Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain casts you in the role of the boss of a private military contractor working out of a refurbished oil rig in the Seychelles. You pop out on regular missions to the field, sneaking through the Afghan countryside, galloping across the sandstorm-battered plains on horseback, hiding behind walls, strangling men for money and occasionally picking flowers.
Half stealth game and half business management simulator, this is an open world adventure from that most peculiar of games industry legends, Hideo Kojima. His uniquely bizarre Metal Gear series stands alone as the only successful merging of serious commentary on the military-industrial complex and games in which you can enlist the help of a friendly, eyepatch wearing dog in your fight against psychic supervillains.
Unlike any other Metal Gear game before it, The Phantom Pain repeatedly airdrops you into a sprawling chunk of Soviet-occupied, 1980s Afghanistan (and later Zaire), and tasks you with carrying out a branching series of open-ended objectives. Kill a thing. Retrieve a thing. Explode a thing. How you go about accomplishing these missions is up to you and your bottomless grab-bag of gadgets, guns and tech.
Tranquilisers and close-quarters combat can be used to quietly incapacitate guards, while more powerful artillery can be employed to loudly and crudely blast your way through enemy forces. Or you can attempt to infiltrate entirely undetected, waiting until the sun goes down to sneak around under cover of darkness, hiding inside cardboard boxes and luring guards away from their posts by making odd noises.
But it’s once things start going tits up that The Phantom Pain becomes a mad and frenetic spectacle, one that draws on your creativity and ingenuity as a player in an unpredictable and rapidly escalating series of disasters.
Your panicked assassination target might make a dash for a helipad. You might have planned ahead and loaded his escape vehicle with surprise explosives. You could be pinned down by mortar fire and forced to call in air support from your helicopter, which can be set up to blast out 80s disco classics, as well as gunfire. Or you might forego conflict entirely and snipe the target from a distant cliff edge, if you reckon you’re a decent shot.
You’re supported on missions by your growing army of soldiers and scientists back at base, your oceanic home that you’re encouraged to visit regularly in order to keep the morale of your army high (cruelly, their little AI brains are programmed to miss you if you’re away for too long).
Enemy soldiers can be kidnapped and sent here, where they’re happily indoctrinated into your ranks and put to work researching new tools and tech, which can then be air-dropped to you in the field. Improving this base, transforming it from a lonely platform in the ocean to a horizon dominating, interlocking complex of labs and barracks (and, later, an entire wing dedicated to housing the wild animals you capture), is at the core of what The Phantom Pain is really about.
All of these intermeshing systems and mechanics, the seemingly endless ways in which the intelligence of guards, the time of day, the weather and the intricately detailed toys at your disposal can converge to create new scenarios for you to react to, are what makes the game such a rewarding and freeing experience.
No longer confined to the restrictive indoor espionage of the older titles (and largely free of the overly long and much maligned cutscenes for which the series has become known), The Phantom Pain finally allows Kojima’s brand of mythical-meets-technical stealth to breathe. And its breath smells good. You’ll want to stick your nose right inside its mouth.