limb pain, before disappearing again for hours at a time.
It’s a game desperate to tell the biggest story of the saga—Big Boss’s transition from the series’ biggest hero to the series’ biggest villain— but without any of the epic, meandering cutscenes or exposition that define the Metal Gears of the past. A game packed full of gear upgrade paths and Mother Base management menus, but one where almost all of these systems’ rewards are weapons and items that cannot be used by players chasing the main missions’ elusive S ranks.
It’s a game about stealth and quiet infiltration, but one where every new area is teeming with usable gun emplacements and vehicles—begging you to go loud. A game about being unseen, with some of the most satisfying headshots in recent memory.
Structurally, The Phantom Pain stands apart from the previous entries. Those were miniature sandbox environments chained together in a linear fashion; this is the Mandelbrot Set of sandboxes: play areas within play areas within play areas, no matter how far you zoom in or out. Predominantly set outdoors, its small bases boast classic MGS hallmarks such as vents and body-stashing hidey-holes (portaloos getting the nod over lockers this time around). But with many of them dropped in the middle of the world’s sandbox designs (Afghanistan to begin with, followed by the Angola-Zaire border region much deeper into the story), just approaching the bases themselves is a challenge filled with options and possibilities.
Ground Zeroes was a fine primer for The Phantom Pain’s new structure, but in retrospect it only offered a taster of the full game’s breadth and depth. Forget about what you should do when you arrive at a base: how do you get there? Do you approach an enemy facility in the daylight when guards are more numerous and have better visibility—hiding inside cardboard boxes, pressing up against cover, tossing empty magazines, rattling Snake’s bionic arm, and using all your guile to tease holes in patrol routes and sneak through like in the games of old? Or do you wait until nighttime, when patrols are thinner and enemy visibility is reduced, but the odds of being surprised by a foe you hadn’t spotted is much greater? What about smoking a Phantom Cigar to fast-forward time and wait until a sandstorm approaches to obscure even the most piercing of enemy eyes, letting you stroll to you objective without anyone knowing?
Snake’s hefty knapsack of goodies actually tempts you away from all those decisions. Why sweat over silent infiltrations when you can roll in Schwarzenegger-style as a one-man army? Slow-motion Reflex Mode returns from Ground Zeroes (if you opt against switching it off in the menus), so storming a base with shotguns and assault rifles is far more fun than it should be for a series built on stealth foundations.
As gratifying as it may be to see that S rank at the end of a mission, does it top the thrill of calling in an attack helicopter that you’ve customised to pump out Billy Idol from its loudspeaker as it mows down Soviet forces? Or can it hold a candle to a slow-motion horseback hurdle over a tank during a particularly epic rocket launcher spree? My pulse suggests not, no matter how much I want to play ‘traditionally’ without alerts.