The airlifted goats and Snake-in-the-box sneak attacks of Metal Gear Solid V

It’s a new era for Metal Gear. This is a series that began as a top-down stealth/puzzle game during the NES era. It evolved to embrace more of a cinematic 3D flavor roughly a decade later in the Metal Gear Solid series, and it even flirted briefly with collectible card game-style hooks in the MGS Acid titles. There’ve been surprise protagonists, ponderously long cutscenes, and investment-driven metagames, all executed on with varying degrees of success.

It wasn’t until Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes arrived earlier this year that we got a real sense of where Kojima Productions plans to take the series next. We’ve moved into a realm now of sandbox stealth, with wide-open spaces empowering more of a player-authored route through the game. Ground Zeroes was just a prologue, though; Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain represents a more thorough realization of its predecessor’s ideas, and as we learned at E3 2014, the prologue only scratches the surface.

Story/Concept

Building bad. The Phantom Pain picks up nine years after the events of Ground Zeroes. The prologue left protagonist and future Metal Gear villain Big Boss in a coma; he awakens at the start of The Phantom Pain and immediately sets out to rebuild his private military force so he can exact vengeance on those who wronged him. Over the course of the game, players — as “Venom Snake” — establish an ever-growing army of mercenaries, as well as the Mother Base command center that houses them.

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The E3 demo (which you can watch right here), picks up at an early point in the game. Snake is on a mission in Afghanistan to locate and extract a VIP, but the wide open space that it unfolds in allows for an assortment of different approaches that contain plenty of opportunities to diverge from the primary objective. Our demo driver uses the in-game iDroid to map out a rough approach using multiple waypoints, starting with a high-elevation vantage point from which patrolling enemies can be marked. It’s a handcrafted route to the objective; Snake could just as easily have circled around to recon and enter the enemy camp from a different location, or simply stormed it blind.

There’s still an underlying plot that The Phantom Pain follows, but unlike most of the previous Metal Gear Solid games, the path you carve to each new story point is meant to change from player to player.

Gameplay

Grounded in Zeroes. The overall flow of The Phantom Pain is similar to what was established in Ground Zeroes. You explore a map in search of your objective(s), but in that space there are also other opportunities to strengthen Snake’s growing army. Interrogate an opponent before you take him down, and you might be clued into the location of helpful supplies. Whenever you come across something that might aid Snake’s growing paramilitary force — anything from knocked out troops and goats (YUP) to vehicles and even entire shipping containers — you simply tag it with the Fulton Recovery System and wait a few moments for an air pick-up to carry the item away.

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Calling in Fulton pickups requires an expenditure of GMP, The Phantom Pain‘s currency. You replenish your cash flow by completing various missions and sending various valuables — such as raw diamonds discovered during our hands-off demo — back to base. The money doesn’t just pay for Fulton pick-ups. You can also call for support while in the field, covering everything from intel runs to supply drops (which can be called in on top of an enemy’s head) to full-on airstrikes.

Cardboard Box 2.0. Metal Gear’s trademark cardboard box item is back in The Phantom Pain, and it’s leveled up! In previous games, the box offered a quick route to getting out of sight; simply equip it and Snake/Raiden/etc. huddles inside. You could move around, but that was pretty much the extent of the cardboard box’s capabilities.

In The Phantom Pain, Snake’s got a few new box moves as well. You can quickly leap clear, landing in a combat roll, which is effective for getting away from enemies that direct suspicion toward an out-of-place box. You can also pop out of the top, Jack-in-the-box-style, to surprise an approaching enemy and hit him with a tranq dart before he can raise an alarm.

Building Heaven. All of Snake’s Fulton pick-ups are sent back to his Mother Base command center, which is built into the remains of an abandoned offshore oil platform. We see shades of Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker here, only the earlier game’s menu-driven management system is replaced in Phantom Pain with a fully explorable Mother Base that grows as you add to and upgrade it over the course of the game.

We only got a glimpse of Mother Base during the demo, so it’s not clear how upgrades work, nor is there any sense of how base defense scenarios play out. You build additional offshore platforms over the course of the game, connecting them to the starting operations center, but you can also add accoutrements like unmanned air defense drones and an assortment of fixed cannon emplacements. This growth, along with the constant stream of troops that you subdue and capture out in the field, is necessary for protecting Snake’s HQ from attacking enemy forces.

Presentation

A windswept sandbox. Once again, Ground Zeroes is a great reference point. The sole open space we saw in The Phantom Pain‘s E3 demo is a big one, spanning much more square footage than the single enemy camp Snake takes down. The environment swims with game-influencing details, from the basic design of the slopes and vantage points to the way naturally occurring sandstorms destroy visibility and temporarily deprive Snake of support and Fulton pick-up abilities.

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The Phantom Pain is definitely beautiful to look at, but the overall design of the world and the systems that power it also appear to heavily inform how the game plays.

Takeaway

We’re as jazzed as is possible for a game that hasn’t been available yet for hands-on play. The framework laid out in Ground Zeroes is the starting point, but The Phantom Pain appears to go much bigger in terms of overall world size and range of interactions within that world. We hope to see more as Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain‘s early 2015 release draws nearer.

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