– Aaron Birch
It certainly wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Konami isn’t exactly popular with gamers right now. Poor treatment of beloved franchises like Castlevania, killing off the superbly promising P.T./Silent Hills, and firing industry legend Hideo Kojima were just some of the lowlights the publisher has accrued of late. Add to this reports that staff are treated like prisoners, turning Castlevania and Silent Hill into pachinko machines (?!), and only placing the Steam installer for the title of this review onto a Blu-ray disc for PC, and you’ve got the perfect storm of hatred for the once loved gaming juggernaut. Sad times.
It’s quite ironic, then, that the main fuel for this controversy, Metal Gear solid V: The Phantom Pain, will undoubtedly be the biggest earner for the company this year. Yes, I’ve no doubt in my mind that Hideo Kojima, on his way out the door, will make Konami more money than it’s made for a long time. We’ll have to see where Konami goes next… Metal Gear karaoke, anyone?
Enough on Konami, though. As short-sighted and insular as the company has become, it has managed to deliver Metal Gear Solid V, and in doing so it’s given us one of the finest open world titles I’ve ever played, and that’s big praise.
I don’t like to spoil stories, so don’t worry, I won’t give anything away, save to say the game takes place nine years after Ground Zeroes. Snake/Big Boss awakes in hospital, sans a hand, and has to quickly escape from an assassination attempt. Being Metal Gear, this assassination isn’t your typical assailant, bald or no, with a sniper rifle. Oh no. We’re talking shady female knife-wielders, a man seemingly made out of fire, a freaky, Psycho Mantis girl, and a whole troop of soldiers. Well, they are after the greatest soldier who ever lived, but man – overkill.
The intro serves as a clever tutorial, and weaves the mystery of the future story into a training mission where you grab the basics. It’s one of the best openings I’ve seen for a while, and is distinctly Kojima. You know you’re in for a ride, that’s for sure.
Once into the game proper you’re given the sandbox of Afghanistan to play around in, and the feel of previous teaser, Ground Zeroes is instantly present, only with more sand, and a horse. From the off you’re thrown into a mission to rescue an old friend, and the sheer scale of the open world, and the things you can do in it become apparent. Like Ground Zeroes, you’re not constrained, or limited to certain areas or approaches. However you want to proceed is up to you, and how you achieve your goals is open with few restraints. We got a small taste of this new-found freedom in GZ, but MGSV gleefully revels in it, allowing Snake more freedom than ever before, and it obviously benefits from a map far, far larger than the one seen in GZ.
Although not the only location, Afghanistan is a huge area, and it’s dotted with enemy bases, facilities, and guard posts. Missions are spread all over the location, and you can choose the order in which you tackle these. Story missions are the main focus, of course, but there’s also a large number of ‘Side Ops’ you can take on, as well as the metagame revolving around Mother Base, which I’ll get to later.
For the most part you’ll be riding and sneaking around the lush environments, looking for clever ways to take down a guard posts, or infiltrate an occupied village. Thanks to the large and open world, this is immensely enjoyable, and when scoping out a location, you really do feel like a highly skilled covert ops soldier, who has total freedom to engage as he sees fit.
You can craft a cunning plan to sneak in and achieve your objective without ever being seen, even to the point of avoiding everyone, or you can tighten that Rambo head band, load up, and go in laughing as you’re drenched in blood (don’t worry, you can take a shower to wash it off later). Often you can combine these, and it’s just as effective to cause a diversion by blowing stuff up, thus drawing guards away from where you need to be. It’s a free-form stealth and combat system that flows beautifully, and really does reward creative players. The more you become Snake, and think like a crafty covert agent, the more you’ll enjoy it.
Whichever way to tackle your missions, you’re not punished, and that’s key. Unlike earlier Metal Gear titles, which punished players for not being stealthy, almost always ending in game over or a long arbitrary wait in a locker, here you can always recover from mistakes, and do so with skill. This leads to much more fluid and enjoyable stealth mechanics, and an overall more enjoyable game. Now there’s actually a use for all that high-powered hardware you’re carrying outside of boss battles. It also goes without saying that strapping people and animals to balloons and watching them soar into the air never gets old.
This freedom is not only a good thing for fans of Metal Gear, but new players, and even those who may have abstained from Kojima’s quirky brand of cinematic espionage in the past. Even if you don’t like stealth games, there’s something here for you, and that’s good.
