First hands-on with Metal Gear Solid V
I played somewhere near 14 hours of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, from the beginning, and I can hardly tell you anything about it because of a super long coverage embargo that includes broad agreement to not discuss story, plot, or cutscenes at all. It’s some appropriately Cold War era [redacted]-ing. So no spoiler warning, I guess? It’s a bit weird. The situation, not The Phantom Pain. The Phantom Pain is really, really weird.
Trailers from as far back as two years ago offer evidence enough, though. Do you all remember the giant, on-fire man supplanted in malevolence seconds later by the even more giant, on-fire whale careening through the sky to eat a helicopter? How about the Psycho Mantis Pixie Dream Girl with alt bob? Or on-fire man riding a horned Pegasus, chasing Snake and Ocelot down? Or last year’s E3 demo that pumped me up for The Phantom Pain and E3 in general at what was a dull year for the show. There was a horse that could shit.
Oh, here is one thing I can tell you. With enough experience accrued and a leveled up “buddy” bond, you can demand your horse shit on command. “Do it (defecate).”
There is a reason I am excited about Snake’s horse having a poop button and it is not only that I am a dumb idiot. While I never managed to confirm, I am sure that you can do something like strategically place poop so an enemy walks into it and stops, or maybe slips. Because things like that are what elevate Metal Gear Solid V above typical stealth and/or open-world titles. It’s the idiosyncrasies, like calling in a supply drop from Mother Base right onto the head of a stationary guard, knocking them out.
It’s knowing winks like hiding in a PS4 cardboard box, or the ghost from PT being an item, or a spoken, in-universe tutorial where you’re told fourth wall breaking things like “press X” while under extreme virtual duress. The opening segment, which has mostly been covered in diced up trailers, stuck with me in hindsight for how long it goes on with you controlling a crawling, limping Snake in the under siege, burning hospital. It’s a while before you’re given any power back (guns or even the ability to walk properly), which I appreciated. Kojima ratchets up the direness here, too, as loads of hospital patients get brutally murdered all around.
The meat of Phantom Pain opens after this mix of spectacle and terror with a trip to dusty Afghanistan to save Miller that ends in a frightening [redacted]. This plays similarly to Ground Zeroes, of course, but with a horse and more scouting and enemy tagging to do. I wormed my way up to where Miller was captive, climbed up a crack in a building, and jumped from one roof to another to neatly sneak in. Carrying a less-limbed Miller out did get me plenty shot up, but a whistle for my buddy D Horse got both of us out of there quickly.
Back on Mother Base, the structure becomes clear. There are main missions you must travel to (by helicopter to a nearby landing zone, or on horseback/by ground vehicle) and they are not all story heavy, though you’re always treated to beginning and ending credits, as if each mission was a TV episode, just in case you forgot that this was directed by Hideo Kojima.
One mission simply tasked me with rolling up on a compound and assassinating three Russian officers. I fulton’d them all — attached balloons to them to send back to Mother Base — against Miller’s wishes instead, which proved wise as the officers had some high statistical aptitudes. These poached soldiers fill out your private army and get cool names like Blue Mastadon. Eventually you can scan them ahead of time to know which have high stats, or you can sometimes interrogate soldiers into informing you if an en elite operative is nearby (provided you’ve acquired a translator for your support team, as Snake’s language skills are limited).
It’s a lot of contract work in addition to the narrative goal of stopping the Hamburglar-masked Skull Face and generally figuring out what the hell is going on with things. I was actually a bit surprised by how infrequently missions came with cutscenes or main story ties. Sometimes they open up three at a time and you can take them on in any order. You can also choose to repeat a mission at any time if you want to aim for a better performance ranking.
I did this with a prisoner extraction mission I had previously finished, but barely. Turns out using the Phantom Cigar to speed up until nighttime, coupled with the night vision goggles, made that particular mission a five minute cakewalk. Going at it in the day led me to enough deaths that I was offered the Chicken Hat, which makes things easier and slows down enemy reaction time. Other dynamic weather events — rain or sandstorms — can also come into play, sometimes not at opportune moments. The low visibility caused by sandstorms helped me a few times, but also led me to walk right into an enemy soldier, once.
There are also useful side missions that pop up for you take at your leisure, often en route to the next mission point. The Afghan desert is huge, but much of the terrain is empty or cordoned off by mountainous areas or steep cliff sides that encourage you to use the main roads.
These roads are littered with enemy outposts, however, often with small platoons of three to four and a watch tower. Sneaking through them isn’t too tough, because often you can take a longer loop around them, but they often house collectables (you can pinch a huge assortment of music from enemy tape players) and valuable resources that tie into the upgrade system. Oil, alloys, raw diamonds for straight cash, plants to upgrade the sleeping toxin in Snake’s tranquilizers or the time-shifting Phantom Cigar — you’ll be scooping up all of it, though other means of acquisition open up when you can start sending squads out on missions.
