The game opens 9 years after the catastrophic events of the demo, Ground Zeroes. An emaciated Snake short of his left arm awakens in a hospital to find his misery has only just begun, progressively intensifying into terror. We witness Kojima’s talent in the horror department, as a hapless Big Boss wriggles his way around various horrors. This makes me sad that Silent Hills was cancelled.
Unlike previous Metal Gear Solid titles, which would open with a meaty briefing from some commander as the special agent made his painstaking infiltration of some high-security secret base, this title skips such typical, formal drudgery for a frantic and thrilling prologue that had my eyes bulging out their sockets.
Immediately I noticed just how good the game looks. The nurse attending to the semi-conscious Snake had visibly flexing muscle jaws and temples – all manner of facial detail – beautifully illuminated and shadowed. The facial and motion-capture of the Fox Engine are a pioneering effort. The textures of clothes and materials, shimmering particles and lighting, all these things combine to create a highly lifelike experience. This without a doubt is the best-looking game on PS4 I have played so far.
Players are then thrust into the harsh realm of Afghanistan, a country in the heat of a Russian invasion. Riding into the arid landscape on a horse, Snake determinedly sets off to find his long-time partner in crime. The sun shines into the canyon, causing vivid, lush Fox Engine goodness to light up with jaw-dropping gorgeousness. Claims disputing the downgrading of the final product’s graphical quality become immediately discounted as complete slander.
From here on out the game becomes a series of episodic main missions and side quests peppered with story. Note that the stereotypically monstrous cutscenes involving someone lecturing you on some shady fictional conspiracy for a good portion of the day have been erased. Cutscenes are now short and sweet, focusing more on emotion and action rather than lengthy discourse.
The objective here is to build ‘Mother Base’, Snake’s new ocean-based mercenary HQ to a level powerful enough to take on the Illuminati-like ‘Cypher’, the omniscient, malicious organisation that ruined Snake and his pals’ lives and put them on a dark path for revenge.
This is done primarily through the extraction of soldiers and POWs one encounters continually throughout the game. Attaching a ‘Fulton’ – a balloon which catapults its victim several thousand feet into the air – to an incapacitated enemy or prisoner will ensure some helicopter will extract them safely and return them to Mother Base to be ‘convinced’ to join ranks. Volatile weather conditions, a nearby enemy, and overhead cover will block the safe ascent of a ballooning individual. Make sure that you are in a safe area before extracting.
Once a unit is safe and sound in the oceanic Mother Base, they can then be assigned to various departments which will begin as only a couple-strong, increasing in number once further platforms are built and your base expands. These departments, for example, include ‘R&D’, technological research and development. This wing of the base will provide further improved weaponry and equipment, giving you access to innovative, farfetched gizmos such as invisibility cloaks, replacing the fulton balloon with a wormhole and a detachable, flyable prosthetic arm for Snake which will blast off and rocket punch enemies.
As mentioned above, Mother Base will expand along with your efforts in bringing in personnel, materials and resources and vehicles. There are also plants, animals and other cool stuff to collect which will empower Snake and his equipment further. It is a great pleasure to witness the progressive prominence of your base as new struts are added to your oil-rig-like home, creating new avenues for Snake’s rise to supremacy.
The occasional visit to Mother Base ensures morale stays high, as your staff will be delighted to see you and insist you train with them. Snake will also become pretty filthy with time, as he is continually spattered in blood, dirt and debris. An abundance of filthiness will cause Snake’s physical and mental health to decline as well as reveal his position to enemies more easily. Just exploring your blooming enterprise is also just plain heart-warming, and there is plenty of interaction and treasure-hunting to be done.
Now for the actual gameplay. Snake can navigate his way between enemy bases and checkpoints on his horse or enemy vehicles. Later on in the game, the methods of transport become more exciting, such as the bipedal, roving D-Walker mech. The meat of my experience has been largely infiltrating enemy bases to retrieve some VIP, intel or research or special item. This would feel repetitive if not for the attention to variation and detail in each fortified location.
The Phantom Pain is still very much a Metal Gear Solid game, stealth is still the crux of the experience. The blind rushing into enemy checkpoints will result in the radioing of surrounding bases, causing a proliferated lock-down and manhunt as waves of enemies will flock for your blood. Surrounding enemy bases will tighten security and infiltration will become harder.
Every approach to an enemy position requires a varying amount of calculation, analysis and planning, depending on the size and population of the base or checkpoint. This is mainly done by scoping out and marking enemies who will remain highlighted in your vision (thank you Far Cry). Climbing to a high vantage point and surveying an outpost will reveal essential information and visuals. Then there is your angle and approach to decide, finding the right breaching point to slip in past searchlights and sentries undetected.
You can then begin the mischief. Creeping up on an enemy will give you a range of options. You can choke him out, judo-throw him, knife him or hold him up with a gun and force him to the ground where he will remain until a friend finds him. Interrogation is afforded by the grabbing or holding-up of enemies, squeezing out juicy intel and friends’ positions. The classic tranquilizer gun is also back and will aid your stealth magnificently.
If an enemy detects you, there is a several-second slow-motion window known as ‘Reflex Mode’ where you have a small chance to diffuse your startled pursuer. Failure to do so will result in a widespread state of chaos, as every nearby bad guy will chase after you, not to mention the recently radioed elite back up racing to your position in trucks.
Unless you succeed in hiding for a period long-enough, you will die pretty soon. This game has a minimalistic HUD: no onscreen map and no alert status display, pushing your senses and reflexes. One day you will thank Metal Gear Solid when you have to avoid someone you really dislike.
Snake will also be accompanied by customizable and upgradable buddies on a mission. The horse is the first and most basic, but in time you will find a bunch of awesome companions, ranging from the sniper Quiet to the wolf D-Dog.
This is a magnificent game, unhealthily gripping and addictive. There are a few irksome issues with climbing and the sandbox is no GTA, but I couldn’t have asked for a better swansong from my favourite director. The sheer scale and effort of TPP makes it deserve nothing less than a perfect score.
You should buy it – 10/10