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2015’s Best Games: Metal Gear Solid 5

To round off the year, we’re taking a look back at our favourite games of 2015 – it’s been a hell of a year! Next up, it’s just a box…

It’s always a strange experience when you’ve been following a big game for years and then finally get to sit down with the finished article. It’s really quite surreal, this mythical beast of a product at long last reduced to doing exactly what your fingers tell it to do and as development cycles grow longer, it’s something we’re only going to encounter more often. It doesn’t always end well, of course – whether it’s buggy launches, games that end up a few inches short for their own ‘you must be this tall to ride the Hype Train’ signs or just things like Evolve or The Crew that simply can’t deliver on their potential, disappointment is always a terrifying possibility. So with Konami having been carpet bombed with drama this last year or so, we were a little shaky picking up a DualShock 4 to finally play through The Phantom Pain. Thankfully, our fears were short-lived, laid to rest by a stunning intro sequence that set the bar perfectly for the level of quality we could expect from the game, and the ludicrously huge final piece in the baffling Metal Gear puzzle rarely dips below that impressive benchmark. MGSV is here at last, and it’s excellent.

We had a fair idea based on how tight Ground Zeroes was that The Phantom Pain would be mechanically solid, but that it manages to retain that quality while layering on tons of new mechanics is extremely impressive. New tools and options just keep on coming for almost the entirety of the story’s 50-odd mission duration, from changes to how existing gear works to brand new toys with which to ghost or blast your way to each sortie’s objective. Best of all, you’re actually in a position of control for much of this process – with Mother Base up and running, the R&D department is hanging on your every word, happy to develop remote explosives, upgraded weapons, surveillance tools, gimmick outfits, buddy gear or whatever else you may want, provided you’ve got the resources and staff to get the job done.

You see, attaching Fulton extraction balloons to subdued enemies isn’t just an amusing punchline to a stealthy encounter – it’s an essential tool in growing Big Boss‘ private army and the more specialists you can extract, the quicker you’ll be able to play with the best toys. That’s just one aspect of Mother Base, too. Some soldiers you send back might be better suited to field work, security duty or supporting roles than helping produce new equipment, and you’re free to go as deep into this level of micromanagement as you see fit – a tap of R3 will chuck everyone into the department best suited to their talents or you can do it all manually, using combat missions to develop the abilities of seemingly weaker recruits before placing them based on how their talents grow. It’s an extremely flexible system but it’s likely that you’ll grow so attached to your base of operations that you won’t settle for anything less than the best staffing. Improve your recon gear and you can even get a preview of soldiers’ capabilities when tagging them in the field, allowing you to prioritise ‘borrowing’ skilled guards and making the rest that much more expendable. But don’t worry – you’ll make a lot of new friends either way.

Ocelot wasn’t wrong – Afghanistan is a big place, but to call The Phantom Pain an open world game is still something of a misnomer. While it’s true that the game takes place in huge play spaces that can be explored at your leisure between tasks, the missions themselves actually erect virtual barriers that prevent you from straying too far from objectives until you’re done. These areas are typically still huge and it’s fair to say that little is lost with this approach – you’re still looking at chunks of soil roughly the size of Ground Zeroes‘ map on average, meaning there’s still plenty of freedom in how you approach or escape critical targets. Each mission has numerous objectives (usually secret until/unless you manage to discover the criteria in the field) and it’s rare that you’ll manage to complete them all in one run, offering an extra level of longevity for those who want to do everything. It works both ways, to be fair – full exploration can reveal every possible task or, if you know what you need to do, you can sometimes skip entire sections in order to fulfil primary objectives in record time. Flexibility is once again key, and it’s hugely satisfying whichever way you lean.

It must be said, though, that longevity won’t even be an issue – you’re looking at a good 40-50 hours just to smash through the main story missions, and that’s before you really start messing around with the many optional objectives or the 100+ additional Side Ops that unlock as you play. Like Peace Walker, this game is freaking huge and you stand to lose even more time if you get into Metal Gear Online or the Souls-inspired base invasion stuff.

There was some concern ahead of release that the usual Metal Gear quirkiness wouldn’t sit too well with Kojima’s decision to tackle sensitive and mature themes, but this actually is surprisingly well managed. The key to this is having the majority of the tongue-in-cheek stuff offered as a side dish – it’s perfectly possible to play through the majority of The Phantom Pain treating it as a serious stealth game but if you do decide to start attaching balloons to goats, hide in boxes that enemy soldiers somehow mistake for their superiors or hold guards up with water pistols, that choice is on you, along with any thematic conflict that comes with it. Much of the heavier stuff is handled with due care and respect but a few elements still feel somewhat awkward – since we’d rather not spoil anything, we’ll let you discover those bits for yourself and make up your own mind.

Episodic presentation can get a little annoying when playing for extended periods (credits run before and after each mission TV-show-style, while later missions can end on cliffhangers or open with story recaps) but when we’re clutching around at things like that to criticise, that speaks volumes of the overall quality of the game. Aesthetically stunning, bursting with content and loaded with fan service, exposition and knowing nods to the other games, this culmination of all things Metal Gear is a truly wonderful thing. If this actually is the last contribution Kojima has for the series (and we haven’t all just been played like damn fiddles), there’s at least comfort to be found for both players and the creator himself that The Phantom Pain will go down as one of his finest works yet.

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