You don't need to be a Metal Gear fan. You don't need to like Hideo Kojima. And you don't need to have played any of the previous games to try Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and have the time of your life.
It's fair to say that anyone especially interested in this game has probably already played it, but I'm sure there are just as many who've heard of it and remain merely intrigued. MGSV was a huge news story even before it was released, as the game's final year of an extraordinarily long development (approximately seven years in total) saw the collapse of the relationship between series creator Hideo Kojima and his employer Konami. This isn't the place to drag over all of that, but it was messy, and some of what transpired taints MGSV's reputation — in my opinion unfairly — to this day.
We'll come to that. First, it's best to describe just what MGSV is as a game, because all the usual descriptors need qualification. It's an open world game, yes, but it's one of the very few that emphasises density and quality of environment over size: you can probably drive end-to-end across Afghanistan, the main map, in five minutes. But as you do that you'll pass checkpoints, buildings, soldiers, wildlife, be funnelled onto side roads that worm through mountains, and face constant distraction. What matters in this open world is not the scale of it, but what is in it — and what you can do.
Metal Gear as a series had its breakthrough moment with Metal Gear Solid on PlayStation, but perhaps the most defining characteristic happened with the sequel. The PlayStation game's success meant that Kojima and his team had an enormous budget for the PlayStation 2 sequel, and chose to focus this on creating a deeper simulation of stealth through enemy AI. The soldiers in MGS2 onwards are nothing like the enemies in other games, even other stealth games. Everything is about making them appear human, and curious, and dangerous when alerted. They notice sounds, something as minor as feet splashing through puddles, they pick up on unexpected movement, and most important of all they hunt in packs.
And because of all this, they're amazing fun to both play against, and toy with.
Since this brilliant innovation, the MGS series almost moved on to variations on a theme. MGS3 changed the environment, swapping concrete military interiors for (mostly) jungle, and making camouflage more important. MGS4 returned to urban environments, gave Snake the greatest camo system ever conceived, and made the enemies more intelligent and numerous. MGS4 also pioneered a level of detail in its environments that gives players an enormous number of options — a characteristic that, truthfully, doesn't quite mesh with the kind of game MGS4 is, but was clearly an inspiration for MGSV's breakout structure.
Breakout? Until MGSV, Metal Gear games had been linear. You went from A to B, listening to codec conversations and watching cutscenes. The PSP's superb Peace Walker, which at the start of development was intended as the original MGSV, moved towards a more freeform mission-based structure, which allowed re-use of environments, and laid the ground for MGSV to combine this with open environments.
Think of it this way: Kojima Productions spent roughly 15 years fine-tuning and refining a complex stealth system, adaptable enemy AI, and items designed to have multiple uses in this context. Then, for their final trick, they built an open world that could contain them.
And MGSV does much more than this. It ultimately jettisons one of the most divisive aspects of the Metal Gear Solid games, which is Kojima's weakness for long monologue-based cutscenes, in favour of relatively minimal storytelling and information delivered on-the-fly by Ocelot. But this is not how things look at first. MGSV begins with a cinematic opening scene where you technically have control over protagonist Venom Snake, but a lot of the time you're just pressing forward. It all builds up to something quite spectacular, and it's fun enough to play through once, but it's completely unrepresentative of the game.
After this, MGSV gives you an incredible view of Afghanistan, and the game proper begins. Where do you want to go today? The game's structure is missions, small and big, which you can start by simply going to a certain location (it's not uncommon to accidentally stumble upon and complete missions while just bumming around). There are absolutely tonnes of these, and so simply travelling across the map hoovering up objectives is an easy pleasure.
But the genius touch of MGSV, and here Peace Walker really does deserve the credit, is its incorporation of your overarching Mother Base and the beautiful Fulton surface-to-air recovery system. You can kidnap enemy troops, and they'll become part of your mercenary army. As your army increases in size, it can research and produce more equipment for use in the field, it can be sent out on missions to gather resources for Mother Base, and most of all it begins to populate Mother Base itself, which you can visit at any time.