Plus, those posts are full of soldiers to abduct and, after you upgrade your Fulton balloons, things like heavy artillery to nick.
Everything you Fulton, barring bad weather or bad luck with nighttime visibility, ends up back at Mother Base, which is large enough, especially once you get construction going, that you can actually take a helicopter to other parts of it. Or you can take a long, straight drive in a jeep. Going back to visit helps your troops’ morale. They’re also proud and happy to have you practice your close quarters combat on them at any time.
During my lengthy hands-on, I never got to the point where my Mother Base came under attack, though that’s supposed to be a big part of it, up to the point where you can consider nuclear capability as a defense. It’s worth noting that 14 hours or so with Phantom Pain and I didn’t feel close to finished. Back at Mother Base, I was still building an animal sanctuary (necessary to house all the wandering sheep and other creatures I kept bringing back) and trying to get an imprisoned, sun-bathing Quiet as a deployable buddy like D-Horse and Diamond Dog (the adorable wolf pup that grows into a super-scouting badass). She just sat in the cell, face down, top undone (got to watch those tan lines) listening to tunes from an eclectic, amusing soundtrack.
Adorably, construction scaffolding on Mother Base is all stamped with a picture of a dog in a hardhat with a pick axe. It’s the little things. Like changing my Diamond Dogs logo from a boring, stencil font “DD” to a cool ass octopus emblazoned with the words “VENOM WOMAN.” You can even paint Mother Base if that Giants-orange is too much for you. I find a tasteful dark blue goes well with the sea.
My favorite Mother Base quirk so far, though, is the giant shower Snake can jump into to come out feeling refreshed. It also washes off all the blood that accumulates on him while out on missions (if you end up getting shot, at least).
While there are reasons to return home, you can manage a lot of Mother Base, like troop allocation and base development, while out in the field through the iDroid. It also acts as Snake’s cassette player, useful for Codec-replacing heaps of exposition, which is just about the only place I heard Snake do much talking.
From the iDroid you can also develop new or better versions of weapons and items. There are upgraded critter traps, different abilities for Snake’s robot arm, enhancements to the binocular scanner, extra Fulton balloons to heft heavier weight. I mostly played with a stealthy approach so I didn’t dabble much with the vast assortment of snipers, machine guns, or rocket launchers you can call in. Nor did I ever run up on a lack of funds that would prevent re-supply drops of my own essential Fulton balloons and tranq darts, but the fact that you have to call in and then get to the supply drops means that the feature rarely made things too simple.
Especially because missions often end up in close quarters or indoors where a supply drop would be useless anyways. I was impressed by how naturally set piece sort of areas exist in Metal Gear Solid V‘s world. There are long tracts of dusty road, vast open desert, but suddenly you stumble upon an enormous, imposing compound. In the case of one early mission, it was an Uncharted-style winding, honeycomb-esque historical labyrinth, which you get to by creeping through an excavation camp. There are mission areas that would feel like obvious “levels” elsewhere, but here they mesh cleanly with the open world.
Just starting or ending a mission (the latter, usually by reaching a helicopter and flying out in real time) is seamless and the day/night cycle persists in cutscenes.
I did hit one snag with this open-world structure, though. When you start a mission (or side-mission), you’re then restricted to a “mission area.” Leaving it ends the mission. I only ever noticed after one challenging mission that ended with [redacted] and [redacted] coming up on [redacted] and holy hell [redacted] — anyway, towards the end I tried to hightail it on my horse, but I ended running clean through the mission area and having to start from way, way back. It wanted me to sneak to a nearby chopper extraction point instead of just racing to safety and calling one in. This is, incidentally, when I noted the cutscene and subsequent segment I originally did at night now took place during the day.
Phantom Pain feels like the freshest, most distinct use of an open world since Far Cry 2 and it does this without sacrificing the cozier feeling of the series’ past level design. While I can’t say anything about the story, I don’t actually know much at this point, either, besides various “holy shit” moments that have only raised questions. It’s appropriate, then, that this Sutherland-voiced Snake speaks sparingly. He always seems sad and a little bit confused, retreating into the rote, work-like task of soldier stuff hoisted upon him by Ocelot and Miller, who seem to be a bit at odds with each other as well.
While Ground Zeroes‘ sadistic storytelling might raise concerns over how this extra grim tale will play out (Snake is basically a devil what with the horns, the intro is pure brutality before giving way to surreal insanity, there’s still a whole thing about child soldiers at some point), I’ve come away nothing but impressed with Phantom Pain. I don’t miss codecs, I don’t miss Hayter. I’ve embraced the open world, I love the tangible Mother Base.
And I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface. There’s so much more to do. I’ve barely used the cardboard box — you can leap out the sides or hang out in delivery zones and actually have enemies unwittingly pick you up and drive you into outposts. I haven’t used to inflatable decoy to bop someone off a cliff. In a world of blockbuster clones and genre convention, Metal Gear Solid V manages to feel fresh.
I can’t wait to get someone to slip on my horse poop.