Here I am, just after 9am, sitting in front of a TV screen at Konami’s office in Windsor, waiting to play one of the most anticipated releases of 2015. It’s Monday 1st June, exactly three months to the day until Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain comes out. Coincidence? Probably, but who knows when it comes to Metal Gear and Konami. Either way, as a diehard fan of the series, I’m excited and then some. No point hiding it, right? I love the series, it’s played a big part in what I do now, and I’ve been looking forward to (understatement of the century) The Phantom Pain ever since I finished up with Ground Zeroes. Looking forward and hoping for something special. And you know what? From what I played, it looks like Kojima and his team are going to deliver.
Before I go into the meat of my preview, it’s only right to tell you I’ll be focusing more on the gameplay side of The Phantom Pain, mainly because I don’t want to spoil anything related to the story. Sure, I’ll touch upon elements, but rest assured I will not go into detail and ruin things for you. Mainly because I wouldn’t want to do that and, well, I’ve been told by Konami not to! Skull Face himself will come and get me, apparently. Okay, that’s a lie. Maybe. I hope.
Right, let’s get into it. My eight hour love affair with The Phantom Pain kicks off with a mind blowing, hour long prologue. As stated above, I won’t divulge any details related to the story, but if you’re at all interested in the series it will excite you, terrify you and mess with your mind during its entire duration. It’s unmistakably Kojima; his style is stamped all over it. Control during this section is minimal, but when it is handed over to you it’s tense as hell. With Silent Hills cancelled, for now, it’s the closest the legendary creator will come to making a horror game. Seriously, I’m not kidding. A couple of times I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I made it through what needed to be done. You could say the prologue outstays it welcome by around five to ten minutes or that the pacing is a tad on the slow side, but it would be somewhat harsh. For those uninitiated in the ways of the Kojima, fair enough, but if you’re a veteran or fan the prologue is pure gold. It left me with my mouth wide open, amazed by what I had just witnessed. The theories, rumours and everything else it all makes sense yet absolutely no sense all at once. It’s brilliant.
The brilliance continues as you move into the missions too. Yes, missions. You didn’t read that incorrectly. I can already hear the “that doesn’t sound like Metal Gear” cries, but that’s not true. You see, The Phantom Pain follows a structure that will be familiar to anyone that has played the criminally overlooked and underrated Peace Walker. Well, imagine that combined with Ground Zeroes on a much larger scale. Yeah, that’s The Phantom Pain. Much like Peace Walker there’s a reason behind the way the game is set up. Going into it would probably reveal a little too much about the story, but rest assured it works incredibly well. It’s almost needed to, for both you and Big Boss himself. The missions are at times so intense and mentally draining that you need that chill time at Mother Base or in your snazzy helicopter (more on that later).
With that out of that little explanation out of the way, I have to say the missions I played were absolutely superb. They open up in groups and you can choose to tackle them in any order you want. Ranging from blowing up satellites to rescuing an important science dude (via Fulton, more on that later too), each mission somehow ties into the overall narrative. You feel always like there is a sense of purpose and all doing all these “jobs” will lead to something massive down the line. Just to go back it for a moment, the rescue mission was by far my favourite from what I played and am allowed to talk about. I’m a stealth first kind of Metal Gear player so it was intense and gripping as hell for me right until the end. At one point I was sure I was going to be found out, but through some clever manoeuvring and hiding I made it through undetected. Not only that, I managed to s-rank the mission. Go me, eh? Yes, there is an end mission screen, displaying your statistics and ultimately grading you, pretty like Ground Zeroes. And, no, it doesn’t take anything away from the game. Hell, you get credits too (featuring Kojima’s name, of course), making each mission feel like a TV episode of sorts.
Anyway, I digressed a bit there, the point I’m making here is that each mission is a complete joy. You can tackle it how you want to as well. I planned it all out, tagging soldiers with my binoculars and tranquilising them or putting them to sleep via CQC to sneak past unnoticed. However, I saw another member of the gaming press go for a more action oriented approach, calling in a support helicopter and sprinting to extraction point on their horse. Obviously, stealth is still the way I would recommend to play, providing more rewarding experience in the long run. It’s just the fact that there are all these other completely viable options at your disposal that I love. Kojima really has built a stealth sandbox with The Phantom Pain. This sounds weird to say, but war torn Afghanistan is so much fun to sneak around in. With a dynamic weather and day/night cycle, things get trickier at night with enemies being harder to spot, but that works the other way too. As in they’ll find tougher to spot you too. Another lovely touch. And, yes, I brought out the words helicopter and horse there. What? Did you think I was just going to casually mention them and not expand on either? Come on now.