This means that, as you're playing MGSV 'normally', you're also building up your own long-term capabilities (and role in the story). Kojima for years tried to work out a way to make players feel bad about killing 'intelligent' NPCs, but the solution he eventually hit upon was to make them more valuable alive than dead. Why kill someone when they could be staffing your kitchen? That guy's good at science, he can come. An A+ in medical care? Get on board soldier.
Soon you're a collector of... well, everything that isn't tied down. One of the most delightful small touches in MGSV is that, as your Mother Base research improves, the Fulton itself gets better. Pretty soon you can kidnap not just soldiers, but gun emplacements and vehicles. Further down the line, your Fulton's powerful enough to lift shipping containers and tanks — and in yet another exquisite detail, you can stand on top of a container, Fulton it, and hitch a ride home.
I went to my PS4 to gather screens for this article and found this old video, where I complete one of the later missions by Fultoning off a tank — then, as I wait for helicopter extraction, listen to 'You Spin Me Right Round' while messing about.
Everything feeds into everything else. What's the endgame with Mother Base and resources? Well, there's a story importance to it. But it also eventually leads to you setting up as a mercenary army in multiplayer (you can ignore this aspect of the game if you don't like competitive play). Soon enough you'll have a Forward Operating Base (FOB) staffed by your troops, containing your resources, and other players can sneak in and try to nick them.
You can arrange the defences of your FOB down to what guns your soldiers are using, where they're positioned, and even set it up as a honeypot to KO (rather than kill) incoming players for even juicier rewards. Then there's the genius bit. If someone invades your FOB while you're online, you can go to your FOB in real time and help defend it.
As you can see, I'm a professional.
And here's the thing about MGSV: TPP. This article could be double or triple the length, and there would still be so much stuff about this game I wouldn't mention. The companions you acquire throughout the adventure, the different strategic roles they can play and how much fun it is using them to mess with troops. The unforgettable sniper fight against Quiet, the magic cigar that lets you pass time in bins, and the way your troops stammer out a stunned "th-thanks Boss" after you bodyslam them back at base. The incredibly detailed wildlife, all of which can be tranquilised and Fultoned (or in the case of small birds, pocketed) to create an actual zoo back at Mother Base.
Few other games have this combination of high concept and low humour. Kojima fetishises military hardware, but he's also one of the few creators in games who tries to grapple with modern militaries and modern war: MGSV's prequel, Ground Zeroes, is a straight-up presentation of the evils of Guantanamo Bay and places like it. MGSV itself uses Russia's war in Afghanistan to make points about the contemporary American war in Afghanisatan, then switches focus to Africa and the child soldiers of Zaire.
It's also a game where you can teach your horse to defecate on command, distract soldiers with fluffy dogs or posters of models, and listen to an amazing selection of 80s hits while lying in a gutter. MGSV contains so much that you could go on and on and on — sometimes you feel the miracle isn't that it took seven years to make, but that they finished it at all.
I did say I'd come back to this. MGSV is an incredible meta-narrative about games themselves, players and creators, and how a series like MGS comes to be. That will have to wait for another time, but one of the most unfair accusations levelled at the game is that it's unfinished. This is because the game's second half features a lot of repeated missions, alongside new ones, and on the official 'making of' disc Kojima included storyboards and unfinished cutscenes from a mission that, at one point, was intended to be part of the game.
This one mission would have tied up a story thread. And it would've been nice. But the idea that this enormous achievement, a game you can play for hundreds of hours and not get bored with, is somehow lesser because one mission got cut... I not only can't agree, but I think it's woeful the idea ever acquired traction.
MGSV is a game so good that, even two years later, I can't think of anything that's subsequently topped it. I look at the horizon and, you know, I can't see anything in the near future either. Other developers can make open worlds, they can produce beautiful graphics, and they can manage fun mechanics. None outside of Rockstar can compete with the breadth and quality of what Kojima Productions managed to squeeze into MGSV.
This is one of those games that is so much greater than the sum of its parts. It's an unforgettable experience that, when the history of videogames is written, will be seen as one of the greatest ever to grapple with the nature of the medium, entertainment's responsibilities, and the nature of commercial success. If you have Playstation Plus, and haven't played MGSV, this is the greatest deal in history.