Twelve hours – this was the amount of time we spent with the highly anticipated Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain at Konami's Paris office recently. It was only after every one of those hours that we were able to truly put our opinion into words as we tackled the final installment in the Metal Gear franchise – at least with Hideo Kojima in charge. Since we aren't allowed to spoil anything in regards to the narrative, nor would we want to, you won't have to worry about any spoilers here – just pure gameplay coverage.
1984 "Big Boss is watching you"
The Phantom Pain kicks off with a lengthy playable introduction that left us glued to our seat. Simply put, we haven't experienced something quite like this since the beginning of The Last of Us. Even those already familiar with MGSV through Ground Zeroes will be in for a fair number of surprises and "WTF" moments – just what you'd expect from Mr. Kojima. Once this lengthy introduction is wrapped up we found ourselves on horseback in the desert of Afghanistan in 1984 with a simple mission designed to familiarize the player with the basics. This is also the first opportunity where we can draw comparisons to Ground Zeroes which helps make it clear just how many improvements have been made across the board since that initial outing.
Let's start with the day/night cycle dynamics. Far from being a simple aesthetic feature, this cycle changes the gameplay in a very dynamic way – the time of day in which you attack your objective will influence the gameplay directly. During the day, for instance, watch towers have a much clearer view of the battlefield making it much more difficult to sneak through. Under the cover of night, however, it's possible to sneak in while the patrols are thinned out. From here you could choose to destroy the base's lighting generator in order to remain under the cover of darkness. Of course, taking out the generator also puts guards on high alert making it more difficult to fight your way through. We found it a bit easier to just shoot out lights one by one rather than taking out the whole base at once. The time of day mechanic is also left up to the players rather than requiring a lengthy wait for sundown. Simply whip out your trusty cigarette, with rather interesting medicinal properties, and time begins to pass rapidly as Snake reflects on the good old days.
Beyond that, weather conditions are also taken into account. Indeed, violent sandstorms will sometimes appear dynamically during play concealing you from nearby enemy patrols enabling a more discrete entry into heavily guarded areas. These climate changes are also forecast by your little radio – very useful when it comes to planning your attack. Speaking of gadgets, the fulton system is back and is quite a joy to use. This powerful ground to air tool is capable of extracting all sorts of objects and people including stunned soldiers, prisoners, equipment, and even animals. It's easy to use too – as long as the space above your desired pickup it clear it's as simple as hitting a button and watching things unfold. The only downside is that the number of fulton lifts are limited (something that can be increased later) and it alerts nearby enemies.
While the core gameplay inherits much from the original Ground Zeroes release, TPP itself also brings with it many elements introduced in MGS: Peace Walker where players are tasked with managing Mother Base in between missions. Unlike the PSP game, however, the base is now fully modeled and can be explored freely. After some initial improvements, the base will be divided into separates modules (command, combat unit, support, R&D, medical, etc…) which can each be upgraded independently. Each of these also features its own combat mini games which can be a fun way to relax between missions. Snake also has a tendency to get filthy during combat operations so hitting the showers is also advised. Of course, if you choose to remain dirty eventually a swarm of flies set in - not unlike a certain Deadly Premonition - and your troop's morale dips. You are urged to deploy your troops back out into the battlefield to earn valuable resources which can then be poured back into Mother Base enabling upgrades for your weapons and equipment, new outfits, and accessories for your allies.
The sheer number and variety of weapons is also notable – silenced pistols, sniper rifles, assault rifles, rocket launchers, mines, illuminating grenades, smoke grenades – all of these and more are available and fully upgradable allowing for a wide range of strategies within each mission. Then there are the animals. One interesting example we encountered involved a stray cub that was injured during one of our missions – you can ignored this, of course, but bringing it back to base and caring for it could allow you to raise a vicious animal that could fight alongside you later in the game. The horse is very useful for faster travel in addition to hiding alongside to slip past enemy forces. It's efficient at long range but in close quarters enemies will easily see through it. Of course, the infamous Metal Gear Box returns as well allowing for cardboard infiltration action. Other vehicles available range from the classic jeep all the way up to a nimble little bipod. It becomes pretty clear early on that your horse is far from the only viable option here.
It's also clear that TPP is shaping up as the new benchmark in stealth game design – going well beyond expectations for the genre in many cases. The possibilities are numerous and the way it adapts to the player's behavior is nothing short of stunning. You can take the classic stealth approach, scouting ahead before entering and taking out enemies one by one or you can take a more adrenaline filled approach and try dealing with challenges on the fly. If you're feeling especially crazy you can also go all out with heavy artillery, air strikes, and whatever else you might have on hand. There are many ways to approach each mission and those approaches all have different consequences. Of course, nothing is more satisfying than sneaking through unseen and accomplishing your goal quickly and efficiently while scoring an "S rank" at the end.
In terms of open world game design, there's open world and then there is open world. Leaving behind the small base area of Ground Zeroes, TPP presents much larger areas with our time being focused the rocky deserts of Afghanistan. A much more lush area set in Africa is also planned along with who knows what else. We were told that the playing area we experienced was 200 times larger than that of the prologue – something we weren't able to accurately judge just yet. From what we've played, the level design works well with a huge variety of locales on hand including caves, bases, ruins, and more with many hiding places throughout. While some missions are confined to specific locales there is also a free mode enabling players to explore freely picking up resources along the way or finding cassette tapes which you can enjoy on your 80s era tape player. Speaking of technology, Ground Zeroes' iDroid also see a complete overhaul with a much friendly take on navigation. The prosthetic arm also allows players to create a sound, similar to knocking on a wall in previous games, to attract attention.
We were also reassured by the game's technical performance at this point – the game isn't finished yet but it feels complete with no crashing or bugs hindering our progress. We spent time with the PS4 version which presents a cleaner image than Ground Zeroes with remarkable rendering of light and shadow alongside an impressive depth of field effect. The frame-rate was also very solid holding a stable 60fps with just one or two exceptions. Coupled with the short loading times it's hard to find critique with the game even as a cross-gen release. The only downside comes from the rather low resolution shadow work with lots of visible stair stepping and chunky edges. One potential issue fans may take with the game is the balance of gameplay and cutscenes. In general, you select a mission, drop in, complete, and pull out rinse and repeat. This isn't an issue in itself, per se, as the game is a blast to play, but we found that the time being major plot points being presented was often pretty significant. The cinematic impact is still there in the scene we did experience but the amount of time between these sequences may leave fans of the series feeling a bit disappointed.
While engaged in that gameplay, however, it was the AI that left perhaps the strongest impression. Reactions were credible, variable, and incredibly fun to play with. Take out a guard from a great distance and watch in glee as the base scrambles to figure out what just happened even using flares to light the way should the attack happen at night. The classic cardboard box also returns and allows for some good times – we ran across soldiers announcing the fact that they saw the box move just before springing a surprise on them. The cardboard technology, the finest on offer in the game of course, also allows players to isolate guards to specific areas by propping up girlie pictures instead drawing nearby guards to take a look while you sneak past them. Overall, the number of situations the enemies offer, allow for some very interesting scenarios that really showcase their intelligence. Also, there is a smooth ramp up in difficult with the early enemies in the game giving way to greater challenges as you progress without feeling unfair.
MGSV: The Phantom Pain, at this point, looks to be a wonderful farewell letter addressed to series fans as well as fans of good games in general. It's a perfect blend of flexible gameplay with many available approaches, addictive base management, and some remarkable game design choices. Not to spoil anything, the environments and scenarios should prove rich and varied working very well alongside the excellent AI. Kojima seems to have gone all out with this one and we look forward to experiencing it in full when it drops on September 1st.