Every once in a blue moon, an incredible, sparkling game that shines in every conceivable way is released, creating the sort of wonder in players that pretty much explains why we love this medium in the first place.

Players are always on the lookout for these masterpieces as they’re clearly the result of a unique vision and razor-sharp execution. They can suck you in, have you playing for hours on end – so much so that you lose track of time.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is one such game and even if you have haven’t considered yourself to be an ardent fan of the franchise, you can’t help but marvel at the care and attention given to the game’s development, which is evident in every frame and pixel. If you’ve ever played Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes, consider that experience a mere taster of what you can expect from The Phantom Pain.

This game is a love letter to fans, penned by Hideo Kojima himself, that apologises quite succinctly for making them wait so long for a new chapter in the Metal Gear saga. It contains everything they could possibly want in a Metal Gear game, and then some.

 

This includes, of course, the obligatory nigh-on-nonsensical story. While it wasn’t possibly to finish The Phantom Pain in the review time htxt.Africa was allotted, the little of the story that was revealed didn’t make much sense at all. It blends elements of the supernatural with a narrative set firmly the world of the high-tech military and all of this is wrapped in the stucture of an open-world, offering players multiple open-ended approaches to each mission. Players can adhere to Metal Gear’s classic stealth approach, but here, it’s only one of their many options.

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Sneaky, sneaky: By far the most satisfying way to play.

Mind you, outlandish stories are an established part of MGS – even the franchise’s community appears to be in agreement that Kojima isn’t the world’s best storyteller anyway – so that aspect of The Phantom Pain (as well as the game’s interminably drawn-out cutscenes) is all but expected from him.

Kojima most certainly delivers in  just the way fans would expect. Take that observation with a pinch of salt, though, as has been mentioned, the full story wasn’t completed and so we have to reserve a definitive judgement on it. Still, being 30 hours into a game and not knowing what in hell is going on isn’t insignificant.

Fortunately, the rest of the game is so enjoyable that even a lack of plot comprehension won’t limit the pleasure players will get from it. After just over five days of play, you’ll be having such a great time you won’t want it to end, just like we did.

MGS V: The Phantom Pain – Structure & Mechanics

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is huge, sprawling, open-world behemoth that gives players the freedom to tackle missions however they like. Sure, it encourages stealth primarily because that is the MGS way and players are rewarded handsomely for pulling missions off as quietly as possible. But it also allows for a more action-oriented approach if that’s more your thing.

Playing as Punished “Venom” Snake, players must recover from the events set in motion at the end of Metal Gear V Solid: Ground Zeroes and build up their forces, all while trying to figure out what Cipher, TPP’s enemy force, is up to. That’s about as much as one can reveal about the plot without spoiling anything, but suffice it to say some pretty weird stuff is going on.

To do that, players must recover intel from the various missions they’re sent on, and bring their base of operations – which fans will know as Mother Base – as well as your personal forces back up to strength as you hurtle towards an inevitable confrontation with Cipher, and beyond.

MGS V: The Phantom Pain – (Mother) Base

Mother Base forms quite an important part of the game, and turns out to be one of many aspects of TPP that are integrated brilliantly into both the story and the in-game experience. As a developer, Kojima may have his flaws, but poor game design is not one of them.

Mother Base is a huge, sprawling complex that houses Snake’s soldiers and the many facilities any fighting force needs in order to survive and thrive.

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This place clearly needs a woman’s touch.

It’s not just a collection of oil-rig-like buildings, either, it’s something players will need to look after and actively manage in order to progress in the game’s story. They’ll need to keep an eye out for resources in the field and collect them so that they can expand. They’ll need to staff it with soldiers as well, and perform research to unlock the improved and more deadly weaponry and tools that become ever-more-essential as the game progresses as enemies and situations become more difficult.

However, maintaining and managing the base is not a chore. Players will find they always keep their Mother Base’s requirements in mind as they play, making a point of gathering resources and soldiers whose abilities are above average where possible, and then managing it all with an eye towards giving themselves as much of an advantage on the battlefield as possible.

In a way, the base is essentially the game’s levelling system, but instead of rewarding the player with tools and weaponry pulled out of the ether when they hit an arbitrary XP threshold, the game makes them work for their upgrades. And it’s work they won’t  mind doing as more often than not, the upgrades it unlocks are worth the effort.

I felt like I was upgrading Snake in my own way, giving the development aspect of the game a personal touch that made me feel like my progress – or lack thereof – was entirely up to me. The amount of satisfaction gained by unlocking a particularly juicy weapon or tool that took considerable effort to achieve can’t be overstated.

