Available on Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Release date: September 1
For me, 2015 will always be about two massive, much-anticipated, epic open-world games: The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid 5: The Phantom Pain. These are games built on a more ambitious scale; games that could close the gap between the linear, narrative-led action games that had dominated the last console generation and the more emergent, free-roaming style of Skyrim and GTA 5. Even now I’d struggle to choose between them.
The Witcher 3 gave us an amazing world to explore and a cracking fantasy story. MGS5 managed to transform what should have been a mess of complex systems into something convincing and compelling. Sure, things start to fall apart as the game approaches the end, but just remember all the high points that come before that. Like its beloved Diamond Dogs, its rough around the edges but full of killer moves.
Playing it again four months later, it’s still striking how well it holds together. The prologue might only be semi-interactive at times, but that’s part of what makes it so taut and enthralling. The whole process of finding your feet in Afghanistan is still enjoyable, as you learn new ways to tackle Russian patrols and enemy encampments, or play with strategies you’d never considered on your initial playthrough.
The whole way that the Mother Base, recruitment, development and supply drop systems work together is plain brilliant, while The Phantom Pain still has the best dog and horse buddies of any video game (sorry Dogmeat, but DD has you licked). Whether you’re trying to sneak your way into or blast your way out of a situation, there’s no end to the thrills.
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Since MGS5 launched, of course, we’ve had the addition of Metal Gear Online, adding proper team-based, competitive multiplayer to the in-game, asynchronous multiplayer features of the (thankfully optional) F.O.B. system – or at least as long as you’re not playing on PC.
Metal Gear Online hasn’t exactly had the warmest of responses, stung by stability issues at launch and criticised for balance and other gameplay issues ever after. Some of these have now been fixed, with proper host migration added to stop sulky hosts on the losing team spoiling a perfectly good match, while weapons and classes have seen some rebalancing to make them more or less effective.
Is this enough to make Metal Gear Online an essential part of the package?
Well, it can be good, especially when it plays to The Phantom Pain’s existing strengths. Bounty Hunter mode, for example, might effectively be Team Deathmatch, but the way the best players are tagged with bounties makes it much more interesting, particularly once knocking them out and using the Fulton Recovery System becomes a quick, attractive way of turning a match around.
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The same goes for Cloak and Dagger mode, where the split of abilities between the powerful but visible defenders and the poorly-armed but camouflaged attackers makes for a thrilling game of cat-and-mouse. Sure, it’s possible as an attacker to rush in and grab one of the two disc objectives, but the risks of being caught – the whole team becomes momentarily more visible – encourages good players to play it like Snake himself would. The sneaking really is all-important. If the final mode, Comms Control, isn’t so successful, it’s because a more straightforward control point conquest mode isn’t really such a natural fit.
The other likable thing about Metal Gear Online is how well Snake’s abilities and equipment translate into an online setting. You have three classes, each of which can be levelled up with new abilities and new equipment. Scouts get sniper rifles and some handy, high-speed moves. Demolitionists work as a kind of tank, with heavier armour and weapons. The Infiltrator is the sneakiest class, with the all-important stealth camo suit.
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While there are differences in terms of movement speeds, targeting speeds, loadouts and available equipment slots, each class can handle different roles within a match, and the availability of such much-loved, versatile tools as the night-vision goggles, snares, c-box and decoys ensures that Metal Gear Online always feels like Metal Gear. Think a cardboard box would be useless against seasoned vets? Not when you can use it to ward off sniper fire, bowl down an enemy or lose a marked position.
Sadly, Metal Gear Online doesn’t always reach its true potential. On the one hand, some players still refuse to get it, taking actions that actively prevent the team from winning games. This is becoming less of a nightmare as the player base becomes more expert and more casual players move on, but this in itself has another drawback: Metal Gear Online is not the most accessible game coming in.
Even with some experience in the single-player game behind you you can expect to spend your first few hours getting silently toasted by stronger players, which doesn’t exactly make for the most-rewarding on-ramp. And while the much-vilified Konami is continuing to support the game, it’s still not getting the kind of maps or modes we’re seeing in the likes of Call of Duty, Halo 5 or Rainbow Six: Siege.
