The hype circulating among gamers in anticipation of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain will be familiar to cinemagoers: it’s up there with the frenzy that takes hold when, say, a new Star Wars or Bond film is about to drop. And it’s not hard to see why. Producer Hideo Kojima has been making Metal Gear games since 1987, defining the stealth genre in the process, and despite an apparently difficult gestation for The Phantom Pain, in which Kojima appeared to fall out with publisher Konami, everyone always expects his latest game to set new standards. The good news is that Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain does just that, in spades. It’s definitely the best stealth game ever, and certainly one of the best games ever. Kojima has done it again.
This time around, he has come up with a sort of origins story. The Phantom Pain is set in Afghanistan in 1984, and has a protagonist who was previously a peripheral character in the Metal Gear canon: Big Boss, also known as Venom Snake (and in some previous incarnations, confusingly, as Naked Snake). The action starts with Big Boss coming out of a nine-year coma in a Cyprus hospital, whereupon he has to escape from all manner of weirdness, involving a military attack that wipes out all the hospital’s staff and inmates, plus an intervention by a strange flaming super-being who soaks up bullets and can only be stopped if he is doused in water.
But Big Boss escapes, hooks up with sidekick Ocelot and sets about establishing a private military contractor called Diamond Dogs, which takes on hazardous missions in an Afghanistan which has been invaded by the Russians. The first of which is to free his captured colleague Kazuhiro Miller. Along the way, a labyrinthine plot develops, in which a troop of beyond-human super-soldiers called The Skulls regularly crop up.
If your last experience of a Metal Gear Solid game was in the days when each mission involved following a single path, prepare to be impressed. In the Phantom Pain, you’re free to approach the missions however you want. It’s gloriously free-form, and Big Boss is equipped with an array of toys, many of which will be familiar to Metal Gear aficionados. He has a tranquiliser pistol, binoculars which can mark enemies and their military paraphernalia, and a PDA which would have been pretty sophisticated in 1984. Some of the gadgets are actually hilarious – the trademark cardboard box can be developed to fulfil several different functions (via the application of various images) and the Fulton Recovery System is a balloon which can be attached to stunned enemies – or animals, which make gloriously startled noises – to whisk them back to the Diamond Dogs base, an oil platform in the waters of the Seychelles. When you upgrade the Fulton Recovery System, you can even use it to airlift gun emplacements and shipping containers full of raw materials back to base.
As well as the missions and side-missions, which are plentiful and satisfyingly meaty, The Phantom Pain has a whole resource-management game that revolves around your base. Any enemies you send there can be assigned to various teams, working on things like research and development, medicine or expanding the base itself – recruits with particular skills open up new research and intelligence avenues. Afghanistan is dotted with crucial materials and plants for you to collect, and you can see your base physically alter through the game. Collect enough animals, for example, and it will eventually house a zoo.
The Phantom Pain looks fabulous: the Afghanistan around which you and your faithful horse traipse is utterly believable and gorgeous, if sometimes bleak, to behold. Cute touches are too numerous to mention – sandstorms often blow in, for example, and early on, you encounter a wild dog puppy, which you can send back to base so that it eventually becomes a useful mission-buddy. And the game is shot through with humour: you often find ghetto-blasters playing stupendously cheesy 1980s hits, and you can extract the cassette tapes and play them at your leisure. If you die too many times in a mission, you’re offered the chance to don a ridiculous-looking chicken hat which makes you all but invisible to enemies – and leaves you in no doubt about what the game thinks of your lack of skill and courage.
But above all, The Phantom Pain is about that classic stealth gameplay, which proves more enjoyable and satisfying than ever. Instead of the old vision-cones, you’re given white directional markers that show when you have strayed into an enemy’s zone of vision, which go red when you are spotted. Get close to an enemy and you get a period of slow-motion in which to take him down, which comes in really handy when more than one enemy have gathered. The game’s artificial intelligence is as rigorous as ever: get things wrong and alarms will be sounded, reinforcements summoned and search-parties of Soviets mustered.
Even if you’ve never thought of yourself as a particular fan of stealth games, you’ll become one once you get stuck into Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. It’s huge, funny, epic, wondrous to behold and so insanely absorbing that after you finish playing it, you’ll still find your mind flashing back to 1984-vintage Afghanistan. It’s Kojima’s magnum opus, and given that he’s acknowledged as one of the games industry’s pre-eminent geniuses, you couldn’t imagine a finer accolade than that.