What you get out of Metal Gear Solid V will, in many ways, depend a great deal on your gaming history. We have never really played a MGS game before. We tried MGS 4 as our entry into the series ( a rookie error) and were harshly rebuffed by feature-film length cut-scenes in between every couple of minutes of gameplay, making sure we had absolutely no idea what was going on by making relentless references to characters who all have similar names and are often quite literally clones of each other. Trying to break into the previous Metal Gear Solid series was like understanding a Shakespearean comedy in a foreign language while drunk and being shot at. Actually that’s quite a good description for the whole series.
Imagine our relief when the opening of Metal Gear Solid V is not a barrage of characters who you need to know something about. Set in a hospital, and featuring much of the footage that was released in trailers ( a smart move for publishers who don’t want to spoil their own games), the prologue is a thing of majesty. You don’t need to know who most of the characters are. You literally can’t know who most of the characters are. Everyone is in the same boat and that boat is on fire and missing an oar.
The game opens up into something quite unlike its predecessors, but with many recognisable features and nods to the past. The whole title takes place in two massive open world sections (Afghanistan and an unnamed African country) alongside some side missions on your oil rig-turned Mother Base. Despite this open-world, many of your missions are simple instances of search and rescue or stealing information from armed compounds. On a micro level, it’s the same kind of stealth gameplay that made the series famous. You can hide in boxes, become almost invisible by crawling on the floor, use enough tranquiliser darts to panic a blue whale, and occasionally be forced to fight giant robots because giant robots. Once you look beyond the minutiae of what you are focused on you realise the huge number of options and opportunities that the open-world provides. Sure you can crawl into that village, sneak past the guards and then drag out the POW on your shoulders following the same stealthy route, but why not ask your buddy sniper to take out key guards along the way so you can get through quicker. Or perhaps you could use a robot pair of legs to help you to sprint into combat with a flamethrower, devastating the enemy forces before they have a chance to react. Or you could call in an artillery strike just outside the base to cause a distraction, allowing you to steal a jeep and make a much more comfortable escape. Or you could pepper the base with bait and let wild animals take care of the guards for you. This is honestly a tiny taste of the possibilities in Metal Gear Solid, and once this freedom dawns on you, it really is an excellent game.
Of course as soon as you are given freedom but a repetitive task to complete (infiltrate the base, get the thing, get out) you often find one solution that works well. We’ve resorted to sneaking through with a tranquiliser gun, putting everyone to sleep, fultoning everyone (more on that later) and then completing our objective when the base is mostly empty, all overwatched by our friendly neighbourhood sniper just in case things go awry. Thankfully the enemies do react to repeated tactics so towards the end of our game we were coming across enemies with helmets and face masks, making tranquilising impossible, forcing us to consider more lethal means or to avoid the enemies altogether. There might always be an easy way through a mission, but the game does a decent job of mixing things up enough to make sure you don’t get too comfortable.
One of the cleverest ways they mix things up is by the re-introduction of the fulton system from Peace Walker. Fultoning involves attaching a large balloon to something so it can be picked up by a plane. In Metal Gear Solid V the process is simplified immensely, and before long you can carry 24 of these balloons and can pick up everything from mountain goats to battle tanks. While guards will often notice someone disappearing with a balloon into the sky, it surprisingly doesn’t perturb them too much. Taking advantage of this lets you steal everything that isn’t nailed down, and everything you take is added to the inventory (or the staff) of your base, where you can research new equipment and support tools. We try not to wonder too much how they encourage every single guard to change sides just because they’ve been airlifted away, but it’s best not to ask those kind of question in Kojima’s games.
The insanity pervades every game system and while it works in many places, often it comes across as quirky for the sake of it. It’s one thing to be able to wear a chicken hat to make levels easier for yourself, it’s another to use cardboard cut outs of rude looking anime cartoons in order to distract guards who stand there slack jawed staring at them. Much has also been made of your sniper buddy, Quiet. Quiet is a young woman who wears a bra, thong, and ripped tights into war. There is an explanation for this but it’s impossible to see as anything more than an excuse to have a nearly naked woman follow you around. Was there really a need to give her breasts independent physics when no other body part of anyone else does? Was it important for her to bend over and present herself to you while she stretches in the helicopter on the way to missions? Probably not. Instead, Kojima has put in a sexualised female character to give gamers something to perv over while they enjoy their power fantasy. It would have been so easy to turn Quiet into a strong female role model, but she comes across as much more of a fetish object, someone who you (again, literally) take out of a cage to join you on a holly until you return and put her back in her cage. We’re not easily offended by games, but this is uncomfortable at best and so easily could have been so much better.
There are several other slight annoyances in the game. Missions are not easy to switch between, with loading screens and travel time being used for very little other than a tiny bit of sight-seeing. It would have been nice to be able to listen to the many audio tapes that fill in the story as you travel around, but every loading screen stops them, forcing you to go back into the menus to start it up again. There’s also a lack of long-term effects with your actions, if you kill certain very frustrating elite enemies early on, they simply disappear, only to return in later missions. If you have the ability to take them down, it would be nice to have them permanently out of the story.
With that being said, this game is excellent in so many ways, you’re almost certain to enjoy it, even if it’s through gritted teeth at times. Graphically it is beautiful, with some excellent lighting and impressive set pieces, even if some of the texture work feels flat and the word is mostly featureless. There’s an undeniable joy in being able to ride a horse clear across the open world maps, engaging with enemy bases as and when you like. The world is full of incidental details like wild animals, and nearly every object or creature actually does something and serves some kind of purpose, even if it is difficult to work out.
For better or worse, this is Kojima’s masterpiece, and it’s a fitting end to the Metal Gear Solid series. We’re going to review the online side of the game when it launches next month in a separate review, but we can easily recommend the single player portion to anyone who has the slightest fondness for stealth games. You don’t need to have played past games, you don’t need to be willing to invest hours of your time in learning the story, this is a much more accessible game and all the better for it. We just sometimes wish Kojima wasn’t quite so odd.