At this point, it's probably safe to say Konami's Metal Gear series has a rocky reputation.
For me, nothing hammered home this reality more than sitting down with some colleagues after last year's E3 to dish about our favorite games of the show. Having attended that year's presentation of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I cheerfully nominated it, only to be met with a look of abject confusion by a peer sitting across from me. "What, really? You're still interested in watching all of those cutscenes?" Little did this person know, just as 2008's Guns of the Patriots told us "war has changed," the same is true for Metal Gear.
Of course, I don't blame our anonymous friend for making faulty assumptions about the current form of Metal Gear. Throughout its long lifespan, Hideo Kojima's main jam has been wildly experimental; so, while there might not be too much of a difference between Assassin's Creed III and IV, the same can't be said for Metal Gear Solid 3 and 4. And if someone's last experience with Metal Gear Solid can be found closer to the turn of the millennium than today, it's entirely possible for them to think of installments from this series as "the cutscene game." (Having been working my way through Sons of Liberty again, I can attest it's very much "the cutscene game.")
Really, to understand the shift MGS has taken in recent years, you'd have to have played 2010's Peace Walker—something not a whole lot of people actually did. Forced to work with hardware that's not known for its technical prowess, Hideo Kojima dialed back on story and pushed gameplay to the forefront, leading to the most mechanically rich and rewarding Metal Gear to date—one that acted as a complete 180 to the disjointed and self-indulgent (even for Kojima) Metal Gear Solid 4, released two years earlier. But if you weren't playing the PSP long past its sell-by date, how could you ever know?
Thankfully, Kojima Productions recognized the value of Peace Walker, and decided to make The Phantom Pain expand on the ideas found in this PSP release—and on platforms capable of doing much more with them. So, MGSV features the same structure as its inspiration—go on missions, recruit soldiers along the way, and use them to build items, weapons, and your base itself in wonderful ways—but in an open-world environment that inspires actual exploration, rather than steering yourself towards one of thousands of objective icons dotting the map.
Even though "open world" stands as the main flavor of every big-budget release these days, there's a reason Kojima Productions waited so long to take a dive into this popular format: Simply put, after sitting with The Phantom Pain for two solid days, I'm hard-pressed to think of another game that pulls off play in this kind of space so effectively. Big words, I know—so let's hope I can convince you.
From the Ground Up
First, a bit of disclosure: even though I played around 18 hours of Metal Gear Solid V, there's a lot I can't share publicly at this point. (And I'm not saying this for the sake of bragging rights—it's actually a little frustrating.) As with many high-profile releases of this nature, Konami wants to keep some things close to their chest, so I can't mention anything about The Phantom Pain's story, mission objectives, weapon names, and a whole lotta other stuff you probably want to know if you're reading an article about Metal Gear Solid V. But if you want to get a feeling for the essential gameplay of The Phantom Pain, it's not very far removed from what's found in last year's Ground Zeroes—2014's playable prologue that's now available for the reasonable price of "free" for PlayStation Plus members—though with a few marginal and user-friendly tweaks to UI and controls here and there.
Ground Zeroes didn't inspire a whole lot of positivity, but, to be fair, it had an international airport's worth of baggage attached. If you didn't scoff at the original price, it's entirely possible the prologue's treatment of sexual assault and certain parts of Paz's anatomy managed to turn you off from this next installment in the Metal Gear series. This dreary, ugly tone might have been thematically appropriate, but it did much to hide the essential, goofy fun of Metal Gear: messing with the limits of the enemy soldiers' AI. Jumping back into Ground Zeroes last night, I tranqued three enemy grunts, loaded their sleeping bodies in a jeep, and cruised around their base in what I called the "Metal Gear Party Wagon." Even though the ending of Metal Gear Solid 3 makes me choke up more than the combined audiences of The Notebook and The Fault in Our Stars, I mostly play these games to experiment with just how many silly possibilities Kojima and his team accounted for—and it's typically all of them.
Of course, The Phantom Pain's hour-long intro gave most of us at the event our share of anxiety. Again, I have to be extremely cagey about what I say here—or risk being black-bagged by Konami PR—but this playable prologue is about as far from the main experience as you can get. And while it's not quite as brash or ambitious as previous Kojima head fakes, for a while, I had wondered if, due to the current problems at Konami, everything I'd seen at last year's E3 experience had been scrapped in favor of a much more linear game that leaned more towards horror than past Metal Gears. After this section ended, and the experience I'd been expecting revealed itself in its entirety, I looked upon this intro much more charitably—but, as I played, the sheer amount of WTF moments had me thinking Metal Gear had gone off the rails in a way I hadn't witnessed since Sons of Liberty's admirably strange latter bits. Trust me, though: It gets better.