MGS V: The Phantom Pain – World Building

TPP is set in two open world sandboxes and both areas are huge, requiring the aid of Snake’s trusty steed – D-Horse – to traverse. Fortunately, D-Horse is always just a whistle away – much in the same way all of John Marsden’s horses were in Red Dead Redemption, and Roach was in The Witcher 3.

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One man and his horse.

In the open world, you can move at your own pace, but once you come across one of the many outposts and bases dotted around the two maps, the challenge is to infiltrate them undetected. Almost always, these compounds are swarming with enemy soldiers.

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Initially, soldiers are mostly hidden. They’re definitely there, though.

Players can silently eliminate enemies and hide their bodies and, for many MGS veterans, this is mostly likely going to be the preferred tactic. However, players also have the option to go loud and run and gun it – just be aware that if you do, you’ll bring a ton of heat down on Snake very quickly.

Enemies arrive thick and fast if players cause a commotion that will have Snake served up pumped full of hot lead quite quickly if they’re not careful. Snake, while an iconic figure and certified badass, still isn’t quite bulletproof.

As the game progresses, players can even the odds with, for example, air strikes provided by their Mother Base Support personnel; just be prepared to have your mission score limited to just an A if you decide to go that route.

MGS V: The Phantom Pain – Style Of Play

The Phantom Pain is humongous. To put that into context, after 30+ hours htxt.Africa had only reached story mission 16, which we were told wasn’t even half way through the game. Feeling a little clueless at mission 16, we can totally accept the game’s purported 100+ hours length as gospel.

Granted, our playthrough involved quite a few Side Ops – missions that aren’t essential to the story but which help build up Mother Base forces – which ate up a fair bit of time. They range from rescue missions, to kidnapping missions, to tasks involving the theft of blueprints and more. They’re all pretty fun, to boot, and can stretch on for as long as main story missions, depending on how they’re tackled.

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Tackle this guy and balloon him back to base. That A will come in handy.

Players will likely find themselves sneaking around a lot; the DNA of the earlier MGS games, which are primarily (although not exclusively) stealth-based, is clearly visible in MGS:TPP and the mechanics are clearly designed around challenging players to find the sneakiest paths through missions.

But the game doesn’t punish players excessively for going loud. If a stealth mission deteriorates and the player is forced into a running gun battle, by and large their score won’t be affected too badly. However, it’s unlikely they’ll be fond of seeing how an enemy entering an alert state whacks 5 000 points off their final tally.

Still, it’s nice that TPP doesn’t punish players without the patience of a saint too badly. On the flip side, it really does reward those willing to wait for just the right moment in a guard’s patrol pattern before striking, not only with higher scores once all is said and done but also with a sense of satisfaction at having outsmarted entire platoons of enemies.

Those enemies, incidentally, aren’t dumb. Alert them, and they’ll not only call for reinforcements (if you haven’t damaged their communication capabilities by destroying their equipment, that is) but they’ll flank you and throw smoke and frag grenades, making it extremely hard to be the quintessential one-man-army other games treat you as.

MGS V: The Phantom Pain – Quintessential quirkiness

There are two aspects in TPP that will likely raise a smile or at least the odd quizzical eyebrow: Snake’s penchant for sending unconscious enemies into the sky with helium balloons and his seemingly bottomless collection of cardboard boxes.

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Players can use the latter to hide from enemies, and they can even purchase upgrade them, making them better-suited for camouflage in different environments – if they’ve met the right R&D requirements, that is. The balloons too, can be upgraded to carry an ever-increasing list of items off into the blue yonder – animals, guns and eventually even vehicles, including massive tanks. Yes, really.

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Baa-bye, Mr. Goat!

MGS V: The Phantom Pain – Verdict

The reason there is no score attached is because after 30-plus hours, there’s still so much left undiscovered in TPP. However, what has been revealed is enough for us at htxt.Africa to recommend the game unreservedly. It’s by turns a massive, deep, tense, action-packed and quirky experience – sometimes it’s all of these things at once – but above all, it’s a game everyone should play, whether they’re fans of the franchise or not.

We’d love to throw the word “masterpiece” out there, because we’re certainly inclined to say so, but without knowledge of the entire story we’ll hold that one back. For now.

As said earlier, it’s one of those releases that reminds us why we love playing videogames in the first place, and thus comes highly recommended.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain is out on September 1st on PC, PlayStation 3/4 and Xbox 360/One, with a recommended retail price of R799 (console) and R599 (PC).