Crawling and stalling, limping and falling. As metaphors go, this "progression" reflects well enough my own previous attempts to penetrate the sizeable lore of the Metal Gear Solid series. A gaming sabbatical saw me miss much of the PlayStation 2 era, and with it the releases of 2001's Sons of Liberty and Snake Eater of three years later. By the time of 2008's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, I was gaming again, but with a 360 to call my own – I wouldn't get a PS3, to which Patriots is exclusive, until a few years later. So, when I find myself, as Big Boss, stumbling through a hospital under siege in the opening scenes of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I'm acutely aware of the parallels to be drawn between the protagonist's situation and my own: blindly, aimlessly, hopefully reaching for answers amid a storm of bullets and bodies.
I can't spill much more, plot-wise, about the prologue that begins The Phantom Pain, or else this piece would be crawling with spoilers, but I will say that anyone averse to having a sack and crack front and centre of their vision cone might want someone else to play through it for them. The fuss over the Quiet doll's squeezable assets feels, now, almost like a rope-a-dope move from game director Hideo Kojima and company, in so much as accusations of sexism fall away somewhat when the player is presented with the prolonged pursuit of a dangly ball-bag. Which isn't to advocate the production of such a figurine, which remains in bad taste; but if this was intended as a riposte from Kojima, who must have seen the critical reaction to malleable, immodestly dressed merchandise coming, it certainly leaves an impression.
What the prologue ultimately represents is a tutorial (I'd offer "obviously", but with such limited prior experience of Metal Gear Solid games, perhaps they're not all so generous with teaching you the ropes). You learn to creep carefully around the attentions of armed enemies; you sink down onto your stomach to crawl beneath hospital beds as those same adversaries patrol the wards, mercilessly executing patients unable to flee. It shows you how to point a gun and nail a headshot. Your advice-spilling companion for the section is… well, spoilers, so let's not go there. But after a fiery shootout that brings a healthy dollop of the supernatural into play, Big Boss finally escapes the practically razed institution and is met by one Revolver Ocelot, here voiced by Troy Baker aka Joel from The Last of Us. Immediately, as a relative newcomer to this games-spanning story, I'm onto Google. Righto, he's with me. For now.
You see, I thought Ocelot was a bad guy. What established backstory I have for the various Snakes of Metal Gear Solid dates back to 1998/99's original (Solid series) game for the first-model PlayStation, and I'm sure that the (again, Solid) Snake I played as then encountered the silver-haired gunslinger in particularly aggressive mood. Lost his hand, as I recall, only for that to not matter a damn when my Snake was all trussed up and tortured by his remaining one. But here we are, pals, hanging out on the back of a horse and swanning around an oil rig turned Mother Base – mainly because this isn't the same Snake I was back when. I'm barely an hour into The Phantom Pain and I'm already feeling like a black hole of narrative context is opening like a deadly maw beneath my feet, ready to swallow me up like the no-place-being-here beginner that I am.
Ocelot's a constant source of information for the eight or nine hours I get to spend with The Phantom Pain, likewise "Kaz" Miller, who needs rescuing from the dusty Afghan wastes of 1984 once the game "proper" begins. He pops on his shades and becomes a boss to my own supposedly Big one, instructing me to scour the game's mountainous open world for "recruits" to our nascent private military force, the Diamond Dogs. (Not for the first time in Metal Gear Solid history, David Bowie runs through this game, with its opening moments soundtracked by Midge Ure's 1982 synth-pop cover of "The Man Who Sold the World".)
Miller's evacuation isn't simple: once you've got him on the back of your horse (essential, given the environment's size), a crew of "Skulls" show up, whose teleportative powers enable them to keep up with a gallop across a mile and more. Again, I'm onto Google, which isn't immediately helpful, but I'm guessing these irritating shits, who will kill Big Boss quickly if you allow them to trap him, have something to do with Skull Face, the ugly mother of an antagonist whose heavily scarred mug appeared in The Phantom Pain's standalone introductory release, last year's Ground Zeroes. I did play that, and wholly enjoyed it despite understanding little about the surrounding story. And the same is true, thus far, of The Phantom Pain. While I'm infiltrating a prison in search of some clever scientist or other, kidnapping Russian translators and robbing blueprints from under the noses of know-nothing opposition forces, the wider fiction isn't impacting on my in-the-moment experience. I'm simply doing as told: fetch this, return that, please clear the hillsides of any roaming wildlife by attaching them, terrified, to a Fulton recovery balloon. Because… well, it's hilarious to shoot a sheep towards the Moon, presumably.