Okay, so you essentially “travel” to each mission in your helicopter, choosing a landing zone somewhere in the vicinity of the objective or target. You see, the helicopter doubles up as your in-air mission headquarters. Here you see all the available missions, get briefings from Miller or (if you want) just kick back and listen to some music via cassette tapes you nabbed during missions. Yes, really, the latter is an option. Typical Kojima. This is all done via the iDroid, a extremely important gadget in The Phantom Pain. You also get to choose a loadout before you step into your mission area. I’m talking weapons, gadgets and even a buddy. That’s right, a buddy. The only one I got to use in my eight hours with The Phantom Pain was the horse. The trusty steed is so useful and more fun than I initially thought to navigate around Afghanistan. I particularly enjoyed dropping to the side while riding and slowly sneaking past patrolling guards. Oh so clever. There’s a cute little puppy too, but you don’t get to take him on missions until he’s a full grown dog. However, unless you use the magic of the Fulton recovery device, you could miss out on his cuteness entirely.
Ah yes, the Fulton. Or as I call it, The Phantom Fun device. Seriously though, as funny as it looks in the trailers released so far, the device is key to how you get on in The Phantom Pain. Attempting to put a bear to sleep and Fulton it back to Mother Base is hilarious (I tried this and failed), but it’s the soldiers you really want. They are pivotal to building Diamond Dogs and expanding your base. You see each soldier will specialise in an area (sometimes two), ranging from weapons experts to tech guys. Initially it’s a case of getting many as back to Mother Base as possible to get things going, but once you upgrade your binoculars you’ll be able to see soldier specialities when you tag them. From then on you can pick and choose which soldiers to tranquilise and turn into a Diamond Dog. You can also Fulton back fully conscious soldiers by sticking them up first, but dead ones are no use. Mother Base has no use for the dead, and what a base it is.
Just like every other facet of the game, Mother Base is superbly integrated into the essence of The Phantom Pain. It’s probably my favourite element of the game. Kind of mimicking the Big Shell facility in Sons of Liberty (I’m sure that’s no coincidence on Kojima’s part), it starts off relatively small for an offshore base. As I touched upon briefly, it’s down to you to populate it with the right people and turn it into a something special. I see it as the second pillar that makes up The Phantom Pain’s gameplay, complimenting the missions and everything that surround them. Mother Base is where you come back to relax and unwind after the tough missions. It’s where you go to have a word with your soldiers, play with your dog or even shower to wash away the blood/dirt. Hell, from my point of view, all it’s missing is a shisha pipe and a TV to watch football. That’s how chilled out it is. To put it another way, Mother Base is the yin to the missions’ yang. Watching it grow into a proper base of operations is strangely satisfying too. You’ll need plenty of resources like fuel and diamonds (found on the battlefield) to get the upgrades going though, so keep an eye out when you’re sneaking around during missions.
Additionally, you can choose to do a few side ops too. These are completely optional, but some are well worth doing. An early one tasked me with getting a Russian translator back to Mother Base, simple enough. Yes, it was, but if I didn’t do it I would’ve been left in a bit of pickle. You see, if you don’t get him back, every time you interrogate a soldier on the battlefield you won’t be able to understand a word he’s saying. It’s all Russian, and as awesome as Big Boss is he does not speak the language. Russian translator to the rescue! Yes, but only if you partake in the side op and get him back to Mother Base. I thought this was absolutely brilliant; a touch of genius from Kojima or whoever decided to get the side op into the game.
And that’s how I would sum up my time with The Phantom Pain. Brilliant with touches of genius sprinkled on top. For those eight hours, I forgot anything else existed. I was so immersed in the world Kojima and his team have created. The only reason I stopped playing was because I didn’t want to ruin the full game for myself when it’s released, otherwise I wouldn’t have left until I finished it. I doubt Konami would let me do that, but you get the point I’m trying to make! It’s crazy, many thought Kojima would struggle to bring the stealth of Metal Gear into an open world, but the legendary creator seems to have done it with such ease. If this is to be his last Metal Gear, it could well be the best in the series and possibly one of the best games ever. It’s actually that damn good, that polished. Seriously, unless the development of it goes drastically wrong between now and September, The Phantom Pain is shaping up to be something very special.