Platforms: Xbox One (Reviewed), PS4, PC, Xbox 360, PS3

Hideo Kojima should quit game production and retire effective immediately. He would leave the gaming world on the highest note achievable by any game producer if he were to do so following the release of his magnum opus, his Citizen Kane, his Mona Lisa, his David, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, his most recent (and final) title for Konami and for the Metal Gear universe. The game lives up to every bit of hype built around it over recent years and is worthy of every bit of positive praise heaped upon it by the gaming journalism world.

A New Type of Metal Gear

What MGS5 does to the stealth, open-world/sandbox, and action game genres is what Grand Theft Auto III did to a number of genres when it was released 14 years ago: it raises the bar and sets a new standard for what games have the potential to be. It also blows away everything about the stealth genre Kojima has been credited with popularizing back in 1998 after the release of the original Metal Gear Solid.

To begin with, Kojima and his production crew did away with the linear structure of previous titles. There is no longer a single stage or multiple areas to be played from a starting point to an ending point. Instead, MGS5 features two large maps to traverse: one of northern Kabul in Afghanistan and the other of the Angola-Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) border region in central Africa.

Players are initially limited to specific areas of the map in the opening missions of each but are given access to the entirety of each map through continued play. Best of all, players aren’t limited to accessing the map via the main story missions. There are Side-Ops as well as, most importantly, a Free Roam mode that allows players complete freedom in traversing either map in any way players see fit, including by foot, horseback, or vehicle. Doing so helps reveal the enormous scale of each map and its varied terrain. It feels more liberating and expansive than the island designed to look like Southern California in GTAV or the various closed-off locations in previous MGS games. There are plenty of moments that show off the grand scale of each map in a variety of ways that leaves one awestruck every time.

It also gives players total freedom to do as they wish: collect supplies, liberate outposts, kidnap enemy soldiers, and more. Much of the fun of the game happens in these moments. It’s easy to become engrossed in doing nothing other than liberating outposts by kidnapping or killing enemies in said areas then driving off or leaving via horseback to the next outpost. The open world also leaves plenty of room for surprises, such as when an enemy chopper gets called in or when a jeep filled with enemy soldiers surprises a player after turning a blind corner or, hilariously, accidentally running over a wild donkey with your horse after blindly jumping over a small cliff.

MGS5 also adopts the fulton system and Mother Base/Outer Heaven from Peace Walker. Players can kidnap enemy soldiers, weapons, and vehicles to add to their Mother Base, which can be customized with its own unique logo, via balloon extraction.

Mother Base itself is a stage/hub that players can walk around and interact with their fultoned soldiers in, and can be expanded with multiple hubs. Players start off with a simple Command Hub and can add hubs for Intel, Medical, Combat Units, Support, and Base Development. Each hub helps players in different ways. Expanding the Support Unit hub, for instance, unlocks items such as Aerial Bombardments with explosives, sleeping gas, or smoke bombs to use at any time while in Afghanistan or Angola-Zaire.

In this way, MGS5 combines the formulas found in Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes and Peace Walker to great effect while adding a few new bits into the formula. MGS:GZ introduced everyone to a very tiny piece of Kojima’s grand vision for MGS5 in that it gave players the freedom to complete a mission in various ways including in a different order than suggested at first. It both liberated players and challenged them in new ways by placing the MGS universe in a true three-dimensional setting.

A Tale Of Revenge And Hatred

The game’s plot unfolds via numerous missions, which are also referred to as episodes in-game. A few missions can be taken out of order while others must be completed chronologically to advance the game. Furthermore, MGS5 significantly cuts back on the obscene amount of in-game cut-scenes found in previous titles, flipping the ratio of gaming to cut-scenes in favor of the former. Kojima and crew provide background information and plot details via audio cassette tapes that players can listen to at any time during the game instead of forcing players to sit through hour-long scenes packed with talking heads.

Speaking of talking heads, actor Kiefer Sutherland speaks less than voice actor David Hayter did when he filled the role of Big Boss in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. The effect gives this Big Boss a heavier gravitas, as he only speaks when necessary and doesn’t spend half his lines repeating other people’s information in the form of a question. Hayter’s voice acting had also entered the realm of self-parody, whjich Sutherland avoids. Kojima also needed an experienced film actor to motion-cap his various facial expressions for Big Boss.

The story begins in a hospital in Cyprus where Big Boss has finally awakened from a nine year-long coma following the helicopter crash at the end of Ground Zeroes. The story behind BB’s escape seems simple enough at first but later details flesh out the multiple narratives behind his escape to include the many characters in the game, including main enemy Skull Face and his XOF unit, the backstory of the gas-masked child Tretij Rebenok, and the Man On Fire who bears more than a passing resemblance to Colonel Volgin of MGS3. All are tied into an overarching narrative structured on the themes of anger and revenge (and there are plenty of characters filled with both!) with a Kojima-style fantasy twist involving plenty of science fact and science fiction.

These feelings of hatred and revenge by the game’s characters serve as a “phantom pain,” a psychic wound demanding to be healed (along with a number of physical wounds). This plot element and narrative is the overarching theme that combines a tale of long-unknown allies turned enemies, cultural and linguistic hegemony, and the morality of warfare, among others.

An Open World With Limitless Storytelling Possibilities

What really pushes the game past its predecessors and, honestly, every other stealth and action game before it, is how it combines its plot elements with its open-world elements. Every mission can be replayed in a number of different ways, and no replay will be the same as the previous one. Players can arrive at the mission area at different times of day or night under different weather conditions (fog, rain, sandstorms, clear, etc.).

Replaying missions also allows players to return with different gear every time. They can infiltrate from different entry points. They can opt for an all-guns blazing approach, a completely quiet approach, or the “screw it, call in the chopper” approach.

The variety of approaches creates an enormous level of tension, along with plenty of nerve-wracking, unscripted moments throughout the game. For example, there was one mission where I was trapped between two large rocks with four enemies nearby searching for me in broad daylight. Just as I readied my assault rifle for an attack, the game informed me that a sandstorm was approaching. Seconds later, the entire screen went brown with dust flying in all directions. My escape went from impossible to easy in the blink of an eye.

In another memorable moment, Big Boss is sent on a mission to a mine surrounded by enemies to rescue five kidnapped mercenaries. It turns out, however, that the mercenaries are actually child soldiers, something I was completely unprepared for. The rescue becomes an exercise in patience and skill amidst a morally-heavy, anxiety-riddled dilemma. The successful completion of that mission is one of the most satisfying moments in a game filled with twists and jaw-dropping revelations.

This change in the narrative and gameplay structure is a welcome one because, in the hands of longtime fans of the series, the game operates in a way that feels more in tune with what the Metal Gear series always had the potential to be. New fans to Metal Gear will find a deep and engrossing stealth/action game that perfectly balances its gameplay and plot/cut-scenes. Past criticisms of Metal Gear games being ones you watch instead of play have finally been put to rest.