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That’s a problem, because it’s been a really strong season for multiplayer action games, and while Metal Gear Online is a different style of game from the shooters, it’s still trying to tap the same audience. Player numbers are already falling, and I suspect that by the time the PC version gets multiplayer in January, the vast majority of the potential player base just won’t care.
Does this impact our verdict on Metal Gear Solid 5 overall? Not really.
It was unmissable as a single-player experience in September and it remains an unmissable one now. Buy it, enjoy the campaign and do give Metal Gear Online a try. Just don’t be surprised if it doesn’t hook you in quite the same way.
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If this really is Hideo Kojima’s last Metal Gear, then you can't accuse gaming’s great auteur of going out with a whimper. The Phantom Pain is everything you ever wanted from a Metal Gear Solid – and possibly all the things you ever wanted from all the Metal Gears crammed into one crazy last instalment.
Want the complex interlocking systems of MGS3? You've got them. How about the cinematic drive and gangs-all-here fan service of MGS2 and MGS4? Well, that's here too. Like the knock-out recruiting and army management of the PSP’s Peace Walker? It turns out that there’s room for that as well. And the emergent, open-world gameplay of Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes? Well, you hardly needed to ask.
There's also space for all of Kojima's varying obsessions, ranging from pointed looks at cold war politics, revolution, capitalist greed, western hypocrisy, war and violence, to echoes of the movies and music he loves. There are weird in-jokes, bizarre head-scratching moments and young women clad in outfits so revealing that it could be months before we entangle whether we're looking at a satire of gaming sexism or just the sexism itself.
Most of all, while it's a game that takes itself pretty seriously at times, The Phantom Pain can be knowingly ridiculous and playful. From some bizarre side activities to new variations on the good old cardboard box, MGS V is nowhere near as po-faced as it could have been, even if it’s the darkest MGS of all.
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One criticism of Kojima has always been that his cinematic pretensions sometimes get in the way of the gameplay; that he'd rather you sat back and watched the movie than played the lead. Kojima seems to be toying with the idea himself in the prologue; one of the greatest sustained gaming sequences I’ve played this year or any other. Linear, but jammed with taut set-pieces, shock moments and extraordinary build-ups of suspense and release, it’s an absolute stormer, and by the time Kojima has pulled in some of his trademark oddball villains – adversaries to rival MGS3’s Cobra Unit or Metal Gear Solid’s Foxhound – you’ll be ready for some formidable action scenes and a storming climactic chase.
This, it turns out, is The Phantom Pain just winding up.
Next we’re off to Afghanistan, and it’s here that The Phantom Pain’s true character emerges. This is the open-world, emergent tactical espionage of Ground Zeroes, only played out on a truly epic scale. The map is huge, and while mountain ranges impede your progress, you can traverse it completely on foot or – more sensibly – on horseback.
There are missions to complete, starting with a daring rescue of old comrade Kazuhiro Miller, but how you complete them is up to you. Come in at daylight or at night. Make your way through villages and guard posts, killing, capturing or simply evading Russian soldiers.
While the game holds your hand a little through the early stages, the actual way you do things – and even the time of day that you do things – is pretty much up to you.
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And there’s more to do here than just completing missions. As in Peace Walker, your foes can be knocked our rather than slaughtered, then captured through the Fulton Recovery System – the bizarre, balloon-powered ground-to-air retrieval system that’s all the odder for being based on a real-world contraption. Captured troops are then converted into new and fully willing employees.
Before you know it, The Phantom Pain has you not only worried about your main objectives, but busily stealing resources and capturing troops to cover the ever-growing needs of Snake’s new Mother Base. Beyond your main missions – mercenary contracts sponsored by different players in the Afghan wars – you’re engaged in side ops to weaken the Russians, grab vital blueprints and target promising if initially uncooperative new recruits.
