At E3 2014, Bob Mackey is approaching his coverage with one question in mind: "Are there any new ideas left?"
I didn't expect to wake up at 6:30 this morning and immediately start writing, but here I am, with a lukewarm cup of barely-flavored hotel coffee close at hand. And the culprit behind this rude awakening is none other than Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.
After my hour-long hands-off session with the game on Konami's show floor, my mind was racing -- which explains why thoughts of Metal Gear stirred me out of my sleep so many times last night. I'm not one for kneejerk, breathless enthusiasm, but as someone who's followed Kojima's series for so long, this brief slice of The Phantom Pain showed me a game much more in line with Snake Eater and Peace Walker -- my two favorites of the series. By taking the former's sense of openness and the latter's extremely rewarding RPG-lite recruitment system, The Phantom Pain simply has everything I've wanted to see in Metal Gear.
Of course, I did recently complain about Assassin's Creed's failure to innovate, so you may be asking yourself why I'm giving The Phantom Pain so much credit for retreading what the series has done before. Well, there's a good reason for that: The Phantom Pain is expanding on great ideas once stymied by the limits of older technology. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater dropped its hero into large, outdoor environments, but these vast jungles were essentially "rooms" connected by loading screens -- and the initial version's predetermined camera angles made this all the more apparent. From the outset of The Phantom Pain's demo, Konami's PR rep made it clear that its open world would be truly open, allowing the player to tackle an objective from any angle, or simply wander the mountains of Afghanistan looking for secrets. And, seeing as this is a Metal Gear game, there should be plenty.
The Phantom Pain also expands upon Peace Walker's Mother Base system, which encourages peaceful play by making captured (not killed) soldiers a vital asset. Once Snake knocks out a soldier -- or simply gets the drop on one of them -- he can send this unfortunate soul rocketing back to HQ, where they can go to work in any number of departments and produce new weapons, items, and intel for the cause. But this Mother Base is more than just a menu visited in between missions; not only can you visit it and see your changes reflected in its design, The Phantom Pain also allows you to enlist soldiers as soon as they reach their destination, instead of forcing you to wait until you've won these captured enemies over to your side.
In the demo, the PR rep instantly assigned some captured foes to Mother Base's intel department, which leveled it up immediately and added vital information to Snake's map. He also showed off the many uses of the Fulton Recovery System by sending a sheep and a jeep back to Mother Base, all while alerting us to the fact that harsh winds could blow this vital cargo off course if Snake isn't careful -- you should probably wait for that sandstorm to pass unless you want to be responsible for animal cruelty.
The Phantom Pain even soups up Snake's oldest tricks. His trusty cardboard box, a mainstay since the original game, now makes for a much more versatile hiding place. Snake can pop in and out of the top, use items while inside, and even dive out of the side when enemies catch onto the fact that corrugated cardboard shouldn't be sentient. Konami's entire demo session seemed intent on showing the audience just how versatile Snake could be, and without the finicky, overly complicated controls that have alienated plenty of people from the series. Snake was certainly versatile before, but now, the game no longer tries to step on your fingers when you try to pull off an ambitious move.
And being ambitious is necessary, as Snake's foes are a little smarter, and have a much bigger presence in their world. In order to get the drop on some enemy soldiers, the man at the controls pulled out Snake's e-cig which, in a move ripped straight from Deadly Premonition, shifts the world into time-lapse mode as Snake stands still and enjoys that sweet nicotine vapor. The demoer watched his map as time passed to see when certain guards would take a break to sleep, and started his attack on the poor guys trying to catch a few Zs. Along with the day and night cycle, dynamic weather also plays a big role in The Phantom Pain, as sand and rainstorms can either impede Snake's progress, or make it much easier to hide.
The Phantom Pain carries the same melodramatic, self-serious tone you'll find in any Metal Gear, but what I saw was a thankful departure from the dour, edgy tone of Ground Zeroes. And this levity was sprinkled about in minor moments, from Snake's horse pooping to the Goofy-esque "YAHOOOO!" hostages shout when you send them hurtling through the sky to safety.
This latest Metal Gear might not be as revolutionary as some would like, but, to me, it feels like the full realization of the ideas rattling around in Kojima's head for the past 25 years. His games have always felt reined in by the limits of their various platforms, but The Phantom Pain -- at least, the demo session I viewed -- felt like the fullest expression of the Metal Gear concept to date. As I looked out over that vast in-game landscape, my mind couldn't stop wondering what mysteries it held, and how Kojima would take advantage of this new sense of scope for some stunning boss encounters -- I'd gladly take a repeat of Metal Gear Solid 3's fight against The End if it could drag on for days and nights across this sprawling landscape without a single loading screen to speak of. My only hope is that, with this game, Kojima finally gets Metal Gear out of his system. Based on what I've seen of The Phantom Pain, it's hard to imagine where the series could go next.