Editor's Note: While our writer was given free rein with game code for two days from the game's start onwards, NDAs mean most content connected to story and such cannot be discussed at this time.
First things first. In Metal Gear Solid V, you can equip your military helicopter with speakers. Then you can call it onto the battlefield and strike fear in the enemy with a war machine that plays David Bowie, A-Ha and other unlockable '80s oldies on full blast. Brilliant!
There, we had to get that out of the way.
A few weeks ago we took a trip to Konami's American headquarters in Los Angeles, where the publisher placed us in front of a TV, a controller, and a PlayStation 4 with a fully playable version of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain sitting in the disc tray. Over two days we got to play close to sixteen hours on our own, from the start to what seemed - still - a long way from the game's end. Reviews have been written on less (not GR's, of course).
The time came in handy. After the first hour of the game we could have believed that this was an archetypal Metal Gear, with linear structure and as much movie watching as playing. But after a few intriguing, if slightly clumsy, initial stages, you come to a point where you say goodbye to the narrow corridors once and for all, and ride out into an open Afghanistan. From now on you can choose where you go. The next cutscene doesn't appear until a couple of hours later.
The expanse and amount of choice within it is huge. As in the prologue Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, you have an iDroid, a small walkie-talkie that you can use for communications or to play music. You can also use it to project a R2-D2-like hologram of a map, and on this you find a mission, place a marker, and prepare for a long ride.
If the trip is too long, there may be another mission closer by, and if you don't want to embark on some big adventure, find a side mission instead (called "Side OPS" in the game). Also, if you just want to kill time you can simply ride around, find hidden secrets or take over bases. If you've ever played a sandbox game, this'll be familiar territory.
But Metal Gear Solid V is a game where you'd rather avoid any enemy. As always, you are equipped with the best of James Bond-esque weapon and technology, but hopefully you won't have to use any of it. The actual stealth is more or less as it was in Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes. You look for enemies and tag them with the binoculars before you tiptoe towards your goal. The difference is that it has become much more extensive, and far more enjoyable.
While you only had a few weapons at your disposal in Ground Zeroes, you now have dozens, and you can use whatever you want, whenever you want. You have sniper rifles, shotguns, C4, heat-seeking missiles, cardboard boxes, inflatable snake puppets and a Walkman. Besides, you have a horse, a dog or a helper via the new buddy system, and a helicopter (the one blasting '80s music) that can give you a ride or supporting fire, all depending on what's appropriate.
We must mention that the game has a night and day cycle which means almost all missions can be carried out in pitch darkness, where both you and the enemy soldiers (most of them) have reduced visibility, or in daylight, when you must be aware that it's easier to be discovered. But there's also sandstorms which ensure that neither you nor your opponents can see or hear what is happening right in front of your noses.
This mix of different variables ensures that missions can be accomplished in very different ways. There is of course the eternal question of whether you should be stealthy or not, but for our part we have always, ever since the series' first game on PSOne, found stealth to be most rewarding. The more interesting choices are the time of day to attack (you can take a smoke break to initiate a time skip) and what weapons to use.
The game is at its best when you are a little creative and take some chances. Why not put an inflatable replica of yourself in the middle of the road and see what happens when an enemy convoy approaches? Perhaps they stop and give you time to shoot the driver through the windshield? Maybe they panic and put the pedal to the metal. It's incredibly fun to make plans and see how a patrol responds, and you feel proud when completing a mission with top marks (which you earn from a slightly unpredictable rating system).
The new freedom has a price. While previous Metal Gear games have been exceptionally polished, almost flawless, we encountered a great number of flaws and weird bugs in Metal Gear Solid V. Some of the mistakes were actually quite annoying. The game will of course not release until this fall, so we expect some bugs to be ironed out, but in our experience there's a limit as to how much a developer can fix in a few short months. Then again, bugs and glitches in open world games are not uncommon.
As is often the case for Metal Gear, once you've been spotted the game loses some of its magic. Enemy soldiers can absorb a little too much damage when spraying them with machine gun fire, and we miss the simplicity of lying in the shadows and tapping them out with a well-placed sleeping dart to the head. Even with a Ratchet and Clank-like arsenal, Snake again fails to make Metal Gear Solid into a particularly good shooter. It's all about keeping things stealthy.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is an exceptionally versatile experience. In between all the stealth, you can go home to "Mother Base" as you could in Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. You can also recruit (read: kidnap) soldiers to this base, and put them into one of the following positions:
- R&D: Developing new weapons and upgrades
- Base Development: extending the base
- Support: Help Snake on the battlefield
- Intel: Collect information Snake can use in the battlefield
- Fight: Send them on a mission in order to fill your bank account
- Pet-sitting: Make them tend to the animals you rescue from the battles
Any uncooperative recruits can be thrown in prison.
Unlike Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker, the base is now a separate gaming area, where you can shower, practice your accuracy or meet your subordinates and bully them.
As you might guess, there was a lot to do during the hours we got to play the game, but even if there wasn't time for everything, we got to encounter some thoroughly memorable moments. Beside one of the toughest boss situations in any game ever, there were plenty of special and unexpected events. Like when one discovers that the torn-down power lines laying in the water you just stepped in can kill, or when you meet a huge bear in the middle of the woods, attach it to a Fulton balloon and send it to the Mother Base. Good times.
There's a sense of recycling in Metal Gear Solid, just as in Just Cause, Assassin's Creed or other sandbox titles. There are areas which were recycled for several different missions and similar mission types used in multiple locations. But the game is still crammed with content, and an interesting story with weird and bizarre events. It's still Metal Gear Solid, and it's still brilliant entertainment.
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