What you recover during your reccies around Afghanistan goes back to the Diamond Dogs headquarters of Mother Base, and resources aplenty can be transformed into materials to develop higher-tech gear. Soon enough, my Snake has better firearms at his disposal, his horse is wearing some fine battle dress, and I've got the series-staple cardboard box at my disposal. I've also picked up a puppy who takes a shine to me, immediately – and looking at screens provided by publisher Konami (one of them published below), it seems that "DD", for that is the mutt's name, will play a role in future missions. You can activate the development of any piece of game-enhancing equipment while out in the field, and then request a drop – for a price to the Diamond Dogs funds, naturally. There are many rough diamonds to be found in outposts and bases, though, and these convert to some seriously useful bucks.
As I'm exploring the world Kojima and his vast army of likeminded cohorts have created, I'm gently enveloped by it. I've read about the linearity of previous Metal Gear Solid titles, but The Phantom Pain is set up to encourage off-mission activity, ranging from asset accumulation – weapons, raw materials, flowers (seriously, you'll be picking many posies) – to specified side-quests proper, which usually involve the retrieval of an individual or item of great value to the Diamond Dogs cause. On horseback, the game plays like a pre-Cold War twist on Red Dead Redemption, or The Witcher 3, and just like those adventures even the small things feel like they matter. The Phantom Pain, based on my limited exposure to it, isn't lining up a checklist of optional collectibles just because it can; it's presenting its player with experience-enriching tangents to a main story that, well, I don't quite understand yet. Skull Face, I'm told, puts in an appearance again, but I'm still several hours shy of that narrative beat.
You want to know how it plays though, yes? What initially feels like a fiddly control scheme – it takes three (albeit quick) interactions to call your horse, for example: hold the shoulder button, use the right stick to select the correct option, and click it to confirm – comes into its own after a few sequences of stealthily skulking around enemy outposts. A squeeze of the right trigger grabs a victim, and you must keep that depressed while choosing what to do next with the left stick: demand information, knock the soldier out, or cut his throat. Render him unconscious and you can Fulton him back to base, too, if you like, although Ocelot may not approve: "You're bringing him, too?" he'll remark, despairing at the cost of extracting nothing more than a grunt from the hot zone. Gunplay is smooth, horse riding not as fidgety as The Witcher 3's saddle-soreness, and while the Afghan hills don't represent the most stunningly varied of environments to play within, their scale is immense. You will be looking at your iDroid-hosted map a lot, to seek out watchtower-bypassing short cuts to your destination.
Each mission has a primary objective as well as secondary ones – and you can replay each one to earn "100 percent" status, just like Ground Zeroes. Keep your bullets in their clip and your movements silent and you'll score highly come mission end; leave enemies more than bruised, bodies all over the place, and you'll lose "heroism" marks and drop down the grading scale. I scored a "B" on one mission, mainly because I alerted a troop of several guards and had no option but to massacre the lot of them. Next, I ranked "S", which I take to mean "super" or something like that, because I was: quiet as mouse, and in and out of the hot zone in less time than it takes to satisfactorily poach an egg. I'd have high-fived myself if I wasn't flanked by other journalists playing the game, who were already further into it than me. The smug gits.
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And do I feel taken in by it enough to play more, despite a vacuum where any prior knowledge of the series' lore should be? I do, actually, albeit with reservations – the main one being an urge, a responsibility, to at least tickle my way into the main games I've missed ahead of this one, this swan song for Kojima as he bows out of Konami and, presumably, any future significant involvement with Metal Gear Solid. I now own games two, three and four, for their original platforms, and have finished Ground Zeroes and Platinum Games' fantastically furious Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. I've time enough, surely, to see my way through at least one of these apparent classics that I've barely begun ahead of MGSV's release in September; time enough to safeguard my story against collapsing into nonsensical irrelevance.
So, which one should it be? This piece suggests that it's to Snake Eater I should turn, but if you feel The Phantom Pain will be a better game after completion of another in the series, tell me so on Twitter, if you like. I'm all ears; an inexperienced amateur in slight awe of the experts who have been waiting for The Phantom Pain since its announcement in 2012. And if a newcomer like me is already feeling fairly smitten, despite so many stumbles and falls in the past, the hardcore is going to love this (presumably) conclusive chapter in an iconic gaming franchise.
I played The Phantom Pain at Konami's UK office in Windsor. One night's accommodation (I played the game across an afternoon and the next morning) – was covered by Konami, likewise some food and drink. I covered my own travel and all other costs.