Hideo Kojima has never been what you would call a conservative designer. From the very start, he strained against the limitations of the medium, often with brilliant results. But with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Kojima has taken a different approach. For what will almost certainly be Kojima's final turn with the series, he has thrown the proverbial kitchen sink into The Phantom Pain, producing what is easily the most expansive game in the series.
I've been playing MGS V for about 40 hours now, and I'm still not quite finished. Some of that is pure content - there are more than 40 missions in the story alone, and that doesn't include the large numbers of side ops. Some of that is due to the often frustrating difficulty spikes that crop up when the Skulls arrive - an enemy that you will come to fear and hate as the story progresses. But for better or worse, there's no denying that Metal Gear Solid V is a huge game; one that is basically on par with a fairly long RPG.
Ostensibly an open world game dotted with bases and guard posts that you can explore at your leisure - you can drop in to Afghanistan or Africa at any time and just ride around on your horse if you wish - Metal Gear Solid V is primarily structured around its missions. These operations, which typically involve rescuing a hostage or eliminating a target, are very similar to Ground Zeroes - the prologue that served as a paid demo for The Phantom Pain. They are essentially puzzles with multiple solutions that encourage you to experiment with the many tools at your disposal. Sometimes you will find yourself pulling off the perfect heist, which is thrilling. More often than not, though, you will find yourself saying "eff it" and pulling out your rocket launcher, which can be satisfying in its own way.
In structuring The Phantom Pain the way he has, Kojima has more or less created a direct successor to Peace Walker, which was a compelling game in its own right but greatly limited by the fact that it was developed for the PSP. That approach has its advantages and its disadvantages. The open-ended nature of the missions can be quite fun, but the relatively non-descript bases and airfields suffer in comparison to Shadow Moses and Groznyj Grad - compelling settings that were almost characters in their own right. They also teeter on the brink of being overly samey, which is something Metal Gear Solid V spends its duration fighting against.
There are a few things that keep it from plummeting completely into the abyss of repetition. The most significant is Mother Base - Big Boss's headquarters and easily the most enjoyable location in the game. Set on a drilling platform resembling that of Sealand, it serves as a visual representation of your progress through the game, steadily growing as you earn the money and resources to build new platforms. Strictly speaking, there's not a lot you can actually do at Mother Base outside of visit certain characters, but you will nevertheless find yourself returning often, if only to shower off all the blood and muck that accumulates when you're out in the field - one of the many delightful details that serves to set Metal Gear Solid V from other big-budget action games.
Outside of being a cool setting in its own right, Mother Base is also where you earn new tools, making it doubly valuable. There's a continuous flow of volunteers into Mother Base throughout the game who are automatically assigned to whichever department they are best suited, whether it's intelligence, R&D, the medbay, or whatever else. In addition, you can capture enemy soldiers and send them back to Mother Base, where they can be flipped to your side. One of Metal Gear Solid V's most enjoyable challenges is in capturing rather than killing an enemy commander and adding them to your ranks, which is very much in line with Metal Gear's tradition of rewarding non-lethal solutions to problems. They in turn can raise the level of a particular department, unlocking new weapons and items for later missions. In that, building up Mother Base is a crucial part of Metal Gear Solid V, and a rewarding one at that. With so many new recruits and weapons being constantly unlocked after every missions, the game rarely loses momentum, except during its more frustrating missions.
Another way in which Metal Gear Solid V manages to avoid becoming repetitive is in its well-paced dispersal of its setpieces. In that, Kojima proves that he is still one of the best directors around, his best scenes bringing with them a level of intensity that other triple-A action games struggle to conjure. It's evident from the very first minutes of the game, when a critically injured Snake awakens from a coma to find himself in the midst of a bloody massacre, forced to hide among the bodies while gunmen probe through the hallway with their automatic weapons. It's a harrowing sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the game, with plenty more like it to be found as the story continues, often at the most unexpected moments.
Interestingly enough, there aren't many boss battles in Metal Gear Solid V. You'll find them here and there, but from what I've played thus far, few of them are on par with anything you'll find in Snake Eater or even the original Metal Gear Solid. There's the typical sniper duel, and there's a rather cool sequence in which you have to find a way to stop an implacable foe who resembles a fire demon, but such moments are rare. Having said that, there is a rather large fight in the back half of the game that will make Metal Gear Solid fans equal parts happy and frustrated.
I suppose I would also be remiss if I didn't mention the Skulls - supernatural commandos who pop up to menace Snake at the worst possible moments. Skulls are absurdly tough, extremely fast, and capable of dealing out huge amounts of damage, making them bosses in their own right. Their encounters also constitute some of the most frustrating moments in the game. When the time comes to finally stand your ground and fight them, you will find them nearly invincible to anything outside of a homing missile. The mist they bring with them makes visibility poor at best. You will learn to hate seeing the Skulls under the "Special Guest" credits that roll before each mission - a typical Kojima touch that makes Metal Gear Solid V out to be a kind of television show while hinting at what you will have to prepare for. In terms of the actual gameplay, they are probably the single element I like least about Metal Gear Solid V.
Frustrating as it can be, though - and Metal Gear Solid V can be really frustrating - there's never been a point where I've actually wanted to stop. On the contrary, I had to be practically dragged away from one particular boss fight that had been giving me fits for what seemed like hours. It's a compulsive experience that compels you to assign your new staff, develop some weapons, then move on to your next mission. In that, Metal Gear Solid V rarely feels like it's a 50 hour game, though there's no denying its scope.
Its biggest strength continues to be Kojima's mastery of individual details, which are evident in every facet of the game. When you climb into your helicopter to leave the battlefield, for example, the mission doesn't just end. Instead, Snake will sit on the edge for a while as the battlefield below steadily recedes before finally climbing in and shutting the door. If one of his support characters is with him, they'll be hanging out with him. Photographs proliferate on the walls of the chopper. Snake's wolf - called D-Dog - exhibits almost Pixar-like levels of detail in the way it moves and interacts with the characters, and is easily the best dog I've seen in a video game to date. You can even find and listen to cassette tapes containing '80s pop tunes like "The Final Countdown" and "Rebel Yell" - a detail that must have cost Konami a small fortune in licensing fees. In the end, though, it's worth it for the way that it adds further color to an already incredibly rich setting.