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Hands on: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Danger lurks around every corner in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain looks to be a massive culmination of the beloved action-stealth series.

Last year Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes really impressed us with how it shook up the established series formula by opening up the gameplay into a more flexible, open world style. That brief prologue was just an appetizer, however, for the main course this September: Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I had the chance to don my cardboard box and try out one of its early missions. While I can’t tell you anything about the story yet, I can confirm that Phantom Pain delivers on the promise of Ground Zeroes.

I climbed the stairs and walked in on an apparently off-duty guard, whom I reflexively knocked out with a tranquilizer dart.

I was dropped off on a ledge overlooking the rocky desert of Afghanistan. The horizon stretched out in front of me, an enticing and expansive landscape I was eager to explore. That would have to wait for another day; I had a rescue operation to complete. One of my former comrades was captured by mysterious operatives and was being held in a nearby facility. Some intel in a nearby village pointed me to his exact location, which was necessary if the extraction was going to be as precise and surgical as I intended it to be (Spoiler alert: It was not).

Where most prior Metal Gear games would drop you off right at the mission location so you could get right into the sneaking (and inevitable frantically running and shooting), here it leaves you in the desert with a horse (though no sign of the wolf), point you in the right direction, and leave you to it. Good reconnaissance becomes absolutely vital, fundamentally altering the rhythm of the game.

I gave the village a wide berth, riding around to the other side where a ridge overlooked it so I could get a better view with my binoculars. Zooming in on a guard tags them both in your view and on the map, so it pays to take your time and try to scope out everyone. That’s the advice I would have given myself if I could travel back in time to a few minutes before I walked right into a guard I’d missed hiding behind a wall. Fortunately, when the firefight broke out, there were only a handful of soviet soldiers with terrible aim hanging out in that sleepy village, so they were quickly dispatched, and I found the intel that pointed me to where exactly my target was being held.

From there it was onward to a much more heavily-guarded fortress for the rescue. The lack of a clear boundary for mission areas means that you have to be cautious when making your way across the map. Myopically focused on my target in the distance, I bungled around a corner and right into a guard post, and before I could react my horse was dead on the ground, followed shortly thereafter by me. I only had one hour to play, but I could already feel how immersive the game gets in full swing. The open environment and ever-looming threats make Metal Gear Solid V feel simultaneously expansive and intimate.

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The second part of the mission went more smoothly, aided by the fall of night, which arrived just as I approached the facility. Under cover of darkness I was able to slip past the perimeter defenses undetected and into the building where I knew my target was being held. Keep it together, Snake. I climbed the stairs and walked in on an apparently off-duty guard, whom I reflexively knocked out with a tranquilizer dart before he has a chance to react. Good — this was how things were supposed to go.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Things turn south, however, when another guard happens upon me stashing the body of his colleague in the basement. Caught unaware, my less timely and elegant response results in a hail of bullets, the alarm raised, and a mad dash to complete my objective. Fortunately, I was already close, so I simply had to run upstairs and take the prisoner.

The first segment would not let me grab the intel while the guards were still after me, meaning I had to take out the entire village before moving on. Here, however, I was able to have a full cut scene of dialogue with the prisoner while a guard was literally standing a few feet away outside a window. It was somewhat immersion-breaking, but I was nevertheless relieved that I could throw him over my shoulder and book it out the door without having to kill dozens of Soviet soldiers. I threw him on the back of my horse and took off to the extraction point. The ensuing chase took a decidedly Kojima-flavored turn toward “..what?!”, which offered tantalizing hints of the insanity to come in The Phantom Pain‘s story.

If you loved previous Metal Gear games, you’ll feel right at home in The Phantom Pain. All of Snake’s tools and tricks for both stealth and guns-blazing combat are easily accessible through quick menus, empowering you to play in any style you choose. It all feels fluid and intuitive enough that the game gets out of your way so you can just focus on being a cinematic badass. There were a few cut scenes during the segment I played, and Kojima’s signature, overwrought dialogue is back in full force, striking that balance between serious and silly that makes it classic Metal Gear. The game also makes fantastic use of the PlayStation 4 hardware, with a deep draw distance and beautifully detailed textures.

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If this really is Hideo Kojima’s last hurrah with Konami and his genre-defining franchise, he will be going out on a high note. Playing this all-too-brief demo whet my appetite, and I can’t wait to dig in when Metal Gear Solid V drops on September 1.

Highs

  • The open world promise of Ground Zeroes realized on a grand scale
  • Most visually-impressive Metal Gear game ever

Lows

  • Unforgiving to players not already familiar with series’ gameplay mechanics