The Metal Gear Solid series has always had a knack for pushing the boundaries. From fourth-wall-breaking boss battles to utilising the technology of the platform its on to full effect, Hideo Kojima and his team challenged and awed players for decades, while never undermining their intelligence throughout each adventure.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain ticks all these boxes expected of a Metal Gear game, and further takes the series to new heights thanks so one key element: evolution.
Everything in the game adopts this evolutionary trait – from the intricate gameplay mechanics, detailed inventory system, customisation options, open-world missions, breathtaking visuals, and story – every facet of the game is so meticulously detailed that’s quite overwhelming at first, yet so incredibly rewarding when embraced.
Oh, and as for the story, it’s as convoluted and bizarre as you’d expect. Just so we’re all on the same page, with apologies to series fans for the simplification: Metal Gear Solid V is a sequel to Metal Gear Solid 3, which was a prequel to Metal Gear Solid, which was a sequel to Metal Gear, a game in which Solid Snake, the character you play in Metal Gear Solid 1, 2, and 4, kills Big Boss, the protagonist of 3 and V. Got it? Probably not.
The shift of the game’s direction from relatively semi-linear to open-world type missions works excellently, as players now get the chance to fully realise their inner-action-hero qualities, letting them choose exactly how they want to tackle objectives, and this feeling of freedom is glorious in the context of a MGS game.
Metal Gear’s familiar rhythms of commando-crawling through the tall grass, ducking behind walls, luring guards with careful taps and whistles, and popping off tranquiliser darts are all present, and veterans of the series won’t be disappointed.
As for the missions themselves, they can vary in terms of their objectives, with the focus on hostage extraction, target execution and item destruction. Players have to build up a Mother Base which is essentially a hub world between these chaotic and tense missions. On Mother Base, you’re able to customise gear, select “buddies” who help you on the battlefield, and, most importantly, build an army from enemies you’ve captured during missions.
At times, it feels like a mesmerising habit of re-equipping and re-deploying to the battlefield, but this routine effect is quite deliberate as it highlights the ‘cycles of revenge’ theme which is prominent throughout the game, showing how someone’s hero can become someone else’s enemy with a single action. Kojima understands pacing and lulls are almost always followed by an unexpected plot revelation, boss battle or shift in tone.
The story is also told through cinematic in-game cutscenes rather than the drawn-out codec conversations of yesteryear’s titles. They’re not as long as Metal Gear Solid 4‘s sometimes prolonged 2-hour mid-game back-stories, but they’re poignant, punchy and effective in the best of ways.
So why is it so important? Well, Kojima has created something that’s more than the sum of its parts – its a massive step forward for narrative direction in games and how to create a sequel that’s not just a formality of the industry, but rather a well planned, beautifully created piece of art; and this should inspire other developers, as it truly sets the bar of what a big triple-A game should be.
With that all said, Metal Gear Solid V is so big it’s hard to put into words. Not just the levels themselves, but the finer details in all the game’s different elements. The Phantom Pain is a game-changing triumph and easily one of the best stealth games ever made (arguably only contested by its predecessors). This is the final evolution of a video game director’s singular vision which started out in the pixelated eta of the 1980s, and one which awards players for creativity and bravery to take risks, rather than racing to the finish.