Editor's Note: The first half of this text is made up of review impressions that were originally offered here. If you've already read these impressions then scroll down to the second half of the page for our final observations.
The year is 1984. The Space Shuttle Discovery has set off on its maiden voyage, Ronald Reagan is running for re-election and Bruce Springsteen is playing on the radio. In Afghanistan, the resistance towards the Soviet-backed regime is mounting. This new reality awaits Snake when he opens his eyes after nine years in coma.
Having lost some of his best years, along with his home, an arm and his comrades, the events from Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes have left Snake scarred and broken. Where does he go from here? Should he build a new home? Start a new army? Avenge his fallen brothers? All of these questions must wait. Snake is brutally awoken from his hospital bed, only to find that he is the prime target for multiple adversaries.
With several cut-scenes, a few mysteries and some obligatory toilet humor, the first scenes from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain certainly seem familiar. It's only when the prologue is finished and you're sitting on horseback with an enormous chunk of Afghanistan at your feet, that you realise that Hideo Kojima's latest endeavour is unlike anything he's done before. At least in terms of scale. This is Ground Zeroes times a hundred. The controls and the stealth might be similar, but there is more ground to cover, more missions to embark on, more gadgets, better graphics, dynamic weather, sandstorms, brown bears, herbs to be gathered and small animals to be captured. In short, Metal Gear Solid has gone open world.
With a huge sandbox comes great responsibility, and the fans of the series might not be pleased to hear that the carefully crafted mission areas that have helped earn Metal Gear Solid its fame have been replaced with enormous, open maps, dotted with generic outposts and military bases. Indeed, the world of Metal Gear Solid is no longer a carefully constructed artwork in the same way it used to be. Rather, it is an ever-changing empty canvas, and the painters are you, the enemy and circumstance.
It's no longer enough to know the maps inside-out. You need to be able to adapt. Take for instance, a mission where we were supposed to track down and hijack a truck carrying valuable cargo. At the beginning of the mission, we had no idea where the truck was located, but by sneaking into an enemy camp we were able to get hold off some documents describing the predicted route of the military escort.
At that point, we had some choices to make. Do we camp somewhere along the route, preparing to surprise the convoy with a healthy dose of explosives, hopefully not damaging the truck in the process? Or do we try to reach the truck before it can link up with its military escort? Maybe, just maybe, we could try to take out the military escort with an air strike before they can even reach the truck. The opportunities are many and even if Snake has sported some large, varied arsenals before, the freedom of movement and action is more reminiscent of Hitman than of any other Metal Gear game.
On a couple of occasions we get the urge to stop for a breather. The once cheerful special agent is here pulled down into a spiral of escalating violence and brutality; at times it's bordering on difficult to watch. We feel like putting on the brakes, as we stare at the screen trying to gather our thoughts. Is there a purpose behind this? Are there any other options, is there a way out? Do we really have to do what the game is asking us to do? Then we roll up our proverbial sleeves and we get on and do what needs to be done.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is, more than anything else, a brutal game. It is a tale of the legendary soldier Snake or Big Boss, and how he and those around him lose themselves to revenge, lies and deceit. Some violent scenes are so far beyond the realms of morbidity that they'll turn your stomach. Sometimes it's too much, but by and large this savagery makes Hideo Kojima's latest one of this year's most thought-provoking games.
There is, however, more to find here than simple brutality. Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a gigantic, versatile game that delivers many, many hours of entertainment. You get a long story, tons of side quests and plenty of room in the form of two huge maps. You even have a separate military base to expand and there you can recruit soldiers, as well as a multiplayer mode where you can sneak into someone else's base. As you upgrade your own little home you also get access to an arsenal of weapons and equipment so large that one would think that someone at Konami had forgotten that they really could sell half of it separately as DLC.
This is by far the most accessible Metal Gear game yet. Controls on Kojima's stealth games have become progressively less rigid over the years, and although shooting still feels a little static, we now have a functioning camera and a protagonist that does what he's told - for the most part. Apart from those moments where Snake slipped down gentle slopes or when the horse ran away straight after being signalled for, there was little that felt unnecessarily difficult or unfair. Our level of frustration was actually quite low for a game where the slightest mistake can trigger both bombs and alarms.
Admittedly, encounters with enemy soldiers could feel a bit unpredictable. Part of the reason for this is that light and shadows have more to say than one might initially believe, and that lying flat out on the ground obviously makes you invisible, while standing upright makes you a beacon (protip: don't do it). As in Ground Zeroes you get a few seconds of slow motion immediately after being discovered, so you can put a well placed tranquilliser dart into the head of the poor guy who was observant enough to notice a full-grown man lying on the ground two meters away. These few seconds of grace offer salvation from more annoyances than we would care to admit. It must also be said that the AI still is quite good, and that enemy troops often communicate and behave in a credible way.
What we enjoyed best about the sandbox experience in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is not, however, its size, the many choices you have, or even the range of weapons you can pick from. The best part is that it gives us something we haven't seen before. We live in an era where increasing numbers of games want to play out in a sandbox, whether it's Dragon Age or Ghost Recon, and even in the company of many quality franchises, Metal Gear Solid still manages to stand out, and in a good way. The tactical game feels unique, and although some elements are reminiscent of games like Hitman and Far Cry, this Metal Gear Solid is mostly its own thing.
More unusual for the series; maybe the gameplay and the story are spread a little thin. In the game's first act there is perhaps too much time between the most exciting story sequences, and several of the main missions didn't feel particularly relevant to the plot. Even stranger is that the second act doesn't feature enough new content, and instead forces you to play old missions over again (on a higher difficulty level) in order to progress in the story. It's a bit like if the second season of a TV series were to feature multiple episodes that were basically highlights from the first.
Fortunately, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is a very addictive game, so a few hours of repetition doesn't cause too much pain. Whether completing tense missions, gathering upgrades for your base, or kidnapping soldiers (or mountain goats for that matter), it's simply brilliant entertainment that's good for dozens of hours. But it's still not the number of hours that leaves the strongest impression. What we will remember are the little moments; referential nods to other Kojima games, playing "Take on Me" on full blast from the helicopter's loudspeakers, and most of all, those moments where all we could do was lay down the controller and wonder if we wanted to take Big Boss another step closer to hell. Is that something we want to do? We're still not sure. However, at the end of the day it's simply too thrilling not to go again and take yet another stealthy step forward.