Movement and combat work pretty much as they did in Ground Zeroes, meaning the skills you’ve developed there are transferrable to the new game. While the sheer number of options makes for a fairly complex set of controls, it’s all surprisingly fluid and intuitive, with context-sensitive close-quarters combat and cover manoeuvres and shooting that flips quickly between third-person and first-person views as the situation demands.
However, The Phantom Pain also sees the addition of the D-Horse; the first of several ‘buddies’ you can call on during your adventures. Sorry, Roach, but D-Horse is the finest steed yet found in a video game, beating the Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption’s equine chums with a mixture of smooth controls, believable horsey handling and a great set of sneaking and galloping manoeuvres.
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You’ll need all your moves, plus D-Horse’s and more, because The Phantom Pain really isn’t interested in giving you an easy time. The missions are designed to make you work and force you to plan and be strategic. Even early on it’s clear that Snake’s most boring gadget – binoculars with scanning technology and a built-in zoom mic – might actually be his best, because you can spot and tag Russian troops so that they’re always visible within your current view, even when in the distance or concealed behind a wall.
Missions are designed in a way that you’ll nearly always have to deal with some of these goons, and they’re always just smart and organised enough to pose a threat. They’ll return to their patrols if you go to ground and keep quiet, but raise an alert or keep stirring up the hornets and there’s predictably hell to pay. While the all-guns-blazing approach works in some situations, The Phantom Pain likes you to play things quieter, smarter and more patiently.
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Luckily, you have the tools for the job. Not only does Snake have his own moves and gadgets, but you can play the environment to your advantage. Dust storms, for example, might restrict your vision and movement, but they also do the same for your enemies, making it possible to sneak into the heart of a base if you’re quick and clever about it. An unplanned explosion or skirmish can be catastrophic, but you can also twist it to your advantage, hoping troops will race towards the point of contact to find you, leaving security weak elsewhere. Ground Zeroes encouraged and rewarded just this kind of improvisation. The Phantom Pain goes much further.
Missions run the gamut from straight destruction and demolition missions to hostage rescue missions, recon missions, infiltrations and assassinations. Some can be tackled in minutes within a small area, while other require you to traverse half the map, dealing with guard posts, recruiting and pinching resources all the way.
And just when you’re wondering ‘where’s the story?’, The Phantom Pain has an ingeniously nasty habit of pulling the rug out from under you mid-mission, transforming one straightforward mission into a deadly boss battle, or what should be a eventless journey into a taut sniper duel. Kojima knows what he’s doing here, effortlessly balancing the emergent, open-world gameplay of Ground Zeroes with the big cinematic moments that Metal Gear has become famous for. This is virtuoso games design.
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Here’s the really clever thing: while you’re trying to adapt to The Phantom Pain, working out which approach or weapon is best for tackling each situation, The Phantom Pain is busy adapting to you. Enemy bases, for example, have day and night shifts. Keep attacking at night, and you’ll find more troops guarding outside of daylight hours. Focus too heavily on headshots and your foes may start donning helmets. Rely on the shotgun or assault rifle, and body armour becomes the hot new style.
Meanwhile, there’s a whole other side to the game going on at Mother Base, where you need to assign your new recruits to different teams, like R&D, support or medical, then keep a steady stream of weapon, suit and miscellaneous upgrades coming, with new and improved items to unlock on a regular basis from guys in R&D. There are also tangible benefits to be had from beefing up support (more successful recoveries and better air support) and intelligence (more useful intel while you’re on the ground).
The Phantom Pain doesn’t go overboard on micromanagement, but there’s a lot of stuff here to keep you busy between missions, and every bit feeds back into the action on the ground. Mother Base adds an almost RPG-like element to the game, helping you customise your character and support your own play style in a way that goes beyond bigger guns and better armour.
