The Phantom Pain starts almost exactly as you’d expect a stereotypical Metal Gear Solid game to, with a long and somewhat ponderous mishmash of basic tutorial gameplay and meticulous but slow cutscenes. Yet when it drops you into Afghanistan, it’s already quite clear that this prologue was not a sign of things to come, as it opens up and gives you free reign to flex your tactical espionage muscles.
It peels away a lot of the linearity during these early stages, presenting you with a selection of primary missions – each coming with distinctive TV-style introductions and credits at their end – and side-ops within this open world to tackle, where you’re often able to go from one mission to the next without leaving the ground. Having said that, it will pull you back to the well-realised Mother Base on occasion and likes to mix things up with missions that crop up out of the blue and interrupt whatever it is you’re currently trying to do.
Unless you decide otherwise, you’ll have a companion along for your missions, starting off with D-Horse as a trusty steed for getting from place to place, pooing on roads to spin out enemy vehicles and so on. There’s also a Walker Gear that you can ride around on like a heavily armoured gun-toting Segway, or you might come across D-Dog as a young pup – known as ‘DD’ for Diamond Dog, of course – before he grows to be a particularly effective companion who will give a soft bark to spot and mark nearby enemies for you, and can take them down quietly on your command.
It’s unfortunate that Quiet, my favourite of the battlefield companions, is the one that has caused the most uproar in the run up to release, whether from the blood-drenched poster or her squidgy figurine. Yes, there is a pseudo-scientific justification and origin for her ludicrously skimpy attire of ripped tights, a bikini top and some military equipment belts, but it’s inherently dumb and a poor excuse for the eye-rolling moments of lascivious camerawork.
Yet once she can be added to your roster of support characters – and this is by no means compulsory, in a fascinating possibility – she is a quite incredible partner in the field. The number of times that she has come to my rescue and proactively supported me in tricky encounters is quite ridiculous, which far outweighs the abilities of even D-Dog, for me. Using the iDroid, you can send her sprinting and leaping across the map at superhuman speeds to scout or sit and provide overwatch from any of hundreds of sniper spots, giving you a serious tactical advantage minutes before you reach a location.
As she hums over the comms with a target in her sights, it’s really her sniping ability which makes her so appealingly effective, especially once equipped with a silenced sniper rifle. Should you be spotted and enter reflex mode, suddenly heads start to pop before you even have the chance to line up your own shots, you can tell her to take certain enemies out, sync up her shots with your own, shoot thrown grenades at enemies, slowly but surely shoot down helicopters and more. She even took out an entire squad of the intimidating and supernatural feeling Skulls at one point.
She’s also a character of some major contention between the key figures in the newly formed Diamond Dogs PMC. There’s often differences of opinion between Miller, Ocelot and Big Boss, as they work to rebuild and get revenge for the events that transpired at the end of Ground Zeroes. It’s not long before you feel that the group is in way over their heads, as they try to deal with the mysterious actions of Cipher, but it’s fascinating to see the characters at this time in the context of the actions they take later in the series’ story.
The real strength of the game is in its inherent flexibility, which allows you to tackle the vast majority of situations how you see fit. With two wide-open landscapes in Afghanistan and along the Angola-Zaire border in Africa both beautifully rendered by the FOX engine, there’s a pleasing visual variety as you play through the day-night cycle and changeable weather conditions. These have a real effect on how well guards can hear or see you, and alongside changing guard patterns at night time, present a lot of different options to you.
You can snipe from afar – though you’ll be best waiting and unlocking a silenced sniper rifle for this – go in and subdue guards quietly using a variety of distraction techniques and gadgets or with all guns blazing. If you want, you can even ride a tank into the fray and support yourself with aerial support and long range bombardments, though you won’t be able to get an S rank for the mission in that case.
Via the iDroid, it’s a simple process to switch your loadout and companion on the fly with a supply drop – an inventive way of subduing a foe in and of itself – but have to unlock a lot of these abilities and options first. This is where building up Mother Base and using the Fulton Recovery System to abduct soldiers, equipment and eventually even vehicles and shipping containers comes in real handy. Though you can kill everyone and everything in your path and many of the objectives are contract killings, you are by far better off knocking them out, using the Fulton to get them back to base and, after a brief stay in the brig for those with better skills, shuffle them into one of the many departments on your oil rig in the Seychelles.
This often results in quite tangible benefits when out in the field. Beyond unlocking more advanced weaponry and gadgets, you can send your combat unit out on various missions that will not only earn you more money and resources, but can also deprive the enemy soldiers of helmets, body armour and more. It certainly lightens the load, if you can instantly drop a soldier to the ground with a tranquilliser dart to the head, without worrying about whether or not they’re wearing a helmet.
Perhaps the greatest stumbling block is when the game takes all of this freedom away from you. An encounter with this game’s Metal Gear had me crouching just out of sight for minutes at a time as I waited for an opportunity to call in and get on my chopper, since getting into a truck and driving out of the mission area brought the mission to an abrupt end and lost me 40 minutes of progress. Then there was an awkwardly paced escort mission, where I was forced to escort children through danger to a prescribed pick-up point, despite the fact that I’d taken out the radar dish and could bring the chopper to a much, much closer and safer pick up point.
Those moments are thankfully few and far between, but they can really stick in your mind when compared to being able to just calling in an artillery barrage to take out the Skulls unit or, let’s be honest, letting Quiet kill everyone and everything in sight for me. It should also be said that the worlds don’t feel particularly alive. There’s apparently a major Mujahideen resistance to the occupying Soviet forces in Afghanistan, but they’re nowhere to be seen and there’s no local populace to be found either. The same is true of Africa, and I never felt like I was encroaching upon or contributing to the conflicts that were ostensibly going on, and taking out the guards at an outpost feels as though it does little beyond congratulate you.
With well in excess of 30 hours clocked, it’s clear to see how very well refined all of the disparate elements are and just how far the game has advanced beyond the foundations laid by Peace Walker and Ground Zeroes. Even with the odd little foible, inconsistency or instance of male gaze, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is already easy to recommend as some of the best that the series has to offer.
Our play time so far came with a pre-release debug version of the game, and while able to recommend, we are withholding out final judgement until we can play release code and complete the game’s story. Metal Gear Online functionality is set to be added in October and will be examined separately.