I crawled to the edge of the cliff and scoped out the base with my binoculars, tagging every sentry I could spot – some were tucked behind sandbags, some in watchtowers and a few were patrolling the base's perimeter. I noticed this reconnaissance spot en route, and had put a bear to sleep just to get to it. The base was at the top of a sloped road embedded into the side of a mountain. Getting up meant getting past about 20 eyes, and night was yet to fall. Just as I was about to light my Phantom Cigar to speed up the passing of time in a haze of mind-altering herbs, a sandstorm approached.
It was the perfect cover to sneak into the base, slipping between patrol routes and crawling on my stomach past unsuspecting sentries. It took some patience, but I managed to get up to the entrance unseen, just as the weather cleared. Inside were some barracks made of corrugated metal; Kim Wilde's "Kids in America" was playing on a distant radio. I had to snag the tape. This wasn't my mission, but who wouldn't want to be able to drive around Kabul, Afghanistan while listening to iconic '80s pop music? This, it turns out, was my downfall. One guard spotted me as I exited the barracks, alerted by my clumsy legs knocking over some pottery as I vaulted through the window.
Time slowed as he reached for his gun, and I put a bullet-shaped hole in his head as a reflex. His buddies weren't too happy about me venting their friend's skull, forcing me to dive back through the window under a hail of gunfire and hide under one of the beds. I was sure that would fool them, but the door opened and, instead of enemies pouring into my sights like in most video games, a grenade rolled into the room. All I could do was move to the next bed along as the explosion threw the room's contents all around me. The soldiers then stormed in, so I jumped out from my hiding spot and used close quarter combat to knock them down and escape in the confusion.
While the enemy searched the barracks for me, I used the opportunity to find and extract the prisoner – this was what I came for in the first place, after all. He was tucked away indoors, further into the base, and I managed to sneak in and pick the lock on his cell without any issues. I threw him over my shoulder and carried him outside, hooking him up to my Fulton recovery device which yanked him into the clouds with a yelp and ferried him safely back to my ever-expanding base. I was now at the mountain's peak looking down at the soldiers I had made my way past earlier, all now on alert. Thanks, Kim.
A jeep and a truck pulled into the entrance. Reinforcements.
Nearby was an enemy radar dish, so I planted some C4, crawled to the mountain's edge and detonated it. The explosion drew them all up the mountain path and I slid down the rock face behind them, jumping into the jeep they came in and escaping before they could react. I mowed down one unfortunate grunt on the way to my helicopter extraction, and escaped the area unscathed.
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This is a typical mission in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and there's hundreds of other ways it could have played out. While it's a stealth game through and through, MGSV provides you with some of the best tools in gaming and lets you test them out in some deftly sculpted scenarios. It actively encourages experimentation instead of chastising you for it like many stealth games do, urging you to play with all its toys. And what toys they are: you can create inflatable decoys to distract, slide down dunes in a cardboard box, whizz around on a personal bipedal mech, make your horse take a dump on the road to cause an enemy vehicle to spin out, call in artillery strikes and loads more. Each of these has multiple options of its own, too: like how the decoy can inflate near an enemy and throw them off a cliff, or how you can hang from the side of your horse and pass by an unsuspecting enemy camp. Equipment can be airdropped in at any time, rendezvousing with it en route to your objective or landing it directly onto an enemy's stupid head.
Well, they're not actually stupid. The enemies in MGSV are some of the most convincing I've seen in a game. If you are spotted they will work together, moving in pairs to hunt you down, flanking you and calling in backup from nearby outposts. You can disrupt this communication by taking down radio masts and power lines, or by subduing the enemies in surrounding outposts so there's no backup to call. It's overlapping systems like this that make the game so satisfying. You might choose to soften up a base with a mortar from afar before sneaking in, only to find that you've accidentally disrupted the enemy's communication network and lowered their air defences.
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Obviously none of this would mean anything if the act of skulking through a base wasn't brilliant, but it is. MGSV's stealth takes camouflage, distraction, light and shadow and line of sight, and blends them all together to create something incredible. You can use the topography to crawl unseen mere metres from an enemy, hide in foliage, shoot out lights and dive behind cover. It's constantly tense – when creeping through an enemy compound you're like a coiled spring, ready to roll onto your back and fire at any sentry that makes a sudden movement.
Perhaps MGSV's best quality is how the spacing of its checkpoints encourages you to live with your mistakes and adapt, rather than reach for the restart button. It helps that there are as many combat options, and you can evade and slip back into the darkness or use the chaos as a distraction. MGSV is an anecdote generator, each mission creating a set piece through interacting systems. I've always been keen on stealth as a gameplay mechanic, with the original Metal Gear Solid on the PlayStation giving me my first taste as I entered my teens. It's fitting that this series' creator, Hideo Kojima, after so much iteration and experimentation with the core gameplay, would finally perfect the stealth formula with what is, presumably, his final Metal Gear release.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is released for PlayStation 4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC on September 1st.
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