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Play on, and you’ll find you’re still scratching the surface. Why not chill out for a while collecting small critters and birds for the guys back home at Mother Base? Fancy some music? Well, spend some time roaming around, collecting tapes of eighties hits. And when it’s time, you’ll face down your key foes in sequences that are more than just boss battles, but real tests of your skill, intelligence and nerve. Sometimes you’re playing cat and mouse, at other times just trying not to panic, but the game keeps dishing up memorable moments in the way that you’d expect from MGS. Even when you think you’re just getting the measure of Afghanistan, you find it’s not the only theatre of combat, with new environments and new challenges to explore.
You’ll also encounter new potential buddies and bring them over to your side, each one with capabilities that you’ll find useful, whether we’re talking D-Dog’s advanced canine recon powers or Quiet’s cool sniper support. It’s a shame that one of the Metal Gear saga’s most intriguing female characters gets stuck in a bikini and some strategically ripped tights, but it’s clear that Kojima is trying to make a point here, even if it’s not quite clear what that point is.
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The Phantom Pain can be frustrating. The game checkpoints your progress at key locations or when you reach a pivotal part of a mission, but miss the location or fail to find that vital milestone and you can find yourself repeating the same section over and over again. In one case I missed a visual cue that should have led me to a key objective, spent half an hour wiping out what seemed like every Russian in a large installation, then got wiped out by an unlucky barrage of shotgun blasts – about forty minutes down the drain. Something similar happened in a prison rescue, while I kept failing one mission because it wasn’t clear that you could delay a key objective to tackle at your leisure.
Yet, while I found these things mildly irritating – and sometimes more than mildly – you always feel like you only have your own impatience, bad attitude or clumsiness to blame. As with other tricky games, the ‘seat of the pants’ feel is part of the pleasure. When nothing is predictable, and things could go wrong or go right at any moment, you’re never short of tension or suspense.
This is also a big game; big enough that after twenty hours or so of play we still haven’t come close to finishing the storyline or understanding where all Kojima’s heroes, villains, traitors and antiheroes all fit in. There are dark, twisted things going on here, and one thing Kiefer Sutherland’s excellent voicework brings to this version of Snake is a quiet kind of moral ambivalence, where you no longer really know whether the end will justify the means, or even whether you can trust your closest allies. The Phantom Pain is still very much a fantasy – and a comical fantasy at times – but the grittiness of Ground Zeroes is only more present here.
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Visually, it’s little short of astonishing. With the FOX Engine, Kojima finally has technology capable of realising his cinematic ambitions, handling near-photorealistic close-ups and big, sweeping landscape shots with equal power, and rarely conceding any screen tear or dropped frames. The way The Phantom Pain uses light and textural detail is incredible, and while it’s possible to make complaints about the repetitive, generic trooper models or the limited variety of the scenery, it still feels like you’re picking holes. The weather effects, meanwhile, are about as good as we’ve seen in any action game, if not better. I’d hate to guess at The Phantom Pain’s budget, but given the art, the voices, the size of the team and the music involved it must be huge. If so, not a penny has gone to waste.
The worst thing you can say about The Phantom Pain is that there are times when it doesn’t quite gel, when the missions threaten to grow repetitive and it’s hard to see where the action is heading. Yet these moments never last long, and the big surprise is how coherent it ends up becoming.
It’s amazing, really, that The Phantom Pain can feel like the natural continuation of games as disparate as MGS3: Snake Eater and MGS4: Guns of the Patriots, yet somehow it does. In fact, it’s the Metal Gear that ties all the Metal Gears together. It can be strange, unsettling, silly and surreal, but you’re never left doubting that you’re playing a masterwork, and one of the most exciting, unpredictable games of a console generation where too few games have been either. For this reason alone the Phantom Pain would be worth playing but, believe us, The Phantom Pain demands it.
Debate will rage over whether it’s the best, but The Phantom Pain is very arguably the ultimate Metal Gear, grabbing the best ideas, themes and mechanics from every game in the series, then forging them into one coherent whole. It’s set in a believable open world of complex, interlocking systems, yet it still has tension, drama, plenty of Kojima weirdness and some serious cinematic power. The Phantom Pain might be hard on body and soul at times, but you really don’t want to miss it.