Speaking of Kojima’s love of cinema, this is actually quite restrained this time, with nowhere near the kind of indulgent and elongated scenes we’ve come to expect. The cut scenes here are shorter and more to the point, usually reserved for action set pieces or important plot points. You spend much more time in control of Snake than ever before, and this in turn makes you feel much more involved in the narrative. The pace is faster, with less pointless dialogue (Raiden and Rose, I’m looking at you!) and it’s almost like Kojima went through a grand metamorphoses as a designer, finally hitting the proper ratio of gameplay to story. Even more of a shame that Konami has put an end to his tenure.
Missions consist of various tasks, with the most elaborate being saved for main story missions, of course. You’ll infiltrate bases to rescue people and steal things, take on Metal Gear‘s traditional assortment of freaky bosses, and reveal some of the most important parts of the series’ lore. Alongside the story is the aforementioned collection of Side Ops, which involve an assortment of infiltrations and rescues, amongst other things, and all are enjoyable, if a little repetitive after a while. You can replay past missions too, in order to complete goals you missed before to get a better rating, and later on the game actually forces this, with some very tricky mission variations.
To help keep things going, and to keep you in the fight there’s the Mother Base, the Diamond Dog’s home in the Seychelles. This huge oil rig-style base is very reminiscent of the Big Shell from MGS2, and as you collect resources in the field and capture/recruit new personnel, you can grow the base larger. You add new modules for such things as medical, intelligence, R&D, and so on, and each department can be levelled up with better staff and more resources. The base grows so big you need to drive a jeep around just to get to each point.
One of the most useful modules is R&D, as it’s here where you’ll research new weapons and gear, including better guns, improvements for Snake’s bionic arm, and improvements for your in-field buddies, like D-Horse and your dog, the former of which really can be commanded to relieve itself, should seeing a horse defecate be of interest to you (I’m not judging).
This metagame isn’t a throw away feature either. It’s intertwined deeply within the core structure of the game, and how you choose to expand greatly affects how you’ll proceed. This is not just due to better gear, but also the Souls-esque PvP invasions.
Once you reach a certain point in the story you can expand your influence by building FOBs (Forward Operating Bases) around the world. These mini-Mother Bases will bring in more money and resources, but can be invaded by other players at any time when you’re online. Players can attack and steal resources and personnel from you, so it’s important to defend, either personally, or with your placed defences and trained staff.
You can assign your best combat personnel to defender duty, and place gun emplacements (captured from in the field), cameras, laser trip wires and more to protect your facility. If you do this well enough, you may not have to defend your bases yourself, but other players can be very good, so it may be a good idea to do so. Do this, and you enter a one-on-one PvP of sorts where the attacker has to sneak around and/or defeat you and your AI staff in order to reach the centre of the base, all the time trying to steal resources and extract your men. It’s a clever game of cat and mouse, and looks great.
I say looks great, as during my time with the game, server issues and lack of multiplayer availability prevented me from trying it, but we could revisit this at a later date. Metal Gear Online also isn’t available until October.
Metal Gear Solid V‘s greatest success could well be the fact Kojima and his team have managed to craft such an impressive open world game with relatively little experience of the genre. By this I don’t just mean a good game that plays well, which it clearly is, I mean an open world that’s expertly polished and full of little details, such as AI conversations that reveal plot snippets (after you’ve captured an interpreter, as you can’t understand foreign languages at first), interactive wildlife, full day/night cycles that affect your approach, and even random sandstorms, which can also benefit your infiltrations if used correctly. Each and every aspect has been honed to near perfection, with everything adding something to the game as a whole. Kojima even found time to include homages to other media, such as the Six Million Dollar Man sound effect when Snake uses his stun punch, and a selection of classic 80s music.
There’s very little in the way of negative comments I can make about Metal Gear Solid V, at least nothing that doesn’t verge on nitpicking. I did find some of the Side Ops to be a overly repetitive at times (but never boring), and the visuals can be a little wonky in places, especially D-Horse’s animations over rough terrain, but aside from that there’s not much to write home about in terms of downsides. This truly is one of the best games of the year, and dare I say it, maybe the best in the series. This is one title you really do need to own. Let’s just hope the main online component lives up to the solo campaign.