So, before I launch into this review, I need to provide a little context. I've neve completed a Metal Gear game. I've sampled them all, but have never been dragged into this universe. The story telling felt dense for dense sake. Going into Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, the only ideas of story I had were a few catch up videos going over the entirely convoluted narrative of the franchise. So now having spent 30 hours with the game, as someone new to this series, how does it hold up?
Well, I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that this is one of the most stunning gaming achievements in a long time. The mechanics at play are many, but each feels like an essential part of the experience. Metal Gear Solid V works like an intricate web of ideas, all over lapping to create an elegant experience that's just unbelievable in the way it slowly sprawls out. This is a video game coming from a group of developers on the top of their creative powers, in exceptional circumstance, putting everything they can into one farewell present. It's a beautiful achievement.
One thing to understand though, is whether you are a fan of the series or not, this doesn't feel like a Metal Gear title. Gone is the sprawling, long winded narrative, the hours long cutscenes, the little idioms that Hideo Kojima has built his career on. While this is certainly closest to Peacewalker in the series, it's a lot of the ideas brought to a logical conclusion. This is as close to a private military simulator you could ever hope to get. The moment to moment of this game in fact plays closer to a Animal Crossing/Far Cry 3 crossover than a Metal Gear Solid game. You're tasked with building your own private military and your duties will be split between managing your force, the Diamond Dogs, as well as being out in the field.
Once you're out on your own missions, the Far Cry 3 comparison becomes very apparent. In most instances, you will be dropped off at an outpost with the goal of "extract/find/kill objective" and that's it. We hear the phrases "emergent gameplay" and "play the game the way you want play it" a lot in this industry, but if we are honest with ourselves, this usually merely means being squeezed down one of a few directions, using a pretty limited tool sets. You'll also have a pretty stringent set of objectives that you won't be able to deviate much from. Metal Gear Solid V isn't that. It really does drop you off and give you a mountain's worth of tools to get the job done. You want a sniper? Sure, but do you want it to kill people with it or stun them? Will you bring your dog with you, maybe your militarised walker? Oh hey, you accidentally killed the informant who was going to lead you to your target? That's okay, find another way to find him. The possibilities really do feel limitless and undirected. This is a true sandbox with all the shovels and buckets you could want, to a level that I don't think I've ever seen achieved before. It's an incredibly liberating experience as a player.
Of course, it would be foolish to not mention the narrative at all. While it has certainly taken a backseat compared to other Metal Gear Solid games, this is still a Hideo Kojima joint. And it shows. The crosshairs of the game are pointed on bigger issues then those normally tackled in this medium. It certainly has its quirks, much like a lot of Kojima's work, but the gravity of the actions of screen still resonates. It's worth noting again, if this is your first venture into Metal Gear Solid, you should be fine. Despite a few passing mentions to the broader lore here and there, this is mostly a contained story. It's one worth experiencing too. Honestly though, it works better as a delivery of ideas, rather than an actual structured narrative, with a lot of exposition and telling instead of showing. It's certainly back heavy too, with the majority of the narrative movement coming in the final few missions. It stumbles a lot on the delivery, but the ideas about global society and the role of the West on a grander scale are fascinating. These are concepts we don't usually play with in games, and while The Phantom Pain doesn't necessarily work as a condensed story, it never stops being interesting due to the uniqueness of the ideas. (I mean, they are silly, but fascinating none the less.)
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will never have you are a loss for something to do either. You can do on the central missions, of which should take you around 25-35 hours to complete entirely. They have a fun variety to them, and have a surprising amount of forward momentum. Because the mechanics interlock so well, you'll almost always have new tools to try out and new ways to take them on. The prospect of infiltrating another base didn't become old once throughout my play through. There are also dedicated side-op missions, which take much less time and effort than the main story, but can be a fun way to kill a quick five or ten minutes. This isn't all to no reason either. You're always getting more resources, more men to join you back at the base, more things to do. Your achievements only seem to branch more paths, making this the most gratifying hydra in the world of gaming.
There's a lot of pride to be had in building up Motherbase too, which will become your most immediate concern once you complete the game's main story. Once you're done, there's still so much for you to do and explore, that I could see people getting very serious about building up their base to be maxed out. Hell, even after completing the story missions and having put in around 32 hours, I'm still told I have only completed 35% of the game. This is huge and the breadth and quality of the mechanics make this an experience I won't be putting down soon.
This is all before getting into the weird, irreverent stuff you can find and do in the title, which really does give the title a unique flavor. Maybe you want to hide in a box and disarm soldiers with pictures of hot models. Perhaps, running around Mother Base knocking out your staff as they thank you is more your speed. Or maybe you just want to go out, find that cassette tape of Take On Me to equip on your Helicopter speakers, so you can get a-ha blaring across the battlefield as your choper comes in to provide air support. It's a bit nuts, but gives the game a tangible DNA to differentiate it from other titles out there.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a rare kind of game. In fact, it maybe one of a kind. This is the topper on a 28 year old franchise that has been more or less directed by one creator. Add on top of that, the lengthy production time for this title and the fact that Kojima seems to have put everything he could into this, seemingly to the point of alienating himself from the parent company. This is a labour of love we just don't see on this scale and it shows. The depth of mechanical synergy and the variety of choice it provides you as a private military leader, in my humble estimation, makes this a true master work. It's very easy to get lost in this world, and I know people will be for way longer than the initial story run time. The agency on display here is near unparralleled and now, after 30 hours, I feel I am still finding new ways in which the game can work. It's awe inspiring stuff. While the narrative doesn't really work, the concept ideas are interesting enough to propel you forward on your journey. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is something you really should play. It's accessible but deeply complex in exciting ways, toting a sense of discovery and mastery of its vision, that it's hard not be swept up in the magic of the title.
Oh! I also thought I'd try a bit of experiment here to and throw together an audio review for the game for those of you who don't want to read through all of this. Let me know if you enjoy and I'll be sure to add more in future reviews.